Rent-a-Girlfriend – Episode 1

By: Alex Henderson July 11, 20200 Comments
A smiling girl at a cafe booth

What’s it about? Deliriously lonely after being dumped by his first ever girlfriend, twenty-year-old Kinoshita Kazuya spontaneously downloads the app Diamond, where you can pay for dates with a girl of your choice. The fake dating routine threatens to extend beyond the paid time slot, however, when he and his rented girlfriend are mistaken for a real couple by their respective grandmothers.

“Shenanigans,” with a capital S, seems to be the name of the game in this premiere. There are gossipy grandmas. There is slapstick comedy. There is the sort of improvised corny cuteness that you would only find under the banner of the fake dating trope. There is a scene where our love interests—who of course, don’t actually love each other, don’t be ridiculous—have to suddenly hide and thus they end up squashed together in a compromising position. Because of course they do. Right out the gate, Rent-a-Girlfriend seems to be a comedy of errors with a horny streak… but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have anything meaningful to say, necessarily.

I can feel in my bones already that this might be one for the “It’s Complicated” pile, in the seasonal roundup and going forward. The show’s physical comedy employs a fair bit of the “girl smacks boy, therefore it is funny” double standard, and the premise could be considered shaky ground for a romantic arc. That said, the power dynamic between the two leads, Kazuya and his rented GF Chizuru, is so far oddly and satisfyingly balanced (aside from the “girl kicks boy” slapstick), and there is a potentially really interesting undercurrent of character development and social themes amidst the corny comedy.

Insert frame of a flustered boy at the sight of the heroine. subtitle: That's an act! It's all an act!

I expect for many of our readers, the show’s appeal may live or die on how you feel about Kazuya as a character. He swings towards the “lovable loser” type so common to rom-coms, but I’d argue that the framing of the show is very much calling for his improvement rather than glorifying his slobbishness or immaturity. Initially, he hardly comes off as a feminist protagonist—in fact, he says some pretty gross and sexist stuff at the beginning. But he undergoes a whole mini-arc in the first episode, starting in a somewhat vicious place emotionally, and ending with him taking a hearty sip of Respect Women Juice.

After his date with Chizuru, he is crushed with disillusionment when he goes to leave a rating, and, of course, is forced to realize that she was being so sweet to him because she was performing a paid service. His heartbreak over his ex-girlfriend, his loneliness, and a hearty dash of ingrained misogyny, compound and prompt him towards some cartoonishly immature slut-shaming. What do you mean, she held hands with all those other guys too? With… with the fingers interlaced?! The harlot!!

Kazuya’s anger is played up as being ridiculous, however, and it isn’t long before he gets called out on this view. On their second date—which he buys so he can “give her a piece of his mind”—Chizuru pulls Kazuya aside and breaks character, demanding to know why he keeps scowling and muttering about all this being fake. He paid her for to be his cute girlfriend for an allotted time, and she provided that service. She’s a human being just trying to do her job, and she’s not being paid to put up with this kind of BS. Kazuya hears her out, and—get this—apologizes to her by the time the episode is done.

Close-up of Chizuru shouting. subtitle: I'm your rental girlfriend! This is just how it works!

Maybe that’s a low bar, but this direct acknowledgement and instant improvement re: a male character’s misogynistic bias was refreshing to see. That being said, tolerance for this sort of thing may vary from viewer to viewer. And of course the series could veer in many different directions as it continues and the Shenanigans increase.

It also remains to be seen how deeply the series will delve into this, but it’s at least a potential site for discussion about mainstream attitudes to sex work. There is no sexual activity in the rental girlfriend contract (perhaps why holding hands felt so scandalous to Kazuya—it’s as far as they can go), but there’s obviously a lot of crossover in terms of the reception Chizuru and her fellow contractors must face.

It’s a fraught topic that I don’t, at current, feel qualified to comment on, except to say that Chizuru so far has been treated with due respect by the narrative. She is an adult with her own agency as a character, visible layers to her personality, and motivations and a life outside of Kazuya’s story. She could be a step in positive representation of a demographic that’s usually quite maligned. But it’s probably too early (and one step too removed) to make that call, so we shall have to watch this space.

long shot of Chizuru telling at Kazaya seemingly having just hit him. Subtitle: Could you please not drag me into you embarrassingly self-absorbed soliloquy!

Fake dating, multiple personas, potential love quadrangles, and of course the matchmaker quest to get Kazuya a girlfriend who he can introduce to his grandmother for real… it all sounds like a recipe for disaster, in the most entertaining way possible. If this style of humor is not your thing, I’d probably advise you to give this one a miss. But at this stage, at least, there seems plenty of promise for Rent-a-Girlfriend to develop into a zany series with some heart to it. There’s also the potential that it could trip and fall on its face, of course, but I’ll be sticking around for at least another two episodes to see.

Are the grandmas the best characters in the show so far? Yes or yes? Discuss below.

About the Author : Alex Henderson

Alex Henderson is a writer and managing editor at Anime Feminist. They completed a doctoral thesis on queer representation in young adult genre fiction in 2023. Their short fiction has been published in anthologies and zines, their scholarly work in journals, and their too-deep thoughts about anime, manga, fantasy novels, and queer geeky stuff on their blog.

Read more articles from Alex Henderson

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