Welcome to the N.H.K.
In Japan, a hikkomori is someone who has voluntarily withdrawn from society out of fear and paranoia. Such a person typically lives in squalor, neither works nor attends school, rarely leaves her home, relies on the savings of others to survive, and often becomes obsessed with conspiracies. The sociological roots of this phenomenon are poorly known, and even the people themselves often have trouble describing exactly what drove them into their lifestyle.
Tatsuhiro Satou, a young man who has been living as a hikkomori for several years, entirely lacks the will to break his habits, but one day, while spending one of many evenings moping on park benches, he encounters a girl, Misaki, whom he had met earlier as her aunt attempted to solicit religious literature. She claims that she knows how to cure Satou of his habits, and he begins to slowly realize that he can learn to contend with the world and that many people suffer from problems as crippling as his, including some people he never would have guessed.
Welcome to the NHK is social commentary at its most disquieting and illuminating. It is a show that skillfully avoids moralization and clumsy allegory and instead makes a dramatically satisfying and personal story out of a widespread but largely unacknowledged occurrence. In spite of the occasional comic moment it is, for the most part, also an uncompromising piece whose unvarnished realism can sometimes make it difficult to watch. But if one can put this reservation aside, I think that anybody who enjoys biting critiques and fascinating character studies will find it to be a worthwhile view.
The show's greatest strength lies in its characters, whose various quirks make the story all the more affecting. Satou himself (voiced by Yutaka Koizumi) is quite likeable, for underneath an outward shell of cynicism and skepticism, he's a complex person: good-hearted but also somewhat obsessive, socially inept to the point where little occurrences have driven him into his current state but still salvageable as a person, and, thankfully, devoid of arrogance. He's the rare anime character whose failings are truly what make him relatable, but these failings also make him something of a frustrating character to watch, which is exactly what the show wants. He grows as the series progresses, but it takes us through so many ups and downs that we become convinced he will never change and hardly notice it. Watching him hit nadirs repeatedly is infuriating and yet, by the end, we do see the sort of subtle but tangible progress in his behavior that a therapist might observe. In truth, there is no easy cure to any problem, and his slow and frustrating progress makes the show especially satisfying to watch by the time it finishes. I wanted to see him succeed, I cheered for him when I saw him recover via his struggles and even unconsciously begin to help other people, and his quirks ultimately made him into an excellent protagonist.
Like Satou, the other characters are frustrating and yet strangely likeable, and it soon emerges that nearly all of them have demons and blame their suffering on what is, ultimately, paranoia masquerading as an outside agent, whether they name it the NHK, an evil God, or anything else. Misaki, the mysterious "savior" (adeptly voiced by Yui Makino), is endlessly fascinating, and the show was quite skilled at changing my opinion of her back and forth. I loved her at times, despised her at others, was often irritated by the lack of answers surrounding her, and sometimes even felt sorry for her, but she never lost my interest. The show is, in the end, as much about her as it is about Satou, and their troubled and complicated relationship turns out to be the most effective piece of drama in the show.
The other major characters, Satou's friends Kaoru Yamazaki (Daisuke Sakaguchi of Clannad fame) and Hitomi Kashiwi, (Sanae Kobayashi), turned otaku and stressed civil servant respectively, are also remarkably well fleshed-out. In a strange twist for a show that spends about as much time deconstructing otaku culture as it does critiquing the world of hikkomori, Yamazaki, if prone to his own personal demons, turns out to be one of the show's most stable characters and, surprisingly, a positive influence on Satou, and his outward "nerdy otaku" archetype soon gives way to a much more complicated, soul-searching, and lovable character. He and Satou are also used adeptly as foils, and some of the show's funniest moments occur as the frustration and unstated affection between the two of them unfolds. Meanwhile, Hitomi and Satou are adeptly played off each other to demonstrate the necessity that one move on from the past and that troubled people not use each other to solve each others' problems, and some of the show's most poignant and frightening moments come as a result of their reconnaissance. The one weak link in the cast is, unsurprisingly, a character added midway through, a selfish and irritating old school adversary of Satou's, and while her addition makes way for an interesting if unsatisfying critique of marketing scams, she ultimately serves no purpose to Misaki and Satou's story.
