Shokugeki no Souma – 03

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Food Wars episode 3 opens with a quick profile of the third main character, after Souma and Erina: Tadokoro Megumi, who isn’t much like either of them other than the fact she loves cooking. But she just barely eked into the high school division, and if she receives one more “E” or failing grade, she’ll be expelled, and have to return to her home village in shame.

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During the opening ceremony, Megumi and everyone else learns what kind of person Yukihira Souma is, when he’s given the stage to state that he’ll be one of the students one can count on one’s hand who will remain from the thousand first-years presently assembled. It’s cocky, but in reality TV parlance he’s not there to make friends, but win. It’s up to them to answer that challenge and beat him back…if they can. Whining and steaming over his audacity won’t do any good.

Erina doesn’t understand this, because she’s an entitled garbage person who is insulted when Souma talks to her like a fellow human being and classmate rather than the goddess-on-earth she believes herself to be. I wouldn’t be surprised if her gramps didn’t just let Souma into his school because he deserved to get it, but also to give his granddaughter, who is way to comfortable and haughty, a worthy challenger to her primacy.

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Megumi is confident she’ll be okay if she simply keeps her head down and doesn’t make herself conspicuous, but fate chooses a different path, as she’s paired up with Souma, the last person someone who wants to blend into the background wants to have for a partner. This means a lot of the splashback of the very strong hate directed at Souma inevitably lands on Megumi, simply due to her proximity to their object of loathing.

Even so, Souma simply engages her like a normal person would, introducing himself and stating he’s looking forward to working with her. He’s able to tease the reason for her anxiety without any trouble, but from where he’s standing, as long as Megumi’s on his team, she won’t have to worry about expulsion, because failure isn’t even in his mind.

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Even so, Megumi is not optimistic, as by foul luck she and Souma also landed one of the academy’s toughest instructors, Chapelle, who only grades pass/fail. The class has two make boeuf bourguignon, which like eggs, is a very good test of a budding chef’s skills and instincts.

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Things don’t go well at first: Souma’s never made the dish before, and a rival pair resorts to sabotage to knock Souma out (with Megumi presumably a reasonable collateral victim) by dousing their pot with salt, ruining the meat.

Souma detects the sabotage, but with only 30 minutes, there isn’t time to start over and make the dish the prescribed way. So he doesn’t: he massages the meat with honey, which not only contains protease, an enzyme that breaks down proteins to achieve the desired tenderness, but also has a long shelf life (properly-sealed honey can last centuries).

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Thanks to this innovation that Souma had once read about and studied on his own, without any fancypants instruction, saves the day, just when it looked like Game Over for Megumi. The boeuf bourguignon not only transports Megumi and Chapelle to a sylvan paradise where they’re enrobed in and swim naked in lakes of pure honey, but also makes the “chef who never smiles” smile. They get an “A”, but Chapelle mentions he’d rate them even higher if he could.

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Also, this is a show about justice, and the saboteurs get their comeuppance by burning their sauce and then accidentally dropping salt into their own pot, resulting in an “E” grade and possible expulsion.

Souma is Megumi’s uber-confident knight, which is fine, though I wish she hadn’t been presented as such a helpless damsel in distress. I wonder what her beef would have faired had those goons not sabotaged her. I also think sticking around Souma will help her gain confidence in her own skills, which combined with moral support from her home village, should be able to sustain her through these tough three years.

Of course, just when Megumi is thinking Souma isn’t so bad, he goes and shoves honey-pickled squid into her mouth, resulting in a very similar food-fantasy to that other ill-fated classmate Souma fed peanut butter squid to. Almost too similar, really.

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When Erina hears from her lieutenant Arato that Chapelle aced Souma, she doubles down on her shitty attitude, forbidding Souma’s name from being spoken in her presence, and so forth. She’s not interested in acknowledging his resourceful, innovative gastronomic mind, to say nothing of entertaining collaboration, which may enrich both young chefs.

