As children, a lot of us didn’t have to think about making friends. It was a natural thing that just happened. However, as the chemicals in us start to change, interaction with other humans starts to require skills. Social skills. To some, these come naturally, but to others, social interaction is more of a challenge… and can remain one for years to come. When thrown into a new environment made up of strangers, one starts to become isolated, and their grip on reality quickly begins to weaken. This was my situation in my freshman year of college, and in Watashi ga Motenai no wa Dou Kangaetemo Omaera ga Warui, this is Kuroki Tomoko’s situation in her freshman year of high school.
Watamote gets all the moments just right. The misunderstood gestures of kindness brought about as a result of minimal human contact. The reliance on urban myths and superstitions that provide easy ways out due to a poor grasp on reality. The use of tiny setbacks as an excuse to run back into one’s comfort zone. While to some people Tomoko’s behavior may seem alien, those of us like her know that it’s easy to fall into this sort of behavior when one’s only conversation partner is one’s self.
It gets the convoluted reasoning that complements these moments down perfectly, too. For a show with scripts that are likely to be slightly thicker than that of a typical anime, Watamote doesn’t have much in the way of dialogue. It’s mostly monologue. Inner monologue. The nonsensical rationales for Tomoko’s behavior and her jabs at the hilariously caricatured yet accurately portrayed ria-juu in her class are perfectly delivered by way of her voice actor, Kitta Izumi, who expertly portrays the sharp dichotomy between Tomoko’ thoughts, and what she actually ends up saying. Her inner-voice is wicked and condescending, with words stretched out in the parts where she’s twisting her figurative knife into her targets. However, in the real world she can barely get a word out. Even with friends, she still stutters, and can’t get sentences out without them seeming a little forced. The only ones she can really speak comfortably with are her family.
Much like the voice acting, the Watamote anime does neat things with its visuals and music to draw the viewer further into Tomoko’s dark mind. While this is a plastic-looking Ohnuma Shin show that is a lot of him trying to cop Shinbou and failing, he does come up with an effective and imaginative visual vocabulary to express Tomoko’s emotions. A gradually expanding red box forms around Tomoko’s eye when she’s going on another one of her rants about the awful ria-juu that surround her; clearly a metaphor for her concentrated, boxed-up anger. Conversely, Tomoko turns completely gray in her moments of isolation amongst her classmates. Freak-outs and fuck-ups result in Tomoko’s face going all cubist, as her world crashes down around her for that one moment. Similarly, when one of her rare rays of hope get smudged out–typically when her only friend can’t hang out–once cheery background music slows down and fades out as one of Tomoko’s rare chances to taste normal life disappears before her eyes. We typically don’t put these feelings into words in the real world, so instead of trying to communicate how Tomoko feels through potentially extraneous and forced dialogue, these techniques effectively create an atmosphere that communicates these abstract feelings effectively and somewhat comically.
“Somewhat” being the operative word. While these moments do coerce some laughs, they also bring about nods of understanding. There is entertainment to be gained from seeing familiar and realistic situations portrayed in an over-the-top manner, but depending on how much one relates to the material, parts of Watamote are somewhat difficult to watch. While I’ve personally put a lot of my Tomoko-isms behind me, there are still points that hit close to home, and may require pausing to collect one’s self.
The moments that inspire the easiest laughs are when the show takes its meanness toward Tomoko so out of this world that rather than being a painful reminder of reality, things become too ridiculous to not be funny. Fine examples include when Tomoko finds herself with two junior high school students watching a couple get it on in a love hotel, or when Tomoko gets the fool scared out of her in Kabuki-cho. While led to these places by familiar feelings of loneliness, the punchlines are ridiculous enough to make for a bit of fun dark humor. However, one could certainly be led to similar situations as a result of loneliness in the real world, and it’s that small sliver of realism that gives these dark jokes their edge.
Watamote also cuts deep in its constant portrayal of Tomoko as–in somewhat harsh words–a shitty person. She refers to her best friend from junior high as a “slut”, cheats small children at card games, and easily lies to make herself look better in front of her little cousin–never mind her spiteful inner monologues, and misguided nerdy pretensions. These things coupled with her lack of ability to communicate with people paints Tomoko as a horrible coward who’s all bark and no bite. Watamote is quite harsh in its portrayal of a typical reprehensible otaku, even if played for laughs. It’s criticism that stings, something that’s rare in anime, and makes Watamote stand out. Rather than fall back on the soft gags typical of anime, Watamote’s jokes have teeth, taking it to a slightly higher level. Lots of us otaku like to think we’re different from everyone, but the fact that a show made for relatively mass consumption like Watamote even exists smacks us “special” otaku in the face, expressly telling us that we’re not.
But while I originally thought that Watamote was simply this entirely mean thing that existed to only tell otaku that they suck and change them through tough love, as one gets to the end, Tomoko gets a few pushes in the right direction. Obviously by the end she’s not changed much–if at all–but for Tomoko and the viewers who identify with her, these are gentle pats on the back between the heavy doses of tough love that may be needed for some people–and Tomoko–to start changing.
Watamote–like NHK ni Youkoso!–is a slightly comedic, yet serious, realistic and informed look at a real social issue. For people like Tomoko, hopefully Watamote will scare them straight. For those of us who have all this in the past, Watamote is good for a few dark laughs, and jabs at our own expense.