Greetings, Tangles readers!
Yesterday, Twwk posted an excellent article to kick off our deep dive into the Bunny Girl Senpai series. Twwk’s article focused largely on Sakuta’s character: his selfless, genuine love for Mai and his transparent, authentic self. But of course, Sakuta’s character isn’t all sunshine. As Twwk points out, he tends to dance on the line of commitment to Mai throughout the show, and often gets himself into trouble with his speech and conduct.
And if you’re looking for a perfect example of these negative characteristics which Twwk discussed, look no further than Tomoe’s arc. In some ways, this arc presents Sakuta with no filter—authentic and honest, sure, but also hurtful and demeaning. Today, I’ll be writing about how episodes four through six of Bunny Girl Senpai almost compelled me to drop the show. I’ll reason through why I ultimately decided to stick around. And I’ll describe how my personal struggle with this arc of Bunny Girl Senpai finds its place not only in Tomoe’s story, but also, perhaps, in your own.
Got all that? Good. Let’s proceed.
I’ve always had a strained relationship with Bunny Girl Senpai. Let me be clear: I’m 90% into this anime for the cheeky banter between Sakuta and Mai. It’s fantastic. So I really liked the first three episodes of the show. Episode four, in contrast, presents the first signs of genuine conflict between the two, as Tomoe’s Adolescent-Syndrome-caused looping leads to a misunderstanding with not only Mai, but the whole school. Ultimately, Tomoe and Sakuta end up feigning a relationship for Tomoe’s sake: Her friends think that she’s dating Sakuta and she feels uncomfortable admitting their mistake.
Already, the flashing lights were going off in my head. Mai’s gone and Sakuta’s pretending to date someone else? It all seems foolish and immature and out-of-character. (And where’s my Mai dialogue?) Regardless, I was willing to forgive those minor setbacks to see how things would go in Tomoe’s story. But as things progressed, it became very clear that the dynamic between Sakuta and Tomoe was far different than that between Sakuta and Mai. In some ways, it was endearing. Sakuta’s sort of like a big brother to Tomoe, hanging out with her, bringing her food when she’s sick, and lending her an ear amidst her struggles.
But as many big brothers are wont to do, Sakuta pokes fun at Tomoe. And many times, it goes way too far. Now, I’m willing to admit that some of the discomfort I felt at Sakuta’s jokes might say more about my boundaries than the show itself.1 But much of what Sakuta says to Tomoe in this arc could genuinely be classified as sexual harassment, and there’s times when the jokes genuinely trouble Tomoe. It threw me off, to the point that I was ready to cast the show away out of sheer discomfort.
Why, then, did I decide to stick with the show?
Before I continue to answer that question, I’d like to clarify the tension I’m describing here a little. I don’t mean to imply that watching Bunny Girl Senpai violated my conscience. Stay away from shows like that—but I’m talking about something a little different. Bunny Girl Senpai doesn’t violate my conscience in these scenes; it violates my moral standards. These scenes don’t tempt me to sin; they portray sin as a good thing. They don’t inspire shame but anger: anger at wrongs going unpunished.
Maybe a few examples will help to clarify what I’m trying to say. When I think of problematic anime, I think of Made in Abyss, which contains several scenes that arguably sexualize minors. Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid, one of my favorite shows, runs into the same issue with the relationship between Lucoa and Shouta. And The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, a fan favorite, has its own issues with sexual harassment as well. These are all shows which clearly contain scenes which violate moral standards in such a way that no one could be blamed for dropping them outright.
Of course, all the shows that I’ve listed, including Bunny Girl Senpai, are shows that I watched through to the end. So why didn’t I drop them? There’s a lot I could say here, but in short, it’s because each show, despite its flaws, had something worth staying for. Haruhi drew me in with its absurd yet hopeful celebration of the oddities of this world. Kobayashi reminded me that sometimes it only takes a dinner table to welcome those who share nothing in common with you. And Made in Abyss presented a stirring tale of adventure with its own moral quandaries to boot.
What about Bunny Girl Senpai, then? Well, if it’s Sakuta’s personality that turned me off, it’s the same personality that kept me coming back. Again, despite his flaws, Sakuta is abundantly authentic. At his best, he hates lies and misunderstandings; he doesn’t pull punches; he says exactly what he’s thinking. And for Tomoe, who’s struggling with fitting in and finding her own identity in the midst of the chaos of adolescent social interactions, Sakuta’s bluntness comes as a great reassurance. Regardless of how her friends treat her, she knows Sakuta will always treat her the same way he always has. He’ll always be there for her.
In fact, I have a theory. I think that Tomoe’s struggle to reconcile Sakuta’s good and bad sides isn’t too much different from my own. Even as she finds herself angered and frustrated by the things Sakuta says, she knows there isn’t genuine malice behind them, because she knows Sakuta is for her. His bluntness sets her on edge, but it also sets her at ease, because she knows he’s willing to tell her what she needs to hear, and to help her grow in the process. It’s because Sakuta is Sakuta that she knows that she’ll be loved no matter where she’s at. It gives her the confidence to move forward.2
And in the end, I think the moral tensions that I’ve described in this article aren’t too much different from the same tensions we experience in all our lives. It’s really easy for us as people to polarize reality. That artist or that book or that show is problematic, so anyone who supports them is problematic. Alternatively: that artist or that book or that show is good, so anyone who discredits them is wrong. But life is more complex than that. I should know: I find that complexity in my own heart, as I vacillate between good and bad intentions and desires and actions. Like Sakuta, I can issue a word of wisdom in one moment and a word of mockery in another.3 I need grace in every moment of my life. We all do.
So what if, instead of polarizing reality, we learned to live as children of grace? What if, when people hurt us, instead of responding in anger, we responded in gentle love? What if, when ideas harmed us, we wrestled with them rather than smacking them down? What if, when media unsettled us, we stopped to ponder intentions, rather than to assume them?
I don’t have answers to those questions. It’s certainly a hard task, to show the grace we’ve been given. But, at the very least, I hope I’ve shown that it’s okay to wrestle with these tensions rather than to find cheap answers. That is, after all, what Bunny Girl Senpai is about: learning to live in a world where there are no cheap answers, and demonstrating kindness and faithfulness in the meantime. Those are lessons worth learning—even if there are a few rough patches along the way.4
Rascal Does Not Dream of Bunny Girl Senpai can be streamed on Funimation.
1 To be fair to the writers of the show, some of the worst jokes from the light novel source were toned down for the adaptation. The comments still make me deeply uncomfortable, though.
2 I want to be very careful here. I don’t mean to say that Tomoe shouldn’t feel angry at Sakuta for the things he says. I’m simply pointing out that she’s facing the same tension I am in deciding whether or not to stick with the show: the antithesis between affirming what is good and confronting what isn’t.
3 Again, in an abundance of caution, I’ll say that while both Sakuta and myself exhibit these sorts of moral tensions, that doesn’t reduce the weight of Sakuta’s sins. I’m not excusing Sakuta; I’m condemning both him and myself.
4 Much of what I said in this post was inspired by Alan Jacobs’ Breaking Bread with the Dead, which argues for reading classical literature because of its ability to confront our sensibilities and form us into better people. In some sense, I think his argument can be adapted into a case for watching anime in the same sort of way, and that’s what I’ve tried to do here.