A review by Nick Moran
Wotakoi: Love is Hard for Otaku is a show about honesty, doubt, growth and, most importantly, love. Narumi Momose escapes a sour relationship by taking up a new office job where she bumps into her childhood friend, Hirotaka Nifuji. Bonded by their otaku lifestyles which are curtailed by the cold office environment, they realize that they’re most comfortable with each other. Navigating new manga and gaming binges, the young duo finds their place in the world while raising some hell like the nerds they are.
Narumi Momose is our charming heroine in all of the wrong ways. She’s clumsy, ditsy, brash and unpredictable in an attempt to hide her love of yaoi (yes, I had to look up what yaoi is) and idols from her new job. Burst that bubble and Narumi becomes an energetic beacon of positivity that rubs off on everyone around her. Both of these sides are really engaging to follow, and as the series progresses, they blend together so you get an honest look at her character.
The most conflicting thing about Narumi is how she simultaneously has the most likable characteristics (and likeable both to the viewers and other characters), but she goes through some of the least development. She has some minor struggles that seem to be resolved simply, and even by chance at times. However, I do think that her feeling more put together makes her a great partner to Hirotaka.
Hirotaka Nifuji is a vegetable character, and I mean that in the best possible way. He’s not flashy — far from it as his role is to be a foil to Narumi’s extroverted energy. Rather, he’s perfectly fine locking himself in a room and playing games by himself until his fingers fall off. Hirotaka keeps his cards close to his chest, and that makes him frustrating and plain to watch, especially early on.
But characters like Hirotaka are good for you beyond all of that. When you peel off that shell, you find someone who really values personal growth despite feeling trapped in the past. You see him doing his best, and despite being a loner, embodies one of the strongest senses of self in the whole show. This dynamic has some exponential room for development, and Hirotaka absolutely delivers. Hell, even his dry sense of humor and unapologetic bluntness make for some really memorable scenes.
Hanako Koyanagi is Narumi’s superior at work, but we quickly learn that she is also a local cosplayer of some renown. Above all else, Hanako is motherly (yes, this is also a reference to Narumi’s first observation of her, so if you know, you know) and coy. She elegantly balances her hidden otaku life with her work life, even managing to hide her relationship for long enough. As the other female lead behind Narumi, she is everything Narumi isn’t — she’s put-together, confident and knows what she wants. In a lot of cases, it’s easy to like Hanako — entirely aside from her being the beacon of the show’s marginal fan service — and she shines the brightest when that motherhood aspect of her takes over. I was surprised by how much she evolved as a character, as well as how much she grew on me by the end of the season.
Tarō Kabakura, on the other hand, is far less likable, and that’s by design. Hirotaka’s superior, Tarō is cold, linear and deeply closeted about his otaku side. Especially compared to a very genuine supporting cast, Tarō comes off as if he’s hiding his true self from even the viewers. When he fights, his apologies seem forced and half assed — something that makes you feel like he deserves the scathing slap that follows. He finds a support system around him to allow him to enjoy manga and games, but never allows himself to jump in. Tarō feels restrained throughout the series, and while I didn’t feel attached to his character, I wanted to see him gain more confidence. That never came, and Tarō just becomes an emotional foil to Hirotaka without a lot of the attractive qualities the cast around him holds.
Naoya Nifuji/Kō Sakuragi round out our roster of six characters. Albeit minor, the small cast at least warrants some discussion on this couple. Nao is Hirotaka’s younger brother who feels like he was born from another family. He’s outdoorsy and charming as he works as a barista during the day. Paired next to his quiet brother, the differences shine. But in Nao’s youth, you and the other characters cheer him on as he grows up and enters college. It’s no wonder that Narumi flocks to him like a pigeon to leftover french fries — Nao must be protected at all costs. He can do no wrong and is too precious to not mention here.
