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.