Embracing Abjection, Reclaiming Agency: New Possibilities for the Zombie and the Social Recluse in NEET of the Living Dead.
The stigma surrounding disability in Japan extends to mental health. Though depression and anxiety are common, as is suicide, very few people seek out psychotherapy, often concerned that they will be shunned or viewed negatively by friends, family, or co-workers (Ando et al. 2013). Overall, there is a a tendency among families, companies, and schools to act as if people with mental and physical disabilities do not exist--they are either encouraged to keep their disability a secret (if possible), or they are kept separate from the rest of society.
One particular type of mental health problem, however, has increasingly been pushed into the public eye in recent years, both by those who study it and those who suffer from it. This is hikikomori, or "drawing inward," a condition in which the sufferers isolate themselves in their bedrooms and refuse to engage with the outside world, with their survival often dependent on parents who leave food outside their bedroom doors. It is estimated that between 500,000 and 2 million people in Japan, mostly men, are hikikomori (Wang 2015). Though cases of hikikomori- like behavior have been recorded in many other countries, the problem is often described as uniquely Japanese, a byproduct of Japan's rigid social structure, the intense pressure to succeed, and the prevalence of bullying in schools and workplaces, all of which, combined with a lack of mental health resources, can drive some young people to simply shut down and refuse to engage with the outside world.
While people with other kinds of disabilities may be hidden by their families or out of a societal desire not to see them, hikikomori themselves choose to hide, and their families and communities are becoming more and more desperate to get them out of their rooms and back into public life. Part of this is simply due to the fact that the first generation of hikikomori is reaching an age in which their parents will soon retire or die, and there is concern about how the completely dependent hikikomori will survive with no one to care for them (Wang 2015). Another factor is the looming specter of Japan's declining birth rate and the desperate need for young workers to keep the economy going. Because their condition is seen as temporary and "curable" in a way that other disabilities may not be, hikikomori are prime candidates for re-entry into Japanese society, a jolt of fresh fuel to drive further production and reproduction (Takahashi 2016).
Typically, fictional portrayals of hikikomori tend to be sympathetic to their plight and imagine ways in which they could re-join society or at least find happiness, as in Tatsuhiko Takimoto's novel and manga series NHK ni yokosol (Welcome to the NHK!). about a hikikomori who bonds with a female school friend (Takimoto 2002). In the 2014 short film Ntto obu za deddo (NEET of the Living Dead), (1) however, the social abjection of the hikikomori is combined with the physical abjection of the zombie to imagine a world in which social shut-ins can reclaim their agency and dignity. Instead of following the typical zombie film pattern of focusing on the agony of having to kill a loved one, or a struggle for survival against invading zombie hordes, NEET of the Living Dead instead presents a teenage son's transformation from hikikomori to zombie as positive. As a hikikomori, he was a burden and a source of embarrassment to his parents. As a zombie, he can finally leave the house and succeed at something (eating other humans), which ultimately fills his mother with a kind of pride that she was never able to feel for her hikikomori son.
This article examines NEET of the Living Dead's depiction of the "double abjection" of the hikikomori and the zombie in the context of a globalized world, one that is predicated on rapid movement and an "eat or be eaten" mentality. Where historically zombie films have used these half-dead characters to comment on racism, slavery, war, mindless consumerism, and the dangers of a too-powerful military, NEET of the Living Dead instead imagines the zombie as a leap forward, at least for those who have been beaten down by the expectations of a hyper-consumerist, high-pressure, postwar Japan. As a hikikomori, the character of the son in NEET of the Living Dead was seen as useless and impotent. As a zombie, ironically, he has both purpose and agency, and even if he is still abject, his abjection is no longer a barrier to being a functioning member of (a post-apocalyptic, zombie-dominated) society.
The Hikikomori and the Zombie in a Globalized World
In the opening scenes of Ai amu a hiro (I Am a Hero), a 2015 Japanese zombie film based on a very popular manga series, the protagonist is fleeing Tokyo, now overrun by flesh-eating zombies. As he evades his zombie pursuers, we hear different zombies repeating the same phrase again and again. An office worker holds his phone to his ear and says "yes, I'll take care of that." A convenience store employee says irasshaimasse, the standard greeting used when people enter a store. A waiter says "Would you like some tea?" It's clear that the characters are repeating the phrases that they used most frequently before they became zombies, phrases that in a sense defined their identities. Even before they became zombies, we can imagine them saying those phrases again and again in a robotic, lifeless manner, not so different from the way they are saying them as mindless, flesh-eating monsters. The scene recalls the opening of Edgar Wright's zombie satire Shaun of the Dead, in which the meaningless drudgery of everyday life sets up a typical comparison of humans and zombies:
... teens slowly push carts through a parking lot; the check-out girl, Mary, monotonously scans item after item while gazing, unfocused, at nothing in particular; commuters ride the bus without talking to or making eye contact with one another; and pedestrians plod down the sidewalk in an automaton shuffle that resembles the slow, stumbling steps of early Romero zombies... Our entire society appears to be affected. We are not alone in the zombie condition (Pifer 2011, 165).
