Is it funny to point and laugh at someone when they trip and fall off a curb? (If you think so, save yourself the trouble and stop reading this now.)
If everyone else laughs at them, though, is it okay for you to follow suit? And if the person in question gets up, dusts themselves off, and seems no worse for having fallen down, does that vindicate having been mean to them, because "they can take it"?
I'm not asking these questions because I'm some stern moralist who wants everyone who's seen (and laughed at) WataMote -- aka Watashi ga Motenai no wa dō Kangaetemo Omaera ga Warui!, aka No Matter How I Look at It, It’s You Guys' Fault I’m Not Popular! — to crawl under their beds and die of shame. I ask because I think it's not enough to respond to a show that purports to be funny by simply saying, well, it made me laugh, it accomplished its goal, what else is there? WataMote invites you to laugh at someone else's suffering and pain, and tempts you to do so by painting all that happens to her as being largely her own fault. But it also wants to say that even if it is her fault, does she really deserve to suffer that much? And do we deserve to be snickering up our sleeve at her for it, too?
In some ways this may be the most complex and divisive show I have yet reviewed, and I don't think it's a coincidence that WataMote comes billed as a comedy. No two people find the same things funny, or in the same way, so comedy has the potential to polarize audiences the way other material doesn't. Richard Eisenbeis at Kotaku proclaimed it "the most mean-spirited anime I have ever watched", and I have gone back and forth on both sides of that particular fence myself. I don't take succor in insult or revenge humor, and that was part of why WataMote turned me off, because my ideas of fun don't include being invited to giggle at a loser (even a fictitious one) and her self-fulfilling social suicide. It's at least as unpleasant a show as Flowers of Evil, and I'm inclined to watch it a second time even less than I did that endurance test.
That said, I couldn't ignore the evidence that the show is more sophisticated than it might seem at first, even if I think that sophistication is used ignobly. I also imagine knowing it's smarter than it looks will be of little consolation to people who feel it amounts to a cheap laugh at someone else's misery. Believe me, I can see why they would be turned off. Black comedy isn't for everybody, in part because the end result runs the risk of being for nobody at all.
A nobody wanting to be a somebody
The anti-heroine of WataMote, Tomoko, has just entered high school as a freshman. She's a sickly-looking creature with a frowsy mop of black hair, permanently sunken-in eyes, and a voice that never rises above a timid creak except when she's fulminating to herself about how much everyone else and everything else stinks. Just summoning the courage to speak to anyone who's not an immediate family member — and sometimes just speaking to them as well — is an ordeal.
The show lets us in on why right away: it's because the inside of her mind is a seething volcanic cauldron of resentment, bitterness, spite, paranoia, and morbid fantasy. This was supposed to be the point in her life when she blossomed and turned into something greater, but instead she has withered and retreated. What she wants more than anything else is to be taken seriously and admired, but she doesn't have the faintest idea how to go about actually attracting any kind of positive attention. She sees popularity and good social graces as something that she's owed, not something she has to actually go out and earn.
A good deal of what happens to Tomoko in WataMote is reminiscent of how Roger Ebert summed up the movie Taxi Driver: a series of the main character's failed attempts to connect, every one of them hopelessly wrong. Most every attempt Tomoko undertakes to be seen or understood backfires. She tries to give herself the spirited energy of a newly minted high-schooler by wolfing down double portions of breakfast; she ends up instead puking it all back up before even reaching the school gate. She tries to reconnect with a friend from junior high, only to see that she's flowered (both physically and mentally), and instead of savoring their time together, Tomoko seethes with jealousy. Or, worse, uses her friend as an attempt to soothe her own wounded ego, as she does when she lies to her about her (non-)activities in the school's culture festival. Her furtive attempts at sexual exploration all come from video games and popular culture, and end in mortifying embarrassment (as when she tries to use a vacuum cleaner to make it look like she has hickeys). She fritters away her entire summer vacation in front of her computer and then flagellates herself with regret.
I'd be lying if I said I didn't laugh at any of this, especially since it's all pitched in the blackest possible comic tones and delivered with expert timing. WataMote also finds some tremendously clever ways to visualize its goings-on, thanks to a slew of inventive sight gags and animation direction. The show has a lot of fun contrasting what's going on inside Tomoko's head with the reality of the situation, by way of split screens, overlays, contrasting image styles, and so on. The obvious reading of the show is that it's inviting us to laugh at her, but another possibility — one that looms a little larger each time I think about it — is that it's inviting us to be mortified for her, to wince in sympathy rather than giggle in contempt, to laugh that we may not cry.
Do we laugh that we may not cry?
What I am not so sure is if I should be invited to laugh at any of it, even if to keep from crying. I suspect a lot of what conclusions we can draw about the show's attitude towards Tomoko are going to stem from our own attitudes about dark humor — that if we want to spin something like this as being a laugh-that-we-may-not-cry experience, it'll be easier to do so. If we want to take offense in it, most every episode has something to offend, and in a whole new way to boot.
