Tag Archives: summer 2013

WataMote 7: Voices

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Summary

Summer vacation has started, and isolated Tomoko–true to herself–does not bother going out of her room, choosing to while away the hours in front of a computer, a book, listening to more fantasy boys on MP3, playing games…and kvetching late at night, to the continued annoyance of her brother. Eventually even she realizes that she’s wasting her time, so she orders a webcam and attempts to start a streaming live show, only to discover that she has little to say that’s funny or entertaining to an outside audience. Her experiment with webcam stardom ends in failure.

By chance, however, she discovers that she has a ticket to a handsome voice actor’s meet-and-greet, where fans have an opportunity to have him record a line for them. Smitten by the possibilities, Tomoko freakishly prepares for the event, only to discover that she is utterly unprepared when it’s her turn to give him her desired lines. He handles it like the pro that he is, however, and soon Tomoko has an entire collection of his lines to tickle her ears, which she then proceeds to edit together with some of her “responses” into a suggestive audio play. Which, of course, her mother overhears because Tomoko plugged her headphones into the wrong jack.

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Thoughts

This was the most hilarious episode of WataMote to hit in a while, and it’s all thanks to the way Oonuma builds up the episode. One might argue that the first third or half was slow-paced and boring–we essentially watch the passage of time as Tomoko spends most of her day inside her room consuming media (an experience many of us, myself included, are all too familiar with on vacation days). It’s only mildly punctuated with her night-time noises. But what is happening is a slow windup, which builds throughout the webcam story and which culminates with the voice actor recording. By the last third I was in a constant state of hilarity. The ridiculousness of the situation only becomes apparent over time and makes the payoff of the final scene that much sweeter.

One might also judge this episode as a win for Tomoko, given the parameters of the story. She essentially has her fantasies and desires fulfilled: in this case, getting to do what she wants in her room, meeting one of her idols and getting him to do what she wanted, and even using a bit of creativity to take that product and make it her own. Sure, the live stream was a failure, though the camera’s microphone was put to use; sure, her mother found out, but, much like her father did when she was discovered with an eroge and a vibrator, her mother just backs away and lets her be. One can debate whether a good parent should do such a thing, of course, and it was certainly embarrassing, but given all her past humiliations she got let off mighty easy in this episode.

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There is one scene that was woven into the narrative that was a short, separate chapter in the manga: the one where Tomoki (the brother) sees his mother watching tapes of him and Tomoko as small children, when they loved each other and were affectionate to one another. He even declared he wanted to marry her then! His reaction, of course, is one of mortal embarrassment, but I found the scene to also contain an undercurrent of sadness too, given the contrast to their much more antagonistic current relationship. Oonuma, however, never gives in to playing up the sentimental parts too hard in WataMote, so the most we are given as a sign of reconciliation is him watching Tomoko from his window as she lights fireworks by herself.  This realistic emotional understatement is a refreshing contrast to the likes of, oh, another just-concluded show about brothers and sisters that ran in the opposite direction. Both, oddly enough, have insufferable sisters who are at times barely tolerated by their brothers: but in this one, the sister is the subject rater than the object, and the difference could not be more stark in execution.

There’s also something in this episode about the obsessive nature of fandom and producing vs consuming media, but I’ll leave that discussion to my upcoming article/review of that other brother/sister show.

What a difference context makes.
What a difference context makes.

WataMote 6: Delusions of Grandeur

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EVA REFERENCES FTW

Summary

Tomoko suddenly looks…cuter? So she thinks, after a round of otome games seems to make her lose the bags under her eyes. Her newfound confidence, fueled by the belief that girls become cuter when they fall in love and horoscope predictions, carries over into the school day–and isn’t even stopped when she accidentally leads a colony of ants into her pants. Along the way, a couple of boys try to pick off the ants crawling over her, which she misinterprets as friendly overtures: boys are flocking to her! The problem only worsens, but she barely recognizes it as she splashes Coke all over herself, making the ant problem more severe. Only her brother seems to recognize what’s going on, and he’s not impressed.

