“There’s no such thing as a love story that isn’t problematic in some form.” I don’t agree with that, but sometimes it’s a feeling I get when reading romance that they tend to be looser with personal boundaries than other fiction. Because romance is a part of sexual intimacy, it’s important to pay extra attention to any lessons on behaviour it might impart, so a lot of people are quite sensitive about it. This is good though, because it’s true that bad fiction can leave people with warped ideas about courtship and expressing romantic feelings. However, there’s no such thing as universal standards, only an idea of a consensus about how you should behave, and because of that it can be hard to gauge if something is dodgy or not. So when a romantic comedy anime I liked was criticized, I immediately went back to see if I could puzzle out and identify any problematic or troubling elements. I think this is a worthy quest and should be taken seriously, and it’ll teach us more about story construction regardless. So, let’s take a look at the currently airing MMO Junkie and see what we can discover.
First of all, I’d like to state that I’m writing this as of six episodes into the show. This is very important: I can only offer an opinion and analysis on content from the story I’ve seen so far, and as the anime is ongoing, the nature of any conclusions I draw for now can be challenged and turned upside down if the story in future episodes goes that way. So you might be thinking “Why not wait til the anime is over then?” To which I say, yes, but I want to do it now because it’s currently popular, ehehe. I’m pretty bad like that.
Let’s begin by writing out MMO Junkie’s scenario and setting out the issue, if there is one. MMO Junkie’s protagonist, Moriko, is a former office worker in her thirties. She quits her job for reasons which haven’t been fully covered but are implied to be about the soulless nature of the job itself, and returns to her old MMORPG hunting grounds for social contact. Safely locked away as a shut-in NEET in her room, Moriko discovers the old MMO she used to play has died, so she joins a new popular one instead. Moriko makes a male character to play as, and quickly makes friends with another player, the cute girl Lily. Lily introduces Moriko to a guild of gamers and she enjoys MMOs and social contact once more, especially with Lily. However, in the real world, Lily is played by a guy named Yuta, who is a business department head. One day Moriko is walking outside and goes around the same corner as Yuta is, and he accidentally knocks her out by elbowing her in the face while holding his phone (though actually he first caught sight of her in a convenience store at an earlier point). This is where our little story begins!
Moriko wakes up in hospital to find Yuta there, waiting for her to awaken. She has a drip in her arm and Yuta explains that he’d made sure the doctors examined her and that he’ll cover her medical expenses, which is fortunate as Moriko doesn’t have her card with her. Moriko’s first impression of Yuta is that she finds him interesting to watch. Though Moriko’s personal effects are on the table beside her, Yuta asks politely for her name, suggesting he didn’t look through her things for identification or anything, and was waiting for her to wake up before he finalized the medical arrangements. He then offers her his contact details and his help in any matter should she need it. After this, Moriko feels obligated to contact him once she’s back home and thank him for taking her to the hospital.
So at this point, things seem fairly safe. If you knocked out someone in the street, I think a personal sense of duty would obligate you to get them some medical attention. Likewise, there’s no indication that Yuta does anything iffy to Moriko while she’s unconscious, and you can even attribute the giving of his number as a purely altruistic show of good faith, that he’d be happy to help her any time, or perhaps he offers it out of personal guilt for clonking her in the face. Of course, since a relationship blooms later we know that Yuta does have romantic attraction to Moriko, and thus can see his giving her of his number as an attempt to stay connected with the woman he’s developing feelings for. Does this make his actions bad? I’d say no because he comes across as someone who’d help another person regardless of his personal attraction- after all, he plays a healer in an MMO. Though, if Moriko was in a relationship it’d be unlikely for Yuta to go this far since Moriko’s hypothetical partner would probably have showed up to cover her expenses instead!
The next thing to happen is where things get more complicated. Moriko receives a reply after thanking Yuta, where he offers her dinner as an apology for the initial accident. Moriko’s thoughts are something like this: “He’s cute, but I’m unkempt and old and a NEET and awkward”. She then replies, turning him down, saying he’s gone above and beyond for her already. She very clearly frames it as her being the one imposing on him, and judging by her internal monologues, that’s how she sees it. Yuta accepts this refusal, but he’s still interested in Moriko, and this is the start of the content that has given some viewers pause. We see Yuta eating with his friend and work colleague, Koiwai. Yuta explains that he talked to Koiwai this time because he knows Koiwai used to work for Matsukaze Bussan Systems, Moriko’s old workplace. He knows Moriko worked there because he found a workplace manual with Moriko’s name on it. Koiwai knows Moriko too, since they used to talk over the phone, and produces a company publicity document featuring a photograph of Moriko, which Yuta recognizes as the Moriko he met.
