There is a purity to slice-of-life, teenage romance anime. There’s an existing schedule, a default now, and a pre-existing set of tools for communicating our basics about characters. A boy may have one friend, three friends, heaps of friends, or no friends; a girl may stand out or blend in, and all the existing structures of hobbies, clubs, and fandom signifiers let the story put them in a context you can easily understand. Meeting these characters is quick, and the demands on their lives are similarly low-stakes, meaning that these stories can focus wholeheartedly on two characters and how they feel about one another, as expressed by them doing some kind of special shared interest. It’s a way the author can talk about something that they love, and show you a pair of characters growing, understanding, and coming to love one another while a host of other complicated questions sort themselves out.
This focus on the characters and their feelings and emotional states mean that this is an avenue to tell stories that are sweet and wholesome in a way that stories that need to invest in more adult concerns can struggle to examine. The day to day is simplified, and it means that big feelings can become focal to your life, the way love can feel like it stretches from horizon to horizon, when your day is all quietly ensnared in these first, uncertain expressions of vast feelings.
Such is the story of My Dress Up Darling, a breathtakingly sweet and joyful anime about two kids learning about one another’s needs, wants, interests and boundaries.
Lords I write that and then I have to write the content warning I do. Oh well, nothing for it but to do it.
Content warning — this series is horny. This series is fantastically and extraordinarily horny. It’s horny in the way of teenagers who find each hot horny, especially when one of those characters is into horny videogames. It’s an ecchi series, and however you want to reckon with that, you should know it ahead of time. Particularly, episodes 2 and 6 are perhaps watched best with a finger on the fast forward button if you’re uncomfortable with it but still want to see the rest of the series.
And a spoiler warning. I’m going to mention some stuff that shows up in this series. Nothing super major, and I don’t think it’ll diminish your enjoyment of the series, because this is a series much more about feelings of a moment than the surprise of them.
My Dress Up Darling is an anime about making and doing cosplay. It does this through the story of Gojo, a shut-in orphan near-weirdo doll enthusiast who discovers at school a local Hot And Popular Girl Marin Kitagawa is trying to sew something when he’s using the school’s sewing machines. Turns out that she’s interested in making an elaborate costume inspired by her favourite character, and she wants to cosplay her. Suddenly, in this moment, Gojo’s doormat behaviour runs into his very specific expertise, and she asks him to help her with her dreams.
Now I may be kind of circling around it because the character she wants to cosplay is a gothic sex maid from a hentai game.
Pause, cough awkwardly.
This is how the pair kick off their time together, and from there this introduces Gojo to new friends, to communicating with Marin, and to learning what it’s like to go outside and touch some grass. When you set aside the specific special interest this is a romance story about two people falling for each other. The pace of the show is reasonably slow – not a whirlwind romance, but a process of learning about one another, a bit at a time.
It also has some stuff in it I really like. It isn’t just ‘Gojo meets the best girl and she falls in love with him.’ Gojo and Marin hang out, they go on social excursions that don’t quite actually become ‘dates’ but are definitely shaped like dates. One of the episodes is about them miscommunicating about their needs and Gojo learning to ask questions, and not assume. Another episode features them going out shopping for clothes together, for him — and improving himself.
I’m not inside the cosplay community the way I’m inside other convention stuff. But I do have friends who are cosplayers, and there’s a clothing encyclopedia in my house, and a weeb who has played a lot of smutty games which means I am at least a little bit familiar with the things that form the backbone of Marin’s interests. I also was an awkward shutin with specialised skills that now are of no practical use, but it didn’t dovetail that nicely with hers.
Still, as much as I can say it, the cosplay stuff in this series is really authentic and also thorough. It’s exciting and interesting to watch as they describe not just ‘let’s cosplay’ but rather talking about specific ways to make cosplays, the reasons you make the choices you make — do you buy this prop, or do you craft it? What kinds of things do you need to buy instead of trying to make your own (binders, binders are so much harder to make than you imagine)?
I dunno, obviously when a show is focusing on a Special Interest, that special interest has to have authenticity or it just makes it look like the show doesn’t care about it. Imagine if Sound! Euphonium showed the characters getting their musical notation from The Musical Notation Tree and banged coconuts to make clarinets work, it would make it very clear that this wasn’t made by someone who actually cared about Euphoniums. Is a euphonium a thing? I don’t know, I didn’t watch that show.
And is the cosplay stuff in My Dress Up Darling good? Like, yeah, it’s really great, with lots of things that ring true to cosplayers I know and also extremely horny weebs I know. They even make a point that it’s not enough to have the body that meshes with a character (and that bodies are flexible and plastic), but that you need to be able to convey a character’s style with your expression, which makes some demure characters a challenge for the effervescent Marin.
Aaand yes, Marin.
Marin, Marin, Marin.
Marin is the thing this series spins around and yes, again, this is an ecchi series, and yes, she is also absolutely a merchandisable waifu who likes dressing up as characters from smut games. That might deflate the power of the romance narrative for you, after all! Like it’s a bit hard to appreciate a romance story where some conceit or other strains disbelief, like sure, you can have a sweet romance story as an introvert if a gorgeous extroverted supermodel who can pay for things and who is interested in exactly your kind of thing wanders into your life. That might just be a bit too convenient.
For me, I really like Marin as a person because I’ve kind of met her. She doesn’t feel like she hits that ‘too perfect’ problem for me, because a lot of the things that make her seem perfect are also problems. She’s really thoughtful and attentive, but in a way that says she absorbs information like a sponge, without much thought for what it means. She’s gung-ho and tries her best at everything, but doesn’t think much about what strain that puts her under. She likes scary movies, but she gets spooked easily, and she’s honest about her feelings, when she can get a handle on them.
She absolutely doesn’t seem neurotypical to me, but maybe I’m just used to hot people who absorb all the information around them and want to DO ALL THE THINGS like that.
If you’re into this particular vibe of character and this particular kind of anime, though, Marin executes a lot of things flawlessly. She’s not just hot, but she’s also nice and cool and sweet and thoughtful and genuinely funny and she has amazing expressions and a really excellently done smile. Her place in the story is meaningfully explained, her interest in Gojo is built up and makes sense, and there’s basically no point in the story where she feels like she’s being unreasonable. There’s a lot of communication and encouragement in this series.
Every year, a common thing for anime nerds to do is to talk about ‘best girl’ of a season. There are even forums with forms and voting and stuff. And these are lively if spirited debates from the kinds of people who get involved in this kind of discourse and I generally see them as being in good fun and full of people pretending that their personal preferences could be treated as political positions worth debating over.
Which I’m sure we never see anywhere else.
And it’s a game! It’s a game that means people get to re-experience moments of their beloved characters, to talk about what matters to them about them, and all that kind of silly fun of taking-ourselves-too-seriously fandoms love to do. For those people, engaging in the conversation towards the end of 2022, though, I can’t help but imagine there’s a sort of acknowledged ‘we’re all going for second place’. Because Marin, in the context of these kinds of waifu conversations, is like watching people spar and duel with swords and shield and then someone pulls up in a jeep with a minigun.
Wait, hang on, Yor from SpyXFamily was this year too.
And oh wait, we get to the Ishigami crossdressing bit in Kaguya-Sama too.
Oh jesus Bridget dropped in Guilty Gear Strive this year too.
Uh, wow, yeah, 2022 is a hell of a year for waifu wars, I guess.