Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, Mar 12th 2008
Welcome to the NHK
DVD 3 - 3rd Conspiracy
For some reason Sato can't get Misaki out of his head. She keeps popping up in his lewd fantasies at the most inopportune times. When Yamazaki points out the obvious, Sato is floored. Love? That's a whole new can of worms. The realization only serves to deepen his paranoia. He knows nothing about her. Is she just a budding humanitarian? Is she really part of a conspiracy? Does she really like him? What if she's using him to bolster her own ego? What if she's laughing at him? Naturally there's nothing for it but to follow her around all day. What he discovers doesn't help at all. In the meantime, old school chum and former flame Hitomi is having issues of her own. Her relationship with her sensitive, successful boyfriend is going nowhere, her work situation is the pits, and she's popping pills like candy. When she comes to Sato's place to drink herself silly, he senses an opportunity to reinvent himself using her as the catalyst, and unwittingly manages to get himself invited to her "off" party. As a participant. Love can be murder. Or suicide.
Welcome to the NHK could have easily been called "Even Bad People Deserve to Be Happy." Perhaps NHK's misfits aren't exactly bad, but unlike the folks in most comedy/dramas with romance (the term "romantic comedy" and its associated baggage don't exactly apply to NHK), they certainly aren't good. They're damaged goods, the castaways of life, battered and bloodied by its tempestuous waters and shipwrecked on its shores. They're scarred, twisted, otakufied, isolated and medicated. Whether employed or unemployed, "normal" or shut-in, they're life's losers, and my do their lives make for oddly compelling watching. And even when (or perhaps because) they're selfish, mean, self-destructive and downright creepy it's hard not to cheer them on.
The heart of this volume lies in Sato's attempts to find solace in fellow castaways of the fairer sex. Sometimes the show milks his quest for discomfiting humor—we are made excruciatingly aware of the true purpose of the "off" party well before it ever dawns on poor Sato—and at other times uses it for surprisingly pure romance, as in Sato and Misaki's awkward and deceptively simple relationship. Sato's ongoing battle with his own worst instincts takes on a surprisingly potent edge when he makes an understandable but disastrously wrong-headed decision regarding Misaki, and his trip with Hitomi is a pitch-perfect example of why it's a terrible idea to let emotional retards lick each other's wounds.
But as always, the real show is in the damaged psyches of the characters themselves. A flashback to childhood explains Yamazaki's obsession with two-dimensional women, Hitomi visits suspicious websites and talks about how her boyfriend Sato(!) beats her, and Sato grows more paranoid and delusional with each relationship he forms. We get treated to Yamazaki's theory that romantic love is an invention of western capitalists ("traditionally Japan only had arranged marriages and late-night trysts") and a novel yet painfully realistic method for coping with the anguish of romantic betrayal (hint: it involves masks and misogyny, and it's not what you're thinking). Sato's realization of his own blooming affection is hilariously belated, his reaction typically unhinged, and Misaki's motivations only become more obscure the more Sato learns about her, with tantalizing little hints all along that perhaps she's even more twisted than he.
Technical virtuosity isn't one of NHK's merits. The animation can be choppy and mediocre, even with as little action as there is, and all of the usual anime shortcuts abound. It isn't bad—certainly it's sufficient to its purposes, and director Yusuke Yamamoto knows exactly when to time a shift in expression or shimmer of tears—but there are times, as when Sato rushes into the foreground to bash his head against a step-ladder, when a few more intermediary frames wouldn't have gone amiss. Character and background art fare better. Interiors are often nearly photorealistic, and the contrast between Yamazaki's obsessively ordered otaku pit and Sato's nest of garbage is striking. Misaki's cuteness is nothing to be sneezed at, and Sato's hollow-eyed angularity is perfect. Yamazaki and Hitomi are rather more generic, but then again, they're supposed to be. Yamamoto's use of the eclectic modern score is improving. Stretches of silence become potent weapons, and the acoustic guitar is pleasant. The music is still too loud and insistent during some scenes, often with disorienting results when the mood changes but the music stays persistently the same. Perhaps it's intentional, but it's still horribly distracting. The ending theme "Dancing human baby" is one of the most hilariously and unsettlingly appropriate ending themes in years. And a fun listen to boot.
ADV's dub ramps up the vulgarity, drops a few throwaway jokes here and there, but otherwise just does a good job of faithfully preserving what makes the series such uncomfortable-making fun. Chris Patton is indeed excellent as Sato, teetering on the ragged edge of insanity. Greg Ayres does his usual nerd thing as Yamazaki, but also gives him just the right touch of unpleasantness. Loopy cartoony voices in the English version give the scene in which Sato discusses his feelings for Misaki with his household appliances a scary hallucinogenic ambience, and the fun the cast has with Sato and Yamazaki's awful porn-game dialogue is positively unholy. The tone of the English dub is a little lighter overall than the Japanese, but otherwise there's very little trade off in switching one for the other.
It may have its stylistic shortcomings, but a set of unusual characters, a focus on life in the far-out fringes of Japanese society, and enough sentimentality to belie its often cruel plotting sweep such misgivings quickly beneath the carpet. And let's not forget that, as it nears completion, Sato and Yamazaki's porn game presents a clearer and clearer picture of an absolutely hilarious parody of porn games. Tentacle monsters are an absolute must. Sure Sato and his sexual problems will give some the willies, but just as many will watch him cringe as Yamazaki insensitively theorizes that Misaki is laughing behind his back and will cringe right alongside him. Now that's entertainment.
Overall (dub) : B+
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B+
Animation : B-
Art : B
Music : B-
+ Characters grow more sympathetic as they grow closer without losing any of their painfully funny psychological problems.
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