Review: Welcome to the NHK (novel)

The only illustration you people are gonna get

I wasn’t totally idle in my hospital stay! I managed to finish reading the Welcome to the NHK novel by Tatsuhiko Takimoto, published in the United States by Tokyopop. The anime version of this story was one of my favorites of 2006 and is in part responsible for the very existence of this website, and I was curious as how this novel, which predates both the manga and the anime, would fare in comparison. The contrasts and similarities are instructive.

This is not a light novel in the usual sense; there are no pictures or illustrations apart from the cover. It’s a plain, good-old-fashioned novel novel. That aside, for those who are familiar with the anime or the manga, the basic storyline is the same. A hikikomori named Satou meets an evangelical girl named Misaki, who embarks on a quest to cure him of his social maladies. The other main character, Yamazaki, is an embittered, irascible otaku who tries to rope Satou into creating an eroge with him. The story is told in the first person from Satou’s point of view, but in many ways it’s about the dysfunctions of the main trio of characters, about how these social rejects try to come to grips with their insurmountable problems–and often failing in the process.

The tone of the novel, unlike the anime, is consistently sardonic, cynical, and even despairing at times. The anime manged to find (believably, in my opinion) a genuinely earnest and touching mood in due time, often by lingering on scenes that in the novel are brief and, in my judgment, sometimes glossed over. For instance, Satou in the anime has a fairly developed and well-portrayed troubled relationship with his mother which is completely absent from the novel; those scenes were the turning point of the show for me, where it became much more than just black satirical comedy. An entire subplot about Satou’s depressed sempai from high school, as well as another classmate with a MMORPG addicted brother, is also missing. The ending, however, is almost identical in both, and has largely the same effect–though some of the dialogue which the anime places near the end is placed near the middle of the novel, where it has less emotional punch since compared to the anime, we don’t get to know the characters quite as much in depth. Sometimes the novel felt like a skeleton outline of the story that the manga and anime would flesh out further. Still, the anime is a very true representation of the story in the novel. Most every major plot point in the novel is covered in the anime.

Another interesting aspect of the novel is how much more specific it is is naming names. The religious cult that Misaki and her aunt belong to, for instance, is clearly named and is meant to parody the Jehovah’s Witnesses: they meet in an “Imperial Hall,” they quote the actual Bible correctly, and they go door to door with magazines called the Tower of Druaga. The big doll statue Yamazaki leaves Satou with when he leaves for his hometown is named as that of Ruriruri, from Martian Successor Nadesico. Actual child lolicon stars are also named. (Purin in the anime is nowhere to be found.) My guess is that trademark and copyright issues are more prominent on TV than they are in prose.

Does this work as a story on its own? I’d say it does mostly, though my perception is colored by my experience with the anime, which I felt was a rich emotional journey. (I was tempted to fill in the novel’s gaps with episodes of the anime.) The prose is dominated by dialogue, which made it a quick and engaging read. It held my attention effortlessly, even though I knew the outcome of the story already, and some of the exchanges are deeply amusing. But some of the dialogue (perhaps due to translation) seems melodramatic and wordy, a common malady when characters have to explain things. Nevertheless, the personality and character of Satou come through very clearly in the first person narration. Some of the best scenes in the novel are when Satou is going through some kind of internal dialogue or conflict–like the introductory scene where he formulates his theory about the NHK, or when he looks at lolicon porn for the first time. Those are filled with verve, wit, and distinction. Writing this in the first person was the correct artistic choice. After all, these are in many ways–if the Afterwords are any clue–deeply personal subjects for the author, Takimoto-san, and because so much of the story is about warped perception and experience there is certainly no other way to tell the story except in first person. Unless he wanted to experiment with stream-of-consciousness, which he comes close to doing on occasion, though certainly not to a Joycean level and not even as much as some of the more surreal scenes in the anime.

What’s the final verdict? Well, considering that this story is now a multimedia venture (prose, manga, and anime), fans now have a choice as to which medium they want to choose and prefer. I would say the anime is still the best introduction to the story, at least as far as accessibility goes, though those with less time wouldn’t do badly by reading the novel. You will get the gist of what Takimoto was trying to say through the story and perhaps, if you slow down and try to imagine the scenes happening, be moved too at the plight of these flawed characters. In many ways Welcome to the NHK is one of those “social problem” stories, the kind that Dickens used to write–stories whose main goal is to highlight certain social problems, though here it is with far less detachment and judgment, and far more cynicism, than the earnest, moralizing Dickens would have liked. As such it’s still a lot more convincing than Rozen Maiden, which was the last major story in anime to talk about hikikomori, and retains the character of a compelling drama even in shorter, outlined form.

Thanks to Katie at Tokyopop for supplying us the review copy!

Anime Diet Daily Recommended Allowances

  • Plot: 80%. All the essentials that the anime covered are there, and some of the less necessary parts not there at all. A few parts from the anime I wished were there, though. It is still a solid character drama driven by the quirks and foibles of its cast.
  • Character: 80%. The characters are the same as in the anime, especially the main trio, which is an excellent thing. Satou is very distinct, since the story is told from his point of view, and Misaki is a more complicated, less “angelic” character in the novel than in the anime. Many of the side characters are given a lot less time and development out of necessity of space, however, so if you’re a fan of Satou’s mom, the sempai, and the other classmate, you’re out of luck.
  • Writing/prose: 70%. In a novel dominated by dialogue, as most light novels are, there isn’t much room or time for beautiful prose. There are still some pretty inventive passages, however, particularly when Satou is in one of his trances or drug-induced hallucinations. Some of the dialogue is translated in a stiff manner, though it’s not nearly as stiff as some the dialogue I’ve seen in Haruki Murakami novels. In either case, though, there is certainly nothing jarring enough that got me out of the flow of the book.
  • Overall: 78%. A fine, quick read that tells a pretty unique and captivating story. Recommended especially if you are looking to reenter the world of NHK!

8 thoughts on “Review: Welcome to the NHK (novel)”

  1. holy shit I just recently got this!

    high-five!

    on a side note

    take care of yourself and happy belated welcome back!

  2. @Hinano: I’m not sure. I haven’t read the manga really (only looked through it a few times). But the anime is one of Gonzo’s most consistent works storytellingwise (not artwise, unfortunately), and is definitely one of the best shows of 2006. That’s my main point of reference in this review, though from what I’m told the manga has more bite and cynicism, which would make it closer to the novel.

  3. I would argue about the art as an artist myself, they made some interesting choices imo
    although there ARE some inconsistencies as far as character designs goes
    but unfortunately, for the casual viewer, yeah its not that great

    I can’t really compare the manga to the novel yet, since I haven’t read the novel, but its drawn by mangaka Kenji Oiwa, and its also written once again by Tatsuhiko Takimoto, so it’d be odd if they were to make it completely identical to the novel again…
    its worth noting that I felt that it was just as great as the anime when it came to pathos

    On a shameless and random side note:
    I’m a big fan of Kenji Oiwa’s style of manga in general
    mostly because when he does it right, his manga-making is amazing
    a great example would be GOTH which is based on a different authors novel but…
    you know what, Michael’s anime|otaku blog had an entry on it, he’d sum it up better than me

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