As in Shaun of the Dead, in 1 Am a Hero the characters' mindless repetition of meaningless phrases from their previous lives drives home just how zombielike their previous lives were. Becoming undead has not radically changed them.
The cinematic idea of the zombie has roots in Haitian folklore, and versions of the creature exist in other cultures as well, (2) but cinematic zombies of the last 40+ years owe the bulk of their characterization to George Romero's 1968 him Night of the Living Dead. This film set the parameters for dozens of zombie films, TV shows, novels, and comic books to follow: the band of survivors barricaded somewhere trying to ride out the storm, the zombies imagined as slow-moving and grotesque but incredibly persistent, infighting and mistrust among the human protagonists, and the idea that humans, not the zombies, were the most dangerous monsters around. Like so many movie monsters, zombies are an effective blank slate onto which to project the fears and anxieties of a particular cultural moment, be they disease, the drudgery of everyday life, xenophobia, or globalization. For Bernice Murphy, part of the terror inspired by the zombie comes from its familiarity, the idea of a friend or loved one made into something grotesque. Before World War II. horror and science fiction had tended to focus on external threats, but after the war "a significant strand of genre writing and moviemaking began to focus instead on dangers that were literally much closer to home" (Murphy 2011, 123). Zombies were threatening because they revealed an "unnerving contrast between a commonplace, ordinary setting and the quietly aberrant behavior of those who wish to subvert normality" (123). Zombies inspire deep discomfort in the viewer because they resemble the familiar but also twist that familiarity into something dangerous and repulsive.
Of course, zombies also terrify because they are the embodiment of abjection, that which "does not respect borders, positions, rules". Their physicality horrifies us because it combines tangible reminders of death-rotting flesh, blood, bodily fluids--with an animate form. Zombie bodies, with their broken, boundary-defying flesh covered in effluvia that is usually kept hidden, are things that all human beings naturally shun but at the same time are fundamentally a part of us, "something rejected from which one does not part... it beckons to us and ends up engulfing us" (Kristeva 1982 , 4). Within the context of horror films, then, it is not surprising that terror often springs from monsters who embody this threat of being consumed by bodily pollution. The encounter with the abject is "the place where meaning collapses... the subject is constantly beset by abjection which fascinates but which must be repelled for fear of self- annihilation" (Creed 1993, 10). The abject body causes visceral reactions because of its in-between-ness: it is of us but outside of us, part of us but something that repels us, something we can't consume but that was once inside of us. It is neither subject nor object, and that tension causes constant anxiety, reminding us that "(the) borders of the self are neither fixed nor unshakeable. Once expelled, the 'other',' or the abject, does not disappear but hovers and challenges the boundaries of selfhood" (Arya 2014, 5). The zombie is thus not only a visually terrifying monster, but a direct attack on our subjectivity, a threat to the borders of our own bodies and to the divide between life and death, living body and corpse.
There might seem to be little that could connect an abject horror movie monster and a social recluse, and I certainly do not mean to imply that self-imposed social isolation and mental health problems render a person repulsive or horrifying. However, I would argue that, for many people, the hikikomori inspires fears similar to those inspired by the zombie. The hikikomori is familiar --someone's son, daughter, brother, sister, or friend--but also alien, locking himself (or herself, though hikikomori are predominantly men) away, refusing basic social interaction, and occasionally turning violent when concerned family members try to bring him back into the human world. For some, the hikikomori has an affliction that threatens to consume those around him--there is the idea that mental illness is "catching," or that the presence of the sufferers is damaging to "normal" people, and those afflicted must effectively be quarantined. For their families, hikikomori are also a constant reminder of their own failings, especially mothers, who are often blamed for causing the condition by either indulging their child too much or not enough. To many people not suffering from the disorder, hikikomori are thus a threat to social stability and a disturbing "other" who nonetheless remain firmly a part of the social order, much as they may try to isolate themselves.
