I must be well-conditioned, because all throughout this episode I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, but it stayed solidly airborne. For once there really was a light at the end of the tunnel that wasn’t an oncoming shinkansen. Watamote has certainly shown an ability to be heartwarming before, but this is about the most consistently- well, I won’t say upbeat, because that would be going too far, but certainly the least despairing episode from start to finish that we’ve seen so far.
That said, it seems at this point that Watamote has pretty well dropped all pretense towards being a comedy. I’m currently watching Welcome to the NHK (inspired to do so by this series) but for all its darkness that’s much more a genuinely comedic experience than Watamote is, and by now we’ve pretty much blown past what I consider the benchmark for how grim and merciless a character deconstruction can be and still be called a comedy, Woody Allen’s Deconstructing Harry. The comic moments are there and generally quite hilarious, but they’ve become increasingly rare as the season has progressed – and in doing so, taken on an almost somber tone as much of the fantastical elements are stripped away and we’re left with an unsparing portrait of one very unhappy young person’s life.
While it didn’t start out looking that way, this episode ends up with a very different vibe than last week’s pure, unfettered heartbreak. The culture festival can be a minefield for the socially awkward and lonely student – the opportunities for both embarrassment and isolation are seemingly endless, doing battle with each for supremacy in causing darkness of the soul. It’s a cosplay cafe for Tomoko’s class (this is anime, after all) but she’s not in any way included in the preparations. This is another instance where it’s felt to me as if it would almost be less painful if Tomoko were being bullied, because it’s as she doesn’t exist – it would simply never occur to anyone to involve her. Here again we see a small moment of progress for Tomoko – she volunteers herself to be the one to cut the flyers for the cafe, and even insists on doing so after her offer is gently declined by the girls in charge. It’s true that her original plan is to milk the project for five hours to get her through the entire day, but there’s no doubt – she definitely wanted to be involved.
This being Watamote – and Tomoko – disaster is always around the next corner. The two guys who get sent to help her blow through the project in shoddy fashion in minutes, and worse, Tomoko cuts herself with the X-Acto knife and flees for the nurse’s office, blood fountaining from her hand. But for once Tomoko’s misfortune is actually a lucky break, as she quite literally runs into Imai Megumi (unmistakably Nonaka Ai). Megumi-chan is the head of the Festival Committee but more relevantly, she ends up being something of a guardian angel for Tomoko. Yes, it’s yet another random encounter with someone who treats Tomoko with real kindness – the series is full of those. But the depth of that kindness won’t be apparent for a while, and in the meantime it’s clear that Tomoko desperately longs to be a part of the cosplay experience. She even buys a cheap (what – oni maid?) costume at Donki so she can mail Yuu-chan a (ridiculously adorable) photo of herself in her “work” uniform, which backfires when Yuu decides she needs to visit the culture festival herself.
This is truly a different sort of Watamote episode, though, because once again Tomoko’s misfortune actually turns into good fortune. After a day of wandering around the festival, utterly unnoticed by her class (this is where most of what little comedy there is in the episode lurks, such as the K-On club and Tomoko’s fantasy of what it’d be like if she was in it) she’s feeling more alone than ever. But she actually has a good time when Yuu joins her the next day, struck by the remarkable revelation that it’s actually possible to have fun in school if a friend is with her – they chat about Madoka Magica and eat bad food and generally waste the day pleasantly. There’s still plenty of Tomoko dysfunction here: she still calls Yuu her “bitch friend” in her mind, and sees her cuteness as a way to gain social cred for herself. And her reaction when Yuu hugs her shows just how heartbreakingly desperate Tomoko is for any human contact whatsoever – being a horny teenager and pathologically lonely is an incendiary combination. But she genuinely, honestly has fun – and it’s crystal clear that no matter how it might have seemed to Tomoko, Yuu isn’t abandoning her.
I thought just for a moment that what we’d seen was almost as sad, in the end, as what we saw last week. After all Tomoko never get involved with her class’ cosplay cafe in any way, and she’s left to wave goodbye to Yuu-chan as she goes off her with own friends, leaving Tomoko utterly alone again. Maybe it was worse to be reminded just how isolated Tomoko really is by giving her just a taste of what a normal adolescent experience could be like. But here Megumi transforms the entire feel of the episode when she sees Kuroko alone, obviously puts the pieces of what’s happened with her class together, and dons the mascot costume long enough to give Tomoko a balloon and a hug. That’s a moment most shows couldn’t have pulled off without seeming sappy, but Watamote has earned its credibility with hard-won battle scars from wounds that cut deep. The revelation isn’t so much that kindness exists even in Tomoko’s world – we’ve known that all along – but that Tomoko is actually able to grasp that it’s being offered, and however fleetingly to feel better about her life because of it. It may be a small victory but it’s a genuine one, and it’s almost enough to make you feel hopeful about her life.
ED4: 「そこらの着ぐるみの風船と私」by Velvet.kodhy