Reviewby Theron Martin, Dec 5th 2013
episodes 1-12 streaming
Tomoko Kuroki wants to be popular and dreams of having friends to hang out with, but her utter, crippling inability to interact in person with anyone who isn't a family member leaves her unable to figure out how, so she whiles her time away on anime and female-oriented dating sims. She assumes that high school life will be better, as everyone knows that high school girls are magical creatures who automatically attract attention, but she instead discovers that her situation in high school is no different than what it was before. Frustrated, she turns to her one friend from middle school, a fellow otaku, only to discover that she has blossomed in many ways that Tomoko hasn't. As she struggles to find a way to improve her lot and imagines all sorts of colorful scenarios that crash down around her, she occasionally wonders if the reason she is not succeeding is due to the indifference of those around her rather any major flaw within her.
Over the past decade anime has not shied from being introspective about the people who enjoy it and related hobbies, or about the way being an otaku often goes hand-in-hand with being a social misfit. We saw this starkly in Welcome to the NHK, much more compassionately in Genshiken, heroically in Outbreak Company, and to varying degrees of humor in many other series. This summer 2013 series, whose name has mercifully been shortened from No Matter How I Look at It, It’s You Guys' Fault I’m Not Popular!, falls somewhere in the middle of those, as it purely examines the humorous travails of a female social misfit. What distinguishes it from its brethren is the poignancy with which it accomplishes this task. Rarely before has an anime series so keenly and uncomfortably struck home about what it means to be a social outsider, and rarer still has one accomplished such a task without seeming manufactured or forced. But that is what makes this series both great and a little difficult to watch.
At the heart of the series – both literally and figuratively – is Tomoko. In fact, to say that she is the series would not be an overstatement, as the scenes in twelve episodes which do not either feature her or what she is looking at/imagining probably total no more than a couple of minutes if strung together. Even if that was not the case, though, she would still stand out as one of the most distinctive characters in recent memory, as she inexorably dominates every scene. Here is a girl who has very normal dreams and aspirations but is utterly unable to successfully pursue them because she has a crippling social anxiety disorder. This is not just the cutesy reserve or shyness all too common in Moe heroines; Tomoko has full confidence and determination but simply cannot get out the words she wants when it comes time to express them or interact with anyone in a normal fashion. (And when she tries, she typically fails in amusing but also painful fashion.) Rather than just accept this cheerily or timidly, this leaves her angry and resentful, to the point that she imagines the worst about those around her who can act normally; for instance, she crassly posits that a group of girls and boys planning to go out for a karaoke session are just preparing for an orgy. Hearing an anime girl make such blunt suppositions is shocking at first but also refreshing.
Tomoko also sets herself apart by her approach to her problem. Much – but not all! – of the time she fails to comprehend that she, and she alone, is responsible for most of her own problems. As the series makes clear, Tomoko is not a social outsider because is/has been bullied, treated unfairly, or shunned (although in one funny scene she does imagine herself as Mei Misaki from Another); in fact, her classmates seem indifferent towards her but speak politely when they speak to her at all, and more than one gives the impression of being approachable if Tomoko could only will herself to do it. She even still has a friend in Yu Naruse whom she can sometimes still converse with, although as the series progresses Tomoko develops yuri-leaning lecherous thoughts about her. More often than not Tomoko sabotages herself by procrastinating, creating unrealistic assumptions based on anime and games, and simply stumbling badly through her efforts to converse with others who are not family. But we also occasionally see times when she does seem to understand that she just does not fit in and thus looks for her own private space to be in, such as one episode where she seeks out her own private location to eat her lunch. In such scenes she seems so terribly isolated and resolved to admitting defeat that the empathetic reaction the situation generates is quite powerful. In crafting a character that is, in many respects, the ultimate anti-Moe heroine, the series has also paradoxically created one of the ultimate Moe heroines, a character who can weird viewers out one moment but generate a powerful urge to give Tomoko a reassuring hug the next.
The artistic effort of director Shin Oonuma and his SILVER LINK team contributes to this impression. Tomoko is a stretch to call cute or pretty, has no figure, and typically has a frumpy manner of dress, but her facial expressions (great examples of which can be seen here, here, here, and here) are classics, and the series does a great job of using various visual gimmicks to suggest Tomoko's isolation. The artistry does not aim for a wealth of visual detail but uses its somewhat more simplistic style very well. It does not put high demands on its animation, either, but is clean enough in that respect to serve the purposes required of it.
Just as gimmicky is the musical score by NARASAKI, the individual behind the scores for Deadman Wonderland and (in a curious contrast) Paradise Kiss. To say that it is eclectic might be an understatement; it is all over the musical range, from comically light ditties to gentler vibraphone numbers to orchestrated numbers to hard-core metal, in its valiant effort to reinforce Tomoko's varying moods and comedic situations. The eponymous opener is a symbolic, metal-themed masterpiece which combines the efforts of indie metal/alternative band Kiba of Akiba with vocalist Konomi Suzuki (the young singer who is racking up an impressive track record with themes also from Dusk maiden of Amnesia and Freezing Vibration) and some of the series' best visuals and animation to epitomize Tomoko's frustration at her social ineptitude. The normal closer, which is sung by lead seiyuu Izumi Kitta, is less special despite some neat visuals and is replaced in four episodes by alternate choices.
And speaking of Izumi Kitta, for all of the series' writing, musical, and artistic efforts, it lives or dies on her vocal performance as Tomoko, for she has at least 80% of the dialogue in the series. She should win acclaim for her effort here, as she does not just turn in a great performance; she owns the role so thoroughly that it becomes the definitive rendition of the Creepy Otaku Girl. It is one of those hallmark performances that will likely be nearly impossible to duplicate in English, although doubtlessly Sentai Filmworks will call on Brittney Karbowski to give it the ol' college try. (Really, can anyone imagine another female voice actor from any American or Canadian studio who would even have a realistic shot at pulling it off?) The supporting cast is also solid and effective, especially Yūichi Nakamura (Tomoya from Clannad and Kyosuke from Oreimo) in the biggest supporting role as Tomoko's emo-looking but socially well-adjusted younger brother Tomoki.
Watching WATAMOTE in marathon viewing is not recommended, as for all of its humor, emotional resonance, and general entertainment value, it can be a very difficult series to watch in big chunks. Its content is so insightful about what it means to be socially maladjusted that those who ever stood on the social fringe during their school years may find themselves empathizing with Tomoko to an uncomfortable degree. The series also does occasionally feel like it is just dumping misfortune on Tomoko, but it never goes far enough with this to negate how Tomoko creating her own misfortune makes the series' title incredibly ironic. Taken in small doses, this can be a quite entertaining and often very funny exploration of social dysfunction.
Overall (sub) : A-
Story : A-
Animation : B-
Art : B
Music : B+
+ Unbeatable facial expressions, outstanding lead vocal performance, killer opener, successfully makes lead character both lovable and creepy.
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