Fumiya Tomozaki is a schlub. Perpetually glum, hunched over and grungy-looking, he buries himself in video games, particularly Attack Family, a party-style fighting game with loads of colorful characters that send each other flying off the screen in a cartoony kaboom. He's in high school, which means he's well aware that other kids his age are socializing, hanging out after school, going out for karaoke nights and generally enjoying each other's company. But he wants none of it. Life is a shit game, he decides; if you're not born with the right looks, in good health, or fluent social skills, you're not going anywhere. Better just to stay inside and master a game that's better-balanced.
We've all probably seen these characters before; they're stock figures in romances especially, since it makes the change they go through when they meet the girl of their dreams that much more dramatic. The story takes off when they meet someone who's got her stuff together, but inexplicably takes a liking to them, and they set off on an awkward but adorable relationship. And sure enough, that formula is at work here – Tomozaki's Manic Pixie Dream Girl is Aoi Hinami, an impossibly talented, friendly, smart, athletic, pretty, and popular classmate who just so happens to be Japan's second-best AtaFami player (Tomozaki being #1). They meet, and she's disappointed at how little effort Tomozaki puts into his appearance and his sour attitude towards life. She resolves to reshape him to make him a better, more successful, and more self-confident person.
But Hinami isn't just some fairy out of a lonely teen's wet dreams. It turns out that her nice public façade is just that: a front that she puts on to be popular, and her real personality is a harsh, almost unforgiving taskmaster. She got the way she is through hard work and perseverance, and she doesn't believe that success comes easy. She gives Tomozaki specific goals to reach, tweaks them if he makes faster progress than expected, and lectures him everyday after school. She is cutthroat in her bluntness, swatting away his excuses, berating him to try harder and correcting the misconceptions he has about socializing. She is firm in her conviction that if Tomozaki is as good at AtaFami as he is, then he can put in the effort to attain what Japanese call riajū – “satisfaction in real life.”
Hinami may be a bit too methodical in her approach – making pocket-sized flashcards with potential conversation topics seems like an awful lot of work – but she is basically right: Hard work and determination are what it takes to break out of the cocoons we build around ourselves to shield us from an unforgiving world. Too many times, we make excuses for our personal failures and get discouraged by minor setbacks. Too many times, we fall into lazy assumptions about how people can't change, that we're born with certain handicaps, that it's just no use to try to be someone we're not. Hinami has no time for this prattle. You're just not trying hard enough, she says. Have you ever reflected on why so many people don't want to talk to you?
One of the first things about Tomozaki that Hinami fixates on is his appearance. She sets him straight by getting him to dress like a mannequin, style his hair, sit up straight and practice smiling more while wearing a mask so people don't get freaked out when they see him grinning for no reason. It's easy to argue that Hinami is being superficial here, that she's playing into the vicious high school preoccupation with looks and style and overlooking the importance of more substantial personality adjustments. But the harsh truth is that looks do matter. Like it or not, we judge each other by looks constantly; just think back to the last time you saw a homeless person who obviously hasn't had a bath or a change of clothes in ages. Dating apps trade heavily on appearance and facial expressions in profile pics; job interviews can boil down to whether your suit matches your tie.
And it really isn't just about how others see you; if we're being honest with ourselves, looking good will make us feel good, too. Think of the last time you got a really nice haircut, or applied a new brand of makeup. Sure, it's natural to let ourselves go a little if we're staying indoors, but catching a pretty face in the mirror and realizing it's your own does wonders for your self-esteem and pushes you to be more confident outdoors.
Hinami doesn't just focus on looks. That's basically the easy part. Mastering conversation, picking up on subtle social cues, reading the mood – those are the skills that can sink relationships, drive introverts crazy, and take a lifetime to master. I'm sure even the most confident and outgoing people make some flubs occasionally. But like everything else, it can be learned through practice, practice, practice. Initiating a conversation with someone you don't really know is rough. Gauging your idea for a joke to see if it would crack everyone up or sink like a cannonball is tricky. But keep at it, and put some thought into how you're coming across – are you earnest, or creepy? Are you listening to what others are saying and reacting appropriately, or fixating on yourself? Are they engaged and interested, or listening out of politeness and desperately eyeing an escape? Don't get discouraged and make mental notes for next time when you trip up (which will happen, sometimes or often).
This is one of the parts where Bottom-tier Character Tomozaki really shines. Whip-smart as she is, Hinami breaks down how conversations work to her earnest pupil and explains what went wrong when he veers off course. She points out how some characters – like the eternally peppy Mimimi, seen above – go along with the flow just to make everyone happy, regardless of their own feelings. She gives Tomozaki a recorder so he can hear how he sounds and fix his mumbling. She tasks him with coming up with suggestions during group outings and explains that the best ideas don't always win – it's what sounds good that does.
A lot of this may sound like second nature to more socially well-adjusted viewers, but I was fascinated by some of the points Hinami makes. Mastering social dynamics is definitely a skill, and the subtleties and nuances involved can take a while to figure out. Take her advice on dealing with boys, for example: she tasks Tomozaki with putting male classmates down, because boys operate on a much more hierarchical basis than girls and it's all too easy for them to start using the shy guy making tentative steps to come out of his shell as the group butt monkey. It made me realize just how many of my own social interactions rapidly slid into this situation because of how passive and self-deprecating I can be. But the truth is that Hinami's right, and just like with bullies, you have to stand up for yourself to make your classmates take you seriously. (Although, be careful not to take the teasing too far – Tomozaki chooses to tease a male classmate during the obligatory hot springs scene, and if you do something like that to a guy with a fragile enough ego, you might be asking to get walloped!)
