This review could be subtitled “Welcome to Dramatic Tension.” Since it crossed the halfway point in its twenty-four episode run, Welcome to the NHK seems to have discovered that, hey, it might be a good idea to hint that things with potential consequences happen. Twice, in two episodes, there were events (or cliffhangers) where the outcome wasn’t completely obvious from the onset of the situation. The second cliffhanger is at the end of “Welcome to Reality” – what’s happened to Sato’s family?
The first case of dramatic tension revolves around the possibility of suicide. Hitomi’s boyfriend, with Yamazaki and Sato in tow, tries to wend his way toward the island where the suicide group is shuffling off, the Off members start Sato’s bonfire using the remaining fuel in the boat. They’re not making a return trip, after all.
Sato is genuinely funny in this episode. As in most of his interactions with other human beings, when he isn’t completely societally walled off, he finds himself fulfilling whatever role they assigned to him – a patient when Misaki wants to play therapist, a writer when Yamazaki needs a game design, an ersatz boyfriend for Hitomi. For the Off crowd, he’ll be a jovial suicidee, even when he knows this isn’t what he wants at all.
Once in position to kill themselves, one of the members of course chickens out, then shouts down the rest of the suiciders. And it turns out everyone has pretty slim reasoning for suicide, except for maybe Sato and Hitomi. Hitomi is clearly clinically depressed. She thinks that Sato is right in line with her dark intentions. In actuality, Sato’s resolve to live is only tested when, in the first real dramatic twist (maybe in the series) Misaki, shouting into a PA system on a boat just below the appointed place of suicide, lets him know why she picked him for her project. In essence, she says it is because he is the only person she has ever seen who is worse than she is. After that little revelation, he’s ready to take a trip down the cliff, into the rocks.
What stops him is one of the first self-aware things Yamazaki ever says in the series: “A dramatic death isn’t fitting to us.” We’re too pathetic to have some grand, romantic end to our dull, flat lives. This notion, that for some reason Sato, whose condition is largely self-inflicted and probably borne of a desire for an easy life, not from deep psychological scarring, is enough to talk him down.
It is not enough, though, to get him to forgive Misaki. Early in “Welcome to Reality” there’s a disturbing scene when Sato is within inches from hitting her. In response, she curls up and shivers, holding her arms in front of her face like she was used to being hit, and knew what she needed to protect.
The second episode deals almost entirely with the aftermath from the suicide meeting. It is a rush of happy endings for almost everyone. The medical student apologizes to his parents, the kid who stole money gets back with his own family. The broken up businessman, the old man of the group, sees his son again for the first time in years. Hitomi gets married to her boyfriend.
For these people, this was the final trauma. They had a problem that could be fixed, and not by death.
For poor Sato, death wouldn’t scratch the surface of mending his wounds…but there’s also the upsetting implication that even if he did die, nobody would have been back on shore to be upset about it. Word of the suicide attempt got back to everyone else’s family. You get the feeling that if Sato disappeared it would be months before anyone but Yamazaki and Misaki noticed.
In terms of tone and action, these two episodes feel very much like a shift that the series has needed for some time. Sato is no longer so passive, and even if his actions are stupid (the sincere suicide attempt), or distasteful (the full-on threatening of Misaki, whom he does NOT much like anymore), they are actions, not just reactions. He makes some sort of character stand, and is no longer so inert.
Which means the series feels like it might be moving off of the self-piteous plight of the Hikikimori and onto the maybe more interesting (and certainly cuter), deeply damaged little girl.
Because eventually, Sato does go back to their meeting place in the park, where Misaki waits with her symbolic cat rubbing her legs. She never looks at Sato, but tries to play therapist again, holding up the contract between them and saying, essentially, she’ll do him a favor by not fining him for missing his therapy. Sato reacts vigorously to this, but Misaki’s cringing, the tears that pour out (which we see landing on her skirt – is that some form of psycho-sexual symbolism? Probably not) break Sato’s resolve. They’re all three of them stray cats, wounded from kicks and scared of everything.
Over these last three (really four episodes) the suicide group plot put me in mind of a similar suicide group story in Paranoia Agent, one of the best of the standalone episodes in that series. There, some suicides are actually accomplished, yet there is much more ambiguity about the motivations for the suicides (which is welcome, since the reasons for death revealed in NHK are all kind of pathetic, and dumb), and that series, though also often quite funny, was completely willing to stare into the darkness as deep as it had to go. Welcome to the NHK is willing to hint at darkness (as the shivering body of a 17-year-old girl speaks to some form of terrible abuse), but it will not leap headlong into that abyss. It pulls its punches.