As we wind down the home stretch of 2015, it’s a good time to look back on what a great damn year it’s been for geeks and gamers. Fallout 4, The Witcher 3, new Star Wars next week, Undertale, two great Marvel Netflix series, another year of Gamemoir; good times all around. And as always, Japan was ahead of the nerd curve and delivered yet another hit anime celebrating and mocking gamer culture with Himouto! Umaru-chan.
The show is based on a manga about the most popular girl at her high school. Umaru is beautiful, athletic, elegant, academic, loved and admired by all who know her. She literally sparkles. But she’s got a dirty little secret. The word “himouto” denotes a woman who behaves perfectly in public, but turns into a total slob at home. Umaru is a level S otaku, and as soon as she’s out of the public eye she reverts to a bratty, selfish chibi imp who can’t be parted from her hamster hoodie and devotes herself entirely to video games, manga, and the quest for the perfect junk food combination.
The show has captured the heart of the internet with its protagonist’s exaggerated (yet totally relatable) depiction of nerd insanity and it’s another feather in the cap of Japanese pop culture’s increasingly prevalent use of gamer culture. These are five reasons why Umaru-chan’s depiction of the life of a hardcore gamer is on point.
It’s the central premise of the show that Umaru is a different person in public than she is at home. Only her long-suffering brother knows her dark secret. In the show as soon as she steps over the threshold to her apartment, her beautiful, elegant, sparkling self physically shrinks into the proper woman-child she is on the inside as she pulls out her nerd gear and she immediately begins plotting to spend every minute lazing about, eating crap, and gaming at all costs. Umaru avoids having friends over and when they do show up, they don’t even recognize her in that state, mistaking her for a little sister.
Considering that in Japan otaku culture has been relatively accepted for decades and this is still something people feel the need to conceal even there, you can imagine why American gamers have latched onto this show as quickly as they have. It wasn’t so long ago I was playing my DS in the breakroom at work listening to the meatheads a few tables over talk shit about me “watching cartoons” or “playing Pokemon or some shit” (it was Final Fantasy IV, noobs!). Maybe if they took up a hobby they’d have better things to do than comment on what everybody else does on their own time.
Point is, there is a weird shame associated with gaming in public. As if you’re doing something wrong by having a hobby that isn’t obsessing over which rich people are dating each other. Could somebody be the most popular person at school and be a proud hardcore gamer? Why the hell not? Umaru’s desire to maintain her lovable public facade while secretly indulging the unstated shame of her otaku leanings is the comedic hinge that makes this show swing.
When I think of my formative years, I think of one place: the arcade. Back in the day, the best quality games were only available for a quarter a play as PC’s and consoles couldn’t achieve the same level of graphics and gameplay until around the PlayStation/N64 era. But more than that, the arcade was a place where gamers could gather and socialize. The smell of popcorn and quarters mixed with the cacophony of dozens of gaming machines with the volume cranked and crowd cheering Street Fighter II combatants and the feel of the coin return slots as the quarterless desperately searched each one for the possibility of just one more game. That was the ‘90s for me.
Arcades aren’t really a thing anymore in modern America, but Japan still holds it down, and it’s Umaru’s home away from home. Naturally, she can’t be recognized in public so she wears a masked disguise and goes by the name UMR. Why UMR? Because in the old days if you got a high score in an arcade game, you got the honor of entering your initials (or a 3 letter curse word of your choice) for all to see.
UMR is the scourge of the arcade, making the owners shake in their boots as she masters and exploits the infamous rip-off claw game and leaves with an armful of loot. She also befriends her excessively ambitious and energetic school rival after narrowly “beating” her in a local fighting game tournament, making her social enemy at school her secret gamer friend. Daaaawwww.
Any real deal gamer feels the siren song of old school nostalgia from time to time. It doesn’t feel like all that much time has passed since I was marveling at how amazing 16-bit graphics looked, but when I compare them to modern games it feels like I must have been cryogenically frozen for a hundred years. Did we really see that massive an improvement in a mere two decades?
Anyways, as amazing as games look right now (and as crappy-looking as those same games will seem ten years from now) there’s an undeniable charm to the classic ‘80s/‘90s titles minimalistic graphics and music. In one great scene, Umaru pulls out her Famicon and challenges her brother and friend to The Game of Life. The hell? Yeah, they used to make digitized versions of popular board games back then. All of the family fun, none of the cleanup.
You know you’re hardcore when you’re unironically playing an ‘80’s adaptation of a goddamn board game. That’s something so awesome, it would never even have occurred to me. At this point, any gamer not only has to respect this character, they need to worship her. And as young as she is, Umaru’s no nostalgia tourist, either. She knows the secret to 8-bit console cartridge repair passed down through the generations: if it doesn’t work, just blow in the bottom. Magic!
Another nerdtacular moment came when Umaru took a bath while playing her DS wrapped in a plastic baggie, declaring that as a gamer she can’t let a second go to waste. And good god is she right. I’m a little disturbed that my first thought was “why didn’t I ever think of that?” With so many games coming out on all consoles all the time, it’s become impossible to keep up. What I wouldn’t give to have the kind of free time I did when I was that age.
Every weekly PSN sale tempts me and adds to my backlog of unplayed games as I pour dozens of hours into Fallout 4 and ponder how I am ever going to do anything else again while my DVR approaches full capacity. Must. Play. More. Games. But where to find the time? Should I divorce my wife? Disown my son? Sell my house and quit my job? All I really need is an electrical outlet, wi-fi, my PS4, and my portable projector. Everything else is just taking away from valuable gaming time, right?
It’s hard not to love the image of Umaru sleeping with her PSP clutched to her chest too. My son does this sometimes with his iPad on weekends when we let him stay up. He literally plays until he passes out. Is it healthy? Probably not, but if you can’t relate then you ain’t hardcore enough.
Himouto! Umaru-chan sets the tone right off the bat with its audial and visual depiction of its namesake’s insane lifestyle of choice. It’s a frantic mixture of gaming sights and sounds, homages, and general goofiness involving armies of hamsters (Umaru’s spirit animal, pet, and costume of choice), frenzied J-pop vocals, an all-protagonist dance party (maracas are involved), and of course a brief soft melodic interlude to show off her sweet and suave public persona before her starry-eyed chibi otakuism crashes back in.
You won’t see a lot of shows or hear a lot of songs that incorporate the sound of Mario dying and you’ve got to love the Pokemon, Mario Kart, and Monster Hunter visuals. The lyrics are pretty much the character’s thoughts singing the praises of doing nothing, eating junk, having video games for friends, and acting like a brat in lieu of telling her brother she loves him.
I’m loving all of the gamer-baiting anime is doing these days. We may be legion, but as far as American media is concerned it’s the legion of the damned so we don’t get a lot of play outside of our own circles. A TV show where an argument between sister and brother is stylized as Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney? Yes please. All hail the animated queen of gamers. Long may she reign.