Life is a shitty game. This is the thesis of Tomozaki’s monologue opening the first volume. Take a look around. Notice who people are. The beautiful are beautiful, the rich are rich, the athletic are athletic. Traits are immutable. If you’re a grouch, you can’t just will yourself into a philanthropist. Who you are is who you always will be, because some are born with high rolls of the RNG of life, and some, like Fumiya Tomozaki, are born with absolutely pathetic rolls. After all, the rules of a video game are set in stone.
Not so, according to Aoi Hinami. She’s the school’s perfect heroine. Always smiling, always cheerful, never has a bad intention on her sleeve—or so she lets on. In reality, she’s less than impressive. Her good looks come from careful grooming and delicate application of makeup, and her angelic attitude is a construction of endless observation and endless practice of specific social behaviors. It’s a facade precisely assembled to net the most enjoyment out of life, because to Hinami, life is a game where you either choose to lose or play to win. After all, a game can be modded into whatever you want.
Character growth in a story usually happens naturally. Going to war might open a man’s eyes to its true horrors. Friends surrounding a loner breaks down the walls encasing her heart. But in Bottom-Tier Character Tomozaki, character growth is the overarcing narrative. Tomozaki is a loser in every sense of the word. No friends, no girlfriend, completely unapproachable, never smiles, wears raggedy street clothes, messy hair, doesn’t care. The only thing he has going for him is his spot at the top of the leaderboards for the fighting game Attack Families, abbreviated as Atafami, but being one of Japan’s best gamers doesn’t win you friends or influence. He’s, as the series’s title has it, on the bottom-tier of the social hierarchy.
Hinami, acting as a tutor and foil to Tomozaki, offers him pointers to help him clamor up the social tier list. Slowly, mind. Just as Celeste has you repeat small maneuvers over and over again until you can nail the execution, the objectives Hinami tasks Tomozaki with are small steps. His very first social interaction under her tutelage is to ask his classroom neighbor for a box of tissues, which he still mucks up. The volumes make an active effort to show what a challenge even the most trivial of tasks is for Tomozaki, as well as show how he’s improved. In the first volume, he gets anxious asking a store clerk to buy an outfit off a mannequin, and by the fourth volume, he’s got a classmate opening up a spot in a social circle for him to join in on the conversation. It strikes a nice balance between integrating his identity into a clique and awkwardly stumbling from time to time due to his inexperience.
When I first picked up this series, I mistook it for a harem. Five cute girls, Hinami included, line the first volume’s front illustrations, which also goes out of its way to incorporate each of them into at least one scene. One conversation between Tomozaki and Hinami even has her saying that one of the girls won’t like the present version of him, strongly hinting that someday, after he’s upped himself a few tier marks, she’ll wanna hop on his giant dong. But for all the fun the series has parading its cute girls, it takes a grounded approach to Tomozaki’s relationships.
His growing social circle is co-ed. The gender ratio is slanted toward the ladies, but Tomozaki’s attention isn’t split so unevenly that his hang-outs with his male friends come off as obligatory reprieves from all the boobage constantly surrounding him now that he’s a light novel protagonist. Sometimes, he’ll hang out with the bros, and sometimes, he’ll chat up one of the ladies. But whoever he’s hanging out with, that’s exactly what he’s doing: hanging out, having fun. And even if he’s just sitting in class, he’ll often observe how his classmates are just grouped at the back or the side of the room, chattering away about this and that. I love when a series like We Never Learn takes a cartoony tone to a scene for entertainment value, but in Bottom-Tier Character Tomozaki, when the characters are sitting in a cafe, talking about their coffee orders and poking fun at Hinami for her cheese addiction, it feels like it could be a real conversation between real high schoolers.
Interacting with others can be a daunting obstacle, especially if you’re as clueless as Tomozaki, but if you’re willing to overcome the challenge, you’ll experience the joy in discovering a rainbow of personalities. From the cool and friendly Takahiro Mizusawa to the goofy but lovable Takei, the soft-spoken bibliophile Fuuka Kikuchi to the loud and boisterous Minami “Mimimi” Nanami, Tomozaki encounters a number of kind personas each with a unique outlook on life, and in befriending these many tints he carves a slot in their lives exclusive for himself. For instance, his moniker as “Brain” to Mimimi after he helps her bid for student council president during the election.
A lot goes into what makes a person tick, and it’s not just applying certain adjectives to their traits. It’s good to learn someone’s haughty and best avoided, but it’s hard to say you understand them unless you know why they act like that. This is the exact problem Tomozaki runs into when Hinami tasks him with motivating the queen bee, Erika Konno, for the upcoming sports festival, an event she normally couldn’t give two broken fingernails for. Often, stories turn to backstory to explain a character’s motivations—a childhood admiration for the heroes of fairy tales, the murder of your entire family—but rarely does it turn to that character’s psychological state, which is arguably just as effective as divulging the key moments of their past. Unfortunately, this underutilized tactic is underutilized even in this series, so I can only hope to see it become prevalent as new releases hit the English market.
Admittedly, quality varies from volume to volume, and it isn’t the most thrilling series to read. The pacing curve is like watching the motionless line of a Richter Scale, with only a noticeable uptick for the third act. But among those black and white lines depicting average teenage life are words of advice for those hoping for something more than what they have, and occasionally some of the most profound questions one can ask, such as when Tomozaki, in changing himself for the better, stops and wonders if he isn’t just creating a fake version of himself. Is the person we deliberately mold ourselves into really our true identity? After indulging oneself in the zany world of a Shonen Jump manga or the heroic battles of Danmachi, the sometimes thoughtful, sometimes romantic slices of high school life of Bottom-Tier Character Tomozaki are what the doctor ordered for a relaxing break.
I bought the first volume of Bottom-Tier Character Tomozaki when it came out in English on a whim to see if it was any good and ended up liking it so much that I just had to shape my opinion into legible words, birthing the Flash Review column, and now I love the series too much to keep writing that this individual volume is good or that individual volume is great. It’s a series which, for me, hits all the right sweet spots and contains the romance, drama, and youthful bliss which makes me gaga over a story.
A goal everyone should have is self-improvement. Let’s face it: it’s hard to get anywhere when you’re terrible at something. Can’t understand a lick of Japanese? Too bad for that translator gig which just opened up at your favorite manga licensor. If you’re no good at Call of Duty, you’ll walk away from each multiplayer session in an irate huff. Financial illiteracy can drop a person in debt and drown them there. Everything you do is a skill, and more importantly, everything is a skill you can develop. Even your very character, speech, mannerism, and physical appearance to some extent are fallible, as Tomozaki learns after meeting the Hinami behind the perfect heroine mask. But the truth is that Tomozaki never sought to improve his life. He thought the lot he was served was the lot he would always have. His faithful following of Hinami’s lessons is to settle a bet to see which of them is right, and so far, the favor’s for Hinami, not that I think he’ll complain.
Tomozaki’s still rough around the edges. Years of social isolation don’t come unraveled after a few weeks or months. But someday, he’ll be a handsomely groomed, competent young man who can win hearts with his smile and get laughs with his perfect comebacks, and his days of being a watered down Hachiman Hikigaya will seem like a bad dream he woke up from. He’ll have changed so much as to wonder if that reclusive, cynical boy wasn’t a forgettable classmate.