In which Satou retreats to FFXI, we meet Iinchou’s hikikomori brother, Yamazaki screams into a telephone, and Misaki returns to school. Can she succeed where Satou failed? If you’ve been following NHK for awhile, you probably already know the answer…

Chapter Title: Welcome to Tarutaru!
Release Date: January 26th, 2006
Serialized in: Shounen Ace
Author: Takimoto Tatsuhiko
Illustrator: Ooiwa Kenji

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Following his devastating breakdown at the end of the last chapter, Satou has retreated to his room and logged on to FFXI after a several month absence. He finds himself wandering along a beach, and sits down next to a tarutaru to whom he starts unloading the burdens of his present condition. The tarutaru responds, telling him he should just laugh through the intractable quandary he’s found himself in. “There’s no way I can laugh!” Satou protests. “There’s nothing left in this world for me to laugh at!!”

“There’s no reality so harsh it can’t be overcome through laughter,” opines the tarutaru. “A wish to die is nothing more than a hallucinatory delusion. Interact with other people and they become your mirror, they brush away your delusions for you.”

“But you know,” he continues, “in this world, there’s no such thing as ‘other people’… it can’t be helped. Ahh, excuse me, I must be off… seems it’s time for breakfast. Goodbye!”

And with that Satou is left alone on the beach. The scene shifts to a dark room where a ponytailed young man is staring at a computer screen, with the tarutaru front and center. A knock comes at the door – it’s Satou’s class president, and the tarutaru was being controlled by her hikikomori brother who she has come to bring breakfast to. She speaks some words of encouragement through the door, and just as she’s about to leave the food behind she is shocked to see the door open a crack, his hand extending to take the plate of food before she is gone. She pauses, and then walks down the stairs, flipping through a book containing instructions on how to wean hikikomori from their self-imposed isolation.

We follow Satou’s former iinchou as she gets ready for work, and just as she pulls out of her driveway she sees Misaki walking along the street in a school uniform. Iinchou congradulates her on her return to school, but tries to use it as an opportunity to peddle more of her quack medicines, which Misaki firmly declines. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice… ain’t never gonna get fooled again, I guess.

We’re then treated to a brief flashback scene where Misaki begs her parents to rent Satou’s old apartment for her to use as a study space, a request to which they grudgingly consent. We see Yamazaki now for the first time in awhile, and he’s not doing too well… he comes to answer the door, and Misaki is there with the news that she’ll be taking the spot next door.

Back to Misaki’s first day at school, and she has a monologue running in her head regarding how she’s going to make everything right. She gives her introduction to her new class, stressing how utterly and absolutely normal she is, and while they don’t seem particularly put off her internal monologue is still running a mile a minute. She’s not comfortable here, and even less so when the clique of “popular girls” approaches her during lunch and asks her if she would care to eat with them.

Misaki gets the feeling that they may be subtly mocking her protestations of normalcy, but ultimately sees it as a sign of success for her plan. She tells them she’d rather eat alone, but when the class’s fujoshi circle approaches she doesn’t hesitate to accept their invitation to eat together. “They’re plainer than me”, she thinks.

“You don’t look two years older, you’re just like us!” One of them says. “Yeah, we thought you’d be something pretty out there, but you really are just normal…” “Right, normal! Almost dull!” This gets to Misaki a bit… she thinks of the scars on her arm. Conversation lightbulb! “Ah, next hour is gym, isn’t it… I don’t want to wear short sleeves…” One of the other girls rolls up her sleeve and her forearm is covered with horizontal slash marks and scars. “What happened!” Another exclaims. “Oh, something pissed me off yesterday and I did this…” “Oh, yeah!” One of them whips out a cell phone. “It’s written here on your blog.”

“Oh, yeah! I’m planning a Hagaren yaoi book for next Comiket, but I need someone to cosplay for me..” “I’ll do it! I just started putting an Armstrong costume together!” Misaki is lost in the cacaphony of their conversation and eventually breaks down, running from the classroom.

The scene shifts back to Satou’s old apartment building where Yamazaki is standing outside, talking on the phone to someone – presumably the girl he had a crush on who returned his feelings and he foolishly spurned, but it’s hard to tell from the one-sided conversation (and she hasn’t been in the story for several chapters). Yamazaki is obviously pissed, and just as he hangs up on whoever he’s talking to Misaki comes running up.

Yamazaki asks her if she shouldn’t be in school, and she spouts a long, Satou-esque string of excuses and lies. Yamazaki just looks at her for a moment and returns to his apartment. She enters Satou’s old room and slouches in a corner… she’s startled from her misery when she hears Yamazaki yelling through the wall. He’s screaming about an inspiration for his eroge, but it quickly trails off into despondency, ending with a rhetorical plea to the absent Satou regarding what he should do from now on. Misaki sees this through the window, and realizes she “can’t give up.”

This leads in turn to Yamazaki being jolted out of bed at 1:00 AM by Misaki’s cry of “it’s finished!!” He hurries next door to protest her noise, and sees this. Misaki has tried to out-fujoshi the fujoshi from school, including slicing her own arm up, making a blog and cosplaying as who knows what. Yamazaki bites his tongue.

Misaki babbles on about how it’s important to fit in with her class, as Yamazaki stands silent. She asks him if what she’s doing is strange. He is silent. She says that what she’s doing is strange. He is silent. She repeats that it’s strange. She says that it’s all a joke. He is silent. She asks him to leave so she can change clothes and go back to her parent’s house. He does. He pauses on the veranda, looking up at the midnight sky. The chapter ends with Satou and the tarutaru once again on the shores of Vana’diel. “What should I do…” Satou asks.

Indeed, this seems to be the question of the day. Satou and Misaki have both made what seems to be their best efforts at personal reform and failed utterly, while Yamazaki is boxed in by the looming threat of being hauled back to his parents’ place in the country to work on the family business. Though the emphasis in this chapter was on Misaki all three protagonists got decent page real estate, and as they’re currently operating in different spheres this lessened the overall impact of the chapter a bit. The transition in the beginning, though, from Satou in FFXI, to the surprise appearance of Iinchou’s brother, to Iinchou herself, to Misaki, was a work of astounding narrative artistry; it’s a small world indeed that can link Satou to Misaki through three steps even when they’re on other sides of the country and he’s locked in his room.

I was happy to see Iinchou again in this chapter and get a look at a more sympathetic side of her character; despite her hatred of otaku and her willingness to prey on them for financial gain she obviously cares for her brother and is doing everything she can to bring him out of his hikikomorihood. I hope we get to see more of his tarutaru sage character in the next chapter, the visual image along with his idiosyncratic philosophical lines were pretty engaging. All in all, this was a chapter that served to cement the tagline we’re left with at the end: here and there, enclosed on all sides. I’ve said this before in regard to NHK, but it seems this time our protagonists have really hit rock bottom, and the only way to go is up… it remains to be seen whether the coming chapter will prove me wrong yet again.