Romance anime, and particularly shoujo, are popular, but when you add a little comedic relief in there, they’re even better. Like in the United States, rom-coms take us to a place where we get a happy romance and some relatable dating troubles with light-hearted solutions to the latter. Most of the time, however, romance anime tend to be based on high-schoolers, a shy girl, a handsome boy (or reverse), and some unrequited love where people struggle to tell each other how they feel, and as a 32-year-old woman. This really isn’t really something I see myself in— even if I enjoy them. But in Wotakoi: Love is Hard for Otaku (Wotaku ni Koi wa Muzukashii), you see an adult couple specifically targeting adult readers. This, my friends, is josei.
Not only that, but they’re as geeky as can be and in love. We get to see them in their work environment, their otaku, and how they manage being devoted to their otaku but also each other. Wotakoi: Love is Hard for Otaku, which began as a manga by mangaka Fujita and was published in English by Kodansha, is an anime series and a live-action film. In it, two childhood friends, Narumi Momose and Hirotaka Nifuji, who work in the same office decide to start dating. But Narumi has a secret, she’s a BL otaku, and Hirotaka’s secret life? Well, he is a hardcore gamer. Right from the start, these two are pulled together in a romance as the series follows their growth and friendship with another otaku couple, Hanako Koyanagi and Tarou Kabakura.
Without ruining the story for those of you who decide to watch this, I’m going to run through how Wotakoi: Love is Hard for Otakuex exemplifies my personal experience of dating while deep in geekdom.
Geek Dating is Hard
Living in “geek” specific hobbies can be ostracizing. This is both due to the sheer amount of time that you want to put into your geek life, like gaming and reading comics/manga, and the negative stereotypes associated with those things. Although each fandom has its own gendered stereotypes, both are by and large rejected by mainstream culture with the exception of the most mass-produced pieces of popular culture. It’s easy to find someone who has played a Call of Duty game but harder to find someone who has played Persona 5. Although most people know who Sailor Moon or Goku are they probably haven’t heard of Revolutionary Girl Utena. Things like anime, manga, gaming, and even comics – yes, the very thing the MCU box-office juggernaut is built on – can leave you looking awkward, hungry for a conversation, and trying not to bring up your geekiness in everyday life.
The main character of the show, Narumi, is a BL otaku. BL is a Japanese genre of fictional media focusing on romantic or sexual relationships between male characters. Ranging from wholesome to explicit in nature, it’s often read by and marketed for women. However, to reduce it to only that is a disservice to the what the genre does for queer people as a whole. Narumi spends her life on Twitter, rushing to buy the newest manga title, and finding manga parallels in real life. But while she is a BL otaku, we learn that Narumi has spent almost her entire adult life hiding this piece of herself from the people around her. She’s hidden in the workplace, with friends, and even in her relationships. On her first day of work, she meets Hirotaka, an old friend and one of the few people who knows that she is an otaku. Although she’s worried that she will be exposed as a fangirl, she’s also relieved to have a co-worker who is finally like her. Although Hirotaka isn’t a yaoi otaku, he is a gaming otaku, spending all of his free time playing his portable gaming devices and taking his lunchtime to dive into a new world online.
For women, being a fangirl, geek, otaku, or whatever label you put on it is hard. Although it is exaggerated in Wotakoi, like all things are, Narumi explaining how people think you’re weird or shun you is very real. Women are expected to only live in certain areas of popular culture. Because of gender norms and how our society has classified something as “for boys,” we’ve been left out of what fandoms look like. In many ways, we’re expected to ultimately leave the otaku lifestyle to the men. It’s not that men don’t face any social or dating problems because of their fandom, but to an extent, they’re expected to be engaged with this material and are mostly left alone. And for adults of both genders, engaging in fandom is seen as infantile.
This isn’t a piece about gender dynamics in fandom, so I won’t engage with most of them. Dating while geeky is either a minefield or a dry desert where your thirst won’t be quenched. Too weird, too geeky, “Why do you obsess over this stuff?” or even “This is for kids” can be some of the things you’ll hear on the dating scene and even in everyday interactions. My extremely geeky work desk is decorated with Funko! Pops and my laptop is covered in stickers of my fandom, and although it’s a conversation starter, it also gets me scoffed at or seen as immature (I work at a tech company, so the be yourself vibe is encouraged here). My own experiences make Narumi trying to hide her otaku extremely relatable to the piece of me that cared what people thought. Outside of the workplace, going on a date while testing the geeky waters was exhausting. And when those waters were as shallow as a puddle, trying not to delve into obscure anime or comic facts was hard. And as a gamer, setting up a date around when your guild wants to raid isn’t really seen as reasonable — yes, I’ve skipped dates to run a raid.
When You Find Someone Like You
But Narumi isn’t alone for the bulk of this anime. Instead of focusing on her fumbling around and hiding her interests, it focuses on what happens after she starts dating an otaku like her, Hirotaka. When they get together for a drink after work, Narumi explains how exhausting it is to hide her otaku and how she wishes she could be care-free like Hirotaka who games openly. It’s easy to see how these two characters will come together after their otaku conversation, especially when Narumi pulls out her own handheld and they sit at the bar gaming together.
