Weekly OP: Spice & Wolf

We’re still on our Ghibli high (both from Poppy Hill and from the surprising Super Bowl commercial for the Maserati Ghibli; no relation), and so this week’s OP is from a show that we felt tapped into the Ghibli magic of a totally new, same-yet-different world, where the emphasis isn’t on fighting villains, but on cultures, systems, ideals, and the journey. Later shows that follow this formula with success include Maoyu and Sunday Without God.

Spice & Wolf is also interesting in that its two seasons were produced by different principal studios (Imagin for the first go, Brains Base for the second). This is the OP for the first season, an enticing invitation to be absorbed into its lush world. Fittingly, the name of the song by Kiyoura Natsumi is “Tabi no Tochu (旅の途中)”, or “Journey,” and is suffused with wistfulness and anticipation.

Witch Craft Works – 05

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Honoka decides to move to Ayaka’s house, and after meeting with his family (and his cliched “Loopy Mom”), they arrive at her manor, which is 41 stories tall and rivals the Unyuu residence in extravagance (though isn’t nearly as big or absurd). Just when we thought we’d be in store for more rom-com hijinx as he enters her room for the first time, the show throws something totally different at us: the escaped Medusa is in there waiting for them.

It’s a welcome surprise, and Medusa initially packs quite a whollop, requiring Ayaka to transform into a semi-beast-like state, a la Howl. She insists that Honoka flee while she fights her off, but Honoka, knowing his proximity will give her invincibility, stays right where he is. Then Ayaka gets petrified—which tends to happen when you’re up against Medusa—but Honoka stays by her side, his mind racing at what he can do, until he remembers that pill Chronoire gave him.

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He knows it’s probably not a good idea to take this forbidden fruit; he knows it’s most likely a trap; he knows there will be consequences down the road, and most importantly, he knows Ayaka doesn’t want him to take it. But with Ayaka a statue and Medusa staring him down, his options are limited, so he downs the pill. Doing so summons the demon White Princess Evermilion—perhaps the reason Ayaka calls him “Princess”?—who’s a bit of a character.

We like how Evermillion isn’t there to do all the work for Honoka, but rather to tell him where he screwed up (failing to believe in Ayaka’s strength actually diminishes her strength) and how to revive Ayaka (by kissing her like Sleeping Beauty.) She’s polite enough but sounds put out, warning Honoka not to summon her too often, perhaps for his own good. So while Medusa wasn’t the mortal threat we were expecting-yet, at least-her arrival required Honoka to take one more step closer to the deep end of the witches’ pool.

7_very_goodRating:7 (Very Good)

Stray Observations:

  • Honoka’s mom is a bit loopy, but she righteously calls her daughter out on her brother complex.
  • She also reveals she used to be Ayaka’s mom’s girlfriend. Because they couldn’t marry, they promised each other that their kids would instead.
  • Being from a family of means, Ayaka was able to have custom Honoka stress dolls made, which she hides too late for Honoka not to notice.
  • Ayaka’s kiss in the nurses office was pretty sweet, and there was a lovely surrealism to her pulling back the curtain to reveal Medusa and her five henchwomen just chillin’.
  • Another example this show has trouble fielding capable villains: Chronoire brainwashes all of the tower witches in town, only to be apprehended and imprisoned instantly by Ayaka’s mom. Where’s the challenge?

Toaru Hikuushi e no Koiuta – 05

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When Claire expresses the feeling she and Kal are going in circles, we thought she was commenting on their relationship, rather than the fact they had gotten lost. All the ideal intimate situations in the world won’t change the fact that there’s a significant impediment to their romance getting any further, and it’s the inability for either to tell the other the truth about who they are, or rather who they were.

We say were because Kal is no longer Crown Prince, any more than Louis XX is the current King of France; the monarchy was dissolved. Even if Kal wanted to (and he doesn’t), overthrowing the republic that overthrew him would be a nigh impossible. There may be strict classes aboard Isla, but at the end of the day they’re all exiles from Balsteros, not expected to come back. Kal is no different.

