Anxiety, Anger, and Porn

by Alasdair Czyrnyj

Watamote is, in a word, remarkable.
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I never thought I would write about something like this. About a year ago, I decided I would never write about comics for Ferretbrain again, since I felt I didn’t have either the interest or the critical apparatus to get a proper hold of them. And here I am, not only writing about a comic, but a manga series something I know even less about than regular ol’ punch-up comics. However, every so often, when the planets align and the moon is new, something appears, perhaps a little outside your normal interests, that surprises you. No; shocks you, cuts you right to the core and says something so perfect and honest about the world that you have to talk about it, explain what it is that makes it so special.

I also never expected that I would feel that way about a slice-of-life comedy manga series about a teenage girl.

The series goes by the handle Watamote, a contraction for the Japanese title which is usually translated as No Matter How I Look At It, It’s You Guys’ Fault That I’m Not Popular!. From what I’ve been about to gather, the manga started publication in Japan sometime around the tail-end of 2011, and initially it didn’t do that well. However, after translated scans of the comic appeared on 4chan it got a massive swell of interest, enough to both keep the comic going and pave the way for a short-run animé series, which was one of the bright spots of the summer 2013 season. I found out about Watamote after seeing some discussion of the animé, which got me interested enough to track down the manga.

The first chapter of Watamote opens with our heroine, the fifteen-year old Tomoko Kuroki, contemplating her upcoming first day of high school. Tomoko is in fairly high spirits; for her, high school is when things are going to start turning around. High school is the time when she will finally become popular, get some friends, and perhaps even a boyfriend. She’s well prepared for the experience; thanks to her otome games she’s spent approximately fifty years in high school and had about a hundred boyfriends. All in all, the future looks bright.

One page and two months later, Tomoko is sitting at her desk eating her lunch while reading, wondering where it all went wrong.

Watamote is a manga about Tomoko’s isolation and social anxiety and her struggle to overcome the two. Now, isolation and social anxiety are hardly uncommon subjects in fiction. They form a reliable bedrock of subject material for all manner of genres, particularly young-adult, romance, and Serious Literature about contemporary angst. While I’ve sampled and even enjoyed books from all three of these categories in the past, I’ve always found their depictions of loneliness and anxiety to be lacking. With the more literary attempts, rawness and emotional truth are often sacrificed in the name of stylization and presentation. With stuff rooted in genre, the problem is that these states of being tend to be treated more as starting points than as conditions worth exploring. Generally speaking, a story starting with a lonely character will see them start the process of finding friends or a significant other in short order, leaving the depiction of isolation confined to the first few chapters. Overcoming solitude is likewise not presented as much of a problem; with extensive support networks of offbeat tertiary characters, getting into the dating game or the school scene is a matter as easy as remembering to ride a bike.

Suffice to say, Watamote is not like this. There is no love interest, male or female, introduced for Tomoko. There is no group of likeable misfits for her to join. There is no wrangling and jockeying for position among any high school cliques. While Tomoko is an animé otaku with an active imagination, Watamote does not indulge in Walter Mitty-esque flights of fancy. Indeed, the number of named recurring characters in Watamote can counted on one hand. The story is stripped to its basics, and only occasionally leaves the inside of Tomoko’s head.

More remarkable than its focus is Watamote’s depiction of its subject matter. This manga is, without any exaggeration or hyperbole, the most accurate depiction of social anxiety I have ever seen. Not much is known about the creators – the name on the cover, Nico Tanigawa, is apparently a pseudonym for a male writer and a female artist – but the fan assumption is that the manga is inspired by personal experience. Judging by the material, I would agree; there is so much in Tomoko’s thoughts and actions that you would not invent unless you either lived with someone like her, or were her at one point. And the manga is unsparing in depicting those thoughts and actions. Watamote is billed as a comedy, but it’s a very black, uncomfortable sort of comedy, where laughter is tinged with sympathetic embarrassment, pity, and occasionally hatred. Because of her isolation, Tomoko thinks shitty things about other people and even does shitty things to other people, and the manga doesn't sugar-coat these moments. But that is a strength of Watamote, not a weakness. Tomoko Kuroki is not a strong female character. She isn’t even a “nice” female character, and she makes it hard as hell to be likeable. But she is an honest character and a sad character, and she is one of the most memorable characters I have come across in recent memory.