Though certain forms of social withdrawal (such as futoko, or refusing to go to school) have been in the public eye in Japan since the 1980s, Anne Allison argues that hikikomori became a household word in the early 2000s, spurred by an incident in which a young man who suffered from hikikomori-like symptoms hijacked a bus and ended up killing a hostage and himself (Allison 2013, 73). Estimates vary, but some say that between one and two million people in Japan may be hikikomori, most of them men in their mid-twenties, many of whom first refused to go to school and eventually locked themselves in their rooms (Allison 2013, 74). The exact parameters of the condition are difficult to define--some hikikomori never leave their rooms except to use the bathroom, while some occasionally go out at night. In 2010, Dr. Alan Teo published proposed diagnostic criteria for the condition, arguing that the core feature is social isolation and that people "should suffer for at least six months and should be unhappy about the isolation" before being diagnosed (Wang 2015). Treatment methods vary and have met with little success, which is particularly alarming to the families of the first generation of hikikomori, who are now reaching an age where they are forced to wonder what will happen to their children after they die (Wang 2015). In severe cases, hikikomori adults cannot survive on their own, given that they are usually unable to maintain a job and cannot engage in the social interactions that are often necessary to procure food and other basic social welfare services. (3)
While hikikomori is usually classified as a mental illness, it can also be seen as an extreme rebellion against Japan's notorious pressure to succeed, arguably made even more acute in a globalized world. Psychologist Serizawa Shunsuke argues that the problem is not hikikomori, but Japanese society itself, which does not allow for "alternative modes of being and belonging" (Allison 2012, 74). Hikikomori thus have trouble "finding themselves" within a very narrow definition of normalcy, and the solution is not to force them to return to society as it is, but to make society itself more flexible (74). Since Japanese society shows little sign of changing or becoming more accommodating to difference, however, a number of young people have simply chosen to opt out. On a less extreme level, some have turned more uchimuki (inward-looking) than young people a decade ago, choosing not to travel or study abroad and focusing more on a very small universe of close friends and interests (Tabuchi 2012). Self-proclaimed otaku and activist Honda Toru also sees the otaku identity, which is often associated with an intense interest in manga, anime, and games, introversion, and a privileging of the virtual over the real, as a similar form of opting out. rejecting what he calls "love capitalism" and the pressure to conform to narrow standards of success (Freedman 2009).
All of these forms of turning inward can be seen as responses to globalization's turn outward and the pressures that accompany it. Kirsch and Martinez argue that globalization "always leads to a re-evaluation of the self vis-a-vis the other" (Kirsch et al. 2015,9), but in Japan, for many young people, the result seems to have been to privilege the self and the domestic at the expense of the other. Writing of a 2007 incident in which a high school student in Aizu-Wakamatsu murdered his mother, Dawn Grimes-MacLellan argues that youth in Japan are responding to "the tailed promise of modernity and the prospect of an uncertain future" (Grimes- MacLellan 2011, 61). Where the road map may have been clear several decades ago--lifetime company employment and an accessible middle-class lifestyle--university graduates today face the prospect of a series of precarious jobs with low salaries and limited benefits that make the aspirational normativity of middle class life all but impossible to achieve. Since the triple disaster of 2011, there is the sense that "something has overturned from the bottom up, and that we have no means to cope with it... What is needed of course is not just an adjustment or coordination of institutions but institution building. The difficulty of institution building is, however, that there is no institution to rely on in the process" (Yui 2013, 243). Yet the idea that one must still succeed and the hope that it is possible still persists. Lauren Berlant calls this the "cruel optimism" of hopes and dreams of a "good life" that are not only out of reach, but that can actually further impede an individual's struggle for survival (Berlant 2011). Faced with intense pressure to succeed but also more limited opportunities to do so, Japan's hikikomori choose to stop striving for seemingly unattainable goals.
Where the hikikomori meets the cinematic zombie is in the latter's ability to embody the fears and anxieties of a particular cultural moment, and contemporary cinematic zombies are tapping into audience fears of everything that accompanies globalization. D.W. Drezner writes that zombies "are the perfect avatar for the twenty-first century threat environment: they are not well understood by serious analysts, they possess protean capabilities, and the challenges they pose to states are very, very grave" (Drezner 2014, 829). John Feffer argues that zombies are an apt metaphor for our fears surrounding globalization, which feels like more of an all-consuming, insurmountable threat than global pandemics or wars:
Our fascination with zombies is partly a transposed fear of immigration ... of China displacing the United States as the world's top economy, of bots taking over our computers, of financial markets that can melt down in a single morning. Zombies overwhelm local control, state control, national control, and ultimately international control. Like globalization, they are an uncontainable and voracious force (Feffer 2013).
