Everything seems fetishized in anime these days. We are living in a season where even guns are turned into moe loli girls. So why does Nazo no Kanojo (Mysterious Girlfriend) X stand out from the pack?
Let’s be honest: Urabe’s drool is fetishized in the anime, and more than in the manga. It pools, glistens, and drips. The camera lingers on it with close ups. As the series’ most obviously original conceit, the audience is shown the spit again and again as if the director—a veteran of Doraemon, for crying out loud—wanted to rub every otaku’s face in it: “see boys? How’s this different from your shimapan/zettai ryoukai/DFC/siscon? Huh? HUH?”
It reminds me of the story about a medieval saint where, being convicted of having lust in his heart for a woman, decided to take a piece of cloth that reminded him of her and take it with him everywhere until it became soiled and filthy. Rub your face in anything for too long and it becomes gross.
And let’s just say it: the drool is nasty. Purposely so, but still gross. Now from the perspective of a “normal,” a lot of the other otaku fetishes are gross too. But for people immersed in this subculture, where all the above listed database items are so commonplace that even I hardly bat an eye at their presence, it takes something a bit more outlandish to awaken the emotional reaction the creators intended. It has to jolt even otaku. What Flannery O’Connor once said when asked why her stories were so “grotesque” might be what this outsider director, and perhaps the mangaka, were thinking:
When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal means of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock—to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.
It was hard to get through the first episode. Especially when Urabe let an entire vomit tank full of spit. But along the way, and into the next few episodes, we are treated to something relatively rare in anime: teens figuring out how a relationship works beyond the stereotypical (hug, kiss, going to a movie…). How to appreciate the genuinely odd, beyond the standard list of moe “quirks”—magical, empathetic spit is definitely not moe and takes the story past the Manic Pixie Dream Girl cliche. It acknowledges that at least at this early stage, he doesn’t really know Urabe that well. No childhood friends here, or stalkers: she is, as the title says, still a mystery, as every human being is in both the unfamiliar and the mystical sense of souls having more depths than anyone but God can fathom.
What’s really interesting is that the mangaka, Riichi Ueshiba, actually made his intentions fairly clear about all this. He writes in an author’s note at the end of volume 2 about how decided to make his characters 16 because they are less likely to automatically have sex (as he imagines college-aged protagonists would) or simply be speechless around each other (as he suspects 13 year olds might be). He felt that 16 was just the right age to portray kids on the cusp of, but not quite into, full sexuality, and wanted to portray that delicious, dramatically pregnant tension:
If, by chance, this kind of delicate relationship was to emerge in our present day society, wouldn’t it most likely occur with 16 year old young adults?….This is because it’s around 16 when children are the most fragile, and tend to be uncertain about their life; and thus, I start all my stories at this time period, where the characters seem to start as children and make their way into adulthood. (Source)
His ideas of what ages kids start having sex aside, it’s clear that he desires to portray a certain time of life with a sense of emotional truth, and that comes through in the anime very well. Rather than pander to the cookie-cutter cliches of so much romance and harem anime, he wants to recover the genuine sense of strangeness that teenage boys feel around girls. In order to do that it had to look very different from most manga and anime: the 1990s styling. The not quite but yet sort of panty shot plus scissors—which thus gives the fan service a hint of menace each time. The very non-moe seiyuu playing Urabe, Ayako Yoshitani, for whom this is her first anime role.
Urabe herself is in control of her sexuality in ways that few anime/manga females are, too: eschewing the preset ways of being a couple, she has her own, um, unique ways of showing intimacy, often involving spit. Which makes Akira’s affection for her all the more engaging: while there’s something still forbidding about her he also appreciates and is learning to love her for who she is. This is much closer to the sort of love that lasting relationships are built on than what usually shows up in anime.
Mysterious Girlfriend X is a work conceived and executed by outsiders to the current anime scene, and it shows. And works. This is the biggest surprise of Spring 2012 for me, a season full of excellent shows already, and is hopefully a sign of more innovation to come. Here’s to hoping for another 2006.