Because I’m Not Popular, I'll Struggle Silently With Myself

One of the major focuses of Watamote - and the one the series probably gets the most mileage from – is its depiction of the contradictory nature of social anxiety. Throughout the series, Tomoko is shown time again to be a girl who both does and does not want to interact with other people. To an outsider, such a reaction would seem illogical, but to someone in Tomoko’s state of mind it’s a fairly common condition. A person with social anxiety may want to interact with others, form friendships, pursue deeper relationships, and the like. They may even crave it desperately, finding the endless presence of their own company and their anxieties too much to bear. However, while the end goal may be deeply desired, the actual process of fulfilling it is anything but. For people like Tomoko, joining a group is a monumentally difficult undertaking. Given the lack of experience and self-consciousness, even the simplest of interactions are fertile ground for a garden of phobias. Just starting a conversation raises the fear of misjudging the discussion and causing trouble. Someone who doesn’t speak with other people much won’t have much experience with idle chitchat, resulting in the fear that the conversation will die out at the nest pause. Silence gives way to internal self-castigation over not doing enough to become more social. A fantastic amount of stress and anxiety can build up in a person in a short amount of time. In time, the pressure of other people can grow so intolerable that solitude transforms from a burden into a welcome respite.

Tomoko feels this pressure, and tries to adapt. Most of her attempts to become social depict her trying to find some sort of “trick”, something she can do or change about herself that will entice other people to talk to her, rather than force her to go out and make the first move. She conspicuously reads magazines and leaves snacks out on her desk at break time, hoping that other students will take note of her and comment. She tries to spend a day acting emotionlessly in an attempt to appear intriguingly mysterious. When looking for someone to see the summer fireworks with, she fakes a phone call and loudly mentions that she has no one to see them with, rather than asking the only other boy in the library with her. Naturally none of these methods ever work. However, when fate throws her into a spontaneous situation with other people (say, a freak rainstorm stranding her in a shelter with two other boys who also have no umbrellas), things are even worse. Her mind works a mile a minute, trying to come up with some way to start a conversation with them, creating and rejecting topic after topic while silently responding to their chatter. Meanwhile, all she can do is eke out stammered sentences that trail off into inaudibility. In the end, Tomoko is often happier by herself, having fun on her computer or idly wandering through the neighborhood, than she is with other people. But she longs for others all the same.

Because I’m Not Popular, I’ll Abuse Someone I Love

One of the weird things about the way socially awkward people are depicted is popular culture is that they are often not portrayed as being terribly antisocial. They may not like talking with other people and they may not shave, but they don’t routinely sabotage relationships, toss around racial slurs, or do anything that is genuinely off-putting. There are always exceptions, of course, but I have noticed that in a lot of geek-targeted media the less photogenic aspects of the introverted, uncomfortable personality are either not depicted or are quietly elided. (Case in point: The Guild.)

Watamote, by contrast, feels no desire to pretty up its protagonist. In general, Tomoko does not handle her situation gracefully. Her inner monologue is not censored, so every nasty little thought that runs through her head ends up on the page. She often treats the few people she does regularly interact with rather poorly. And every so often, she goes beyond the limits of acceptable behavior, even the generous limits afforded by her standing as a teenager, and does some pretty shitty things. And yet, in spite of this, her actions make her more interesting, and even more sympathetic.

Through the course of her school day, Tomoko’s primary state of being is one of silent frustration. In her mind she is always raging against her classmates, excoriating them for going off to karaoke after school or taking her seat at lunch. The supposed theft of her umbrella sets her off on an extended rant of the evils of umbrella thieves, only to be brought to a screeching halt after finding it misplaced in another rack. The destruction of her school features regularly in her daydreams. Many of these thoughts are pretty normal for anyone in school, of course, but in Tomoko’s case they take on an interesting light. Her frustration is a very rootless one; like a dust devil it whirls up quickly only to vanish seconds later. There’s no real target; her “enemy” seems to be everyone and no one. She can snap from wishing that her classmates “keep on being reincarnated as shit over and over again,” only to meekly ask to help with a project in the next panel. Tomoko’s frustration stems, perhaps, from a silent envy for her classmate’s ability to freely socialize without the anxieties that weigh her down, and of a preemptive defense against the rejection by the world she feels every day.

While Tomoko thinks poorly of her classmates, she keeps her thoughts to herself. With people who are closer to her and with whom she is more comfortable, it’s a different story. There’s only two people Tomoko interacts with on a regular basis: her brother Tomoki, a soccer star at his middle school and far better socialized than his big sister, and Yuu Naruse, her dorky friend from middle school who went to a different high school, only to end up far prettier and far more popular than Tomoko. She tries to maintain relationships with both of them, but undercurrents of jealousy and resentment still seep through. Even when talking with Yuu, Tomoko can’t help but occasionally think of her as “my high-school bitch friend”. Tomoko’s relationship with her brother is fraught the way most sibling relationships are, but she tends to be way harder on him than he on her. However, her interactions with Yuu and Tomoki reveal another unpleasant fact about Tomoko: she generally has very little empathy for others. Again, such a thing is understandable; after all, if you spend much of your day by yourself, it becomes increasingly hard to remember there is a world outside your head. That fact, however, does not excuse Tomoko’s behavior. When Yuu starts telling Tomoko about a fight she had with her boyfriend, Tomoko, mortified at her own lack of progress on the relationship front, quietly slips her headphones back on. When told by her mother to do some chores while her brother studies for a test, Tomoko flies off the handle at him, demanding to know why he tries to make her look bad all the time.

