Anime Review: NHK ni Youkoso!

In which wildarms tries his hand at an anime review. Let’s see how it goes. If it goes well we’ll see more, but I probably won’t review any bad shows given I only watch shows I like. This is to help my writing more than anything, but if it helps someone then that’s cool, I guess. Anyway, on with the review.

Title(s): NHK ni Youkoso!, N・H・Kにようこそ!, Welcome to the NHK!
Info: Originally a light novel by Takimoto Tatsuhiko, published in 2002. Was then adapted into a manga with art by Oiwa Kendi (Goth) in 2004, which is still running in Shounen Ace. Anime adaptation by Gonzo (Gankutsuo, Blue Submarine No.6) which ran for 24 episodes between July 9th, 2006 to December 17th, 2006.

When it was first announced that Gonzo was going to be behind the NHK anime adaptation, a good number of people approached the show with a degree of caution, given the studio’s shaky track record, or “The Gonzo Factor“. While the nasty Gonzo factor does rear its ugly little head here, it doesn’t hit as bad as it usually does. The NHK anime gets a lot right, but unfortunately got some very important things wrong.

Our intrepid protagonistSatou Tatsuhiro is a hikikomori who has been secluded in his apartment for four years after dropping out of college. One day, during one of his (drug induced?) hallucinations, Satou comes to the conclusion that his being a hikikomori is the fault of a conspiracy put into motion by the secret organization known as the NHK. In Satou’s mind the Japanese television station NHK (Nihon Housou Kyoukai, Japan Broadcasting Corporation) runs anime programing in order to turn people into otaku, and figures the next logical stage after otaku is hikikomori. Thusly, he believes NHK actually stands for Nihon Hikikomori Kyoukai. Through a series of coincidences, he runs into a young girl named Nakahara Misaki, who claims she can cure him of his hikikomori ways if he takes part in her mysterious “project.” Throughout the series, Satou happens upon a number of friends from his years in high school including his old junior turned anime otaku, Yamazaki Kaoru; his senior who has taken a liking to pharmaceuticals, Kashiwa Hitomi; and the former class president who has started to take part in some questionable business, Kobayashi Megumi. As the series progresses, Satou is roped into erotic game development, seedy off-line forum gatherings and the world of MMORPGs.

NHK’s strength lies in its characters, given the plot is essentially a series of random unpleasant events. What is important is how these events affect the characters and what the characters take from these experiences, which is something NHK portrays quite well. All of the characters are deeply flawed, and while these flaws are usually exploited for the sake of black humour, there are serious scenes sprinkled throughout that force each character to change in some way. The only character that doesn’t completely add up is the lead, Satou himself. Half the time it seems that Satou is only a hikikomori because the story says he’s a hikikomori, given the amount of times he’s willing to step outdoors for various reasons. However, one could chalk this up to him wanting to do anything to rid himself of his hikikomori life. And, to be fair, he usually has some degree of indecision before stepping out of the house. He certainly is socially awkward enough to be a hikikomori, though.

Misaki tries to be moeAs far as being an adaptation goes, the NHK anime fails to a certain degree. People expecting something faithful to the manga right down to each line will be disappointed. While as much manga as possible is covered in these 24 episodes, the anime treats the material differently. There is a distinct change of tone– the rather visceral and frantic tone of the manga is severely watered down here, and so are most of the jokes. Because of this the series loses a lot of its edge, thus making it less appealing to those who follow the manga for those elements. This watering down can also been seen in the character designs. Ishihama Masashi, who did the character designs for the anime opted for a more streamlined look to the characters. The designs for the anime are quite nice and attractive, but almost all of Oiwa’s roughness is gone. It can be argued that the anime designs were trying to channel ABe’s novel illustrations, but this is a bit of a stretch. The anime really has a look of its own.

There are clear changes in the story. The anime liked to change certain events around for sake of adding more drama, which worked to varying degrees. Also, given the 24 episode length, the series could not cover all the manga material and had to have an original ending (as far as I know, I have not read the novel.) This original ending is very satisfying. It manages to very emotionally charged and shows how the characters have changed over the course of the series. Hardcore fans of the manga may object to certain elements of the anime ending, however. In general, when watching the NHK anime one has to keep in mind that it is not trying to copy the manga, but rather do its own thing with the story. The story does manage to flow better than the manga, though. The manga’s narrative is very jumpy and uneven, but events in the anime flow very well. One big difference between the two versions is how they open. The anime opens with a long drawn out dream sequence that quite literally puts you into Satou’s mind and the rest of the episode is spent with Satou slowly explaining his condition to the viewer. The manga, on the other hand more or less throws the reader in there with little explanation or sense of introduction.