So. Where did Yuta get this document from? The answer is obviously from the company, but it’s not the company Yuta works for, is it? This raises the uncomfortable possibility of stalking Moriko’s past, which can be pretty scary in today’s world. Examining the evidence presented, namely that Yuta hadn’t seen the photograph, I think we can assume he didn’t do anything crazy like break into the company and go through her employee records or anything. If Moriko was featured on a publicity document it’d have probably been credited in there. I also don’t think he’d physically go to the company and ask about employee records, since that’s kind of blatant and probably protected by workplace acts? I’m not up on my Japanese industry law tho. The most likely solution I think is that Yuta simply googled her name, and one of the hits would be the company website with a link to her manual as something they released. Though I’m not really sure why he didn’t see the photograph-featuring publicity document or whatever it was, perhaps the manual was newer?
Going from this likely solution, I don’t think Yuta’s actions are particularly bad, because of one large caveat- most normal people do this alllll the time. It’s called Facebook- everyone is encouraged to join it, and encouraged to enter names of people they know in any context to find connections. It’s pretty normal, I think, so even if you find it personally unsettling, the average person would be likely to think nothing of it. In fact, the only thing he found was a professional corporate release, which is open to the public, so it’s not like he found a personal online account even. On the other hand, if Yuta used some kind of favour or influence to obtain the documents which weren’t for outside-of-work use, then it becomes much more suspicious and unpleasant. What it comes down to is assuming that the lack of detail in the author’s depiction of the obtaining of said manual implies that it was all above the board and normal, and nothing to worry about. Essentially, we’re being asked to be optimists!
Of course, it wouldn’t be a romantic comedy if things just ended here. And this is an important point in the idea that Yuta’s behaviour is problematic. See, he’s obviously not satisfied with his relationship with Moriko ending here, and wants to see her again. On the one hand, Moriko turned him down on dinner, but on the other, the way she turned him down was very self-depreciating, so we can interpret this as him not seeing the refusal as a rejection of him but due to her circumstances. This… is one of the ambiguous problems of relationships. Clear communication is difficult because the person trying to initiate contact, or even just feeling some feelings for the other person, will not be very direct and to the point, because they want to leave a little bit of something for the other party to grasp on. We know, thanks to the show’s showing her perspective, that Moriko does like Yuta and the only reason she turned him down is because she felt she was the problem. This means that when we look at it, we can see that Yuta’s feelings towards Moriko are welcome on her part. However, there’s no way that Yuta, or anyone in the same position, could know this. Moriko’s refusal could be simply structured the way it is because of her personality or societal behaviours, and she could not want Yuta to keep attempting to reach her. What this means is that if this relationship was a real life story, it’d be a lot less of a sure bet for him to behave this way, which is the problem. Moriko created this situation with her message (even though it may not be her fault), but can we blame her for it? I don’t think so.
Yuta wants to keep seeing Moriko, so he does something I think is the main red flag- He knows Moriko visits a certain convenience store, so he starts dropping by there from time to time. This more than anything else, I think, is where it becomes an issue of stalking. Now, the definition of stalking has some complexities to it, originally being related to like, poaching and stuff. Then it became related to unwanted harassment, and developed its meaning of relationship-related following about and so forth later. In 2005 the Violence Against Women Act in America, defined stalking as when you act in a course of conduct that causes people to suffer emotional distress and/or fear for their personal safety or the safety of others. What does this mean in practice? Well, it means the damage of stalking is kinda defined by the one being stalked, right? The person who realizes that someone is following them around is the one who feels upset and threatened, so they take those feelings and say “hey, I’m being stalked”.
On one hand, this makes sense, certainly the victim is the one who should be trusted to know if they’re being stalked or not. But it leaves us with a problem on the part of the stalker- if they exhibit stalking behaviour, and their target, for whatever reason, doesn’t mind or doesn’t tell them they mind, are they then not spreading said behaviours into society as socially acceptable? I know legally, some countries classify these behaviours that may make up stalking (such as phone calls, gifts, turning up to the same event, etc) as fine until the victim indicates they’re unwelcome… But again, if person X initiates a relationship with person Y and person Y approves of the way they behave, then later on person Z sees how X did it and copies them to romance person Dragon Cannon only to upset and unnerve them, is there a way to prevent that from happening? I mean, everyone has different personal boundaries and rules, even though we live in a society that shares a lot of social conventions (of course, many of these conventions that are seen as acceptable are problematic themselves, which makes it murkier). It seems that besides the obvious guidelines regarding invasion of privacy, we can only call something stalking after it’s distressed someone, which seems sad and wrong. We could enforce universal behaviours on our children via education and force more potentially-damaging behaviours out, but that will take a lot of time.
