WataMote‘s first episode begins with the protagonist, Kuroki Tomoko, checking out a website delineating the “unpopular girl” in the comfort of her own home – the narrator even anounces that her story “really doesn’t matter,” something that may be peculiar upon first glimpse, but makes sense when viewed with the understanding that Tomoko represents the sort of social outsider most shows present as a minor character or a secondary protagonist. She has to resort to the Internet to gather information about what it means to be popular or unpopular, making her self-conscious; this immediately presents her as the sort of person who lives “outside” the conventionally-accepted boundaries of social interactions, and throughout the episode, she silently wonders about her own position in society. That the episode opens within Tomoko’s bedroom, with the only source of light being from her computer (the lights are off, and no sunlight streams in from any available window) at once places Tomoko within an interior space without any sense of a large national or local social framework – she’s alone, without any sort of social cues to help her understand the world around her, with only the computer and the ever-expansive Internet at her disposal.
Tomok initially thoroughly denies that the description of “unpopular girl” applies to her, but her description of her middle school life helps us understand that she didn’t receive much attention there; the only interactions we see (through flashbacks) are of a fellow student asking a question about the next class, or picking up her dropped eraser, basic interactions that don’t do much to cement any friendship. She tries to frame those encounters as something positive (which can be, expecially for socially awkward individcuals), but they never amounted to anything more than casual ones – Tomoko still has a lot of work ahead of her if she wants to break into the world of socialization. Being able to communicate with others when you have anxiety, not sure in how to express oneself is quite difficult – Tomoko initially doesn’t want to accept that she isn’t “popular,” but the further the episode marches on, the more apparent her social anxiety becomes.
The extent of Tomoko’s knowledge of high school stems from extensive playtime on video games; she sees her time within dating sims and the like (50 years’ worth of high school, according to her) as invaluable, as she sees it as an imperative step in understanding the high school experience. However, when she moves into her first day as a high school student, she immediately becomes aware that real life doesn’t play out like a video game – notice how, in the above images, the classroom is brightly lit, which contrasts with the very dimly-lit atmosphere of Tomoko’s bedroom. Tomoko emerged from her room into society, and the contrast can’t be any more stark – she didn’t anticipate being thrown into such disarray from the outset, and something like cognitive dissonance swiftly kicks in when Tomoko sees a group of students socializing nearby. She has a solitary desk all to herself, without anyone to speak with; she expected her new school environment to be exactly like her games, apparently without requiring any effort from herself. Dating sims in particular present school in an idealized form, with its own tropes and stock encounters; Tomoko’s understanding of her new surroundings stems from extensive playthrough of interactive media, which presents high school in a less-than -realistic way, thereby coloring her perceptions.
When high school ends up not conforming to her misconceptions, one can see her bad-mouthing the other students for socializing; she comes to the conclusion that the other students must be “boy-crazy” for breaking off into groups, for example, illustrating her attempts at justifying how she spent two months without any interaction whatsoever. This comes across as a desperate attempt at understanding the world around her – without any sort of social anchor to moor her, Tomoko is all too quick to criticize others for not talking with her, without taking into consideration her own faults as an individual. The first episode carefully constructs the “home” and “school” scenes to establish how Tomoko doesn’t plan accordingly – she’s a morose cloud of anxiety struggling to fathom a world that doesn’t accord to fictional portrayals of it, and her observations of school life stem from a fundamental misunderstanding attendant on Tomoko’s closed-off personal world. She doesn’t have any real-world experience – she initially believed that things will naturally occur without any sort of development, as they do in dating sims.
Despite her pessimistic attitude towards the world around her, Tomoko exhibits a sincere interest in improving herself – she recognizes in herself the potential to succeed, or at least the pervasive social awkwardness that manifests so wonderfully bizarrely in the show, so she takes some preliminary measures in order to present herself as something of good social standing. Anime such as WataMote frequently show the ubiquitous nature of social conformity; Japan is a group-oriented culture, after all, and Tomoko sticks out precisely because of her inability to break into the culture and become part of a group. She individualizes the expectations of group orientation – she can speak with her family, the basic unit of Japanese culture, but has great difficulty reaching out to others, occasionally lashing out (in her own mind) at society for being more challenging than she initially realized it to be. She spent so much time playing video games that she formulated her own impressions of the world around her; when reality goes directly against that knowledge base, she quickly discovers that she needs some proper experience (i.e., experience based upon real social interactions) to excel in her new environment. But this won’t be easy for her – throughout the episode, we see Tomoko through distorted lens, close-ups and far-away shots that illustrate her internal struggle.
For example, take the shot of her alone at her desk; she’s not central to the shot, instead in the upper-right corner. This emphasizes the isolation she feels – no one is there to communicate with her, and she can’t find it within herself to even talk, let alone maintain contact with someone. When a teacher briefly speaks with her (telling her to take care going home), Tomoko is immediately flustered; she couldn’t bring herself to respond, deftly showing her anxiety in full bore. Her family life isn’t much better;although she can freely speak with her mother and brother, she recognizes how she is a bit of an artless individual who feels most comfortable around her own family. This suggests that she has trouble establishing any sort of relationship – she doesn’t know how to approach anyone outside of her family, and she spent so much time away from conversational situations that she essentially became a recluse (which she admits to in this episode) who seriously needs to work on her own conversation skills to move forward.
A bit of a nod to cognitive sciences comes when Tomoko mentions her brief moment of Gestaltzerfall at her bedroom mirror – the term refers to a specific form of visual agnosia wherein a delay in recognition occurs, with a complex shape breaking down into constituenet parts. Tomoko’s Gestaltzerfall occurs when she sees herself in the mirror, nearly causing her to vomit; the show illustrates a brief moment of cubism as Tomoko turns into a collection of odd, angular shapes (as seen above, when she wonders why she isn’t popular if she isn’t ugly), bringing the Gestaltzerfall to a visual form. All this helps the audience understand how Tomoko doesn’t seem to realize that her own social ineptitude stems from years of inexperience – she doesn’t have any requisite knowledge for her social life to proceed, and she’s in a major rut.
Tomoko makes a concerted effort to improve, however; starting late in the first half, she makes sincere attempts to figure out how to boost her social standing, but she has great difficulty adjusting to crowds and misinterprets advice. For example, when she looks up information on the computer in an attempt to improve her “cuteness,” she takes as much advice as possible and come across as disheveled; she readily admits that her life became more challenging upon entering high school, but doesn’t seem to recognize her own faults as an individual. She tries her hardest, but advice can only go so far – Tomoko misunderstands everything, but remains genuine in her approach. Despite her sincerity, she has numerous hurdles to overcome – namely, her own outlook on life, as she has little difficulty thinking that, for example, people who gather in groups have perverted minds. Such thoughts speak of a girl conflicted about society as a whole – she wants to enter it as a thoroughly social individual, but is quick to dismiss those experiences by others as worthless.
We see the “sincere attempt at integrating” side of her twice, when she enters a manga store and a McDonald’s-style fast food joint; at the latter, she runs into classmates and becomes flustered. She eventually finds herself alone on a swing, where her brother locates her; it is here that Tomoko finally has the revelation that she cannot simply dive into things without practive. What comes naturally others is an uphill battle for her – knowing how to navigate the terrain of social activity takes quite a while, and for those who have trouble with socialization’s intricacies approach it from the outside looking in. Throughout this episode, Tomoko exists in her own socially-awkward bubble, where she becomes easily irritated and dismayed by the complexity of interaction that is expected of her from a society built upon centuries of group-oriented atmosphere; it will take her a while yet to fully comprehend it.