Domestic Girlfriend Review
The following review is for the anime Domestic Girlfriend, and is also known by its native title Domesutikku na Kanojo. It was a 12-episode romance anime that aired in Spring 2019 and is based off the manga of the same name by Kei Sasuga. It was animated by Studio Diomedea, a relatively new studio that has mostly focused on slice of life anime that I’m not really into, but has had a few recognizable adaptations including Riddle Story of Devil, Campione!, Beatless, and The Lost Village. The creative talent behind this series are all rather new; the director Shota Ihata’s only other outing as director is with Girlish Number, while the series’ main scriptwriter Tatsuya Takahashi has done plenty of work but nothing really notable as scriptwriter except Beatless and Eromanga Sensei.
Doubtless there is already a lot commentary out there on Domestic Girlfriend, and I find myself at a roadblock of sorts over how to articulate on this series’ strengths and faults in a meaningful way without coming across as biased or insincere. First, I’ll admit to anyone interested that I really did enjoy Domestic Girlfriend on an emotional level. I promise I’m not a sexual deviant with any duplicitous affairs in real life, but it still clicked with me. Yes I thought it had serious, fundamental flaws with its identity and execution. Even still, Domestic Girlfriend is a solid and entertaining drama-romance anime comparable with the likes of White Album 2, Citrus, or Scum’s Wish in overall quality and its ability to provide emotional-yet-entertaining storylines.
There is nothing about Domestic Girlfriend too spectacular or disconcerting at any given point, beyond the ridiculousness of its premise of having Natsuo, the main character, living with the very same women he finds himself in a love triangle with as their step-brother. One of the women he pursues, Hina, happens to be older than him and a teacher at his high school, while the other, Rui, is a student his age that he had sex with in the opening scene of the story. How the series doubled down on its taboo “forbidden love” tropes; as if either of said tropes existing by themselves is any more or less egregious from a writing perspective, is I think a major reason why this show garnered so much initial negative attention. More importantly, I think one of the bigger takeaways from the series is that it does end on a rather weak note in its final four episodes, precisely because it explored the most obvious story route that fans had expected coming into it. Natsuo pressures Hina into a consenting relationship and things fall apart when they get caught. But certainly, it can not be derided as a trainwreck for following the exact premise it laid out to its most logical conclusion. I feel much of the overtly rambunctious reactions for this show over how it breaks social norms to be a tad overblown. There are plenty of other anime that break the same social norms, and we specifically watch anime because they are unrealistic and play devil’s advocate with these unique, out-there situations. To be honest, I’d rather not have to pretend that I didn’t enjoy how Domestic Girlfriend's broke social norms and has trashy moments.
And you know what? We all know this one thing to be true, deep down, if you’ve watched enough anime. A lot of the anime we watch could use more sex. I don’t want to sit here and applaud Domestic Girlfriend too much for simply having a lot of openly-sexual scenes in it, because obviously there is more to the story and inter-character relationships than that. But I know I’m not alone in this feeling. Just because practically no one inside or outside our otaku community takes anyone’s sentiments about Domestic Girlfriend seriously, doesn’t mean we can’t still take a minute to applaud it for bucking this seemingly unending trend of will they, won’t they. Incestuous relationships notwithstanding, for all its faults I would argue that we need more anime like Domestic Girlfriend's take on open sexuality. Not less. Most anime just do not show enough intimacy in what are supposed to be their portrayed romantic relationships. And to give the story credit, the series does moderate itself from its worst implulses as it goes on. On a seperate note, I will say that the resemblence to Scum's Wish is certainly uncanny, to the degree that I'm fairly certain the two creators had a mutual influence on each other. Even the polarized reactions in our community to the two shows feels remarkably similar. The two anime are the closest thing we have to twin films as far as I can tell.
