Although this piece is not intended to be a formal review, it is still provided in video format above and transcribed directly below. I would like to note that, as always, my scripts are written first and foremost to be experienced as videos (that is, read aloud), so no guarantees that jokes, grammar, or anything else will transition entirely smoothly to text.
Allow me to start off by saying that Welcome to the NHK is a good show, even a great one. It has strong characters, solid direction, decent soundtrack, great comedy, an affecting story, memorable and inventive openings and endings, the works. The technical merits of the production really fall apart in a handful of episodes, but in all other respects, if you just want to know whether or not it’s worth your time, that is a resounding yes. Welcome to the NHK is an anime you should watch. But I’m not here today to give you a complete general overview of the series, as I usually do. I am here to be specific and narrow about an, in my opinion, incredible part of the series: the character and portrayal and mindset and journey of Sato Tatsuhiro, the main character.
I almost always make it a point to avoid spoilers, because they’re rarely necessary to support my simple points and broad statements, but that is not the case today. From this point forward, the proverbial floodgates are open, at least a smidge. I won’t be going into excruciating detail about much of anything, but to say what I want to say, I cannot be vague, and I cannot tiptoe around certain events of the series. The spoiler zone begins now.
After that warning, I’d assume most of the people still here are familiar with Welcome to the NHK, but for thoroughness’ sake, I’ll explain the bare basics. Sato is a hikikomori NEET, an unemployed 22-year-old who spends his days just sitting in his apartment, due to a developed irrational fear of people and society, and solely supported by money from his parents. Additionally, Sato tells himself that all his life’s failings and current lackluster predicament are the result of a vague government conspiracy, though he does not actually completely believe that (kind of like Okabe and the Steins;Gate in Steins;Gate).
Right off the bat, the show makes an effort to immerse you into Sato’s somewhat unhinged psychological state. The camera has an affinity for odd shots and angles, the first episode alone making use of a fisheye lens, stark coloring, eccentric framing, and even just simply casting Sato in darkness whenever his NEET tendencies are at their worst. He regularly talks to either himself or imaginary personifications of inanimate objects throughout the room, and otherwise drowns himself in extended delusions of another life or a better world. They just generally do a thorough job of showing how far Sato has slipped from normalcy, or the societal norm of normalcy, to help you get where he’s coming from.
Sato’s not all there. He’s awkward, he’s lonely, he’s afraid. This is a show chronicling the struggles of a man who continuously falls in and out of the worst excesses of his lifestyle: day-after-day gaming sessions, falling in love with (and crying over) anime porn girls, spending all his money on figures and DVDS, etc., etc., while at the same time slowly hating what he has become but not knowing what to do about it. In the first episode, after a perceived but relatively nonexistent attack from a door-to-door pamphleteer on his lifestyle, Sato quickly turns manic and hostile, monologuing about the stupidity of trying to pity and help hikikomoris when he himself doesn’t understand his condition or his dilemma any better than they do, when he’s the one living it.
In this way, in its focus on a secluded individual, NHK is funny... but often kind of a sad funny, as when Sato berates himself for potentially going outside by pointing out “what kind of hikikomori would go outside two days in a row?” That’s crazy talk. Now if Sato had been handled poorly, had they not made an effort for him to be tragically relatable, he might have come off as just a caricature or a stereotype, a being whose situation and persona is too over-the-top to feel relevant to real-life, but that is the complete opposite of what happened.
Basically, Welcome to the NHK gets it. It gets the essential feeling of solitude, the nature of the isolation that leads up to and comes with being cut off from society, and as such Sato’s situation feels very real and plausible. There are so, so many throwaway lines or scenes or small actions that, while never the focus of the show, nail the feel of someone in Sato’s position, and explain how you could be led to push the world away.
Let’s say one day, after a string of bad luck, you step back, you look around, and you see everyone else, your friends, your peers, your coworkers, and maybe they seem so well put-together, doing everything apparently so much better, and you have to ask yourself, “I’m not like that, I have so many problems, so what am I doing wrong? What’s wrong with me when it’s clearly so easy for everyone else?” Following this line of thought, you get yourself worked up into a stupor. You start to feel isolated and cut off, like everyone’s looking down on you, everyone thinks you’re not good enough, you haven’t gone far enough.
You start to feel distant, inferior, lesser. You have to work up your courage just to start talking to someone, but then once you get started immediately second-guess everything you say, for fear that it sounds too cynical, or too sarcastic, or too anything, because then someone would think even worse of you. You dread meeting with your family and your friends because when they ask what you’re planning and what you want to do, you’re drawing a blank, but everyone assumes you must have something. So you just play it off with nonchalance, and hope nobody notices.
And these feelings of fear and uncertainty snowball into not wanting to see anyone. You don’t want to talk to anyone, you don’t want to communicate with anyone. It’s easier that way, it’s simpler to just not deal with other people, and before long... you don’t remember how to act any different, and you are truly solitary. Inevitably you start to question “With this many people around, why am I so lonely?”, so you slowly long for attachment, but because of your at-this-point nature, you can’t help but push it away.
