My Dress-Up Darling

Before we actually review My Dress-Up Darling (otherwise known by the Japanese title of “Sono Bisque Doll wa Koi wo Suru”), I want to talk about something real quick. There’s a mantra which I’ve often repeated for a solid while now; “There are two kinds of people who exist in this world: open perverts, and closet perverts.” This is, of course, mostly a joke; anybody taking more than a few seconds to think about that philosophy would quickly point out the existence of asexuality as a lifestyle, which is something I’ve deeply respected since I was young. But even though the aforementioned mantra is a joke, there’s still a lot of truth to it—I try to be relatively open about my own perversions with people I’m comfortable with, definitely moreso now than when I was younger. I find that being forthcoming about that kinda stuff is a good way to feel comfortable in your own skin. It’s different for everyone of course, but I think the feeling of mental wellness that comes with being comfortable about your inherently perverted nature is a big part of why our society is trending further and further towards the destigmatization of sexual topics and discussion as a whole—it’s certainly a whole lot better than flagellating yourself unnecessarily just for being sexually attracted to other human beings just like almost any other human being. I had a great moment at work once where a buddy of mine—the manager, in fact—asked me “If Hatsune Miku showed up right now and wanted your dick, would you skip work?” and my immediate response was “Is that even a question?” As an adult, you eventually realize that having sexual desires doesn’t make you different from the average person, and hiding it only makes you seem abnormal by comparison to those around you; in other words, trying to hide your perversions from others has the opposite effect you intend. Imagine, for example, if when asked whether or not I’d skip work to fuck Hatsune Miku, I instead went red in the face, put hands over my cheeks and went “I-It’s not like I like Hatsune Miku or anything, baka!” Pretty extreme example, yes, but the point still stands; all of a sudden I look way creepier and less honest than if I had just said what I actually said. Does that mean it’s wrong to be modest or polite? No, of course not; it isn’t always the time or place, there are people who don’t feel comfortable discussing that kinda shit with others, and that’s totally fine. I think the advice I’d give in that situation is to be forthcoming about those reservations, in which case people will be more understanding and lay off you. At the end of the day, the point I’m trying to get at here is that we’re all the fuckin’ same; almost everybody on this green Earth has sexual thoughts, and being dishonest about that fact for the sake of politeness or trying to maintain a clean image can easily paint somebody a negative picture. Now, what does any of this nonsense have to do with My Dress-Up Darling? First, lemme explain what it’s actually about; our protagonist Gojou Wakana is a highschool boy who has trained to become a hina doll maker under the tutelage of his grandfather since he was a little kid. As a result, not only was he ostracized by his peers as a child for making so-called “girly dolls”, but his whole life has been one of single-minded devotion to the art of creating hina dolls, leading him to become socially awkward and distant from his peers, never experiencing real friendship and living for the most part in total seclusion. He assumes that he’ll remain forever incompatible with the people around him as a result of his unusual passion for doll making, when lo-and-behold he has a chance encounter with the female protagonist Marin Kitagawa who finds out he’s a professional doll maker. Despite being a super popular gyaru girl, Marin turns out to be a mega weeb and begs Gojou to help her create various high-quality cosplay outfits so that she can play the role of her favorite anime characters. The whole show ends up being centered around cosplay, etc. Now that we’ve got the basics down, let’s go a little further into talking about the character of Gojou Wakana, our protagonist. In theory, I like his character and I like the idea behind the show; a destigmatization of males interested in seemingly girly things like doll making or fashion. The show tries to make Gojou a sympathetic protagonist and does a somewhat decent job of it; he questions himself and his life choices constantly, wondering whether he can truly achieve his dreams and if chasing after them makes him pathetic or not. It’s a good angle; but it’s got problems. So where does it all go wrong? For me, the answer lies in the depiction of Gojou as being overly immature and inexperienced. I understand why the show tries to do this; Gojou is super socially awkward, he’s suddenly thrust into a friendship with a hot anime girl and can’t handle how forward and seemingly shameless she is. The show tries to use Gojou’s awkwardness as the