Comments on Alasdair Czyrnyj's Anxiety, Anger, and Porn

Watamote is, in a word, remarkable.

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Dan H at 16:25 on 2013-11-27
This does sound ... pretty remarkable actually. Uncomfortable as hell, but pretty remarkable.
Alasdair Czyrnyj at 04:15 on 2013-11-29
Oh it is. When you read it, you're impressed with how it depicts all the interconnections of Tomoko's various neuroses, but you always have to pause every 2-3 pages to just go "Oh dear God, Tomoko, what are you doing? Stop."

Nico Tanigawa's accomplishment of making Tomoko unpleasant yet still sympathetic is all the more impressive when you look at their prequel miniseries (which I didn't mention because I couldn't figure out a suitable place to bring it up.) It's called Tomomote (No Matter How I Look At It, It's You Guy's Fault My Friend's Not Popular!) and focuses on the dysfunctional friendship between Tomoko, Yuu, and Kotomi. It's a pseudo-ensemble piece where one member is way more important than the others, but the younger Tomoko is subtly different from her high-school self. In Tomomote there's much less focus on Tomoko's inner monologue, and she doesn't any of the (admittedly minor) self-awareness she has in high school. Suffice to say, middle-school Tomoko is a massively thoughtless jerk. However, while the depiction of Tomoko's selfishness is unsparing, there's an implication that it is not the sole reason she is where she is in Watamote. If anything, Tomomote eschews any "smoking gun" to explain Tomoko; the closest we get is that she was teased mercilessly in elementary school and that even as a kid she had no self-esteem (or much of anything to take pride in). Rather than there being a singular cause, Tomoko's unhappiness seems to be the result of a whole menagerie of bad experiences, fears, neuroses, bad ideas, and neglect interacting and reinforcing one another over the years. Which, I suppose, is how it goes.
Guy at 07:17 on 2013-12-07
Just finished reading the first volume of this based on your recommendation. Thanks! I thought it was great... disturbing and sad, but really well executed.
I haven't read the manga, but I have seen a couple of episodes from the anime, and I couldn't agree more. As a teenager that suffered (and suffers) from serious social anxiety, I found Watamote to be so accurate it was embarrassing to watch. It was as if someone took parts of my life and displayed them on screen. (With differences, obviously. I tended to put people on pedestals rather than disparage them. And since I grew up in a country with a society far more warm and open than Japan's, my high school experience was generally more positive.)

It's really a matter of semantics, but I think that Tomoko is a "Strong Female Character". Sure, she's not strong in any way or form by normal definitions. But the strength of her character comes from how flawed and real she's permitted to be, despite being a female character. She goes well beyond what the stereotype allows in the portrayal of teenage girls (and women in general).

I remember watching Welcome to the NHK, an anime about a social shut in and his messed up friends. I was incredibly frustrated by the fact that I found it far easier to identify with the (male) main character than with the female characters, despite being female myself. Female characters in media are almost never allowed to completely neglect their appearance, or to be addicted to porn and have sexual fantasies all the time, or be awkward in ways that are creepy rather than cute, or engage in other forms of behavior too shockingly "unfeminine" for the sensitive audience.

In short, what I'm trying to say is that while Tomoko may not be a strong female character, she is a well-written female character, and that's all that really matters.
Shim at 23:30 on 2013-12-09
This does sound ... pretty remarkable actually. Uncomfortable as hell, but pretty remarkable.

Great. You can have my copy. Please.

I just read this, though I had no idea you'd written an article Alasdair. Didn't rate it at all, sorry.* I was initially misled to believe it would be entertaining and even amusing, which it isn't. On the other hand, it's too bizarre to work for me as a serious depiction of anything, and didn't give me the impression it was particularly trying to do that. A big chunk of the artwork is just images of a gurning, sweating face. I'm afraid I didn't even pity her, she rarely came across to me as a person, though when she did the teenageness was very recognisable and I respect that.

My personal take-home reading was: manga about unlikable character with uninspiring artwork that doesn't seem to know what tone it's aiming for and therefore achieves none, with occasional flashes of insight.

YMMV and apparently does. I suspect I am not the audience for this series.

*Which is to say, it is rated alongside Drood, Lord of Light and The Host but above Furies of Calderon.
Alasdair Czyrnyj at 02:54 on 2014-01-05
@yahoo:

It's really a matter of semantics, but I think that Tomoko is a "Strong Female Character". Sure, she's not strong in any way or form by normal definitions. But the strength of her character comes from how flawed and real she's permitted to be, despite being a female character. She goes well beyond what the stereotype allows in the portrayal of teenage girls (and women in general).

I was poking some fun at the narrow definition of "strong" that is common, but I would agree with your assessment. The first time I read Watamote, Tomoko seemed like such a natural character, one that embodies a very particular state, that it seemed surprising that I hadn't seen anyone like her before. Speaking as a male reader, I found that Tomoko's femininity was a strength, since I found I was able to accept her anger and creepish attitudes towards sex and still find her sympathetic, which I probably would not have been able to do with a male character.

