I’m not even trying to be the slightest bit sarcastic. Yes, I’ll admit that my initial gut reaction to Nazo no Kanojo X was “Damn, this is weird.” But once the dust settled, Nazo no Kanojo X is the most honest romance to grace anime in a long time. What ultimately cemented this conclusion? Seeing Urabe’s mouth overflow with saliva.
If you haven’t seen Nazo no Kanojo X, I recommend doing so. Not only do I think the first episode is genuinely entertaining, I don’t think a quick synopsis of its premise will do the show any justice. But just in case you remain unconvinced, the anime is about a romance between Tsubaki and the new transfer student Urabe. Sounds ordinary so far, right? One day, Tsubaki seizes an opportunity to taste a pool of Urabe’s saliva. Yes, this makes no sense out of context, but like I’ve said above, you really should just watch the episode. Nevertheless, this simple exchange of fluid has Tsubaki hooked.
Nazo no Kanojo X sets itself apart from other romance anime in a myriad of ways. First, its art direction harkens back to anime’s younger days (though we’re not exactly going very far back). The anime really does appear as though it would fit in more with its 90s counterparts than in our current era of computer-aided polish and shine. But aesthetics aside, what really makes people sit up and pay attention to Nazo no Kanojo X is its fearlessness.
Right off the bat, Tsubaki instantly tells the audience that he thinks about sex. We might even infer that he thinks about sex a lot judging by his constant dreams on the subject. You might ask, of course, what’s so weird about this? Don’t all boys think about sex? Ah, yes, most boys do think about sex, but do anime boys think about it as often as they should? Even more importantly, Tsubaki’s boyish inclination is more than just drooling over tits and ass. Oftentimes, anime will just ignore the issue of sex altogether. When a story does happen to have a lecherous protagonist, he or she might drool over his or her harem’s “assets,” but real, dirty sex is almost always kept at arm’s length. What’s real, dirty sex? Fluid swapping. Fluid expulsion. Just goddamn fluids everywhere.
You know how it goes in most romances. The boy and girl are definitely into each other, but they’ll do this bizarre mating ritual where they won’t even so much as hold hands until the very last episode. All of a sudden, the story ends. Where’s the passion? Where’s the climax? Nazo no Kanojo X gets right down to business. In the middle of the very first episode, Tsubaki gets a real good taste of Urabe’s saliva and he loves it. He suffers withdrawal when he doesn’t get it. He needs it. How is this any different from when teenage boys get a taste of sex and constantly beg for it?
But wait, you might exclaim, what if saliva is just saliva and a gun is just a gun? Sure, sure, maybe Nazo no Kanojo X just really wants to tap that lucrative demographic of saliva lovers. But remember, this is a mainstream anime. You can’t just show teenagers doing the deed onscreen (yes, I know there are exceptions to the rule). You can, however, employ symbolism. At one point, Urabe wants Tsubaki to express his love for her. This is the only way she’ll allow him to call her his girlfriend. Tsubaki follows up with a gesture that is so romantic and touching to Urabe that she overflows with saliva. Oh hell, why are we being coy about it? She comes.
Most of us will watch a scene like that and exclaim, “Whoa, so weird!” But is it? Doesn’t this actually resemble the average teenage romance? It’s a little awkward, a little obsessive, a little dirty, a little sloppy, a little alien and a little frightening… but that’s just puberty. That’s just sexual development. And when you frame Tsubaki and Urabe’s love in this particular way, the show isn’t all that weird anymore. Tsubaki’s (slightly creepy) dreams start to make sense. He is, as Urabe proclaims, just in love.
Why do we call it weird though? And I’m not trying to be judgmental when I pose this particular question–I too thought Nazo no Kanojo X seemed odd. But here’s my theory: we have allowed anime to redefine normalcy. Compared to Nazo no Kanojo X, other romances are downright prudes. The couples in other shows are afraid to even hold hands. And y’know what? That is weird. It’s almost to the point that you have to watch either yaoi or yuri just to catch a glimpse of two people embracing one another, but that’s a whole ‘nother can of worms that I’ll just leave be for now.
Sure, we’ve all felt an initial level of embarrassment with our girlfriends or boyfriends, but teenagers in the throes of passion aren’t likely to keep their hands off of each other. Anime, however, renders this sterilized, sanitized world where sex doesn’t really exist. There’s some strange, mutant form of platonic love or, to put it nicely, an elevated form of friendship between two people. They might, uh, kiss if we’re lucky, but most of time, the princess is locked away in a castle until both characters decide that it’s time to grow up and stop putting the opposite sex on a pedestal (see: Bakuman).
