Watamote

Watamote

WATAMOTE

Watched via Crunchyroll

WHITNEY

CRYSTAL

PLOT: Be careful what you wish for; Watamote is not just your typical shy girl anime. I’m always finding myself hoping that shoujo manga will reinvent the genre of the shy girl. In fact, I was very concerned that No Matter How I Look at It, It’s You Guys’ Fault I’m Not Popular! (the full title) would be just another shoujo series about an awkward girl, who just needs some friends to release the inner beauty within her. Nope, the creators of Watamote turn the idea upside down and do everything in their power to destroy and block any events that could possibly change the course of Tomoko Kuroki’s existence. She is destined for unhappiness.

Each episode features Tomoko gathering up the energy to attack her social status and bring it up a notch. In her free time she plays games, watches anime, and practices how to be like the girls in these fabricated worlds. Once she’s practiced these false personas, she goes out into the world and does her best to copy these actions or looks, only to cause herself more discomfort as well as to those around her.

Despite how dreary this all sounds, there are a couple of “developments” that make the pain of watching Watamote a little more bearable. For instance, we are able to see the relationship between her and her younger brother, who is reluctantly supportive of her. Then there is her friend from middle school, who unlike her, has had her debut in high school. She is able to give Tomoko constant reassurance. The support of these two characters shows that there is a slight hope for Tomoko, if she just embraced her true self, rather than put on an over-the-top act.

The fact that there is small hope for Tomoko only makes it worse when she rejects all of it and just resents those around her. It would almost be easier to watch if everyone around Tomoko was trying to make her an outsider.

PLOT: Like many anime main characters, Tomoko’s an outcast in her school, someone that no one in her class pays attention to. Like many anime main characters, Tomoko enters high school with the hope that she may make a friend or get a boyfriend and become more popular in general. Unlike many anime main characters, none of these things happen for Tomoko.

Instead, Tomoko’s crushing social anxiety remains the same as ever, making her too creepy for anyone to befriend, and she spends her time in high school both being bitter and cooking up schemes for how to become popular. Most of these schemes rely on things Tomoko’s seen work in anime, like being the intriguing silent character or doing something so cool that you become the class hero. Unfortunately, Tomoko’s too awkward for any of these attempts to work out, and she always ends up feeling like the whole world is against her.

To be fair, there are some supporting people around Tomoko, including her best friend from middle school and the student council president. Tomoko also constantly pesters her younger, somewhat popular brother for help, which he begrudgingly gives. Despite these people, though, Tomoko never makes any headway in her quest to be popular, and each episode features another get-popular-quick scheme that she hopes will pay off. The pacing here may work for a weekly viewing of the series, but if you try to watch more than one episode at a time, the show just feels like it’s emphasizing how horrible and awkward of a person Tomoko is without any positive payoff.

The pacing is quite difficult. While it’s more realistic, it’s so painful that I could see it being enough to make someone drop the show early.

SETTING: Just like you’d expect from a shy girl anime, this series takes place in modern Japan with most events happening at school or Tomoko’s house. And just as with every other shoujo series, we traverse through all of the usual events that happen when you are a school-aged character. Only instead of these being major turning points in her life, they only punctuate Tomoko’s awkwardness and loneliness.

It isn’t that anyone in particular hates Tomoko, she is just so awkward to be around, that people choose not to interact with her to save themselves from that uncomfortableness. The series goes to a lot of pains to explore the world building of someone with severe social anxiety. I very much enjoyed this angle, even though it was horribly uncomfortable to watch. It reminds me of the book The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, which shows that people with certain mental conditions can’t just “get over it” or “get better”. Rather than seeing Tomoko transform, I’d be more interested in seeing the world around her learn to adapt to her. So far the only rewarding bits of the world building have been from her brother and best friend from middle school. I hope that if there were more to this, more would be added to show acceptance in her surroundings, even if it isn’t in typical shy girl genre fashion.

