Tomoko is the most socially awkward penguin of them all.
Like with all dark comedies, the line between the tragic and the humorous in Watamote is a blurry one indeed. I’ve laughed while watching Watamote, but more often I’ve found myself cringing – and once, I even teared up a little. As exaggerated as Tomoko’s situation seems to be at times, it strikes uncomfortably close to reality. It’s not that I relate directly to her plight (although loneliness is something everyone can understand). What saddens me the most is that Tomoko’s suffering is largely self-inflicted. I don’t think she will ever make friends.
Why? Because this series is entirely structured around making fun of her lack of popularity. She can’t change, so the jokes won’t either. The series would lose its punch if it did.
But what does this lead to? Stale comedy. Repetitive comedy. It’s the cruel irony of the story; obviously, it is not everyone’s cup of tea. Dropping it because it repeats the same thing over and over, no matter how clever or unique the concept is – yes, I can understand that.
And yet despite this, I call Watamote one of my favourite new anime series of the season. Or it might be more accurate to say because of this.
To explain how I feel this way, let’s go back to the title of this post and answer the question again, this time from Tomoko’s perspective. Why does she never succeed in making new friends? It’s because she’s trapped in the box of her own negative thinking. She blames the outer world for her problems and retreats into her own shell whenever she feels spurned by reality, mentally pouring vitriol on those who never went out of their way to trouble her. In truth, the people around her choose to ignore her. She’s not bullied, only neglected. Whenever Tomoko makes some tentative attempt to socialise, she hits a wall and struggles to even form coherent sentences. Thus, she quickly shies away, blaming the very people who she secretly wishes desperately could befriend her.
Vaguely, she knows that something is seriously wrong but she is powerless to break the cycle of deprecation.
I know someone like that. Heck, I know many people who are like this. And I’m sure everyone has encountered someone similar in their lives: a person so pitifully incapable of helping themselves. Or maybe you feel that you are this person.
I’ve constantly asked myself – what do you do if you’re close to someone like this? When they’re a friend or a relative? It’s often a futile effort to help them. You lead a good example, you try to tell them optimistic things, you tell them they’re more talented than they give themselves credit for. You also tell them they need to break the bad habits. But they never do. They always say they will change, but it never happens.
You despair. You get frustrated. Before you know it, you get caught in their cycle of misery too. Suddenly, you realise that this person has been a burden to you all along. It’s obvious to you why this person has no friends, but you’re the only one there for them. You know that if you stop supporting them, you’ll be furthering their own destruction, but being with them doesn’t make you happy. No, it makes you depressed, because everything about them is just so goddamn repetitive and one-note. It makes you sick!
And then you think: oh no. How could you? You’re being a terrible friend. You’re just affirming all those cynical things they said about humanity by thinking these uncharitable thoughts. But the longer you stay with them, the more you realise that there are things in this world that are impossible to change…
This is what watching Watamote is like for me. Tomoko’s world is a dark hell, both from the insider and the outsider’s perspective. I empathise with Tomoko but, strictly speaking, I don’t sympathise with her. I can’t.
And yet I also laugh at her. I laugh because in a way it feels like the only thing you can do in some of these situations. The reality is that a lot of people like this don’t ever really change. It’s naive to expect that they will. So you laugh, because when something is funny, it’s usually true in some way.
So if you’re wondering why the jokes in Watamote have so little variation, this is the reason. This is why Tomoko will never be popular. The series enforces the idea by using a repetitive episodic structure. It’s tough to watch for me and definitely not something I would recommend marathoning, but on reflection I don’t see any other way it could have been done and there is no other series I know of that is quite like it.
The best thing, of course, is that Tomoko isn’t real. Who cares if she can’t make friends? I can just turn the show off if I want to. That’s something I think more and more people will do, as it becomes more and more obvious that the repetition is, in fact, the core of the joke. I haven’t read the manga, but from what I’ve heard from manga readers, this essential feature does not change. If it becomes too much for me, I will know when to stop.
Another reason why 2D > 3D in this case.
