Thursday, October 11, 2007

Welcome to the NHK (2006)

Note: This review was originally posted on Myspace. I am reposting it here for archival purposes. It has been backdated to the date of its original posting.

Warning! This post contains major spoilers, including end spoilers. I suggest you watch the series first, and then read this review.

hikikomori ni youkoso

What is this series about? Basically, it's about a hikikomori (the Japanese term for a modern trend in social reclusion among young adults), and his trials and tribulations as he attempts to overcome his condition with the help of a mysterious girl. I have to say this series was just great. For once it's a character that I can really, truly, honestly identify with - however unfortunate that is...

The main character is a guy named Satou, who is somewhere around the age of 24, a college dropout, and going into his fourth year as a hikikomori. He lives (exclusively) in a small apartment in Tokyo, living off an allowance his parents supply him with. The first episode was a perfect introduction to his character, and the circumstances of his lifestyle. When a solicitor comes to his door, he takes a chance on opening it and ends up meeting a beautiful young girl. Satou doesn't know it yet, but it turns out that the girl, Misaki, has been watching Satou for a while, from the vantage point of her aunt and uncle's mansion on top of the hill, and has her own reasons for wanting to help Satou. She meets up with him in the park at night, and eventually gets him to sign a hand-written contract outlining the rules of her "project", which is to cure Satou of his hikikomori ways.

Naturally, Satou is suspicious, and suspects a conspiracy as usual - this side of him was obviously influenced by one of the two important figures from his high school life - Hitomi, the female upper-classman who convinced him to join the literature club, which just ended up consisting of the two of them playing cards to pass the time. Hitomi appears to be a clinically depressed individual with obsessive paranoid delusions about conspiracies. There's obviously some chemistry between Hitomi and Satou, but it never seems to get the justice it deserves. Well, that's life.

The other important character from Satou's high school days is an under-classman whom he attempted to save from some bullies once (mostly to impress Hitomi). Satou ended up getting beaten up as well, but the under-classman, Yamazaki, appreciated the gesture all the same. So by cosmic coincidence, it turns out that Yamazaki is living right next door to Satou in the apartment complex in Tokyo, attending classes to become a game creator. Though, Satou doesn't figure this out until he finally gathers the courage to bang on his neighbor's door and tell him to turn his music down for once. A potentially traumatizing confrontation unexpectedly turns into a friendly reunion.

Turns out Yamazaki is a major otaku and figure collector, his walls lined with anime, manga, and game-related items. In what begins as a huge ploy to deceive Misaki into thinking he's not a hikikomori (not realizing that she already knows better), Satou and Yamazaki decide to design their own computer game. Of course, the only realistic option for them, considering time and resources, is to create a galge (a less obvious term for eroge - basically an erotic dating sim). And so the fun begins. For inspiration, Yamazaki first gets Satou addicted to all of his favorite eroge, then introduces him to the wonder, the splendor, the beauty of Akihabara with all of its otaku stores and maid caf├ęs. And for even more inspiration, Yamazaki unlocks the world of internet porn, and Satou apparently develops a loli fetish. While we're on the topic of uncouth hobbies, Satou later gets seriously addicted to an MMORPG, but this time, Yamazaki plays the savior by teaching him the hard way that people in those games are not who they seem.

All the time, Satou and Misaki are meeting nightly in the park for "hikikomori recovery tutoring", but their "relationship" develops rather slowly. One thing I didn't really agree on about Satou's behavior was how much he seemed to ignore Misaki. Suspicions and conspiracies and insecurities be damned, if I had a savior like Misaki (if only), you can bet I'd pay more attention to her. Then again, these kinds of things can be confusing. I guess it doesn't help that she keeps calling him things like "trash", "failure of a human", and "lower than a stray dog". But it turns out she has her own psychological problems to deal with. Don't we all.

There was a rather somber arc (heh, even for this series) midway through the series where Satou and Hitomi go to an "offline meeting" where depressed individuals meet to die together. I didn't really want to see these characters die, but I was a little disappointed in the resolution to the arc. I just don't see Hitomi being happy with that jerk Jougasaki. "I love you", "I need you"...if you care about her so much, pal, then why is your work more important? At least he acted like an upstanding guy when he found out what Hitomi was planning to do. Still, "I want to marry you", "those were the words I was waiting to hear", just doesn't convince me. Furthermore, after the recovered would-be suicidees were brought in, the guy that came in lecturing them about the trouble they would have caused had they jumped, and the families all worried about felt so phony to me. But I guess I don't know much when it comes to suicide. I'm glad they didn't shy away from the topic in this series, though.

As much as I hate to spoil - though I've already spoiled the midway climax - this review wouldn't be complete without discussing the series' outcome. Does Satou ever recover from being a hikikomori? Well, yes, it would appear so. Obviously, there are some deep-rooted psychological issues to be concerned with, but he does eventually get a job. Of course, that's not until Yamazaki moves away (forced to drop his dreams of being a game creator and go home to take over the family farm), Hitomi goes off to start a family, his allowance gets canceled due to his father's forced retirement, and he even forsakes Misaki and her help. Oh, and the game he and Yamazaki were working on gets finished, but flops, and Satou realizes he doesn't cut it as a "creator". So, with no money, and nobody to fall back on, he eventually takes that step out into the world and ends up with a job conducting traffic. Unfortunately, that's the straw that breaks Misaki. Turns out she's just about as miserable as Satou, and her only purpose in life was being needed by Satou, the one person she found who was more pathetic than she. So with Satou doing okay on his own for once, Misaki's life no longer has any purpose.

The buildup to Misaki's attempted suicide was beautifully depressing. The whole scenery of it was amazing, with the snow, and the one song during the scene in the park, when Satou walks out on Misaki, it's like an acoustic guitar strumming some minor chords...I want to learn those chords. I still don't quite understand how things got resolved. Misaki obviously wasn't just trying to get some attention. She was ready to die, even despite Satou's attempts to stop her. And yet, they managed to work it out. Somehow. But I am glad they did. I still think Satou should be more honest about his feelings, though. Unless he really doesn't have them... That would be sad.

"Question: Why would someone want to continue living as a hikikomori?
"Answer: Because his clothing, food, and housing are guaranteed. Since he always finds a way to get by, he can afford to continue living as hikikomori. In hindsight, living as a hikikomori was a luxury in itself. Without clothing, food, and housing, you don't have any other choice but to work unless you're prepared to die."

"What to do from here on out, how to improve my life... I actually know the answer. I've read around two hundred books on self-improvement. I've even thought about writing one myself. I know everything."
"I'm scared."
"I'm scared of changing my way of life. If I do, I feel like something unexpected will occur. ...I know things can't continue like this forever. But... I also want to remain like this. I don't want to log out. Although I know it isn't realistic, I keep thinking that suddenly, one day, a surprise will occur and everything will resolve itself."

Human Pathos

For me, this series works on two levels. It was great fun to watch. And it's also probably one of the most important series I've watched. There's no question I'm a NEET, and even though it's primarily a Japanese phenomenon, I don't feel that it would be a stretch to describe myself as a hikikomori at this point in my life. Maybe I'm not worst-case scenario, but the problem is there. Although, I don't like admitting to problems because doing so instigates a push towards a solution, and the solution is precisely what I'm afraid of. See the quote above. Still, despite one's desire to be unique, it is comforting to associate oneself with a group, because it helps to know that you're not the only one dealing with a specific type of problem. It's kind of like the ancient practice of naming a demon to strip it of its power.

But where does it go from here?

"In dramas, there is an introduction, development, turn, and a conclusion - a burst of emotions and closure. Our lives will always be filled with a vague uncertainty."

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