A Study in Welcome to the NHK: Gender Roles Reinforced, Yet Redefined
CONTENT WARNING: This article contains discussion of sexually explicit content, in addition to the discussion of suicide and mental illness.
Welcome to the NHK (NHKにようこそ), directed by Yuusuke Yamamoto of Gonzo, focuses largely on a series of characters that face real-life mental health struggles and the troubles associated with them4. Though the initial premise of the show appears to be about Tatsuhiro Sato’s attempt to conquer a conspiracy hosted by the Nihon Hikikomori Kyokai (NHK), the series actually focuses on the high-level concept of what it means to suffer the life of a hikikomori, and how women may ultimately be responsible for the suffering. The series positions women as figures of power, who are ultimately responsible for both the rise and fall of Tatsuhiro Sato.
PART I: SEXUAL MOTIFS
Anime is known for the occasional shameless reference to sexual acts, but Welcome to the NHK takes this to another, real-world level. It plays on the societal expectations of hikikomori and the bachelor lifestyle in general1. The series uses four main motifs to show how single, presumably lonely, men are supposed to view not only women, but substitutes for women3. Additionally, they must base their own identity on common hikikomori perceptions.
It is important to note that Sato, at the start of the series, has been living in hiding from society in his apartment for about four years, since he was about 18. Because of this, the viewer gets the sense that he never matured beyond that age. This reflects the real-world perception that hikikomori have not matured or grown beyond adolescence mentally and that is why they continue with their fixation on young girls, both real and fake1.
Tissue Boxes. Throughout the anime, the viewer is faced with a series of motifs that reflect the male hikikomori’s sexual life. Sato’s room is filled with tissue boxes and porn, the number of boxes changing in each scene, suggesting regular masturbation. Though this detail could have been a simple reminder of his bachelor lifestyle, Yamamoto made a clear point of having establishing shots emphasize the tissue boxes. The tissue boxes are a direct reflection of Sato’s stability. Throughout the series, when Sato is finding minor successes in societal integration, the room has significantly fewer tissue boxes. But when he faces any sort of decline back into his agoraphobic state, the tissue boxes seem to multiply. Early on, it is clear that our hero, Sato, thinks of women as little more than pretty things in pictures for him to pleasure himself to.
“Beware of Molesters” Sign. Another motif is a sign we see every time Sato meets with his potential savior, Misaki. Misaki is assumed to be around 17 or 18, around four years Sato’s junior. She appears early in the series, offering him a contract by which she promises to help him recover on the condition that he meets with her after dark in a local park for lessons on how society works. Every time Sato goes to meet Misaki in the park, the establishing image frames a signposting that states “Beware of Molesters.” The choice to include this sign as a motif suggests that perhaps Sato only shows up to his lessons as a means of protecting Misaki5. It is assumed Misaki knows this, and purposely sets this park as the location to ensure that Sato does indeed show up. She uses her vulnerability as a young girl in order to manipulate Sato. This signals the evolution of a woman’s presence in Sato’s life from “something to masturbate to” to “something to protect.”
Pururin Song. The final motif that remains throughout the entire series is the Pururin Song. First featured in episode one while being blasted by Sato’s neighbor, Yamazaki, Sato is inherently annoyed by it as it disrupts his typical quiet days. Later, the song grows on him, and he ends up becoming close friends with Yamazaki, who teaches him the ways of sexualizing young animated women. The Pururin song becomes a representation of Yamazaki’s ongoing presence in Sato’s life, discouraging interaction with human women, and encouraging Sato to pursue girls featured in Moe-games5. Sato begins his descent into the traditional hikikomori image -- that of an agoraphobic otaku, rather than a simple social recluse. He becomes a slave to the moe-game, and is eventually dragged into writing the script for one that Yamazaki is producing.
PART II. WOMEN USE MALE PERCEPTION TO MANIPULATE THEM
The series pulls many of its themes from the real world, one of those being how men perceive women. These perceptions are often learned from society and media. Welcome to the NHK takes these perceptions as an opportunity to show the viewer, presumably an anime fan, how they are damaging to both men and women.
Sato finds himself falling into the manipulations of three key female characters and one male character throughout the series. Each character uses a different trait that women are commonly characterized as having to manipulate him into specific acts. Sato troubles to separate these actions from his own wants and needs. These key “feminine” traits are: Vulnerability, Innocence, Moe, and Sex Appeal3.
Megumi and Vulnerability.
Often, men seem to see women as vulnerable and in need of support and protection. Women tend to look at men the same way. Megumi, former acquaintance from high school pulls Sato into a pyramid marketing scam. Though at first she uses blatant deception and manipulation to get Sato to join her shady organization, she ultimately keeps him in the scam by showing him her life. She supports her own hikikomori brother after her father passes, and uses her life situation as a means to manipulate Sato into joining the pyramid scam so that she can relieve herself of debt and pass it onto him5. This is the the most blatant example in the show how a woman can use typically perceptions of her gender to manipulate men.
Misaki and Innocence.
Misaki strives to remain in control of Sato from the start. She thrives on the fact that someone might actually need her, so she does what she can to keep Sato under her control. It starts with an innocent-looking handwritten contract that could put him into instant debt if violated. Sato looks past this and sees something simple: an innocent young girl. The meetings being held in the the park is step one of Misaki’s manipulation. Step two comes when she really does start to appear to be his salvation from hikikomori life after she pretends to be his girlfriend when his mother comes to visit. Just when the viewer thinks there may be a romance between the two of them starting to bud, Sato comes to think that Misaki is part of the NHK, the organization responsible for his hikikomori status.
