As general society, and perhaps personal experience, may tell you, the online world can truly be a wretched hive of scum and villainy. However, much like a certain space port in a place far from here, within may exist a diamond in the rough, one which makes the risk worth while. Of course, rarely anybody strikes oil on there first dig and it can take time to find those golden bonds desired by all. And thus, with metaphors as technically-plausible-but-confusing-sounding-nonetheless as the title of this series, I present to you an exercise in personal growth and pwning scrublords who suck it hardcore. Yeah, that’s right, I’m down with the lingo.
Proud of his interest in gaming and willing to stick to his guns even when a popular girl calls him a dork, Hideki Nishimura stands as our surprisingly mature protagonist in this trek through the Japanese schooling system. With three friends who make as much impact as a dry napkin drifting to the floor, he is content to live through an ordinary school day and kick butt on MMOs at night. See, within the world of Legendary Age, Nishimura has a guild of like-minded friends who simply play for the fun of it. With two decent players, another who spends real money on the best in-game items and a near-useless healer, Guild Alley Cats really only matter to each other. It’s normal, it’s real world plausible and it’s sweet. Given the context provided, each have been playing for quite a while and enjoy the camaraderie they have formed in the virtual world. So, why not remove the virtual? That’s right, real world meeting. I mean, how else will Master, Shwein and Ako prove to Rusian (Nishimura) that they are in fact girls who enjoy gaming and not forty years olds merely roleplaying?
Of course, given the title of the series and any promotional art, Alley Cats turns out to be populated by actual truth-telling girls, who all happen to attend the same school as Nishimura, because anime. Though said coincidence is not the crux of the story, it is at least referenced throughout that four people so close to one another emotionally never knew that their physical location was similar. Hell, one of the Alley Cats just so happens to be the popular girl who gives Nishimura no end of strife IRL, being frightened of what would happen to her image if anybody knew she likes MMOs. That aside, the largest element of the series stems from another: Ako Tamaki. Despite purposefully painting herself as a weird loner in order to avoid social attention, she winds up the centre of everything upon discovering that Nishimura is her precious Rusian. See, Rusian and Ako are married in Legendary Age and Ako…has tough time telling the difference between the two worlds. I don’t want to say she’s crazy, but the series definitely paints her that way at the outset. Thus, our non-descript protagonist becomes the object of affection of one girl, with two others joining the fray in the same episode and I think we all know where that leads. That’s right, to a series with a lot of genuine moments of human interaction that centre around an earnest attempt at helping a friend and continuing to expand one’s own world view. Oh, is that not where you thought this was going?
I sure as heck wasn’t. Look, call me crazy, but anime tends to express these types of stories through the idea that plain-faced dudes are the kryptonite of every female archetype in the know universe. There series even toys with this idea fairly early on, with Segawa (the popular girl) expressing typical tsundere qualities directly at Nishimura. What is most shocking about these displays, however, is the relatively subdued manner in which they are enacted. Sure she acts bratty, but she never resorts to outlandish violence, nor steps into the territory of being unrepentantly vulgar. At one point, she even worries when Master (I’m just going to use the in-game names from now on, as the series does) states that her actions paint her as rather anti-Rusian. It’s not a pivotal moment in the series, but it may be one of my favourite, showcasing a level of concern that I’m not sure I’ve ever seen expressed by her archetype before. The fact that her presence as a romantic foil to Ako is swiftly dropped also serves to grant her a more robust role in the series, existing as Rusian’s vitriolic best bud instead. Granted, she does openly express an interest in Rusian, however she is aware that he and Ako exist as a couple in some form and would rather not destroy her friendship group in pursuit of romance. It’s the kind of emotional integrity that really makes you wonder if high-schoolers are possible of making such decisions, or if it’s just anime…I’m leaning towards just anime.
What exists as the bulk of the series, despite the impact of smaller moments such as the aforementioned, is the main groups goal to integrate Ako into the real world. Frequently avoiding school to enjoy Legendary Age, Ako is a rather complex case who walks the line between endearingly quirky and frighteningly maladjusted. Though her infatuation with Rusian is the largest joke of the series, it is also shown in a darker light on occasion. She’s so hellbent on believing that their in-game marriage transcends into real life, that her actions frequently become erratic and terrifying. Luckily for all of us, the groups efforts to help her bare some modicum of impact as the story progresses, wherein her shutting herself in her bedroom for two days is seen as a step forward…given that the previous step was meeting up with, and attempting to assault, a female character Rusian had previously attempted to marry in-game. But hey, take you victories where you can get ’em. Even so, the series remains steadfast that, despite her darker side, Ako is more misguided than malicious and needs a caring hand to guide her away from the path of disillusioning escapism. Which just so happens to take the form of an after-school club and a not-really-but-kind-of-really husband. Because anime.
Still, even despite the extreme actions, the notion of progress is something this series handles quite well. From a main character who is actually willing to try and build a relationship with the girl he likes, to side characters who willingly accept personal growth, the story continues to move forward. Time is not wasted simply resting on character archetypes, sure they’re used, but not abused. We’ve all seen the tsundere girl pushed to the ludicrous limit and the rich kid who is impossibly inept at relating to classmates they have known for years. Here they feel real, they feel like characters who believably exist in the lives they explain and play out as more than one note. The first episode is a perfect example, as during their first meeting, each member of Alley Cats holds a conversation with each other member. Schwein and Rusian bicker over gear, Master and Schwein joke about Ako, Ako and Master bond over a hatred of typical high-school girls and Ako and Rusian are married…kinda. It’s a fun scene that rather swiftly paints the series as more than the basic harem the premise may suggest and sows the seeds of endearing these characters to your heart.
Call it trite if you will, but the overall takeaway from this series is friendship. But even more than that, it’s about finding friendship through having the self-confidence to exist as your own person. Rusian is open about his love for gaming and thus serves as the core of the series. Willing enough to accept that, whilst separate, both real life and Legendary Age play a major role in his social existence. Schwein is so hellbent on keeping her passion a secret, that she treated who could and would be her truest friend like garbage, which is totally not cool. Master and Ako also exist as lonely souls, though their situations are a little less within their control, owing to familial pressure and disassociation respectively. Still, characters make an effort in this series and, though their ending point is not perfection, it is a step beyond where they began and that’s what really matters.
Look, And You Thought There is Never a Girl Online? is probably not the greatest example of emotional resonance or personal growth out there, but who cares? In fact, how do you even measure something like that? Seems intrinsically subjective and difficult to quantify. Regardless, this series presented me with far more than I was expecting from it. Though it hits all the beats and locales from a typical high-school series, each is made to feel relevant to the situation at hand, or at the very least not like time wasted. Nearly everything is done to make Ako comfortable in the world around her, to the point I became far more interested in the real lives of the group and began to care less and less about Legendary Age. Which is ironic to a fairly large degree. And though the bulk of the cast are walking, talking, failed Bechdel Tests, there is enough relationship development to keep you entertained into the early hours of the morning, only to realise that that’s the sun coming up and the rest of your day is going to be filled with caffeine and regret. Because life.