Note: Nope, haven’t read the manga yet.
Almost nothing is better than watching a show that exceeds all of your expectations. I jumped into this series expecting a polished rehash of the same old theme that almost all ecchi shows have: namely, one (or more!) cute girls inexplicably falling for an insultingly spineless Keitarou-clone loser. However, this GONZO work is not, by any stretch of the imagination, your average nerd-meets-girl. On the contrary, Welcome to the NHK! is a remarkably strange series – one that happens to be among the best of the year.
What makes the series so excellent is that it manages to work well on not one, or two, but three levels.
The first level is the one most people will enjoy the show for: namely, a witty romantic comedy involving quirky characters in unusual situations. Most of the laughs in the show come from the protagonist, Satou, a loveably dysfunctional shut-in whose tendency to fall headfirst into social problems is tempered only by his relentless paranoia. Most of his personality is developed through internal monologues, which, as with Kyon from The Melancholy of Suzumiya Haruhi, quickly flesh him out into a likeable, albeit bizarre, protagonist. Coupled with some equally strange but equally appealing supporting characters, Satou leaps from one anti-social obsession to another in rapid-fire succession. The bizarre situations Satou finds himself in, coupled with his strange personality, make for plenty of laughs and give the show a good deal of charm.
The second level is less immediately appealing, but is nonetheless fascinating. Alongside the comedy, NHK provides insightful commentary on Japans many societal problems. By unwittingly finding himself in the middle of some of Japan’s most dysfunctional circles, Satou acts almost as a medium through which the audience can see usually distant and abstracted problems up close in frightening detail. From the internet suicide chat-rooms to the NEET shut-ins, the anime gives faces, motives and reasons to these important and alarming statistics. In the end, in addressing real-life problems in Japan, this is probably the most honest and believable anime out there.
Finally, there is a third level that surfaces most near the end. Put simply, NHK is in part a desperate search for meaning in a vast and lonely world. One of Satou’s most telling lines is, "I am alone in the universe." His inability to relate with society almost forces him to be what he is – a lonely, emotionally neutered husk of a human being. This theme carries over to the supporting characters as well; each troubled soul searches endlessly for some hope, some iota of meaning, and always comes up short due to his or her own insecurities and idiosyncrasies.
While this anime could have been good with just the first two “levels” of entertainment, the third level is really what makes the show. There is an underlying sense of poignancy running through the entire work; even as I laughed at Satou’s numerous shortcomings, the sad truth is that I saw a lot of myself in his exaggerated character. As individuals who necessarily live at least somewhat on the fringe of society, I suspect other anime watchers will have similar thoughts.
I was a little apprehensive to see GONZO helming this series. However, unlike other anime by the studio, GONZO doesn’t allow over-p=roduced animation to interfere with the show. While at times the show is quite visually innovative (particularly when Satou is in the throes of some wild personal fantasy), for the most part the studio plays it straight. The result is a visual look that seldom wows, but provides a solid backbone for the story to rest on.
The sound, on the other hand, is great. An impressive array of seiyuu performances is led by Koizumi Yutaka, whose fevered and thoroughly erratic rendition of Satou borders on transcendent. For music, I particularly enjoyed “Purupuru Pururin,” a deliberately inane JPop song that pokes fun at the musical taste of anime-watchers. The rest of the soundtrack is suitably zany, with a solid OP by Round Table and a hilarious ED.
As mentioned in the story section, Satou really steals the show here as the loveable anti-hero. The other characters usually just act as foils to him, but are generally interesting in their own right as well.
As a whole, NHK ni Youkoso! is a landmark achievement for the year. Besides the fact that some people may find the transition from comedy to drama awkward, I’d recommend this to just about everyone. No other anime this year has appealed to me in so many different ways.
Tatsuhiro Sato is a university dropout and a "hikikomori" – a person suffering from social withdrawal. To Sato’s dismay, his self-imposed exile from the world is rudely interrupted when a mysterious girl knocks on his door. She has charged herself with the task of curing Sato of his hikikimori ways! Now, as new problems ranging from hentai games to internet suicide spring up, can Sato manage to overcome his hermit-like ways, or will the imaginary N.H.K conspiracy force him to remain a hikikomori forever?