For whatever reason, Cute Girl anime don’t have a good rep among Western anime fans. And to be honest, I’m ambivalent about them myself. Make no mistake: I like cute anime girls as much as anyone, but accepting these sorts of stories does not come naturally to me. I’ve had to consciously broaden the way I think about storytelling as a whole; I don’t think it’s possible to really enjoy these types of shows in the spirit they’re made in unless you embrace the “moe database” which anime seems to draw from.
Let’s face it: the characters don’t feel like actual girls.
Is that really a problem, though? In my perspective, not really. I don’t need fictional characters to act realistic for me to enjoy watching them.
But there’s a reason why this subgenre is popular with guys and not with girls. There seems to be a trend in any anime where the girls severely outnumber the boys: It’s not true to the female adolescent experience. It’s not the (lack of) realism in the characters themselves that’s so difficult to accept here – it’s in their relationships. It’s in their friendships. It seeps into the way they think. There’s something emotionally false about it all.
It wasn’t until I watched Love Lab that I could put my finger on what exactly the problem was with so many other Cute Girl shows, and why this one felt so different for me: this is a show about love.
Love – or at least the idea of it – is central to the adolescent female experience.
Like no other anime I know of outside the realm of shojo, Love Lab captures the feeling of awkward adolescence and being in love with love. It satirises it, but always in an affectionate way. It’s like it’s saying, “It’s okay to want romance! It’s silly and embarrassing, but that’s just who we are!” The girls spend their days talking about relationships, which not only includes their idle romantic fantasies, but also about the relationships that exist between themselves and with others.
And that’s the thing with girls. It’s probably the best way to understand them. Far, far too often in anime their fascination with relationships is portrayed as being fixated with a particular person. They’re defined purely in terms of their relationship to a male character. Cute Girl anime doesn’t get it right either by effectively neutering all the girls and making them all out to be uninterested – or perhaps just too innocent – for love. Even girls who are not overtly eager about getting into a relationship for themselves would probably be talking about someone else’s, or are interested in philosophising about it in general. I see them as love-crazy, not boy-crazy.
I didn’t realise that this was what Love Lab was trying to get at until its male supporting characters got their own episode to shine. Then it hit me: The males in Love Lab inform how the females perceive themselves.
I would even go as far to say that, if any story is interested in portraying the female adolescent experience, male presence is essential, whether it’s shown or indirectly felt.
That might sound sexist of me, and perhaps there will be some feminists getting angry at me for suggesting that girls can’t be strong and independent, but if you read what I say closely enough, you’ll realise I wasn’t claiming anything that chauvinistic. The girls in Love Lab are portrayed as being capable of thinking for themselves. The boys don’t do anything much themselves and are strictly supporting characters. In this series, as it is in life, defining femininity is, in part, determined by what is not masculine. Girls are fascinated with the “otherness” of boys just as boys are fascinated with that very same mysterious quality in girls. To deny the interest and comparison between genders would be to deny an essential part of human nature.
The otaku audience will watch the show, laugh at its snappy sense of humour and fawn over how moe the girls are, but I think that there’s something universal about this anime. I don’t care that the girls are supposedly stereotypes or whatever. This show feels genuine, and emotional honesty means more than cliches.
There aren’t many Cute Girl shows that I would equally recommend to males and females, but Love Lab is one of them.
So, to any girls reading this post, give it a try. It’s my favourite anime this season.