Beautifully subtle is the best way to describe the Japanese BL Senpai This Can’t Be Love (Senpai, Danjite Koidewa!). Adapted from the manga of the same name by Harekawa Shinta about the love between a 3D CG designer and the man he mentors, Senpai veers quite a bit from its source material but retains the deep feelings the two leads share.
The real strength, however, is in the acting, especially Naito Shuichiro’s portrayal of Yanase Jun. Naito does a brilliant job expressing his emotions through his eyes and body language. There isn’t a moment where the viewer is left guessing Yanase’s feelings. Seto Toshiki also does a fantastic job of conveying Kaneda Yuki’s awkwardness and growth. And the two of them share admirable chemistry on screen.
Japanese BLs have a profound way of expressing human emotion, and Senpai is no different. I never go into a live-action adaptation expecting it to be strictly loyal to its source material. As a fiction writer who has also been privy to the industry, I’m well aware that once a book/manga/comic is in the hands of a screenwriter, director, or production company, the vision they have for the material is what we get on screen, and that in itself is its own art.
So, I separate my love for a manga/book from its live-action.
The screen version of Senpai, This Can’t Be Love is vividly told, mostly removing the standard yellow filter often used in Japanese dramas. The coloring and transitions are well done, heightening the experience. But my favorite thing about Senpai is the way it portrays how possible it is for a person to discover their dreams by being inspired by someone else. While Kaneda’s obsession with Yanase is a little intense at times, especially the way Kaneda worships him, I like that Kaneda is also motivated by it. He grows from the obsession, going from worshipping Yanase to personally admiring him to loving him while also becoming independent in the process.
For me, the drama version of Senpai was more about two men taking personal journeys of self-discovery than it was about romance. Love took a backseat to what they learned about themselves. While Senpai is quite obviously a love story, the series focuses on using their feelings for each other as a way to grow individually before finally bringing them together. Yanase re-discovers his love for CG design through Kaneda’s passion for design and Yanase. Kaneda discovers that the man he idolizes isn’t quite the man he pictured him to be, but in the process also realizes that imperfections are a road to perfection. Together and separately, they improve. They fall in love while working, but their love for each other isn’t ultimately about work. It’s also about escaping work. They respect each other professionally while getting to know one another outside of work.
Senpai is a slow-burn romance about discovering and re-discovering oneself, and it left me largely satisfied when coming at it from that perspective.
Japanese BLs are a preferred taste for many and an acquired taste for others. They focus on storytelling rather than intimacy, but they also don’t hold back when they do decide to include intimacy, such as in My Beautiful Man, the Pornographer, and Dangerous Drugs of Sex. Senpai, like Cherry Magic, is one of the tamer BLs, but the feelings it incites are no less electric.
I never go into a Japanese drama or BL expecting physical intimacy, which may be why I’m never disappointed. What Japanese BLs excel at (and the reason why I love them) is emotional intimacy. Senpai succeeds at giving viewers that, even with the changes it makes from the source material.
Kaneda’s love for his role model drives Kaneda to be the CG designer he wants to become, and Kaneda’s obsession with Yanase drives Yanase to be the man Kaneda sees him as. That’s the focus of the screen version, and it succeeds in conveying this.
It’s as possible to find our dreams in a person and their success and impact on an industry as in our passion for a particular hobby. What Yanase and Kaneda do for each other shines. Work is their love language, and it works.
I also love how Japanese BLs rarely villainize female characters. Females often have solid supportive roles that help lift the main leads while portraying women as strong and independent. Senpai’s Tomoyo and Sakura are perfect examples of this.
The only downside for me with Senpai was Benji and the exhausting way neither Yanase nor Kaneda communicated with each other. If Senpai had been longer than the eight episodes it was, the lack of communication would have hurt it more than it does. As for Benji, it was apparent from the moment he stepped into the story that he was a way to force communication between Yanase and Kaneda and showcase Yanase’s weaknesses. But he frustrated me more than he added to the story.
All in all, however, I was left feeling as euphorically good after watching Senpai that I generally feel after watching most Japanese BLs.
For a drama that speaks to the romantic dreamer inside of us, check out Senpai, This Can’t Be Love on Viki and Gagaoolala.
Rating- 3 out of 5