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Meanwhile, Claire may dress up as Nina Viento, but she apparently no longer possesses the power of the wind god. We get her Kotoura-like backstory, in which she’s shunned as a witch, carried off by a money-lender (which her mom lets happen), and in a rage, destroys the town with a tornado. She agreed to fight for the rebels because she wanted to be needed, but when she looks back on her past deeds, she can’t see anyone but a monster.

It gets to the point that she can’t look Kal in the eye, but she’s calmed somewhat when he tells her all he wants to do is fly with her (or rather be with her) as long as he can, whatever the future holds. But Claire’s secret is still gnawing away at hr. We know Kal probably wouldn’t take the news well, nor can we discount the possibility he’ll forgive her. In any case, he’s likely to find out at some point, so it’s best if she’s the one to tell him. Otherwise, they’ll just keep going in circles.

7_very_goodRating:7 (Very Good)

Nobunaga the Fool – 05

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This episode took a little while to get going, what with the tedious scenes revolving around Nobu learning how to activate his regalia, which could have been edited down. Pretty shoddy of him to outright ignore the existence of Himiko unless he needs something from her, but he can only handle one thing at a time: in this case, using his war giant to defeat Takeda and all his other sundry foes.

But he’s pissed off enough people that they’ve arranged for him to be assassinated in the heat of battle, so it’s up to Mitsuhide to first warn him, and then preemptively serve him a drink laced with a paralytic, to keep him out of said battle. Only the gambit backfires, and Lord Nobuhide leads the fight. For the record, Nobuhide is pretty badass, going up against a far superior foe in Shingen, and after receiving a thorough beating, barring the path of a new-on-the-scene Caesar.

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For his part, Caesar seems singularly interested in breaching the castle so he can pluck Ichihime away, having become smitten at first glance. It’s disappointing that with all the technological liberties thos show takes, it couldn’t take some societal ones while they’re at it, but alas, Himiko and Ichi are stuck standing around watching the men fight. At least Jeanne eventually suits up and provides a crucial assist for Nobu, but in the end, Lord Nobuhide is killed by Caesar, pissing Nobu off to no end (perhaps the “divine anger” the Tower card portended).

While tragic, Nobuhide remarks that his passing, and the passing of the old guard, is necessary so that the new ways that are coming to be in the world can take over; he is the “ice that melts in the spring.” Nobu is now the de facto leader of the Oda clan, but will he rule, or leave that to his brother while he battles rival clans and Caesar? It’s still up in the air for da Vinci, Jeanne, and us, whether he’ll be the savior-king of the star, or its destroyer. In any case, we wouldn’t mind a change of scenery; we’re starting to feel a bit cooped up in Oda Castle.


Rating: 6 (Good)

Noragami – 05

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Hiyori has taken a liking to Yukine, and doesn’t want Yato corrupting him, so she invites Yukine to stay at her gigantic house, where her maid and parents can’t see him, which is just fine for her. She’s also undeterred by the prospect of someone who is (or at least was) an adolescent boy living and at one point sharing a bed with her. To Hiyori, he’s a little brother that needs better shelter than the musty old shrines where Yato crashes. More importantly, he needs love and kindness, something she has in spades.

But considering Yato is the one who receives the stings whenever Yukine experiences temptation—be it for Hiyori’s boob or a five-finger discount skateboard—Hiyori has things backwards: it’s technically Yukine who is corrupting Yato, in terms of physical harm, at least. And while Hiyori may have a highly mobile soul, she remains a naïf when it comes to the extent of the god-regalia (or god-shinki) dynamic. Yato makes it clear that regalia are the conduit through which gods are able to fathom human morality, something gods aren’t subject to. It’s also a way of documenting the amount of sin a regalia commits, which goes into the calculation of their eventual divine punishment, something Yato warns comes to all, including Yukine.

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While we liked the scenes in which Hiyori was treating Yukine as her adoptive brother, and we know she’s sincere in her desire to care and protect him, the reality is she isn’t powerful enough to do so. In the darkness, trouble will always come looking for Yukine, and when he wanders off on his own, his own compassion almost leads to him being snatched up by a phantom. He meets the lost soul of a young girl killed by a hit-and-run (by the leading cause of death for young girls in animeland…anime drivers are monsters!), and witnesses her becoming possessed by a phantom. It’s a heartbreaking twist, but ends up serving as a powerful wake-up call to Yukine and Hiyori alike.

