Tetsuo Takahashi is a biology teacher with a professional interest and personal fascination with demi-humans, like vampires, succubi or head-carrying dullahan. Having never met a single one, he ends up meeting four at once as three demi-human freshman students and one new teacher show up at the high school he works in.
Finally. An actual recommendation. Not only did I thoroughly enjoy watching this one, it also has feminist merit! (Enjoy the feeling while it lasts, this may be it for a few months.)
SPOILERS: General discussion of the entire episode (best to watch the episode then come back to this review!)
The show establishes demi-human status as an allegory for disability early on, giving a glimpse into government support systems set up for those disadvantaged by their particular demi-human qualities.
Throughout the show we see the kinds of disadvantages they mean. The new teacher, Satou-sensei, is late to work because she ended up in a crowded carriage and other passengers presumably caused problems responding to her succubus nature. Outgoing vampire Hikari suffers in direct sunlight, but doesn’t want to cause problems for her classmates by asking that the curtains be drawn, so simply retreats to darker, cooler places during breaks. Dullahan Machi, who carries her head in her arms, must walk a long way to school because using public transport is too dangerous for her.
The show also addresses the less obvious social challenges these women face. Machi is talking with two classmates when she casually mentions that it’s impossible for her to use crowded public transport during commuter hours. “You know, with the way I’m built and all.” One of her classmates instantly looks awkward and turns desperately to the other classmate, who changes the subject to a funny video. Neither knows how to respond to Machi’s disadvantages being directly brought into conversation, even by Machi herself, even on a completely practical and relevant topic.
However, later on Hikari asks her if it isn’t inconvenient to carry her head around, shocking their listening classmates with her directness. Machi looks surprised, but smiles and says she’s used to it. Hikari springboards into a conversation about the disadvantages she faces and says she completely understands Machi’s situation – not precisely true, but she understands enough to know that Machi isn’t offended by her questions. While her classmates had just sat with her at her desk, Hikari takes her around the school and suggests they go out to a cafe together.
Personal note: I have definitely been that classmate only bringing up conversation topics about things I know we have in common and glossing over suggestions that the marginalised person I’m speaking to is different in any way. It comes from a place of good intentions, the wish to connect on an equal footing, and this anime doesn’t present it as anything different. However, this tendency is as misguided as ‘colour-blindness‘ is in discussions around race, and as Machi accepts the change in conversation with a strained laugh we understand that she is a little saddened by her classmates’ response.
I would still never ask questions out of nowhere myself, marginalised people are under no obligation to educate others. But if a marginalised person brings up their own specific struggles in conversation, denying them the space to continue discussing it is tantamount to silencing. For a cute anime about high school monster girls to address this in episode one is impressive.
On a similar note from a different perspective, new teacher Satou-sensei stands in front of her new colleagues and immediately outs herself as a demi-human. This is presumably to save coming up with an excuse to wear tracksuits despite being a maths teacher and to avoid touching or getting too close to people. Hopefully we will get some insight in future episodes about what she’s gone through to reach this point; she could probably ‘pass’ as human and attribute her demi-human qualities to another cause, but chooses not to.
Passing is something I hope they do bring up at some point; it’s sweet of Hikari to tell Machi that she completely understands her situation, but not true. Takahashi-sensei doesn’t pick up on Hikari being a vampire until she tells him, but can’t stop himself looking shocked or crying out when he sees Machi’s body with blue flame shooting out of the neck. As with ‘disabled’, ‘demi-human’ is a big category covering many different types of people with very different needs. Those who are not visibly different have a very different experience to those who couldn’t hide it even if they tried.
One character they could have explored this with is the ‘yuki-onna’ (snow woman), as yet not introduced but shown briefly after she has collapsed from heat exhaustion. She mumbles, “I’m a yuki-onna, I’ll be okay,” and Hikari later talks about how much she likes to be close to her because her cold body feels good. Her identity is never a secret. It’s a shame they didn’t use her character to talk about how being able to hide her demi-human nature changes her experience.
Personal note: as a mixed race POC this is a topic particularly close to my heart. I don’t pass as white, but some of my friends and relatives with the same ethnic background do. Some recognise the privilege this brings them, and some resent it, feeling that a valuable part of their identity has been robbed. It puts them into awkward conversations with people expressing racist views or making racist jokes, and means they question their place in anti-racist activism.
I’m not criticising Interviews with Monster Girls for not including this discussion, but given how skilfully they’ve handled the topic of marginalisation in just a single episode, I’m a little sad that it seems they’ve cut themselves off from exploring as rich a concept as passing in the future.
It’s going to be particularly interesting to see how Satou-sensei develops, as she articulates internalised victim blaming statements in episode one. Her succubus nature is a Chekhov’s gun, and how they handle it going off will be make or break for this series. Will the message be that she should have done more than wear baggy clothes and discourage physical closeness with people around her? Or will it be that whoever is affected should have done more to respect the boundaries she put up? Based on this first episode I’m optimistic that she won’t be blamed for other people’s actions outside her control, but time will tell.
Elsewhere, Hikari articulates statements about assault representing entirely the opposite viewpoint. Takahashi-sensei asks if she’s ever tempted to bite anyone, and she says yes without hesitation. We see in her imagination her eyes red with blood lust as she pulls back a girl’s shirt and leans in to bite her – finishing with a matter-of-fact “I don’t do it, though, since she’d hate me.”
