Music Reviews

MP3 Spotlight: Highlights of Welcome to the NHK!

Looking back on 2006 we have seen a handful great series come and go, but even fewer great soundtracks have enlightened our senses. And when I say great, I mean music you can listen to at home, at work and on the bus.
Toshio Masuda’s beautifully sparse work on Mushishi was a relaxing and naturally magical listen, but my favourite right now is quite clearly the soundtrack for the recently concluded Welcome to the NHK. So far it’s been spread over two albums and three singles, and there are an escalating number of stand out tracks. My favourites (MP3 links at the bottom of the post) include:

  • The sugary sweet “Madokashii Sekai no Ue de” by Makino Yui (otherwise known as the voice of disturbed N.H.K. character Misaki) is an absurdly high pitched, gleaming example of perfectly manufactured JPOP with an ultra catchy tune; often repeated through out the show in various forms – including a quite beautiful piano-based rendition.

  • Puzzle by ROUND TABLE (featuring Nino) is the colourful and exhuberent opening theme of the show. Again featuring a stunningly spotless female vocal, what really makes this song so fun and energetic is trumpet in the background and a euphorically upbeat tone. No trace of cynisism here, just pure joy. Which is odd, considering the depressing nature of the anime it opens! Perhaps it’s meant to be ironic?
  • So far I’ve spotlighted the fluffy opening and ending themes, but Pearl Kyoudai’s – who contributes to the majority of this soundtrack – heart-felt insert song “Youkoso! Hitori Bocchi” leaves me in awe every time its grungy melancholy kicks in; its grim acoustic strumming and nostalgic chorus conjuring up memories, the feeling of a golden, warm autumn. This is the song that really defines Welcome to the NHK for me – a resigned look back on life; a reluctant urging to continue onwards.
  • If novelty tunes are your thing, Fushigi Purupuru Pururin Rin! by Shishido Rumi should be quickly scribbled on your list – a ridiculously cute song featuring angelic vocals and a head ache inducing chorus chant “Purupuru Pururin Rin, Purupuru Pururin Rin x 20” – this is intended as a parody of otaku flavoured anime anthems and it’s just about absurd enough to come off as a successfully odd, surreal and funny little number.

What is striking about this soundtrack is how well it blends sickly JPOP with grungy acoustic rock and psychedelic metal without sounding horribly uneven; it captures the dramatic themes and moods of Welcome to the NHK, but more than that, many of the songs stand on their own as dreamy, heart felt and imaginative pieces of music.
Soundtrack MP3 Downloads


Welcome to the NHK [END] – And so dies the NEET

It was cute to see NHK end with a role reversal between Misaki and Satou – there are big differences between a lazy hikkimori and having a genuinely mixed up life. In spite of his personal problems Satou was always a fairly normal person just in need of tough love. When his parents’ money dries up, for perhaps the first time in his life Satou loses his comfort zone and is finally forced to fend for himself and become independent. And so dies the NEET.

Misaki is a lot more interesting. We’ve gone through this show thinking she is doing Satou a favour by sticking around, but during these final couple of episodes it becomes fairly clear that she desperately needs him; having a dead (suicidal) mother and an abusive step-father, the self-loathing, unconfident and lonely Misaki has grown up surrounded by hate. Her problems are deeply seeded and psychological – she needs help and probably sees herself in Satou; the lectures, the exams and even the home-made lunches are as much (if not more) for her as him.

It all ends on a (notorious) cliff top with both characters ready to jump into oblivion. Both actually give up on life and jump, but both are saved. Misaki is caught by Satou, and Satou himself (amidst another surreal vision of gooey paranoia) is saved by a steal mesh especially placed there to catch suicidal fallers. Given their personal problems through out the show, it seems fitting that Misaki was finally saved by genuine friendship (not a stupid contract) and Satou by the society he so fears. At this point NHK could have flown into romantic territory, but despite these two obviously being in love, it ends with them as good friends having knowingly been through so much, and Satou lecturing Misaki on the park bench!

Undoubtedly this has been one of my favourite shows of the year; despite losing some momentum during the over-long MMORPG arc, Welcome to the NHK was ultimately a fine testament to the importance of friendship and independence. GONZO’s animation production was fairly unspectacular but Pearl Kyoudai’s grungy score, paired with a couple of totally uplifting and poppy opening and ending themes, more than made up for any visual shortcomings with its melancholy and chilled tone; surely a contender for best soundtrack of the year.