This isn’t to say that these voices are wrong in noting the social taboos this anime breaks to draw attention to itself. But certainly over-exaggerated is a term that does spring to mind. It seems to have instead garnered a lot of its popularity from what I can only identify as negative attention; that speaks about Domestic Girlfriend in an almost haughty, patronizing, or outright condescending tone. Go online to the reddit discussion threads—where the top comment, for example, reads, “so its here, the ‘drama’ of the season”. Likewise, take a browse of the top user reviews on My Anime List—where all the top rated reviews are either 2 or 3’s or 8 and 10’s. I sort of dislike the idea of putting myself on the moral high ground here and taking others’ statements out of context, but come on. The show isn’t that bad. None of the conversations surrounding this anime feel measured or reserved, leastways to provide context for what the series does do well. This reputation is incredulous for a story that does, in fact, take itself seriously. Gigguk describes DG as “The Dumpster Fire That He Can’t Stop Watching” and that title has a melodramatic and blatantly attention-seeking ring to it. Yet I’d say his reaction has become the typical one. THEM Anime’s review of Domestic Girlfriend by Allen Moody gave the show one star and he calls it a “horrifying dysfunction”. Manga.Tokyo’s review by Lita likewise calls it a “hot, complicated mess” and she mentions its one of her least favorite shows she’s ever seen. Andy of Anime News network’s This Week in Anime column tells his fellow contributor in his opening statement that “This [anime] is trash. Absolute trash.” though he does go on to have some insightful commentary. For example, he specifically identifies Hina’s simple, blank response of “So?” when Natsuo confronts her about her affair in Episode 3 as powerful. Indeed, I agree that that was a series highlight. It was sort of shocking to hear it, and there was a high level of dramatic tension.
But you get the general idea.
Some more even-handed editorials featuring the show's strengths as well as its weaknesses include Anime News Network's episodes commentaries by James Beckett. Reading his episode braekdowns provides a great look at how the series started strong and had missteps towards its end. ESH’s review by kingbabyduck where he discusses how DG was a “guilty pleasure” is a positive look, as well as TheOuterHaven editorial by Josh Piedra who comes into the show as a huge fan of the manga. Finally, Chris Peach writes an amazing post on his blog where he provides the best commentary on the show’s merits from a grounded perspective, very similar to how I'd like mine to be seen. His stands as the best article I've found on DG. "Even in its predictibility it is fun." He writes, "If every anime were a classic, no anime would be a classic". Interestingly enough, many more conventional outlets like Kotaku or the Ani-Tay, or other prominent anime reviewers on Youtube, have thus far ignored Domestic Girlfriend. My best guess is that they are perhaps trying to avoid the negative publicity, or they wrote it off as a waste of time based off all the negative user reactions to it. By and large, though, this anime seems to be treated as degenerate canon fodder for reaction videos. Which is the same fate relegated to anime such as to Koi Kaze or Boku no Pico. (Which really are disturbing takes on taboo topics). I have not seen anyone make that direct comparison, admittedly, but it seems to me like a sad fate for DG to be relegated to when it is about as entertaining as, say, Kokoro Connect or Angel Beats! And apparently the manga is very well respected and adored by its fanbase. They all keep up with its chapter releases with great interest. So what is going on with all the negativity?
Lets discuss what works.
The first thing that felt good about watching this anime was its first scene. Natsuo, the main character and protagonist of this story, is laying in bed up thinking about his recent experience with an almost blank, melancholic expression. The girl he just had finished having sex with, Rui, starts getting dressed in front of him and he admires her in silence. He had just lost his virginity to her, and presumably, the experience was not fulfilling as hoped it would be. She doesn’t seem to be too thrilled about the tryst, either, and tells him that he shouldn’t expect to ever see her again before basically abandoning him outside. He doesn’t quite know what to make of the experience, and he counsels his best friend to try and find what the meaning of it was. From this explanation, viewers are filled in on the entire day leading up to him having sex with Rui; how he went to school and was feeling down about his impossible chances with a teacher he has long admired and been friendly with. Rejection is a completely understandable and relatable feeling which does help explain why he pursued Rui at the mixer, and why he reciprocated her offer to get together. How Natsuo sees Hina's resemblence in Rui for a split-second signals to us viewers all we needed to know about the attraction. (It also makes sense. They are actual sisters.) There’s nothing exciting or titillating about the rendezvous; beyond the shock we have along with Natsuo at the frank offer Rui makes to have sex. The entire act happens off-screen.
It’s a surprisingly mature opening take.
