“It’s all very well to read about sorrows and imagine yourself living through them heroically, but it’s not so nice when you really come to have them, is it?”
-Anne Shirley, “Anne of Green Gables” by L.M. Montgomery
A healthy imagination is a wonderful thing to possess, but when those fanciful tendencies hinders one’s social interaction, they become cumbersome. When one relies on their imagination and choice of entertainment to inform their views on how life should be, it continuously sets one up for a fall. However, it is not the consumption of whatever media that we choose to indulge in, but the way in which we allow it to affect our lives, and our own personalities, that make the difference.
WataMote understands this, and continues to keep the personality of its heroine, Tomoko Kuroki, along with her otaku hobbies, as two identifiably separate things, allowing the viewer to focus more on the former than the latter.
Let us return to Konata Izumi again for a moment. Lucky Star establishes that Konata has an active imagination, supplemented by her love of anime, manga, and video games. Separating her from Tomoko is the fact that she already has a preexisting group of friends at the time when we are nosily peering in to her every day high school life. Konata’s imagination is something that is inherently “her,” but not something that hinders her from finding friends or communicating with people on a daily basis. When Konata goes off on an otaku tangent, her friends simply wait for it to pass, shrug it off as Konata being herself, or occasionally, join in themselves in spite of the fact that her three closest friends are not nearly as in to the same hobbies.
In other words, Konata’s personality is one that allows her to make and keep friends, in spite of the fact that she has specific interests. Tomoko, in comparison, is mopey, shy, and isolates herself while blaming others for her inability to communicate. She uses the same means to escape reality, but lacks the extroversion and cheer needed to turn what could be seen by others as an odd interest into a loveable quirk. Additionally, both Lucky Star and WataMote use reference humor to signify when their otaku heroines are entering a daydream, although the latter’s use of it is far more interesting, as the Whisper of the Heart reference could have been replaced with any romantic daydream. It’s Literary Girl from The Daily Lives of High School Boys all over again, only instead of being written off as a silly thing that teenagers do, it becomes another example of how Tomoko constantly escapes from her reality instead of confronting her own personality. In episode three, Tomoko is presented with her own “Literary Girl moment,” trapped under hydrangeas in a rainstorm with two boys her age, and fails it miserably. She misses any social cues thrown in her direction and is unable to strike up even the simplest of conversations with them. Informing this entire scene is the fact that one of the boys immediately recognizes that she’s simply a quiet and shy girl, sympathizing with her to the point that he anonymously leaves her a new umbrella to replace her broken one. The scene ends with her walking off, new umbrella in hand, wishing that boys would be nice to her. The obvious joke is that, if Tomoko were more socially-aware, she would have recognized the situation and perhaps realized that one of the boys actually did take notice.
While watching WataMote‘s second episode, I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop in the form of Tomoko’s friend, Yuu Naruse, rejecting her and their previously-shared love of anime and video games in favor of leading a normal life. The reality of their reunion was momentarily reassuring – Yuu still sees Tomoko as her closest friend and still shares the same hobbies – but far more depressing from a global standpoint. Yuu has managed to both have otaku hobbies and the rosy campus life that Tomoko assumed she would be able to achieve without effort, again underlining the reality of the situation: Tomoko is not unpopular because of her hobbies, Tomoko is unpopular because of herself.
Furthermore, there is a bit of a sad parallel in the actions of Yuu herself. Part of me wants to rail against the fact that Yuu had to change herself to fit in socially, as it is heavily implied that she only altered her physical appearance to keep up with the other girls in her class. For this, she is rewarded by the series with a boyfriend. When Tomoko discovers this, she immediately retreats back into her imaginary world through her mp3 player and “Yandere Boys” playlist. She still sees Yuu as her closest friend, and Yuu obviously reciprocates these feelings; however, Yuu’s ability to also lead a normal life is one that Tomoko can’t understand. The viewer can see the moment Tomoko’s brain shuts down and then frantically tries to reconcile the fact that Yuu, one whom Tomoko saw as the same type of person as herself, has managed to conquer social situations in a way that Tomoko can’t begin to comprehend. That being said, Yuu also cuts a sad figure in that she sacrifices her interests in favor of social interaction. WataMote presents us with both options, neither lauding nor denigrating one or the other. The optimal situation would be for both girls to go the route of Konata Izumi, and find friends who accept their otaku hobbies as quirks while they have the confidence to both interact socially and be themselves. Then again, Lucky Star is far more of a fantasy than WataMote is, and uses Konata’s flights of fancy as rewards for the viewer.
This, once again, returns us to the fact that it’s Tomoko and only Tomoko that is standing in the way of her own social development, not her hobbies, not the other people in her class, but her and her alone. Her adventures in the imaginary only serve to highlight this, as they are not the cause of her lack of popularity, but a side effect of her inability to communicate. WataMote cleverly toes the line between punishing Tomoko in-universe for her social ineptitude, while at the same time allowing her to be an incredibly empathetic character for us, the audience.