When watching anime, sometimes I find learning about different aspects of Japanese society to be quite interesting. For me, trying to compare Japanese customs and viewpoints to American counterparts is an enlightening exercise; I often enjoy these miniature anthropology and sociology studies. So when Welcome to the NHK showed the life and mind of a NEET (Not in Employment, Education, or Training) and hikikomori (a person suffering from acute social withdrawal), a situation that was somewhat unfamiliar to me at first glance yet was quite applicable to many people I knew of in their 20s and 30s who were unable to move out of their parent's houses (or had to move back) for various reasons in recent years, I absorbed this world that GONZO animated with glee.
This 24-episode series centered around the life of Tatsuhiro Satou, a 22 year old man who had dropped out of college in Tokyo and shut himself in from society for three years. The series does a wonderful job of visualizing his delusions, this main one being that the organization called the NHK (Which is the acronym for the Japanese TV channel and broadcasting station Nippon Hōsō Kyōkai) which Satou believes to be called the Nippon Hikikomori Kyokai and is the source of a mass conspiracy to turn people into NEETs and hikikomori. One mysterious girl named Misaki Nakahara looks to break Satou of his hikikomori ways by forcing him to agree to a series of lectures as part of her "project". It is implied that she does this as part of a program to help hikikomori, but in the end, this is revealed to not be the full truth of it. There's also Satou's neighbor in the apartment complex, Kaoru Yamazaki. Satou was the sempai of Yamazaki in their high-school Literature club. Satou's sempai in that club, Hitomi Kashiwa, was the original person to start Satou on the "conspiracy" path.[img_assist|nid=1810|title=Misaki Nakahara|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=200|height=114]
The series touches on many aspects of Japan's darker subcultures including and related to NEETs and hikikomori, such as internet suicide, otaku, lolicon, and video game addiction. Satou goes through a lighter version of all of these issues, but the series puts forth people that are much further along these addictions and issues that Satou, such as Yamazaki being the otaku and lolicon addict. Strangely enough, Yamazaki is one of the most stable of the series main crop of characters. Satou's sempai, Hitomi, is an example of a person who seems to have "made it" well, but she suffers from severe depression, and takes drugs (such as sleeping pills and anti-depressants) and attends online meetings to help her cope. Satou's "savior", Misaki, is arguable the most psychologically scarred of the bunch, but that fact is only hinted at until the very end of the series. As it is, her plight was the most interesting to me, and the series satisfied me in the revealing and resolution of her situation.
Welcome to the NHK is a dramatic-comedy. Most of the comedy happens early, especially with the weird glimpses into Satou's mind, but the series moves onto hardcore drama mode in the middle and second half of the series. Those looking for something to laugh at should stick to the early episodes and bug out when the internet suicide arc comes into play, as the series as a whole takes a much more serious tone from that point on. Those that want a fairly good drama with some laughs might enjoy this one, especially if they are interested in Japan's societal issues. This was probably one of my more favorite series to watch from the 2006 year.
Being a GONZO production, the animation varied wildly in terms of quality. Though the series features some great shots (I.E., when Misaki was first introduced), there were several parts where I was re-playing them when I thought my computer was really jumpy playing those scenes, but that was just how poor the animation was for those points. All in all, a moderate effort by GONZO, who I find to be rather inconsistent in their animation quality overall.
The voice acting was good, I found, and had no qualms with how the characters were casted in the Japanese dub.
Where the brilliance lies in this series was in the music. Especially the ending theme of the first half of the series. The opening theme isn't bad by far, and the ending theme in the second half fit the rather serious and more somber tone in the second half of the series, but that rock-opera-metal ending theme in the first 12 episodes was real head-banging fun! Combined with some rather wacky visuals, it took my attention as one of my favorite themes this year!
This is a character-based drama, hence there isn't a whole lot of story and plot to really speak of.[img_assist|nid=1812|title=Kaoru Yamazaki|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=200|height=114]
The series can be split up into separate arcs (I.E., the internet suicide arc, the Satou gets hooked on online gaming arc, the pyramid scheme arc, etc.), but the series really isn't all that well defined as most animes would be, especially when many of the arcs are intricately tied together. For example, the suicide cult arc leads nicely into the online gaming arc, especially as Satou initially approaches it to make money through sales, but that arc is tied to the pyramid scheme arc as Satou meets up with someone that he initially met online.
As is the case, I find the storyline to serve the character drama well. Especially with the resolution of Satou's condition. It is actually a simple answer, though some may find it on the harsh side. Still, the phrase "when out in the ocean, it's sink or swim" highly applies.
The characters in Welcome to the NHK seem to be an eclectic mix of types who I could identify real-life counter-parts with. As the series is filled with people that, as one of the side characters mentions, won't be doing anything great that would bring them fame. Instead, we see the types of characters that it would seem that Japanese society would look down on. We have the generic hikikomori in Satou. We have the otaku in Yamazaki. We have the depressed in Hitomi. We have the person stuck in the clutches of a pyramid scheme and another hikikomori who is addicted to online games in a couple of other minor characters. By far, though, I found Misaki to be one of the more interesting characters, especially her past and why she chose Satou for her project.
For a glance into Japanese society, I found Welcome to the NHK to be a wonderful series to watch. As a pure drama, I found it got a bit too melodramatic at points for even my tastes, but it was a good watch. As a comedy, I found it had it in spades early on, but the series loses that as it becomes more serious and somber.
Really, this is a fairly difficult series for me to recommend unless you know or experienced some of the issues presented in this series. I am curious about reading the light novel that this series is based off of, but I may have to settle for the manga based on the novel that was translated and brought into the U.S. fairly recently. I might collect this anime when it is licensed here, though.