~written by Tatsuhiko Takimoto
~translated by Lindsey Akashi
Tatsuhiko Takimoto's novel Welcome to the N.H.K. was first published in Japan in 2002. The English translation by Lindsey Akashi was based off of the 2005 Japanese edition of the novel and was released by Tokyopop in 2007. I don't remember exactly how I first learned about Welcome to the N.H.K. but somehow I gained the impression that it was one of the best books to come out of Tokyopop's short lived Pop Fiction line. Perhaps surprisingly, I was aware of the novel Welcome to the N.H.K. before I was aware of either the twenty-four episode anime adaptation or the eight volume manga series (also published by Tokyopop) which was based on the novel. Both the manga and the anime are much easier to come by--the Welcome to the N.H.K. novel is unfortunately long out of print and hard to find. And when you do come across a copy it tends to be rather expensive. I count myself lucky to actually own the book.
Satou Tatsuhiro is a twenty-year-old hikikomori--a young recluse who has shut himself away from the world. His family doesn't know it yet, but he has dropped out of college and is living off of the allowance they send to him. Satou rarely leaves his small, cluttered apartment except for food, but even going to buy groceries is an ordeal for him. Normally he sleeps for sixteen hours, waking up long enough to eat, drink, and maybe throw together a concoction of over-the-counter drugs in an attempt to make himself feel better before falling back to sleep again. And so it is more by chance than anything else that he happens to meet a girl named Misaki, who is just a little odd herself. She is determined to make Satou her "project" and cure him of his hikikomori ways. Satou's not entirely sure what to make of that or what to do about her. However, the two fall into a strange sort of friendship whether they mean to or not.
As he reveals in the afterword, Tatsuhiko Takimoto himself is a self-proclaimed hikikomori (or NEET, a more socially acceptable term). I wasn't aware of this fact until after reading Welcome to the N.H.K. Inevitably, Takimoto drew on his own experiences and feelings as a hikikomori while writing the novel, lending to the authenticity of the main character. Understandably, it was a difficult task for the author to write the book. Takimoto imagines readers' responses to Welcome to the N.H.K. as "It's really funny. But it made me cry a little, too." I completely agree with the sentiment. If it wasn't for the humor, the novel would be terribly depressing. Welcome to the N.H.K. is in turn funny, even hilarious, and heartbreaking. Even so, while the humor may often be self-denigrating, Takimoto is never cruel.
The translation and adaptation work of Welcome to the N.H.K. is exceptional. It reads incredibly naturally, even considering the occasional end note. I was particularly impressed because significant sections of the novel are nearly stream-of-conscious, a style of writing that can be difficult to pull off well. Welcome to the N.H.K. nails it. The entire story is told directly from Satou's perspective regardless of his current state of mind. This includes both his good and bad trips. Although Welcome to the N.H.K. can be a bit silly or goofy, it is also dealing with some very serious and mature issues and themes: drug use, sexual fantasies (including lolicon and erotic video games), religion, abuse, and suicide, just to name a few. It can be an uncomfortable experience for the reader--the story proceeds innocently enough only to repeatedly turn around to hit you hard in the gut when you're not expecting it--but Welcome to the N.H.K. is a fantastic novel. I was glad to discover that it was just as good if not better than I was led to believe.