Neither of them are strong enough to stop the phantom, and it’s too late to save the girl, so when Yato arrives, the only course is to kill her, freeing her from everlasting hell. Even in sword form Yukine protests and wavers, but Yato uses him to rend the phantom anyway. Once the darkness takes someone, it doesn’t give them back. Under these circumstances, Hiyori is still being way too reckless with her body, while Yukine now appreciates that his best chance at surviving a dangerous world is by continuing to work with and learn from Yato. Meanwhile, a beautiful lion-riding, pistol-wielding god has taken notice of Yato’s activities and new regalia. That should be an interesting meeting!

7_very_goodRating: 7 (Very Good)

Space Dandy – 05

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Even though he ends up mired in them almost all the time, Dandy doesn’t like complications, or things that will tie him down or threaten his transitory nature. He does what he wants and doesn’t do what he doesn’t; taking orders from no one. While he may ‘sign’ every other line with “baby”, an actual baby would be anathema to Dandy. The moment someone starts a family they cease to be the most important person in their lives, and they cease to be their own boss to boot. That’s partly why Dandy doesn’t have a family; just a robot and a layabout cat-alien for company. This week, if only this week, that formula changes with the addition of Adélie, an alien who’s been humiliating alien hunters with a huge price on her head. Turns out she’s just a little girl looking for her family, and finds a fleeting one in Dandy.

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This is almost the inverse of Michiko and Hatchin, in which a wronged mother seeks out and snatches up her daughter (we really need to get back to that show someday…): Dandy had no intention of hanging out with a little brat, and indeed, he doesn’t seem he’d be guardian material, considering all the sleazy places he hangs out at, and the dangers his vocation lends. But with the Aloha Oe impounded, the 8 million Woolongs are worth a space train ride to the registration office with said brat. But like Hatchin, Adélie proves a match for Dandy’s robust personality, which is after all so much bluster and bravado…and boobs. At first they can’t even agree on the proper condiment for eggs, but they gradually warm to each other, and have fun adventures on their journey.

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We’ve said that Space Dandy never fails to put on a hell of a show with whatever genre-of-the-week it decides to focus on, and this kind of story is no different, hitting all the right comedic and dramatic notes. Of course, its effectiveness could have suffered had too harsh or bratty a voice been selected to play Adélie. Fortunately she’s voiced by Kanazawa Hana, provides a perfect balance of cheek, angst, and vulnerability. We imagine anyone would be eager to play such a beautifully-fleshed out, believable character even for one episode (though who knows, she may be back), who just happens to have stingers that can transfer peoples’ consciousness to plushies—a power that’s always used cleverly. More than anything, this episode redeems Dandy as someone with a heart of gold, which is beautifully revealed as his emotional stake in Adelie grows along with ours.

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After checking into a motel, Dandy announces he’s going out for a night of Boobies (which we know to be his church), leaving Adélie to stew alone. Our hearts literally soared when it turned out he was feverishly investigating the whereabouts of her grandfather, her only living relative. The reunion at the station goes delightfully un-smoothly when Adélie bristles at their apparent parting; accusing Dandy of abandoning her because she’s inconvenient; being no different from the other adults. Dandy’s daring rescue of her from the scorned alien hunters—while stuck in a stuffed penguin—was truly inspired. In the end, they do have to part ways, but not after changing one another’s preconceptions. Dandy met a decent kid and got a taste of fatherhood. Adelie met a decent adult and got a taste of daughter-hood. Hell, for all we know, Dandy IS her real father…


Rating: 10 (Masterpiece)

RABUJOI World Heritage List

From Up On Poppy Hill

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We’ve only seen Gendo Senki (Tales from Earthsea), Miyazaki Hayao’s son Goro’s first film, once, and prior to this, it was the most recent Ghibli film we had seen, having skipped out on Ponyo and Arriety (for the time being.) While repeated viewings are not a requisite for a film’s greatness as far as we’re concerned (sometimes, watching a great film just once can be enough), suffice it to say we don’t remember much about it, other than the fact we didn’t hate it. What drew us to this film was the promise that it was a relatively straightforward slice-of-life romance, not based on any beloved epic series with defensive authors and built-in skeptical fan bases. On its face, this film reminded us of perhaps our favorite Ghibli film, Kondou Yoshifumi’s Whisper of the Heart, the review for which you can read here.

