No matter how I look at it, it’s you guys’ fault I’m not popular! No not me, Tomoko-chan! Apparently that’s what the full Japanese title, shortened to WataMote, more or less means. This is one of the most jarringly depressing shows I’ve ever seen. A rather unusual take on slice-of-life, it is almost intentionally stuck in a dark twilight zone between comedic and a dangerous level of depressing. As far as anime goes, it’s a very interesting work, and I was thoroughly into it once I started. I definitely finished this single-season anime in one day.
If you look at how many characters are credited in this anime, you’d think the cast was a colossal and confusing mess. But as it turns out, there’s really only Tomoko, her immediate family consisting of a younger brother and mother, and her only friend Yuu Naruse. The rest of the characters appear and disappear in short order, contributing minimally to the plot, if at all.
It’s all about Tomoko anyway! She absolutely is at the center of everything. Initially you feel like this poor character is another iteration of the unpopular and reticent highschool girl who is about to enter a new and exciting phase of life. But as you continue to discover right up to the end, that is not the case! She is unpopular and dorky and shy and she never gets anywhere near coming out of it. Despite her stated goal of becoming popular as she begins highschool, every effort she makes ends in dismal failure. Either her ideas are miserably ill-conceived in the first place, with no hope of making her popular, or she screws up so badly in execution that everything ends in near disaster. It’s so cringy it makes you very uncomfortable.
I don’t want to get into the real-world issues that Tomoko reflects. I try to avoid those kinds of topics here, instead choosing to focus entirely on the art of the thing itself. There’s three things about her character that makes her so noteworthy to me.
The first is how relatable she is. Most of us have had similar experiences to what she goes through, in some measure. There’s no shortage of discomfort and unease in her experiences, and it gives a very unhappy sensation to the viewer. In this sense, she is a very dramatic character. Characters in dramatic anime are often more relatable than those in most other genres. But this is not a drama. However you want to classify this, it’s designed to be comedy. You’d think characters would be more relatable in comedy, but I hold that these characters only become more relatable the more dramatic elements you add to them. Hence rom-com is often so relatable, despite the often crazy scenarios the characters find themselves in. Think of something like Gintama or even KonoSuba, almost strictly comedic anime. It’s only when things get serious for a moment that we can feel for Kugura, or understand the impact of Gin-san’s past, or sympathize with Megumin. My point is that adding dramatic elements to characters can make them more relatable. And what Tomoko experiences in this anime has extreme elements of drama. I hope no one has ever experienced the level of unhappiness that she encounters in her travails, but I presume any one of you could have. But for certain you’ve all had at least one such difficult experience, and hence we are very easily able to relate to this poor character. It hurts a good bit watching her.
Second, this show takes Tomoko’s experiences to a ridiculous level. In an anime sense, it’s the extremity of it that’s remarkable. We often expect to see things taken to extremes in anime. Most notably this occurs in action anime, where motion is taken to impossible extremes. But the other prominent anime genre that utilizes extremes is: comedy! And this show uses that kind of extremity not in the absurdity of the comedy in this case, but in the sheer amount and devastating failure of Tomoko’s efforts. If you watch this show, she’s close to suicidal levels of failure. There’s nothing she can do right. And some of the things she imagines in her head are so extremely out of touch with reality that it’s painful to watch. It’s so bad, and it really messes with your head. I think this is partly caused by how the framework is that of comedy (extremely crazy situations) but the result is depression. It’s embarrassing and depressing to watch her go through all this. All while portraying itself as comedy. You feel like you want to laugh, but the weight in your heart won’t let you.
The third thing is related to this. This is a remarkable effort by the authors and it produces a very unique character. We’ve all seen the stereotypical highschoolers who comes out of their shell and get surrounded by a core group of friends, and it warms your heart and makes you cry a little and everybody ends up happy. But we almost never see a character, in this kind of anime, where nothing works out right. She’s in exactly the same place at the end of the show that she was at the beginning. Arguably worse, because she’s added to the weight of her situation with all her recent depressing experiences. It’s so bad you wonder if she’s going to harm herself. I’m very glad she doesn’t, as I love this character so much. When she went up on the roof she used to go to with Yuu, and initially she’s alone, you wonder what’s going to happen. That ends in another cringy situation, but you’re relieved that’s all that happens. But to tie everything together here, this combination of relatability and the dynamic between comedy and depression make for a very unique and high quality character.
