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Anime rom-coms are a dime a dozen these days, but Saekano: How to Raise a Boring Girlfriend stands apart by gathering many of the genre’s more prevalent clichés and taking them apart through great characters and excellent comedy.

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Saekano follows anime/game/light novel otaku Tomoya. One day, he encounters a beautiful girl in a scene seemingly ripped right out of a visual novel. The event leaves him inspired to create his own visual novel.

Thus he begins to assemble a high school dream team to help him on the project: his childhood friend Eriri (secretly a popular porn artist) for the art and upperclassman Utaha (secretly a best-selling light novel author) to write the scenario. The two are hesitant to join him, fearing his sudden passion will burn out quickly.

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Then Tomoya once again encounters his muse, a girl named Megumi—only to discover she is a cute, but otherwise unremarkable girl that has been his classmate for over a year. It is then that he sets about making the real world Megumi into the romantic lead of his otaku dreams.

In many rom-com anime, the main male character is blatantly normal despite being surrounded by beautiful, talented women who are vying for his attention. This is because the main character is meant to act as an audience proxy—a person who is similar to the average viewer. You are supposed to put yourself in the shoes of the protagonist and, in that way, experience the romantic drama first hand.

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At first, Saekano appears to cast its lead, Tomoya, in this role. He seems to be a normal otaku so focused on the 2D variety of women that he completely misses the real life women who are interested in him. Yet, we soon see that he is anything but normal. Not only is he well known around his school, but on the internet he is a respected otaku blogger with a following of thousands—a celebrity otaku in his own right.

However, because he sees himself as just a normal otaku, he doesn’t understand the influence he holds over others—especially the females in his life.

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Take for example Eriri—a girl who is leading a dual life. At school, she is a normal, incredibly popular girl. At home, she is an otaku on par with Tomoya. She wants to be friends (and more) with Tomoya but is unwilling to take the social hit that would come from that.

Because of this duality, she crafts a role for herself torn right out of the manga she creates—she is the “tsundere childhood best friend.” As a tsundere—a character who is harsh instead of outwardly caring—she has an excuse to be close to him while protesting it at the same time. The “childhood friend” backstory gives her a popular otaku angle to win his heart.

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Yet over the course of the anime, we learn that it will take more than her adopting a cliché role to win his heart. The strained relationship between Tomoya and Eriri is all her doing and is not something so easily mended. And when an even more appropriate “childhood friend” character appears late in the series, Eriri’s assumed personality is thrown into disorder.

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Utaha’s relationship with Tomoya is much more recent. When first meeting him as a fan, his love for her novels inspired her to be a better writer. At first she was using him as a sounding board for her fans, but she soon began writing for an audience of one: Tomoya. However, with his inferiority complex, Tomoya was unable to accept this—cruelly, though unintentionally, rejecting Utaha in the process.

With this rejection looming over her, Utaha remakes herself into a “the over-bearing upper classman” stereotype, allowing her to confess her true feelings to Tomoya constantly, but also having the safety net of knowing he will take anything she says as a joke. Like Eriri, Utaha is hiding inside an anime trope, hoping to win Tomoya’s otaku heart in a way he should be able to understand.

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And then there is Megumi.

What makes Megumi truly stand out is that in an anime where all the other girls fall into one of the standard anime/dating sim cliché roles, she does not. Eriri and Utaha are genre savvy—hence why they have chosen to embody the stereotypes they have. Unlike Megumi, they know all the stereotypical situations that are bound to come up in a rom-com and how they should react to each.

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Megumi, on the other hand, acts like any normal person would—which is hilarious in contrast to the over-the-top actions of the other two. Much of the comedy comes from this. When coming to Tomoya’s room for the first time, Megumi is at ease. She doesn’t get flustered, pose by the window, or do anything else a typical romantic lead would do in a game/anime/manga, etc.—and Tomoya berates her about it at length.

But while she may not understand the ins and outs of what it means to be a visual novel “heroine,” she does understand people in a down-to-earth sort of way. To her, Eriri and Utaha’s romantic intentions are obvious. She also enjoys giving an almost running commentary on the events of the show. She delivers both praise and condemnation in the same pleasant tone—which leads to many of the anime’s best comedic bits.

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What’s more is that Megumi is a girl with no illusions about her situation. Despite Tomoya’s obsession with her, she never lets herself be fooled into thinking she is his girlfriend—even as they go on dates and he pulls her more and more into the otaku world. She is the outsider; and while she knows this, it is her more than any of the other characters that keeps the group together.

Saekano is an anime that lives or dies on its characters. It takes them, puts them in various situations revolving around making an indie game in Japan, and simply lets the characters interact naturally. The results would be hilarious with just Tomoya, Eriri, and Utaha, but the inclusion of Megumi takes it to a whole new level. She really is one of the most well written anime characters in years and the keystone to an excellent rom-com anime.

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Saekano: How to Raise a Boring Girlfriend aired on Fuji TV in Japan. It can be viewed for free and with English subtitles in the US on Crunchyroll and Hulu.

Kotaku East is your slice of Asian internet culture, bringing you the latest talking points from Japan, Korea, China and beyond. Tune in every morning from 4am to 8am.

To contact the author of this post, write to BiggestinJapan@gmail.com or find him on Twitter @BiggestinJapan.