「モテないし、昔の友達に会う」 (Motenai shi, Mukashi no Tomodachi ni Au)
“Since I’m Not Popular, I’ll See My Old Friend”
Whatever else I may ultimately decide I feel about it, watching Watamote is undeniably a powerful experience.
If it were strictly a question of how good the first two episodes of the series were, the decision about whether to blog Watamote would be easy. They were really wonderful – very well-written and beautifully performed (I’m nuts for Kitta Izumi’s work when she portrays Tomoko’s stammering, desperate attempts to get a sentence out), with some of the more restrained work we’ve seen from Oonuma Shin in a while. But the truth is this series has been a very hard call for me, because it cuts just a little too close to the bone.
I’ve thought a lot about this series since watching the premiere last week, which was one of the strangest experiences I’ve had with any anime. Here’s the thing with Watamote, as I see it… This is really two different series, depending on the audience. Everyone is going to get that this is a dark, dark comedy – they’re going to feel the awkwardness and the conflicted emotions when wanting to laugh at what happens to Tomoko. But there’s a second track playing here – Watamote is actually written in code.
What do I mean by that? It has nothing to do with how smart you are, or how much anime you’ve watched – it’s just a question of whether you’ve had someone in your life (or you yourself) suffer from clinical depression and/or a social anxiety disorder. I now know that mangaka "Nico Tanigawa" is actually a female artist and male writer – and I can say, with certainty, that writer has dealt with the above and knows exactly what he’s doing in writing this series. It’s full of coded messages to those of us who likewise grew up with this in our families – things Tomoko says, how she acts. If you don’t recognize the signs – and if you’ve never had someone close to you with a serious depression/anxiety disorder there’s no reason you should – Tomoko’s life comes off as painful but "anime funny". She can be seen as an amusing loser, or a "hikikomori" (though she isn’t) and laughed at – compassionately, no doubt, but laughed at just the same. But some of us can’t see her that way.
The final tipoff for me – and the most painful moment in two episodes – was when Tomoko threatened to kill herself unless her brother Tomoki "practiced" conversing with her for an hour per day. Here’s the thing about people like Tomoko – they make victims out of people that love them, and it’s not their fault. They can’t help it, but it puts family members and close friends in a terrible position – ignore their suffering and live with the guilt, or be drawn into the pain themselves. Someone like Tomoki – a kid, and seemingly a nice one at that – simply has no clue how to deal with Tomoko, or how she makes him feel. He just wants to be "normal", but for her, that’s the cruelest thing he can do. Of Tomoko’s Father we’ve seen nothing, and with her Mom we’ve seen no evidence that she has any idea to what extent her daughter is socially dysfunctional and suffering for it – denial being a very common recourse for parents in these situations. Teenagers are so fucked up generally that it’s easy to convince yourself that if yours is like Tomoko, she’s "just going through a phase" or some such reassuring lie.
So, given all that, to say my feelings about Watamote are complicated is an understatement. I suspect the mangaka writes this series as a kind of therapy (maybe he’s Tomoki, who knows) and that might just be the best way to look at it as a viewer. Once again this week, I laughed and laughed often and hard despite all the above qualifiers – because Watamote can be damn funny. I laughed when Tomoko got off on listening to her "Yandere Boys Verbal Abuse" CD, and talked about how most of the current anime schedule was "shows for moe pigs". I definitely laughed when she supplied her own soundtrack to the conversation between the baseball team manager and one of the players – "How about I show you my special balls?" And I certainly laughed at the notion of Sugita Tomokazu showing up as Hatsushiba, the heavyset member of the manga research club who spends time with Tomoko after school making up an assignment for art class.
This episode was certainly more upbeat than the first, enough to almost make you think the show was going for uplifting and hopeful. Mostly that came through the introduction of Naruse Yuu (Hanazawa Kana), Tomoko’s nerdy friend from middle school. In the first place it was nice to hear that Tomoko had a friend in middle school, and her call set Tomoko off on a weeklong quest to have a fulfilling high school life to talk about. This involves "sleeping with a boy during the day" (on different beds in the nurse’s office), getting her portrait drawn by Hatsushiba and other such fantastical notions – and culminates with the planned meeting at "StarTully’s Coffee". This brings a rude surprise for Tomoko, as Yuu has ditched her glasses for contacts, grown a few cup sizes and generally turned into a "normal" – and not just a normal, but a hot babe at that. But the uplifting part comes with the realization that Yuu still likes anime and games and misses talking with Tomoko, and seems just as lonely in her high school life as Tomoko does. There’s even a promise to meet up again, and a confession from Tomoko that it’s all been an act – her high school life is miserable too, and all they can both do is "Ganbare!" together.
But this is Watamote, and life for people like Tomoko is rarely that neat and tidy. Hatsushiba drew her because she’s easy to draw and he uses her as a stock background character in his manga (fortunately she doesn’t know this yet). And Yuu called her because she had a fight with her boyfriend and felt bad about it. This is a knife blow to Tomoko because Yuu’s betrayal is the worst kind – she’s left Tomoko behind and joined the functional world. For Tomoko this is the agony of her situation – she can watch those around her do things she can’t do herself, not because they’re impossible but because they’re impossible for her. This is part of the coded message from the mangaka – Tomoko’s wounds are almost entirely self-inflicted, yet she’s helpless to stop inflicting them. It’s rare for anyone to be mean to her, and she’s not bullied – but because she’s built a wall around herself, most people simply ignore her altogether (which her family cannot do). She stays hunkered down in her foxhole and lobs missiles of derision at the rest of the world, mocking them for their conformism and idiocy, and secretly wishing she could have a taste of what their lives are like.
Sorry if that comes off as heavy – but I think this is a pretty heavy comedy, even for those viewers not personally connected to the darkest part of the story. And ultimately I think it would be a shame not to blog it when it’s so much more powerful and emotionally accurate than most series, and very possibly the funniest show of the season in spite of all the scar tissue. Tomoko is a mess but she’s also a revelation in anime terms – I love her brutal dismissiveness of the world around her. I love how she’s a teenaged girl who has a very active fantasy life in erotic terms – she’s as horny as any boy – and the twisted worldview which turns Frappuccino into "Fellapuccino". If a show can make me laugh this much and then utterly break my heart at the notion of Tomoko taking such comfort in Hatsushiba’s drawing, only because she doesn’t know the truth of it, it’s clearly something special. I don’t think blogging Watamote is ever going to be easy, but I certainly expect it to be memorable.
ED2: 「夢想恋歌」 (Dream Love Song) by (Velvet.kodhy)