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NHK ni Youkoso 1

NHK ni Youkoso is, to my mind, the kind of show I really needed to watch right now. It's a convincing, surreal, morbid and visceral study of depression as it relates to society at large, told from within the mind of a depressed person. The details on how this person would think are frighteningly realistic. It's hard to watch, because of it, but it is cathartic to watch because the struggles are real. If we think of depression as being irrelevant to the level of success a person has in life, being that the depressed would be able to think it better not to live regardless of how rich or famous or powerful that person is. If we can think about depression as living life slowly, as seeing things pass us by at the most microscopic pace because it becomes that much harder to keep up -- this is the kind of show that, I think, has the great potential to really study people in that light.

Firstly, NHK is a story about hikkomori, the Japanese term for a social phenomenon of young people dropping out of school or work and refusing to leave the home, often bowing to social pressure, real or imagined, that they have failed in life.

Secondly, it's one of those gentle, sad love stories where the two protagonists exchange meaningful glances and awkward feelings.

Thirdly, it is beautifully shot, well-casted and even better written.

Most of all, it's the story of Satou Tatsuhiro, aged 21, college dropout and self-professed hikkomori for 4 years. He reads porn in his apartment, filled to the brim with junk and unpaid bills. One day, he gets a revelation: hikkomori are the result of a conspiracy created by media companies (the Nihon Hikkomori Kyoukai; "Japanese Association of Shut-Ins") that sell anime with cute girls to keep people inside their homes, helpless, unemployed, uneducated and untrained. His dreams, his furniture, and cartoon puddings that appear whenever his otaku neighbour plays a ridiculous song about a girl called Pudding on repeat tell him so.

Flashes of memory hit him. he remembers an upperclassman from his high school days he was interested in, who first told him how everything is connected to a conspiracy theory. One day, they come upon a younger student being beaten up by their schoolmates. In an effort to impress his senpai, Tatsuhiro goes forth to fight these bullies, but gets beaten up himself. In the classroom, he is unfairly mistaken for being a noisy student. His bank statements tell him he's at the brink of bankruptcy. He begins to see that his upperclassman was right. It is all a conspiracy.

Right when he thinks he really is going to lose his sanity, he gets a knock on the door. Tatsuhiro is now faced with his first challenge since realizing the NHK is responsible for all his woes. What if they've come to get him? What if it's his electricity supplier coming after him for his unpaid bills? What if he loses power, thus spelling the end of his comfortable life as a NEET (Not in Employment, Education or Training)? What if there are people outside waiting to laugh at him for being a failure? Outside, he finds a young girl with a umbrella who looks suspiciously like Lain, who looks suspiciously like the pin-up on his wall. It's love at first sight.

Unfortunately, the girl is there with an elderly lady to distribute pamphlets about hikkomori. Tatsuhiro rails on them for coming after him and shuts the door. The two begin to leave, but the girl pauses to stare at the shut door, apparently fascinated by Tatsuhiro. Tatsuhiro himself realizes this through his keyhole, and opens the door to find her still standing there. There's another exchange of longing glances, before the girl, now identified as Masaki-chan, leaves.

Back inside, Tatsuhiro realizes he needs to get out and get himself a part-time job if he really wants to keep more of the outside world from discovering he is a hikkomori. At the same time, he's aware he's kind of doing it for Masaki as well, who starts appearing in his head as a pornographic nun that haunts his pants as he sleeps. Really well-balanced guy, isn't he? He's even kind of cute. Resolve and resume in check, Tatsuhiro sets out the very next day to apply for work at a local manga cafe (shut-ins in anime get the coolest jobs). He marches through town reciting his lines for when he meets any potential employer, and there are lovely scenes of the world around him, quite bleak and mundane, which suits the subject matter very well. Depression and obsessive compulsive behaviour is often an iteration of small things. The music for this sequence is also worth mentioning - great bit of acoustic guitar that sets down the mood just right.

