The Wallflower Vol. 1

There are times when, as a reviewer, you are certain you'll be taking one for the proverbial team. I've regularly scheduled to watch shows I knew had a strong possibility of being bad on The Anime Review...and why not? Reviews of terrible shows can often bring out some of the best writing we pundits have to offer. And it was with this in mind that I decided to add The Wallflower Vol. 1 to my lineup. While its director, Shinichi Watanabe, is greatly revered in certain anime circles for shows like Excel Saga, Puni Puni Poemy, Gravitation: Lyrics of Love, and Nerima Daikon Brothers, everything I've watched that bore his name has been not only madcap but offensive in some manner or another. The advertising and buzz had emphasized it as sort of a "Queer Eye for the Goth Girl." Offensive?  Check. Take into account bishonen leads, over-the-top comedy, and who knows what else, and I expected a disaster. There was no reason not to.

And yet...The Wallflower Vol. 1 is not only not bad, it's pretty darn great. Shinichi Watanabe has carved out a show that is, of course, humorous. But what slaps the viewer upside the head is that in the midst of all the wacky comedy, there are genuinely touching moments of surprising kindness. In many of his previous shows, Watanabe has featured sweet characters who also happen to be perverts and sociopaths. Here, it turns out that the bishonen guys are the only ones who aren't off-kilter. But perhaps that's the greatest strength of this first volume of The Wallflower -- it might feature jokes you've seen before in similar comedies, but you've never seen them quite stood on their head in the same way.

Plot? Four bishonen guys. One mansion, one jetsetting landlord, and one big problem: the rent. The "auntie" who lets the young men stay at her place has a challenge for them...make her niece Sunako into a proper lady and rent is a thing of the past. But if they aren't up to the challenge, their rent triples. Being the pretty boys they are, they accept the contest. After all, their keen sense of fashion, style, and attractiveness should make this a no-brainer. But then again, they'd never met Sunako.

A couple of years prior, Sunako confessed her love for a young man she had been crushing on for a long time. His simple response? "I hate ugly girls." Destroyed by his snarky comment, Sunako became exactly what her loser crush has stated, exchanging her natural beauty for black-as-night clothes and bangs that cover every inch of her face. Now surrounded by a collection of anatomical dolls and splatter flicks, her attitude as black as night, Sunako is the polar opposite of our posse of lead characters.

Over the course of the first five episodes, our four bishie guys Ranmaru, Kyohei, Takenaga, and Yukinojoh do their best to make a stunning transformation of Sunako. However, there are plenty of obstacles in the way. There's the swarm of giggly girls that surround the boys at every turn, enamored by their beauty as if mesmerized by these four Adonis-like gods in their midst. There's the goth-loli quartet that make Sunako look positively charming. Add to that a haunted booth at a school festival, a narcissistic photographer, and a host club that will do anything to get the beauty of Ranmaru onto their stage, and it's a wonder if Sunako doesn't become more psychotically unhinged. My Fair Lady this is not.

Originally airing in 2006-2007, The Wallflower looks and sounds great...even when the look is, well, off-putting. To my vision, bishonen character designs have always been pretty ugly; however, if you're into that style, the four lead characters are rendered as lovingly as one could hope for. Considering that a lot of the show is done in "chibi" style as characters morph in and out of looking like real human beings, it all looks superbly done. Again, in an unusual surprise, both the OP and ED songs caught my attention numerous times; the rest of the soundtrack isn't very memorable but sets the tone nicely. Meanwhile, on the translation front, while I still prefer the Japanese language edition, the dub is pleasant enough on its own terms. There is minor profanity, though nothing that would keep young teens from watching, and in a rare move the sub track contains about as much if not more than the dub. My limited Japanese skills found no significant issues with either translation, though.

There are several things that are really enjoyable about The Wallflower Vol. 1, and most of them have to do with confounding my expectations. First off, the members of our lead quartet are (despite their brilliantly good looks) almost totally normal. They like girls; they like food; they are just simply teens. They know they are gorgeous enough to radiate their own light, yet they aren't self-absorbed and seem a little nonplussed by the attention they get. And while each one has his foibles, they are genuine and even kind at times. They are, for the most part, relatable, reliable, and likeable. So much for the bioshonen stereotype!

Second, the girls here are the ones who are absolutely bonkers. Like a harem comedy turned on its head, it's the young women who have the nosebleeds and the young women who haven't a clue how to deal with beautiful young men. While the jokes may look to be standard things we saw in Tenchi Muyo or Love Hina long ago, the reversal of the sexes made me laugh anew and take a second look at the show's underpinnings.

Finally and most importantly, for all its humor and wacky bits, The Wallflower feels real at all the right places. There are moments of actual tenderness and compassion...and moments where the uneasiness of being a young person in middle school or high school floods in. It's not all hijinks, though the comedy flows fast and free. When the show gives the guys an opportunity to show Sunako kindness, it can be a little poignant. Now it never stays on that note for long, but it's enough in a show like this to make you more invested in the characters.

And what's more, in comparison to Nabeshin's other shows, The Wallflower feels almost naïve. There is scant talk of sexuality at all. I normally find shows with bishonen get into sexual themes that I find uncomfortable at best -- and those aren't here at all, at least not yet. There are issues that aren't appropriate for young children; there is some comic violence that gets bloody at times, and Sunako's taste for the bizarre and occult will turn off a few people. But I certainly didn't feel the need to take a shower to wash off the scum like I did after Puni Puni Poemy or Nerima Diakon Brothers.

My rating does reflect both a truth about this volume and a concern for later ones: if you watch the episodes in one sitting, you'll find certain jokes repeat. Bishonen guys in drag can be funny, but to pull that gag twice in five episodes is a little much. The goth-loli gals, whose entrance to the show got me laughing, are a little tiring by the end of the running time. And, of course, manic comedy is a compound word; a show doesn't qualify as a comedy just because it's manic. I truly hope the show will find new avenues to explore along the way, because really my only issue with the program was that too much sameness crept in for such a short time period.

For me, The Wallflower Vol. 1 was a wholly unexpected pleasure. A few weeks ago, I'd never thought I'd say this, but I will be seeing volume 2, and probably the whole series. Even if this show doesn't look appealing to you -- especially if this show seems way outside your interests -- I say, give it a chance. It's not what you expect. Of 2008 U.S. releases, it is the comedy to beat.

The Wallflower Vol. 1 -- comedic violence, profanity, minor occult themes, minor innuendo and flashes of indistinct nudity during the OP -- A-