Content Warning: discussion of fatphobia, disordered eating/body dysmorphia, sexual harassment, sexism, fanservice
The Disastrous Life of Saiki K is a hilarious supernatural comedy in which a cast of teenagers tries to live ordinary lives amidst extraordinary shenanigans. The female characters are three-dimensional and compellingly written, often just as expressive, funny and absurd as the boys. Although this potential is often well-utilized, narratives on the show that involve male attraction often sacrifice the depth of the girls, for the sake of sexualized scenes and lazy punchlines.
The protagonist, Saiki, is a psychic, and has a seemingly limitless range of abilities such as telekinesis, telepathy, and psychometry. He wishes to navigate life as someone “normal”, although this goal is often interrupted by the antics of his friends as well as the influence of his psychic powers. The special character who seeks to be ordinary is hardly a new concept, but one of Saiki K’s specialties is satirizing tropes that we’ve seen before. Most of the cast are specifically designed to poke fun at specific genres or storylines, and the female characters are no exception… at least, most of the time.
A Lovable Female Cast
The first female classmate that Saiki K really explores is Chiyo, who is clearly a cheeky dig at the romance genre; she falls in and out of love extremely quickly, but the show makes better use of this trait than simply shaming her for it. She is first introduced in the second episode and has a crush on Saiki—who, as a general rule, is not interested in romantic attachments. Throughout the school day, she orchestrates convoluted plots to garner his attention, and he uses his psychic powers to thwart her. It ends with Chiyo ending up with a different boy, and it’s (temporarily) a happy ending for all involved.
Even characters that could easily have been taken down a lazy, misogynistic route are given genuine depth. Kokomi Teruhashi—another of Saiki’s classmates, and possibly the most prominent female character in the show—is partially characterized by the fact that she is phenomenally, almost supernaturally, beautiful. In public, Teruhashi’s personality appears to align with her angelic appearance—but Saiki, with his telepathy, reveals to us that Teruhashi is in fact a very sharp girl. Intense and ambitious, her constant social performance requires (in our protagonist’s words) an “‘impressive” amount of hard work.
The disconnect between Teruhashi’s public persona and inner monologue is first introduced as a comedic device, but it also adds a lot of depth and emotional resonance to her character. Teruhashi believes that she has to uphold people’s expectations of both outer and inner beauty at all times, to the point of running herself ragged to please others. When this comes to a head with some of the boys in her class, there is something genuinely moving in watching Saiki stand up for her and, more significantly, try to reciprocate the effort that Teruhashi puts into her relationships.
Season two introduces Aiura Mikoto. Like Saiki, she has a wide variety of psychic powers, and her introduction brings a different—and refreshingly compassionate—philosophy to the show, as Aiura believes in using her powers to help others rather than to blend in. Aiura is also both markedly feminine and notably powerful, as the writers deliberately gave her skills that Saiki does not have.
Aiura is very candid, and as such one of the only characters to challenge Saiki’s self-serving tendencies. Despite his attempts to avoid all human connection, the majority of the cast admires him. In fact, Teruhashi is initially attracted to Saiki because he was so disinterested in her, a trope with its own sexist history. As such, having Aiura be his foil and his love interest is significant, as their balance of compassion and pragmatism—and her willingness to call him out—is a healthy and narratively interesting jumping-off point for a relationship.
Overall, Chiyo, Teruhashi, and Aiura are unique, funny characters with just as much depth as the boys. That being said, because these characters frequently play off familiar tropes and punchlines, it becomes especially obvious—and jarring—when the writing instead chooses to play into them.
Conflicting Takes on Harassment
Despite Saiki being framed as a somewhat selfish character, his narration frequently dispenses moral judgment, and the show features multiple plotlines which are supposed to convey to us that he is, at heart, a moral and compassionate person. This especially comes up when the series touches on objectification.
It would be hard to discuss this topic without mentioning Reita Toritsuka, the final psychic added to the cast. Reita can see, and communicate with ghosts, and his intentions—“to see naked girls and win the lottery”—are nowhere near as honorable as Saiki’s, let alone Aiura’s. Through him, the show flips the trope of the “lovable” pervert on its head, having Reita almost universally shunned and isolated because of his misogynistic behavior.
There’s a definite awareness that harassment is bad, and the show calls out objectification when it happens to individual characters. But the writing itself is often guilty of the exact same thing. When Aiura first arrives, the boys react negatively to her appearance: they mutter in disappointment that she is a gyaru, not “modest and innocent” enough for their liking. There is then a close shot of her breasts, to which they chorus “well, those make up for it!”
Meanwhile Saiki’s male friend, Nendo (who is not conventionally attractive) is repeatedly rejected in hyperbolically cruel terms by women, as the screen zooms out of their cleavage. The resolution to this plotline evokes misogynistic cliches, as one of these girls is finally humbled after Nendo heroically saves her from drowning. These scenes which objectify the female cast are relatively infrequent, but they are still very much there, and they undermine things like the show’s rejection of Reita.
Season one’s school-trip episode embodies this conflicted approach to harassment and objectification. At the beach, the boys crowd round the room the girls are changing in. Every main female character in the cast is displayed in her swimsuit, giving the fans their own chance to ogle; even with Saiki’s disappointed narration, it is hard to read the scene as a commentary on the boys’ creepy behavior when the audience is being invited to look through their eyes. To further muddy the waters, Chiyo is upset that the boys do not seem to be as interested in ogling her as her friends, framing the peeping as a positive thing girls should be glad to be subjected to.
