DanMachi III – 01 – Monster in the Family

Cranel Bell and the Hestia Familia are riding high after their recent victories, but all that could be threatened by one chance meeting in the woods of the nineteenth floor of the Dungeon.

Bell happens upon a naked and positively terrified little monster called a vouivre, who is being attacked by humans and stronger monsters alike. With a heart as soft as his hair, Bell protects the monster, covers her up, and brings her along when the party returns to the eighteenth.

The problem is, once the monster trips and reveals she’s a monster (and not another girl Bell has picked up in a Dungeon) everyone but Bell pulls out their weapons and orders Bell to step away. That’s because monsters and human/demihumans have never and will never get along. It’s just The Way Things Are.

While Bell doesn’t dispute that basic truth, the fact is it’s possible there are exceptions to that truth, and that this monster could be one of them. For one thing, she starts to say words, something nobody has ever heard a monster do. More importantly, she’s not trying to kill them. She seems far more frightened of them than they should be of her.

The other Familia members allow Bell to bring the monster home where Hestia can issue a ruling, but despite being a goddess this is uncharted territory for her as well. For now, she has Bell take responsibility for something that looks like monster but is acting like a human girl, and has him name her Wiene.

From there, Bell spends all his time with Wiene, showing her the ways of the human/demihuman life goes. Haruhime assists and organically comes to take a very maternal tack in caring for her, making sure she’s clothed, fed and happy.

Then there’s an scary, heartstabbingly sad moment when Wiene is just having fun roughhousing with Bell, and her monster claws accidentally dig deep into his arm, causing a spray of blood. After hours of harmless fun, everything seems poised to go sideways in a split-second.

But ultimately what matters isn’t the act of scratching Bell, but the intent—there was none; it was an accident—and her reaction—she’s shocked and terrified to tears. More importantly is how Bell responds, not with anger, but with a warm smile and assurance that everything’s okay. When he smiles, Wiene knows she can smile too.

Mikoto admits to being afraid of Wiene despite how harmless she seems—it’s hard to overcome millennia of instinct. Even so, when Wiene praises Mikoto’s cooking, she gradually joins Haruhime in the Wiene Fan Club.

Even Welf files her claws down into stylish black nails, allowing her to playfully poke Bell’s face without hurting him. It seems the entire Familia is chipping in to take care of the poor girl—and they’re starting to see her as one of their own.

When the whole Familia is relaxing in the living room, Wiene learns the word “love”, and Haruhime leads the charge in declaring her love for Bell. Hestia, Welf, and Mikoto echo the words, leaving Lili as the sole holdout, who finally relents and admits she loves Bell too when Wiene flashes those big orange eyes in her face. Bell in turn tells everyone he loves them too, because that’s what a family is.

But later that night, as she lies wearily on the couch, Lili tells Welf that something isn’t sitting right. If they play their cards wrong and word gets out they’re harboring a monster, it could mean the ruin of Hestia Familia. That aside, she just can’t trust a monster, even an obviously adorable one in Wiene. Things can’t stay the way they are.

Bell and Hestia likely realize this as well, but Wiene’s well-being, comfort, and happiness are coming first because they are kind-hearted, nurturing people who will protect the weak and help those who need help. Is Bell getting too emotionally attached?

Wiene’s disturbing “dreams” where she’s “very angry” and everything “gets dark and red” seem to support Lili’s worries about her; she may not be a monster now, in bed with Bell and Hestia, but they have no idea if or how the monster within could emerge.

It’s a complicated development to open the third season. Both Bell and Lili’s positions have their merits, but hopefuly a compromise can be made that doesn’t end up hurting Wiene (if she doesn’t end up being a threat). Meanwhile, Hermes’ Fam is searching for monsters being smuggled as well as chasing rumors about talking monsters; maybe others like Wiene?

In addition, we’ve a harpy character waiting in the wings (no pun intended), a dragon dude who can make a stone clone of himself (I think!) and a moment in the ED when Ais points her sword at Bell—will they end up on opposite sides of this issue after getting along so well last season? We’ll soon find out. DanMachi is back, and it’s humming as usual.

