High school. That magical location from which anime characters live their exciting daily lives or, owing to some outside force, fight secretly to save the world from danger. Yep, it certainly is the place to be…unless you’re unpopular. We all know about the charming transfer student, the badass fighter who is actually surprisingly good at tests, heck even the silent types get some serious screentime. So it shouldn’t be too hard to make a splash in anime’s favourite playground right? To skilfully navigate through the hormonal jungle that serves as a preamble to adulthood. Especially if you’ve spent your life enjoying and absorbing the tropes of said anime. I mean, it’s not like you’d be the unpopular one…right?
Wrong. Oh so heart rendingly and soul crushingly wrong. Meet Tomoko Kuroki, a social inept otaku who continuously proves that she is by no means the traditional protagonist type. A fact even she herself is painfully aware of, due to her immense knowledge of the ins and outs of anime. Before making the transition to high school, hope filled Tomoko’s eyes, the hope that this new chapter in her life would be full of fun times and friends with which to share them. However she, and we, learn pretty quickly that the absolute opposite is true, two months after starting high school Tomoko has a grand total of zero friends. Two months without a single pleasant conversation, without a joke shared, nothing. It’s quite honestly depressing, made even more so by the fact that this is’t some outlandish occurence. There’s no monsters, no irreversibly damaged past, Tomoko is just a super awkward girl who lacks the social skills necessary to converse with anyone. She can barely even manage to say goodbye to her teacher at the end of the day. Honestly, it’s to the point that her barely managing to stammer out half of a word to somebody was treated as a triumphant victory which, while a hopeful and happy moment, shows just how devoid of contact her life truly is.
One of the main points of conflict of the series, for you the viewer, might stem from the nature in which these social situations unfold. Namely, the humour placed upon them. By making these harsh situations funny, two interpretations can be created. 1: Tomoko’s sociall ineptitude creates a number of shenanigans that are both funny and cringeworthy or 2: The presence of humour is only a guise that ultimately makes each sequence more depressing than readily apparent. Though both are and opinion and ultimately not wrong, as it stands I feel that 2 is more accurate. Though some moments focus on the humour born from Tomoko’s over the top inadequacy, it serves to showcase just how much weight Tomoko places on every single minute decision. From when to eat her lunch, to how to handle a bug. Everything is blown way out of proportion as Tomoko shifts her anger and sadness onto a list of external factors, hoping against hope that one of them is to blame for her current situation. This depressingly delusional belief is made painfully apparent during Tomoko’s brief moments of clarity. When the tears begin to well and she wonders if she is the cause of her isolation, she immediately and vehemently denies it, following with a bevy of insults for those around her. All because the reality is just too hard for her to bear. Sure it’s wrong, sure one should learn to accept themselves for all their strengths and flaws but she’s a high school girl. Despite what some other anime express, high schoolers are not well versed in the ways of the world and in a social pressure cooker such as this, it’s not easy to come to terms with one’s flaws.
Speaking of misplaced high school values, sex also plays a pretty big role in this series. That isn’t to say any characters explicitly engage in the act, but rather the concept itself permeates the series. Though an undeniable fact of life, this idea becomes rather dangerous when filtered through Tomoko and her desire to be accepted. Though thankfully she doesn’t cross a line she can’t come back from, there are countless times when the series walks the thin line between appropriate and offensive. A fact which is undeniable in episode 4, given the very intense subject matter, the very real and traumatic act of being groped. Though initially it may appear offensive how flippantly this issue is dealt with, once you remember that the entire series is filtered through Tomoko’s perceptions, it becomes unbelievably upsetting, serving as the most extreme example of Tomoko’s neurosis. Her desire for not only popularity, but for the slightest piece of attention from someone, has developed and twisted to such a point that even this terrible act is seen as positive in her eyes. She even wonders if she is so unappealing that nobody would approach her in a sexual way, even against her will. Seriously, it hurts me to even have to write that down as a sentence. Though luckily, if you can call it that, once the reality of what this act entails sets in, Tomoko immediately rescinds her view. Though at the end of the day, the only thing stopping her from taking her overly sexual attitude from the 2D world of her videogames into her real life is a debilitating fear. Never before has a positive been so negative.
This notion of sexuality is also applied to Tomoko’s relationship with Yu, her only friend in the world. Again played for humour, Tomoko is increasingly attracted to her friend who has physically matured more fully than she has. Though awkward in its own right, it is again a very real and sad occurrence. Despite calling her friend a slut, as she does with every girl she considers popular, Yu is everything she wants to be. Cute, likeable, able to make friends, able to hold a conversation. Combined with her placing sex upon a pedestal, it seems that Tomoko is lusting more after the idea of Yu than anything else. She is also Tomoko’s only real connection to society and as her desperation grows, Yu becomes more and more of an idol to her, her desire for a friend and a relationship bleeding into one another. Sure there could be some actual feelings there, but I feel that the truth is just as confusing to Tomoko as it is to us.
