Like an otaku making snap judgements about a gyaru girl, it can be easy to go into Guide to the Perfect Otaku Girlfriend: Roomies and Romance Volume thinking you know what to expect. These fixer-upper fantasies about a cute girl coming into your life to help teach you how to pick up girls have been increasing in frequency for the fanboy set, letting authors play with meta-humor and genre awareness as a self-involved selling point. The book even opens with a bit dedicated to that, starting with a scene of wifely otaku wish-fulfillment that quickly derails into an amusing detailing of how annoyingly stressful it would actually be to have too many of those taped-together tropes all at once. It sets the book up to depict something of a balancing act: Recognizing the real-world expectations one should have in trying to date someone with your own interests while also still providing enough fantasy fanservice to function as an otaku-targeted work of fiction. The result mostly works out okay, and even entertains with a couple of surprising angles, but it also takes a while to get there.
The most immediately odd factor about Perfect Otaku Girlfriend was the relationship between its two primary characters. I hesitate to refer to what Kagetora and Kokoro have at this point as ‘chemistry’; instead, the writing really does a strong job of depicting the annoyance that can follow in trying to get on with someone you share interests with but otherwise have absolutely nothing else in common. Basically, you know how in romantic comedies the lead couple-to-be will often verbally spar with each other but still come across like they have a rapport to the point that you still want to see them get together? Kagetora and Kokoro’s constant arguing, undermining, and negging of each other left me absolutely not wanting to see them coupled. And to the story’s credit, by the end of this first volume, author Rin Murakami really hasn’t gestured too hard in that direction as the pair’s ultimate destination. Instead, the arc between the two really feels more like one of growing mutual respect and understanding in spite of their constant barbs and bickering, arriving at the idea of being ‘comrades’ in their ongoing efforts to help each other find dates.
There’s still some push and pull regarding the question of attraction, mostly on account of Kagetora being our point-of-view character and him fighting with his inner monologue throughout the volume over how actually attracted to Kokoro he is at any given moment. These kinds of segments mostly seem to exist to illustrate the gap in taste preference between the ‘typical male otaku’ of Kagetora (and thus, I suspect, the author) versus the actual style and personality Kokoro tends to put on, breaking the illusions of the various cosplay fantasy scenes she otherwise indulges in. Some of Kagetora’s outspoken reactions to these scene breaks can come off abrasive, especially if you’re not sympathetic to the fanboy mindset he’s embodying with them, but our main character at least never comes off as terribly toxic as some of the other leads seen in similar works. He is, at worst, just something of a cringey otaku guy who does find himself more willing to learn as the story goes on, punctuated well by him regularly having to admit whenever Kokoro’s right in one of her judgements or self-improvement suggestions for him, regardless of the sharp-tongued way in which she delivers it.
The characters’ arcs as they work towards successfully seeking out their theoretical ideal otaku dates represent the main story Perfect Otaku Girlfriend is relating, so a lot of the mechanical plot details worked through as we get there can feel purely incidental. The largest swath of the beginning of this first volume is focused on getting to the main plot contrivance: Kagetora and Kokoro living under one roof with no parental supervision, rolling via a procession of sudden family relocations and fake-dating plots. After that, the story starts filling time with an oddly aggressive quantity of scenes of Kokoro cosplaying, or pointedly ill-fated tangential dating schemes, like Kagetora and Kokoro’s pursuit of potential partners through an MMO that ends on a limp, expected punchline. Other aspects introduced are one-offs that feel equally like threads to be picked up in later volumes, or pure fanservice fantasy for the Kagetoras reading along at home, such as discovering that one of your school-mates is not only the most popular new V-tuber, but also a huge otaku just like you! That’s part and parcel to the kind of genre and story this book exists in service of, but just going off this first volume, it feels like a lot of fluff and dead ends that detracts from the more compelling components of the contrasting otaku tastes of the leads and how their connection lets them communicate advice to one another.
As the actual ‘finding dates’ plot picks up more in the second half of the book, Perfect Otaku Girlfriend‘s strengths come through better in its energy. Barbed as their dialogue may be, there is a sense that Kagetora and Kokoro genuinely have their comrade’s best interests in mind in the tastes they instruct each other to cater to. And for a series like this, it’s nice to see some genuine advice provided to an audience-cipher like Kagetora on the simple ways one can take care of themself in terms of making yourself more appealing and presentable than you might give yourself credit for. The idea that the pair aren’t terribly compatible as potential date-partners at this point interestingly makes their efforts at assisting each other more believable and compelling. And seeing the growth of that mutual respect over the course of them helping each other, to the point that Kagetora is able to do the right thing and prematurely end his own date with what seems to be his dream girl because he knows Kokoro needs his help, is a heartening hurdle for the pair to make it over by the end. As with most good dating advice self-help stories, showing characters’ growth as people is the main key to communicate for them, apart from simply becoming more appealing as a potential partner.
Rin Murakami‘s writing of all of this is pretty effectively communicative, not being as focused on trying to be purely dialogue-driven or overtly ‘comic-like’ as other light novels I’ve read. The prose is descriptive without getting too bogged down in detailing a lot of the otaku-appeal touches throughout, though there are plenty of direct and obscured references to well-known franchises, as well as something of an over-reliance on the same snippets of current subculture slang (get ready to read the phrase ‘Virgin-Killer’ dozens of times in a row). It all mostly works out fine, presented by an English translation that lends the right amount of flavor, especially in the distinctive dialogue between characters. It’s supplemented by a few page illustrations by Mako Tatekawa which look nice enough, but seem less about providing visuals for key moments in the story, and more about just showing us what each character introduced looks like.
Guide to the Perfect Otaku Girlfriend is an indulgent book that knows the main niche it’s trying to appeal to, but is inoffensive in its execution thereof that regular readers can have a fair bit of fun with it if they let themselves. It does take a bit to get going, and there are times when the ways the leads butt heads can come off as too abrasive, but in some ways, that feels like the storytelling learning and growing along with its characters. There’s enough development and hooks in this volume to leave me interested in where the story would go in the future. I’d count that as a success, especially after I spent so much time at the beginning wondering when the book was going to chill out on the cosplaying and video games and actually get on with it.