Bottom-Tier Character Tomozaki, Vol. 3

By Yuki Yaku and Fly. Released in Japan as “Jaku Chara Tomozaki-kun” by Shogakukan. Released in North America by Yen On. Translated by Winifred Bird.

I’m not sure this series has ‘arcs’ like some other light novels, but there’s no denying that this third volume feels like the end of part one and the start of part two, and it would not surprise me if the upcoming anime decides this is a good place to wrap things up. Here we see Tomozaki finally go on the movie date with Kikuchi that he didn’t do in the last volume, and also invite her out to fireworks, This is part of Hinami’s life plan of getting him dating a girl by the end of summer break. Along the same sort of lines, he goes on a group barbecue/camping trip with the main group, tries to help the others get two of their friends together, and even gets a part-time job. He’s come a long way. The question is, how much of this is him being genuine and how much of this is him doing what Hinami says? And is Hinami really all that successful at life anyway?

The first 3/4 of this volume is merely very good, showing off the characters and situations we like. Tomozaki’s date with Kikuchi is indeed as adorable as expected, as is the fireworks viewing, and it’s her pure and basic honesty that helps him \decide how to move forward (and, also, that dating her because of a gaming strategy is not a thing he wants to do). Crucially, she finds it easier to talk to him when he’s not trying to be a “normie”… but doesn’t reject the fact that he’s trying harder. The bulk of the middle of the book is the campout, and it’s fun, and also reminds you that these are, at heart, immature teenagers: a discussion of which girl in the group is hottest revolves around breast size, and Tomozaki may be the first character I’ve seen to canonically get a large penis (it comes up in guy talk), as opposed to in fanfics written about a character.

The last quarter of the book is where things really take off. Misuzawa has seen what Tomozaki has been doing, and finds his odd combination of “trying to be normal” and brutal honesty refreshing. So he tries to open up to Hinami… which goes disastrously. The afterward with her and Tomozaki also goes disastrously, leading to a break in their “teacher/student” relationship and for Tomozaki to backslide into old habits. The best part of this is that it doesn’t reject either premise: Tomozaki’s honest niceness and desire to not do something if he doesn’t want to is a good and sensible thing… and at the same time he dislikes the old, don’t care about appearances or posture self that he gained by learning with Hinami. He likes the fact that he grew as a person… he just wants to do it without moving into uncomfortable directions, like “date the library girl because I told you to.” Best of all, he manages to get Hinami to acknowledge this and start coaching him again, which is a big get given she was ready to completely shut him out of her life.

So another excellent volume, and it also shows that moving forward it will likely be Hinami who has the much harder road ahead. That said, Izumi is the cover girl for the next volume. This has rapidly become a must-read series.

Bottom-Tier Character Tomozaki, Vol. 2

By Yuki Yaku and Fly. Released in Japan as “Jaku Chara Tomozaki-kun” by Shogakukan. Released in North America by Yen On. Translated by Winifred Bird.

Having started to successfully negotiate life the way that he does games, Tomozaki now runs up against more treacherous waters. Inviting a group out for a lunch accidentally turns into a shopping trip (MUCH harder for someone like him), and he has to ask his library friend out to see a movie, something that would be adorably cute but unfortunately gets derailed by the main plot. The main plot being Mimimi, the overenthusiastic and hyper classmate of his, running for Student Council President… against Hinami. As we discover that Mimimi has a long history of coming in second to Hinami, and see just how far above everyone else Hinami really is, Tomozaki decides that he wants to help Mimimi take her down by winning the election. But is he really good enough to do that now? And isn’t this just ignoring the larger issues that Mimimi has? More to the point, is being the best at everything really something you can criticize? All this, and it’s only the second volume.

We’d seen a hint of Mimimi’s hidden depths in the first volume, but the second one goes into far more detail. (My suspicion is that each girl on the cover art will be the focus of the book in question, so expect library girl to take center stage next time.) It can be hard to constantly find yourself hitting an insurmountable wall, and even harder when it’s a person. There’s a core of self-loathing to Mimimi’s behavior here, as she can’t see a way past what she’s doing without feeling angry with herself. The “what’s the second highest mountain in Japan?” question was a good way to demonstrate it to Tomozaki – with everyone watching Hinami at number one, who’s going to look at the next best? But, as we hear towards the end, Hinami has felt that anger and frustration as well – in fact, it’s what led to this entire situation. As Tomozaki says towards the end of the book, nobody did anything wrong here.

