This review is for Welcome to the NHK, a standalone novel written by Tatsuhiko Takimoto (with cover art by Yoshitoshi ABe). The English edition was released in October 2007 by Tokyopop.
This book had been in my to-read pile for a long time. I had figured it would probably be a good story, but I also had the suspicion it would be pretty depressing. In this instance, my hunch was accurate on both counts. Welcome to the NHK is well-written and well-worth reading… but it’s definitely not a happy story. Though I had often heard it billed a dark comedy, I found the plot to be first and foremost focused on the uncomfortable character arc of the protagonist. What jokes there are, I would probably place under the category of “cringe humor.”
The story follows Satou, who has dropped out of college and become a hikikomori–a shut-in who has minimal contact with the outside world. He rarely leaves his tiny apartment, spending most of his time being depressed, and trying to find ways to be less depressed. Dwelling on anything related to his current state makes him depressed–and when his attempts to break free of this funk end in failure, that makes him more depressed. To take his mind off things, he usually sleeps, drinks alcohol, looks at porn, or takes various drugs. When he’s tired of blaming himself for his misfortune, he comes to the remarkable conclusion that all societal ills are in fact caused by the NHK, Japan’s public broadcasting organization.
The story does a great job of getting into Satou’s head, portraying quite vividly what kind of thought process lies behind a depressed individual’s decision-making. It is understandable why the prose in general feels so real though, when the author’s afterword reveals that Tatsuhiko Takimoto has lived as a hikikomori himself for an extended period of time. He stresses that Welcome to the NHK is not autobiographical, but acknowledges that writing about Satou felt much like writing about himself.
Even a hikikomori is not an island, and in the second chapter Satou gets a visit from–who else?–the Jehovah’s Witnesses. (Okay, technically it’s an unnamed missionary church handing out Awaken! magazines.) One of the visitors though is a girl around Satou’s age named Misaki. After another unexpected encounter or two she decides she’s going to help Satou out of his hikikomori rut.
I found Misaki to be the most pleasant surprise of this novel. At first I assumed she would simply be a cutesy heroine who would save Satou simply by her being sweet and friendly, but she turned out to be much more nuanced of a character than that. There was more to her motivations than I expected, and in terms of personality she actually came off as surprisingly mean at times (and not in a tsundere anime-trope kind of way). In other words, she felt realistic and human, and I don’t think the story would have worked as well as it did if she hadn’t been.
All in all I found Welcome to the NHK to be an engaging read, but it’s definitely not a pleasant story. It’s about how the expectations of adult life and the reality of it are very different things. It’s a punch in the gut. Reading it reminded me much of YA “problem novels” actually, which make a point of not hiding any of the unpleasant aspects of the real world. This one just followed a slightly older protagonist, and happened to be set in Japan.
The translation for this book is solid, so if you can find yourself a copy (and are up for something more serious) I recommend picking it up, along with Chain Mail and Calling You. These are all great standalones that Tokyopop brought over back in the day. I think I would like to see more of this sort of thing get localized? Action-packed fantasy adventures are entertaining of course, but sometimes we need a novel that “hits close to home” and gives us a heavy topic to reflect upon.
Cho’s Rating: Strongly Recommended (so long as you’re all right with some depressing content)