This review isn't Judge Adam Arseneau's fault! It's a dark conspiracy!
It's a conspiracy!
A darkly comedic adventure into teenage hormones, social inadequacy and crippling paranoia, Welcome to the NHK at face value is wholly ridiculous, a show blending genres and romance and anxiety into unexplored territories. Disarmingly sweet and sincere, this is one of the most engaging and entertaining animes in recent memory.
Facts of the Case
Sato's life—or what's left of it—is a paranoid mess of conspiracy theories and social anxieties. He's terrified of the outside world: his apartment is overflowing with remnants of cheap takeout food, and his retinas have been permanently scarred by a steady diet of Internet porn. Maybe it's not all his fault? After all, the nefarious N-H-K are out there, determined to turn society's fringe dwellers into brainwashed lots of jobless, hopeless, futureless recluses! Or maybe the N-H-K are just a simple television station. It's hard to tell.
Enter Misaki, a random encounter who might be Sato's last chance to beat down his inner demons and venture out into the light of day. She's willing to help him overcome his crippling phobias, but Sato would rather cower in his existential foxhole and pretend to work on the demo for his virtual sex game. He's afraid to face the world. She's strangely desperate to fix a total stranger. Together, they just might have a chance to be normal.
Welcome to the NHK: The Complete Series contains all twenty-four episodes of the series spread across four discs:
• "Welcome to the Project!"
It's hard to categorize an anime as weird and wonderful as Welcome to the NHK, a perplexing reversal on a well-established formula of Japanese anime and magna. At its core, this is a romantic comedy: the story of slow, romantic, awkward courtship, the stuff of shojo manga, but instead of being girl-centric, the story is penned in reverse, from the point of view of a dude, crammed full of sexually suggestive innuendo, masturbation jokes, and perversions, like a seinen manga. To make things even more interesting, the protagonist is a 22-year-old hikikomori, a sufferer of acute social withdrawal, a Japanese cultural phenomenon affecting mostly men. Sato has barely left his apartment in almost four years, isolating himself entirely from all human contact. He has the social grace and sophistication of a pubescent teen, and is the unwilling (but perfect) subject of a hilarious romantic adventure.
Of course, nothing is that straightforward when there are dark conspiracies afoot! Unwilling and unable to believe that a girl could ever take interest in a shut-in like himself, Sato invents constant and elaborate fantasies about conspiracies against him, perpetrated by the government and an evil television network designed to keep him soulless, jobless, and despondent. It's their fault he's a hikikomori—he never had a chance—and this attention from a beautiful young woman must be some kind of entrapment. His psyche constantly racked with doubt and self-loathing, he stumbles and fumbles his way into the outside world, torn between his own insecurities and the woman of his dreams.
The joke, of course, is that even if the conspiracies are real, they essentially stand in as visual sight gags for the raging insecurities and paranoid delusions all people suffer when falling in love for the first time: the chest-heaving nervousness, the heightened sense of suspicion, the elation, and the crushing disappointments of leaving one's heart open to damage. Such a clever and unique method of tackling a romantic story! It also leaves the writers a near limitless freedom to animate pretty much whatever they want. Sato's furniture routinely comes to life to taunt and dissuade him from love. He hallucinates seeing tiny blue elfin creatures with N-H-K logos constantly muttering the word "conspiracy" under their breath at all hours of the day. He lives within his own fantasy world, and trying to sort out the real from the imagined is a hilarious experience. As Misako tries to draw Sato out of her shell, Sato's delusions and mental illness keep yanking him back to safety; their interactions are halfway between an intervention and an awkward courtship. Some secondary characters share the screen, like Sato's high school next door neighbor helping design a pornographic video game, but the show is entirely Sato and Misaki, of whom we slowly learn motivations as to why she'd take on such a charity case like Sato.
Welcome to the NHK is a lovely series full of laughs, crazy sight gags, hilarious sexual setups, and surprisingly poignant doses of teen awkwardness and sweetness. It's hard not to feel for Sato, so foolish and delusional, not because he sees conspiracies everywhere, but because we've all been through his horrible, halting thought process about invisible forces ganging up on us, about our unworthiness as a lover and as a human being. He is a caricature of every male insecurity, every erotic (but impossible) fantasy, of every wrong road taken. Admittedly, one's humor needs to skew to the perverse and to the dysfunctional to truly appreciate the charms of this series; the characters are serious damaged goods, and you either love them or you hate them. Even if the idea of an anime focused around the introspective insecure adventures of a social recluse seems tantamount to teeth pulling, give Welcome to the NHK a try. It is a true gem of enjoyment in a sea of derivative product, one-dimensional characters, and recycled plot lines.
Previously released by ADV Films in six individual disc increments, Welcome to the NHK: The Complete Series compresses twenty-four episodes onto a tight four discs, which immediately set off alarm bells in my head. For better or worse, this new set seems to be an identical copy—same subtitles, same dub, same everything—and that includes the quality of the transfer. Maybe, possibly, one might pick up on the most subtle nuances of compression artifacts and in this new version, if you really struggle to find a difference, kind of. It's a moot point at any rate; like the previous version, colors are vibrantly, black levels are rich, but edge artifacts and jagged lines are a noticeable issue, especially during high motion sequences where thinks go screen door style. Not the best of transfers, but it does the job.
Both an English 5.1 (dubbed) track and a Japanese 2.0 stereo presentation are included. The 5.1 surround is nice and punchy, with clear dialogue and good articulation, but still pretty rooted in the center channel. The 2.0 track feels mushier and less defined than its counterpart, but preferential due to its natural language. The soundtrack is an eclectic mix of J-pop, metal riffs, 1960s mod, and video game sequencing. As for the quality of the English dub, it grows on you—the voices are well-cast and curse like sailors, which fits the tone of the show quite well. English subtitles—both full and partial—are included.
Extras are paltry, with some advert trailers and textless songs only.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
This set actually has fewer supplemental features than the previous ADV Films releases did, if you want to mince hairs about it. It's a minor point to be sure, but it essentially makes this DVD an "all or nothing" purchase—either you're buying this series for the first time, or you're keeping your original collection. There's no incentive to upgrade.
A near-perfect romantic comedy, Welcome to the NHK hits everything on its first try—adorable characters, an over-the-top premise of paranoia and confusion, sexual tension, and romantic entanglement. You'd have to be pretty heartless not to get a kick out of this series.
If you're being welcomed by the N-H-K for the first time, this DVD set is a great purchase. Highly recommended.
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Scales of Justice
• Textless Songs
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