Sometimes I try (don’t ask me why) to explain the appeal of anime to non-anime fans. It’s never an easy process and rarely successful in terms of communicating the point, but looking at what’s really exceptional on TV at the moment gives a pretty good illustration of why this medium is so unlike any other. Where else are you going to get shows as different to the quantum level as Watamote, Hunter X Hunter and Uchouten Kazoku and have them all be great? For all the harem, moe pandering and formula crap that exists, this is still an art form that presents amazing diversity of theme and content. And that, as much as any other reason, is why I love anime.
I took note of the fact that Tomoko made two statements this week that are 100% out of the manic depressive handbook, further clues of how the mangaka is relating this story from personal experience. The first is a question – “Is it really OK for me to be like this?” It’s possibly the fundamental self-inquiry for everyone with social disorder and self-awareness, one that they always confront sooner or later – incredibly painful but also brutally necessary at the same time. The other was “I didn’t want to go, anyway” – which really needs no explanation or elaboration, but which gets a lot of exercise for someone like Tomoko. In this case it’s spoken in respect to the fireworks display that coincides with the end of her first semester in high school, one of those moments that tends to force self-assessment on us whether we like it or not.
There are times when I wonder if Tomoko might be growing just a bit, but mostly she and the experience of watching her are consistent. I almost always laugh and feel terrible for her, though the order changes and sometimes it’s simultaneously. The stuff she gets into is obviously exaggerated, but her path to destruction is always surprisingly natural and believable. Tomoko’s desires and delusions always lead her down to disaster and this week was no different. First it’s the completion of a “true love” sim that gets her convinced that she’s experienced a kind of virtual sexual gratification with has turned her into a pheromone-secreting beauty, when in reality she’s closer to how Tomoki describes her – “a crow dipped in oil”. In some ways it’s almost harder to watch Tomoko when she’s under the grip of her delusions of grandeur than when she’s facing depressing reality, because the truth is always so plain to us and you know it will eventually be revealed to her, too. Is it worse to see her happy for a few moments knowing the moment will come when that happiness will be crushed, or to watch her suffer through a steady, consistent malaise?
Sex is never far from view in Watamote, because this is Tomoko’s world and it’s never far from her own thoughts. Be it the impressively varied VNs she plays or two cats humping in the street (the dude did everything but wink at the camera) sex is the engine that drives Tomoko’s fantasy world, and usually the cause of her undoing. Her fantasies this time lead her to drench herself with Coke Zero in the belief that black is her lucky color for the day, which in turn leads to her being swarmed by ants during gym class (to be fair this may be poetic justice, as she was trying to herd them into an ant lion pit). Here again we see her remarkable ability to selectively screen out the swathes of reality that contradict her fantasy – she sees the guy hovering over her in the hall as she gazes out the window, but blocks out his explanation that he was trying to get a bug off her. She sees the guy texting that a “hot high-school girl” is sitting next to him on the train, but doesn’t notice that the one he’s talking about gets off, or that he soon texts about the high-school with ants in her hair.
This is that much sadder because reality always crashes into Tomoko sooner or later, usually sooner. And desperate to find someone to attend the fireworks with, she finally resorts to what she considers the domain of the lowest of the low – the school library. There’s the girl reading a book Tomoko has read, which almost gives her an in to converse – but it turns out the girl has actual friends. This prompts a “Don’t read and be a bitch – then there’s nothing I can beat you at!” from Tomoko – because of course having friends is synonymous with being a bitch. The last hope is a megane-boy reading by himself, but Tomoko can’t bring herself to ask even a guy she considers pathetic to the fireworks and he stubbornly refuses to budge. So she concocts a scheme using her phone alarm to press his buttons, which unsurprisingly fails miserably and leaves her fully in forever alone mode, minus three hours of her life which she’ll never get back.
All this wraps up with a scene that somehow manages to be both tragic and – almost impossibly – a little hopeful. Tomoko retreats to the rooftop she and Yuu used to hang out on before Yuu became popular, thinking of watching the hanabi taikai alone from there (I feared for a moment the implication might be darker than that). But a love hotel has been built next door, and the roof has been discovered by a pair of middle-school boys who have designs on watching a different sort of fireworks. The potential for disaster hangs heavily in the air here as everyone eyes each other nervously.
It says something about both how bleak and how brilliant Watamote is that the two most touching episodes endings have been so completely wrong – first, a father stumbling in on his daughter in the aftermath of playing an eroge with a massager in-hand, and here a high-school girl peeping on a couple making love in the company of two horny schoolboys. As depraved as that is (in truth, having an Onee-san watch with them probably works the lads up even more), it’s oddly the most positive moment in the episode – Tomoko managed to overcome her crushing social anxiety and ask the boys if she could stay (the fact that she felt the need to ask a measure of her low self-esteem) without realizing what she was asking to watch. And somehow, she ended up connecting with people at last – in the act of spying on a couple having sex, true, but it was a shared experience of sorts. It’s the sort of contradictory moment with Watamote seems to be built on, playing with the emotions of the audience until we’re not sure what to feel and uncomfortable with what we are.
ED4: “Natsu Matsuri” (夏祭り) by Utsu-P & Minatsukitoka, feat. Hatsune Miku