Rating: 4/5 Stars

The Journey of Elaina – 01 (First Impressions) – The Ashen Witch is Born

Ever since she was wee, Elaina (Hondo Kaede, recently Bofuri’s Maple) dreamed of traveling the world like Nikeh, a great witch who recorded her adventures in a diary. Her parents, the supportive type, told her she could do it if she studied hard to become a witch. She did just that, not only passing the sorcery examination with flying colors, but being the youngest ever to do so at age 14.

Elaina’s next hurdle to becoming a witch would be to train under one as their apprentice, but due to her fame as the youngest ever, she has the door of every witch in the city slammed in her face before she can even state her case. Then she overhears a “dodgy” witch having taken residence in the forest outside the city, and flies over to take a look.

Flan, Stardust Witch (Hanazawa Kana, who is having a ball) agrees to take Elaina on as an apprentice, but like Mr. Miyagi with Daniel-san, it doesn’t seem she has any actual interest in training her, just using her as her own personal assistant. Cooking her meals, collecting ingredients, dealing with spiders in the tub and rubbing her shoulders; this is all Elaina gets to do.

After a month of this, Elaina has had enough, and asks if Flan is at last ready to train her. Flan tells her she has “nothing in particular” to teach her, but she will have Elaina fight her. Flan’s awesome mastery of the elements proves too much, as Elaina can only bob and weave against an onslaught of fire, earth and lightning. This fight was also the point at which I was utterly and completely sold on the show; its fantastic magical combat!

Totally defeated for perhaps the first time in her life, Elaina collapses into a heap and starts to bawl uncontrollably, catching Flan, clearly not used to dealing with teenage witches, tries to cheer her up with butterflies and a crown made of weeds, but settles on a hug, which proves most effective.

Flan also confesses to Elaina that her parents paid her to teach her about setback and failure until she reached her limit. Elaina has the skill, talent, and potential, but needed to learn not to deal with or endure everything no matter what, just because she can.

With that catharsis, and Flan’s strategy revealed, the training continues in earnest. Over the period of a year Flan teaches Elaina everything she knows, and Elaina soaks it all up like a sponge. But unlike her first month, she speaks up if something displeases her. Eventually, she’s good enough to best Flan in a duel for the first time, and that’s when Flan knows she’s ready.

Replacing her apprentice’s flower badge with the star brooch, Flan bestows upon her the status of a full-fledged witch. On Flan’s suggestion, Elaina picks the magical name “the Ashen Witch” due to her hair color. Fran then bids Elaina farewell and returns to her home country, and Elaina returns home.

She’s not there long, as now she’s achieved the requisite of being able to travel the world freely like Nikeh. Her parents keep their word, giving Elaina three simple rules to follow: When in serious danger, run; don’t come to think she’s a “special human”; and come home someday with a smile.

She’s outfitted in new witch’s robes, a kickass oversized hat (along with a spare—it’s windy out there!), and of course, a handsome diary in which to write about her adventures. With that, she says goodbye to the only home she’s ever known, without a particular plan or destination, and journeys in that fashion for three years, finally reaching the age of eighteen.

I for one am glad we got Elaina’s “origin story” at the most logical part of the anime: the beginning. It’s a story beautifully and efficiently told, and delivered the same kind of fuzzy feels as goodhearted witch series like Kiki, Flying Witch, and Little Witch Academia. I can’t wait to see where Elaina ends up landing next week!

Rating: 4.5/5

Crow is also watching the Wandering Witch, and always has great observations about the episodes’ best moments. Read Crow’s review here.

TONIKAWA: Over the Moon For You – 01 (First Impressions) – Wive’d Up

Yuzaki Nasa is a third-year middle schooler who has always had an inferiority complex tied to his strange, spacey name, at which everyone always seems to snicker. That led to him becoming an overachiever on the fast track to adult success…until one chilly winter night he spots a girl and falls in love at first sight.

That sudden surge of love is so disorienting, he walks straight into the path of a passing truck, which strikes him. However, he wakes up to find he’s not dead; the girl saved him, and looms over him backlit by a majestic full moon. As she turns to leave, leaving the truck driver to call an ambulance, she appears to him to be returning to that moon, like Princess Kaguya.

Rather than accept that like Kaguya the girl must return to the moon, Nasa makes the most of his post-accident adrenaline and follows her to an enclosed bus stop. She’s impressed he was able to even move, and gives him her coat to stay warm before bidding him farewell once more.

