We’re all familiar with the stereotype of the nerd who can’t find love. But as nerd culture becomes more mainstream, that seems less and less like a real problem. Or is it? How easy is it to not only let your geek flag fly, but find someone who accepts that part of you?
Probably not that hard, really. But what is hard is finding relatable shows or books that don’t turn the idea into something like The Big Bang Theory, where being a fan of comics, games, roleplaying, and so on, is somehow conflated with having a PhD and no social skills. On the opposite end of the spectrum is something like Friends, which feature a mix of “normal” people where those kind of hobbies would be openly mocked (if the treatment of Ross is any indication).
Wotakoi (Love is Hard for Otaku) is a Japanese manga series written and illustrated by Fujita. Fujita rose to fame as an amateur artist online, and this series is their professional manga debut. At this point it’s up to 4 volumes in translation, and has become an anime series with two specials produced so far.
[Update: since this article was written, the series has been completed, totalling 6 volumes]
I brought up those American sitcoms earlier for a reason. On the one hand, Wotakoi has a Friends-like structure, as it centres around the interactions between six main characters (three men, three women, often hanging out at the coffee shop one of them works at) and on another it’s like Big Bang Theory because of the focus on their geeky obsessions and how that affects their daily lives.
But while these characters often have memorable personalities that make them stand out, they never come across as a broad stereotype that somehow represents a whole group the way Big Bang Theory tends to. These are just people with day jobs who happen to love something nerdy. A lot.
“Otaku” is the Japanese word used to describe someone with geeky obsessions, and Wotakoi tries to reflect a very broad spectrum of these interests through the characters. While their hobbies overlap, the focus often does not. For example, they all play video games, but some play it just for fun and socializing, while others have a professional level of concentration on advancement and achievement. While they all enjoy manga and anime, the kinds of books or shows they watch sometimes make the others cringe (at least in public).
While geek culture has become more mainstream in the 21st century, that’s not to say that some people don’t try to hide their obsessions—especially in a work environment in Japan. The series starts with one of the female protagonists, Narumi, blaming her otaku lifestyle on her difficulties in life (especially dating), and keeps it a secret (especially at work). Her supervisor, Tarou, also keeps his interests secret at work, worried that his co-workers would see it as unprofessional.
Narumi’s childhood friend, Hirotaka, doesn’t care who knows about his gaming obsession and can’t even remember anyone’s names at work, or care about what they think. He does, however care about Narumi, and the two of them decide to start dating. For Narumi, dating a fellow otaku means not having to hide that part of her life anymore.
The series also looks at different stages of relationships, because Narumi’s supervisor, Tarou, has been in a long term relationship with Hanako—a famous cosplayer—since they were students, and has an intensity that will either end in marriage or murder… maybe both. Later on in the series, a brand new relationship develops between Hirotaka’s teenage brother, Naoya, and a socially anxious gamer named Kō. Narumi and Hirotaka fall somewhere in between, both mature adults with experience dating, but still starting something new and not sure where it will go.
While the series covers a range of geeky interests and types of relationships, it also covers a spectrum of personality types: the kind of people who are happy to just fit in, outgoing social drinkers, flamboyant attention seekers, introverts who aren’t interested in anything outside their circle, introverts who are paralyzed with anxiety to the point of inaction. Odds are good you’ll see fragments yourself in one of the characters, or a combination of them.
One of the fun things about the manga series is how the author plays with the storytelling. They get a lot of fan mail, for example, and so, at the end of a chapter, they might have a section dedicated to fan requests where the characters act out a request in a self-aware way (“Why are they asking me to do this?” the character might ask, looking embarrassed). Most chapters are broken up with some kind of character breakdown to give you some insight on the main cast (like a general bio, the stats of their main video game characters, or how they each react to sweets).
At the end of each volume is a behind-the-scenes afterword from the author (always illustrated). And there are translation notes for those who might not understand certain cultural or pop-cultural references contained in the story.
If you’re looking for a light and funny read about relationships within the world of nerds that doesn’t feel patronizing or stereotypical, Wotakoi should definitely be on your radar.