But even though this plastic sort of romance between anime characters is truly what’s weird, it’s so ubiquitous in romances that we’ve redefined the normative. All of a sudden, the achingly coy–and I’m being gentle about it–love affair in shows such as Hanasaku Iroha becomes the normal. We have shifted the spectrum so far to one side that Nazo no Kanojo X and its characters’ natural desire to swap bodily fluids seem weird to us. But if you’re alone with your girlfriend or boyfriend, and there’s absolutely no one around for miles, is sex all that weird? And when your girlfriend or boyfriend does something really romantic, is it so weird to react the way that Urabe does?
I don’t think so.
If you guys haven’t already balked at the analysis above, this is the section that might drive you up the wall. If you’re quick to say I overanalyze, as some readers are wont to do, I’d suggest that you stop reading now; I’m going to dive right into Nazo no Kanojo X‘s dense sexual symbolism.
• Obviously, the art direction is intentional, but when was Nazo no Kanojo X born? First, @vuc tells me that the manga started in the 90s. @draggle_kun chimes in to say that it was published in 2006. Finally, @Inushinde throws in 2004. Which is it, guys? I’m too lazy to Google it.
• Tsubaki’s first dream is pretty straightforward, but we can nevertheless discern his thought process. He’s at first consumed with reproductive images, i.e. pollination and cell division. The former soon becomes about nectar or honey, while the latter morphs into naked girls. This might suggest that Tsubaki’s firsthand knowledge about sex is what he has learned in school: sex is for reproduction and reproduction only. But like any hot-blooded teenager, Tsubaki is into the forbidden side of reproduction: pleasure, which is represented by the spilling nectar, and (perhaps) voyeurism. The innocent act of watching cells undergoing mitosis under a microscope soon becomes something dirty and taboo.
• Fittingly, Tsubaki spills his “nectar” at the breakfast table shortly after yawning, prompting his sister to clean it up. She then kindly reminds him to focus his attention on school. Think of a mother cleaning up a son’s dirty sheets after he’s had a wet dream. On a related note, the dynamic here between Tsubaki and his sister is notable if we consider the early 90’s mother-son incest scare in Japan. Here’s how the urban legend goes: the teenage son is preoccupied by sex, so the mother offers to lend a hand in order to help her son alleviate his sexual frustrations. In doing so, the son can go back to being a scholar. Of course, the woman we see in the kitchen is not Tsubaki’s mother but his sister. But had the anime not told us otherwise, we would have assumed that she was his mother. No, I’m not saying that there’s any incest between Tsubaki and his sister. I’m merely saying that the act of cleaning up his spilt fluid and reminding him to go to school is analogous to some pretty racy urban legends.
• When we are introduced to Urabe, we learn that she’s often tired and instantly falls asleep during break periods. What might this suggest?
• Upon tasting Urabe’s saliva, Tsubaki comments on how sweet it is. This is an obvious callback to the spilt honey on the breakfast table.
• In Tsubaki’s second dream, Urabe drags him by hand into an unfamiliar city. Initially, the only color in the city is represented by the red lights on the alley walls. Does this suggest their descent into a red light district or just a more taboo section generally? Sexual symbolism abounds as the two continue their journey. Tsubaki watches a train go by. They finally end up upon a hotel where they “had fun dancing together.” The name of the establishment is Hotel Bad Cat. Is it a love hotel? In the foreground, one of those drilling machinery churns up and down in a steady motion. As the camera pans up, a tower spews forth a white fluid, yet another instance of fluids being expelled. Unrelated to the dream, but notable regardless, we often see a row of faucets dripping with water.
• Urabe suggests that Tsubaki first fell in love with her after seeing her eyes. Later in the anime, however, Tsubaki voiceovers that he “fell… really fell [in love]” once she started giving him a taste of her saliva every day after school. Does this small discrepancy bode well for their relationship? Or does this suggest that their young love is passionate but volatile, i.e. too entirely centered around sex? The scissors bound to one of Urabe’s legs seem ominous.
• Urabe confesses that “when something makes me really happy, saliva starts overflowing from [her] mouth.” I don’t think it can get any less ambiguous than that. In any case, this shot is suggestive.
• According to Urabe, a voice told her that she would one day have sex with Tsubaki. Is this a voice of her sexual desires or a mysterious third party? The latter would seem kind of supernatural and (in my opinion) lame, but we’ll see how things play out.
• There’s a dreamlike logic to the world of Nazo no Kanojo X regardless of whether or not any of the characters are currently dreaming. As soon as Urabe confirms that she is indeed Tsubaki’s girlfriend, the city around them lights up instantly.
• The ending preview has Tsubaki uttering the following line: “Say, Urabe, what do bonds and the threads of fate look like?” Oh dear God, not the threads of fate again.
• I like the soundtrack, especially the song that plays during Tsubaki’s dreams.