Secret Santa 2016: Love Lab

An anime about romantic middle school girls reminds me of my slightly more romantic days.
Beneath the Tangles | Secret Santa—Love Lab

This year, I actually entered Reverse Thieves’ Secret Santa Project in time! I like being forced to watch an anime I might not have chosen myself—or one I’ve been procrastinating on. In this case, my Santa recommended three shows that fit in one or both of those two categories. Out of the three, I chose to watch and review Love Lab, aka Renai Lab.

This review is split into several sections: an summary of the show and of my perspective, a casual scoring of a few anime elements, and my final, overall thoughts. There are spoilers, but only very small ones; I didn’t even talk about the bigger ongoing conflicts in Love Lab, let alone how they turned out.

Love Lab and My Not-So-Romantic Perspective

Love Lab is about a group of middle school girls who are fascinated with romance. They want to fall in love, and they want boys to fall in love with them. Together, led by the most imaginative of the group, they conduct “love labs” in which they try to learn techniques for meeting boys and sparking love.

In episode 1, student president Maki convinces her new friend to practice an important boy-meeting scenario with her. Because everyone knows running with toast in your mouth is the best way to meet boys on school days.

I’ve been curious about this show before, but it was Santa’s short explanation that pushed me to watch it. He said he was curious about “a woman’s perspective on its take on high [or middle] school girls being in love with the idea of being in love.” So, of course, I decided to give my perspective.

Even so, I started out thinking, “But I’m one of the least romantic women around, so I might give a pretty cynical perspective.” 

I’d forgotten how romantic I was as a young teenager. Love Lab reminds me that I, too, was once fourteen—eager to be noticed by boys, too shy to actually talk to them, and fully expecting to be engaged by age twenty, or by college graduation at the latest (HAH). Now, I was still more practical than some of the Love Lab girls. I saw no reason to date in middle school, since, from my perspective, the whole point of dating was to determine whether a viable marriage match could be made, and it was unwise to risk heartbreak and awkwardness at an age when relationships were highly unlikely to lead to marriage. I wanted boys to notice me, sure, but not to date yet. I played the long game, reading every Christian book about dating, courtship, modesty, and the male mind that I came across. In the meantime, conversations with other girls were more likely to revolve around school, fantasy novels, and maybe even youth group than around boys.

Middle School Me was more romantic than Twenty-three-year-old Me, but neither of us have ever lost sight of the vulnerability involved in romance. For every happily-ever-after, there are many more breakups. That doesn’t mean romance isn’t worth pursuing for most people, but for heaven’s sake, why would you invite probable heartbreak when you’re still a kid and your happily-ever-after relationship isn’t likely to start for several years? For that matter, why would you invite the blindness and emotional turmoil that seem to accompany love in so many cases? Changing hormones are enough of a hassle at that age. Adding a boy to the mix would just complicate things.

That’s the background I bring to Love Lab, an anime filled with characters who glamorize love, sparing no thought for how vulnerable hearts really are in romantic relationships—let alone how badly things can go wrong.

Story – 6/10 (average, decent)

The story did not wow me. It’s the wrong genre for me in the first place. Still, it was generally good. I appreciate how ample conflict was built, surrounding things like secrets and possible teacher interference, but unnecessary drama was avoided. I’ve heard horror stories about middle school girl fights and such (heard about, never participated in, because I have no patience for illogical drama, real or fictional). There was some conflict between girls in Love Lab, but nothing that made me want to flee and/or sit the characters down and talk sense into them.

The story may have been more compelling with slightly more actual romance. That is, I’d like to have seen the girls interact more with the actual, real life boys and further confront their unrealistic fantasies (and their very real shyness). But then again… these are middle school girls. If they figured out everything within a thirteen-episode span, they’d be learning a lot quicker than most folks, and Love Lab would be quite a different show. It’s enough that they learned more about friendship among each other.

Characters – 7/10 (good)

This is where Love Lab did well.

Meet “Wild Kid” Riko, admired by all girls at Fujisaki Girls Academy for her slightly rebellious, fun, forthright personality. She doesn’t know about her nickname at first, and she won’t be pleased when she finds out.

My coblogger Stardf29 informs me that Love Lab is based on a manga by Miyahara Ruri, the same mangaka behind Kawai Complex (Bokura wa Minna Kawaisou). When I remember that, I notice a similar attention to characters’ personalities—to desires and thought processes that don’t always get sufficient attention in anime. In Kawai Complex, we’re given insight into an introvert’s needs, doubts, and desires. In Love Lab, characters display the varying levels of romantic fantasies in young teens. These fantasies aren’t used only to create humor or to give a comic relief character a shtick, but instead to explore realities about the middle school girl thought life in a humorous, exaggerated way.