Artistically, Welcome to the NHK is a mixed bag. Although Gonzo has a reputation for making some downright strange-looking shows (Gantz being the prime example), this show largely escapes that pitfall, and most of it looks great. The series incorporates fantastic surrealist imagery into several scenes, and at various points, Satou encounters talking refrigerators, ceramic stars, dancing parades of moe girls, and the purple, goblin-like agents of the NHK itself in his delusions. The surrealism is both funny and amazingly rendered, and I frankly think it's a pity that the show didn't use it more. The backgrounds, meanwhile, are highly detailed, with some scenes of falling snow being particularly beautiful, and the rarely-explored indoor setting frees the artists to experiment with the dark colors of cluttered apartments and the unearthly bright worlds of eroge and multiplayer online games, among other things.
The character design, on the other hand, is unremarkable, with Yoshitoshi ABe's drawing of Misaki proving to be the sole exception, and although the show usually looked fine to me, there was the occasional episode in which the never-impressive animation utterly fell apart and people's faces began to look runny and shapeless. Indeed, there are whole episodes in which the background becomes alarmingly muddled, and while it's not a gaping problem, it is a nuisance that distracts from the story. The musical score, conversely, is almost impeccable. Consisting of melancholic guitar, piano, and harmonica pieces and complemented by quirky but understated soft-rock insert songs, it perfectly underlies the show's atmosphere, and the first ending theme may possibly be the most gloriously bizarre product of Japan's music industry I've yet seen.
The world seen in Welcome to the NHK is one whose noxious fumes seep out the instant one opens the door, and much of what we see is quite disturbing. The show dwells on the high level of sexualization in the world of hikkomori and otaku, and while the nudity serves to move a psychological study along rather than exploit or arouse, the amount present can sometimes be overwhelming. The show contains virtually no graphic content, but it directly grapples with suicide, drug abuse, and poverty, and the degree to which it depicts its characters' internal suffering can make it difficult to watch. People repeatedly behave self-destructively, and while it's effectively tragic, to the point at which I sometimes physically cried out at them in sadness, it occasionally became almost unbearably depressing.
Indeed, in spite of being labelled as a dark "comedy", the show really only attempts to tickle our funny bones in the first few episodes, after which the light tone largely disappears with only the occasional bit of comic relief. I was laughing so hard in those episodes that I expected the ride to be very different from the one it turned out to be, and I sometimes wonder whether the commentary may have been best done complemented with the same sort of utter hilarity I got from the earliest stages. Admittedly, it's difficult to make a social critique and include "entertainment" without distracting from or undermining the original purpose, and I think that the heavy-handed approach ultimately worked well for the series. Nonetheless, this is not light entertainment in any sense, and it is best taken in small doses. It's hardly a criticism to say that it makes better sociological commentary than entertainment, but it can sometimes make the show a little more interesting than actually enjoyable.
With that and my few other minor quibbles out of the way, I will say that Welcome to the NHK is a must-see for anyone interested in learning about the darker sides of Japanese society, as well as the dark side of anime fandom. It's enlightening and yet also depressing and disturbing at times, and watching it is occasionally as much of a struggle as those that the characters themselves have to contend with. In the end, however, it's a unique show that unfolds and behaves like none other. Even if a little extra proofreading and more careful complementation may have made it slightly stronger, it's up there as one of the best social commentaries I know of.
A strong four stars. Some cleanup may just have earned it that fifth one, but in the end, the criticisms end up being fairly inconsequential to the collective result. — Nick Browne
Recommended Audience: This will be best appreciated by older teenagers and adults. Although the show is neither pornographic nor truly heavy in fan-service, it does contain a great deal of nudity, and both extreme poverty and the prospect of suicide are directly dealt with multiple times. The subtitled version also contains many instances of strong profanity.
Version(s) Viewed: R1 DVD (Viewed in Japanese with English Subtitles)
Review Status: Full (24/24)
Welcome to the N.H.K. © 2006 Kadokawa Shoten / Welcome to the N-H-K Partners
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