Opening the door to the cafe, the person behind the counter turns out to be Masaki. Tatsuhiro freaks out and babbles nonsense before he flees, dropping the resume that was in his back pocket. Later that day, Masaki shows up at his door again, though he refuses to open it. She leaves his resume in his mail hatch. On the back of the envelope, she writes to tell him that would've gotten the job at the manga cafe if he'd asked, and that she wants to meet him at 9PM in the park that night. Tatsuhiro takes the rest of the evening to digest this. He summizes that the NHK must truly be out to lure him with a girl, since that's a pretty good ploy. As the evening wears on, Tatsuhiro notes that the park in question was his only place other than his home where he could be himself. (Suggesting that Masaki was studying him more than we knew?) He'd intended to go to the park anyway, and he shouldn't let NHK get the upper hand by getting in the way of his normal routine.

So he goes to the park, where, at ten minutes past nine, Masaki appears. She's come to tell him that he is going to be part of her great new project -- to cure him of his hikkomori.

Two things hit me at this point. Masaki seems sincere about helping Tatsuhiro and knowing him as a person. It's still unclear why exactly she wants to help him -- Tatsuhiro suspects she's part of a hikkomori support group (they really exist in Japan), but she maintains its related to his past. It does appear as though she's been studying him for a while. Showing up at his doorstep was no coincidence. Hard to tell if she really is part of a religious group just out to be good samaritans, as Tatsuhiro suspects, but we will know soon enough. I like Masaki as a character. She's nice on the eyes, if you like Lain-types, which I do, and I'm curious to see how she tugs Tatsuhiro out of his shell, if they're capable of befriending each other, what her motives are and how Tatsuhiro is going to reconcile his pervert pornographic nun fantasies with the real girl.

Tatsuhiro knows he's going crazy from being alone for so long, but he's happy that way. I am still impressed with how the writing tackles his character. His fears, while outwardly irrational, are grounded in many of the same difficulties a depressed person would face with everyday tasks other people might simply scoff away. The way opening a door feels like an invasion of privacy, the wall one climbs just to get out of a routine that shuts the world out, the struggle to maintain a facade of normalcy so that one is not immediately set apart -- all these things are at once familiar and frightening to behold. At one point, Tatsuhiro tries to commit suicide by strangling himself. He does this while laughing at himself. You can't kill yourself by trying to strangle yourself by hand, because you'd pass out and lose your grip. What makes Tatsuhiro a great character is that a person can believably turn into this.

I once swore I would never watch a Gonzo production ever again. After how they malformed three adapations of three different titles I seriously liked, and managed to make another adapation of a manga that was awful to begin with worse, I approach anything Gonzo-produced wih the kind of caution one gives my dodgy cups of coffee. I'm aware that NHK ni Youkoso is based on a novel that was later turned into a popular manga series, and I'm keen to seek at least one of these out. This show has a lot of potential to go far with it's subject. I would hate to see it lose its charm to say, fanservice, or inane fillers, or something. So far, and Gonzo shows have managed to start quite innocently like this, NHK is very well-produced. The art doesn't quite follow the usual pointy-nosed, shiny-skinned, bouncy bossomed terrors I would associate with this company, which is the first, almighty plus I'm running with. Voice acting for Gonzo shows have usually been solid, and it's true here as well. In-show music is great -- I have mentioned the music used for Tatsuhiro's first dramatic steps outside his home in particular, and it is memorable for the emotions it complements.

The OP and ED are both rather badly animated, otherwise. The OP is a jumble of surrealistic imagery, some good, most boring, set to a track with a girl mumbling the theme song under her breath. The ED actually has a great song to work with, which begins with this really drama-whore-like piano jumping into a nice rock track. It's all about returning to a childlike state for safety purposes, and is a pretty catchy number overall. However, if the OP's animation was bordering on ill-planned, the ED is a horror of its own standing. As luck would have it, NHK's mascot is the corpse of an earless Cat in the Hat, who looks like part Grinch, part Doraemon on a diet. He dances. He sings. I'm starting to wonder if this isn't some random dig at the kinds of dancing cute animals and magic soft toys that might've taken it's place, but it's creepy.

Off to see more.

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