Nazo no Kanojo X Ep. 1: Frank, earnest and not at all weird

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.

Compare and contrast: what do flowers often symbolize?

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.

Additional thoughts

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.


40 Replies to “Nazo no Kanojo X Ep. 1: Frank, earnest and not at all weird”

  1. This is about as glowing a recommendation as I’ve heard from you in a while. I like your point about anime redefining normalcy, though I would certainly expand it to modern fiction. Sure, western shows tend not to do the whole afraid to hold hands thing, but their portrayal of romance is usually warped in plenty of other ways, and truely sexually liberated characters are comparably rare.

    I will make sure to give this one a watch.

    1. This is about as glowing a recommendation as I’ve heard from you in a while.

      Well, it’s probably the longest post I’ve written since the Mawaru Penguindrum days.

      Sure, western shows tend not to do the whole afraid to hold hands thing, but their portrayal of romance is usually warped in plenty of other ways,

      I tried to stay in the anime mindset; I was primarily concerned with how anime shapes its audience’s view of the world without assuming the audience has any knowledge of, say, Western media. I don’t watch a lot of Western TV shows anyway.

  2. MyAnimeList states 2004 while Baka Updates states 2006. However, Wikipedia says the oneshot was published in 2004 while it got serialized as an updating manga in 2006. I don’t always trust Wikipedia… but when I do, at least the years match up. In conclusion, it’s not as old as the artstyle seems to project. Which still isn’t bad.

    I became most interested in the choice of music, especially when it took a turn for the enchanting during the second dream. You would expect it to belong more in a carnival or a ballroom dance, but a boy’s discovery of the opposite sex? If put in any other context the music would sound downright creepy, but I’d posit that the boy is merely being curious. If we’re to put sound into a dream’s equation as well, we can interpret that Tsubaki sees his macabre dream city as a place that is not only unsettling to the eye but also exciting to behold and explore. And also a metaphor for sex as you have mentioned.

    1. The music most reminded me of something having to do with marionettes. This is probably just a stab in the dark though, but if marionettes started showing up, that’d be cool! I’d say the music is more… ominous. Like a warning to him that he’s getting involved in something bad.

      1. Perhaps the figurines in Tsubaki’s room count? Those didn’t exist in the source material, if I’m remembering this right, so I’m wondering how they’ll be used in the future.

        Also, did you notice the various sci-fi movie posters in his room?

  3. This show is being directed by the same dude who is directing Space Brothers, Ayumu Watanabe. Looking at the manga some of the symbolism is there but it looks like it was Watanabe’s choice to make it a large focus. The honey/pollen/cell division/water faucets is all his. The town and bodily fluids is the mangaka’s. With all this dense sexual symbolism it is rather amusing to note that 99% of Watanabe’s production credits prior to this season were for Doraemon.

    1. With all this dense sexual symbolism it is rather amusing to note that 99% of Watanabe’s production credits prior to this season were for Doraemon.

      Ah well, gotta earn your chops somewhere.

  4. Wait a second, So Ueba’s overflowing saliva is like the Pavlov dog test? Hmm, interesting. This series requires further study. E Minor, Observe the two subjects closely. See if those two can revitalize future anime romance. You have your orders. Move out!!

  5. I found its frankness and honesty pretty damn refreshing when compared to the slew of similar romance shows that’ve come out. The manga took a slightly different approach, especially with Urabe’s character, but overall it’s retaining the same feel. There’s just way too much to love here, and I hope that continues to include the interactions between Akira and Urabe.

  6. I’ve missed these kinds of posts from you, welcome back. Great analysis of the episode.

    (Also late comment because I wanted to finish Big O before seeing this episode)

  7. You finally get back to blogging in large volume right when I’m too busy to follow watch most of these shows. On this one, there’s a short essay out there by the manga’s author explaining some of the motivations for this whole thing. Tried to find it for you but couldn’t, the gist was it’s written in reaction to the way that romantic stories have to jump straight to sex…there’s a bit more to it but the idea was to carve out a space for a romantic story that didn’t go straight there. That’s all I’ve got unless I can find it again after all.

    Your recommendation has been noted and I’ll be checking this one out once I get time.

    1. the gist was it’s written in reaction to the way that romantic stories have to jump straight to sex…there’s a bit more to it but the idea was to carve out a space for a romantic story that didn’t go straight there.

      I’m guessing that this is more a response to manga where sex might be more prevalent, but in anime, the effect is ironically reversed; the show is more sex-filled than any of the other shows currently airing.

      You finally get back to blogging in large volume right when I’m too busy to follow watch most of these shows.

      We better talk the latest Bones series even if it’s a Eureka Seven sequel. I’ve got nothing against Eureka Seven; I did really enjoy the original series, but that was a long time ago. I can’t imagine seeing myself sitting through it ever again, especially any scenes with the children.