Then, in an attempt to get a date to watch the fireworks, Tomoko conceives of elaborate plans to target potential loners in the library–all of which are much more complicated than simply asking them to come with her. Her first plot, to talk to one of the girls, is thwarted by the appearance of her friends, who are the typical sort of “bitches” Tomoko disdains. Her next subject, a nerdy boy reading a book, is supposed to be enticed by a fake performance she gives about not having anyone to go with, in the hopes he will overhear and ask her out. He does not. So she ends up on the roof to watch the fireworks, all by herself, when finally two middle school boys show up. Shyly, she asks if she can stay with them, and they consent–only to be not watching the fireworks in the sky, but the fireworks happening in the love hotel across the street between a couple. This, at last, seems to give Tomoko some joy.

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She really is an innocent, in the end.

Thoughts

This show actually seems to get sadder with every passing episode. Am I the only one who feels this way?

This one is particularly sad because it’s so full of delusions: full of scenes Tomoko thinking she’s succeeded when she’s hasn’t. Though she does look cute(r) without the characteristic bags under her eyes–you wonder if all she really just needs is a little bit more sleep–she continues to rely on specious theories she reads on the Internet or from horoscopes to determine her next steps to becoming more popular. The dramatic irony gets taken to new extremes in this episode, and, as we are at the series’ halfway point, the contrast is starting to look more and more distressing.

It also threatens, as some viewers have already concluded, to become a bit monochromatic and static. There appears to be no narrative arc or much change to Tomoko. Having read the manga now, I know this is not destined to change much should Oonuma choose to remain faithful to it, though he does seem to be ordering manga chapters in a deliberate way that might lead to some sort of character trajectory…it remains to be seen. This is one of those instances where one hopes that the director will exercise some aesthetic and narrative judgment in order to actually improve on the original work, just like the way the anime of Honey and Clover actually made it more than the sum of the manga’s parts and Sankarea added more character depth.

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ef~a tale of mendacities one tells oneself

I keep on, however, because while Tomoko keeps digging herself into a deeper hole, there are more and more scenes where the sympathy also grows. Oonuma even pulls out an old shot from the ef series to illustrate her loneliness, and the tone of each episode since the 4th raunchy one has been notably quieter. Non-comedy tears are beginning to form in her eyes. Earnest moments are still undercut by final punchlines, especially in the last moment of the episode with the love hotel, but the more serious parts are also more emphatic than before. The final ED, an old song sung by Hatsune Miku, is more wistful than anything else. As sad as Tomoko is, I want her to succeed even just a little, at least at the end. There has to be hope for loners like her, right? Or, to put it more bluntly, for a lot of people like us?

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It’s always about more than fireworks.

But I also remember the anime ending I hated the most, the one for Saikano. I hated it because I found it utterly nihilistic, and the nihilism came from its delusional aspect, where the character was thinking/imagining one thing but reality was another. Strictly speaking, I’m not of the opinion that a nihilistic work is necessarily a bad piece of art. Saikano was nothing but consistent, a work of integrity. But ultimately it’s an attitude/stance toward the world that I cannot ever pretend to like or appreciate personally, because I think it’s destructively one-sided. Tomoko, after all, wants what everyone wants: to be loved. We can appreciate and laugh at the foolish things people do for love–we’ve all done it ourselves–but ultimately that desire itself shouldn’t be mocked. Tomoko may be a figure of fun, but for a viewer like me, she’s also recognizably human in her basic needs and wants. That deserves some respect.

It’s still too early to tell what direction this anime adaptation will take with the static source material. I see hints of it going either in a more reflective direction and also it staying the same. Oonuma-san: it’s in your hands now.

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This, potentially, could be the saddest image in the series. Especially how it’s presented like a commercial.

