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08 March 2016

WataMote alternatives I

One of the most frequently asked questions concerning WataMote goes something like, I've watched the anime/read the manga, what do I watch/read next?

At first, I thought I'd get away with a single page of recommendations, but then I realized that A) I talk too much, and B) I'll probably think of more recommendations to add from time to time. So instead I'll tag occasional posts as recommendations, and link the tag for people who want to browse.

I'm going to start out with two recommendations. The first is more typical, in a way. Whenever people ask about WataMote alternatives, people almost always reply Welcome to N.H.K., because it's about a guy who's afraid to socialize. I want to mostly try to steer away from such comparisons, because simply being lonely and miserable isn't really a good summary of Tomoko Kuroki's life. Her stories are actually far more exuberant, when you watch how she schemes and plots to escape her loneliness, and she is endlessly optimistic about her chances of breaking free from her past.

In any case, Tomoko is not an isolated shut-in, although she has fantasized about following that lifestyle in order to escape adult responsibilities after high school. She is merely a lonely girl who wants to be more sociable, but has trouble overcoming her anxieties around others.

And yet I can't resist recommending a novel about a recovering loner by Haruki Murakami, partly because he and his popular books are part of Tomoko Kuroki's world, especially when she tries to impress others by showing off how she reads important literary novels. My second recommendation is a long-running TV show that at first glance might never be compared to WataMote, but is probably closer in tone and content than anything else you'll find.

Jump past the fold for the reviews!

Novel: Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki

Haruki Murakami is an internationally acclaimed writer whose books are sometimes read by Tomoko Kuroki, although not always successfully. When reading Norwegian Wood at the coffee shop, she stopped when she realized that she was only getting excited by the dirty words in the sex scenes.

However, the basic story of Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki isn't terribly complicated. We begin with a character that Tomoko could easily identify with, a loner who had very few friends in high school.

In fact, he had considered himself the fifth wheel in a group of five friends. He already had felt like the extraneous one, when the others all of a sudden shut him out, and demanded that he never speak to them again.

For a time, our young hero is suicidal, but he moves on through college and into the work force and mostly adjusts, although he remains mostly a quiet loner. He never can quite let go of the mystery of why his friends had so thoroughly and without explanation rejected him.

When he begins dating, as an adult, his girlfriend convinces him to revisit these old friends in order to unravel the mystery.

While he does eventually piece together the solution to his own questions, his investigation leads to the discovery of a crime which is in itself, unfortunately, never clearly solved. I felt bad about that, but had to remind myself that I was not in fact reading Case Closed or any other sort of mystery novel, and the crime was not the focus of the book.

Colorless Tomoko Kuroki

Instead, the book is about the sadness of moving through life, and losing those things that are important to us to the ravages of time. Tazaki experiences a great loss when his friends reject him, and the cause of this rejection turns out to be a girl who herself becomes frustrated at falling short of what she desires.

Along the way, the human condition becomes mythology.

Midorikawa slowly gazed around the room, and cleared his throat.

“Every person has their own color. Did you know that?” he said.

“No, I didn’t.”

“Each individual has their own unique color, which shines faintly around the contours of their body. Like a halo. Or a backlight. I’m able to see those colors clearly.”

Midorikawa poured himself another cup of sake and sipped it, leisurely savoring the taste.

“Is this ability to detect colors something you were born with?” Haida asked, dubiously.

Midorikawa shook his head. “No, it’s not innate; it’s a temporary ability. You get it in exchange for accepting imminent death...”

Obviously this is not a comedy. If you want laughs, we move on to a TV classic...

Television: Seinfeld

WataMote technically belongs to a genre of manga called slice of life, but most SOL manga/anime have little in common with actual life, if we define life as reality. The popular otaku celebration Lucky Star, for example, is called slice of life because the girls go to high school and mostly eat chocolate cornets, talk during class, and play video games. But like much manga/anime SOL, it's a fantasy in which nothing of importance happens, no one has a personality deeper than a doorstop, and the girls are all ultra-cute and flirt with each other. WataMote should not be included in this group. Tomoko Kuroki watches this sort of show sometimes to waste time, but is highly critical of them, and once fantasized about such moe characters gossiping about which one of them has had the most plastic surgery.

