Welcome to the AKIHABARA

Look! Another manga review. It’s only taken me… uh… three months to finish it. Yeah.

Welcome to the N.H.K. Vol. 2
Tatsuhiko Takimoto & Kendi Oiwa | TokyoPop | Feb. 2007

Like its predecessor, Welcome to the N.H.K. Vol. 2 is a study in cognitive dissonance. Except even more so!

See, I tend not to buy manga rated “18+” because, like most video games designated “M,” the 18+ is usually a bit of a lie — they may be marked as being for “older readers,” but only those older readers with minds and emotions firmly rooted in adolescence. People whose idea of “mature content” means the constant juvenile fanservice shows nipples instead of simply hinting at them. Like mainstream American comic books, this sort of manga caters toward the boys who never quite grew up but still like to imagine that they did, and who prove their adulthood by demanding their favorite junior high escapism “grow up,” too. Typically, this is achieved by adding a little more brutal violence and being a lot more overt in their misogyny. Women are scary when you never stopped being a boy, so best to put them in their proper place.


Right. Review behind the jump.

That 18+ rating is where Welcome to the N.H.K. is such a conundrum — it’s loaded with gratuitous content, but it lacks the usual smutty aftertaste. The series’ second volume begins with main character Satou (who in volume one demonstrated the virtue of his character by getting stoned and stalking elementary school girls) laboring over the script to his pornographic PC game. Later, a few pages of the book are devoted to showing Misaki, Satou’s cute-but-mysterious benefactor of sorts, splayed naked in Satou’s mind as part of a series of increasingly determined rape fantasies. Nothing graphic is shown, but the situation alone should be enough to cause any decent person to discard the book and write to Congress: the hero of the story contemplating sexual assault, with visual aids. That’s usually the point where a protagonist becomes the antagonist and any hope the author had of creating a sympathetic character would be thrown right out the window.

Except that’s not really the case here. For one thing, Satou isn’t really meant to be entirely sympathetic; he’s help aloft as a paragon of everything wrong with the otaku section of the population. He’s a friendless shut-in who can’t hold down a job, and the closest thing he’s ever known to romance is a silent, unrequited crush on a gloomy, drug-addicted girl a year older than himself. N.H.K.’s questionable content exists not to titillate but rather to paint an accurately bleak picture of Satou’s emotional life, and as a contrast with his actions: When faced with the opportunity to actually kiss Misaki in real life, of her own free will, he simply freezes up to the point that she freaks out and beats a hasty retreat.

One gets the impression that N.H.K. is the manga equivalent of a public service message, a brutally frank mirror intended to confront its fanboy audience with the stark reality of how pathetic they are. (Admittedly, the fact that there are N.H.K.-licensed PVC figurines of the female cast does rather strain this theory.) Satou is pretty much the definition of pathetic — and while his worst ideas are rarely his own, that still doesn’t speak too highly of him. It just means he’s spineless, is easily influenced by peer pressure and has morals with about as much rigidity as a rubber pica pole. The series all but screams You should not be like this person! Except that you already are!

But the thing is, Satou isn’t really any more screwed up than anyone else; the people who want to “fix” him are just as lost and hopeless as he is. His sempai, the object of his unrequited affection, is a stumbling workaholic who compulsively pops pills to make it through the day and who would rather be dead than face an unhappy future. His pal Yamazaki, the guy who talked him into starting up the porn game development studio, rants and raves about the evils of women and encourages Satou to objectify and violate Misaki, but eagerly scurries along to meet up with the girl he has the hots for at the drop of a hat. And it’s even clear that not all is well with Misaki, either, although the nature of her damage isn’t entirely clear. She’s clearly obsessed with Satou, but obviously not for his winning personality — so either she’s attracted to losers, or she has a bizarre “fixer-upper” mentality about emotional cripples, or something inexplicably worse. Who knows! And then there’s the suicide club….

So maybe Welcome to the N.H.K. isn’t really so much of an adminition of otaku culture as it initially seems. Maybe the point is that basement-dwelling shut-ins are no worse off than “normal” people, so keep right on buying posters of scantily-clad 12-year-olds. Keep building that collection of naked PVC girls. Get to know your naughty DVDs a little too well.

Who knows. I’m not really sure where Welcome to the N.H.K. is going, but I suspect it’s inexorably downward. And that’s what makes it so compelling — there may be no happy ending for this one (in any sense of the phrase). And even if there is, the path to get there will be absolutely harrowing, making for a painful read. Yeah. Hurts so good.

20 thoughts on “Welcome to the AKIHABARA

  1. I started watching the anime of N.H.K. a while ago but stopped because my computer doesn’t like mkv files, but you’re making me want to go and look for it in other formats.

    There’s a certain delicious irony in a manga/anime that criticizes the merits of its own format. Ever heard of Genshiken?

  2. Genshiken is awesome and also pretty scarily true-to-life (the number of direct parallels with my local anime club is fairly frightening), but it’s much less painful in that the characters all have a lot of redeeming values and are pretty good people overall. Not so much for NHK. It’s pretty much constant pain. Which is not to say it’s not also a great manga; just fit for a different mood.

