Teen duo’s DIY anime ‘Senpai Club’ draws cult following

by Emily Balistrieri

Staff Writer

Pink-haired Tsumiki Domen introduces herself before exclaiming, “Kuso! F-kku! Chikoku da!” That’s subtitled not as the literal “Sh-t! F-ck! I’m late!” but as “Oh no, I’m late!,” setting the tone of this humorous animation. Our heroine rushes off to her first day of high school, slice of toast clamped in mouth — a cliché you could expect in any cute Japanese anime. Except it’s not Japanese TV — “Senpai Club” is a parody video with more than half a million YouTube views. And it’s made by two Swedish high school students calling themselves Make Babies.

In an email interview, Eric Bradford, 18, recounts how he first met Olivia Bergström, 17, a little over a year ago at IT-Gymnasiet high school. “We met during an open house when our classes were working together. It was nothing special, just a project to design a brochure.”

The pair have since collaborated on a number of simple video games (“usually just short projects made over a weekend”), and now they’re undertaking something on a larger scale — animation.

“The design for the senpai (upperclassmen), came from joking around about bad ‘How To Draw Manga’ books, and then, for some dumb reason, we decided to make a whole show about them,” explains Bradford. What the senpai do in their club is yet to be revealed, but anime fans familiar with the “I hope senpai will notice me” trope of twitterpated teen characters can start to guess.

Bergström is probably the more otaku of the two, citing anime producers Studio Trigger (“Kill La Kill,” “Little Witch Academia”) and Kyoto Animation (“K-On!” “Nichijou”) as artistic influences, as well as “Precure” and “Milky Holmes,” staples of moe (girls being ineffably cute).

Bradford admittedly wasn’t an anime fan at all until he met Bergström: “I had quite a bit of catching up to do to be able to make a parody like this. I watched tons of different genres to learn about it and tried to pay as much attention as possible to the small details.”

He originally got into animation by watching shorts on websites such as U.S.-based Newgrounds.com, but found the visual style of anime more compelling.

“Anime, even low-budget ones, are usually shot (well, animated) like a live-action movie would be, utilizing extreme angles and perspective. In contrast, a lot of American animation (at least for TV) is animated on a 2-D plane, straight-on with the characters constantly in a three-quarter view. I’ve done live-action work in the past, so I like that freedom.”

Their complementary skills make them a good team. Bergström writes the script and creates storyboards and Bradford does the audio and music. The animation work is split pretty much 50-50, although Bradford, with more experience, handles the more complicated scenes. The voice acting is split between the two by gender.

They share the biggest task: “We’d say the hardest part of making ‘Senpai Club’ is translating the script into Japanese,” says Bergström. “We’re both still beginners, so there’s a lot of googling for word definitions and grammar explanations.”

Certainly a large part of whether you find Make Babies’ creation funny or obnoxious is whether you can handle listening to two Swedish teenagers muddle their way through Japanese with all their might (and wit: some of the funniest moments depend on catching free-translation jokes or inexplicably borrowed English and Spanish).

“We considered a few different options at first, such as doing it completely in English, doing it in so-called Fangirl Japanese, where you mix a few Japanese words here and there into English in a really annoying way, doing it completely in broken Google Translate Japanese, or trying our best to actually do it in Japanese,” Bergström explains. “Obviously, we chose the latter, which was a really good decision since we’re learning a lot from doing it, and the other options probably wouldn’t have worked well with Japanese viewers.”

After taking four-five months of pricey evening classes and continuing with textbooks on their own, Bergström and Bradford say interacting with Japanese fans on Twitter has become one of their favorite ways to study.

“Senpai Club” has received enough attention on the Japanese web that at least one mangaka (comic artist) and one animator-director have drawn fan-art. Another Japanese fan went as far as to parody the parody, substituting characters from the popular “Attack on Titan” anime series in the opening sequence.

All the interest from Japan took Make Babies by surprise. “When we made it, we mostly had Western anime fans in mind,” says Bergström.

Some Western fans have said they’re already preparing “Senpai Club” costumes for their next anime convention, so it seems enthusiasm in both hemispheres is high.

How do Make Babies balance animation and classes?

“The school we go to doesn’t really have homework, for the most part, but since I hardly get anything done at all in class I have to do most of that work at home,” says Bradford, who gets easily distracted but luckily managed to make “Senpai Club” his graduation project. Bergström says keeping up with school has never been a big problem for her but that she gets “a very small amount of sleep.”

When asked about the future of “Senpai Club,” Bergström responds: “We haven’t really planned it out at all, to be honest. We probably should.”

If that doesn’t necessarily inspire confidence, their willingness to “basically just stay in the basement and animate all day” shows a tough work ethic. And when half-jokingly asked about when we could expect to see phone charms, Bradford gives a level-headed answer.

“We have thought a little bit about merchandise, although we’re a bit iffy on it right now, since it might seem a bit greedy or excessive to start producing and selling stuff when we only have a third of an episode out so far,” he says.

Part 2 of Episode 1 of “Senpai Club” was released shortly after the interview took place on Feb. 21. Follow the duo’s progress at makebabi.es