After their first moments together, and the freeness Narumi feels, the audience knows that they’re meant to be together. At the end of their night Hirotaka says the most romantic line I’ve ever heard: “If we dated, I would help you grind for materials or levels whenever you wanted.” Now, if you’re not a gamer, this may seem like a line that isn’t anything. But if you are a gamer, the ability to be with someone who is completely okay with spending a Saturday grinding levels in a game is ideal, and finally always having someone to play with for co-op missions or multi-players is a dream come true. Finding someone who gets what you love is hard for anyone, but when it’s a hobby as time-consuming as gaming, it’s even harder.
A few weeks ago, Matt (also my co-host for But Why Tho?) blocked off the entire weekend to play the closed beta we received for 505 Game’s survival-space game Memories of Mars. When our friends were going out and even asking us out, we stayed home and had a gaming marathon. When you’re doing it alone, people on the outside see you as isolating yourself, and even as a couple some people don’t think it’s enough. But for us, this time is special. Matt taking the time to run me through a zone he’s already finished and outleveled or power-leveling a crafting skill because he won’t complete main quests without me are things that I cherish, it’s bonding time.
Balancing Your Interests
Not only does Wotakoi: Love is Hard for Otaku show the audience the ways Narumi and Hirotaka are the same, it also shows how they’re different. They have their own interests, and they let each other explore them. Not only is Narumi a manga fangirl, but she also writes her own yaoi series. Instead of ignoring her interests because he isn’t in that world, Hirotaka is supportive of what makes her happy. So much so, that he helps her finish her panels when she’s running behind on a deadline and even sells them at her convention table so she can meet an author she really admires. Similarly, Hirotaka allows Narumi to dress him up in cosplay and even agrees to a photo shoot. Then, there are also multiple episodes centered on a video game where Narumi and their friend group all play with Hirotaka. Highlighted by a recently introduced pair, the show explores someone getting into gaming just to spend time and befriend someone.
In Wotakoi: Love is Hard for Otaku, it isn’t about “I don’t want to do this” when our characters interact with the otaku of each other that they’re not interested in. Wotakoi: Love is Hard for Otaku is about how we can make each other happy by mutually exploring fandoms and worlds that the other person inhabits. Support is the number one thing in a relationship, and even when it comes to the things we love, we don’t always need our other halves to join our fandoms with us. We just want them to understand the importance they have in our lives and dip a toe in every now and then.
This support of mutual and individual geekdom can be hard to come by, especially since there always seems to be an unspoken rule of: “one of us has the most geek knowledge, and we’ll find out who does” that often stands to create competition and even worse gatekeep other fans. This happens in interactions with people, at conventions or on dates. I have had my knowledge tested and it usually resulted in me leaving the date or making him feel intimidated by showcasing that I knew more than he did. It’s weird, but this dynamic is all to familiar for women in geekdom, having to prove ourselves by knowing who the villain was in a random issue of Spider-Man. But when it’s just two people supporting each other, like Narumi and Hirotaka, and effortlessly learning from each other, a geek romance is not like any other.
On a personal note, One of the first dates I had with Matt was walking around the local comic shop for hours. I looked at long boxes while he asked me questions about characters I loved more and explain why certain issues were my favorite or why one issue was more expensive than another. He happily let me shove statues and trade volumes in his face because he “just had to see them!” But like Hirotaka and Narumi, I’ve had him speed-run me through many dungeons because I just wasn’t as devoted to the MMO as he was, but I’ve been his tank when he was a DPS, and when we play Overwatch (which I love more than he does) he’s my pocket healer. I love anime; he doesn’t, and that’s okay. Wotakoi: Love is Hard for Otaku shows this in Narumi and Hirotaka and even more so in their counterparts, Hanako and Kabakura.
Finding Other Otaku Couples
Hanako and Kabakura are Narumi and Hirotaka’s co-workers, but they’re also another otaku couple and their best friends. Hanako is a cosplayer, and Kabakura tries to be as “normal” as possible – not that he’s hiding it but that he’s just not the most otaku of the group. They also sport otaku. Their differences are important to showing different sides of fandom but also to give Narumi and Hirotaka a group to hang out and show an otaku community. Third-wheels are hard, and going to a convention is an amazing experience. By giving them an otaku couple to adventure with, Wotakoi: Love is Hard for Otakuvery much reflects the very best of geeky romances and the friendships that happen in them.
Wotakoi: Love is Hard for Otaku shows the dynamics between them and how close they really highlight a great thing about geeky romances: other geeky couples. This is something that has become extremely important in forming lasting friendships in my life. My husband and I game. We go to conventions. And we even love sports. Finding others who share our hobbies, or at the very least understand them helps us find support.
Do you like anime? Do you like romance? Are you looking for a slice-of-life show that highlights geek dating? Go watch or read Wotakoi: Love Is Hard for Otaku. It’s important to understand that otaku and in the American instance, geeks don’t have to change who they are in order to fall in love and find community.
Seeing a show that highlights this is moving. Instead of hiding yourself, the show posits, “What if you just date someone who doesn’t mind that you’re an otaku?” Even among live-action dramas, I struggle to think of a story that focuses on two people being extremely and unashamedly geeky with each other and being in love. It’s heart-warming and great anime to escape into.
This article was originally published in 2018.