But Nasa won’t let it end this way. Even with two broken legs, he gets up and chases after her once more, declaring his love and asking if she’ll go out with him. She agrees that they can be together…but only if he’ll marry her. Since Nasa is already in love (and adrenaline’s a hell of a drug) he quickly agrees before passing out.

He wakes up some time later in the hospital, and doesn’t hear from the girl for years as he completes middle school but declines to pick a high school and enters the workforce as a konbini clerk. He turns eighteen and gets an apartment on his own.

It would seem that a combination of his injury and the girl’s tacit rejection-by-absence cost Nasa a more prosperous life, but only until his doorbell rings. Who could it be at the door at this hour? Why, Tsukasa, who by night’s end will be his lawful wedded wife!

There’s a charming matter-of-factness to Tsukasa’s interactions that border on alien-or-robot-like inhumanity, but I preferred to take a less cynical tack throughout my viewing. Suffice it to say, Tsukasa is ready to honor their hasty agreement from years ago to wed, because she offered it and he accepted.

As she suspected, Nasa isn’t one to back down from his word; indeed, upon her sudden unexpected return to his life he’s compelled to recite his credo “I’ll go faster than light before NASA!” In other words, while his professional ambitions may have been dashed as an indirect result of meeting her, in exchange he gets to marry an exceedingly cute young woman. It’s a fair deal!

There’s also a sense of quietly brewing vicarious excitement as the process gets realer and realer, first with the filling out of mundane forms, then the visit to the ward office (open 24 hours for weddings), to the moment the two are officially married and simply holding hands for the first time is more than enough excitement!

Setting aside the possibility of this work’s creators intending to deliver a not-so-subtle message to the youth of Japan to get married and have kids already!, the ward official is absolutely right that young love and marriage is indeed portrayed as beautiful, joyful thing.

There’s still the big questions like why exactly Tsukasa is so okay with suddenly marrying a guy who fell for her at first sight, why there was zero contact in last couple years, and what exactly the new Mrs. Yuzaki had to “take care of” on her own before heading home with him. But for now I’m content to revel in the elegance of two hearts finding one another.

Rating: 3.5/5 Stars

P.S. The OP absolutely whips. I love how it starts so simple and bittersweet then captures the chaotic whiplash of suddenly sharing your life with someone.

Higurashi: When They Cry – 01 (First Impressions) – Moe Horror Done Right

Higurashi: When They Cry wastes no time establishing that this story will not have a pleasant ending, as it opens on a boy beating a girl to death with a bat with at least one other corpse in the room. It’s not played off as a nightmare, either, as protagonist Maebara Keiichi wakes up in that same room some time before that bloody spectacle takes place.

While some horror anime that hold their powder until the end of the first episode (Gakkou Gurashi! comes to mind) Higurashi isn’t interested in keeping you in suspense about whether shit will hit the fan in this suspiciously idyllic village, but rather when, how, and why, and how bad…I’m guessing pretty bad!

We haven’t had much good horror on RABUJOI lately aside from Hannah’s great retro reviews of 2004’s Elfen Lied, but that same cute girl horror DNA is evident in Higurashi. This is actually a reimagining of an identically-titled series from 2006. I’ve personally only seen half of When the Seagulls Cry, a family murder mystery, but never finished, so consider me a Higurashi Novice.

That said, one of the changes that’s quite evident in the remake is the new character design by Watanabe Akio of Monogatari fame. The way he draws eyebrows and mouths in particular were a dead giveaway, and I’m a big fan of Watanabe-san’s work here. “Easy on the eyes” is an apt description; “as pleasant as the ending won’t be” is another.

We’re gradually introduced to Keiichi’s friends, starting with the meek but extremely good cook Rena, the green-haired “big-sis”-type Mion, and a pair of younger girls in the mischievous Satoko and adorable Rika. They’re all so cute and have such great chemistry with Keiichi and each other, you almost want to forget that things will go sideways without fail.

It’s a testament to Watanabe’s designs, the veteran voice talent, and the beautiful setting of Hinamizawa village that despite the bloody cold open we’re invited to enjoy some good times with this group first, and are thus lulled into a false sense of security and safety. The multilayered traps Satoko sets at school are a useful metaphor for what Higurashi does in this episode: the first trap you see is merely a decoy.

