ollege dropout Sato is a hikikomori, an individual who has completely withdrawn from society and holes himself up in his apartment, and has been for going on four years. Not even the obnoxiously loud music from next door can snap him out of it, and his demented mind has come to the conclusion that he is the subject of a conspiracy to keep him down by the secretive NHK. Hope arrives on his doorstep one day in the form of Misaki, a pretty, friendly young woman who claims that she can help him escape his dead-end lifestyle, but Sato is reluctant to accept her help and finds himself caught in a web of lies upon trying to deny what he is. The discovery that his music-playing neighbor is actually Yamazaki, an otaku disenchanted with real life whom he knew in school, only drags Sato further into the pit but does offer him an interesting opportunity: to convince Misaki that he is not just hiding away in his room, he will make a “gal game” (i.e. hentai game) as proof that he is a “creator.”
ADV’s advertisements for this one are a little misleading. Those who go into Welcome to the NHK expecting it to be something wacky like Excel Saga or playfully funny like Full Metal Panic! Fumoffu? are in for quite a shock, as anime comedies don’t come any darker than this. Sato’s actions, behavior, and situations certainly do have some humor inherent in them, but at times laughing at Sato feels as dirty and distasteful as laughing at the “special needs” kid you knew in school, the one stuck with the mentality of a 3-year-old. Think about the first volume more as a sociological and psychological case study which generates the occasional laugh and its true value and appeal appears.
Based on a light novel of the same name, the NHK anime explores two sociological phenomena that, while not unique to Japan, seem to be more prevalent there than anyone else in the world: NEETs (i.e. individuals aged 15-34 who are Not in Employment, Education, or Training) and especially hikikomori. The latter in particular has recently been the subject of jokes in anime, but nowhere else will you find such an in-depth look at what it actually means to be a hikikomori and how pathetic an existence it actually is. The first few episodes hit all of the major points which typify the hikikomori lifestyle: sleeping 16 hours a day; reluctant to leave one’s room; rarely associating with other people; devoting all waking time to some combination of Internet porn, hentai games, TV, manga, or anime; not bothering to maintain personal hygiene; and withdrawing from society in general. So self-absorbed and limiting is this lifestyle that it can hold a grip akin to drug addiction on a subject, and like with drug addicts, an outside intervention is often required to drag a person out of it. Misaki presents such an “out” for Sato, but like with any drug addict he has to admit he has a problem and dedicate himself to doing something about it before he can be helped, and like with addicts, that usually requires hitting rock-bottom first. That, in essence, is what we see in episodes 2 and 3.
But the first volume does not limit itself to just analyzing hikikomori. It also explores other aspects of extreme otakudom, such as the nature of hentai/ero/gal games and otaku strongholds such as doujinshi stores and maid cafés. As much as you might want to think these elements are aggrandized for sake of parody, they may strike too close to reality for the comfort of some viewers.
An interesting trio of main characters forms the core of the recurring cast and goes a long way towards humanizing the story. Although how Sato slid into his hikikomori lifestyle is not explored in this volume, he serves as the tool to explore all the darker sides of obsessive fan behavior and social dysfunction, which sets him well apart from the normal girl-shy anime male lead. Yamazaki represents a character type rarely seen in anime: a hard-core otaku who doesn’t appear to be socially maladjusted but retreats deep into his hobbies because of his anger and displeasure with reality. (His rants against real girls vs. hentai game girls are particularly revealing.) Misaki serves as the compassionate, insightful outsider who somehow knows Sato and sees saving him from his hikikomori nature as a “project.” Her tone at times suggests she may have an ulterior motive, but at this point in the series she still represents the uncompromising hope for a more mainstream life.
NHK will never be mistaken for an artistic masterpiece, but does have its visual good points. Background art, especially when depicting cityscapes and city streets, looks good and carry impressive detail, and close-up shots of characters usually fare well. Its male character designs set Yamazaki and Sato apart from run-of-the-mill college-aged males leads, and Misaki has a suitably fresh and attractive look without being overtly sexualized except in Sato’s fantasies. (Although the pink parasol is overkill.) Sato’s early hallucination scenes also have just the right feel. Hitomi, the recurring former senpai of Sato, has a more typical look, and character renderings which are never especially sharp become far rougher in many distance shots. Worse, the quality of the character artistry and animation suffers an atrocious breakdown for a while starting about nine minutes into episode 4. Even beyond that weak point the animation rarely looks good.