This is especially true after he meets Kō, a quiet game otaku, and we see them hit it off. Nao coaxes her out of her shell while simultaneously using an element that helped create his relationship with his brother, and after that, I was especially latched onto his development. I loved seeing Nao elevate Kō’s quiet personality, especially with the support from his brother and Hirotaka’s friends. Kō isn’t entirely inspiring as a character, but she’s absolutely someone to root for. Despite being minor foils, this duo is an easy one to cheer for.
Listen, if you’re picking up a romantic comedy, you’d expect some sappy love and some jokes. It’s a balance after all, right? Well let me tell you that when I braced myself for some cheesy shit, I was blown away by the emotional depth that Wotakoi served to me. In seeing our couples care for each other, we intrinsically are pushed to care for them too. We want to see our lovers thrive and find happiness and make babies or something.
Now, despite sounding like a teenage girl watching the Bachelorette, this show really tugged on my heart strings in the right way. I celebrated when Hirotaka made a move on Narumi and got frustrated watching Hanako argue with Tarō. Part of that investment came from emotions that felt genuine. I got where everyone was coming from and their hands were laid out in ways that gave weight to their actions. As cheesy as it sounds, I laughed and I glowed with the cast, and a lot of that was genuine. If a show can move you like that, it gets a thumbs up from me.
But I didn’t cry. Crying at anime is for babies and I absolutely did not do that. Moving on.
To quote the greatest musical scribe of the last century, “what is love?” Anyone you ask will probably do their best to explain it to you before settling on, “Well, you know it when you see it.” Wotakoi really digs into the different ways that couples traverse love. The two couples in the show display radically different styles of relationships at different stages of love. While one is slow and casual, the other is gushy and fiery, showing the duality of how couples get along. The show doesn’t hand viewers a right or wrong way to navigate a relationship, but rather legitimizes all kinds of love. I don’t have a huge history with shows that prominently feature romance, but here, Wotakoi hit all of the right notes and explored all of the nooks along the way in a style that felt relatable.
We also see some really interesting insight into the dynamic between Hirotaka and Narumi’s childhood bond, which survives and grows as adults. However, not everything is evergreen. Hirotaka especially ebbs and flows between wanting to hold onto the comfort of childhood while simultaneously wanting to grow up and escape his young loneliness. Here, he’s trapped in the middle, and Narumi complicates that by supporting his adult self while playing a huge role in his past. What this does practically is take a really unique approach to the classic “coming of age” trope where some kid rips off his shirt, grows a mustache, punches a monster and declares himself an adult in a whirlwind of character development. Growing up is a lot more complex, and I admire Wotakoi for taking a graceful approach in unpacking that.
Hands-down the most obvious idea the show works with is the stereotypical ostracizing of the otaku, which all of our characters face in one way or another. We see reservation in a crowd until our cast blossoms in the comfort of their own companionship. Tarō is a prime example of this — a character that would rather be shot on sight than reveal his true love for bishojo manga. Kind of like how I’d rather rip my arm off before I admitted to some of my friends and coworkers I’m writing this now, it was refreshing for a show to be meta here. But that also shines a brighter light on how friendship allows you to be yourself. The micro idea was really clever, but all comes back to a pretty generic theme.
You know, you can love something without cherishing every little aspect of it. Anyone in a relationship (sorry, Marshal) could tell you that part of love is taking your partner as a sum of their parts. It’s about understanding that despite the rough patches, this person is deserving of your passion.
This is my really nice way of saying I fucking hated the pacing of this show despite enjoying it as a whole. We see a lot of the exposition set up great, which provides us with a spectacular platform for the series past the first two episodes. Wotakoi takes that setup, looks you in the eye, spits in your face and slaps you in the ass as it demands you accept a really fragmented rest of the series. You really have to get things moving in a 11-episode series, but I felt like there was a lot of fluff and character play without adding anything to a thin plot.
Don’t get me wrong, I really liked how much depth these characters had to provide us with complex episodes and unexpected situations, but it feels like Wotakoi lingers in the friend zone for way too long before making a move. And when it does, it’s too little, too late.