Seinfeld and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia are some of my favorite dark TV comedies and they manage to include plenty of variation in scenarios despite the fact that you know it’s going to end badly for the characters. Azumanga is a mean (sort of) 4-koma adaptation that got varied as well with its repetitive jokes.
My problem with Watamote is that it’s not varied enough, mostly because the supporting cast is little to non-existent. Oh, and because the last episode just reminded me of an awkward South Park episode.
I think what makes Watamote different from those titles you mentioned is that those ones base their comedy around character interaction, and thus there IS variety in the jokes. But Watamote can’t do this because it’s trying to emphasise Tomoko’s insularity. It’s hampered by its own structure. It’s getting to the point where I don’t think the series succeeds well as a pure comedy. That’s what your post made me think, but these are general complaints I’ve read on the Internet, which I fully agree with, by the way.
Ah yeah, Tomoko is me in anime form, unfortunately. @_@ Or it used to be me, or the me I try to pretend I’m not. Which is why I won’t blog Watamote though I really like it; it’s too close to home for me to analyze.
I think everyone can see a little but of Tomoko in themselves, which is what makes it so difficult. But I think you’re fine. If you’re able to cope with life and move forward, you will never be fully like Tomoko. But I can see why you wouldn’t want to analyse it if it’s such a personal issue. It’s hard to face ourselves at times.
Great blog entry. Also, I am glad that they choosed a talented director (Shin Oonuma) for this show. But that’s me being a fanboy of Shaft-like anime.
I’m a fan of Shin Oonuma too. I think he did really well portraying the atmosphere in the show. Thanks for the comment – no shame in being a fanboy :)
LOL I just saw on MAL that Baka To Test is in your Top 30. Thumbs up !
Watemote makes me laugh because I like to think I’m not that socially awkward. Granted, I’ve totally spat venom mentally at most people since I get spurned easily.
[…] dull and slow-paced (again!), Toaru Kagaku no Railgun is finishing with a filler arc, Watamote became repetitive, the campiness in Free! stopped being a novelty, Love Lab lost some of its […]
Being a schizoid(personality disorder completely unrelated to schizophrenia, if anything it’s the exact opposite of schizophrenia), I loved this show, but for that same reason I also began to get a little irritated with her Tomoko at the end, her self-defeating attitude goes from funny to just plain pathetic. Obviously, as stated, for the structure of the show they were unable to turn her into an extrovert, but they could have at least turned her into a schizoid. But the best shows can develop characters, if there is a second season they could give her one friend like her in her second year(Like the show Daria, Beavis & Butthead etc), it’s quite common with shows about social outcasts.
Hmm, that is a good point actually.
I also found it something that was both very funny and eerily relatable. Tomoko’s “shyness” is so strangely realistic, that I even wonder if maybe the author shared a similar experience. It would not be out of the question since it’s almost exactly what I experienced.
Tomoko is a lot like myself when I was in middle school, sans the openness of sexuality. I was very lonesome and talked to nobody(which caused everyone to leave me alone and therefore I had no friends or even acquaintances) because I was too shy, but it’s not just “shy”, I was later diagnosed with depression and anxiety in high school. Pretty sure it’s also “Awkwardness”.
Even the way she speaks to people in the very light-stutter voice and looking downwards, is just like my own back then. I would always get teachers zooming their ear in my mouth to hear what I said, making me repeat several times. Even more often, I would simply have people mishearing what I say, or putting words in my mouth while pretending they understood what I said.
I also understood how it was to have a former friend that you suddenly meet up again, and they’ve changed completely to fit in with the popular crowd and have new friends so they don’t need you anymore. That essentially causes you to lose that friend, and losing all your friends means you are a loner and you have nobody to talk to anymore, so years of that leads to “forgetting” how to socialize normally. It is sad, and it might sound ridiculous, but it can happen.
I used to be normal and socialize like any other kid, but losing contact with friends for a few years really affected me negatively, and I forgot how to make friends. Or maybe I never knew how to make friends to begin with, and relied too much on my child-self cute appearance in elementary school that caused people to make me their friend. >..<
…(post was too long and got cut off, sorry. XD)
That in turn lead to me forgetting how to even vocalize normally(like Tomoko’s speech).