No fault can be found with the musical score, which never strikes a wrong note and flawlessly sets and enhances the mood of every scene. Most impressive in its light guitar, piano, and harmonica themes, it also offers nice rock, J-pop, and synthesized numbers and ratchets up the tension and anxiety of the more demonstrative scenes. This is a soundtrack worth listening to as an OST. An unremarkable J-pop number fronts each episode, while the thoroughly bizarre closer “Dancing Human Baby” (just try following the lyrics) mixes piano with heavy metal guitar, drum beats, and lyrical styling,
Fans sometimes complain about how ADV leans too much on a core roster of regulars for its dubs, but could anyone voicing English dubs these days fit the role of Sato better than Chris Patton? And while Greg Ayres’ voice may not be a great match for Daisuke Sakaguchi as Yamazaki, he has just the right temperament for his role, too. Stephanie Wittels (Kano in Air and Yayoi in Air Gear) also is a nice fit as the kindly but not naïve Misaki, and none of the more minor casting choices and performances should generate significant gripes, either. The English script stays relatively close to the original, even using “gal game” as the original did instead of terms more familiar to American fans like “hentai game” or “ero game.” The only notable changes are the addition of bonus parodies in some of the Next Episode previews, including one that any fan of Neon Genesis Evangelion should catch. (Why it wasn’t in the original script, when it offered such a golden opportunity, baffles me.)
Typical Extras include clean opener and closer. Also present is Conspiracy Handbook 101, ADV’s title-specific alternate name for their regular glossary inclusion. In this case it includes several content-specific terms like “doujinshi” and “Akihabara” which diehard otaku may be familiar with but more casual fans are unlikely to know. Both 2.0 and 5.1 English language tracks are available.
It may not have any actual nudity, but the first volume contains enough swearing, suggestive content, and adult subject matter to warrant a TV-MA rating in the USA. It otherwise invites comparisons to the also-fan-centered Genshiken, but whereas that series took a more loving and sentimental look at fandom, this one delivers an uncompromising examination of the seedier side of fandom and commonly-associated social disorders. It offers some laughs but its first volume works far better if one regards it more as a drama piece.
Overall (dub) : B+
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : A-
Animation : C+
Art : B-
Music : A-
+ Inisghtful examination of an issue rarely dealt with seriously, excellent musical score.
− Not as many laughs as advertised, serious breakdown in artistic quality in episode 4.
Tatsuhiro’s encounter with his high school senpai Hitomi stirs up old school memories, which lead him to accept Misaki’s counseling contract, which inspires him to make a more concerted effort on his gal game development. A trip to Yamazaki’s school, in pursuit of the truth about whether or not Yamazaki actually has a girlfriend, leads him to sit in on a game design class, but ultimately the stress of the situation proves too much, causing him to sink even deeper into his hikikomori funk. Only a call from his mother, indicating that she intends to visit soon, can force him into action, but how is he going to be able to cover his claims that he has an actual job and a girlfriend he’s thinking about marrying? And why is Misaki so eager to step up and help? Or is it all just more NHK conspiracy?
If someone somewhere does not use this series for discussion in a sociology class or project then a golden opportunity is being wasted. Nowhere else, save perhaps Neon Genesis Evangelion, will you see such a thorough exploration of one person’s social dysfunction, and Tatsuhiro rivals even Shinji Ikari in terms of dysfunctional behavior. Watching what he goes through, and how unable he is to cope with life without outside help, can at times be a discomforting experience, yet also a fascinating one. And as this volume also suggests, his initial transition into being a hikikomori probably was not a sudden thing. The roots of it certainly lay in his school years. The insights the series shows are so sharp and detailed that one has to think original creator Tatsuhiko Takimoto based the story heavily on personal experiences.
Watching Yamazaki can also be interesting, as he represents the intense, almost militant otaku who clearly feels more comfortable in his own skin than Tatsuhiro but also has his own issues. Some of his behavior can be disconcerting (the Pururin body pillow has all sorts of wrongness written all over it, but such things do actually exist), but what guy who does/once did consider himself geeky or a fanboy can honestly say he doesn’t have at least a bit of Yamazaki in him?
Misaki at first looked only like the cute “out” to provide Tatsuhiro hope for a better life, and she does serve as a tool for delving further into the analytical psychology of the hikikomori, but as this volume begins to imply, not everything may be good in her life, either. Hints dropped throughout these four episodes suggest that she could wind up being the “girl taken with the hero in childhood” character so common in anime series, and that she may be trying to reform Tatsuhiro as much out of romantic motivations as pure kindness or practical experiment. Tatsuhiro certainly seems like an unlikely prospect for such a cute girl, but much here yet remains unrevealed. (Wouldn’t you love to hear what’s really going on in Misaki’s head?) Whatever the truth, her presence, and that of Hitomi, lend some brightness and stability to Tatsuhiro’s screwed-up, delusional world, as well as some actual pleasant characters to look at.
