Hitori Bocchi no Marumaru Seikatsu is available to stream on Crunchyroll.
Anime protagonists are, on the whole, kind of losers.
That’s totally not a knock against them – there’s definitely something appealing about watching a person overcome their own shortcomings while also stumbling through situations like a clown. It’s why people emphasize so much with teenage Peter Parker: he’s a dork and a chump, but he’s always out there doing his best in spite of that, and that’s why we love him. It’s a proven model, so it’s not surprising that writers lean into it time and time again, and one of the clearest and most universally-understandable ways of showing this is to have a character be written as socially-awkward.
The danger there is always that the core flaws in these characters will too closely match those of the viewer, which can be a little uncomfortable to watch if not handled well. Let’s be perfectly honest – a lot of fans of anime as a hobby tend toward having some degree of social anxiety, so having the main character of a comedy share the same hang-ups has you is walking a fine line, lest the humor becomes about that idea itself rather than using it as a platform. It’s not exactly kosher to make a show that revolves around self-proclaimed nerds where each subsequent nerdy reference triggers a mocking audience laugh track – not to name any names.
Some shows try to get around this by giving the character some sort of fantastic Rain-Man-esque talent to make them nonetheless admirable. But that’s not quite a full solution, since the audience is being asked to appreciate a character in spite of the traits that they might share. That whole setup just doesn’t send the most positive of messages, and it’s dodging the topic besides.
No, often the better thing to do is to look the problem straight in the eye, even and especially if it’s too nervous to look back.
There have blessedly been a lot of recent anime and manga that handle social nervousness and communication issues in particular with a greater degree of care, from the deeply empathetic Senryuu Girl to breakout hit Komi-san. And one of the most visible in recent seasons (unfortunately for its protagonist) is Hitoribocchi no Marumaru Seikatsu, where the entire premise is… that the title character has is deeply uncomfortable with and under-practiced at speaking with other people.
And that’s it. That’s the whole thing, as stretched out over a full season of television.
You might imagine that a show with this singular focus might end up with the title character portrayed as completely pathetic, since we have to watch them flub basic interactions with her classmates week after week. This would paint the whole situation as outlandish and unrealistic, and even diminishing to those who actually share a shade of the same problem in their day-to-day lives.
But that’s not the case.
Instead, Hitoribocci does the harder thing for a comedy, and decides to carefully avoid letting the source of its jokes become the butt of its jokes. It takes its time to unpack each situation, look at why Bocchi is having hang-ups or being made uncomfortable, and then usually comes to a conclusion that acknowledges those difficulties, often seeing her helped out out by an understanding classmate. And it does all of this without sacrificing the lighthearted, comedic tone that makes slice-of-life anime such a joy to watch.
Take the last segment of very first episode, for example, where Bocchi is having a text-message conversation with new friend Nako. Bocchi, having never had to carry a conversation on her own, struggles to find anything interesting to say, and so immediately deflects the overbearing responsibility of picking a conversation topic when asked. She does it in such a thuddingly-obvious way that it can clearly be played off as a joke, but we do quickly see her realize that she needs to at least try, and she makes an obviously-focused attempt to at least respond, even if it doesn’t work out.
She’s still a bit nervous and fumbles through the following conversation, but instead the scene moves through some situational humor instead. The script doesn’t feel the need to sit there and harp on the same gag at her expense – Nako instead spends the rest of the “texting” sketch actively trying to help Bocchi understand what’s going on, like how she’s mis-using emoji or not paying attention to the world around her. The problem hasn’t gone away, and it’s still funny, but we’ve seamlessly moved to working through it rather than just pointing and laughing at a problem that isn’t exactly foreign to the real world, and it all kind of ends in a sort of clumsy-yet-endearing way.
Granted, it’s not especially nuanced – Bocchi talks in a lot of obvious, plain terms about the show’s concept, and over-reacts to run-of-the-mill conversation in some slapstick ways. But these are always framed as a bit hokey or silly, and provide ways for the audience to empathize with her poor handling of any situation without excusing it. She’s got a problem that the show frames as charming, but it’s still a problem that the show puts at center-stage with regularity and spends a sizable chunk of its airtime taking an appropriately clumsy and roundabout way of dealing with, which results in a good stream of humor coming from, but not aimed at, Bocchi’s shortcomings.
And that ends up giving context for a lot of the humor as a whole. The joke isn’t “this character is incompetent”. The joke is “this situation is a mess in spite of how much she’s trying“. It’s a comedy of errors; it’s just that the errors are mostly coming from the same place – only mostly, though. We get to see Nako accidentally blurt things out in class, or teacher Teru laugh off how uncomfortable she is with student-teacher power dynamics, or the chipper Honshou trip over her own words. These are all characters who are supposed to be playing the “straight man” character, and at various times they all have their own screw-ups in ways that acknowledge that yes, everybody has these problems to some degree; some are just affected more strongly than others. It makes the issue feel universal, and not so much the fault of any affected individual.
Sure, characters still get upset with Bocchi’s stubborn avoidance of personal interactions, or how she misses the most basic of context and undertones. It never ceases to be an issue, and six volumes into the manga she’s still grappling with the trouble it causes. But by the series’ tendency to address it in a healthy, empathetic way, the audience in turn is naturally patient and understanding with this constant problem in her life as she continues to work through it, and the blame is never cast on her directly.
And that might lead us to think the same way of not only other people going through the same thing, but of ourselves to a degree, as well. Nobody’s to blame, and it’s not something to be laughed at – but that doesn’t mean we can’t find an kind way of laughing along with it as we keep moving forward.