~Spoilers for Welcome to the N.H.K and some very vague spoilers for Revolutionary Girl Utena to follow~
It’s been around a year since I watched Welcome to the N.H.K. It’s been over two years since I studied it in school as hikikomori was a topic on the syllabus for Japanese Culture through Animation. The class discussed being a shut-in with the fascination you treat most foreign experiences. “That would be me, you know, if not for having to come to school,” I later told the professor. Most of us are not hikikomori. For one thing, most of us are Western and I believe it’s one of those phenomenons that, while it has equivalents in other cultures, can’t be truly carried outside of Japan (see also: why I contend that kawaii is really not a synonym for cute). But if you boil the issue down to the less Japanocentric parts: dropping out of life, extreme anxiety, lack of motivation, acute self-isolation, etc. then many of us can relate. And on that broader level, I have been dangerously close to going full on hikikomori at various points over the last six or so years.
Currently, I am a college graduate who finished with good grades and honors, I have a job, and I’m getting married in three months. Welcome to the N.H.K. is not my favorite anime, nor is it even in my top five, but it’s been on my mind lately. Why? Probably because I miss being a shut-in. Specifically this quote has been clanking around my head:
Question: Why can one keep living as a hikikomori? Answer: Because one’s food, clothing and shelter are assured. It’s because one is permitted a lukewarm bare minimum of a life that one can keep living as a hikikomori indefinitely. Being able to live as a hikikomori was in itself very much a luxury. Without the assurance of food, clothing and shelter, unless you’re prepared to die, there’s no other way but to work.
This is an interesting idea. “Your social withdrawal is a privilege!” is not something that, if you told a mentally ill person, would likely be well-received. But it’s true in a fashion, and as a chronically mentally ill person (maybe that is redundant) I can say that the comfort of retreating into the struggles of your own mind is one of the strangest and most dangerous parts of depression, anxiety, and isolation. Depressive issues persist in part because they are self-fortifying cycles. Depression feeds on itself and protects itself from the outside world. If there wasn’t anything soothing and familiar about hiding in your mental cocoon, it would be much easier to get out of the fog of depression. Maybe a “lukewarm bare minimum of a life” doesn’t sound appealing, and it’s largely not, but there is a twisted allure to a life in which no one expects anything of you. And that, to me, is the crux of the sort of anxiety explored by Welcome to the N.H.K.
N.H.K.’s protagonist, Tatsuhiro Satou, is an effective and terrifying character because it’s easy to relate to him, and thus to see how easy it would be to stand where he’s standing. He’s handsome, from a normal family, had a rather solitary but not awful high school life, and was accepted into college before dropping out. His life as a hikikomori, as he explains himself, was something that started with a gradual withdrawal from life, with anxieties that crept up on him. There is nothing particularly shocking or dramatic that led to Satou’s life as a shut-in, and that’s how depression tends to be. It may not always be productive to ask why. The likely story, as much as we can speculate about a fictional character beyond what he and his creators tell us, is that Satou was predisposed to depression and social anxiety and that was compounded to a breaking point when he started college and began to face the world of adulthood.
A huge concern in Japan about hikikomori is that the “lifestyle” is a maladaptive response to the pressures and responsibilities of being an adult and full-fledged member of society in Japan. Japan is an intense place with some unique pressures, but I think most of us in our college years and 20s can relate to feelings of dread and uncertainty regarding growing up. It’s almost too easy to see how one could choose to withdraw from life entirely. At the stage in his life in which we meet him, Satou has also become disturbingly complacent in his identity as a hikikomori. He knows his life is leading nowhere, and he knows he’s lonely, but his inability to motivate himself surpasses those feelings. Time after time in the story, we see Satou react to a failed attempt to do something different or to connect with another person by further retreating into and fortifying himself in his role as a shut-in.
