SPOILERS: Up to episode 9 of the anime and chapter 36 of the manga Kiss Him, Not Me!
I caught up with Kiss Him, Not Me over the last few days because I heard that episode 8 had an Incident of Feminist Interest, which turned out to be sexual assault by an effectively unconscious person. When mentioned in last week’s AniFemTalk post, our community had a lot to say about the way sexuality, boundaries and consent were presented (thank you for your insights, commenters!), so I had to see for myself. Once you read this article you should definitely check out their thoughts, which cover a broader range of subjects than I raise here.
In many ways, Kiss Him, Not Me is a perfect series for a feminist blog to explore: it does some things very well, some things very badly and inspires strong, mixed feelings. The response to episode 8 is no exception, and not all commenters will agree with my position here. That’s good. This is a discourse post, and the point is to host a constructive, interesting conversation from multiple points of view. Whether you agree or disagree, please come to the comments and tell me why!
To catch you up on the premise, you can read my episode 1 review, where I described the show as “fundamentally a comedy about how awful people can be to each other”. While it has now proven itself to be doing something more sophisticated than that, I stand by another statement I made in that review: “there are seeds here for trope subversion and otome game satire, but… it could go either way.”
Nine episodes and 42 chapters in, that’s still how I feel. Kiss Him, Not Me subverts some shojo tropes and satirises some aspects of otome games, but never fully commits to being truly subversive. This could be as a result of the magazine it is serialised in, Bessatsu Friend (other Bessatsu Friend manga: Mars, Peach Girl, The Wallflower) or a personal decision by the author to hint at controversial topics without fully exploring them.
This isn’t always a bad thing. One of the most interesting moves Kiss Him, Not Me has made is to include a range of sexual and romantic orientations with neither labels nor justification. For example, I believe asexual and aromantic viewers could find a lot to identify with in main character Kae Serinuma.
This is not a story of a formerly unattractive otaku simply never being given the chance to fall in love before; Kae makes a point in the manga of saying that her otaku friends all have boyfriends but she has never been interested. She has men and women she likes very much asking her to date them, but is only ever shown to be unhappy about the prospect of being romantically involved with any of them, or anyone at all, let alone physically intimate.
Her love interests range from a potentially asexual man to a probable lesbian, each with different physical types and temperaments, holding varying romantic attitudes and levels of respect for Kae’s personality, hobbies and looks when she is fat. None of these representations – or any kind of representation in Kiss Him, Not Me – is 100% positive, but portraying a range of romantic and sexual responses invites more interesting discussion than you might expect from a manga with the premise “people compete to win a woman”.
There are two suitors who are pretty typical love interests for a shojo manga: close friends Yusuke Igarashi and Nozomu Nanashima, the classmates Kae ships so enthusiastically before she gets to know them (and after, because Kae may be ace/aro but she’s still a hardcore fujoshi). As far as we can tell, both are heterosexual, heteroromantic and only interested in Kae after she loses weight.
Nanashima is introduced to us by crashing into Kae in PE class and sending her to the nurse’s office, while Igarashi’s introduction is getting Nanashima to reluctantly and half-heartedly apologise for that. Just as Igarashi is considerate of Kae both before and after her transformation, Nanashima is rude to her both before and after. Igarashi’s first instinct is to protect her; Nanashima’s is to mock her. In a different story, one where the woman was actually interested in ending up with a man, this would be the central love triangle.
When the Incident of Feminist Interest of episode 8 turned out to be sexual assault, it shouldn’t have been surprising that brash, obnoxious Nanashima was the perpetrator. However, from a real-world perspective, Igarashi raises far more red flags than Nanashima does. Nanashima has some awful traits, but they are all on show while his best qualities are largely hidden (the playful, caring side that comes out with his little sister) or so obvious they are presented as nothing special (the ease with which he builds relationships with other people, particularly the young, prickly and previously friendless Shinomiya).
By contrast, Igarashi’s best traits are largely on show and his worst traits are insidious. Kiss Him, Not Me is more willing to use Nanashima to make a point about sexual assault than Igarashi, even though ignoring personal boundaries in order to make Kae uncomfortable is Igarashi’s standard approach to their relationship.
While not necessarily able to articulate it completely, Kae already understands her suitors well. This is demonstrated in chapter 22 of the manga when all her potential partners confess their feelings to her and she goes on a date with each of them to decide once and for all who to choose.
