This time last year I wrote about the at-the-time meme-of-a-show, Shikimori’s Not Just A Cutie. That anime was ‘renowned’, because it had a really good trailer, and by really good I mean it made a bunch of lesbians sigh. Perhaps because it was first brought to my attention by a bunch of women saying ‘I want to be her’ or ‘I want to be hers’ I first approached that series wondering if this was going to be an ultimately unsatisfying experience for y’know, queer women. This meant I watched all thirteen episodes expecting or imagining something else was going to happen, attentive and focused for some possible insight into whatever this anime was doing that was a bit different, a bit cleverer, and in the process, I wound up really enjoying the series. I liked it, I liked the characters it showed me, I liked a lot of the jokes (even wound up sharing a few of them) and I thought it was a really good launching off point for some discussions. I still think that it’s one of the better articles I wrote last year, and part of why was because I took an anime about a subject I’m normally not interested in – romantic comedy – and gave it a fully focused, critical look.
That was the lens for Shikimori’s Not Just A Cutie, and it encouraged me to try the next thing in the same genre that caught my eye, which is why I watched Tomo-Chan’s A Girl, another anime that promised to be about relationships to gender, relationships, and how difficult it can be for two completely compatible people to get over their own hang-ups and actually talk to one another about how much they want to kiss. This is a great follow-up to Shikimori’s Not Just A Cutie, though, because it means now I have a point of contrast for Shikimori’s Not Just A Cutie with a much, much dumber show.
Content Warning and Spoiler Warning! Tomo-Chan Is A Girl is a series that has some low-key gender feels (a woman wondering about how she can be legitimised as a woman) and some pretty lousy ways for people to talk about girls, and oh also, an incident of sexual assault in the second episode. I’m going to spoil things in this series, as indicated by that mentioning of something from the second episode.
That I spent three hundred words in the opening discussing a different show probably speaks volumes about how I feel about Tomo-Chan Is A Girl. It’s not that Tomo-Chan Is A Girl is somehow a show not worth your time, but it is a show that I found far less rewarding to watch. But what is this show, what is it about and what’s it include?
Tomo-chan is, you see, a girl. And you may be thinking ahaha, Talen, it’s time for you to trot out comparisons to Ranma ½ again, no, not in this case. No, this is not a whacky supernatural sex comedy farce, it’s instead a teenaged rom-com about a girl who is – as said – a girl – and the boy she’s interested in, who she is concerned, has not noticed. He has noticed, of course he has noticed, his best friend is a gorgeous girl with a huge rack and they’ve had this conversation years ago, as the show makes clear, but the tension of the show is how can Tomo-Chan convince the boy she likes to treat her like a girl.
This paper thin story is further bulked out by the addition of three friends in flavours of hot, stupid, and evil (Misaki, Carol, Misuzu respectively), and facilitated by everyone in this universe being some kind of low-grade idiot. Since this is a show about a girl who is, of course, quite cute, and indeed, really hot, the show bothers to show you a lot of different ways Tomo rules, like her martial arts skills, her gamer prowess, and the way she has a literal reputation for turning girls gay. Tomo is a really cool character who is in love with the boy who they put on matchbooks captioned IF YOU CAN DRAW THIS BOY, YOU CAN HAVE A CAREER IN TEACHING AMERIMANGA. She’s so hot that when he thought she was a boy he was concerned about his interest in her and he’s so nothing that I’m not even going to bother making this sentence funny.
The show follows thirteen episodes during which ‘things’ happen, but of those things, you do not need to concern yourself overmuch with them or their order. They’re much more like sabots for jokes than they are any kind of narrative or plot as you might expect them from another series, or even a show like Shikimori. None of this is to say that Tomo-Chan is a bad series. I mean I watched it all, I didn’t hate it that much. But it stands out to me that compared to Shikimori’s Not Just A Cutie, a show I already considered some extremely thin soup being served in some very big bowls, I kept thinking about the comparison with Tomo-Chan.
Look, Tomo-Chan has its charms. It’s a funny show in its own right, and it has a joke or two once the secondary cast get all introduced and you get to see Misuzu being more actively and deliberately mendacious. I don’t want to all draw it to a single cause, because I feel like Tomo-Chan is full of bad decisions, but the one that stands out to me is remarkable because of how superficial it feels.
The boy’s not hot. Sorry, there it is, that’s all there is to it. It’s not everything but it’s so much. Everything about the pathetic wet failson of Izumi was set up so that his partner’s interest in him made sense, and her immense competence in dealing with threats to him was necessary for the story. Basically, he was an escort quest (and yes I know that’s a joke the anime ending makes of its own, don’t be like that). Plus, he’s hot! He’s a hot boy, damnit.
