"Welcome to the NHK" may be one of the most discomforting pieces of fiction that I've seen through to completion. It isn't discomforting due to violence, or sex, or ideology, or the other standard levers of edginess. Rather, it's discomforting by shining an unwavering spotlight on the many neuroses and flaws that can make up our lives, and particularly in my own life.
I haven't watched a whole lot of anime lately. I've started a few series since Death Note, but have only made it through two. I stumbled across Welcome to the NHK while reading some online discussions about Serial Experiments Lain. NHK and Lain have almost nothing in common; I suppose that they've both set in modern times, and deal with themes of alienation, but in profoundly different ways. They also have very different sensibilities. Lain felt like a dark, sinister psychological thriller. NHK is... strange. I suppose that it's a psychological drama/comedy? It's a humorous look at a profoundly depressing situation.
Welcome to the NHK stars Satou, a hikikomori in his 20s. "Hikikomori" is a Japanese social phenomenon that has been concerning people for several decades: men (it seems to always be men) become extremely socially isolated. They will retreat to their rooms for years at a time, not emerging for social interaction, or food, or work. A related term is "NEET", based on the English for "Not in Education, Employment, or Training" - that is, someone who isn't a student, in professional school, or working.
When I first heard that description, my immediate thought was of the "slacker" phenomenon that started in America around the same time in the 90's. However, they're quite different. A slacker doesn't have a job and doesn't seem to have any interest in improving their lives, but they can still be quite social; the stereotypical slacker hangs out in coffee shops, or couch-surfs, at the bottom of society but still moving around and making connections. On the other hand, the hikikomori is completely cut off from society. Uncharitable people might think of both as leeches, but the hikikomori seems (at least to me) to be in a sorrier state, devoid of companionship or real connection.
The first few episodes of Welcome to the NHK are probably the funniest. Satou has been living by himself for years, and his mind is starting to become frayed. He hallucinates lightly throughout the day; he talks to his appliances, and they talk back to him; he fantasizes about the characters singing the bishoojo anime that plays loudly next door. His overactive mind also assigns blame for all that's wrong with his life at the feet of the NHK, one of Japan's largest TV networks. He decides that the NHK (which, he realizes, must ACTUALLY stand for Nippon Hikikomori Kyookai) is the leader of a vast conspiracy, all designed to trick Satou into pursuing his miserable life: watching television, eating instant ramen, smoking cigarettes.
It actually would have been interesting to see a whole (though probably shorter) series try to stay locked in that room. Satou is unbalanced, but not really psychotic, just at an elevated state of stir-crazy. And I do love hallucinations. However, the series is actually about Satou gradually working his way outward, reconnecting with old acquaintances and making a few new ones. He isn't ever "cured," which I liked; he's still sad, and angry, and antisocial; but he's far more functional at the end than in the beginning, and it feels worth every agonizing step he took.
And it is agonizing. Usually, when I like a series, I'll start devouring it, watching multiple episodes a day as I try to get through it. Here, even though I liked the show and what it was doing, I often needed to wait for days or a week between episodes, just because of how painful it felt to watch. The show had many, many scenes and themes that uncomfortably resonated with my own life. Now, I don't think I'm Satou; but I recognize a LOT of tendencies that are pretty deeply ingrained within me that constantly tug me in Satou's direction. I'm capable of going out and socializing with friends, or talking with strangers, or visiting a new place; but I also feel a profound comfort on rainy Saturdays when I realize that I can stay inside, turn on the computer, play video games or read books, and not see another person all day. I also know that if I stay in that mode for too long, I'll start to feel really crummy and crabby, which is why I make myself get up and get out; but it takes a fairly constant force of will to do so.
So, in the big perspective, NHK made me uncomfortable because I could see how easily I could fall into exactly Satou's life. Just as bad, though, were the many specific aspects of Satou's life that echoed those from my own. We both have a habit of treasuring memories of awkward events from our past; we can't let them go, and instead will fuss over them for years and years. We both obsess over decisions that we made in the past - or, even more heartbreaking, decisions we DIDN'T make, gestures we didn't make, people we never touched. The longer ago a failure occurred, the more ingrained the memory becomes, so instead of being less affected by distant events, they're the ones that define us most.
Does that sound depressing? It should be, but again, NHK is a weird show, and more often than not it comes across as a comedy. The show sympathizes with Satou, and at the same time it gets as much mileage as it can out of him: his awkwardness, indecision, ignorance, and reactions are all comedy gold to the writers. The show has almost nothing in common with The Office except for that essential link between discomfort and humor.
Also, as noted before, the show starts pushing Satou out into the world. He reconnects with two friends from his school days, which felt very realistic to me; I find that in my own life, it's easiest to restart relationships with people from my childhood. One of the funniest discoveries is that for nearly a year he's been living right next door to an old friend, but since he never left the room they never met. Yamazaki is a good foil to Satou; in any other anime Yamazaki would be the hopeless nerd at the bottom of the social order, but this is the one show where he's paired with someone even lower than himself, which lets him take the lead... and man, that's a scary sight. Yamazaki is hard-core otaku, obsessed with bishoojo anime in general and, in particular, a spectacularly inane piece of fluff called "Pururin." That said, Yamazaki, while a loser, is a loser inside society, while Satou is a loser outside society, and so Yamazaki can induce Satou to crawl a little out of his hole. Eventually, he and Satou start to collaborate on creating a galge, a simple romantic adventure game. Yamazaki is clearly more skilled and capable than Satou at, well, pretty much everything, and he makes sure to let Satou know it.
