Welcome to the REVIEW!

I don’t hold much with New Year’s resolutions, if only because they make you feel that much guiltier when you gain weight after vowing to lose a bunch. But I do need to drag myself away from my increasingly alarming habit of writing only about video games. So! I’ll get back into the business of writing about completely unrelated pop culture ephemera. And maybe someday, someday, I’ll actually write something worth reading.

For now, though, you’ll have to settle for a manga review. Just kidding, it’s actually a bunch of aimless rambling.


Welcome to the N.H.K. Vol. 1
Tatsuhiko Takimoto & Kendi Oiwa | TokyoPop | Oct. 2006

coverThis year for Christmas, I asked for (and was given) a manga with a “parental advisory” emblazoned on the cover. This is what I get for adding random books to my gift list without doing proper research about why they’ve netted so much positive buzz. Or, say, looking at the cover. That’s not to say the advisory actually made any difference; it just prompted some bemused comments from my mother. Sorry, mom. I won’t ask you to buy me smut on Jesus’ birthday ever again.

Not that I’d really classify Welcome to the N.H.K. as “smut.” There’s definitely questionable content afoot, but very little of it is intended to be titillating. Rather, it’s there to help paint a more accurate picture of how big a loser the main character is, like Ataru Moroboshi’s relentless lechery in Urusei Yatsura — except that N.H.K.’s protagonist Satou possesses much less of Ataru’s brain-dead goofiness and more of a real-world sense of patheticness, the kind you might actually encounter on an average day. There aren’t too many lecherous idiots trying to escape the romantic advances of beautiful half-naked aliens in the world, but socially defective shut-ins? Folks, this is the Internet era. You’re likely to be flamed by several of them on 4ch or NeoGAF today. Before breakfast.

Satou is a member of Japan’s hottest new demographic, the hikikomori: young urban recluses driven to isolation by anxiety or depression. I’ve heard the word “otaku” means “your house” somewhere in its etymological lineage, and hikikomori — a sort of elite division of otaku, if crippling emotional defects could be considered a sign of merit — honor that linguistic root very literally by never, ever leaving their homes. In Satou’s case, he dropped out of college two years ago and hasn’t spoken to another soul since. And though he slowly blooms as a wallflower over the course of the manga, he mostly just brings embarrassment upon himself. He’s unable to hold up his end of a conversation, mainly because he’s so paranoid of others’ critical thoughts that he inevitably blurts defensive remarks to accusations that exist only in his mind. And when he decides to make something of his life by teaming up with an old school acquaintance to create an adults-only PC game, his “research” consists of a week spent filling a hard drive with child porn.

On this level, Welcome to the N.H.K. reads more or less like a broad satire (and rather cruelly, since it’s directed at a subculture that already feels like the world is making fun of it). At one point, Satou and his cohort Yamazaki sit down to create their game’s love interest, who they hope will become the ultimate expression of “moé.” Their result: she’s the main character’s childhood friend, his lover from another life, and a robot alien with a disease only the hero can cure. In short, she’s moé’s “protective love” mindset taken to an extreme! A very, very revolting extreme.

moeWhich leads to the most interesting part of Welcome to the N.H.K., the aspect that makes it more interesting than your typical journey-of-redemption manga: deciphering the subtext. Are we supposed to despise Satou, a socially-crippled shut-in who loathes his own susceptibility to obsession? He certainly isn’t particularly admirable, sitting in his filthy apartment getting high, hallucinating about conspiracies, wallowing in gigabytes of underage bondage porn, lurking around elementary schools with a leer and a camera.

On the other hand, he is the protagonist, and he’s certainly presented in no worse a light than the non-hikikomori types around him. Misaki, the beautiful young woman who makes it her mission to cure Satou of his reclusive habits, is clearly every bit as obsessive as her target (and a bit on the creepy stalker side, too). His pal Yamazaki is a dope. Most tellingly of all, Satou eventually bumps into his high school crush (referred to only as “sempai”) who unlike him is a “productive” member of society. Although she’s actually as reality-shy as Satou. The difference is that her escape from the pressures of life is more figurative; clearly she didn’t play enough N.A.R.C. or else William S. Sessions’ important message that winners don’t do drugs would have made more of an impression on her.

And it’s probably worth noting that N.H.K. was originally published in Shounen Ace magazine, which is targeted toward otaku types. Satou could be a “there but for the grace of god” cautionary tale to encourage hikikomori readers to get a life, but manga’s a cynical medium. Shounen Ace, after all, is host to Sgt. Frog, a manga whose sole mission is to sell Gundam merchandise through marketable mascot characters and relentless panty shots of a 14-year-old girl destined to become unnaturally busty. So, yeah, more likely is the prospect that N.H.K. is intended to serve as a sort of answer to the “Train Man” franchise: yet another vicarious chance for dreary losers to say, “Even someone more pathetic than me can find happiness and love!” Except with more wackiness and moé, and less sloppy sentiment and 2ch canonization.

