Princess Connect! Re:Dive – 01 (First Impressions) – Beautiful Candy

From the director of KonoSuba comes an anime that also takes place in a beautiful fantasy world. I’d argue it’s slightly prettier as a show, but lacks the “bite” and “spark” of its isekai counterpart. That said, there are some well-timed jokes, particularly involving two mangy wolves who can’t keep their jaws off the protagonist.

That said, the characters of Princess Connect! could easily populate the world of KonoSuba, what with their detailed and elaborate outfits. Unfortunately aside from the “amnesiac” protagonist, the “eager-to-please” elf guide, and the “space cadet” onna-kishi, there’s just not much to define these characters. They’re just…nice. Just nice people. Where’s the fun in that??

That said, it is nice for a change to have a protagonist who simply shuts up and lets things unfold around him. In Yuuki’s case, that’s because he remembers almost nothing about his first go-round in this world, and his vocab is limited. So no snarky narration either!

Mostly, Princess Connect! draws you in with its exquisitely lovely scenery and lighting. Whether it’s a grassy field at mid-day, an ornate cityscape at sunset, or forest-nestled ruins, the eye candy is strong, it is everywhere, and it screams “quality” to an extent I didn’t really get from Shironeko Project.

When things heat up, PC also demonstrates a keen eye for action, as the onna-kishi, ditzy as she is, demonstrates some awesome offensive power. She reminds me a lot of Darkness if she wasn’t a masochist and her aim was better. That the episode ends with her tripping balls on mushrooms is pretty great though!

Where Shironeko had a strong (and very urgent) narrative thrust that made its environments secondary to the characters occupying them, PC is content to relax and take its time, often pulling far back from the characters to admire their lovely settings. While this didn’t knock my socks off, I’ll stick with it for now, since it’s hard to walk away from such luscious visuals. I just wish it leaned into the comedy more.

Fruits Basket – 26 (S2 01) – The Hideous One

First of all, let me say how good it feels to have Fruits Basket back in my life. It’s truly a salve for the heart! Those who haven’t watched the first season probably wouldn’t agree. It should go without saying: make sure you watch those 25 episodes before getting anywhere near this episode. That said, holy crap, what a return to greatness!

A gorgeous new OP, followed by an episode centered squarely on … Minagawa Motoko! In which she recognizes Tooru’s positive effect on Yuki. And stops living in a world of fantasy. And acknowledges her flaws. And commits to pursuing Yuki the right way. In other words, Motoko changes…and in doing so becomes yet another character I love and can’t wait to see again. And lest we forget, she’s brilliantly voiced by MAO!

Tooru shows up to put an iron uncomfortably close to the faces of Kyou and Yuki, but otherwise this is basically The Minagawa Motoko Show from start to finish (with a sprinkling of Yuki). It’s a ballsy move to make Tooru’s arrogant, one-dimensional, self-deluded love “rival” the protagonist-of-the-week, especially as the first episode back.

But Fruits Basket has already demonstrated time and again that none of its cast is really shallow; it’s just a matter of how much we know them, and this was the time to really hunker down and get to know Motoko, beyond the scheming president of Prince Yuki—someone nearly bowled over by Arisa’s eager new delinquent minions (a great potential pairing for a future episode, by the way).

Motoko puts her war with Tooru aside to deal with a more pressing matter: the identity of the new StuCo board members. Specifically, she wants to make sure none of them are hussies that will steal her man (who, let it be said, has already been all but stolen by Tooru!) But former StuCo prez Takei can sense Motoko’s intent and isn’t spilling the beans.

Meanwhile, it’s new StuCo prez Yuki who meets the new board members in question, in a very bizarrely staged scene. When he enters, he hears a girl seemingly weeping in the dark in a giant mess of files. Yet after recoiling from his touch, she adopts a stoic demeanor and goes about cleaning up. This is the new StuCo treasurer, Kuragi Machi.

Then he meets the new veep, the brash and grigarious Manabe Kakeru, who had been napping in the next room and reminds Yuki of his repellent brother Ayamu. He has a particularly weird exchange with Manabe later, leading him to wonder if there’s something Zodiac-y or Zodiac-adjacent about these new members…or if they’re just a bit eccentric.

That night, we end up in Motoko’s very rich-girly room as she waxes poetic about Yuki and curses those who would stand between her and him, only to be rudely interrupted by her no-nonsense mom in curls. Turns out Motoko puts on Kongou Mitsuko rich girl airs at school, but is actually from a working-class family who lives above their shop. I’m already more fascinated with her!