primary vehicle for its comedy; but at the end of the day, that ends up being the main area where it flounders. From what we’re shown of Gojou, he’s a pretty good dude. He’s considerate and caring, super dedicated to his work, and disconnected from modern day pop culture to the point where it gives him a unique identity (which was probably my favorite part of his character). He puts his all into helping Marin because he seems to genuinely care about her as a person, and their friendship (ignoring the flaws of their characterizations) is pretty believable sometimes. Yet when this same guy reacts so aversely to any awkward situation in which he’s sexually aroused by Marin, it makes him seem far creepier and less genuine than he should! And you know what, fine; if you wanna have your character do that and make that your show’s constant running gag, just go for it. But in that case, you need that character to be consistent and logical in their behavior; why is Gojou only shown being extremely awkward in some instances, but not others? You’re telling me this guy gets flustered seeing Marin in a fuckin’ swimsuit, but plays all the way through two full extremely degenerate eroge games 100% seriously and talks to others about how scenes from those games emotionally moved him without so much as stuttering? It just doesn’t make any sense; and to be honest, that same issue pervades the show as a whole. Let’s talk about Marin Kitagawa, the female protagonist; I’ve heard this show described by others as so-called “waifu bait”, and I think that’s honestly pretty accurate. The problem with Marin is not that she’s an anime loving gyaru—rather, the problem is that she behaves in a way that is completely nonsensical. Again, her character completely lacks in consistency; why is she sometimes totally oblivious to Gojou’s embarrassment and attraction towards her, and other times wise to it? In general, her character seems to change in order to fit whatever the current situation is, and the same can be said of Gojou; Marin is specifically designed to be the general otaku’s “perfect” girl, and Gojou is specifically designed to be thrust into a bunch of awkward situations with her while also having the skill required to feed into the show’s general theme of cosplay. How the characters behave changes randomly in service to the plot or to specific scenes the author has imagined and doesn’t want to compromise on despite the fact they don’t actually make any fucking sense. It’s overly contrived, not particularly funny and makes it pretty much impossible to suspend your disbelief. The illusion that the show takes place in our reality and its events could happen to anyone is broken by how poorly thought out it’s been, so much so that it does disservices to its whole concept. We are supposed to sympathize with Gojou being ostracized from society for liking something as seemingly “creepy” as making dolls, except it’s often difficult to see him as being anything but creepy when he sometimes can’t maintain eye contact with Marin for more than two seconds without losing his god-damn mind. That does a good job of devaluing the whole professional doll making thing all on its own, which leaves us with the cosplay themes. Now, I haven’t talked about this much, but I’m not the biggest fan of cosplay—at least, not of anime cosplay. As just about any live-action anime adaptation will quickly prove, cartoonish looking anime characters simply do not translate well into reality, and the moment some second-rate amateur model tries putting on a colored wig, eye contacts and borderline Halloween costume, more often than not the illusion of fantasy coming into reality is immediately broken. Still, while I don’t personally enjoy participating in or appreciating cosplays, I think it can be a perfectly respectable hobby—I don’t harbor any ill will toward anybody who’s into it and there are cool looking cosplays out there. Now that we’ve got that straight, let’s talk about that aforementioned “fantasy coming into reality” part. There’s a big difference between having fun dressing up as your favorite fictional character, and obsessing over becoming that character. Immediately in the very first episode we are shown Marin going full weeb mode and talking about how she wants to “become” the character of Shizuku-tan. Admittedly this is played off as a joke, but it’s a theme the show continues to explore. Later, the side character Sajuna Inui explains to Gojou how she always dreamed as a child of becoming a magical girl and now uses cosplay as an avenue to fulfill that longstanding dream. Is this something I’m supposed to sympathize with? I was under the impression that obsessing over fictional characters to the point where you want to literally assume their identities is an extremely unhealthy detachment from reality. In fact, I’m pretty sure it’s got a name. Kinning, right? That’s literally what this is. I dunno about you, but I could hardly imagine a more misguided way to approach the