O Maidens in Your Savage Season, the latest work penned by esteemed writer Mari Okada, took AniTAY by storm last season. Not only did it have that distinctive Okada style, it also dared to seriously engage in subjects rarely broached by anime. Many of us found O Maidens’ take on teen sexuality refreshing and its story engaging. But exactly where did it succeed, and where did it maybe miss the mark? Check out the impressions of authors DoctorKev, MementoMorie, Nomadic Dec, myself, and TheMamaLuigi below.
We’ve all passed through that most awkward and painful part of life - adolescence - with its heightened emotions, confusing mental and physical changes, battling through school, and navigating complex peer relationships while our own sense of selfhood undergoes erratic involutions. Many anime series are set during their characters’ adolescence, but most pay only the most superficial lip service to the hormonal storms raging within their subjects’ minds and bodies. At worst, they are vapid comedies, anaemic dramas, or fan-service-laden dreck that waste the storytelling potential of their setting. Not so with Mari Okada’s messy, heartfelt, tender, and humorous O Maidens, perhaps the most accurate depiction of teenage life I’ve yet seen in anime.
2017’s Scum’s Wish is like O Maiden’s evil twin. Where the former dripped with cynicism and selfishness, the latter portrays a far more positive outlook. I felt like I needed to bathe in bleach after watching Scum’s Wish, but O Maidens triggered no such desires. I watched this with my 14-year-old daughter to gauge the accuracy of its portrayal of confused girls roughly the same age as her. The hilarious squeals of horror and mortification erupting from her multiple times per episode were testament to the raw nerves exposed by the show (then it rubs salt into those open wounds, before cooing and soothing them better afterwards). Ms Okada clearly writes what she knows, and she knows how to twist a narrative knife.
My favourite character - Hitoha Hongo - is a most unusual co-lead. Short of stature, but big in personality, she’s not a stereotypical “cute” anime girl. With her low-cut fringe and heavy-set eyelashes, she appears to sport a perpetual frown. She has the best facial expressions that ooze with sarcasm, irritation and disapproval. I relate to her the most because she is a frustrated writer - she wants experience in order to write more convincingly, but takes everything too far. She ensnares her hapless teacher in her quest for sexual awakening, and this leads to a multitude of uproarious, uncomfortable scenes that made my daughter scream at the screen. The relationship between Hongo and her teacher was fascinating - both dancing around the other, manipulating and counter-manipulating, both completely out of their depths in their own ways. Any other anime would have mined this setting for pure melodrama, but O Maidens rises above this temptation. That’s not to say that there isn’t melodrama - there’s plenty of it, especially during the somewhat chaotic conclusion. There’s so much else I could write about this show regarding the other richly drawn characters each with their own (mostly) satisfying stories, but don’t take my word for it - go and watch it.
TL;DR: Raw but tender, heartfelt but funny, this authentically female-POV coming-of-age teenage drama is worth the cringe.
I always see the same complaints leveled at Mari Okada as a writer: that’s she’s over the top, melodramatic, and just generally Too Much. So, the same accusations often used to brush off teenage girls. Melodrama gets a bad rap, and I can’t speak for anyone else, but it often feels like the truest way to portray the experience of adolescent girlhood. Though she’s dealt deftly with the interiority of women in works like Maquia and The Woman Called Fujiko Mine, Okada’s perception for the pain and honesty in big emotions may be the most perfect fit for a series about high school girls working through their wildly different attitudes towards sex. I came for the pedigree and charming premise of O Maidens and stayed for feeling way more seen than I was expecting.
The maidens in question, thrown together in their literature club, are normie (sorry) Kazusa, bubbly and shy Momoko, serious megane Sonezaki, aspiring writer Hongo, and beautiful but precocious, cynical Niina. When they realize that a lot of classic and formative literature is pretty horny, it spurs them to confront their own sexualities and insecurities. While I was touched by parts of Kazusa, Sonezaki, and Momoko’s stories - especially Momoko’s emerging bravery as she comes to terms with her queerness and Sonezaki’s unlikely friendship with a brash and sexually forward gyaru in her class, I saw so much of my teenage self* in Hongo and Niina.
These two girls get the most overblown, perhaps “okadakei” storylines. Hongo wants to include erotic elements in her fiction, but feels like her lack of actual experience is limiting her abilities. This leads to her blackmailing a young teacher, and having her first serious romantic and sexual feelings for someone. When I was that age, I was isolated from my peers and ended up in a lot of shady situations with much older men. Hongo’s weirdness among her fellow high schoolers but emotional and sexuality immaturity aren’t far off from how I felt.
