Update, part 2 (10/31/2021: First impressions: Komi Can’t Communicate)

Happy Halloween, I guess. I’m not all that into it, but I’m happy that some people are. It’s also nice to give people some excuse to dress up as their favorite characters. But nothing spooky from me because I don’t really care about that sort of thing. I know I’m a killjoy, yes.

Today I’m continuing my breakneck-speed posting marathon with a continuation of that update post I started last week (hence the weird post title, sorry about that) this time shifting my focus to anime. I’ve picked up three new series that I’m now watching in addition to Aquatope and Jahy, which I’ll address next when they’re done at the end of the season. These next couple of posts won’t be anything even close to a full look at the fall season — as usual, I’m only watching a very small slice of currently airing anime, targeted to what I think I’d like, but it’s still a roll of the dice.

At first, I was going to just lump all three of these series together into one big post, but one of the series I’m watching consists of five-minute shorts (yeah, it’s Ganbare Douki-chan, of course; not much more to say about it now other than it’s nice, and I’ll most likely also cover it at the end of the season) and the other also deserves its own dedicated post. So for now, here’s my first impression of Komi Can’t Communicate.

Komi Can’t Communicate (or Komi-san wa, komyushou desu if you know that title better) is still another high school comedy, this time about a girl with extreme social anxiety and a guy who’s doing his utmost to help her resolve it. Our protagonist, Hitohito Tadano (left) is according to his own description an average guy who just wants to blend in, all the more so since he’s starting at a prestigious prep school where sticking out might cause him some trouble. However, he immediately gets a target painted on his back when he’s seated next to Shouko Komi, a knockout beauty who’s also mysteriously silent.

Tadano’s class obsesses over and idolizes this girl, which might sound nice for her at first — even Komi’s stony silence comes off as a kind of aloofness that just seems to make her classmates even more slobbery over her. But as Tadano soon discovers, this is a real problem for Komi, because she’s really not aloof at all: she just suffers from such terrible social anxiety that she literally can’t speak to other people. Tadano, almost by chance, manages to break through to Komi, and while having a long conversation with her by writing on the chalkboard in their classroom he learns that her dream is to make 100 friends.

This scene is a little sappy, but the sap is appropriate here and it’s not too much.

In a seemingly sort-of-joking way, Tadano writes that he’ll be her first friend and help her find the other 99, but Komi takes him at his word and emotionally accepts his offer. To his credit, despite really not wanting to stick out any more than he already is, Tadano takes his task seriously, and in the second episode we get to see his first attempt at fixing her up with Najimi, an old friend of his who’s an extreme compulsive liar but so talkative and friendly that Tadano figures Komi can’t fail at this first shot. And that’s as far as I’ve gotten by now, because even though the fifth episode of Komi is supposed to air in a few days, Netflix (where this series is being streamed exclusively at least officially) is only up to the second so far.

More on Netflix later, because the streaming service itself has become a subject of some mild controversy over its treatment of Komi. First, my first impression of Komi itself, which is pretty mixed. I thought I’d really like this series — the premise immediately grabbed me when I first heard about it, especially having been someone who for the longest time couldn’t cope in social situations myself. Sure, I was never quite as pretty as Komi is, so I didn’t get the weird, creepy, fawning idolization she gets from the rest of her class, but otherwise I can kind of relate. It’s also nice to see another series that takes this issue on; the last anime I remember seeing that addressed not being able to function socially was Welcome to the NHK!, which did a great job but took on a very different aspect of the problem.

I also like the two leads so far. Tadano might come off as a bit of a coward at first, but he seems like the type to really hold his ground when he has to, and though he doesn’t seem to consciously know it, his observation skills are pretty sharp. It is brought up in the first episode that every student at this elite academy has something special about them, so despite Tadano’s insistence that he’s average, it seems he’s really not. And then there’s Komi, of course: the focus of the show. She’s very sympathetic so far, and it’s nice to see her determination to greatly improve her social skills, at least to the point where she can talk to other people. The series also does a nice job of having Komi express her emotions without talking (as above — when she’s happy she sprouts cat ears? Sure, it’s cute so it works, that’s the rule.)

But then there’s every other character in the show so far. Granted, I haven’t gotten nearly far enough yet into it to really judge properly, but it seems like Tadano and Komi’s classmates are mostly a pack of raging assholes. Creepy assholes, too, because for as much as they weirdly obsess over Komi, they seem to hate Tadano to the point of wanting to actually murder him simply because he had the good fortune (?) to get randomly seated next to her.

