How To Start a Series: Komi Can’t Communicate

I almost called this “How Not to Start a Series,” but as annoyed as I am with Komi Can’t Communicate, from the standpoint of financial success the author, Tomohito Oda, actually did something very clever in starting this series. And since I do analysis and not reviews, let’s break this down and see what that was.

So, our girl, Shoko Komi, is a first year student at an elite private school, and she’s the whole package: smart, beautiful, and rich. What else could you possibly want?

Well, it seems like she’s really nasty, because she never talks to anyone, no matter how nicely they treat her. Oh, man, what a snob. Who’d want to be friends with her?

Okay, already I see a flawed protagonist. Got a really good character going here so far…

Then the teacher calls on her to introduce herself to the class. She stands up, opens her mouth…and nothing comes out. Humiliated, Komi has to write her name on the board.

Now, you know I’m a communication professor, so let me tell you what I’m seeing: this kid has a wicked-ass case of stage fright.

Now, she’s not the only one. The girl who speaks before her, Agari, can barely get her name out, practically has a breakdown doing it. But Komi can’t even do that. She’s so shy she’s incapable of speaking publicly.

We would describe this level of stage fright as pathological, so severe it interferes with her everyday life.

Shoko Komi not quite coping with life

As a communication professional, I know that this is a really big problem. This girl needs help, and lots of it. Somewhere in her is some kind of severe trauma that needs to be confronted and overcome. I man, seriously, if you can tear yourself away from anime long enough, watch The King’s Speech. Outstanding movie.

ANYWAY, that pathology suggests this is going to be one of two kinds of story: it could be Overcoming the Monster, in this case the monster being Komi’s trauma, or Rebirth, Komi reborn as a functioning member of society.

Yeah, um, nope. Because…sneaky, sneaky, Mr. or Ms. Oda…the story isn’t really about Komi. It’s about the boy who sits next to her, Tadano Hitohito. Hitohito is also a first year student, really unpopular because he’s a geek, and completely has the hots for Komi.

Yes, of course he has the hots for her. All he knows about her is what she looks like, right? Don’t be silly.

Genius Hitohito decides what Komi needs is not years of therapy but a hundred friends. And since she can’t get a hundred friends herself, he’s going to do it for her.

BOOM. Totally different story.

In this new story Hitohito is the protagonist, not Komi. In this new story, Komi is demoted to a couple tropes, the Princess in Peril (who must be saved by Prince Hitohito), and the Look at Me girl (who disguises the plot).

This new story isn’t Overcoming the Monster or Rebirth. It’s The Quest (for one hundred friends).

What THAT does is change the series from closed ended to open ended. Right? Look at other shows based on The Quest, like Pokémon or One Piece: how long have they been running, right? Because you can always hold that last friend just out of Hitohito’s reach.

Overcoming the Monster and Rebirth are closed-ended plots. At some point the monster is overcome or the birth is re’d; if they aren’t, the audience figures out that the story isn’t going anywhere after a while. But so long as the characters are making progress toward their quest goal, the plot of The Quest appears to be moving forward.

And you can screw around with all sorts of tricks to keep the quest going, right? Just look at One Piece: among the recruits can be all sorts of characters with all sorts of personalities. (This is what I am told the series is best at.) And the pace can vary widely. You could have a two- or three-issue arc for one especially important friend, say, Komi’s favorite teen idol, or a rapid fire pickup when the basketball team gets on board.

It seems to be working, right? Komi Can’t Communicate has reached 21 volumes in Japan, selling over 2,000,000 copies. Sixteen of those volumes have been translated into English, and I bet the others will be, too. So this little bit of sleight-of-hand in construction has proven very lucrative for writer and publisher.

But for me, there’s a simple problem with Komi Can’t Communicate. Well, two problems. The small problem is that Komi actually CAN communicate. She writes perfectly well, and her body language is actually very expressive. She just can’t speak in public.

But for me the big problem is that I’m not interested in Hitohito. He’s just a normal, everyday slice-of-life male manga protagonist: geeky and horny. Komi, on the other hand, is interesting – but the series isn’t about her.

Oh, well. Anyone want free copies of issues 1 and 2 (English, of course)? I’m trying to give them away but my library isn’t accepting donations right now. Drop me a line and let me know if you want them.

I always look at comments and feedback, and I’m sure I’m not the first to see what I’ve seen, so have at it. Just keep it clean and keep it on target…no personal attacks, okay? Thanks.

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