The next day, Motoko decides to bypass Takei entirely, enlisting the aid of third-year and fellow Prince Yuki member Aida Rika, to pick the lock of the StuCo office. Turns out the office unlocked, and Motoko and Rika are in luck: the only person in there is their beloved Yuki. Quietly cheered on by Rika, Motoko gets off to a rough start by asking Yuki…about what he ate for breakfast.

But because Yuki is such a nice guy, he dutifully tells her what he ate, and she discovers they like the same kind of natto. Then, unbidden, Yuki asks Motoko if she normally speaks so formally, commenting that it’s “kind of cute.” Motoko would normally be happy beyond words by being called cute by Yuki, but when she sees his warm easy smile that accompanies the words of praise, she sees a Yuki she doesn’t recognize.

The adoring distance she’s kept from Yuki means the Yuki she saw was rarely the Yuki he really was underneath a much cooler, at times forced smile. She realizes how far that distance remains when Yuki could change so much without her knowing, and with the help of someone else … someone not her by his side. It’s suddenly too much to bear, so she runs off.

As she flips on a faucet to wash her suddenly tear-filled face, Motoko professes her hatred of all women who “dare get near Yuki”, but hates none of them more than herself, the “hideous one” who thinks those kinds of thoughts as she’s reflected in her mirror. It’s the kind of honest self-reflection I was hoping from Motoko after her fateful visit to the Hanajima residence (a veritable bastion of Keeping It Realness).

Motoko shouldn’t just thank Tooru’s influence for giving her a Yuki who can smile, but one who didn’t let things sit where they were. He goes after her to make sure she’s alright, and in doing so, confides in her that despite looking so “unruffled”, he’s barely keeping his cool. Motoko can relate, as she just lost her cool back in the office!

Heartened by Yuki’s smile, Motoko vows not to give up the fight. He may have changed, and Tooru may have changed him, but she still adores him and wants him to be hers. Now that she’s actually exchanged more than just polite pleasantries, but shared a moment of mutual vulnerability, that affection has gained intensity and legitimacy.

As I sat staggered at how well they fleshed out Motoko and made her someone I half want to root for in just an episode, Yuki returns home and washes dishes with Tooru, and mentions the almost Zodiac-like strangeness of his new council-mates. He also confesses that he was happy when Manabe said he was “more interesting than [he] thought.”

Earlier, Kyou called Yuki lame, and privately, Yuki acknowledges that yeah, he is lame. It’s why Kyou’s barb is so painful; he believes it. But Tooru assures him that even if tough times are coming, either in the StuCo (maybe) or the Souma family (most assuredly) there will be fun times to cherish as well. Life is a never-ending string of getting hurt and healed by words and actions big and small.

After Tooru delivers those wise-beyond-her-years words, the episode closes perfectly on its heroine Minagawa Motoko, positively angelic in her frilly nightgown and glorious pink palace above a workaday store, gazing at the stars in quiet, hopeful, healing prayer.

Shironeko Project: ZERO CHRONICLE – 01 (First Impressions) – The Desperate Pursuit of Balance

In the Kingdom of Darkness, an unnamed young lad (Kaji Yuki) flees from his village with younger children when monsters attack. Neither the villagers nor the children survive, leaving the lad alone. Not knowing what else to do, he digs a huge hole for the dead, but also for himself, because he comes to like how the sun pours in, coating everything in the hole equally.

He encounters an old but stout knight named Skears, who urges the kid to come out of the hole and direct his energies elsewhere. He manages to inspire the kid into having a little duel with him, and he shows a bit of skill. That’s apparently enough for Skears, who by the way is dying, to name the kid his successor as well as the next Prince and future King of Darkness, a title Skears himself failed to gain.

Meanwhile, high above the clouds in the Kingdom of Light, Queen Iris (Horie Yui) leads an attack on an encroaching darkness that is expanding in both size and density, making each battle tougher. Shironeko Project takes pains to accentuate the stark contrast between the kingdoms of darkness in light.

Obviously, there’s more light, but more saturation, richer hues, and an ethereal vividness. It’s as squeaky clean and gleaming up here as it is muddy and brooding down there. And just as important as the visuals are the sounds, and Iwasaki Taku’s lavish orchestral score is excellent, featuring distinct leitmotifs for the two kingdoms: more orchestral and soaring in the sky; more grungy and metal down below.

