WataMote

So were many of us.
So were many of us.

I’m not exactly sure when I realized that I had more friends than I thought. It might have been sometime during my mid 20s, when I was sitting in a Corner Bakery with other church people. I was in one of my more morose moods and had a hard time looking people in the eye, a bad habit that has plagued me since my early days. Though I was surrounded by people, Christians, who were supposed to be friendly, I ate my sandwich in a cone of silence. Which is the way I liked it much of the time, except when I didn’t and I wished someone, preferably an attractive person of the opposite sex, would talk to me first.

Finally, someone asked me how I was doing. “It could be better,” I think I said. “It’s kind of lonely.” You are not supposed to answer that question that way, of course. You are supposed to say “Good,” or “I’m fine” because otherwise the conversation comes to a screeching halt. People look at you with concern, and it starts getting Serious and voices have that hush of exaggerated Worry For Your Well Being.

It took half a moment before I recognized my faux pas and I tried to laugh it off, and apologized for being so awkward. “But I’m better than I used to be,” I added hastily. “You should have seen me when I was in my teens. Ha ha ha.” And it was true–coming to California had already begun to relieve me of the near catatonic states I sometimes got in in large group settings–but they didn’t need to know that. Man, how pathetic, I thought. You already sound so self-justifying, so self-pitying. “I’m not used to having a lot of friends,” I concluded. And there’s the troll for sympathy.

I don’t remember what the person said in response. It wasn’t anything as encouraging or straightforward as “We’re all friends here,” or “But we like you.” Maybe it was “it’s ok. You’re fine.” But not long afterwards, I thought about all the friends I still had back in Maryland, living overseas in places like Japan or Taiwan. The not unfriendly, not unkind people that surrounded me. They were laughing but they weren’t laughing at me, which is how I used to interpret all laughter that I heard outside my immediate presence. They didn’t not want me here. I realized: Maybe I wasn’t popular, but I wasn’t friendless either. At some point, the old narrative I had told myself since childhood was no longer true.

It took me a long time, a lifetime really, to get to that point.

* * *

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The most relatable aspect of Tomoko Kuroki, the heroine of WataMote (the short form of a story titled No Matter How I Look At It, It’s Not My Fault I’m Not Popular!) is her self-talk. In the first episode of the anime, we are treated to her running internal dialogue, which alternates between grandiosity, judgmental contempt for her peers, self-justification, self-doubt, and even suicidal intentions: and that’s just in the first half. If it had to be boiled down to a single word, it might be “insecurity,” and that is certainly a huge aspect of it, but what WataMote gets that other fine shows such as Kimi ni Todoke don’t get is also the other side of the pendulum swing: the absurd, delusional self-confidence that happens just before a crash. “I’m not unpopular!” she proclaims. “I talked to 6 guys last year!” As someone who used to call it a good day when a pretty girl sat next to me in church or on the bus, even if we didn’t talk, and used to keep informal tallies of conversations I had…that hurt.

Tomoko is also not very likable, and this is also a truth of being an outcast. Someone like the pure-hearted Sawako from Kimi ni Todoke may be low self-esteem, but her sweetness and innocence are deeply appealing. Tomoko is neither so innocent or so pure, and I’m not talking so much in the way she gets turned on by otome games. Outcasts can be the biggest snobs and most judgmental of others, as in her dismissal of her more popular peers as “sluts” or “bitches” and the boys who like them as “idiots.” I certainly remember inveighing against popular movies like Titanic when it was released, taking pride in not listening to mainstream garbage on the radio, and refusing to use less big words in my speech for fear of accommodating to the dumb masses. “You are so hard to please,” a girl told me once. The truth was, I was insufferable sometimes. And so is Tomoko. I can imagine those who can’t relate to her disliking her in this anime, the way a lot of folks despise Shinji from Evangelion. It’s brave for WataMote to depict this aspect of unpopularity, from the self-pitying title on down.

Sometimes this is how you feel on the inside.
Sometimes this is how you feel on the inside too.

The temptation for a story like this, especially with the grotesque efforts Tomoko makes in trying to make herself “cute,” is to turn this into a standard makeover story, in which a little fashion advice turns a homely girl into a beautiful one and suddenly she gets all the guys she wants. I’m assured by others who read the manga this is not the case. The irony is that this is the story that Tomoko and those like her indulge in all day: witness her love of otome games and how she has “dated” over 200 guys and been a high school girl for 50 years. The makeover narrative is one Tomoko desperately wants to believe in: if I had high test scores, or if I only dressed differently or wore glasses or followed advice in magazines, I’d be liked….Because that’s relatively easy. The truth is that popularity is a full-time job when you are in high school and people with other interests and priorities–like most of us nerds and geeks–simply don’t, and shouldn’t, do that work if we want to remain true to ourselves.

And her brother, Tomoki. I had no siblings, who might have provided at least an outlet of sorts, and I sometimes longed to have an older sister, probably because most of the girls who were kind to me tended to be older. But given the stilted way I talked to my parents at that age, I’m not sure I would have done much better than Tomoko with her brother. He, after all, is “normal” and even popular, being an accomplished athlete; I had grades and I had writing, which is something, but not things that discouraged my reclusiveness. There’s evidence that Tomoki is more than a little concerned about her, but given her mood swings and insecurity his annoyance is also understandable. I know my parents didn’t understand why failing a quiz felt so devastating to me at the time. There were few other things holding me up, and the moodiness that comes to most adolescents can seem like a distant memory once you’re an adult.