Though he finally sees the deception that Misaki is putting him through, he incorrectly interprets her true feelings, and pushes her out of his life. This is the one time we see Sato break out of her manipulative grasp without the help of another character, only to fall into the hands of a digital woman.
Yamazaki and Moe.
A general expectation of digital women, and perhaps even real women, is to be moe. Moe is the expectation of a girl to be simultaneously cute and sexual and most definitely interested in the male subject4.
After Sato decides he is determined to make money through MMO gaming, he meets a girl in-game. This girl is none other than Sato’s neighbor, masquerading as the perfect moe girl. Sato falls for the digital character, Mia, and pushes away reality, including Misaki. Though this is an elaborate plot by Yamazaki, who is male, it definitely shows the power of both women and digital women over men. Ultimately, Yamazaki reveals that he is Mia, which leads to another downfall of Sato. Indeed, it seems that when female manipulation techniques are used, it can lead to nothing but trouble for the man that they are being used on, even if those techniques are secretly being applied by another man.
The interesting point to pull from Yamazaki’s masquerade as Mia in the series is that Yamazaki describes the perfect Moe girl when he works on his moe-game design, and subsequently uses these techniques to win Sato’s heart in-game5.
The qualities are as follows:
The moe-girl falls in love with the player for no apparent reason.
The moe-girl has no ulterior motives.
The moe-girl approaches innocently.
What we can take away from the show’s blatant broadcast about how to create an ideal digital woman is that the show is aware of itself, as all of these qualities at first appear to describe Misaki, whom Sato initially idealized. The show, running its course, creates a sense of reality behind Misaki. We find out that she does not actually meet criterion #2, in that she is acting with ulterior motives.
Hitomi and Sex Appeal.
A man’s sexual awakening is a key concept that Welcome to the NHK creators knew could not be omitted from the plot. This is where Hitomi, a former upperclassman to Sato comes into the story. Hitomi is largely responsible for corrupting Sato into perceiving his problems as the result of the a conspiracy from NHK. Her life revolves around conspiracy. She was also the first and only real woman Sato ever had any form of a sexual relationship with in high school. When she reappears in his life as an adult, she immediately resumes the manipulation.
Many women have a complex in which they like the idea of having the presence of a man in their life whom they are not romantically interested in. Someone to support them when times get rough, who will always back them up, and always treat them with respect in spite of everything, is an absolute must for many women. This is where we see a key disconnect in what women need from men and what men think they want2. Often, men perceive any form of kindness from women as an invitation for a relationship or, at the very minimum, sexual relations. Sato immediately pictures her in sexual situations. This is a perception perpetuated not only by otaku culture, but society in general. What women are really looking for, generally, is a sense of companionship from the man or men they surround themselves with. This is what Hitomi wants from Sato: a trusted companion.
Immediately, she mentions that they should have dated and gotten that out of the way, which Sato interprets as her wanting a relationship, though the subtext implies that she wanted to get that phase out of the way so that they could simply be companions at this stage in their life, where she is dating a successful salaryman5. She is intentionally using that statement as bait for his attention. Later, she manipulates Sato into her grand suicide scheme because she wants to die accompanied by her companion. The most horrifying part of female manipulation is how effective it can be, as demonstrated by Sato, who comes to rationalize his suicide and ultimately ends up being one of the only ones in Hitomi’s suicide group who is actually serious about conducting the act. Again, we see the downfall of a man at the hands of a woman.
Though Misaki appears in the final moments before Sato’s suicide attempt, she fails to talk Sato out of the act. The only success in talking Sato out of killing himself comes from Yamazaki, a fellow man, the only one who can truly understand Sato, in his eyes. This demonstrates a trusting male-camaraderie that reflects the general distrust toward women from much of the male otaku community in the real world.
PART III. GOD IS ABSENT, BUT WOMEN ARE HERE
Welcome to the NHK’s final episodes place more emphasis on the ongoing theme about God. Bad things happen in both the anime’s world and our world, and often people don’t know where to turn when they do. People often feel undeserving of the traumatic things that happen to them, and because of that they need to find two things:
Someone to place the blame on for their tragedies
Somewhere to escape from their tragedies
God is described as a one stop shop for both of these places in Welcome to the NHK. God is simultaneously responsible for the tragedies, but also faith in him is reason to put off the negativity associated with them. Different characters ascribe different philosophies to these items, just as everyone in the real world has their own ideas. Yamazaki blames his tragedies on women, and uses moe games as an escape from his problems. Hitomi blames her tragedies on conspiracies and sees her only escape as suicide. Misaki sees society as the source of her tragedies, and finds solace in the fact that others are worth less than her (specifically Sato). Sato sees both society and conspiracies as his source of tragedy, but Welcome to the NHK is the story of his escape, so his ideas of a safe escape are ever-changing5.
Ultimately Welcome to the NHK gives the viewer the idea that women are the source of tragedy, specifically the hikikomori problem. We see Megumi enable her hikikomori brother and Sato’s mom enable him for the first part of the series. We also see women rejecting hikikomori men so that they end up crawling back to their moe-game replacements, who appear to be women themselves, and who capture the male hikikomori mind, thus escalate the problem.
On the other side of the spectrum, women are also the male hikikomori’s way to salvation. Their redemption. Their escape from the trouble that women have caused. The series often states that perhaps God created the problems. If a god can create a problem and also take it away, then Welcome to the NHK seems to imply that women themselves are gods, as they are responsible for creating and enforcing the hikikomori problem, in addition to eliminating it by re-immersing male hikikomori into reality, whether it be through cutting them off from their resources, or simply teaching them to love real women again. Welcome to the NHK places women in a god-like position of power over men. This implores the viewer to reflect on the role of women and where their true power in society lies.