We were immediately enthralled by Whisper’s fiercely beautiful picture of West Tokyo in the nineties, the intricately-detailed, loving depiction of life for a middle class family during in that time and place, and most importantly, the touching romance that developed between Shizuku and Seiji. “This is how it’s done,” we thought as we watched it. These are the heights anime is capable of.” With that lofty praise in mind, don’t think we’re bashing Up On Poppy Hill because it didn’t quite reach the soaring heights of Whisper. In fact, we urge any romance, Ghibli, or just plain anime fans to pick up a copy of Poppy Hill (we got a deal on the Blu-Ray through Amazon) and give it a watch as soon as you can. We found it to be an exceedingly lovely film.

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While many Ghibli films are portals to fantastical dimensions, Poppy Hill is a time machine to 1963, the year before Tokyo hosts the Olympics for the first time ever—and just eighteen years after the bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This means our protagonists—Umi and Shun—are of the postwar generation: not a party to the horrors of the past but well-versed in the scars their elders bear. To that end, old-style pre-war buildings all over the country are being torn down at a steady pace, as if they were contaminated by the past. One such building is the “Latin Quarter” – a magnificent but thoroughly-trashed French-style mansion on school grounds used as a headquarters for many of the school’s clubs. It’s the fight to save this house that brings Umi and Shun together.

From the beginning we see that Umi is a strong, hardworking no-nonsense young lady; even her bouncy little side braids suggest she’s somewhat “tightly wound”. She’s the first to wake up to cook for her family and the boarders who share her house, which is perched upon a hill overlooking the harbor. She is haunted by the loss of her father, a sailor killed aboard a supply ship in the Korean War, and raises flags every morning as a message to him that is never answered. When a poem in the school newspaper mentions her flags, she seeks out the author, just as Shizuku sought out the guy who checked out the same library books as her. Her first face-to-face encounter with the boy is when he jumps out of the house into a pool, and she reflexively offers him a helping hand, not thinking how it would look to the assembled masses of her peers.

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Umi’s grandmother is worried Umi is working too hard for everyone and not looking after her own happiness, while dwelling too much on the loss of her father. She hopes Umi will meet someone to help her find that happiness…and she does. It’s fun to watch her step into another world—at the behest of her little sister, who wants Shun’s autograph—as the two brave the appallingly filthy and chaotic Latin Quarter to find him. Where before she had been content with her studies and house duties and not interested in boys, her first taste of that world changes her mind in a hurry, and she’s smitten. For his part, Shun, while having a reputation for being a “live wire”, is never anything but respectful, warm, and chivalrous to Umi.

It’s Umi who first plants the kernel of an idea in Shun and the leaders of the Quarter that if it were cleaned up, prepare and made into a place where guys and girls alike would want to be, perhaps the demolition ball could be stayed. The film, like us, is firmly on the side of those who don’t want the building to go. Poppy Hill doesn’t just excel at portraying an utterly gorgeous slice of Japan’s past in terms of the buildings and bustling seaside vistas, but in the pulse of the youth of the moment, angered by their elders’ insistence on erasing history and culture to make themselves feel better. The debate over the Quarter is charged with passion, and Umi is in the back of the hall, soaking it all up.

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The campaign to beautify the Quarter is initiated, and like Kiki’s room at the bakery or Howl’s Moving Castle, once it’s cleaned up, it’s a much more welcoming and comfortable-looking place, rather than a dank cave. But as things look up for the Quarter, after a visit to Umi’s house when she shows Shun a photo of her father, there’s a distinct change in Shun, and he starts avoiding her. She can’t make out what’s eating him, even though we do. When she finally confronts him, he tells her: they’re brother and sister. Umi’s dejection after learning this truth may be more subtle than, say, Shizuku’s, but no less powerfully felt; as even the mundane tasks she used to take pride become a struggle with such dispiritedness hanging over her.