There’s also a lot of good stuff here about student council elections in Japanese schools, and how you have to balance what kids want vs. what teachers will let you talk about. The reader is absolutely meant to root for Mimimi and Tomozaki here. That said, the reader also suspects the result will be as inevitable as Hinami says it is. (I’m still not sure how the author wants us to feel about Hinami – getting a very “Medaka Kurokami” vibe about her.) And then there’s Tomozaki, who does make some good steps forward here (I really liked his buying the hair wax), but needs to stop framing everything as “this is what normies do” and putting himself outside that box. Also struck by a naïveté I was not expecting from him – even I knew what Mimimi did to Tama, but he’s baffled by it the entire book.

So, to sum up: I enjoyed the plot, I liked the characters, the writing felt smooth and readable (very good translation here), and it doesn’t feel quite as much like a self-help guide compared to the first. Overall, it was excellent. Cannot wait for the next book.

Bottom-Tier Character Tomozaki, Vol. 1

By Yuki Yaku and Fly. Released in Japan as “Jaku Chara Tomozaki-kun” by Shogakukan. Released in North America by Yen On. Translated by Winifred Bird.

These days, whenever a light novel is licensed that does not in some way shape or form ground itself in fantasy, I take notice. This is the “isekai boom”, and even the titles released that aren’t isekai seem to involve fantasy worlds, adventuring, and demon lords. We have seen a few normal “romantic comedy” LNs – Toradora!, My Youth Romantic Comedy Etc. – but they’re in a tiny minority, and were licensed well after the anime became popular. So Tomozaki, a high school kids title with no fantasy and no anime (at least not yet) was a surprise. I wondered what attracted Yen to it, especially as the publisher rarely deals with North America on their light novel end. I ended up being very happy with it. The novel starts slow, but as both it and its main character gradually find their feet it gets more and more interesting till a final quarter that was fantastic. This is especially interesting because of the odd little genre the book turns out to be: it’s a self-help guide.

Tomozaki is our title character, a quiet and sullen young man who is fantastic at gaming – particularly ‘Atafami’, the current hot new game – but not so good at everyday social interactions. His narrative voice will remind a few people of Hachiman, though he’s not as clever or misanthropic. (In fact, let’s get that out of the way – this is going to get compared to OreGairu, and some of that is by design. Even the cover art styles look similar. There’s even a reference saying that Saitama (where the books take place) can beat Chiba easily (OreGairu’s territory) that made me think the author is well aware of what he’s doing.) In any case, Tomozaki ends up playing a really good player online, and they arrange to meet up. To his shock – and hers – she’s his classmate Hinami, the cute and popular girl. Meanwhile, she’s incredibly disappointed in him, as she assumed he’d be as cool in real life as he was in the game. When he goes off about how life is much harder than a game, she decides to tutor him in how to life.

The first half of the book, as I said, feels like someone wanted to write a self-help manual for the introverted Japanese high schooler but make it interesting. To my surprise, the gaming talk did not bore me at all – it’s made relevant to the conversations throughout, and even when we’re watching characters play Atafami, it doesn’t drown us in stats unless that’s the point. Hinami explains how to make Tomozaki’s real-life character better, starting with learning to smile, then posture, then a new outfit, etc. And conversation. He has to get better at that as well. As the book goes on, it turns out that he and Hinami have a lot more in common than you’d think, and that she’s not explaining this from a superior position – she continues to do every day just what she’s telling him to do. Constant practice, just like in a game.

The book gets better when we start to see the results of her tutelage. Tomozaki doesn’t get perfect immediately, of course, and he’s still socially awkward much of the time. But once he starts treating these tasks – “have two conversations with a girl in class every day”, etc. – like a game that he needs to beat, he shows that he can be very good about it. He’s also observant and speaks his mind, like most LN narrators. And so he can spot that the over-the-top genki girl is putting on something of an act, or that the overly serious girl never starts conversations herself. Towards the end of the book he starts teaching another girl to play Atafami (so she can impress a guy) and he’s now the one giving the excellent advice – and also applying it to life, telling her that it’s never too late to change your character if you don’t like it. His growth is both astonishing and not surprising at all, given his gaming skills.

The book was clearly written as a stand-alone, but there’s more to come. I want to read it. The cast is all likeable (in fact, it’s a safe bet that Hinami, the female lead, is likely the least popular, as always happens in “harem” stories like this) and Tomozaki is relatable without being overbearing or irritating (well, he’s irritating to start with). It’s been called a “kinder, gentler OreGairu” and that’s simplistic but not a bad starting point. I had a ball reading it.