One way that depression builds on itself is by seeking external validation in relationships and situations. For part of Welcome to the N.H.K., Satou is validated by his friend Kaoru Yamazaki. Yamazaki is Satou’s neighbor and a hardcore, proud otaku. At first, he seems to offer Satou a friendship of non-judgment and even a degree of approval for his antisocial ways. Their mutual retreat into the world of 2D concerns provides a lot of the show’s offbeat humor, but this buddy comedy doesn’t last forever. Yamazaki eventually confronts his own anxieties and issues facing reality, and even tries to intervene in Satou’s self-destructive feedback loop.
The other relationship that Satou seeks twisted comfort in is with his high school sempai, Hitomi. Although Satou idealizes her, Hitomi is depressed and paranoid herself, and like Yamazaki, seems for a time to coddle Satou’s insecurities. In some ways, Hitomi is the character most like myself. When she comes onto the scene, she should by all accounts have her shit together. She’s a college graduate, she has a job, and is in a committed relationship. She is overcome, however, by feelings of isolation from the world around her and even her boyfriend. Instead of trying to address her problems, she dramatizes her own life and joins a toxic online community of people considering suicide.
Those are very condensed versions of both characters and their story lines, but what they have in common is that they are both people that Satou attempts to find solace in, ignoring to an extent the fact that Yamazaki and Hitomi are struggling with their own demons. A huge turning point in Satou’s story is when both friends do manage to face their problems and function in less unhealthy ways. Yamazaki moves back to his hometown, and soon after gets engaged to a girl he meets through his family. Hitomi marries her boyfriend and makes an effort to stop running from her own life. Satou takes these developments as a betrayal of sorts, having lost two people that to him, fed into his hikikomori self-perception. Even though he is more depressed than ever, he doubles down on his own narrative of helplessness.
And then there’s Misaki. If you’re still reading this article, you’ve probably already watched Welcome to the N.H.K. or don’t care about spoilers. I’m going to be overly brief again. Misaki Nakahara is the deuteragonist of the story, the main love interest for Satou, and a very complex character. She initially shows up to “cure” Satou of his hikikomori ways. Satou is alternately fascinated by her, puts her on a pedestal, rejects her, and fears her. Unlike Yamazaki or Hitomi, he does not see in her a person who will validate him and spare him from criticism for his life choices. Misaki, in a lot of ways, is a foil to the other two supporting characters. She seems happy, albeit weird as hell, for a large part of the story. But when other characters are facing their flaws and moving on with their lives, Misaki falls apart. In projecting his own insecurities onto her, Satou ignores that she is hurting and isolated just as much as he is.
No human beings, regardless of who they might be, want to look directly at their own shortcomings.
It’s only through realizing he has to get out of himself and help Misaki that Satou begins to see a life outside of his own head. The ending of Welcome to the N.H.K. is not exactly happy, but it leaves Satou with options and a degree of hope. There will be times, to imagine his future for a second, where I’m sure he’ll be tempted to retreat back the life he’s made so small and limited. There is a terrible comfort in putting yourself in a box, and that’s what I have to fight against even now. When you collapse into your own depression and get used to that identity the same way you wear your favorite sweater, it becomes a crutch. People don’t expect much of a hikikomori. Your bubble of a world may be an unhappy one, but at least its safe and familiar. The real challenge is daring to be a person without a rigid identity and finding out what your place in the world may be.
Although it’s a completely different show and probably merits its own article someday, I can’t help but think of Anthy Himemiya of Revolutionary Girl Utena. Like Satou, she has completely accepted an identity made up largely of learned helplessness. To develop as a person, she must also leave a comfortable cage of a world. She can’t blossom until she is able to discover who she can truly be as a person with agency (hey, Exile). Nobody ever warned me that the process of that blossoming can be so frightening and painful. If you’re a current or former Satou or Anthy, you know all too well how nice it can be to fall back onto old coping mechanisms. Like me, maybe you miss that wretchedly tiny existence when things get overwhelming and uncertain. I’ll just try to remind you, like I try to remind myself in moments of clarity, that if I go back to that place, I’ll also miss the possibilities that lie ahead.