Welcome back, Heisei Democratizers!

First of all, I want to thank each and every one of you for your ongoing support (seriously, if you’re reading this right now, that’s support). However the site evolves, I will do my best not to disappoint you.

This brings us to the first in a new (hopefully) ongoing series, properly titled On the Creation of a Comprehesive Index of Otaku Metaculture. Which is to say, my attempt at creating a (more or less) complete list of anime, manga, and video games which happen to be centered on characters who are themselves afficionados of anime, manga, and video games. For our first installment, we will be featuring a retrospective for a franchise that is very near and dear to HD (hint: the site is named after it).

NHK ni Youkoso (Welcome to the NHK) is the story of a hikikomori (shut-in) named Sato. Sato, while enjoying some fairly intense recreational drug use, is informed by some of his appliances and furniture that the reason his life has never amounted to anything is all because of a vast conspiracy against him and people like him. He “discovers” that the NHK, often thought to be the TV network “Nihon Housou Kyoukai” is in fact the “Nihon Hikikomori Kyoukai” and has been working for years to turn innocent young men into feeble hikikomori by maliciously broadcasting interesting anime. From this simple (if somewhat unusual) premise comes an epic black comedy of love, social dysfunction, and eroge. Starting life as a popular novel, the story gave birth to a long-running manga and a TV series from studio Gonzo. Although otakudom is a recurring theme in all incarnations, it is never really the central point of the story, often used as little more than one of a great laundry list of social problems and dark abnormalities plaguing modern Japan. Nonetheless, it’s obvious that the otaku elements of the story were crafted with a lot of care and understanding. Sato is often portrayed (especially from his own perspective) as the worst of the worst, but I suspect that even the most “normal” otaku with be able to see at least a little bit of themselves in his trials and tribulations, for better or worse. The story is definitely not a very happy one, choosing to dwell on the darkest and most disturbing aspects of society in general and otakudom specifically. Still, it maintain a light touch, and so long as you maintain a sense of humor it never really gets too depressing. It is, however, most definitely not for the faint of heart. Exposing your loved ones to a work of this caliber after they had responded positively to a few Ghibli movies and the occasional Naruto episode would be remarkably ill advised.

Grand Totals

  • Books – 1 Novel
  • Manga – 8 Volumes
  • Anime – 24 Episodes (TV)

The Book

Oh, Abe-sensei...
Oh, Abe-sensei…

According to legend (as well as wikipedia) the original outline for the story of NHK ni Youkoso were hammered out during one long night that author Takimoto Tatsuhiko spent in a family restaurant with a fellow writer, trying desperately to overcome his writer’s block in time for a conference with Kadokawa Shoten. Some time later, Takimoto-sensei revealed that the story of a NEET/hikikomori was in fact a deeply personal one, and that he is still struggling with these same issues himself. The book’s story revolves around our hiki hero Sato, who resolves to fight back against the “conspiracies” that are keeping him from being a productive member of society. Along the way he is joined by his highschool classmate Yamazaki, who coincidentally now lives next door to Sato (and apparently has for some time without either noticing, largely due to their collective lack of social…anything) and a mysterious young girl named Misaki. Yamazaki is intent on making a name for himself as an amateur eroge creator, and enlists Sato’s help in this herculean task. Misaki appears to have a vested interest in “rehabilitating” Sato, but it soon becomes clear she’s got a few unpleasant secrets of her own. Much of the story is framed using the plot of the work-in-progress eroge as an overt metaphor for everything else in Sato’s life. Sato periodically comes to see most of his life as a waking eroge, and analyzes every situation accordingly. I would like to take a moment to point out how ridiculous this type of thinking is, and how now real-life otaku could ever stoop so low as to see the world in this manner. It’s simply not possible.

No, seriously.

Judged objectively, this version has to be my favorite. The story is very tidy and coherent, and the author does not pull any punches. As is to be expected, all of the more unpleasant aspects of the story (quasi-legal drug use, pedophilia, anime and game fandom) are at their most extreme in this original version of the story. Although the theme of the eroge plays a much more consistent role here than it does in later incarnations, the other 2D elements of the story are a bit less pronounced. Sato’s non-ero gaming habits, and early experiences with Akihabara and maid cafes are either downplayed or missing outright. What the book lacks in quantity, though, it does make up for in quality. The references are arcane and subtle enough to show a genuine appreciation on the part of the author. I was particularly tickled by a subplot (absent from other versions) involving Sato and Yamazaki somehow acquiring a Paper Moon style lifesize Hoshino Ruri, which they proceed to worship as a god while in a drug-addled stupor.

But maybe that’s just me.

Overall, incredibly enjoyable. Miraculously available in English thanks to a commendable translation from Tokyopop. Available wherever books for crazy people are sold.

  • Accessibility – 4/10
  • Otaku Index – 7/10
  • Overall Quality – 8/10

The Manga

Moeeeeee
It’s all downhill
from here…

Marking the first adaptation of the novel, and my first exposure to the franchise by a pretty healthy margin, the NHK manga is an ambitious work, perhaps overly so. It has moments of utter genius early on, but it tries to do too much, and ultimately overstays its welcome. The art style matches the tone of the subject matter to a tee and manages to capture the essence of Yoshitoshi Abe’s exquisite work on the cover of the novel without needlessly aping his distinctive style. The writing also stays true to its source, up to a point. As the story approaches what should be the middle, the narrative goes off the rails a bit and everything turns into a meandering mess for about four volumes. Characterization becomes wildly inconsistent, and the plot goes way over the top, trying to constantly outdo itself with more and more disturbing and desperate scenarios. In the end, what you are left with is an entertaining but utterly incoherent mess of a manga, full of memorable moments but lacking an overarching theme to tie it all together.

