Summary: Obese otaku Kae Serinuma loves one thing above all else: witnessing intense bonds between men. Whether it’s fictional boys of anime or her handsome male classmates, she lives for the moment where they share a significant glance or touch. When her favorite anime character dies, Kae locks herself in her room for two weeks without food. When she emerges and returns to school, she’s lost all the extra weight. Suddenly, the boys that wouldn’t give her the time of day want nothing more than her attention, but she’d rather they pay more attention to each other!
Content warnings: weight loss/gain, strong trigger warning for sexual assault
My expectations going into Kiss Him, Not Me were low, to say the least. Despite my own fondness for seeing boys kiss, I view fujoshi culture with an extremely critical eye. That is, after all, the reason garbage like Super Lovers and Junjou Romantica keeps getting made. I’m also not a fan of shipping real people or the idea that a girl only needs to lose weight to be lovable. When I actually gave the series a try, I was surprised to find it actually has something of a subversive bent, taking shots at romantic shoujo tropes without turning into outright parody. It’s a romantic comedy with very little romance; it’s a harem show where the heroine has more interest in the unattainability of fictional characters. However, that subversiveness is inconsistent and regularly mixed in with the typical shoujo cliches, making it hard to take the message seriously.
The premise of the show alone raises eyebrows. Manga about some kind of personal transformation are fairly common, such as Blue Spring Ride and High School Debut, and almost always revolve around the idea that daintiness and prettiness are more feminine and thus desirable. Kae, however, has absolutely zero interest in changing. The weight loss was purely accidental and she was plenty happy how she was. Her love of anime and BL still dictates most of her actions, and she doesn’t much care whether or not her harem decides to join her at things like Comiket or picking up the latest character goods at Animate. Kae’s ability to stay true to herself is remarkable, as is the boys’ willingness to accept her for who she is. It’s easy for a manga to convey the message to be yourself, but Kiss Him, Not Me dares readers to embrace their socially unacceptable qualities.
However, that remains undermined by exactly how fat Kae is depicted. Kae’s physical transformation isn’t just weight loss; she also stops wearing her glasses and, in the anime, develops gradient hair. Her eyes get larger and more expressive, and even her ears and nose change shape. Even more egregious in the anime is the voice work. When she’s fat, Kae’s voice is repellent and distorted as if she’s speaking through a mouthful of cotton, but when she’s slender, her voice sounds high and girly unless she’s actively drooling over BL. This change has no bearing in reality – body weight doesn’t affect the vocal cords. Rather, it just makes fat Kae seem even more repulsive than she would have been otherwise. In one plotline, she gains all her weight back and the other characters confront the superficiality of their attraction to her, and whether or not it’s fair to try to get her to lose weight again. Mutsumi, her history club senpai who she was already friends with, and fellow fujoshi Shima don’t care either way, but her classmate Igarashi has to do some real soul-searching. None of that really matters, however, because Kae decides to lose the weight anyway, especially when the boys come up with a plan to perform PDA at certain weights as a motivator for her. Thus the status quo is restored and the series can continue with its conventionally attractive heroine.
Sexual assault pops up in what seems like almost all shoujo manga, and Kiss Him, Not Me is no exception. There have been three instances thus far, using the well-worn trope with deftness ranging from clunky and cliched to surprisingly intelligent. The first story that uses the threat of sexual assault takes place early in the series, during the school festival. The boys, tired of only being part of a group, decide to each take some time with Kae individually. Kae, unused to being the center of attention, gets quickly overwhelmed by their flirtation and touching, culminating in Shinomiya falling face-first into her breasts in the haunted house. Kae flees, seeking out a staircase so she can spend some time by herself and calm down. While she’s sitting there, some boys from another school identify her by a flyer with her face on it and accost her, demanding she “service” them. When she punches them in self-defense, they give chase until her boys find her and start a brawl with them. While this confrontation does make them look protective, the fact that Kae felt the need to get away from them in the first place undercuts any sense of triumph. Even after the fight, Kae isn’t grateful or touched; rather, she starts crying out of anxiety and calls reality a “shitty game” when one of the brawlers bumps into her. While the introduction of assault drags the plot down, the emotional honesty did strike me. Kae never asked for any of this; she doesn’t care about being pretty or popular with boys, so of course she would uncomfortable with every moment. The conclusion isn’t that the boys care about her and thus she would be grateful – rather, the episode ends with them apologizing and promising to take things at her pace. With a little more thought, there could have easily been a climax leading to the same conclusion that didn’t involve her being sexually threatened.
