I’ve been of a mind to come up with one-word summations of anime lately, and with Watamote the one that really leaps to mind is “brutal”. There’s a kind of savage brutality to this show – this is dark comedy taken to the point where it may not even be comedy anymore. It’s the unerring truthfulness of the material that makes it work anyway, but that has a kind of brutality too – this series is ruthless in the way it depicts Tomoko and the things that happen to her.
More than ever I’m convinced that the mangaka here is someone who has a very close relative with Tomoko-like issues. The whole enterprise has the feel of a kind of therapy – dealing with pain by laughing at it, with a dash of payback – and the fact, is, it makes no bones about showing Tomoko in a harsh light. If the author is Tomoki – or someone in a roughly similar position – they know from experience that people like Tomoko are sometimes driven to try and make the people around them as miserable as they are. I don’t sugarcoat it because I know it from my own experience, having been on the receiving end – that when what someone wants more than anything is to be normal (as they see it) and they can’t, there are times when a darkness comes over them and the resentment bares its fangs. “If I can’t climb up there with you, I’m going to drag you down here with me.”
The thing is, even when they do this you have to love them anyway, because they’re family. And there are much better moments than those dark ones, too, to tease you the possibilities for how things could be, if only… And not having to be personally subjected to Tomoko’s dark spells it’s that much easier to be sympathetic to her as an anime viewer. Mind you, I’m still conflicted but what I mostly feel for Tomoko is sympathy even when she does some frankly nasty things – which we saw a lot more of this week than we have in the previous two, where she was really more than anything on the butt end of life’s cruelties.
I’ve commented on this already, but if you watch Watamote closely one of the things that really leaps out is that we see very, very few examples of people being intentionally mean to Tomoko. We see a teacher make her cry (heartbreakingly so) over forgetting her textbook, but that’s more the usual tone-deaf thoughtlessness of adults towards adolescents than anything. We see a man yell at her, but with good reason – she’d parked herself on a bridge over an overflowing stream that was close to sweeping her away. Tomoko can add paranoia to her list of symptoms, because she really does feel as if the world is out to get her. When she misremembers where she left her umbrella, she launches into a diatribe about the evils of umbrella thieves and how she could kill them all (taking pains to note that they’re probably going on dates despite their acts of evil, a very telling detail) before remember she’d simply left it on the opposite side. Tomoko constantly rages at those around her, mostly for imagined crimes and misdemeanors – but in truth, mostly for ignoring him too often and for being happier than she is.
That umbrella leads to the most cutting scene in the episode, a spectacularly awkward turn of events when the umbrella breaks and she seeks refuge under a canopy at the park.. Two boys in the same boat (Fukushina Jun, Morishima Shuuta), seek refuge in the same place – which is of course the worst possible scenario for Tomoko. This is one of those meta-moments where Watamote is hilarious and terribly uncomfortable to watch all at once – Tomoko desperately tries to make a stab or two at humor (“I’m just going to take a dump outside that bathroom”) with predictable results. She internally excoriates the boys for imagined crimes against her dignity, but in fact – like most of her fellow teens – they aren’t really mean to her at all. One, in fact, defends her as a “quiet girl” and gamely tries to make conversation with her. After her lame poop joke Tomoko escapes to the bathroom and when she returns the boys are gone, and there’s a gut-wrenching shot of her slumping to the bench, where she falls asleep. The boys return, the thoughtful one having bought Tomoko an umbrella (to be fair, likely for 105¥ at the hyakku-en shop) which he leaves for her – and when she awakes she doesn’t make the connection (what actually happened being inconceivable), and wistfully laments “I wish a boy would be nice to be once in a while.”
Honestly, if you have a heart I don’t know it can’t break for Tomoko there. But as usual, her wounds are self-inflicted – and then she turns around and behaves abominably towards Tomoki, who’s own treatment of her is never worse than normal sibling nudging. For no reason she refuses to let him into the bathroom when he comes home soaked after his umbrella breaks. She pours hot porridge on him when he’s asleep recovering from the cold she partially caused (this is anime after all – we all know what happens when teenagers get rained on and don’t immediately change clothes and bathe). She teases him mercilessly, and blames him when his friends stop by to drop off homework because no one stops by for her. It’s not a pretty picture, and when she gets the cold she’s been trying to catch from him too late to miss school but in-time to ruin her weekend, it feels like just desserts more than anything.
I suppose everyone is going to react to Tomoko – and Watamote – differently, based on their own background. I confess this show has made me laugh out-loud probably more than any this season – the “Kuroki’s Basketball” gag was spot-on, and so was the “psychological test” the girls in gym class were discussing (Yuu’s betrayal is ultimate again – we all know what answer #3 means). But there are times where I feel like I’m a peeping tom – like this is seeing someone in a way that no one deserves to be seen. In truth it’s pretty ugly a lot of the time, both in terms of the way Tomoko suffers and the way she behaves. That’s exactly the point, I guess, and this series is pretty remarkable in the whipsaw of emotional reactions it can elicit in a few moments time. I can’t say that I like Tomoko exactly, and I can’t describe what I get out of watching Watamote as “enjoyment”. But shows in any medium that are this emotionally accurate and so adept at making you feel, period, are a rare bird indeed – and that more than anything is the reason I embrace this series in spite of all my reservations.