Wotakoi: Love Is Hard for Otaku

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 09/04/20 13:16:56

"Still searching for the first great nerd romantic comedy."
3 stars (Average)

SCREENED VIA THE 2020 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Has there been a great "young nerds in love" romantic comedy yet? I feel like I've seen and reviewed a few attempts, but something always keeps them from clicking, whether it be the references being too specific or made-up, someone in the production being condescending, or the cast just seeming too attractive and confident to play characters they claim are outcasts. "Wotakoi" is pretty good, but still doesn't quite hit the target it's aiming for.

The word "otaku" traditionally indicated all-consuming obsession to the point of withdrawal from society before westerners adopted it to mean being a fan of Japanese culture while younger Japanese people reclaimed it as something less derogatory than its original insulting form. That's how Narumi Momose (Mitsuki Takahata) can describe herself as a gaming and manga otaku but still mostly tries to hide it at her new job, especially after it was the reason her last boyfriend broke up with her. She doesn't expect to run into Hirotaka Nifuji (Kento Yamazaki) as a co-worker; they haven't seen each other since school but were always gaming buddies as kids. It's not long before they start seeing each other, but there's some strain even though they both like gaming - Hirotaka suggests they go on "non-otaku dates", and often feels left out when Narumi focuses on her other fandoms.

Narumi and Hirotaka are both otaku, but they're different types, even beyond Narumi actually liking manga and anime more than games. Narumi's enthusiasm can barely be contained, but she's wary of it; though the film doesn't get much into whether women are judged more harshly than men for nerdiness in Japan, it's clearly been an issue. Hirotaka is less uptight about it but less social in general, and it proves a little trickier to work with: Aside from the story mostly being told from Narumi's point of view, her anxieties being on her sleeve makes her perspective easier to see. Both writer/director Yuichi Fukuda and star Kento Yamazaki seem to have a little trouble showing what's going on behind Hirotaka's stony face; there's clearly a story about someone who wants to connect but doesn't know how there, but Hirotaka is so incapable of expressing it, even during the musical numbers, that Fukuda has a hard time finding an angle.

And, yes, the film is a musical, which turns out to be the best way to handle all the name-dropping and references that are part and parcel of a movie about otaku; something that sounds awkward and a little like product placement in dialog can be a clever rhyme or piece of rhythm as a lyric, and that's even true when they're filtered through subtitles. It's more a capable musical than a great one - Mitsuki Takahata and Kento Yamazaki seldom get show-stoppers to belt out and the choreography isn't especially elaborate - and Fukuda seldom gets to really go for it with other stylistic touches. It's kind of fun to see the filmmakers do the opaque manga glasses thing, but except for a few moments, Fukuda seldom really gets much out of switching between grounded and heightened treatments.

There are a couple of cast members who sometimes look like they're in the movie because not a lot of musicals get made these days and they are not going to miss a chance to sing and dance on-screen, but apparently Nanao and Takumi Saito are playing characters who are much more important in the original comics and animated adaptation. Fukuda doesn't assume the audience is already familiar with the source material as is often the case, but he does seemingly construct his movie out of a lot of little pieces from the other versions, which means there are three or four characters who look like they're set up for potential love-triangle duty in the early going with nothing coming of it, a work assignment or two that get a lot of time for not really mattering, and a performance by Jiro Sato as the division manager that really deserves the chance to steal more scenes.

In some ways, the most interesting part of this movie is its ending, where it is consciously either setting up the "Wotakoi" as a longer series or acknowledging that most people still have some learning to do at this point. It's interesting even as it's also a sign of how the movie is kind of a mess. The search for the first great nerd romantic comedy continues.

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