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DVD Review

DVD cover

Welcome to the N.H.K.
Complete Series - Episode 1-24


Starring (voice): Yutaka Koizumi, Yui Makino and Daisuke Sakaguchi
RRP: £29.99
Certificate: 15
Available 09 January 2012

Tatsuhiro Sato is a 20-something NEET (Not in Employment, Education or Training), a miserable failure, and a reclusive loner suffering from acute social withdrawal. A paranoid mess of deep-rooted anxieties and a true believer of conspiracy theories, he is also under the delusion that a secret organization known as the Nihon Hikikomori Kyokai (Japan Social Withdrawal Association) is trying to produce a world filled with brainwashed, jobless recluses just like him.

Unexpectedly, into Sato’s world comes Misaki, a mysterious young girl who could be his last chance at beating his demons, overcoming his phobias and venturing out into the world as a relatively balanced person. Unfortunately, Sato is committed to hiding in his garbage-strewn apartment and pretending to work on the creation of a “hentai” video game that he thinks will make him a fortune - if he ever completes it. Eventually, Misaki’s charm, persistence and desire to fix the problems of a total stranger begin to take effect and, slowly but surely, she begins to open Sato’s eyes to the possibility of a new future.

Welcome to the NHK, based on a popular novel turned manga, has a premise that probably haunts the dreams of many introverted anime fans: that an attractive stranger will appear and offer to 'fix' their steadfast social isolation, turning them into a happy and productive member of society. The protagonist Sato's 'angel' Misaki fits the bill admirably, portrayed quite overtly as an angelic figure complete with nominally Christian religious beliefs - more importantly, her own evident personal demons tie neatly into Sato's and the viewer's fantasies of playing the heroic rescuer/protector. If this were all Welcome to the NHK had to offer it'd merely be a dispiriting rehearsal of fannish male fantasies, but luckily the series takes a slightly harder road.

Shows that reflect their audience back upon themselves have been part of anime at least since the era of 1991's classic Otaku no Video, and while Welcome to the NHK doesn't confine itself solely to the shuttered concerns of hardcore otaku, it's very much part of that tradition. Much as in the more cheerful Genshiken, the protagonist begins his journey into anime and gaming fandom from a position of cautiously enthusiastic ignorance, guided by the younger yet more experienced otaku Yamazaki; while the relationship between Sato and his self-appointed saviour is nominally the centrepiece of the series, it's between Sato and Yamazaki that much of the important development takes place. Yamazaki is an unflattering, yet credible portrayal of an everyman otaku: angry, cynical, reactionary and misogynistic, yet ambitious and remarkably loyal to his unpromising understudy.

While the series naturally focuses on fan pursuits such as hentai games and online gaming, Sato's relationships with the other characters lead to explorations of some of the less savoury elements of contemporary Japanese society: social isolation, sexual voyeurism, Internet-based 'suicide clubs', cultlike pyramid schemes. (Neither these nor individuals like Sato are solely confined to Japan, of course, perhaps accounting for the series' popularity with Western fans.) As for Sato himself, Welcome to the NHK wisely avoids attempting to diagnose or explain his condition, sidestepping the common tendency in popular fiction to attribute mental illness to some isolated, easily confronted past trauma; yet the show's repetitive insistence that all a hikikomori really needs is sufficient motivation to overcome his self-imposed isolation undermines this insight. It's a shame that the gimmicky dramatic elements required to give the show a plot eclipse its occasional moments of excellence.

The show is adequately animated, with the super-bright colour palette that's sometime almost too intense for comfort adding to the feverish atmosphere of two-dimensional infantilism and solipsism that characterise otaku-pandering media. The songs by cult rocker Kenji Ohtsuki, best known for his work on the black comedy Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei, are superb and the voice cast deliver fine performances. Welcome to the NHK may not be a casual anime fan's ideal choice, but more seasoned viewers - provided they keep their eyes open to the show's flaws and avoid the trap of wishing for their very own Misaki - will find a lot to enjoy here.


Richard Hunt

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