Tomoko Kuroki – A Girl in a Hard Shell, Looking Out

If you were to ask me to name the most relatable characters I’ve come across in fiction, Tomoko Kuroki would be one of the first to come to mind. I’m not very much like her and haven’t really had many experiences like hers, but I can clearly understand where she’s coming from and heavily empathize and sympathize with her. All of her mood swings, her thoughts about herself and others, her hopes and dreams, her doubts and fears, and every other aspect of her character feel very down-to-earth and true to how people think, behave, and react. These things are the mark of good character writing and execution in general, but I feel like they’re just a little bit truer of Tomoko than of most other well-crafted characters I’ve seen, primarily because her story is a very normal one to begin with, rather than something more fantastical or dramatic.

Well…it’s only fantastical and dramatic to her.

That story, WataMote (full title Watashi ga Motenai no wa dou Kangaetemo Omaera ga Warui!, or No Matter How I Look at It, It’s You Guys’ Fault I’m not Popular!), is all about Tomoko and her attempts to become popular upon entering high school. Sort of. That’s a very simplified, generalized, basic outline of the plot of the show, which is sparse. What WataMote is really about is a teenage girl with massive, crippling social anxiety who has an unrealistic view of what her high school life “should” be like, and has become frustrated, resentful, despondent, and lonely as a result of her perpetual, seemingly unalterable isolation.

As any teenager can tell you, adolescence is a time when making friends, being wanted, needed, and accepted by them, and feeling like we belong are of paramount importance. It’s a key period of identity formation and the one during which we’re most susceptible to outside influence. It’s also a period of budding sexuality, where hormones flood the body and people take interest in each other in new ways. Like any other teenager (and any person of any age, really), Tomoko wants to belong, to be wanted, needed, and accepted by her peers. She wants to be popular because that’s the form of belonging and of being wanted, needed, and accepted that her media—the internet, anime, manga, and dating sims—tells her is the peak of attainment of those things. It tells her that such popularity, as well as wonderful, transformative change, will be hers simply by entering high school, and presents much of that change as hyper-sexualized. It tells her that, regardless of what she does or doesn’t do, she is inherently interesting and people will notice, be interested in, and approach her.

Reality, however, is often less kind and giving. Tomoko is probably not inherently interesting to most of her classmates. People don’t spontaneously take interest in other people; they generally require reasons such as common interests, similar social circles, or even something as seemingly insignificant as knowing the person is there and is open to being approached and approaching in turn. It takes effort to make yourself more approachable. It takes effort to approach people and form relationships with them. It takes effort to continue and maintain those relationships. It doesn’t just happen to you. But if you have social anxiety, even speaking up and letting people know you exist, are approachable, and want to be approached can seem like an insurmountable obstacle. You may be determined and have full confidence in yourself, but the words just won’t come out when you want or need them to. Such obstacles also make sexual urges more difficult to sate in ways that are satisfying or fulfilling, resulting in sexual frustration.

This is the boat that Tomoko is in. Unfortunately, she’s rather lacking in awareness of both herself and others. Combined with her lack of experience interacting normally with people, it hinders her ability to recognize how distorted her view of reality is and take steps to change her thoughts and behaviors accordingly. As a result, she’s only fleetingly aware that she is the cause of her own problems. Social anxiety isn’t something that is anyone’s “fault”, though, and bless her heart, Tomoko keeps trying.

A few of her attempts at genuine social interaction are somewhat successful, but almost never provide enough momentum to build off of. When they do, that momentum is inevitably derailed by one thing or another. Given the extent of Tomoko’s social anxiety, her expectations, and her outlook, it doesn’t take much to cause her to retreat back into her shell, surrounded by comforting media (even if that comfort is a ‘Yandere Boys’ CD that reinforces her depressed mood and self-pity by insulting her). In addition, it’s hard for Tomoko to not compare herself to others, especially when Yuu, her only friend from middle school, changes dramatically upon entering high school (a different one than Tomoko attends), making friends and even getting a boyfriend. Everything around Tomoko serves to remind her of her complete and total failure to make any progress towards having a fulfilling high school life, resulting in further misery.

In addition, the few times that Tomoko puts herself out there in other ways, such as getting a job in a bakery (only to find out that it’s a full-blown cake factory, rather than a small, trendy shop like the one Yuu is temporarily helping out at), end in disaster, as Tomoko fails to realize what she’s really getting herself into. These scenarios further highlight Tomoko’s distorted expectations, as well as that her lack of self-awareness is perhaps just as big an obstacle as her social anxiety.

Because of her mistaken ideas about what should be happening to her solely by virtue of entering high school, there are times when she goes to great lengths to convince Yuu and Kii (Tomoko’s younger cousin who visits her occasionally) that she’s living it up and having a blast. The reality of her situation makes this impossible, and she sinks deeper into the swamp that is her mind.

Tomoko’s frustration, despondency, and loneliness eventually become too much for her to bear, and galvanize her into yet another attempt to break out of her shell, which inevitably fails because of her social anxiety, distorted expectations, and lack of self-awareness. The cycle repeats itself again and again, and the continual failed attempts take their toll on Tomoko, who gradually becomes ever more negative and pessimistic in her outlook and her views of those around her. It’s implied that this has been going on for a long time, likely since well before she entered high school. In the first episode she’s already calling her classmates bitches and sluts (in her head, of course), and thinks of their after school karaoke outing as a cover for an orgy, all the while feeling jealous of them. She even has such thoughts about Yuu, and also occasionally lusts after her.

Though Tomoko makes progress in overcoming her social anxiety over the course of the series, it’s incredibly minimal and barely noticeable. Ultimately, the only thing she manages to accomplish is to exhaustively run circles inside her own head. Much of the show takes place there while Tomoko’s mind wanders between fantasies of “ideal” high school life and how to achieve them, overblown and often negative and pessimistic reactions to what goes on around her, and the occasional flash of reality, interspersed with very real hopes and fears. The various facets of her personality and character are brilliantly woven together in a way that makes her feel completely like a real person. One thing naturally feeds into another, which bounces off something else to feed back into yet another aspect of her distorted psyche. It builds on itself and fleshes Tomoko out into a marvelous, flawed, damaged, hopeful, miserly, dogged, deluded mess of a character. She’s so real, so pitiful and pitiable, that I can’t help but want to give her a big hug. She certainly needs one.

And she gets one! …But just one. T_T

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Posted on May 7, 2015, in Analysis and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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