WataMote 5: Personae

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Summary

In her never ending quest to become more popular, Tomoko attempts three different personality changes: first, inspired by an anime, she tries to become a Yuki Nagato-like “expressionless character.” Not only does it make her even more outcast–silence is natural for someone who’s all alone anyway–it ends up making some people (like her brother) angrier or bewildered (the handsome barista). Apparently that personality only works if a guy is already hanging around you. Next, she attempts to follow other smiling cute couples and get a picture taken at the purikura booth, but after being denied by her friend Yuu and her brother, she ends up going alone, and making only grotesque faces instead. Finally, Tomoko believes that becoming a hostess will improve her social skills, and gets herself ready for the role by learning to light a lighter and mix drinks–only to find out that the red light district of Kabuki-cho isn’t so innocent and friendly.

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Thoughts

This episode is more subdued compared to last week’s extreme situations and raunchy humor, and it highlights one of Tomoko’s key problems: she thinks that a single big change, or a single personality shift, will solve all her problems. While some of this owes more to the structure of the gag-per-chapter original manga, it’s also a perennial temptation for many people who are stuck in bad situations: if only I had x, then I’d… What’s also interesting is that in two of the scenarios, they were both inspired by what Tomoko saw on TV: an anime and a talk show interview. As an otaku, media actually is very influential in Tomoko’s life, informing her fantasy life (hence the reference to AkiraHaruhi Suzumiya, and other shows) and what she considers solutions to her problems.

Her treatment of her brother Tomoki appears to be worsening. She seems to be in the habit of stealing his food and drink–ramen last week, his sports drink this time–and even her lame attempts to be nice usually end up backfiring. Tomoki reacts with predictable irritation and now puts her in a face lock. I remember watching my teenage cousins–also an older sister and younger brother pair–get along not much better, so this sort of interaction is based in reality, minus Tomoko’s doubtlessly anime-fueled attempts to get Tomoki to do things by saying “but it’s your sister…” (Welcome to a non sis-con world, otaku girl. It’s sad that this is actually refreshing in light of all the recent anime trends, but I’ll take what we can get.) I’m beginning to feel more pity for him now than ever before. Enduring someone like Tomoko on a daily basis would try anyone’s patience, and he’s starting to lose it.

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There are some bravura Oonuma directorial moves in this episode, though less on the spastic faces this time and more on the way the scenery moves. The sparer emotional mood, which depends less on outrageousness this time, actually feels somewhat sadder than before. I felt a pang of sympathy when Tomoko fell down at the Starbucks, spilling her terrible concoction of condimented coffee. On the other hand, her bad attitude toward Tomoki is getting less admirable by the episode, which is a reminder that as hapless as she is, she’s also incredibly self-absorbed. It exists alongside her painful self-consciousness and attempts to be someone she’s not, an effort which is always going to end in failure if one isn’t a fantastic actor or actress. The strain is too much. So many of us learned that the hard way in our teenage years. The cost of fitting in is often higher than can be paid.

Attack on Titan: “Why We Fight” For the Otaku Age?

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There were giants in the earth in those days; and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bare children to them, the same became mighty men which were of old, men of renown. And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. —Genesis 6:4-5

Attack on Titan (Shingeki no Kyoujin) is the most popular new manga and anime in the world right now. Or so it seems, based on more than 20 million manga copies sold, high anime ratings, and at Anime Expo, as many cosplayers dressed in the uniforms of the Survey Corps as there once were Naruto headbands. Even within the usually snobbish English aniblogosphere, it’s the most talked-about series for the past two seasons. It’s also one of my favorite series airing right now, one I eagerly look forward to every week.

What’s going on? What’s led this story about the war between humans and giants to sweep through the anime scene faster than the Colossal Titan can knock down walls?

During the Second World War, the American government produced a series of propaganda films called “Why We Fight.” Produced and largely directed by Frank Capra of It’s a Wonderful Life and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, the series was initially aimed at soldiers, and only later shown to civilians. The films sought to convince the troops that, should the Axis Powers prevail in Europe and Asia, they would be an overwhelming, implacable foe that would easily overwhelm an isolated America with their sheer numbers. The enemy’s own propaganda, such as The Triumph of the Will, was spliced in to reinforce the fearsomeness and ugly racist ideology they faced. The films also sought to explain why the US was teaming up with the Soviet Union, who would not normally be an ally of a Western capitalist democracy. Sometimes you have to join forces with people who may not necessarily be to your liking in order to defeat an even greater enemy.

