The story in the Welcome to the NHK! manga has now fully departed from that of the anime, and the bleakness is almost stifling. Still, it really gets some parts of human nature right: the infinite capacity for self-deception and the power of indiscipline.
Note: Over a year ago, I reviewed volume 1, volumes 2 and 3, and volume 4 of the NHK manga. Even longer ago, I reviewed the light novel where it all began. This is a long-delayed follow-up to all this.
The plot and the emotions in these two volumes are rollercoaster-like in their intense, wild swings. So many panels contain nothing more than the crazed expressions of the main characters that it’s clearly a sign that we are supposed to laugh at such scenes. The story has long ceased to be funny except in a gallows humor sort of way, however. The humor now is mainly in watching the characters fail at life to varying degrees, which is also profoundly saddening because it is believable how easily they fail. One knows that Satou and Yamazaki’s protestations that they will better themselves are doomed to failure, because earlier volumes have taught the reader to be deeply cynical about such claims–and rightly so. Declarations alone do not constitute a change in behavior, which is a much more difficult and slow-going process, as the blackly funny scenes of Satou’s mother catching him greasing the pole epitomize.
The thing that is poignant about these scenes, too, is that the desire to change is also real. There is pathos lurking beneath the scenes where Satou briefly returns home, Yamazaki battles both his would-be girlfriend and himself, and with Kawashiwa’s martial difficulties. They really do want things to be different, but they are all trapped in their own ways: by their bad habits, by their mental conditions, or their pasts. They will often mouth the usual “you can do it!” platitudes to themselves, but know deep down they are not true; it’s no wonder that at the end of volume 6, Satou concludes that practically everything is pretty much an illusion, a coping mechanism to get by in the world–albeit a necessary one. This is real existential despair, one that the characters, given their dire circumstances, understandably feel.
Misaki, in these two volumes, assumes a secondary role, serving mainly as a hallucinatory, possibly drug-induced vision of angelic goodness in Satou’s mind–though she has her own dramatic turns in her own doomed quest to be “normal” at school and to help another “loser.” The author appears to have taken a few steps back in depicting Misaki as a totally manipulative person, and granted the reader many more reasons to be sympathetic towards her–though the sick co-dependence and narcissism remain. It certainly explains her incident later on, which is a much less naturalistic and more twisted version of an incident that is depicted late in the anime. That it, well, works is actually surprising, and indicative of how if these volumes have any flaws, it’s that the plot incidents are simply getting extreme to the point of threatening the balance of dark humor and pathos. It almost makes you want to throw up your hands and declare that everyone is simply cuckoo.
There are only two volumes left, and of course I am intensely curious as to how the story will conclude: perhaps similarly to the anime? Or something far more ambiguous and even dire? These desperate characters are looking for desperate measures, and it seems nothing less than drastic events could possibly redeem any of them by now. It is probably no accident that religious themes and imagery are a subtle undercurrent throughout the story–heaven, angels, salvation, the inclusion of the Jehovah’s Witnesses as significant players in the plot. Misaki’s project is to be Satou’s, and everyone else’s, savior. I trust like in the end of the anime there is no deus ex machina coming (nor should there be if it’s to have integrity), but if anything this story is a portrayal of a certain kind of human brokenness writ large: the inability to truly connect and accept other people for who they are. Even if that person is yourself.