My Dress Up Darling Proves Horny CAN be Wholesome


My lack of interest in ecchi anime is well-documented. Generally, the more an anime goes out of their way to be titillating, the less invested I am. How Not to Summon a Demon Lord bored me to tears, while I watched High School DxD for the plot, and I do mean the plot. Food Wars: Shokugeki no Soma proved to be a good time, because the ecchi elements are infused into the formula of its culinary battle manga plot.

I don’t hold anything against ecchi, except I believe many people involved in creating such series don’t actually care about the end product. There is a market for trashy harem comedies and light novel adaptations, so few actually try to improve on the basic formula. They just throw anything that jiggles at the audience and hope it sticks.

Characters tend to be paper thin even when they’re thicc, and the story is less about characters who make decisions that force a series of events, and more about finding an excuse for your protagonist to fall into someone’s chest for the eighteenth time. However, ecchi on its own can’t carry a series. Showing off attractive characters has a place in anime, but they’re nothing more than a pretty illustration if I’m not attached emotionally to what the illustration represents.

Other than that, I’ve been looking for an anime that will fill the aching hole in my heart that Horimiya left behind last year. I told you that Sasaki & Miyano might be an ample replacement in my review, but that was wishful thinking on my part. I would be in despair, if not for recently rereading the manga and then coming across a series that balances wholesome character interactions with the insanity that typically follows the hormones and hijinks of high school life. Let me tell you how My Dress-Up Darling proved that horny can be wholesome.

Wakana Gojo has been hiding his love of traditional Japanese porcelain dolls ever since he was bullied by his elementary school classmates. The smears of “creepy” and “weird” have followed him since, but to Gojo, hina dolls represent the purest form of aesthetic beauty. His passion for the craft runs so deeply that throwing around words like “pretty” or “beautiful” frivolously feels like betraying his vision of those words as an artist.

His small world of him, his grandfather, and a lot of porcelain dolls, gets a bit bigger when his popular classmate Marin Kitagawa crashes into him, quite literally. His interest is piqued, seeing her declare that no one should be ashamed of what they love, but he’s prepared to leave it at that until she discovers him working in the crafts room at school. He can’t paint the hina dolls’ faces yet, but he’s a dab hand at sewing, and Marin has been trying and failing to create a cosplay of her favorite character from an eroge.

Gojo is moved by her passion for the character of Shizuku-tan, but more than that, the pride she has in wearing her hobbies on her sleeve strikes a chord with him, and he agrees to help her. The two grow closer as they work together, where Gojo confesses he can’t throw around the word “beautiful” casually, but after working all night to finish the cosplay, that’s what he calls her as he drifts off into some much-needed sleep.

Marin can’t quite figure out why that makes her face flush and her heart race and her palms sweaty and oh goodness, she fell for him, didn’t she? Sorry, she fell in “wuv” with him, because the subtitles really go above and beyond in every category, including bringing Marin’s gyaru speech patterns to life in English.

The pair quickly set out on new projects, and Gojo’s handiwork is recognized by Juju, a popular cosplayer, and her sister/photographer Shinju, who hides her budding dreams of cosplaying. The series is a love letter to the painstaking labor that goes into both hina dolls and cosplay, particularly in the compromises that cosplaying requires. After all, it requires a lot of problem solving to recreate a costume and aesthetic that was drawn by an artist who doesn’t have to consider things like heat stroke, fabric types, or what a boob bag is.

If you couldn’t tell, My Dress-Up Darling is indulgently ecchi. I mean, Marin’s first cosplay is ripped straight from an eroge, even if it is a surprisingly tame design by the standards of such games. Gojo does his best to give his grandfather a heart attack on several occasions, like when he brings home lingerie, or the old man walks in on him playing “Slippery Girls 2” to take notes and compare his designs against the source material.

This is the part where I’d usually say something like “My Dress-Up Darling’s ecchi scenes only exist for the sake of plot or character development”, but that would be a lie. The fanservice is frequent, over-the-top, and usually just for the sake of fanservice. There are scenes where showing a little skin falls in line with the story’s progression, but there are just as many scenes where the animators get to show off how gorgeous their art is.

