Note: this is not a typical review of a manga. I am mainly writing my thoughts as to how this compares to the anime, which is one of my top 10 of all time–a key reason why I even started anime blogging.
With these volumes, the differences from the anime begin appearing–most of which put Misaki in a worse light than ever before. I ended volume 3 with the sense that she was, quite frankly, evil.
On further reflection, perhas that’s too harsh a statement–the manga too portrays the tensions Misaki feels between genuine care, selfishness, and contempt for Satou. The genuine care is still there at times. But the contempt is more on display in this medium, which lends the endings of most of the chapters a blackly funny feel rather than the poignancy the anime often reached for. The manga Misaki really does see Satou mainly as a “project” than a human being, a plaything even. It puts a completely different spin on her famous outburst that she needs Satou because he is the one person in the world who is worse than her. What a difference emotional context can make!
And differing emotional contexts is what this is all about as I read this story. It is the addition of small details and slight shift in scene order that can make all the difference in the way the story is received overall: whether it’s finding out that Misaki is literally bugging his room, not having Misaki and Yamazaki and Kawashima’s fiancee come to the suicide island to save his life, or the brief, horrifying (but still funny) attempt by Misaki to use EST type “breakdown” techniques on Satou to brainwash him, only to leave him starving…the strange thing is how overall, the plot is still the same. There is still the Amway-style multilevel marketing scenes; the MMORPG satire; etc. But the feeling is quite different, and is adding up to be more unsettling than the anime ever was.
Reading this part of the story also helped bring to mind just how directly satirical the story is. Many major aspects of life come in for a thinly veiled lampoon, usualy with only a few changes in lettering or words: The Watchtower Society (Jehovah’s Witnesses) publishes instead the Tower of Druaga (an otaku joke that only now I get); Amway becomes My Way (a fine substitution, I might add); and of course every otaku domain comes in for a beating, from eroge to MMORPGs, the ridiculous archetypes of various girl characters. There’s been a lot of this sort of thing in anime and manga as of late, but what Welcome to the NHK brings to the table is in leaving the reader/audience in a state of unsettledness about it all. This is not like Haruhi Suzumiya, which while mocking otaku stereotypes very effectively, ends up reassuring the viewer that all is ultimately well. It’s not even like the anime; Gonzo decided in their adaptation of this story that it was too risky to leave the most repulsive aspects of the characters in at full strength, opting to turn moments of bleak satire into tragedy and drama–which made the characters more sympathetic.
The question that I will continue asking as I read this series–the manga’s not even halfway through yet, and I’ve already gotten to the 2/3 marker of the anime–is whether the story is better for leaving in the cynical humor rather than tragic catharsis. The latter is a chief reason I ultimately loved the anime; I thought it was done well and done right. Even then, however, I was aware that this was something of a dilution of the story’s real darkness in favor of something more audience-pleasing. The usual assumption is that the darker version must be the braver, more artistically honest choice, but I don’t think that’s always true. Sometimes cynicism is a shield and an escape of its own from real human feelings too, which even in real life can be, yes, earnest and sincere.
Since there’s a lot more story to go, there’s plenty of room for the mood of the manga to shift.