What if you found out the girl of your dreams was actually a guy?
Good — A Fun Romantic Comedy
Love Stage!! is the story of Izumi, an aspiring manga artist otaku who couldn't be more different from his family. His mother is a world-famous actress, his father a singer, and his brother a boy-band teenage heartthrob. While he has been able to stay out of the celebrity spotlight for years, Izumi is drawn back in to do a follow-up commercial to one he starred in with the rest of his family when he was a child.
There are two problems, however. One is that in the original commercial he was dressed as a girl — and will thus be expected to dress as a woman again in the follow-up. The other is that Ryoma, the boy who acted opposite him in the original (who has since become TV's most popular actor), is head over heels in love with the "girl" he met back then.
With this set-up, it's pretty easy to see where a romantic comedy like this is going to go, but that rarely makes it any less hilarious. What starts as a mistaken gender comedy soon leads to Ryoma questioning his heterosexuality and later attempting to pursue a relationship with Izumi regardless. Of course, much of the comedy comes from the fact that, beyond the gender and sexuality issues, the two are very different people. Ryoma is an outgoing, professional actor and a responsible individual, while Izumi is a hardcore otaku and a near shut-in. Watching them interact, especially with Ryoma having no idea how to win an otaku heart, always makes for a good-natured laugh.
Good — What is Love?
While often focusing on the comedy of the situation, the anime also does a great job of showing how the love between the two characters evolves. At first, Ryoma is eager to woo the girl of his dreams. Of course, the moment Izumi's sex is revealed, that dream is shattered. He feels angry, embarrassed, and betrayed. Then he enters denial, wondering if it's all some horrible joke, before moving on to questioning his heterosexuality. Finally, he comes to accept his feelings are real, deciding that Izumi's biological sex is irrelevant to his romantic feelings. From there on, it's all about wooing Izumi into a similar state of mind.
But what makes the story so endearing (and the comedy so lightheartedly enjoyable) is that the two have absolutely no idea what they are doing. Neither has had a serious relationship before — with Ryoma perpetually pining for a girl that never existed and Izumi too busy obsessing about his 2D anime girlfriend — much less a homosexual one in a country where homosexuality is often viewed as either a scandal or a punchline.
[Skip to the next section to avoid major spoilers.] But perhaps the most interesting feature of their love story is that it doesn't end with them admitting they love each other but goes beyond to look at some of the problems their relationship continues to face. The final few episodes (and the bonus episode included on the DVDs) deal with the two attempting to take their relationship to a sexual level. Honestly, this makes for great comedy as Izumi, after doing "research" (i.e. reading stacks of boys love manga) is forced to ask his family's manager questions like "does anal sex feel good or hurt?" Moreover, Izumi's reaction to their first time together is both comical and heartwarming — as is the subsequent fallout.
Good — Talent and Dreams
The anime's other main theme has to do with the ideas of natural talent and following your dreams. Izumi longs to be a manga artist. Unlike the other members of his college manga club, he actively works on his manga while the others just tend to read and waste time. The problem is, when it comes to drawing, he is absolutely terrible. Despite years of practice, he gives elementary schoolers a run for their money in the bad art department. He simply has no talent in that area whatsoever.
Thus the question becomes: If you have no talent, should you give up on your dreams? Also the opposite: Should you instead do something just because you have the talent or pedigree for it? This is the struggle Izumi faces throughout the story. At the same time, Ryoma, eager to win Izumi's heart, has a parallel struggle of having to decide how to best support Izumi — to tell him not to give up or to help him move on after failing.
Bad — It's Surprisingly Rapey
Over the course of the series, Izumi gets sexually assaulted — and nearly raped — several times. Even more disturbing, the perpetrator of most of these incidents is Ryoma. His first attempt is one of shocked panic, unable to believe that Izumi really is a boy. But even later on, he continues to do rapey things like steal kisses from a sleeping Izumi. It tends to put more than a bit of a damper on your light-hearted love comedy when one character seems to constantly be on the edge of raping the other.
While I've been an anime watcher for close to two decades now, Love Stage!! is my first "boys love" anime. So going in I worried that, as a straight man, I would be unable to empathise with the homosexual characters' romance and thus feel disconnected from the emotional core of the story. This was not the case. Other than the several rapey scenes, this anime was a lot of fun. Love Stage!! has good characters, is great comedy, and does an excellent job of believably building their romantic relationship. Regardless of your sexual orientation, I'd recommend this one to anyone who enjoys a good romantic comedy.
Love Stage!! aired on Tokyo MX in Japan. It is currently available for free and with English subtitles in the West on Crunchyroll.