I recall a fan review of the old SF classic Gunbuster on a now-vanished website that described it as something that “has no business being this good.” While some movies and TV shows fail to live up to our expectations, it’s a wonderful feeling to be pleasantly surprised when the opposite happens: a familiar concept manages to overcome its genre conventions and ends up being more than the sum of its parts. Rascal Does not Dream of Bunny Girl Senpai is another case in point.
Rascal… slipped under my radar back in 2018, partly because I don’t have the time or energy to follow many of the latest streaming shows these days, but also because the premise just didn’t appeal to me. On paper, it sums up everything that bored me with twenty-tens TV anime: a high school romcom, based on a light novel with a clumsy-long title, a cast comprising of a po-faced slacker boy surrounded by an implausibly varied assortment of attractive and quirky girls…basically, it fitted the trend that the Haruhi Suzumiya franchise kicked off a number of years back, and didn’t sound at all different from lots of other, often mediocre, shows.
Thematically, one title I can liken this to is Nisioisin’s …Monogatari series, which follows the same formula of a troubled teen and a quasi-harem of female friends and acquaintances who all suffer from or encounter supernatural afflictions. As in Nisioisin’s novels, these take the form of short story arcs where the boy works with the girl in question to solve the mystery, which also serves as a metaphor for some personal or social issue. In Rascal…, the fantastical predicaments are part of an urban legend known as “Adolescent Syndrome” but can be caused by everyday situations such as family feuds, bullying, high school crushes and mental health problems. Although these can be serious and hard-hitting, Rascal…approaches them with a lightness of touch that makes even the tragic or cringe-inducing situations a relatively easygoing experience to watch.
In terms of visual presentation, it’s very much part of the current trend that follows the idyllic, picturesque aesthetic that was popularised by Kyoto Animation and similar studios such as PA Works over the last decade or so: rural or small town settings, lots of sunshine and pretty landscape shots, pastel shades and a sentimental, nostalgic sort of modern realism that consciously opts to be easy on the eyes and family-friendly rather than urban and gritty. It’s rose-tinted escapism I suppose, but carried out in a very contemporary sort of way so it still felt grounded and realistic to me.
My first impressions of the opening episode, featuring the teenage high school girl of the title wandering round the school library in a bunny girl outfit, were a bit misleading: this is wholesome and fanservice-free overall. The main romantic subplot feels good-natured, genuine and is as down-to-earth as the surrounding supernatural shenanigans will allow; the chemistry between the broader cast of characters feels organic and believable; and those genre tropes are presented in a way that’s acceptable to us jaded cynics who feel like they’ve been watching this anime stuff for too long. Even the stereotypical “clingy, infantile younger sister” character is given a backstory and story arc of her own that eventually reveals her to be a sentient human being rather than just another shrill, irritating moe caricature.
Another title that sprung to mind after watching this was Toradora!, a less recent but shining example of a high school anime show that endeared itself to me through small-scale yet solid storytelling and an engaging cast who worked well together on screen. Similarly, Rascal… isn’t going to be the next mould-breaker or journalist go-to when writing a retrospective for a non-anime fan audience, but it doesn’t pretend to be ambitious or industry-defining. It simply carries itself with the self-awareness of what it is, what it’s trying to do, and how to get there without falling into the same traps as some of its rivals. I managed to watch all thirteen episodes at home in between exhausting bouts of overtime at work, in the space of a weekend; I daresay you could watch an episode – perhaps not the scene with the bunny girl in the library, though – on your phone in a public place, without worrying about getting funny looks from strangers who glance over your shoulder and get the wrong idea. Which is one characteristic that it doesn’t share with Bakemonogatari…