11 Aug 2014
It is perhaps the grandest of ironies that anime's frequent use of teenage life as the heart of its feel-good shows, positing these years as the best time of anyone's life. This rose-tinted view all too often ignores the shadow which puberty casts over that period - a time of intense emotional turmoil and introspective self-doubt, and all crashing over the individual in waves at the exact moment when the realisation comes that those mysterious, icky types that represent the opposite gender are in fact anything but icky, even if they simultaneously seem to suddenly become all the more mysterious.
It's the mysteries of the opposite sex that sit squarely at both the name and narrative of Mysterious Girlfriend X, even if this simple tale of puberty and puppy love is obscured by the weirdness for which its anime adaptation has quickly become infamous; Let's not beat about the bush here - the series is obsessed with drool and saliva, and perhaps more importantly the licking and tasting thereof.
The mysterious girlfriend of the show's title is Mikoto Urabe, a new transfer student who is immediately marked out as an oddity within her class - a sleepyhead who spends her breaks dozing at her desk, has no intentions of making eye contact with anybody and who yet still has the self-confidence to crash to the floor in a heap of laughter in the middle of class for no apparent reason. In short, she's exactly the kind of person who everyone tries to avoid, lest they be branded a "friend of the weird kid". However, one boy can't help but be fascinated by this newcomer - Akira Tsubaki has the "privilege" of sitting next to her in class and getting to see her behaviour at close quarters, and when he happens upon her drool-covered desk one evening after-school... well, he just can't resist having a taste. If you can conjure up that image without feeling nauseous, congratulations - you've passed the "I might just be ready to watch Mysterious Girlfriend X" test.
As you might expect from his unhygienic proclivities, Akira ends up getting sick - it isn't any traditional illness which consumes him however, but rather an addiction... an addiction to Urabe's drool! Is it the drool that has become his addiction, or Urabe herself though? Regardless, out of the back of Urabe's requirement to feed Akira his daily dose of saliva (are you still reading without reaching for a bucket? You'll definitely be fine watching the show), the two become a couple - a decision that is fraught with difficulties given that Urabe isn't exactly the easiest girl in the world to read, and one made even more difficult thanks to the temptations which insist upon cropping up elsewhere in front of Akira.
Strip away the saliva-swapping shenanigans and... you wouldn't be left with much of a series, but beyond that Mysterious Girlfriend X is simply an everyday tale of teenage romance and puberty. Indeed, once you get over the "eww, drool" reaction (and really, the thick syrup which passes as saliva in this series only increases its gross-out value) and start to think about what that aspect of the series really stands for, its story of characters awash with new desires and obsessions which seem so utterly bizarre and unlike anything they'd ever taken any interest in before works as a perfect allegory for puberty and growing up as a teenager, complete with awkward experimentation and desperate fumbling to understand the opposite sex when they seem to be so utterly unfathomable. This actually sits perfectly alongside the portrayal of Akira and Urabe's relationship as viewed through the former's eyes - she is at once beautiful, strange and utterly terrifying (you don't need to be Freud to figure out what those scissors tucked into her underwear represent), and his struggles to relate to her and tighten the bond between them feels to some extent like a genuine depiction of a teenage relationship rather than the results of the kind of weak-willed protagonist we're used to in other series.
This willingness to - albeit indirectly - take what is at least partially a more honest look at this period of a young man's life, yet still package it in a way which is entertaining is easily the show's biggest strength, is commendable. Its unique manner of delivering its tale sits closely in partnership with visuals which also mark the show out as something different - there's no brightly coloured hair here and the entire show's colour palette is relatively muted, but somehow its characters still stand out without needing to lean on any visual tropes or style. The real highlights of the show's animation are its brief, surreal dream sequences, which are utterly gorgeous to behold even if they don't stand up to the kind of scrutiny as to their real meaning as other aspects of the series. Even on DVD, and thanks to a top-notch transfer, Mysterious Girlfriend X feels capable of offering something different to the norm, serving up a breath of fresh air compared to the normal staple styles of the genre it broadly represents.
We do, however, have to dampen our praise thus far with a few negatives that can't be overlooked. For starters, the series runs out of steam massively during its final couple of episodes, which seem to simply be surplus requirements after a satisfying end to the story arc with preceded it - there simply isn't anywhere for the story to go after those events, yet for some reason the show insists upon trying to carry things on, and it simply doesn't work. It should also be noted that at times the show's "edgy" allegorical take on teenage sexuality collapses into pure fan service, which admittedly is never overly exploitative but can feel overblown and unnecessary to the point where it threatens to detract from the story itself. Throw in the fact that Mysterious Girlfriend X also ultimately suffers from the same kind of inertia in its main relationship that most romance-led anime seem to be hamstrung by, and you don't have any issues which undermine the entertainment value of the show as a whole, but you will find at least some events that detract from it slightly.
Finally, we do have to report one technical issue with this UK release of the series, and that comes in the form of both the English and Japanese audio tracks - in short, the pitch correction undertaken as part of the NTSC to PAL conversion process seems to have been bungled somewhat, leaving all of the show's audio to "warble" and distort in a subtle yet noticeable way. It's the kind of issue which many won't even notice, but once you have spotted it you can't avoid frowning when it crops up in a very obvious way in places - given that the conversion process to PAL isn't a new step in disc authoring for the UK (and indeed one which is being ignored entirely by one distributor now that virtually all devices can handle NTSC content just fine), it's an issue which simply shouldn't be present, and it only feels more egregious on account of the lack of a Blu-Ray release for the series which would have neatly side-stepped the problem.
Speaking of the English dub of the series, it's a passable effort marred mostly by the fact that Tsubaki sounds way, way too old to fit the character being voiced - there's something almost a little creepy about the fact that this teenager sounds like a man in his thirties, even if the reason is obviously that his voice actor is not far off just that! Still, if you prefer English dubs you should still be able to enjoy the series as a whole just fine.
There's a very obvious "love it or hate it" quality about Mysterious Girlfriend X, and I'll openly admit that I went into the series expecting the latter. The show's first episode looked likely to confirm just that, as I found myself feeling a little queasy as the credits rolled - I have a strong constitution for gross things, but licking another person's drool off a table almost tipped over into the realms of things I really can't watch, animated or not. However, I persevered, partly because I have to (the things I go through for you, dear reader!) and partly because saliva aside I found its arresting visuals to be oddly beautiful in a decidedly unique way.
Once I'd gotten used to the less salubrious aspects of its tale, I found myself falling in love with the series - much like it's content though, this was an uncertain love for an entity that was so unusual I felt like my love was being challenged at every turn, and at times it was (and remains) a love which wavered. Even in the face of such wavering feelings however, a relationship with Mysterious Girlfriend X is one that you really should consider experiencing for yourself, provided that you have a strong enough constitution to do so.