  3. My anime club just started showing Welcome to the NHK — I scheduled it for the final slot of the day, where we usually put the “showcase” series of the month. And the thing is, everyone but me unreservedly dislikes it — I think because it just hits too close to home.

    Even if there’s an appreciation of the production values and aesthetic, people are all saying “I’d really rather watch something less uncomfortable”. For me, that’s what makes the show excellent, even just it’s first episode — these are people with palpable flaws, not just “cardboard” cut-outs that idealize the heroic bishounen and ideally beautiful bishoujo.

    Even if I share some of those social flaws, I’m still compelled to keep watching.

  4. Genshiken is pretty much the complete opposite of Welcome to the N.H.K. — one glorifies the otaku lifestyle and makes nerds seem like (tiny) heroes (of no significance), fighting (meekly) for basic human rights (like, uh, watching anime on school property). The other is Nietzsche’s abyss, gazing back into the viewer with damning finality.

  5. Yeah, Genshiken *is* pretty much the *opposite* of NHK. While I agree with your view of Genshiken, Parish, I’m not sure NHK is quite so bleak. Though it drags it’s readers through the foul sewers of various otaku lifestyles, I think the latter points you made in your review hold true. The real message, if there is one to NHK is that people *are* all kinda the same. Otakus may be horrible freaky wackjobs, but really, they’re not any more freaky or wacky than anyone else. More importantly, they’re also still human beings. Though they may engage in perverse fantasies and indulge themselves in childish fetishes, deep down there is still hope for redemption. Not out of otakuness, but into honest, meaningful relationships.

    I’m basing most of this on the fabulous end of the most recent plot arc, somewhere around ch 43 or so, I forget.

  6. ahh.. I put in Spoiler tags.. but it seems they got parsed out.. crap..

    ABOVE!! Potential Spoilers for NHK Manga! ahh.. whatever…

  7. Off topic, but I can’t wait what you have to say about the Final Fantasy 4 remake a.k.a. the best FF evar!!1

  8. Too soon compared to what?
    The GBA port or the FF3 DS remake?

    I’m sure that when it comes out you’ll be very happy, if they don’t screw it up :D

  9. I agree that FFIV DS is too soon (compared to the GBA port). It is just such a charming game in its 16 bit form, but Square-Enix likes money, and people are graphics whores. In the end FFIV is a solid game so worse things could happen. Part of me thinks that railing against it is a really dorky thing to do; wouldn’t it be cool if a kid born in 1997 picked up this game and had a good time with it?

  10. What killed Genshiken for me was when they all started to graduate and get jobs. Within just a couple of months of searching, everyone ended up with a decent job, two of which ended up with “dream jobs.” Because, hey, reading manga a lot means you can be a professional editor and playing video games all day means you know how to program them, amirite?

    As a recent college graduate, it all felt like a pack of lies.

  11. Well, one assumes that the Genshiken characters were actually, you know, attending classes at college when they weren’t doing club stuff. But since it’s a story about an anime club, they didn’t bother showing much of that. It seems pretty reasonable to assume that, for instance, Kousaka ended up with a Comp. Sci. degree or something.

    But maybe I’m just not jaded enough, having stumbled right into a nice CS job myself when I graduated (well, after my MS, but whatever).

  12. I saw the anime and I have to tell you, maybe it’s me but its seem that the story ends very different from the way the story begins, is almost a “love” story…very good anyway, but not that shocking to me as Kimi ga nozomu ein (aka Rumbling Hearts) or the beautiful artwork/story masterpiece that is Honey and Clover (see it in HD for more awesomeness)

    P.S. N.H.K. actually made me go out to find a job after months of been in my house playing old rpgs, 360 and watching anime all day, so I’m grateful to it.

  13. BTW that suicide group thing actually happened the other day in Japan…I wonder if it was an isolated event or if it had relation with Welcome to the N.H.K.

  14. NHK can hardly be blamed for anonymous suicide groups in Japan, the trend goes back into the 90s. The Atlantic Monthly just ran a story entitled “Let’s Die Together” in the May issue on the subject…. which I would be citing for more detailed info right now except I think I left it at the office.

  15. Wow, didn’t take long for this conversation to turn to Genshiken, possibly my favorite manga and anime series *ever*, hehehe!

    But as far as NHK goes, there certainly is a strange juxtaposition of the character’s habits and what they want out of life. They seem to inadvertently become their own worst enemies as what they do makes their own lives worse. I think there’s a lot of realism in the book (and anime) that makes it addicting to watch as well as uncomfortable. At any rate, book three comes out in a few weeks, and I’m really looking forward to it.

    Thanks for continuing with your manga reviews!

  16. I started watching NHK a while ago, and I thought the main character was going to go through some sort of redemption process. That he was going to come out of his rut.

    Boy was I wrong. He became worse, just as you said, and it got painful to watch (partially because I went through a similar no job/no social-life crisis several years back), just as you said.

    Genshiken, on the other hand. Great stuff. (My girlfriend also has little interest in geek stuff, and just tolerates my hobbies.)

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