Unwelcome to the NHK: Light Novel is So Heavy

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I just finished reading Welcome to the NHK. It is not a pleasant book. I’m not writing a review, so don’t expect a recommendation either way. Why not? It’s partly because NHK is a deeply personal story. It’s not an autobiography in the strict sense, but the preface, and the two afterword sections prevent me from relating to this book as anything other than a confession.

Even if author Takimoto Tatsuhiko is not the lead character Satou Tatsuhiro, the authorial voice in the novel makes them indistinguishable. In the first afterword he says how difficult it is for him to read his own work. Knowing that even if Satou isn’t really him, Satou’s experiences are his; his own actions documented even if presented as fiction.

So why won’t I review this work? By review I mean to write about it in the service of providing you a recommendation, a discussion of its merits as a work of fiction, an estimation of your potential enjoyment, a judgment over its elements — it’s setting, its characters, etc. I don’t want to judge it. I don’t think I’ll be fair. To judge the book feels like I’m judging Satou, ergo Takimoto. I don’t want to.

To even consider not wanting to judge, I must feel like I have something unwelcome to say.

Well, Satou disgusts me. To me he is a human being of no merit. He takes up space, even if only a 6-tatami apartment; he breathes our air, spends unearned resources, and contributes nothing. He is a parasite of the most pathetic kind.

And by pathetic, I don’t mean the kind that appeals to my compassion. I don’t sympathize with him, I don’t think he is a victim of a disease, or a disorder. I think he is a symptom of a certain social affliction. Don’t ask me to name it, I’m no expert. I feel it to be so. Take my statements for whatever they’re worth.

And he is not alone. There are two other characters who are almost as degenerate as he is. Yamazaki Kaoru is a former schoolmate who is an otaku of the anime, but more specifically eroge subcategories. Nakahara Misaki is a missionary who made a project to reform Satou, but does not do so from a place of compassion and strength. If anything, she’s almost as impotent and terrified as he is. Her supposed mercy, is in fact cruel. Read it if you want to understand. Otherwise take my word for now.

The thing that prevents these two characters from being as ridiculous as Satou is that they have projects and interests. Satou can’t be roused to do anything. His motivation to take up something like Yamazaki’s game project is fear and flight.  His participation in Misaki’s redemption project is through by force of a flimsy contract and an unenforcable 10 million yen redress for breaching it. He doesn’t really want to do any of what these people are into, but he really can’t say no. What’s the point? He asks. I’m trapped anyway, he thinks.

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The villainous NHK (Nihon Hikkikomori Kyokai) is too powerful. The conspiracy is too well planned. The universe’s resources are spent in a meticulously precise coordinated system of generating the maximum amount of misery for Satou. This is what he tells himself. The NHK can make him do anything.

This is best exemplified in how Satou, one with no particular interests in life, is transformed into a child pornography-hoarding lolicon. He was so disgusted with himself, after spending days maxing out his 30GB (which was considerable in 2002) HDD with child pornography from all over the world. His taste developed gradually, then inexorably, then like a flood. He got so disgusted with himself that he took Yamazaki to photograph him as he hid behind the bushes to take photographs of elementary school girls, hoping to steal a panty-shot. He wanted evidence of his depravity.

So what we have here is a person who is disgusting to himself, and who is aware of how disgusting he is. Knowing this, he has no real will to change, or to ask for assistance. He sees it as a waste, he’s too depraved to deserve assistance. He’s not worth the trouble. He’s better off shutting himself in, avoiding all human interaction whatsoever. THANK YOU NHK.

But there is something that Satou does. He saves a life, wholly by accident. The person is saved, because Satou is an idiot. Even if you think you’re the worst person, and want to kill yourself, you always have Satou to look at and marvel at the spectacle of his pathos. And in the end, he stays the way he is. Maybe he wants to pat himself on the back by his unlikely survival. Maybe writing his book is — not quite the way out, but the way to stay in, stay inside his room, away from me, or anyone who can be his friend.

This is his victory.

I didn’t ask for a redemption story. I got that by reading Onani Master Kurosawa. I didn’t ask for moral ambiguity. I got that from reading Bokurano. I wanted the painful experience, the pathos and cruelty I got from those two works, without asking for anything else. Well, I got what I wanted. Can’t I just shut up and be happy about it? I got my unsympathetic protagonist who got by somehow and told me his story. I got my insider look within the extents of depravity of an extrordinary individual. I don’t like him, I don’t like his story.

It doesn’t mean that it is a bad story though.

And let me say that this story, is interesting. To fail to be so will have been the cruelest of tragedies. It does not fail. Even after writing this, I’m still thinking about it.

