Reviewby Carlo Santos,
Welcome to the N.H.K.
Things seem to be going from bad to worse for socially maladjusted hikikomori Tatsuhiro Satou. His stint in multi-level marketing has left him deeply in debt, and his next-door neighbor Yamazaki is throwing fits now that his parents want him to drop out of animation school and come home to Hokkaido. (And were they ever going to finish that ero-game?) Out of desperation, Satou goes on a date with his soon-to-be-married former classmate, but all that does is trigger the jealousy of Misaki, who's still intent on changing Satou's ways. Misaki reveals the disturbing truth about her childhood, but as she uses her pitiful situation to garner sympathy, it makes Satou think about how pitiful his own life is ... and that suicide may be the only way out.
Cultural and social satire take a little vacation in this volume of Welcome to the N.H.K., if only because the series has already skewered just about everything there is to skewer about modern society. Instead, this story arc digs deeper into the main characters, developing the ongoing drama between them. In Satou, Yamazaki, and Misaki, we see various aspects of "human failure": the college dropout who simply lacks the skill or will to accomplish anything, the stressed-out otaku whose unusual desires get in the way of what his family wants, and a young girl whose problems have forced her to seek out someone just as pathetic as she is. More than anything else, these chapters are very character-focused, with strong emotions and personal issues being the main draw. Geek humor and raunchy comedy? Sorry, you must be looking for another series. Right now, this one's getting into some serious business.
There's just one little problem with focusing solely on the characters: it seems that the plot has taken a vacation as well. In the past, there was a pretty solid formula of Satou getting into some ill-advised fad (otaku lifestyle, suicide cults, online gaming) and then getting the hell out. Now, with his prospects at rock bottom, he seems to be doing a whole lot of wallowing in misery, and that doesn't make for very good storytelling. It doesn't help that the other main characters are wallowing as well: Yamazaki, when he's not theorizing on ero-games, seems to spend most of his time arguing with his parents, and Misaki is just flailing around trying to attract Satou's attention. If only the story would actually go somewhere! In fact, in the final chapter, it does: deep into the mountains and off a cliff, where Satou makes a suicide attempt. However, it's still preceded by about 150 other pages of endless wallowing. Let's just say, if you're into action, momentum and complex plotting, this one's going to be a forgettable experience.
Those who are into NHK for the highly developed character drama, however, will find these chapters to be some of the most memorable yet. Behold the madness of Yamazaki as he has an "important" talk with his crush (admittedly, Yamazaki's otaku shtick is one of the last few sources of comedy here), or Satou's ongoing desperation to score with a girl (even as he pushes one away). The highlight of this volume, though, is Misaki's cry for help, expressed most concretely in her childhood flashback. It's a poetic yet terrifying scene that describes, in just a few pages, the kind of trauma that all these characters are going through. The repercussions of that flashback are also felt in the next couple of chapters, as Misaki tries to manipulate Satou by playing the pity card; when she brings it up once again during his suicide attempt, the subsequent reaction puts a powerful exclamation point on this volume. Doubts, lies, and flaws everywhere ... even though these characters are so unlikeable, their absurd behavior and twisted relationships make for very compelling reading.
This portrayal of dysfunction and human failure would not be complete without the range of facial expressions packed into the artwork. The novel may be the source material, but it's here in illustrated form that we can really see just how warped the characters are, from Satou's paranoid muttering in the opening scene to Misaki's mad-eyed revelation at the suicide spot. Yet the language of emotion goes into more than just the characters' faces: the layouts and backgrounds also set the atmosphere, whether it's the heavy use of black during Misaki's flashback, or the mountain setting that creates a contradiction of beauty during Satou's suicide attempt. Enclosed rectangular panels make this a fairly straightforward reading experience, yet there's never the feeling of things being static or boring. Instead, the variety of view angles and dynamic gestures keep the art lively; if it's not just Satou looking crazy, then he's also acting crazy, running around or jumping about. The clean, bold lines also avoid any unwanted visual clutter.
The language of NHK is loaded with depression and self-loathing, but there are also splashes of absurdity that make the writing sparkle. Only a couple of nutcases like Satou and Yamazaki could get away with discussing the moe-ness of a girl dying from an incurable disease, or hyping the non-existent artistic merits of their ero-game. However, a majority of the dialogue in this volume is more serious, and it does get a bit repetitive seeing Misaki talk about how pathetic she is for the fifteenth time. (The only thing more repetitive is when Satou gets into it as well.) Fortunately, the translation is equally adept in either situation, and even manages to get colloquialisms right. Readers will also find a number of cultural footnotes included where necessary. The only flaw in this edition is the spotty work on sound effects; the Japanese characters are left intact but mostly untranslated.
For those of us who were used to seeing Tatsuhiro Satou throw himself desperately into bizarre cultural fads, this volume may seem like a disappointing departure from the norm. However, it ends up in a much more intriguing place, looking into what makes these characters tick rather than just pointing and laughing from the outside. It may not be the best or most entertaining volume of NHK, but it does serve its purpose, which is to deepen the story and make the characters even more dysfunctional and twisted than they already are. Misaki gets her moment in the spotlight, Yamazaki finds himself at a crossroads, and Satou, poor Satou, looks to be at the end of his rope. And with all the people around trying to manipulate him, who can really blame him? It looks like this psychological battle to escape the hikikomori lifestyle is far from over.
Overall : B
Story : C+
Art : A-
+ Focuses on the main characters and brings in a couple of psychological twists and revelations.