I watch this show now, with its spastic, Shin Oonuma directed visuals, its depictions of a genuinely plain and sometimes ugly female lead (itself a daring move for anime), and its emotionally accurate depiction of social isolation’s effects, and I have two simultaneous reactions: laughter, and knowing pain. Laughter, because I am old enough and past my adolescence and early 20s to realize how silly my thought process was sometimes. Pain, because I am young enough to remember how debilitating that time was: forgetting how to greet people pleasantly because you’d been isolated for so long. Not knowing how to sustain a conversation with anyone you find attractive. Fidgeting, stammering, talking to oneself a bit too much. Assuming that being liked or loved is only attainable in a fantasy game.

A lot of us started from there and have struggled, or still struggle, to get out. WataMote, hopefully, honors the rest of us non-popular people with emotional truth, laughter, and tears. Ganbatte ne, Tomoko.

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8 thoughts on “WataMote”

  1. More than Free! or any other recent anime, WataMote speaks to girls. While everyone can feel the sting of social ostracism, schoolgirls tend to be vicious about it.

    I’d go so far as to say that if Free! is feminist in an academic sort of way – a response to the male gaze that uses genderswapping to make its heavy-handed point – WataMote is more feminist in that it casts not just a female main character, but an unpolished and occasionally uncute/unlikeable female main character. The main character is neither moeblob nor bishojo, and yet she is still considered worthy to be a main character.

    1. That’s an interesting way of looking at it. The original manga was published in a shounen magazine, so its first intended audience is actually boys—but, as Emily puts it beautifully in her post about this show, unlike other female leads who are into otaku things, Tomoko has the distinction of not being entirely defined by her interests. You learn about her as a person first, and she both presented as someone that not only girls but also socially awkward guys can relate to, and without the forced nature that someone like Kirino from OreImo or even Konata from Lucky Star has; the fantasies and difficulties she has are specific to that of a straight girl but any viewer can translate it into his or her own experiences.

      And yes, it is indeed a progressive thing to see someone so superficially unappealing, though the humor mitigates it a great deal, and it doesn’t take long for the viewer to feel real empathy for her. That’s the key to good characterization.

  2. “refusing to use less big words in my speech for fear of accommodating to the dumb masses.” LOL. Comedy gold. Reminds me of the mentality when reading Notes From Underground. The guy was also a very intelligent, graduated from St. Petersburg Law school, but reclusive and had no friends, and a NEET. They tend to philosophize everything, find fault with others, and nit-picking. I don’t know if Tomoko is an intellectual, there’s no depiction of that. If she’s stupid, then, I can relate to her more.

    I always want to be smart, so I have a strong envy for intellectual people, very professional people, that blog says about popularity table, but in capitalism, tables are based on income level. The area or neighborhood you live in. Higher income kids are more likely to complete higher educations. Coming from proletariat, I always wanted to be part of intelligentia, and now I’m part of Anime Diet, so that fulfills what I’m my lacking. To me, AnimeDiet is more like “neighbor club” from Haganai (I don’t have much friends), which I strongly recommend Tomoko to join. So, she won’t be a lone terrorist like CHo Seung-Hui or a far right extremist like Yukio Mishima, who also suffered stammering during youth.

    Oneechan type, lol, I love more of a female teacher, ideally 27 years old. Then, I must be 15. “Young teacher, the subject, of school boy’s fantasy!”

    1. At least based on episode 2, Tomoko is more or less a fujoshi, not really an intellectual in the usual sense. Actually geeks and nerds aren’t always academically inclined or intellectual in that sense, though there’s definitely an overlap. I’ve known total nerds who got bad grades and were mainly into the subculture stuff. And, of course, being not into academic or bookish pursuits does not make you stupid!

      I’m happy that you think of AD as a welcoming place, and well, you’re a vital part of it! And I hope we always will be, for our staff and also for our audience.

  3. I remember reading the manga before watching the anime and I was amazed at how 4chan made its popularity explode. Then I realized why because of the audience that makes up 4chan.

    I’ve been through the same boat too in my early years, but somehow people interjected themselves into my life and I tried to be a bit more “popular” in the same boat. I really wanted to change and worked hard at it. My grades suffered a bit, but in the end, I felt ok. Though I’ve had inner conflicts with myself from time to time…and still kinda do.

    1. Tomoko’s situation is necessarily exaggerated for comedic effect, though it’s not that exaggerated at certain points in a lot of people’s lives, mine included. And that’s the thing about popularity–you had to work hard to change yourself in order to do it. It’s not something that happens haphazardly or without a lot of effort. Someone like Tomoko basically has had very little practice, hence her epic fail attempts to be “cute.”

    1. You know, when she isn’t trying so hard to make herself something she isn’t, she isn’t bad at all, and is really funny and cute. The artist who drew her face gets it. I hope she realizes that one day.

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