Welcome to the N.H.K.

Anime isn't the only media that plays with the surreal, but I believe that anime often does it best. From Angel's Egg to Akira, from End of Evangelion to Panaroia Agent, anime often straddles the dreamscape line. However, it's rare for an anime to be stupendously surreal yet also very understandable and relatable. Welcome to the N.H.K. is a black comedy-drama that skewers many obsessions of otaku culture in Japan, yet it is highly relevant to the world of American 20-somethings. With a stubbornly romantic streak and a genuine concern for even its strangest characters, Welcome to the N.H.K. is a refreshing show that, while disturbing at times, really is interested in moving us emotionally. (As an aside, I reviewed the first volume of the show a while back, and you can read that review here. Some of that material is used here, but it might be of some value for you since some content did not transfer to this review.)

Sato is a mess. Physically, emotionally, spiritually, he is a wreck of a human being. He is defined by Japanese society as a "NEET" and a "hikikomori" -- ultimately, those two terms mean that Sato is not engaged in any meaningful pursuits, and that he is homebound by choice. Sato hasn't always been this disturbed. Once upon a time, he went to school and was this close to having a real girlfriend. But one day as he was heading to one of his college classes, he got totally unnerved, ran home, and has been there ever since. He's convinced that there's a conspiracy to create homebodies like himself, and that conspiracy is headed up by none other than the N.H.K., a local TV station. Between sleeping 16 hours a day and wondering how the world is out to get him, Sato is just moments away from being diagnosed as a schizophrenic.

And then Misaki comes along. A beautiful girl who knocks on Sato's door as her crazy aunt distributes religious literature, she realizes his plight. What's more, she's convinced that she can rescue him. Luring him out to a local park -- the only place outside his apartment that Sato can relax and be himself -- Misaki hands him a contract. If he'll trust her, she'll lead him out of his dark life of solitude. But Sato can't admit his condition to himself, let alone Misaki, and so he says that he's a brilliant game creator...and she calls his bluff. Luckily for him, Sato's next-door-neighbor Yamazaki is an aspiring game designer who owes Sato from back in middle school. Problem is, Yamazaki has his own obsessions that Sato takes on as his own. And when the two decide the only way for Sato to redeem himself is to co-create a "gal game" -- basically a "choose your own adventure" where the right choices eventually lead to erotic encounters -- Sato pours himself into the project. Well, that's not exactly accurate...let's just say that he goes overboard on the research...and events devolve from there. But that's not the half of it. Sato eventually starts to venture outside the house with the help of Misaki only to find himself in even worse trouble. Whether it's massive multiplayer online gaming or multi-level marketing schemes, poor Sato seems destined to be sucked into every otaku obsession there is. His friends from high school are, amazingly enough, in even worse shape than he is. And the mysterious Misaki has some secrets of her own...secrets that may help heal Sato but may ultimately destroy her.

By the advertising copy and the suggestive photo on the front covers of most of the volumes, Welcome To The N.H.K. is presented as if it's going to be the next revolution in wacky, fan-service-driven comedy. Part of the reason for this, apparently, is the manga on which the show is based, which is far more raunchy than what appears in the anime. But that's really too bad, because this show is not about fan service. In fact, it makes fun of the lifestyle of those who are caught up in the web of Internet porn. But it's misleading in another way too, because this isn't a comedy in the traditional sense at all. One could consider it a black comedy, but there's far too much melancholy (especially in the later episodes) to be a "go-for-the-jugular" kind of show. The show takes the main character's problems very seriously, and while comedy comes out of it, it's never in such a way that Sato's person is attacked. In NHK, we really get deep into Sato's psyche, and it's not a particularly happy place to be. Perhaps it's that seriousness that makes some of the in-jokes and satire all that more funny when they do come.

But if anything, NHK takes the time to make Sato more than a one-note stereotype of the otaku recluse. I genuinely rooted for him. Most of us who've been in anime or gaming culture for any length of time know people who have retreated into themselves and the worlds they enjoy. In my own heart of hearts, I know that I could become a Sato given the right conditions. As such, there was an instant connection for me, and I want him to win the girl, get out of the house, and even write the "gal game" of the century.

In my initial review, I did make a small complaint about Misaki being a mystery figure. Having seen the whole series, I can now say that it was intentional and that her hidden side plays a key factor in the ending of the show. The show fits very nicely together. I could complain about a few things that will trip up people...the animation in a couple episodes looks extremely rushed (probably due to time and budgetary constraints), and one arc near the end (in volume 5, for those who are keeping track) seems tacked on. But really, those are minor complaints. The final ending won't please everyone, perhaps, but to me it felt very real and very unforced, and I liked that. The ending is, in my opinion, grounded in reality, which is the place where Sato really needs to be. It's a show that's difficult to review because you don't want to spoil all the bits along the way, but it's definitely one you want to discuss. It made me think, and I love that in an anime.

As I see it, Welcome to the N.H.K. is a perfect anime for college-age folks who are interested in something about people their age and who are mature enough to handle the adult themes of the program. This isn't kiddy stuff by any means, but it fits very well alongside other anime for grown-ups like Ghost in the Shell. I have to admit that I was truly taken with this show and found it hard to put down. In fact, I had to find the last four episodes on the Internet because the great anime meltdown of 2008 has kept the final volume from being released, at least as of October. (Funimation does have the rights, and hopefully they will put it out soon.) While it lacks the finesse and followthrough to earn my top grade, Welcome to the N.H.K. easily settles into the A grade with many other worthy peers.

Welcome To The N.H.K. -- profanity, distant nudity, sexual and adult themes -- A