topic of cosplay in a narrative such as this one. In fact, there’s another scene in which Sajuna Inui comments on “her favorite kind of cosplayer.” She praises Marin for being committed to recreating her characters of choice as accurately as possible while understanding their origins and personalities. What isn’t immediately obvious is what’s being alluded to here; the idea that cosplaying just for fun is somehow a bad thing. Why is simply dressing up as a character of whom you only like the design wrong? Why push the extremely narrow-minded viewpoint that “assuming the identity” of a character you don’t “fully appreciate” should be frowned upon? Frankly, it’s pure elitism—kind-of a weird approach to take for a show attempting to promote the very thing that it’s depicting, I’d say. I don’t like cosplay personally, but if I did I’d cosplay whoever the hell I wanted for whatever reason I wanted and anybody talkin’ shit for no good reason can take my middle finger up their asshole thank you very much. You might argue “But John, you’re a critic! People have the right to critique cosplays that are bad!” Sure, I’d agree with that, but it’s missing the point. If you share your cosplays with the world, observers have the right to point out issues and inaccuracies with your portrayal of the character. Assuming you’re dedicated enough to care about those criticisms, the best case scenario would be to take the good ones to heart and use them in order to improve. But that has nothing to do with people who have no intention of being professionals and just wanna put silly looking costumes on! Should we rate the quality of every Halloween costume we see during the holiday season each year and refuse to give candy to people who didn’t bother trying? Should we cancel any cosplayer who hasn’t fully experienced the source material featuring whatever character they’re portraying, regardless of the quality of the cosplay itself? Of course not! The notion that we should is beyond ridiculous! You know what though? Despite all of that, I don’t hate this show. Actually, I liked it. Is it bad narratively? Yes, I would flat out say so, even though it has some bright spots. But my own hyper focus on the quality of the narrative misses a point about what the show actually is and what it’s trying to do. Earlier, I mentioned that this show can be pretty accurately described as “waifu bait”, but that’s not an inherently bad thing. Is Rosario Vampire objectively bad because it doesn’t have a compelling story? No, it’s not, because that isn’t the part of Rosario Vampire that makes it entertaining. Its entertainment value stems from its over-the-top comedic and sexual nature, and the very same thing can be applied to My Dress-Up Darling. When you think about a professional critic, the image which probably pops into your mind is a super pessimistic tuxedo wearing buzzkill who shits on anything that isn’t profound and intellectually stimulating (ignoring the existence of so-called “professional game journalists” who come off as more laughingstock than anything else); oft a reason why legitimately good critique is rarely applied to a medium as over-the-top and entangled within modern day pop culture as anime. Fuck, I don’t know if I’ve ever read a full book review in my life. There are negative connotations of elitism associated with that, similar to the negative connotations associated with classical musicianship for example. So let me say this; good media does not have to fit into a specific mold or tell a story with deep meaning. There is absolutely nothing wrong with making a totally unashamed ecchi romcom with tons of fanservice in it! Anime writers, and indeed all writers across various different platforms should have the creative freedom to express themselves however they want and create whatever stories they want, no matter how silly they are. That leads into the aspects of Dress-Up Darling which I enjoyed; the over-the top fanservice scenes and over-the-top humour can be genuinely funny and entertaining at times, and I think the show starts to recover from a lot of its narrative flaws a little ways past the halfway point as a result of becoming a little less plot-driven and a little more episodic and Slice-of-Life-ish. When Gojou’s or Marin’s character works, they work well, and their friendship and eventual budding romantic relationship is actually wholesome and enjoyable—fuck me, a romance that I actually mostly liked, that’s the first in a solid while now. Some of Gojou’s straight man humour had me actually burst out laughing in no small part due to this show’s fantastic visual presentation with really solid artwork and animation; it’s got a very modern looking and shiny style to it but still looks original and has its own identity. In fact, I loved the artwork and animation of the ending sequence for each episode so much that I was wishing a whole show could be animated in that particular style. While it is a pretty easily overlooked issue of the plot that Marin