When it isn’t succeeding in the primary goal of fanservice, which it usually does, it succeeds in communicating the awkwardness and romantic tension between our leads. When it isn’t doing that, usually it’s just flat out funny, like Gojo learning that the buttons on a shirt can become lethal projectiles.

I’ve seen a lot of people say they’d like the show if not for the fanservice, and I kinda want to call them liars. There are anime where the fanservice is superfluous and break up the flow of the story, but My Dress-Up Darling isn’t one of them. The show is about silly and hormonal teenagers bumbling around their feelings, with cosplay as the backdrop, and that all supports the fanservice. If you don’t like the show, that’s fine, but let’s not pretend you’d like it if they cut the scenes that are integral to its tone and characters. Sure, I’d like Dragon Ball Z, but only if they cut all the shouting, fights, aliens, and canyons.

And this isn’t really relevant to my point, but this show is beautiful in the sense that Gojo wouldn’t hesitate to say so. Cloverworks is at the top of their game even as they’re working on Akebi’s Sailor Uniform and one of my favorites from this season, Tokyo 24th Ward, neither of which are slouching in the animation department. The shading and lighting are next level, the character animations are expressive and vibrant, while all the animation is just so darn fluid. Seriously, this features some of the best CG and compositing I’ve seen outside of Ufotable, and some scenes spend more frames than most anime run in an episode on a single shot of Marin and Gojo walking around town.

But well-produced fanservice is nothing more than pretty empty calories if it isn’t tied to a grander narrative. You might even be calling me a hypocrite right now; I usually hate it when rom coms stretch out their plot with characters who refuse to confess for no particular reason. The difference is that My Dress-Up Darling revolves around people who struggle to admit what they want.

Marin has no problem proclaiming that she loves an eroge centered around sadism and debauchery, and she rips into a guy who makes fun of her for liking a kids’ anime, but telling your crush how you feel? It isn’t just a plot device here; hiding what you love is a fundamental theme that the story consistently explores.

And this comes back around. Marin tells Gojo he shouldn’t be ashamed of his passion for hina dolls, and coaxes him out of his shell, and the lessons he learns from her he gets to apply when meeting the Inui sisters. Juju is already a successful cosplayer, but Shinju believes she’s unable to cosplay because her preferred characters don’t match her body type. Gojo’s new knowledge and resources help him show her that cosplay is all about finding a way to make it work so she can wear her passions on her sleeve.

At this point, Marin has been aware of her feelings for Gojo for a couple of episodes, and while I haven’t read the manga (I totally plan to, don’t shame me), the story has already been structured for a satisfying confession. Gojo still hasn’t come to terms with his feelings, but once he has, confessing to her will complete his character arc that she set in motion, while he helps resolve hers.

Man, I really hope this post goes up before the season finale. It would be really awkward if I predicted the ending two weeks after the show finishes airing.

My Dress-Up Darling is gorgeous, hilarious, and horny, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be as pure as the driven snow. Maybe I love it for the grounded portrayal of its adolescent characters, the genuine enthusiasm the author clearly has for cosplay, or the “gate’s open, come on in” attitude it has towards the craft. Anyone can cosplay, and as long as you feel strongly about doing so, you should. As a guy who runs a blog where he talks about weird cartoons for fun, I kind of have to get behind the message that it isn’t so bad to let your freak flag fly.

My Dress-Up Darling has certainly earned its place in the upper echelon of rom com anime and manga. Gosh, that reminds me, it’s been nearly a year since I last wrote about Horimiya. Well, I’m going to have to rectify that mistake sooner or later.

So, if you’re looking forward to when I eventually getting to write about the GOAT of rom coms, let me know in the comments below, or over on Twitter @ExhibitionOtaku. I’m always ranting about the anime I’m watching there, so it’s a great little corner of the internet to check out. Until next time, thanks for reading.


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