In Which Rent-a-Girlfriend Goes Off the Rails

There is a special sort of sting in disappointment. If a story—be it a book, TV show, movie, video game, what have you—is just bad, you can let it slip from your mind. You may have your gripes with it, but in some greater sense it will glide away from you like oil and water. A story that seemed like it was going to be good, held promise, wormed its way into your imagination and your heart… a story like that turning out bad gives you a unique kind of injury. Especially when you wrote a very public article telling people that you reckoned it had potential. Multiple articles, even.

Given that I wrote that big post speculating on Rent-a-Girlfriend’s potential, it feels like I should return to it and perform a post-mortem of sorts. Now, this is not me “walking back” my previous reviews or analysis. I maintain that the first few episodes genuinely compelled me, and genuinely presented a space in which to play with some really interesting ideas. Which, again, is why the show’s dedication to not doing any of the things that I suggested could be really interesting, is so very annoying.

Do I take it as a personal slight that a show did not cater to my wants? No. It’s clearly not made for me, and that’s fine. But it’s worth returning to the scene of the crime and unpacking what exactly went so wrong, from my own perspective as a viewer (and I imagine this is perspective shared by more than a few people). If I can write a post about how much Riverdale annoyed me for sucking me in with a cool premise and then going off the shits, I can certainly write one about Rent-a-Girlfriend. Yes, those shows exist in the same category now.

I’m going to go through and return to the ideas I felt the show was playing with in my previous post, which was written four episodes in, and explore how they did not actually come to be; and why I think that’s such a bummer. For maximum efficiency, let’s break this down by character, since a lot of the issues seem rooted in that area.

So… Mami?

You may recall that Mami was one of the factors of the show that really, initially, compelled me. When she’s introduced across the first three episodes, we get this potentially intriguing picture of a multi-layered, strategically two-faced young woman who seemed to potentially pose as the villain of the piece. The audience gets to see that she is not, in fact, the dream girl that Kazuya thought she was. Will he, across the story, dismantle the pedestal that he had placed this ordinary—and actually quite nasty—girl on? Will this juxtaposition between Kazuya’s expectations and harsh reality be used to explore the cloying concept of The Perfect Relationship and prove to him that there is no such thing? Will her villainy ultimately serve a spicy and intriguing narrative purpose?

The answer to all these questions is a hard “no”. Where I had presumed that the beach trip mini-arc was setting Mami up to be a recurring character and our central antagonist, she actually vanishes from the series until the very last episode. None of the exciting themes or topics suggested in my first post get unpacked. In fact, Mami packs them back up, zips the suitcase tight, and drives off with it in the boot of her car never to be seen or heard from again.

When Mami does return, she flexes her villain muscles once more: she discovers Chizuru’s secret and rents her out as a power play, knowing full well that she now has the capacity to ruin the Fake Dating illusion that has propped up the central plot so far. The scene where she’s hanging out with Chizuru in the karaoke bar is genuinely tense and skin-crawly, as she basks in Chizuru’s lack of agency and flaunts her own power. Once more, it’s a scene that makes you ask “wow, you are awful—why are you like this?

If the show had actually done what I thought it was going to do and answered that question, I would say this was intentional and a neat way to keep setting up her character. But because the show doesn’t answer it, it’s just frustrating.

I think I watched ToraDora! at a formative age and now expect and want all my two-dimensional “bitchy” girl characters to be explored in empathetic detail, and to grow beyond their issues. It is an expectation that isn’t met here, unfortunately.

In fact, not only are the expectations not met, but the show decides to do the exact opposite to everything I was sure it was setting up. At the end of the series, after a full twelve episodes, after all that room for growth and change… the status quo essentially remains exactly where it started. At the climax, Chizuru begs Mami to give Kazuya another chance. It’s a noble move on her part, if we’re meant to believe that she’s developing feelings for Kazuya herself. But from my vantage point it’s also just very silly.

Why? Why do you want this woman, who has been outwardly nasty and manipulative to you, to “give another chance” to your love interest? How on earth did we end up here, instead of at a scene where Chizuru, or even Kazuya himself, is calling Mami out for her awfulness and demanding that she do better or go away?

It would be a neat subversion that shows how the status quo of the story, and the goals of the protagonist, have changed. “No, Mami, I now have a more mature understanding of relationships and know that you’re no good for me. You have developed as a character and we understand that you’re not the Pixie Dream Girl you seemed to be at first. This has created an effective emotional arc!”