Zombies are a horde of mindless, rampaging otherness, driven only by the desire to consume. Their threat is the threat of an unstoppable, rapidly defamiliarizing world, and the threat that we will all be "zombified" by globalization, losing our individuality to be transformed into creatures with little in the way of individuality or agency.
NEET of the Living Dead: Reclaiming Agency Through Zombification
Though Japan's cinematic history includes a rich and varied collection of horror films, zombie films have never really enjoyed the frequent reinventions and surges in popularity that have occurred in the U.S. over the last several decades. (4) The majority of Japanese zombie films have tended to be smallbudget straight-to-video or limited-release features, often parodies, softcore pornography, or horror comedies with titles like Suteshi (Stacy: Attack of the Schoolgirl Zombies) and Reipu zonbi (Rape Zombie: Lust of the Dead). Some of these have gone on to be cult favorites, like Ryuhei Kitamura's Vasasu (Versus) and Tetsuro Takeuchi's Wairudo zero (Wild Zero), starring the Japanese rock band Guitar Wolf. More recent entries include the indie feature Sera-fuku mokushiroku (Schoolgirl Apocalypse), which pokes fun at many of the conventions of zombie films and shojo (young, innocent girl) stories, and the aforementioned I Am a Hero, by far the most expensive and commercially successful zombie film to date. In 2018. the low-budget zombie comedy Kamera wo tomeru na! (One Cut of the Dead) became a surprise domestic and international hit.
Akio Nanki's short film NEET of the Living Dead was released as part of a zombie double bill with Yuigon (The Last Will), which centered on a woman's agonizing dilemma of whether or not to kill her long-suffering zombie husband. Both films circulated at film festivals and smaller Japanese movie theaters from 2014 to 2016 and were released on DVD with English subtitles, something of a rarity in Japanese cinema today, where only a small number of films are marketed with international audiences in mind. (5) NEET opens in the midst of a zombie outbreak and focuses on a typical upper-middle-class Tokyo family, the Kuramochis: wife Sanae, husband Yasuhiko. his bedridden father Kenzo. and their teenage son Shinya. Despite the chaos raging outside, it's business as usual in the home, with Yasuhiko returning homo from his office and complaining about work and Sanae caring for her father-in-law. Shinya. we learn, has been hikikomori for years. When husband and wife discover that Kenzo is dead and has a bite mark on him, they realize it was Shinya who bit him and argue about how to deal with the fact that there are now two zombies in their home.
In the film's opening scenes, we see Sanae washing the body of her father-in-law, a duty often expected of Japanese wives within a family structure where "caregiving is subsumed within the heteronormative family and home: not precisely part of the market economy but supported by the man's 'family wage'" (Allison 2012, 99). Looking tired but resolute, Sanae tends to her plants and leaves food outside her hikikomori son's door, which displays a sign that says "Do not enter or I'll kill you!" An image of the television shows buildings burning and a caption that reads "Stay tuned for the latest zombie news." When Yasuhiko returns home wearing a suit he thrusts his briefcase into Sanae's hands and throws his jacket on the kitchen table--she hangs up the jacket and puts away the briefcase automatically. When he tells her about his day she blandly repeats what he says, asking about his meeting even though he previously told her that he couldn't actually reach his office. She shows a flicker of resentment when Yasuhiko jokes that they'll survive the zombie apocalypse by being a "hikikomori family" and not leaving the house until help arrives. She glares at him and says "You blamed me a lot for that," meaning the fact that their son is a hikikomori.
The opening of the film sets up the Kuramochis as an attempt at the kind of aspirational. upper-middle-class lifestyle that all young people in Japan are supposed to be striving towards: a home-owning married couple with a child, the husband working in a company and the wife as primary caretaker of home, children, and aging family members. But immediately we see cracks in the facade: the son is a hikikomori, something that seems to be blamed on the mother as the one primarily responsible for ensuring the son's transition from childhood to successful adulthood. Sanae and Yasuhiko are cordial to each other, but Sanae clearly shows signs of exhaustion and resentment, though Yasuhiko seems oblivious to them. The zombie apocalypse seems to be just the catalyst to break them out of their doldrums, even if their home life still appears fairly normal.