On a date with Nanashima to a cute character theme park, Kae thinks, “It was a little awkward at first, but once he loosened up, he really showed me a good time. As he always does! It was so much fun!” When they come across a lost little girl, Kae is surprised when Nanashima takes charge of the situation, making the girl laugh until she finds her mother. “Wow,” she thinks. “This is a side of him I never expected him to have…”
Of Igarashi, she reflects, “He’s engaging in conversation, he’s very considerate and treats me very kindly… He’s incredibly good-humoured… and… and then… at times… I get extremely embarrassed.” The last part is in response to Igarashi telling her “To me, you’re so beautiful,” when they are alone in a ferris wheel carriage.
From blunt, straightforward Nanashima, such a statement would be presented as him losing control, so overcome by her beauty that he couldn’t help but give her a rare compliment from the heart. From Igarashi this is not a sign of losing control but taking control – specifically, taking control from Kae. This is not the first time he has said or done something he knew would make her uncomfortable while in a private place where Kae can’t escape. It’s not even the second, nor the third.
Kiss Him, Not Me (chapters 2, 6 and 12)
From their earliest interactions after Kae loses weight, Igarashi has a two-pronged pattern: on the one hand to grab Kae and forcibly drag her somewhere private to isolate her from other people, and on the other to push her outside her comfort zone for emotional and physical contact when they are in private then eventually dial it back to a level she can accept.
Not a level she has initiated. Not a level she is happy with. Just a level she can tolerate.
It is as if he has calculated what he needs to do to achieve “progress” with her, forcing her two steps forward then looking like the decent, generous guy who is willing to take one step back – even though Kae didn’t want to take any steps forward to begin with.
He even formalises this process later, after she tells him that the reason she gets so flustered when he leans in or takes her hand is that she’s not used to being so physically close to people. He tells her, “Get used to it,” (it is translated more gently in the manga as “Let’s get you used to it”, but the anime keeps the literal translation) then arranges daily sessions to do just that.
They start with a handshake then make the touch less formal and more like hand-holding until she panics, at which point he downgrades it to a handshake again. With nothing in his internal monologue suggesting any of this is for her benefit, the most natural conclusion is that he is trying to force her to become acclimatised to increasing levels of touch so that he can someday have sex with her without feeling bad about it. It’s selfish, manipulative behaviour – replicated by people all over the world every day.
Like so many real people, Igarashi is an unconscious participant of rape culture, normalising the lower level invasions of personal space such as grabbing Kae’s arm, holding her hand or placing her hand on his body, all without warning or permission. He technically checks in with her to elicit consent, but in such a way as to corner Kae into either giving him the go-ahead or risking being impolite to someone who otherwise treats her kindly. There is a big gap between “Is this okay?” or “How is this for you?” and “Do you dislike this?” and Igarashi always opts for the latter.
When Kae stammers that no, she doesn’t dislike it exactly, he takes it as permission to continue or even increase the intensity of his actions – even though she never initiates this contact with him and her body language and facial expressions are always resistant and uncomfortable.
This all suggests that she only says it is fine to spare his feelings, allow him to save face or prevent falling into an even more awkward conversation with someone who clearly understands how to steer these social situations better than she does. It’s a textbook example of the difference between technical consent and enthusiastic consent.
These people are not incapable of reading these signs and Kae is not being unclear or giving mixed messages. Mutsumi in particular frequently reads her non-verbal cues and steps in when Kae is being overwhelmed, and when Nanashima knows he has unintentionally crossed a line with her he is perfectly capable of recognising her new discomfort around him and giving her more space without prompting.
Kae’s responses are not the problem. Like too many real people, Igarashi just has no interest in reading these signs or in structuring his relationship with Kae to let her lead the way, because respecting Kae’s wish not to be touched makes it impossible for him to get the sexual relationship with her that he ultimately wants.
He is a very realistic character, representing a very real kind of harmful relationship for young women in particular – but his actions are not criticised within the text. As always, Kiss Him, Not Me sets up what could be a really worthwhile point to make, then stops short of making it.
This is in stark contrast to the way Nanashima’s sexual assault of Kae is handled. (Warning: no images, but detailed description to follow.) In this scene, an ill Nanashima is hallucinating in his bedroom, imagining a scene in which Kae says she is pleased his room is so small as it means they can be closer together. In this fever dream, he leans in for a consensual kiss – and in the real world, Kae comes back into his room at just that moment.
Still hallucinating, Nanashima throws her down on his bed, leaning over her and pinning her down by the wrist, telling her he likes her then kissing her. She knows him well enough to immediately assume that he is half asleep and tries to wake him up or push him off, but when her own efforts fail and he holds her tighter she screams.