All this being said however, there is certainly evidence to show that Tomoko is not the nicest person in the world. So vehement is her focus on popularity and her own, often self caused, issues, she overlooks the problems of those around her. Namely her brother. Though he is painted in somewhat of a harsh light, repeatedly shutting Tomoko out, there are moments when you realise just how at fault she is. Take cleaning the house for example. Tomoko is so concerned with her own social issues that she outright doesn’t care that her brother is studying for high school entrance exams, believing them to be inconsequential when compared to what she’s dealing with. This same attitude also causes strain with her mother, as she ignores all the work that her mother does around the house in an attempt to escape washing windows. Though it might feel bad to stand against Tomoko given the nature of the series, it lends to the overall fact that she is a pretty self-destructive character. Every single one of her over the top attempts at popularity winds up putting a bigger distance between her and her goal, which is ironic considering that when she doesn’t try too hard and simply acts according to her own personality, not some anime forged persona, she actually makes progress.
With so much emotional turmoil and inner dialogue, the series does a fantastic job of conveying this visually. As everything is filtered through Tomoko’s eyes, the series visual shift as frequently as her personality. When shunned by the world, Tomoko loses all colour and stands as a greyed out figure, the same technique that is applied to the nobody extras in the background of sequences. At one point she even manages to go transparent. There is also a surprising amount of Picasso inspired visuals, with Tomoko often snapping into a cubist style whenever she is sufficiently shocked or depressed. Though on a baser lever, there’s Tomoko herself. Unlike other anime series, her otaku traits are not entirely played off as quirky and cute. Her overall appearance is what you would expect of someone who stays inside playing games until well into the early morning. Messy hair, noticeable bags under her eyes. She is not the epitome of an anime girl. This is made even more apparent by the various faces she makes throughout the anime, most of which are far from attractive. This also contrasts fairly strongly with her own perception of herself, wherein she is depicted in a more classic quirky, cutey style. Though even that vision is to her the same as the anime from which it stems, an escape from a less than perfect reality and a less than perfect appearance.
Sound wise, the series is just as conflicted as Tomoko. Backtracks fluctuate from heavy guitar, to an mellow acoustic tune, to operatic chanting and back again. The multiple unique ending sequences do a great job at capturing the events of the episode they conclude, often leaning into Tomoko’s more happy, delusional ideals. The series’ standard ending sequence is honestly one of Tomoko’s happiest appearances, which is kind of upsetting in it’s own right. Though at least you can finish an episode somewhat happy…somewhat. Though by far the series’ strongest musical element is the opening sequence. Seriously, that thing is awesome. Though a heavy rock song is not how you might expect to enter into a slice of life series, it captures Tomoko perfectly. Combined with the visuals, it depicts the struggle within herself and her desire to break free from everything that holds her down. It’s honestly perfect. Immense credit is also owed to both the English and Japanese voice actors of Tomoko. Presenting a voice that is by no means the traditional cute anime schoolgirl, both manage to capture the essence of Tomoko and create a more complete character. Seriously, the series draws a lot of strength from the performances, especially given Tomoko’s countless rants and inner monologues.
WataMote is a fantastic series. Sure it might cop some flack for showcasing social anxiety as humourous, but I don’t think that’s what this series is about at all. Sure moments are meant to make you laugh, but only on the surface. If you take the time to think about what Tomoko goes through, the what, the how, the why, you’ll come to see some truly tragic moments. A person who is so lonely that all they can hope is that there is something they have overlooked barring them from friendship, that one external factor can shoulder the blame, because the reality is just too hard to bear. But then, there’s hope. Slight, but growing. Though the series may seem like it doesn’t evolve Tomoko very much, that’s kind of the point. People don’t just solve their issues in leaps and bounds, especially without a positive external force, that’s why Yu and, eventually, Imae are so important. Its when they’re around that Tomoko shows the most growth and is at her happiest.
The series has no definitive ending and it honestly doesn’t solve the problems that plague Tomoko, but that’s ultimately fine because we know about Tomoko’s true strength. Sure she’s weird and almost everything she does makes you wan’t to look away, but she’s also committed. Though she certainly needs to work on her methods, her heart is in the right place most of the time. Think about her comfort zone, being alone with her games and anime, now think about how often she spends outside of it. That’s a pretty impressive feat. When even saying hello is a challenge, it’s amazing to think how much time she spends throwing herself into situations that force a social element. When all’s said and done, be true to yourself and never give up on you desires, although stopping and listening to the advice of others certainly doesn’t hurt. Society isn’t a single player adventure after all.
No Matter How I Look at It, It’s You Guys’ Fault You Haven’t Visited Hanabee