That’s not to say it’s not enjoyable. The extended length gives the story room to fully explore things that the book only briefly touched on, and the stark, high-contrast visuals are very appealing. The manga also has room to add its own subplots, some of which work better than others. Sato spends a prolonged period as a hopeless MMO addict in a very thinly disguised version of FFXI, a phenomenon that touches a bit closer to home (to me anyway) than protracted storylines about pyramid schemes and suicide pacts. Also, we get a real chance to see Misaki when she is off on her own, away from Sato, something the book misses out on due to its strict first-person perspective. Some of her exploits seem unneccessary, but a few choice scenes (such as Misaki’s attempt to become a “proper” fujoshi) make up for a wide array of missteps. It’s easy enough to enjoy if you take a narrow-angle view, but once you step back it’s hard not to feel like it could have been so much more if it had only exercised some much-needed restraint.

It’s worth mentioning that Yamazaki, whose role in the novel sometimes made him come off as little more than a mouthpiece for grand rantings and ravings about eroge history and culture, is given a bit more bredth here, if not depth. His freeform rantings touch on far broader subjects of interest to otakukind, ranging from maid cafes to the pure essence of moe. It’s from one of these rants that this site, “Heisei Democracy” takes its name. The phrase is essentially meaningless by itself, and means even less in the context of Yamazaki’s speech, but the energy behind it is the stuff that all our dreams are made of.

Also, even when held up to the standard set by the novel, it’s surprising how much the manga gets away with in terms of casual drug use and overall dark subject matter. Not long ago, I was absolutely certain that this would never ever see the light of day in an American book store, but lo and behold it now occupies a spot at the local Borders alongside the latest Twilight book. How times change.

  • Accessibility – 5/10
  • Otaku Index – 8/10
  • Overall Quality – 6/10

The Anime

For the final adaptation (the story has thus far mercifully been spared the indignity of a live-action incarnation or an international remake) this 2-cour show was entrusted to none other than Studio Gonzo.

Sigh.

Intent on extending the benefit of the doubt, I went into this show with cautious optimism. The designs took a bit of getting used to, but everything is perfectly recognizable. The music is a real standout, particularly the first ED, and portions of it remain in regular rotation on my iPod to this day. The animation is bright and colorful, which makes the show more interesting, but gives it a radically different visual style from its source material. What’s more, the strict limits on length, combined with the benefit of hindsight, allow the show to retain the tight pacing and structure of the novel while also cherry picking some of the “best of” moments from the manga for inclusion. The show touches on most of the otaku highlights from the manga, including the trip to Akihabara and the visit to the maid cafe, as well as the references to online gaming and of course the saga of the amateur eroge creation. Unfortunately the benefit of this is tempered a bit by the limitations of what is considered acceptable for a broadcast TV show. A lot of the best parts of the manga got smoothed over in the transition to animation, and most notably all of the drug references are excised. This does not impede the flow of the story much, but it certainly shines a different light on Sato’s character when he just starts talking to his air conditioner one day, and then believes everything it tells him.

Along the same lines, the novel and manga contain a scene early on wherein Sato spends several days in complete isolation doing literally nothing except collecting lolicon porn on the Internet, only stopping after he renders his PC nonfunctional by trying to clear up more hard drive space for loli images. In the anime, this scene is included, but the lolicon aspect is glossed over, meaning that Sato is just collecting ordinary Internet porn. This…lessens the impact somewhat. I mean, after all, who hasn’t spent a weekend this way?

Of course, these are minor issues, and are to be expected with TV anime adaptations. The show is by no means bad, but once again you can’t shake the feeling that it is simply not living up to its potential. This is exacerbated by Gonzo’s wildly inconsistent production values, which range from reasonably impressive to embarrassingly awful. In more than one episode things degrade to the point that you can’t help but wonder if someone simply forgot to finish some scenes. It bears repeating, though, that the music is excellent.

Worth investigating, but please, please do not let this be your only experience with NHK. If you never get around to the manga or the novel, then the conspiracy wins.

  • Accessibility – 6/10
  • Otaku Index – 7/10
  • Overall Quality – 5/10

That’s all for now! I hope you enjoyed it, although I suspect that for most of you there’s precious little new information to be gleaned here. There are plenty of franchises on deck for a similar treatment, and I’d like to think that we’ll cover all the obvious bases, but please let me know if there’s an obscure piece of metaculture that you think deservers a little attention. I’m trying to come up with a good direction for the site to go in without Shingo here to guide it, and all of your feedback is immensely helpful. Speaking of which, wordpress mysteriously ate three or four comments on the previous post and I have been unable to retrieve them. If you do not see your comment in there now, please post again, and I apologize for the inconvenience.

Furthermore, I am thrilled by everyone offering to contribute news or opinion pieces, but unless Shingo miraculously reappears, the control I have over the site is extremely limited. It is currently not possible for me to create user accounts that would allow other people to post, no matter how much I would like to. However, if you do have some burning piece of information that absolutely needs to get out, do not hesitate to send it my way and we will do the best we can with the tools available to us.