And that begs the question: are Gonzo and Studio Easter, who collaborated on this projecting, deliberately trying to make Tatsuhiro look as unappealing as possible? Rarely in anime do you see a male lead so homely as Tatsuhiro is, and the effect of his reclusive ways on his appearance cannot account for all of that. Yamazaki has the expected (but not exaggerated) nerdish appearance, and background depictions of otaku seem to go out of their way to portray the most unglamorous specimens, but at least they have to be respected for not playing these depictions up as jokes or caricatures. The young female characters, by contrast, are in the full bloom of their cute/sexy beauty, and both get some brief fan service-ish opportunities, though again, the series avoids needless exaggeration except in Tatsuhiro’s delusions.
The character designs would be fine if not for the big problem with artistry: its quality is grossly inconsistent. Complaints about occasional quality control breakdowns in the first volume were, unfortunately, only the tip of the iceberg. At times the artistry looks nearly as beautiful as the best series out there, especially in selected background shots in episode 8, and the background art in general stands strong. The character renderings can range anywhere from attractive to quite rough, however, and the same can be said for the animation; one scene where Misaki stumbles down some stairs looks particularly awkward, for instance, but in other places the animation moves along quite smoothly. Although these episodes technically feature no actual nudity, it does have enough close calls, fan service elements, and suggestive content to warrant a TV-MA rating. (Though how this one gets TV-MA and Step Up Love Story doesn’t still baffles me.)
Musical themes in these episodes repeat the poignant guitar/piano numbers used to punctuate key moments in the first volume, as well as mixing in other softer numbers to promote a usually gentle mood. Delusional scenes, by contrast, get more of a rock treatment. The nice J-pop opener and whacked-out closer remain constant.
Would it be indirectly insulting to say that no other American anime voice actor could have fit the role of Tatsuhiro half as well as Chris Patton? But it’s true. He has the neuroses and attitudes of Tatsuhiro so perfectly pegged that those watching the series in English first may find it hard to imagine anyone else in that role, the original Japanese performer included. It may ultimately stand as one of Mr. Patton’s career-best performances, and certainly ranks amongst the year’s best. His efforts outshine what would otherwise have been a stand-out effort by Greg Ayres as Yamazaki and a quality performance by the up-and-coming Stephanie Wittels as Misaki; we will certainly be hearing much more from her in dubs to come, since she has a naturally soft, kind tenor well-suited to teenage girls in anime roles and a goodly amount of acting ability. The script adjusts wording at times but does stay faithful on using “gal game” as opposed to the more common “ero game” or “hentai game” terms used in the States.
ADV’s production offers only clean opener and closer for Extras. Their selection of cover art also leaves more than a bit to be desired. The series’ artbox is available with this volume, however.
As with the first four episodes, the second four offer an occasional good laugh and some common romantic comedy hijinks, but more often they play better taken as straight drama and character study with some romantic overtones. It may not be the most purely entertaining series, and is more apt than most to make its viewers feel uncomfortable at times, but that makes it no less interesting to watch.
Overall (dub) : B+
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : A-
Animation : B-
Art : B
Music : B+
+ Involving character study, strong English dub work.
− Inconsistent artistic and animation quality, cover art.
With grit and cyber-spit, Yamazaki and Sato finally finish their homemade porn game. Unfortunately their sales at the comic market (five copies) destroy once and for all their dreams of becoming ero-game magnates. Yamazaki retires to his family’s ranch to take over their dairy business, and Sato finds himself minus his one real friend. Misaki steps in to fill the void, even proposing as a “final test” a New Year’s visit to the local shrine. Sato of course gets lost, and when Misaki witnesses his rescue by ex-flame Hitomi, she’s conflicted to say the least. Misaki decides to take their relationship to the next level in her usual twisted way, but the result is less than felicitous. In the fall-out Sato comes face-to-face with Misaki’s ugly past and his unflattering role in her quest to secure a place in a world that she feels has no use for her. To his dismay he discovers that he must not only cope, but actually help or risk the complete self-destruction of a relationship that neither has the emotional equipment to properly nurture, and at least one hasn’t the ability to survive without. But can one emotional cripple really save another?
For the moment, let’s set aside the fact that Funimation bungled, with Three Stooges-level finesse, their license rescue of Welcome to the NHK It is, after all, a shame to bellyache with such an immensely satisfying conclusion on one’s plate. NHK’s stock-in-trade may be the darkly humorous dissection of the social afflictions of the marginalized and psychologically damaged, but its beating heart is the malformed romance between Sato and Misaki. It was certainly good, black fun to watch the series kick down-on-his-luck Sato with big, pyramid-scheme feet, but without any real development in their relationship, volume five had the feel a series that had lost its way. Not so volume six. If Misaki and Sato’s relationship is the heart of the series, this volume is all heart.
