Vlad Love – 10 – The Incredible Cyber-Franken-Kong

I have myself been blasted in these hopes, yet another may succeed.—Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

In a return to “conventional” Vlad Love, Chihiro-sensei introduces the new transfer student to the night class: Franken Yasohachi, an immense part-robot, part-golem who must be plugged in to operate. Mai also recognizes him as…her fiancée. Needless to say, this is problematic for Mitsugu. Mai tells the story of how this came to be, starting with when she once ran away from home to escape one of her awful previous step-moms.

While picking petals to determine whether to kill her, lil’ Mai is approached by Franken offering her a single flower. While initially startled, Mai is charmed by his face and accepts the flower, which in vamp society is how one proposes marriage. The night class soon learns their new transfer student has the brains of geniuses both scientific and musical and the body of an olympic athlete. He can even heel-toe an AE86 Trueno GT-Apex!

But even with a newly-installed battery, Franken can only operate unplugged for three minutes, and charging back up takes three hours—almost as slow as the GM EV1. As such, during off-hours he’s stored in a closet, while Mitsugu gets to hang out with Mai. Mitsugu is happy it’s a quiet night, seemingly oblivious to the giant electrical storm outside that brings Franken to wireless life.

Woozy from her blood dinner, Mai mistakes Mitsugu for “Daddy” and wants to share her closet with her for the night. Mitsugu swallows hard and decides to see how this will play out, but the scene is interrupted by the suddenly berserk Franken, who is a bit too aggro in offering Mai another flower. Mitusu and Mai escape on Mai’s umbrella.

During their escape, Franken is hit by lightning again (a one in 9 million chance!) and transforms into a Hulk-like green rage monster who starts stomping and smashing his way through Minato, Tokyo. We’re treated to some cool cityscapes as the JSDF scrambles apaches, while Franken-Hulk climbs Tokyo Tower like King Kong climbed the Empire State Building.

After an interminable call with a half-asleep Chihiro who can’t be otherwise bothered, Mai and Mitsugu learn how to switch the monster off: land on his head and twist the bolt on his head, and he goes out like a light. The city is saved from total destruction (again), and the dynamic duo of Mitsugu and Mai were the ones to save it.

Franken is returned to his closet, unplugged and insulated to prevent further power surges. The flower meant for Mai remains in his hand, wilting away. Who knows if we’ll see Franken again, but he was a fun new member of the class while he lasted.

Vlad Love – 09 – Nuts and Bolts

Going into this episode cold, I spent half the time wondering what the heck was going on and why there was little to know animation, and the other half luxuriating in the atmosphere of its unrelentingly hard-boiled, war-torn art style. And I think, like most who watched this, the whole point was to not quite know what was going on, but to simply let it all wash over you.

I say this because a message at the very end explains what the heck was going on: this entire episode was an homage to the works of rarely-translated avant-garde cult cartoonist Tsuge Yoshiharu. From 1955 to 1987 he was active in the world of gekiga—the precursor to modern graphic novels about mature themes.

His most famous work is Screw Style, which on its face has a simple plot: a boy washes ashore with an artery in his arm severed by a jellyfish, and he wanders war-torn Japan searching for a doctor. The original story is based on a dream Tsuge had during a rooftop nap, which tracks: everything is surreal and dreamlike.

There’s no doubt in my mind that Oshii Mamoru was both inspired and influenced by Tsuge’s work. Oshii was 17 when Screw Story was first published in 1968, serving as an allegory for his disaffected postwar generation (Oshii was also born just six years after the atomic bombings).

In place of the WWII-era machines of war, there are B-2s in the sky and Type 16s on the ground, and later, a Nimitz-class in the sea. For the boy, Oshii inserts a topless Mitsugu, who is desperate not necessarily to save her life, but to save the precious blood which belongs to Mai from flowing out of her arm and going to waste.

The homage—and general strangeness—fits the style of Vlad Love like a glove. Indeed, for those who’d seen the gekiga style without knowing what it was, the series’ backgrounds have always been done in this style, albeit with lighter color palettes. As Oshii cycles through three other Tsuge stories, the rest of Vlad Love’s cast have cameos.

