This show is fucking painful.
So. Watamote. Well, for a start its full name is Watashi ga Motenai no wa Dou Kangaetemo Omaera ga Warui! (something about it being your fault I'm not popular, no matter how you look at it) but fuck that noise. Watamote is the heartwarming story of a wallflower who was experiencing growing pains in middle school, but since starting high school she's starting blossoming into a kind, outgoing, popular young woman who enjoys her day to day life with all of her friends and especially her loving boyfriend, and the fun and troubling times they all get through together.
Haha, just kidding! It's about a delusional, self-absorbed, depressed and asocial loner who expected her life to magically turn around once entering high school, but it didn't because her life (ironically!) isn't a slice-of-life high school based anime and so instead she just goes around embarrassing herself in increasingly terrible ways.
The cringe. The cringe. It hurts so much.
all of us irl
If you're one to struggle with cringe comedy, much like myself, I'll just say it off the bat: Watamote is going to be difficult for you to watch. It is unbelievably painful, but despite that it's really good! If you're anything like me it will hurt you with every episode, but you just won't be able to stop watching. Well, "watching" - I did spend a not insignificant amount of time with my head buried in my hands, after all.
My previous synopsis is a touch unfair, although does capture the essence of Watamote quite well. But if we're more detailed, it's a series centering around one Tomoko Kuroki, who at the start of the series is about to begin high school. Her formative years up to this point have largely been characterised by relative isolation and an obsession with anime and otome games. To say she's delusional would be an understatement; she sincerely believes she will become super popular in high school and easily find a boyfriend because that's what happens in fiction. This in itself doesn't cause the cringe and embarrassment, but it does allow her to put herself in positions where those are easy eventualities; Tomoko is acutely socially awkward, to the point of not even being able to say goodbye to her teacher after school easily, but is also willing to try and achieve her completely unrealistic fantasies.
Why WOULDN'T you expect this to happen to you?
As a brief example early on, she decides to try and reinvent herself to make herself seem cuter and as a result become more popular. But without any knowledge about what works and what doesn't, little skill when it comes to hair styling and applying makeup, and no friendly, critical eye to help her, she just looks like a complete fucking mess. But she nevertheless goes out in public like this. And then bumps into her younger brother, Tomoki. Cringe.
So far, so sympathetic. She's just an awkward kid who has no idea what she's doing and no-one to help her out. But there is a more insidious side to her, which also contributes to her making a fool out of herself. You see, Tomoko is incredibly self-absorbed. She's always focused on how anything only affects her, and rarely considers others. She never considers that she'd have to put in any actual work to forge relationships and become more noticeable. She is incredibly judgmental, assuming the worst about so many people, believing most everyone to be sluts and/or morons. She'll willingly lie through her teeth if it might get people to like her a bit more. In short, she's a pretty unpleasant person, and it often ends up being her downfall.
Be grateful I spared you a clearer image of her
An example of such would be when her younger cousin comes to visit. Tomoko tries to impress her by lying about all her boyfriends and sexual conquests, and so tries to maintain the lie to save face. This ends up with her saying that some random guy who happened to have bumped into her in the past was her boyfriend, and it doesn't take long for the lie to fall apart tremendously.
Oh, and her cousin catches Tomoko cheating in a children's card game. Against children.
But in all fairness to her, most of this awful behaviour and facets of her personality are basically rooted in her isolation and depression. If she had more meaningful contact with other people, she would likely have a wider perspective on things, and wouldn't be quite so self-absorbed. Her judgemental nature is obviously rooted in base jealousy. Her dishonesty is just a desperate attempt to get some level of respect and admiration that she craves. They aren't likable traits, but it's understandable. Tomoko is still sympathetic.
But hooooly shiiiiiiit does she ever dig herself deep as a result of all that.
When you've made your impressionable, significantly younger cousin lose all respect and have nothing but pity for you, you're not doing too good at life!