Then there’s Niina. She’s kind of the most abjectly selfish and inscrutable of the group. But if one scene in O Maidens spoke to me on an uncomfortable level, it was Nina walking through a seedy part of town and bemoaning that because she wasn’t getting catcalled like normal, she must be unattractive. Nina is serious and beautiful, a combination that makes her peers keep a distance. Her frank ideas about the social capital of youth and beauty - that once you’re sexually available, how men see you will overtake your own sense of self - are informed by a traumatic experience of being close to a pedophile when she was a child actress. She both resents and depends on her role as an object of desire. This tension is heartbreakingly accurate and Niina’s characterization nailed a mindset that I haven’t seen done well much in anime, or TV in general. And that’s why most of us love fiction, right? The chance to feel understood and less alone. O Maidens, even in its melodrama, spoke to my life experience and did something wonderful - gave the inner lives of teenage girls a fittingly loud and complex voice.
*and 28-year-old self…
TL;DR: O Maidens gives some of the tricky, hard-to-articulate struggles of female adolescent sexuality a touching and much needed platform.
The first time I ever felt attracted to somebody was on a train-station platform when I was maybe three, and I tried to woo them with the coquettish pick-up line, “So, what’s your favourite train?” O Maidens’ locomotive sexual metaphors are not the sole reason the series is tailored specifically to my anime-viewing and emotional interests. But Mari Okada’s creation does feel like that.
Really, O Maidens is a perfect vehicle for Mari Okada’s style of writing. From Anohana to Mobile Suit Gundam: Iron-Blooded Orphans, Okada has managed to ground personal melodrama in a sense of emotional realism. Hers is a career forged from a keen understanding of the psyche, and moreover, being able to capture complicated and contradictory humanity in a way that is dramatically engaging. No wonder her subjects are so often teenagers, with their rawness and irrationality, held together by perceptiveness and frustrations regarding the status quo and society. O Maidens is the culmination of a master scriptwriter’s experience with her favourite muses, and a showcase for her skill in channelling that flood of conflicting feelings and neuroses into poignant coherence.
It seems wrong to linger on scriptwriting and clinical dialogue mechanics for a series that turns on emotional flurry, but O Maidens is overtly also an ode to the struggles of expressing the soul through writing. It frequently draws parallels between fearing exposing one’s heart and revealing one’s compositions, then being judged for it. So a moment of appreciation would not be amiss. Okada uses the pointedness and escalating nature of melodramatic structure to allow for frankness in the characters’ voices that social decorum or the general complexities of human interaction would usually prevent. Melodrama externalises internal monologue. However, Okada dispenses with the other side of melodramatic conflict: there is little excessively reserved silence or avoidance of direct confrontation. The pathos is as accentuated as possible, but then it is punctured without letting misunderstanding fester. This style makes the girls satisfyingly dynamic characters, while their romantic and social pains remain palpable, creating active progression and emotional nuance where it’s rarely achieved in melodrama.
Nobody benefits from this technique more than Niina, the most engaged—and to me, the most engaging—character. Niina is trapped in the gaze of men; her self-esteem influenced by their warped validation since being preyed upon by a paedophile. Niina’s experience makes her understandably more aloof, reinforced by the pedestal the other girls place her on owing to the preconceptions they hold about her maturity. Yet her greater understanding of sexuality allows Niina to find agency in her friends’ romantic problems where she struggles to take control in her own, doubling as a way to break down that emotional separation. It may be a self-serving kindness in manipulating Kazusa’s relationship along, but if it steers Kazusa past emotional barriers of unspoken attraction, does it matter if it’s nebulously for her own amusement or loving altruism?
Not all friendships in a group are equal, however. Similarly, with Niina and Kazusa’s storylines at the forefront, somebody was bound to be short-shifted. Unfortunately, that’s Momoka, and the story often treats her as a bystander to everyone else. Even the characters themselves do it occasionally: at one point, Sonezuki condescendingly juxtaposes her growing passions with Momoka’s innocuous chastity. Momoka’s egregious underdevelopment could generously reflect the discreetness with which she approaches her romantic escapades, but the burgeoning realisation of her queerness is underwritten, even as its impact takes centre stage. This is a disappointing blight on a series that otherwise empathetically examines the savagery of the effect that the maidens’ sexuality has on everything in their lives.
TL;DR: Effectively utilising melodramatic tools in unravelling the emotional entanglement of sexuality, Mari Okada has created a profoundly empathetic series that captures teenage complexity and perceptiveness.
One of the appeals of anime is its ability to go beyond the usual boundaries of live action and present familiar moments in unique ways, from battles that make use of animated visual effects to clever visual direction that provides unusual glimpses into a character’s emotional state. But despite anime’s potential to lend itself to coming-of-age stories, it frequently fails to address the very real struggles of sexual awakening in a way that feels relatable. It’s this dearth of shows that deal honestly with sexual awakening that makes O Maidens such a breath of fresh air. Not only is it a coming of age tale where the entire main cast is made up of women, but it also handles many of the struggles of teenage sexuality relatably by treading on ground that other shows hardly dare to even hint at. Protagonist Kazusa’s feelings toward her childhood friend Izumi and her concerns with Izumi’s own developing sexuality force her to reevaluate her own preconceptions about romance and S-E-X from the very first episode, a reevaluation that continues for the rest of the show through the experiences of Kazusa and the other four girls in their high school’s literature club.
