I was attracted to this manga by my love of dark circles under the eyes of girls; but make no mistake: Kuroki Tomoko isn’t cute. If she were, this manga wouldn’t work. Sure, she’s probably attractive to some of us who read this, but that’s a statement about us in itself—that like her, we’re so desperate, we’d go for a girl like her. That’s the kind of person Tomoko is—she knows which boys are cute, but she’s so desperate that when she thinks someone might be interested in her, no matter what they look like, “it could probably work.”
This brand of relatable comedy makes the manga stand out in a world where, after the popularity of stuff like Welcome to the NHK and Genshiken, and then other things like Nogizaka Haruka and Ore no Imouto, stories about otaku and loners have become way too common and, for me, boring.
I love this manga’s ruthlessness in portraying how much Tomoko fails. In this way, it’s most like Welcome to the NHK—but it features none of NHK’s drama, and all of its comedy. Yet it never steps into the territory of ridiculousness where the NHK anime often did. It’s always down-to-Earth and startlingly real, the way NHK was at its most effective.
It also succeeds by not being about an otaku, but just about a loner. Again, like Tatsuhiro Satou of NHK, Tomoko ends up playing shitloads of (in this case “otome”) games and watching anime, but mostly out of boredom and loneliness more than out of passion. The buzzterm of choice for this manga, though only used once or twice since the beginning, is “mojo,” meaning a girl with no social skills whatsoever—rather than something like a “fujoshi” which is more commonly portrayed in manga. So far, Tomoko has shown no interest in BL whatseover, but a lot of interest in otome games, wherein the protagonist is female and dates men.
Tomoko is a fun character for me because of her incredible self-obsessiveness, which is something she and I have in common. She always sees other people only in how they relate to herself, and otherwise doesn’t give a shit about them. She fusses over whether she looks ridiculous, or searches for the meaning in every little action or word of others in relationship to her. The manga often cleverly clues us in to what those people are actually thinking, which usually has nothing to do with her whatsoever.
She isn’t bullied; she isn’t reviled; she isn’t even spoken to in the slightest. People just straight-up aren’t aware of her existence. This is the most relatable situation to my tenth-grade experience. I constantly thought about how I was thought of, even though I thought nothing of anyone around me, and no one seemed to think anything of me.
The causes of this for me were the same as they are with Tomoko. At the start of the manga, it sort of hits her like a ton of bricks that she’s actually very unpopular—that she hasn’t been speaking to anyone in an incredibly long time—that no one has any idea who she is. She has no idea how this happened. My favorite scenes are when Tomoko has a vast revelation about what everyone else has been doing all this time.
This used to happen to me a lot, and kind of still does. There was a period in high school where I became so confused about how people actually spent their time, that I just started asking the normal people around me, “what do you do?!” The answer was basically, “watch TV, hang out, smoke pot, and fuck.” People are decidedly uncomplicated. It was startling to me to learn that other people actually spend time on a daily basis managing their appearance. I was like, wait, you have to style hair every day? It doesn’t just stay that way? And it can take not only upwards of five minutes, but upwards of an hour?! Tomoko has no idea why it is that other girls smell so good, nor even where they buy their panties. I still have no idea where stylish people buy clothes. No idea whatsoever.
Another interesting element of this story is Tomoko’s middle-school friend, Yuu. Tomoko remembers Yuu being nerdy and sort of a loner, but hasn’t really thought about her since they ended up going to different high schools. When they get back in contact and meet up, Yuu has totally changed her appearance and is now a smoking-hot, tall, blond with a short skirt, cute panties, and a boyfriend. She’s still uber-nice and likes anime, so Tomoko still likes her, but she has no idea how Yuu got so hot, and doesn’t think to ask.
What makes Yuu such a fascinating story element is how she genuinely enjoys Tomoko’s company and tells her again and again that they should hang out more, yet Tomoko almost never thinks to contact her, and even seems to forget her entirely most of the time.
This, for me, is the most relatable piece of fail in the entire manga. I’ve always been like this towards other people. They show a far greater interest in me than I do in them, and even though I used to crave companionship and attention (not so much anymore), I would always ignore the people who actually offered it to me. What Tomoko and myself wanted wasn’t so much other people; we wanted the idea that we weren’t alone, somehow. Tomoko wants the kind of normalcy and happiness that she’s read about and thinks she sees other people having, but doesn’t actually understand, or know how to come by. In a dumb TV special, she’d try to change herself, then make a bunch of shitty friends, find that she feels alone amongst them, and go back to being her old self. Instead, when she tries to change herself, she has no idea what she’s doing, completely fails, and goes back to wallowing in her self-obsession. You know, like how it happens in real life.
I enjoy the hell out of this manga, especially for the facial expressions and the gags that build up over the course of each chapter and then end in an explosion of fail and awkwardness, almost like reading a horror story. I’ve seen others saying that they found it depressing because it was was too relatable—perhaps because I’ve already gotten over any sense of loneliness years ago, I just find it hilarious.