Welcome to the NHK is not a show for everyone – it can come across as overwhelmingly depressing and slow, sometimes too close to the bone and uncompromisingly geeky, but then I suppose that’s why I like it too. Within a few episodes I had totally fallen for these characters and desperately wanted to see them grow and find happiness. With this end – leaving the characters feeling optimistic but still somewhat scarred and timid, I’m more than content, knowing deep down they’ll be okay.

Editorials Reviews

Observations of Everything: Bye-Bye November

Still hopelessly hooked on…
Black Lagoon (2nd Barrage)
Episode 19 and counting
The bog-standard Naruto fillers would be a lot more interesting if they managed to nab the creative bastards working on Black Lagoon. With that said the 2nd season has often flattered to deceive and appears to be more content to up the ante in terms of fire-power and “phat explosions” than provide any real character development. The end result is a darkly fun but superficial couple of action-packed story arcs. And something needs to be done about the painful Engrish – sorry Balalaika; you can’t be a bad-ass and talk like an idiot.
Code Geass
Episode 7 and counting
It feels wrong writing this but for what it’s worth I’m thoroughly enjoying Code Geass. I’m a sucker for colourful animation and this, mad haircuts and Victorian costumes abound, is so hideously over the top, melodramatic and knowingly fun that it’s become a ridiculous parody of everything that’s cliche within anime, from cloak wearing mecha to ditzy college days romance.
Death Note
Episode 9 and counting
Death Note isn’t an especially clever show but the suspenseful battle of wits and jaw-dropping brinkmanship between an increasingly unhinged Light and the quirky L has had me edging off my seat from the very first episode. I’m totally addicted to this show, and episode 8 contains the most dramatic opening of a packet of crisps e-v-e-r. What with all the Pizza Hut pimping in Code Geass, surely Walkers could have stumped up for some Shinigami flavoured chips?
One Piece
Episode 172 and counting
Well into the Skypiea arc now, but following on from the grandiose adventures of Alabasta, I must admit I’m finding it (“Save the country!”) all fairly predictable, same old music and same brand of narcissistic super villains’ ala Crocodile. Still though you can’t beat the smiling enthusiasm of Luffy and if I’m looking for something purely entertaining to stick on, One Piece has it all. That and Wiper is hella cool.
Welcome to the N.H.K
Episode 21 and counting
No Yamazaki, don’t gooooo! After the lull of the unengaging MMORPG arc, the last two episodes have shown Welcome to the N.H.K is back to its melancholy and border-line suicidal best. Yamazaki’s sad departure and Satou’s subsequently lonely realisation that he’s just lost his best mate rivalled Honey & Clover in its atmospheric reflection on the vital importance friendship. I can’t believe the end is so close now.
Stuck in backlog hell is…

  • 009-1 – Old school sci-fi anime revamped and I’ve read a lot of praise for this show.
  • Bakumatsu Kikansetsu Irohanihoheto – Traditional Japanese dialogue is extremely confusing
  • Bartender – Sounds massively boring but because of that, I’m desperate to give it a shot!
  • Red Garden – Stop crying god dammit! No, don’t sing about it either!
  • Tokyo Tribe 2 – The animation looks odd and creativity deserves attention. Also going in its favour is that it isn’t harem.

Welcome to the NHK! – (Never) Learning to Fly

Having just finished watching episode 19, this must be the first time I’ve left off Welcome to the NHK feeling happy! It was fantastic to see a smiling Torotoro-san biking around and about the streets of Tokyo; you can see in his grinning face that suddenly life is worth living again.
Despite Satou’s constant whining, I’m not convinced his mental condition is dire. He has friends to keep him company, hell – Misaki’s even cooking him dinner now – and having all this is so important. At the other end of the Hikkimori scale is Torotoro-san; a genuinely scary dead-beat with no friends and no Misaki; I can’t help but think his sad condition is closer to the real life of a hikkimori. He lives in the lonely perpetual hell of knowing his life sucks but being too afraid (and too paranoid) to do anything about it. People fear change and responsibility, and if given the choice will often take the easy way out.
Both Satou and Torotoro-san had one thing in common – they can rely on others to survive. Satou can afford to live like a hermit because his parents are funding his isolation, likewise Torotoro-san’s sister will do anything and everything for him. They are spoilt kids – never kicked out of the nest and taught to fly. Only when Torotoro-san’s sister disappears for a few days is the guy forced to decide whether to eat (and live) or starve (and die). Given NHK’s track record, I was expecting Torotoro-san’s suicide, but I guess the human spirit isn’t that ridiculous. My heart was ready to break. All it takes is a bit of tough love though – Satou’s parents take note.
As a side note the animation of episode 19 was a lot more fluid than usual. Despite sacrificing some facial detail and hair texture, for once I really enjoyed seeing the characters actually glide through a scene and physically convey their feelings – it helped the slapstick humour, and the interesting use of facial shadows meant this was a particularly good looking and stylish effort.