SETTING: Watamote’s setting, of course, is at your standard high school in Japan, where there’s a lot of normal high school things going on—without Tomoko being included. To really rub that point in, Watamote brings in every possible situation that high school-based anime rely on and then contorts those situations to show how traumatic they would be for a social outcast. Grabbing some fast food after school? Super stressful if you’re by yourself. Helping with the culture festival? Horrible if you’re so ignored that no one asks you for help with any of the work. Changing seats? A way to remind you that no one in the class cares to get to know you. Though I didn’t have an awful high school experience, this did serve to bring back a lot of my anxiety from the time period, which didn’t make it all that fun to watch.

Granted, Watamote also brings in a lot of silly referential humor through various settings, like Tomoko fantasizing about being in a K-On!-style light music club. If you’re well-versed in popular otaku anime, you’ll appreciate the humor and find Tomoko even more ridiculous for thinking her life could turn out like those anime. These were the high points of the show for me and edged it towards being more worth watching.

CHARACTERS: Tomoko is a tough pill to swallow. I’m usually a very empathetic person, but I had a very hard time relating to this character, no matter how much I wanted to. Just like Crystal says, Tomoko is not only horribly social awkward, but she is also a very negative person. Rather than take ownership for her own mistakes, she projects a lot of the blame onto the world around her. A lot of this comes from her failures to seduce those around her and become accepted into other groups. Sadly she takes this rejection and uses it as fuel to lash out at those around her who already accept her for her true personality, like her parents.

While I said before that her relationship with her brother is helpful, it’s also very pained, as her brother Tomoki quite reluctantly deals with his sister’s anxiety. Being a sibling myself, I can relate a lot more with him and how he wants to encourage his sister. His reluctance to get too involved shows he most likely tried to help before, and it backfired on him in some way. I can easily imagine it, since Tomoko constantly makes his life more difficult with her crazy antics already.

Then there is Tomoko’s middle school friend, Yu Naruse, who she is in constant competition with. Both were awkward and shy before, but Yu managed to alter her appearance and do well when she went on to high school. While Yu regards Tomoko fondly, Tomoko sees her popularity as a means to compete and reason to hate her old friend. Rather than be open with her and talk about her hardships, she acts like a pathological lier to try to one-up her friend in a weird battle of being the most “successful”. The same thing happens again when Tomoko spends time with her younger cousin. I’d like to think she’ll one day learn to be herself, but I think it’s going to take quite some time before that happens, and most likely won’t ever in this franchise.

It’s hard to root for Tomoko when she stacks the deck against herself by constantly lying about how great her life is! I doubt others believe it for long, and it makes her feel that much more pathetic when her awkwardness is revealed.

CHARACTERS: Tomoko is an awful human being. She’s not even an interesting awful human being, either, like the characters of Flowers of Evil, who are so fun to watch become more messed up. Tomoko’s just your average, horrible nerd who doesn’t have any redeeming factors.

But wait! Can’t I empathize with her at how horrible it is to be socially awkward and not know how to pull yourself out of it? Sure, there are times where I totally get where she’s coming from, but then she becomes so judgmental and mean that I end up hating her. For example, there’s an episode where she gets jealous that other girls get groped on the train because that must mean they’re prettier than she is. Supporting rape culture is not something I appreciate in my main characters and made Tomoko completely unsympathetic to me. And then how does the show punish her for this? It has her get molested by a kendo shinai. Way to go, Japan! You’ve made a horrible character and then just make her more awful with your “she deserved it” punishment that further reinforces rape culture. Ugh.

The other characters are all normal and approachable, with traits that get me to sympathize with them more than Tomoko. Her brother’s constantly bothered by Tomoko, and I can see how obnoxious that is when she gets mad at him for taking the initiative to clean his room (and then make her look bad). Her mom worries about her and tries to help, but then gets lashed out at. Her best friend wants to talk and hang out, but then Tomoko either gets jealous of her boyfriend or leers at her breasts in a creepy way. This is another example of how infuriating Tomoko is because she has a good support network, but she’s too angry and awful to do anything with it but poison these relationships and make herself jealous of everyone around her.

