Wotakoi: Love Is Hard For Otaku is a new slice-of-life anime that aired in Japan earlier this Summer, and is readily available in the UK via Amazon Prime. The 11-episode season begins with twenty-something office worker Narumi Momose starting a new job, and determining not to let slip her dark secret. See, Narumi is an “otaku” (someone obsessed with Japanese popular culture, like anime or video games), and although she’s an attractive young woman, she’s worried that her passion for manga, anime, and games is holding back her social life.
To Narumi’s immense embarassment, as soon as she starts her new job she bumps into an old childhood friend, Hirotaka Nifuji, who blurts out her secret to her new co-workers. Hirotaka is a hardcore games otaku, and is much less concerned with keeping up appearances than Narumi. On the contrary, he’s pretty happy for people to know he’s obsessed with video games, and has accepted the likely consequences for his social life and prospects of finding a girlfriend… or at least, so it seems. Over the course of the season, we gradually learn more about Hirotaka’s past, motivations, and desires. While he chiefly connects to his friends through video games and other aspects of otaku culture, it’s both moving and inspiring to see him attempting to grow and develop as a person, establishing more grown-up relationships as he does so.
Narumi befriends her buxom colleague, Hanako Koyanagi, who it turns out is in fact an otaku, as well: indeed, she’s a minor cosplay celebrity already known to Narumi. The two are able to bond over their shared appreciation of manga, in particular their enthusiasm for homoerotic “Yaoi”. Meanwhile, their bad-tempered line manager, Taro Kabakura, is also revealed to be something of an otaku, although he’s far less obsessive than Hirotaka. Both pairs – Taro and Hirotaka, and Narumi and Hanako – have a Red Oni, Blue Oni dynamic; and the four rapidly develop their own friendship group. The season charts the development of their relationships, and how they manage the competing demands of work, love, and video games. Later episodes introduce a couple of extra characters, chiefly Hirotaka’s younger brother, Nao, and his friend, Ko. Nao is the first non-otaku in the show: but although he isn’t really interested in video games, he knows his big brother is, and is prepared to play them as a way of spending time with him (despite Hirotaka’s exasperation at his lack of skill).
It’s obvious that Wotakoi was written by people who love otaku culture, and the video game references were right on the money. Hirotaka, for instance, describes being traumatized by losing game save data in the 1990s, which will be all too familiar to anyone who had their progress wiped due to clumsiness or unreliable memory cards. I enjoyed the stylised video-game graphics used in some scenes, such as in the Sword Art-esque episode where everyone is playing an MMORPG. Otherwise, Wotakoi is modest in its ambitions, with a small cast of characters. While the show feels relatively low-budget, having a small cast and a limited number of settings (home, office, bar) means that everything is pleasantly well-drawn and animated, and the Japanese voice acting seems high-quality. The bickering, competitive relationship between Hanako and Kabakura is a bit trying at times, but that’s really my only criticism; other than that the intro sequence goes on a bit too long. Not exactly a major problem.
Wotakoi is a simple show on the face of it, but it’s endearing and entertaining, and benefits from mature, sympathetic writing and characterisation. The character of Hirotaka is particularly well-done. It’s not the most ambitious anime I’ve seen, but I greatly enjoyed it, and looked forward to watching every episode. You can’t ask for much more than that.