Well, damn. If you’d told me years ago I’d be watching an anime titled My Dress-Up Darling… I’ve gone through all that before anyway. This is the latest in a string of school-based romantic comedies I’ve watched, and it really needs no introduction if you’re tuned in at all to online anime communities — it was wildly popular last season, going through the usual waves of hype and antihype.
But did it deserve the hype and/or antihype? I’ll give you my dumb opinion in this post as usual
My Dress-Up Darling (or Sono Bisque Doll wa Koi wo Suru, or just Sono Bisque Doll as I’ll refer to it from now on because that’s just what people here call it*) is a 12-episode anime adaptation of a manga that aired just last season. If you saw the excitable blonde girl in the above screenshot around on Twitter or wherever the last few months, it’s because of this show.
I can’t blame people for going a little nuts over the series and both its leads. Sono Bisque Doll managed to scratch a lot of viewers’ itches with its mix of light comedy and romance (and I guess also prominent fanservice, which of course I’ll be addressing later on.) And I get it. I might not have appreciated its positive qualities five or ten years ago, but I’m apparently at just the right time now for it to work for me. I got that itch too, I suppose.
Before I get any further, the usual spoiler warning goes here. If you want to go in raw, you already have my bottom line above. You’ll probably know whether it’s for you by the first or second episode anyway.
Sono Bisque Doll opens with Wakana Gojo, a high school student who lives with his grandfather, a master dollmaker. As a boy, Wakana was captivated by the traditional hina dolls his grandfather produced and decided to follow in his footsteps, working on painting their faces and eventually becoming a skilled doll clothing designer/tailor. But though he does take pride in his work, Wakana is extremely reluctant to share his passion with any of his classmates thanks in part to getting yelled at by his asshole cousin about him not being allowed to like dolls as a boy when they were both kids.
The trouble for Wakana now, since he’s been convinced he can’t do both, is that he’s so into hina dolls that he’s decided to work on that craft instead of having any semblance of a social life. His grandfather’s house doubles as a doll workshop, so it’s easy enough for Wakana to lose himself in that life. That is, until he has a chance meeting with classmate Marin Kitagawa.
Marin talking here. Both she and Wakana have extremely distinctive voices, both in the figurative and literal senses.
Marin being a beautiful, popular girl, Wakana assumes she lives in a completely different world than his, one he’d never be able to enter. But shortly after their first talk in their homeroom (where Wakana naturally has the protagonist seat) Marin walks in on him in the school’s sewing club room while preparing to use one of the machines to make more hina doll apparel, discovering him talking to the head of one of the dolls in a tender way.
Wakana is mortified, but to his great surprise Marin isn’t. She’s impressed by the quality of the dolls and by Wakana’s dedication. But she also has a personal reason for her interest in his skills: despite the initial impression of Marin as a pretty normal “popular girl” type, she turns out to be a cosplayer who watches anime and reads erotic visual novels. So when she learns that Wakana can sew, she asks if he’ll create a dress for her based on one of her favorite characters, offering to provide all the necessary funds herself. He’s apprehensive about making custom clothes for humans instead of dolls, which he has no real experience at, but Marin puts her trust in him so he takes on the task, resolving to do his best.
And it all goes well! That’s no store-bought costume; the guy is a serious talent.
This unlikely friendship between Marin and Wakana is the core of Sono Bisque Doll. Not unlikely in the sense that they were unlikely to get along, since they clearly fit together perfectly, but more because of their respective extroverted and introverted tendencies. Sono Bisque Doll is a bit similar in that way to Nagatoro, which also featured a male lead who shuts himself away from society to focus on his art and a female lead who pulls him out of that isolation while respecting and encouraging his abilities in her own way. And since I liked Nagatoro, it figures that I’d probably like this series as well, but it also has some differences from that and other romantic comedies in a similar vein.
One of these is just how open and forward the story is about this being a romance. Wakana is pretty obviously attracted to Marin from the beginning, and certainly from the second episode (though initially that could just be taken for hormones considering the events of the episode, but as their relationship progresses we learn it’s more than that.) It’s pretty normal to see the male lead acting that way around the main girl in a show like this, but about halfway through we start to hear some of Marin’s inner monologues exactly when she falls in love with Wakana. Moreover, and even more unusually, she actually understands how she feels about him. Or that might just seem unusual because we don’t generally get the girl’s perspective too often in such series.
The guy unwittingly says something smooth and cool that doubles as something close to a love confession and the girl reacts visibly; this part is actually pretty typical but it was done well.
