Film / Reviews

'Wotakoi: Love is Hard for Otaku': A musical take on an otaku romance

by Mark Schilling

Contributing Writer

The Japanese word otaku is a slippery one to define, but it is mostly used to define an obsessive fan of a pop culture phenomenon, such as anime or manga. In the wider culture, otaku long had a negative image as unkempt, anti-social and even sexually deviant. Say, a pudgy, wild-haired guy who rarely leaves his room except to buy sketchy anime, on which he is a leading expert.

But “Wotakoi: Love is Hard for Otaku,” Yuichi Fukuda’s bubbly, hyper-comic musical about two otaku who fall for each other, shows how that image has changed. Far from being grubby social outcasts, its central couple — a male gamer and a female fan of BL (“boys love” or gay romance) comics — work regular jobs and present as normal. That is, they indulge in their hobbies in their private time and try to hide their “otaku-ness” from their co-workers.

But when the fangirl, Narumi Momose (Mitsuki Takahata), lands a job at the company where the gamer, Hirotaka Nifuji (Kento Yamazaki), works, her mask immediately slips. Narumi and Hirotaka, we learn, were childhood pals and know about each other’s proclivities. But Narumi tells the handsome Hirotaka upfront that he’s not her type since she doesn’t date otaku. Looking as though he would be unimpressed by the apocalypse, Hirotaka coolly tells Narumi he can be her assistant at Comiket — Tokyo’s semi-annual market for self-published manga, where she sells her BL comics.

Wotakoi: Love is Hard for Otaku (Wotaku ni Koi wa Muzukashi)
Rating
Run Time 114 mins.
Language JAPANESE
Opens FEB. 7

From here the film swings into a big song-and-dance number featuring the two principals with the lyrics “We don’t care if we’re not normal.” No, this is not your average otaku movie.

However, “Wotakoi” is very much a manga adaptation, its source material being a web comic by the single-named artist Fujita. As in other such adaptations by Fukuda (“Gintama,” “Psychic Kusuo”), the acting is manga-esque and the action is over-the-top. But the film is also firmly grounded in the otaku mindset, evidenced by the abundant use of insider references that are impenetrable to outsiders.

Fortunately, the gags are broad enough and the story straightforward enough that a deep acquaintance with otaku arcana is not needed to follow along, though this non-otaku occasionally felt like the new kid in the high school lunch room, watching as in-jokes and gossip fly right over his head.

Also, it is obvious from their first encounter that Narumi and Hirotaka are a match made in heaven (or an AI-generated algorithm), but their path to happiness is strewn with obstacles, some self-made, others not. One of the latter is Hanako Koyanagi (Nanao Arai, better known as simply Nanao), a co-worker who is everything cute, ditzy Narumi is not: tall, sophisticated and ready to bed Hirotaka after a chance encounter at a bar. Another is Taro Kabakura (Takumi Saitoh), the snarly, demanding and attractive leader of Narumi’s work team, who shows her a more human face when they’re alone.

The many musical numbers composed by veteran Shiro Sagisu rarely rise above standard J-pop, though the non-pop-star cast delivers them with surprisingly adequate skill. Think Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling in “La La Land.”

As Narumi and Hirotaka, Takahata and Yamazaki play their manga couple more with sharp characterizations than cartoonish mugging. And behind Narumi’s goofy anime imitations and Hirotaka’s affectless observations are human beings who want love — or an otaku’s best approximation of it.

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