No, she just wants to CRUSH him like the insignificant bug she regards him as. Here’s hoping she fails spectacularly, and someday learns how to properly treat others. And here’s hoping Megumi is able to stand on her own two feet in future battles.

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DanMachi – 03

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I don’t think there’s a relationship this Spring as good or as balanced as Hestia and Bell. Part of that greatness lies in its simplicity: both were alone and no one believed in them, until they found each other. Now that they’re together, they can do great things. But first Hestia had to break Bell out of his insistence he protect her, even at the cost of his own life. Her line after finally succeeding in this says it all:

I didn’t want to just watch, or you to just take care of me, or just to have you save me.

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First, the giant silverback stalking Hestia has to be dealt with. It looks like Bell is going to be bailed out by Ais, but in a clever bit of misdirection she’s actually slaying a different beast on the other side of town. Bell is saved by Hestia running the other way around and putting herself right back in harms way, which initially angers Bell.

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He grabs Hestia in his arms (which makes her very happy!) and they find a hiding spot, where Hestia is finally a able to present the “Hestia Knife” to him, promising him he’ll now have the strength to defeat the monster. All he has to do is keep his chin up, believe in himself, believe in her, and believe in them.

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I just wanted to pause and voice my appreciation for the producers’ restraint in building a beautiful yet not overly ecchi rapport between these two. They really come off more as soulmates than a goddess and her child, and they really do make each other better.

I’m also glad Bell has the good sense to listen to Hestia and not the voice inside his head demanding he be her sacrificial knight when that’s neither what she wants nor what’s best for him or her. Dying for her, after all, would only leave her alone again, going back on his promise.

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Having physically and emotionally charged Bell up and literally lent him her strength, Bell blasts out of his hiding spot like a bat out of hell, and suddenly the silverback seems slower and more plodding against his lightning-quick moves. Bell dodges its blows, smashes its chain and armor, and places a critical, surgical strike on its heart.

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The huge THUD and kicked-up cloud of dust is an immensely satisfying moment, as is the cheering of the crowd and Hestia’s warm embrace after a brief pause. But then Hestia goes down. I didn’t see this as being as bad as it looked (or as Bell thought it might be), considering she had stayed up to make his knife and expended a lot of energy. Up in the rooftops, Freya smirks, as Bell apparently passed her test, and she looks forward to their next meeting.

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Sure enough, Hestia just needs a lot of rest after a couple of very intense days. Bell dutifully guards the inn room lent to them courtesy of Syr and the landlady. Syr apologizes, as her lost wallet (which apparently wasn’t intentional) got Bell into this whole mess. She also works up the courage to tell him she fell in love with him for sure after his heroic display.

When Hestia wakes up, she gives Bell the quote above, and tells him she wants to help him in any way she can, and always will, because she loves him. Her words move him (and me, almost!) to tears, happy as he is to have someone in his life so devoted to him and only him. Also, two confessions in one day and an admiring look from Ais: Not a bad day’s work for Mr. Cranel!

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Nisekoi 2 – 02

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Unlike the kind yet shy Onodera and the confident, aggressive Marika, Tsugumi and Chitoge are actually pretty similar characters, with strong tsundere tendencies. But while Chitoge seems to be coming to terms with the fact she has real feelings for Raku, Tsugumi is still in denial like a past version of Chitoge, but with the added wrinkle of guarding the girl who is with the guy she likes.

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Tsugumi is a professional, so she can live with Chitoge and Raku as a false couple, especially since she’s unaware of Chitoge’s own feelings for him, leaving us with a love triangle in which Chitoge has the distinct advantage. But it’s also because of Tsugumi’s profession, and her past in America, that Raku ends up in the middle of a different triangle: one of score-setting and acknowledgement. Tsugumi’s challenger: her fellow hitman and former partner, Paula McCoy.

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Paula has been watching Tsugumi for a while now, and believes she’s gone soft, and has come to finally beat the girl who always beat her in jobs, pay, efficiency, and everything else one keeps score of in the hitman business. She also rightly suspects Tsugumi likes Raku, though considering Tsugumi’s reactions, Paula would have to be pretty dumb not to suspect that!