To hopefully make up ground, perhaps you start small, trying for little, insignificant things (a simple game, a self-published book, etc.), hoping to against all odds make it big and feel relevant, important, because at this point you’ve been alone long enough that it is a legitimate fear that, no matter what you do, no matter how hard you try, your existence won’t matter. You’re running out of time to make a difference, and if things go south from here, that’s when the thoughts in the back of your head start to get louder, start to ask, start to question “Why? Why am I dealing with this? Why do I have to deal with this? I don’t want to. I’m tired, I’m sick of it, what is the point?”... and that is a dismal road without a happy ending.
All of that, every sentence, every single word, is an idea embodied and put forth by Sato in Welcome to the NHK. The series paints a frightening but hard-hitting picture of not only how things could end up, but the path taken to get there, though brought to some exaggerated extremes. Most people, no matter how awkward or nervous, do not reach a point where they are literally unable to move in a crowd of people.
Left like that, Welcome to the NHK would sound frightfully depressing. Where’s the entertainment or the message in a depressing descent into isolation beyond being simply a cautionary tale? Well, in the process of setting up and elaborating all these problems, it also puts forth some solutions, starting with the simplest of observations, a realization that turns the very genesis of that downward spiral on its head: Everyone has issues, no matter how it may appear. You may feel like everyone around you is perfect and has everything figured out, but in reality, plenty of those people probably feel exactly the same way.
With Sato, while his issues are relatively plain-to-see even to a divorced third party, the others in his life at first seem happy and well-off, but everyone has problems that are just downplayed and go unnoticed. Hitomi (a former classmate) is depressed and very nearly suicidal, Yamazaki (a friend and neighbor) is faced with the impending failure of his dreams and a demand to come back home, Kobayashi (another former classmate) gets caught up in a relentless pyramid scheme to support her brother, and Misaki (a friend and “counselor”) is driven by a crippling need to be needed. None of the people in this show, none of the main characters or even major side characters, are flawless and perfectly happy with their lives, despite any outward appearances, and recognizing that fact, recognizing that you are not alone in your uncertainties, your struggles, and your sadness, makes it a lot easier to cope.
Going further, it’s important not to let abstract worries and murky doubts dominate your decisions. As Yamazaki puts it at one point in the series, “Our everyday lives are just filled with nebulous and vague anxieties forever and ever.” And yet, it’s about persevering in spite of those anxieties, not letting them define you, being able to acknowledge them while still moving forward. If you let life’s problems get to you and break you, you’ve already lost. Sometimes you have to be self-aware, take a long hard look at yourself and your life and think about what needs to be done to change it and fix it, no matter how difficult that course of action may be. And often, that course of action is in fact much easier than you had mentally built it up to be.
This whole idea is really encapsulated by the very end of the series. Sato had spent the whole show struggling with his lack of job and livelihood, but once the money from his parents dries up and the options are either “work” or “starve”, Sato is forced to break out of his shell, and once he does so, he finds it is remarkably easy to actually make a living, even if a meager one. So many of the perceived obstacles were of his own making.
I won’t lie, all this hit very close to home for me personally. Sometimes while watching I had to pause the series and, like, go take a walk. It just cut too close. Being midway through college myself, I’m only a few years and a couple bad decisions away from being Sato at the show’s beginning, and it made me not only realize that, but confront it. The connection was almost too on the nose, as the majority of the series takes place over a period where Sato and Yamazaki are working together on a visual novel, and (while not exactly something of that nature) my own drive in education has been fueled by a pursuit of and desire to make games. So this lesson that came across, to basically just get your act together and get going, was something I immediately took to heart.
I spent a lot of the weekend right after I watched Welcome to the NHK doing things to get my immediate future and classes in order. I started working on coding and game engine tutorials, which is something I’d kind of been putting off for a while. The weeks after and since I finished, I’ve paid much closer attention to my classes and lectures than I ever have, at least since midway through high school.
So, this may sound dramatic, but I could say Welcome to the NHK was potentially life-altering. At its peak, it was one of the most resonant and impactful pieces of media I have ever experienced.
I’ll be frank, I do think it’s a little scary and worrying how deeply I related to this stuff, considering how dire some of the material was, but on the other hand, I think it’s healthy to be honest with myself and make the connection at all. Is it good how closely I connected to the shut-in, social outcast character? Perhaps not. But the mere fact that I did, and I recognized that I did, allows me to start searching for ways to improve.
What I ultimately got out of Welcome to the NHK was a simple but powerful message. To once again quote Yamazaki, “Don’t let the world beat you”. Life can be hard, life can be trying, life can be unexpected. It can be aggravating, it can be stupid, it can be unfair. Life sucks... but you can’t just give up.
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