Igarashi shows up and punches Nanashima to get him away from Kae, who runs out of Nanashima’s home. Igarashi follows her and grabs her arm, as is his usual habit, only this time Kae cries out and yanks her arm back. She looks scared, apologises, then runs home.
Igarashi is furious that the “progress” he has been making with Kae through their handshake lessons has been undone by Nanashima, and that she is in fact even less accommodating to his touch than before; this is made clearer in the manga, as he looks at his hand while thinking, “This is a huge step back.”
However, grabbing Kae’s arm has always been wrong of him since he first did it in chapter two. The incident with Nanashima just put her enough on edge that her politeness filters fell away in that moment as fear took over.
Rather than taking this opportunity to establish that he should never have grabbed her though, that crossing her personal boundaries has always been a bad thing to do, her resistance to being grabbed is presented as Nanashima’s fault for attacking her.
The aftermath of the assault is handled better than in many shojo romances, where the forced kiss is a trope which usually results in the girl recognising some feelings for the man who kissed her. In Kiss Him, Not Me, there are three things which elevate this portrayal of sexual assault.
Firstly, Kae notes that the non-consensual interactions she enjoys so much in BL manga are actually terrifying in real life. She doesn’t labour or even explore the point, but this is a serialised story in a magazine targeting young women; just mentioning this fact could be thought-provoking enough for some readers to question whether they have internalised shojo or BL’s typical romanticisation of such interactions.
Secondly, when she and Nanashima do speak again, the incident has clearly left her shaken. She keeps her distance from him and says, “I know you were acting weird before ’cause of your fever… and you apologised, so… That’s behind us. I understand. But… I’m… still scared…” The effects of the assault do not immediately disappear, and are not affected by the fact that she does not blame Nanashima for his actions.
It is natural for her to be wary – even in his innocent daydream, how is pinning someone down in his bedroom in any way appropriate for a first kiss? This is probably how most women would respond in being confronted with a close male friend revealing that they have an unconscious dangerous side, like witnessing them get drunk for the first time and realising it makes them violent.
Thirdly, Nanashima both assumes that she would be nervous around him and respects her wishes. When she tells him she doesn’t bear a grudge but is still afraid of him he says, “Yeah… I know. That’s only natural.”
Kae is the one to re-initiate physical contact between them later in the chapter/episode, reaching out her hand to help him up during the show they are performing in. He takes it, then drops it, apologising, only for her to grab his hand again and help him up. Nanashima gives her complete control to reset the pace and the terms of their relationship and is rewarded by a relatively fast re-connection after a traumatic event.
Yes, he does go to her house to try to persuade her to do the show, but only after realising how much his sister is looking forward to it; before this, he considers it but dismisses the idea, saying he has no right to see her in person. In addition, part of the reason he gives for doing this it that Kae has worked hard to be able to perform in the show, and he doesn’t want her hard work wasted because of what he did. Igarashi at no point gives the impression that any of his contact with Kae is for her benefit, only his.
Yes, it is unfair of Nanashima to use his sister as a way to guilt Kae into showing up, but unlike Igarashi phrasing difficult questions requiring immediate answers when they are alone and Kae is flustered, Nanashima makes his apologies and requests from a distance, then backs off completely, giving her time and freedom to choose how to proceed. We also know that he dotes on his sister and genuinely cares about the franchise he and Kae are both working in, so his motivations are not simply about recovering lost ground in the path to a potential relationship.
This isn’t a perfect representation of the consequences of sexual assault, but it is treated with gravity and respect in a way that is all too rare in shojo romance (although it is unfortunately forgotten completely in subsequent episodes and chapters, far too neat a resolution). Igarashi’s behaviour, meanwhile, goes so far unchecked and is presented as romantic and caring.
Just as there is a gap between Kae’s BL manga fantasies and her fear of the same situation in reality, so we should acknowledge that real people like Igarashi are not sweet or romantic but selfish, entitled and controlling. His actions are the kinds of early stage red flags which can build into fully-fledged abusive relationships between adults.
However, all of that is specifically in relation to the incident of episode 8/chapters 28-9. The fact is that people like Nanashima make toxic boyfriends too, insisting that women they like should maintain a certain physical appearance in order to be desirable to them.
Igarashi’s manipulative side is abhorrent, but he is also the only one of Kae’s new suitors (i.e. not Mutsumi or Shima, who like Kae whether she is fat or thin) who falls for her so deeply that he no longer cares about her weight. None of the characters in Kiss Him, Not Me is all good or all bad, something I generally consider a strong point for any series, but Igarashi is getting a free pass where a truly subversive text would have criticised his actions by now.