Like Nagatoro (and Uzaki-chan, and Takagi-san, and presumably Komi-san too though that one’s still on hold for me so I may be wrong about it) the romance in Sono Bisque Doll is also pretty relaxed and not overly dramatic. That’s to say the growing relationship between Marin and Wakana doesn’t (yet) seem to be too threatened by any other characters forming love triangles or more complicated polygons, Venn diagrams, or flowcharts. Though there is a hint at a possible future development in that direction when Marin’s fellow cosplayer Sajuna Inui, a.k.a. Juju, and her sister Shinju show up halfway through the season, with Juju taking some kind of interest in Wakana. It might not exactly be the romantic type of interest, especially considering that Juju attends an all-girls’ school and just isn’t used to being around guys as she admits. But I can’t say any of that for sure not having read the source material, so you’d have to ask someone who follows the manga.
However, considering the pretty easy and light atmosphere in this season otherwise, I get the feeling that Marin won’t have much trouble eventually putting her feelings out there once the time comes. Which knowing these sorts of series might take a long time.
Wakana working on a cosplay for Shinju. There’s clearly nothing romantic between them, which is good since Shinju is in middle school despite appearances.
Sono Bisque Doll was pretty widely watched and got a lot of great press, but it also received some backlash and negative criticism. One of the more common attacks on it I saw was that Marin here takes the role of “magical carefree girl who swoops in to save the male lead from his misery.” I’ve addressed this sort of character once before way back in my review of the yuri visual novel Highway Blossoms, which received some of the same criticism with Marina, the more feminine one in the romantic pair, being that flighty life-loving type and Amber being the more grounded, serious one who gets “saved.”
Though I wasn’t in love with Highway Blossoms, I thought that angle on Marina and her relationship with Amber wasn’t quite accurate or fair, and I feel even more strongly that way about Marin and Wakana in Sono Bisque Doll, but for a different reason — I’d argue that Marin and Wakana are equally strange misfits, albeit ones that deal with their situations differently. Sure, you could say that Marin helps Wakana out by getting him out of the house and getting him talking to other people who aren’t either his grandfather or a hina doll for a change. But despite their differences, they’re both deadly earnest characters who put all their available effort into the hobbies and crafts they love, and in a world where such earnestness isn’t always appreciated. That went a long way towards endearing me to both of them.
Marin’s room. This is maybe pushing the limits of believability for some, but it’s a lot more unbelievable that a high school student like her is allowed to live on her own.
Considering that criticism more broadly, you can apply it to other romantic comedy anime like Nagatoro and Uzaki if you really feel like it. But I wouldn’t do that myself. I think the big problem with that “manic pixie dream girl” trope or however you’d like to put it is that it creates an unrealistic character for the usually male lead to interact with, one who’s full of quirkiness and spontaneity. I’ve seen a couple of works that I thought completely fell into that trope, and I was annoyed by it, since the character in question always felt like an alien of some kind rather than a human with understandable motives and thoughts.
That doesn’t describe Hayase Nagatoro or Hana Uzaki, and it doesn’t describe Marin Kitagawa either. Sure, you might say their respective romantic interests lucked out in meeting them. But they all still feel like pretty realistic characters to me with established personalities and motivations I understand. They’re not pure cutesiness (as opposed to cuteness, quite a different thing) and pure quirk.
And thank God, because pure quirk isn’t generally something I’m into even if I do like the Wes Anderson movies I’ve seen. Though from just the trailer, The French Dispatch looks like it might finally take Anderson’s style too far for me. I don’t know, have you seen it? It’s kind of unrelated, but leave a comment or something, why not? Maybe I’m being too hasty with that assumption.
It’s not exactly screaming in the rain on top of a VW bus or however that one scene in Garden State went; this is something you might actually have done once in your life.
This ties into another pretty common criticism of these series from people who dislike them — that they lack very much drama or conflict. Which is exactly part of the point of such series, at least as I see it. If you want a serious romantic drama full of doubt and heartbreak and love triangles, there’s plenty of anime like that for you to check out.
That’s not usually my thing. I can certainly take some drama if it’s done well in a story like this, and I can take a whole lot of it in non-romances. If I’m in the mood for it, I’m happy to see plenty of tragedy and despair piled up for our heroes to take on in the right context. Kaiji is one of my favorite series; that should tell you enough. But when I’m watching a light comedy, I want a light comedy. I’m not looking for a lot of drama and heartbreak and so on when I put on a series like Sono Bisque Doll, and I don’t get it, and I’m perfect happy with that. Certain scenes even felt strangely dreamlike to me, fitting into this approach perfectly, like the above scene of Wakana and Marin at the beach.
