This series was a surprising gem to me. Based on the TV special that came prior to the series and just the premise alone, I thought it was just going to be one of those stupid-silly romantic comedies about one guy surrounded by a gaggle of girls where the main content is all about the fan service. And believe me, I’ve seen plenty of those by now!
And yet, even the show anticipated that the audience would think that, subtly using all sorts of punch lines that tear down the proverbial “fourth wall,” to show a very creative side to romantic comedy. And while my immediate assumptions may have some truth to them, I’ve been proven once again: you can have a series that’s more than just about the fan service.
Saekano: How to Raise a Boring Girlfriend (Saenai Heroine no Sodatekata) centers around Tomoya Aki, a boy who has a dream of making the ultimate visual novel. And he’s out to recruit his girls who are already the best of their trades in high school! And why is he going to all that trouble? Because one day in spring, he came across that girl of his dreams and thought the one thing any otaku guy would think: she would make a great heroine in a visual novel!
Now I was thinking: that… sounds dumb on so many levels! You couldn’t just, I don’t know, make her your girlfriend? You want to place her in that neat little box among all the other visual novel heroines out there, only for her to shamelessly go along with certain feelings, based on choices the players make? Good job, fictional idealism.
And yet, I’m pretty sure even the author of the light novel that the show is based on, Fumiaki Maruto, anticipated this assumption. Saekano (which gets its shorthand name from Saenai, meaning “boring,” and Kanojo, meaning “girlfriend,” but was intentionally replaced by “Heroine” in the title) is a comedy at its core, and perhaps a parody at that. All of your assumptions about how a romantic comedy will normally pan out will certainly be thrown out the window.
Although the original format of this anime comes from a novel series, I find that the visuals complement the series pretty well. The animators did a lot of experimentation in certain places. The scene above comes from an episode that experimented a lot with plenty of angles, giving us the illusion that the conversation between Tomoya and Utaha was far more important than the expressions on their faces. Note that we don’t really get Tomoya’s expression when he says this line, so we have to imagine what it is he’s trying to convey.
Another unique use of visuals comes from changing the color scheme whenever we’re changing from different characters’ points of view. If you consider the above image with Tomoya facing away from us a “controlled” view of the show, then the one below is a view from Eriri’s perspective, since the primary hue is green, in this case.
But when it comes to completing the ultimate visual novel, Tomoya can’t leave out his star heroine, the girl he met on that fateful day in spring. And so, Megumi Katou enters the scene, but with one huge flaw against every otaku in the world: she has no knowledge of manga, anime, or video games!
One of the things I found to be quite charming to this series is how they make a humble case that the real world isn’t really all that bad, despite the fact that the medium chosen here is anime. The series makes references to explain all of the typical elements of an anime to make the illusion that the series is in fact based on people of the “3-D” world. Eriri, for example, is described to be half-Japanese, half-English, which explains why she might have lighter hair (e.g. blonde) or naturally fair skin. There are other references to various archetypal complexes, such as how Eriri and Utaha are textbook examples of “tsundere” and “yandere,” respectively, but even kid when they say to each other that their personalities are kind of an act.
What exactly makes a person seem real is up to the perspective of our selves, as well as those around us. One thing that often bothers me about visual novels is that interaction is often one-sided. The player naturally controls the decision-making of such a game, with little regard to the decisions made by the target “heroine” at hand. Calling such an interface a “dating sim” doesn’t quite capture the dating aspect of having more than one person involved, and focuses more on the simulation part of it, where only you are involved.
But the most clever thing I have found in Saekano is that open-ended sense of who exactly fulfills the role of the “player character.”
No one is refuting that Tomoya Aki is the central character of Saekano, and neither am I. He’s clearly the mastermind behind one of the most ambitious projects of his high school life. But with all the references to real life things, visual details from the background that feel like we are a part of their world, and changing angles that give us a new perspective, there is a lot more color to this series that actions and dialogue alone can’t express.
Over time, I had a feeling that the focal character of Saekano was not the stereotypical otaku Tomoya, but possibly the boring girl herself, Megumi! Anime shows based on visual novels notoriously have protagonists with little to no personality, giving us the illusion that we can place our own personality in them as we explore their world, making decisions on their behalf. And while I’m sure a lot of folks watching this one identify most with Tomoya in that regard, I am going to go out on a limb and say Megumi represented me a little more; and I’m a guy, for pete’s sake!
Arguments aside, the one thing I do hope that people got out of this series is that there is more to the connections we make with those around us than just a user interface with decisions that we ourselves can make. Others make as much decisions as you are in the real world, and no visual novel, dating sim, or whatever you want to call it will fully capture that second perspective. But when it comes to making the ultimate visual novel, I think that Tomoya and his Circle has made a huge step in going toward that direction: giving the heroine a choice (uhm SPOILERS).
If you want to make a “dating sim” right, try considering the girl’s perspective. The player’s fantasy is a core aspect of any game of that kind, but real connections recognize decisions made by others, whether they are easily anticipated or completely unpredictable. And when Tomoya’s game leaves that final decision up to the heroine, the outcome has a satisfyingly open possibility.
But like I said, this series is a comedy, so they can’t leave us hanging without a punch line. And as I conclude reviewing this portion of the anime, I am happy to say that they are working on a second season; and for good reason, if you like an open-ended series like this one:
So if you like romantic comedies and are looking for a different way to see how they will pan out, watch Saekano: How to Raise a Boring Girlfriend. It’s not quite the best, but its execution is surprisingly well put together.