Reviewby Carlo Santos, Aug 12th 2007
Welcome to the N.H.K.
Being a socially awkward, housebound hikikomori may be the least of Tatsuhiro Satou's problems. His latest crisis is a severe addiction to online RPGs, and even his friendly neighborhood "counselor" Misaki can't snap him out of it! It might take some drastic measures to restore Satou's mind to reality, and even then, there's always some other societal virus just waiting to infect him. After all, who can resist the promise of riches from a pyramid sales scheme?
If anyone was still under the misguided impression that Welcome to the NHK was some kind of goofy otaku fun-fest, this volume should set them straight. Gone are the days of maid cafés and ero-games; Satou's descent into depravity has long since surpassed the Fanboy Circle of Hell. It seems even Misaki, his self-proclaimed "guardian angel," finds herself staring into the abyss ... and having the abyss stare back at her. As an examination of the human psyche's dark side, this series is second to none. It's not just about Satou's desperate state anymore, but about the characters surrounding him as well, and how society's pressures have pushed them all into madness. Yes, most of this sounds unbelievably depressing. But with the story's sharp, satirical tone, it can also be unbelievably funny.
To find the unbelievably funny part, just go straight to the opening chapter, which breaks into a hilariously dead-on spoof of "Online RPG Fire Fantasy." Familiar characters and monsters and gameplay are all here, and Satou's obsessive behavior often hits awfully close to home. (The best part of the spoof, however, is saved until the next chapter.) At the same time, though, this raucous send-up segues into a more serious part of the storyline: Misaki's drastic attempt to rehabilitate Satou by tying him up in a locked room. At first it seems like just an escalated version of what's been going on in the first two volumes, but it only takes one line for Satou to turn the tables on Misaki: "If you're 17, shouldn't you be in school?" At last, it looks like Misaki's psychological armor is starting to crack.
It's this kind of dark, cynical character drama that drives the story so well. However, the element of satire also adds another layer of entertainment, especially with Satou's foray into the world of multi-level marketing. Just when you thought this series had skewered every part of society ... it manages to find another one. The ultra-positive brainwashing and high-pressure mantras are all there, but what this part of the story does better than anything else is to show how sales vultures prey on the self-esteem of others. With Satou as the ultimate case of low self-esteem, there's something morbidly fascinating about seeing a sales rep sink her teeth into him and dump a pile of useless "My Way" products into his lap. By this point it's impossible to tear one's self away from the beautiful, psychological trainwreck that these characters have become. If there is any criticism against the story, it's that one key player—Yamazaki—doesn't get to put in much of an appearance here, and the plot itself is becoming monotone: it's always "Oh look, Satou is being pulled ever deeper into a cycle of despair!"
As always, the artwork of the series is solid throughout, and the RPG segment in particular gives Kendi Oiwa a chance to stretch out artistically—fancy costumes, towering dragons, pastoral backgrounds. Most times, however, the main challenge lies in depicting Satou's many states of mental distress—and Oiwa somehow manages to come up with a new facial expression for every situation. It's endlessly entertaining to watch the parade of shocked, disturbed and stressed-out faces as Satou confronts each of society's ills. Detailed backgrounds also help to bring the story across: Satou's cluttered, anime-poster-strewn apartment is an instant reflection of his personality, for example, and the crowds at the multi-level marketing seminar really capture that pumped-up mass hysteria. With clean, rectangular layouts and frequent speedlines leading the way, this a story that moves along briskly and bristles with energy.
Out of Tokyopop's many, many translations, this series stands among one of their best, if not the best. One footnote in the cultural glossary (when was the last time they ever did a cultural glossary?) says it all: "Translating the crazy ramblings on these pages are a major pain in the ass, but it's worth it because they are absolutely hilarious"—in response to a four-page omake where Satou rants about his ero-game and wonders if the rant will be translated along with the rest of the manga. Oh yes, about the rest of the manga—the dialogue is full of vigor and wit, with a straightforward tone that conveys mad outbursts, tearful breakdowns, and everything in between. The art is reproduced sharply as well, so the only shortcoming left is the fact that this publisher still chooses not to translate sound effects.
Welcome to the NHK walks a strange line between emotional extremes—and maybe that's what makes it such a unique experience. At its most insanely comical (the online RPG arc), it still carries a cloud of of desperation; at its most pitiable (Satou getting suckered into MLM), there is still something to laugh at. Certainly, it's not to be confused with the average mainstream manga where a pathetic loser guy gets into a series of quirky misadventures. No, this is about a a guy who's so pathetic, so far past loser, that he can barely even function in society. And then, when society starts to cave in on him, they get to be shown in that unflattering spotlight as well. Clearly, nobody—and nothing—is safe from this series' piercing, cynical outlook on life.
Overall : A-
Story : B
Art : A-
+ Fascinating as ever as it digs even further into the main characters' psychological problems.
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