Fittingly enough, the experience of watching this OVA was an avalanche of mixed emotions.
First things first – Watamote is still great. The OVA doesn’t miss a beat – it’s every bit as smart, hilarious and gut-wrenching as the TV series, and plays much like a regular episode with a bit more scope (and fourth wall breakage). But it’s a kind of perfect storm of bittersweet feelings, because I always feel more than a little sad watching an OVA of a series I love when I know it’s likely going to be the last anime ever produced for that series. When you add to that the fact that Watamote is perhaps uniquely perched on the knife’s edge between comedy and tragedy anyway, you have a potent emotional stew boiling over.
Things kick off with an insanely clever Evangelion parody in the pre-open, which eviscerates the shallowness and dysfunction of anime (and idol) commercialism. It casts Tomoko as Gendo Ikari, planning for the “second season” (the tragedy of course being that we know it will never come) by cooking up new plotlines involving Yuu-chan (as the mean beauty who acts like a ditz) and Kii-chan (as the super-smart loli who skipped grades to enter high school). All of this under the watchful eye of SEELE, of course.
Tomoko instructs Yuu-chan to dump her boyfriend because “those anime-watching tards hate a character who has a boyfriend”, and to stop talking to guys altogether because “that also has a negative effect”. Also de rigueur is that both girls have yuri feelings for Tomoko, and a gay plotline for Tomoki. All of this, of course, is to appeal to the masses of the anime buying public who would never buy a Watamote disc in a hundred lifetimes – the reason why that second season is a fantasy. And this all ends with Kuroko being woken from this dream and dumped back into her “real” life, with the same Munch-like transition into the OP we saw in Episode 10. Brilliant.
No less so is the actual episode, which mostly takes place three years earlier during middle school. In a Rashomon-like setup we see a series of events on the school rooftop, first through the eyes of seventh-grader Aomatsu (Suwabe Junichi). He’s a not-quite chuunibyou boy who muses about what idiots his classmates are for not thinking of deep things like he does, and dreams that his life will be touched by the magical events from the pages of some or other light novel. One day he finds the door of the roof (where such events are destined to occur) unlocked and ventures outside, where a finds a long-haired and dark-eyed beauty who leaps down from next to the water tank, snaps her ankle (in truth, just a sprain) and spins a wild tale of using the rooftop to watch out for terrorists.
As with so much in Watamote, comedy and despair walk hand-in-hand with this storyline. Watching the events play out through first Aomatsu and later Tomoko’s eyes is very funny – especially when we see how mundane they were without Aomatsu’s fantasy glasses. But of course the flipside is that this is yet another opportunity for Tomoko to connect with someone – a boy, no less, and probably a perfect one for her as he’s both younger and sympathetic to her worldview – that never happens because she can’t come right out and admit to herself that she wants it. The truth is that she’s simply picked up the roof key the gym teacher dropped and sought out a fortress of solitude, but fate has once again handed her an opportunity she fritters away.
As if all that weren’t bad enough, Tomoko gets herself locked outside when the teacher catches on to what’s happened and she hides from him, and is thoroughly humiliated and never sees the mysterious boy again. Except she does, as not only are they now in the same high school but that boy is friends with Tomoki – they even bump into each other but because she’d sooner die than make eye contact, neither realizes that the other is the person they’ve been longing to see again. The flashbacks are also an anime introduction to a very important manga character – Komiyama Kotomi (Mizuhashi Kaori), who Tomoko eternally refers to as “Komi-whatever” as they vie for Yuu-chan’s affections.
Almost a year after it ended, my affection for Watamote hasn’t dimmed at all. I still consider this one of the most brilliant and challenging anime of recent years, a rare case where a great manga has actually been improved in the transition to anime. It’s fearless in its satire of so-called “Cool Japan” and unsparing in its depiction of the singularly fucked-up and obnoxious Tomoko. Yet it still manages to present her as a sad and lonely little girl who just wants to be loved and can’t figure out how to navigate existence, much less make that happen.
Watamote is honest and unsparing, and the fact that the anime failed commercially (the manga is a modest success) is further indication that if there’s one thing mainstream anime fans would rather not deal with, it’s introspection. In theory this show should be a hit – it pokes fun at the world anime fans inhabit with unerring accuracy and in a hilarious way. These people should be in on the joke – but if there’s a commercial lesson here, it’s that shining a light on places the audience would rather not have to see is no recipe for commercial success. That’s a real shame, because Watamote says an awful lot of things that need to be said, and tells the story of a heroine that may be sad and even bleak, but ultimately inspires compassion for her experience.