What’s it about? Teased as a child for liking “girly” Sanrio toys, high schooler Hasegawa Kouta has always hidden that part of himself—until he meets other high school boys who are just as fond of the cute characters as he is.
There are three things you need to know about Sanrio Boys going in. First, it’s a shameless toy commercial that wants you to shut up and give Sanrio your money. Second, it’s a cute-boy show blatantly targeted at (straight) teen girls in the same way many cute-girl shows are targeted at (straight) teen boys, up-to-and-including a gratuitous shower scene. And third, it is somehow, in spite of all these obvious marketing calculations, charming as all get-out.
The thing is, the folks in charge of this show actually give a damn, and you can see it in every aspect of the production. The direction and storyboards are distinct, the art design bright and occasionally quite striking (the opening play is stylish as hell), and while the animation is fairly minimalist there are a lot of excellent Anime Faces to more than make up for it. These are not boringly perfect, blandly attractive pretty-boys—they’re allowed to be angry, flustered, or just plain silly, and it goes a long way in making the characters endearing and the premiere a lot of fun.
Sanrio Boys has a particularly good sense of comedic timing in its sight gags, making it the first show of the season to get several chuckles and a full belly laugh out of me. Even the parts where it slides entirely into Commercial Mode have an offbeat weirdness to them, as the “Factoid” we learn about beret-wearing pupper Pompompurin is that he does, indeed, have a little asterisk butthole, which a small child then proceeds to happily poke.
The characters are a fairly familiar cast of cute boys, from the self-described “normal” protagonist to the friendly flirt to the stoic athlete, but as with the rest of the production there’s actual heart injected into these archetypes. They’re generally handled like people instead of pinups, although there is that shower scene where the camera spends way too long admiring Shunsuke’s absurdly defined pecs and vagina bones. (I’m all for thirsty teens having media that caters to them, but I can’t help but feel a bit uncomfortable any time a camera ogles a minor, regardless of gender.)
At this point, protagonist Kouta is the only character who’s received any proper development, but the way he’s handled bodes well for the rest of the series. Directionless and “average” but wishing he wasn’t, hiding a part of himself from his friends that he sees as embarrassing, and nagged by a childhood mistake he can’t fix, he’s low-key depressed without being a stereotypical Tragic Loner or Outcast. His high school blues feel grounded instead of maudlin, and it makes me want to root for him to find something he wants to do and friends he can be himself around.
This is a toy commercial, after all, so that “part of himself” that Kouta’s hiding is of course his love for Sanrio characters, especially Pompompurin. There’s an extended flashback of a young Kouta getting mocked relentlessly for his beloved plushie, with the other boys telling him that liking cute stuffed animals makes him “a girl.” Embarrassed and hurt, he ends up rejecting the dog (and, by extension, the grandma who’d bought it for him) altogether.
It’s a painfully sharp depiction of how boys are shamed into feeling like they can’t enjoy anything “girly,” and how many of them wind up either hiding or giving up on that part of themselves. It’s clear that Kouta’s dissatisfaction with life is tied to his internalized sexism. The premiere’s major turning point is when he meets two other boys—each popular and “shining” in the way Kouta wishes he could—who are open about their love of cute Sanrio characters, helping Kouta to see himself in a new, more accepting light. He’s not alone or “weird,” and that’s going to make a huge difference going forward.
It feels strange to talk about how a toy commercial’s central theme is feminist and good, but… y’all, the toy commercial’s central theme is feminist and good. My dearest hope is that the comedy and story are strong enough that it’s able to pull in a young male audience in addition to its targeted female one, because I think the show’s message is a really important one for boys to hear.
It’s frustrating that the constant product placements make it impossible for me to properly appreciate that message, because I can’t help thinking this is all just an elaborate attempt to sell Sanrio merch to boys. But then again, the show is also obviously marketed at a young straight female audience, so maybe it’s not even about gender norms, but is simply playing into the fantasy of the “sensitive” guy who likes the same cute things its audience members do…?
As you can see, it’s nigh impossible to separate the behind-the-scenes machinations and cash-grab goals of Sanrio Boys with the narrative itself, making it an easy premiere to like but a tough one to commit to. Still, if you can let go of your cynicism for 25 minutes, this is a surprisingly entertaining and thoughtful first episode. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but there’s a very good chance I’ll be back for more.