In 2013, I came across a shoujo manga called 3D Kanojo by Nanami Mao. Although I had some initial misgivings based on the title alone (it means “3D girlfriend”), the series ended up becoming one of my favorite manga. It recently finished just last year, so I’d like to give my overall thoughts about this excellent work.
The idea of a socially awkward young man winning the affections of the beautiful girl has long been a popular trope. America has seen Revenge of the Nerds, Beauty and the Geek, and the hyper-popular The Big Bang Theory. Japan has been home to Densha Otoko, and numerous manga and anime premised around this idea such as The World God Only Knows and Love Hina. Within these works are three recurring ideas: the nerd as underdog, the nerd as the nice guy vs. the jerks, and the notion that nerds carry hidden charms buried deep inside shells of social awkwardness.
One difference between the stereotypical image of the American “geek” and the Japanese “otaku” is that while the geek guy worships at the altar of characters who are live actors (e.g. Princess Leia), otaku go for the “2D girls” of anime, manga, and games. Reality, where actual “3D girls” reside, is thought to be a frightening realm that can eat otaku alive. So, with a title like 3D Kanojo, I had wondered if this might be one of those wish fulfillment fantasies where an otaku boy gets the girl just by being nice without any real substance, while the girl ends up as some kind of virginal ideal, a typical “2D girl come to life” scenario. Fortunately, within one chapter 3D Kanojo defies those assumptions, and shows itself to be a robust, considerate, and even progressive approach to this idea.
When the series begins, Hikaru Tsutsui is an otaku who is unable to handle social interaction outside of talking to his only friend, a fellow hardcore fan. His ideal girl is a magical girl from an anime. One day at school, he sees one of his classmates, the beautiful Igarashi Iroha, being accosted by a guy angry at Igarashi for cheating on him. When the guy tries to hit her, Tsutsui jumps in to defend Igarashi…only to get his ass kicked because he’s a wimp with no physical ability.
At first glance, this is ground already traveled by stories like Densha Otoko and Back to the Future—a chivalrous act by a geek shows the strength of his heart, and makes the girl fall in love with him. However, with 3D Kanojo, the relationship even at the early stages possesses a lot more depth. Many times, the girls in these stories only appear to be very sexually active but are actually secretly virgins, giving them a sense of idealized purity. Not so with Iroha, who freely admits that she was two-timing the guys she was with. Rather than shunning her for being a “slut,” Tsutsui accepts her for who she is, especially once the two of them spend more time together and are able to open up to each other more readily. What’s important isn’t that she’s had others in the past, but how they feel about each other now. And as the series continues, it becomes clear that their love for each other burns red-hot.
It isn’t all roses, of course. Romantic rivals show up for both character, such as an otaku girl and a handsome guy (it’s a shoujo manga, after all). Igarashi’s sexual experience isn’t a deal breaker, but it’s intimidating for a guy who, up to that point, didn’t even talk to girls other than his own mother. Tsutsui’s constantly questioning whether or not he’s good enough for her, but it’s important to note that she’s doing the same just as often. In spite of how different they are on the surface and even in many elements of their personalities, there’s a mutual longing for understanding.
While I thought highly of the series very early on, there is a particular chapter that solidified my opinion that 3D Kanojo is a great series. Most of the time, the story is told from Tsutsui’s perspective, but in one chapter it’s Igarashi’s head we’re in. Through her, we see her relationship history. As an extremely attractive girl, she’s had numerous suitors, but the apparent issue is that all of them only paid attention to her appearance. In this way, her looks became a curse. At one point, she had even tried to open up to a boyfriend, only for the guy to treat it as basically, “There, there. Okay, now that I’ve comforted you, are you gonna put out?”
Here, it becomes plainly obvious what Igarashi saw in Tsutui. He isn’t just generally “nice” and “considerate,” he connects and empathizes with her on the level both of them desire. While occupy different strata of the high school hierarchy, both of them are familiar with being unfairly judged by their looks, and their ability to see what is truly inside each other is what draws them closer and closer.
Ultimately, even as the series goes through some fairly well-worn shoujo manga plot developments, the sheer robustness of this core relationship, as well as a solid cast of supporting characters, keeps the series from feeling old-hat. I felt a genuine desire to cheer on Tsutsui and Igarashi, not because they were “supposed” to be together as the main couple, but that everything they had been through together showed why they should be as one.
The last thing I’d like to mention is that 3D Kanojo technically isn’t the real title. That’s how it’s written out, but due to quirks in how the Japanese written language is used, it’s actually supposed to be pronounced “Real Girl.” In retrospect, the two titles fit this series perfectly. While Igarashi comes across at first as the mysterious girlfriend of the “3D realm,” her “realness,” both in the sense of her lived human experience and her candor, are what foster her romance with Tsutsui.