Continuing my jaunt into the world of anime, I started watching Welcome to the NHK on the recommendation of my good friend Mark, who knows about these things. And if ever there were a show to ably demonstrate the massive possibilities of anime as a medium it’s this one. Watch it and then tell me that animation is in any way childish or silly.
I’ve only watched about half of the complete run so far, but I am very much appreciating what it does so far. It’s wonderfully put together, blending just the right amount of comedy, surrealism and pathos together to produce something extremely memorable and affecting.
For the uninitiated or curious, Welcome to the NHK revolves around the protagonist Tatsuhiro Sato, who is a hikikomori. (A hikikomori is a “shut-in” — someone who is not in employment, education or training (NEET) and who rarely leaves their home or interacts with other people except when absolutely necessary.) The story unfolds as Sato explores his condition and learns a great deal about himself through his developing relationships with several other characters — his neighbour and former schoolmate Yamazaki, his old school senpai (and crush) Hitomi and the mysterious young girl Misaki, who shows up offering to counsel him out of his hikikomori status for reasons that have not become completely clear at the point in the series I have reached thus far.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about Welcome to the NHK is that it doesn’t pull any punches about how these characters are represented. Sato is wracked with all manner of neuroses and social phobias; Yamazaki is a hardcore otaku; even Misaki, who initially appears to be sweet and innocent, clearly has some fairly serious issues of her own that she’s dealing with. Every one of the characters is dealing with some sort of “damage” and it makes every one of them interesting and unique by themselves. When they get together, as you might expect, the sparks frequently fly. But at no point are their conditions and issues really played for laughs — they are what they are, and if you find their circumstances amusing, that’s your decision, but they’re not specifically portrayed as being worthy of ridicule (or not, as the case may be).
In particular, I’ve found a lot of the show very relatable for a number of reasons. I recognise many of the things Sato in particular goes through — specifically with regard to his social phobias and discomfort at the prospect of dealing with other people. There’s also the fact that I was practically a hikikomori myself in the weeks/months following my split from my wife — I was a NEET, I was emotionally unstable, I had no idea what to do with myself and the prospect of going back home to live with my parents filled me with unspeakable dread, like an admission that I was a complete and total failure as a human being. Having survived all that intact — well, mostly — I know in retrospect that it wasn’t as bad as I thought, but when you’re there actually in that situation, it’s all too easy to let the negative thoughts, fear and anger run away with themselves. And with no-one around to keep you in check, it can be very difficult to deal with.
Aside from the personal perspective on the show, the other thing that I’ve been very impressed with is the soundtrack. It features some excellent tunes in a variety of different styles, ranging from some mournful Silent Hill-style jangly guitar melodies to more upbeat and “dramatic” numbers. They fit the on-screen action well and are reused enough to be recognisable but not so much to be tiresome or predictable. They’re also tweaked, changed and remixed every so often to either have different lyrics, or additional layers of lyrics, or different instrumentation. It gives the show a great feeling of consistency.
And speaking of consistency, there’s Pururin.
Pururin is a fictional anime show that Sato’s neighbour Yamazaki is obsessed with. It has such importance to the “world” in which Welcome to the NHK takes place that creators GONZO went to the effort to create a completely fake opening credits sequence for the show, seen above. The Purupurupururin theme that you probably already have stuck in your head if you were foolish enough to click “Play” on that video is a regular fixture in the background sound of the show — Sato meets Yamazaki as a result of hearing the song through his wall 24 hours a day (if you want 10 hours of it non-stop for a similar experience, go here), it’s several characters’ ringtones, it plays in the background of several shops and the Pururin character frequently appears on billboards and posters around the place. We never really find out a lot about who or what Pururin actually is, but from the opening sequence we can deduce that she’s some sort of magical girl with cat ears who appears to ride around on a vacuum cleaner.
All this isn’t even getting into the other awesome aspects of the show — the tenuous friendship between Sato and Yamazaki as they attempt to make an eroge together; the way in which Sato has a stronger impact on the people around him than he thinks; the unassuming, understated but utterly enrapturing cuteness of Misaki (plus the things she’s clearly hiding) — but suffice to say that the DVD blurb’s assertion that Welcome to the NHK is a “modern-day classic” is not without a certain degree of plausibility, and it’s well worth your time if you’re interested in character-driven, relationship-based stories featuring realistically-flawed characters with relatable issues.