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This Week in Anime
A Digital Safe Haven in My Love Story with Yamada-kun

by Christopher Farris & Monique Thomas,

My Love Story With Yamada-kun at Lv999 encapsulates the modern conundrum of dealing with social interaction and human relationships, both online and offline. Join us this week as we dive into how the show reflects the transformative nature of the digital world in forging virtual and real-life relationships.

This series is streaming on Crunchyroll.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by the participants in this chatlog are not the views of Anime News Network.
Spoiler Warning for discussion of the series ahead.

@Lossthief @BeeDubsProwl @NickyEnchilada @vestenet

Nicky, the con season is upon us! And that means, among other things, the potential to meet up with some of my mutuals in real life! While I may feel nervous about such prospects, thankfully I have anime to show me how meeting up with your online friends IRL can be totally cool, fun, and not awkward at all!
You're telling me! The prospects of socializing in the material world can be a little nerve-wracking as an adult. Doing anything with others requires a lot of scheduling, and meeting someone new means putting in additional effort to make a good first impression. Not to mention, meeting anyone face to face has become risky due to the recent presence of COVID-19. Still, my infrequent and carefully plotted real-world forays are just the fruits of my already well-cultivated social skills.

I complain, but it's really more of a humble brag to have friends and people who would even want to see you offline. I know many people who are much lonelier than I am, and it might surprise people to know that I have technology to thank for a bountiful amount of my experiences. I've made a lot of friends through virtual spaces, and I've grown close to people through streaming and video games. That's right, this week we're discussing the trials and tribulations of making long-lasting connections online with My Love Story With Yamada-kun at Lv999!~

Yamada-kun at Lv999 is a series that sits firmly on the modern end of exploring those technological connections, featuring a main character who is a professional gamer and portraying offline meetups for MMO guilds as relatively normal. Heck, the inciting incident of its plot is our heroine Akane blowing off steam in the MMO she got into because of her ex-boyfriend and eventually losing him to another player. It acknowledges the internet and games as baked into our social fabric these days.

Unfortunately for Akane, she's just kind of a mess at navigating social situations whether they be online or offline.
While lv999 is the most recent example, stories that are set fully or partly in virtual space have not only grown in prominence with video games, but their usage has become less fantastical and more reflective of how much of our lives have become intertwined with technology. Plenty of anime have displayed or speculated about the nature of online communication, but more rarely, since owning a computer used to be more exclusive. Now, it's abnormal if your main character doesn't have a smartphone right at their fingertips. Most people would consider it a disaster if they suddenly lost the ability to send texts.
Oh yeah, part of the immediate appeal of this series for me was that it might scratch the same itch as Recovery of an MMO Junkie, but without that whole "directed by a Nazi" thing.

In practice, Yamada-kun at Lv999 isn't as immersed in its online world as ones like that. The online game is how Akane first comes to know Yamada and the others in her guild, and it says a lot that we don't usually see them actually playing the game, rather than just using it as a glorified chat room. But the majority of the defining interactions between everyone are of the IRL variety.

Not that the show is above addressing some of the disconnects that arise as part of the whole experience.
Anyone looking to get a deeper look at gameplay and meta would probably walk away from this show disappointed. However, for me, the treasure lies in how those brief instances of in-game life are implied to be the backbone for real friendship. I used to be told that I was wasting my time trying to be friends with people online instead of going out. They really hammered the idea that interactions on the internet were inherently less valuable and therefore not worth any kind of investment. The kind of normalcy that this show portrays towards online friendships really defeats that kind of negative attitude, much like a leveled-up new player killing a former big boss with ease.
You can see that idea embodied in characters' evolving feelings over the course of just the eight episodes of the show we have already. Like Akane's friend Momoko is initially skeptical of the way Akane spends her free time online chatting with her guildmates. But as the series has progressed, Momoko has resolved to let Akane take her time figuring things out, especially since her much-lauded group dates were bearing much relationship fruit either.

It's a core theme espoused by the series all the way into the title, that people can grow or "level up" through interactions of all stripes.
It's also notable that Akane doesn't have any of the qualities of a so-described "gamer". She got into Forest of Savior because her boyfriend at the time introduced her to it as something they could play together. However, she continues playing it even after getting dumped. She's got zero savvy about video games, but she's having fun anyways and the other characters become charitable towards her by being patient as she learns.

This is particular to me as it matches some of my own life. I didn't always have access to a lot of games and only started playing them because of other people I knew. I got into Final Fantasy XIV because of an ex, and I was always nervous about facing stigma or criticisms for being new and not very good. As a young woman, gaming spaces used to feel hostile and unwelcoming. Even having a female avatar used to mean being open to receiving harassment. I adore how cute and cartoony Akane's cat gremlin is btw!
You have to appreciate Yamada-kun at Lv999 for recreating the experience of choosing the cutest, and thus the most popular, default hairstyle.

