Monday, April 12, 2010

Anime review: Welcome to the N-H-K

Though most of the anime I watch falls under the sci-fi/fantasy genre, I do like to mix things up every once in a while with a drama or comedy series. I happened to come across a series known as Welcome to the N-H-K almost out of the blue, and figured I would watch the first few episodes to give the series a try. I was hooked after the first episode with its no-holds-barred style of storytelling and its sick yet true-to-life humor. It was more than I could have hoped for it to be, and although I found the first half of the series to be much funnier than the second, the story never let up on me and each episode delivered a fantastic narrative.

Satou Tatsuhiro is a college dropout who has been living in his apartment for four years, rarely leaving due to his paranoia of the outside world. He believes that his hikikimori lifestyle is the conspiracy plot of an organization known as the N-H-K (Nihon Hikikimori Kyoukai). One day, Sato is visited by a high school girl named Misaki, who wishes for Satou to become the sole candidate for a project, which she believes can cure him of his reclusive lifestyle. Misaki’s determination to cure him, combined with the game he ends up co-creating with his neighbor Yamazaki forces Satou to leave his apartment more and more frequently, slowly readjusting him to society.

Welcome to the N-H-K is an anime that is certainly not for younger audiences. The constant looming theme of depression and its many manifestations brings out the darkest natures within the characters. The series pokes fun at issues of suicide, drug addiction, and sex without going over-the-top with such sick humor. At the same time, these are explored in positive ways to show that everyone is susceptible to such issues and that there are ways out of them.

Satou changes very little as a character over the course of the series, though he does take to his problems in many different ways. While Satou does make progress in travelling outside of his apartment more frequently as the series moves forward, his actions and dynamics don’t change much until the last few episodes.

Yamazaki is Satou’s neighbor and former classmate. He is an expert at developing computer programs, though he doesn’t exactly give people the best impressions due to his short temper and loud mouth, especially when he’s been drinking. Yamazaki ultimately makes a sacrifice that causes him to be removed from a large portion of the second half of the show. But it is because of Yamazaki’s maturation over the course of the series that allows him to put greater trust in Satou and Misaki.

Misaki is the weakest of the main three characters, and that has much to do with the fact that her story is left largely unexplored until the final two episodes. This is done deliberately, due to the nature of her past. However, it probably won’t change viewers’ opinion of her much, whether they like or dislike Misaki as a character.

As entertaining as the first episode of the anime is, it is not exactly the best implication of what the series as a whole entails. That is not to say that it is far off in subject matter or content, but the episodes that follow aren’t quite as dramatic or crazy. I will admit that I was a little concerned as to how the second half of the series would play out, since the first major story arc was nearing its conclusion. However, there is a plot twist that keeps the story cruising along, and doesn’t throw the focus of the story off in the slightest. The series foreshadows a bit here and there, though most of this is reserved for the cliffhanger ending of most of the episodes.

The Japanese and English voice actors both do superb jobs in conveying their characters emotions. Yamazaki and Satou scream their lungs out when frustrated, but are mellow and focused when talking in normal conversation. The dialogue of the series is very adult and is a large part of the reason that Welcome to the N-H-K received a TV-MA rating in the United States. The characters are able to express themselves with rather explicit language when need be, though this is not abused and Satou only drops a few ‘F-bombs’ over the course of the anime.

The art style is a slight alteration of most traditional anime. The characters look fairly realistic, but are drawn in an almost comic-book style, with the colors of the characters and objects of importance being expressed more vibrantly than the backgrounds. That is not to say that the art of the background is left plain by any means, but the characters are given a noticeably greater emphasis. Whatever the case, the animation looks beautiful.

Welcome to the N-H-K’s soundtrack plays host to a broad range of sounds and styles. Many of the more prominent themes rely on guitar riffs underlying the other instruments. Other songs are heavy on drums and bass to create a darker sound, while an acoustic guitar accompanies more upbeat sequences in the show. All in all, each song fits its scene perfectly.

Welcome to the N-H-K expresses its humor in fairly subtle ways. The irony of the situations that Satou, Misaki, and Yamazaki find themselves in fuels the dark comedy, as opposed to in-your-face slapstick humor. It is because of this that Welcome to the N-H-K excels at delivering a narrative that, while it may be sick and twisted, it is also believable and easy for viewers to relate to. The ending is surprisingly fitting, as I wasn’t sure how the second half of the show would end up playing out. But there are plenty of surprises in store for viewers and the series’ protagonist Sato along the way. For an anime that doesn’t sell itself as being much of anything spectacular, Welcome to the N-H-K delivers a fluid story full of hilarity.

My Rating: 9.5 (out of 10)

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