Jun 21, 2018
RebelPanda (All reviews)
Welcome to the latest "what if a bunch of generic teenagers were adults" anime. Let’s see what Japan has served up this time… Wotakoi: Love is Hard for Otaku. Well, at least it has an interesting name, it’d be even more interesting if the show had stayed true to it for at least a single episode. It didn’t, and by the end of the first episode, the main characters are already dating.

Okay, that one misgiving aside, Wotakoi is a decent workplace romantic comedy with plenty of good qualities but is ultimately weighed down by poor comedic timing. Let’s first discuss what the show does well before diving into the issues.

The characters are all fairly likable, while I never found any one of them to be great, their chemistry with one another is enjoyably infectious. With a premise like otakus falling in love, characterizing it’s cast in a believable and relatable way is where the show’s main success lies. For example, the lead character Narumi is a fujoshi and likely the most otaku of the four lead characters, yet she’s never made into a caricature. Cutesy mannerism and a little pigeon-toed running aside, her hobbies seem realistic and aren’t at the butt end of jokes. It’s the same with her co-worker Koyanagi, she’s a reasonably restrained fujo in public, but a well-known cosplayer at conventions. In the first few episodes, she and Narumi slowly learn about their hobbies because you can’t just dive headlong into the subject of BL with your co-workers unless you want to get a permanent side-eye from them. And Wotakoi handles this extremely well, otaku being sort of oddballs have to exercise self-restraint when talking about their hobbies. When they meet other otakus with similar tastes, it’s like they’ve finally found people who speak their own language.

It's an ideal foundation for a rom-com about otakus dating, but the lead pairing Narumi and Hirotaka already have known each other for years before they start working together, so it feels like it's not such a struggle for them to be in love. Unless if you consider the 'love is hard' to be referring to the glacial progression of the romance then I suppose it's faithful to the title.
About half of the show’s screen time is spent in the office space like a typical work comedy, and the other half is on dates and drinking parties just to keep it fresh, but it's a romcom so a threadbare story structure is inevitable. What's really important is the characters, not story, but that doesn't excuse Wotakoi's stagnant narrative, which we'll discuss more in depth after the positives.

The show's cast being otakus makes them better, rather than being cringely portrayed like you may expect from its ilk, it's well done and relatable. The game otaku Hirotaka (and Narumi’s childhood friend) plays and references plenty of games without it feeling forced or tacked on. If the group is going to play Mario Kart, the scene isn’t about slamming the viewer over the head with Mario jokes, but the people playing the game. Good otaku representation is always ideal in a series like this because it helps the characters to feel relatable and fills in the gaps in their characterization. And that brings us to the issues. Aside from the characters being portrayed well for the archetypes that they fill, there is very little to them as people. It feels like they selected standard romcom archetypes, mixed them with otaku archetypes, then left the characters then forgot to add much depth leaving them as placeholders for actual people. We know the bare minimum about their personalities for them to function in a romcom. There the cutesy but occasionally oblivious Narumi, the stoic deadpan Hirotaka, as well as Koyonogi's air of confidence and cleverness, and the abrasive tsundere dude Kabakura.

There’s not much great character development at all. When the show gets into backstories and motivates it only goes skin deep then backs off as if it’s afraid to tell us too much about the cast. Like the scene with Hirotaka telling Narumi about his ear piercing because the guy she was dating at the time had pierced ears as well. It was kindhearted and subtle flirting like Hirotaka tends to do throughout most of the series, with Narumi being typically oblivious or sometimes considering maybe she does love the guy she’s dating. Hirotaka and Narumi flirting is comparable to trying to carve an ice sculpture with a pencil, there’s barely any momentum and the characters hardly grow by the end. It doesn’t help that the show is still adding characters by the tenth episode to digress from the lead couple.

The characters are still quite watchable despite these flaws because the show's writing doesn't travel far outside of its comfort zone to create a well-rounded experience. It's a series with no noticeably bad moments, just plenty of meh ones. Wotakoi is sadly an example of; succeeding only because it did not try hard enough to risk failure.

From a technical perspective, the characters are at least well designed, passionately voiced, and their hobbies are realistically detailed, and they do have chemistry. Seeing arguments that Kyabakura and Koyanagi have over BL and yuri feels like they understand their own opinions greatly like the author was pulling from real people’s experience. If only the joke delivery capitalized on the chemistry’s potential, it could have been better. The romance between the two main characters is quite stagnant, but sadly the comedy is also affected by its own pacing problems. The pacing is slow and the jokes don’t hit with much impact. Looking at how the manga delivers jokes, it's much funnier and flows better. This adaptation just feels like a moving manga, there is no consideration for pacing or how it will animate. What likely caused this is a lacking budget and a director not talented enough to improve the source material in any way.

For example; sometimes we’re slapped with an intentionally unfunny joke from the po-faced Hirotaka and they just hang on screen for a painful few seconds that feel more like an hour, grinding the scene’s pace to a halt. That’s the pace of a majority of the jokes, with very little animation aside from funny reaction faces (taken from the manga). Every joke is presented with a slow lethargic pace that makes the director seem like he has no concept of how to time a joke properly. That brings us to the show’s production issues. Ok, to be fair, the op is really well done. It’s dynamic, well edited, and offers plenty of details on the character’s personalities.

The main cast having anime colored hair to help them stand out from the background is a bit jarring considering the blandness of their work environment. Speaking of which, often times it seems like the four leads are the only ones who work at the company. It’s partially excusable when they’re in a relatively small 6 cubicle office space. When wacky hijinks ensue and the four of them are running all throughout the building I can’t help but wonder if A-1 couldn’t spare the animation or if the writer couldn’t make the jokes funny enough without having to unrealistically remove all of the background characters. I suppose it’s better than the CGI crowds the show regularly uses. The end result is still somewhat funny if a bit unrealistic if only it didn’t bend the audience’s suspension of disbelief to get to the comedy. It’s scenes like this that make you wonder if the show would have been better if it were adapted by a different studio.

Ah, if you noticed that I skipped over Kabakura when talking about what I liked about the characters, that was intentional. I think he’s a jerk who treats Hanako like an asshole then occasionally makes it up to her by doing one nice thing. The friction between him and Hanako actually gave the show a chance to explore that theme of love being hard for otaku, but instead, the conflict is reduced to: they’re together because they always have been. That itself is a message, that otaku don’t have many options, but it’s not a dynamic that you can just sweep under the rug. It should have been discussed because relationships like that do have negative effects on those involved, but like I mentioned there’s no discussion it’s just "oh I’m sorry, have this gift and we’ll go back to normal". They had some nicer scenes in the later half of the show, with them discussing yaoi versus yuri, and it’s genuinely nice. But it needed to be more than just moderately pleasant, there needed to be more substance or at least effective comedy.

Score Breakdown:
[Story: 6/10] Nice themes, very little progression.
[Art: 7/10] Great character designs, lackluster direction.
[Sound: 7/10] Vivid opening, passionate performances.
[Character: 6/10] Likable and well portrayed, lacking characterization.
[Enjoyment: 6/10] Funny reaction faces, poorly timed jokes.
[Love Hardness Level: Easy]

[Final Score: 6.4/10]
Having relatable and uplifting themes is great, but a show should still be compelling on its own and that’s where Wotakoi disappoints. The characters are likable for their strong personalities and in-depth hobbies, but they lack the development needed to be truly memorable. Even if the jokes weren't timed so poorly, this series is still lacking, but it sure could have helped if they hired a director with a better understanding of comedic timing.