Case in point: As soon as the sun started to set and the crisp blue sky turned a simultaneously gorgeous and menacing orange and red, dread started to amass around me, even as Rena kept things light and breezy. She leads Keiichi to a sinister-looking junkyard and climbs over the junk with zero regard for tetanus, looking for treasure and finding it in a buried Kenta-san.

While Rena is scrounging around, Keiichi meets a photographer who comes out of nowhere, identifying himself as Tomitake. The fact he’s the first adult we see other than Keiichi’s mom is disorienting, but then he mentions an unpleasant “incident” involving the loss of someone’s arm in the area. When Keiichi askes Rena about it later, her cutesy voice immediately shifts to a curt and dead serious “I don’t know.”

While I was certain something awful was going to happen in that junkyard (and the show most certainly wanted me to think that), Keiichi and Rena come out unscathed, though you could say Keiichi has now been “marked” by suspicion over surroundings that must now feel a tinge more threatening.

The next day after school, Keiichi asks Mion about the aborted dam construction project, and Mion offers him some information: the developers tried to ram the project through, but the village was spared from flooding and relocation thanks to some help from politicians in Tokyo. That said, when Keiichi asks about any violence, Mion has the same curt response as Rena.

Keiichi heads back to the junkyard as the sun once again falls, but Rena forgot he offered to help her unearth the statue. It’s clear she wasn’t prepared for him to show up, and heads home to grab them some tea. While waiting, darkness falls, in more ways then one, and Keiichi finds an old magazine detailing the story of a dam construction worker who was lynched, murdered, and dismembered.

As he reads, Rena creeps up on him, wielding a huge, curved, and very sharp-looking blade, while cute lil’ Rika stands behind Rena with glowing red eyes, suggesting she might be controlling Rena’s body. Roll credits, complete with an ending theme that absolutely slaps. Now that got dark quick, didn’t it?!

Higurashi is not for everyone, as those without the stomach for bloody horror will be joined by those who insist the franchise didn’t need rebooting. That said, had it not been rebooted, I would never have checked this out, and then find it right up my alley as a casual (and sufficiently-desensitized) horror fan. I’m looking forward to watching Keiichi and the town’s slow descent into madness and murder.

Rating: 4/5 Stars

Assault Lily: Bouquet – 01 (First Impressions) – From Idolizer to Idolized

Cheerful airhead Hitotsuyanagi Riri attends her first day at an academy for Assault Lilies, teenage girls who are able to use sword-like CHARMs to fight robotic enemy known as the Huge. Riri’s first meetings of note are with haughty rich girl Kaede Johan Nouvel and cool beauty Shirai Yuyu.

Yuyu saved Riri from the Huge two years ago and is the reason Riri applied to the academy. The three girls team up to fight and defeat an escaped Huge specimen, with Yuyu helping Riri form a pact with her CHARM and Kaede falling for the unexpectedly heroic Riri.

My first thoughts about Assault Lily were that the bridge in the cold open looks just like one in my neck of the woods, that everyone’s tight stockings made me worry for their leg circulation, and that there were too many damn characters to keep track of.

But as I got to watching, I became more engrossed in Riri, Yuyu, and Kaede’s first impromptu Huge-hunting mission, even if the Huge itself was underwhelming robo-CGI. Since this is Shaft, comparisons to the iconic Madoka are inevitable, and the Huge lack the creativity and “wrongness” of Madoka’s Witches.

I was also suspect when we catch the first glimpse of the character’s CGI counterparts, which will almost always look different and separate from the hand-drawn designs. That said, in the heat of battle the speed and focus helps alleviate that design gap, while the combat is smooth, seamless, and impactful.

Characters’ designs also feature an exaggerated Victorian hourglass shape with wide hips impossibly slim waists, and the aforementioned too-tight stockings. The designs take some getting used to, but unlike the Huge at least they’re relatively unique in a sea of big-boobed rail-thin anime characters.

Plot-wise, this opening episode couldn’t be any simpler, with the plucky newbie Riri proving she can hold her own even in her very first fight—after she’s able to draw her CHARM, that is. Both Yuyu and Kaede could tell there was something special when Riri was able to sneak up on both to stop them from fighting early on.