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One can see that the general narrative of Attack on Titan hits a lot of the same points as this classic piece of wartime persuasion. From the start, the viewer is convinced that the fight Eren and his family and friends face is one of sheer survival against a terrifying, superior foe. They need no films to convince them of that fact: the people they care about are eaten right before their very eyes. Eren’s goal from the day his mother perished is to avenge her death and to kill all the Titans, and in order to do so, he wishes to not only join the military, but to join its most dangerous and elite branch, the Survey Corps. He and his friends all enlist together, train together (mostly), and fight together…and by the most recent episode, all the main characters are all within the same Survey Corps that Eren sought to join from the start. Along the way, Eren himself comes under fire for his Titan-generating powers, but the authorities are eventually convinced that his dangerous powers are worth harnessing for the greater good of humanity, even though they know he is still not in full control of them.

Or perhaps “propaganda” is the wrong term. First off–just because something is “propaganda” (we just call it “advertising” today) doesn’t make it untrue, at least not entirely: Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and Imperial Japan really did stand for odious racial ideologies and did commit many atrocities. Moreover the goal of Attack on Titan in our world is not to necessarily convince us to join some real military and go fight literal giants or other oppressive enemies–except perhaps one’s own internal demons, as producer George Wada suggested in discussing his motivations for making the anime. It’s a ripping good yarn, full of intense emotions, action, and an uncanny ability to keep the audience guessing what comes next. (Few shows have been as difficult to discuss without the threat of spoilers than this one in recent memory.) This is a war story told from the perspective of soldiers, and it’s natural that themes common to war movies are featured heavily: camaraderie, corrupt senior officers/leaders in conflict with sharp, practical ones, grief at the heavy human toll of fighting, but always with the determination to fight another day. Some of the most thrilling scenes aren’t just the parts where the soldiers swing, Spider Man-like, from rooftop to Titan with their 3D Maneuver Gear–just in episode 17, there was a masterfully directed visual explanation of the Advance Scout Formation. The story is so gung-ho, even military strategy is exciting!

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But all stories are not going to just resonate within themselves, but in the outer world too. And societies often look for enemies to unite against as an easy way to unify the people and get them to adopt a desired attitude or take a certain action. Within the world of Attack on Titan, there is no ambiguity about the enemy: they are monsters (though we are getting more and more hints about what they really are), and must be stopped if the human race is to survive. Past fascist regimes also sought to dehumanize their enemies, often as a prelude toward genocide: the Jews are like rats, the Chinese are like dogs. (In turn, the Japanese were depicted as monkey-like in American propaganda, which made it easier to violate the rights of Japanese Americans by sending them to camps). In order to activate the primal human sense that you must fight, your foes must die or you die, you have to convince people that the enemy is both inhuman and incomprehensible on some level. By contrast, the heroes are soldiers: valiant men and women who risk their lives, whose best leaders are wise and who follow a well-designed plan, and even when they face obstacles and danger, they will ultimately prevail.

This is not what I am saying: that this is necessarily a bad thing or a bad or dangerous story that should be shunned. Rather, it’s important to acknowledge that the structure and the appeal of Attack on Titan is not an accident, because it plays on time-honored storytelling techniques that have been used to get people to get up and fight. And there are many things in this world that actually are worth fighting for in a metaphorical way. Wada’s comparison of the Titans to every human’s fear of change and the outside world is actually very compelling. We all have “Titans” in our lives that we have to battle daily, and Walls that hold us back. That’s a worthwhile thing to fight for: and that’s not mentioning fighting against social injustice, tyranny, or other worthy causes.

