Yuki Aito is living the dream… in a way. His comic Haji Café has become a hit, dragging his art career from a hobby into a full-on profession. Like many a manga artist before him, he’s discovering the hard way that a weekly schedule never lets up, taking on a bunch of assistants to help him grind out the pages. But because he’s a self-acknowledged pervert, obsessed with knickers, he has only hired pretty teenage girls.
Even if you’re not an anime or manga fan, you’re probably familiar with the look of the “harem show” – a romantic comedy that places a single hapless boy in the company of a whole gang of pretty women, every one of them girlfriend material. The genre has been visible in Japan for the last 20 years, serving the anyone-will-do desperation of horny teenage boys, with just a dash of wish fulfilment. These fantasy women aren’t just beautiful and theoretically available for Yuki, they are also comics fans like him.
Should he plump for Sahoto, the hard-working artist who cherishes a dream of being a comics creator all on her own? Or should he go for Rinna, the talentless assistant hired only for her looks, and the fact that she is a fan of his work? Maybe he should chance his arm with Sena, the pathologically childish teenager who nurses a hidden sadistic streak? Or perhaps he should return to his past with his old schoolmate Mihari, once a childhood crush, now a hard-nosed editor at his manga publisher?
The Comic Artist and His Assistants is based on a manga about creating manga, one of a burgeoning sub-genre of self-referential titles that have also seen tales of wacky sci-fi shop-owners, convention costumers as the heroes of their own show, and a chronicle of behind-the-scenes shenanigans at an animation studio. For everyone who keeps hearing that anime and manga are taking the world by storm, it’s a gentle reminder that some of anime’s appeal actually stems from its ability to go small: narrow-casting to niche audiences such as, in this case, boys who like drawing comics and ogling girls, and who don’t see anything creepy in the very obvious exploitation of workplace power. Original creator “Hiroyuki” first found fame with a manga about creating amateur manga, and now he’s gone pro in every sense.
As you may have noticed, it’s all about Yuki’s choice, his options and his desires. The women in The Comic Artist and His Assistants are less characters than they are gaming objects, clusters of attributes and quirks – this one’s got small tits, that one’s got blonde hair, that one’s too weak to open an ink pot. There are plenty of anime and manga for a female audience (and this column will get to them soon enough), but this month’s offering is resolutely chauvinist, deriving much of its humour from putting the girls in embarrassing situations and subjecting them to sexual harassment (boob-grabbing now counts as “research”).
Takeshi Furuta’s animated adaptation seems to instinctively know that its one-note perving is going to be difficult to sustain. Consequently, its episodes clock in at a quick 15 minutes each, just long enough to set up a pantomime situation of ooer-missus innuendo, and to slap our priapic protagonist with some sort of half-hearted retribution. One typical episode focuses creepily on Yuki stuck in an elevator with the childlike Sena, as she reveals that she is desperate to go to the toilet. The show takes evident pleasure, like Yuki himself, in the prospect of her humiliation, turning their dilemma into a comedy of manners when he offers her an empty bottle to piss in.
This isn’t a show with morals as such, although every now and then it pays lip service to the idea that Yuki needs to grow up before he can achieve his true potential, and, it is implied, bag himself a girlfriend for real. But personal growth was not the message of Hiroyuki’s original, nor should we expect it to be. This is an anime show about wobbly bits and cat-calls, pulling girls’ pigtails and peering down their dresses. You will also learn the Japanese for knickers, which is pantsu.
Jonathan Clements is the author of Modern Japan: All That Matters.This article first appeared in Geeky Monkey #1, 2015.