is somehow supposed to be a popular gyaru girl despite being an extremely outspoken and unashamed weeaboo/degen, and her character is definitely designed to lure in your average everyday otaku, she’s still really entertaining and likeable and I don’t think it’s at all inherently wrong to make an anime or story centering around wish fulfillment. Speaking of Marin, let’s talk about “waifu” culture really quick. I joke about this stuff all the time, but the honest truth is that waifu culture is extremely toxic when you actually look into it. Joking about waifus and best girls and shit is totally fine, but there are a lot of people who take this shit far too seriously and dedicate their lives to either defending the honor of their waifus, or making other people feel bad about having different tastes. I have been asked many times in the past what my preferences are with women, and there are a few broad stroke answers I can give, like “flat-chested” for instance. But at the end of the day, none of that shit matters because I decide whether or not I like a character on a case-by-case basis, not according to my specific preferences. Trying to pit a bunch of fictional characters against eachother to determine which one among them is the “best” completely fails to understand that each of them have their own particular character and personality traits which make them unique from one another and give them all subjective value; and that’s not even factoring in outward appearance which is arguably even more subjective. An argument that Marin is a “perfect” character or that her appeal is universal would be horribly flawed—I had plenty of personal and extremely opinionated grievances about her character beyond just the inconsistency of how she’s portrayed and the unrealistic nature of who she is and how she acts, but I still liked her. One of the most important things to remember as a critic is that there is no such thing in this world as perfection—anything can be picked apart and its individual pieces put on blast no matter how good it may be. Backtracking a little to Gojou’s character, I think a big part of why he behaves so awkwardly has a lot to do with the reserved and rigid nature of traditional Japanese culture, in which open discussion about sexual subject matter is heavily discouraged—considering the fact Gojou is such a traditionalist as a result of his sheltered upbringing, that makes sense and you could make a bit stronger of a case for his behavior when compared against similar male anime protagonists like Tsukune for instance (even if the behavior of all those protagonists operates upon the same basic principles). Actually, ecchi anime as a whole is founded upon trying to challenge those very same principles, but that’s a discussion for another day. That still doesn’t make it any better or excuse the inconsistent nature of Gojou’s depiction, of course—and you might think “Well if they don’t make him react to the awkward situations they put him into, how are they supposed to make it comedic?” I understand the sentiment behind that thought process, but it’s an uncreative one ignoring the aspects of Gojou’s character that are actually funny. Firstly, all of these awkward situations are being intentionally constructed by writers using the inconsistencies and logical fallacies present within Marin’s character as fuel to the fire. As opposed to making Gojou extremely embarrassed and Marin completely oblivious whenever it’s convenient for the writers, I think it would be far better if they leaned into the straight man element of Gojou’s character—imagine, for instance, if instead of acting embarrassed all the time, Gojou acted exasperated all the time. That would be way funnier! The core of what makes their relationship enjoyable is the contrast between Gojou’s sheltered upbringing and reserved personality against Marin’s upbeat energy and familiarity with elements of modern pop culture Gojou’s never so much as heard of before in his life. It’s funny when he’s exposed to extremely bizarre facets of anime culture by a character who explains them ad-nauseam as if they’re completely normal, and the show does a pretty good job of parodying whatever subject matter Marin is interested in cosplaying a character from. But I think we’re getting to the point where I’ve gone on far too long about a show that really didn’t need a review as long as this; at the end of the day, while My Dress-Up Darling has a lot of issues with its characters, its overall narrative and some of the misguided messaging present within it about its core themes, it’s still a relatively fun show which derives most of its entertainment value from its ridiculous comedic aspects and the pretty good romantic relationship between its two protagonists. It’s got good visual presentation, decent music, and it’s an anime that’s best enjoyed by those who can turn their brain off and try not to overanalyze it like I ended up doing.

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