Mitsugu finally meets up with Mai at an inn, who serves her castor oil in water instead of sake (since Mitsugu is underage) and mentions a delinquent (Satoru) who comes by the inn every day to terrorize her.

Mitugu’s odyssey leads her to a gynecologist (Chihiro). It’s heavily implied they sleep together, and Chihiro repairs Mitsugu’s artery with a metal bolt and valve. Mitsugu and Mai sail off with the sun and wind at their backs.

As I said before, I wasn’t clear what was going on for most of this episode, but I still liked it. It’s not only evidence of Oshii’s love of Tsuge’s work, but also a sign of his complete and utter creative control, a rare thing indeed in any form of entertainment. Vlad Love itself would not exist if Oshii wasn’t Oshii, much like The Snyder Cut wouldn’t exist if Snyder wasn’t Snyder.

Speaking of which, The Snyder Cut is a far superior film to the grotesquely cynical vivisection that was the theatrical Whedon cut precisely because of the strength, clarity, and purity and commitment of the artist’s voice. His unmarred vision shines through in every frame, no matter how dark and muddy those frames get.

This singularly bizarre and beautiful episode of Vlad Love taught me about the existence of Tsuge Yoshiharu, Screw Style, and other gekiga works. And it did so while existing as a unique piece of art all its own, integrating its characters and themes with the decades-old classics to which it paid homage. But I’m glad Oshii saved the explanation for the end, so I wouldn’t be influenced by the episode’s context out of the gate.

Tsuge hasn’t published a comic in 33 years. Ours is a world in which all art is borrowed or embellished version of what came before—an ongoing conversation across time. It’s episodes like this that keep that conversation going, brining awareness to younger generations so that they can make their own contributions. No doubt the next episode of Vlad Love will move on to, as John Cleese said best, “something completely different.”

Rating: 4/5 Stars

Vlad Love – 08 – The Hematologist’s Lament

Chihiro describes her daily battle as school nurse, Blood Donation Club advisor, night class instructor, and researcher, while gazing at the moon and grasping a bottle of blood marked “Memories.” An intrigued Mitsugu tells everyone to call in sick for night class, and once Chihiro heads home, they break into her office to locate the blood.

Thanks to transfer student “Franken”, who is a giant robot who apparently isn’t supposed to transfer for two more episodes, they break the lock, but Mitsugu is electrocuted when she touches the cabinet. Chihiro appears, knowing the kids wouldn’t be able to resist the intrigue of her bottle of Memories.

Since everyone is eager to know what exactly the bottle contains (even though it should be clear from the label), they gather ’round Chihiro as she lights up a cigarette or seven and uncorks that bottle, regailing them with a tale of youth, infatuation, betrayal and heartbreak…none of which seems to have anything to do with the blood!

Young Chimatsuri Chihiro, being smart in hematology but dumb at life, falls for one sketchy character after another (literally—they’re typically sketched out with pencil or ink!), who either empties her bank accounts with excessive dating actitivies or just plain leaves her Casablanca-style.

It must be noted that Chihiro should at all times be considered an unreliable narrator. For one thing, there’s no way steam locomotives ever ran regularly in her time! The bit about her falling instantly in love with people who deliver her dinner is a nice nod to the beginning, when it’s Mitsugu with cup ramen.

While her story intentionally drags on and repeats itself, and it’s generous to even call this episode half-animated, as it’s mostly flashbacks slideshow format, I still enjoyed the episode. It set itself apart from the others by being relatively calm and relaxed, and its gags and pratfalls are in service of actual character work, albeit of questionable provenance.

Also, while it’s little more than a bunch of stills, those stills are gorgeously rendered and accompanied by a suitably weighty score that really sells Chihiro’s lamentations, even if her students all fall nod off before she reveals the “Memories” bottle contains a blend of blood she drew from the various men in her past while they were unconscious.