Still, there’s an outside chance that Misaki’s ulterior motives are far from altruistic, that Satou will end up heartbroken, that he and Yamazaki will find themselves in jail, that the ultimate message of N.H.K. is one of despair and bitter emptiness. And the prospect of bleak realism in manga, however slight, is reason enough to look forward to volume two. Well, that and the anthropomorphic toaster. I love that guy.

17 thoughts on “Welcome to the REVIEW!

  1. Hey, there are tons of bleak, depressing manga out ther– oh, bleak, “realistic” manga. Yeah, that is pretty rare.

    I started reading NHK a while ago, but I could never really get into it — mostly because of just how depressing it was. Depressing not because of how grim or how blunt it is, rather, because of hom much it reminds me of my own life. Not the drugs and the child porn parts, mind you (though, admittedly, what I do have isn’t much healthier), but still fairly reminiscent.

  2. Sounds pretty interesting. I’m a total manga noob, so I mostly rely on other peoples’ suggestions to find what to read. Sometimes this goes well (Azumanga Daioh. Thanks, Sheana) and sometimes it goes hideously, hideously wrong (Octopus Girl. …What?!).

    Heck, and I like stories that seem to be about people like me (aside from the child porn and talking toaster). I’m like the Warren Beatty of losers. I bet you think this blog post is about you, don’t you, don’t you?

  3. Heh, no wonder it was taking so long for the scanlation group to release the next chapter. I really should keep a closer eye on the things I like.

  4. Has Bill Griffith been ressurected as a mangaka? Zippy was clever in the 80s, but got depressing by the late 90s.

  5. Heh, guess what’s on top of my Amazon recommendation list today? Yeah.

    Anyway, I haven’t picked up the manga yet, but I watched the first three or four episodes of the anime. Intriguing, but I don’t know whether I’ll finish it. Also, the ending credits are just about the most disturbing ones I’ve seen, which is saying a lot.

  6. Parish, you should check out the Genshiken manga if you haven’t yet. It is the same sort of self-referential otaku material described here, only the characters aren’t quite so pathetic. It ends up being a celebration of the camaradarie found in nerd subculture and I really ended up liking it.

  7. I’m not reading this review because after skimming the first two paragraphs I decided I’d like to check it out. There is at least a 40% chance I will buy this if I come across it in a store (that’s actually pretty high considering how many comics I want to read)

  8. I love the idea of a manga about THE FORBIDDEN REALM of dirty, but i could do with less of the WAH! I’M A LOSER Train Man story.
    Yeah… I like Sgt. Frog. It’s like the artist is aware he’s a hack, but it all just spun out of control. He makes soooo many more references to anime/manga/videogame/randomscifiwhatever nerdom than just Gundam. Gundam just floats to the top. I imagine it gives the publisher extra $$$.

  9. Anyway, I prefer Doraemon (Nobi Nobita being my favorite loser character, ever). Also, Doraemon has a message of hope. That some relative of yours from the future will send a robotic cat to save you. Or something.

  10. Having seen the entire television series that was based upon the manga, I can recommend this! At many points it seems to meander a bit, but I think that’s the point; the characters try to find ways to not confront, or at least not confront directly, the various problems they have. And as highly critical it is of the otaku culture–the message at the end of the series is, much condensed, “get a life, otaku scum–it also presents extreme otakuism as one of many self-destructive behaviors committed by society, and otakuism is just more evident and obvious about being pathetic.

    One episode made me cry and it wasn’t because it was a terrible anime this time, which is a first. As far as I know the anime is still unlicensed in the US so if you don’t mind getting your hands mixed into a grey (i.e. clearly illegal but no one cares) area, fansubs are openly available at http://www.animesuki.com. The anime is a little bit softer about certain things though, apparently (no drug use, and teh pr0nz that Satou looks at aren’t described as being illegal. Photographing middle school girls’ skirts is apparently still kosher though).

  11. Heh. I’ve read a couple of fan-translations of (Welcome to the) NHK, and your little insight indeed reminds me of one of my folks who has a distraught in the trend of most current anime/games which is the character-moé craze (yes, he dislike maids, and alot of the “based on an h-game” type shows/titles that now seem to pop up). He’s an interesting dude and even homestayed in Japan a few years back then. But yes, he and I both agreed that most of the claut of anime seems to be stemming from the market of the otaku, or worse, the hikikomori.

    And I didn’t even know you went to 4ch. Stay away from that god-forsaken place if you want your brain to be spared. (It has been claimed as “the unwashed butt of the internet”)

Comments are closed.