My Dress-Up Darling is now streaming on Crunchyroll.
Sharing a hobby with someone is a simple, but intimate thing. What if someone else considers your pastime weird or not what’s expected based on the way that you look? The answer is, of course, that it doesn’t matter, and My Dress-Up Darling doubles down on this lovely idea. It understands and captures the value and the joy of a mutual interest – the stranger and more niche the better – because when you unexpectedly find someone as passionate as you are, it’s undeniably exciting.
While its protagonists Wakana Gojou and Marin Kitagawa start with very different interests, they align perfectly in their newfound ritual of cosplay. Wakana, a hina doll craftsman-in-training, turns out to be the seamster that the otaku Marin needs to complete a dream of hers: to embody the characters that she loves. (The catch: the first character is from an adult video game, something the show takes every opportunity to turn into comedy.) Wakana’s insecurity around his passion, stemming from a childhood friend declaring it creepy that a boy is interested in creating dolls, leads him to connect with Marin — his first friend in a long while — and her interests.
In their collaboration on cosplay, My Dress-Up Darling smartly leads with the straightforward sentiment that hobbies should, of course, not be categorized by gender or appearance. It’s hardly a mind-shattering idea, but that’s fine: there’s a simple pleasure in seeing the protagonists share their somewhat niche interests together without judgment. And, as with any good anime interested in craft, there’s a lot of love in the process in Dress-Up Darling, which runs through the difficulties and joys of constructing a costume from scratch as Marin recruits Wakana. But it never feels too instructional in talking about costume making; before getting too in the weeds about any particular element, it always ties back into the emotional thrust of the episode.
It also helps that the double act of Wakana and Marin is just incredibly watchable. They bounce off each other well, and not just comedically, but in the sincere joy that comes from their sharing of interests and art together. They’re also both incredibly stupid in the most endearing possible instances, such as Gojou’s hyper-fixating on potentially making a fool of himself in ways that Marin doesn’t care about, or Marin’s utterly chaotic lifestyle. Better yet is when their mutual cluelessness collides with romance, culminating in a completely outrageous episode in a love hotel. There are only a couple of other recurring characters outside of that central pairing – mainly the sisters Sajuna “JuJu” Inui and Shinju Inui, the former a popular cosplayer and the latter her photographer. In tackling their insecurities, My Dress-Up Darling finds some surprising pathos, but, for now, Wakana and Marin are the focus.
The straightforward premise and small cast makes its decisions to play around with a large variety of animation styles and the details of its character acting stand out even more; every scene is a dance of contrasting and conflicting body language and awkward teenage socializing. Though the rhythms and dynamics of the conversations remain consistent, there are many different angles on how they’re communicated to us, the audience — it’s always clear on screen how much imagination is going into how each character physically reacts.
Speaking of which: the boy-meets-girl romantic angle might feel predictable on its face, but the show’s dynamic presentation makes it feel fresh. It also doesn’t take long to dispense with any pretense that the two are into each other, and as a result, has a lot of fun in the awkward, blundering navigation of those feelings, especially so when Marin’s unawareness of Wakana’s crush flips around on the hapless but well-meaning boy. The gradual transformation of their friendship (and initially fledgling romance), though played for laughs and acutely aware of the fantasy element, feels surprisingly natural, thanks in no small part to the care and personality of its character animation.
The smaller scale, single-location episodes still feel incredibly dynamic.
The directors finds a lot of charming humor in the simple collision of Marin’s overzealousness and nonchalance compared to Wakana’s naivety (which sometimes begs suspension of disbelief) and complete inability to keep it his cool — and the considered, often delightful character acting of the animation keeps these elements ever-present in their body language. Wakana is careful, sparing with words and often fairly still, whereas Marin is bubbly, chatty, and hyperactive.
Because of the care and personality that goes into that character animation, the smaller scale, single-location episodes still feel incredibly dynamic. Even a scene of Marin eating a bun has a lot of expressiveness to it, and what would be an otherwise unremarkable instance of fainting is given extra comedic punch through an insert shot where a little cartoon pulls a plug inside the character’s brain. Episode 11, set mostly within a love hotel, finds dozens of different ways to show Wakana panicking and/or having a horny meltdown, before ending with a jaw-droppingly funny and brazen visual gag. Other glorious and off-kilter moments include a wild cut of animation that remakes the iconic ending of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, or numerous sequences involving an anime series-within-a-series where the animators get to play around with the aesthetic of ‘90s magical girl shows. The breadth of genre, and that it manages to smuggle in at the margins, is just another part of the fun.
There are dozens of such ingenious moments threaded throughout every installment as each episode director leaves a distinct mark. As a result, the show holds an incredibly broad variety of styles in every scene and mixes everything together well; the standout eighth episode, directed and storyboarded by Yūsuke Kawakami, starts in a more detailed style before shifting to something a bit looser and more expressionistic as the two take an impromptu trip to the beach, the characters drawn with softer shapes to contrast more strongly against its more realistic backgrounds.
The visual creativity ends up being a primary factor in softening up the series’ frequent, in-your-face fan service. There are a handful of leery moments that’ll take some viewers out of it, but for the most part, they can be reconciled with the characters’ subjective perspective — and sometimes it just gets so absurd that it goes back around to feeling inoffensive. It helps that it’s so upfront about the characters’ romantic interest in each other and candid about the less-than-wholesome nature of the various manga, video games, and anime that Marin is obsessed with, which makes the resultant jokes about sex mostly feel natural rather than simply vulgar. In the aforementioned 11th episode, via a fictional manga within the show, it even pokes fun at this element of itself, and at the potential for contradiction between its slice-of-life sweetness and occasional raciness. Even when it doesn’t quite work that way, there’s at least a pretty great visual joke in these moments. Because of that element, well, it gets away with a lot.
My Dress-Up Darling is a surprisingly sweet, big-hearted standout of the winter season. The craft is incredible — so much so that even when it leans into fan service, it’s told with incredibly funny visual imagination. None of that takes away from the genuinely sweet relationship at its center, one of self-discovery and finding self-esteem in collaboration and shared interests.
Author: Alex Stedman. [Source Link (*), IGN All]