I had previously assumed that Akane's avatar was a stumpy little cat person because she was playing as a race similar to FF14's Lalafell. It turns out that all the character models in Forest of Savior just kinda look like this, it seems.
Forest of Savior takes its namesake from Tree of Savior, a Korean MMO and the spiritual successor to Ragnarok Online. This means that its cartoony style is accurate. The show also implies that the gameplay is a little old-school, with a relative grind and limitations between high and low-level players.
That certainly tracks, given that Akane is able to (almost) run it well on her stock laptop.

That actually leads back to the subject of using the games as a vector for bonding, as we see Akane's guildmates connecting with her through the computer repair process. I've had friends help me put together and upgrade computers so I'd be up to spec to play with them. Heck, one of my buddies just sent a new graphics card to my sister so she would be equipped for the upcoming new Armored Core game!

It's another way to sell the idea of how relationships that are initially all-digital can give way to meatspace interactions. There's a whole sequence of plot-driven, semi-romantic comedy of errors that occurs in Akane's apartment here, that never would have come to pass, had she not melted her computer playing a silly little chibi-style MMO with these people!
In contrast, her love-interest, Yamada-kun, is a pro-gamer who's got a lot of clout as a streamer and online figurem, but is totally inexperienced when it comes to people. He's a popular senior at his high school, but he's also a man of few words, and his less-than-graceful approach towards others often puts him at a distance. His deliberately unattractive in-game avatar feels like a reflection of how he sees himself compared to his model-like, real-life appearance.
Compared to Akane, who shouts her neuroses at any friends who will listen, the titular Yamada definitely feels harder to get a read on. The series has already teased at some sort of traumatic backstory that affected his ability to interact with women. But as shown later on, and embodied by that choice of avatar you highlighted, a lot of it comes off like he genuinely doesn't see himself as worthy of romantic interest, despite legions of fangirls and random convenience store clerks flirting with him.

It's worth noting that Yamada isn't made out to be wholly unsociable, as he interacts in an amicable, if deadpan, way rather interchangeably between his online and offline conversations and connections.
Yamada is not overly anxious or incapable of receiving interaction, but it seems that he lacks a clear understanding of how to read people and his own feelings. I didn't really think of it as a result of trauma, as I've heard similar stories from individuals who naturally have a serious personality or have been sheltered in some way. For some, screens can be a comfortable barrier if they struggle with reading cues or performing in-person as expected. We see this with Runa, Eita's little sister too.
Ah, Runa, the case study of how getting to know your guild-mates IRL might not always go so smoothly. That's an interesting highlight, actually, that Runa and Yamada are responding to their notoriety and internet interactions in different ways. Yamada couldn't be less interested in attention from others, while Runa starts out vindictive towards Akane because she's worried she's siphoning off attention from her gaming pals.
That whole conflict is also a great example of how that barrier also means it can be difficult to tell what kind of malice we send towards people. What Runa thinks is a harmless prank could've been a real scary threat for Akane. Online interactions and real interactions can both lead to good things, but they can also lead to bad things, and you should be careful about how you could be affecting someone regardless of how you choose to interact with them.
That plotline of Runa unknowingly sending Akane into an interaction with some internet rando very strongly walks that razor's edge, as we in the audience immediately understand why what she did was so dangerous and can grasp why Runa didn't realize what a big deal it was.

It makes me genuinely impressed with the turnaround the show pulls off with Runa, as both the narrative and Akane maturely recognize that the girl is, you know, an actual child, and that the best way to mitigate her lashing out is with some patient understanding.

I guess it also helps that she had such good people supporting her. I would die for Kamota.
It also helps that by happenstance, the guy she sent had no intention of harm and instead just happened to be extremely tone-deaf.

Likewise, I find most people online to be genuine and acting in good faith, but that doesn't mean that we shouldn't all be cautious and aware of possible dangers. I talk about being fortunate and blessed by my life online, but I've been cursed to witness just as many horror stories. Just because it's not "real" doesn't mean you can't be hurt or that someone couldn't find a way to harm you.
It's a neat balancing act in Yamada-kun at Lv999, as it mostly focuses on portraying the value of online relationships but doesn't become so reverent towards the arrangement that it neglects to mention some of the pratfalls one should be cautious about. This whole plot-line is just as much a learning experience for Akane and Runa, just like their guild-mates teaching them proper skill timing or gear-gifting etiquette.
It's a somewhat realistic fantasy where the characters aren't chastised for their newbie mistakes. Fiction, like games, is a good place to simulate both success and failure. IRL isn't nearly as forgiving—even the slightest damage can result in a scar, but in video games, I can use failure as a learning experience and remain relatively unscathed. Fiction and games may only be simulacra of reality, but that's exactly what makes them a safe and fun way to face challenges.
Failure has certainly been a great teacher for Akane, who stumbled into this whole story setup due to a botched relationship, and hasn't stopped crashing and burning her way through this Love Story.

