I’ll just be over there in the corner, silently weeping…
Author’s Note: In light of the news of Robin Williams’ death today, I thought I’d top this post as I couldn’t help but be put in mind of Watamote when I heard this news, because it’s one of an extremely rare (and I mean probably low single digits) breed of anime that really deals with depression in a thoughtful, compassionate but ruthless and non-gimmicky way, and this episode is the most devastating of the series for me.
Before I even begin this post about Watamote I’m going to hijack it for a bit. I’ve tried a few times during these write-ups to explain what it’s like to live with a person like Tomoko, and why this series isn’t simply a matter of standard anime teenage angst and she just needs to “suck it up”, and all that. I’m a huge fan of Stephen Fry – the fantastically eloquent and compassionate writer/actor/comedian/tech blogger/diarist – and about a million other things, one of them being a manic depressive. He’s attempted suicide twice, and did a documentary about people living with bipolar disorders. Not surprisingly he manages to capture the experience – both for the victim and their loved ones – far more concisely and keenly than I ever could in this video, taken from a one-man show (actually the Q & A that followed) he did at the Sydney Opera House. Now, what Stephen suffers from may not be the precise condition Tomoko likely does, but the larger description is on-the-money. The relevant portion begins at about 3:25:
Impossibly, with this episode Watamote seems to have upped the ante on bleakness and despair. The reason, I think, is because it’s by far the least outrageous episode so far. There’s not much comedy, really, and there are really no developments that are remotely unrealistic. There are no victims of Tomoko’s selfish anger, either – it’s just 22 minutes of Tomoko alone in her misery. And what seems to be happening as the series progresses is that Tomoko is becoming increasingly aware of just how alone and desperate she is. The darkness is almost literally closing in on her – she’s aware of it and we’re aware of it, but we seem equally powerless to stop it.
Several things stand out as I look back on these two chapters in one unhappy life. We start with Tomoko returning for the new semester, only to find that the seating chart has been rearranged (which seems to be a standard practice in Japan, as shocked as she is) and she’s been dumped in the second row, surrounded by the full flock of gabby social gadflies in her class. What do we see here? In fact, there’s an attempt to include Tomoko in their conversation initially – irreverent, yes, but not savage or outright mocking in any way. This is an opportunity for Tomoko in fact, though when presented with it, she can only see it as a curse. She retreats – first to a bunker she makes for herself among disused desks at the top of the stairs – and mutters to herself about how “annoying” all those normals are. And she’s blissfully happy for her lunch breaks at least, playing games on her phone and reading manga, until the desks are removed and she’s left homeless.
Here’s the dirty little secret – when Tomoko isn’t despairing over how lonely she is, she’s happier when she’s alone. Why? Well, partly because when you’re a smart and unusual person most people are annoying a lot of the time, especially in high school. Other people are a lot of work. But of course there’s also the fact that Tomoko is under extreme stress every moment she’s around those people, dreading the moment when they might break into the loneliness she also dreads, and try to include her. It’s the trap of someone in Tomoko’s position – she’s caught between two possibilities, and they’re always “bad” and “worse”. There are no escapes for her, no happy places. It’s so bad, in fact, that with her lunchtime womb deprived her she doesn’t even eat, and passes out in gym class. It’s only at the end of the day after everyone else has left that she’s able to relax – and she arranges the desks in the empty classroom to resemble the disorder of her hideaway so she can relax enough to eat her lunch.
And the, there’s what follows – which is even more depressing. It’s so cutting because we realize that for all her delusions of grandeur, even Tomoko’s fantasies are mostly setting their sights incredibly low. She thinks back to the middle-school past and imagines a club that didn’t exist, and there’s nothing glamorous about her imagined memory – it’s just a group of unpopular kids who sit around and do nothing, but at least they’re not alone in doing it. In a rare moment of decisiveness she grabs a new club application form and after much cogitating and trial-and-error at home, comes up with a proposal for a Nichijou-bu – a “Daily Life Club” for “Doing fun things and finding happiness in everyday life”. I confess I was surprised when she actually summoned the courage to submit the form the next day, and the fantasy she concocts around this club is even more modest – just Tomoko and two other kids, who barely seem to speak to each other. But at least they’re not alone in doing it. The reality, in fact, is that Tomoko isn’t silently drinking tea with this boy and girl but silently drinking tea in her room with her two plushies, fantasizing about silently drinking tea with that boy and girl. And when she returns to school the application has been denied because of “Club description unclear“.
I know I’ve said this before, but if you can’t feel anything for Tomoko here, well… I mean, really? Here we see her perform an act which, for her, is one of great courage – all to an incredibly modest hoped-for end – and she gets nothing for it but more loneliness. I know it will shock – shock! – longtime readers of my posts, but I’m not a huge fan of moe and what it’s done to anime. Yet as odd as it might sound, I think Tomoko is practically an icon of a side of moe that’s pretty close to how I first came to understand the term – someone who inspires an urge to protect and comfort. My heart absolutely shatters for Tomoko because I know how hard the road ahead of her is, and how unlikely it is she’ll ever truly escape the prison she’s trapped inside. I’m hard-pressed to think of many anime that have so effectively portrayed the pain of loneliness in the way Watamote has, without resorting to cheap comedy or cheaper dramatics – as outrageous as this series can be, it’s at its most remarkable when it quietly lets Tomoko’s life speak for itself.