This was originally part of a “top 10 manga” post (like my top 20 anime post), but it got too long and sort of off-topic so I’m making it a standalone post.
Welcome to the NHK is a franchise that started with a depressing novel in 2002, a raw story written by a hikikomori for hikikomori. A manga adaptation followed in 2003, and the anime was made in 2006. While the anime is in my top 5 and the novel is a phenomenal read, I consider the manga the definitive version of the story.
The novel is just too dark. While Takimoto clearly tried to make the humor stand out, it just doesn’t work when the novel is in first person. Satou’s thoughts make me cringe and feel worse and worse as more and more depressing things happen until there’s nothing left to laugh about. On the other hand, the anime isn’t dark enough, straying a bit too far away from controversial subjects. The manga isn’t as faithful to the novel’s plot as the anime is, but has a much better blend of black comedy.
The differences are best shown in the most iconic scene of the series: Satou hiding in the bushes outside an elementary school, camera in hand. Takimoto talks about this scene in the postscript to the manga:
But the more realistically you write about a hikikomori, the more you lose the image of a hero. […] Back then, I spent a good two or three weeks straight worrying about it on my futon. Suddenly, a scene of Yamazaki and Satou snapping peeping shots of grade schoolers flashed before my eyes. I’d found my suffering hero, crying and disgusted at himself while simultaneously getting off on those photos. With that vivid image in my head, the images of Yamazaki and Misaki gradually began to take shape…
This scene was clearly central to Takimoto’s novel and subsequent adaptations, so I think it’s worth taking a look at how it turned out. It also happens to illustrate exactly what I like about each version.
Actually, Butsurigaku wa yasashisugiru desu is based on a romanticized view of physics research at a Japanese all-girls high school. I’m a physics researcher obsessed with Japanese culture, who wishes he were young and filled with dreams like back in high school.
So close enough.
Continued from last time… Meiko kicked Taneda out of the apartment because Meiko’s mom (Momko) came over.
Taneda took Kato’s keys, planning on sleeping over at Kato’s place for the night. However, he runs into Meiko, who’s walking around outside after having yelled at Momko. They go back home and see that Momko has left, leaving a note on the table saying that she knows Taneda lives there. As Meiko and Taneda have sex, Taneda reveals that he’s very distant with his workaholic parents, and is jealous of Meiko’s relationship with her mom.
The next day, Meiko and Taneda meet up with Momko at some fancy restaurant, and they have an extremely awkward conversation. Meiko can’t stand it and leaves for a bit, and Momko tells Taneda:
A long time ago, I graduated from a college here and worked in the city. The times being what they were, I ended up back in Akita. She probably doesn’t realize it, but Meiko sees me as someone to avoid becoming. And that’s probably why she doesn’t want to come home.
There are times when I wonder what might have happened if I’d done things differently, but… am I happy? Yes, I’m very happy.
Anyway, I think the two of you should be free to do whatever you want right now. When you’re young, you think the only way to happiness is the hard road… but it’s actually much simpler than that.
Mr. Taneda, please take care of Meiko for me.
Meiko walks in as Momko bows to Taneda, and then they leave, etc.
I included Momko’s entire monologue up in the summary because aside from Taneda talking about his parents, this is the only part that really matters in the chapter. Momko’s advice is basically Asano’s advice – this is the first instance where any character really tries to answer the central question: “what does it mean to be happy?”
Momko’s answer: to be content is to be happy.
It’s a really… mature response that directly contradicts how Meiko and Taneda are leading their lives. Whereas Momko has found happiness in her family, Meiko and Taneda think that chasing and achieving their dreams is the key to happiness. Yet Momko doesn’t rule out this “hard road” — she says that Meiko and Taneda need not take such a path, but she still wonders what could have been.
It’s a really vague answer to a really vague question, but Momko’s monologue really succinctly and effectively gets the point across. The line about the hard road in particular is worded so well:
When you’re young, you think the only way to happiness is the hard road… but it’s actually much simpler than that.
It’s such a different take on happiness than what Western media (or maybe popular media) typically puts out. Motivational quotes based on “chasing your dreams” permeates everything we do. It’s the topic of shows like American Idol, the popular interpretation of the road not taken, and goes down to #yolo. It’s not just about trying to be different, but about trying to live life to the fullest and to die without any regrets.
Yet in this chapter, Momko presents a decidedly different view — one that represents older generations, and perhaps more Japanese? (I know almost nothing about the #yolo culture in Japan, so I’m not going to say anymore about this.) It’s so refreshing, yet elicited such an immediate, knee-jerk response in me. Maybe that’s Asano’s whole point. It’s hard to tell only four chapters in whether or not Asano is trying to preach Momko’s solution of contentment, or promote Meiko’s solution of chasing dreams.
At least he got me thinking.
Meiko wakes up and sees Taneda sleeping in front of the TV. They see a news story about the zoo and decide to go there for the day. However, their phone rings… and it turns out Meiko’s mom is in town. Meiko picks her mom up at the station and goes home, denying that she lives together with her boyfriend.
Meanwhile, Taneda takes Kato to the zoo in place of Meiko. They start drinking there and Taneda lets loose, talking about how unhappy he is with the world. Kato says he’s just frustrated, and that they should restart the band, but Taneda shuts him up and they start fighting about whose life is in a shittier condition. Kato says: “Before you get all depressed about the world, you have problems to solve closer to home, right? You’re a gigolo [sic], remember! And your girl is out of a job!”