The two central characters, Maki and Riko, are looked up to by their peers for very different reasons. Maki is known as the Fujisaki Academy’s sophisticated, beautiful, capable student body president (aka “Princess Fuji”). Riko’s cool, energetic, fun ways set her apart as the “Wild Kid.” No one would expect that they’re both quite boy crazy—let alone the depths of Maki’s romantic fantasies. As their dreams and desires are revealed to each other and a select few other students, they realize that they’re not that different from each other, that no one’s too cool to desire romance. And these discoveries form the foundation for friendship.

I appreciate the exteriorly cool element of these characters. The vast majority of girls, however sophisticated or tough they may seem, wish on some level for romance, or have at some point. They wish to be cherished and desired—and they wish for some sort of adventure, generally one with a romantic core. This truth is fully on display in Love Lab.

Animation/Production Stuff – 6/10 (average)

I always forget to pay attention to animation, sound, etc., even though I respect the production and animation team for all they do. When I barely notice it, as in this case, I assume that means it’s neither fantastic nor poor. They do a good job getting the story and characters across, so yay!

Overall – 7/10 (good)

I enjoyed Love Lab more than I expected, so I give it a 7 for personal preference, making it average out to a score of 6.5 (good enough).

In one of my favorites scenes, Riko and Suzune, the student council secretary, confront overworked president Maki in the nurse’s office. They’re learning how important it is to trust your team and share responsibilities. (ep 3)

I realize that Love Lab is not meant to be some deep examination of romance and middle school fantasies. Still, I’m unsatisfied by the characters’ limited development, especially as it relates to romance and priorities. I’m not comfortable with fourteen-year-old girls trying to find out the best way to show off their necks to attract boys. Sure, it’s relatable—but I’d like them to find ways to do their hair that makes them feel beautiful in their own eyes, ways that express and explore their unique, precious personalities. I want them to learn that popularity among boys isn’t something they need to covet—Riko, especially, thinks she’s not popular, when, in fact, all the girls admire her. Now, popularity among girls is as unimportant as popularity among boys, in my mind, but it’s no less important. That is, social value should not be based on how attractive you are to the opposite sex. It’s more important to cultivate your character, to become someone who is recognizably kind and honest. The girls recognize that in Riko, and they look up to the forthright way she displays these qualities. But she doesn’t seem to value them in herself as she should, even by the end of the show. I’d have liked to see her better understand all the positive reasons she’s popular with the girls.

Other elements I’d have liked to see: possibly more awareness of the reality of feelings, a learned respect for their own hearts and boys’ hearts alike (“You’re such a heartbreaker” is not a compliment), and more resolution between Riko and her childhood friend.

Conclusion

I expected this to be a fluffy cute-girls-doing-cute-things anime, meant to give viewers (especially men) a sense of moe. But I think Love Lab‘s portrayal of the middle school mindset is actually fairly accurate, and while I was never even a quarter as boy-crazy as the main characters, their antics remind me of the fantasies and quirks I had around their age.

Do I recommend Love Lab? Yes, if you like slightly more subtle school life comedies, you want to relive your embarrassing middle school fantasies, or you simply enjoy portrayals of young friendship.


Thank you, iblessall, for the excellent set of Secret Santa recommendations! I hope to eventually get to the other two you recommended… but I’ve been saying “I should watch Princess Tutu” for years now, so who knows when it will actually happen. 

Annalyn, known as Alexis to the outside world, is a lifelong lover of fiction. Growing up, books kept her attention, but anime stole center stage halfway through high school. If she isn’t consuming, writing, analyzing, or thinking about some form of story… she’s probably distracted. But she might be running, editing, or hanging out with family.
One Comment on this post.

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  • YQ
    27 December 2016 at 10:45 pm

    It’s interesting how romantic love is, isn’t it? When I think back to my middle school days, the idea seemed simpler. Like, I knew it would have challenges, but I had more of an optimistic or idealistic view towards it, compared to as an adult. An adult would be more keenly aware of how heartbreaks can be. (I mean, just look at divorces.) And relationships are such a huge responsibility. But looking at how school-age girls would try to get boys’ attentions is kinda cute.

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