Welcome to the N.H.K.
In Japan, a hikikomori is someone who has basically withdrawn from society because of fear and paranoia associated with their mental health struggles. These people live in squalor: not working, not going to school, rarely leaving their homes, and relying on the savings of other people to survive. Not to mention, the paranoia that they suffer from often makes them prone to believing conspiracy theories. Even the people themselves often have a hard time naming exactly what it was that drove them into this state.
Tatsuhiro Satou is a young man and college dropout who's been living as a hikikomori for several years, now. He completely lacks the will to break his habits, but one day, he encounters a girl who seems like somebody who's dropped out of the sky to help him: Misaki, a neighbor whom he'd previously met while her aunt was going door-to-door giving out religious pamphlets. She insists that she knows how to cure Satou, and he begins to slowly try and contend with the realities of the world and navigate it, in spite of his struggles....while realizing that many other people, including some people he never would have guessed, have similar struggles.
Welcome to the NHK is disturbing social commentary, to the point where it can be heartbreaking or even triggering to watch. It stays away from moralization and clumsy allegory and makes a satisfying, personal story about a widespread but often-unacknowledged problem in Japan; I admire it for taking on mental health issues as directly as it does. In spite of some really funny moments, it's for the most part an uncompromising piece, but if you can stomach that, I think it's worth watching.
I'm glad that Welcome to the NHK takes as much care with its cast as it does, since it's way too easy to depict people suffering from mental illness as these caricatures. Satou himself (deftly voiced in all of his states by Yutaka Koizumi) is a complex person: good-hearted and caring, but the same aspect that makes him caring can also lead to him developing unhealthy obsessions. He's also extremely socially awkward, which the show does a good job of illustrating via how his body language changes when around other people, including how he has a hard time making eye contact. His failures are what actually make him relatable, but he can be frustrating in the same way that your friends' struggles might frustrate you as they continue on: in some ways, he's a test of "do you have the empathy to be patient with a chronic, difficult-to-solve problem," which, honestly, many people struggle to do even for their best friends. Satou does grow as the series goes on, but it takes us through so many ups and downs that it's easy to become convinced he'll never change, and it's hard to notice at first (which, I think, is deliberate on the show's part). We basically end up having to sit tight, to some extent, and look for the same small but tangible progress that a therapist would observe: watching him hit low points over, and over, and over again is infuriating, but even me feeling infuriated is a sign that I was invested. I wanted to see him succeed, and I cheered when I saw him start to recover and unconsciously start to help other people in the process.
While Satou is the character who most obviously struggles with paranoia and fear, Welcome to the NHK makes it clear that other people suffer through mental struggles far more quietly, but the damage is no less insidious. Misaki, the "girl next door" character, or some might even say "manic pixie dream girl" who just shows up, out of the blue, to help Satou, isn't really that straightforward at all, and my opinion of her went all over the place from episode to episode, basically. I loved her sometimes, disliked her the next episode, and then just felt....frustrated by her and the lack of answers about her; after all, even Satou seems at least subconsciously aware that there's something else at work with her, early on. I can't really go much in depth about her, due to spoilers, but I will say this: her and Satou's relationship is an excellent example of how different people cope with similar stresses and trauma differently, and, to some extent, of the dangers of becoming close to each other without having started to honestly talk about your struggles, first.
