April 16, 2024 · 0 comments

By Andrew Osmond.

Rent-a-Girlfriend is a risqué romcom about a young man going online and… It’s as the title says. College student Kazuya is smarting after he’s dumped. That’s when he finds a website offering rental girlfriends. (“For just 5,000 yen per hour,” says the site, which was about £35 when the series was broadcast in 2020, and about £27 as of writing). As to whether rental girlfriends are anime fantasies like alien girlfriends, or whether they’re really a thing in Japan… We’ll get to that later.

Soon Kazuya is sitting in a café with a gorgeously beautiful, smiling girl. The script constantly reminds us that she’s absurdly out of his league. At the end of the date, she briefly holds his hand, and Kazuya lets himself think she liked him. Then he goes on a discussion board and finds, surprise, that’s how she treats all her customers.

Smarting again, Kazuya gives the girl a one-star review, but it’s not enough. He orders another date so he can tell the girl, called Chizuru, how he feels in person. On the day, she’s impeccably bright and friendly again… till they go to an aquarium (the archetypal date spot for Japanese youngsters), and he starts yelling at her. She drags him into a back room, breaks character, and explodes at him in turn. It’s wonderfully uncomfortable and fascinating on a human level, silly cartoon expressions and all.

Then we get the first of the story’s ludicrous twists. While they’re arguing, Kazuya gets a call telling him his grandmother, who’s dear to him, has been taken to hospital. He rushes to see her and Chizuru follows because, well, she’s a pro and still on the clock as his date. On seeing Chizuru, the grandmother naturally asks who this strange girl is, and Kazuya stammers she’s his girlfriend. Pandemonium follows, as Kazuya’s relatives had given up on the boy continuing the family line.

In a pile-on of wouldn’t-you-knows, it turns out Chizuru’s not just a student at Kazuya’s college, but she lives next door to him too! At least Chizuru has Clark Kent syndrome; that is, she looks so dowdy and studious in her normal life that none of the supporting characters recognise her as the goddess on Kazuya’s arm. Oh, and Kazuya’s ex, called Mami, is still around, reacting oddly to the news that he’s got a beautiful new girlfriend. It’s great fun seeing Chizuru and Kazuya being roped together ever tighter. And then more girls pile on in…

Rent-a-Girlfriend started as a manga in 2017, written and drawn by Reiji Miyajima, and serialised in Weekly Shonen Magazine. It’s still running as of writing, coming up to 35 collected volumes, and spawning not just this anime but a live-action series on Japanese TV in 2022. Notably, Miyajima said in an online interview that he was influenced by a news story that wasn’t about Japan – rather, it was a story about China. It was about “parents who pressure their sons to bring a girlfriend home for Chinese New Year, so they rent a girlfriend to introduce to their parents. It sounds quite silly, but I felt it was also endearing.”

There seems no reason to think rental girlfriends don’t exist in Japan. Indeed, it’s easy to find Japanese-language sites which will purportedly put you in touch with them, or YouTube videos that ostensibly show the “service” in action. It’s debatable if rental girlfriends are any less strange, or more sinister, than maid cafes or hostess clubs. Both of those undeniably exist, and both are businesses which let male customers pay to share the company of young women who wouldn’t glance at them in real life.

However, it’s worth adding a postscript to this, about the much wider claims have been made in recent years. Namely, that “rental girlfriends” are the tip of a far more extraordinary Japanese culture. In April 2018, the New Yorker ran an article, nearly ten thousand words, about what it called Japan’s “rent-a-family” industry. Written by Elif Bautman, the article claimed that “rental” actors are used for everything from giving a lonely widower a family meal to staging expensive weddings for marriage-mad parents.

The article appears to have been the inspiration for a docu-drama film about the same subject in 2020, called Family Romance LLC and directed by the esteemed Werner Herzog. In less elevated mode, the article was also the likely inspiration for a comedy spot by the American talk-show host Conan O’Brien.

I have a personal interest, as I wrote a piece for this blog about the New Yorker article, pointing up some credibility questions raised by my Japanese friends. Since then, my friends turned out to be on the money. In 2020, the New Yorker admitted several elements in its article were fabricated by the Japanese interviewees. For anyone interested, there’s an excellent summing-up of the debacle on the New Republic website by Ryu Spaeth, entitled “How The New Yorker Fell Into The ‘Weird Japan’ Trap.” I still find the New Yorker piece bracing, but as fiction; someone should make an anime of it.

Andrew Osmond is the author of 100 Animated Feature Films. Rent-a-Girlfriend is released in the UK by Anime Limited.

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