So back to Yuta. First question: is Yuta stalking? If we use the definitions discussed above, the answer would appear to be no. Moriko is unaware of him going to the convenience store, and she gave him her full name and phone address willingly. As far as we can tell he’s only ever sent the one invitation to her and specifically, Moriko has shown zero distaste for the guy and no desire for him to stop. If that changes should she find out about him stopping by the convenience store randomly, then we have more of a case, at least in the context of the society presented by the show. Second question- is his behaviour potentially problematic? Well this is a little harder to answer. Let’s say Moriko had no interest in him. If she flatly stated this to him, then his behaviour would be definitely bad, because he’s bothering and distressing someone who doesn’t want to see him. However, we don’t know how Yuta as a person would behave if he was rejected in a blatant manner that wasn’t coached in Moriko’s self-depreciation, which is a problem because it has obscured the nature of her refusal. Because of the ambiguity in her intent, we can’t divine Yuta’s behaviour properly!
But this isn’t Moriko’s fault. If you look at everything about her character, she’s clearly a tired individual who has been repeatedly broken down by society and her former job. She sees herself as unattractive, old, and unwanted, and has nightmares about her work. In a flashback, we clearly see that she was close to tears at her old workplace. This is not a person who can strongly make the direct point a clean argument needs- she’s very obviously got self-esteem issues and the entirety of her refusal of Yuta is based around her own self, not him. She likes him, she thinks he’s cool. She blushes and thinks about him, very much feeling strongly for him. Because of this I think that I can believe that had Moriko a better mental state and higher self-esteem, she would have said yes to dinner and attempted to form a relationship with Yuta.
Additionally, and this is just my personal experience, which it’s important to note is as a woman which is kind of different from a male one. I’ve been, in the past, stalked online. The reason it started is nothing special, just me being me with all the pros and cons that come with me, and I attracted attention on some of the old messageboards of yesteryear. A couple of times, a person who found my topics interesting and sent me private messages of friendship, would follow my internet trail to other sites and try to fit in there, eyes on me. I told them I didn’t want them to do that, and one of them backed off. The other didn’t, and I had to just ignore them and tell my other friends about it, and eventually they went away after a year or so. There were other incidents, and gradually I began clamming up and sharing less about myself for quite a while, and I suspect it warped my perspective on internet relationships. But despite those problems, I have made lasting friends online and I think I’ve set up a good understanding of boundaries when it comes to how I interact with people and what I expect from them, and I think I do a fairly good job communicating that.
But then there’s another aspect to this- I’ve kiiiinda done what Yuta did….Yeah. Let me explain. In town, years ago, there was a store for nerdy stuff. They hosted like, tabletop games and things. At one point, I was there and into card games. I heard from the store owner that there was another girl who liked the same game I played, and that got me excited. I wanted to meet them! Soooo I asked casually about when this person tended to come in, and started to show up at those times in the hope I could meet this girl and learn about them. It never happened, I never visited when she was there, and I lost interest in card games (read: ran out of money). But what if she had? Was I stalking her? Was I violating her privacy, her freedom to move? I don’t know. To me, I think it was fine, because the store was a public place for gamers to meet. The owner even brought us up to each other (I assume he told her about me, I guess) and wouldn’t have minded if we’d met. I’d like to think that she would have just been okay with it, but I’ll never know for sure. If the same kind of scenario came up again, I think I’d probably do the same thing… It’s so hard to gauge.
And back to the show a final time. I think ultimately Yuta’s problematic behaviours are cumulative. Alone, looking someone up online isn’t a problem. Alone, hanging out at a place you saw a pretty girl isn’t really a problem. In fact, I can think of many male and female characters in anime and manga who do this type of thing, now that I think about it. The girl on the train, waiting for senpai after soccer practice, blah blah blah. But when taken together as a package, I can see why some audience members, especially those who are have dealt with iffy behaviour, might think “hang on, this guy is a bit invasive.” Now, I can’t say “no, he’s not” because this is very much about individual interpretations of human social patterns. If I said that, the person would find it insulting and dismissive. Instead, my goal here was to write out the scenario and explain how I saw it, because I’m talking from my own individual interpretation of patterns. All I can say is that for now, I don’t think that what Yuta has done has put Moriko in any distress except for lovesickness, and when I watch MMO Junkie all I see is a cute romance between two people who hide their true natures from each other.
But…it’s complicated. Maybe not the facts, but my attempts to untangle how to depict and how to examine this sort of story. I don’t want to hurt anyone, I don’t want to cause drama, but what I want to do is do my best to fairly examine what’s going on and understand why it’s been discussed. And I think that’s the best thing I can do, because even though I think the show is completely fine, talking this sort of thing out is ultimately good and helps us articulate our opinions and views more.
And again, it’s entirely possible the show may flip this entire thing on its head sometime. Heh. What do you think?