Things take a turn when they realize that Yasuhiko's bedridden father has been bitten by a zombie and that the only person who could have done it is Shinya, meaning that he also must be a zombie. When they first venture into Shinya's room we see him staring blankly at his computer screen. Yasuhiko warns Sanae that this person is "no longer Shinya," but she responds that he's "exactly like he always is." Indeed, were it not for the bite mark on his shoulder and the slightly necrotic color of his skin, Shinya could pass for any disaffected person mindlessly glued to a screen. He was a "zombie" long before he became one of the undead. a frequent motif in zombie films and one that will appear again in NEET of the Living Dead.
Later, when Shinya emerges from his bedroom to sit on the living room couch, Yasuhiko is horrified, but Sanae is overjoyed to see that he's finally out of his room. The zombie version of Shinya is docile and unthreatening, "just like when he was a nice little boy." and Sanae seems thrilled at the prospect of being able to "keep the family together." despite the fact that Shinya will now need to eat human flesh to survive. Sanae and Yasuhiko initially encourage him to eat Yasuhiko's father, but then realize that this won't work because Kenzo, too, is a zombie. It dawns on Yasuhiko that this may be an opportunity for Shinya to finally become independent, because he will be forced to leave the house in order to seek out human beings to eat. Sanae, as the self-sacrificing mother, is against the idea, saying she'd be "happy to be food for Shinya." Yasuhiko continues to fantasize about a future for Shinya that seemed impossible when he was a hikikomori: he'll take care of himself, make friends, and maybe even "find a nice zombie girl."
Eventually Sanae forces her husband to talk to Shinya. accusing him of never dealing with their son face-to-face. The experience is so traumatizing for Yasuhiko that he locks himself in another room of the house, screaming "Don't come in or I'll kill you!", an echo of the sign that Shinya has on his door. Sanae asks him if he's become hikikomori as well. Sanae tries to feed Shinya pudding, spooning it into his mouth as if he were a baby. He stares blankly ahead and refuses to eat, and Sanae apologizes to him for putting so much pressure on him, ultimately breaking down in tears and begging for forgiveness. When Yasuhiko emerges and announces that as "head of the household" he's going to kill Shinya for the good of the family, Sanae laughs at him, sneering that he's never done anything for the household and that she knows he's been having an affair. If he wants to "maintain the family." she says, he can go out and secure living humans for Shinya to eat. Yasuhiko refuses, and in a final, desperate attempt to assert masculine dominance he smashes all of Sanae's potted plants with his golf club, telling her that her plants were a substitute for the son she failed to raise properly. In retaliation, Sanae tells Shinya to eat her, and he bites into her arm. Mother and son leave the house together, and Yasuhiko warns Sanae that she's going to become a zombie too, to which she responds that nothing will change because she's "been like the living dead all along." The film's final shot is of Shinya pushing his way into a crowd of zombies devouring a man, with Sanae looking on proudly before walking away.
If. as I have argued, the zombie is an apt metaphor for the lack of agency / sameness engendered by globalization, it is ironic that in NEET of the Living Dead, at least some of the zombihed characters re-gain a level of agency that had been lost to them. Zombie films often give their human characters a chance to reclaim their sense of purpose--the corporate drone becomes a savvy warrior-protector, as in the Korean zombie film Train to Busan, or the loser geek becomes a gun-toting paragon of virility, as in I Am a Hero. John P. Hess argues that apocalyptic films of many types are really wish-fulfillment fables, conjuring a world in which we can leave behind all the things that complicate our lives and focus only on basic survival, giving us a much clearer sense of purpose and identity (Hess 2012). For Sanae, there's a comfort in knowing that "it's all the same now which school or company one goes to or works for." She has a clear purpose now: take her son out into the world and help him to survive independently as a zombie. Her son's purpose is pure survival through the consumption of human flesh--no societal or parental pressures to worry about. For Yasuhiko, the crisis is also an opportunity to reclaim his masculinity, but from the beginning he falls short: Sanae is the one who takes charge and dispenses with a zombie who attacks Yasuhiko in the garage, who confronts the challenge of dealing with Shinya while Yasuhiko hides in another room, and who ultimately leaves the house to start a new (undead) life, while a drunken Yasuhiko inadvertently becomes food for his own father. For Sanae and Shinya, though, zombification means a chance to reclaim their agency in a world that previously condemned them: Sanae for being an inadequate mother, Shinya for turning inward and shutting himself away from society. At the same time, the world that Shinya and Sanae have actively chosen to join is a world dominated by mindless, flesh-eating monsters, embodying the specter of globalization as an all-consuming, unstoppable force. They actively choose to participate in this world, thus regaining some sense of purpose and identity, but the world itself threatens to rob them of any sense of agency and control. Sanae and Shinya's zombie existence is thus a potent metaphor for those who might seek dominance in an "eat or be eaten" globalized world: you may feel a sense of power in your choices, but the forces that surround you will ultimately strip you of control.
