“What If Our Greatest Pain Speaks to Us?” Using the supernatural to explore mental health in Bunny Girl Senpai

By: Yasmine Maher September 2, 20200 Comments

Spoilers for the Bunny Girl Senpai anime.

Content Warning: Discussion of self-harm, bullying, sexual harassment, depression, body shaming

While idling in the library, Sakuta glimpses a girl wandering around in a skimpy bunny outfit. Things become even stranger when he realizes he is the only one who can see her. 

The invisible bunny girl is not a dream, but a classmate suffering from a supernatural condition called Adolescence Syndrome, an urban legend that Sakuta knows is real, as his younger sister is also affected by it. Across the series, Sakuta encounters and befriends several teenagers afflicted with the condition, each manifesting differently, and each reflecting a different problem that the characters are facing in a very literal way

Imagine if our greatest emotional pains manifested themselves in physical form. If I feel invisible, then I turn invisible. If I feel conflicted about myself, I split into two people. If I suffer from verbal bullying, then I wake up with cuts and scrapes all over my body. This is Adolescence Syndrome, the key concept behind Rascal Does Not Dream of Bunny Girl Senpai, which the series uses to explore various social anxieties and mental health issues that can affect young people but which often go unnoticed.

A young woman dressed in a Playboy bunny suit, looking at a confused young man. Subtitle text reads: "I'm surprised. So, you can still see me?"

What is Adolescence Syndrome?

Adolescence Syndrome could be considered a magical “call for help”. With any physical disease, the purpose of the symptoms — feelings like pain, or physical signs like a rash — is to shift the person’s attention to the ill organ or the injury so they can do something about it. Adolescence Syndrome is the same, but for internal issues that would otherwise be invisible. It’s not a call for external help as much as it is for self-validation and self-acceptance. 

While each character experiences Adolescence Syndrome differently, for all of them it is the result of the emotional pain that they have avoided confronting. Some of them know exactly what the source of their problem is, but instead of trying to fix it, they set aside the pain until it gets out of control. The Syndrome is the symptom that forces the characters to confront their pains and come to terms with their problems.

Adolescence Syndrome is used to discuss some of the social and mental health issues facing teenagers. Around the supernatural plot of Bunny Girl Senpai, the writer weaves in dialogues where the characters explore their own feelings and dig into the roots of their problems. This makes it easy for the viewers to empathize with the characters and to become more aware of the problems many teenagers (and adults) go through.

A young woman in a Playboy bunny suit sitting on a table in a library

The Invisible Bunny Girl: The Impact of Social Isolation 

The first arc of Bunny Girl Senpai examines the impact of loneliness and social isolation through the story of the female protagonist. Mai is a child star who goes on hiatus after suffering abuse at the hands of her studio. Stepping away from the spotlight and attending high school as a regular student, she finds it difficult to adapt to normal life and interact with her classmates. Being left out of all social circles causes her anxiety that she cannot cope with, so she ignores the unpleasant feelings until they build up and trigger her Adolescence Syndrome. Her feelings magically manifest: because she does not feel seen, Mai becomes invisible. 

As Mai’s Adolescence Syndrome progresses, and her classmates begin to forget about her, she fears that she will completely disappear. So one day, she puts on a bunny girl outfit and walks around the library, trying to test if anyone can still see her. This is when she meets Sakuta, and the two become friends. Their friendship quickly evolves as Sakuta gets to know Mai and develops feelings for her, but it is not long before Mai completely vanishes, and Sakuta is left on his own. 

In an attempt to bring his beloved back, Sakuta stands in the middle of the school ground and shouts out his love for Mai, grabbing the attention of all the students and forcing them to recognize her. This is when Mai’s Syndrome is resolved, and she finally appears to everyone. 

A close up of two people holding hands as they sit beside one another

Sakuta and Mai’s arc seems like a charming romantic fantasy, and in a way, it is. The idea of true love “fixing” deep emotional problems or personal trauma can be a problematic trope, but it remains true that positive close relationships can have a role in mental wellbeing. In an article titled The Positive Effects of Love on Mental Health, Dr. Melissa Vallas states that being in a healthy relationship can help in the recovery from common mental health problems. Healthy relationships provide us with a safe place to express our feelings and offer us validation, security, and connection. 

Throughout the series, Sakuta and Mai are honest and accepting of each other’s problems, and they offer each other comfort in times of need. Mai does her best to be there for Sakuta and shows kindness to his younger sister, and Sakuta stands by Mai as she gets her life back together and goes back to her career. Their romance helps to “cure” Adolescence Syndrome, but his support goes beyond the grand romantic gesture that reverses Mai’s invisibility. 

Mai’s invisibility serves as a metaphor for how important it is for people to feel seen, and her arc explores the importance of supportive relationships.

Closeup of a girl's face as she looks seriously away. Subtitle text reads: "I hate who I am"

Futaba’s Paradox: Feeling the Pain

Another character afflicted with Adolescence Syndrome is Sakuta’s friend Futaba. Growing up, Futaba cultivates conflicting feelings about her own body, as it draws many stares from her classmates. She hates the objectification, yet a part of her enjoys being desirable—a paradox many women can relate to, especially with sexual harassment being so common.

