Welcome to the N.H.K. Vol. 4 (Tokyopop)

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nhk-header.jpgNerds tend to be homebodies, but what happens when the anxiety becomes so intense you can't leave the house? This manga series, based on the light novel series of the same name, casts an unflinching light on this bizarre, widespread, and uniquely Japanese social phenomenon.

 

 

190 pgs. B&W; $9.99

(W: Tatsuhiro Takimoto; A: Kendi Oiwa)

 

Welcome to the N.H.K. might well be one of the most socially and philosophically important manga series of all time. The series -- based on a light novel and dramatized as an anime -- deals unflinchingly with the problem of hikikomori, a bizarre, uniquely Japanese social phenomenon/subculture. Hikikomori are extreme recluses, unemployed young people who have decided to withdraw from society as a result of anxiety disorders, extreme pressure to succeed in the job market, or any number of other psychological and social factors. Refusing to leave their apartment for years on end, hikikomori frequently immerse themselves in anime, manga, video games, and other antisocial hobbies, while painstakingly avoiding interaction with others. It is estimated that there are now approximately 2 million hikikomori living in Japan -- though, of course, it's impossible to accurately count a group of people who refuse to leave their homes or interact with others. Sociologists and psychologists have blamed many factors for the hikikomori phenomenon, including Japan's rigorous school system, and the country's longstanding cultural emphasis on society rather than the individual.

 

The cover to Welcome to the N.H.K. Vol. 4. Click thumbnail for a larger image.In Welcome to the N.H.K., the hikikomori protagonist, Satou, believes he has found the truth behind the hikikomori phenomenon -- he believes he is being controlled and monitored by a shadow organization known as the Nihon Hikikomori Kyokai, or Japanese Hikikomori Association. Naturally, this conspiracy is being run by the N.H.K. TV broadcasting company. The N.H.K. is the reason why Satou can't leave his apartment. It's also the reason why Misaki, a deceptively cute, obviously emotionally damaged high school girl, can't seem to stop knocking on his door. The series centers around various characters' attempts to rescue Satou from hikikomori-hood, in story arcs that frequently highlight his would-be rescuers' own shortcomings, disorders, and difficulties with modern life.

 

At this point in the series, Satou has joined forces with his otaku neighbor and former high school classmate, Yamazaki, to create what they hope will be the greatest hentai (porn) game of all time. Meanwhile, another old high school friend, Kashiwa, has become engaged to her salaryman boyfriend. In a fit of drunken bravado, Satou asks Kashiwa out on a date, causing Misaki to launch a full-force psychological assault against Satou. Misaki's often-disturbing actions force Satou to question his attachment to women who need rescuing, as well as his pervasive tendency to view life as a game that can be won or lost.

 

This is heavy stuff for a manga, and Welcome to the N.H.K. pulls no punches. Drug use, excessive alcohol consumption, nudity, and self-mutilation are common themes in this comic, however, their presence never feels gratuitous or coincidental. Takimoto attacks his subject matter with a novelist's poise and foresight, and it shows. This book lacks the episodic quality of many manga, and makes a concerted effort to tackle tough questions, often of the "Why are we here?" variety. In terms of portraying real -- albeit deviant and damaged -- human emotion, Welcome to the N.H.K. is one of the best books on the market, and its slick, futuristic design is just a bonus. | J. Bowers

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