Welcome to the NHK

Even as a high-school student, Tatsuhito Satō was inclined toward disengagement and social isolation, his only real friends being Hitomi Kashiwa, his conspiracy theory obsessed senpai, and Kaoru Yamazaki, a middle schooler whom Tatsuhito unsuccessfully tried to rescue from bullies. Despite this, however, Tatsuhito manages to graduate and earn himself a place at a Tokyo university; but it is while walking to class one day that he is suddenly overwhelmed by the conviction that everyone is talking about him and laughing at him behind his back. Unable to face the world, Tatsuhito flees to the security of his tiny, one room apartment and locks himself inside. Three years later, he is a confirmed hikikomori – a chronic social recluse – living off an allowance supplied by his parents and barely able to leave his apartment in order to buy supplies from the local convenience store. In the intervening period, Tatsuhito has become convinced that a sinister organisation called the NHK – not Japan’s public broadcaster, but a secretive cabal he knows as the Nihon Hikikomori Kyōkai, or Japanese Recluse Association – is responsible for plotting against him and turning him into a dysfunctional wreck.  At this point, however, Tatsuhito’s solitary existence is disrupted by two events. The first occurs when, disturbed by the constant loud music played by his new neighbour, he discovers that this is in fact his old friend Yamazaki, now moved to Tokyo to study at a trade school where he is learning computer games design. The second is a chance encounter with a young woman named Misaki Nakahara, who assures Tatsuhito that she has the wherewithal to cure him of his hikikomori condition – so long as he agrees to meet her at a local park every night, where she will lecture him in various aspects of psychotherapy, sociology, and existential philosophy. Tatsuhito and Yamazaki agree to try and develop an erotic ecchi computer game – in part as an exercise in Yamazaki’s trade school course, but also as a means through which Tatsuhito might be able to earn a living. Meanwhile, Tatsuhito begins his “lessons” with the mysterious Misaki – “lessons” that include “field trips” like going on “dates” and watching fireworks displays together – even though he is disturbed by the fact that she seems to know everything about him, but he knows nothing about her.  And if things couldn’t get any more complicated, that’s when Tatsuhito’s former senpai Hitomi appears, still obsessed with conspiracy theories, and bearing some dark inner demons of her own…

Based on the 2002 novel by Tatsuhiko Takimoto (a self-confessed hikikomori) and produced by noted anime studio Gonzo, Welcome to the NHK first appeared on Japanese television in 2006. Animated in a conventional mix of 2D and 3D animation techniques, Welcome to the NHK makes no attempt to downplay the grim realities of the hikikomori phenomenon, even if the series itself smooths over some of the more controversial aspects of the novel (drug use, Lolita culture, etc). Tatsuhito is depicted as a wildly dysfunctional, often unlikeable individual, even if he is intelligent enough to appreciate his situation and the accumulating negative impacts of his lifestyle. Likewise, the other characters are depicted as being to varying degrees dysfunctional, if somewhat more socially adept: Yamazaki has an anger management issue and a predilection toward the fetishization of women; Misaki often comes across as emotionally manipulative, evidence of her own damaged personality and the emotional neediness to which it gives rise; while a distinctly sinister air accompanies Hitomi and her ability to use Tatsuhito as a cushion for her own insecurities. A dark, cut-throat humour runs throughout the series, both leavening what would otherwise be endless drama, while at the same time adding poignancy to the characters’ various situations. A small niggle is the animation, which occasionally appears pedestrian; but the emotional weight and power of the story, aided by the distinctly ambiguous and even unsettling nature of the conclusion, overrides any misgivings in this regard. Effectively and engagingly executed, Welcome to the NHK is by turns a moving and disturbing tale that explores themes of loneliness, paranoia, mental illness, emotional immaturity, suicidal ideation and existential despair.

Text © Copyright Brendan E Byrne 2022. All rights reserved.