Unable to deal with this contradiction, Futaba develops Adolescence Syndrome and literally splits into two people with opposite personalities. While one sinks into depression and isolation, the other starts a social media account where she posts indecent pictures of herself. When Sakuta asks the latter why she did that, she explains it is, “A form of self-mutilation. You might not be able to understand, but I hate who I am.” To that, Sakuta later replies: “It’s alright if you hate yourself, really.” While this validation doesn’t magically solve Futaba’s problems, it helps her accept her feelings and releases the shame she is suppressing. 

According to mental health counselor, Lea Seigen Shinraku, shame is born when we compare our internal lives with the external lives of others. When we believe no one understands what we’re going through, we surrender to shame, and we hide the parts of ourselves that we believe are broken or less than perfect. Futaba’s paradox about her body made her a victim of shame. It would’ve been easier for her to cope with her feelings had she known that many others share her experience. 

It’s important to reach out for others, but it’s even more critical to listen to our hearts and allow ourselves to feel our pain. This lesson is repeated several times throughout the anime, but it becomes especially clear in Futaba’s arc. Futaba’s storyline emphasizes that we all carry around feelings we’d rather hide or deny, and we all feel uncomfortable with different aspects of ourselves. But if we learn to share those feelings with others, we might feel less isolated, become more compassionate to ourselves and one another, and work towards freeing ourselves from the shame. 

Rascal 4

Kaede’s Quest: One Step at a Time

During middle school, Sakuta’s younger sister, Kaede, was a victim of cyberbullying and death threats. The trauma triggered Adolescence Syndrome, which manifested as physical injuries all over Kaede’s body. But that was only the beginning. As the symptoms developed, the Syndrome turned into a full-blown dissociative disorder that altered Kaede’s memory and impacted her identity. 

In Kaede’s plotline, the fictional Adolescence Syndrome appears alongside an actual mental illness. Dissociative disorder is a form of escapism that affects less than 2% of the population; however, 75% experience at least one symptom throughout their lifetime. Kaede’s syndrome may be rare, and it might be difficult for many viewers to identify with her. But the story uses Adolescence Syndrome as a vehicle to explore her trauma in a more metaphorical, visible way that helps the audience to understand and relate to it. 

At the beginning of Kaede’s arc, she has isolated herself from the outside world and refused to go to school or even leave the apartment. Across her storyline, however, she begins to take small steps outside with Sukuta’s help. He supports her physically, carrying her on his back, but he also offers support emotionally: encouraging her to pursue her goals but also reminding her to take it slowly so she does not become overwhelmed. 

Even if the audience is not familiar with dissociative disorder, and even if they will never experience the supernatural Adolescence Syndrome, as they watch Kaede’s recovery they can still see and relate to a girl facing her biggest fears. On one level or another, we all fear stagnation, but the uncertainty of the future and the vicissitudes of day-to-day life can keep us stuck where we are.

Sometimes, the status quo is imperfect, or even toxic, yet our fear of the unknown pushes us to stay still. There’s no manual for how to deal with such fear, but Kaede’s arc tells us that these fears can be overcome – but recovery must be taken one step at a time, and those steps can be easier to take if we have someone supporting us.

A young woman looking hopefully towards the sky. Subtitle text: "...is that life is here for us to become kinder."

The Value of Friendship

In its unique way, Bunny Girl Senpai is a call for compassion and a reminder of the value of love and friendship. Some viewers criticized Sakuta for acting like a therapist who listens to his friends’ problems and helps them understand their pain, especially since he is the only male protagonist surrounded by many struggling girls. I agree that the concept of “damsel in distress” is cliché, and I do wish there was more diversity among the characters. But beyond that, I admire how the anime shows friendship to be a part of the healing process.

We all need to be heard, and we all need to share our stories with people who care. Shame and vulnerability researcher Brené Brown suggests that talking about our innermost fears and shame can help us overcome them. We can never overestimate the value of an empathetic friend who truly listens to our stories. Despite Satuka’s consistent deadpan face and snarky comments, he is a good friend to all the characters. Not only does he empathize with and validate their pain, but he cares for them and helps them take the first steps to recovery.

Studies show that healthy friendships and social connections play a critical role in our mental wellbeing. Bunny Girl Senpai demonstrates that concept. Although supportive friends alone cannot help us cope with trauma or deal with emotional pain, they are part of the healing process. 

Rascal Does Not Dream of Bunny Girl Senpai touches on many emotional problems that teenagers everywhere face, using its supernatural element to make the invisible visible and to open discussion about these issues. Conformity, self-hate, cyberbullying, feeling invisible, and fearing other people’s judgment—these are problems that can grow with us into adulthood and become more persistent and more dangerous. So, following from the show’s message, it’s worth taking a moment out of our busy lives and asking ourselves: “If my pain could speak, what would it say?”


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