At first glance, the anime Makura no Danshi, translated literally as “pillow boys,” seems harmless enough. After all, those who’ve read my previous article on the otome gaming industry know the idea of pretending to be a protagonist that twelve different “flavors” of boyfriend are wildly in love with (and there’s really no other way to think about it) isn’t particularly shocking or new. I mean, if anything, it’s got to be statistically safer than dating non-virtual men. But then, when your love interests are randomly selected and given response times that would make even Dora the Explorer cringe, things can get a bit… well… creepy. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
Surprisingly I’m not a big fan of Makura no Danshi’s animation style, despite possessing this crow-like fascination with shoujo anime that leads to watching anything remotely sparkly. Almost reminiscent of Sailor Moon Crystal, there’s an odd tension between the hyper-realistic backgrounds and the very shiny boys that just feels unpleasant to look at. Due to the style of the eyes, too, most of the characters come across as staring at you really intensely, which I suppose is nice from someone you like but hella nerve-wracking from a complete stranger presented with one line of context. I found myself feeling like I was always being kidnapped by a human-shaped glitter bomb whose motivations I was unsure of. Admittedly, this might work for some people’s fantasies, but I tend to like to know at the very least where I am and why I’m there. Keep in mind this is all just in the first fifteen or so seconds before the theme song kicks in.
The opening of Makura no Danshi is another area where the show demonstrates its penchant for mixed signals. While the characters’ collective purpose being specifically to help “you” sleep might lead you to expect a lullaby of some sort, the actual product is something so bright and uptempo you’d think a five-year-old gorged on a metric ton of pixy stix sketched it in day-glo Crayola. I thought maybe the English translation of the lyrics would reveal its true nature, but no, they’re all mundane “goodnights” right in line with the show’s motif. Couple this with the visual of a myriad of men sprawled or crawling towards you (which could be seductive if their solarized color palette didn’t make them look like half-naked zombies literally thirsting for your flesh), and your animated fever dream is complete. And if it seems like I’m lingering too long on the opening, it’s because it actually takes up one quarter of each show’s bizarrely short 4 minute running time, so I can only assume the animators found it crucial to understanding the anime as a whole.
Speaking of, unlike otome games where you as the main character have at least a little agency in choosing your answers, the short segment of bejeweled bishi fawning over you however they want with no response couldn’t help but raise red flags in my head. And I know, when it comes to anything shoujo-oriented there’s always an unfortunate need to dial down those alarms or they’ll be going off every five seconds, but there are even some blatant instances where not only are boundaries pushed, but the men in question deliberately ignore or mockingly dismiss fearful or negative communication about proceeding (“Are you scared? You’re so cute.”). Talk about nightmare fuel.
We also have to discuss the fact that one of the later episodes features an actual child. Yes, you read that right. While I understand that consent laws are different internationally and shotacon is indeed a fetish, his literal description reads “a super-energetic, hot 5-year-old.” NOPE. NOPE NOPE NOPE. NOOOOOOOOOOPE.
That disturbing tidbit aside, I wouldn’t say overall Makura no Danshi felt unwatchable so much as it left me feeling repeatedly let down and weirded out (you know, like dating). Occasionally there was a pleasantly unexpected moment of comedy which helped to round out the otherwise flat defining characteristics of “pretty” and “loves you,” but these were rare. Similarly, episodes 5 and 6 were my particular favorites because the backstory given to the suitors gives you a tiny bit of a character arc, but again that only occurs those few times. While it’s certainly not the worst thing you could do with four minutes, the Makura no Danshi men won’t exactly fulfill all your romantic dreams either. But hey! At least they come with an off switch.