2020 was a good year for anime, but an unfortunately scarce one. Spring and summer experienced an incredible shortage that left the seasonal selections feeling a bit bare, though the winter would later come to rectify. Despite that, the anime we did get were some absolute bangers. The second season of Kaguya, Re:Zero, and Fruits Basket, the third of Oregairu, and originals like Appare-Ranman were all worth your time.
Summer 2020 was the rare season where you could feasibly watch everything that came out, which has not been true for most mere mortals in a while. You might even have time to write about the anime you saw on your anime blog, there were so few anime. Of the series that I had high hopes for, though, I was surprised at the runaway success of Rent-A-Girlfriend. Re:Zero might have carried anime’s hotest season, and the God of High School might have disappointed, but Rent-A-Girlfriend came away as the third most popular show, at least if you trust MAL as a metric.
Rent-A-Girlfriend is perhaps the peak form of both distinct types of anime it tries to be. There is a faint line between trashy ecchi harems, and cute and charming romantic comedies, and it is simultaneously both of those things, which ought to be contradictory. I’ve done my reseach, read the manga, and I believe I am now ready to tell you how Rent-A-Girlfriend became my favorite dumpster fire. I don’t believe in the concept of guilty pleasures, but this manga written by Reiji Miyajima and anime produced by TMS Entertainment are still trying to convert me.
The trash protagonist is a long tradition in anime. To show the most amount of character growth possible, start him out as human scum that you could not pay me to interact with in real life. By beginning at their lowest, you slowly sway your viewers into rooting for them as they get their life together. It’s the entire premise of Re:Zero, and the antithesis of Redo of Healer.
Here we have Kazuya, a 20 year old college student who is fresh off of getting dumped by his first girlfriend. He’s not a bad person, but he is certainly a realistic depiction of a 20 year old virgin who has yet to learn to respect himself or anybody else. He tries to make good decisions, but he’s got a weak will and hormones telling him otherwise, and while that doesn’t excuse his worst actions, it makes him understandable. A lot of ill-adjusted people were in his shoes, just most of them grow out of it by the time they’re his age. You can’t quite bring yourself to hate him; he consistently tries to improve his behavior, and he’s usually kind and empathetic, but this show is not interested in whitewashing its protagonist.
Kazuya assuages his loneliness in one of the most questionable ways a boy of limited means and social graces can; an escort service. He enlists the services of Chizuru Mizuhara, a charming, kind, and gorgeous girl who is in awe of Kazuya’s knowledge about the fish on their aquarium date. It isn’t until he reads her reviews that he realizes every part of their date was a scripted act because he seems to forget that he paid a woman to go on a date with him. Of course it’s an act, Kazuya, you moron.
Kazuya gives her a piece of his mind, because he is the worst, but Chizuru drops her act long enough to shoot back at him. This transactional relationship would have immediately crumbled if Kazuya’s grandmother was not hospitalized in the midst of their argument, and his family becomes intrigued by the pretty girl in the orbit of their hopeless Kazuya. Unwilling to disappoint his ailing grandmother, Kazuya claims she is his girlfriend, burying them too deep when they realize their grandmothers are good friends at the hospitals. They might have to keep this up for a while.
The setup takes a minute, but the writing immediately pops and keeps things interesting. Tackling the rental girlfriend industry in Japan and something I’ve seen little of, and it’s clever and funny enough to cover up how much of a sore spot its protagonist is. The visuals are phenomenal, and accurately lifted from the manga. The character designs are all wonderfully done, with appropriate and fashionable outfit changes being a staple. One of this series’ biggest graces is that each of its characters have their own distinct fashion sense that complements their personalities, but that isn’t the end of its smart writing.
Now, no harem comedy has ever come across as so blatantly one-sided. Even before we know any of the other girls in the lineup, Chizuru is so ingratiating and charming that it feels as though they can’t compare. Her design is arguably the strongest, and her personality feels like a modern and grounded take on the typical tsundere. Her act on the job as Mizuhara clashes but does not contradict her behavior as the college student Ichinose, but the primary distinction between her and the textbook tsundere is that Kazuya is attempting to dig in deeper to her aggressive but more authentic side.
