Welcome to the NHK, Tatsuhiko Takimoto's dark glimpse into the mind of a hikikomori, is a filled with drugs, conspiracy, otakus, lolicons, and hentai games.
In his memoir, Haruki Murakami runs ideas into left field and runs readers out of their minds.
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Welcome to the NHK, Tatsuhiko Takimoto's dark glimpse into the mind of an hikikomori, is a filled with drugs, conspiracy, otakus, lolicons, and hentai games.
Do you ever have one of those days where you don't want to get out of bed, much less leave the house and deal with people? I had that feeling once in college, and it lasted for a week. That week I holed up in my dank apartment, ditched class, slept all day while feasting off frozen dinners and canned food. I avoided going online and turned off my phone. Didn't bother shaving or bathing because I didn't want to see anyone. It was most disgusting thing I had ever done. Now imagine doing that for a year... or more. Now you are beginning to get the picture of what it means to be a hikikomori.
Hikikomoris are pathological young shut-ins who withdraw into their bedrooms and virtual worlds to escape the real one. Professor/translator Motoyuki ShibataIn talks about hikikomoris in Roland Kelt's JapanAmerica, linking them to "what many feel is a pathologically conservative and pessimistic younger generation." He calls this group "the first generation in modern Japan to grow up without the sense that things would get better soon," thanks to the aftermath of the economic recession in the 90s that erased the confidence and job security for millions of salarymen who thought they'd be set for life. Other explanations Shibata include are "an aging population and declining or stagnant birth rate; an expanding class of young, part-time workers (freeters) with checkered resumes and scant skills; and so called NEETs ("Not in Employment, Education or Training") with their CVs and skill sets suspended in mid youth." It's a social phenomenon that has taken Japanese society by storm. Psychologists, socialists, and the media have given the sudden spike of hikikomoris in the past decade tremendous interest.
It has even penetrated the mainstream pop consciousness. Hit otaku romantic comedy Densha Otoko featured a hikikomori supporting character. The popular Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 video game featured a dehabilitating illness known as Apathy Syndrome, inspired by hikikomori characteristics. But Japanese pop culture received its first concentrated dosage of the hikikomori's plight in 2002, when Tatsuhiko Takimoto, a former hikikomori himself, decided to write Welcome to the NHK and cash in on this sudden interest. The novel was translated and released in the US last Fall by TokyoPop. Unlike my short-lived apathy-fueled seclusion, the novel's protagonist Satou Tatsuhiro withdraws himself from society because of fear and paranoia. The novel's title refers to the Japan's public broadcasting service, the Nippon Housou Kyoukai (NHK). Throughout the novel, the meaning of NHK transforms to meet the thoughts and needs of the characters.
Frightened of my futureless life, scared by my foolish anxieties, unable to see ahead and aiming nowhere, I continued ceaselessly living my ridiculously idiotic life. I was beset on all sides by invisible worries.
A college dropout with no marketable skills or aspirations, twenty-two-year old Satou doesn't have much to look forward to in life. He spends his days holed up in a tiny, filthy apartment, sustained only by a monthly allowance from his parents, who believe he's still enrolled in college. In the first chapter, he embarks on the first of several drug trips. While conversing with various household appliances, he reaches a mental epiphany: the NHK really stands for the Nihon Hikikomori Kyokai, or the Japan Hikokomori Association, a sinister organization that conspires to turn people like Satou in hikikomori. Satou decides to wage a secret war against the NHK. Of course, he has no idea how. To compound matters, he's agoraphobic and has suicidal thoughts.
Months pass, and he continues to live in the same slovenly stupor. That all changes one spring day. He meets Misaki, a mysterious religious solicitor who has her sights set on reforming Satou from his hikikomori ways. He describes her as an angelic teenage girl... with a derisive smile. It eventually becomes clear that Misaki intentions aren't exactly pure. He also befriends his new next door neighbor, aspiring game designer and lolicon aficionado Yamazaki, who turns out to be a former clubmate from high school. Satou's free-wheeling lifestyle suddenly becomes complicated. He agrees to nightly counseling sessions with Misaki, who forces him to sign a contract stating he will come to all the sessions or pay a massive fine. To impress Misaki, he lies about being "a creator" and then finds himself working on a hentai (erotic anime) game with Yamazaki to make his lie a reality.
Satou quickly finds Misaki's counseling sessions to be anything but useful. Young and naïve, Misaki doesn't offer Satou any applicable advice, but he continues his sessions to humor her and piece together who she really is. As she realizes the futility of her efforts, and as Satou actually gets worse in some ways as the novel progress, she clings onto him more.
Some people escape from reality by playing video games. Yamazaki, with sporadic help from Satou, escapes from it by creating one. The game itself is meta-fiction, a story within a story that also serves as a foil for the main plot of Welcome to the NHK, an ideal perversion of the reality the characters seek to escape from. The game's evolution from an erotic game to a role-playing campaign against a sinister organization responsible for all suffering (the NHK) serves as parallel commentary to the characters' shifting mindsets. Satou's awkward experiences working as the game's scenario writer provides an ample share of levity. As they begin to realize the futility of their efforts, they both fall deeper into depression and drugs-enhanced hallucinations.
