Welcome to the NHK: Satou in the bushes with a camera

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.

Anime

The scene in the anime has turned away more than a few viewers from the rest of the series, yet it’s relatively tame. See the first half of this video:

Satou lies waiting in the bushes and cries as he says, “How did this happen? I wanted to have a normal, healthy life.” Yutaka Koizumi’s shaking voice, coupled with the sad soundtrack, make the scene truly pitiful, yet the whole thing lasts barely 30 seconds before Misaki shows up on screen. Furthermore, the scene is littered with small comedic elements, from sound effects as Yamazaki looks around to the breeze of wind near the end.

This is really the approach the anime takes: instead of focusing on Satou’s depression, each scene is carefully constructed to walk around it. Comedy is inserted to try and make each situation lighter to make the audience laugh, or at least not feel depressed. This scene should be one of the heaviest, most gut-wrenching moments in the series, yet Satou barely says two lines.

In comparison, the novel doesn’t hold back…

Novel

The novel has Satou going on a page-long monologue bemoaning his fate:

…I didn’t really want to become this sort of scum. When I was little, my dream was to go to Tokyo University and become a great scholar. I wanted to invent something that would help all of mankind. And now, I’m a lolicon hikikomori! You should cry. Yeah, that’s right. Cry! Shed tears for my repulsive appearance!

We wanted to smile casually and happily each day; we wanted to enjoy a normal, average, invigorating daily life. The incomprehensibly rough waves of fate have made it impossible, though–so, cry in despair! We really wanted to be useful to everyone, to live in harmony with everyone. Now, though, we’re lolicon hikikomori–so, cry in despair! You must cry! …

And he goes on and on. The only humor here is the black comedy base: Satou has fallen so far that he’s posing as a pedophile to feel sorry for himself. Yet it’s hard to call this absurdity comedy since these paragraphs hit like a truck. Any reader can relate to not being able to realize a dream, to lose your childhood. And with each line that Satou says, it becomes more and more realistic to imagine yourself in his shoes. From being unable to realize a dream to simply wanting to enjoy a normal life to finally becoming a lolicon hikikomori… Takimoto makes it feel like I’m just a few steps away from becoming Satou.

There’s no comedy to dampen the impact here, and that’s a theme of the entire novel. Takimoto says that he tried to make it funny by discussing popular terms like hikikomori/NEET, but as I read the whole thing I don’t think I laughed, smiled, or puffed air through pursed lips even once. It’s depressing, through and through.

Manga

The manga strikes a perfect middle ground. In the manga, there’s this page (typeset myself, as in my Eyeshield post):

(using the TokyoPop translation)

I think this is my favorite page of any manga series. Satou’s pitiful face just shows so many emotions. In the first panel, he looks absolutely disgusting: messy hair, with unshaven stubble. His nose bleeds as he watches the kids. His tiny pupils show he’s in a crazed state of mind as he tries to rationalize why he’s hiding out in the bushes. In the third and fourth panels, his face changes as he realizes how much he’s changed since his childhood. The contrast between the sweat of nervousness/excitement and the tears of disgust and self-pity. It’s a great picture of this one moment: this is Satou at his very lowest.

The anime doesn’t focus enough on this snapshot of our “suffering hero, crying and disgusted at himself,” hesitating to show too much of Satou’s depression. Since the novel doesn’t have this powerful picture, it resorts to going too far in Satou’s dialogue.

While the manga does pull comedic relief like the breeze -> pantyshot, it goes in hard with the heavier subject matter. Again, Takimoto from the manga postscript:

Instead of writing it in the first-person, I realized that if I went with a distinctly fun style, the book would be perfect! That’s precisely what I kept in mind as I began to write. However, I soon realized a flaw in my idea. I began to feel regret and shame. The manga version was starting soon, so I really wanted to succeed with that carefree style in the manga. […] The final message we were trying to get across [in the manga] was how a person’s will could change them. I wanted that to be the message and to make it direct.

I agree with Takimoto. The manga definitely has a “fun style” that’s missing from his original novel, making it a lot better and easier to read. I also (probably incorrectly) interpret this to mean that Takimoto considers the manga the definitive version of the series.



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