It’s not just the guys either

This might all just be a comment on how shitty high school is in general, and if so I can relate to that as well. But then it doesn’t endear me all that much to the rest of the class either, and considering Komi and Tadano’s goal of rounding up 99 more friends for her, that might be an actual problem, since most of these people don’t seem like they’re really worth befriending. I get that a lot of them are meant to be weird and quirky (the narrator says this straight out at the end of episode 1, in fact) but there’s a line where over-the-top quirkiness and wackiness turns into me smashing my face against a wall at how god damn insufferable so-and-so is being, so for me plain quirkiness without anything else doesn’t excuse obnoxious behavior even in a comedy like this. Thankfully, Najimi in episode 2 seems to be actually pretty cool despite their penchant for compulsively lying, but I hope that trend can be kept up.

I know Komi is a very long-running manga (up to chapter 324 as of this writing! Damn.) And I haven’t read any of it, so I’m sure the manga-readers will have a lot more insight to give about this adaptation than I do. These are simply my own dumb thoughts about the first two episodes. I’ll continue watching and hope the parts that are rough for me get a bit smoothed out, because there seems to be plenty here to like as well. I’ve also heard Komi referred to as a romantic comedy, so I guess that means there’s something between Komi and Tadano at some point, but if the manga has run this long this romance must be an extremely slow burn.

I did laugh at this bit, even if it’s an obvious joke to make

Finally, there’s the matter of Netflix itself. I know people have been griping over the lousy subtitles, and I’ve heard the fansubs do a far better job (including translating some of the text-based jokes these official subs miss, which Komi seems to have a lot of.) I can’t address the quality of the Netflix subs in a meaningful way since my Japanese still isn’t good enough to judge, but I know for a fact I’m missing out on a lot of those text-based jokes, and I’m not sure why they wouldn’t be translated. Unless the thought was that fans wouldn’t care, and if that’s the thought, it’s definitely an incorrect one. Fuck, maybe I just need to try harder to learn Japanese.

Then there’s the matter of the airing schedule. I watch almost all my anime on Crunchyroll through the VRV service. It’s kind of shitty as well, but at least those guys do a far better job of getting episodes to the rest of the world shortly after their original air date. The other anime I’ve started through Crunchyroll isn’t two weeks behind like Netflix is with Komi, anyway. Maybe if they really were taking the time to translate all those text gags that would be an excuse, but they’re not.

So I don’t know. Maybe it’s not a big deal and I’m just being impatient, but in these days of instantly being spoiled on shit on Twitter it seems like at least a kind of big deal to be as current as possible with the airing schedule. But please tell me if you think I’m being unreasonable here. Hell, maybe there’s some kind of contractual reason for the delay.

But that’s all I have on Komi for the moment. I’ll keep being a good boy and watching it on Netflix, but I wouldn’t blame you for going for the fansubs instead. I certainly won’t sit here pretending I never watched a fansub. We all have. At the same time, I officially won’t endorse that action, because I’m sworn to uphold the law and all that stuff. If Komi turns out to be good, anyway, I’ll be forgiving enough, and a lot of people seem to love it, so I’ll stick with it and hope for the best.

Anime for people who hate anime: Welcome to the NHK!

nhk_01

I’ve consumed plenty of books, games, and shows that I’ve enjoyed. But only a few have really hit a nerve with me. Welcome to the NHK!, a novel-turned-anime series aired several years ago, is one of those few.

NHK is not, as I first thought, about a young journalist starting a new job at Japan’s biggest national news network. It is instead the story of a hikkikomori – roughly speaking a jobless, asocial shut-in. Tatsuhiro Satou is 22 years old and a college dropout. We soon learn the reason he left school. A powerful scene depicts Satou walking to college from his home, all the while imagining the thoughts of people he passes on the street: “Disgusting”, “what a loser”. Of course, these thoughts are purely in Satou’s head, but the anxiety they produce drive him to shut himself into his tiny apartment until he’s kicked out of school for non-attendance.

NHK satou

The first episode of NHK gives us a depressing look into Satou’s daily life. He sits inside all day, sometimes watching TV, eating and drinking, but mostly sleeping (16 hours a day, as Satou himself narrates.) He receives no visits from friends and effectively has no life outside his apartment. He ventures outside only to buy food and other necessities and to visit a nearby park at night, when no one else is around. Without a job, Satou relies on his parents for support, but conversations with his mother suggest that source of support is about to run dry. Satou knows very well that his life is going nowhere, but he feels powerless to stop his downhill slide. On the contrary, in the course of his isolation, Satou has started to imagine a nationwide conspiracy keeping him in his miserable state, blaming his problems on the Japan Hikkikomori Society (or NHK in Japanese. Hence the title of the series.)

