In Which Adulthood is a Construct and Rent-a-Girlfriend is Compelling

Every now and then I come across a show I am just… compelled to write about, a series that strikes a chord somewhere deep in my brain that simply must be noted down. Something in the narrative rings oddly true about life, youth, relationships, or some combination of all three; sends a resonant note that I simply have to pick apart and answer, often with far too many words at a time to be reasonable.

I didn’t necessarily expect that show to be this one, but here we are, and I have some thoughts about relationships, the markers of Adulthood, and how all that crap’s 100% made up… and how I think there’s a message about this sneaking through the heart of this bawdy drama-comedy.

If you missed my premiere review, Rent-a-Girlfriend is the tale of Kazuya, a hapless, lonely twenty-year-old with a broken heart and a very sad boner. After being dumped by his first ever (and, according to him, oh so perfect) girlfriend Mami, his search for a distraction sends him fumbling for a phone app where he can rent a date. The beautiful (and entrepreneurial) Chizuru takes the role of his sweet girlfriend for an allotted time period… but shenanigans ensue when the two are spotted together and mistaken for a real couple by their respective grandmothers. And now, dear reader, what we have is a farcical romp through the tropes of Fake Dating.

It’s silly, it’s horny, it’s full of disastrous characters bouncing off one another like pinballs. But I am compelled, in the way I am always compelled by a promising coming-of-age story. Rent-a-Girlfriend may seem like a shallow comedy of errors, but bubbling just beneath the goofy surface is this inescapable, gut-gnawing, nearly uncomfortable undercurrent of realism.

I may be tempted to dismiss these characters and their antics as cartoony, except that I can feel, deep in my heart, that between the ages of roughly eighteen and twenty-three, I met all of these people. Or at least, a whisper of them. In Rent-a-Girlfriend their echoes have been heightened and placed under the spotlight—and under the microscope—for the sake of storytelling, but there is a disquieting familiarity to the goings-on of this group of anime adolescents.

I say adolescents, and it isn’t technically correct, but I want to really highlight that though these characters aren’t teenagers in the numerical sense, they’re still in a very weird and liminal period. In fact, nineteen/twenty is arguably an even weirder and more liminal age than teen-dom itself: by all technical measures, you’re An Adult, and you need to be doing Adult Things like voting, planning your career (if not working already), and, of course, the most Adult of all rites of passage, settling down into an Adult Relationship… and/or just having lots of sex.

Kazuya feels extremely behind because he’s never had a serious girlfriend before the age of twenty. This is one of those things that really shouldn’t be a big deal, but society at large considers it one—and on a more personal level, it’s clear his family consider it a big deal too, given how much they pester him about bringing Chizuru home. As well as this, the narrative hones in on this with the frequent emphasis on Kazuya being a virgin, from himself (forlornly), from his friends (playfully), and from Mami (with the intent of humiliating him). It’s a classic college comedy plot device: do the story, get the girl, win the prize. Or, it seems to be, at first, but I can’t shake the niggling feeling that there’s something a little more subtle wavering in the backdrop of Kazuya’s characterisation and the story around him.

I remember a conversation I had with a guy when we were both eighteen or nineteen, where he expressed—in an unexpected moment of clarity and vulnerability—that he was really unsure of his purpose and direction in life, because as far as he could see, so much of his perceived worth and place in the world revolved around his relationship to women. If you get a girlfriend (or you get married) then you are A Boyfriend (or A Husband) and you can define yourself based on that.

And bless, if you have kids! Then you’re A Father. You can slot yourself into a role, then: A Protector, A Provider, The One Who Gets Rid of Spiders in the House, what have you. He could understand, in a small way, that this ideal was kind of bogus, but it also genuinely meant that the idea of being single left him with this horrible floating feeling of uncertainty—even more than not knowing what he was going to study at uni, or what job he might get in the future.

There’s a similar pressure to get into a relationship for folks who are socialised female, because humans are generally obsessed with relationships, but there is a specific—and pointy—way that this manifests for young men. We can joke all day about “virgins” and “chads” and the hopeless desperation in the eyes of young men who just want a girl to talk to them but don’t quite know how to start the conversation, but… there is a real issue embedded in the way that relationships are seen as equalling self-worth, and the way this damages people (regardless of gender) can often go unsung. Your worth as a human being should not be calculated by your relationship status, your ability to “get” a girlfriend should not make you more or less of “a man”, and “losing” your virginity should not be held up as the life-changing rite of passage that it is. It’s erasure of all kinds, obviously, but it’s also just… bad for people.

Watching Kazuya flounder his way through these relationship dynamics brought that conversation back to my mind. Who is Kazuya? Is he the heir to his family’s business? They don’t seem too impressed with him, so he probably can’t define himself that way. Is he a student intent on a certain career track? He seems to have no strong ambitions to guide him. As adrift as he is in this weird New Adulthood, what can he tether his identity to? Maybe he needs to be A Boyfriend maybe moreso than he wants a girlfriend, because he craves direction in his life, and a sense of status and something to be proud of.

The entire premise of the show would not exist if Kazuya was not wallowing in worthlessness for his failure to be A Boyfriend. Mami dumping him has left him with no clearly defined social role, no sense of self-worth. And yeah, it’s played for laughs in its cartoony patheticness, but it’s also at the root of an awful lot of the character drama so far. With the introduction of Chizuru, the plot playfully says “look how far this guy’s willing to go to not feel like a loser! He’s paying someone to hold his hand!” With the re-introduction of Mami, it says—more sombrely—“look how far this guy’s willing to go to not feel like a loser! He’s… being strung along by a relationship that is clearly not healthy!”