Vlad Love – 07 – Vla Vla Vland

Vlad Love goes from the “cultural festival play” episode to the “let’s make a movie” episode, with Maki as the director and Mai, Mitsugu and Katsuno starring (Katsuno also fronts the more than $4K budget). Maki’s vision is a promotional video for the Blood Donation Club that is also a homage to French New Wave director Nicolas Truffant.

Needless to say, chaos reigns. Maki has the lingo and bearing of a film director down, and she also knows her cinematic history and can rear-project a driving scene with the best of ’em, but the shoot itself is an unqualified disaster from start to finish as Chihiro insists they film the whole thing in five days. Those days are marked by title cards reminiscent of The Shining. Also, Kaoru’s cat runs away, and the backup cat doesn’t give a shit about milk.

While Maki seems to have recurring dreams about being a little girl surrounded by everyone staring and judging at her (probably a reference to something), in the end those dreams are justified, as the final product is a mess. Unlike the first Star Wars, even editing couldn’t save Meet Mai, but Maki isn’t even there for the premiere—she’s scarfing down a bento on the Shinkansen.

The episode was hurt by having to follow up the best one yet, as well as being the second straight involving a production with a demanding director. Mitsugu and Mai barely say or do anything, and there are so many jokes and asides there’s no room for anything else—including much of a reason to care! Still, as always, Vlad Love looks great, even when it’s little more than empty calories.

Wonder Egg Priority – 12 (Fin?) – Over Easy

Aragorn: Frodo’s fate is no longer in our hands.
Gimli: Then it has all been in vain. The fellowship has failed.
Aragorn: Not if we hold true to each other.

With Momoe and Rika seemingly completing their quests only to be met by fear and rage, respectively, Rika wants recriminations and revenge for Mannen, while Momoe simply wishes she never got involved with this business. Only Neiru and Ai remain beside each other while the other two seem lost.

Ai’s final egg is…herself. Or rather, as Acca puts it, an Ai from a parallel world who was also bullied for her eye but didn’t have a Koito, so she took her own life. Ai doesn’t judge—hell, she knows how Ai must feel, being herself and all—and doesn’t treat this other Ai any different than the other girls she’s saved from Wonder Killers.

When the Seenos chase the Ais up to the rooftop pool where the other Ai drowned, a horrifically repulsive Wonder Killer rises out of the chloronated water, and of course, it’s Sawaki-sensei, with tentacles of paint that eats away like acid on contact. Calling himself Ai’s “first love”, Sawaki says Ai was simply one more woman who was easy to fool because he’s handsome.

But Ai doesn’t see Sawaki in this monster; only the manifestation of her doubts and suspicions. She asserts the real Sawaki is “much nicer,” but the monster only says he had her completely fooled like all the rest. WEP has ensured that we can’t easily dismiss our own doubts and suspicions about Sawaki, who lest we forget, named a portrait of Ai…[Shudders] “Latent Heat”.

Ai won’t give up the fight, but between defending her doppelganger and the fact the battlefield is a pool, it isn’t long before both Ais plunge into the deep end. Much like the first episode of WEP, as we plunge deeper into dreams within dreams, the same feeling of not quite knowing what’s going on, but definitely wanting to know where the rabbit hole goes.

Our Ai, identified by her triangle hairpin (as opposed to the other Ai’s X) is pulled out of the pool by Koito in a version of the school blanketed by night. She kicks off her soggy shoes and socks and runs with Koito through the school as Sawaki Wonder Killer continues to taunt her.

On the same rooftop where Koito jumped to her death Sawaki is there, in his regular human form, but as the embodiment of the temptation of death. He tells her that her pure love for him betrays an innocence impossible for adults. Adult love is “dirty” and full of self-interest, which is why she should die before she grows up.

But as Ai stands at the edge of the roof holding hands with Koito, she remembers the words of her mom, who said ‘You only live once. Enjoy it.” The Ai who took her life expresses her regret, but our Ai smashes through the barrier between the light and dark rooftops and embraces her double.

The Sawaki Wonder Killer’s final gambit is to tell Ai how her own mother betrayed her by loving the same man she did, and “tried to put her own desires first.” But our Ai recalls to the other Ai how her mom never blamed her once when she stopped going to school, worrying about her where she couldn’t see, so she couldn’t know.

