Ever since I caught up on the irreverent romantic comedy anime, Kaguya Sama: Love Is War, I’ve been hellbent on finding a lovey-dovey anime to fill the heart-shaped hole it’s left on my watchlist. Just when I was beginning to lose hope that I’d ever find a romantic show, in came Tomo-Chan Is a Girl. After watching its first two episodes, I wager Tomo-Chan Is a Girl! is an early contender for romance anime of the year because it doesn’t rely on convoluted harem plotlines, instead choosing to explore how antiquated gender norms get in the way of love.
Tomo-Chan Is a Girl, created by mangaka Fumita Yanagida, follows the romantic misadventures of a tomboy named Tomo Aizawa as she attempts to get her childhood friend, Jun Kubota, to recognize her feminine side and stop treating her like one of the guys. I watched the first two episodes of Tomo-Chan via a screener, and it’s scheduled to premiere today on Crunchyroll in both Japanese with subtitles and in English.
After watching flashbacks in Tomo-Chan’s first episode, I can’t blame our titular heroine for catching feelings for her bestie considering how inseparable they were since middle school. Outside of their shared interest in martial arts deepening their bond, the boy would wait outside of Tomo’s house every morning to walk to school. That’s some certified loverboy behavior that would make anyone’s heart flutter. But when Tomo finally musters up the courage to explicitly confess her love to Jun, she’s promptly flung into the friend zone.
Turns out, Jun’s rejection of Tomo’s feelings wasn’t because he didn’t feel the same way but because he sees her as one of the boys. When they were in middle school, Jun didn’t even know Tomo was a girl because of how well she blended in with the other schoolboys. Instead of having flowing long locks like her classmates, Tomo sported a short mullet hairstyle. Whenever they’d talk, Tomo’s diction was just as gruff and casual as the rest of the muddy boys in the sandbox. While this comedy of errors provides a good balance to the two’s slow-burn romance, the show never lets its jokes overshadow the pain Tomo feels when she tries to act more girly to impress Jun. Tomo doesn’t suffer alone, either. Jun gets flustered whenever he notices that Tomo is a lovestruck girl who’s dying to have her feelings reciprocated. Tomo and Jun’s love story is something I’ve been dying to experience from modern romantic comedies: a simple yet relatable romantic storyline where its characters aren’t caricatures of tired harem anime tropes.
Harem anime center on a protagonist, typically a dude, who is either pursuing, avoiding, or oblivious to the romantic feelings that three or more female characters with one defining personality trait have for him. If you’ve seen one of them, you’ve seen ‘em all.
A common thread among popular modern romantic comedies like Quintessential Quintuplets, Couple of Cuckoos, and Rent-A-Girlfriend is that they all have wacky premises that rely on shock and awe, similar to what you’d expect out of reality TV. While this type of car crash-like drama anime tends to land trashy harem anime in the “so bad it’s good” category, I never feel fulfilled when I finish them. If anything, the countless hours I spent watching these shows weren’t out of a genuine interest in their romantic storylines, and more like a thoughtless routine because I need something to watch.
After a while, watching these kinds of rom-com anime felt hollow, as if they were empty calories from a bunch of impulse-purchased frosted sugar cookies. Somewhere in modern romcom’s attempt to entice audiences with wacky premises, the genre forgot how to write a tantalizing story between two believable characters. In contrast to most modern rom-com anime, Tomo-chan’s love story is grounded on something painfully relatable: not being seen the way you want to by the person closest to you.
In “Only a Joke Can Save Us: A Theory of Comedy,” American author Todd McGowan wrote that comedy is when “we are surprised by a conjunction of lack and excess.” Because most popular romcom anime lean heavily on harem tropes, modern anime is often relegated to only exploring themes such as characters being in elaborate love triangles Tomo-chan, meanwhile, has substance that doesn’t require a complicated setup. By relying on a more straightforward premise, Tomo-Chan can dive more deeply into complicated subjects like rigid gender norms and how they affect romantic love. Better yet, Tomo-Chan accomplishes this thematic feat without punching down.
While I’m unsure how the rest of the show will pan out, one aspect of the show that assured me it wouldn’t become derivative was the genuine care and attentiveness of its supporting cast, particularly, Tomo’s steely-eyed female friend, Misuzu Gundou.
Typically an outside character in rom-com anime serves as a pseudo-villain to the romantic progress of its titular characters by placing them in uncomfortable situations to ruin their progress. While these characters are annoying to watch by how mean-spirited their romantic subterfuge affects its main characters, their antics tend to inversely strengthen the bonds between them. To my surprise, Misuzu’s plotting and teasing of Tomo never come from a place of spite, but from goodwill. Misuzu actually wants Jun and Tomo to come together. Misuzu, like the audience, sees through Jun and Tomo’s clumsiness and pinpoints their blossoming romantic attraction. Instead of rubbing it in their faces, Misuzu gently nudges them in the right direction without overstepping their boundaries whenever they misinterpret each other’s words or actions.
Tomo-Chan is a refreshing anime because its situational romantic humor never diminishes its exploration of how toxic masculinity plays an integral part in its main character’s growing romance. More anime should follow suit.