Before I start talking about the 2012 anime series Mysterious Girlfriend X I need to make something particularly clear about my goals for my Patreon-funded criticism: I want to mean everything I say. So me writing what I did about something as seemingly weird and inconsequential as Horse Diaries: Elska is not some grand ironic joke where I expend too much intellectual effort on parsing some cultural object. Rather, my belief is that even the most minor artifacts will convey something illuminating about how media contribute in ways big and small to how humans understand themselves.
When it comes to Mysterious Girlfriend X I have a particular challenge, as someone who came of age on the internet in the early 2000s. There was a time when you could generate content for a comedy website simply by, say, watching an anime or playing a visual novel and complaining constantly about just how fucking stupid and nonsensical it was because, hey folks, Japan Is Really Weird, Have You Noticed???? In the days before streaming video and YouTube and so on, we got our angry criticism through text: reading someone tell you about this absurd thing that happened in a bad anime they’re pirating and hate-watching gave you all the pleasure of knowing something about How Weird Japan Is without having to expend the effort to pirate the anime or buy the weird eroge yourself.
Discarding the hyperbole and refashioned orientalism of this critical outlook can be as simple as learning a few things about cross-cultural media, Japanese history, and not treating everything as symptomatic of some monolithic culture that is “Japan.” Basically, the aim of your criticism should not be a demonstration of How Weird Japan Is. That’s easy enough. The problem, when we approach Mysterious Girlfriend X, a thirteen-episode anime based on a manga by Ueshiba Riichi, is that it is confoundingly weird.
Mysterious Girlfriend X (hereafter MGX) is a slice-of-life romantic comedy story about regular 17-year-old guy Tsubaki Akira, who in the first episode of the series tastes the drool of the strange new transfer student Urabe Mikoto when she falls asleep at her desk and leaves a puddle of it behind. There is no particularly good reason for him to do this and even he questions why he did it after the fact. However, Tsubaki becomes mysteriously ill shortly thereafter and, on a visit to his home to deliver his homework, Urabe explains that she knows he tasted her drool, and they are now “bonded” — essentially, he must regularly taste her drool or go into painful withdrawal. Also, just incidentally, during her first day in class when Urabe suddenly broke into a fit of unprompted laughter that caused everyone to stare at her? She explains that’s because she heard a voice in her head that told her that Tsubaki was going to be the first person she would have sex with. Okay. From this point on episodes contain at least one but often multiple scenes of Urabe sticking her finger in her mouth, working up a gob of saliva, and feeding it to Tsubaki. Okay.
This constitutes the beginnings of them “going out.” One way I feel about Mysterious Girlfriend X is that it is a romance story written by an alien who has watched several other anime of a similar type about blooming first loves and tried to make its own but, in the end, lacks a kind of fundamental understanding of human emotions or embodiment. Part of this is an effect of a weird symbolic overdrive the anime often leans into. The “drool ritual,” as the two main characters call it, is exemplary in this regard, since we always get a shot of Urabe’s lips working around the end of her finger, see the finger emerge with a thick, gleaming, honey-like spit, and then she pops it into Tsubaki’s mouth while he closes his eyes in docile communion.
That this is a fractured, symbolic transposition of the sexual act is obvious. The show isn’t trying to hide it; in a few instances where Urabe tastes Tsubaki’s drool (she is, incidentally, vaguely psychic and can read people’s thoughts through tasting their spit) he remarks on how the feel of her mouth on his own finger is “soft” and “wet” and so on. Furthermore, most episodes feature a dream sequence where Tsubaki imagines himself and Urabe alone in a mildly threatening deserted themepark where geysers of some vague white substance erupt from oil rigs in the background. Part of the “alien-effect” of the show, as we might call it, is precisely this unsubtle and yet consistently unerotic symbolic vocabulary the series develops, a symbolic vocabulary that is too obvious and hence ends up perversely estranging the very acts it is supposed to communicate obscurely, because it leaves little to no room between symbol and interpretation.
Imagine, for example, an American sex comedy film, where characters are constantly talking about sex, but every time they actually said “sex” or referenced genitalia or something their mouths instead emitted, say, a David Lynchian ambiance of throbbing machinery — and the film was otherwise normal. What begins at first as confusion for the viewer (“Why are they just obviously censoring out the word ‘sex’ or references to genitals?”) gradually develops into the feeling that something more must be going on (“This is telling me something about sex!”) before finally collapsing in the face of hermeneutic exhaustion (“Nope, this is just sex, the intransigent, incomprehensible presence of sex in human life.”)
To be clear I am not arguing this kind of estrangement is intentional, exactly, that Ueshiba and the studio behind the anime set out to create a narrative about the intensely obscure and alien core of sexuality in human existence. Indeed, the show is so conventional that it doesn’t quite seem aware of what it is doing. Like the Twilight series, which is derided for its lack of strong plot in favor of parsing the emotional turmoil between Edward and Bella, MGX does more or less the same, but from the man’s perspective. Tsubaki spends the first half of the series or so asking his more experienced friend Ueno about how relationships are “supposed” to work — how do you get to know each other, when do you hold hands, and so on — only to usually find out his relationship with Urabe is never progressing in a normal fashion. A lot of screentime is devoted to him pondering his own emotions, and his desire for a bond with Urabe that is in some way normal.