The Sawaki monster is barking up the wrong tree, because our Ai has already given her mom her blessing with the real Sawaki-sensei. When she was at her lowest, her mom supported her without judgment. Now that it’s her turn to support her mom, there’s no choice. Ai summons her multicolor pen mace and blasts the Sawaki monster into oblivion.

As Ai later tells Neiru on another rooftop, she thought she wanted to hear the truth from Koito, but maybe she didn’t need to, and she thinks she’s grateful she never did. Once the Sawaki monster is defeated, Koito is revealed and quickly vanishes, and a third AI created by Frill appears: one named Kirara Rodriguez Matured XVIII Evening Star SS Plum.

No doubt Kirara is there to kill Leon and stoke fear, rage, or something else in Ai, but Ai doesn’t rise to her provocations. As Rika is banished from the Accas’ domain as a cause lost to Frill, the other Ai basically takes a bullet for our Ai, as Kirara takes her blue eye.

Ai wakes up in her house, with both eyes intact, knowing the other Ai protected her. Unlike Momoe and Rika, she got out of her dream before Frill’s creation could cause any serious psychological damage. But before she parted with the other Ai, our Ai resolved to become a warrior of Eros, fighting Thanatos, the temptation of death.

It’s a hopeful, if somewhat confusing finish to what was for me, by far, the most visually and thematically ambitious and emotionally immersive series of Winter 2021. Rika and Momoe are in rough shape, but Ai seems to be stronger than ever, and Neiru seems…fine? Even more encouraging is that this is not the end; the story will be concluded in a special that’s scheduled to air June 30. It’s too early yet to declare the fellowship failed.

However it ends, Wonder Egg Priority was a deeply visceral, powerful, unforgettable ride that would have restored my faith in anime had I lost that faith in the first place. I’ll surely be revisiting this series somewhere down the road, and most definitely checking out whatever else director  Wakabayashi Shin and writer/creator Nojima Shinji make in the future.

Jouran: The Princess of Snow and Blood – 01 (First Impressions)

Dark and brooding, stylish and cool, Jouran is the story of a small band of assassins under the employ of the Tokugawa Shogunate. In this alternate history, Tokugawa Yoshinobu is still in power in 1931 thanks in large part to the discovery of the energy source Ryuumyuaku, or Dragon Vein. As a result, Tokyo is a glamorous city where science and Edo-period tradition merge.

Among the assassins is Yukimura Sawa, our protagonist (voiced by Mimori Suzuko, Kamisama Hajimemashita’s Nanami). Sawa is a stoic, no-nonsense young woman who grudgingly shares her living space with the young orphan Asahi who cooks her meals, and is the type to threaten a flirting guy with murder and not be joking.

Her two fellow assassins are the sardonic Tsukishiro Makoto (the striking Shouta Aoi) and the seductive Hanakaze Elena (the musician Raychell), who refers to Sawa as “the little bitch”. Their group’s leader is grim man named Kuzuhara who believes the dissident group Kuchinawa will attempt to assassinate the shogun at a banquet celebrating the completion of the new Tokyo Castle.

Makoto and Elena go undercover as party guests and end up following a bigwig confirmed to be working with the dissidents on the sly. Sawa is notable for her absence from the party, while lil’ Asahi waits at the dinner table in vain.

Makoto and Elena follow the bigwig and his henchmen to a secluded warehouse where an exchange of materials is taking place, and the assassins quickly take down everyone there. Elena uses a rather unique umbrella crossbow, while Makoto uses what I’d describe as a lightsaber katana.

However, their true target, a kemono or “changeling”, is nowhere to be found. Makoto bombs the facility and he and Elena head to the eastern gate of the castle, where he knows one of the vast network of secret tunnels leads from their current position.

Sawa is there, ready to head off the changeling, doing so by transforming into one herself with the help of a white raven. It’s depicted as a volatile and extremely painful process, but once she’s transformed she resembles a serene yuki-onna.