Further Reading

NHK is a lesson in geek philosophy (Jacob 2009/08/10)
Takimoto is the authentic hikikomori (21stcenturydigitalboy 2009/08/03)
A full and sensible review recommends the novel (Mike 2009/11/04)
A full and sensible review recommends the anime (otou-san 2008/01/10)

About ghostlightning

I entered the anime blogging sphere as a lurker around Spring 2008. We Remember Love is my first anime blog. Click here if this is your first time to visit WRL.
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24 Responses to Unwelcome to the NHK: Light Novel is So Heavy

  1. If I want to be a liar and an idealist, than I will say that Onani Master Kurosawa is the most relatable manga I’ve ever read.

    If I want to be a realist, it’s Welcome to the NHK. Which is what has made the story so popular – every hikkikomori can relate to Satou, and the story has been known to take a real emotional toll on whoever so reads it.

    Like you said, NHK is a personal story and shouldn’t really be reviewed. If I told you about the story, all I’d be able to tell you is ‘here’s the story of my life from someone else’s perspective.’

    • Also, I think my original post after finishing NHK 2 years ago is still just a little interesting: http://fuzakenna.com/2007/05/27/no-quarter/

    • ghostlightning says:

      It’s a bit awkward for me to talk about this knowing that there are people who identify with this story very strongly. I mean, what do I say to such a person? I’ve just made public my disapproval of them, and it contradicts my general behavior of trying to like people and making friends.

      I think the difference in this case is that, I made my intentions and my biases known and would somehow still like to reach out, however clumsisly. It’ll be up to the likes of Satou, or in this case, you to meet me somewhere and establish affinity. I know it will be a lot of work for a Satou to do this, but I am affable to a fault and I don’t mind laying the burden of action on the part of a hikikomori.

      • I think I could tell it was awkward, lol. And admittedly, it was awkward to read, because I do perfectly identify with Satou, and you’ve thrown my worth into question, but I of course turn to the lyrics of Kuusou Rumba, a song no doubt about being a Satou (this being precisely why I sang it at otakon):

        http://www.animelyrics.com/anime/zetsubou2/kuusourumba.htm (read the translated part)

        In the end, a Satou is aware that he is a Satou, and it won’t matter if you tell him he is. He understands your judgment, and probably finds it fair.

        But there’s no changing him.

  2. Ryan A says:

    Lacking motivation and vigor without any physical incapabilities (though disabled persons often strive as well) is a complete turnoff and point of un-identification.

    A person with no decent spice of life. GAAAH.

    I haven’t read the book, and I probably won’t simply because I already watched the anime. I thought it had humorous moments, sometimes ironic, and when given the context, I laughed, but it’s still a very dark place when we look at it seriously (perhaps not as entertainment).

    When I was young, I loved to run and jump off of rooftops (still do in fact), but I feel this type of activity is a disconnect from hikiland; they probably can’t identify with me jumping off roofs for excitement, just like I can’t identify with them indulging in a lack of vigor for reality.

    I dunno, my concept of the term is probably not to definition, but I don’t believe it’s a matter of one’s actions (locking themself away), it’s far more in the attitude of their existence…

    /:

    • ghostlightning says:

      Yeah man, I’m more like you than I am like Satou. I’m very much capable of being a loner and enjoying my solitude, but I am also naturally gregarious and talkative among friends. I’d jump of trees and rooftops too if I knew my knees can survive it (unlikely).

      It’s the attitude yes. I don’t know if the lack of vigor for reality is a symptom or a cause, but it’s definitely troubling for me, and is consistent to just drugging yourself up until you eventually die — the alternative to facing the pointlessness of existence. (See previous post)

  3. 0rion says:

    “I don’t like him, I don’t like his story.

    It doesn’t mean that it is a bad story though.”

    This is my favorite line from your post. I personally love protagonists who don’t have any particular redeeming qualities and don’t aspire to have them. It always frustrates me when people who have been pampered and pandered to by the entertainment industry don’t know how to deal with anything beyond the few cookie cutter character styles they are accustomed to.

    It’s nice to see an honest assessment of a story like this. And while it may not be “unbiased” or “fair”, I do think your review is honest. Really, I far prefer that kind of approach in reviews than the awkward detachment of the “professional” reviewer.

    A good story is designed to provoke emotions, so why shouldn’t I be able to see those come through in a review? That tells me everything I need to know.

    • ghostlightning says:

      I can’t imagine myself being a detached, professional reviewer. If I can be emotionally moved by reading encycolopedia entries and nonfiction, what more of a work that is as emotionally charged and polarizing idealistically as this one?

      If I can’t find myself emotionally invested in a work, then I find myself in a quandary: is the work problematic? Or did I fail to sustain my own engagement for it (this is exactly what happened to me while reading Nijigahara Holograph)?

      I also cannot completely give up my biases. I just do my best to not let them get in the way. The lack of piloted and humongous mecha in this story already counts against it, but I’d be foolish to let it influence me in a big way. I too enjoy being pampered and pandered to by the entertainment industry, but there’s a place in my tastes for works that disturb me, challenge me, hurt me even. I don’t know what to call that, but I think it’s a good thing.