The Lad makes it to the capital where he’ll become stronger and challenge the current King, but he’ll need allies. He gains his first in Valas, a knight friendly with Skears (and possibly his former student). Valas presumes the kid is a thief, but after flashing some skill and more importantly Skears’ words, Valas changes his tune, pledges his loyalty to the kid’s claim, and takes him to Skears’ mansion.

This all happens rather fast, but as the Bard said, “brevity is the soul of wit.” If you’re using my viewing time wisely and efficiently I’m rarely going to be mad, as long as you don’t run out of story or worse, the speed hurts my ability to get engaged with the material. Neither is the case here…at least not yet.

Back in the Lightdom, we get to know Queen Iris’ top officers, like the knight Faios and mage Sima. They know their queen is more concerned with maintaining balance than achieving a total victory. Interestingly, Sima was once a candidate for Queen but lost to her best friend. Refreshingly, she seems to hold no hard feelings, and wants only to serve her queen as best she can.

Iris’ commitment to minimizing fighting and death is noble, but the expanding darkness is forcing her hand, and a report comes that the Western capital is under attack, she must immediately head back into battle. Even so, she sees this latest incursion as a sign it’s time for the King of Darkness to be replaced. She’s confident his successor will work with her to maintain the balance.

I first approached SPZC with skepticism—with so many fantasy anime out there (isekai or no) any newcomer would have to make quite the impression. I wasn’t encouraged by the breakneck speed and simplicity of the early scene of the kid and Skears, but once I saw both sides of this dark-light coin, and heard more of that sweet, sweet Iwasaki sound, this gradually grew into something I’d tentatively recommend.

I’m also a sucker for star-crossed love stories in the midst of warring nations, and a big fan of both Horie and Kaji, so the inevitable meeting of Prince and Iris is a built-in reason to keep watching. SPZC is telling a very old story with very basic elements, but telling it reasonably well. We’ll see if it can elevate that material.

Elfen Lied – 05 – Good People are Hard to Come By

Kurama looks out at the ocean, perhaps grieving the loss of Nana, while Kouta and Yuka wake up to find Mayu has run away. The episode delves into her past, and not surprisingly for this show, it’s horrific. Habitually sexually abused by her stepdad and shunned by her mother, one night she refuses to undress, and runs.

She doesn’t stop until she reaches the ocean, and seems poised to walk in and not come back. She’s stopped only by the dog Wanta, whom she assumes was discarded like her. Back in the present, Wanta (AKA James) is claimed by his owner, leaving Mayu alone again. She hides among crates in the cold, dark night, utterly miserable.

Some cops find her, but thankfully so do Yuka and Kouta, who remembered she hung around the beach a lot. They bring her back to the house, but she’s not sure why, because no one in her life has ever given a damn about her except to use her. It never occurred to her that good people existed.

While his penchant for “collecting girls” continues to irk Yuka, she doesn’t protest when he decides to let Mayu stay with them indefinitely. Mayu’s mother all too easily signs away guardianship to him. Wanta comes back to her (his old owner was not a good person, it seems) and she returns to school with a smile on her face, now in a much better place.

Kouta and Yuka return to college classes too, but inexplicably take Nyu with them. I understand how they might be worried about her wandering off again, but it just seems like a really, really bad idea considering how much they don’t know about her situation.

Sure enough, the professor of their new class is Dr. Kakuzawa, son of the head of the research facility where Lucy was being held. He takes Kouta and Yuka aside, warns them of the laws they’re breaking by having the girl in their custody, and makes Kouta agree to leave Nyu with with him.

Fearing the consequences and cowed by an authority figure, Kouta ignores Nyu crying out his name (she’s learning more words than just “nyu”), and later can’t help but shed tears over their separation. Yuka reproaches him for crying (“You’re a man!”) but then starts crying herself.

They get home and tell Mayu, who plants the seed in Kouta’s head that maybe the professor wasn’t telling the truth when he said Nyu’s family was worried and wanted her back. Gee, ya THINK?

Sure enough, Kakuzawa’s intentions with Nyu are anything but honorable. He strips her down, ties her up, and injects her with drugs. But while he’s still undressing in preparation to rape her, Nyu wakes up as Lucy, and plainly asks him who he is and what he wants.

Kakuzawa tries to give her his spiel about replacing the human race with superior Dicloniï, revealing his own sorry horns. Lucy plainly ain’t buyin’ it, and helpfully relieves him of his head, causing a fountain of blood and saying she doesn’t need someone like him.

Truer words have never been spoken. Like Mayu, she needs good people like Kouta and Yuka, particularly when she reverts to Nyu. It’s just a shame those good people aren’t the brightest…