Contributed by Toby Wu
Hikikomori: A Deafening Silence presents what one would immediately expect of a film about socially withdrawn youth, or even more pessimistically, about what is seen as a lost generation. The pathetic fallacy in its opening sequence is unapologetically succinct; in what we know of picturesque Japan, there are also pockets of isolation, a remoteness and vulnerability that lies in plain sight. They are living in the midst of a thriving city, characterised by the directors as individuals who are aware of the life they are so far removed from.
Hikikomori are youths who have adopted a reclusive lifestyle. Perceived as being isolated from mainstream society, this rising population appears to be an inconvenient truth of the technological age. While this term was coined by psychologist Tamaki Saito since the millennium, several academics and healthcare professionals across Asia, such as Mr Ray Chua, a clinical psychologist at REACH West National University Hospital (NUH), have only recently attempted to describe and identify this behaviour.
Giving a brief post-screening presentation of Singaporean gaming addicts who display similar behaviours to the hikikomori, Chua utilised the reference points provided by the film to expound upon the thought processes of hikikomori, behaviour that the members of the audience may have experienced but are unaware of the root cause for such conduct. He noted that researchers from Japan and Hong Kong, where hikikomori are called ‘Hidden Youth’, differ in views on causes affecting these youths. Japanese researchers attribute psychological issues while Hong Kong researchers cite sociological issues as a cause, the latter leading to the development of terms such as NEET (Not in Education, Employment or Training), which defines the hikikomori by their (lack of) social roles rather than by their mental state.
Despite the many ways to engage the issue, the exposition of the film appears to maintain a clear and undecorated vantage point. We meet the many male “characters”, each at various stages of rehabilitation at New Start, a rehabilitation centre for hikikomori in Tokyo that aims to reintegrate them into society. If its goal was to bring awareness to the growing phenomenon, the film succeeds on many levels. It shows the ways that hikikomoris attempt to bring visibility to other NEETs through festivals, actively trying to combat little hurdles in their “recovery” by engaging in talent shows or even performing at karaoke nights. Each of them understands the circumstances in which they all struggle to be integrated into society, many noting that they had gone through bouts of hopelessness and an inability to see themselves in a future where they are motivated to work and function in the fast-paced city.
Yet, despite the depth of their testimonies that are highly self-aware, which many members of the audience pointed out in the post-screening discussion, there are two glaring exceptions to this fluid narrative. These directorial choices used to shape the film’s narrative structure, attempt to infuse a personable sense of hope, but eventually reads very artificially.
Our milieu is fixated on faithful representation; who has the right to tell a story is the definitive concern for any film. As such, it is crucial to consider why the French filmmakers have chosen to portray the hikikomori through the example of those who have some desire to return to society. It makes the premise of the film rather confusing, as most of the hikikomori are presented to be self aware and eloquent about the nature of their withdrawal.
The introductions to each character at New Start appear to be organic initially but eventually fail to convey a real journey of rehabilitation. It is no small feat that the directors managed to establish a level of rapport with the hikikomori in order to interview them. Yet, in fixating on an evocative depiction of the hikikomori in their “natural” environments where they are distanced from society, the directors’ stylised portrayals of each character overshadow any points of progress they make in the following scenes. Static wide-shot tableaus, such as the noisy kitchen where one fails to socialise while working or another’s cluttered room with many objects of refuge, resemble informational social media videos that aim to gain virality and bring public attention to an issue, rather than illustrating a journey.
While these youths may not be regarded as a vulnerable population, being able to constructively represent the hikikomori is made more complex as hikikomori who have not gone through the process of rehabilitation may not even wish to speak about their situation. Perhaps getting to understand the stark difference between a hikikomori willing to change and those still unable to, is the thought process designed by the directors, as the one character that appears intermittently throughout the film without speaking retrospectively encapsulates the deafening silence that so contrasts is most likely how all the hikikomori were before they entered the Centre.
This was echoed in Chua’s presentation as he clearly distinguished what was observable between a hikikomori on the “path to recovery” and one who resists receiving any support. He supplemented the films lack of specificity in describing the range of symptoms and causes associated with the condition such as a deteriorating ability to self-care, coupled with other mental health issues, such as depression or schizophrenia, thus complicating the approach for treatment. However, Chua notes that Singapore currently only has resources to treat a more discernible population of game addicted youth, conceding that there are many cases that are left neglected as Singapore does not have the physical space to admit such patients.
What else is missing in this film’s attempt to inspire hope for the process of rehabilitation? Although each hikikomori cited deliberate parental intervention as a strong catalyst for their willingness to be admitted into the Centre, parents also seemed to be far removed from the subsequent process. This clear absence of members of mainstream society connotes that the recovery of hikikomori is largely within a confined space. This sentiment is most apparent in the film’s abrupt attempt to inspire hope, where a hikikomori wanders alone in a bustling city park, only to find freedom in observing the flight of birds.
There is also an apparent lack of females featured in the film, except for a female social worker. She is seen labouring to reach out to severe cases of hikikomori interspersed throughout the film as a somewhat disembodied motif of outreach.
The film purports that 80% of afflicted hikikomori are male but does not represent the 20% of female hikikomori. While it may not be the film’s focus to expound on all forms of social withdrawal, the lack of awareness regarding conditions affecting female hikikomori is prevalent. Chua too notes that there is a lack of research on Singaporean females exhibiting such behaviour, stating that the social needs of males seem to be less easily met.
If we were to examine this film as being a story about the rehabilitation centre rather than as an accurate overview of the entire social phenomenon, perhaps we could be more clearly inspired by the good work that is happening in such centres. As implied by most of the audience members, this phenomenon remains largely unaddressed, and there is much more to be done to integrate hikikomori into society.
About the writer
Toby is interested in all forms of the moving image, studying film studies and art history at Nanyang Technological University. He has written for the contemporary Southeast-Asian art magazine, Art Republik, and was a participant of the 28th Singapore International Film Festival’s Youth Jury and Critics Programme. He is also a Programmer for the upcoming 11th edition of the Perspectives Film Festival.
The views set out in this article are those of the author and is not representative of AFA’s official opinion.