Wotakoi: Love is Hard for Otaku
by Steve Jones,
How would you rate episode 9 of
Wotakoi: Love is Hard for Otaku ?
Narumi and Hirotaka finally face their toughest challenge yet as a couple: going on a normal date. It goes about as well as you would expect, but not for Hirotaka's lack of trying. They wear normal clothes, they go to a normal theme park, they go on the normal rides, and eat normal churros. Oh yeah, and Hirotaka institutes a penalty game where each of them has to pay a fine any time they start talking about otaku stuff. You know, like a normal date!
Their little penalty game ends up illustrating how silly it is on an epistemological level to separate activities into otaku and non-otaku. I'd wager that most people have watched at least some anime, and many of them probably enjoyed some of it. Even my parents, displaced from me by an entire generation and definitely not people I'd call otaku or nerds, loved Speed Racer when they were growing up. Pokémon is a huge international phenomenon, and Pokémon Go is still one of the most-downloaded apps. There isn't a clear delineation between nerdy and normal stuff, and Hirotaka and Narumi quickly come to realize this as their attempts to communicate with each other and enjoy their date break down into carefully tiptoeing around any topic that could be considered part of the otaku sphere. It's largely played for laughs, and the two of them still eke out a passable theme park date, complete with log flumes and haunted houses. But it definitely makes the day a lot more awkward than it otherwise would have been, which is the story of Wotakoi all-around, really.
The penalty game also highlights some of the disparity in experience between Narumi and Hirotaka. Despite not being the person who came up with this plan for a “normal” date, Narumi is able to adapt and blend in more quickly than Hirotaka, since she already has experience separating her otaku hobbies from her love life. Part of growing up is realizing that there's a time and place for everything, but another important facet of maturity is recognizing the value of people who accept you for you. Just because Narumi can act like a non-BL-loving girl doesn't mean that she enjoys having to put on airs around others, especially the people she's supposed to be closest with. The comfort in being herself is a big part of the reason why she likes Hirotaka in the first place! It's why they grew up as friends, and it's why they're currently dating. Hirotaka, meanwhile, doesn't have the romantic experience that Narumi does, and the penalty game arises from his desire to compensate for that. It's different from the jealousy that led him to pierce his ears as a teenager, but his combination of inexperience and insecurity still leads him to a rash and not particularly well-thought-out solution. His desperation to close the gap between them only drives them apart, but because this is a fun and breezy romcom, this only manifests in the two of them getting separated at a haunted house ride.
Hirotaka's short chat with Hanako is a super sweet moment between two characters who haven't really had a one-on-one interaction in the show yet. Sure, it only arises because of her and Kabakura's incorrigible nosiness, but the two of them also genuinely care about their friends, and Hanako is perceptive enough to tell what Hirotaka's problem is right away. Societal pressure has told him that relationships look a certain way and progress a certain way, and he's afraid his relationship with Narumi doesn't count because it doesn't resemble those. Enjoying nerdy things naturally comes with a tension between feeling childish and wanting to appear mature, and this extends to his nerdy romance with Narumi. Hanako, however, is probably the most mature person out of their group, and she gives him the permission he needs to take everything at their own pace. They might not be deeply intimate yet, but that's okay! Love isn't a race. Now, if I'm being honest, I also agree with Hanako that the two of them need to smooch already. In the context of the show itself, I think it's a super great message that you don't need to check off a number of arbitrary boxes in order to be considered a “real” relationship. But in the context of anime, I'd like to see more shows of this type recognize that most adult couples do in fact have sex. Yes, even the otaku ones.
Hanako's advice gives Hirotaka the clarity to see that his obsession with appearing immature is actually just another manifestation of his immaturity. This is in regards to his relationship with Narumi, but I think it also gets at the more general point that most adult otaku have reached one way or another. We expect to grow out of stuff like anime and video games, but then we don't, so we embrace it instead. If anything, I've had a more fun and rewarding experience being an adult anime fan than being a teen or a child. Likewise, Hirotaka embraces the slow but steady progression of his relationship with Narumi, and then literally embraces Narumi, because they are dating and they are enjoying it. Narumi too is kinda awkward, flustered, and not sure how to progress their relationship, but she also wants to see parts of Hirotaka that she hasn't seen before. A pair of earrings might not be a “normal” present in this situation, but it's the right one for the two of them in that moment. Another thing I really appreciate is that their relationship doesn't fall into the tired pattern of an unapologetically childish man be accomodated by a mature woman who's inexplicably in love with him. Hirotaka is aware of his own childishness, and he comes to look up to Narumi's maturity and experience rather than feel threatened by it. Narumi, on the other hand, is allowed to be as big a weirdo as Hirotaka, and it's their mutual comfort around each other that makes for their strongest bond. This parity in their relationship lends a lot to both the romance and the comedy of Wotakoi.
In the end, there's no big sea change of a kiss for our leads, but they're closer than ever before. The penalty game was ultimately a failure, but seeing the two of them attempt in vain to contort themselves into model citizens was pretty amusing. And Narumi's face game is on point this entire episode, featuring everything from pouts to screams to a Nobuyuki Fukumoto manga character. I was impressed by how thoughtful the writing was in addressing Hirotaka's concerns, but more than that, I laughed and smiled a lot. For as much as I use these episodes as springboards to talk about the greater thematic issues surrounding the show, what keeps me coming back to Wotakoi is these adorable dorks being insufferably cute together week after week.
Steve is a longtime anime fan who can be found making bad posts about anime on his Twitter.
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