On rare occasions, this lack of empathy compels Tomoko to move beyond petty callousness and into genuinely unpleasant behavior. The first major one occurred during Tomoko’s summer vacation with a visit from her cousin Kii-chan. After humiliating herself by trying to live up a bunch of lies she told about herself, Tomoko tries to salvage her image as the cool older couser by taking Kii-chan to a local convenience store where Tomoko is the “queen” of CCGs. However, once there Kii-chan discovers to her horror that not only does Tomoko play cards against elementary school boys, she has no qualms about cheating them in order to win. The second, perhaps more serious incident, occurs later in the year, when her mother asks her to put her brother’s high school application in the mail. Subconsciously surmising (correctly, it seems) that her brother is choosing a distant high school to get away from her, Tomoko neglects to mail the application. While her act is quickly discovered and Tomoki even forgives her, her selfishness manages to put her right back in the doghouse.

Perhaps the reason profoundly antisocial characters are not used that often is because they are a very difficult balancing act. They require enough behaviors to actually qualify as “antisocial”, but they run the risk of losing the audience’s sympathy completely. Watamote, amazing little manga that it is, manages to pull this off. Tomoko behaves abominably to the people around her, and she makes terrible choices that hurt others. The manga doesn’t sugarcoat it, it doesn’t excuse it, and it doesn’t explain it away. However, the damage she does is generally fairly limited, and she is quickly brought to account for her actions by either the characters or the reader. Moreover, the implication is that her actions, rather than being driven by any sort of deep malice, are instead the clumsy, stupid actions of a socially inept girl who wants her little cousin to admire her and her brother to not abandon her, but doesn’t know how to achieve these ends other than by doing stupid things. In the end, the reaction of the audience is not one of anger or hatred, but of pity.

Because I’m Not Popular, I’ll Browse Without Safe Search On

There is a tendency in a lot of media to portray awkward, geeky women as virginal and incredibly naïve about sex. While a lot of this is due to the hang-ups of the author or society in general about female sexuality, it is also true that a lot of these characters are created, not to give geeky women someone to identify with, but to appeal to geeky men looking for a fantasy figure that will not trigger their own feelings of sexual anxiety and inadequacy.

Tomoko, suffice to say, was not created with this audience’s desires in mind.

From the first chapter, Tomoko is a bubbling crock-pot of hormones and urges. She concocts orgy scenarios at the drop of the hat, and imagines double entendres everywhere. She explores the idea of sex in fairly typical ways: she stays up all night playing boy’s-love visual novels, she splices dialogue spoken by of one of her favorite voice actors with her own horribly-delivered dialogue to create a sort of crude erotic radio play/podcast, and she Googles pictures of penises on her phone in home room. However, Tomoko’s sexuality is that of a fifteen-year-old girl whose knowledge of sex comes primarily from the internet and porn, so her understanding of sex tends to go into some weird and creepy areas. A lot of her interaction with her brother revolves around her crudely flirting with him, which freaks him right the hell out. Poor Yuu gets her share of attention, with Tomoko’s jealousy focusing on the fact that Yuu ended up with bigger breasts and a bigger butt than Tomoko did. Frankly, Tomoko’s libido leads her into some dangerous areas; while overhearing some girls in her class talk about their experiences on the subway, Tomoko laments, ever so briefly, that no one has ever tried to feel her up on the train. On another occasion, she seizes upon the idea of becoming a cabaret girl to become more at ease in social situations and travels down to the red-light district to find a job. While nothing happens to her, the experience scares her witless and sends her running home in short order.

While some people have been unnerved by Watamote’s depiction of Tomoko’s sexuality, I’ve never really had a problem with it. First of all, if the Internet has taught me anything, it’s that women can be just as weird and creepy about sex as men can, so seeing what Tomoko’s behavior seems fairly reasonable given her emotional baggage and her browsing history. Truth be told, there’s a lot going on with Tomoko and her sexuality. Her horniness is based on a desire for sexual satisfaction, but there’s also a desire for intimacy, both emotional and physical, beneath that. When Yuu surprises Tomoko with a hug, rather than feeling an erotic thrill, she feels a small flush of happiness that someone wanted to hug her. Sex is also a way for Tomoko to wrestle with her feelings about growing up. Tomoko is struggling to get through her adolescence, and she’s well aware that adulthood is just around the corner. Temperamentally she was much more comfortable in middle school (if equally unhappy), and even as a first-year high school student she finds it easier to interact with middle-school boys than with her classmates. However, even she knows the time when that is still permissible is drawing to a close. She delights in thinking about sex, but only so long as the sex remains a middle schooler’s erotic fantasy. Imagining herself as a sexually mature adult is beyond her grasp, never mind actually becoming one. Even just lying next to a boy at the nurse’s station is enough to bring her to a panic.