In Tomo-Chan, the boy interest is a generic boy in the Nozaki-Kun mould that speaks to me of a mangaka who doesn’t actually know how boys are hot, or how boys can be hot, and instead picked all the parts out of a catalogue that they assumed were hot, because they saw all the other boys being drawn that way. And even when the story goes out of its way to try and explain why Tomo is into him, the way it describes things is much more that he is present than that anything about him was individually interesting.
The story of how he and Tomo fall in love, and why she’s so stuck on him, and the ensuing common interest is a weird variant of Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse; what Tomo wants, at least at this point, is basically, herself, but without tits. And it’s really underscored by the plot with Misuzu: Junichirou is a character who was in love with her while they dated, but didn’t bother to learn anything about her, and then he retreated from expressing love for Tomo because he didn’t want to mess that up after messing things up with Misuzu. Neither of these are actually showing meaningful things about him beyond the story mechanic in the premise: This boy doesn’t want to commit to a relationship because doing so would end the story.
Where Shikimori was full of moments of looking at the show and asking ‘are they doing this on purpose?’ the feeling for Tomo-Chan was instead much more ‘oh, this isn’t going to be as good as it could be, is it?’ It’s not like the show isn’t telling jokes and trying to get you to enjoy the characters, and the ‘woo hoo’ gif from the beach episode is a true all star, but that’s kind of what the show is. It’s a set of reaction gifs strung together between a plot that doesn’t have to be any deeper than a teaspoon but still somehow feels shallower than it advertises.
I’m not saying the show should present a bi polycule with the three girls who want each other and the boys they put up with. That would be extraordinarily clever, just shockingly smart. But I wish there was a little bit more to Tomo-Chan than this sort of potpourri of moments waiting to be thrown together. Here are the mean girls gossiping about Tomo not even being that hot, here’s them reacting to how hot she is, here’s Misuzu being mean, here’s snap snap snap fingers try to remember her name, CAROL, that’s right, here’s Carol being oblivious and here are Carol’s boobs and Jun gets punched and we move on to the next bit. The jokes are often about Women Be Womening, and Jun Doesn’t Understand That. It all feels like a failure of its form, or rather, a too-sincere representation of its original form, the thing they were adapting into this anime.
See, the comparison to Shikimori’s Not Just A Cutie is pretty apt as both Tomo-Chan and Shikimori started their lives as, essentially, micromanga. Where in the west there’s a vision of Manga as periodicals a bit more like comic books, with a regular release date and a sort of sense of size. But that’s not every form manga can take. Shikomiri is a manga that got published three pages at a time, a sort of short-story scenelet narrative that mostly built itself around showing off a cute girl in cool fashion and the idiot boy around her being captivated by some detail or another each day. Tomo-Chan has a similar genesis, where it was essentially a manga version of what we’d consider a newspaper comic. Bigger than you know, a Peanuts strip, but still, about that level.
In both cases we’re talking about work that hasn’t been long on narrative but has been big on its own vibes. In Shikimori that is an artist who loves drawing Shikimori(the character) in a variety of ways, with or without glasses, with or without different contexts, in realistic skiing gear – that kinda thing. The story is about how she’s not just a cutie, but also, it’s very important you’re aware, she’s also very much a cutie. In the case of Tomo-Chan Is A Girl, the manga is also a single-page thing, which means it reads a bit like those serialised newspaper comics that try to tell you the story of Timmy being lost down a well while occasionally panning out to show you an enormous squirrel.
I do want to point out one place where Tomo-Chan Is A Girl decided to express something as bold as ‘an idea’ was the episode where Tomo gets sexually assaulted on a bus.
The second episode.
There’s so much here that feels like you shouldn’t do it? Like, this is a character who’s struggling with the way she’s perceived and then the show dedicates a time to show her in-depth grappling with the conversation about her body, her relationship to how she’s perceived, how she feels about who she is versus how she feels about the way people treat her and all that potential story space you decide to wrap up in a really unpleasant little story about her being groped by a stranger on the bus, and it even dedicates time to focus on how her only recourse – this girl who can fight real good – is to just let it happen.
And this is just one unpleasant part of the overall extremely mid show. It’s strange because it’s not like this series is here to try and do any heavy lifting on this point. It’s not trying to make a point about chickan culture on Japanese public transport, it’s just a way of life and the show treats it as such. But it kind of underscores that this series brings it up and then just leaves it on the floor, for everyone to circle around. I bet if you asked people who’d watched this show about it, they’ve probably forgotten that it did this because why would it have done that?
Tomo-Chan Is A Girl is a series that has some hot girls in it, some really nice tomboy fashion, just some truly top tier reaction gifs, and simply as a matter of necessity, an entire television show strung between them.