I wasn’t expecting to be as into Rent-A-Girlfriend as I am. From the previews, I figured it would be more or less typical ecchi fare. And while I love horny anime as much as the next horny anime lover, I was pleased to find Rent-A-Girlfriend is a fun comedy with well-developed characters covering subject matter that’s nott often treated with much thought.
Protagonist Kazuya Kinoshita is a 20-year-old college student who, just a month into his first relationship has been unceremoniously dumped. Heartbroken and trying to get over the only girl he’s ever had feelings for, he reserves a date with a paid rental girlfriend named Chizuru Mizuhara. While he has a terrific time enjoying cute moments and warm affection with Chizuru on their date, Kazuya later reads her reviews and, learning she is that sweet to all her clients, feels as though she was deceitful by pretending to like him. Basically, he gets upset that she’s good at the job he paid her for.
During a second date where he acts moody and tries to tell her off for “tricking” him (really just projecting his hurt at his ex onto her), Chizuru drops her charming work persona to berate him for his hypocrisy and lack of manners. By contrivances of plot, the two continue their date and end up visiting Kazuya’s grandma in the hospital where, in a moment of weakness wanting to make his grandma proud, he introduces Mizuhara as his girlfriend. While Kazuya tries to end the arrangement afterward, embarrassed to depend on her services, he finds himself unable to face his loneliness (as well as his family’s potential disappointment) and continues to engage Chizuru’s services.
What ensues from there is a lot of typical sitcom shenanigans. The lives of the two protagonists become increasingly entangled as they realize they attend the same school. Kazuya’s cute yet cold-hearted ex Mami tries to break up the relationship she thinks Kazuya is in, and Kazuya tells more lies in moments of panic, further digging a hole for himself. While the plot can fall into many typical romance anime tropes, the show sets itself apart with its empathetic characters and by diving deeper into the mentalities behind romance/harem anime archetypes.
At first glance, Chizuru fits into the tsundere archetype—in which characters act hostile or aggressive toward their love interests—but she actually doesn’t have feelings for Kazuya. Rather than playing “hard to get,” she has firm professional boundaries, and only wants to interact with him as a client. That’s not to say she’s cruel. In fact, Chizuru regularly goes out of her way to show kindness toward Kazuya, only speaking harshly to him in moments when he is making her life more difficult. And while she is all about professionalism in her job, that doesn’t preclude her from extending empathy toward Kazuya and genuinely caring about his well-being.
I relate to Chizuru partially because she is well-developed and charming, but also because I’ve actually had her job. For about a year and a half I worked as a sugar baby, going on paid dates with men and women, and like her, I enjoyed it as a job. I had clients I was fond of and even if I didn’t have romantic feelings for them, I cared about them and wanted them to be happy. I watched Rent-A-Girlfriend’s first four episodes with several other friends who have all done sex work at some point and all of us found something in the show that reflected our own experiences exchanging intimacy for money, from having to manage double lives to setting boundaries with entitled clients. It’s incredibly rare to see that kind of experience portrayed in such an honest way.
Unfortunately I also relate a lot to Kazuya, a melting pot of character flaws that has catalyzed opinions betweens fans who are annoyed with him but find him relatable, and those who hate him because they refuse to admit they find him relatable. Unable to be honest with his family, prone to letting his ex treat him like garbage, and self-loathing about his own weaknesses, he’s not the kind of character anyone wants to identify with. And yet I do.
I too have felt intense loneliness, have let ex-flames play with my heart, and have grown to be conflict avoidant in a way I deeply dislike. While I don’t lie to my loved ones about fake partners, there have definitely been moments when I’ve put off telling truths that I worried could embarrass me, disappoint or hurt people I love, or make life more complicated. And while the show never excuses Kazuya’s failings, it (and by extension Chizuru) treats him with empathy. Chizuru tells Kazuya that it’s normal to feel lonely, and that he shouldn’t feel ashamed of his feelings.
There are a lot of reasons people pay (and charge) for intimacy and despite societal stigma around it, it’s not something to be ashamed of. Sometimes it functions as a form of therapy helping people grow and learn more about themselves. For instance, while the story begins with Kazuya being emotionally stunted in comparison to Mizuhara, Kazuya eventually begins to become bolder and less self-effacing. While Rent-A-Girlfriend does lean in to “will they or won’t they” vibes, I personally hope the two protagonists don’t end up a real couple, as the dynamic of sex worker and client is far more interesting and rarely explored with such charm.
Rent-A-Girlfriend is available to watch on Crunchyroll.
Chingy Nea is a writer, comedian, and critically acclaimed ex-girlfriend based out of Oakland and Los Angeles.