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But Paula sees Raku, and guys in general, as Tsugumi’s kryptonite, and gets her to accept a challenge before she knows what it is: whoever steals a kiss from Raku wins, and if Paula wins, Tsugumi goes back to the U.S. Cue suspension of disbelief, because we all know Tsugumi isn’t going anywhere in the second episode.

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I kinda also suspected neither Paula nor Tsugumi would actually lock lips with Raku, who aside from delivering some solid compliments to Tsugumi early in the ep, has very little to do other than not get shot by the resulting spray of bullets. Sure enough, Tsugumi gets Raku into position but can’t pull the trigger on the  only weapons that matter in this challenge: her lips.

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Paula gets away and ties Raku up in an abandoned warehouse (why is no one renting that place?!) where Raku tells Paula flat out he doesn’t want his treasured first kiss to happen under such circumstances, and even though Paula claims to not care when, where and with whom her first kiss is with, Raku protests for both their sakes.

The debate gives Tsugumi time to stew in the suffocating dread of knowing somewhere out there Paula might be kissing Raku, the guy she likes even if she won’t admit it to herself or anyone else, until she finally blows, instantly  pinpoints Paula’s hideout, and scared the bejesus out of her by fully unleashing the “Black Tiger”.

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With Paula thoroughly subdued, all that stands in the way of Tsugumi’s victory is that kiss, and she creates a workaround by touching Raku’s lips than her own, thus “stealing a kiss from his lips” without her lips ever touching them. Paula is in no position to protest, scared as she is Tsugumi might do to her what she did to a giant concrete pillar (don’t mess up that cool warehouse!)

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Tsugumi may be aethetically the most masculine of Raku’s girls, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t have an adorable feminine side, nicely demonstrated on her good-winner lap, as she embraces, comforts, and praises Paula, giving her the acknowledgment she wanted all along.

Before returning to the U.S., Paula asks Tsugumi if she’s really okay with Raku dating the young mistress, and Tsugumi is responds with a very professional, warm domestic bodyguard smile, claiming not to know what Paula’s talking about. It’s kind of sad, but what else can Tsugumi do right now?

Paula discovered a lot more sides to the Black Tiger she thought she knew, and also learned that her skills haven’t dulled; on the contrary, she’s tougher than ever. And part of that toughness is having to perform all her official duties while bearing the pain of not being in Raku’s crosshairs. I’m sure Paula will root for her, and this week at least, I was in her court, too.

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Re-Kan! – 02

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Some guys in Amami’s class wonder out loud why she isn’t bullied by the other girls. She’s very strange sticks out like a sore thumb; not exactly qualities that make you popular in high school. But this week answers that question, beyond the obvious fact that if girls bully Amami, they’ll have to answer to her ghostly friends.

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It’s not fear or deference that make Amami surprisingly popular in her class; but rather gratitude for making their humdrum high school lives much more interesting. Inoue constantly denies the existence of ghosts despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary (including the circling spirit of her own beloved Grandma), but she sounds more like she’s trying to convince herself.

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It’s also counterproductive to resent Amami when she’s so kind, going so far to interpret and meet the needs of the ghosts around her with such dedication she neglects her own life and health. As such, Amami needs friends and Inoue in particular to dry her off from the rain, take her to the nurse’s office to catch up on some rest, and generally look after her.

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We see that the fruits of Amami’s kindness are a double-edge sword (she attracts Pervy Ghouls along with Roll Call Samurai or Faceless Umbrella) but it’s typically a net positive: she helps those in need even though they’ve passed on, because no one else can. Because she can see and hear them, she can’t ignore them; it’s just not her.

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I suppose I should also mention that this was another fun and hilarious episode. Many laughs are to be had, mostly in reaction to Amami or her ghostly friends’ gestures, actions…even texts! Also good for some chuckles: the recurring joke of the only guy in the circle having stuff thrown at his face.