Eh. That’s it. I’ll be blunt in saying that I haven’t seen a ton of anime (and I’m still wondering why I’m qualified to write here), which means that my pool of reference animation isn’t the strongest. However, I didn’t get the sense of wonder from the backgrounds that I really look for in art of any kind. And for a character-driven show, I didn’t feel like the animation there was anything to write home about.
In Watokoi’s defence, it’s not a flashy show with fight scenes and dynamic movement, but it’s cute when it intentionally changes its style, which I enjoyed. You see our characters in a video game, which uses an entirely different animation style to create a new world for them to live in. We also see a lot of reactions driven home with chibi faces and flourishes, which helped build on the playful ambiance that the show so successfully runs with. I feel like it gets the job done and helps establish the tone of the show, but nothing more. I would say this is deserving of a point and a half, but in lieu of being a guest and tracking mud around Armchair Anime’s home, I’m going to be civil and round up.
I always fall into this trap of comparing Wotakoi to The Office. Yeah, the Michael Scott paper-eating Office. You get this kind of drab office setting with a little exposure to the outside world, and Wotakoi does the same thing. You have the main office, Hirotaka’s apartment, the “please don’t sue me” Starbocks, and a few other odds and ends. But where The Office thrives is in giving depth to a setting that’s typically uninspired. Here, Wotakoi paints a bland office world, but doesn’t really give enough life outside of it to create the juxtaposition I longed for. Sure, the bar that Hirotaka and Narumi visit is bustling and feels homey, but it lacked a lot of the details that made me want the cast to visit it. I enjoyed the few times that the world was really leveraged, but I can’t really say that it stuck out to me or held the show down in any capacity.
I’ll be perfectly honest in saying that the music was one of the reasons I picked up this show. I learned about it after hearing the theme song and had to dive in.
If you listen to me on any point of this review at all, I’m cashing in all of my beans on this: the intro is an absolute bop and single-handedly carries the soundtrack. I’d be watching post-midnight and still be bouncing in my chair. I haven’t gotten that reaction from everyone I’ve shared it with, however, so I understand this could be a hot take. But I raise you this: are you the one writing a review for an anime blog? Yes, in many ways, the work of the critic is easy, but this is my turf. Bop your head or get lost, nerd.
Now, as for the other music, it goes downhill from there. You have two pools of tones the show sets: playful/quirky and pensive/romantic. The fun stuff is full of acoustic guitars, marimbas and all of this other funky, upbeat shit. For the music nerds, there are all of these strange chord structures and looping lead rhythms that felt disjointed and distracting at times. The emotional stuff was full of melancholy piano and sometimes wavy synths. This got even worse when some of the same tracks were reused in similar contexts to cue a mood.
The stuff in between — you know, the meeting or lobby music when the gang takes on the town — is pretty golden. Pump that stuff right into my veins and play it at my funeral so the homies can vibe accordingly. Usually, if a soundtrack isn’t streamable, I don’t bother. However, with some of these tracks and the gem of an opener, I had to dig it up. After shifting through some of the less-than-ideal stuff, there’s some really quality tracks behind the show.
|Category||Points Given||Points Possible|
|I am interested in the characters in the story||5||6|
|I liked the emotion the story made me feel||5||6|
|The story brings up interesting ideas||4||6|
|I felt the pacing of the show was appropriate||1||4|
|The animation in the show is beautiful||2||4|
|I am interested in the world that the story takes place in||1||3|
|I felt that the music added to the story in a meaningful way||2||3|
When I was giving the off-page spoilers for my reviews to the friends, I summed it up like this: Wotakoi: Love is Hard for Otaku is an easy-to-watch show with really enjoyable characters and some awesome memories. However, don’t expect to strap in for a super dynamic plot or riveting engagement. I’ll absolutely give another season or spin-off a watch, and I may even revisit the series itself. It was thoroughly enjoyable, but don’t expect the Holy Grail of deep thought or beautiful animation that some other shows really leverage in an artful way. Enjoy it for what it is, latch on to the characters, and you’ll be set for a great ride.