Already, from the above sequence viewers see characters are established with two-dimensional, ulterior motivations for their various relationships. They see that the writing isn’t simply about sex or fanservice. Subtle and thoughtful character reactions provide some insight to the character’s internal conflicts, like when Natsuo regrets losing his virginity to someone he didn’t know, trust, or love. Of course, this early goodwill is thrown out the window when the ridiculous antics soon set in after his father reveals he’s getting remarrying into the very same family of Natsuo’s fixation, Hina, and the girl he had just had a tryst with, Rui. Domestic Girlfriend then plays this Jekyll and Hyde routine where it bounces back and forth between trying to appeal to both the ecchi fans, who would enjoy something like To Love-Ru or High School DxD, as well as fans of potential "serious" romances like Clannad or Say, I love you. But weirdly enough, this dichotomy between shock-inducing fanservice and grounded romance works for the series' first half. The best scenes, however, embody more of the latter than the former. Scenes like its first one where the romance is more grounded better define this series.
The most memorable moments of Domestic Girlfriend all feature dramatic tension to go along with shock-value moments that play into the perception that Hina is duplicitous, or that Natsuo is otherwise in way over his head pursuing this relationship. Rui is really the only one with any valid reason to be attracted to Natsuo, and discovers her feelings for him during the same timeframe but continually sees herself sidelined by his steadfast focus on courting Hina. (To the aggrevation of just about everyone watching.) I apologize to all the manga-fans who are Hina shippers, but Hina functions much better as an impossible-to-get-with foil for Nastuo and Rui’s relationship than as an tangible romantic interest. In my opinion, that dynamic should have been preserved, not abandoned. Hina gets pressured into an open relationship where she is basically exploited in order to provide livacious hallway makeout sessions and hands-on sexual education for Natsuo at her apartment. At least for the events in the story covered thus far in this single season, the 3-episode arc where Natsuo and Hina begin dating ruins the dramatic tension in the narrative. The best moments, again, are not when Hina is acting as a mere bystander responding to Natsuo's aggressive pursuit of her. When she acts and utilizes her influence over Natsuo to take control of the situation; her actions come across as powerful and sensible. The scenes where she dominates him psychologically in Episode 3, or takes him out into the ocean in Episode 6 to explain how an open relationship would be double-suicide, or when Natsuo hears her moan her ex-boyfriend's name whilst getting herself off in Episode 7, right after we had seen her cry at reading Natsuo's love letter. (Meaning we are unsure if this was an intentional act.) These are the scenes where Natsuo's ridiculous attraction adds a layer of suspense to this drama. I don't understand why she became such a damsel-in-distress positively responding to Natsuo's advaces...Natsuo doesn't really do anything to warrant it. In Episode 8, for example, I thought she was right to avoid him as he overstepped the boundary they had just come to an understanding on in the prior episode.
But those opening scenes where Rui and Natsuo meet, or again when Hina takes Natsuo out on a date, or when Natsuo sees Momo's scars and makes her a home-cooked meal instead of having sex with her, would not be the last time that Domestic Girlfriend showed a surprising amount of thought towards its character interactions. It is quintessential to emphasize that, on the whole, every single scene with Rui and Natsuo together is full of chemistry and subtly-great writing. How Rui constantly communicates her emotions through her expressions, body language, minimal-but-powerful dialogue treats viewers as intelligent enough to read between the lines. It is a testament to the notion that they really are the best for each other despite their messed-up social situation. The best scenes with Hina hit you emotionally harder in the moment, of course, because they accompany unadulterated shock value, (the masturbation scene of Episode 7, or the confrontation scene of Episode 3 where Hina tantalizes his ego) but they also tend to whiff when they don’t involve anyone utilizing basic common sense. I've already mentioned that the ending episodes are chock-full of this: every scene where she abides by Natsuo's advances and reinforces his pandering for attention in Episodes 8-12 was a huge disappointment to behold, and also the two-episode arc where Natsuo embarks to break Hina up with her boyfriend is likewise appalling. I can’t recall a single scene with Rui where that happened. Rui and Natsuo seem to grow together in their scenes, which makes a sort of sense if you think about it because they're the same age and they both begin the story in the same place, experience-wise. As a case-in-point example: even after Rui realizes Natsuo is lying to her, even after Natsuo and her sister's relationship falls apart, even after she comes to terms with the fact that Natsuo probably won't ever reciprocate her feelings, she still supports him. That's a great message about true love.
