A Vicious Cycle of Starts and Stops in Welcome to the NHK

Welcome to the NHK is very specific in its storytelling, but its message and themes can be broadened outside of the target demographic, that is NEETs and hikikomoris. While it is apparent that the failings and misfortunes befalling our protagonist, Tatsuhiro Satou, can be attributed to his lifestyle as a hikikomori well-aware of his predicament and deliberately avoiding responsibility, every time we see him try to change that and break out of his path of self-destruction he is either shown to be too weak-willed to see it all the way through, or crushed by failure. There is too, the factor of others manipulating him and the conflict between that external force in conjunction with his own paranoia that makes it seem exceptionally hard and understandably so, as to why he has such trouble breaking out of this living habit.

I’m not trying to shift the blame away from Satou here, rather more interested in finding the reasoning behind how he keeps returning to this state of being beyond his own shortcomings. My intention isn’t to make you sympathize with him, but to look around and see how he is treated by others and the environment in addition to his internal strife, which altogether is what keeps bringing him back to square one, despite any resolve or hint of success he is shown to be capable of achieving.  

Work-wise, Satou is unemployed with little to no ambition of pursuing a job. Actually, it’s more complicated than that, since he bounces around the idea of getting a job as something he may actually want to such extremes that it comes off as weirdly ambiguous. Health-wise, Satou lives alone in an apartment, smokes, drinks, and consumes unnamed drugs which cause him delusions varying from the kind that makes him see his furniture as talking (taunting) creatures to being so attuned to his place in the universe and the very nature of existence where he believes himself to be god.

Satou’s status quo is made out to be as such; a man in his twenties, unemployed, living alone, who indulges in all sorts of drugs, is socially anxious, egoistic and also insecure, and so delusional and paranoid he questions even questions the existence of others (i.e. Misaki). Considering this state of mind, it’s actually quite remarkable how Satou ever manages to escape his current lifestyle, even temporarily.

But if he is able to liberate himself multiple times, why is he doomed to remigrate? What compels him away from his potential of having financially secure independence? Well, it seems to be the people around him that does it. From his parents’ pressure of getting a job and the guilt that comes with living off their money, to the depressing reminder of what could’ve been with his senpai (Hitomi Kashiwa), to the uncertain pursuit of making an ero-game with his friend Yamazaki, to being both pestered and entranced by the maddening existence of the “angel” Misaki Nakahara. All of these people feel as though they are both burdens and gifts to Satou, who can’t seem to grasp how he feels about any of them or pursue his desires.

It’s clear Satou is in-love with Kashiwa and that he wants to be with her and make her happy. We even see him get jealous when he sees her married to somebody else, and because Satou doesn’t have a hold on confronting what he truly wants, and has a twisted moral compass, every chance he is given to be with Kashiwa, he pushes her away. He can’t seem to bring himself to accept his desires, and while it is fair to say Satou did the right thing by not having an affair with Kashiwa, it should also be noted that despite the taboo associated with such an act, would’ve probably benefitted Satou in more ways than one. Not condoning it, but could’ve led to growth for both characters, and perhaps even kept them happy for a while.

And then there’s Misaki, the girl who constantly pursues Satou under the goal of helping him out of his predicament, and changing him into a better person more fit for society. However, it’s clear Misaki has feelings for Satou and while not necessarily what I’d call “mutual”, are in some way reciprocated. Albeit, at first dismissed and associated with fear of commitment and the vulnerability that comes with giving into that relationship, but even when finally embraced is denied. The manga presents many scenarios of Satou giving into his desires of wanting to be with Misaki as real and believable, but then pulls you out of it by revealing it was another one of Satou’s hallucinations or daydreams. Satou imagines many times being physically intimate with Misaki, yet shuns her almost every time she comes close to him. Another case of him being at ends with what he wants and how he reacts when it becomes attainable.

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But of course, Satou isn’t the only one who suffers from a vicious cycle of self-destruction. Kashiwa was so depressed at the start that she had decided on suicide, but then the idea of marriage seemed to knock her out of it. And then later we see her feelings of inadequacy and paranoia affect her relationship. She sees her husband as condescending due to his knowledge, expertise, and occupation (psychologist). While it’s not outright stated, she may even be suspicious of him psychoanalyzing her. Despite her misery, she finds it exceedingly difficult to make the marriage work, be happy, or even call a divorce (she does eventually). When she goes back to Satou it’s obvious she wants to be with him and regrets not having dated him in the past. She feels a connection with Satou because there is a mutual understanding of what it’s like to be stuck reliving their own mistakes.

Yamazaki is someone who displays a desire to date someone, but then also turn around and make remarks on how superior 2D women are to 3D ones. Like Satou, Yamazaki has feelings of inadequacy and insecurity. When he actually is presented with a woman opening up her feelings to him, it’s clear he wants to reciprocate the feelings, but won’t let himself open up. To protect his ego, he must pretend to not have such desires. Because when he does become physically intimate with someone and give into his feelings, they are twisted and discarded as though the other person was only feigning their feelings for an ulterior motive. It’s no wonder why both Yamazaki and Satou keep their hearts guarded when they’re so afraid of and somewhat accustomed to being manipulated like this.

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What’s interesting here is how interconnected each of their own cycles are with each other, or more specifically with Satou. Everyone goes through the whole rigmarole of feeling validated of who they are, but also far from being content with themselves, and further still drawn more toward misery than happiness. Something is wrong with each character, and for some reason they are all drawn to Satou, and vice versa. They’re aware of their faults and one of them (another hikikomori) admits to having read all the self-help books to the extent he could write one himself, but still can’t take the initiative to break free from that detrimental lifestyle. Except that he does, and Misaki was the one to help him. So maybe there’s still hope for the others too.

~ Ace

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