I love romance and I love anime, but romantic anime that becomes popular in the United States tends to mostly focus on high school students falling in love, which means it focuses on a set of problems and hurdles that a lot of us anime fans have grown out of.
Don’t get me wrong: I enjoy a good high school romance as much as the next person who grew up on She’s the Man and 10 Things I Hate About You. Kaguya-sama: Love Is War and Fruits Basket are among my top favorite anime of all time. But sometimes watching first-love jitters juxtaposed with the anxiety of exams and planning for post-graduation life doesn’t resonate with someone who’s past that stage of life. Those themes can be satisfying when done well, but I’m older now, I’ve watched a ton of anime dealing with that one specific flavor of romance, and I’m really ready to see on-screen couples dealing with different romantic problems.
Finding romantic anime centered around slightly older or more mature characters hasn’t been easy, but the few I’ve found sparked so strongly to me. They have a sense of relatability that just hits in a totally different way. While I can reminisce about my high school days and how every single interaction with my crush felt like the most intensely important thing in the world, movies and TV series like the favorites I’ve listed below resonate with me because they focus on problems I’m dealing with right now.
Wotakoi: Love Is Hard for Otaku
In this one-season TV series from 2018, the four main characters are all work friends who are also secret nerds. The series primarily centers on Narumi, a 24-year-old office worker and yaoi fangirl who has a hard time dating because she feels like has to hide her fandoms from potential boyfriends. But when she starts a new job and reconnects with her childhood friend (and huge gamer) Hirotaka, they agree to try a relationship, since they get each other’s obsessions.
Instead of centering around first-relationship jitters and school problems, Narumi’s relationship anxiety comes from the fact that this is the first time she’s been fully open about her interests. A lot of her arc focuses on learning how to comfortably be herself, and learning that she can enjoy geeky things and be a responsible adult — and that plenty of people do that already.
Wotakoi: Love Is Hard for Otaku is streaming on Prime Video.
Recovery of an MMO Junkie
Similarly, 2017’s Recovery of an MMO Junkie also deals with nerdy interests, but with the added intrigue that most of the relationships happen online. Newly unemployed social recluse Moriko decides to take up gaming again, and she creates a suave male persona in a popular online game. She finds a guild and connects with multiple people — but especially cute healer Lily.
As it turns out, Lily is the avatar character of Sakurai, an awkward man who Moriko keeps running into IRL. It’s like You’ve Got Mail, but with an incredibly geeky makeover. Both Moriko and Sakurai are nervous about real-life interactions, especially when they rely so much on their online personas. As central as their romantic relationship is, Recovery of an MMO Junkie is also about adult friendship, particularly unconventional online relationships. This anime shows the fuzzy line between people’s online personas and their real-life personalities, and ends up being a lovely and patient look at overcoming social anxiety to forge connections, no matter the method.
Recovery of an MMO Junkie is streaming on Crunchyroll and is available for digital rental or purchase on Amazon.
Studio Ghibli’s underseen anime classic Only Yesterday is a movie steeped in nostalgia. It follows 27-year-old office worker Taeko, who takes an extended vacation to the countryside to help out on a farm. During this reprieve from her day-to-day life, Taeko reflects a lot on her childhood, remembering key moments that are happy, sad, and all sorts of things in between. She questions whether she’s happy with her life as it is, all while getting closer with her brother-in-law’s second cousin Toshio, who lives in the area and works on a farm of his own.
A lot of Taeko’s journey is internal, as she looks back on her younger self and wonders whether she’s being true to herself after all these years. Her blossoming friendship with Toshio helps her realize what she actually wants out of life. Unlike the coming-of-age narrative in similar slice-of-life Ghibli movies like Whisper of the Heart or From Up on Poppy Hill, Taeko has mostly grown into who she is. Her journey involves trying to figure out whether that’s even what she wants — a quarter-life crisis moment that particularly resonated with me when I watched it for the first time.
Only Yesterday is streaming on HBO Max and is available for digital rental or purchase on Amazon, Apple TV, Google Play, and Vudu.
A different kind of love story
In fact, all three of these stories have female characters grappling to some extent with who they are versus who they think society expects them to be. The love stories augment these journeys, helping them figure that out. The crux of their romantic relationships comes from finally finding someone who understands them, which is both thrilling and terrifying. The romances in these stories are more subdued than the big dramatic confessions of teen romance, but at the same time, they offer introspective looks at love, and highlight different priorities for prospective partners.
A good romance story will be about people connecting and changing each other for the better, no matter what age they are. But when those connections come in the form of getting drinks after work, supporting each other through career changes, and advising each other not to spend too much money on gacha games, they feel particularly satisfying to me. The whirlwind high school love story isn’t the only one worth telling. There are fulfilling stories out there about making connections at any age.