Yamazaki shows off his Otaku powerThe anime adds a lot of unique touches absent from the manga. One being the various portrayals of the NHK itself. The NHK is shown in a variety of creative ways, from Matrix-esque agents who can seemingly disguise themselves as anybody, to strange little Dr. Seuss inspired creatures that have the katakana “ヒ (hi, as in hikikomori)” on their heads and the letter H on their bellies. These surreal images, along with others are always shown when Satou is having some kind of nightmare or daydream about the NHK. They add another degree of surrealism to the story, which probably makes up for the lack of insanity in the manga that didn’t find its way into the anime. One other original anime element is Pururin, the heroine of a magical girl show that Yamazaki and Satou are both fans of. Pururin is a fun little show-within-a-show which seems to be a parody on a lot otaku-pandering moe shows. This over the top satire works very well in a show like NHK, given NHK is mostly dark satire itself.

On the technical side of things, NHK is a mixed bag. The animation is probably the show’s largest flaw. The first and last episodes are both animated extremely well, but everything in between is incredibly inconsistent. The various animation directors hardly make any effort to stay true to the character designs. While we do get some interesting styles out of this, this inconstancy really detracts from the show, given its grounding in reality. If NHK’s story was something less realistic and more surreal (think Paranoia Agent) then this fluctuation would be a little bit more acceptable, but in this production it just comes off as laziness. The actual movement of everything is fairly good, however around the show’s middle section we do see some suspicious pans, sliding of images and awkward movements. There are some spots of reused footage, too, but that only happens a few times in about one or two episodes. Background art is always at a high standard, particularly cityscapes. A special note should be made about the opening (YouTube link), which is just a very nice piece of animation in general. The opening has a very simplified color scheme, but is animated fluidly and is directed brilliantly.

Satou's pre-freak out faceOne spot where the show shines it its direction. Chief director Yamamoto Yusuke along with the various other episode directors do a great job in making the show stand out direction-wise. The more quiet and surreal moments are handled in an almost Hideaki Anno like way, while the more energetic moments are handled with a lot of style. Part of what makes the direction so great is the music. The music always enhances the various scenes and matches the energy presented by the visuals well, be it a quiet scene or one of the more insane scenes. The show presents us with a lot of nice unique shots and sequences, too, which enhances ones immersion into the story.

Voice work here is of a fairly high standard. The only somewhat awkward actor is Koizumi Yutaka, who does Satou. Initially Satou’s voice comes off as too deep, but over the course of the show Koizumi’s voice adjusts well with the character. He handles all of the “freak out” scenes very well, and can deliver lines very emotionally when the story calls for it. Makino Yui’s portrayal of Misaki is appropriately cute yet down to earth, never really coming off as fake. Sakaguchi Daisuke, who plays Yamazaki is geeky enough, but also has a bit of a serious streak, which works well for his character. Overall there are no real problems with the acting here, and it is probably one of the higher points of the series.

Counseling sessions are the main part of Misaki's projectThe music in this series really deserves mention. With background music by the Pearl Brothers, opening by ROUND TABLE Featuring Nino and ending themes by Otsuki Kenji, Kitsutaka Fumihiko and Makino Yui; the series really goes all out in the music department. The Pearl Brothers put together a stylish score which covers a number of genres such as blues, hard rock and laid back jazz. There is music for pretty much any kind of scene, and it all sounds very good. ROUND TABLE Featuring Nino delivers their usual laid back pop sound with a slight 70s twist for both mixes of the opening theme, PUZZLE. One mix, used for the first half of the series has a strong focus on horns, while the second mix used for the later half of the series drops the horns and comes in with an electric guitar. Both themes work very well with the opening animation and sound great, but some manga fans may find the tone of these songs conflicting with the tone of the series. Ostuki Kenji and Kitsutaka Fumihiko handle the first ending theme, Odoru Aka-chan Ningen (Dancing Baby Human) which is a delicious metal piece that highlights the show’s more visceral moments. Makino Yui’s song, Modokashii Sekai No Ue De (On Top of a Frustrating World) is used as the second ending theme and is a lot more relaxed compared to the first theme, but has a hopeful sound that characterizes the second half the series very well.

Overall, NHK is one of those series which had so much potential to be perfect, but fell short in a few important areas. The show really would have benefited from more attention paid to the animation and a better understanding of what some scenes in the manga were trying to communicate. It does score points for solid voice work, music, direction and introducing some interesting aspects not in the manga. People not yet acquainted with the manga and have a fetish for dark humour would probably like NHK, and manga fans with an open mind should appreciate this adaptation as well. In the end, it’s pretty solid entertainment and that’s what we watch anime for, right?

Overall Rating: 7.5/10