「モテないし、将来を考える」 (Motenai shi, Shōrai o Kangaeru)
“Since I’m Not Popular, I’ll Think About the Future”
Of all the 2013 series that end up on my year-end Top 10 list, it’s very possible that Watamote will be the one I least expected to find there.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that shows like Watashi ga Motenai no wa Dou Kangaete mo Omaera ga Warui! (I wanted to write the whole name in a post at least once) are what give me hope for anime, despite the ever-increasing percentage of new series that are effectively marketing formulas on digital video. It’s a great series where I didn’t expect to find one. It’s a relentlessly, brutally honest series that challenges the audience at every moment. It’s a thoughtful and compassionate look at depression and loneliness that doesn’t remotely spare us the ugly reality of it. And it’s tremendously entertaining to boot.
There was good reason to wonder how Shin Oonuma and Silver Link would choose to end this adaptation, given the ongoing and mercilessly downbeat nature of the manga. I never suspected for a moment that the ending would sell out, delivering false optimism and invalidating all the suffering Tomoko (and we) went through for twelve episodes. But if the series had ended with, say, Episode 10 – one of the bleakest and most heartbreakingly sad episodes of any anime I’ve ever seen – I think that would simply have been too much to bear. Rather, Shin has made a somewhat unorthodox choice (this adaptation is full of them) by putting the episode that would have been the most obvious finale last week, and closing with one that’s altogether darker, but intercut with a good deal of humor and just the tiniest sliver of hope.
I think Watamote is a show that was true to itself from the very beginning, and unwaveringly so, and this episode was very much consistent with that honest approach. This was Tomoko at her most delusional, grating and difficult – but also at her most vulnerable and reflective. It wouldn’t be fair to say Tomoko has made huge progress over the course of these 12 episodes, but she has changed. One thing I find very noticeable is that she’s become much more self-aware over the last few eps – she started out with a half-believed delusion that popularity was only a matter of time, but she’s come to understand more and more just how desperate her situation is. Some may think that she’s too self-aware for someone her age as we see her in this episode, but my experience is that kids Tomoko’a age are if anything obsessively aware of what’s lacking in their lives, and the sources of their unhappiness. And Tomoko has so many of those to choose from that it’s hardly surprising she’s become obsessed with them.
In that context, it’s certainly no surprise that Tomoko was a bit of a chuunibyou sufferer in middle school second year. This is a subject that anime has itself become somewhat obsessed with of late, but it highlights the difference between middle school and high school for someone like Tomoko. An 8th-grader can exhaustively study weapons distribution in plans to become the next Koko Hekmatyar, but unlike what we see in more fanciful anime twists on the subject, a self-aware 10th-grader filling out a career-planning form cannot. I won’t suggest for a moment that Tomoko was likely happy in middle school (the club episode should prove that), but there at least she could indulge her fantasy world with a measure of commitment, and even find a soul-mate to commiserate with. Now, she’s effectively got a giant clock right behind her shoulder, reminding her constantly that her school life is slipping away from her, adulthood creeping ever closer, and she’s making no progress as a social animal.
We haven’t revisited the counselling sessions with Tomoki for a while – I’d even wondered if they were still going on – but they’re brought back into the equation here at the end. It seems as of Tomoki has been dutifully suffering through them, saying nothing or at least very little, and that Tomoko has come to realize that this too is another blind alley in her search for contentment. There’s a great moment here when Tomoko cuts off the sessions as if she’s been the one doing her brother a favor, and he not so subtly reminds her that she hasn’t thanked him for six months of service. She immediately slips into fantasy mode and the “スパーク” on her t-shirt immediately changes into an English “SPARK”.
The finale is full of great directorial flourishes as Tomoko passes between reality and delusion, the line becoming disturbingly blurry at times. Basking in Imae’s glow, Tomoko realizes that Imae is the sort of person others rave about when she’s not around. She gets the bright idea to secretly record the others in her homeroom on her phone while she’s gone, only to discover that they’re not even talking about her at all – again, it would almost be better if they were mocking her, because at least that way she’d know she exists. A wayward cockroach presents a seeming opportunity to make herself the center of attention, but after she (messily) kills the gokiburi the expected reign of adulation (which she imagines in unnerving detail) is instead shocked disgust. When Tomoko records her classmates this time they are talking about her at least, but it isn’t pretty.