Chizuru’s charisma is the best thing that Kazuya has going for him because it means his family and friends fight as hard as they can to get this mediocre boy to hold onto this angel. Between that and his inability to tell his loved ones the truth, he is paying an exorbitant amount of money to keep his ‘girlfriend’ around. Despite that, the driving force behind their romance, other than plot contrivances and Kazuya’s cowardice, quickly becomes their investment in helping one another.
Most of Kazuya’s character development comes later in the manga as he attempts to help Chizuru fulfill her dream on a tight schedule, but they’re both people who can’t abandon someone in need. It’s why Kazuya, in a rare show of genuine courage, saves Mizuhara after she falls overboard the ferry they’re on, and why Chizuru keeps dating him even after his 50th screwup. Despite the appearances of this rental girlfriend and incel, they’re people you at least like enough to watch them grow.
But Rent-A-Girlfriend is not just a cutesy romcom with just one love interest, in the vein of Toradora or Horimiya. It is rampantly hormonal, with some of the best female character designs in anime, and it is not afraid to show you both of those facts at the same time. The fanservice is here and it is actually competently done.
The first proper rival to Chizuru and Kazuya’s business deal is Mami, the girlfriend who initially dumped Kazuya after losing interest in him in the span of a month. She finds it curious that Kazuya managed to rebound with a girl who is terminally out of his league, and attempts to break them up. It would have worked, too, if there had been an actual relationship to break up. She is the worst, but her front-facing persona is disarming and conceals her petty and jealous nature well, and makes her the best example of why I like yanderes.
You kids are so depraved and desensitized to violence that you flock to your forums and say you want a girl who is going to cut your throat and throw you into traffic. No, the real bread and butter of a yandere is the realistic kind, a girl who is going to lure you in with cute looks and innocent appearances, and leave you an emotional mess thirsty enough to rent a girlfriend. Then, once it looks like he’s found happiness, double back and kiss him.
Then there’s Ruka and Sumi, who round out the lineup of ‘not Chizuru’. Ruka suffers from a medical condition in which her heart rate maintains a slow and steady pace no matter the external stimuli, but she becomes infatuated with Kazuya after learning his touch somehow elicits a physical response. Sumi, who barely gets any screentime in season one, is a chronically shy girl who began as a rental girlfriend in the hope that the social interaction would force her out of her shell. Unfortunately, most of her customers either fetishize her shyness or are frustrated by it, and only Kazuya makes an effort to coax her out.
Now, Rent-A-Girlfriend is actually one of the most graphic depictions of sexuality in anime outside of the far reaches of ecchi and that one word I’m not going to publish because this is a mildly family-friendly blog. The fanservice here is actually well animated enough to accomplish its intended purpose, which is a lovely surprise. I haven’t seen many masturbation scenes in anime outside of the occasional Evangelion, but the tone and story make this inclusion fit. It would be weird if our protagonist was this driven by his hormones and yet they excluded his proclivities, like realizing he is in love with Chizuru in the midst of fantasizing about his ex.
It’s not something I’d show my mother, but it’s the rare ecchi anime that doesn’t discard the integrity of its characters or story on behalf of the ever important fanservice.
Rent-A-Girlfriend succeeded on a spectacular scale because it manages to appeal to both fans of wholesome romance and trashy harems without alienating either segment of its audience. It is the rare series that strives to be multiple things at once and does both of them well. At no point does it feel like either of these elements is holding the other back.
Mix in funny dialogue, a story rife with twists, and a diverse cast where it is easy to find a favorite, and Rent-A-Girlfriend stands apart from its competitors with ease. I could sell this show on the presentation alone, because despite mentioning it so many times, its designs and storybook style backgrounds make for an incredibly aesthetic experience. But, thanks to the accessibility of this series and the charm of its writing, I don’t have to.