Have you ever wanted to say something when you’re with a group of people, but stopped yourself because you thought it would sound stupid? So you wrestle with it and think it over in your head, but by the time you figure out the words the moment has passed? Now imagine if you felt that way about pretty much everything. Welcome to the world of Tomoko Kuroki.
As the subtitle says, Tomoko doesn’t have many friends. In fact, she pretty much only has one, from middle school, and she’s at a different high school, leaving Tomoko all alone.
She has her little brother, sure, but he’s still a middle schooler and, like most brothers, wants nothing to do with his sister.
Regardless, determined to become a new, more popular girl, Tomoko strides confidently into high school life. Problem is, her only real experience of handling people is from hours and hours of dating sims, and that doesn’t exactly translate into popularity inducing behaviour.
You can see where this is going – Tomoko tries increasingly drastic measures to become popular, fails miserably, hilarity ensues. Or does it?
WataMote has proven to be fairly divisive due to its handling of extreme social anxiety. The question often levelled at the series is ‘is this supposed to be funny?’ – should we laugh at Tomoko’s crippling loneliness and failures? – and I honestly don’t have a clear answer.
However, I find that the above question implies that a series cannot be tragic and a comedy at the same time. Quite the contrary – the phrase even exists for such an entity, ‘tragicomedy’.
For my money, I found WataMote to be equal parts hysterically funny, painfully cringey and soberingly sad (gotta love adjectives).
An excellent example of all of this can be found in the first episode.
Tomoko decides to change her appearance in order to become more popular, but goes about it the wrong way, taking fashionable ideas like wearing a shorter skirt and showing a lot of forehead to ludicrous extremes. That’s the hysterical part.
She tries her monstrous new look on her brother, who is disgusted. Later, alone at TotallyNotMcDonalds™ she sees a group of people from her class enter. Desperate to avoid them, lest they discover her eating alone, she decides to don her disguise in the bathroom and walk out. Cringe.
As she walks past (they don’t notice her at all) she bumps into her brother and his friends on the stairs. Pretending not to see each other, they pass by, but one of her brother’s friends remarks about her horrifying ugliness as she solemnly walks away. Sad.
Tomoko’s character is pretty complex, which allows for these different vibes to shine through. On the one hand, we pity and empathise with her. Extreme shyness isn’t exactly a rarity in first time high schoolers, and we absolutely want Tomoko’s misery to end. It’s very easy to root for her, because its a relatable situation (particularly for goofs like me).
On the other hand, the inner workings of Tomoko’s mind are an absolute trainwreck, poisoned by popular culture and commercialised living into a horrible stew of all the worst, most extreme aspects of daily life. She often fantasizes about what her life ‘will soon be’ with thinly veiled caricatures of popular animes (apparently she wanted to be an arms dealer with a stoic child soldier as a sidekick, I WONDER WHAT THAT IS A REFERENCE TO), and about people with the eye of a serious lecher. She constantly spouts filthy innuendo in her mind’s eye, and her view of the world is seriously warped. At one point in the series, she even feels so alone that the thought of being molested on the train is tantalizing.
Even when people are kind to her, she sees them as the enemy. A softball lands near her, and she hands it back to the softball team manager (a girl), who greets her with a smile and politely thanks her before running off. Tomoko, naturally, labels her a slut who is obviously sleeping with the entire team.
One could say many of Tomoko’s problems are simply a result of her bad attitude, but it’s hard not to see the truth in some of the things she believes – most of the girls seen in the series are indeed portrayed as vapid morons who live only to shop and talk about boys, a norm that Tomoko can’t and won’t bring herself to adopt.
Her usual appearance reflects this: the dark rings/bags around her eyes, the unfashionably long skirt and clunky shoes, the unkempt hair. It’s pretty unique ensemble for an anime character (particularly a girl), and really suits her character.
I see WataMote as the high school equivalent of Welcome to the NHK (a series I haven’t reviewed, but have seen some of, about an unemployed guy who lives by himself struggling to fit into ‘regular society’). Welcome to the NHK was a fantastic deconstruction of Japanese society – still funny, but ultimately with a statement to make.
WataMote too, I feel, makes a statement, never more clearly than in its opening and closing themes. Those songs (despite the latter’s deceptively cheery beat) are conduits of Tomoko’s frustration and grief and confusion and tie the show together nicely.
The singing in the ending theme (performed by Tomoko’s Japanese voice actress, Izumi Kitta) is pitch perfect, reflecting Tomoko’s anguish through strained singing. Luckily for dub fans, Monica Rial matches Kitta’s performance right down to the ground, an impressive feat considering how some dubs handle characters…
That’s not to say there aren’t sweet moments. While the series is mostly a torrent of misery for Tomoko, you learn to take the small victories as triumphs. One of my favourite moments in the series occurs when Tomoko can’t find anybody to go out and watch fireworks with. In the end, she settles for setting off fireworks alone in her garden while her brother watches out the window. Her (for once) peaceful and happy expression is weirdly heartwarming, even if it is the result of one of her many failures.
All in all, I find it hard not to recommend WataMote. As a comedy, and a tragedy. As an interesting satire. As a potential glimpse into the mind of someone who suffers from social anxiety. As a damn fine piece of television.
WataMote toes the line between funny and cringeworthy, but approaches its delicate subject matter with just enough heart to save it from being too offensive. Recommended, but only if you can handle cringe-inducing awkward situations.