By Jose Cardenas
CW: Mental illness, porn mention, suicide mention
“I really feel my brain’s been out of whack lately.”
If you have experienced any amount of anxiety or executive dysfunction, Welcome To The NHK is an incredibly bleak series, especially so if you consider yourself any kind of artist or creator. This series focuses on the struggles of desperate young adults trying to find purpose in life, often with hilarious and heart-breaking results.
College dropout and series protagonist Tatsuhiro Satō begins a journey back into the outside world after spending three years as a reclusive shut-in (or hikikomori as the Japanese call it) due to severe insecurity and a panic attack.
Mysterious high school dropout Misaki Nakahara reaches out to Satō as part of a made-up charity project in order to prove to herself that she is needed and has value.
Dedicated otaku Kaoru Yamazaki aspires to be a game creator not just out of passion but also out of fear of returning to the eternal trap that is his family’s farm.
Other, more mature characters like Hitomi Kashiwa and Megumi Kobayashi are faced with important transitions into adulthood, but try to avoid them through very self-destructive methods.
Whether it means indulging in nerdy hobbies, practicing amateur psychology or getting addicted to online porn, these characters try to distract themselves from an imagined conspiracy that only serves to reinforce what they constantly tell themselves: I am, and always will be, unloved.
What eventually breaks these individual cycles of self-loathing are not sudden epiphanies but rather the small details that reveal how the world, and humanity at large, does care about them.
“Puru Puru Pururin Purupururin”
What makes this 2006 anime unique in its approach to themes of self-hatred and depression is the fact that Satō meets so many other characters with similar emotional problems.
Sometimes these interactions and realizations motivate him to make progress in breaking his shut-in lifestyle. Other times it’s an excuse to relapse, but the story always keeps a forward momentum, introducing new situations and characters that disrupt his thinking and increase the pressure.
One of the best arcs of the series that showcases this dynamic is also the most harrowing.
After reconnecting with his upperclassman and high school crush Hitomi, Satō joins her on a trip to an island with a group of quirky strangers. He discovers too late that this group is a suicide pact that plans to die together on a deserted island. Horrified, Satō tries to reach out, further out of his shell than he’s ever been, and helps convince the pact not to follow through. The amazing thing is, he’s somewhat successful and it’s a moment of heartfelt triumph.
However, once Hitomi, his crush, accepts a marriage proposal, Satō gets absolutely heartbroken and initiates his own suicide plan, turning the tables where the pact now has to convince him that life is worth living.
Before, during, and after that nerve-wracking adventure, Satō reveals just how close he is to getting it and how much he needs the world, and a collection of strangers, to remind him that it’s not too late to change and love himself.
This is not a story about a man falling deeper into a pit, but rather a man peeking out of his pit, only to see a giant field with other pits and a helping hand, offering to help him out of his pit. Whether Satō accepts the hand or just digs further down is the crux of the show, and it leads to moments that are equal parts comedic, saddening, and crushingly relatable.
Especially when it comes to the thematic climax that leaves him crying and ready to face the future. The realization that the world wants him to live.
“Enjoy the outside world!”
The characters in Welcome to the NHK don’t really have happy endings but rather gain a healthier way of living and “earn” some hope for the future.
Satō manages to let go of his conspiracy obsessions, but he still has social anxiety and other problems that he now knows how to manage and overcome.
Misaki learns that she is needed and loved unconditionally by the people around her and decides to go into high school again. Personally speaking, her development and relationship to Satō throughout the story is a real highlight of the series.
All the other characters reach a level of stability too, and even better, they manage to walk away from the nihilistic philosophies that sabotaged their relationships and mental health. Even though their journeys are dark, and only get darker from episode one, there are always small lights in the darkness that makes you want to see them to the end.
If you are going through a rough patch yourself or experiencing similar shut-in tendencies after a year of pandemic lockdown (and the possibility of a second one on the horizon), this series comes with the highest recommendation.