My Dress-Up Darling is undoubtedly the major standout debut of the now ended Winter 2022 anime schedule, and there are a lot of reasons why. Shinichi Fukuda's original manga series has been one of the more quiet hits since it first released in the pages of Square Enix's Young Gangan magazine in 2018, but like many recent hits, the series really started to gain traction thanks to the success of its official anime adaptation debut. In fact, the manga is now doing better than ever as there was a major increase of the copies in circulation thanks to all of that new interest.
With My Dress-Up Darling's debut anime run at an end, the main question is now whether or not the massive response from fans was truly warranted. Introducing fans to a different kind of romantic pairing at the center of it all, My Dress-Up Darling ushers in a new era of romantic comedy anime. The genre has been steadily growing stale over the last few years (beyond the outliers providing romances for different audiences). This all changes here as this series injects a much needed refresher to its main dynamic that not only gave us all a reason to tune into each new episode, but also had a production to really hammer that home.
My Dress-Up Darling introduces us to Wakana Gojo, a shy boy who has spent his life mostly avoiding telling others too much about himself because of his main artistic dream. Inspired by the Hina Dolls his grandfather crafts, he was stunted at a young age when a friend of his thought his hobby was gross. Years later he comes across his classmate, Marin Kitagawa, who finds him sewing doll clothes after school. Rather than insult him further as he feared, she instead praises his craft and enlists his help for achieving her dream of cosplaying as some of her favorite anime, manga, and video game characters.
It's a fairly refreshing premise when stacked against the litany of other romantic comedy (or harem romances) anime released each year. From the outset it's clear that their dynamic is built on a mutual respect for one another. Although he's shown to have the same kind of urges a teen boy usually has in these types of shows, he's also never one to push these physical urges into any kind of uncomfortable territory. In fact, after a few episodes in, while Gojo still very much has those smaller physical attraction moments he's also very much dedicated to the work.
Marin pushes Gojo further out of his shell, and while it seems like it could border on wish fulfillment at first, as the episodes roll on there are many deeper levels revealed for the both of them. In this sense the romance is flipped as well as the romantic feelings start to pop up in a natural and surprising way to both fans and the main characters themselves as they steadily realize how much time they are spending with one another through this shared work. But that's also not really the main focus either as much of the series is dedicated to the craft of cosplay itself.
This series has many highly detailed explanations of smaller tricks of the trade that cosplay artists use for each of their works, and really helps to showcase just how much artistry goes into each cosplay. It's treated especially well from every bit of the process from concept (such as choosing which character), to the time it takes to build each costume, the motivations of each artist, and what comes after making each cosplay possible. It's a lot of spinning plates that the series has in motion at once, and what's most impressive is that it all hits home in retrospect.
My Dress-Up Darling has relatively low stakes as Marin and Gojo spend their days working on their respective crafts, and it's through these smaller moments that the two grow closer together. It's a budding romance that's not in your face with huge developments, arguments, or changes really, but it doesn't need them. It's a series where something "happens" each episode, but it's not exactly a game changing kind of event that would stand out when compared to other romance anime. What this show excels at to make up for this, however, is how it punctuates and emphasizes its smaller moments to make them seem huge.
The series is relatively tuned into the sexuality of its main characters, and thus it's never one to shy away from the fact that there are all sorts of "other" feelings that might swirl with a young romance. This leads to a fair amount of "fan service" like material when it comes to Marin herself, but there's something honestly special about the way My Dress-Up Darling pulls this off. Because it's unashamed of this type material, and has a heroine who is naturally effervescent in this way as she's squarely focused on her dreams, these moments feel like a natural part of the story between the two rather than something that feels forced into the production. It's all just part of Marin's personality without feeling too exploitative (beyond the second episode, arguably).
That production is also part of the series' successful emphasis on smaller moments. It might be a relatively low stakes story in the grand scheme of things, but each episode feels huge when you look at how every single part of it is brought to life. Character designs are filled with a ton of hidden smaller details that really pop in certain scenes. Expressions are illustrated and animated with a level of attention to detail that's an utter marvel, really. This of course includes its fan-service elements, and that's honestly just a bit of extra flavor for the package as well. If that's what you're looking for, there's no better example of it here.
Ultimately, My Dress-Up Darling's anime debut was the kind of success that will really take off with fans as more experience it and discover it as the years roll on. It might be tough to recommend because of how it comes out of the gate early on, but it's an experience that truly comes together when it's all said and done. It's the kind of first season run that if there's never a second one, it's the perfect kind of encapsulation of what this story wants to tell in how Marin and Gojo will continue to influence one another's lives. It's such a breath of fresh air in many different ways, romance or otherwise, and it's going to be hard to top as the year continues.
Rating: 4 out of 5
My Dress-Up Darling is now streaming with Crunchyroll and Funimation.