The evident 4-koma roots give the show a “grab-bag” structure and the eyes-through-the-hair designs of the “cool girls” is odd, but those are minor niggles. The well-timed and varied comedy of Re-Kan is enriched by the profound decency of Amami’s character, and the sincere desire of her classmates to root for and support her.

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Houkago no Pleiades – 02

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Pleiades is undeniably pretty and inoffensive show, but at the end of two episodes the forgiving sheen of newness has worn off, revealing what is (and was from the start, really) a fairly lightweight and highly derivative affair.

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Whether being very reminiscent of a show I’ve already watched is grounds for dropping depends on the show it reminds me of, and in this case, Pleiades is at a a distinct disadvantage. It’s directed by the same guy who helmed FLCL, while its obvious thematic and aesthetic inspiration would appear be Puella Magi Madoka Magica.

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Pleiades isn’t nearly as original as Fooly nor as dark and profound as Puella, and if we’re honest, contributes virtually nothing new to stand apart from either. But to be fair, both those shows cast huge shadows…and despite its directorial pedigree and familiar milieu, it’s also not really trying to approach the greatness of those singular classics.

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Rather, it’s content to have a good old time bringing two rootable former friends, who aren’t quite sure why they forgot one another or got split up in the first place, back together. Subaru and Aoi are the focus of this episode, with the latter giving the former flying lessons.

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Again, there’s nothing either deep or groundbreaking, but the two co-leads still made me care about them reconnecting, and indeed its the power of their friendship, and a mutually-remembered song, that nets them two big engine fragments for their alien president.

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Then Minato swoops in and snatches one, and here’s where the show falls down a bit. While he seems to be a nice enough kid in that hidden fountain garden room, to the point he almost resembles a potential love interest for Subaru, his complete character shift to sinister bully feels arbitrary, not to mention repetitive.

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Until there’s a little more revealed about why he’s picking on the girls and Subaru in particular, Minato will remain a rather dull enigma. But despite his sabotage, the girls are making progress, and have even secured a room at their school under the aegis of the official establishment of the “Cosplay Research Club”; as good a cover for a group of magical schoolgirls as any!

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Steins;Gate: Fuka Ryouiki no Déjà vu

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I approached the Steins;Gate movie with an unusual amount of glee and anticipation, and doggone it, the movie was just as good as the TV show. Far from superfluous as one can get, it actually ended up tying up a few loose ends from the show, serving as a second season of sorts, compressed into 90 minutes (or four TV episodes’ worth).

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A year has passed since Rintarou achieved the Steins Gate World Line (SGWL), and Kurisu finally returns to Tokyo, ostensibly for lectures, but actually to visit the lab, and Rintarou in particular.

While there’s initial tension and combat between the two as neither seem all that comfortable being overt about their feelings for one another around the others, but after Kurisu drinks a beer or two her facade comes down and she just wants Rintarou to hold her. (Also, Rintarou gives her “my fork and my spoon” as a gift)

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Everything is happy and lovely, were it not for the proverbial chickens coming to roost in the form of side-effects from all of Rintarou’s time travel starting to become a bigger and bigger problem. Things in the SGWL are causing flashbacks that are giving him a vertigo and threaten to break his mind’s grip on which world line is the real one.

As this is going on, a shadowy figure, who is, of course, Suzu, follows Kurisu to her hotel room and gives her three words that make no sense to this Kurisu, but will mean everything soon enough. You have to leave it to Suzu; she always seems to pop by from the future to steer people in the right direction.

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Leave it to a cruel and torturous universe to give Rintarou everything he ever asked for in a world line: no WWIII down the road; both Mayushii and Kurisu alive and well, only to make it so he can’t live in that world. I assumed his flashes of other lines would get worse and worse, but I was frankly shocked to see him literally vanish into thin air just as he was putting on the lab coat Kurisu repaired.