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Here’s the thing though: while this story is not trying to get people to fight a bad war, a story like it sometimes can. The South Korean nationalists who decried Attack on Titan as a piece of Japanese militaristic propaganda, where the Titans are the Koreans and it’s training Japanese boys to become soldiers, are certainly wrong: I’m sure Iseyama, Wada, and Araki did not think the Titans literally represent a particular nation or people. They just want to tell a great story that appeals to many people and perhaps give them a little more courage to live.

Attack on Titan is not going to get the current generation of Japanese youth to all join the Self Defense Forces (which, if Prime Minister Abe gets his way, will be renamed). But, in a world where North Korea rattles its nuclear saber, China grows increasingly hostile over a few islands, and there is serious talk about revising the pacifist Japanese Constitution…in the extremes, one can also imagine another well-directed film or TV series with similarly bombastic music, thrilling visuals, and daring heroes beating the odds that inspires youth all over to dress up like them, like soldiers. And in that alternate story, the enemy might not be as fantastical as monstrous giants. It might be clearer, and more immediate, and identifiable. It’s been done before, after all (start at 1:00):

So who are the Titans we need to fight against? That is the question.

It’s interesting that in a much older story, it’s only when the giants and their descendents appear that people became so evil that God sent the Flood.

WataMote 4: You Can (Not) Be Touched

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Summary

After surfing the web for too long one night, Tomoko, knowing deep down that she won’t be getting skinship with a real boy anytime soon, tries other means to get into sexual situations: first by trying to induce wet dreams–which don’t come, except at the worst possible moment; second, by wishing that someone would at least molest her–which does not have the outcome she expected or wanted; third, buying sexy panties with help from her now-fashionable friend Yuu–which are exposed in the most humiliating, and unusual, way; and finally by buying a BL game and a “massager”–which is discovered by her father. It seems that Tomoko is destined to be “pure,” and not voluntarily either.

Tomoko: stalker in training
Tomoko: stalker in training

Thoughts

The episode opens with a scene that I can relate to wholeheartedly: spending hours into the night surfing the web, reading one random article after another long past your bedtime. Tomoko is a hikki in training! But the bulk of the episode is about sex, sex, sex, and unlike Nakamura’s railing about it in Aku no Hana, it’s not boring.

Let’s be honest: for a lot of nerds/geeks in high school, one of the most frustrating things is feeling like there’s no outlet for all those hormones rushing through your body. You’re not handsome/pretty enough, you’re not popular enough, no one will go on a date with you, and so while all those other people are making out and learning all about their bodies, you’re just left standing there with only sad fantasies to keep you going. And I can tell you that this is even true, perhaps doubly true, if you have a religious upbringing.

There’s both a refreshing and a troubling level to the things that happen to Tomoko in this episode: it’s refreshing in the sense that Tomoko is not the “virginal pure” type of high school girl that we often see in otaku-oriented anime. Her lustfulness, which gets taken to deliberately absurd heights, is much more believable on a human level, and all the more sad in that we know her efforts are going to be thwarted. (It doesn’t help that she comes off as creepy, even to Yuu.) Her unhappiness over being undateable and untouchable is easy to relate to for some of us.

Does anyone really think this way?
Does anyone really think this way?

That feeling is tied to the troubling aspect, particularly in the molestation storyline, where the story seems to make light of harassment and even rape by the end. Yes, we get that Tomoko is desperate, though part of her does seem to get that this is no picnic; and yes, perhaps the point is that she so starved of validation that her lonely mind can think that this is fine. But it’s not fine, and the show’s ambiguity on the point breaks the tension between comedy and tragedy that the show had negotiated so well. It wants us to laugh at her mindset, but I found it more depressing than funny, and so I couldn’t laugh at that segment at all. Can someone be so starved for touch that she’d think being molested is preferable to nothing?

(Note: I’d be interested to hear whether there are people who can answer that question, or if this episode is a fanciful projection, which is what I suspect it is. And if it is, that’s not a good reflection on the mind of the creators.) 