Because I’m Not Popular, I’ll Weep

Tomoko is not a happy person. Things have not gone well for her for a long time, and from her perspective they will only continue to get worse. On top of that, most of her problems are self-inflicted, but she has no idea how to stop hurting herself.

Above everything else, Watamote is a heartbreaking manga. Most of what Tomoko tries to break out of her cycle ends in failure. Most of the time she appears to be adrift in life, ignored by everyone around her. Everyone she knows is growing up and becoming adults, and she is stuck in the same place. As the manga progresses, and as Tomoko develops more of an awareness of her situation, her outlook grows ever darker. A fantasy of joining the light music club that riffs off of Haruhi Suziyama quickly decays into a vision of the hypothetical group members discussing Tomoko’s inability to converse with them while she sits in the hallway, already pulling away. Rather than being popular, all Tomoko wants is the barest minimum of interaction, a simple acknowledgement that she exists and that she is loved. And she cannot even find that.

The nadir of Tomoko’s high school experience probably comes in the twenty-seventh chapter of Watamote. Entitled “Because I’m Not Popular I’ll Form A Club”, the chapter opens in the fall, with Tomoko meditating on her experiences over the year. The cold weather has filled the classroom with more people Tomoko cannot interact with, leading her to leave the lunchtime hubbub and go outside. Looking out over the school, her mind drifts to an old fantasy she had in middle school of being in a club. As fantasies go, it’s fairly modest; a club with about a half-dozen members that enjoy each other’s company, who like having Tomoko around and that Tomoko likes being around. However, rather than consoling her, the fantasy brings Tomoko to the brink of tears. However, it also spurs her to action, to take an application and create a club of her own, an incredibly brave thing to do by her standards. In the final pages of the chapter, it appears the gambit paid off; the club was approved, and Tomoko has two new members. There isn’t really any structure to the club, true, but the fact that they’re together is more than enough.

And as her mother calls her for dinner the illusion shatters. In actuality, the school rejected the club proposal on the grounds of being “unclear,” and the last three pages were a fantasy concocted by Tomoko as she sat in her room, catatonically having a tea party with her plushies.

If I had to come up with something that would concisely sum up everything that Watamote is, it would be that chapter. It’s funny in the sense that the situation is ridiculous. It’s unbelievably sad. And it captures a truth about social anxiety, a fear that makes it so hard for those affected to take a chance and reach out. It is the fear that even if you struggle against your lot in life, even if you face down your anxiety and take a chance, it will not work, and you will only end up back where you started, because you are alone and that is all you will ever be.

Because I’m Not Popular, I’ll Wrap It Up

Still, life has not been all blackness for Tomoko. There have been hints that other people are aware of her problems, little moments of small kindnesses. The manga has progressed into her second year, which has seen Tomoko grow a little more at ease with her surroundings. Her class is slightly more aware of her, even if only as the girl who Googled dick pics on her phone in homeroom, and a few people have tried to help her, if only to limited effect. As of this writing, the biggest change in Tomoko’s life is the introduction of an old acquaintance from middle school. At first glance, Kotomi Komiyama, a shy nerdy girl, would seem to be the perfect person to befriend Tomoko. However, as the girls are essentially mirror images of one another, the two spend their time attacking one another, each seeing the other as the personification of all their insecurities. Through it all, Tomoko still remains Tomoko, for good and ill.

Now, some of you may read this bloated article and be wondering what the attraction is for Watamote. Why spend all that time reading or watching (or writing about) such a weird, unlikable, horny, miserable character? Well, I can only speak for myself, but I will say this: in all the places I have seen people discussing this series, one phrase appears over and over again, reiterated with minute variations – “uncomfortably accurate.”

I would say that people have responded to Watamote – to Tomoko – because she reminds us of ourselves. She reminds us of ourselves in those moments we do not wish anyone to see. Those moments when we have no one in the world but ourselves, when the misery looks like it will never abate, never cease, those moments when we are willing to do anything to anyone, just so long as it makes it hurt a little bit less. What she is going through, what she is enduring, we understand.

But as we hold out hope for ourselves, so too do we hold out hope for her.

(If you want to read Watamote the first volume of the official English translation is currently available in North America. Scanlations are available where you find such things. The animé series recently completed its twelve-episode run, and it’s well worth streaming. It’s an adaptation of the first thirty-odd chapters of the manga, and it’s remarkably faithful. Not an easy watch, tho.)
Themes: Comics
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