When she realizes her changeling opponent is the young man who flirted with her at the bookstore, she hesitates momentarily, and is wounded, but ultimately takes care of business, slicing off the changeling’s hand and finishing him off with a haunting poem that matches Sawa’s icy beauty and that of the scene:

Amidst the pitiless white snow
A fleeting dream is scattered
The path back leads only to Hell
I have no regrets

Makoto and Elena arrive just after she returns to human form and passes out. The threat to Yoshinobu would seem to be dealt with, but the next day at the official opening ceremony of Tokyo Castle, we witness scenes of carnage involving more changelings, presumably within its walls.

Sawa is recovering at home, but even in sleep she gets no rest, as she’s transported back to when her brother was murdered along with the rest of her family, by Janome, Kuchinawa’s executioner. She’s vowed not to die and join her family until she gets revenge on Janome, but Asahi seems prepared to kill her in her sleep with a kitchen knife. I guess she doesn’t like being kept waiting for dinner, huh?

Like Sawa, Jouran and its familiar-yet-bizarre alternate Tokyo carries itself with a quiet, assured dignity, but just as Sawa is tormented by trauma and tragedy, corruption, suffering, and death lurk beneath the gleaming Shogunate capital, much of it delivered by monsters in suits and with claws.

Assuming Sawa survives her tiny assassin’s attack, I’m excited to watch her continue to walk the line between her official duty and blood debts.

Rating: 4/5 Stars

TenSura – 36 (S2 Part 1 Fin) – Hell Is Empty, and All the Demon Lords Are Here

Rimuru Tempest wakes up in the resurrected Shion’s lap, after a nap of three days. Benumaru asks him for the password they agreed on—when he says “Shion’s cooking…”, Rimuru needs to say “…tastes like shit.” Naturally Rimuru can’t do that, so he contextualizes it as something Benimaru came up with…which he did.

But no sooner does Rimuru wake up does he meet with Albis, Suphia, and Phobio of Eurazania, who report that Demon Lord Milim Nava declared war on their nation. Demon Lord Carrion ordered his lands evacuated—including his underlings—for the ensuing one-on-one battle.

There seems to be something off about Milim here, almost like she’s being controlled. Because of that, Carrion believes he’s more than a match for the dragon girl, and unleashes his ultimate skill Beast Roar right off the bat. The attack does nothing but cause one of Milim’s arms to sting a bit, but it’s more than she expected.

She decides to answer in kind with a skill she’s been working on called Drag0-Nova, which—Milim-Nova was right there!—is not only exceedingly more powerful than Carrion’s best, but utterly destroys the terraced Eurazanian capital. Things go from bad to worse with the Beast King being jumped by Sky Queen Frey, who presumably slits his throat.

Phobio further reports to Rimuru that Demon Lord Frey was last seen flying to Demon Lord Clayman’s domain, suggesting either an alliance with Frey and Milim, or he’s somehow pulling their strings. Even with his and Raphael’s evolution, Rimuru isn’t keep about going up against three Demon Lords.

Fortunately, there’s a super-strong ally he kinda forgot about: the butler-like unnamed archdemon. Rimuru is surprised he wants to serve under him, but agrees, and even gives the guy a name: Diablo. Last week I wondered if this guy was somehow affiliated with Clayman, and that Rimuru fell into a trap by naming him, but it seems Diablo is wholly loyal to our blue blob.

But even with an archdemon by his side, Rimuru still worried that there are just too many problems to deal with at once, from Clayman, Milim, and Frey to the political situation of Falmuth to Sakaguchi and the Western Holy Church. But Raphael chimes in that the last thing might not be a problem for long.

That’s because in her new souped-up evolved Raphael form, the non-corporeal guide formerly known as Great Sage has nearly cracked the Unlimited Imprisonment that seals Veldora. Excited by the news, Rimuru heads to Veldora’s cave, where his adventures reincarnated as a slime first began. Ya know, before he massacred thousands of humans!

(And no, in case you were wondering, Rimuru doesn’t waste a single thought on the terrible things he did to bring back Shion and the others. I guess the ends justified the means, and he’s resolved to carry the mantle of Demon Lord from now on.)

