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Welcome to the NHK (NHKにようこそ) Review

July 6, 2009

Satou and Misaki(Source)

This is your wake-up call.

Synopsis: Twenty-two year old Satou Tatsuhiro is an unemployed hikikomori, a person who because of social or academic pressures decides to seclude himself in his home for months or even years on end. Satou believes that his status as a hikikomori is not his own doing, but rather the result of a far-reaching conspiracy. For him, the days blend into each other without incident and time is reduced to a crawl as he barely subsists on the pittance of an allowance offered to him by his family. One day he receives a visit from a mysterious young high-school dropout named Misaki. Taking Satou in as part of her new “project,” she vows to cure him of his hikikomori ways through regular counseling sessions.

Review:

Warning: This review contains minor spoilers. Please use discretion.

When a show is adapted from a work that contains none of the supernatural or fantastical elements that are afforded for the Anime medium, it stands to wonder how directors will be able to optimize its effectiveness when it could have just as easily been swapped for a live-action take. Welcome to the NHK, adapted from a novel-to-manga series, is an unequivocal example of how animation can transcend predominant forms of media to produce something that can be easily related to but still maintain a degree of unsettlement.

The main pull of NHK is that it’s able to emote in a way that makes you suffer with the characters.

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In episode 1, we voyeur into the less-than-idyllic life of Satou Tatsuhiro as he snaps out of his 16-hour reverie. At this point he is already so far gone that it becomes hard not to think of him as pathetic. Bags of weeks-old garbage and open canisters of half-eaten food are the room’s decor. The bed seems to have been reworked as a makeshift storage compartment, with a single mattress plopped haphazardly in the middle of the room. Everything looks so cramped and uncomfortable that one can only imagine how many months of conditioning it took until it became bearable. It’s horrifying, and yet you’re forced to pore over every last hideous detail.

What works best about all of this is that this scene, as well as most of the series, is told through his own internal monologue. This includes all of his demented circular self-conclusions about the world around him. To add to the madness, Satou must torturously listen to the muffled sound of a bishoujo Anime OP from the room next to his day in and day out. He is nearly driven insane as he tries to make sense of the song’s nonsensical lyrics (puru puru pururin~), imagining an army of anthropomorphic blobs of pudding.

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Animation works best in scenes where Satou conceptualizes what he believes to be the “conspiracy” as well as any other dementia-induced scenes where he talks to various pieces of furniture. Satou’s creativity also shines in scenes where he illustrates his own trapped feeling of social anxiety, such as the fear of crowds and large open spaces as well as the belief that he’s being laughed at when he really isn’t.

This is pretty much the crux of NHK. It gives you a worthless character in the literal sense and then subverts what traditional directors would do by piling on more reasons to not like him with each passing episode. At the same time, we’re trapped by his skewed world-view and topsy-turvy logic. Being that everything is told from Satou’s frame of reference, it underscores the gradual manic demeanor that overtakes him. Seasoned Anime fans will awkwardly laugh at how much they see a part of themselves in Satou’s extreme mannerisms. Casual Anime fans may come to be disgusted in how lowly of a person Satou can be. And in that sense, NHK has succeeded as well.

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Needless to say, there are some faults. Satou’s hikikomori-ism is unrealistic in the sense that it is highly idealized; his parents are relatively complacent of his unwillingness to find a job or a girlfriend; the cute Misaki acts purely out of altruism; his noisy neighbor turns out to be a former underclassman from high school, who seems to share a sense of camaraderie with Satou and even helps him out in times of despair. Satou himself is relatively fit and clean-shaven, a far cry from what you would expect of somone who has been isolated in a single room for an indefinite period of time.

At sporadically different times, the plot of NHK flows evenly and then rushes to the climax without a moment’s notice.  In the ending to the pyramid scheme arc, the brother of Satou’s friend, a fellow hikikomori, finds a job and is able to live normally without so much as a proper transition. Satou himself also finds a job, without much fanfare or build-up, towards the end of the series.

The animation for NHK leaves much to be desired, as demonstrated in this still:

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It’s barely an impediment in episodes where scenes are mostly indoors and static, which is naturally most of what NHK is comprised of.

The music for NHK is simply superb, and stands to be one of its strongest points. The OP, Puzzle, seen above, is performed by Round Table (Chobits OP, Aria The Animation ED). It sports a beautifully flashy piece of animation with a breezy and melodious light rock song. The ED, Odoru Akachan Ningen, performed by Kenji Otsuki (the Bure and Rumba guy from Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei), features the many moods of the little NHK incarnates and showcases Otsuki’s devastating vocal range and lyrical mastery.

Without giving away too much, the ending is highly underwhelming. It can either be seen as Satou’s symbolic crusade against the Nihon Hikikomori Kyokai, or a cop-out for a satisfying ending. Despite the contented closure that some of the minor characters receive by the show’s end, there are also some loose ends involving the depth of Satou’s vague relationship with Misaki.

If your brand of humor is self-deprecating and sarcastic, then you might come to find a familiar allure to NHK. Those who are willing to overlook some of the glaring shortcomings of the show’s progression are left with a thoroughly delightful journey through a subculture that’s oftentimes shafted for its brutal ugliness. The show itself also delves into some of the more depraved facets of Anime culture, such as lolicon hentai and obsession with two-dimensional women. With a few tweaks, NHK ranks as one of the more culture-defining Anime as of the current generation.

Art/Animation: B+
Story: B+
Music/Soundtrack: A-

Overall: B+

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