Hinami is an amazing character who never seems to lose her poise, always has an answer for everything and gets along with everyone. She's a little too perfect to be plausible, but viewers who get jaded by how perfect she is will eventually realize she's not exactly flawless. It may seem like the constant video game analogies she makes to “the game of life” are there to pander to otaku, but it becomes clear that she sees everything in terms of goals, strategies, methods, and principles. She is stubbornly competitive at everything she does, and a story arc about Mimimi getting burned out trying to equal her at track serves to demonstrate how exhausting that kind of mentality can be. She is a master manipulator, which is impressive at first (she knows exactly who Tomozaki needs to date, what movie they should see, and even has the tickets ready for them to use) but eventually gets scary (she gets Tomozaki to manage Mimimi's political campaign, then steals their platform and crushes them at stump speeches!).
Hinami ends up being something of a controversial character, a case study in why The Perfect Girl might actually be a little too intimidatingly competent for comfort. I'd say she definitely steps over the line in the finale, when she abruptly cuts off her budding relationship with Tomozaki just because he has the temerity to stand up to her, then reveals that she doesn't even believe that there is such a thing as free will and desire. At the end of the day, following Hinami's crash course in being a more successful person is totally voluntary, and if you feel that you're being poured in some generic, socially approved mold of what a person ought to be, then you have the right to abort the mission.
But I also detect a bit of cultural dissonance here. Sure, Hinami may wear classy Western clothes, hang out at “Starblacks” and eat an inordinate amount of cheese, but her approach to socializing is very Japanese. Asians tend to value conformity above almost all else, including free will and individual preferences, on the grounds that preserving social harmony is paramount. Many Japanese people, when unsure of their own preferences, will go with the group because that is what is expected of them – and really, if you get satisfaction from appeasing others, then isn't going with the group your individual preference anyway?
Hinami's disdain with Tomozaki's concern over sincerity also reflects a particularly Japanese cultural element. In his dates, he gets uncomfortable with faking it so much, with saying things just because they sound good and are Hinami-Approved Topics. Hinami is unimpressed; for her, socializing is all about neko wo kaburu, or “wearing the cat.” This refers to the classic Japanese – especially female Japanese – habit of acting cutesy and flirty and charming in public regardless of your actual mood or personality. (It's the same phrase that's used in the Japanese title of last summer's totes adorbs romance flick A Whisker Away.) No, it's not “authentic,” but would you rather interact with these character's authentic selves – an awkward, glum loser, and a super-intense drill sergeant?
The downside, of course, is that we're left constantly guessing about who the “real” Hinami is and what her true feelings are (especially late in the season when she starts to toy with Tomozaki on a weekend getaway). But the grim reality is that a lot of people aren't honest in public and project a socially acceptable aura so others will like them – and it's hardly unique to high school or to Japan, although it may be more intense there. As readers of The Catcher in the Rye know, everyone's a bunch of phonies, and learning how to detect pretense and polite, but false, niceness is crucial to navigating professional interactions.
Bottom-tier Character Tomozaki isn't a perfect anime; its central premise hinges on something that's just not realistic, no matter how it tries to explain it: that someone as repulsed by Tomozaki as Hinami is would ever devote so much of her time and energy to helping him improve himself. Hinami taps a little too much into the old otaku fantasy of a Perfect Girl who's got it all together yet somehow has a secret life where she's obsessed with video games. There are a bunch of weird fanservice shots of the female characters and Mimimi sexually harasses female classmates like it's totally OK.
But it's a much better, smarter show than I expected; Hinami doesn't have a totally different “gamer” personality, like Umaru-chan for example – she's as driven and competitive with video games as she is with everything else. And despite the gratuitous fanservice, this show really isn't concerned at all with sex; it's about fulfilling relationships. Hinami tasks Tomozaki with getting a girlfriend so he can boost his self-confidence, happiness, and social skills. Tomozaki's female friends aren't treated like a harem, and a few episodes focus on male bonding too.
Bottom-tier Character Tomozaki is one of the most painfully relatable high school anime for me; Tomozaki's timid, stilted attempts at breaking the ice with the girls who sit next to him brought back a lot of uncomfortable memories. It does a great job of capturing some of the inanities of high school, like the cutthroat hierarchies that dictate who's popular and who's not (for some dumb reason, only cool girls are allowed to wear neckties in this show). Older viewers who tend to roll their eyes at stupid, hormone-addled teenagers getting carried away with their petty problems shouldn't necessarily pass on this one, though: there are a lot of valuable social lessons for everyone, and high school is really just a pressure cooker version of the social environments we have to cope with for the rest of our lives.
No anime can realistically be a guide for mastering social skills and becoming a more successful person. Any show – really, any work of fiction – will be a bit dishonest in the name of selling more ads or telling a more compelling or satisfying story. But for anyone out there feeling lonely, depressed and self-pitying, especially in these quarantine doldrums, Bottom-tier Character Tomozaki is a great start to planning a new outlook on life. The original light novel's author, Yūki Yaku, shares examples of readers who get inspired by his work to push themselves through similar self-improvement regimens.
Just be warned: in real life, Hinamis do not exist. The Perfect Girl is not going to waste that much time on you. Get some frank advice from family members, friends you already have and trust, or therapists. But above all, figure it out yourself. Life is a struggle, it can be extremely frustrating and unfair, and setbacks are bound to come up. But persevere, don't lose hope, set some goals and learn from your mistakes as much as you can. Remember – you are who you want to be, and negativity is a vicious cycle. Have the confidence to put yourself out there and show others you can be a great person to hang out with too. Ganbatte! (Do your best!)