Urabe herself has no desires for a conventional relationship, or much in the way of apparent desires at all, outside a generalized affection for Tsubaki that becomes more apparent as the series progresses. Her one strong insistence throughout the show is that Tsubaki not hug her without her permission — doing so (as happens a few times) results in scenes where Urabe develops super speed, does some wild magical girl poses, and pulls a pair of defense scissors from the hemline of her panties (where she keeps them at all times). Now, more needs to be said about Urabe: a vast number of her characteristics suggest she has Autism Spectrum Disorder. Her hair is unkempt, often in her eyes, and this means she does not have to look directly at people; her affect is usually flat and matter-of-fact; she clicks her pen repetitively in class and seems to have no real sense of social decorum; and, as I just explained, uninvited physical affection overstimulates her to a stunning degree. She has little ability to develop new interests outside of “scissors” (this is what she gives as her hobby when Tsubaki asks) and all of these features come together in Tsubaki’s choice to think of her as his “mysterious girlfriend.”
But Urabe also has some fascination with aliens. A charm on her bookbag is a tiny UFO; her bedroom has posters on the wall for Roswell, New Mexico and the Devil’s Tower in Wyoming, the location of the climactic alien visitation at the end of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Does this suggest something like camaraderie? Does Urabe perhaps see herself as similarly alien in social situations? Is the flatness of her affect itself a kind of social performance, a mode of modulating stimuli that would otherwise overwhelm her, but which her classmates seem to understand and navigate with ease?
Yet when all is said and done, reading MGX as simply a story about a neurotypical guy working out his relationship with a girl with ASD is highly inadequate. Part of this is because, while Urabe’s alien affinity might well be a sign of symbolic sympathy, we get no look at her interior life to confirm it; we quite pointedly never see much of her life, even her parents, though she mentions them occasionally and vaguely. In the end it would be equally valid to interpret the various alien paraphernalia as suggesting that Urabe is literally extraterrestrial — after all, as far as I’m aware, people on the Autism Spectrum rarely if ever have magical drool that allows them to forge psychic links, or superhuman reflexes. But again, such a reading is never confirmed: Urabe simply exists, and the show and its characters are never interested in asking more about her than that.
This is not necessarily empowering; she, along with the other female characters, are awkwardly fetishized by the camera and the male characters, who covertly take pictures and sell them to each other, discuss their relative breast sizes in the homosocial arena of the boys’ gym class, and so on. Indeed, Urabe keeping her cherished scissors in the hem of her panties means that we are often treated to shots of her lifting her skirt to pull them out, which of course means we see her underwear. Simultaneously, however, this fetishization is not free of the bizarre unsexiness I’ve already diagnosed in the show’s symbolic vocabulary. What with the drool, the scissors, the panties, and the constant remarks about breast size, the show’s attempts to tap into more standard versions of the male gaze are always weirdly askew.
Freud — who was full of shit but will be useful here in a limited sense — believed that sexual fetishes resulted in the trauma of the young boy’s recognition of sexual difference. That is, every boy thinks everyone has a penis, like him. When he learns his mother doesn’t have a penis, however, he interprets this not as a born difference but rather as the result of the father’s castration of the mother. Thus the penis becomes aligned with masculinity, power, and patriarchy while its loss or absence connotes subservience, a mark of shame and punishment, etc. As Freud reckoned, a “healthy” man would eventually reformat his horror at the female genitalia into a desire; however, some people redirect their sexual attention not onto the proper object but a substitute — the woman’s shoe, her foot, her breasts, etc. This, then, is Freud’s understanding of the fetish: it is a man’s method of attributing power to the woman (a “phallus”) symbolically, installing a hook onto which he can catch latch his desire and ignore the fact that the woman’s lack of a penis is a constant reminder of his own potential castration.
The problems with Freud’s argument here should be obvious and I don’t need to rehearse them, but I want to point out how weirdly apposite it is that Urabe keeps in the hem on her panties an object — her scissors — that function as a substitute phallus and as a reminder of the potential for castration. In other words, even as the show wants the viewer to look at and fetishize her underwear, it juxtaposes her panties with the scissors, defusing any clean attempt to deflect Freudian castration anxiety (which, again, can be read broadly as male terror in the face of female sexuality and sexual difference). Similarly, during the drool ritual, it is almost always Urabe who serves as the penetrative partner, conveying her spit into Tsubaki’s mouth. It would be much simpler, of course, to just kiss — but they never do that.
The show’s vision of human sexuality is fractured. On the one hand, there is a drive toward “regular” adolescent male horniness, a normative pattern of leering at girls and swapping stories about them before finding yourself in some regular pattern of development. On the other hand, the actual plot of the show, insofar as there is a plot, deals with this normative drive running aground in unexpected ways on a girl who defies most normative demands. Attempts to recapture her through fetishization — her drool, her panties — are always offset but a curiously terrifying sense of the fragility of the fetish’s process of redirection and substitution.
In the second episode Urabe leads Tsubaki into an abandoned building and makes him close his eyes. She strips naked and, it is heavily implied, masturbates in front of him before having him taste her drool, which psychically communicates the arousal she feels for him. But on top of that, this entire scene is intercut with shots of a dead beetle on the floor being eaten by ants.
This is MGX in a microcosm: a tortuously odd, awkward, sexualized situation that is limned with a kind of numinous dread. What the drool ritual, like the physical act of sex itself, ultimately gestures toward is the weird lubricity and permeability of our bodies, even when we seem emotionally and mentally partitioned from one another. And despite its glacial pace and, in the end, fairly conventional and somewhat unhealthy approach to how relationships “work,” what the show does that’s really interesting is press back on the normative drive just enough to reveal how our lives are shot through by others we don’t entirely understand, who are subject to inscrutable desires like we are, but whose manifestations of said desires never quite match our own: we all, in the end, are both loving and alien.
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