Fortunately for those who have a rough time with cringe comedy, Watamote doesn't take an antagonistic attitude towards Tomoko. What I mean by that is that although she embarrasses herself, that's often the extent of her actions. The people at her school just don't even notice her, let alone talk about her. She doesn't get bullied, and she's such a non-presence for most everybody that there's no real permanence to her fuck ups. This makes it a lot easier for me stomach at least, because anything more would just feel mean-spirited and depressing on a whole other level. Really, it's only when her family is involved does it feel like anything sticks, and it's not even that bad with them. Her mother is exasperated and frustrated, her brother is sick of her shit, her father would prefer to forget what he sees, and her cousin simply pities her.
Tomoko as a character is ultimately pretty sympathetic. She's not the nicest person, but is a victim of her circumstances and (assumed) mental illnesses, and in many ways Watamote represents a really interesting character study of her. Seeing what makes her tick, what her fantasies are and her eventual realisation about how absurdly unrealistic they are and how terrifying some of them can actually be, how she seeks banal comforts and interactions with family and her sole friend to stave off the loneliness, Tomoko is a fascinating and often relatable character explored in a damn funny way.
Except for when it's being depressing
The entertainment Watamote offers doesn't start and end at Tomoko, however. It also fucking skewers so many topes, clich s and archetypes you typically see in so many high school set anime series. I mean, it does so through Tomoko, but it's not because of her that this aspect becomes funny. The premise itself, that Tomoko thinks she'll become instantly popular once starting high school, is an obvious riff on the god knows how many franchises where Generic Blandy McBlandson-kun obtains fuck knows how many friends and a ridiculous harem with literally no effort, and it obviously doesn't happen to Tomoko. Of course it wouldn't - that idea is so far removed from reality that it has passed through multiple dimensions we haven't discovered yet! But with a lifetime consuming that kind of media and little to temper it she just doesn't know any better.
Character types are dissected through Tomoko impersonating them in an attempt to channel their attractiveness (with an accompanying parody fantasy of Nagato from The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya), the absurdly ubiquitous nature of after school clubs that do jack shit is mocked by Tomoko's own attempts at starting one rejected for being pointless, and the very nature of the personalities of the characters inhabiting these series are shown to be improbable and unrealistic with a simple, unremarked contrast between Tomoko's fantasies and her reality. Watamote has plenty of absurdity and unlikeliness in itself, of course, but it serves to contrast against the norm, the popular.
Picasso would be proud
Watamote is also really impressive from a presentation and production standpoint. The animation itself is nothing remarkable, but the stylistic touches - the odd, geometric lighting, the curious colour palette, the way Tomoko's fantasies and inner dialogues are shown - all add up to a pretty unique and effective visual experience, at least. One thing in particular I liked was the myriad ways Tomoko's frustration or shock was shown in the animation itself. When shocked, she's typically redrawn in a cubist fashion, getting increasingly more abstract with every nail hammered in; when frustrated, you might see the scene in a very rough, sketch-like style. You'll see these pretty often, but they're never not great - the emphasis it adds to Tomoko's feelings is fantastic! It also helps that the show is not afraid to exaggerate Tomoko's expressions in almost grotesque fashions when the situation calls for it.
Certain aspects of the audio have to be praised as well. The OP is a fun and unexpected metal number, seemingly made especially for the series, but is nothing that special; the ED however is fantastic. With Tomoko's VA singing it, the frustration and misery of her life comes across so goddamn well, it almost sounds like she's choking back the tears towards the end. Oh, and speaking of Tomoko's VA, Izumi Kitta - she's fucking perfect. The inherent awkwardness, the un-cuteness, the massive range between fearful timidity and jealous rage, they could not have cast someone better for the role. She brings so much to the character that, if anything, it makes her even more cringeworthy. An absolutely amazing performance!
"Hahaha! Everyone is terrible but me!"
Watamote is basically pretty great. Tomoko makes for an interesting and heavily flawed lead character who is nonetheless sympathetic, eventually. The presentation emphasises all of the series' good qualities in cool ways. It is really effective at what it does, although your mileage may vary on how much you can enjoy the often smart humour considering it's all lathered in so much cringe. I imagine for many it'll simply be a supremely painful experience. But even when it's hurting you that much, it's impossible to deny that Watamote is anything but great; just often difficult to enjoy, for the right reasons.