Rimuru creates a double of himself, both to serve as a new humanoid vessel for the freed Veldora and to get a look at his slightly taller, slightly more beautiful appearance. Once the Soul Corridor between Rimuru and Veldora is established, Veldora Tempest the dragon is dumped into the double, which transforms into Veldora Tempest the man. 

Between him and Diablo, and the fact when it comes down to it he and Milim are best buds, Rimuru is well-positioned for future success against the myriad problems that stretch before him and his country, which will be explored in Part 2 of this second season, which will air this summer.

Rating: 4/5 Stars

Mars Red – 01 (First Impressions) – On a Silver Platter

Tokyo, Japan, 1923: Major Maeda Yoshinobu is escorted to a maximum-security underground prison at Tsukishima Island housing a single inmate: Misaki, an actress who was performing Salome at the Imperial Theatre when she was turned into a vampire. When Maeda meets her through thick glass, she’s still reciting the lines of the play, as if she were still on stage.

Later on, a suspiciously vampiric-looking young man at the theatre tells Maeda that when the lights go out and the curtains rise, the audience is transported to the underworld. I can’t help but watch Maeda and his chatterbox underling’s journey deeper and deeper into the Tsukishima  facility and think they too are on a journey to the underworld.

While Japan and its military are rapidly modernizing and westernizing, it’s ironic that the covert vampire hunting unit Lt. General Nakajima has created deals with ancient monsters. The general reminds Maeda not to allow sympathy or pity to dull his blade, and Maeda assures him if Misaki cannot be brought to their side, he’ll promptly dispose of her.

Maeda visits the theatre, where the stage is still a mess of blood and ruined scenery, and he meets the inscrutable actor Deffrot, who played Jokanaan, AKA John the Baptist, whose head is served to Salome on a silver platter as payment for her Dance of the Seven Veils. In a very neat piece of “camera”work, the shadow of Maeda’s head is cast on the play’s poster, held in Salome’s hands.

Outside the theatre Maeda is approached by a young lady he mistakes for Misaki, but she introduces herself as Shirase Aoi, a reporter for the Nitto News. Maeda ignores her requests for comment and access to the theatre, and then Moriyama arrives by car to report that Misaki has escaped. For a second there, I wondered if Aoi was Misaki after all.

As Moriyama speeds Maeda back to Tsukishima, Misaki effortlessly smashes through all of the steel doors and barriers in her way, takes a bullet with barely a flinch, bleeds black blood, bites a neck, casually nudges a bullet away and dodges the others with her vampiric speed. Through it all she moves with a dancer’s grace, embodying the role of Salome—whom I learned was transformed by French writers from her biblical role to the “incarnation of female lust”.

A different dance ensues, with both Maeda and Misaki gradually making their way to the same spot: across the Nihonbashi bridge to Marunouchi Plaza at Tokyo Station. It’s the capper to an episode that serves as a Where’s Where of Taisho-era Tokyo.

Misaki gets closer and closer to Maeda, but when he grips his sword and prepares to draw, she places her hand over his, embraces him a little while longer, then steps aside and lets herself be consumed by the morning light, without further bloodshed. The same stigmata design on her tongue appears on the spot where she incinerated.

Back at HQ, General Nakajima promotes Maeda to Colonel and puts him in command of Code Zero, with the mission of apprehending or disposing of vampires in Japan. If I had to describe Mars Red in one word, it would be classy. Given another word, I’d use deliberate. As Maeda navigates a Tokyo in flux and deals with Misaki, every scene is given room to breathe.  Maeda is a bit of a stiff, but still…I’m intrigued.

Koi to Yobu ni wa Kimochi Warui – 01 (First Impressions) – So We’re Doing This, Huh?

I’ll preface this by saying this isn’t my first age gap rom-com rodeo. Winter 2018’s Koi wa Ameagari no You ni (Love is Like After the Rain) was a lovely show that immediately dispelled any reservations I might’ve had about its “high school girl falls for middle aged single dad” premise.

