My Dress-Up Darling Is A Steamy Rom-Com With An Infectious Love For Cosplay

(Welcome to Ani-time Ani-where, a regular column dedicated to helping the uninitiated understand and appreciate the world of anime.)

Anime is as mainstream as it's ever been, there's no denying that. We live in a time where "Jujutsu Kaisen" got a wide release and is the number 2 film at the box office; where "Attack on Titan" and "Demon Slayer" are as big and popular as "The Mandalorian" or "Game of Thrones" and trend on Twitter every week. But it wasn't always like this. Not that long ago, being an anime fan could get you ostracized, and watching things that were considered nerdy or geeky were looked down upon.

Having someone tell you it's okay to like what you like can be life-changing, and it is here that "My Dress-Up Darling" shines. This rom-com is all about embracing your passions, no matter how niche or uncommon they are.

The show follows Gojo Wakana, a painfully shy and introverted high-schooler with a very secret dream of making traditional hina dolls. As a boy, a classmate called him creepy because "boys shouldn't play with dolls," and it scarred him for life. That is until he meets Marin Kitagawa, the most beautiful and popular girl in class, a total gyaru with an incredibly proactive and extroverted personality who also has a big secret of her own — she is a huge otaku. Not any otaku, but one with a big passion for cosplaying characters, especially those from lewd visual novels with titles like "Saint♥Slippery's Academy for Girls – The Young Ladies of the Humiliation Club: Debauched Miracle Life 2."

Marin has one problem: she is terribly bad at sewing or making costumes. So when she discovers one of Gojo's dolls, she encourages him to embrace his passion openly, and asks him to help her make better cosplay. From there, the show becomes a hilarious, wholesome, steamy hot rom-com about people embracing their hobbies, one that can even teach you a thing or two.

What makes it great

Though its focus is more on the romance between the main characters, "My Dress-Up Darling" gets surprisingly specific about the process of making cosplay. The show is not technical enough to turn the audience or the characters off, but enough that you can appreciate the very hard work that goes into cosplaying (or indeed, any hobby).

The third episode breaks down the individual parts of a costume, and from there the show goes on about the cost of cosplaying, what you can probably do on a budget, what different shades of wig colors and their shapes can do to a costume, and some genuinely practical portrayals of the problems that arise with cosplaying like different fabrics retain heat at different temperatures, how to crossplay without breaking your back, how to use makeup to change your facial features, and even how to use different lenses to take different kinds of pictures during photoshoots.

Then there's the characters. There are dozens of anime shows about outgoing girls getting together with shy, quiet guys through some happy accident, but what makes this one special are Gojo and Marin. The show, based on the manga of the same name by Shinichi Fukuda, places a lot of care into making both Gojo and Marin well-rounded and relatable characters. Marin radiates charisma, encouraging those around her to embrace their passions while being very enthusiastic about sharing the manga, games, and anime she likes with her friends. The translators even go the extra mile to portray her personality through the subtitles, capturing her gyaru idioms and even random gibberish that she says out loud.

But while Marin is clearly the more talked-about character who will probably win Best Girl come next year's Anime Awards, Gojo is not far behind. More than just a shy guy with a hobby or a blank page to reflect his female co-star, Gojo is just as well-rounded as Marin. He is dedicated, awkward but cute, funny, curious, full of flaws, but open-minded and confident in his abilities. 

CloverWorks already animated a fantastic rom-com in "Horimiya," but they outdo themselves with "My Dress-Up Darling." The show may not have thrilling and dynamic fight scenes like "Attack on Titan," but it is still one of the best-looking anime of the winter season. With extra attention given to body language and facial expressions both exaggerated and subtle, you can see a wide range of emotions in the characters, especially Marin. Also, the studio has a blast animating an homage to '90s magical girl anime, going as far as to recreate the 4:3 aspect ratio and dusty color palette used in shows of the time.

What it adds to the conversation

"My Dress-Up Darling" works wonderfully as a romance show, and it is mostly because of the heartwarming way the show portrays Gojo and Marin finding themselves in each other and growing to be better people due to the overlap in their hobbies. Even before Marin starts developing feelings for Gojo, she sees how much he cares about his hina dolls, and he sees how much she cares about visual novels and games. It is that opportunity to bond with someone who validates their hobby that creates the biggest spark of the show.

Though not strictly about gender politics, the anime does definitely deal with deprogramming assumptions about what constitutes a hobby for girls or boys. This is done by showing a deep appreciation for the craft that goes into things, whether it's making hina dolls, cosplay, or appreciating a well-done magical girl anime with an intricate relationship web. "My Dress-Up Darling" is all about embracing your passions and encouraging others to do so too, but also about showing the hard work that goes into them, like how Gojo struggles with the hina dolls despite dedicating his entire life to it.

Still, this is a romance anime, and one about a girl who cosplays lewd characters, so there's bound to be some fan service. Thankfully, the vast majority of the fan service is done rather tastefully and for the sake of comedy. You see, Gojo has spent so much time alone working on his hobby that, when the first time he talks to a pretty girl and she undresses in front of him and asks him to measure her chest, he freaks out. The show portrays the fan service from the point of view of Gojo as someone who just hasn't been exposed to any of these situations and therefore overreacts to everything that happens, while Marin is so outgoing and sure of herself that she doesn't necessarily notice how Gojo is reacting. The result is equal parts hilarious and awkward.

Why non-anime fans should check it out

If you want a new show to replace "Horimiya," or something to make the wait for new "Kaguya-Sama" episodes easier, "My Dress-Up Darling" may be the show for you. It features memorable and relatable characters, a deep love of cosplay that actually gets into the nitty-gritty of the arduous work involved in dressing up as your favorite character, and the romance is both fan service-y and wholesome at the same time. As Marin would describe it, this is an anime that "makes you feel all warm and fuzzy inside."

Watch This If You Like: "Horimiya," "Kaguya-Sama: Love Is War," "Laid-Back Camp."

"My Dress-Up Darling" is streaming on Funimation and Crunchyroll.