Tomoko Kuroki's life has more in common with George Costanza of the long-running American sitcom, Seinfeld. In fact, most of its cast might have one thing or another in common with Tomoko. Like Tomoko, they tend to be intelligent and imaginative, but also suffer from warped logic and bad choices. They imagine they are compassionate people, but will more likely put selfish desires ahead of the welfare of others. This proves to be their undoing in the show's finale, when the principles are all tried and convicted of "criminal indifference" after laughing at a fat guy in distress.

The characters are adults living in New York City, but that doesn't particularly distinguish them from teenagers in high school anywhere. They frequently act out of the most juvenile impulses.

We single Costanza out as our best example. Costanza and Kuroki share self-esteem issues and unrealistic expectations about sex. They are both inclined to be miserable, even if their problems are all within their mind. Costanza, like Kuroki, will act agressively or passively depending on an estimation of superiority or inferiority to others.

WataMote stories have more in common with Seinfeld than SOL manga, in that they all typically spring from one character's desire to advance in some way or another, and the attempt to win that outcome involves a plausible yet ultimately embarrassing or humiliating scheme. George, for example, finds that he can attract one of Elaine's co-workers by playing up the part of a bad boy; meanwhile Tomoko seeks to become popular with other students by adapting the personality of a popular anime archetype, the silent and emotionless cool girl. George, the bad boy, cries when a policeman arrests him, while Tomoko breaks down in mad tears after stumbling in a coffee shop.

The Costanza-Kuroki connection: George listens to a recording of a mystery woman talking dirty, while anime Tomoko listens to a voice actor performing suggestive lines just for her (top row); George tries to repel his non-smoking fiancee by convincing her that he's a life-long smoker, but fails because he gets sick after an uncontrollable bout of coughing, while manga Tomoko in an attempt to impress new friends only manages to light her fingers, and winds up in trouble anyway when a teacher overhears her bragging about the burn marks.

You could say that both Tomoko Kuroki and George Costanza are masters of cringe comedy. They are able to take a great amount of humiliation, then bounce back, ready for more.

Seinfeld and WataMote, both dealing with flawed people prone to doing terrible and careless things, have generated some criticism for occasionally going too far. While neither show is particularly savage in tone, moments of black comedy in both shock some sensibilities. Often critics confuse the stupidity of a character with open advocacy. These people do not understand comedy. To put things in perspective, let's for a moment recall another TV comedy, Fawlty Towers, when frustrated hotel manager Basil Fawlty flays his car with a tree branch, or pokes his hapless employee Manuel in the eye. We laugh because such characters mirror the worst of ourselves, not because we want to be like them. We can still sympathize with them, without endorsing their behavior.

Cultural differences between Seinfeld and WataMote only underscore their compositional similarities. They both are dependent on the culture of their time and surroundings. The characters all live in what is very much the real world, although Tomoko's stories are more likely to employ "bland name" products in order to avoid legal trouble (such as WcDonald's for McDonald's, and the hybrid coffee shop Star Turry's, in place of Starbucks and Tully's). Since Seinfeld is the older show, its stories often hinge on older technology, such as stranded characters dependent on landline phones, whereas Tomoko's data-driven phone has provided previously unimagined complications.

But unsurprisingly, human nature remains fairly consistent, largely transcending decades, cultures, age, and gender.

The anime WataMote has so far run for one season amounting to twelve episodes, and we're still waiting on season two, dammit! While we wait for the suits at Square Enix to get off their butts, we can review the 180 episodes of Seinfeld that spanned nine seasons. Still, the manga has so far spanned over 90 chapters; 90 more to catch up!

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