One day, someone comes to his door. This surprise visitor is a sort of door-to-door religious missionary lady. Satou isn’t interested and tells her to go away (while simultaneously freaking out a bit at having to talk to another human being.) However, as she leaves, Satou notices the young woman helping her.

nhk_ni_youkoso-2118

Satou tries to put her out of his mind, but the very same young woman ends up dropping by later on to drop a message into his door’s mailbox asking him to meet with her at his regular park haunt that night. Satou has no idea what this girl might want with a shut-in loser like him, but he finally decides to go to the park after fighting with himself over it. As it turns out, this girl, Misaki, has a plan to “cure” Satou of his hikkikomori-ness and get him out into the world.

Satou reacts to this surprise pronouncement from this girl he barely knows in the same way most people would: “Who the hell is this person?” Regardless, Satou agrees to Misaki’s “program” and even signs a written contract to that effect.

Misaki and Satou.  The bizarre relationship between these characters drives the story of NHK.

Misaki and Satou. The bizarre relationship between these characters drives the story of NHK.

As the series proceeds, we watch Satou’s character change in serious and sometimes unpredictable ways. Satou’s progress isn’t always forward, either: he meets with some serious setbacks as well, with funny but also depressing results. He’s introduced to MMOs and spends hundreds of hours addicted to a game that is Final Fantasy XI but that the show can’t call that for legal reasons. He’s unwittingly drawn into a suicide pact and into a pyramid scheme, both by different former female classmates. He wastes a week of his life downloading hentai to the point that his hard drive is full. A lot of this action is moved along by Kaoru Yamazaki, Satou’s next-door college freshman neighbor and other former classmate, who fits the nerd stereotype perfectly (more specifically the otaku anime-loving nerd one.)

NHK manages to both be genuinely funny and emotionally affecting. Satou, Misaki, Yamazaki, and the other few secondary characters that show up are interesting and three-dimensional, and this helps the viewer care about them. Despite the wacky situations the characters sometimes find themselves in, nothing in the show really comes across as unnatural or forced. One of the best scenes in the show depicts Satou spying on Yamazaki’s meeting with one of his female classmates in the hall at their college. He’d formerly claimed to Satou that this classmate was his girlfriend, but after tailing Yamazaki to school, Satou discovers that Yamazaki was bending the truth: she’s no more than a casual acquaintance. Yamazaki continues to insist she’s his girlfriend, though not in a creepy or obsessive way – the viewer gets the impression that Yamazaki has a thing for this girl but simply can’t admit to himself that she’s not interested in his nerdy self. It’s funny and pathetic, and it’s also a feeling that I’m willing to bet you can relate to.

If don't you know what Yamazaki is talking about in this screenshot, that's a good thing.

If don’t you know what Yamazaki is talking about in this screenshot, that’s a good thing.

Despite a lot of its otaku trappings (trips to Akihabara to buy figures, a running plotline about Satou and Yamazaki creating a dating sim, Yamazaki’s pining after “2D girls”, etc.) NHK can also appeal to people living outside that weird circle of nerds (of which I’m sort of a part myself.) The reason NHK spoke to me was its theme of social anxiety and the devastating effects it has on people’s lives. I was never quite as bad as Satou – I never physically shut myself into my room or my apartment – but I did mentally and emotionally shut myself in, shoving away potential friends. Those feelings of despair and worthlessness that drive Satou at the beginning of NHK to sit inside every day and dog him throughout the show are all too real for countless people around the world. I’m not even sure they totally go away. Even now, as a more or less normal person (at least as far as public appearances are concerned) those poisonous thoughts nag at me occasionally. It’s hard to describe if you’ve never been in such a situation – as if you just missed out on some vital information on how to live life that everyone else in the world seems to have been born with. It’s a lonely, painful experience, and NHK addresses it in a meaningful way.

So that’s Welcome to the NHK! It’s a genuinely good series that I believe has appeal for viewers both in and outside of the “typical” anime-watching crowd. I should also note that NHK is based on a novel by Tatsuhiko Takimoto, a writer who I think must have experienced some of Satou’s travails, the story tells them in such a realistic way. I haven’t read the novel or the following manga series, but I understand they’re quite different from the anime in terms of where their stories lead.

Up at 3 am scrolling through hentai image sites: welcome to the NHK

Up at 3 am scrolling through hentai image sites: welcome to the NHK

What a way to start the new year. To everyone, but especially to those wrestling with social anxiety, insecurity, a lack of purpose, and all those inner demons that drive you to seek solitude, I wish you a happy one. Remember that, for better or worse, the future is unpredictable. Life is never worth giving up on, even though it might seem like there’s no light at all at the end of the tunnel – hell, I still feel that way sometimes. Satou might be a fictional character, but his story is a real one, and his final “recovery”, even though it’s not quite complete, is a part of that story too.