Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, Mar 5th 2009
Welcome to the NHK
With grit and cyber-spit, Yamazaki and Sato finally finish their homemade porn game. Unfortunately their sales at the comic market (five copies) destroy once and for all their dreams of becoming ero-game magnates. Yamazaki retires to his family's ranch to take over their dairy business, and Sato finds himself minus his one real friend. Misaki steps in to fill the void, even proposing as a “final test” a New Year's visit to the local shrine. Sato of course gets lost, and when Misaki witnesses his rescue by ex-flame Hitomi, she's conflicted to say the least. Misaki decides to take their relationship to the next level in her usual twisted way, but the result is less than felicitous. In the fall-out Sato comes face-to-face with Misaki's ugly past and his unflattering role in her quest to secure a place in a world that she feels has no use for her. To his dismay he discovers that he must not only cope, but actually help or risk the complete self-destruction of a relationship that neither has the emotional equipment to properly nurture, and at least one hasn't the ability to survive without. But can one emotional cripple really save another?
For the moment, let's set aside the fact that Funimation bungled, with Three Stooges-level finesse, their license rescue of Welcome to the NHK It is, after all, a shame to bellyache with such an immensely satisfying conclusion on one's plate. NHK's stock-in-trade may be the darkly humorous dissection of the social afflictions of the marginalized and psychologically damaged, but its beating heart is the malformed romance between Sato and Misaki. It was certainly good, black fun to watch the series kick down-on-his-luck Sato with big, pyramid-scheme feet, but without any real development in their relationship, volume five had the feel a series that had lost its way. Not so volume six. If Misaki and Sato's relationship is the heart of the series, this volume is all heart.
And in grand NHK style, it's twisted, somewhat blackened heart. This certainly isn't your parents' anime romance. Misaki's confession of her need for Sato is no mere confession of love; it's an exposure of all of the boiling insecurities, frightened selfishness and emotional confusion of a person who has found their reason for living in another person, but who has been so damaged by life that they haven't the emotional tools to express or even understand what they are feeling. Likewise Sato's bid to save Misaki is no platitude-saves-the-day plot device, but rather the desperate flailing of a man who realizes that his lifestyle has deprived him of the relationship skills necessary to save the girl he cares for. Even more than watching two well-adjusted people finding happiness together, there's something unutterably satisfying about watching damaged people finding someone whose scars match their own and making one last, desperate bid for happiness. Sato and Misaki make a staggeringly dysfunctional pair, but it's hard not to root for them, and, as the series brings all of their combined history to bear in the finale, to feel for them.
It isn't all (sorta) romantic drama, of course. Sato lives to see his ero-game dreams squished by reality, Yamazaki gets a chance to vent his bitterness at being forced to give up his dream, and Hitomi shows up to bring some closure to her relationship with Sato (and inadvertently screw with Misaki's feelings). And even if discomfiting humor isn't this volume's aim, there are laughs to be had, as with Sato's zombified return to the work-force. But this is Sato and Misaki's volume, and the other aspects do suffer in comparison. Yamazaki and Hitomi's issues are tied up far too neatly, while Sato's escape from the hikikomori lifestyle happens too quickly to be entirely convincing (and also serves rather conveniently as a plot device to worsen Misaki's condition).
Standing at the center of the series' longest-standing emotional entanglement as it swirls into a full-fledged emotional climax, Misaki's performance is this volume's lynchpin. The role requires both actresses to navigate some heavy waters, from intense outbursts to poison bitterness to forced confidence undercut by quavering uncertainty. While Stephanie Wittels can't quite cut the heart out of you the way the understated Yui Makino can, she's grown far enough into the role to make some positive adjustments, particularly Misaki's even-keeled confidence during her final scenes with Sato. Chris Patton, on the other hand, is pure revelation. His Sato is both funnier and more intense than Yutaka Koizumi's, and he communicates with vitality and conviction both the growing sensitivity and the unpleasant underbelly of Sato's personality. He makes his missteps—he delivers Sato's penultimate speech to Misaki with such conviction that it's almost an honest appeal instead of the regurgitation of empty platitudes that it's supposed to be—but they're inconsequential flaws in a gem of a performance. It's a damned shame that fans who bought the first five volumes have had to wait until now (nearly two months after the box sets) to hear it. ADV's scriptmasters, by the way, write with all the fidelity one could desire—with the exception of a few hilarious ad-libs by Patton.
If you look hard enough, there's plenty to grumble about—after all NHK has never been a work of perfection, more a smart, shaggy underachiever. In addition to the too-convenient resolution of sticky side-character issues, director Yusuke Yamamoto falls back into his habit of letting the guitar score play through scenes that it really shouldn't, and GONZO's visuals remain a tad uneven, often drawing the characters sloppily in medium shots and draining the two big fan-service scenes of all their titillating power with some truly clunky animation. But frankly everything, the rushed side-plots, the occasionally messy art, the poorly animated sequences—it all disappears into the shadow of a final story arc that once again marshals all of the series' unforgiving insight and sympathy for the human castoffs of modernity. It's difficult to care that the fan-service was botched when Yamamoto can suggest a world of self-flagellating shame with little more than a flashback to a raised fist and a sideways shift of harried eyes. Or to care that Yamazaki's life resolves itself far too rosily when Misaki and Sato's relationship is climaxing in a frenzy of misguided self-sacrifice that is both surreal and bizarrely logical. As rough around the edges as they are, these four episodes are NHK at its best: insane, cutting and potent. All that and a happy ending too.
Overall (dub) : B+
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : A-
Animation : B-
Art : B
Music : B
+ A sympathetic portrayal of the devastating effect that a budding relationship has on two people whose emotional stability has been destroyed by long exposure to the worst of life.
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