Note: my book says “you’re a gigolo” but the scans say “you, your girlfriend’s bitch!” It basically means Taneda doesn’t make much money so he lives off Meiko’s income.
Meiko tells her mom that she quit her job, and her mom gets angry: “I don’t think you’re ready to be living on your own. Meiko… I think it’s time for you to come back home.” In teenager fashion, Meiko yells at her mom without any logic and runs away. What an idiot.
I’ve started interspersing my summary section with more … flair? It’s boring typing a summary of a chapter, and Solanin really isn’t suited to summaries. Most of my enjoyment comes from admiring the details of the art, and of the small nuances that can’t be told in a summary without giving a word-for-word transcript. But I’ll do it anyway for posterior.
As an example of a small nuance, take the first scene with Meiko and her mom. Meiko is unhappy about her mom showing up unannounced, but Meikomom says “These Tokyo hostels cost an arm and a leg. Besides, you don’t work on the weekends, right?” Between being forced to admit this point and worried about the reference to her now non-existent job, Meiko feels really uncomfortable and awkward, saying “Well… yeah, but…”
The great part about this scene is what’s actually drawn there: Meiko’s feet, one raised and turned slightly inward (right). I can almost see Meiko wriggling in such an awkward moment. She’s shifting her weight around and moving her feet to distract her from such a piercing reference to her job. Even though the scene doesn’t show her face, Meiko must be looking downward, trying not to give away that she quit her job.
Chapter 3 basically shoves reality into Meiko’s face. In chapter 2, she wandered around with no purpose in mind. While Meiko complains that her mom shows up, it’s a damn good thing that that happens. Otherwise, she might just laze around all day for months or years on end like me.
I really identify with chapter 2 Meiko. A lot of the time on weekends, I wake up past noon and don’t do anything the entire day. On the other hand, I have a job. Maybe it’s presumptuous of me to compare my more fortunate life with Meiko’s truly aimless one. I feel like whereas Meiko is facing some tough life decisions, I’m just bored. Or am I putting off these decisions? Who knows.
Back to the chapter: I have one minor gripe about this chapter. Meiko wants to rebel against her office lady job, against society, and against her mother. She’s so used to confiding in her mom that she reveals she quit her job, but she doesn’t even think of anything to say after that. Momko asks her what she’s going to do next, and then Meiko gets really really angry all of a sudden and runs away. Nobody would actually do that! This childish response is way too exaggerated. Sure, I can believe Meiko and her mom fighting over the job thing, but Meiko running away after Momko says she’s acting like a child? No no no no no no n
The first scene has Meiko and Taneda making some small talk in the morning… again. Then Taneda goes off to work, and Meiko goes down to the river outside her house, cracks open a beer, and exclaims… “Ahh… the freedom!” She goes on to list all the cool things she can do with her massive amount of free time:
I can go for a leisurely walk whenever I want. I can do the wash when the weather’s good. I suck at cooking, but now I’ve got the time to try something fancy. And… And… It only took me a week of drifting through the days with no purpose to realize that aimless freedom is absolutely boring.
At night, Meiko goes to the recording studio that Taneda and their college pals frequent. Her friend Ai asks Meiko about her future, and Meiko has a brief flashback showing Taneda’s surprised reaction to her quitting her job. Meiko and Ai walk up to the recording room where Taneda and his best friends Rip and Kato are playing some dumb music (pic above), while Ai mentions how good it is to have the college gang back together again.
During the afterparty at a nearby bar (izakaya), Kato and Rip fool around talking about their futures while Taneda sits quietly. While they all talk about not “slaving for the man,” Rip has taken over his family’s pharmacy and Kato is in his 6th year in college. After they leave, Taneda confesses to Meiko that he’s really worried about their future (while puking), and Meiko promises to stop lazing around.
The next day, Taneda buys himself a plain diary and Meiko a flashy one, and Meiko remarks, “He really knows me well.”
A pretty straightforward chapter, and a nice introduction to the rest of the cast. It’s obvious that they’re all very good friends – almost enviously so. Meiko and Ai really open up to each other, Rip and Kato fool around literally on top of each other, and the guys can all let go and sing about dicks.
The character designs are impressively different. Last time, I wrote about Meiko’s hair as dynamic: Many manga and anime series have hair as the defining characteristic that differentiates characters, but here Meiko changes her hairstyle yet stays clearly distinguishable from the other characters. In this chapter, we’re introduced to Ai, the other main female character. Her hair is short and dyed, and her eyes are small — physically, she can’t get any more different from Meiko.
The male characters are no different. Taneda has dyed hair, but otherwise looks pretty normal. Kato is fat, has messy hair, and has a really wide face. Rip is the biker drummer dude with a beard, and looks much older than the others. Just like with Meiko, they all have enough traits unique to themselves that changing one thing won’t destroy their identity. (whereas if you took Goku’s hair away… who is he??)
Maybe this lack of defining characteristic is what defines a well-drawn manga. Eyeshield 21 does this well too, but character designs for Hiruma and Kurita are just so unrealistic and exaggerated that I can’t compare them to Meiko and Taneda… but it works in that universe. I guess the exaggeration aspect is missing for Solanin. Yes, Rip’s character is exaggeratedly “cool” and Kato looks little more than your stereotypical failure ronin, but at least they still look like human beings.
tl;dr It’s really impressive that Asano can give his characters so many identifying features while drawing them realistically.
Something to note, though — Meiko and Taneda are by far the most normal of the bunch, in looks, personality, and everything. It’s supposed to make me relate to them more, I guess?
But going back to Meiko’s hair…