And in grand NHK style, it’s twisted, somewhat blackened heart. This certainly isn’t your parents’ anime romance. Misaki’s confession of her need for Sato is no mere confession of love; it’s an exposure of all of the boiling insecurities, frightened selfishness and emotional confusion of a person who has found their reason for living in another person, but who has been so damaged by life that they haven’t the emotional tools to express or even understand what they are feeling. Likewise Sato’s bid to save Misaki is no platitude-saves-the-day plot device, but rather the desperate flailing of a man who realizes that his lifestyle has deprived him of the relationship skills necessary to save the girl he cares for. Even more than watching two well-adjusted people finding happiness together, there’s something unutterably satisfying about watching damaged people finding someone whose scars match their own and making one last, desperate bid for happiness. Sato and Misaki make a staggeringly dysfunctional pair, but it’s hard not to root for them, and, as the series brings all of their combined history to bear in the finale, to feel for them.
It isn’t all (sorta) romantic drama, of course. Sato lives to see his ero-game dreams squished by reality, Yamazaki gets a chance to vent his bitterness at being forced to give up his dream, and Hitomi shows up to bring some closure to her relationship with Sato (and inadvertently screw with Misaki’s feelings). And even if discomfiting humor isn’t this volume’s aim, there are laughs to be had, as with Sato’s zombified return to the work-force. But this is Sato and Misaki’s volume, and the other aspects do suffer in comparison. Yamazaki and Hitomi’s issues are tied up far too neatly, while Sato’s escape from the hikikomori lifestyle happens too quickly to be entirely convincing (and also serves rather conveniently as a plot device to worsen Misaki’s condition).
Standing at the center of the series’ longest-standing emotional entanglement as it swirls into a full-fledged emotional climax, Misaki’s performance is this volume’s lynchpin. The role requires both actresses to navigate some heavy waters, from intense outbursts to poison bitterness to forced confidence undercut by quavering uncertainty. While Stephanie Wittels can’t quite cut the heart out of you the way the understated Yui Makino can, she’s grown far enough into the role to make some positive adjustments, particularly Misaki’s even-keeled confidence during her final scenes with Sato. Chris Patton, on the other hand, is pure revelation. His Sato is both funnier and more intense than Yutaka Koizumi’s, and he communicates with vitality and conviction both the growing sensitivity and the unpleasant underbelly of Sato’s personality. He makes his missteps—he delivers Sato’s penultimate speech to Misaki with such conviction that it’s almost an honest appeal instead of the regurgitation of empty platitudes that it’s supposed to be—but they’re inconsequential flaws in a gem of a performance. It’s a damned shame that fans who bought the first five volumes have had to wait until now (nearly two months after the box sets) to hear it. ADV’s scriptmasters, by the way, write with all the fidelity one could desire—with the exception of a few hilarious ad-libs by Patton.
If you look hard enough, there’s plenty to grumble about—after all NHK has never been a work of perfection, more a smart, shaggy underachiever. In addition to the too-convenient resolution of sticky side-character issues, director Yusuke Yamamoto falls back into his habit of letting the guitar score play through scenes that it really shouldn’t, and GONZO’s visuals remain a tad uneven, often drawing the characters sloppily in medium shots and draining the two big fan-service scenes of all their titillating power with some truly clunky animation. But frankly everything, the rushed side-plots, the occasionally messy art, the poorly animated sequences—it all disappears into the shadow of a final story arc that once again marshals all of the series’ unforgiving insight and sympathy for the human castoffs of modernity. It’s difficult to care that the fan-service was botched when Yamamoto can suggest a world of self-flagellating shame with little more than a flashback to a raised fist and a sideways shift of harried eyes. Or to care that Yamazaki’s life resolves itself far too rosily when Misaki and Sato’s relationship is climaxing in a frenzy of misguided self-sacrifice that is both surreal and bizarrely logical. As rough around the edges as they are, these four episodes are NHK at its best: insane, cutting and potent. All that and a happy ending too.
Overall (dub) : B+
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : A-
Animation : B-
Art : B
Music : B
+ A sympathetic portrayal of the devastating effect that a budding relationship has on two people whose emotional stability has been destroyed by long exposure to the worst of life.
− Lacks the pitch-black humor of the series at large; rushes some of its side-plots to conclusion; affection for its psychologically crippled cast is necessary for full appreciation.