Your characters’ priorities changing as they grow is one of the simplest and most effective parts of a character arc. But this, instead, leaves us at square one. It’s episode twelve, but Kazuya still doesn’t fully understand what a manipulative person Mami is, Mami is still that manipulative person with no additional layers nor explanation as to why, and Chizuru is still rooting for Kazuya to get his “dream girl” despite… ugh, despite everything we’ll get to in her section.

Mami was a potentially compelling villain who represented a very real and very interesting thematic throughline, a vessel through which Rent-a-Girlfriend could have explored things like the effects of emotional abuse, the way people end up in crappy relationships because it’s socially perceived as being better than being alone, the farce of modern dating…damn it, it could have been so interesting, but instead she vanishes for half the show and returns for a weak climax as the same one-dimensional bully she was when she was introduced.

It feels like such an odd writing choice, even in a series meant to be long-running, to establish a clear antagonist and then whisk her away for a large portion of the story. And it seems an even odder choice to essentially replace her with another character who adds basically nothing to the plot or the themes.

So… Ruka?

I did not mention Ruka in my first post, because she’s only introduced in episode six, after which the show takes a sharp turn off the road, down a cliff face, and into a pit of zombie-ghosts. You know, like at the start of Deadly Premonition.

Ruka… could have been cut out entirely, without affecting too much of the plot. Or at least, her plotline could have been sliced and diced and reformatted in such a way that it served the themes while being significantly less ridiculous and uncomfortable. Let’s say Kazuya gets a job, to support himself. Let’s say Ruka is already working there, and she takes an interest in him. Let’s even say it’s got something to do with the whole heart condition thing that’s shoehorned in as her backstory without much explanation. Kazuya is faced with a dilemma: he wants a girlfriend, but when Ruka asks him out, he kind of doesn’t feel anything.

So, he has to ask himself: does he want a girlfriend in the abstract, or has he realised that this yearning is based in more personal feelings? You can have the classic rom-com switcheroo where he realises how much he likes Chizuru when he compares his feelings for her to his lack of feelings for someone else. It would be a cool extension of the themes explored in the previous arc with Mami: are you willing to go through a relationship that isn’t right for you, just because you want to be perceived as someone In A Relationship?

Instead, Ruka is introduced in the most convoluted way possible, and then proceeds to stalk, beat up, and generally irritate the hell out of Kazuya and the other characters for the rest of the show. She is loud and childish and I’m genuinely confused as to what role she’s meant to play. Kazuya isn’t even vaguely interested in her apart from mild curiosity, so is she really worth adding to a lineup of other potential love interests? Her attempts at meddling with the Fake Dating setup ultimately go nowhere, so is she really worth adding as a plot device to create drama?

It’s around the time that Ruka joins the cast that Rent-a-Girlfriend swerves towards more predictable, cliché romcom tropes: stalking played for comedy (Ruka following Kazuya, Kazuya following Chizuru), the ol’ “oh no! I tripped and fell with my hand on your boob!” ploy, and needless jealous bickering between female characters. If Ruka and Chizuru are both rental girlfriends, where is their sense of solidarity? Aren’t they essentially co-workers? Why does Ruka react with such vitriol upon discovering this about Chizuru, rather than simply saying “oh hey, I recognise your techniques since we work in the same field”?

The arc with Ruka seems committed to drawing out pointless and surface-level drama. The comedy becomes even dumber, Ruka feels tea-saucer-shallow as a character, and overall her involvement doesn’t actually add anything to the story. All that, and she brings a bag of double standards on board. Ruka stealing Kazuya away to a love hotel without his consent is played as funny, because she’s a tiny girl, whereas it would be horrifying if a man did it to a female character. Or, maybe not, because the show’s morality is centred around Kazuya’s individual needs and wants in a way that ends up excusing a lot of gross behaviour (but I’m currently editing someone else’s excellent article about that, so I will leave that discussion to them).

You could legitimately cut out Ruka’s whole arc and skip straight to the part where Sumi is introduced, since that at least moves the plot forward in that it instigates a new bit of tension with Mami. Who is, again, potentially the flawed and fascinating villain of the piece, or would be if the show didn’t forget about her for about six episodes in favour of whatever the hell that was.

So… Sumi?

Sumi is here for two episodes and doesn’t do much. If she was your favourite character from the manga and you were excited to see her animated, I’m real sorry.