Siblings or no, the two remain friends and follow through with the Save the Quarter campaign, traveling to Tokyo and waiting in a hall way for many hours to speak to the man who will decide the building’s fate, and indeed already has, not knowing the transformation it’s undergone. Umi’s unassuming, earnest appeal instantly impresses the man, who agrees to an immediate inspection tour. The students pull out all the stops welcoming him, and the vastly-improved state of the building, as well as the enthusiasm of the kids themselves, compel him to change his mind.

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That same day, Shun gets word news from his adoptive father: the third man in the photo is aboard ship in the harbor, who confirms that Umi and Shun had different fathers, the two others in that photo. Umi and Shun aren’t related by blood, which is good, because they’re in love with each other. Is this ending quite neat and tidy, and all the twists and turns somewhat soap opera-y? Perhaps, but because we were so emotionally invested in Umi and Shun, and held out hope Shun was mistaken about their lineage, it didn’t bother us. We didn’t think it would’ve necessarily been a better film had they been deprived of a happy life together, any more than if the Quarter had been torn down.

A powerful idea Umi conveys in her confession to Shun on a streetcar platform stuck with us throughout the rest of the film: all the while she’d been raising those flags up on the hill, Shun was responding with flags on his dad’s tug, only she never had the angle to see them. Now that she knows about them, she decided to believe her father answered the flags too: by sending Shun into her life. Her long wait was over: no longer a girl living only for a day that would never come—the day her father returned—she found a place in her heart for someone new—someone alive—and discovered how new and exciting and nice life could be when you’re in love. We discovered that Ghibli has a bright future. This is how it’s done.

9_superiorRating: 9 (Superior)

Stray Observations:

  • The hallmark of every Ghibli film is a constant feeling of “I want to go to there,” and Poppy is no different.
  • While it lacked the sublime soaring orchestrations that are another Ghibli hallmark, we were really into the period-specific soundtrack. It was at times moving, soulful, joyful, and downright toe-tapping.
  • We’ll also fully admit to having our heartstrings tugged on on numerous occasions; there was nothing shallow or forced about any of the drama; we felt Umi’s pain and frustrations and often teared up when she teared up.
  • On the note of Ghibli tropes is the dream that starts with a girl walking along, crying in a golden field, which dates back to Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, which turns thirty this year (our review of that here.)

Sekai Seifuku: Bouryaku no Zvezda – 04

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Like every far-flung, wacky Zvezda adventure Jimon Asuta has ended up on, this latest one has a very modest, innocent start: he cooks Roboko’s typically raw udo. That becomes a much bigger deal than he thought because A.), Roboko only eats raw udo; B.), raw udo is Roboko’s sole energy source, and C.), that was the last of the udo in the kitchen. When he heads down to the basement (50m underground) he finds a huge growth of udo (looking very similar to the core of Laputa, by the way) and learns that the entire Zvezda HQ runs on the stuff. But something’s no right: the udo starts to die, and all the lights go out. Adventure time!

It’s the ease and deftness with which Zvezda snowballs little incidents that makes it such a fun show to watch; like Space Dandy, it keeps you on your toes, not knowing quite what’s going to be on the menu from week to week. This also makes sense, as Zvezda is commanded by a little girl who can be fickle, impulsive, and just downright random, and also needs afternoon naps. This week the mission to find the original udo is undertaken by Asuta, Kate, and Natasha, about whom we learn a lot more. Last week we got Gorou and Yasu’s story, but Natasha’s story gets a lot more texture and depth, as the trio descends further into the “Super Ancient Udogawa Civilization.”

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What also gets a lot of texture and depth is the vast, crazy underground setting itself; from Natasha’s little 8-bit locator device to the montage of RPG-like battles and events to the alien look of the place, it’s definitely a pleasing change of scenery full of neat little details. There’s a great sense of occasion and grandeur to the journey, which for Natasha becomes a journey to her past, which she must confront in order to complete the mission. While her childhood story starts out relatively normal—she reclusive child who spent her waking hours building robots—it takes a bizarrely intriguing (and very apropos for Natasha) twist.

