Hooray for disgust!

Welcome to the N.H.K. Vol. 1

Ah, now here’s some manga comedy the way I like it: clingy and uncomfortable, dark as midnight, perched right at the edge of despair. I guess some of the characters in this book are meant to have a redeeming characteristic or two, but nothing much is capable of rising to the top in as thick a body of liquid self-loathing as this. Warms the heart.

Welcome to the N.H.K., published in English by TokyoPop, is perhaps most vividly a testament to the power of otaku self-loathing. It’s actually a comics adaptation by artist Kendi Oiwa of prose novels by Tatsuhiko Takimoto (which apparently featured some illustration work by Yoshitoshi ABe); the property has been successful enough in its prior forms that a television anime version has also recently aired, though I believe the manga is still ongoing in Japan. As such, it’s kind of unexpected that the manga is as hard-edged as it is; maybe it lightens up later in its run and eases into a friendlier role as a tart-flavored romantic comedy of some sort (hell, I'd even bank on that), but the satire in this initial volume is pretty vicious, and all the more entertaining for it.

The plot follows young Satou, who has dropped out of college to lead the contemplative life; that means he (literally) hasn’t left his apartment in years. He’s a hikikomori, part of a social phenomenon that’s seen Japanese youth retire to their small abodes and essentially drop out of polite (or really any) society. Satou is also an otaku, a virgin, and quite possibly mentally unbalanced; he sometimes dreams of a conspiracy hatched by the NHK public broadcasting station, bringing the country irresistible anime that transforms good people into hopeless fanboys, and there’s nothing worse than a fanboy in this manga’s world. Satou sometimes teams up with his misogynist neighbor Yamazaki for the purposes of creating the world’s greatest hentai computer game, but his chief preoccupation is with cute Misaki, a young woman who’s made it her personal ‘project’ to cure Satou of his horrid membership with the Nihon Hikikomori Kyoukai, the true N.H.K., the secret alliance of hopeless people in a pop-sunk society.

I thought this was a pretty funny book, all the better for the extent to which it’s willing to take its perversity. As is necessary in such comics, there’s an ugly ring of understanding to much of it; a trip to an otaku-targeted maid café becomes drenched in the male gaze, as Satou explains how simple things like the texture of an employee’s apron evoke memories of pornographic computer games. Concepts like moé -- that diabolical state of paternalistic affection toward largely helpless, adorable female characters -- are dissected, parodied, and driven to their nasty conclusions, as the boys (by way of example) conclude that the most moé lead character possible for their erotic computer game would have to be a maid-robot space alien based on a childhood friend who’s the lover of the male character in a previous life and also fatally ill and suffering from Alzheimer’s and burdened with a split personality. Gotta keep that protective instinct humming!

It’s all in the service of making a pornographic computer game (a text-based bonus feature in the back beautifully pokes at the madness of the pursuit), so naturally Satou also views child pornography for ‘research’ material. Some of it’s obviously just lolicon modeling work, but why not take on the pure stuff too (“That Russian stuff was pretty hardcore, but the Americans’ were the raunchiest.”)? Soon he’s crouched in the bushes by the local elementary school, camera in hand, horrifying poor woman-hating Yamazaki that he’s crossed the line from obsessing over drawings of way underage girls to actual underage girls. It’s a comedy! And funny! I swear!

Really, I can’t imagine how much longer this tone can be maintained. There’s already suggestions that the book might soon lighten up into a more typical romantic comedy; the presence of Misaki certainly indicates that, as does, frankly, the apparent popularity of the work. And yet, on other pages, the book seems more ambitious, ready to take its withering, informed gaze to the larger scope of a nation, as suggested by Satou’s meeting with a former classmate, a compulsive pill-popping working woman, his exact opposite, a success, yet just as paranoid and rigid as he, and oddly sympathetic to his nerdy plight.

Who knows where it’ll go, but I like it where it’s at now. I readily admit that some readers will find its sense of humor hopelessly bleak and its characters largely revolting. But it's gratifyingly extreme in the way few inside-fandom satires are, while managing a keen sense of social observation and an honest wit. And it's not dismissive or superior in the way that many of these works might be; rather, it seems a genuine product of thoughtful self-disgust, or at least an observer willing to get in touch with the real pleasure of doing things that rightful folk might find grotesque. And who better to wield the whip?