Reviewby Theron Martin, Oct 8th 2007
Welcome to the NHK
DVD - 1st Conspiracy
College dropout Sato is a hikikomori, an individual who has completely withdrawn from society and holes himself up in his apartment, and has been for going on four years. Not even the obnoxiously loud music from next door can snap him out of it, and his demented mind has come to the conclusion that he is the subject of a conspiracy to keep him down by the secretive NHK. Hope arrives on his doorstep one day in the form of Misaki, a pretty, friendly young woman who claims that she can help him escape his dead-end lifestyle, but Sato is reluctant to accept her help and finds himself caught in a web of lies upon trying to deny what he is. The discovery that his music-playing neighbor is actually Yamazaki, an otaku disenchanted with real life whom he knew in school, only drags Sato further into the pit but does offer him an interesting opportunity: to convince Misaki that he is not just hiding away in his room, he will make a “gal game” (i.e. hentai game) as proof that he is a “creator.”
ADV's advertisements for this one are a little misleading. Those who go into Welcome to the NHK expecting it to be something wacky like Excel Saga or playfully funny like Full Metal Panic! Fumoffu? are in for quite a shock, as anime comedies don't come any darker than this. Sato's actions, behavior, and situations certainly do have some humor inherent in them, but at times laughing at Sato feels as dirty and distasteful as laughing at the “special needs” kid you knew in school, the one stuck with the mentality of a 3-year-old. Think about the first volume more as a sociological and psychological case study which generates the occasional laugh and its true value and appeal appears.
Based on a light novel of the same name, the NHK anime explores two sociological phenomena that, while not unique to Japan, seem to be more prevalent there than anyone else in the world: NEETs (i.e. individuals aged 15-34 who are Not in Employment, Education, or Training) and especially hikikomori. The latter in particular has recently been the subject of jokes in anime, but nowhere else will you find such an in-depth look at what it actually means to be a hikikomori and how pathetic an existence it actually is. The first few episodes hit all of the major points which typify the hikikomori lifestyle: sleeping 16 hours a day; reluctant to leave one's room; rarely associating with other people; devoting all waking time to some combination of Internet porn, hentai games, TV, manga, or anime; not bothering to maintain personal hygiene; and withdrawing from society in general. So self-absorbed and limiting is this lifestyle that it can hold a grip akin to drug addiction on a subject, and like with drug addicts, an outside intervention is often required to drag a person out of it. Misaki presents such an “out” for Sato, but like with any drug addict he has to admit he has a problem and dedicate himself to doing something about it before he can be helped, and like with addicts, that usually requires hitting rock-bottom first. That, in essence, is what we see in episodes 2 and 3.
But the first volume does not limit itself to just analyzing hikikomori. It also explores other aspects of extreme otakudom, such as the nature of hentai/ero/gal games and otaku strongholds such as doujinshi stores and maid cafés. As much as you might want to think these elements are aggrandized for sake of parody, they may strike too close to reality for the comfort of some viewers.
An interesting trio of main characters forms the core of the recurring cast and goes a long way towards humanizing the story. Although how Sato slid into his hikikomori lifestyle is not explored in this volume, he serves as the tool to explore all the darker sides of obsessive fan behavior and social dysfunction, which sets him well apart from the normal girl-shy anime male lead. Yamazaki represents a character type rarely seen in anime: a hard-core otaku who doesn't appear to be socially maladjusted but retreats deep into his hobbies because of his anger and displeasure with reality. (His rants against real girls vs. hentai game girls are particularly revealing.) Misaki serves as the compassionate, insightful outsider who somehow knows Sato and sees saving him from his hikikomori nature as a “project.” Her tone at times suggests she may have an ulterior motive, but at this point in the series she still represents the uncompromising hope for a more mainstream life.
NHK will never be mistaken for an artistic masterpiece, but does have its visual good points. Background art, especially when depicting cityscapes and city streets, looks good and carry impressive detail, and close-up shots of characters usually fare well. Its male character designs set Yamazaki and Sato apart from run-of-the-mill college-aged males leads, and Misaki has a suitably fresh and attractive look without being overtly sexualized except in Sato's fantasies. (Although the pink parasol is overkill.) Sato's early hallucination scenes also have just the right feel. Hitomi, the recurring former senpai of Sato, has a more typical look, and character renderings which are never especially sharp become far rougher in many distance shots. Worse, the quality of the character artistry and animation suffers an atrocious breakdown for a while starting about nine minutes into episode 4. Even beyond that weak point the animation rarely looks good.
No fault can be found with the musical score, which never strikes a wrong note and flawlessly sets and enhances the mood of every scene. Most impressive in its light guitar, piano, and harmonica themes, it also offers nice rock, J-pop, and synthesized numbers and ratchets up the tension and anxiety of the more demonstrative scenes. This is a soundtrack worth listening to as an OST. An unremarkable J-pop number fronts each episode, while the thoroughly bizarre closer “Dancing Human Baby” (just try following the lyrics) mixes piano with heavy metal guitar, drum beats, and lyrical styling,
Fans sometimes complain about how ADV leans too much on a core roster of regulars for its dubs, but could anyone voicing English dubs these days fit the role of Sato better than Chris Patton? And while Greg Ayres' voice may not be a great match for Daisuke Sakaguchi as Yamazaki, he has just the right temperament for his role, too. Stephanie Wittels (Kano in Air and Yayoi in Air Gear) also is a nice fit as the kindly but not naïve Misaki, and none of the more minor casting choices and performances should generate significant gripes, either. The English script stays relatively close to the original, even using “gal game” as the original did instead of terms more familiar to American fans like “hentai game” or “ero game.” The only notable changes are the addition of bonus parodies in some of the Next Episode previews, including one that any fan of Neon Genesis Evangelion should catch. (Why it wasn't in the original script, when it offered such a golden opportunity, baffles me.)
Typical Extras include clean opener and closer. Also present is Conspiracy Handbook 101, ADV's title-specific alternate name for their regular glossary inclusion. In this case it includes several content-specific terms like “doujinshi” and “Akihabara” which diehard otaku may be familiar with but more casual fans are unlikely to know. Both 2.0 and 5.1 English language tracks are available.
It may not have any actual nudity, but the first volume contains enough swearing, suggestive content, and adult subject matter to warrant a TV-MA rating in the USA. It otherwise invites comparisons to the also-fan-centered Genshiken, but whereas that series took a more loving and sentimental look at fandom, this one delivers an uncompromising examination of the seedier side of fandom and commonly-associated social disorders. It offers some laughs but its first volume works far better if one regards it more as a drama piece.
Overall (dub) : B+
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : A-
Animation : C+
Art : B-
Music : A-
+ Inisghtful examination of an issue rarely dealt with seriously, excellent musical score.
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