Yamazaki is the closest thing to a peer that Satou has. The heart of this show, though, unquestionably belongs to Misaki. She's an incredibly sweet, cheerful, giving girl who mysteriously decides to make Satou her project: she will do anything in her power to rescue him from his hikikomori lifestyle. It's very hard to get a bead on just who Misaki is and what she's doing, and Satou puzzles over it just as much as we do.
Misaki provides some much-needed structure to Satou's life, setting up daily "classes" that meet in the park at 9PM - presumably this is to make is as easy as possible for Satou to attend, since it's dark out and he won't need to see any other people in the deserted park. The classes themselves seem odd; she has prepared lectures, and notes, and lesson plans, but she doesn't seem to know the material all that much better than Satou does (her grasp of psychology is enthusiastic but shallow), and the subject matter varies widely from session to session (often explicitly addressing hikikimori, but just as often dealing with topics that seem almost totally unrelated). Now that the show is over, I suspect that her plan wasn't so much to teach Satou through the content of these lessons; rather, just having the lessons themselves were a crucial part of his "recovery." They gave him something to look forward to (or to dread, or to be annoyed at) each day, required him to engage with another human being, and offered a sense of continuity that unfolded outside of his apartment.
While "Welcome to the NHK" is a serial, most of the episodes after the first four, up until the finale, seem more or less interchangeable. Satou's condition gradually improves, as can be seen by the way he leaves his apartment, leaves town, goes on trips, meets with people. It's not a redemption story, and it's filled with setbacks. In one sequence, we learn that a seemingly friendly person is actually trying to financially profit from him, and we worry that this sour experience will drive him back into isolation. There's also a pretty amazing diversion into a FFXI/World of Warcraft-ish MMORPG, which is one of the funniest and most painful things I've seen in a while.
And then there's the ending. Is it just me, or do more things happen in that last episode than in the entire series before it? It was interesting to see Satou finally leave his apartment and get a job; I feel like we got a strong foreshadowing of this in the episode where the class president got arrested and her brother became a bicycle delivery guy. In that earlier episode, the hikikomori seemed totally redeemed by work; in a few days, he was transformed from a sniveling, helpless blob into a cheerful, energetic young man. Satou's own transformation isn't quite as dramatic. I was kind of happy to see him out in the world, but he himself doesn't look particularly happy. Those scenes also made me think a lot about Japan's social compact and economy. One of the things people often notice about Japan is the seemingly useless jobs some people have, and the main example they give is exactly what Satou ends up doing: waving a stick to let people know about road construction. From the outside, this seems like a pure waste; why on earth pay a person (and it's actually often multiple people) to do a job that can be done just as well by a sign? Well, after 23 episodes of NHK, we know why: because people NEED work. Because having a job isn't only about money, it's about having some sort of meaning to your life. Even the worst job is better than nothing, and it's better for the society to subsidize peoples' work than to subsidize their laziness.
This does obliquely get around to addressing the main question people have about hikikomori, and slackers, and NEETs: is it actually a disease? Or is it just something that happens to lazy boys with money? If you're poor, you never have the opportunity to become a hikikomori: you'll find work or you'll starve to death. Only people who can leech off of parents, or the state, have the leisure to become socially withdrawn.
So... what are we to make of that? Should parent cut off their children, and the government implement welfare-to-work programs to achieve 100% employment? I dunno, and I don't think the show does either. We're seeing how these decisions affect Satou's life, but it's hard to say if it should be read as a policy endorsement.
The main point of that final episode, though, is obviously about Misaki and Satou. How sad. How very, very sad. Now, I was never too sure of my own feelings for those two - she's obviously quite a bit younger than him, and I couldn't tell just how young, which would help determine whether their relationship would count as odd or as creepy. That said, there is a certain sense to it; Satou's hikikomori tendencies bloomed in his 20's, but started in his adolescence, and there's a certain case to be made that they're emotionally at the same age - he has arrested development due to his neuroses, and she is dealing with her own trauma. He needs saving, she needs to save. It's asymmetric, but the pieces go together.
The ending doesn't make it totally clear exactly what happened on that day... but I think we can make a very confident educated guess, especially given the last snatches of audio we hear.
Welcome to the NHK is funny, but not exactly fun. I can't really compare it to other fiction I've encountered, anime or not. It's a character study of a profoundly alienated person, who both does and does not want to reconnect with a larger society. It's got a lot of funny stuff, built on top of a very sad backdrop. If that sounds interesting to you, it's worth checking out; I doubt we'll see its like again.
Update: Heh heh... whoops! After I finished writing this, I realized that, um, there are actually 24 episodes in the first season, not 23. And, yeah, the 24th episode does change the overall feel of the series. (As a side note: a really interesting thought experiment is to imagine chopping off the last chapter of a favorite novel, or the last episode of a favorite series, or the last five minutes of a favorite play or movie. I suspect that, more often than we might think, the result would end up being more powerful than the original.)
MEGA SPOILERS AGAIN
So, Misaki does not die! That certainly makes the series WAY more cheerful. I was pretty happy with how they unwound everything in the final episode... it didn't feel like they waved a magic wand that made everyone suddenly happy, but it felt like they stayed true to their characters while showing them a way forward. It was touching to get glimpses of Yamazaki and Senpai's lives; again, this was something that resonated with me, as I often feel that mix of affection and wistfulness when I hear about old school friends building happy lives farther away from me.
Did you catch the call-back from the cliff scene to the opening of the first episode? I'm kind of surprised that I remembered it; it's been a LONG time since I started this series.
I also really like the tone on which they leave Satou's and Misaki's relationship. It isn't romantic, which would have been creepy, but it's closer than friendship. They like each other, and they need each other, and simultaneously are helping each other become more independent and diminish that neediness. It's a great note on which to end the series.
OK NO MORE SPOILERS FOR REAL THIS TIME