I can't remember the last time I turned around on a series as much as Rascal Does Not Dream of Bunny Girl Senpai. When I reviewed the premiere for the Preview Guide a couple of years ago, I strongly disliked the show's entire schtick. It came across as a series that was trying way to hard to riff on the Monogatari series, not only because both shows share a similar premise of a young man solving the supernatural dilemmas of all the pretty girls in his immediate vicinity, but in how the script seemed to revel in every overlong conversation and pseudo-scientific information dump. And while CloverWorks is definitely no slouch in the animation department, Rascal lacks much of the distinct, stylish flair that has come to define Shaft's work on Bakemonogatari and its many sequels (for better or for worse). Thus, I wrote Rascal Does Not Dream of Bunny Girl Senpai off, and only returned to it just this year, when I was given the chance to review Aniplex's Blu-ray release of the series' sequel movie, Rascal Does Not Dream of a Dreaming Girl.
To make a long story short, I discovered that Past James totally missed out on something great, because the Rascal Does Not Dream franchise is a heartwarming delight. The show surprised me with it's deft handling of fairly heavy and topical subject matter, and the care with which it developed its characters and themes. Most importantly, I liked Sakuta, and I wanted him and all of his friends to figure out all of the weird Puberty Syndrome Shenanigans that were afflicting them. The absolute best part of the show's dynamic is Sakuta's relationship with Mai, which is one of the rare cases where a series' main romantic plot is resolved within just three episodes, and our protagonists are allowed to simply be in a cute, loving, and constantly evolving relationship.
Given how Rascal Does Not Dream of a Dreaming Girl's back-of-the-box blurb frames Mai, Sakuta, and Shoko's relationship as a kind of love triangle, my biggest reservation going into this movie was whether or not it would betray what the series spent so much time building for the sake of cheap emotional drama. Thankfully, director Sōichi Masui, writer Masahiro Yokotani, and the rest of the CloverWorks crew do justice to author Hajime Kamoshida's source material, and deliver a film that isn't just a perfectly entertaining movie in its own right, it serves as a perfect emotional climax for the entire Rascal Does Not Dream story. It may inherit some of the series' flaws, but it also exemplifies what makes it so special.
The movie looks and sounds just as good as the show did, and often a little bit better, but this still isn't a film that I would recommend based solely on its aesthetic merits. Rascal Does Not Dream of a Dreaming Girl is all about how Sakuta reconciles the paradoxical existence of the two Shokos in his life, and how he can do so while preserving his own existence, as well as the relationship with Mai that he has come to value so much. This is one of the things that the Rascal series does really well, in that it takes these heady sci-fi/fantasy conceits that come with Puberty Syndrome, and it basically applies them as allegory for common life experiences that all young people go through. Mai's original conundrum was all about not being “seen” by the world for who she really is; Sakuta's science-minded classmate Rio manifested a doppelganger that represented the double-life she was leading on social media, and so on.
Here, the twists and turns of Shoko Makinohara's story work on two levels: On the one hand you have a girl whose lingering presence in Sakuta's memories threatens to overshadow his new relationship with Mai, and he will have to literally and figuratively choose whether he wants to try and rewrite the past, or forge ahead with the future he's chosen. Likewise, young Shoko is a girl who was given a grim prognosis at an early age, and she has long since resigned herself to never growing up to be a woman with a rich, full life. That is, until that exact vision of her older self physically materializes in the world, and it just so happens that she's in love with the young man who has been coming to support young Shoko in the hospital, and make her days a little brighter.
There's a lot more to it than that, of course, and if I'm being honest, the movie's biggest narrative stumbles come from exactly the same source as the show, where the story hits the breaks and tries to explain the potentially scientific rules for these Puberty Syndrome manifestations. Info dumps about quantum entanglement, Schrodinger's Cat, and parallel-world lines are a dime-a-dozen in anime these days, and they rarely make a story more interesting or believable, in my opinion. Rascal Does Not Dream of Bunny Girl Senpai always had at least one scene where Sakuta, Rio, and the others attempt to find a quasi-rational explanation for the weird crap that's happening in their lives, and Dreaming Girl spends just a bit too much time on that track as well, especially in the climax. When the emotions of the story are at their highest, and Sakuta is being forced to make some truly agonizing choices, we all of a sudden have characters pausing the movie to make sure we the audience understand how time-travel and multiple incarnations of a single person are even possible in this world.
At the end of the day, none of this stuff really matters, and I think the show is at its best when the Puberty Syndrome cases are treated more like magic, or the natural occurrences of dreamlike world. Sometimes, life can be a bit too much to handle, and you just turn invisible for a while. Every now and then, the wellspring of love in your heart can burst with such force as to warp the very laws of time and space. To its credit, Rascal Does Not Dream of a Dreaming Girl seems to understand this, and it never completely loses the plot, or the emotional core of its story. When it counts the most, Dreaming Girl's attention is on Sakuta, Shoko, and Mai's surprisingly complex conflicts and motivations, and just when you think you've figured out where things are headed, the movie surprises you in delightful and sometimes heartbreaking ways.
This home media release is a handsomely packaged set, coming with an attractive slipcase, alternative cover art, and a fun booklet filled with character bios, some storyboard art, and so-on. That's unfortunately the beginning and end of any extra features, however, because all you get on the disc is the Japanese-language version of the movie, and nothing else, which is a shame, especially since the Blu-ray can run you anywhere between $40-60 brand new. Still, I heartily recommend this to anyone that loved Bunny Girl Senpai. If you grew to love the characters of the original series like I did, then you will find Rascal Does Not Dream of a Dreaming Girl to be a must-own addition to your collection.