How Not to End a Series: Welcome to the NHK

Welcome to the NHK is one of those things that should remind you of how a medium people think is for children – I mean, it’s a CARTOON, right? – can be used to explore some really ugly things. In Welcome’s case it’s mental illness.

What’s interesting to me is what it reveals about the way Japanese society thinks about mental illness. And what it reveals ain’t pretty.

So, basically, you have five main characters, right? You have the main couple, Tatsuhiro and Misaki, plus the neighbor Yamazaki, Tatsuhiro’s old senpai Hitomi, and his old class rep Megumi. Major plot arcs revolve around all of them, although Tatsuhiro is the central character and Misaki the protagonist.

I’ve talked about that before. Don’t expect me to explain it again now.

Narratively it wraps up almost nicely. “Almost,” I said. Remember that the end of a narrative is supposed to a) resolve the conflict and b) wrap up the loose ends. Well, let’s see: Yamazaki ends up married and happy on the family farm, Hitomi is married, happy, and expecting her first child, and Tatsuhiro and Misaki are hooked up together, troo lurve 4 evah. Megumi is left hanging, though, so that’s why I said, “almost.”

Narratively, it gets the job done.

From left Misaki (PTSD), Tatsuhiro (paranoia), Yamazaki (rage). No one else is a character.

At the same time it’s really unsatisfying to Western eyes in a very specific way that may be a function of seeing it with Western eyes. I mean, along with the romantic elements, Welcome has a second narrative subtext, and that is mental health. All five of them have PRO-blems, right?

In alphabetical order
Hitomi: She is disrespected and disrespected at work and has a boyfriend who is distant from her. She self-medicates with alcohol and a number of mood-altering drugs, and is depressed to the point of being suicidal
Megumi: She is so deeply in debt that she has become a user of other people, selfish and lacking in empathy. No, she’s not as bad off mentally as the others, but she’s a bad person
Misaki: She was abused as a child, is PTSD to the eyes. She looks around the world and sees only one person lower than herself, and when Tatsuhiro (yeah, it’s him) rejects her offer of alliance/marriage, she attempts suicide twice
Tatsuhiro: We’re supposed to know he’s a socially isolated hikikogamori (yeah, that’s redundant) but, DUDE, this boy also has problems with outright paranoia. Also attempts suicide twice
Yamazaki: Ever seen such a rageoholic? I mean, seriously, Yamazaki loses his cool so often that he may not know what a cool is. This is partly due to social stress created by the weight of family expectations

To make the story work, you have to resolve these psychological problems as well. Otherwise they’ll still be hanging there in the audience’s mind when the story ends. Let’s see how they do that:

Yamazaki does what his family wants, goes back to the family farm, marries a cute girl picked out by his family, and BOOM, he’s happy. You see it? All he has to do is be a good Japanese boy and respect his parents.

Hitomi’s suicidal streak end when her boyfriend proposes. You know, the boyfriend who drove her to suicidal despair in the first place. Right, THAT boyfriend. But all – well, most – of her problems are solved when he proposes. All she has to be is be a good Japanese girl and get married and have a kid. (Her job problems do not appear at all following the proposal.)

Megumi is left hanging again, although she does have a nice bathtub scene in which she considers going back to college, i.e. getting back on the track of being a good Japanese girl.

Tatsuhiro’s allowance is cut off and his porno-game business with Yamazaki tanks, so when he’s faced with the choice between starving and getting a job, well, all of a sudden his mental issues aren’t a problem anymore and he gets a job. It’s the exact same “redemption” arc that Megumi’s brother goes through, by the way. All they had to do was be good Japanese boys and go to work.

Misaki’s decades of abuse stop being a problem when Tatsuhiro commits to her. In short, her arc is the same as Hitomi’s: all she has to do is be a good Japanese girl and get “married.” (I put married in quotes since they don’t actually get married, but they are pair-bonded, so good enough.)

Do you see the pattern here? All of them (except maybe Megumi) have real psychological problems for which they get exactly ZERO actual help. All they have to do is stop being the way they are and start being good Japanese boys and girls, and all their troubles go away.

Yeah.

You see this buried in a lot of anime and manga as a subtext, that people with real, serious problems that require systematic help are essentially told to “Suck it up, Buttercup.” Komi from Komi Can’t Communicate, right? I mean, they know she’s screwed up, but they just keep sending her to school and calling on her in class as though all she has to do is stop having her underlying trauma. Shoko Nishimiya from A Silent Voice literally can’t hear the teachers in school, but they just tell her to get in there and deal with it. Don’t get me started on Flowers of Evil. The jackasses at NERV keep sending the screwed-up kids, Shinji, Rei, and Asuka, out there, over and over, until two of them go kamikaze and the third catatonic. (Remember, the Rei that saves the world is NOT the same Rei we meet at the beginning of the story.)

To me that seems not just off, but wrong. The way to make a person whole is not to tell them to “just start acting like a good boy/girl” but to get at and resolve the root of the problem.

Of course, different cultures have different attitudes about how to deal with people. They have different norms, right? Norms are a big part of culture. I’m not Japanese and I don’t view these problems from a Japanese point of view; I’m American and I see them from an American’s perspective.

But, in Japan, “Suicide is the leading cause of death in men between the ages of 20-44 and women between the ages of 15-34.” Yeah, that’s Wikipedia, so take it for what it’s worth. But, yah know, if there’s any reality there maybe, “Straighten up and fly right” just ain’t working.

What’s Hitomi going to do when post-partum depression hits her?
What happens to Yamazaki when he starts to miss his old independence?
Can two screwed-up kids like Tatsuhiro and Misaki make it? Remember that during the brief period of their lives covered by the show they attempt suicide FOUR times between them.

It doesn’t feel like they have much of a chance to me. We have what looks like a happy ending, but because it doesn’t deal with any underlying problems, a happy ending just don’t feel right.

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.

4 thoughts on “How Not to End a Series: Welcome to the NHK

  1. How some country treats mental problems is generally an indicator of how disability might be treated there.

    As a result, as a blind guy myself, I wouldn’t want to live in Japan, for the reasons you have already highlighted in this article. Just imagine how much crap someone like me will get there?

    I might visit as a tourist with friends, but I won’t live there.

    Liked by 1 person

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