The Best Anime About Nerds

by Paul Jensen,

The video game-themed comedy Gamers! has drawn a fair amount of attention this season, and not just for its wicked sense of humor. This show seems to have a strength that many anime series try and fail to obtain; it feels like Gamers really gets what it means to be a nerd. The writing is able to articulate what makes gaming fun, and it approaches its characters in a way that puts their passions front and center without making them seem one-dimensional. How is it that some anime titles are able to forge a genuine connection with their audience while so many others miss the point completely? Let's take a closer look at some shows that understand what it means to be an otaku of some kind.

A series doesn't necessarily need to place a nerdy character in a leading role to connect with the audience. Some titles exhibit such a tangible enthusiasm for their subject material that they evoke a kind of “kindred spirit” feeling. Even if the show isn't necessarily about otaku, it gives off the impression that it was made by and for them, as you can't help but feel like the creative staff had a burning passion for what they were making.

Shirobako is a good example of this kind of series. The world of anime plays a central role in the narrative, but the focus is on the people who make anime rather than the people who watch it. As it delves into the production process, Shirobako is able to find the things that make this medium feel special to fans and creators alike. As we learn why different characters have chosen to pursue such a challenging line of work, we relate to their motivations even if we've never been in their position. After all, many creators start out as fans.

That same feeling of connection can crop up in shows covering a wide variety of subjects. As long as a series feels well researched and does a good job of conveying what makes a particular hobby interesting or enjoyable, you could say that it understands its audience. One title that hits that note for me is the high school tank battle series Girls und Panzer. My family used to run an online store selling scale models of tanks and other military vehicles, and I picked up an interest in that subject as a result. As silly as the premise of Girls und Panzer may be, the writing displays a geeky love and genuine enthusiasm for the tanks that appear in the story. By articulating the characters' points of view, the show does the same for its core audience.

Anime series that try to draw comedy out of otaku characters are pretty common, but ones that actually hit the mark are few and far between. Titles that miss the point either go too far by holding these nerd characters up for ridicule or play it too safe by presenting an idealized image that panders to their intended audience. It takes sharp writing and direction to hit that uncomfortable-yet-satisfying middle ground, and the result is often hard to turn away from.

Watamote is the kind of comedy that can leave viewers squirming in their seats even as they laugh, and for good reason. Tomoko, the show's hopelessly deluded heroine, embodies all the awkwardness and anxiety that can build up when you're the kind of teenager that your peers think is kind of weird. There are scenes in Watamote that make me wince in sympathy every time I watch them, as most of the show's humor comes from taking the experience of being a socially inept teen and cranking the level of discomfort up to the max. Still, much like Tomoko herself, Watamote remains lovable because that adolescent pain is a shared experience; the core of the story feels sympathetic and relatable, and the audience's conflicted reactions come from having been there to one extent or another.

Turn back the clock a few more years, and you'll find a similar vibe in Welcome to the NHK. Featuring older characters with more serious problems, this series mines the dark side of the otaku world for both humor and drama. Like Watamote, there are moments in Welcome to the NHK that feel almost uncomfortably true to life, despite the show's frequent forays into surreal territory. For me, one of the most memorable scenes happens in its first episode, when shut-in protagonist Tatsuhiro talks himself into applying for a part-time job and reluctantly ventures out of his apartment. The image of him walking down the street, rehearsing his introduction over and over, is a powerful one. For all its strange twists and turns, Welcome to the NHK presents its characters in a believable way.

Of course, there's more to being a nerd than obsessing over a particular subject or feeling awkward around “normal” people. That's what makes this final group of shows feel particularly special: they're the select few that manage to take a broader look at the lives of their otaku characters. They go to school, make friends, get jobs, and stumble their way through romantic encounters just like everyone else. These shows know that no matter what their hobbies are, people are just people.

Genshiken may be the best-known title in this group, and it does a lot to earn that fame. The series follows a college club that studies anime, manga, and games over multiple school years. Old members graduate, new ones join, and the focus of the club slowly evolves in line with otaku culture in the real world. The original cast is still nearest and dearest to my heart, but the series features a wide enough variety of personalities that just about any viewer will find someone to relate to. If you've ever been an anime fan in college, you'll find at least a small piece of that experience in Genshiken.

Princess Jellyfish may not enjoy the same level of name recognition, but it also deserves a place on this list. Most of its main characters are female otaku living together in an apartment building, and their interests range from trains to obscure Three Kingdoms trivia. This is another case where the characters' hobbies are defining parts of who they are, but there's more to their lives than just being a nerd. As they interact with people from other walks of life, the characters' personalities and perspectives prove to be just as important as their interests.

This brings us back around to Gamers, which at times has exhibited traits from all of these groups. The writing comes across as well-informed on the subject of video games, many of the jokes hit close to home, and we get to see the occasional glimpse of who the characters are when they aren't busy gaming. Only time will tell if it has the staying power of other shows on this list, but its heart certainly seems to be in the right place. Anime series about nerds aren't going away any time soon (it looks there are several on tap for the upcoming fall season), but the key to making these shows work will always be a solid understanding of the characters' humanity and why they care so much about the hobbies they love.

What are your favorite anime about nerds just like you? Share your picks with us in the forums!

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