Hikikomori (ひきこもり or 引き籠もり) is something that, so my sources tell me, used to be featured on Japanese TV drama a lot a few years ago. Now it is mainly relegated to well-meaning NHK documentaries, though the condition is certainly not in decline. Estimates put numbers of hikikomori in the millions.
People suffering from it are highly socially withdrawn, to the extent that they never leave their homes or even bedrooms. It is different to agoraphobia, say, in that it is based on the problems of interaction, on the desire for isolation.
Hideto Iwai was himself a hikikomori for around four years, no doubt a futile field to plough for material and inspiration. Well, now he is certainly much more out-going and, in his mid-thirties, is writing, directing and starring in plays by his company Hi-bye (founded in 2003), which seem so far to focus on protagonists with hikikomori.
Yes, perhaps not unsurprisingly, Iwai’s work is autobiographical, such as Te and, recently revived, Hikky Cancun Tornado, which portrays a recluse who dreams (ridiculously?) of becoming a pro-wrestler.
Tomio’s only friend is his sister, Aya, whom he lives with along with his mother. What could easily be a kitchen-sink drama was actually performed in the semi-round and in the very relaxed space of the Atelier Helicopter. The set was only semi-naturalistic, with props like a public telephone clearly made from foam, and walls and doors being invisible.
The Mother is played by a man, Ryo Yoshida (excellent in the revival of Tsuka by Shu Matsui last year), though this kind of (Churchill-esque?) cross-dressing is seemingly a one-off and not an integral part of the play (nor, judging from the script, is it founded in the text). (However, it is something that Iwai has experimented with in other productions so seemingly something he likes to do.)
The hikikomori boy Tomio himself was played by the director-writer, who of course “suffered” from the condition for years and should know what he’s talking about. After numerous years of Tomio never going outside his mother has decided to do something about it, and brings in outside “help”, with disastrous — comically so — effects.
The parody of counsellors is amusing — Japan is notorious for its lack of proper support for people with social or psychiatric issues — but rather heavy-handed. However, by exploring and giving humanity and humour to a hikikomori and his family, Iwai is doubtlessly doing much to remove taboos and distance between “normal” people (if people going to fringe theatre in Japan can be defined as such!) and outcasts, even if the exile is seemingly voluntary.
It is curious, though. If this was a play performed in the UK then we would want to know the reasons for the hikikomori, on a wider scale perhaps. The playwright does a fair job of showing the effects and damage on the immediate family: the missing father, the mother at a loss, the sister angry at the mother’s attempts at a “cure”. However, the enigma of why the mother was only now after ten years trying to do something about her son was never addressed. It is significant that the attempts to “cure” Tomio fail and that the ending — one of hope — is actually engendered by a turn of events rather arbitrary.
Iwai can entertain well and is an excellent performer himself. It is admirable and no doubt important to see hikikomori on stage like this, but one is curious to know what another company or director would make of the same script, or what an overseas audience would make of this. No doubt they would demand explanations for the roots of hikikomori, rather than mere exposure to its character, no matter how comically executed.
Hikky Cancun Tornado
May 16 to 23, at Atelier Helicopter