If indeed “the first step is admitting you have a problem”, then Tomoko has at least taken it. If there’s anything that gives me hope for her despite knowing her terribly hard her road will be, it’s the fact that we’ve seen her display a genuine desire to change her life. Most of these attempts have ended in heartbreaking failure but at least she’s made them, and that is a kind of progress. Imae-chan seems to represent the most plausible lifeline for Tomoko – she’s kind, and seemingly quite aware that Tomoko has a serious problem. Tomoko senses this, and even convinces herself to ask Imae for advice on how to become the sort of person other people want to be around. Naturally this sequence is heartbreaking – Tomoko trying so hard to work up the courage to ask for help from someone who could actually provide it (I was yelling exhortations at the screen while this was happening) – and ends in disaster, when a freak gust of wind exposes Imae’s panties and Tomoko freaks out and bolts. But Imae has noticed the strange girl, yet again, and there seems reason to hope she’s not just going to let it lie.
I’ve been effusive in my praise of Kitta Izumi for her performance as Tomoko – and with good reason, as it’s IMO the best female seiyuu performance of the year so far – but probably not enough in praising Shin Oonuma for his direction. Episode 11 was full of great examples (such as Yuu-chan walking away into the light with her friends, as Tomoko waved to her from the darkness) and the segue into the OP was one of the cleverest moments in any anime this year. The pre-ending sequence this week (again using the OP) is another fantastically creative effort – Tomoko fleeing from her universe in a tunnel of light as her past seems to claw at her hungrily. Yes, some of these effects are taken from the manga – but Shin has really brought them to life beautifully here. I think Watamote is an extremely tough manga to bring to the screen – so much of it takes place inside Tomoko’s tortured mind after all – and Shin has perfectly captured the manic and lonely nature of that place. I haven’t been a fan of much of his recent work, but for me this show is unquestionably Shin’s finest effort as a director.
There’s no redemption here at the end of all things – yes Tomoko laughs, but it has the feeling of whistling through the graveyard. We end as we began, with Tomoko’s monitor displaying the “Definition of an Unpopular Girl“, and she certainly meets it. “It doesn’t matter” she tells us – and as much as I’d like to believe that was true, I can’t bring myself to do so. It certainly does matter when you’re 15 years old and have no friends at school, and every day is a minefield full of potential social disasters so terrifying that they can make another repeat of the cycle of loneliness feel like a relief. Tomoko’s greatest enemy has always been herself, but at least now she seems to be aware of that fact. It’s not much hope to hang your hat on, but if you don’t have a hook a rusty nail will have to do.
I said way back in my Episode 1 post that I wasn’t sure, for all the brilliance I saw on display, that I would actually enjoy Watamote. In the end I most certainly did, even if watching it was one of the more painful experiences I’ve had with any anime. I enjoyed it not just for the spectacular comic successes (this week’s Another parody was one of the very best) but because no matter how gut-wrenching it was, it was impossible not to enjoy experiencing anime this honest, insightful and emotionally powerful. I’ve talked at length about the “code” the authors of Watamote use, the hidden language that those with severe social anxiety disorders and those who love them recognized immediately and often. I can say with certainty that, as someone who grew up experiencing this in my immediate family, I’ve never seen a more accurate depiction of the experience. Even the absurd moments in the series are anchored in the truth, and the entire thing feels almost shockingly real.
No question, Tomoko is a remarkable creation – whatever percentage of her is the artist, what percentage the writer and what comes from other sources, the final product is the breakout anime character of the year. There are times when I hated Tomoko, but ultimately she’s someone I came to care about as much as I have any character in a long time – I know her too well to hate her for long. As far as I’m concerned Tomoko is the most moe character in anime right now, because she comes closest to the definition of the term as I first learned of it, before it became a generic descriptor for every sickeningly cute little girl created to sell light-novels and Blu-rays. For all her horniness and selfishness and delusions of grandeur, I can’t see Tomoko as anything but a lost little girl – someone who wants to be happy but can’t figure out how to do it.
As she gets older the fantasy world that sustains Tomoko becomes harder to maintain and the overgrown tomboy she is becomes even less socially viable (it’s hardly a surprise that she seems to feel most comfortable around boys younger than she is, because that’s what she acts like a good chunk of the time) and that happiness seems ever-more elusive. If I had to sum up Watamote in one word it’d probably be “heartbreaking” because it’s the moments where Tomoko confronts her loneliness head-on that I remember the most distinctly. I want to end on a high note, but I don’t think it would be any more honest for me to do so than the series itself – in reality Watamote is a dark ride, full of uncomfortable moments only somewhat leavened by the true gallows humor. But it’s a ride I’ll never forget, one that made me feel more deeply than the overwhelming majority of anime I’ve seen. It’s a series that has something important to say and says it brilliantly, and that combination makes it one of the best anime of 2013.