Sanae and Shinya are also able to exercise agency through embracing the abjection of their zombie state. Before he became a zombie, Shinya was a different sort of abject, tainted by the stigma that surrounds mental health issues in Japan and cut off from the rest of society. If traditional abjection takes the form of that which exists "at the border of (one's) condition as a living being" (Kristeva 1982 , 3) that which establishes the difference (and eternal connection) between the living and the dead, the hikikomori's existential abjection also defines humanity through difference, the healthy through the unhealthy, the normal through the abnormal. Hikikomori are antisocial, passive, and dependent, and as such they remind us that in order to succeed in Japan we must be social, assertive, and independent. As a zombie. Shinya's more extreme physical abjection should render him even more of an outcast, but in fact it provides him with the impetus to leave his home and do what is necessary to survive. In eating his own mother's flesh, he is transgressing multiple boundaries by both engaging in cannibalism and regressing to a more childlike state (consuming his mother's flesh as he once consumed her in her womb and through breastfeeding), but he is also finally asserting himself, engaging in an act of masculine dominance and consumption where previously he had no power or agency.
The act of eating, in particular of consuming flesh, is an act loaded with cultural, religious, and social significance, adding yet another facet to the repulsion that zombies inspire. Consuming the flesh of animals is a marker of dominance and masculinity, something that establishes a person as powerful. At the same time, the eating of human Hesh is a taboo in almost every culture, an act of supreme abjection that nonetheless reminds us that we all once consumed the flesh of our mothers--in the womb and at the breast. By eating his mother's Hesh. Shinya is paradoxically both returning to childhood and establishing himself as a powerful being, one who consumes and opens himself up to consumption. In examining the question of what it means to "eat well" and how the act of eating and being eaten helps us define subjectivity. Jacques Derrida argues that powerful leaders can never be vegetarians:
The subject does not want just to master and possess nature actively. In our cultures, he accepts sacrifice and eats flesh... I would ask you: in our countries, who would stand any chance of becoming a chef d'Etat (a head of State), and of thereby acceding "to the head." by publicly, and therefore exemplarily. declaring him- or herself to be a vegetarian? The chief must be an eater of flesh (with a view, moreover, to being 'symbolically' eaten himself)" (Derrida 1991).
Eating flesh and embracing the possibility of being consumed thus establishes a person as powerful and further strengthens their subjectivity, but for Shinya this occurs in tandem with a return to dependency on the flesh of his mother. In the same way that his entry into the zombie world represents both an attempt to assert his independence and a surrender to more powerful forces, consuming flesh represents both an act of aggression and an act of submission.
The image of a mother literally sacrificing her own humanity to feed her son recalls endless depictions of the self-sacrificing mother in fiction and cinema, a trope that has persisted but is here made perverse in its association with cannibalism and zombies. Anne Allison describes seeing an advertisement for Japan's National Rice Association that featured a cartoon woman with a bowl of rice for a head leaning down to "feed" her child: "Just what Japan needs today-the message seemed to say... Heroes feeding the nation Japanese rice, mothers sacrificing their heads to the family" (Allison 2012, 98-99). Indeed, despite the fact that the family model of husband as breadwinner, wife as caregiver is simply not financially sustainable for most Japanese, the idea of the endlessly sacrificing mother is still a powerful image in a country where a large percentage of young people claim that they still want to be either a primary breadwinner or a stay-at-home housewife (Allison 2012, 99). NEET of the Living Dead turns this image into a narrative of reclaiming agency and dignity for both mother and son, but also twists it into something perverse by making the young adult son literally eat the mother's Mesh. For Sanae, it's a rebirth but hardly a dramatic change: in the dreary day-to-day role that patriarchal expectations have forced on her, she's always been a bit zombie-like. "I've been like the living dead all along." she tells Yasuhiko. echoing a sentiment found in many zombie films, that human beings were zombified long before they were infected with any sort of zombie virus.
