Embracing Abjection, Reclaiming Agency: New Possibilities for the Zombie and the Social Recluse in NEET of the Living Dead.

Author:Nelson, Lindsay
Position:Global East Asian Cinema: Abjection and Agency - Critical essay

On July 26, 2016, nineteen residents of a care facility for the mentally disabled in Sagamihara, Japan were killed by a knife-wielding man who went from room to room, killing residents while they slept. Twenty-six other residents were injured in the attack. The man was a former employee of the facility and had written that he wanted to eliminate disabled people from the world. The incident received a large amount of national media attention because of the shocking nature of the crime (in a country where violent crime is relatively rare), but also because of the controversial decision not to release the names of the victims out of respect for the privacy of the families (Rich 2016). Given that the names of murder victims are traditionally released to the public in Japan, many saw this as yet another of example of the stigma attached to disability, with the decision not to release the victims' names making them just as invisible in death as they had been in life. Some families of survivors chose to go public about their children's lives, but many families requested anonymity because of the social stigma attached to having a disabled child. Some had never told relatives, friends, or co-workers that they had a child living at a care facility (Rich 2016).

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 [1980], 4). Within the context of horror films, then, it is not surprising that terror often springs from monsters who...

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