The other major characters are also remarkably well fleshed-out. Satou's former high school friends Kaoru Yamazaki and Hitomi Kashiwi, turned otaku and overworked civil servant, respectively, re-enter his life during the events of the series. Yamazaki, interestingly, is actually one of the more stable and and level-headed characters; outwardly, he's a nerdy and socially inept otaku, but at his core he's comfortable with who he is. Welcome to the NHK, to its credit, doesn't take the easy "otakudom = perversion" or "otakudom = social misery and mental illness" route: sure, it explores the fact that hikikomori can become obsessed with otaku hobbies, and that they sometimes use those hobbies to fill in gaps in their life, but it points out that it isn't otakudom that's the problem as much as the fact that these people are silently suffering in the first place. If it isn't otakudom that people like Satou become obsessed with, then it's something else, and again, while Yamazaki's obsession with "2D girls" might come across as strange, he's the one who's actually able to hold a job down and be self-confident. He and Satou are played off each other as foils, and a lot of the show's best moments involve the mix of frustration and unspoken affection between the two. Hitomi, meanwhile, is the perfect example of "don't use each somebody else to solve your problems" (a recurring theme in this show); they start to become closer again, using an un-fulfilled highschool romance as the basis for it, but just as Satou uses otakudom to fill the holes in his life, in one arc, Hitomi isn't any different, and he's no different for her. The one other character of note, and probably the weakest link, is a selfish and irritating old school adversary of Satou; she's part of an arc focused around pyramid schemes, but her character doesn't really get developed as well as the others', and I think it's just an example of too many character arcs straining the story badly.
On a technical scale, Welcome to the NHK is a mixed bag. Gonzo has a reputation for putting clumsy CGI in its shows, but we don't deal with that here; we do, however, deal with very inconsistent animation quality. The show 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" 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 often. 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.
But the character design is unremarkable, Yoshitoshi ABe's design of Misaki being the sole exception. And there's several episodes where the never-impressive animation utterly falls apart and people's faces start to look runny and shapeless. There are also whole episodes in which the background becomes alarmingly muddled, and while it's not a gaping problem, it distracts from the rest of the story. Though the visuals tend to be all over the place, the music is consistently great; I really liked the melancholy guitar, piano, and harmonica instrumentals in the soundtrack, which perfectly underlies the lonely atmosphere. Round Table (ft. Nino) does a great job with the OP, which comes across as peppy but turns out to also be pretty grim and melancholy if you listen to the chord changes long enough, and the first ending theme is one of the most guitar-crunching and gloriously screamy rock songs I've ever heard (not to mention the accompanying animation is hilariously weird). Only the 2nd ED, which is more bubblegummy, is a bit of a letdown.
I think, overall, one of the aspects that most stuck out about Welcome to the NHK was how noxious it can feel, since it gives us an on-the-ground look at the habits of people who suffer horribly inside of their heads. Again, the show never says "hikikomori exist because of eroge games," but it's still disturbing to see how people like Satou, feeling like they have nothing going for them, latch onto sexualized images in anime and dating sims. The amount of nudity in this show can actually be pretty overwhelming; I know it's there for a psychological study, not as fan service, but sometimes it's still hard to watch. The show also grapples with suicide (multiple times), drug abuse, poverty, and, sometimes, self-destructive behavior where it's just....hard to pinpoint exactly what's going on. I actually found the show unbelievably sad, sometimes, and again, I'll note that some of the stuff here can be pretty triggering. Some people label it as a "dark comedy", but the show doesn't try very hard to be funny, after the first few episodes. I actually was laughing so hard at those episodes that I expected the ride to be very different from how it actually turned out, and maybe that's the point: tell some funny jokes about the subject, and then pull the rug under people's feet and say "this is actually seriously messed up, and we can't just keep making light of it." When I first wrote this review, I wondered if spreading the humor out more through the show might have made it easier to watch; I don't feel this way as much, now, partially because I recognize the dry humor that is present, and also because I've later come to the belief that the shift is deliberate.
Welcome to the NHK is, basically, a great show that's one of the few to talk about mental illness and how mental illness can relate to "shameful" behavior in Japan. It's worth a watch for anybody who's interested in seeing that side of Japanese society talked about more openly, or in struggling with mental health in general, but it's best taken in small doses. There are a lot of places where the show could have used some proofreading, but it's still very well-written social commentary.
A strong four stars; I didn't give it five stars because the technical problems are hard to ignore, plus the story badly needs some cleanup. But it's a heartbreakingly beautiful story, in the end. — Nicoletta Christina 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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