Story of a Life
December 15, 2014 § Leave a comment
This post will be the first of several I hope to write, along with my other friends here, about Watashi ga Motenai no wa Dou Kangaetemo Omaera ga Warui! and its themes. WataMote, as I’ll call it henceforth for the sake of everyone else’s sanity, is not my favorite anime, although I do like it a lot, and yet I feel strongly that there needs to be an ongoing conversation about it. Large swathes of the internet have written it off as “misery porn,” something like the movie Hick from 2011, because the anime features a socially awkward high-school girl who is repeatedly damned by her own proud and selfish choices to a life of loneliness at best and humiliation at worst. I won’t deny that it’s a hard show to watch, not least because pride and selfishness characterized a lot of my own behavior as a teenager, but I think even the first few episodes of WataMote have something interesting to say about the relevancy of traditional character arcs and narratives to the exigencies of real life.
For a protagonist in what’s usually considered to be a slice-of-life anime, Kuroki Tomoko is not a particularly nice person. When the audience is first introduced to their nominal heroine, she’s sitting alone at her computer late at night, looking up the definition of an “unpopular girl.” Reading it, she immediately concludes that it’s talking about “ugly girls” who are ignored by guys. She doesn’t count herself one of them, despite her grating voice and sunken eyes, because video games have given her lots of experience with the opposite sex. As the narration, which is only used in the first and last episode, spells out for the audience: “Here we have a particular girl — an unpopular girl — and her story that doesn’t really matter.” It’s hard to argue with that, right?
This first scene establishes a common pattern in WataMote. From the outset, Tomoko has wrapped herself so tightly in fantasy, to protect herself from her own less-than-fantastic life, that she is unable to recognize any opportunity to escape that life as distinct from fantasy. Time and again, she offends, frightens, and disgusts people around her with behavior that is dictated by her own unrealistic expectations of those people and of herself. Curiously, at least for my purposes here, Tomoko’s delusional stubbornness is framed in the visual and aural language of the anime as powerful and even admirable, so it often takes several episodes of repeated failure to achieve a wholly positive outcome even once before most of the audience figures out the lie being told there.
The indifference of the fictional universe to Tomoko, the character around whom it centers, is reinforced by the end of every single vignette in the show. I’ll give two other examples, the first in the second episode. Tomoko had faked a stomach bug in order to skip art class, mostly because she wanted to avoid the human interaction that would be required for drawing portraits in pairs, but she is later called by the teacher to do it anyway with a male student who also skipped. They both finish with a minimum of effort, but after the student leaves, Tomoko is shocked to discover that the student, whom she’d been quietly despising for being fat and rude, drew an extremely flattering picture of her. She is affected to the point of asking for a copy to show off to an old friend she is meeting later. The meeting doesn’t go too well, as if anything ever does in WataMote, but Tomoko takes out her copy of the picture and is still comforted in some small way. There’s a cut then to the male student, who’s being criticized by someone in the manga club for drawing all his female faces exactly the same way, just like in Tomoko’s portrait. The student responds that it’s fast and easy, so he doesn’t care.
WataMote isn’t sadistic, like I’ve seen some people claim. It doesn’t deny Tomoko every happiness. Only the audience is given the chance to see how much of the good in her life is illusory. Only the audience is given the chance to see how pointless Tomoko’s story really is.
Of course, the blade cuts both ways. Sometimes, Tomoko is the beneficiary of positive things, but is equally unable to recognize them. In the third episode, Tomoko walks home in a rainstorm. Her umbrella breaks almost immediately. As she stands under an awning in a public park, she reflects on the negative interactions she’s had with men today, before being joined by two boys her age. She fails spectacularly at talking to them, eventually excusing herself to the nearby bathroom with a poop joke. When she comes back, they have left, and she falls asleep with feelings of humiliation at how gross they must have found her. While she slumbers, the boys return, having bought her a new umbrella, and leave it next to her before starting to debate the merits of their deed on the walk home. Tomoko wakes up alone again, sees the umbrella, and takes it, although she thinks she is stealing it from someone. She then walks home, just as miserable as before, and mulls over the absence of kindness, especially male kindness, in her life.
Here, once again, the audience alone is aware of the meaning behind events in Tomoko’s life. To the character herself, there is a coherent narrative of misery, but only because she wasn’t there to witness the careless act of kindness that allowed her to continue forward.
WataMote presents itself superficially in the mode of a slice-of-life anime about someone slowly overcoming their social anxiety and awkwardness to be a happier person. That’s probably why so many people find it cruelly misleading to watch. The plot beats are all there, after all. It’s only the protagonist who fails to measure up to the narrative being laid out. Before the anime even begins, Tomoko has chosen to withdraw into a shell of her own making, like so many of us in our adolescence, and the audience is simply given a front-row seat for the full consequences of that choice. That’s the character arc, as it were, rather than something more substantial and constructive.
Because of all that I’ve written here, it’s easy for most people to write off WataMote as an anime without an actual narrative. I mean, what else are you supposed to think when it has a protagonist who refuses to grow or change? Still, it’s not just a prank being played on its audience, in my eyes. I know I can’t speak for anyone else reading this, but for me, high school was a bizarre struggle between my inward sense of satisfaction, as an adult with a new and distinct identity, and my outward sense of frustration, with a world that often neglected to validate that identity. At times, it felt cataclysmic, even though college ultimately proved it to be something of a non-issue. I think that’s what the narration in WataMote means when it frames Tomoko’s story as one that “doesn’t really matter.” It’s not really even a story, just as life’s not really even a story, but it’s still something that’s worth telling told. Who needs beginnings or endings, anyway?