In that same episode, two adult men begin harassing Teruhashi. Through her character, the show frequently explores issues such as stalking and harassment, and the scene isn’t played for laughs. We are perhaps supposed to differentiate between “real” harassment towards the girls, and supposedly harmless behavior from their school-age peers—seemingly, without awareness of how closely linked the latter is to the former.
When Chiyo intervenes on her friend’s behalf, the men insult and mock her, adding to her previously established feelings of unattractiveness and insecurity. Kaido, her crush, is enraged by the way the men speak to her and flies to her defence, reinforcing her attachment to him. Chiyo’s insecurity is not unrealistic, and neither is the fact that she is comforted by Kaido’s validation; this scene does, however, raise potential problems with their dynamic that are amplified later on in the show.
Weight and Beauty Image
The show’s handling of Chiyo is hit-or-miss. After the initial happy ending Saiki helps set up at the start of the series, it’s revealed that Chiyo’s new boyfriend is not as perfect as he originally seemed. In fact, she is so dissatisfied that she is considering breaking up with him. Worried that Chiyo will start pursuing him again, Saiki stalks them on a date, using his psychic powers to correct her boyfriend’s mistakes (for example, he replaces a terrible anniversary present with a cute teddy bear). Once again, he deceives Chiyo and meddles in her love life for his own gain, and for comedy’s sake,but the show doesn’t really attempt to justify Saiki’s actions, either.
But in season two, Chiyo gains weight. Saiki decides to use his powers to manipulate her into losing this weight, and even considers it a selfless act when he sends her a mental image of her crush Kaido saying that “he doesn’t like fat girls”. Again, this character arc of Chiyo’s is boxed into notions of attraction and attractiveness. Scenes where she stands up for Teruhashi or stays behind at school for hours to help Aiura find her soulmate prove that she has a lot more to offer than that, but Chiyo-focused episodes focus on her desire for male validation above all else.
Chiyo is so terrified by this vision that she does sit-ups in the park for literal hours, and while Saiki is taken aback he feels no remorse for his actions. When he enters her mind again, it’s a dark, shadowed world where Kaido, sitting on a throne in an almost god-like position, calls her a pig and promises to hold her once she’s human (i.e. thin) again.
The extremity of the scene is hardly strange for such an absurd show, but this arc lacks both the depth and warmth of the show’s usual satire. Typically, the show works in common tropes in order to highlight their absurdity, but this plotline simply reinforces fat-shaming plotlines from other anime. Overall, it just felt like Chiyo had been reduced to an extended fat joke; which, aside from being a lot less original than the show’s usual material, felt uncomfortably disrespectful to both real life plus-size people and her character.
There was no criticism of the wider social pressures or fictional tropes that have made Chiyo so scared of being unattractive—rather, she is presented a few days later drawn in her usual way, with a pink sparkle background to emphasize her weight loss, and admiring comments that she is “even thinner than before.” These moments perpetuate restrictive beauty standards and misogynistic rhetoric—often at the expense of not just the female characters, but the relationships they form.
When a very pretty girl called Rifuta Imu transfers in and attracts attention from the boys, Teruhashi falsely befriends her so she can reinforce her own superiority. It again feels beneath the show’s typically intelligent comedy and puts a damper on the show’s depictions of genuine female friendships, playing into the notion that women consider their relationships with other women to be less valuable than the mere possibility of ones involving men. Even after the initial conflict is resolved, the two continue to compete over Saiki.
Imu receives luxury treatment because of her looks, but it is all still inferior to the treatment Teruhashi gets. This correlation between beauty and special treatment comes up more than once during the show; for example, in another scene, when Saiki visits a shop with Teruhashi, the (adult) shopkeeper is so attracted to her that he offers her ridiculous deals on their items. Saiki then concludes that he would “like to be reborn as a beautiful woman.”
The line felt very reminiscent of the concept of “easy mode” —a belief grounded in the idea that women and girls (particularly beautiful women and girls) are constantly benefitting from being on the receiving end of male attraction. It’s even more ridiculous in the context of Saiki K, as the line is spoken by a character who has literal psychic powers, which could easily be used to get things completely free. Those who perpetuate this idea are apparently oblivious to the far more concerning downsides—or, in more extreme cases, feel that women should be grateful for sexual harassment. The fact that Teruhashi is so frequently stalked, objectified, and harassed in the show makes Saiki’s comment all the more bizarre.
Although I maintain that she is, in many scenes, a layered and evocative character, it cannot be avoided that Teruhashi—like Chiyo—is characterized in such a way that her depth can very quickly be stripped from her. It’s almost remarkable that the show keeps the fundamentals of its female cast so consistent, because when the writers insert the male gaze, their behavior and portrayal are changed drastically.
The girls of The Disastrous Life of Saiki K are complex, layered and fun, and the moments in which they become victims of—as opposed to assets to—the writing don’t change that. And yet, we do lose something with plot arcs that devalue their characters for the sake of “jokes” we’ve all heard before. The show is mostly very refreshing, in terms of both the originality of the comedy and the representation of women in the cast. However, these moments that compromise them in order to center male attraction undoubtedly put a damper on the viewing experience. Whilst it’s still an anime I frequently recommend, it is unfortunate that the male gaze and tired “joke” tropes are prioritized over a cast of such potential.