Senpai is an Otokonoko – Episode 1

By: Vrai Kaiser July 5, 20240 Comments

Content Warning: depictions of trans/queerphobic bullying; initially boundary-pushing love interest

What’s it about? Aoi Saki finally plucks up the courage to confess to cool older girl Hanaoka Makoto, only for Makoto to confess that he’s an otokonoko. Used to being ostracized, Makoto tries to push Saki away to keep her from being picked on. But Saki isn’t one bit deterred, even by the protective prickliness of Makoto’s childhood friend Ryuji.

Hey kids! Dooooooo you like adorable slideshows with a side of Gender? There’s a lot to like in this queer love triangle rom-com, but I’m just not confident it’s going to make it to the finish line in one piece.

Because it’s very straightforward (or bare bones, if you’re feeling uncharitable), the appeal of the show is going to hang on whether or not you want to hang out with the characters. Makoto is easily the most well-drawn thus far, clearly beaten down by the casual cruelty of teachers and other students but clearly yearning to believe in Saki’s offered kindness.

Makoto hiding behind a desk from Saki

He (which I’ll stick with for the moment, though Makoto might be the least cis person I’ve ever seen) is withdrawn, bearing the toll of choosing to be visibly femme but unwilling to be deterred; but at the same time, he keeps all of his girl clothes hidden at school. I did let out the longest, most tired sigh when Makoto’s immediate solution to revealing his gender identity was pulling up his shirt; it’d just be nice if a person wasn’t expected to make a spectacle of their body to prove their gender identity. But the final moments of the episode, in which Makoto quietly closes the locker holding his wig, skirt, and makeup, and whispers, “goodbye, me,” left me with an inkling that there might be something deeper under the skin here.

It’s too soon (and I’ll cede to the expertise of my transfemme colleagues) to dig into the complications of “otokonoko” as an identity that encompasses a lot of varied gender presentation and is important to Japan’s LGBTQ+ history; but also chuds love to use the concept of it as a cudgel to erase explicitly transfemme characters, and there’s a conversation in Japanese spaces about the muddling of visibility between “genderless” and binary trans representation…like I said, complicated. Something to come back to, but also probably more than this show will have the capacity to explore. I’m not exactly expecting Our Dreams at Dusk here.

On the other hand, Saki is the kind of character all but guaranteed to split viewership in two. Either you’ll find her sincerity appealing in spite of her boundary-crossing moments, or you’ll find her overbearing and backed by an ear-splitting vocal performance. I fell on the former side, though there’s certainly things you can unpack about whether her thirsty support of Makoto’s identity crosses into chaser territory. Ryuji is a pretty typical cross of the “punk with a heart of gold,” but his childhood friend schtick has less obnoxious undertones than it might—Makoto’s life seems to be a barrage of microaggressions that he’s responded to by closing up, and at least so far his overprotectiveness is quickly reigned in.

Saki with a nosebleed. "So this means I'll get to enjoy both the boy and girl versions of you?!"
I’m choosing to approach this with the spirit of that Will Smith quote and the mantra “she’s only 15.”
I will also not judge anybody’s side-eye.

But then there’s the animation. The visuals are broadly nice, swapping between largely still sun-dappled images of high school life and energetic chibi cut-ins that contain most of the actual animation. It’s not dissimilar to the technique recently employed by Whisper Me a Love Song. Y’know, the very cute yuri rom-com that….at time of writing has an indefinite delay on its last two episodes. Now, Senpai doesn’t have the level of publicly troubled production that Whisper did, but it is being animated under the primary care of project No.9, whose previous offering was downright dire in terms of plasticky, off-model disaster moments. There’s at least a 70% chance this is going to melt like putty in the Sahara, is what I’m saying.

I don’t relish that probability, and I wouldn’t warn people away from checking this out because of it. This just strikes me as the kind of show that’s going to benefit from adjusted expectations: that its intentions will be good but its execution maybe clumsy, and that it will increasingly settle into slideshow town as the grind of weekly production takes its toll. Even still, I can’t help but root for it.

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