The final images of NEET of the Dead tell us that the aspirationally normative models of family are dead (or undead. technically). After Sanae and Shinya leave the house to venture out into a zombie-plagued world, Yasuhiko remains behind, drunk and defeated, with only his undead father, who he has essentially ignored for years, for company. His journey from the beginning to the end of the film has been one of gradual downfall and humiliation, beginning with a shot of the family nameplate outside their home that lists his name at the top, to his final moments of kneeling on the floor surrounded by the potted plants that he spitefully destroyed. As his father suddenly moves to bite him. Yasuhiko screams in terror, and we see another shot of the family nameplate outside the house, reminding us that the family he was once at the top of has now disintegrated. Meanwhile, Sanae and Shinya wander in a brightly-lit world full of shuffling zombies, and Shinya looks over his shoulder at the shambling figure of a girl in a high school uniform, hinting that he may, like his father predicted, "find himself a nice zombie girl." When they come upon someone being devoured by zombies. Shinya is at first pushed away by a larger zombie, but then aggressively pushes the other zombie aside to start eating. In contrast to the usual trajectory of this narrative, in which the mother becomes repulsive in order for the son to achieve complete separation from her. Sanae. though a zombie, is not depicted as loathesome--she is calm and content in her abject state, if only because it has allowed her son to achieve something resembling independence (and for her to feel a sense of achievement by proxy). The final shots of the film are of Sanae smiling proudly and then walking away, content that her son has achieved independence.
Conclusion: Movement and Stagnation
In Edward Fowler's memoir of time spent in San'ya. the Tokyo neighborhood that for many years served as both an anonymous refuge for men who had fallen on hard times and a space in which they could get jobs with no questions about their background, the author spoke of a "diurnal lethargy" that affected residents who would often lounge drunkenly on the streets all day if they couldn't find work. Fowler's acquaintances warned him that he would "get dragged down into the mire" if he stayed in San'ya (Fowler 1996. 14). Anne Allison uses a similar image, that of "slipping into mud" to describe the emotional state of many young people in Japan today, those who are "floating at work, drifting in life, and halted in time" (Allison 2012,47,45), not moving decisively forward with a clear vision of what their future will hold, as their parents were. An image comes to mind of large groups of people shuffling slowly along, faces expressionless, driven only by a basic will to survive. These images of defeated, mindless people shuffling resignedly forward make for a natural comparison to armies of the living dead, who threaten to consume the literal bodies of humanity just as the souls of humanity are gradually consumed by lethargy, as globalization erases individuality and agency in favor of sameness and mindless consumption.
Slow, forward, or backward--globalization is centered on the idea of speed and forward/circular motion, be it the instantaneous movement of information, the speedy delivery of goods and services, or the mobility of a cheap labor force. Writing on the ways that high-speed transportation changed human perception. Wolfgang Schivelbusch argues that trains allowed travelers to experience new modes of being, seeing, and consumption: the "train was experienced as a projectile, and traveling on it. as being shot through the landscape--thus losing control of one's senses" (Schivelbusch 2014 . 54). The nature of movement in a globalized world also forces individuals to re-orient their perception, sometimes seeing themselves and the things they consume as "nodal points" (Lamarre 2009, xvii) in a complex web of cultural and informational flows. In such a world, deciding what can be classified as movement is difficult. The otaku. a group of people who occasionally overlap with (or are confused in mainstream media with) hikikomori in their tendency toward self-isolation and the privileging of the virtual over face-to-face relationships, are nonetheless key to the transnational flow of certain forms of popular culture. Thomas Lamarre writes that
... otaku activities are exceedingly difficult to discuss sociologically and quantitatively... Otaku movement is very difficult to define and discuss because its boundaries are fluid and porous. Apparently, it occurs everywhere there is anime, but how does one draw the line between anime viewers and otaku? The difference between an anime viewer and an anime otaku is one of intensity and duration--a level of interest, a degree of engagement, or a quality of passion. Such differences resist quantification. In this respect, the work done by otaku cannot ever be thoroughly mastered, commercially or intellectually (Lamarre 2006, 362).
Though certainly not immobile, particularly as mobility is defined in a period dominated by digital communication, the otaku, like the hikikomori, resist standard categorization in the global labor/growth structure.