So… Chizuru?

To echo Dee’s sentiments (which I’m sure are shared by many), Chizuru deserved better than the show she ended up starring in. She is—potentially—a fascinating character who has a strong sense of self and multiple layers. She has ambitions and resolve, but is also a genuinely compassionate person. Kazuya spends the entire show moping about how she’s way too good for him, and you know what? He’s right. And I say that from a relationship perspective as well as a narrative one.

I could write a dissertation-length post detailing all the places where the show does Chizuru dirty, but the truth is this is going to be way too long regardless, and in all honesty I’m just tired. The nonsense with Ruka is irritating, the misuse of Mami as a character is frustrating, but the business with Chizuru only makes me feel exhausted.

Kazuya showed potential for character growth: his misogyny is laid bare and called out, he apologises and promises to do better, and he seems to genuinely want to become a better man to become worthy of Chizuru’s affection. But, because of the same cyclical strangeness that sees us arriving at episode twelve with the status quo from episode two still in place, he just doesn’t. Arguably, he gets worse, which I suppose is more character development than anyone else receives, at least.

The heart of the issue with Chizuru’s writing is a lack of growth, and a dissonance in what the series tells us and what it actually does. We are told that Chizuru is motivated, competent, sensible, and intent on following her own path, but what we see is her consistently anchoring her motivations and time around the needs of the sadboy protagonist rather than herself. I’m not saying this is unrealistic writing. Unfortunately, it mirrors one too many straight couples that I’ve witnessed in real life. But we’re talking about satisfying longform writing and character development here.

What is Chizuru’s arc in season one of Rent-a-Girlfriend? What changes about her because of her entanglements with Kazuya? What does she learn? How does she grow? How do her motivations as a character change? The answer, as I already touched on in Mami’s section, is that they kind of don’t. She remains not so much static, but elastic: twanging back and forth between scolding Kazuya and rolling her eyes affectionately at him, and never really moving their relationship forward or backwards in any meaningful way.

She doesn’t even get the classic “oh no! I thought I didn’t care about my love interest, but now I feel… jealous? Am I falling in love after all?” moment when Kazuya starts kind-of-dating Ruka, which just raises further questions of why was Ruka there if she contributed so little to the plot?

Overall I think this falls into oft-tread, muddy territory. Why does Chizuru fall for Kazuya despite the potential for her character to do so many other dynamic and interesting things? Well, because the audience is expected to look at this story through Kazuya’s eyes, meaning we’re looking at Chizuru rather than getting her perspective in any meaningful way. Chizuru doesn’t grow or change or gain new facets of characterisation because this is fundamentally not her story.

And listen, Kazuya being an audience stand-in is not a bad thing on its own. As I highlighted in my previous post, Kazuya could have been the vessel with which the show explored those very real, but often unspoken, issues and pressures that men of his age face. But maybe Rent-a-Girlfriend’s greatest sin, and its greatest disappoint to me, is that it didn’t do that. It was content to let Kazuya be a gormless audience-insert romcom protagonist, flustered by sexuality without ever exploring his wants and needs in any meaningful way, self-flagellating and promising to do better but never actually developing as a character, and just generally being a bit of a dickhead when he could have been so many other things narratively and as a person.

The problem of Rent-a-Girlfriend is the problem with Kazuya and Chizuru: their relationship, and the so-called romantic comedy surrounding it, stands on a foundation that you’re told is there, but you never really see. Construction on this foundation sort of starts, but then gets abandoned in favour of tropes and antics that are gross and problematic as well as just being dull. The show’s ultimate failure to be romantic or comedic leaves its central premise, and all that potential, rotting awkwardly in front of you.

I was ready to care about these characters, and then the series proceeded to do absolutely nothing with them. No deeper exploration of why they’re like this. No visible growth and change. No themes, no social commentary. We end up where we started with a bunch of paper cut-outs for characters, looking back on a story that seems—to use the show’s own love of masturbatory imagery—like little more than a circlejerk.

And all I can say, in the end, is “alas”. That, and “why the bloody hell did this immediately get a second season announcement when we’re still waiting for shows like Monthly Girls Nozaki-kun to be renewed?”

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1 Comment

Filed under Things We Need to Stop Doing

One response to “In Which Rent-a-Girlfriend Goes Off the Rails

  1. Pingback: Gay Turbo Hell: November ’20 Roundup | The Afictionado

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