I was actually overwhelmed at this point. Did this cute high school monster girl anime really just address sexual assault from a feminist perspective in such a simple, down-to-earth way? Yes, yes it did. And so, after a terrible season of anti-feminist scenes, characters and premises, my faith in anime returned.
By far the most problematic thing about this show is Takahashi. However, I’m giving the benefit of the doubt and assuming (for now) that he’s supposed to be.
First off, his interest in demi-humans raises all sorts of red flags for me. As someone who has spent years being called “exotic”, being fetishised by complete strangers and told that I should be grateful for such ‘positive’ interest in my background, his “I actually love demi-humans” despite never having met demi-humans before, and his intention to write a thesis about demi-humans just so he could interview them, rings all sorts of alarm bells. I don’t doubt that disabled people are fetishised in a similar way to brown people, and I would be very interested to know if disabled viewers had the same response I did.
Secondly, telling Hikari that he thinks her private thoughts sound “erotic” is completely unacceptable. It’s also bad interviewing; by all means ask questions like “Do you ever want to suck the blood of the opposite sex?” which she seems perfectly comfortable answering, but he should have kept his conclusions about her sexuality to himself. Instead, an uncomfortable 15-year-old is alone is her male teacher’s office explaining that she has sadistic thoughts she doesn’t want to act on.
Vampirism has always been a metaphor for sexuality, and people figuring out their sexuality is always an interesting topic. Hikari’s thoughts on this are somewhat muddled and vague because there’s so much she hasn’t experienced yet, but when Takahashi makes that connection she doesn’t object to it. Before Hikari returns to class, her eyes turn red as she looks at Takahashi’s neck.
There are allusions to queerness and potential attraction to her teacher, plausible angles from which to approach a teenage character’s development. There is a chance that this show could really explore sexuality in a meaningful way through this metaphor. However, Takahashi should not have been the one to make that connection out loud while alone with his student.
What saves that scene is a) that he remembers she’s at “that age” and apologises for asking her insensitive things, and b) that Hikari shifts the power dynamic back so she feels more in control and throws his “That seems a bit erotic” line back at him before she leaves. Hikari is a fantastic character, cheerful and assertive, and it’s unpleasant to see her embarrassed by Takahashi asking such personal questions. I was pleased when she rebalanced the power dynamic by the end of the scene.
The literal translation of the show’s title is “Demi-chan wants to talk” – this show understands that even though Takahashi is often the point-of-view character, the demi-human women’s wishes and experiences must be centred. Takahashi wants to talk to them, but that’s not as important as the fact that they want to talk about their experiences.
Takahashi seems like a stand-in for every well-meaning-but-problematic guy a marginalised person will have encountered. One scene early on shows Hikari correcting his “outdated” terminology and tells him that younger demi-human girls have claimed their own term, the cuter “demi” (a blessing for anyone who has seen the distinctly less cute Ajin). In another scene, he tries to speak to Satou-sensei only for her to tell him that she’s put up personal boundaries for a reason and he’s causing her problems by trying to overstep them.
Perhaps the most significant plot development to me so far is that he doesn’t get to talk to Satou-sensei. Not this episode. She tells him that he’s causing her problems, he backs off, that’s the end of it. The only demi-human he approaches for an interview is Hikari, and he does so after they’ve spoken a few times and with plenty of assurances that it’s completely her decision to talk to him or not. It seems like a small thing, but just complying with the wishes of a female coworker is rare enough that it earns Takahashi benefit of the doubt.
He’s going to need it – Machi sending him a note at the end of the episode is framed in the way sending a love letter would be framed, and his touch makes her blush. There’s potential for that to be a troubling subplot, but crushes on teachers happen. Marginalised people having crushes on those who acknowledge their marginalisation and continue to treat them well is something that happens. As long as he doesn’t reciprocate any of this treatment it will be fine.
Personal note: Again, relating to this through race, but something about Hikari’s delight when Takahashi confirms he is happy to have met her really struck a chord in me. Like many, I’ve internalised white beauty ideals, and on one occasion a guy I liked saying he wasn’t into that ideal was enough to reduce me to tears of relief. That’ll sound ridiculous to some of you, relatable to others.
It’s a very conflicted response, especially for a feminist, but as a POC this has been something of a constant struggle in my personal life. You don’t want to fetishise yourself, but you do want people who say they like you to be interested in your differences, not just tolerant of them. It’s an extremely challenging line to walk, especially when you’re young, and it’s very easy to confuse someone else’s fascination with romantic interest. There’s the potential for that kind of dynamic here, in both Machi and Hikari’s responses to Takahashi, and I just hope the writers handle with care.
I’m relating to this through race, but Interviews with Monster Girls has set up multiple angles for viewers from different backgrounds to identify with. Different aspects will resonate with different people, and I look forward to input from people who have been able to relate to this show in a different way.
Even if you ignore everything I’ve said above about merit and marginalisation though, it’s still a well-told story with well-rounded female characters who are not sexualised. I can enthusiastically recommend this show with only minor caveats, especially in what has been a soul-destroying season for me so far. Watch this show! (And if you’re a disabled, queer or otherwise marginalised person who finds this show speaking to you, please keep watching and pitch me when you have something to share!)
Read the ANN Preview Guide review.
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