Wotakoi: love is hard for Otaku (2020) review [Fantasia 2020]

Introduction

Fujita could never have expected that, when he posted the first parts on Pivix in 2014, his web manga series would become such a hit. Fujita’s manga did not only become serialized on Comic pool and published in print in 2015, but was also made, in 2018, into an anime adaptation. As the popularity of Fujita’s manga has yet to decline, they struck the iron while hot and adapted Fujita’s manga to the silver screen.

Fantasia 2020 Official Selection

Review

Narumi Momose (Mitsuki Takahata) is an otaku, but she tries very hard (but fails) to keep her interest in boys’ love manga, games, and anime hidden from others. Luckily, she encounters at her new workplace one of her old childhood friends, game otaku Hirotaka Nifuji (Kento Yamazaki). The same day, she asks him out for dinner.

At the Izakaya, while playing together on the Nintendo Switch, they start talking about romantic matters. Narumi not only states that she will hide with all means necessary her otaku-ness for her future boyfriend, but also that she’ll never date a male otaku on account of her feeling that all male otaku are creepy. Nevertheless, when Hirotaka explains why he especially would be a good fit for her, she immediately accepts his invitation to start dating.      

Wotakoi: love is hard for Otaku (2020) by Yuichi Fukuda

Wotakoi: love is hard for Otaku offers a romanticized exploration of the otaku-subject and his world as well as an otaku-fied account of the structural struggles of engaging in romance. Don’t be surprised by the amount of otaku-vocabulary (idol-related otaku vocabulary like Oshi and Ninchi), use of gaming and manga terminology, and the myriad of (visual) references to videogames. You are warned.

Fukuda’s narrative, especially in its opening stages, explores the fact that the specific sub-societal reality of the otaku will always be at odds with the general societal reality defined by ideals, expectations, and rules. But while this tension is sensible for both men and women, Wotakoi underlines, in a rather silly way, that the tension is most problematic for women. As Narumi’s desire to hide her otaku-ness vividly shows is that the dominant social discourse about how Japanese women should be for men is incompatible with the way she, as subject, wants to enjoy in life. Japanese society implicitly dictates female otaku to remain in the closet.

It is therefore not surprising that Hirotaka offers his services to help Narumi to act as if she fitted within the accepted discourses of femininity. What his no-otaku date – each otaku-related speech is fined with 1000 yen during the date – aims at is to make her better at playing along with the semblant of feminine normality and practice her mouth so that what her otaku-heart thinks (e.g. BL fantasies) is left unsaid. But he quickly doubts if this is the right way to support her. Should he really help her hide or even change her hobby from the male and female others who are following the mainstream societal discourses? Or should he just support her fujoshi lifestyle and her ‘fantasmatical obsessions’?

Wotakoi: love is hard for Otaku (2020) by Yuichi Fukuda

Narumi’s hobby to make erotic boys’ love manga (as sell them at Comic Market) reveals another aspect that often marks otaku-relationships. To put in a very Freudian way, the libido is so focused on the ‘fantasmatical obsession’ that the relationship as such, i.e. the interaction between the two subjects within the romantic relationship, remains empty of any real kind of romantic eroticism. Narumi enjoys her fantasies (even those about her own relationship) and loves to share them, but doesn’t she lose herself in these fantasies in such a way that she struggles to meet Hirotaka as subject, to meet him beyond his position as (masturbatory) support for her fantasmatical obsessions? Is it not also the case that these fantasmatical obsessions – here evoked by her inner-monologues – underpin her struggle to accept and respond to Hirotaka’s romantic acts (e.g. kissing her)?    

Hirotaka, for his part, struggles with reading and meeting Narumi as female subject. He struggles because he fails to see that behind her otaku-ness and the awkward ways by which she responds to his romantic gestures resides a woman who demands love. For example, when Narumi, after asking him to accompany her to the bus stop, cancels out her demand, Hirotaka makes the male mistake of taking her by her word. But why does Hirotaka fail to see Narumi as female subject? Is it not because he is too preoccupied with the question of how to deal with her fantasmatical obsessions?   

The solution that Wotakoi: love is hard for Otaku provides for their romantic struggle is predictable. But the predictability of the solution is not the problem – the solution is, in fact, the only correct solution to escape the problems the imaginary pose for them at the romantic level. What the narrative fails to do is to make this solution an emotionally powerful moment – the central element of the narrative is, in truth, presented as a fait-divers.       

While the composition of Wotakoi is a standard affair for the most part – a mix of fixed shots and dynamic shots merely to satisfy the need for variety, Yuichi Fukuda does decorate his straightforward composition with some cinematographical decorations. These decorations, which are in most cases unnecessary, have no other purpose than to cinematographically echo that the narrative is lighthearted in nature (Cine-note 1).

Wotakoi: love is hard for Otaku (2020) by Yuichi Fukuda

What the cinematographical decorations aim to do is done better by the musical accompaniment and, to a lesser degree, the sound-design – i.e. the gamut of sounds used for comical effect. In fact, the musical accompaniment is the single most important element supporting the lighthearted (and in some cases the romantic) mood of the narrative and empowering the comical lightheartedness residing in the performances (cine-note 2). The most explosive moments of lightheartedness are, nevertheless, the abundance of musical sequences interspersed in the narrative. These musical sequences (of which there are a bit too much) are not only fun lyric-wise – romanticizing the existence and the lifestyle of the otaku, but also have a pleasing melody and rhythm. In some cases, such musical sequences are staged with a more creative composition.        

As the composition nor the musical accompaniment is not used for comedic effect, the true source of Wotakoi’s lighthearted comedy must be sought elsewhere. It must, in fact, be sought in the often not so subtle over-acting. In this respect, Mitsuki Takahata steals the show with her variety of exaggerated reactions and expressions, reactions that, in some cases, feel very male-like.   

While Wotakoi: love is hard for Otaku offers plenty of comical moments, a myriad of pleasing musical sequences, and endearing romantic segments, Fukuda ultimately fails to mix and use these elements to deliver the emotional powerful moment the narrative needed. Due to the lack of such an emotional pay-off, the trajectory Hirotaka and Hirotaka undertake to realize that they need to beyond the imaginary and meet each other as Other subject also problematizes the narrative’s ability to inspire and ‘educate’ the spectator in the structural struggles of engaging in romance.  

Notes

General-note 1: Rabid fans of the anime might even be more disappointed with the live-action version. One of the reasons for this might be the changes made to the narrative, like reduces Koyanagi (Nanao) and Kabakura (Takumi Saito), main-character in the anime, to mere side-characters.

Cine-note 1: What is more effective to infuse lightheartedness than the decorations are the visual references to gaming, e.g. visualizing a certain imminent encounter as if it were a retro RPG-game like Final Fantasy, transforming Narumi into a zombie from Resident Evil, or visualizing Narumi’s dream as if she were a character in Monster Hunter.  

Cine-note 2: Dramatic lighting is, in some cases, also used to empower the lightheartedness of the narrative.

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