      Your recommendation has been noted and I’ll be checking this one out once I get time.

      Even though I liked the first episode, it is only the first episode and I have no clue how the story will turn out later.

      1. I believe he was talking about this:

        On another note, as someone who’s caught up with the manga, I think that this show shouldn’t (and probably won’t) adhere to the source material too strictly. It’s already been said earlier, but the first dream was an anime-only thing and it helped justify Tsubaki’s decision to taste Urabe’s drool more effectively than I imagined. Hopefully this will be a trend that lasts the entire series.

        1. Ultimately, what the mangaka originally intended won’t ever be the be all and end all of the discussion. The adaptation will stand on its own two feet and be analyzed as such. The essay is just an interesting side note.

  8. That is indeed what I was thinking of. Seems like the version I had coalesced in my memory was a bit different from what it actually says, but was at least somewhat related. From the sound of things it seems like the anime adaption is playing with the same ideas but in a very different way.

    In re: Eureka Seven, it’s still (sadly) a topic for another time, though I’ll admit I’d also have a hard time watching it again (50 episodes is a lot of episodes) and although I’m interested in the new series it doesn’t seem likely to be as fertile a ground for criticism as the original. The original had a very rare synergy between its components — the surface plot, the “golden bough”-derived mythological “plot”, the science-fiction aspects, the major and minor themes, and the human-interest factors — but was executed in a way that didn’t really live up to its potential (to put it mildly). Too much filler here, too many extraneous elements there, direction that often undercuts the effectiveness of key scenes. Conceptual richness only gets you so far, and sooner or later the bough will break, dropping you into B-or-below territory.

    It’s been what? 1-3 seasons now without anything that looks that promising for criticism. There’s at least Un-Go: Ingaron due soon-ish. Did you catch Shinkai’s latest film? If so I’d be curious to see your take on it.

    1. It has been too long for me to seriously critique Eureka Seven. I will just mention two scenes that stick with me to this day. First, Renton’s hallucination in (I think) some mines early on in the series. Second, the time he spent with a man and his catatonic wife. I still remember the man tapping on those spikes that littered the planet, knocking them down easily, but I might be mistaken on this. I recall Eureka Seven being something potentially fascinating only to become another “It was Earth all along, you fools!” twist. ‘Fraid you can’t outdo Planet of the Apes. But I was young at that point, and was swept up with the (juvenile) love story; I just wanted to see how Renton and Eureka would end up. I only realize now that the same relationship wouldn’t be enough to get me through nearly 50 episodes.

      Three? Nothing caught my eye last season. Fall last year had Un-Go. Summer was full of stuff that completely fizzled out (namely No.6 and Mawaru Penguindrum. Still, this season hasn’t shown its full cards yet, but I suppose it’s doubtful that either of the noitaminA shows are particularly interesting. They sure as hell weren’t last season.

      1. Only 1 season? Guess I’m preemptively counting the current season as a bust. Time flies.

        In re: Eureka, it’s probably not worth watching just to criticize. It had a real shot at finally being that great (to my tastes at least) long-form anime series — good entertainment on the face of it, largely absent of in-your-face “deep symbolism”, but in fact carrying levels and levels of hidden depth if you know where to look — but wasn’t able to pull it off.

        At the surface it’s a juvenile love story between two teenagers, whose eventually save the world via the power of love, and it’s pretty good at that. At another level it’s a fairly sophisticated reworking of the mythology discussed in the “The Golden Bough” that goes beyond merely retelling (a version of) the story to also include something of a response to one of that work’s primary theses. That alone honestly shouldn’t be all that remarkable — it’s a bit interesting but doesn’t set it apart from other ambitious works in anime or other media — but what set E7 apart (in theory, but not in practice) is how organically all of its other elements meshed with that conceptual framework…in fact, they meshed with it so organically that I suspect this angle would’ve gone unnoticed if the show hadn’t very blatantly tried so very hard to bring “The Golden Bough” to the viewer’s attention.

        But, it failed in numerous ways to pull this off…the Frazierian aspects are there, the ways the setting, the science-fiction aspects, the plotlines, and the themes mesh with the Frazierian aspects are also there (as is the way they all mesh together), but the filler content, the allocation of emphasis and attention, and the tone choices all tend to undercut the seriousness of the primary storyline and muddy the connections to the mythological stuff…and sadly that’s just the start of the problems preventing it from getting anything like an “A”, sigh. But it had a real shot due to how well — and how organically — its conceptual stuff meshed with the rest of it, so more’s the pity.

