See-Sawing Dominance: Welcome to the NHK

Welcome to the NHK is another of those series I thought I had nothing to say about, but after a couple viewings there turned out to be something that might be interesting in there.

I’ve talked about couples being in parallel or symmetric relationships. Parallel couples have similar strengths and weaknesses; in symmetric relationships the strengths of one match up with the weakness of the other. Jim Hawkins is physically weak but brainy; Gene Starwind is a big ole brute and, well, sharper than a marble but, shall we say, easily distracted.

The simplest dimension of symmetry is dominance: someone is psychologically or sociologically above or below someone else. Jim is smarter than Gene, but Gene makes the decisions. Mugen and Jin could run away from Fuu or whup her butt, but she controls the three of them. Gendo Ikari is a major jerk but people do as he says.

Welcome to the NHK sets up the pattern of dominance right off the top. Tatsuhiro identifies himself as hikikomori: anti-social, living on an allowance from his mother, doing nothing with his life except sucking in oxygen and pushing out carbon dioxide. He’s a young man who’s not fond of himself. He thinks of himself as the lowest of the low.

What that does from a character standpoint is AUTOMATICALLY put him in the one-down position to EVERY OTHER CHARACTER. Because he believes he is the lowest of the low, so far as he and his actions are concerned, he is. This is called the “self-fulfilling prophecy.”

Welcome to the NHK

The gang. From left, Hitomi, Tatsuhiro, Yamazaki (in the back), Megumi, Misaki

There are four other characters he comes into regular contact with, and their positions emphasize that they are one-up on Tatsuhiro to start with:

Yamazaki, his neighbor, has knowledge power over Tatsuhiro: he understands computers and programming, including the kinds of games Tatsuhiro plays.

Hitomi has social power over Tatsuhiro: she was his senpai in high school. Plus she’s beautiful and a former lover: attraction power.

Megumi, the most distant of his four contacts, has legitimate power over Tatsuhiro: she was his class rep in high school.

And then there’s Misaki, the high school girl who offers to cure him. She is younger and much smaller than Tatsuhiro, which makes her ability to dominate him even more unlikely and an indicator of how low he views himself to be. But the writers also did something sneaky: it emerges that Misaki comes from a wealthy family that lives in a nice house atop a hill that overlooks Tatsuhiro’s apartment. Oh, dang, that’s cute: she’s RICH and she LITERALLY looks down on him!

What’s interesting about Welcome to the NHK is that ultimately those relationships get turned upside-down, and Tatsuhiro goes into the one-up position in each. That’s an enormous source of narrative tension in the story in that, of course, he doesn’t believe such a thing is possible, and so he is disoriented and confused when it happens.

For instance, his beautiful senpai Hitomi, to whom he looks up and after whom he lusts, has joined a suicide cult, emotionally devastated because her boyfriend won’t marry her. The whole group of them, Tatsuhiro among them, go to an island to spend one night together before throwing themselves off a cliff.

Tatsuhiro talks them out of it. POOF. They (including Hitomi) owe him their lives! Now HE’S the top dawg! Unable to bear the thought that he might be better than anyone else, he starts to throw himself off the cliff anyway. Misaki stops him.

Yamazaki is called away to work on the family farm, leaving the computer game they are designing together in Tatsuhiro’s hands. So far as their joint project is concerned, now Tatsuhiro’s the top dawg.

Megumi, it turns out, is broke and stuck in a multi-level marketing scheme. She dupes him into it, but between Yamazaki and Misaki they get him out. But the event reveals her to be desperate in her situation, unable to get out of the scheme or support her hikikomori brother; while Tatsuhiro is psychologically trapped, he can escape by learning to look at himself differently. But Megumi is financially trapped. Her only way out is to exploit everyone she knows, driving them all away. I want to say she’s a rotten human, but that’s not quite right; she’s just stuck and sees no other way out. But Tatsuhiro is shown to be the better person.

Then there’s Misaki, the rich girl who offers to “cure” Tatsuhiro. Despite her obvious inferiority in several ways (smaller, younger) she’s clearly dominant between the two of them at the start. She offers to “cure” him and makes him attend sessions with her. She makes him sign a contract where he will pay her a million yen if he doesn’t do as she says and holds him to it. There are signs that he doesn’t take her completely seriously (as when she attempts a Freudian analysis and he invents some deeply sexual imagery), but for the most part he does as she says.

But it eventually turns out that she needs him more he needs her. Misaki’s house on top of that hill is a prison for her; her parents are dead, her step-father is abusive, she has no friends. She has fallen deeply and terribly in love with Tatsuhiro, and comes to believe she cannot live without him.

There you go. One more role reversal. When Tatsuhiro refuses to continue her “treatment,” she runs off to commit suicide. He saves her…and then, echoing his relationship with Hitomi, throws himself off the cliff instead. Good thing there’s a net around it! Later on (according to the manga), they become a happy couple, the relationship between them more balanced.

But see what’s happened? Tatsuhiro is one-down to EVERYONE at the start. He’s one-up at the end. That’s both a series of plots arcs and also a meta-plot, all of them in this case Rags to Riches.

On a side note this series bugged me a little. Misaki is shown demonstrating symptoms of some personality disorder. That’s not what bothered me; people have them all the time. But the problems of the two hikikomori, Tatsuhiro and also Megumi’s brother, are treated as attitude problems: If they just get off their asses and get to work, they’ll be perfectly fine. We ran into this before, if you remember Plus-Sized Elf. In it, anyone who was fat was fat because they weren’t trying hard enough. Here Tatsuhiro is failing ONLY because he’s not trying hard enough, or so the story would have us believe.

Alas, that’s not always the case. Misaki may have the personality disorder in the story, but that doesn’t mean that the actions associated with being hikikomori couldn’t sometimes also be symptomatic. If there’s something psychological going on, just a change in attitude ain’t gonna fix it.

I wonder if this is a common Japanese belief. More cultural information might contextualize that, but, alas, I haven’t got it.

But it’s a troubling thought.

I always look at comments and feedback, and I’m sure I’m not the first to see what I’ve seen, so have at it. Just keep it clean and keep it on target…no personal attacks, okay? Thanks.

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