There’s an odd thing at play in the narrative contrast between Chizuru and Mami. In the first episode, Kazuya gets cranky at Chizuru for being “fake” and only being nice to him because he paid her to. She shuts him down and reminds him that that’s how paid services work, and he apologises, finally seeing the error of his ways… sort of. Chizuru has multiple personas, and there is a visible split between the Girlfriend Mode she puts on for work and the way she looks and behaves while she’s at university or at home. The narrative places enough sympathy with her character that we come to understand that she’s not “two-faced”, merely multifaceted—code-switching as many of us do depending on what people need of her in the social situation.

Kazuya takes a moment to get his head around this, but by the time episode two is out, it seems like there’s been kind of a paradigm shift: a little crack in the naïve beliefs he’d internalised about Girls™. Wowsers, did you know they can be flawed and layered? I want to roll my eyes at him for it—and I will—but it’s also probably part of that identity complex from above. Under that format, what is a girl if not someone you can Be Something to, and thus cement your role in life?

His ex-girlfriend Mami also has two distinct sides, one of which she does not let Kazuya see. She also puts on a cutesy veneer manufactured to be appealing, and hides a nastier, more messy side. But she’s not being paid, she’s emotionally manipulating the people around her. Because of cripplingly low self-esteem? Because she has her own identity crisis and needed to Be Something to Someone in order to feel valid? For the sadistic fun of it all? It remains to be seen. I can only hope, from deep in my bones, that this series goes full ToraDora and unpacks the Preppy Mean Girl’s deal. Fingers crossed.

What we do know is that Mami’s nastiness isn’t being played for comedy. Her manipulative behaviour is called out by Kazuya’s friend Kibe, and the framing of her frantically typing horrible text messages (Tweets?) has her looking downright ghastly. And then she switches back to her bubbly, flirty persona, and we realise, with a strange jolt, that Kazuya is a way more unreliable narrator than we first thought. Not only is his Perfect Girlfriend a real human being, far from the idealised image of her he carries around in his head, but she’s a terrible person who was—and is—out-and-out depicted as manipulating and downright emotionally abusing him.

It’s a dark turn that shifts the tone from the mostly shenanigans-filled first episode, and it makes you (or at least, me) ask: where are we going with this? Mami is in a strange spotlight because she’s simultaneously being framed by Kazuya’s rose-coloured perception of her as The Bestest Girl in the World and as the emerging villain of the piece. The perspective shift away from Kazuya Vision gives us not only a deeper sense of Mami as a character who exists in her own right, but… makes a comment about how abusive relationships, particularly emotionally abusive ones, can often be invisible, to onlookers and to victims.

And… oh my God, is this show going to tackle the perceived invisibility and the very real danger of female-on-male abuse within relationships and how low self-esteem can open the door to it? This horny fake dating show? Really??

Part of me is quaking in my boots thinking of all the ways they could bungle this, but part of me is… intrigued and optimistic. “Kazuya’s a dumbass” is slowly graduating to “Kazuya’s a naïve and self-deprecating young man who has been socialised to base his worth on his relationship status, making him vulnerable to manipulation”. As of episode four, we’ve seen Mami called out as villainous for her antics, and we’ve seen Kazuya take the first active step away from the cloud of her influence. Is there any stronger imagery for him moving on than his phone screen cracking as he abandons her call to dive into the ocean and rescue a different girl?

Is it a little on-the-nose? Is it silly as hell? Maybe. But this level of hyperbole is consistent for the show, which makes me all the more impressed and baffled at the nuance going on in these character relationships.

Kazuya continually draws our attention to (by reminding himself) the fact that his romance with Chizuru is “fake”, because he pays her for her time. Yet the marked contrast between his relationship with her and his relationship with Mami skews the other way. Kazuya and Chizuru are frank and open with each other, and aside from the rental girlfriend factor that initially brought them together, the power balance is oddly even. They bicker, but they have genuine compassion for one another and can talk like real people. The interactions between Kazuya and Mami—the so-called Perfect Girlfriend—are clearly a horrid, plasticky, Stepford Wives façade in comparison.

And to what end? Did Mami ever like him, or was she just playing with him for funsies, in the same way she’s setting out to seduce him and break his heart all over again? An equally interesting, but quieter question is, did Kazuya ever like her—or was he just so caught up in the manufactured euphoria of Being In an Adult Relationship and Achieving Adult Milestones that he mistook a feeling of validation for infatuation?  

In a story where people are manufacturing new versions of themselves, messing with each other, and stumbling disastrously after socially-constructed ideas of Adulthood and self-worth… the “fake” relationship at the heart of Rent-a-Girlfriend seems like the realest thing in it. I write this as of watching the fourth episode, so I don’t want to jump the gun, but I just can’t tear my eyes away from the unfolding drama of this show, and I just can’t shake the feeling that it’s speaking to a deep and painful truth beneath—or even alongside—all the horny and corny humour.

Maybe Rent-a-Girlfriend will just be a dumb comedy about a group of surprisingly believable human disasters. And look, that would be fine, because that seems to be what it’s setting out to do. But this undercurrent makes me wonder how it will continue to develop, what it will end up doing with Mami, what it will end up trying to say with Kazuya and his journey towards Adulthood, and how it might keep quietly unpacking these themes about relationships, maturity, and the fakeness and constructedness of it all. I suppose we can only follow Kazuya into the ocean, wait, and see.

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Filed under Fun with Isms

3 responses to “In Which Adulthood is a Construct and Rent-a-Girlfriend is Compelling

  1. Reblogged this on Locating Frankenstein's Brain and commented:
    WOW. This is Pretty Deep Stuff™ for something that’s supposed to be a rom-com anime.

  2. Pingback: My Next Life as a Lecturer: All Routes Lead to Zoom!! August ’20 Roundup | The Afictionado

  3. Pingback: In Which Rent-a-Girlfriend Goes Off the Rails | The Afictionado

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