        Oh well. Such a near miss, and yet still so far from a real A. FWIW: the “it was earth all along” angle is actually somewhat necessary to make the mythologic stuff really sink in (earth being entombed in a crust of dead micro-organisms…before being eventually reborn) but the way it was handled left one of biggest sticks in my craw (to this very day…). Not explicitly tying at least part of Eureka’s meltdown at around that same time to her realizing “uh, us corals were the ones that drove humanity out from earth? there’s no way the people on the surface will accept that” was a painful omission. And yeah, there sure were a lot of hallucinations (5-10 all in, I think, which is a big chunk of the runtime).

        …and that’s far more than enough about E7 for the foreseeable future. Onward to the future and future seasons. Fingers crossed on Ingaron. And definitely: Guilty Crown and Black Rock Shooter as Noitamina? Hopefully that’s a failed experiment because, seriously, what?

        1. I will concede expertise on Eureka Seven to you. I wasn’t taking anime too seriously when I saw it, so unfortunately, I can’t really comment on a lot of the things in your post.

          As for noitaminA, I’ve heard people praising how Guilty Crown turned out in the end. I don’t know if that would make up for the horrific start though. Speaking of which, this season’s shows just got subbed so I’ve got a busy night ahead of me.

        2. No worries, that was mostly for your reference than anything. E7 is interesting insofar as it’s got an unusual-for-a-50-episode-mecha-series amount of big-picture stuff going into it (mythological stuff, etc., probably due to Dai Sato’s involvement) but still constrained enough by commercial considerations to hold in check the worst tendencies of that kind of high-concept writing (contrast with, say, Ergo Proxy). It just failed to execute well enough to really pull it off, and being 50 episodes means it’s hard to justify a re-watch just to see how that failure-to-pull-it-off plays out. Onward to the present and future!

          1. Speaking of Dai Soto, whatever happened to him anyway? Seemed like he took a short break for a few years then decided to jump back into terrible movie scripts.

        3. I’m laughably far from being well-informed on these matters, but my understanding is that he started up a “story consultancy” around the time he started to “disappear”. If I had to guess I’d surmise he has been keeping busy by doing a lot of uncredited ghostwriting for video games, but that’d just be a guess; it’s entirely possible he just hasn’t been that busy for whatever reason.

  9. This show and ANN. It generated a bigger shitstorm than when B Gata H Kei AND Kiss×Sis aired together. Sure, Upotte helped a bit, but still. There is something about drool, I tell ya.

  10. To give an idea of the retro feel, there is an Osaka 1970 Expo on the wall when he wakes up. Note that there are six dots instead of 5 though.

    1. Additionally, Bad Cat is the author’s moniker. The fellow with the fox mask on the train is a callback to his previous series, Yume Tsukai/Discommunication, which also had an anime that aired in 2006. The Bad Cat figure next to R. Dorothy (Of Big O fame) is dressed as Captain Haddock. There is also a movie poster for The Day the Earth Stood Still.

      The author is a huge fan of YMO (Technopolis), and I hope it influences the soundtrack in future episodes.

      Wikipedia is right – NKX/MGX started off as a one-shot in 2004, which is this episode. The serialization proper started in 2006 and is onging.

      Factoid – The dreamscape is – appropriately enough – Memory Lane.

  11. I think to be more exact about the author’s intentions was that he felt there was a growing divide between depictions of chaste will-they-wont-they relationships that never even hold hands, and the reality of Japan’s current sexual revolution with ever younger middle school students having sex without fully developing a true boyfriend girlfriend relationship first. The author wanted to present a couple with a physical, quasi-sexual relationship, but that at the same time was taking it slow and not jumping so quickly to sex.

    Basically he’s saying: Yes, you should be thinking about sexual bonds and having a physical relationship with each other. But you really should take things slow and not leap to sex right away. Take your time and enjoy the innocence and curiosity of youth. Once you become an adult then you will be ready for the “real thing.”

    1. I still think it’s silly that sex is apparently something that only adults can handle. Somehow, drinking saliva is okay (assuming we ignore its obvious implications for something way more sexually charged), but just taking it a small step further is to cross a forbidden barrier. I know he’s trying to reach a compromise between what he perceives as two extremes, but it leaves us in a rather strange place in my opinion. Oh well, it’s not as if authorial intent is the end all be all of interpretation.

    1. The second episode was a little… hm, off-putting. I’m going to wait until I see the third episode before deciding what to do.

  12. I’ve tried to do some research on the Bad Cat Hotel sign, and here are my results.
    The sign says, I think (there’s plenty of ways to translate words like “hostel” after all, and I don’t know even basic Japanese):
    御休憩¥3000 or “Imperial Break, 3k Yen”
    御宿泊¥5000 or “Imperial Overnight Accomodations, 5k Yen”
    Given that infants, schoolchildren, and adults can all take breaks at real-life locations, I’m gonna go with the notion that it is a regular (by Japanese standards) hostel/hotel/motel, not specifically a love hotel. Possibly a nice or fancy one (despite the visual design), given the term “Imperial.”

    Consider this guesswork.

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