Anime Review: Welcome to the NHK

After a summer of amazing anime and with a packed November quickly approaching, FUNimation has been pretty sparse as far as October new releases go. A good bulk of the review units coming in lately have been either re-releases or re-releases of previous re-releases for the anime giant.

So rather than going a fourth week sans anime review, I decided to look through this stack of re-releases and pick out the best of the best to pop into the ol’ DVD player and take another look. And sure enough, FUNimation had released an all time favorite of mine, Welcome to the NHK, in a complete series box set a few weeks ago.

Tatsuhiro Satou is a hikikomori, a shut-in unable to leave his apartment to find a job or meet new friends. But after nearly four years of not leaving his room, he begins to freak out. The walls are caving in on him, the house appliances have started speaking to him, and his goddamn otaku neighbor won’t stop playing the same goddamn magical girl theme song that has been on repeat for days. On top of all this, he is convinced that the Japanese public broadcast network, the NHK, is really a huge elaborate government conspiracy that is out to get him. After all, why wouldn’t he believe this? The refrigerator and air conditioner told him it was true.

In comes Misaki, a relatively harmless teenage girl who discovers the shut-in while going door-to-door passing out pamphlets. For reasons unknown to anyone, she offers to personally consult Satou on how to shed his hikikomori ways. Now thanks to Misaki’s pet project, Satou goes down a long and twisted road filled with otaku, hentai video games, internet addictions, porn, pyramid schemes, suicide pacts, and every other real-life national pandemic that is scaring the citizens of Japan these days.

And would you believe this is all a comedy?

The history of Welcome to the NHK‘s American release has been quite an interesting one and can be looked at as a turning point in the R1 anime industry. It was originally licensed by ADV, who began releasing it in early 2008 in traditional “single volume with art box” format. But at a certain point, ADV could no longer financially support its development and the cost of dubbing. They were forced to halt production because of this.

And so they struck a deal with video streaming site Crunchyroll to have NHK become the first legitimate R1 series released on the then piracy-laden service. In days after the deal, the American voice actors went back to work on the dub and finished production of the series. But a few weeks following the wrap, ADV lost the license to the series and it was turned over to FUNimation.

Since ADV had never finished releasing the show in single volumes, FUNimation did the fans a service and provided the final volumes for them to put into their ADV art box. At the same time, they release 12-episode “half season” box sets at a reduced price for the new release model they’ve continued implementing since then. And now the complete 24-episode series is available in one package for those who have yet had the chance to pick it up before.

And really, this series was well worth the release hubbub, because Welcome to the NHK is one of the best new series to have come out of Japan in recent years.

So where do I begin?

In a medium that is so full of cliches and formulaic plots, this blunt satirical look at modern day mental disorders is refreshing and completely original. It dives deep into the shameful underbelly of Japanese society, exploits it, and then makes light of it almost to the point of glorification. The writing is smart, the pacing is perfect, and the comedy is actually funny. You’re able to fall in love with the amazing cast of hip young adult characters, although in all reality, you should probably be hating them with all your heart.

NHK also features amazing opening and ending theme songs. The opening, a mellow pop song called “Puzzle” features bright pastel visuals and a groovy art style reminiscent of the early 60′s. It is actually quite visually impressive. So almost as if to counter balance the mellowness of the opening, the ending theme is a brutal metal song called “Dancing Baby Humans.” The lyrics are scary nonsense and the visuals feature Satou’s talking appliances and little naked blue men dancing and screaming. It is reminiscent of a nightmarish acid trip. Two very different – yet two very remarkable – theme songs.

On top of the fantastic original Japanese material, ADV goes out with a bang in what was to be one of their last dubs before going under. The NHK dub is perfect. They were able to flawlessly bring the tone of the original script into the English language, and they were not afraid of changing some vocabulary to better suit the American audience. For example, in the original Japanese script, they call erotic visual novels, “ero-games.” However, anime fans have come to known them as “hentai video games” here in America. The script writers knew this, so they worked in the accepted American terminology over the original Japanese. This makes the dialogue sound more authentic and natural to the English listener.

But on top of that, the dub actors also found ways of “making it their own” with the adaptation. This is the most obvious with the female lead of Misaki. In the original Japanese version, the voice actress gives the girl a very meek and timid voice, giving her a very childish and virginal appearance. In the English version, the voice actress is far more bold and deep, given her a sexy yet mysterious vibe. The interpretation is completely different in both versions, but thanks to the great talent of both actresses, they still manage to fit the character perfectly.

So what is the problem with this series? Well, all the boldness that makes it stand out above all the other anime series becomes a double edge sword. At times, it becomes too extreme and disturbing to be taken in the light, comical matter that it is supposed to. In the first few episodes, Satou becomes obsessed with erotic lolicon imagery. In an effort to show how hard he can hit rock-bottom, he ends up waiting outside a school with a camera hoping to snap “upskirt” shots of the school girls as they come out. His seriousness of becoming an authentic pedophile is too realistic, and you just cannot laugh at that.

Likewise in the process of “making it their own” with the dub, the casts frequently adds profanity to the English script. The Japanese language does not have curse words in the same way we have them in English, so even when dubbing over “mature” titles into English, profanity rarely appears in translation. That is why whenever the NHK characters drop the s- or f-bomb in the dub, it still seems unusual even though it should fit perfectly with the tone of the show.

But that’s pretty much all the gripes I can find with this series. Yeah, I’m aware that this was sort of an uber-glowing review, but in all fairness, that was because I cherry picked this title out of a huge stack of potential review material. Of all of the re-releases that FUNi has put out in the past few months, Welcome to the NHK is the one that you must get.

* * * * *

The Good: Smart, original, and refreshing story that makes light of severe social disorders. Beautiful theme song productions. English dub perfectly captures the tone of the original script.

The Bad: Subject matter of mental illness can be too disturbing and unfunny at times. Profanity in English dub still feels awkward.

Final Verdict: Sure, it has had a rough time finding its way to America, but now that Welcome to the NHK is available in one complete series box set, there is really no excuse why you should miss out. Watch it!

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