You might still argue that such stories lack substance. And yeah, maybe they’re not quite as substantial as stories that successfully take on more dramatic themes. But ice cream and chocolate aren’t substantial either as far as your diet goes, and sometimes you might just want some, especially if it’s as well-made as Sono Bisque Doll is. Continuing this food-related analogy, complaining about a lack of drama or conflict in a show like Sono Bisque Doll seems to me like complaining that an ice cream parlor doesn’t also serve steak or salad. What did you expect?
Though we’ve seen Marin is capable of getting a little jealous, especially when another girl is spending alone time with Wakana even if it’s as innocent as it was in this instance.
Finally, there’s the matter of fanservice. Yeah, again. Seems like this always comes up, and there were more specific compliments and complaints relating to that matter. But for good reason this time, because Sono Bisque Doll actually does prominently feature some, and it was almost entirely of Marin, starting with the second episode in which she visits Wakana at Gojo Dolls to have him take her measurements with some predictable results.
Considering the themes of the series — cosplay and romance — it’s not a big surprise that there’s both dressing and undressing (the latter to some extent anyway) in it. But to be fair, the camera does center on Marin’s, let’s say physical assets a lot, though just in particular scenes. It’s not constant, then, but when you get the fanservice, you get a strong dose of it. And it is pretty damn detailed and well-animated, so you know what they were probably thinking at Cloverworks. You have to make those scenes look good if you’re bothering to put them in your series, right?
Despite being pretty forward about it all, I think the makers were still at least somewhat justified in including these scenes, in part for the same reason I was okay with most of the fanservice scenes in Monogatari: we’re seeing most of the action through the eyes of Wakana, a guy in high school with raging hormones. Since Wakana is noticing and reacting to Marin (pretty dramatically considering how sheltered he’s been up to the start of the story) these scenes don’t come off as gratuitous. Marin also usually realizes when Wakana is reacting in that way, and true to her character, she doesn’t mind and enjoys teasing him a bit, and especially when she discovers her romantic feelings for him later on.
Wakana’s understandable reaction
So the stuff involving Wakana and Marin isn’t “uncomfortable fanservice” in this sense I’d think of it, which certainly does exist — but my definition of that is somewhat narrower than others’, so you might disagree with me. If I’d put anything from Sono Bisque Doll in that category, it would be the first scene involving Juju (her first meeting with Wakana, which opens in a much more blatant and actually gratuitous way. I can’t make an excuse for that one.)
Anyway, I have no idea how many people were putting on Sono Bisque Doll every week specifically for Marin eye candy. What I can say for a fact is that if that’s all the show had to offer, I would have dropped it pretty quickly. That’s not what I watch anime for, and I’m guessing that’s true for the vast majority of us no matter how much people might meme about booba and all that. And though I’ve said this series doesn’t have a lot of “substance” compared to some other series, what substance it does have is well done and coherently put together, namely the show’s central messages that 1) people shouldn’t be shamed for doing what they enjoy and 2) to excel at your art, you have to go out and live life and have experiences. These aren’t new or innovative messages or anything, but they’re well expressed.
And respect to the true MVP of the series, Wakana’s grandpa, who basically tells him to go out and have a good time (and maybe there’s an implied “You and Marin clearly like each other so get started on the road to getting me some great-grandkids eventually because this workshop won’t run itself” message in there as well. Parents and grandparents both are like that, I know too well myself.)
Taking into account just how popular Sono Bisque Doll was last season, I’d bet we’ll get a season two at some point, and I’ll be watching again when that happens. In times like this, binging on that sweet ice cream or chocolate once a week is a serious help, especially when I’m being absolutely crushed by work (and it won’t raise your blood sugar level either, so I recommend it instead of literally eating those actual sweets if you’re trying to choose between these options.) In fact, I could use a second season right now for just that reason — my posting schedule is suffering quite a lot now because of my work schedule.
But that’s life. And if Sono Bisque Doll is escapism, then God bless the manga artist and writer Shinichi Fukuda and the people at Cloverworks responsible for the adaptation for providing 23 minutes more of it a week for a few months.
On that entirely miserable note, I’m back off to the mines now to keep digging, but I’ll be back in a couple of weeks probably — my schedule is crammed full until then otherwise, and I’ll have to put the usual end of month post off to next month now. The next post will very likely be a game review, but it could just as easily be another unhinged raving like I sometimes write. Whatever it is, see you next time.
* Dealing with this English/Japanese title thing in the same way as I did Yuru Camp. I’m not committing to any standard approach as far as that goes, however. Speaking of the series’ title, I’m not sure how you get Sono Bisque Doll from その着せ替え人形, referring specifically to the “bisque” part, which as far as I know is a type of soup made in New England whereas here it’s translated from 着せ替え or the “dress-up” part of the English title. But my Japanese still sucks, so maybe I’m missing something here.