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.