The foray into the past starts with a dream that Natasha has while sleepwalking into Asuta’s bed. Natasha isn’t quite clear about it, but she either ran away from home, like Asuta, when her parents insisted she stop inventing, or they weren’t her parents at all and took her to the “land of the faeries”—Ancient Udogawa. In any case, she was alone and lost—and then she wasn’t—when she met Roboko and then Kate, to whom she swore fealty. It’s fitting then that Roboko saves her again from the dark, shadowy echoes of her past, giving Kate and Asuta time to pollinate the Udo. Any charges of a deus ex machina are negated by this simple fact: Roboko could eat cooked Udo all along; she just hadn’t gathered the courage to try it.

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Rating: 8 
(Great)

Nisekoi – 04

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If left to their own devices, Raku and Kosaki would remain stationary for eternity, so it’s up to their respective friends-of-the-same-sex to nudge them towards some kind of action. Enter Maiko Shuu (Kaji Yuki) and Miyamoto Ruri (Uchiyama Yumi), who immediately establish themselves as the most perceptive people in the cast by far, which is to say they’re not dense as insulation foam. Both of them see right through Raku and Chitoge’s sorry excuse for a fake relationship, and at the same time, know full well that Kosaki has the hots for Raku and vice versa. If anything, they’re a pretty annoyed the two haven’t become an item yet, and now things are complicated by Chitoge.

Realizing nothing will happen if Raku and Kosaki aren’t at least in regular contact, Ruri arranges a study group at Raku’s manor. Kosaki’s presence in Raku’s house, his room, and right beside him is more than he can take, rendering him totally unhelpful in the homework department, while Onodera is equally nervous (she really digs the fact Raku’s room smells like him). Their odd behavior is not lost on Ruri or Shuu, but the yakuzas are just upset Raku isn’t putting any moves on Chitoge, so they set a very silly and obvious trap, and the two fake lovers end up locked in the dark together. This situation essentially nullifies Ruri’s original intent to bring Raku and Onodera back together, and further muddies Raku’s romantic waters.

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That’s because Chitoge turns out to be severely nyctophobic and claustrophobic (due to a traumatic five-hour experience in a washing machine). Her harsh facade melts away, revealing her weak side. In the dark stillness, with her clutching him tightly from behind, Raku notices for the first time just how beautiful she is. When he refuses to leave her alone while he climbs a ladder out to get help, Chitoge notices that once again, Raku is being a cool, considerate gentleman, and has no choice but to add that to the growing list of positive qualities he possesses. They come very very close to kissing, thanks to her perfectly-timed trip-fall.

Then Claude bursts in, gun drawn, followed by Kosaki who both get the wrong idea about the couple being locked in the shed together, and undo whatever progress Raku had made with Kosaki, which was minimal anyway. But we don’t think Claude and Kosaki’s idea was completely wrong. After all, we hear Raku thinking to himself he can’t fall for Chitoge; he’s already promised his heart to Kosaki (despite not knowing she’s the keeper of the key). Chitoge too feels the need to ammend her own diary to admit Raku did good today, and she’s determined not to fall for him. But it’s clearly already happening. One fact that may be in Shuu and Ruri’s blind spot: it’s not necessarily the love Raku and Chitoge are faking; it’s the hate.

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Rating: 8 
(Great)

Stray Observations:

  • Another reason Chitoge has not to hate Raku: he’s helped her find her social bearings at school, and she’s smiling a lot more as a result.
  • Hiyama Nobuyuki is his exuberant best playing fiery warrior-types, and his Ryuu here is no exception, adding zest and vitality to a bit role.
  • While Shuu and Ruri know full well Raku’s feelings for Kosaki, Chitoge has no idea. But interestingly, she worships Kosaki as the Perfect Girl just as Raku does, and isn’t taken aback at all by his ebullient praise.
  • Shuu points out twice that he and Ruri should be pals because “after all, they both wear glasses.” Ruri isn’t convinced.
  • As much as we hate her doing them, Kosaki’s “crazed panic flights” are fun to watch.