O Maidens leaves a strong impression even after its conclusion because of its earnest and frank exploration of teenage sexuality. It doesn’t shy away from taboo discussions of sexual attraction, masturbation, intercourse, and other subjects that most teens grapple with. Even more importantly, O Maidens treats these topics with proper gravitas. The show has moments of both hilarity and drama, but it also treats the sexual awakenings of the cast with the seriousness, awkwardness, and sincerity that they deserve. Each member of the literature club has their own preconceptions and unique experiences surrounding sexuality that serve to challenge the beliefs of the other members and offer various coming-of-age narratives that are relatable in their own distinct ways.
The different viewpoints of sex and sexuality O Maidens explores through its characters makes the cast a great strength of the series, but also one of its weaknesses. While Kazusa’s arc feels more fully fleshed out, developments in some of her classmate’s own stories (particularly in the case of her friend Momoka) sometimes feel underdeveloped to the point where viewers occasionally have to make some desperate logical leaps to understand why relationships developed the way that they did. Momoka’s fleeting attempts at romance feel underexplored and inconclusive, which is particularly disappointing given her role as the only outwardly LGBTQ member of the cast. The consequence is that the variety of experiences can sometimes feel hollow; is Kazusa’s experience more worthy of our attention than Momoka’s?
In spite of this, when O Maidens sticks the landing, it does so with a flourish that makes it difficult to return to other, less candid series. No one quite gets the ending they expected, but the twists and turns encountered along the way for the most part feel honest and thought-provoking. It is heartwarming, bittersweet, and, much like our own teenage experiences, really hard to boil down to a few sentences, but I’ll try:
TL;DR: O Maidens makes excellent use of its ensemble cast to tell an intensely relatable story of teenage sexual awakening. It’s messy, awkward, and not always perfect, but it also hits home on important subjects that feel underexplored in the medium.
How do we talk about sex and sexuality in anime? If you’re an ecchi show, you don’t — you throw boobs and butts and titillating situations at the screen until you desensitize both the characters and viewers. If you’re Mari Okada, however, you embrace sex and sexuality, making it the focal point of thematic exploration. O Maidens in Your Savage Season is perhaps Okada’s best work and the best anime about sex since 2017’s Scum’s Wish, though O Maidens takes a decidedly more optimistic and uplifting take on adolescent sexual coming of age.
What’s truly wonderful about O Maidens is how well, generally, it balances its cast. All five members of the literature club — Kazusa, Niina, Momoko, Hitoha, and Rika — get their fair due and slowly reveal their layers, their self-contradictions and messiness, throughout the show’s twelve episodes. Kazusa and Niina, in particular, undergo remarkable and incredibly recognizable transformations as they discover and rediscover their own bodies, wants and needs, and sexual philosophies. Not to dismiss the growth Rika and Hitoha undergo, though; both of them certainly change by the show’s end and embody the complexities of wanting to be sexual without being slutty in well-realized and distinct ways. Momo is perhaps the weakest link of the five, with her arc feeling the most incomplete by the epilogue. It feels as if Okada and the show’s writers did not know what to do or where to take her character, leaving her — like many LGBT2QI characters — woefully underexplored and underwritten. It is the one major blemish on an otherwise nearly impeccable show.
The show’s male characters, particularly Izumi and Milo-sensei, are also given due time in the spotlight and are almost equally engaging. O Maidens avoids the risk of casting its male characters as purely objects for the five girls to bounce their character development off, instead treating them to their own development that helps to inform that of the girls.
One aspect I want to highlight particularly is the show’s ending, specifically the epilogue. Though one could argue that events wrap up too neatly and some character relationships are too easily smoothed out, it is the final lines of the show that capture what makes O Maidens in Your Savage Season so extraordinary. I won’t spoil them for readers who have not finished the series yet, but they are the perfect encapsulation of the show’s themes, calling back to the first episode in ways both intricate and delightfully on-the-nose. To say that the show is worth watching just for this ending may seem hyperbolic, but dammit is it true. O Maidens in Your Savage Season is not only one of 2019’s best shows, but a phenomenal, landmark, and refreshingly self-aware moment in the contemporary anime zeitgeist.
TL;DR: Much like its subject matter, O Maidens in Your Savage Season is messy, complicated, and beautiful. It’s an often difficult watch, but that’s part of its charm- it reflects the challenges of adolescence and the eminence in confronting, embracing, and embodying one’s sexuality.
Want to hear more about our thoughts on O Maidens and other summer anime? Check out our recent seasonal wrap up episode of the official AniTAY Podcast:
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