  4. thekungfukid says:

    I still haven’t read the light novel but I felt the manga ended on a fairly positive note. Are you saying the light novel wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows at the end?

  5. Pontifus says:

    I feel you on this, even if I do end up on the side of those who relate to Satou. He’s something of a special case, I think, and I’ve never been as bad as him, but I know what it’s like to get sweaty palms at the thought of human interaction. The only real solution is to suck it up and work through it, and NHK doesn’t make light of how difficult that can be. As to whether he’s symptomatic of a social affliction, well, I don’t know. Maybe not the terms I’d use, but again, I can relate to him, and I’d rather not think of myself as symptomatic of a social affliction (then again, I do go to school and work when I can, so I guess I’m not quite in that boat).

    I do believe Satou changes by the end of the novel — just very, very little, almost imperceptibly so. He does start working odd jobs, and he does connect with people in some minor way, even if they’re as pathetic as he is. We don’t see him after he’s been doing these things for a long time, so we can’t get a sense of how they’ll change him, but they will almost certainly change him. I wouldn’t call it a redemption story, as he still has a long way to go, but it’s more true to life than something like OMK; in my experience, people most often improve themselves by small degrees, and great flashes of revelation are regrettably rare.

    • ghostlightning says:

      This is interesting, in that there was no powerful epiphany. Usually an epiphany serves as some kind of resolution for the conflict. But the resolution of the conflict is accidental. His gaining employment is a matter of pure necessity, and is convenient for the purposes of further isolation.

      I make a case for an autobiographical link, in that Takimoto admits that he’s done little between the two editions of the book (3-4 years apart). He admitted to using the royalties of the first run to finance his seclusion.

      I may not be right to do this, but I see this as a denouement for Satou’s story. No growth, or at most, it’s negligible.

  6. vendredi says:

    I’ve seen only the anime series, and i will agree that it is an excruciating experience; even taken from a purely technical standpoint – the various addiction arcs, covering Satou as he jumps from one commercial product to another – are ploddingly plotted and seem a tremendous waste of time.

    Yet the magic of NHK is that enough brilliant moments are sprinkled throughout, and the ending comes together beautifully, enough to redress (if not totally redeem) the suffering of plodding through the previous dull episodes about various subcultures. It really makes me wonder if NHK was made *purposefully* poorly, making each story arc as excruciatingly plodding as possible. Given GONZO’s rather mixed reputation for churning cheap cleavage with one hand (Burst Angel, Dragonaut, etc.) while dispensing genius with the other (Last Exile, Gankutsuou, etc.), I’m not really sure what to think.

    • ghostlightning says:

      Unfortunately I cannot comment on the anime, as I’ve only read the light novel. I’ve been told (see digiboy’s comments above) that the book is darker and gloomier. I’m sympathetic to this view, as I really felt I was reading excruciating stuff. I can’t recommend it, but if you’re interested in such subjects — beyond the parody/caricature of the hikikomori in SZS, this book is quite the intense immersive experience.

  7. 2DT says:

    I don’t have anything to say. I really thought about it, and I hoped something insightful would pop into my head. I’ve got nothing.

    But I read this, and I thought about it for the whole day. For what that’s worth.

    • ghostlightning says:

      Have you read the novel or the manga? Or have you seen the show?

      • 2DT says:

        Watched the anime, read about half of the manga.

        I liked the anime’s bittersweet ending. Satou indeed gets a job out of necessity, and it’s not certain that life will get better, but the important thing is that after everything he’s experienced, now he hopes it does.

        The novel sounds quite different, and possibly not my cup of tea.

        • The novel ending is the almost exact same as the anime ending. The only difference is that the current print of the novel has an afterword by the author in which he pretty much says “writing this novel didn’t make me less of a hikkikomori”

  8. Anton says:

    I guess I hold this story in an extremely high esteem. One of the best stories I’ve ever read. So warm and so sympathetic. I obvously consumed all 3 – anime, novel, manga. Novel is the first one to appear and it’s probably the most honest of the 3, most life-like. Anime has got the best ending of the 3 – it leaves the door open for the two to get together. Manga has got the best scene of all the three – in the delapidated house when the characters nearly get killed. A real shame I feel Yamazake doesn’t get that girl, despite her words she seems genuinly interested in him and fits him well.

    Why do I like it SO much? Well firstly I guess because I can associate with the main here. You know perhaps it’s not possible to enjoy this story so much unless you have somewhat similar issues. No, I’m not a shut in – but rather a workaholic, which is similar. And the best part of the story is geniune warmth that the main characters find in each other, even though their thoughts and actions are not always directed in unison with whar their hearts feel. But that’s exactly life like.

    Beautiful. The best.

  9. Normies
    Reeeeeeeeeeeeeeeey

  10. Max says:

    Sato suffers from agarophobia you’re disgusting for thinking he’s trash. He’s a victim.

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