NHK‘s slice of lack of life approach makes it a little difficult to analyze. Not only does very little happen in each episode, but each small action is analyzed to death by the protagonist. Sato’s hikikimori disorder is, it seems, based on a fear of judgment from the outside world. His self-esteem is so damaged (and, perversely, his ego so large and fragile) that everything that happens around him is (he imagines) a reaction to him.
Which may be why this is the first episode where he seriously tries to figure out – what the heck was up with Misaki? Of course, some random pretty teenager would try and save him. Why wouldn’t she? Idly, he has wondered, but her motivations have never been the center of an episode’s story until “Welcome the Dark Side.”
The episode starts with the traditional Sato and Yamazaki working on their girl game scenes, where it becomes clear that Sato’s thoughts drift again and again back to Misaki. He’s writing her name into the script, instead of the character’s name, Rei. Is it love? It’s something, because Sato leaves early for the park.
Misaki’s already there, feeding a stray cat. The cat is an obvious metaphor for her intentions with the hikikimori. Feed it, and it might come back to you. And it’s also clear that Sato is, for a man defined by his self-inflicted misery, way too susceptible to other’s suggestions. Yamazaki is going out on a date, says that women are good, and Sato starts making lovey-dovey eyes at Misaki. When Yamazaki drunkenly gets back from the date, he curses all females for their duplicity. Then, of course, Sato has nightmares where he sees Misaki at the center of the conspiracy, an evil emasculating force who uses her sex appeal to break his heart.
What’s her real motivation? That’s what Sato can’t suss out, so he does the only thing he can think of: He dons his going-out-of-doors disguise (hat and glasses), gets Yamazaki to wingman for him, and stalks Misaki throughout her day.
This leads to a set of revelations: She lives in an enormous house on top of a hill, and she can look right down on the park and into the windows of Sato and Yamazaki’s apartments. And, lastly, when she’s not working or counseling too-old-for-her social defectives, she spends time in her long blue dress, walking around with much older people (including her grandmother) for some religious function.
Sato could see her as someone just as lost as he is. He’s her stray cat, one that she thinks will come back to her if she just gives him some of what he needs.
But his belief in the rightness of his own dysfunction wins out. His appliances come to life and dance around him again, reassuring him that he is in the center of a conspiracy he could never hope to fight. He’s powerless, and if he lets her get more of her hooks into him, life will just get worse and worse.
When Sato finally breaks it off with Misaki, he runs from her like a little kid.
What is the “dark side” that he’s welcomed to in the title of this episode? If his dark fantasies all come directly from his brain, then the dark side may be his rejection of Misaki, rejection of the hope she brings – because that hope contains also the threat of failure.
It also comes with a pretty important question: Why the hell should anyone stay interested in Sato? He’s just a neat freak, who sabotages all of his chances to get better…but he’s not a real neat freak. There was a Japanese film about a hikikimori from 2008, “Ima boku wa…” – “Now, I…” That was a realistic portrait of a “neet.” He barely left his room, would only communicate with his mother in monosyllables, and occasionally had violent outbursts where he shoved her into walls. He was broken and apparently unfixable. Sullen, detestable. Sato has grossness, but he isn’t the blank wall that “Now, I…”‘s central character was. He is penetrable and articulate, even if he is articulating self-defeat and self-absorption. Necessarily, this makes him a less realistic character. That may be the only way to tell a story like this, though – to sand off some edges to give the audience any small thing to which it can cling.