Her losses are our gain, though. You know we love a woman who is a mess (affectionate).
Yamada also makes a series of missteps with Akane, and seeing how he struggles with his own feelings can be healing for those who consider themselves awkward. No matter what, there are multiple good examples of being forgiving and understanding. Most people have no idea how much a little kindness can reduce difficulty for someone else. Seeing how Yamada chooses to act more sensitive towards Akane makes me feel like their relationship is a beneficial and sweet one.
It makes it understandable why we get remarks from Yamada in the latest episode that he'd feel honored to know that Akane had some affection for him. To go back to your point about Yamada perhaps being more used to getting to know people initially through screens and text-based chat, you definitely get the sense that he does better when folks directly message him (in-game or IRL) as opposed to nebulously projecting flirty vibes towards him. We see that in his interactions with his classmate Tsubaki, and thus grasp why he'd be more motivated to feel something for all these emotions Akane is happily (and often unhappily) wearing on her sleeve.
He also takes To Heart when he gets called out for being callous, and the balance keeps most of the drama from being too high-stakes or stressful. It's very natural in how it deals with misunderstandings, great for anyone looking for a feelings-show that's ultimately chill and refreshing in its mindfulness.

I think most of the side characters are fun too. I get a kick out of Eita, Yamada's IRL friend and guild leader with a cute female avatar. He feels like the most accurate depiction of an MMO player because he understands that glamour is the true end-game.
God, you talk about the performative aspects of socializing online. Eita is a whole lotta layers of that sort of thing.

I feel like this guy could carry a whole separate spin-off focusing on his character. Though Eita's overly online tendencies also manifest in him being the one who most quickly and seriously recognizes the dangers of Runa's previously discussed date prank.
He's having fun with the whole roleplaying facade, but his love for cute things and kind attitude is really sincere. As a guild leader, he tries to be responsible and welcomes the players involved. Most people I know pick their character based on what feels like the most fun. Even my guy friends get serious about dressing up, and some people use it to test out different ways to present themselves that they couldn't in real life. Though, the IRL Eita and Kamota pull of the color pink quite flatteringly.
Eita is absolutely that mutual I have who spends a ton of time posting glamour screenshots of their hot FF14 character, and really, who could blame him?

That's one of the main things that's enjoyable about Yamada-kun at Lv999: even though we spend relatively little time with the characters actually in-game, they still feel true to the types of players we know as friends in our own real lives. This informs what would otherwise be rather simple, mundane actions in their real world.

Like, of course, I can relate Akane's experiences of being coached by Runa to my own evenings spent with my friend feeding me pro-tips as I finally tried out Zelda: Breath of the Wild last weekend.
Yeah, what makes My Love Story With Yamada-kun at Lv999! soothing is how relatable it is. I've spent so much of my life glued to my computer and video games, but it's only so compelling because of the experiences and friends I've been able to have through them. I've had a lot of bad ones too, and there were times where I would have quit if it wasn't for my friends supporting me. Even during the peak of the pandemic, I used video games as a way to console others who were feeling isolated. It's a good way to meet people who share your interests, but what's even better is that working together helped me develop really close relationships compared to just being casual acquaintances. It really opened up my whole world!
It's a very heartening, earnest approach for the series that sells its appeal. In the story, Akane is able to grow specifically because she starts engaging with in-game friends apart from the guy she started playing to maintain a doomed relationship with. You never know when a mutual online-following friendship might develop into a real-world connection, but Yamada-kun at Lv999 posits that getting to know people that way has to at least be better than dragging them out drinking.
Really, it goes to show that the best way to get close to them is to offer to spend time with them. If you want to get to know someone, approach them. Don't be afraid to ask people for help or to make plans with them. Be forward about how much you appreciate others. I'm sure there's someone who's grateful to know how much you really think of them. It's not hard to get people to like you as long as you stay earnest, kind, and persistent. All it takes is finding the right people.
And if that fails, well, you can always try plying them with a bunch of in-game items.
Well guys, what kind of online games do you play? Do you have any stories about friendships or relationships you've gained or leveled up through games? Or any other kinds of experiences? Tell us whether you met online or offline! We'd be happy to learn all about your strats. Just remember to stay hydrated and always know when it's time to Log Off. Take care and see you later~

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