When the genre of anime comes to mind, particularly in terms of women, the images are hardly flattering. It is a genre well known for being dominated by problematic depictions, over-sexualisation (typically known as ‘fanservice’) amongst many others. Male writers dominate the genre, and there are very few anime that make it to the mainstream that are written by women.
Which is why it was a surprise to me, when scrolling through the staff top rated MAL (MyAnimeList) anime of 2018, to land upon Asobi Asobase. This is roughly translated as “let’s play pastime games!”, and was advertised as a slice of life comedy- a show about 3 teenage girls who form a club to play games at school. Adapted from a manga by a largely unknown female author, Rin Suzukawa, gave me enough hope that it would be a light watch with minimal fanservice, and so I decided to give it a go.
Admittedly, the way the first episode opened threw me off. The opening theme song was a cutesy pop song, lyrics such as “hand in hand together” accompanied by girls running around in grassy hills in white dresses. The emphasis seemed to be on their innocence as young girls, so I buckled myself in for a playful watch.
What followed in the next 23 minutes was one of the most absurd pieces of media I have ever seen. We are introduced to our three main characters. First is Olivia, a new student whose Caucasian appearance (white skin, blonde hair and blue eyes) inspires her to pretend to be an American exchange student, purposefully butchering her Japanese whilst actually being the worst English speaker in the class. Then there is Hanako, who has befriended Olivia. Finally Kasumi, who decides to recruit Olivia as her English tutor, in exchange for teaching her traditional Japanese pastimes.
We see Olivia and Hanako playing a game “Look the other way”, which is rock, paper, scissors and the winner, or the first person to react in a draw, points to one side and says “look the other way”. If their opponent follows the instruction, they win. The punishment for not looking the other way is a flick to the forehead. Hanako ends up looking the other way during the draw, and is blessed with a slap on the face.
The sheer unexpectedness of such a scene sent me into stitches. The facial expressions range from hilarious to even terrifying. The earlier styles of anime tended to draw women with more realistic proportions, but soon the style evolved into girls with stylised with huge eyes and colourful hairstyles that the genre is now most known for. Now, most companies attempt to ramp up their appearances in order to gain more viewers and sell more merchandise, which is why most anime contain some form of fanservice. This is why it was refreshing to see these comedic expressions, with no constant reliance on their appearances. When characters do attempt to emphasise their beauty, like Olivia posing to convince Kasumi to also play, it is used for comedy as the girls are immediately shot down or rejected- “she’s the type that gets old quickly”, as Hanako puts it.
Appearances are played on heavily in this anime, with each characters’ appearance being the opposite of their personalities. Although Olivia looks like a typical feminine American, she was born and raised in Japan and has many traditionally masculine interests, becoming devastated when she finds out that women cannot be sumo wrestlers. Hanako looks the most tomboyish of the three, but is the most boy-crazy and appearance driven, her main desire to be a popular normal girl and get a boyfriend (it is funny to note that Hanako gets the most hilarious facial expressions out of the trio). Kasumi looks like a quiet nerd, but is the most terrifying of the three when she gets competitive or angry, not hesitating to brutally punish her friends. Side characters have this treatment too, such as Ruu Oka, the only member of the Occult Research Club who looks scary but is actually the sweetest girl in the anime. It’s great to have anime which isn’t afraid to take the appearances of girls and mess around with them for entertainment.
The interactions between the friends are also realistic. When Hanako shouts that the previous slap isn’t the typical punishment for losing, Olivia stares at her blankly with her “I don’t know Japanese” pose. When she convinces Kasumi to join, she ends up sticking her fingers up Olivia’s nostrils.
The girls do not hesitate to attack, betray and make fun of each other. Each episode is divided into chapters, which consist of the girls playing a different game. They decide to form a ‘Pastimers Club’ to attract more potential players, but this ends up becoming their solid friend group. Their friendships are hilariously representative of those of teenage girls, light-hearted and full of ridiculous squabbles that are solved by the time the next chapter rolls around. This isn’t a plot driven anime. It is more focused on the development and friendship of these girls.
A thumb war becomes exorcism-like - “she’s doing her Chinese contortionist shit again", or a game of shoe-kicking, which ends in the president of a rival club launching herself off a bike to fling the shoe as far away as possible(and is hospitalised for the majority of the series). In terms of made up games, “Pokemon GO but for Bacteria”, which involves looking through an app on a phone to look at bacteria but reveals Olivia’s overactive “Caucasian sweat glands”.
Credit: YouTube ProZD
The anime also deals with typical teenage girl issues, but in a way that balances with the anime’s absurdity. We get episodes where Olivia attempts to cut her bangs, only to cut them too short and collapse in grief. Hanako’s desire to be an attractive normal girl leads to her persuading Olivia to do her makeup, with ends with her looking like she has, and I quote, “been punched in the face”. Kasumi also has issues playing games due to her sister repeatedly beating her whilst growing up and making her do chores as punishment. Her anxiety over playing lessens throughout the series as she becomes more comfortable with her new friends. There is even an aspect of queerness to the show, with transgender and gender non-conforming characters who fluster Kasumi. When it starts to get too realistic, we are granted an image of (actually rich) Hanako’s butler shooting lasers out of his butt.
There are, however, cons of manga to anime adaptations. Kasumi’s breasts are repeatedly used as the butt of jokes from Hanako. Admittedly, it is difficult to strike a balance when it comes to female development and younger characters. I have read some of the manga, and noticed how the girls were less sexualised. These were the same scenes, but in the anime the frames would be too heavy or too focused on that aspect. Although a woman wrote the manga, it was a man that directed the anime, and that is perhaps where the weakest points of it lie. The anime provides both hilarity and poignant female moments, but there is the odd moment of fanservice put in to appease an audience that has grown to accept it. As most anime watchers probably know, it is near impossible to find an anime without these, whether by a man or a woman. However, the majority of the anime puts some hope in me that the genre could be making steps towards the better, if Asobi Asobase’s popularity suggests anything.
When the episode had reached its end after 3 games and the establishment of the Pastimer’s Club, the screen fades to black, and I am hit with the sounds of guttural screaming. This is the ending song, death metal accompanied by the trio absolutely rocking out. It may be difficult to find an anime with decent female representation in today’s market, but if you want to watch girls doing stupid things with no regard for the consequences, give it a go.
Edited by Barney Nuttall, Film and TV Deputy Editor