Asobi Asobase Was the Jewel of the Summer 2018 Anime Season

I have to admit, the Andy Kaufman fan in me really enjoys bait and switch. I loved Neon Genesis Evangelion, which looks like a straightforward giant robot series until about halfway through when it reveals itself to be a dive into depression, alienation and weird religious imagery. Similarly, many folks gave Asobi Asobase – Workshop of Fun a pass due to the pre-air advertising and intro sequence that makes it look like a boring “cute girls doing cute things cutely” series. But unlike Evangelion which waited until the 12th episode to tip its hand, Asobi Asobase shows off what it is immediately.

Watch the Asobi Asobase opening sequence:

The light, mellow theme song, the over-lit images of gardens and brightly colored chalkboards makes Asobi Asobase look utterly forgettable, a story of a trio of best friends who frolic, play and, ultimately do a whole bunch of nothing.  For a comedy series, the intro sequence is relatively joke-free (if there is a joke — beyond the sequence itself — it’s when the trio are leaping through the air in long-flowing dresses and Kasumi makes sure to hold hers down to keep it from billowing up.) Basically, the intro sequence makes Asobi Asobase look like moe-bait, with soft, naive middle school protagonists that the audience will want to protect. (And probably lust over, given the disturbing amount of anime lately featuring little-sister fetishists.) (Seriously, that shit’s fucked up.
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But that’s not the show at all — thankfully. Asobi Asobase is about three girls who, rather than joining any of the other clubs at their all-girls middle school, form the “Pastimers Club,” focusing on simple games — while most of the games are Japanese, think things like Paper Football. Stuff you’d play to waste time in class. But instead of cute girls doing cute things, the three protagonists, Kasumi (the glasses one), Olivia (the blond one) and Hanako (the other one) are neurotic jerks. As much as they like each other, they don’t particularly feel any loyalty to each other. They’re all self-serving, and it’s hilarious.

One of the things that often comes up in feminist critiques of shows is that girl characters often aren’t allowed to be funny or engage in slapstick. Female characters are often put into the “killjoy” role, who keep the male characters from doing the funny stuff. Asobi Asobase, on the other hand, isn’t afraid to let its characters be grotesque. There are great expressions throughout the series, and most of the problems the characters face are self-inflicted.

hanako asobi asobase expressions
Seriously, look at Hanako. LOOK AT HER.

There was a similar show to Asobi Asobase this season, Chio’s School Road. Both shows feature young female protagonists goofing around, getting into trouble and generally engaging in light surrealism. But comparing the shows is rather interesting; I had the sneaking suspicion that Asobi was created by a woman and Chio by a man — which turned out to be right.

Where Chio (created by Tadataka Kawasaki, also known for his hentai work) sexualizes its characters at every turn — women have enormous, constantly jiggling breasts, a predatory lesbian stereotype, a creepy dude who ends up acting like a mentor in a couple of episodes — Asobi Asobase (created by Rin Suzukawa) avoids all that. While Kasumi is busty, she’s never sexualized, even when a story focuses on her breasts.

For example, one episode features Kasumi trying to sew a blouse for home ec. Unfortunately, the pattern she uses is for a woman with smaller breasts and it doesn’t fit. Hanako helps by adding more fabric — as basically breast-pockets (complete with nipples!).

asobi asobase blouse
Kasumi’s blouse, with Hanako’s alterations

But there’s nothing sexy about it — the entire episode is about Kasumi’s frustration with not being able to find clothes that fit her. And, if anything, Hanako’s alterations to Kasumi’s blouse seem more like a broad parody of sexiness. Though the joke is about Kasumi’s bustiness, it’s not gross. (Compare that to Chio, which progressively doubled-down on the grossness as the series went on, with episodes where the predatory lesbian character is defeated because Chio set up another character to get groped! Comedy!)

That said, the show isn’t perfect. There’s one subplot where the main trio suspect a fellow student is trans and try (and fail) to out her. But at least, the show makes clear that if anyone has a problem it’s them and not her, and she always ends up on top. Still, as someone who is cisgender, I’m not 100% comfortable declaring the storyline a-OK.

But that’s a minor quibble, and I can’t recommend Asobi Asobase enough. And if you watched the opening sequence and still aren’t sure, the ending sequence feels a bit closer to what the show is really like, so give that a spin before you decide not to watch.

Watch the Asobi Asobase ending sequence:

In the United States, Asobi Asobase is available via Crunchyroll.

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