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We are still treated to the same incredible facial expressions as before, fortunately, and the same genius comic timing/cringe humor, particularly by the third part when she discovers the BL game and the vibrator. (Come now, that’s what we are supposed to think it is and is the basis of the scene’s humor.) Those parts did make me laugh, though the pain vs humor ratio is a lot higher overall. You begin to think, “so this is why Japan’s birthrate is so low…” and why surveys show that the Japanese are the least sexually satisfied out of major developed nations. Combined with the hikikomori phenomenon–and Tomoko is well on her way toward being one–the humor of WataMote might be a reflection of the sad state of affairs that many of the “less desirable” people, men and women, face for relationships. It’s not pretty.

The raunchiness of this episode, is, admittedly, sometimes both fun and funny. But it’s a mask for Tomoko’s humiliation and loneliness. There is one ray of light: we see her dad gently, non-judgmentally carry her to bed after she’s fallen asleep in front of the game with the massager still turned on. Despite her callous treatment of her brother and his reciprocal disdain, Tomoko at least still has a family and a real home. Right now, it’s the only place she really has where she can more or less be herself. Let’s hope she’ll be able to move forward even further.

Then again, he could be thinking: she's going to be living here into her adulthood, isn't she?
Then again, he could be thinking: she’s going to be living here into her adulthood, isn’t she?

WataMote 3: Avoidance

 

SHOKKU
SHOKKU

Summary

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.

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Thoughts

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.

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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.

Not even funny music can hide the real sentiment behind this scene.
Not even funny music can hide the real sentiment behind this scene.

WataMote 2: Turn and Face the Strain

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Summary

While fantasizing about getting verbally abused by handsome yandere boys, Tomoko receives a call from an old friend, Yuu (c.v.: Kana Hanazawa). Yuu wants to meet up on the weekend to catch up, since they haven’t seen each other since high school started. Tomoko, fearful that she has nothing to talk about with her, starts accumulating experiences that she finds discussion worthy: “sleeping with” (next) to a boy in the nurse’s office, and, perhaps more consequentially, being drawn by an otherwise unappealing boy….But when they finally meet, the once nerdy Yuu has been transformed into a fashionable high school girl in a miniskirt and contact lenses. Tomoko only relaxes when the two of them go to the arcade, play their old games, and talk about anime. When it is time for them to part, they emotionally express their encouragement to one another…only for Yuu to reveal that she has a boyfriend, to the shock and dismay of Tomoko, who once again retreats into her yandere abuse fantasies while clutching the cute picture the boy drew for her earlier.

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Opinion

Yes, folks, I have made an impromptu return to episodic blogging. We’ll see how this goes.

Tomoko is much more likable in this episode than in the previous one. Her relative unlikability, note, was a feature and not a bug of the first episode, because being scorned by outsiders really does tend to turn the scorned into scorners—and that Tomoko is still there when she comes across a flirting couple planning to make out at the guy’s home. But there was something even more exaggerated about her behavior this time: whether it’s the MP3s of boys chastising her or her fantasies of being ravished, her vomiting when faced with social anxiety (something we’ve been seeing more of lately in anime—see Tsuritama and the beginning of Kids on the Slope), her creepy, possessive chuckling over her portrait. Sawako this is not, though, really, they are both just as naive in their own ways. The humor makes her more likable overall, and even cute in her own way. “Cute in her own way” is something Tomoko needs to learn in due time.

There are two plots with new characters here, one about the manga artist boy who draws her picture, and the other with her middle school friend Yuu. They reinforce each other by showing her that appearances aren’t everything. Tomoko is not free from the usual human superficialities—the overweight artist is not someone that even she would want to get to know, at first—and her shock at seeing the much more fashionable Yuu makes her wonder if this is the same person she once knew. She is proved wrong in both respects. The fat nerd quickly captures her face in a way she finds appealing, and Yuu is still interested in the same nerdy, otaku-ish hobbies as before—they have a blast at the arcade and in in taking some well-deserved swipes at the current anime scene.

You know, this isn't entirely so true anymore. But it's true enough.
You know, this isn’t entirely so true anymore. But it’s true enough.

