Welcome to the NHK is one of those things I like a lot in part because it’s about grownups with real problems instead of kids with robot suits or magic wands.
Not that there is anything wrong with robot suits or magic wands. They can make for good stories, too. They just usually aren’t my cup of tea is all.
Now, let me start with this: I’m talking here about the anime. The manga is another kettle of fish, deeper, more adult, and at the same time structurally a little simpler. I’ll talk about that some other time.
At its heart Welcome to the NHK, the anime, is a screwy, sideways First Love story about Tatsuhiro Satou and Misaki Nakahara. Like many First Love stories they have their ups and downs, their good moments and their bad. Like many First Love stories they end up together at the end, and so we have a happy ending for a certain value of happy.
The story of their relationship is screwy in two ways, in the relationship itself, and in the manner it is constructed. Both of those are of interest to me as a writer so I’ll just throw them both on the floor and see whose shoe they stick to the bottom of.
On the surface, if you put Tatsuhiro and Misaki side-by-side, you expect them to have a pretty obvious dominance structure. Tatsuhiro is larger, older, better educated; he’s also the male in a sexist society. Later on we learn he’s also a bit smarter, too, although they are both pretty sharp.
Misaki, on the other hand, is not only smaller and younger, she’s more child-like as well: she is drawn to look a little younger than her story age (17-18; she’s a high school senior-age), and she is also inexperienced romantically/sexually (Look at how terribly embarrassed she is when Tatsuhiro invents some Freudian Imagery for her.)
But Tatsuhiro is hikikomori, a recluse, in part because he has mental health issues. As such, he considers himself beneath everyone, even little schoolgirl Misaki. This tension between his perception of himself as lower than the low and points at which he becomes the dominant member of his relationships is one of the narrative driving forces of the story. It happens in ALL of his relationships, not just that with Misaki, and the conflict between his self-perception of submission and the situational need for him to become dominant drives him to attempt suicide twice.
This turns the dominance structure between the two of them upside-down: Tatsuhiro is superior to Misaki in every way but he is incapable of accepting that, which allows her to dominate him. There is a constant tension between what SHOULD BE between them and what IS between them. This is a source of conflict in the story and also allows her to drive the plot.
Ultimately, though, Tetsuhiro finds a way to make it all work for him. His story is rebirth and the central meta-plot of the series is his path out of hikikomorism (Is that a word?) and into being a functional member of society with, ultimately, a cute girlfriend who loves him very much.
That’s pretty straight forward. If you wanted to call it rags to riches instead of rebirth, I wouldn’t fight you. But to me it feels like rebirth, from caterpillar to butterfly.
Misaki, as always, is the more interesting one. Tatsuhiro is the central character and the show revolves around him, but Misaki is the protagonist. She drives the plot. She’s the one that promises to cure him. She’s the one who poses as his girlfriend and she’s the one who takes his hand. And at the end she makes herself the Princess in Peril Tatsuhiro has to rescue to compete his transformation.
What’s neat about Misaki, though, is that her character doesn’t develop through the series. Instead, it is revealed. As Tatsuhiro GROWS, Misaki is REVEALED.
We see little hints along the way. Misaki is smart, for instance, a little nerdy, portrayed as a clinical in her interest in Tatsuhiro. She even keeps a notebook on him!
But we see little hints that she’s not all of that. Tatsuhiro corrects her when she is reading, for instance; she doesn’t know her kanji as well as she needs to. As above, she is clearly inexperienced sexually, and when they are pretending to date it’s obvious that she knows as little about dating as he does. (His mother busts her for referring to her “fiancé” by his last name, a pretty obvious gaffe.)
And when she makes him mad enough to raise his hand to her, she curls up into a ball and whimpers.
There’s something deeper going on with Misaki and it takes the whole series to draw the curtain aside. But it comes together at the end, when she offers him a contract that amounts to a proposal of marriage.
This is so obviously the action that triggers the resolution of the series that I feel dumb writing it. But that’s what it is. Look at the contract:
What is shows us is that Misaki is desperately, terribly in love with Tatsuhiro, that she can’t face life without him. And it is revealed to us at that point that she feels he is the only chance of a future she has.
He can’t accept, of course. He considers himself lower than she is. In his mind he can’t possibly save her, so he says no.
Rejected, dejected, seeing no other course of help, she goes back to her original home, the one she grew up in, to kill herself.
This drives the resolution of Tatsuhiro’s story, of course. He HAS to save her, and to save her he must be stronger than she. He must become the top dog between them.
Think about their developments as being two lines, one horizontal and one tilted upward. Misaki is who she is; she does not develop as a character, so her line is flat. But Tatsuhiro is changing. His line goes up; at the end it crosses hers and he becomes the strong one. He is typically unable to handle that and tries to kill himself as well.
But when he is saved finally, the story is done. We learn Misaki’s final secret, that she was abused as a child by her step-father, that she instead of having it together she is PTSD to the eyes. And they recognize they each need each other, and accept they will be together.
That little bit of trickery, that Tatsuhiro grows while Misaki is revealed, is a very neat piece of writing. If they both grew together they would be just like every other romantic couple: they would make me think of Ryugi and Taiga from Toradora. But they aren’t.
As Tatsuhiro grows, what we learn about Misaki shows she’s not as smart or as strong as we first thought. As he BECOMES stronger, as she makes him stronger because she is actually the protagonist, she APPEARS weaker and it is revealed she needs him more than he needs her. He needs her to grow. She needs him to live.
And they are healed by each other. The end. And it works beautifully and powerfully. Nicely done.
Of course, it’s nothing like the manga. Well maybe a little, he he he…
I always look at comments and feedback, and I’m sure I’m not the first to see what I’ve seen, so have at it. Just keep it clean and keep it on target…no personal attacks, okay? Thanks.