Management: While my opinion of the show is generally positive overall, this essay, by no means, is meant to serve as a comprehensive review, but rather, as an articulation and analysis of some of what I feel is this series’ most integral and interesting themes.
Saenai Heroine no Sodatekata. How to Raise a Boring Girlfriend. Saekano henceforth, because the last two show titles are a bit long and indicative of LN titles these days. What’s also somewhat indicative of this show’s relationship with the LN trend (besides being adapted from a series of LNs) are the myriad tropes that people, familiar with LN narratives (as well as narratives in VNs, anime, manga, Japanese video games, or basically anything seen as moe… what I will henceforth call “otaku culture”), are likely to nod to/groan to/are sick of. Whether one is entertained or annoyed by these tropes in any given show will depend on the person watching, what he/she is entertained by, and what they want out of shows in general.
Saekano’s head stands out from the thicket as a show that’s absolutely, energetically, unabashedly shameless in its presentation of otaku tropes. The show doesn’t necessarily stand independent of these tropes however. It’s feet are firmly hidden within the trope thicket, with almost all of the recurring series characters unambiguously characterized according to a combination of tropes. The show’s premise are three unambiguously attractive and talented young women vying for the affections of one male otaku protagonist. It all seems like blatant otaku wish-fulfillment. To a degree, it is, based on the set-up. This pristine setting of otakudom, however, is blotted by a couple of things that makes the show just as much a commentary on otaku as it is a love letter to them.
“Otaku” more traditionally referred to people in Japan that possessed an unhealthy obsession for what might be otherwise considered a healthy hobby (the predominant image for these people back in the day were strictly home-bound shut-ins). The definition, in more recent years, been more ubiquitously used as a descriptor for fanatic enthusiasts of otaku culture. They see their world and conduct their lives in ways that cater to their pursuit of what anime-related entertainment and consumables they are enthusiastic about. Their worldviews and lifestyles are different from the mainstream, and many in the mainstream see fit to interpret this difference as deviance, aberrance, and delinquency. One of the potential manifestations of these deviances, aberrances, and delinquencies is “otaku sexuality.”
“Otaku sexuality,” for convenience’s sake, is the romantic preference of otaku toward that which is fictional (2D animanga and 3D figurine, for instance) instead of real. It can encompass the sexual, but it manifests itself as preponderantly romantic in the show. Aki professes his preference for 2D women from the show’s inception, to the unhappiness of the women in his life that constantly vie for his attention and affection. Despite what might be suggested as otherwise by mainstream Japanese sources that generally treat otaku with a mixture of exoticism and revulsion, “otaku sexuality” constitutes a fraction of the predominant romantic preferences of otaku overall, in line with other sensationalistic impressions about otaku tha range from jobless slackers to predatory sociopaths. Additionally, fans, if not otaku, would probably be dishonest with themselves trying to claim they don’t find some 2D character to be attractive to look at, if not quite attractive enough to date. Beyond the sheer aesthetic appeal, however, are the character traits that these 2D characters possess, kuudere and tsundere, childhood friend and family cousin, which no doubt at least subconsciously factor into how these people receive the aesthetics of these characters.
Just like it wouldn’t be remiss to say that the sexuality of some otaku are exclusively married to the 2D, some otaku subscribe to a worldview, as well as a lifestyle, that conforms to, or should conform to, otaku tropes. Saekano seems self-conscious enough of said tropes that it knows that they don’t reflect the actual reality of people being complex instead of tropy. They instead reflect the social reality of how otaku both see people and seek to see people. Aki, for instance, attempts to mold the real-life girl who inspired his VN into a heroine that reflects the preordained social reality of what he sees as “exciting” rather than “boring.” Unfortunately (or rather fortunately) for Aki, Katou ended up being a bit hard to mold to his original vision.
Rather than being (purely) exploitative of otaku tropes, Saekano seeks to rehabilitate the image that all otaku, rather than some, are exclusively married to the 2D. It does that with the introduction of a seemingly normal individual like Megumi Katou, who conforms to none of the prevailing otaku tropes that Aki consciously tries to embody. In Episode 1, “An Error-Ridden Prologue,” Aki originally imagined Katou from his chance romantic glimpse of her (beautiful dress, cherry blossoms, beret and all) based on this ideal image of her as the perfect 2D model VN heroine.
By Episode 2, “A Girlfriend Without a Raised Flag,” he becomes disillusioned by this image when his fantasies don’t match with reality. He realizes what he imagined Katou was wasn’t what Katou actually happened to be when he got around to actually holding a conversation with her. He subsequently resolved to train this “boring” girl in the ways of otaku culture so she can learn to be more exciting. In the process of this training, however, rather than finding his interactions with non-otaku and normal Katou tedious and frustrating, Aki discovers that he enjoys spending time with Katou as she is.
