For as long as I've been into anime, I've had a fondness in my heart for romantic comedies. From will-they-won't-theys like Kimi ni Todoke – From Me To You to ridiculous love octagons like Nisekoi, watching characters tiptoe through romantic minefields on their way to finding true love is something I doubt I'll ever get completely tired of. However, anyone who has enough experience with the genre will tell you it can get repetitive. There are only so many shows about a person and their gaggle of love interests you can watch before you notice they are usually running around in narrative circles to justify keeping the story going. Recently there have been some standout romcoms for us to chew on — for example, My Teen Romantic Comedy SNAFU keeps things interesting by developing relationships long before they become romantic, My Next Life as a Villainess: All Roads Lead to Doom! has a protagonist with as much genre knowledge as the viewer, and this season's TONIKAWA: Over The Moon For You skips the courting ritual aspect entirely.
But if you just want an honest to goodness romcom, compelling without the need to seem subversive, Rent-a-Girlfriend has you covered.
Rent-a-Girlfriend has a pretty silly premise to start. Coming off of a recent breakup, main character Kazuya uses an online service to pay for some dates with series heroine Chizuru. After a series of wacky events culminating in both their families believing they are truly dating, they decide to keep up the facade for a while. This premise is really only there to get the ball rolling, though — the real hook is Kazuya's newly awkward and complicated love life.
His last relationship was his only one and it was shortlived. But that already puts him way ahead of most anime romance protagonists as far as experience goes. For the story's purposes, this means his romantic options are more realistic and open-ended. Where other shows would have a group of girls who have all fallen for him in no uncertain terms, Kazuya's relationships are more loosely defined and more interesting as a result. For example, fans aren't fond of his ex Mami, but her jealousy when she thinks Kazuya found a cute new partner before she did creates a compelling dynamic between them. She starts to act interested in him again, putting on moves that force Kazuya, and us, to consider more complicated feelings — should he get back with her? Is there something real going on with these other girls, anyway? Heck, does she even like him? Does he even like her? Does he just like the idea of being with her? These aren't problems that are cleanly resolved by simply “choosing” a girl, and as the story progresses and they both grow, so do the nuances of their dynamic.
And when I say they both grow, I mean it. Because to be honest, Kazuya starts the series as a total loser. Most anime romcom protagonists come in one of two varieties: little personality or unwittingly selfless. Both have their own functions as storytelling devices, but neither is particularly relatable. Kazuya, on the other hand, starts the show as kind of an unwittingly selfish guy. He wastefully spends the money he should be saving for his school life, he wants a girlfriend for the same base reasons most people his age want girlfriends, and he isn't very self-aware about how his behavior comes across to other people. This is best exemplified early on as Kazuya gives Chizuru a low rating on the rent-a-date app for essentially being too good at her job. He, like many people who believe themselves to be smart, justifies this as him seeing through her act and therefore being above her, completely missing the irony that he paid her to act like that in the first place. It's the kind of unintentionally mean-spirited mistake young adults like him really make, and Rent-a-Girlfriend stands out for having a cast filled with characters who have similar grounded flaws like that to work through.
Luckily for him, the seeds are planted early for his character arc. The one slightly selfless thing he feels is a sort of debt to his grandmother to find a good partner and continue the family she worked so hard to keep afloat for many years. Those are just the specifics that set the story off, though. When we, and Kazuya, dig a little deeper, the real issue becomes clear: Kazuya wants to stop feeling like a burden, to become a more positive force in the lives of the people he cares about. He learns this in a roundabout way through his time spent with Chizuru, who is herself an empathetic person almost to a fault. She doesn't start the show attracted to him, and still isn't really by the end of the first season, but that doesn't make their relationship less meaningful. By spending time with Chizuru — and eventually, the other heroines introduced later — Kazuya slowly gains self-awareness about his worst tendencies, and consciously or not, starts finding ways he can be a more kind and caring person. It's more subtle, but Chizuru learns a bit about the importance of finding time to prioritize herself and her own wants and needs, too. Their relationship is undeniably the main one in the show, but it doesn't start with any genuine romantic feelings between them — Kazuya's attraction is surface-level and Chizuru sees it purely as a job. As a result, the chemistry between them is able to grow naturally, which is much more interesting to follow than the typical instant love and resulting stagnant dynamics I've come to associate with the genre.
There are plenty of interesting things to find in Rent-a-Girlfriend, but I don't want to spoil them all for you here. At its core, it's a story about how infatuation is easy, but love is hard, and the trials and tribulations that go along with that. If the unconventional premise or general fatigue from anime romcoms has kept you from giving it a shot, I recommend giving it another go — its characters can be flawed and petty, but they can also be kind and relatable, and the show's allowance for those kinds of flaws and strengths to define its characters make them much more than they might seem on the surface. At the very least it is an unconventional yet familiar story, and if you've ever been awkward and lonely, you'll probably find something in yourself through Kazuya and his growing group of friends.
Do you have a favorite anime romance? Let us know in the comments below!
David Lynn can be found on Twitter @navycherub.
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