In reality, NHK is Japan’s equivalent of the BBC: their national licence-fee funded broadcaster. Much like our very own Beeb, they run several TV and radio stations – including the international NHK World which can be picked up here by those of you with satellite. Welcome to the NHK, on the other hand has nothing to do with this fine institution. On this occasion it stands for Nihon Hikikomori Kyoukai or Japanese Hikikomori Association; an organisation that exists only in the head of the lead character, Tatsuhiro Sato.
Hikikomori are a Japanese social phenomenon that have been of much concern in the country over recent years. It essentially translates as a shut-in, an individual (usually a male, lets be blunt) who never leaves the confines of their apartment. Such characters have popped up in Japanese popular culture from time to time (most recently in Eden Of The East), but this is the first time to my knowledge where one of them is actually the central character.
There’s a good reason for this of course. An entire series revolving around someone who never leaves their flat would most likely be incredibly dull. So, while Sato begins the series as a classic shut-in, the story deals with his attempts to escape the Hikikomori lifestyle.
Sato is a 22 year old Tokyo dweller who dropped out of college two years previously, and he has not left his apartment since. He is convinced that the world outside is full of conspiracies, run by the shadowy, evil organisation: the NHK. However, as fate would have it, he ends up meeting two people who change his life. The first is a cute young girl who arrives at his door. Don’t be fooled though. This isn’t your average story of an undeserving loser who inexplicably has cute young things throwing themselves at him. Instead, Misaki – the girl in question – takes him on as a ‘project’, promising to help him escape the Hikikomori lifestyle for good. It’s with her help that he starts to make his first tentative steps outside.
The second person he meets is his neighbour, who as it turns out is an old friend from high school. Yamazaki turned out to be a massive Otaku, obsessed by anime and games to the extent that his apartment resembles a mini Akihabara, filled wall-to-wall with figures, games, magazines and classic consoles. The classic stereotype of a Hikikomori might well be that they would be an Otaku, but in Sato’s case this was not so. It’s only after meeting Yamazaki that he goes on a journey of discovery through fan culture. This is where he encounters the weird and wonderful world of fandom, complete with model kits, visual novels, MMORPGs, moe and a trip to Comiket (comic market, the twice annual Mecca for doujinshi makers and fans).
This is a pretty unusual kind of show. There have been shows that have depicted the world of Otaku-dom before (with varying levels of success). The depiction of the culture here is done very well, and it seems that the creative team seem to be familiar with it. Yet it doesn’t shy away from showing some of the less palatable sides of the culture too. The other side of the show deals with some pretty heavy themes – depression, suicide and mental illness – that at times get pretty bleak. Although there are scenes of more typically Japanese ‘wacky humour’, generally this feels more like a drama or a very black comedy. As a result of this bleakness, it isn’t really a show I think anyone is likely to revisit regularly, but it’s definitely worth watching all the way through.
Its originality alone makes Welcome To The NHK worth watching, but it will also draw you in with its characters. Although you may not at first, by the end you do find yourself invested in what happens to them. They all feel damaged in a surprisingly convincing way, that makes you care about them. As a result, a last minute revelation about one of the characters makes the final two episodes especially affecting. Without giving anything away, it deserves kudos for not going for a fairy-tale ending too.
In terms of tone, the closest comparison I can think of is Satoshi Kon’s Paranoia Agent, although this is nowhere near the same level of quality. Studio Gonzo are behind this, and they are unfortunately not known for consistency. The quality of the animation and design goes up and down like a fiddler’s elbow on a bungee jump, but this isn’t a show that relies on flashy visuals. The four disc set arrives in the UK somewhat belatedly (the fact that the dub was originally produced by the long-gone ADV shows you that) but a quality show is always welcome. It’s nothing earth shattering but it’s certainly a fine addition to any collection.