People are f****d up! Society is f****d up! The whole damn world is f****d up! Right, now I’ve got that off my chest, shall we begin?
Welcome to the NHK follows the many trials and tribulations of Tatsuhiro Satou – a young NEET (Not in Education, Employment or Training), who refuses to leave his apartment. One fateful day he meets Misaki, a young girl who takes pity on him and decides to make Satou her ‘project’ and enable him to re-enter society. Along with both help and hindrance from his old friend Yamazaki and their plans to create the world’s most epic erotic video game, Satou attempts to get off his arse and become a semi-worthwhile member of the public. Essentially, it’s hikikomori rehab, but with more emphasis on just how messed up the world actually is.
Despite it’s fairly cynical look at the darker side of life, Welcome to the NHK contains a lot of humour – all of which stems from Satou’s pitiable state. Whether giggling at seeing his MMORPG dreams smashing into a million tiny pieces or sniggering at his self-loathing as he attempts to become a full-on lolicon pervert, there are plenty of laughs to be found. Certainly it’s when Satou is at his most depraved that the comedy shines brightest. In particular one scene where the hikikomori is at his lowest ebb but decides to go all out on his… uhh… “Hyper self-pleasure” plan is the most rip-roariously hilarious thing I’ve read in a long, long time.
At times the plotline seems to go round and round in circles and follows the same basic formula: Satou sinks into a pit of depression then decides that he’ll sort his life out, leading him to a newfound enthusiasm for his and Yamazaki’s H-game. Then, he inevitably fails to actually get anywhere and instead gets sucked into some even more immoral scheme thus descending even further into the abyss. Though this can feel a little repetitive at times, it actually works well within the grand scheme of things.
Rather than bombarding the paranoid NEET with everything all at once, in a much more interesting – and sadistic – approach, each scam, obsession and disappointment immediately follows Satou’s latest burst of confidence. Every time our protagonist attempts to claw his way out of the dank hole he’s gotten himself into, there’s an offline suicide meeting or pyramid scheme waiting at the top ready to stomp on his bloodied fingers, sending him flailing back down into the darkness.
Welcome to the NHK’s artist, Kenji Oiwa, does a spectacular job of dragging the reader into Satou’s dark and troubled world. In general, the character designs are fairly plain with no out-of-place chibis or wide-eyed, super-cute ‘moe’ girls running amok. This manga focuses on just how damaged people can be and the cast of Lucky Star would look entirely wrong here – well, unless Konata was whoring herself out so she could pay for the latest manga release.
Some of the imagery has more of an edgy feel to it, which the mangaka uses to great effect when showing moments of Satou freaking out, or when he’s generally just in an even more depraved state than usual. In these sections the artist tends to use scratchier lines in one of two ways. On the one hand he adds extra detail into the face, such as unkempt stubble or an extra emphasis on the individual veins in the eyes, which leads to an uncomfortable, almost grotesque vision that perfectly mirrors Satou’s psychological distress. Alternatively, Oiwa will go in the opposite direction and remove various features so that the eyes are blank pools or the nostrils become the only visible nasal attribute. In both cases, the art has an uneasy quality about it, so the reader, much like the paranoid protagonist, never has that complete feeling of security.
Welcome to the NHK’s cast serves up a veritable smorgasbord of psychological disorders – if you think you’ve got problems, then think again! There’s the pill-popping Kashiwa; pathological liar and borderline personality, Misaki; and hentai game addict and uber-otaku, Yamazaki. Then at the centre of this is Satou, a paranoid, perverted hikikomori with a drug habit and a newfound preference for lolis. With enough mental instability to keep a psychiatrist in business for the next ten years he is quite the pitiable mess. Despite his perverted nature and obvious interest in “adult activities”, Satou retains a certain naivety, gullibility and dependency, which gives him a childlike quality. This mix of the mature and the infantile makes him wholly likeable and much deeper as an actual character.
Impressively, the remaining cast members not only display a remarkable depth of personality but also develop a lot themselves during Welcome to the NHK’s eight volumes. Playing off against the insecure Satou, Yamazaki’s bravado and revolutionary attitude mask his inept and scared nature while providing our protagonist with someone to look up to. Misaki initially exudes the confidence of being the one normal person in this story, when secretly she’s possibly the most messed up of all of them, leading her journey to become almost as important – if not more so in the latter chapters – than Satou’s. Finally Kashiwa’s melodramatic melancholy and complete bluntness serve as a debilitating force when it comes to the hapless hikikomori. Her frankness regarding suicide and affairs almost make her “issues” seem stereotypical and shallow – like she’s little more than an attention-seeker in need of a daily visit from the drama llama just to keep her sanity intact. With such strong characters supporting Satou, this manga feels fully fleshed out, allowing the reader to make up their own mind about each person’s situation.
If you’re looking for a moral from this story, then I refer you back to my opening statement. While it could seem like this manga merely showcases the dregs of society or the parts of it we’d rather forget and ignore, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Satou’s life isn’t glorified in any way, Misaki isn’t a role model, Kashiwa’s life isn’t picture-perfect, and Yamazaki probably isn’t the guy you’d want to take home to your parents – but it doesn’t matter. Welcome to the NHK is one of the most intelligent and entertaining dark comedies of the decade and a must-read for those looking for something a little more offbeat.