Tomoko will go to great lengths to avoid socializing with her peers, especially if they are boys. She’d rather go without a textbook she forgot to bring than share her neighbor’s, which always gets her in trouble. When her umbrella breaks during a rainstorm and she encounters some guys at the bus stop, she’s so nervous that she runs to the bathroom in great fear and nausea. And once again she attempts to use her brother, this time attempting to catch his cold so she can avoid going to school. It succeeds but too late, ruining her weekend —made all the worse by her now coupled friend Yuu’s answer to a relationship quiz.
What WataMote continually does, with caustic humor, is to drive home the point that ultimately Tomoko is responsible for her predicament. There’s a moment, for instance, where she thinks that her umbrella’s been stolen and her mind immediately constructs a dark profile of who the thief might be, that he might be having a relationship, that he deserves to die—only for her rage to be punctured by spotting the umbrella on the other side of the aisle. The paranoia and judgmentalism she regularly indulges in is a product not of genuine circumstance, but of her own mind. The same goes with her inability to ask a neighbor to share a textbook—something which has apparently happened repeatedly. She seems oblivious to the fact that she suffers more, not less, by taking the long, avoiding way.
I remember being that way. I’d loop around a school corridor to avoid meeting certain people. Or look away from another person hoping he or she wouldn’t notice me. Sit by myself while eating so I wouldn’t have to talk to anyone, or, more recently, bow my head down toward the screen of my smartphone and endlessly check the news.
What drove me was fear: fear of being laughed at, because it always felt like other people’s eyes were on you and others were just waiting for a chance to mock you, when, in fact, most people are ignoring you. (This happens at the bus stop with the two random guys, for instance. They can’t even understand what she’s saying, let alone thinking or saying bad things about her.) The truth is that most people are far too self-absorbed themselves to care that much about what you are doing. But the fear, which for Tomoko is paralyzing, not only prevents her from saying the right things at the right time or taking an easier way out. It also prevents her from noticing when people have been kind to her, as when she wishes “a guy would be nice to me” after a guy had in fact bought her a new umbrella and left it with her while she was asleep. Fear has a way of driving out love, and, it is love that casts out fear.
What hasn’t been explored much yet in the anime—no spoilers, manga readers—is how Tomoko became what she is now. Why is she so socially anxious? Bullying would be a plausible, albeit predictable, reason. But her behavior seems to come less from bullying-induced low self-esteem than from a generalized anxiety and self-consciousness. Is it genetic? Is it her fujoshi-esque hobbies? Her plain looks? Middle school girls can be exquisitely cruel, it is true, and perhaps they picked on her for many reasons, leaving her only with Yuu to keep her company then. Middle school in general can be a hellish time for nearly everyone, and not everyone reacts with aplomb or gets over it so easily.
What remains is this, however: her social exile is, by this point, largely self-imposed. There is a real snobbery in her attitude toward others, along with fear. Her dealings with her brother are plainly self-interested, and he sees through it easily and dismisses her accordingly, cutting herself off from a possible source of strength and comfort. (One can’t also help but think that her sisterly attempts to get him to say she is attractive is not just desperation, but also a swipe at certain types of anime fans, but I digress…) Even a stupid magazine quiz, whose methodology is highly suspect, only encourages her to think to worst about herself. How can she be so gullible?
Which is why for me, her situation is not any less sad for being partly her responsibility. This show is always teetering on the edge of no longer being funny but being genuinely tragic, and given Oonuma’s record as a superb chronicler of loneliness (much of the ef series and the serious episodes of BakaTest and Dusk Maiden), I suspect we will see Tomoko’s soul laid bare at some point. There’s real hurt somewhere in there, and she’ll have to face it and confront it if she wants to move on.