In a manga market dominated by big names such as Kodansha, Shueisha and Shokokugan its understandable that the Shinjuku based manga publishing company Ichijinsha might not be exactly that well known to many in the west. Yet its via them that we got today's series, and Fujita Hiro's first published work, Otaku ni Koi wa Muzukashii (Love is Hard for Otaku).
Shortened to Wotakoi (a title favoured for its English language release) the series started out life as a webcomic on the Japanese image board “Pixiv”. It was then picked up by Ichijinsha for their online magazine "Comic Pool", before finally making the leap into physical medium in 2015 (and finally in English this year) via Kodansha comics.
The series follows the trials and tribulations of office workers and closet nerds Narumi (whose polite office lady persona hides an ardent yaoi fan and Doujinshi creator) and her childhood friend Hirotaka (who despite his almost emotionless persona hides his abilities as a hardcore gamer nerd). Along with their seniors and fellow nerds (crossplay and yaoi fan Koyanagi and her boyfriend and less intense nerd Kabakura) we see Narumi and Hirotaka take their first nervous steps towards a steady relationship – all the while balancing their normal (and not so normal) lives.
Considering the premise, the series never actually goes overboard with anime/manga/gaming references, with those present being either commonplace enough to be easily recognisable to most casual fans, or are explained in both small text on the page or via a translation page in the middle and the back of the book. While this might put off anyone expecting something akin to Kio Shimoku's Genshiken, it actually serves to display a more realistic take to fandom, with the group able to balance a normal life along side their otaku life. I suppose that's what drew me to this series – it eschews the more over the top versions of otaku fandom shown on many series of this type and instead gives us a view of how a real life otaku lives. The characters also benefit from this, gaining more rounded backgrounds.
We find out early on that Narumi's otaku fandom has lead to her being dumped multiple times prior to meeting and eventually dating Hirotaka. A female lead who has had prior relationships before meeting the male lead? Heresay! While we frequently see Hirotaka's stoney-faced persona, we do find that he has a softer side to him. Likewise Koyanagi and Kabukura's often confrontational relationship belies a love that has weathered many a storm – Koya's attempts to have Kabu read BL manga or cross-dress notwithstanding!
The series also avoids the romantic rival and excessive drama tropes that all too often appear in this type of genre and gives us a more realistic take on relationships - both good and bad. As mentioned before we often see Koyami and Kabakura falling out over minor things (in my opinion) only to work them out and become closer.
The art-style remains consistent in its quality – rarely going off-board (unless intended) with the character designs, the backgrounds and props showing an amazing eye for scale and detail for something that doesn't look at all copied or traced.
In fact, the only quibbles I would have about the series are, firstly that the lack of overly blatant anime/manga references may put off people expecting something more of a spiritual successor to Genshiken. The other is that the series, rather than the single volume release that Japan got, is getting a 2-in-1 edition for its English language release – a surprising move by Kodansha as, at 138 pages each, there seems to be more than enough content to separate in two – but hey, I'm not complaining!
For those wanting a more grounded, entertaining take on the perils of relationships in nerd culture Wotakoi is definitely one to read.