The only times Tatsuhiro Satou ventures out of his tiny apartment are for the basic necessities of life, and even then, he doesn’t go far. 22 years old, a college dropout, unemployed and living off a meagre allowance from his father…Satou seemingly has no hobbies or interests beyond sleeping, staring at the walls, or getting drunk/high. He’s been like this for four years now, and while he berates himself and dreams up various schemes to become a “normal person” again, he inevitably ends up retreating into his constricted existence. The days flow by and his only comfort rests in bizarre conspiracy theories about how the world is out to get him. That is, until he bumps into a young woman named Misaki who makes him sign a contract to take part in a “special project” to reform his life.
The hikikomori phenomenon was starting to get major media attention in Japan when Tatsuhiko Takimoto wrote Welcome to the NHK! (2002). While this manifestation of alienation, social anxiety, and inability to deal with expectations is largely unique to Japan, the problems that lead to it are common enough in the western world. NHK is in part the author’s own attempt to come to grips with these issues, but is clearly also a personal expression of the yawning hopelessness the author himself once felt. The Afterward confirms that NHK is semi-autobiographical, “I felt as though I were taking my own shame and revealing it to the whole world.” Out of all I’ve read, it most closely resembles the middle section of Lanark: both by the main character’s depths of self-loathing and the honesty with which it touches on that character’s less savoury qualities.
While I read this in one sitting, it’s at times tough to get through thanks to the above elements. As a study in the depths of loneliness, it doesn’t really answer the “why” of Satou’s withdrawal beyond some bare hints. Instead, Takimoto tries to make you sympathize with those who’ve fallen victim to the same mindset. Satou’s attempts to break out of his lifestyle have a heavy air of futility because he himself doesn’t understand why he shut himself off from the world, or is at least too afraid to confront the true reasons behind it. We have brief flashbacks to the hopeful young man who left high school largely optimistic about the future but there’s no direct line connecting his situation from then to now. It just seemed to happen: Satou loses himself as a person and becomes paralyzed by that lack. Misaki’s “solutions” meant to cure his “disease” are of a simplistic variety that would likely run through the heads of anyone who comes across a person who isn’t comfortable around others. Predictably, they don’t help. By forcing Satou out into the world, his encounters only seem to confirm why he shielded himself from the rest of society in the first place. He meets a parade of fundamentally broken people whose own brokenness is shaped and produced by the problems that contributed to Satou’s own isolation.
That being said, Takimoto doesn’t leave us with just a portrait of someone we should pity or despise. Satou’s path to redemption is not in bootstrapping or shallow self-improvement, but in connecting with and coming to care for other people without expecting any reward, emotional or otherwise, in return. His life at the end of the novel isn’t so different from how he started, but by helping Misaki and others deal with their own crippling depression, anxiety and suicidal tendencies, he is at least on the way to bettering himself.
Welcome to the NHK tests the reader by presenting Satou as an often despicable and pathetic character whose self-hatred leads to destructive tendencies, but then asks us to consider that even someone like that can have a positive impact on the lives of others. Everyone can have worth, but that worth is found through caring for others.
NHK strikes me as one of the few generation-defining works despite its specificity to Japan. Its themes go beyond those borders, addressing the fears and psychologies of the 21st century so far and addressing them in a deeply personal way. It clearly resonated with a certain segment of the Japanese population, leading to comic book and anime adaptations there that are better known than the novel in North America (I haven’t read or seen either of them). In some ways, much like Spice and Wolf, its success at home might be its greatest roadblock over on this side of the ocean. Welcome to the NHK would probably receive a lot more critical attention if the translation came out from a more mainstream publisher than Tokyopop. It has far more in common with Murakami than it does with most of Tokyopop’s catalogue. I hope, at least, that my writing about it here might bring help bring a little more attention its way.
Note: The NHK is Japan’s largest public broadcaster. Thus the title of this post.