She influences him to the point that when presented with an initial, incredibly otaku trope-laden script of his VN by the scenario writer he convinced to help him, a person who also happens to be the creator of a LN series that he’s a big fan of, he rejects it. He calls the initial script exciting, but ultimately lacking. Lacking in something, though he has trouble putting into words what. Those words are given form in his trip/date to the mall with Katou, where in the course of their shopping activities, he realizes.
What is missing in the scripted love affair between the main heroine and the main hero that isn’t missing between him and Katou is sincerity: the small, yet plain, but nonetheless intimate conversations and moments of themselves that they both share.
Granted, the revised and accepted script involves both the aforementioned sincerity and otaku tropes galore. The script still features slice of life in a high school, a subplot involving giant monsters and the apocalypse, and a main plot where the main heroine in a past life was the main hero’s little sister.
Saekano isn’t seeking to demonize otaku. The passion otaku like Aki possess is regarded sympathetically by the show as the engine of the LN, anime, manga, VN, Japanese video game, moe, and doujinshi industries. Whatever excesses that these industries might be afflicted with the tendency of parroting otaku trope narratives for otaku eager audiences, otaku are very much responsible for keeping said industries alive and even thriving in the first place as both consumers and creators. As much criticism as people might apply on these industries for pandering to otaku, these very industries have also fostered a remarkable degree of creativity within the narratives of their products, albeit narratives that may need to share the lime light with otaku tropes. The industries, after all, are driven by parts passion as well as pandering, and that’s a point that’s more than understood by those creators who also happen to be otaku. Without resent toward its otaku heritage and malice toward its otaku audience, Saekano is a love letter to otaku.
And yet it is also a commentary, because Saekano seems to be subtly critical toward that stereotypical notion that all otaku aren’t romantically attracted to real women. For otaku men, for instance, they are seen to possess and, they themselves may very well express, the sentiment that 2D woman are superior to the real thing, as though otaku hold as much romantic affection for 2D girls as they can hold romantic affection for rocks. Anthropomorphic rock girls are a different story, and it’s a different story precisely because of the resemblance of these fictional constructs to real women in both appearance and personality. They may be shallow resemblances of real women, sure, but rather than rejecting real women altogether, they are rejecting what they believe to be the imperfections of real women. In the fictional world, you can pick and choose from a selection of 2D romantic interests that suit your personal desires. Those desires can be physical in nature, but, more often than not, they also tend to be emotional.
And Aki’s otaku desires do, in fact, match with a want for emotional intimacy. He wants to create a VN with the perfect 2D heroine. To the people that play his VN, he hopes that heroine will move them to their depths, foster within them an emotional connection . He thought he found it with Katou, whom he decided to model his perfect 2D heroine after. Disappointed by who Katou ended up actually being, he decides to train her according to what he thought she ought to be to him, what he believes would deliver that emotional perfection. He then begins to enjoy hanging out with her as she is, however, and his enjoyment begins to transform his worldview and lifestyle. Those changes start becoming evident in his VN. After all, if the narrative of his visual novel doesn’t shake him to his core, then neither will that VN resonate soulfully with the players. That would be a betrayal to what he set out to do with said VN.
He once was infatuated with his image of Katou. Now, he seems to be slowly falling in love with Katou as herself. Right now though, he might be too set in his otaku ways of looking at his sexuality to realize or admit that.
Aki making compromises isn’t the result of Katou demanding that Aki stop being an otaku by virtue of her being a non-otaku. She has never had much in the way of friends before Aki, and she calls herself a “boring” girl because of it. And yet comes Aki all of a sudden, a person who’s interested in her and willing to engage with her. She might not necessarily get otaku culture, but she’s open to trying otaku things. She admires otaku passion. She likes hanging with an otaku person, but far from letting that otaku person strip her of her agency, she draws a line in more ways than just preventing the camera from ogling her. In Episode 4, “Budget, Deadline, and New Development,” Aki criticizes her for hanging out with her male cousin because, any subconscious jealously notwithstanding, he believed that doing so ruins his image of her as the perfect 2D heroine. In Episode 11, “Ready to Start Resolving the Subplots,” she criticizes him for assuming that. Katou’s not being forced or obligated.
She enjoys being with Aki. She wants to keep it that way. And she might be falling in love with him herself.
It’s a commentary. It’s also a love letter.