I couldn’t help but notice that a lot of recent anime have been about, or targeted directly to, otaku. Genshiken and Comic Party are about fandom; Haruhi Suzumiya and other “moesploitation” shows cater to otaku fetishes (even if it’s with a wink and a nod); the Densha Otoko phenomenon has even glamorized otaku for a moment in the general culture. Into this increasingly crowded field steps Welcome to the NHK, a show that introduces itself as a darkly comic variant of the first type of show, but only as a wedge to open up bigger, more universal issues. I came in expecting to laugh, perhaps in pity or contempt, at the patheticness of shut-in Satou and his mountains of porn and crumpled tissues. I ended up seeing a group of ordinary, lonely people struggling and often failing to make real connections. People who frequently give up entirely because that’s what lots of people do, but people I grew to care about enough that it hurt to see them fail, and for whom even a small triumph is a cause for minor celebration.
I think it’s approppriate that I watched Terry Zwigoff and Daniel Clowes’ Ghost World just before the final episode of NHK. Both are based on comics, of course. But the stories also share some striking similarities: both feature quirky, emotionally broken girls trying to help socially maladjusted older men, and in both the young women face emotional crisis when their “wards” grow past their tutelage. Both also deal poignantly and realistically with the separation of close friends, and treat their characters with genuine empathy rather than condescension–though not without a bit of a caustic streak, whether it be commenting on hipster pretensions, nerd fetishes, or vast record collections.
The differences are revealing, though. Misaki is certainly not Enid, who uses hip cynicism as her defense mechanism–instead, she makes contracts complete with fines and hides behind the facade of quasi-scientific authority. The story is also mostly about Satou, not Misaki; Ghost World is about Enid, who actually envies Seymour for his individuality, rather than feel satisfying pity. Moreover “Ghost World” maintains its indie credibility all the way up to its deeply bittersweet, ambiguous ending, whereas NHK, a mainstream production, feels the need to ultimately give pretty much everyone a reasonably happy ending (unlike, I am told, the bitter-bordering-on-nihilistic manga). I feared in my last post that it might be pat, but fortunately, the writers at Gonzo managed to avoid the most obvious traps. At the end of the show, you feel like Misaki and Satou have shown themselves to be so broken, so in need of rescue and hopeless, that they can’t help but deserve each other’s company and rescue each other.
The way they get to that reasonably happy ending is hardly straightforward, or typical either. As a wannabe theologian I was tempted to see the fence that saves Satou’s life when he jumps off the cliff as a sign of grace, since it’s like a THIRD chance at life well beyond his deserts since he has almost jumped off a cliff once before, but it’s probably more accurate to see it as yet another thwarted effort in trying to make his life mean something grand. “It’s not becoming of us to die so spectacularly,” Yamazaki commented once, and so it’s entirely possible to see Misaki and Satou’s lives from thereon as being cursed to ordinariness. The whole NHK conspiracy angle–paralleled by Misaki’s search for a God to blame for her troubles (how many twists and turns did it take for a show that started by making fun of galgames to start directly tackling theodicy?)–is an effort to reach beyond that, to find something bigger than just the mixed motives and hidden little traumas that human life consists of. The show suggests that trying to look for something beyond that is futile, and dangerous; Misaki, Satou, and Hitomi are only able to move on in their lives when they are able to give up their need to find a grand scheme of things to direct their blame. This strikes me as at once idealistic and cynical, though on balance the show wants us to believe this is hopeful, that the characters can live with a measure of relative happiness just by being with each other.
I found it interesting that the show, though deeply compassionate, actually sides with what a lot of older Japanese people believe about hikikomori–that they are simply parasites on society and that the best solution is to cut them off. (See this NPR story on the subject.) I’ve seen some debate online as to how realistic that actually is, in that the anime shows two examples of how the threat of starvation is enough to cure the problem, even in a really serious case like the MMO-obsessed brother. Satou’s case is very mild if it even qualifies, honestly; he is almost never actually alone, and is surrounded by faithful, albeit deeply flawed, friends and family who support him. Moreover, it’s really interesting how, in the end, it seems that Satou’s mother is actually the wisest person in the entire show. She knows her son well enough to see through his deception, and also recognizes that, even in the deception, Misaki is also somehow very good for him anyway–and so “plays along” at the end. (Incidentally, I thought the episodes featuring her visit to Satou was the show’s turning point, where it stopped being just an otaku satire and into a penetrating drama.) Misaki herself is apparently treated much more gently here than in the manga, though her “type”–the person addicted to feeling needed by others–is quite common in the “helping professions” and makes a great deal of sense given her background. I felt a slight twinge of “I’ve heard this before” as she bewails her uselessness and worthlessness at the end, both because there has been quite a lot of anime that deal with that feeling since Evangelion and also because there are quite a lot of people, especially would-be Marthas who want to be “useful”, who struggle with the same feelings.
What is Welcome to the NHK! then? When I first heard the title, I scoffed–a show about what it’s like to work in Japan’s public television station? (Then again, if they can make a show about bread baking work so well…) It ends up being, among other things, a very effective cautionary tale (less oblique than Evangelion and much more convincing than Rozen Maiden), but, much like its odd Western cousin Ghost World, it’s really about oddly ordinary friends who can’t help but screw up, hurt, and plot schemes in a world that may, or may not, be aligned against them–or just too big, weird, and complex to care either way. And maybe that’s enough for these characters, and for us who watch them. I don’t know any other anime of this ilk that could do more.
RATING: 8.9/10–contender for best of the year