My Dress-Up Darling Review: Work Hard, Cosplay Hard


Studio: Cloverworks

Director: Keisuke Shinohara

Streaming on: Crunchyroll, Funimation

In my essay “How Anime Excels in Making You Care” I wrote about the niche genre of anime; a subgenre that focuses on hobbies, games, or Japanese art forms that fall outside of the mainstream. Chihayafuru, Rakugo Shinjuu, and others like them are all about people with a love for their craft, whatever it may be.

And more recently than that, I reviewed Komi Can’t Communicate, where I identified the trend of quirky rom coms based on manga with an eccentric cast of characters and a frequently risqué sense of humor. Komi, Kaguya, or Nagatoro have all found massive success in this relatively simple formula, with minor tweaks for each.

So today, I’m happy to say that there is a new anime that combines off-kilter character-driven romance, a love for cosplay, and painting traditional Japanese porcelain dolls. Maybe My-Dress Up Darling is a tough elevator pitch, but one that I have no problem going to bat for.

And it’s not just because I declared Marin best girl of the year after one episode, on January 9th. Listen, read this review, watch the show, and you’ll be joining the cult I’m making in her honor in no time.

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Wakana Gojo has admired hina dolls for as long as he can remember, admiring the beautifully painted porcelain dolls at his grandfather’s knee from a young age. Unfortunately, people kind of look at you funny when your only hobbies are painting, ogling, and lovingly speaking to children’s toys. After getting a small taste of rejection when a girl belittles him for liking dolls, he’s learned to hide his passion from the world.

He finds an unexpected kindred soul in Marin Kitagawa, the flashy popular girl with an otaku streak, who pushes Wakana to stand up for himself. When she discovers him using the sewing machine at school, she begs for his help in creating cosplays. She’s passionate about her favorite characters, but lacks even an ounce of sewing skill.

The two strike a deal when Wakana, moved by both her enthusiasm and her belief you shouldn’t be ashamed of what you love, though I don’t think either is quite aware of what he gets out of this. He’s still scared to death of anyone else finding out about his hobby, but maybe what he needs is to observe someone who isn’t dismayed by the mockery that has kept him hiding all these years. It’s about time where Wakana realizes there’s a life out there where he doesn’t have to be scared of showing his art.

Maybe it’s because I’m a hopeless Horimiya fan, but I’m always down for a romance that addresses the personas we hide from the outside world. I know too many people who have kept their hobbies secret for fear of ridicule, and too often I’ve been that person. I find myself wanting to tell Wakana there’s no joy in concealing what you love, much like I would want to tell myself the same thing a decade prior. He needs to learn that the right people don’t care. It’s a good thing, then, that Marin goes ahead and tells him for me.

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My Dress-Up Darling establishes a compelling dynamic between Wakana and Marin almost immediately by dividing their power. He has all the know-how to bring these cosplays to life, but she’s actually socially competent. It’s not just that they have chemistry to spare, but they’re also excellent foils for one another.

When writing a romance, it’s difficult to create two partners who complete a whole. We don’t call our significant other our “other half” for no reason; they are partners, they compensate for our shortcomings just like we should make up for theirs. In crafting a romance, there should be an element of one partner’s strengths reflecting the other’s weaknesses, and vice versa.

Marin is a nerd who has moved past the point where she worries about what other people think of her hobbies. Wakana is so terrified of rejection for his hobbies that he hasn’t shown anyone since elementary school. First, he needs to hear that someone else shares his admiration for hina dolls, but there will come a point after that where he needs to not rely on that validation.

I hope that their relationship isn’t one-sided, though. Like I said, relationships require balance, but we haven’t seen where Marin is lacking. I mean, she’s terrible at stitching, but that’s not exactly a character defect. While the first episode is all-around excellent, I’ll be judging the series from here on based on whether or not it can meaningfully develop their relationship from her point of view. Oh, and speaking of that excellent first episode.

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Cloverworks is perhaps one of the most unpredictable studios in the industry. On the one hand, they’re capable of such highs as Horimiya, Rascal Does Not Dream of Bunny Girl Senpai, or Fate Grand/Order: Absolute Demonic Front Babylonia. Then again, they’re just as likely to pop out a dud like Persona 5 the Animation or the second season of The Promised Neverland.

Then there’s times where the animation is some of their usual top-notch work, but the story slouches. I know I can’t blame Cloverworks for that, but the fact that they’re behind some of the most legendarily bad endings in recent anime history is telling. I’m not willing to forgive Darling in the Franxx, Wonder Egg Priority, or the aforementioned The Promised Neverland so easily.

And you know who I can blame? The management at Cloverworks for taking on an absurd number of projects that forces production and animators to cut corners. The writing on the wall for TPN was apparent when they broadcasted a recap episode only halfway through the second season. That was in Winter 2021 when Cloverworks was working on three series simultaneously, and they’re working on two now.

With the way the business model currently stands, animation studios just don’t stand to make any money unless they take on too many projects. Heck, the president of Ufotable committed tax fraud because production committees consistently screw studios over on licensing and merchandise money (you can read more about that here). I can acknowledge that it’s a difficult situation for studios, but I don’t want to appreciate the quality work of the animators while ignoring the atrocious business practices that make so much of the anime industry unsustainable.

If I can ignore that, then yes, My Dress-Up Darling looks phenomenal. The shading is routinely stunning, and the character animation is vividly expressive. The minute details can provide more information than the audience knows what to do with, and the heavy-lifting of these emotional scenes is done by the art, evoking the innermost thoughts of the characters without saying a word. Both Cloverworks and Keisuke Shinohara have outdone themselves.

But most of all, Marin is just stupidly pretty. Every once in awhile, you can see that experienced and talented artists are working at the top of their game for a series, but this isn’t it. This is brilliant, in a word; the love and dedication shines through in every frame. Whoever’s drawing Marin clearly understands the finer points of what makes best girl.

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This is Wakana. He made best girl cry. Don’t be like Wakana.

My Dress-Up Darling is just the latest slice-of-life to steal my heart, and I hope it keeps that momentum. I’m interested to see the cosplays they have in mind, especially with the first episode ending hook, where Wakana discovers that Marin’s taste skews a little ecchi. And by a little, I mean a lot.

Considering what we’ve seen so far, the characters are charming and the budding romance is gosh darn adorable, but I’d prefer to speculate about how the romance will develop from here. I know I’m asking a lot, but I love it when an anime doesn’t waste time pairing up its main couple.

I don’t think we’ll get there quickly; ideally their friendship grows over the course of this season but proceeding further, but whatever direction the story takes, I’m excited for it. I can already feel the itch to binge the manga in one night just to see where it goes. My Dress-Up Darling scores Neutral Pleasing on my patented and infallible scoring system, and I’ll be shocked if it doesn’t get better from here.

So let me know what you think of the series, whether in the comments below or over on Twitter @ExhibitionOtaku. I’m talking about a lot of the currently airing anime right now over there, including the dumpster fires I couldn’t sit through to properpl


Boring
NeutralEntertaining
Egregious
Mediocre
Fine
PleasingMy Dress-Up Darling
Fantastic

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