Written by C. C. Cooper on 11 Jun 2020
Distributor Tentai Books • Author/Artist Sekaiichi/Tomari • Price $9.99
Yuuji Tomoki has an ability I wish I had: being able to clear out a room by presence alone. Unlike misanthropic me, however, Yuuji is just your typical misunderstood teenager with a face which can make a rampaging bull pull an about-face with its tail tucked between its legs. When he comes to a crowd, it's the Crossing of the Red Sea, but he's just learned to accept things for as they are. The only student who bothers seeing past his gruff exterior is Mr. Perfection Do No Wrong, the alleged protagonist of this story, to which Yuuji is his side character. But then in a betrayal of side character decree, Mr. Perfection's attractive little sister, Touka Ike, asks him to be her boyfriend.
From a cursory glance, There's No Way a Side Character Like Me Could Be Popular, Right? playing around with deeply established rom-com tropes would appear to be how this series do, but all of that is just setup for the dynamic between Yuuji and Touka, because this story at its meaty core is about the fragility of our identities when others' interpretations of us doesn't match the reality of who we are.
Granted, this light novel's not nearly as ruminative as that last clause suggests, but it does show us the qualities and shortcomings of the two leads, painting them as truly human characters for the most part, particularly Touka. She reminds me of Aoi Hinami of Bottom-Tier Character Tomozaki, as both girls when you meet them are sweethearts who just wanna befriend the world, but when you catch them outside a social setting, you find out they're sweet as gooseberries, which, Google tells me, aren't so sweet. But where Aoi is the master of her own destiny—that being one half of that series's foundation—Touka lacks control over her circumstances and her own emotions, having spent so long in her perfect brother's shadow that people automatically view their identities as a two-for-one deal. When you pair her circumstances with Yuuji's, their problems being fundamentally the same but from different angles, it's easy to see the ship named Solidarity they sail on together over the ocean blue.
If you were paying close attention to the beginning of that last paragraph, you would have noticed how I said that the characters feel human most of the time. While There's No Way a Stock Character Like Me Could Be Popular, Right? does good at giving its characters proper motivations and reactions to outside stimuli, e.g., Touka grumbling about how girls only befriend her to hook up with her brother, it on a rather frequent occasion has them stiffen up and remark how nice or considerate someone is. Yuuji comes off more of a robot impersonating human emotions than a human with human emotions every time he reflects on how happy he is when someone acknowledges his existence without making for the nearest fallout shelter.
There is this clever detail I just have to point out, that being Yuuji's poor read on people. When Touka admits she wants to start up a fake relationship with him—that's the whole premise of this series, I forgot to mention—he concludes that she's doing it to, despite her cold attitude toward him, get closer to her older brother. He makes a similar assumption about Haruma's childhood friend. It seems like the book is just playing common rom-com tropes straight so it can sub- or avert our expectations of them, but there's also this to consider: Because of Yuuji's horror villain face, he hasn't had many, if any, relationships with people, so his only frame of reference for how others interact is from the manga and light novels he's read. I don't know if this detail was intentional or not, but regardless, it's a brilliant stroke of character writing which really takes into account who Yuuji is as a person and how his environment affected him.
But for all the subversions and aversions of rom-com tropes, I was thoroughly disappointed when Touka voluntarily makes a bento for Yuuji and later tells him she's fine making them on a semi-regular basis. Like, girlfriend, you're not his mommy. Just once, I'd like to see the topic of a bento come up and the girl respond to a request to make one by looking the guy in the eye and going, “What do I look like? Your fucking maid?”
Overall, I give There's No Way a False Protagonist Like Me Could Be Popular, Right? a positive rating, but there's something about it that lacks teeth. There's proper conflict and drama and whatnot, but they often feel rounded off. One dude pulls a knife on Yuuji, but he doesn't take the threat seriously, and that whole mess resolves with the dude proclaiming Yuuji to be his newfound master and savior from his sins.
Unlike the aforementioned Bottom-Tier Character Tomozaki, whose first volume climax I still recall with fond detail, There's No Way a Tragic Hero Like Me Could Be Popular, Right? isn't the same series of moments. Where each of Tomozaki's interactions with that series's girls is unique and feels like its own, a lot of There's No Way a Gothic Double Like Me Could Be Popular, Right? comes off as largely the samish. Schoolmates always flee in terror at the sight of him, and Touka always pretends to be sweet as sugar cubes to Yuuji even when there's no need to put up her facade. For one volume, it's not especially repetitive, but if it persists for the duration of the series, you can make a drinking game out of it. Take a shot every time somebody wets themselves at the sight of Yuuji, and soon enough, you'll get so inebriated you'll be able to clear out entire rooms after announcing you're not good at holding down your liquor.
A part-time reviewer these days of video games.
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