A surprisingly strong anime series burst into the scene some 12 weeks ago, contending with the likes of Attack on Titan’s climactic Season 4 Part 2 and Demon Slayer’s Entertainment District Arc. Yet instead of the dark, wartorn setting of Attack on Titan or the demon-infested, mature themes (arguably more than the previous season) of Demon Slayer, this 12-episode series offered viewers traditional Japanese hina dolls, cosplay and fashion, and romantic comedy (RomCom). And My Dress-up Darling, or Sono Bisque Doll wa Koi wo Suru in Japanese, somehow more than held its own.
Based on the ongoing manga of the same name, My Dress-Up Darling has enjoyed massive popularity both in Japan and overseas since it started its 12-episode run. It bolstered manga sales by around two million copies since it aired, and viewers have consistently voted it as THE Winter season fan favorite for six of the past 10 weeks — actually beating Attack on Titan and Demon Slayer.
The anime was brought to life by the studio CloverWorks who were previously involved in part or in full with series like Darling in the Franxx, Fairy Tail, Horimiya, and Wonder Egg Priority, among others. My Dress-Up Darling is available in Japan on Netflix and most of the rest of the world via Funimation and Cruncyroll. It also has official dubs in other languages, such as English and Spanish.
Warning: some spoilers beyond this point.
Story: A Standard Plot Executed Well
The anime follows the highschool life of Wakana Gojo, a 15-year old student whose passion is traditional hina dolls, so much so that his goal in life is to become a skilled enough artisan to create them. He’s still a ways off when it comes to meticulously painting the doll’s faces, but he can craft and sew their clothing quite well. Early on in his childhood, a female friend of his called him disgusting for liking dolls in a childish emotional outburst, and unfortunately, he internalized the memory well into his teenage years, making him even more of a socially inept introvert than he already was.
Enter Kitagawa Marin, one of the most popular girls in school. An extraverted, outspoken “gyaru” with a lot of friends and an addiction for geek culture and cosplay, she metaphorically — and sometimes literally — drags Gojo into her whirlwind hodgepodge of hyperactive days out, hobbies, and cosplay activities. Gojo’s got the skills she needs for a cosplay partner, so the two become friends and later on develop an unspoken romantic relationship.
All in all, the setup is pretty standard for an anime RomCom. It’s slice of life elements are handled by the high school setting, the details of creating hina dolls and cosplay give it a distinct angle, and one can even accuse it of starting with cliched, or at least archetypal, main characters: the shut-in male lead and the ray-of-sunshine female lead. Of course, what matters is the execution, and My Dress-Up Darling manages not to stumble in its delivery.
Characters and Performances: Initially Cliched but Ultimately Genuine Characterization
Despite the initial character introductions debatably bordering on wish-fulfillment, the show makes it clear quite quickly that it intends to dive into the genre, set some expectations, and then either subvert or exceed them. Both Gojo and Kitagawa feel like genuine people, though the former’s shyness and the latter’s boisterousness can at times feel larger than life.
The show also doesn’t shy away from showing both the wholesome and horny sides of teeangers. Not in the usual anime manner, either, but just as actual people might act in real life. The character development is stronger for Gojo, and the show subtly displays his nuanced changes by showing how he reacts differently to things and situations as episodes go on. The romantic development is stronger for Kitagawa, whose personality is more developed and whose tastes, preferences, and philosophies are already pretty much set in stone.
The voice actors performed admirably, providing a lot of life into subtle and not-so-subtle changes in tone and diction for both the male and female protagonists. The English dub had to change some lines and therefore some characterization, but it appears the English voice actors were also doing a fine job overall.
Progress and Pacing: Grounded, Organic Character and Romantic Development
The progression of events and the characters’ feelings felt grounded and organic, and even protagonists’ archetypes didn’t prove to be as cliched as one might initially think. Even typical RomCom anime shenanigans like the characters’ lack of self-consciousness or wildly improbable scenarios are implemented in an acceptable manner. For instance, Kitagawa’s being completely comfortable having Gojo take her measurements while in a bikini might seem like commonly forced anime airheadedness, even for the open and outgoing gyaru. But when confirmed episodes later that Kitagawa is a part-time magazine model who’s used to working with strangers taking her measurements and perhaps even snapping sexy photoshoots, it becomes more reasonable.
The characterizations and respective passion for their hobbies or goals that both characters possess can arguably excuse the lack of self-consciousness during sequences like the now-infamous hotel scene in episode 11. However, sometimes there appears to be a distinct lack of payoff especially for incredibly meaningful developments. That unintentional bed scene in episode 11, for example, is left unaddressed in the ultimate episode.
There’s also something to be said about the show’s fanservice that you might expect out of anime. The majority of fanservice and sexy shots in the show are framed from the perspective of the poor, pubescently hormonal Gojo suffering through the existence of a sexy teenage girl, and it works due to its comedic effect. However, there are some egregiously gratuitous shots that served zero purpose.
This show knows when to linger to build romantic or sexual tension. It times it perfectly when it switches from serious to lighthearted. And it consistently subverts minor tropes and expectations. But for some reason it sometimes doesn’t know when to stop itself from stooping to the level of fanservice with as much juvenile comedic value as a Deez Nuts joke. Sure, it could be entertaining, but now’s not the time, you know?
Production Value: Elevated Manga Panels into Beautifully Animated Scenes
Another strong point in favor of My Dress-Up Darling is the production value. The studio went to great lengths for the character designs, the backgrounds, and the animation detail several times throughout the show. Even the production values for the fictional anime within the anime or the horror movie in episode 12, for instance, were top notch.
The music was also quite fitting, and the sound design was amazing. It’s highly recommended to watch the show on headphones or great sounding speakers to not miss the subtlety in the sound design.
Much like fluid animation and excellent sound effects within a fight scene can give it more weight, the times when CloverWorks decided to up the ante in terms of production value gave the show’s high points more significance. Tranquil scenes leading to romantic buildup are elevated by stunning visuals of the sea or by fireworks. Sexual tension is heightened by the choices made in sound design: from the heavy breathing to the complete lack of music.
Even the switch up in animation styles for comic effect worked in favor of My Dress-Up Darling. The excellent production value is definitely a fitting cherry on top for a great series.