Welcome to the NHK! – 17 – The pyramid scheme of dreams

Just once I’d like to see Satou out smart someone. Now I know that he is a hikkimori with zero self confidence, but by the end of this episode – in which he is heartlessly conned out of precious rent money by an old school mate – it’s as though he has talked himself into being ripped off.
Satou must know that he is buying into a scam, so why do it? Subconsciously perhaps it’s an attempt to escape his bedroom life style; spending rent and food money to the point where you need to sign up for a financial loan will surely mean that his only option will be to go out and get a real job (and hopefully, rejoin normal society in the process). A hikkimori without money is a bum; he is forcing himself into situation where he will have to fight to survive.
So I suppose in this twisted way, the pyramid scheme Satou’s school mate sells really can change his life! I like how Welcome to the NHK will often parody modern societies nasty little problems; we’ve gone from porn games and MMORPGs to internet suicide clubs and now business pyramid scams, they are all easy targets but it makes for grotesque and exploitative viewing none the less. All these pursuits offer us is a fading superficial taste of success or belonging, like how the blinged-up old leader of this fraud owns an impressive “super car” but still operates out of a dingy, worn down old house – he wears and buys his happiness to hide his dingy, worn down life.


Welcome to the NHK! – 16 – The Ultimate NEET

There was always going to be a twist behind the real world identity of Mia. “She” was too perfect, Satou loved her too much, and NHK! isn’t about Satou being in love. I certainly didn’t see it being Yamazaki though – jeez, that was cruel of him. And then there is the flash-forward to Satou’s soon to be 50-year-old fat balding old man still leaching off his parents. Brutal and depressing – basically I’m glad this arc looks to be ending soon.
Satou’s melodramatic over reactions to the in-game chats are darkly funny; especially when he can hear the bishoujo Mia creeping towards his apartment, the dumbstruck “oh no! my hikkimori is revealed!” expression slapped across his face is priceless – but where is the series going with this MMORPG arc?
I suppose the problem is that I can’t really see what the story is building towards; we’re now over half way through and it would be a shame for it all to just suddenly end in one episode with Satou walking outside, smiling and ready to take on the world. For all this damn depressing mental torture, I demand payment in smiles and happiness! Obviously the manga is still on-going – so this is a real concern.
The animation was pretty bad too. NHK! is hardly ever good looking, more mediocre, but it bothers me when the character designs are clearly misshapen, rushed and lacking in essential detail – like faces. Come on Gonzo, I thought you were supposed to be good? Give poor Satou back his face.


Welcome to the NHK! – 14 to 15 – MMORPGs destroy lives… mmmk?

The relentless waves of depression continue unabated with these two episodes as Satou (hardly recovered from his suicidal exploits) stupidly falls foul to the life sucking world of MMORPGs. These highly addictive and never ending online games are undoubtedly one of the major forces behind what is becoming a worldwide epidemic of hikkimori, but what if, like Satou, you’re a hikkimori before even signing in? You already have no work and no responsibilities – so there is no reason for a break, you can just play the game all day and all night without a worry in the world.
The end of episode 15 was a harrowing and unhinged sight. Satou’s suicide attempts felt like melodramatic entertainment, as if he was looking for (and found) a reason to survive, but now he appears to be a lost cause, detached from reality and convinced he has somehow improved his life style. MMORPG’s offer a gradual yet hollow sense of achievement, making it seem as if going up a few power levels was worth the weeks of effort.
Like most entertainment mediums, MMORPG’s are an easy escape from reality, but where movies usually finish after 2 hours; these games can essentially run forever. For an amusing but ultimately just as depressing satire of MMORPGs, take a look at South Park episode 147.
Satou is lucky to have Misaki and even Yamazaki checking up on him. In reality a cute girl does not knock on the door of a hikkimori. Then again perhaps their concerned interference is harming his progress. If Satou is ever going to change, he has to want to do it. No matter how much Yamazaki bugs him about their gal-game or Misaki lectures him about recovering, Satou has to hit rock bottom to decide how he wants to live. Misaki, Yamazaki and even his parents are dragging him on, allowing him to quietly trudge through life, when all he needs is a bit of tough love.


