In retrospect, it’s fortuitous that I didn’t have the time to review last week’s episode on its own, because “Producing Hiyori” works much better when paired with the conclusion provided by “My Childhood Friend.” The makeover arc seems to be an inevitability in any piece of media that stars an even slightly plain-looking girl, and Heroines Run the Show does an admirable, if imperfect, job of navigating the turbulent waters of being a woman in a society. Frankly, there’s no way for two twenty-minute episodes to cover every angle of cultural and personal expectations of femininity in the modern age, but Heroines‘ approach ultimately feels true to its characters. I think that’s the most important outcome.
The inherently prickly part of gussying up Hiyori is that a significant part of her appeal as a protagonist is her departure from anime heroine norms. Tomboys aren’t exactly rare, and she’s still designed to appeal to a contemporary audience, but details like her messy hair, bushy eyebrows, and unremarkable manner of dress feel refreshing when placed front and center. They feel true to her character. Stripping those qualities away from her, even if they’re just superficial, feels like a betrayal. This is made all the thornier by the way society enforces strict and arbitrary standards of gender conformity onto all of us. It’s a giant hammer dangling at the ready, primed to flatten any nail that sticks out into oblivion. We need to fight against that. Anime needs more diversity in its protagonists, not less.
People, however, also aren’t static. It’s natural to want to explore your identity and presentation, and everyone’s tastes and opinions shift over time, especially during those tumultuous teenage years. In that respect, I like that Heroines Acknowledgments that Hiyori can feel like looking more traditionally feminine sometimes, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Regardless of his motivation, little Nagisa’s words clearly stuck with her and manifested as another manner in which people impose their arbitrary standards on others, dissuading her from acting on those impulses further. It’s complicated—a more traditionally feminine Hiyori would be seen as more “normal” by society at large—but the larger point is the way that little moments like these put outliers like Hiyori into impossible double-binds where every choice is wrong in some way .
These are rough seas to navigate, and Heroines‘ trip through them is unsurprisingly rocky. Although romance eventually enters the picture, I like that the base motivation has nothing to do with prepping Hiyori for a date. It’s just about looking fancy for a concert, and I’ve been there myself. Yujiro and Aizo end up practically dragging Hiyori through their festooning festivities, which isn’t exactly great optics (and they’re not exactly nice about it either), but it’s also true that sometimes we need friends (or loud idol lads) to drag us out of our comfort zone. It also makes sense; The boys are inured in showbiz, so they’re natural stewards for guiding a neophyte through the strange and intimidating world of fashion. I was around Hiyori’s age when, after a lifetime of going to purely functional barbershops, I stepped in a more upscale hair salon and had my eyes opened to this entire world full of styles and colors and creams. I simply was not aware of those possibilities were available to me prior to that moment. And even if you don’t utilize them, that awareness of those options is important for better settling on your style, and for feeling more comfortable in your own skin.
Heroines‘ messaging does get muddled, though. Hiyori has a heartwarming scene with Mona, who helps her realize that feeling like a heroine is about what’s inside, not outside. Conversely, the boys explicitly say they want to turn her into a heroine through exterior means, and her made-up appearance does end up having quite the effect on Nagisa and her other friends. But these aren’t entirely incongruous either. Like it or not, we do all live in a society, and perform in a way that adheres to how we feel on the inside is an important part of being a person. Each one of us is engaged in performativity—not in a theatric sense, but in the sense that we are, especially in terms of gender, is an active process of doing, not simply being. Hiyori can wear dresses at some times and tracksuits at other times without contradicting herself.
All that being said, I would have rioted if they had trimmed Hiyori’s eyebrows. I have my limits. And that’s why I’m glad the seventh episode tied up this arc in a lot of satisfying ways. Most importantly, Hiyori never stops being Hiyori. That little vindictive fist pump she gave when Nagisa admitted to her cuteness basically assuaged my fear that this arc would tame her spirit. And their further interactions prove to be cute and good. Nagisa exhibits the juvenile boisterousness of a teen boy with a crush, which is cringe but endearing in its own way. Hiyori, while understandably flustered, proves to be the more mature of the two, and in doing so, helps Nagisa grow up a little bit too.
Mostly, it’s nice to see a heroine amicably turn down romance because she’s currently satisfied with where her life and passions lie. Having a significant other is not the be-all and end-all of existence, and there’s no need to desperately claw at every opportunity that arises. Hiyori’s proud of what she’s managed to accomplish on her own, and she should be! She even inspires Nagisa to think beyond inheriting the family restaurant. Hiyori succeeds both in navigating outside her comfort zone and in staying true to her principles.
I do feel bad for Chizuru after she gave that impassioned, Mari Okada-inspired speech about the sanctity of childhood friends and clichés. She’s right, and she should say it. But the crux of this scene—seeing Juri and Chizuru help Hiyori wade through treacherous romantic rapids—makes it my favorite part of these past two episodes. Yujiro and Aizo try to steer both Nagisa and Hiyori, but they’re too trollish to get their good intentions across. Rather, it’s Hiyori’s girl friends who manages to deliver similar advice yet package it in a way that helps instead of confuses her (Chizuru’s nerd ramblings aside).
I probably didn’t need to get as deep into the gender performativity theory weeds as I did in order to talk about this pair of episodes, but it’s a thorny subject with a lot of thorny history that continues to be analyzed and debated in feminist criticism . And quite frankly, when I finished episode six, I didn’t want to spend the rest of the series with a yassified Hiyori. However, taken together, episodes six and seven complete a reasonably thoughtful arc about having fun with fashion and finding fulfillment in friendship. While it’s far from radical, I continue to like this wholesome little anime a whole lot.
Heroines Run the Show: The Unpopular Girl and the Secret Task is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.
Steve is a world-renowned golf expert and commentator, but if you just want to read his thoughts on anime and good eyebrows, then there’s always Twitter. Otherwise, catch him chatting about trash and treasure alike on This Week in Anime.