I don’t think it’s possible to summarize the premise of TWGOK without making it sound like your garden variety otaku-wish-fulfillment-sleazefest harem comedy, but let’s try regardless. Keima Katsuragi, the titular God who’s better at dating sim than Michael Jordan at basketball or me at procrastination, has his life turned upside down when a ditzy demon girl from another world enlisted his help to solve the problem of evil spirit escapee hiding themselves in human girls’ body. Apparently you can whisk away the spirit by winning the vessel girl’s heart and kiss her, and Typical Animango Misunderstanding happened as the girl mistaken Keima’s godlike capacity in 2D realm as proof of being real life Casanova. Keima decided to treat this situation like one of his games, he eventually found that somehow the evil spirits really really like the girls in his school, he set out to kiss these girls one at a time to save them… okay, better stop here. How convenient, pandering, and tiresome, right?
Except it’s really not. Instead, it’s a sharply written, subversive, piece of work that consistently amused, engaged and surprised me throughout its run. It works.
I knew That Word has been wildly overused beyond the point of recognition ever since Puella Magi Madoka Magica burst onto the scene, but I’d say it because it’s actually true for once: TWGOK is how you actually deconstruct. It’s not enough to just put shocking twist that shock your audience, it’s not enough to just be all self-aware about it, and it’s certainly NOT enough to pull off the insanely obnoxious “let’s point out and make fun of this very lame thing that we’re doing anyway, har har har!” Instead, do these:
(1) establish a strong dynamic base in the center of your familiar elements
The lead protagonist in TWGOK has to bear a lot of weight carrying the dubious premise, all while straddling a fine line between being the butt of joke and the hero the readers could sympathize and root for. Slip even a bit, and you’d end up with someone who’s too pathetic or insufferable; thankfully, Tamiki Wakaki nailed the balance with Keima. Keima started out as obsessive, self-immersed in his games most of the time, and a “my way or highway” type of guy, but his love for dating sim is also conveyed in ador(k)able and earnest manner (he’s genuinely passionate about its craft, mechanism, and history in a way that most gaming fan could probably relate with, regardless of genre preference), as well as eventually being shown to be more mature, thoughtful, and compassionate than your typical self-entitled nerd.
In fact, it’s Kaima’s dynamic development as he reacts into the increasingly complicated situation that eventually become the dominant theme of the story. As amusing as the initial glorification of Keima (what’s with the God thing and all) and the early “dating sim in real life” pattern are, it’s when the story started to challenge Keima with the unexpected repercussions of his actions and Kaima started to challenge the established rule, that the manga really stepped up its (*wait for it…) game.
(2) Inspect the familiar elements, mitigate and get rid of the ones that don’t work, keep the good ones and improve them further
Tamiki Wakaki sure likes to draw a huge variety of cute girls, paying deliberate homage to a pool of familiar archetypes. In practice though, it doesn’t play out like a typical harem comedy would, and one could even argue that at certain point it’s decidedly anti-harem (as counter-intuitive as it may be considering the overwhelmingly skewed gender ratio; heck, a named non-Keima male character doesn’t even show up until around the final fifth of the story). Wakaki might work from certain templates, but he refused to be satisfied by just identifying the characters as Athletic Girl, Rich Girl, Idol Girl, Young Teacher, etc., instead developing them beyond these reductive labels. It might all started from Keima, but a bulk of these girls’ development don’t necessarily revolve around him either. It’s also worth emphasizing that there’s very minimal amount of problematic fanservice—at least by my standard, and I tend to be more skittish on this kind of thing nowadays.
In that regard, it helps that there’s an actual plot that’s not merely a convenient excuse for the otaku character to smooch as many girls as possible. The way TWGOK utilized its supernatural premise and demonic otherworldly lore as a springboard to strengthen its rom-com sensibilities reminded me of Tokimeki Tonight, a classic shoujo manga published in 1980s. Just like that one, the development of this particular aspect created constant intrigue and prevented prolonged status quo or any kind of static moments that typically led into deeply cliched scenarios in the vein of “the girls had nothing to do besides fighting over the main boy”, “endless misunderstandings”, or “use the same pervert joke over and over again” (*that Keima is extremely decisive and isn’t a crass horndog like many harem protagonists is yet another plus in his characterization).
(3) Finally, re-construct yourself into something with a strong, distinct, voice of your own.
TWGOK is something I’d recommend to general readers who can look past its initial deceptive premise, albeit curiously, not actually something that I think a hardcore harem fan would enjoy due to its deconstructive nature. In general, if you’re the sort of person who takes their shipping way too seriously and/or a stickler to the “traditional rules” of the genre, there’s more than a good chance that you’d throw a tantrum by the end.
Furthermore, despite my largely complimentary tone so far, TWGOK did stutter during the final stretch of its plot. While I enjoyed the way it’s developed and the many twists it brought, the resolution of supernatural mystery/plot is noticeably rushed and reeks of an author having to wrap up everything in sudden fashion, leaving a number of loose threads behind. Finishing it, I’ve got an impression that there are characters and sub-plots that Wakaki would’ve wanted to develop more, but for whatever reason, couldn’t.
However, its main strength remained largely intact in the end. I believe Wakaki always has a certain endgame in his mind since the conception of this series. There’s something he wants to say, a theme that’s always been planned from the start and an important one that reflects on how we approach the process of romancing someone in real life. And I’m glad to say that it managed to come across really strong for me (even with the aforementioned rushing), transforming the story into something way more poignant and emotionally satisfying than the first paragraph of this write-up likely to indicate. It’s a surprisingly pleasant ending that I don’t see coming, and neither does Keima, I’d wager.
(as an aside, I found Wakaki’s history very interesting. He broke through a couple of decades ago, being branded as a rising star with bright future—only to be brought down with numerous crushing failures and eventually had to temporarily retreat due to shock. It took him some time before he could return again, deal with more rejections and a particularly depressing case of sudden editorial axe, before finally striking gold with TWGOK. It’s certainly a deserving one and I truly wish he will have an even better and more successful times ahead of him).