So Rui is definitely, by far the best girl in my book.
In retrospect, much of worst aspects to the various plot-lines are explored courtesy of it forcing the issue of making Hina and Natsuo's relationship develop. The first cringe moments include Natsuo attempting to take advantage of a drunk and passed out Hina, which really isn’t the sort of thing you do unless you’re pitiful, weak-minded, and manipulative person. Then having Natsuo run into Hina crying the next episode, and acting as a White Knight by becoming combatively involved like in resolving her affair. These early interventions, indeed, made me cringe. (Not for the last time!) The plot didn’t really necessitate Natsuo’s father marrying into Hina and Rui’s family, but that was the easiest way for the author to explain and get everyone to move in together, have Natsuo and Hina become on more intimate terms, and provide its after-mentioned shock-value moments. The idea of basic human decency in closing and locking a door all but disappears.The whole stretch where Natsuo deliberately calls Rui his sister in every scene was facepalm worthy.
I really, really cannot help but feel that this is the author trying to have his cake and eat it too. The main character basically is two different people when it comes to his relationship with Hina versus his relationship with Rui. In the former, he almost feels like the main character from School Days. He’s aggressive, somewhat manipulative, and a borderline deviant pressuring her to pay attention and let him progress from first to fourth base. Episode 8 where he chases her around a festival is borderline atrocious. It is honestly the closest I came to dropping the show. Compare this to the relationship with Rui where it feels much more natural; there is a strong internal logic to them being okay with romantically pursuing each other from the premise that they'd already begun their relationship before the marriage. Rui grows with Natsuo as they come to terms with their conflicted feelings in intimate, meaningful private moments with each other. Compare this to Natsuo's moments with Hina which all feel like a zero-sum game. To me, the scene in Episode 8 where Rui becomes upset when Natsuo tries to pass her along to Alex stands as one of the most powerful of the anime. The anime completely threw away their entire development for its final four episodes outside of its final scene. For the middle part of the series it felt like a true, genuine love-triangle because Natsuo himself seemed to be conflicted with his emotions about Rui. Even so, while the pivot back to Hina was a major frustration, I still felt the manner by which his and Hina's relationship fell apart was unbelievable as it was disappointing. A random picture taken at night during a fireworks show? Are you kidding me? The story kind of shoots itself in the foot by having Hina lose her agency. She didn't even try to deny the accusation that the faculty levied against her.
I haven’t read the manga yet, but I plan to. I really just wanted to jumble down this whirlwind of impressions and emotions on the anime series first, by itself independent of reading the manga, to try to treat the anime series as its own experience. The reason for this is that I hear Studio Diomedea changed a lot in their adaptation and left other stuff out. For example all the character designs also seem to be subtly changed. Most adaptations in general are worse than the source material they are made from. The anime did also have this conclusive feeling to it with where its stopped. Natsuo recovers from his depression and writes an award-winning novel about his lost love and experiences dating Hina. He also rekindles his relationship with Rui at the same time, though I do wish it wasn't that easy to win Rui's affection again. While I'm happy we didn't end the anime series on a cliffhanger, the whole resolution to the external affair felt a bit too inconsequential. Hina definitely showed full committed to their relationship in an endearing way with how she protected Natsuo once their secret was discovered and kept the ring from his promise to marry her. I just wish this relationship felt more warranted. Natsuo didn't do anything to deserve Hina's affection besides be aggressive in his pursuit of her. If I have the opportunity, maybe I can come back to this review and edit my thoughts into it after reading the manga. I know the show had real problems, especially with its weak ending. But maybe those problems will be avoided on a second run through the story with further details. Even still, I do recommend the anime for any interested readers. Just keep in mind that the anime's final four episodes (and ending) are disappointing.
Thanks for reading,
P.S. I want to highlight one last time how frustrated I felt seeing Rui left out and ignored, or often even lied to by Natsuo. It really did make me want to drop this series towards the end. It disappoints me that the final message ends up being how the most superficial aspects of relationships ultimately determines them. It isn't able to develop Natsuo and Hina's relationship without having both characters act like different people.