The final volume of Wotakoi: Love Is Hard for Otaku was recently released to English-reading audiences, providing a conclusion for fans of the romance manga. Those with a deep love for the series even bought the final volume several times from different stores to get all the various cover designs. It’s rare for a josei manga to hit the mainstream like Wotakoi has, but it deserves the attention. It’s a heartfelt romance with three couples in different stages of their relationships, while delving into the stigma against otaku in Japanese culture.
However, there are questions over whether Wotakoi can maintain its status as one of the best romance series of the decade. The reason for this is, oddly enough, one of the reasons it currently stands out: its comedy. Traditional writing has warned creators against using abundant pop culture references in their works because it dates the story. So will this element, which readers find charming today, become a hindrance as more years go by?
A lot of Wotakoi’s jokes center around different aspects of otaku culture, most of which fall under anime, manga or gaming. Because Hirotaka is a gamer, he references Splatoon and can be seen playing knockoffs of games like Monster Hunter and Dragon Quest. Because Narumi is a fujoshi, there are scenes where she buys new books and anyone familiar with the BL genre can recognize covers to titles like Daka Ichi and My Summer of You.
There is an issue with this dependence on pop culture, however. References only work if they’re presented to an audience that’s familiar with the property. At present, the vast majority of Wotakoi‘s jokes hold up because the audience knows the same things the characters do. Basic aspects of each hobby, like Koyanagi desperately wanting someone to cosplay with, will remain universal. The more specific gags are may be likely to cause a problem with the passage of time.
Some of them are already losing their impact. For example, Chapter 14 of the Wotakoi manga and Episode 9 of the anime show Hirotaka playing Pokémon Go, a mobile game that exploded in popularity in 2016 but faded into obscurity. Narumi notices and jokes that only otaku still play that game. As the next few years went by, the joke got funnier because it was true. Pokémon Go left the mainstream and is now only played by huge fans of the franchise. In 2022, looking at this joke can feel like a faint memory because of how quickly internet culture moves on to new things.
These jokes heavily date Wotakoi, setting it firmly in the late 2010s and early 2020s. As time goes on, people picking up the series for the first time won’t have lived through the trends and memes it references. While the glossaries in the back of the volumes published by Kodansha Comics definitely help when a reader doesn’t understand, they will never fully capture how it felt to live through those moments.
Part of the reason the references are funny is how relatable they are to the reader. Those who experienced the internet when the referenced memes circulated will have a different response to them than those who didn’t. Even now, unless the reader was specifically on Japanese Twitter while Wotakoi was ongoing, a lot of jokes will be missed by international audiences.
The internet is a large part of Wotakoi: Love Is Hard for Otaku’s identity. Originally a web comic on Japanese art website Pixiv, it gained enough interest and traffic to become a serialized manga. In this sense, the series’ pop culture references are evidence of where it came from. It would have never gotten so much traction had it not been for its initial online fan base. It continually pays homage to its birthplace, the ever-changing landscape of internet culture. Only time will show if Wotakoi‘s charm stays intact or ages like milk.