However, since this is WataMote and not Kimi ni Todoke, there are further twists that indicate trouble ahead. Fat artist actually only knows how to draw one generic face and doesn’t really see her as an individual, though she doesn’t know it yet. Yuu has a boyfriend, which sends Tomoko scurrying back to her fantasies in jealousy and despondency. It seems that Tomoko will not be able to catch a break that easily, which not only helps keep the plot going but is all too reminiscent of reality.

This episode sets Tomoko on a path to either open up more—the scene where she shouts out her encouragement to Yuu was sincere and earnest, and she realizes a boy seems to appreciate something about her—or to close herself off even further due to neither of them being exactly what she dreams of. The collision between expectations and reality forms the central internal conflict of this show and it’s off to a good start.

EDIT: corrected information about the artist boy, whose motives were far less obsessive than I first supposed.

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.

* * *

watamote-02

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.

watamote-05

Genshiken, Then and Now: A Reflection

 

Ogiue isn't happy here. Should you at the new Genshiken?
Ohno isn’t happy. Should you be at the new season?

When I first laid eyes on the first Genshiken, I was in Japan teaching English. More precisely, I was on break and I was in a random anime shop in Hiroshima City.

The moment I saw the clips of the new show playing on a TV screen in the store, I felt that it was a show that I must watch.

Back then, I understood little to no Japanese. No joke; I couldn’t tell what the guys and gals at Genshiken were saying. However, there was a spiritual connection that I couldn’t explain and still can’t explain today. It was like destiny.

I knew, I just knew: THIS WAS ABOUT US!

The realization struck me like a tidal wave. At the time, I was an American in Japan, having freshly acquired anime culture, but still an Akiba virgin. I went on traveling to Tokyo and to the sacred place later (sadly, the place is no longer sacred – ippanjin and AKB48 losers now roam freely in my spiritual home).

There was a beautiful innocence about Genshiken season 1, and somewhat about season two (that’s when it was no longer a pat on our backs) when I first watched them. I mean, one never forget his or her first time, right? It was like the first girl you’ve ever loved –she was pure, innocent; a gal next door or next to you in class or from the next class. Then you introduced your world to her, or she introduced her world to you. You were hooked on your first time experience for a while.

Then you met someone else; you moved on; you had new experiences.

Then some time later, you wake up in the middle of the night, or from your daydream, and you realized that it is no longer that touching or exciting or awesome anymore.

So now we come to Genshiken Nidaime—the second round/course/generation.

Just like before, it tries to laugh and poke fun at otaku culture and references. However, many shows have done that since the days of the first Genshiken.

It remains a slice of otaku life show, true to its roots. And it’s still fun. I mean, I had 3 batsu game moments when it referred to one of the newer shows that has a new season out now.

But wait, the first thing that I noticed was that all the original voice actors were gone. The fun and the impressions that came from the popular seiyuu from that era disappeared, and I was listening to the new cast. It was like a painful reminder that we didn’t live in that era anymore.

That didn’t please me very much. Strike one.

 

Wait is this Genshiken or FREE?
Wait is this Genshiken or Free?

Next, because the guys from the original Genshiken graduated or weren’t around much anymore, I was feeling a little alienated. The club essentially became a fujoshi fan club. I mean, the show is still funny, but the change turns me off. Strike two.

Last, I really dislike Hideyoshi type of girlish dudes (hate me all you want), and we have one here. He/she is voiced by a seiyuu that I don’t recognize. Strike three.

I’ll be honest, as a fan of the original, I’m actually biased in favor of this series. I will continue watching it to get a sense of continuing nostalgia. However, as a critic, I’m looking at an idea that other shows have already executed countless times since the heyday of Otakudom and the old Genshiken, and that’s not good enough.

I’m in severe doubt that the new gen can carry the torch, when the torch was passed on to others long ago. It is 2013 and not 2004, 2005, or 2006.

Rest in peace, my innocent days as a fresh Otaku in the height of Otakudom. Now I live on as a hardened, cynical veteran zombie of anime fandom.

Rest in peace.