TV Review: MY LITTLE MONSTER

At first glance you have to admit My Little Monster hardly seems that different. It's yet another animated show with a cast of high school kids wondering What It All Means, and another odd couple in the lead. The bookworm who's never met any boy who could turn her head falls for the class rebel, and a raft of familiar faces get drawn into their orbit, sparking their own mini-character arcs and gentle epiphanies. Watch a single episode and you realise this is a well-worn groove playing pretty much the exact song you'd expect.

Yet with so much Japanese animation desperate to show you how self-aware it is, piling on the knowing meta-humour, the shrill mugging to camera, sticking the most one-dimensional tropes up on a pedestal, a show that quietly, calmly gets on with a solid, unpretentious little character drama can feel like a breath of fresh air. My Little Monster is not great television - it does lean on the clichés a touch too often, and it meanders towards the end - but its (relative) subtlety and restraint prove a winning source of genuine dramatic weight.

It starts with a meet-cute, as these things so often do. Shizuku is the bookworm, roped in by a well-meaning teacher to go talk to Haru, the bad boy, and persuade him to come back to class rather than get expelled. Haru's fascinated by the idea someone so upright and studious is paying him any attention, and promptly gloms onto Shizuku despite her best efforts to brush him off. Against her better judgement she finds herself enthralled, not to mention alarmed, by Haru's childish psyche and the way his hangers-on treat him, and slowly their relationship becomes something deeper as she prompts Haru to open up a little.

As it becomes common knowledge the bad boy and the bookworm are an item, more and more people end up taking an interest - from Haru's friends and family, to the adults who see him as their responsibility, to classmates who start to realise they no longer have to be scared of him. The two of them have to try and decide what they want out of the relationship; Haru struggling with an angst-ridden family past, trying to act less needy or entitled, Shizuku wondering if putting her studies over and above everything else is really the best way to live her life.

Again, if you've seen more than a handful of shows in the same vein you know how this one goes. The cast fit some fairly obvious archetypes - the clown who acts out as a defence mechanism, the swot who needs to lighten up and live a little, the ditz, the shy girl, the dependable best friend. Neither their problems nor their awkward attempts to cope are anything particularly new. And My Little Monster still frequently falls back on slapstick, over-excited yelling and wackiness for its own sake; man, that Haru! Did you see when he adopted a chicken as a pet just because he could? How crazy was that?

Yet the show never forces the crazy to the extent you lose sight of the characters as people. The drama is markedly quieter than the pratfalls, but it's still there, whether it's how other people react to Haru's histrionics or the growing sense the supporting cast are much more than simply comic foils. This is a definite cut above the shallow posturing of, say, My Sassy Girl and its ilk where behaviour that'd get you committed is viewed as a badge of honour more than a cry for help. Haru is hurting, and his lashing out at all and sundry might be sometimes played for laughs, but it's never entirely glamorised.

If anything Haru and Shizuku's relationship is one of the least interesting things going on - it's far more rewarding watching Natsume the ditz blossom as she befriends Shizuku, then re-examines her own life in light of the bookworm's awkward mating dance. Or seeing Haru's old school friends drawn to the oddball couple, some making overtures of friendship with Shizuku, some fighting with their own attraction to her, wondering what it is Haru finds so endlessly fascinating.

And while the premise is obviously designed to hook a certain kind of casual viewer - girls who dream of mothering a wounded manchild, maybe, or guys who want their play-acting validated - My Little Monster is refreshingly free of obvious fanservice. Art design is strong throughout and there's no swimsuit episode or the like (yet). Kudos, too, for not presenting anyone as broken and crying out to be 'fixed', whether it's Haru's war wounds or Natsume's loneliness. Nor are their problems belittled just because they're essentially kids.

My Little Monster is hardly top-flight drama; it can't match the warmth and humanity of something like Honey & Clover (at least, before that show's stupefyingly awful conclusion) and the lead pairing isn't a patch on the genius of, say, Nodame Cantabile, which turned slapstick, yelling and general knockabout wackiness into one of the most heartrending central relationships any animated show has ever had. But it is still kind, quiet and thoughtful when it wants to be, and though it peters out come the last few episodes - openly trawling for a second season - it feels like a small victory that it leaves you wanting more.
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