@Shimmin, I'm sorry you didn't care for it, but if it's any consolation you're not alone. The manga/animé have tended to have divisive critical reactions online; I suppose it's due to the fact that Watamote is a portrait of someone with a mental disorder that doesn't signpost how their disorder affects action "x" or thought "y." As I (and a few others) have said, if you've been or lived with a person like Tomoko, you'll recognize the behaviors immediately, whereas someone who hasn't will just see them as nonsensical weirdness.

I would say, though, that it's a mistake to assume Tomoko's problems are mere "teenagerness." In the manga, both Tomoko's mother and her second-year homeroom teacher seem to operate under this assumption, and as a result they both massively misinterpret what's going wrong with Tomoko and what needs to be done to fix it. Not having any new friends for the first few weeks at a new school in normal; not making any friends for two years is kinda not.
Shim at 13:21 on 2014-01-05
To clarify, I didn’t think Tomoko’s problems were “teenagerness”. Because I was being negative, I just wanted to acknowledge that there were some moments that I did find very believable, either as teenage situations or as mental health issues, despite not finding her a convincing character on the whole.

My problem was that I didn’t feel it was consistent as a book. The cover blurb, artwork and something about the tone didn’t fit well for me with a protagonist who came across as clearly having serious personal issues, some of them all-too familiar. I wasn’t at all confident that Tanigawa had noticed them. I genuinely couldn’t tell whether they thought they were writing a sympathetic portrayal of mental health issues or a wacky comedy about a zany schoolgirl, but neither seemed to fit the book I read. I just could not get a fix on what they thought they were doing, and so the whole book felt odd.

I might also note that in real life not having any friends for two years is genuinely problematic, but in fiction it’s not that uncommon (although having exactly one friend is more common) and usually turns out fine. I suppose exploring how a friendless person learns to trust / socialise / love, and usually exploring their history at the same time, is an appealing thing to write about.
I came across this article thanks to the Random button/link and was compelled to look up the anime series - and I'm glad I did. I found it just as you say, funny a lot of the time and also just plain sad. I admit to being part of the target audience, i.e. someone who has been in the same social basket as Tomoko, and for whom her problems feel very viscerally real. Some of the artistic styling I find particularly intersting - for example, scenes where Tomoko the only fully drawn character in a room full of people with no facial features except for a huge mouth. It's a very hard-hitting and truthful picture of her self-perception, which I say because I actually drew a picture of myself this way when I was a teenager ...

What intrigues me about Tomoko's character isn't just how likeable she is, but how unlikeable she can be at the same time. Sometimes I was actually looking forward to see her fail and fail spectacularly, not out of meanness (I hope) but because her nasty, dorky shortcomings feel so close to home that I like her *because* of them and not in spite of them ... if that makes sense.

The other thing that interested me was Tomoko's definition of herself as "unpopular". Maybe this is a matter of translation, but I don't think she actually is unpopular? As far as we see, no-one actively dislikes her, no-one bullies her or willingly shows even the most casual disrespect for her. Surprisingly, even Yuu-chan seems willing and eager to keep up their friendship although her social life is now so different from Tomoko's - I don't think many teenagers would be mature enough to do that. I guess people like Tomoko tend to perceive their failures as a larger than they actually are, and consequently just dig themselves deeper into their hole.
Alasdair Czyrnyj at 04:56 on 2015-12-02
What intrigues me about Tomoko's character isn't just how likeable she is, but how unlikeable she can be at the same time. Sometimes I was actually looking forward to see her fail and fail spectacularly, not out of meanness (I hope) but because her nasty, dorky shortcomings feel so close to home that I like her *because* of them and not in spite of them ... if that makes sense.

It makes perfect sense. Tomoko resonates for a lot of people because a lot of people are in her situation, and as I wrote, it's something that's rarely depicted in all its complexity.

The other thing that interested me was Tomoko's definition of herself as "unpopular". Maybe this is a matter of translation, but I don't think she actually is unpopular? As far as we see, no-one actively dislikes her, no-one bullies her or willingly shows even the most casual disrespect for her. Surprisingly, even Yuu-chan seems willing and eager to keep up their friendship although her social life is now so different from Tomoko's - I don't think many teenagers would be mature enough to do that. I guess people like Tomoko tend to perceive their failures as a larger than they actually are, and consequently just dig themselves deeper into their hole.

You're on point with all that. I think the reason bullying hasn't been introduced is that it would be all too easy to read it as the root cause of Tomoko's anxiety problems rather than as a catalyst. By keeping her school environment positive, it reinforces the fact that her fears are self-created, not a response to the environment. On the other hand, I've seen some people argue that the lack of bullying actually makes things worse; if she was picked on, it would at least be an acknowledgement she existed. As it is, a lot of the time Tomoko seems to be drifting through high school in a void.

(I have also heard a rumor that the artist was severely bullied in high school and she didn't want to revisit those memories in any form, but I have no confirmation on that. From what I have heard of the writer and artist, though, Watamote is a classic case of "write what you know.")

Actually, I've been wondering lately about how common counseling and/or psychiatric treatment are in Japan, since it's something that has never come up in the manga. It's something tends to come up in English-language discussions, but even Tomoko herself has never considered anything of the sort.
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