Some of the way Tomoko's life backfires on her is broadly hilarious, if never good-natured. I did laugh at a scene where she wins a chance to speak to a voice actor from one of her favorite games, and despite all her research into what to have him say that might sound cool or suave, she ends up inadvertently having him babble gibberish ... which she savors anyway. I also could not deny there are moments of genuine, heartfelt gloom, as when she tries in vain to find a place in the school where she can eat her lunch alone, only to have that taken from her too — and not even maliciously.
But there's just as much of the show that's irredeemably ugly and tasteless, and too often the good and the bad are derived from the same material. E.g., Tomoko's fumbling attempts to explore her sexuality, as when she wins a personal massager in a raffle and has no idea what she's "really" supposed to do with it. The show's ostensibly making fun of her general ineptitude with all things "adult" — e.g., relationships, social conduct, etc. — but instead it sometimes comes off as if she's being unfairly punished for having any sexuality at all, which is not funny.
Those two impulses — to mock her ineptitude, and to mock her desires — coexist very uneasily in this show, and I think that may be the largest part of why I cannot laugh at it without feeling bad. At one point a female friend hugs her and she decides to take advantage of the moment by groping the other woman's bottom, so starved is Tomoko for affectionate contact. It would be funny if it didn't feel like it was being thrown in for the sake of a cheap, audience-baiting laugh, and it isn't really redeemed in retrospect by Tomoko later receiving a cheer-you-up hug (and a balloon, to boot) from a stranger.
The other thing the show does, which I am also divided on as to whether it helps or hurts, is how it stacks the deck to show us that most of what goes wrong is in fact Tomoko's own fault. Time and again the show hints that the people around her (save for perhaps her brother) would be fine with her if she would just open up to them and treat them like people, not obstacles to be overcome. But she's so paralyzed by fear and worry about her own ineptitude — real or perceived — that she can't do it. She really is her own worst enemy, and the depths to which she sinks in support of this thesis reaches a kind of terrible, tragic grandeur. She doesn't know how to laugh at herself, but the show's answer to that is to invite us to laugh at her in lieu of her being able to do it on her own. Is that wise?
On punching up, not down
It's been said that good humor punches up, not down, and a big part of why too much of WataMote comes off as tasteless and unsavory is because there's only so much up-punching you can do on someone like Tomoko. The show does seem to recognize this, though, as it doles out little redemptions and satisfactions to Tomoko, like so many crumbs picked off a table with tweezers. But those things don't really work as compensation for all that came before; they just make the show's attitude to her seem all the more capricious and insensitive when it hasn't earned the right to be.
Dale Peck once wrote an essay about the novelist Julian Barnes, in which he observed something similar: "[The author's] compassion for his characters is doled out as if emotional hurts and healing could be measured as a court measures innocence or guilt or a recipe flour and sugar...." Something similar is at work here, and while I understand that the whole point of the thing is to make Tomoko's failures amusing and maybe even touching in a Peanuts/Charlie Brown-dropping-the-ball sort of way, it comes out feeling like the wrong kind of mean just often enough to give the whole enterprise a sour flavor. Tomoko may be a Charlie Brown level of loser, but she has no Linus to serve as a foil for her pains, no way for any of her suffering to be given a context outside of what she feels — save for the show itself, and the show is not designed to do anything except point and giggle. Sometimes we giggle along with her, but most of the time we're giggling at her, and the show affords us little in the way of being able to tell the two apart save for our own tolerances for such things.
One argument in favor of the show is that those who feel as Tomoko has will automatically feel that much more empathy for her by watching her suffering. They're laughing with her, not at her, because they've been there too, and because the show communicates well all the excruciating details of such horrible humiliations. I think shows that explore the problems of being a social outcast, both with black humor and sympathy, can work very well: I wouldn't be a fan of Welcome to the NHK! if I didn't believe so. I also think it's great if people who have been there can see something of themselves in this material and thus find it worthy. The problem is that I think such an attitude says more about those viewers' ability to savor the show, to mine out of it what they choose to see, than it says anything good about the show itself. The show may be working for them despite what it does, not because of it.
WataMote does close on a note of hope for Tomoko, however minimal, although I leave it to the viewer as to whether it's worth the struggle to reach it. in the very last scene of the last episode, after she's endured yet another set of humiliations due to her own second-guessing of other people's motives, she looks at the definition of "an unpopular girl" and realizes it doesn't matter. If she's unpopular, so be it. She may still be a loser, but at least she's an honest loser, and that is one of the few pieces of emotional truth we're likely to get from a franchise that confuses examining a phenomenon — finding the dark humor in someone's suffering — with trafficking in same.