A majority of anime do not use the high school setting to their advantage, despite many finding any reason to shoehorn the setting into just about any story. They place these characters there because their target demographics are teenagers and young adults who can allegedly relate better to protagonists their age, but do they do anything with it? The answer is a resounding no; it’s a surface-level decision just to provide backgrounds for character interactions and stories.
Many slice of life and romcom anime could benefit from being set in a college, like Rent-A-Girlfriend, or in an office, like Wotakoi. This allows for many different kinds of people to come into proximity with one another, and a greater amount of freedom that comes with adulthood. Still, time and time again we circle back to the same places and tropes that have worn thin and snapped. However, there are series that take advantage of the high school setting, and none do it better than Rascal Does Not Dream of Bunny Girl Senpai.
The series is a critical and self-aware take on the genre, deconstructing many of the archetypes of its peers. It takes the problem-solving arc format of Oregairu and filters it through a supernatural and satirical lens. Now, there are anime that genuinely could not be set anywhere but a high school, and I’ve already written essays testifying that anime like Kaguya-Sama and Oregairu need it, but Bunny Girl Senpai is the best example of an anime and light novel doing it right.
And I do heartily recommend the light novels, because the sharpness of the anime’s writing permeates every word of its source material. Oh, and spoilers for Bunny Girl Senpai.
Bunny Girl Senpai is heavily inspired by Oregairu, and the best way of telling is through its protagonist, Sakuta Azusagawa. He’s the same type of social outcast as Snafu’s Hachiman, and they’re both content with that. He’s just less inclined to martyr himself on the behalf of classmates he doesn’t much care for. He proclaims that he is a virgin in front of his classmates, but it’s not habitual, and not nearly as self-destructive.
Sakuta meets Mai Sakurajima, a famous child actress on hiatus, and his senpai in school. Mai walks the library dressed as a bunny girl, as she has gradually become less and less visible to the people around her. Mai suffers from Adolescent Syndrome, a condition that afflicts emotionally anguished teenagers and gives it a physical, tangible effect. Mai resents her mother for robbing her of agency and taking the joy out of acting, and wants to disappear. Her psychological state has translated this into invisibility.
Sakuta has experienced Adolescent Syndrome firsthand, watching his sister being cyberbullied and receiving cuts all over her body. The incident resolved after removing her from social media, but it left Sakuta with three massive scars across his chest. He sympathizes with Mai and helps her devise strategies to be seen, falling for her in the process. After learning what gave rise to her condition, he cures her by confessing his feelings in front of the entire school, thereby making her impossible to ignore.
This happens all in the span of three episodes, and a single volume of the light novels, but it easily could have been the plot of an entire season. Bunny Girl Senpai just proves how important good writing is to elevate a narrative. Its characters are whip-smart and sparks fly at every verbal sparring session, while every arc of the series addresses a different aspect of growing up in a way that hits close to home, especially for its target demographic.
Each arc manages to hone in on a key phase or characteristic of adolescence, and dissects it with scalpel-like precision. It doesn’t matter who you are, you have gone through at least one of these problems before. It could be wanting to be invisible, or wishing that time might stop because the future is absolutely terrifying, or having so many conflicting desires that no matter what you do, you can’t get what you want.
Sakuta is uniquely qualified to address these problems, both as someone who knows about the existence of Adolescent Syndrome, and his position on the fringes of the high school hierarchy. Being able to act without shame or consideration for how it might tank his social standing is a tremendous asset here. He doesn’t understand why his underclassman Koga is petrified by the thought of missing a text and potentially alienating her friends, but as someone who has never had anyone to alienate, he is in a position to help.
This unique brand of storytelling makes for a satisfying narrative, where each step feels like you the viewer are coming along in this journey of maturation. It’s impossible for a single person or character to experience everything that each girl in each arc of Bunny Girl Senpai faces, but this is a clever way to get around that. Author Hamije Kamoshida has created a story that allows for a myriad of character arcs that each look at puberty from a different angle, and we follow them because we follow Sakuta.
It keeps every episode feeling fresh and emotionally weighty, and the pacing is airtight. Each case of Adolescent Syndrome is distinct but comes together in a cohesive story, so it never feels like the story lingers anywhere too long while delivering the same quality content. It is a luxury to get a complete story with fleshed-out characters, sharp writing, and complete catharsis in anime, while Bunny Girl Senpai does it five times in 13 episodes.
And this is where we come circle to the central thesis, that Bunny Girl Senpai has to be set in high school. It’s obvious that the series is written slanted to be most accessible to teenagers who are resolvin their own issues with acceptance, being able to read the room, and finding out who you are and what you want from your life. People experience many of these challenges, but they stop being life-altering moments when you reach adulthood. Every new experience is monumental in your childhood and adolescence, and has wide-reaching consequences in your formative years.
However, this level of insecurity and vulnerability is impossible to replicate in a well-adjusted adult. Koga wouldn’t have to obsess over keeping in contact with her friends because she ought to have gained a measure of self-esteem by the time she graduates, and know that is both unrealistic and unhealthy. It also goes in the other direction; adults are too stiff and aware of other people to scream how much you love your crush in front of hundreds of people. Sakuta’s apathy towards his social status is the kind of thing that adults who have to maintain family and professional relationships can’t afford.
I have not touched on the actual romance elements of Bunny girl Senpai, but I want to make it abundantly clear that the main relationship between Sakuta and Mai is a rare treat. Many anime treat the act of getting into the relationship as the end of the road, when it is in fact the first mile marker out of the next hundred. The story gets its confession out of the way in Episode 3, and they make it official several episodes later, because Mai doesn’t want the grandiose gesture of Sakuta’s confession to color her judgement and make her act impulsively.
It helps that they are both mature for their age, and generally say what they want, and that’s most of the fight in a romance story. Well, Sakuta says what he wants a bit too often, but considering most protagonists in this genre are doormats, it is a welcome addition.
Bunny Girl Senpai is rare in most aspects of its execution, but it is an effective testament to the power of good writing, and the trickle down effect that it has on improving every other part of a story. It makes uses of its characters being sensitive and immature, as well as having to navigate treacherous social dynamics, but most importantly, it has a reason to be set in high school. I’d like other anime in the future to explore the whole world outside of Japanese high schools, but for now I’m going to enjoy the ones that do it right.