In a media climate with a lot of restrictive expectations for the behavior and beauty standards of young cisgender women, there’s always something gratifying and delightful about fiction that lets female characters be goofy, expressive, and a little bit weird.
Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken!, a series about three high school girls using a school club to start their own animation studio, inspires exactly this feeling (as well as a general, inescapable sense of creative joy). Through both the character design and characterization of its three protagonists, Eizouken challenges a lot of the tropes that often loom over portrayals of nerdy, passionate teenage girls… and, if we’re being honest, teenage girls in general.
Eizouken is the story of three friends making anime: Asakusa Midori, a lifelong lover of concept art and design; Mizusaki Tsubame, a fashion model and business heiress who would rather become an animator than a socialite; and Kanamori Sayaka, who has the business sense of a con artist and thus assigns herself producer of the makeshift studio. The trio is glorious fun to watch in action, both in terms of their antics and their distinct aesthetics.
The anime brings manga artist Owara Sumito’s character designs to life. Sayaka is tall and rectangular (an oddity in a medium where girls are often drawn as petite and rounded) and bares her teeth in a look of deadpan menace. Midori makes a beautiful contrast by being small and circular, incredibly expressive, and radiating what many viewers have noted as “gremlin energy.” Tsubame is the prettiest and most “typical” looking of the three, but her vibrant, flighty personality still comes through in her design and the way she expresses and moves.
Tsubame is meticulous yet impulsive; Midori loud and passionate and prone to off-the-wall flights of fancy; and Sayaka conducts herself more like a ruthless businessperson than a high school student a lot of the time. As these characters bounce off each other, the animators never shy away from letting them emote and are perfectly willing to stretch and squish them in decidedly “un-cute” ways to get their feelings and personalities across visually.
As well as being funny to watch, there’s something very authentic about the way the members of the budding studio interact. That may sound oxymoronic considering how cartoony they are, but there’s a realism to the behaviour of these characters.
Watching Midori and Tsubame get hyped as they bounce ideas off each other and mash their designs and original characters together felt like looking at my own high school conversations from the outside. The way Midori turns mundane tasks into high-flying adventures with the power of imagination—the show itself diving into sketched-out watercolour worlds to get the audience inside her head—felt reminiscent of the way I used to daydream (though Midori’s love for mechanical gear and her attention to detail far surpasses my own). Sayaka extorting her friends for flavored milk and snacks made me laugh out loud, because that’s exactly the kind of protection racket a fifteen-year-old would come up with.
Their first animation project stars a schoolgirl with a gas mask and a machete fighting a tank, because that is exactly the kind of unabashed, unbridled Rule of Cool nonsense that teenage anime geeks would jump towards. And the show sings “Heck yeah!” along with them, celebrating their achievements and their visions wholeheartedly as it follows them into their daydreams without ever cringing away. The animation and character development combines to create a sense that the team behind the show is one-hundred percent committed to letting these girls do their thing while being as zany as possible.
Eizkouken is fun to watch, but more than that, it’s refreshing. The depiction of these rambunctious nerdy girls feels like the polar opposite to something like New Game!, another series about a creative team of women. In terms of both character design and characterization, New Game’s all-adult cast was so twee and adorable that it felt more like a high school club show than the story of a game development studio staffed by grown women, their geekiness clearly carefully designed to appeal to a (presumed) straight male target demographic.
To quote Elisabeth of littleanimeblog, the show ended up suggesting that young women can be nerdy and creative, “but only if they’re cute or alluring, and only in a way that would be entertaining and inoffensive to men if one ‘just happened’ to be watching through the wall.” The same could be said of Comic Girls, a series whose creative professionals all meet a very recognisable cuteness quota.
Even SHIROBAKO, a beloved forerunner to Eizouken in the “anime about anime” genre, has a serious case of All These Ambitious Young Women are the Exact Same Kind of Pretty Disease afflicting its main cast—something that particularly stands out next to the distinctive, diverse range of shapes, features, and traits on show in the series’ male characters.
This is not to say that shows that lean towards cute aesthetics are bad by definition (sometimes you want a show about cute girls, and that’s valid!). But when that standard has become something of the norm, it suggests to audiences that it’s only okay to be a geek girl if you’re also femme-presenting and conventionally attractive while you do so. In that kind of media landscape, a show like Eizouken stands out all the more.
When female characters with nerdy interests aren’t being carefully packaged for male audience consumption, the inverse trope can see them reduced to the aggressively undesirable butt of a joke. Think of any caricature you’ve seen of a fangirl frothing at the mouth over her favourite series or band, or female shippers ridiculed and mocked by the narrative and the characters around them.
The “ugly” nerd girl or rabid fujoshi used to turn up regularly in anime, even in stories like The Wallflower or Ouran High School Host Club that were targeted directly at young girls. BBC’s Sherlock springs to mind as an example from western media, portraying a plus-sized young woman getting laughed out of Sherlock’s fan club for suggesting that Holmes and Moriarty might have been in love—clearly doing fandom “wrong” by someone else’s metric, and clearly presented as unlikeable by the narrative for it.
In popular culture, there is still a pervasive idea (based in cisnormativity and stereotypes) that women don’t belong in nerdy fan spaces, and that women perform fandom in ways that are incompatible with any other type of passion. Women—and teenage girls in particular—continue to be mocked for their creative expressions, be that indulgent experimental fanfic, wonky first attempts at art that draw inspiration from other sources, or original characters or original stories perceived as silly and over-the-top.
All this is viewed from on high as “cringey,” often in an unforgiving and very gendered way. And this is only speaking of the fan aspect of things—women face an even deeper sense of unwelcome once they enter (or try to enter) creative industries, such as animation.
This is, of course, all accepting that female geeks even exist. And, if the recurring accusation that “all these girls are only pretending to like anime to get boys to notice them” is anything to go by, some people still believe they don’t!
This miasma of pervasive tropes and social ideals makes Eizouken feel like a beacon of positivity. Midori, Tsubame, and Sayaka are not designed to be especially cute nor attractive, and they’re consistently allowed to be flawed, rowdy, and downright goofy, all while remaining sympathetic rather than played as “weird” or unlikeable.
Their passion projects are not derided as silly by the narrative; in fact, they’re held in utmost esteem (and the people who would try to put a stop to this creative expression are the antagonists!). Eizouken celebrates the animated medium and all its possibilities, but in having these three glorious female leads, it ends up being a celebration of the often unsung creativity of young women, too.
Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken is one of the most joyful anime I’ve watched in a while, but as well as that, it feels important. It’s an earnest story about the power of creativity and collaboration, a love letter to art and animation, and it stars three delightfully distinct, authentic, wacky, and heartfelt female characters. It’s a story about girls who get to be unabashedly nerdy, zany, and, despite how much they’re allowed to be cartoony, unexpectedly real, and that’s something to celebrate alongside the show’s creativity.