Each character suffers from their own sets of sometimes overlapping neuroses. They feed off each other, help each other, and sometimes pull each other down. Each are withdrawn and broken in their own ways. Satou is xenophobic and agoraphobic. Yamazaki is a misogynist and has an unhealthy obsession with fictional young girls. Even Misaki has her own mental malady, one that factors into the novels conclusion.
In the finale, Satou finds himself faced with the question: how do you save someone when you wish to die yourself? He begins to debate whether to live or die, and how to unmask the source of suffering in life. The NHK itself. What is it? Satou changes its meaning several times to reflect the suffering he and his friends undergo. At the very end, the meaning of the NHK undergoes one finale transformation that binds Satou fate.
The stillness grew deeper. Why were we so sad? Why were we so lonely? Do you know the reason?
Purists will be a little turned off that the book is printed in the Western, right-to-left format instead of the Japanese left-to-right format. Often times, flipping the format is problematic for manga, causing the images to be reversed. For the book, which features no illustrations, this is s a non-issue. TokyoPop also kept the original cover, an illustration of Misaki drawn by Serial Experiment Lain artist Yoshitoshi ABe.
As a one of the largest manga publishers in the US, TokyoPop has a spotty history of loosely translating manga, sometimes inserting American pop culture references, altering names, and making other edits that irritate fans. Welcome to the NHK is one of TokyoPop's more faithful translations. The writing itself is simple and straightforward, with no awkward phrasing. It also retains all of the distinct Japanese phrasing. The only nuisance is the need to flip to the glossary in the back to look up the untranslated phrases. It would have been more convenient to include footnotes at the bottom of the page.
One signifier of success for a pop novel in Japan is the spinoff. The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya began as a series of novels, was adapted into a successful anime, and become a global phenonmenon. Socrates in Love inspired a manga, along with a live action movie and drama. The much beloved Densha Otoko story that originated on the internet inspired a novel, manga, live action movie, and a drama. Welcome to the NHK was successful enough to inspire its own pair of spin-offs.
The novel was adapted to the monthly manga format, published in the monthly Shounen Ace manga-zine from June 2004 to June 2007. The manga is illustrated by manga artist Kendi Oiwa and written by Takimoto himself. The 40 chapters have been compiled into eight volumes available in both Japan and the US. The manga is essentially an extension of the novel, introducing more subplots and additional characters. Minor characters, namely Satou's unnamed upperclassman clubmate, are given expanded roles. It follows the novel roughly to the halfway point before venturing off into brand new subplots. Unfortunately, the manga flounders in its own plodding, depressing subplots in the later volumes. It also has a completely different ending. Thankfully, TokyoPop pulled no punches with Welcome to the NHK's translation and content. It's much more explicit (drugs, violence, and nudity) than your average TokyoPop release, resulting in an annoying Parental Advisory warning printed on the cover. A sticker would have sufficed. When directly compared, the manga makes the novel seem clean, even with its copious amounts of drug references and dark undertones.
The anime is an interesting combination of the two. Produced by Gonzo, the 24 episode series ran in 2006 while the manga was still being published in Shounen Ace. It drops the drug references and hints of sexual abuse, along with all the nudity, from the manga, making it the most sanitized version, one suitable for a television broadcast. Ultimately, the anime adaptation is the weaker of the two adaptations due to the compromises and cuts that were made. But it still manages to retain some perverted, black humor, with Satou and Yamazaki's absurd shenanigans mostly intact. It also avoids the heavy-handed rut that the manga falls into. Even more pleasing is how accurately the show aesthetically captures the depressing tone of the novel and manga, thanks to its saturated colors and melancholic music. The anime includes some of the subplots and additional characters from the manga but uses the novel's ending. One of the reasons is because the manga series was still ongoing while the anime was in production.
It's interesting to note that Misaki is slightly different in each medium. In the novel, Misaki is pensive, pessimistic, and slightly withdrawn. In the manga, she comes off as selfish, loud, manipulative, and condescending. She's almost an entirely different character in the anime, where she is presented as sweet, considerate, and very supportive. While all three variations differ in temperament, what doesn't change is that Misaki's relentless desire to help Satou... for her own personal gain.
Identity... Love... Existence... Space... God... The time must come, someday, when we will be granted a final answer regarding these great mysteries. With that warm feeling buried in my heart, I keep living.
Regardless of the medium, Takimoto has crafted an engaging plot that is depressingly profound. Dark, but never too heavy, the novel provides an intimate glimpse of Japan from the perspective of someone that has all but given up on himself. Takimoto also captures a zeitgeist colored by apathy and pessimism. You can't help but hope that these repulsively repugnant reprobates can redeem themselves. The book and its adaptations manage to be comedic without making light of the neuroses that weigh down each character. Takimoto doesn't provide an answer to what it takes to cure a hikikomori, but suggest there is hope for even the most hopeless people, that the coldest of winters will eventually give way to a beautiful new spring.
Tatsuhiko Takimoto, Welcome to the NHK, Tokyo Pop, 2007
Date Posted: 10/3/2008