Yet even when Kurisu and the others realize Rintarou is missing from their world line, and build the time leap machine to go back to the rooftop barbecue, he’s still fluctuating, and Suzu explains that it’s because the SGWL is very close to another line, one only a tiny fraction of a percent different from it. The only difference between it is that Okabe can only exist in one.

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Kurisu wants to fix things, but Rintarou doesn’t. As he said, he has the world the way he wants it. If he can’t live in it, so be it. Better for there to be peace and for the girls he loves to be alive than to risk altering the world line and causing more damage just to save him.

Despite the fact Kurisu really doesn’t Rintarou to vanish or to forget about him, that’s exactly what Rintarou asks of her, in a heartbreaking scene at the train station before dawn.

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But he might just be sabotaging his own cause by kissing her, because forgetting Rintarou proves extremely difficult due to all the titular deja vu, which was earlier identified as a form of Reading Steiner. Kurisu tries to get on with her life, but every time she thinks she’s forgotten him, some detail in her life reminds her of him anew. She even changes her mind and runs to the lab as fast as she can, but before she can say anything to Rintarou, he vanishes again.

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Suzu’s still there, not just with wisdom form the future but from Kurisu’s future self, who inevitably invents the time machine. The same stubbornness that has made Kurisu so endearing for so long is also the stubbornness of sticking to her promise to Rintarou not to alter the world lines for his sake.

Suzu tells Kurisu that if she’s able to imprint a powerful memory in Rintarou within the SGWL, his mind will be able to keep him in that world line, so he won’t vanish in 2011. In other words, if Kurisu is honest with herself and doesn’t give up on him, she can save him.

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Kurisu takes Suzu up on her offer to take her back in time (in the time machine she herself built in the future) and chooses a particular day in 2005 she knows to be significant in Rintarou’s life. But when she tries to get his attention, she slips and falls in the road, and as he runs out and gets hit by a truck.

This setback spooks Kurisu, who literally shudders to think not only how much worse Rintarou’s fate could become if she keeps meddling, but also just how much death and suffering Rintarou went through for her and Mayuri’s sake. She’s just not sure she can go through all that.

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But then, every other interaction with every other lab member seals it: nobody who knew Rintarou will ever entirely forget him, even as the world and their lives go on without him, Kurisu doesn’t want to live in that kind of world. All the lab members end up seperately recalling snippets about Okarin and Hououin Kyouma, culminating in Kurisu donning a lab coat and roleplaying as Kyouma himself in a masterfully adorable performance.

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Reassured that bringing Rintarou back is the right thing to do, she returns to 2005, remembering what he said when they first kissed when he had to say goodbye to her: that it wasn’t his first. Kurisu remedies that by meeting with the younger Rintarou, who is on his way to see Mayuri at the graveyard (which is when he declares her his hostage). Kurisu tells him the story of the Mad Scientist Hououin Kyouma, and then steals his first kiss. It’s another momentous scene firmly grounded in the continuity of the show that for lack of a better term causes all the feels.

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It also does the trick, as Kurisu is able to reunite with Rintarou, who was sitting alone in an empty Akiba. Empty as in it looks like no one in the SGWL ever existed where he is, just as he never existed there until Kurisu fixed things. This results in another happy ending, which we always seem to get in Steins;Gate, which would seem indulgent if those endings—including this one—weren’t so gosh-darn earned. They’re not created by conceits, but by logical conclusions to the story; Kurisu figuring out what she needs to do, pushing past the difficulties, and doing it.

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And if Kurisu’s final smirk doesn’t melt your heart like artisanal butter in a skillet, you might not have any. Heart…not butter.

This movie did the improbable by intensifying my already unreasonable fanaticism with Steins;Gate. S;G has it all: baller writing; hard-hitting drama, laugh-out-loud comedy, breathtaking twists, not-totally-ridiculous science, world-class voice-acting, unique design, ethereal soundtrack and immersive atmosphere. The movie makes me that much more excited about a future sequel in the works. Whatever risk that move entails, no show is worthier of the benefit of the doubt than this one.

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