My Dress-Up Darling – Episode 1

By: Vrai Kaiser January 8, 20220 Comments
A girl looking shocked and a boy looking a panicked against a background of sparkles and roses

Content warning: fanservice

What’s it about? Gojo Wakana has wanted to join the family business of making hina dolls since he was small; but between dedicating himself completely to the craft and being made fun of for liking “girl stuff,” he’s never made any friends. That changes when forthright, energetic Kitagawa Marin catches him using a school sewing machine to make doll clothes—and begs him to use his skills to make her a cosplay costume.

Well, I found where all of Cloverworks’ resources went this season. This is easily the prettiest premiere of the season so far, absolutely bursting with color, charm and a nice balance of grounded boarding and rubber-boned comedy. This has the makings of an exceptional rom-com, with a couple of caveats we’ll get to in a minute.

It helps that our two leads are extremely good kids with immediate chemistry. Wakana is shy and slightly oblivious from years of focusing on his dream to the exclusion of anything else, but he’s also earnest and dedicated, and desperately wants a friend even though he’s afraid of being mocked. On paper, Marin feels like she ought to be a Manic Pixie Dream Girl—she’s pretty, quirky, and she sweeps into our protagonist’s sheltered world to open it up—but in practice she feels like an actual (if slightly exaggerated) high-schooler who’s passionate about her fandoms and sweetly stubborn about her beliefs.

Marin in a camera lens blushing and looking ecstatic

That the two come together not because they share a common hobby but because they love how passionately the other person cares about their interests is downright adorable, and a smart way to make sure that the two leads can learn from each other without this turning into a story about our female lead being impressed by how quickly her love interest surpasses her at her own hobby. It’s also just cute as hell and bound to be familiar for anyone who’s ever felt soft and fuzzy listening to a loved one share something important to them. Tomita Yoriko’s adaptive script packs a lot of character beats into 20 minutes, while relative newcomer director Shinohara Keisuke (who directed one of those promising early episodes of Wonder Egg Priority) conveys a lot using character sightlines and occasional shoujo-style inserts.

The make-or-break-it thing for prospective viewers is going to be that this series is horny—as you might have been able to guess from the episode-ending punchline that Marin’s dream cosplay comes from a BDSM eroge. Like, “the manga comes wrapped in plastic” horny. And the fact that it centers around high schoolers might understandably be a deal-breaker for some, regardless of any other factors. That’s completely understandable! I’m not entirely sure where I fall on it myself, having dipped my toe into the first three or so volumes of the manga. There are panty shots, y’all. Many panty shots. And at least one “oh no I walked in on you in the bath!” moment that made me almost drop the thing right there. And yet, I’m still here.

Wakana thinking about his hours sitting at home painting. subititle: creating hina dolls and honing my craft

It may be that the series has a talent for predominantly (if not always) making its horniness character-based. It feels less like the “objective” camera is being shoved down a character’s shirt for the audience to ogle and more that Wakana finds Marin attractive, so his eyes are drawn to the hem of her skirt and her cleavage at certain moments. The premiere is also fairly good about translating this, by-and-large animating Marin in a non-sexualized way outside of those moments that are meant to be intimate—which ideally also means the fanservice is contextual rather than pervasive. At its most successful, it reminds me of the hugely underrated Yamada’s First Time. And while being written by a woman doesn’t automatically mean a series will be good to its female characters (internalized misogyny is a helluva drug), in this case it shows enough knowledge of bodies and intimacy that things stand a chance of coming across as sensual rather than drawing weirdly-proportioned plastic dolls banging against each other.

Still, it’s not a perfect setup. This is still a one-way gaze centered on Marin and the act of looking and desiring rather than actual intimacy, and while Marin is confident and comfortable in her body it doesn’t entirely avoid embarrassment-based sexualization. The other major thing to flag for later is the fact that one of Marin’s cosplays shown during the opening theme has brown skin, which suggests that skin-darkening might come up as a future plot element. Here is a hint about skin-darkening for cosplay: don’t do it! Just don’t!

Marin with darker skin and a white bikini happily swinging Wakana around by the arms
I am on my knees BEGGING you not to do this to these good kids, show

If those two not-insignificant hurdles sound like something you can work with, this is one to watch. The characters are great, the visuals are lovely, and it has a nice undercurrent of celebrating gender-nonconforming attitudes alongside its focus on fannish passion. I’m not sure if I’ll make it through the whole series (being able to flip past a panty shot on the page isn’t the same as having to watch it at a set pace onscreen, after all), but this is the first premiere all season that I’ve actually managed to feel excited about.

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