The second (per manga order) instance is the most cliche example of a heroine being sexually threatened for cheap drama. The episode focuses on Shinomiya, the youngest of the group, and his insecurities about being a slender bishounen compared to his more athletic rivals. When he and Kae find themselves stranded in abandoned hotel, a group of local men appear to mock him for his lack of masculinity and start grabbing at Kae. Shinomiya responds by kicking them in the junk and fleeing outside to where their friends are waiting, which is hardly the manliest defense strategy. However, Kae did nothing to save herself when only a few episodes ago she could at least put up a fight. Rather, the story prioritizes Shinomiya’s struggle over Kae’s own ability to defend herself and props up his meager masculinity at the expense of her stereotypically feminine traits, namely her sexual desirability and physical weakness.
These instances are a shame, because Kiss Him, Not Me has one of the best depictions of the consequences of acquaintance assault that I’ve seen in a shoujo series. The set up is that Nanashima, concerned that he’s losing favor with Kae compared to his rivals, takes on a job performing in a magical girl stage show at a theme park with Kae. She takes him home when he has a fever, and unable to distinguish fantasy and reality (why didn’t they take him to the hospital?), he pins her down and kisses her until Igarashi bursts in and punches him. Shoujo heroines being threatened with rape by male acquaintances is common, but usually framed very differently. The boy is usually fully conscious and aware, but does it as a way of “teaching her a lesson” about being vulnerable and unguarded around males. Quite often it’s in soft focus and treated as a romantic moment rather than frightening and traumatic, such as in Boys Over Flowers and Blue Spring Ride. One thing that struck me in the scene about Kiss Him, Not Me, on the other hand, is how visceral it is. Aware or not, Nanashima performs an act of violence against Kae. She visibly tenses up as she resists him, but he overpowers her as intense music plays. Even as she cries out, “Get a hold of yourself!” he continues, and there’s no knowing how far things would have gone had Igarashi not interrupted.
While in most series the threat of assault passes by without their relationship being affected, Kiss Him, Not Me is acutely aware of the lingering effects of such an encounter. Kae stays home from school for several days and doesn’t go to rehearsal for their show. While she’s home, she reads BL manga, comparing it to her own experience. “It’s so good when it’s in BL! But, when it happens in real life, it’s just scary.” The emphasis on fantasy vs reality is essential, but it’s rarely discussed in stories aimed at young women. Kae uses the fantasy to process her emotions about reality, but her own experience recontextualizes how she views the fantasy as well. What’s more, no one at any point blames Kae for the assault, not even herself, while the typical trope is that the girl was too relaxed and comfortable around boys. When Kae returns to work, Nanashima reaches out to her, and she flinches away. “I know you were acting strange because of your fever, so don’t worry about it,” she tells him. “But, I’m still scared.” Nanashima doesn’t take it personally. Instead he smiles and nods and agrees to give her the space she needs. Throughout the storyline, Kae’s reactions and emotions are treated with respect, both by the other characters and within the text. It’s strange that fundamental human decency can be considered subversive, but sexual assault by acquaintances in shoujo is usually treated as punitive, a natural consequence, or even worse, romanticized.
Of course, Kiss Him, Not Me undercuts itself somewhat with the episode’s conclusion. At the show, a group of adult male magical girl otaku interfere with the show by blocking the young audience and trying to look up the actress’ skirts. Nanashima jumps in as the Dark Prince and beats up the otaku with a little help from Kae, telling her at the end, “I swear I will never hurt you again.” This turn in the story offers Nanashima an easy out, while separating him from the bad, scary “outside” men, much like in the beach episode. The contrast between him and the otaku make him look better by comparison – Nanashima was delirious and unaware of himself, while these men are in total control of their faculties. While Kae was intellectually aware that she had nothing to fear from him, her emotional response was one of trauma and fear. However, the episode closes with Kae smiling and thinking, “Boys can be scary, but they can also be very dependable!” Rather than allowing Kae the necessary time to heal and fully forgive Nanashima, the show goes for a quick, convenient resolution. I understand why – it would be a difficult blow for a lighthearted comedy to recover from – but it is still frustrating. Allowing Nanashima to prove that he’s dependable and not scary like other guys, rather than Kae gradually recovering from her trauma and feeling comfortable around him again, ties up the often-messy emotional process too neatly. With everything the episode does so well – the violence of the act, the separation of fantasy and reality, the separation of intellectual and emotional forgiveness – the message becomes muddled at the very end. It is betrayed by its own realism, and a new possible reading of the moral appears: even if he lost control, he’s not like those scary strangers who look up girls’ skirts. You can still rely on him. Nanashima may have been ill, but the logic easily extends to more common situations, such as drinking to excess.
Kiss Him, Not Me is not an easy show to categorize. It wants to be subversive, but its willingness to turn to unironic shoujo cliches with only a slight twist makes it hard to take it seriously as such. Subversiveness applied inconsistently is without conviction, turning what could have been powerful toothless and contradictory. It’s a shame, because it handled some aspects with a deftness rarely seen in manga aimed at teens. Its central message of self-love and respect, and that fat people deserve to be treated with love and humanity, are important ones, and deserve a series that can stick to its guns.