I N S I G H T – A N I M E
Mental health isn’t the most well-portrayed issue in the anime world — which does not come off as too shocking considering the taboos it hauls in modern day Japan. The 2006 anime, N.H.K. ni Yōkoso! (Welcome to N.H.K.!) — though deviating from the trend of ‘well-trodden’ — does a rather excellent job of adapting the novel of the same name.
The novel tackles issues and themes that directly belong to the mental health arena or are strongly concerned with it. Throughout the runtime of this anime, themes like depression, isolation, existential dread, etc. are explored through a more perceptive lens than most. It sheds light on the hikikomori phenomenon extensively, an acute form of social seclusion, which is relatively prevalent in Japan.
Many other Japanese subcultures — otaku, lolicon, and Internet suicide pacts — also play important parts in the plot. The dark humour of this tragicomedy is immensely relatable — the inscrutability of the human mind, the fear it harbours which has the potential to explode anytime, the exhausting sense of defeat at relapsing into the never-ending state of utter confusion encased with anxiety, panic, and incompetence renders loneliness infinitely more desirable.
Our protagonist, Satou Tatsuhiro, is a 22 year old university dropout living as a NEET (Not in Education, Employment, or Training) in Tokyo, locked up in a tiny apartment while his parents send him money for his supposed university education. His guilt over this situation is far overshadowed by the instability of his wandering mind which, after a tiring amount of aimless roaming, returns to exactly where it began.
The term hikikomori turns up in the very first episode when Satou, after spending months cooped up sleeping and watching television , suddenly picks up the word ‘N.H.K’ from TV (which refers to a public broadcaster in Japan — Nippon Hōsō Kyōkai (Japan Broadcasting Corporation)) and interpret it as Nihon Hikikomori Kyōkai (The Japanese Hikikomori Association) as he spins out a convoluted conspiracy theory of N.H.K being a secret organisation to turn Japanese youth into hikikomori, otaku, and NEETs by using media (mostly).
Right around then, as he is experiencing delusional visions and disturbing dream sequences regarding possible N.H.K attack, he meets Nakahara Misaki. This teenage girl suddenly sends a letter claiming to be a volunteer of a “charity project” to help hikikomori like him along with a contract which if signed will bind him to attend regular evening sessions with her in a nearby park. As Satou is confronted by a total stranger offering help to cure his hikikomori condition, he is left in the dark about her identity and her interest. But on the assigned evening he arrives at the desolate park way early while stubbornly negating the notion of rising fascination within himself. The raging confusion that he fosters gets fuelled by this mystery around this unknown young girl who diligently reads Freud every evening as if she’s certain, this solves the problem. Satou, in his clumsy disheveled communication endeavour, ended up telling a lie to Misaki which was embarrassingly transparent and, knowing Satou, he was well aware. But like a proper mess he heightens the gravity of the matter and seeks help from the newly discovered school junior who was until recently just a loud otaku next door repeatedly playing Puru Puru Pururin (a magical girl anime theme music). This junior, namely Yamazaki Kaoru, acquaints him with the lolicon (a Japanese portmanteau of the phrase “Lolita complex”) industry as he proposes to make a ‘galgame’ to give substance to Satou’s impetuously made up claim of being a workman to Misaki. Which results into Satou getting addicted to pornographic photos and games.
A school senior, Kashiwa Hitomi for whom Satou still has unresolved feelings, often makes things complicated for him. The infectiously invasive idea of conspiracy was inherited from this senpai who has an obsessive interest in complex, premeditated and subversive schemes which she applied randomly, converting life itself into a masterfully constructed conspiracy. Her substance addiction, multiple medication dependency, an uncooperative workplace that denies her potential and a general unhappiness at the state of her life brings tides of depression that break banks and with her Satou too drowns at times when it seems incredulously silly to get involved or even to get the wrong idea.
Through the course of the show Satou goes from a bizarre group suicide attempt to an all-consuming online role playing games addiction. The silly gag of falling prey to one pyramid scam three times in a row only paints the discord in the background more loudly. The existential ennui which leads to suicidal thoughts, PTSD induced obsession of being needed and if rejected the resultant sense of emptiness which stresses the meaninglessness of life—grace the screen with a sharp consciousness. On a detached note, Sato’s suffering seems derived solely and completely from his own weakness and utter foolishness while his misery remains persistently on repeat. But as we see him getting entangled in the net of depression and self-destructiveness which he knitted himself, it’s almost impossible to dispense with the sense that once caught it is painfully hard to extricate. The utter human frailty clamours with an insensitive rupture of judgment and permeates with a helpless anxiety.
N.H.K. ni Yōkoso! ultimately is a psychological overture into a dysfunctional psyche and the people around who often transcend that measure of paranoia with a strong dose of delusion. ‘Yume to Inbō’—‘dream and conspiracy’ a recurrent theme of the show unwinds into a disorienting experience mixed with despair and a heartbreaking sense of powerlessness. As lockdown puts us in positions of solitude to think about loneliness and social distancing in a different light, Satou’s resolution to take refuge to social alienation doesn’t seem incongruous, making it an unusually fun watch with an exceptional depth.
P.S. On a personal note, the first ending theme ‘Odoru Akachan Ningen’ (Dancing Baby Humans) has been a delight as it conveys the erratic frustration and utter desolation of the anime with near perfection.
Noosrat Tasneem loves music, books, cinemas, and rain! She enjoys seeing the many worlds through frames, and likes to believe she’s on a journey to learn how to live better.