Where zombies and their real-life counterparts march blindly onward, the hikikomori is static, the antithesis of a world characterized by constant movement: of goods, information, people, capital, technology, and services. For some hikikomori, the easy movement of information via the internet makes their shut-in lives possible, allowing them to connect to others anonymously and occasionally even work without the pressures of face-to-face social interaction. But on most other levels, they are actively rejecting the tenets of a globalized world. (6) They are also rejecting what Lee Edelman has termed "reproductive futurism," the mandate to form heteronormative bonds and produce children to ensure a prosperous future (Edelman 2004). Instead, hikikomori are living in a state of perpetual dependency and isolation, with little concept of a future that might exist beyond their bedrooms. The globalized world is dependent on speed, but the hikikomori are either immobile or moving backward, returning to a kind of childlike state. Their rebellion recalls the peak of Japan's "kawaii craze" in the 1980s and 1990s, when young people, holding a very dim view of adulthood and all the responsibilities and pressures associated with it, "cutified" their mannerisms and clothing in an attempt to return to an idealized version of childhood. Sharon Kinsella writes that this was not simpl) about liking cute things, but was a form of resistance against the demands of adulthood: "By idolizing their childhoods and remnant childishness, young Japanese people implicitly damned their individual futures as adults in society. Condemning adulthood was an individualized and limited way of condemning society generally" (Kinsella 1995.241). Like otaku, especially those like Honda Toru who actively reject "love capitalism" and "3D" relationships, hikikomori turn toward childhood as a way of escaping and actively rejecting the dark future of adulthood. In the universe of NEET ofthe Living Dead, however, this turn allows at least one of them to reclaim agency and dignity. A turn toward childhood is a way of becoming a new kind of "adult."
Given that cinematic zombies have historically embodied national fears and anxieties that could not be named directly, it is fitting that NEET of the Living Dead's version of the creature is both an avatar for and a direct representation of a nexus of Japanese anxieties: the failure of the traditional family-corporate structure, the mystery and seeming incurability of the hikikomori condition, and the all-consuming tide of globalization that the country has so far (in many ways) resisted but that seems inevitable. Where the film takes things in a radical new dimension, though, is in its conception of zombie existence as a half-hopeful one --an existence dominated by the overwhelming, mindless need to "feed." but still presenting a possibility of reclaiming agency and independence that seemed impossible when playing by the old societal rules. The hikikomori and the zombie may both be abject outcasts, but in the universe of NEET of the Living Dead. zombification may offer the only chance at a meaningful life.
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(1) NEET, a term first used in the UK that is now widely used in Japan, means "not in employment, education, or training." In Japan, the term is essentially a pejorative, reinforcing the idea that from a very young age to the age of retirement everyone should he engaged in some form of employment, education, or training. This is reflected in company hiring practices, where a person's CV typically shows both education and work history as beginning on April 1 and ending on March 31 (the following year or several years later), with the next stage of education or employment beginning the very next day. "Gaps" of more than a few weeks in a person's CV are often regarded with suspicion by companies and can make finding a job difficult.
(2) The jiangshi or "hopping zombie, hails from Chinese folklore, while the draugr / draug is an undead creature from Norse mythology. See Weiser 2015 and Venables 2014.
(3) In the age of telecommuting and living online, however, some hikikomori do manage to survive by working from home and using the internet to fulfill all their basic daily needs. Tatsuhiko Takimolo, the author of the hikikomori-themed manga Welcome to the NHK, reportedly began writing it because he wanted to make a living without leaving home (Allison 2013. 73). Recently, a Nagoya-based NPC) called Nadeshiko no Kai created a "survival guide" for hikikomori whose parents have passed away with lips on how to cook, clean, and access basic social welfare services (Nadeshiko no kai 2014).
(4) Korea, meanwhile, has recently seen a mini zombie film renaissance with the wild success of Train to Busan and its prequel, the animated Seoul Station. The film The Wailing, which includes familiar plot points about a disease that turns victims mindless and murderous, was also a commercial success and has garnered a lot of attention and international acclaim.
(5) For more on marketing trends in Japanese cinema see Mitsuyo Wada-Marciano's Japanese Cinema in the Digital Age (2012) and Mark Schilling's "Domestic film industry focuses inward at its own peril" (2015).
(6) As Wang (2015) and others have argued, the exact definition of hikikomori is somewhat debatable though I find Alan Teo's criteria (that a person should suffer from the condition for at least six months and be unhappy about it) helpful (Wang 2015). By this definition, if a person is a social shut-in but is able to earn enough money to live independently and is not unhappy about their situation, they would not be diagnosed as hikikomori. It could also be argued that thanks to the ease of living much of one's life online many hikikomori are able to participate in the world-consuming goods, communicating witb other people--even as they remain isolated in their bedrooms. Still, I would argue that the majority of hikikomori, by remaining dependent on their parents, refusing to marry or have children, and refusing to form social bonds through face-to-face work and school relationships, are still actively rejecting the tenets of a globalized society, as well as the Japanese definition of success.
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|Title Annotation:||Global East Asian Cinema: Abjection and Agency|
|Publication:||Studies in the Humanities|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Mar 1, 2019|
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