Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, Jun 12th 2008
Welcome to the NHK
DVD 4 - 4th Conspiracy
Sato's dream vacation with high-school flame Hitomi goes south when he learns the reason why everyone on the cruise seems so...dead. Sato may be screwed up, but he really doesn't feel like dying; unfortunately his social ineptitude proves his undoing as he allows himself to get swept up in events until he is literally teetering on the brink of death. In the meantime Hitomi's fiancé has roped Misaki and Yamazaki into mounting a desperate rescue mission, prompting Misaki—driven to despair by her role in his apparent suicidal depression—to make a desperate appeal to Sato that proves to be infinitely more damaging than his association with Hitomi's suicidal buddies. Shaken by his brush with reality, Sato then retreats into fantasy—fantasy videogames to be exact. Hoping to trade game-world items for real-world money in order to bolster his recently reduced allowance, Sato takes up online role-playing. Never a man to take half-measures, he soon immerses himself so totally in virtual reality that it threatens to sever the last threads of his already tenuous grasp on the real world. Misaki tries to save him before it's too late, but the cure may end up being more deadly than the disease.
The first of these four episodes is so blisteringly good that it inspires a very real fear that the series has already peaked, and with nearly half of it yet to come. Sato's sojourn on the island of death begins as the same brand of discomfiting humor that has marked the series so far, but builds to a milestone in Misaki and Sato's relationship that is simultaneously soul-withering emotional development and blackest comedy. The delightfully unhealthy relationship between the two has long been the series' emotional core, and it takes a turn here that confirms every sneaking suspicion about Misaki's mental health, proving that her feelings for Sato are far more complicated and staggeringly dysfunctional than anyone suspected. The effect that her confession has on her and Sato is devastating, the palpable, hopeless anguish of the episode's conclusion ranking among the best moments yet this year.
It's so potent in fact that it takes an entire episode to wind down. While the episode proves revealing and deals sensitively and realistically with the fallout of the “off” party—hinting at the all-too-realistic reasons for Misaki's twisted psychology and demonstrating that while still pathologically self-involved, Sato is learning to make allowances for the feelings of others—it also serves to return the series to the status quo. Which is to say that afterwards it returns to black humor so pointed that even non-otaku can end up as collateral damage. The accuracy with which it nails how role-playing games prey on the dissatisfactions born of unfulfilling everyday lives is as painful as it is funny, and Sato's descent into the delusional embrace of manufactured fantasy ends with a denouement every bit as awful as the one that ended his descent into porno addiction. As enjoyable as that is, it's still disheartening to see the series retreat back into its deconstruction of otaku obsessions after so successfully venturing into the world of very real emotions.
Complementing the increasing power of the series is director Yusuke Yamamoto's increasingly skilled use of the series' solid character designs and superior background artistry. He evokes moods more successfully than before, especially now that the kinks in the use of the Pearl Brothers' largely guitar-based score have been ironed out, and is able to turn a scene surreal with little more than a shift in the hallucinogenic sound design. He keeps the action sedate enough to prevent the cracks in the series' limited animation from getting (too) apparent, and gets the timing during the big cliff-top suicide scene damned near perfect.
That unfortunately proves to be a problem for the English cast, who, hampered by the need for rewrites and fidelity to the orignal, can't get the timing of the scene down quite as precisely as their Japanese counterparts, reducing its intensity. With so much of the emotional content hinging on her, Stephanie Wittels proves serviceable as Misaki, but can't quite match the occasionally unpleasant veracity of Chris Patton's turn as Sato. The suicidees all sound suitably depressed, and Luci Christian gets Hitomi's mix of longing and outright insanity exactly right. Greg Ayres continues to excel as nerd-with-a-nasty-streak Yamazaki, with special kudos going to the relish with which he handles the final scenes in episode sixteen. Aside from the occasional f-bomb and inserted joke, the re-write is as faithful as one could desire. The dub doesn't add enough to convert the sub-preferring crowd, so preferences for it will split along the usual dub/sub battle lines, but it remains exemplary work nonetheless.
This volume is a Jekyll and Hy>de beast, one half hilarious cultural commentary and one half hard-hitting personal drama. Watching Sato devolve into a slave of yet another aspect of nerd-dom is all good fun, but let's hope that the series at large, like the first two episodes on this disc, remembers that its true strength lies not in subculture explorations, but in its ability to make supremely sympathetic the kinds of deeply scarred individuals who in less adept hand might have been simply unpleasant.
Overall (dub) : A-
Overall (sub) : A-
Story : A-
Animation : B
Art : B+
Music : B+
+ First two episodes masterfully combine pitch black comedy with potent interpersonal drama.
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