I love it! Every bit of the art in this anime is completely typical. All the characters have traditional eyes, hair, clothing, etc., all very shiny and pretty. Except Tomoko. Nothing is normal about Tomoko’s appearance. She’s really short. Only Kii-chan, her younger cousin, is shorter than her. Her hair is disheveled, long and disorderly and falling over one half of her face most of the time. Her eyes are a different shape than everybody else’s, usually flat along the eyelashes at the top, giving her a tired and disinterested look. The excessive darkness under her eyes adds to this effect. Her jawline and chin is mostly flat too, similar to the characteristics we’re familiar with in child characters. The contrast between her design and all the other characters is remarkable. Take one look at her and Yuu-chan together and you’ll know what I mean. This contrast adds to the discomfort you experience seeing her. Not that seeing her in itself is uncomfortable–by no means, I love seeing her!–but seeing how uncomfortably out-of-place she always seems to appear adds to our uneasiness.
You see this contrasting styling occasionally in characters, but it’s not always done so clearly. Probably the most well-known example is One Punch Man. Every character in that show has a fairly normal anime style except Saitama. We’re pretty familiar with the complete lack of detail in his eyes and face and his oval head. We’re also highly familiar with his transformation, where, though still minimally detailed, a lot of traditional anime features appear in his visage. His transformed appearance shows how intentional the contrast is meant to be between his normal appearance and the normal appearance of everyone else in the show. Compare that with Tomoko here. It has a very similar feel, right down to things like the shape of the eyes. We even get some transformed images of Tomoko. She might be imagining the outcome of one of her ventures, and the art makes her look a lot different, and a lot more traditional. So the contrast in her appearance when compared to everyone else is very intentional, and is handled very well.
This story sets out to tease you. It plays with the idea that we’re most accustomed to given this type of MC. I sat through most of this show waiting for that one friend to emerge that would lead her to her new and happy life. It never happened.
First, you’re expecting it. We’ve seen lots of anime. We know where this is going. Then the writers toy with you. We hear she has a nerdy friend from middleschool, but when we actually get to see Yuu-chan, she’s evolved into nearly the “bitch” type Tomoko has been deriding! But even there, it seems like there’s hope. Yuu-chan still thinks of her as a dear friend, and you have some hope that Tomoko can attain what she wants through her help. It never happens. Then the boy buys her an umbrella despite how weird she behaves in the rainstorm, and then he sees her again at the library and remembers her. It doesn’t seem like there’s much hope in this situation, but at this point in the show you’re clinging to any hope she has left! Then that ends in an embarrassing situation. Lastly, there’s the mysterious Imae Megumi. If I’m not mistaken they change her character some from the manga to the anime (I think this anime is a lot different than the manga in general), but that aside. She is extremely nice towards Tomoko, like she wants to be friends. But even there nothing develops. Tomoko runs away from her in the final episode, too scared to even talk to her. And that’s how it ends. Tomoko seems resigned to her state, whether happily or unhappily we don’t know.
It’s not very nice of the writers, but it’s really effective. We get oh-so-close to where we expect this to go, and it all falls apart. They build up your hope, and then tear it down again. It’s effective because it makes our emotions mirror Tomoko’s. Hey, part of her hopes derive from her otaku media experiences (anime, otome games, etc.). It makes sense that, given our experiences as anime viewers, our expectations and emotions would follow the same paths as hers. It enhances the distress of the dismal situations Tomoko finds herself in. It’s a nice touch by the writers, even if it’s harsh!
Contrast is the overriding element in this show. From Tomoko’s appearance in relation to everyone else to our expectations from this kind of show versus the result, everything is in contrast to something else. But above all is the contrast that manifests in our emotions. This is supposed to be comedic, right? I mentioned wanting to laugh at times. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but it often felt like I should be laughing. So much about this show screamed comedy. But as I watched, and when I finished, competing with that feeling of impending humor was a gut-wrenching despair. This show leaves you feeling completely mentally drained. And you still want to laugh, even if you can’t. I don’t know if this is what the writers were aiming for, but if they were, it’s quite effective.
Great art should be evocative, to any level of degree. Sometimes that takes a very traditional path. We’re supposed to cry our brains out in Your Lie in April. We’re supposed to hold our sides as we roll on the floor in pain during Gintama. We’re supposed to feel warm and happy when Tsukasa and Nasa share cute moments during Tonikawa. We’re supposed to feel the burning in our heart as Eren Jaeger wreaks his revenge on Marley, and mad as hell when Sasha dies, in AoT. But rarely does an anime cause you to so distinctly feel such contrasting emotions as what I experienced with WataMote. That’s a high accomplishment.
Can one actually enjoy something like this experience though? I enjoyed this show. Perhaps it was because of my awareness of this contrasting feeling more than anything. It certainly wasn’t the most pleasant sensation! But I think great art should be experienced, and so I recommend this show. It pokes at something very human in us, and that’s a good thing. For such is the power of anime, as I have always maintained. And as unusual and weird feeling as this show is, it gets at that in a way I have not experienced before. I hope they make a season two at some point. And I hope everything works out for Tomoko when that happens!