Content Warning: light fanservice
What’s it about? Tomo has been best friends with Jun since they were kids, but now, Tomo wants to be more than friends–she wants to be a girlfriend, with an emphasis on the girl. Too bad Jun doesn’t see Tomo for who she is, and instead, just sees her as a tomboy. Looks like it’s up to her to prove that she’s just as much a girl as anybody else!
Tomo-chan is a Girl (hereafter Tomo-chan) is, at base, a simple show with a plot that should be easy to execute: give its tomboyish protag, who wants to level up her relationship with her childhood best friend, an actualized relationship where she can prove that she’s just as much a girl as anyone else. It’s somewhat the basis of my favorite rom-com The Princess Diaries, sans any princess plot and pears.
To me, this is an excellent chance to iterate on the often binary–and by proxy, kinda misogynistic–formula of girl improves herself for a guy. It’s a chance to be in conversation with gender expectations, especially in terms of what the term “girl” means and how broad gender actually should be. But spoiler alert: Tomo-chan picks the easy route and…opts to not have that at all in exchange for cheap jokes that really weaken the premiere and its potential.
Episode 1, “I Want to be Seen as a Girl”/”A Terrifying Challenge” opens with a love confession to Tomo’s childhood friend, Junichiro…a confession that immediately goes very, very, very wrong because Tomo isn’t perceived as a girl, by which this series really means she’s not seen as feminine. This continues to be the gag that the premiere is based upon, and let me tell you, it grows stale pretty quickly.
In the first half, it’s mildly funny if you find joking about gender to be, well…funny. By the second half? It feels a bit cruel because Tomo is so obviously a girl (in love, at that) and the fact that her friends just keep on teasing her about how she presents herself in looks and manner despite knowing about her insecurity just… kinda sucks. It’s the kind of joke that can’t support an entire cour of anime: well, at least an entire cour of a good anime, not in the 2020s. Maybe in the 2000s, but right now? Gender is a bigger conversation, as is performance of gender. And this one-note joke is already wearing thin by the time the credits roll. Tomo-chan won’t be able to support itself if this is all it offers, though perhaps it deserves grace as this is only the premiere.
That said, there’s a lot of good moments: a lot of realistic moments of teenage angst and high school horniness that are authentic to allosexual teens and their experiences. Also, Tomo’s desire to be perceived as her gender will also likely hit home for queer and trans and/or non-binary viewers. It’s one of the most compelling things about her, and her doggedness to be recognized as female, feminine, and herself do genuinely resonate, especially if you ever had a high school crush where you started as besties.
It’s just a shame that it’s a kind of a joke.
First and foremost, the voice acting in the dub–which I watched for this review– is splendid, largely because Tomo-chan has a downrange voice that’s both dreamy and fitting for a character who’s stuck in a very binary show. Tomo’s voice is provided by relative newcomer Lexi Nieto, who really adds a layer to the gendered nature of Tomo-chan’s comedy shticks.
In fact, I encourage you to watch it in English, largely because the dialogue feels quite natural and, for better or for worse, like a lot of the conversation happening around gender and gender performance today. There’s been clear effort here to make an excellent adaptation. It’s enough to encourage me to want to read the manga, though there’s definitely a few duds in terms of language about Tomo looking masculine.
What’s not excellent is the strange sexualization that happens to Tomo around one set of assets: her breasts, which are the only thing that tether her to womanhood. The jokes are few, thankfully, but when they happen, it’s a stark reminder that good voice acting can’t cover up misogyny and this weird degendering, even when that’s somewhat “the point” of the series. It hurts more because it’s clear that everyone actually knows Tomo is a cis girl: it’s just that the joke about her being masculine as a negative keeps getting in the way of an otherwise solid premiere that genuinely is likeable outside of this nonesense.
I’d hoped that this kind of gag was different in the sub, and while the localization is less “punched up,” a lot of the jokes range from “Your getting a little too crazy in that skirt” to calling Tomo “Old Man” to…well, much of the same that’s present in the dub. This isn’t a case of an ADR script running wild with the materials. It’s ultimately the same one-note joke about Tomo-chan’s femininty, which translates directly to a commentary on her body. But hey, the sub is just as good with its voice acting and comedic timing, so…at least there’s no “worst” version in terms of how things are said surrounding Tomo’s femininity.
While I think that Tomo-chan is a Girl has potential as a rom-com, I couldn’t shake the bad taste in my mouth when it comes to the nature of its comedy. It’s predicated on Tomo not performing femininity in the right way: when she wears a skirt, she’s seen as a joke. Her friends see her hobbies and tell her she’s getting what she deserves. Tomo’s also constantly misgendered: she uses she/her, despite her appearance, but often, the gags center on Tomo being an “old man” or “boyish” or “basically a guy” which…feels fraught. I’d love to say that there’s some sort of trans reading being done by the show, but honestly, any trans and/or queer readings of the show are going to come from its viewers, not from the source content—at least not at this time.
And like I said, there was quite a bit I liked about Tomo-chan though. I find Tomo to be a really engaging character and a cutie: she strikes me as a good kid who just wants to be liked–and loved–for being a karate-lovin’ tomboy. I also like that we see, pretty immediately, a large influence on why Tomo is the way she is: it’s her father and the family dojo, which are realistic explanations to why she’s a bit more tough than what society might expect from a high school girl. I also really liked Jun and Musuzu’s dynamic as Tomo’s friends. They clearly love her and they have a great platonic dynamic that proves some of the most funny moments in the first half of the show. I really hope we get to have more funny moments between them and see them also evolve as people who support Tomo and drop the “you’re not like other girls because you’re kind of a dude” vibes.
In the end, this is a somewhat easy three-episode recommendation for me: I really want to see this show grow its comedy past “boyish girl” to a series that explores Tomo as a girl who looks the way she does because she’s comfortable, but also, still gets recognized as a girl worthy of a high school romance, and, more importantly, worthy of being perceived as her gender. I also have a feeling that if this joke doesn’t evolve by episode 3, I’ll have the measure of the show pretty well.
Ultimately, I feel like there’s something here that can be quite good, if the show stops going for low-hanging fruit and instead, actually leans into this as a romance with a solid cast of characters and a rather realistic take on a high school anime romance.