The majority of people who spoke to/about me were people who teased me or made up “what if” situations like “What if she’s an alien?”, and for the most part I was simply treated like a ghost who didn’t exist in my classmates’ world unless a teacher called on me in class, and if I answered(quietly), everyone would stare and make a huge fuss out of it like, “OMG SHE TALKED?!”, which only made it worse for me.
Thus, I became like Tomoko, confused about why people wouldn’t be my friend or even speak to me anymore, and even coming to the conclusion that they were bad/wrong/inferior.
I did eventually improve a little bit, to the point I could actually talk to people(if they talked to me first), and overall became more optimistic, but I was already in college by then, and pretty much missed out on having any sort of “normal” high school life. I’m also still too shy/awkward to really do much things like yelling, speaking with emphasis, silly quotes, or singing, and I’m overly cautious of what to say and what my body is doing(so I do still have habits like hunching my back and holding my hands together when in public).
I believe that Tomoko likely suffers from a mental disability too(though not sure if the author intended that), especially anxiety. When it gets to the point that she is at now(that it affects her ability to communicate), it’s kind of incurable unless she goes through heavy therapy with a strong will… Even with therapy and a strong will, it’s very difficult. I am still only improving slightly with a decade of therapy, and those who don’t want to improve or are in denial never will be “cured”, sadly.
However, with how realistically this portrays a shy girl, I believe this doesn’t really have bad intentions on anyone, so I am not really bothered by it. I understand if the author had Tomoko undergo therapy or magically get better, it’d probably make the show not very funny, or would mark the ending of the show/manga(it would make a good ending though, to show her improving over time). I actually found it quite good, because it brings to light that this type of person exists in reality, and it’s kind of interesting to see others also are like her/me, and that I’m not alone.
That was a really beautiful and inspiring comment. I’m glad you took the time to share your story.
It’s true that people who display Tomoko’s anxiety symptoms face huge difficulties in life and many don’t ever get cured. I’m glad to hear that you’ve overcome some of your symptoms somewhat and I also hope that you continue to improve. People can be unintentionally cruel and lacking in empathy, but it’s also important to understand that the world isn’t out to get you: if you reach out, people will find you. I’m glad you seem to get that :)
As for Watamote, it’s a very polarising show, but I’m glad that it exists because it managed to shed light on a very real issue that is too often swept under the carpet even in today’s society. While it didn’t resonate with me very strongly on a personal level (I’ve never suffered from her symptoms, and I occasionally found the black comedy difficult to take) I’m glad I watched this show in the end. Again, thanks for sharing your insight!
[…] come to hate, this anime that I liked. I can see the point why most people would be irked by the repetitive dark comedy the writer throws right at the […]
The anime period is long over, and maybe it’s not fair to comment on such an old blog post, but of course we now have the benefit of hindsight, and fans of the anime should know that the manga is still going strong (and stronger). The quandary for the series initially was that even though it was meant to be gag-based, the hero became too real and too vulnerable, so she couldn’t simply repeat the same mistakes forever. That would be cruel, so it transitioned into something more like a serialized coming-of-age story.
At the beginning of her second year in high school (after the anime) Tomoko realized that she was doing herself in by trying so hard to be popular, so she resolved to simply calm down and try to make a friend or two. Things didn’t change much at first, but thanks to a bullying homeroom teacher and a school trip, she wound up starting to make a few friends after all.
Skip to 2019, six years after the anime, and Tomoko is in her third year of high school, with a kouhai, and planning for college–with her (spoiler) friends. As Tomoko began paying more attention to other people, the cast has expanded exponentially. Her progress is controversial among fans of the anime, but the manga series is enjoying some surge in popularity, with new events and merchandise popping up.
The reason why this arguably works is that Tomoko remains a strong character in her own right, despite the changes around her. The complaint from some is that it has turned into a harem comedy, but this has allowed the series to examine different types of dysfunctional characters in addition to Tomoko, many becoming popular in their own right.