In Japan, there is a troubling phenomenon that has been gradually growing more prevalent. They are hikikomori: extreme recluses who completely cut themselves off from the outside world. Mostly young adults, they withdraw from social contact and don’t physically leave home for years at a time. It’s beyond being a loner or anti-social. Rather, it’s a refusal to participate in society, in reaction to situations like failing school exams or pressure to meet traditional gender role expectations. Many hikikomori live with their families and some only eat when trays of food are left outside their door. A recent estimate counts nearly two million of them in Japan.
Writer, broadcaster, and playwright Tetsuro Shigematsu explores this phenomenon in his new show, Kuroko. His protagonist, Maya, hasn’t left her bedroom in half a decade and spends her days playing virtual reality video games — a common pastime for the hikikomori. “This particular social challenge is fascinating to me because I think so much of our communication is increasingly technologically mediated,” Shigematsu says. “I think the hikikomori are the canary in the mine shaft of also what life is like in an industrialized society, [in] this period of late stage capitalism.”
In Kuroko, Maya meets a mysterious man in a multiplayer video game who encourages her to re-enter the real world to help her father. This part of the storyline highlights another thing closely related to the hikikomori: the rental family industry, where professional stand-ins fulfill specific needs, which, in this case, can come in the form of surrogate parents or siblings who attempt to coax the hikikomori out of isolation. But is Maya’s friend genuine or is he hired? The play’s title itself winks at that ambiguity, in an extension of the plot’s overarching theme of subjective reality. The literal translation of the word “kuroko” means “child of darkness” and is used as a poetic term for the stagehands of kabuki, traditional Japanese theatre. Onstage and dressed in black, the kuroko help actors achieve a level technical virtuosity that would be otherwise impossible without assistance. Think marionette strings, but ones the audience doesn’t acknowledge the obvious presence of.
“For me, that was the perfect metaphor, because for each one of the characters within the show could arguably be a shadowy figure who is suddenly influencing the actions of another person — but also helping [the] players,” Shigematsu explains. “And so, that begs the question: who are the people in our lives? Because we all believe in free will and that we’re the captain of our own ship, but how are we being influenced and doing things that we may not be aware of in terms of where our actions originate?”
As much as Kuroko surveys the complex inner sphere of the hikikomori, it also comments our digitally driven world. Shigematsu’s interest on the subject matter was spurred from personal experience — he had laser eye surgery and uploaded audiobooks to his iPhone to supplement being in total darkness throughout his recovery. Despite being physically inert, he was able to create a wholly vivid experience for himself.
“I think, in a sense, our body and our spirit are atrophying the more time we spend online,” Shigematsu contemplates. “And I’m not a declinist, I don’t think things were better in the past. I just find it interesting that we are moving from the world of atoms and molecules as our primary reality to ones and zeroes, and I’m really interested in what kind of shift that will bring about in terms of our interactions, our human relationships.”