Welcome to the NHK! – 13 – In a word, depressing

For some odd reason, I was expecting Satou to be the hero of this episode, but today I doubt he will ever be a hero – just like Yamazaki says, people “like him” aren’t suited to dramatic ends. In a word, depressing. Hitomi is selfish and cruel, her reasons for coming back into Satou’s life were superficial; he is her fail safe option, a shoulder to cry on when she feels down and clearly she has no romantic interest in Satou. He has been dragged along as her token sacrifice.
Misaki’s “confession” was nearly as bad – just like the cruel Hitomi, to her Satou is a selfish reassurance that no matter how bad life can be, she can never slip as far as that “lowly hikki” Satou. She needs him around to validate that her existence isn’t totally worthless.
Naturally, Satou doesn’t take well to these revelations and eventually goes from being the one person not on the deserted island with suicidal intentions to the one personality crazy enough to actually kill himself. His friends (and I suppose that includes Misaki) turn up to save him, but by the end of this episode he is understandably feeling like the loneliest man in the world, his contorted, desperate cries ringing around the abandoned island. It’s not the NHK conspiracy forcing Satou in to his hermit lifestlye, it’s his friends!


Welcome to the NHK! – Anime or manga? Yawn

Anime or manga, one is inevitably better than the other – whether it’s just another case of elitism or not, you can always bet on the jumped up manga fans hating the anime adaptations of their favourite stories. This is because the voices you hear in your head will always sound better in comparison with the efforts of some cheap hack actor, because when reading that “damn slow” story can move as fast as you turn the page (in other words – running times are for losers).
Gonzo’s Welcome to the NHK! was an inevitable travesty in the eyes of the existing manga fans. But it is a train wreck that never happened; of the 11 episodes I’ve seen, this has been an outstanding and unique series, veering from bizarre surrealism to painful reality in an exciting matter of minutes. The characters – and especially Satou – are disgustingly sympathetic personalities, shining in their moments of disdainful human vulnerability. I haven’t read the manga – so my opinions aren’t tainted with deluded expectations based on art and imagination. But I can say that out of everything I’m following at the moment, Welcome to the NHK! is the one series I’ll often watch the same day it’s downloaded.
Can manga ever be compared with anime? Can the personal experiences and emotions felt reading a “comic” be judged against sitting through a TV series? Clearly not – film is by and large a passive journey, a voyeuristic indulgence, but reading invites imagination, essentially the reader will often find himself at the centre of that story, able to invent and fill in gaps for himself. Given this tight personal attachment, a film can never be compared with or subsequently become superior to its written source material and it’s unfair for the so called fans to expect their personal standards – inevitably set as high as possible – to be met by another mere individual. Welcome to the NHK! was not directed by god, so it’s not tailored to your imagination, but it’s a fine, thought provoking and entertaining watch. Enjoy it, anime fans!


Welcome to the NHK! – 9 – Sparkling festival fireworks

An unusually positive and uplifting instalment of NHK!, I wasn’t planning on commenting on this episode but the sparkling festival fireworks always get me. So bright, so beautiful, so romantic. Even Yamazaki gets some lovin’.
This is so far the best episode, a dizzy mixture of jilted love and romantic despair, it astutly comments on the fickle defensiveness of macho human nature. Yamazaki had his heart broken by his first love and subsequently hates girls, but the moment he gets a little female attention again, suddenly all that pent up anger just fades. Or drops, like the mask covering his real face.
That Sato and Misaki finally get it together is very much the expected outcome of their growing relationship, but it’s still a heart warming and effortlessly touching moment, seeing two people so clearly confused and unconfident gradually throwing aside their fears all in the name of “love”. Such an overblown sentiment is always accompained by fireworks, the pretty mutli-coloured fireworks.
(Note: Instead of screen capping this episode, I’ve clipped pictures from the opening theme. I love the song “Puzzle”, a happy, hopeful and uplifting tune perfectly complimented by the opening animation’s attractive onslaught of bright and exciting colours. I’m gradually realising this is my favourite show airing at the moment, I haven’t read the manga and probably won’t, but really, this is a great series with an underplayed and wonderful grasp of human nature.)