The escaped Huge specimen from the academy lab is a nice way of easing Yuyu and audience into the mechanics of the conflict, though I’m hoping future Huge are more menacing and tougher to bring down. The spotless academy and its lush green environs are beautiful, but this world lacks that immediate existential peril of, say, any Angel attack in Evangelion.

That said, the Huge battle is rough, Riri ends up with a scar on her arm, and both she and Yuyu have to be quarantined after the battle, during which Riri reveals that Yuyu’s heroics on that bridge two years ago are pretty much the sole reason she joined up.

I appreciate that Kaede switched her affection from Yuyu to Riri after the latter pushed her out of harms way (she didn’t need quarantine) and it will be interesting to see if they end up forming a Schutzengel (German for “Guardian Angel”) contract.

Riri’s exploits with Yuyu and Kaede earn her immediate fame before the first-year entrance ceremony even kicks off. No doubt she’ll have more allies, rivals, and neutral parties all keeping a close eye on her so-far rapid progress, while keeping track of all the names and hairstyles will be challenging.

There’s also the inevitable “cool beauty is morose” dynamic to Yuyu suggesting some kind of Dark Past, as well as some end credits with far more explicit yuri elements than we saw in the episode itself. In Japan lilies represent purity and virtue, but with nary a dude to be seen and the conceit that only teenage girls can wield CHARMs, it seems love will be sought and/or found within the same team.

Assault Lily: Bouquet doesn’t offer anything particularly novel, but what it lacks in originality it does largely make up in solid execution. It looks and sounds very polished—as expected for Studio Shaft—and in a lean season may be enough to stick with it.

Rating: 3/5 Stars

Cardcaptor Sakura – 68 – A New Spring Dawns

Eriol writes a letter in his dark office then observes the intensifying winter snow through the French doors with Spinel and Nakuru. He assures them that it’s “almost time”…for something. Meanwhile, we join poor Sakura rollerblading through that snow in her jammies while being chased by a swarm of mini snowmen pelting her with snow. She’s eventually buried, but quickly emerges and fights snow with Snow.

Kero is impressed with how powerful Sakura is becoming, noting that she could one day surpass Clow Reed, but Yue disagrees, saying she isn’t close. That ends up keeping Sakura up at night, wondering if and how she’ll ever be able to live up to Clow’s legacy. Then it dawns on her: she can use the Return card to go back in time and ask him herself—and while she’s at it, ask him why she keeps feeling his presence before strange things happen.

After another pinky promise to Syaoran that she’ll safely return, Sakura uses the Tsukihime cherry tree as a conduit to the past, where she finds Kerberos, Yue, and clow. They’re just having an afternoon nap in the shade of a sakura tree, ironically enough. Sakura sees how happy Kero and Yue are and can’t help but feel a little jealous, simply because she isn’t Clow.

The seasons pass, and the tree transforms with it, which Clow uses to make a point about everyone and everything: that it all changes, and that it’s all supposed to. That means even he, the most powerful sorcerer alive, must one day shuffle off his mortal coil. That doesn’t mean Yue is happy about it, or about the prospect of having a new master, so Clow tasks Kero with the duty of finding one.

While at first seeing Clow interact with his creations and vice versa only heightened her feelings of inadequacy, the fact is she is her own worst critic, and not even Clow, whom she replaced, would see value in comparing her with himself. Clow is Clow and Sakura is Sakura. He had his time, and now it’s hers. This point is aptly illustrated by the transition from the winter when Clow passes on to a spring when all the lovely flowers—including sakura—bloom anew.

Her confidence and enthusiasm in her task thus restored, Sakura returns to the present, where Tomoyo and Syaoran had been waiting with baited breath (though they don’t mention how long they were waiting). Sakura reports that while she did meet Clow, she didn’t learn any thing about why they keep feeling his presence. That’s when Eriol jumps into the conversation and offers an explanation.

You see, he is Hiiragizawa Eriol now, but in his previous life, he was…Clow Reed. While this isn’t exactly a shocker, now that it’s out in the open means we’re finally poised for the final showdown between Sakura and Eriol. That said, despite all the shadows and dark musical stabs, Eriol may prove not to be an enemy, but simply a reincarnated Clow ensuring that Sakura becomes powerful enough to convert all of his cards and complete her succession.