WARNING: The following contains spoilers for The Case Study of Vanitas Episode 3, "Fangs That Lay Bare Blood," now streaming on Funimation, as well as discussion of sexual assault.
The Case Study of Vanitas is somewhat of an old-school anime, in the sense that it's not as edgy as many newer shonen series and some of its humor involves over-the-top reactions without self-awareness. This is not really a weakness and does lend some retro charm, which fits well with the setting. The problem is, when these portrayals are out of step with modern sensibilities, it becomes a focal point of the story -- such as the idea of consent.
Portraying non-consensual relationships is not necessarily a negative in storytelling. Villains’ actions are constantly defined by their disregard for consent, which tends to make them more detestable. Within our modern conception of consent, even some heroes' actions can be viewed as problematic, such as kissing someone who’s unconscious, as evidenced by Sleeping Beauty and Snow White. But these murky portrayals of consent can’t hold a candle to what happens in Episode 3 of The Case Study of Vanitas, which has a moment of unambiguous sexual assault coming from our supposedly heroic protagonist: Vanitas.
In Episode 3, Vanitas and Noe encounter the vampire lord Luca and his loyal servant Jeanne, also known as the Hellfire Witch. Luca wants the Book of Vanitas to cure someone he cares about but Vanitas refuses, so they fight for it. Chaos ensues and Vanitas uses Jeanne as a trap to catch another vampire who had lost his true name.
Though Jeanne is paralyzed by Vanitas, she insists on carrying out her mission, but Vanitas had already tricked Noe into kidnapping Luca to threaten Jeanne, which worked like a charm. Jeanne begs Vanitas and says she will do whatever he asks if they don’t harm Luca, and Vanitas becomes intrigued. He first “kabedons” Jeanne, which is already a somewhat problematic move, then he straight up kisses her -- all without her consent.
One can argue that Jeanne previously said she was willing to do whatever Vanitas says, but this claim was made out of duress and should not be taken as real consent. Further, this scene is shown with mixed messages: on the one hand, everyone else -- including Noe, Luca, and Vanitas’ friends -- all watch in shock, but they also seem to have bigger reactions when Vanitas punches Jeanne. Yet the scene itself is still portrayed somewhat romantically. At one point, there's even a bright and glittery background with magical sound effects, as if this is the long-awaited first kiss between a loving couple. It is also a rather drawn-out scene, which is baffling since a lot of The Case Study of Vanitas' manga material was cut for time.
Further problematic is Jeanne’s reaction. She’s obviously shocked at first, but she never really shows any discomfort toward Vanitas’ actions. Luca is furious and attacks Vanitas, but Jeanne stops him and claims she will be back to kill Vanitas herself -- but she blushes when she says it, sending out more mixed messages (which Vanitas accepts with pleasure).
There is really no reason for Jeanne to fall for Vanitas after fighting him a moment ago. The way things play out just makes a potentially great female character look easily enticed with one forced kiss, a message that really should not sit well with modern audiences.
Looking closer, The Case Study of Vanitas has even more scenes of ignoring consent, though not necessarily in terms of sexual behaviors. For example, in a later scene with Amelia, Vanitas and co. want to find out who took away her true name in Episode 1, and they discover that Noe has the power to read memories.
Amelia agrees to let Noe read her memory, but has no idea that his power requires him to suck a person’s blood. So to her shock, Noe just proceeds to lick her arm then sucks her blood. Although Amelia would probably still agree to the process, it would be far better if she knows what it involves before she gets her blood sucked.
To be fair, women are not the only people who have their consent ignored. When Noe’s childhood friend Dominique arrives and takes him away, she doesn’t ask him about what he wants -- instead she just puts a collar and chain around his neck and drags him to Altus, the vampire world. Again, it wouldn’t hurt to ask and explain her intentions first.
While these are not as egregious as the Vanitas moment, it does show that The Case Study of Vanitas has a problem with portraying consent. Speaking of which, the series' villain also tends to take away vampires’ free will by stealing their true names, effectively removing their ability to consent, so the horror of not having consent could just be a central theme of the story. But it would be nice if the heroes and villains could take different approaches to this issue. At the very least, it is now safe to add Vanitas to the ever-growing “heroes who act like villains” list.