It is very hard to watch Tomoko be so hateful, when those around her are shown as non-antagonistic. Unlike most of these stories which feature bullies, instead everyone is quite politely trying to just steer away from the awkwardness.

ART STYLE/ANIMATION: Wow, Tomoko’s character design does not mess around. The range of her appearances goes from average-but-awkward to completely terrifying. It might sound weird, but I’m actually glad there isn’t a “beautiful maiden” hidden under all of the grease. I think it’s much better to have Tomoko’s appearance remain rather plain. Not that she couldn’t look nicely average if she tried, but just that she wouldn’t be drop-dead gorgeous. I think this shows younger audiences a much more realistic look at how the world works. Not everyone can do a 180, but they can do a slight change, and sometimes that’s all that’s needed anyways.

The rest of the cast look fairly normal as well, but in a clean-and-kept kind of way that highlights how unhealthy of a lifestyle Tomoko has. I found the contrast between individuals and art styles to be a great way of working in more about her characterization. Crystal mentions the K-On! references, which are wonderfully used to demonstrate the differences between her and her surroundings, and her ideals and the real world. Once this fantasy is dropped, hopefully she’ll be able to see the real world around her, which isn’t quite as complex as she makes it out to be.

ART STYLE/ANIMATION: The animation is one of Watamote’s saving graces, because it’s so solid that it makes the show tolerable to watch and even fun at times. I don’t remember it ever looking bad, and frequently the animators went out of their way to change things up to mimic other styles in order to make a scene more fun. With the K-On! reference I mentioned earlier, the character designed are briefly revamped to look like K-On!, and when Tomoko plays a card game against local kids, the art style becomes your standard shounen battle type. These references that show how Tomoko views the world are sprinkled throughout the show, and they’re fun to look out for and identify.

The art style for the show also does a great job of showing just how freakin’ creepy Tomoko is. She’s awkward in every way possible, from her too-long skirt to her uncombed hair and the bags under her eyes, and the art draws those details in all the time. These traits are taken to such an extreme that I could see someone being moe for Tomoko, if they can bring themselves to not hate her to the core like I do. Other characters have more or less standard anime designs that all highlight how normal and well-adjusted they are in relation to Tomoko.

OVERALL: I’m really torn on this series. Part of me thinks this show is one of those “necessary evils” which people should force themselves to watch to understand the way the world can look through another person’s eyes. Then again, it can also be very damaging and create stereotypes about certain types of people. It is not the most accurate representation of social anxiety, but it may be one of the better examples in anime. It does make me uncomfortable that I don’t ultimately end up liking Tomoko, but that’s part of what makes it so good.

I can’t suggest that you watch this, since I know no matter who you are, you’ll most likely not enjoy it. There is a chance that you’ll hate it, but feel that it at least made you more openminded and helped you consider a situation you may have overlooked before. It could also make you painfully aware of your own shortcomings from high school, which I’m sure we all had plenty enough of the first time. I think I can safely say that you probably don’t need to watch this, and if you are interested in this sort of dialogue, you should pick out the book I mentioned, and others like it.

OVERALL: Watamote is six hours of my life that I can never get back, and I don’t recommend others repeat this experience. Though this show may be a very accurate portrayal of social anxiety and how awful it can be to go to high school with that, it’s also too painful for me to find at all enjoyable. In addition to that, Tomoko’s a genuinely awful person, so I can’t find myself rooting for her, but I don’t want to root against her, either, because that’s just rubbing in how awful she has it. Really, I want to take Tomoko and force her to be socially rehabilitated through an anime club or something, but I doubt Watamote will ever go that direction.

In a nutshell, Watamote’s too awkward without working to save Tomoko like Kimi ni Todoke or full-out condemning her like Flowers of Evil. If I’m going to watch a series about a high school outcast, I’d rather have them go in one of those two directions instead of stewing in the middle ground of awkwardness without end. I’ve seen enough of that in my life, and no amount of fun animation or referential humor can make me want to watch more of it.

FINAL SCORE: (6/10) FINAL SCORE: (6/10)
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