「モテないし、夏が終わる」 (Motenai shi, Natsu ga Owaru)
“Since I’m Not Popular, Summer Will End”
Ah, Watamote – why must you take me on this emotional thrill ride every week?
In all my years of watching anime, there’s never been anything that strikes me as much similar to Watashi ga Motenai no wa Dou Kangaete mo Omaera ga Warui!. There have been plenty of black comedies and some of them brilliant ones, too, but I can’t recall another show that’s so straddles the border between being a comedy and not being one at all. I’ve watched nine episodes of this show and I still don’t really know what the hell it is, to be honest. I just know it makes me feel much more deeply than most shows do, and that means it’s doing an awful lot of things right.
What I see this week is a portrait of a lost girl on a road I’ve seen others walk before, and maybe that’s why even if Watamote makes me laugh sometimes (it certainly does, often and loudly) I can never truly let myself go and enjoy it as a comedy. There are those who have obviously been close to Tomoko – her Mom (and presumably her Dad), Tomoki, Yuu-chan and Kii-chan – and each of them in their own way is slipping away from her. Tomoko, of course, is well aware of this, though she’s powerless to prevent it. Rather, she pushes each of them away in her own way, like calling Yuu "bitch" because of her social success (and boobs), sullenly fighting with her mother and generally antagonizing her brother at every turn.
Some of this is normal teenage rage, no doubt – as a rule 15 year-olds fight with their parents and spend less time with younger siblings as a normal part of adolescence. But there’s a phenomena happening where especially Tomoki and Yuu are visibly tiring of dealing with Tomoko. Like most who suffer from serious S.A.D. and other depressive disorders Tomoko is a pain in the ass to deal with. She’s no doubt become much more of a load since the hormones kicked in, but part of it too is that Tomoki and Yuu are living in an expanding world even as Tomoko’s is shrinking. They have choices now they didn’t use to have – Tomoki isn’t a pre-teen child and has a fully-functional social life, and Yuu has other friends who require a lot less effort. Mom, of course, doesn’t have a choice, and in many ways the way she deals with her daughter, while not especially heartwarming, seems like a reassuringly normal frustrated mother dealing with a surly teen. But the more I see her the more I detect a little undercurrent of panic in her eyes and her voice when she interacts with her daughter. She knows there’s something bigger going on here, and doesn’t want to admit it to herself.
The first chapter this week is in many ways the least painful of the trio, but it does point up a common problem in teenage friendships – very often one side isn’t the equal of the other. A movie date that probably wasn’t that big a deal to begin with for Yuu means everything to Tomoko, and when Yuu cancels she effectively wipes out the highlight of Tomoko’s summer break. Yuu has a good reason – she’s working part-time at her Uncle’s foofy cafe. She invites Tomoko for a complimentary dessert, which Tomoko accepts as it at least gives her something to do (though she panics when she arrives and sees the place filled with young couples). She also gets a bee in her bonnet that if she could somehow get a similar gig with a cute uniform, she’d become popular in a flash. When she begs her Mom to think of a friend in the cake business, Mom surprisingly knows one – but the result, rather than a romantic French patisserie or a clandestine liaison in the kitchen with a hot baker and a gallon of frosting – turns out to be an I Love Lucy style nightmare, a Dickensian sweatshop full of chain-smoking adults that sends Tomoko into a catatonic state.
With this fresh reminder of what a child Tomoko still is, and how unprepared for the world, Watamote launches into one of the things it’s incredibly good at. That is, making me really hate Tomoko and then, at the drop of a hat, making my heart break for her. We see Tomoko at her worst – sullen and self-pitying, dismissive of the unpaid labor her mother puts in around the house and viciously attacking Tomoki for having the gall to actually help out like he’s supposed to and work hard to prepare for entrance exams (for which she accuses him of being like the MC of a light-novel). I know this person very well – I grew up with her, in effect – and she’s a nightmare to be around. Tomoki as usual shows more grace than a 14 year-old often might (effectively turning the other cheek rather than taking the bait) and Mom gives Tomoko a pretty light punishment – she lets her off helping her clean the house but forces her to clean her room. This leads to a bleakly hilarious trip down memory lane where Tomoko shows a shocking lack of sentimentality in chucking her childhood memories into the bin – that is, until she stumbles upon a box full of cicada shells and a journal entry from Tomoki (this memory not more than a few years old) where he professes his love for his Onee-chan (as in episode 7 with the voice of Seri Akiko), and details the reasons why.
It’s really a remarkable transition the show makes here – like a 180 degree turn at 100 MPH without slowing down. What’s been acid and harsh becomes unapologetically sentimental. Having just seen Tomoko at her most unlikable we now see her at her most vulnerable – a lost child who fully realizes just how alone she is in the world. We’ve seen this before with Watamote – Tomoko builds a stout wall out of anger and delusion, only to see it come crashing down when she stumbles on some reminder of what her reality is. I kid you not, my heart absolutely broke for her in that last chapter – she was just so desperate for something so simple and elemental that everyone should be entitled to, and that’s a connection with other people – yet she’s unable to make it. When she sat there on that bench slurping instant ramen and watching the meteor shower, alone, it might just have been the saddest moment in anime this year – and I think that’s because she was so acutely aware of why it was so sad. I’ve praised (and rightly so, I’ll add) episode 8 of Uchouten Kazoku for being incredibly emotionally transcendent and heartbreaking. But the difference is that even as the Shimogamo family was dealing with their terrible moment, they had each other – that’s the thing that sustains them through everything. Who does Tomoko have, really?
It’s hard to watch a sequence like the meteor shower chapter and not come to the conclusion that what makes Watamote so remarkable is how utterly ruthless it is. Not only is it encyclopedically accurate about the agonies of severe anxiety disorder, but it shows no mercy in depicting them – there are no pulled punches in the usual anime fashion. Tomoko isn’t a nice person most of the time, but she wants mostly what anyone wants – love – and she isolates herself more and more with each act of depravity she engages is. There’s no light at the end of her tunnel, unless it’s an oncoming train – her life sucks, and there’s no obvious reason to think it’s going to get anything but worse. I keep waiting for Watamote to pull up, to step back from the cliff, but it never does. At best we get the oddly moving moments that always seem to come at the end of episodes, the tiny little kernel of hope in the most bizarre or inappropriate circumstances. Here, Tomoko’s wish does come true after all, and she gets a boy to watch the meteor shower with – a tomcat. But he likes her, at least and for a few moments anyway she’s not totally alone. When it comes to Tomoko and Watamote, you need to take your uplift wherever you can find it.