Visually, Koikimo doesn’t look like it will come close to reaching After the Rain’s flair, starting off with a gray, muddy, obviously photoshopped photo of a Tokyo Skyline. A lot of the scenery is converted photos, which I couldn’t help but think screamed shortcut. Not a dealbreaker, but it’s always nice when a rom-com looks great.

Granted, it’s supposed to be gray and ugly out, as it’s raining, and the introduction of the two leads is well done. When Amakusa Ryou walks out on the woman he spent the night with without a word, it’s effective shorthand for this guy’s a bit of a cad.

Arima Ichika saving him from a potentially fatal stair fall by hooking him with her umbrella, then giving him her lunch after observing how pale he is, shows us that she’s a good, kind person who won’t let others get hurt needlessly. All in all, it’s a good, economical first meet-cute!

When Ryou comes home from his job as an “elite employee”, his high-school aged sister Rio tells him she has a friend over—who just happens to be Ichika. When Rio steps out for a call, Ryou asks Ichika if she wants anything in return…say, a kiss? As far as he’s concerned, she saved his life, and can ask for anything in return.

Ichika’s reaction is perfectly natural for a high school girl getting offered a kiss from a 27-year-old guy: kimochi warui. Ichika mentions she often blurts out what she’s thinking, but by doing so she’s sealed her fate: Ryou falls for her right then and there, and is on his knees when Rio returns. Rio also gives her brother Ichika’s address so he can send her a single rose.

When Ichika asks her what his deal is, Rio says Ryou claims to have never asked anyone out, so Ichika must’ve really done a number on him. Rio suggests Ichika go ahead and date him. After all, he’s “hot, smart, and fairly loaded.” Still, Rio can’t help but add on “he’s a scumball” at the end, almost under her breath, and pretty much makes it clear that Ichika dating him would “amuse” her.

Rio gives Ichika Ryou’s phone number so she can call him to tell him to stop sending her gifts—her mom later tells Ichika he’s only sending her one flower a day because her name means “one flower”—Ichika is not charmed! When Ichika calls, Ryou asks upfront if he’s bothering her, and she’s pretty clear that, yeah, he kinda is.

That’s when we run up to the first nail in the coffin: Ryou states quite confidently that he’s not going to stop bothering her, and will continue to pursue her regardless of how she feels. In fact, it is his hope she’ll continue to speak her mind to him, especially if it’s insults or curses, all but cementing his scumball status—if, ya know, not taking “no” for an answer didn’t make it clear enough.

The next day, Ichika encounters Ryou by pure coincidence (or so I hope, by God) while on her way to the grocery store, and decides to use him so she can get two cartons of the one-per-customer eggs that are on sale. While she’s probably only thinking about his utility as a means of getting her family more egg bang for the buck, a predictable side effect is that he becomes overcome with emotion while they’re shopping “like a married couple”

After learning Rio spilled the beans on her favorite chocolate and shampoo (what kind of friend is she?) Ichika almost lets slip her otaku credentials while comparing olive oil. To her surprise, he plays along, saying one of them has “three times the attack power.” They’re complimented as a couple by an employee giving out samples, but Ryou just has to stare at Ichika’s used toothpick long enough for her to notice. He also refuses to let her carry her own groceries.

So yeah, this guy seems way too aggressively pushy, creepy, and unconcerned with the feelings of someone, considering he’s wading into uncomfortable territory as it is by pursuing a high schooler. And yet the series seems to want to make the case that if Ichika took a stronger stance against their continued interactions, he’d back down, and Rio would side with her. I’m not sure I can subscribe to that case! So far this feels pretty creepy and wrong!

Ichika shouldn’t have to take a stronger stance then the one she already made by telling Ryou he was bothering her on the phone. Really, that should have been the end of it. So this inescapably smacks of that classic, increasingly distasteful “I’ll wear her down” method to courtship that either undervalues or outright ignores personal boundaries.

Sometimes relationships are inherently unbalanced and there’s no way around that! The primary imbalance Koikimo seems to want us to focus on is not one of power or boundaries, but level of interest. In this dynamic, one person (Ryou) likes the other a lot right out of the gate, while the other isn’t sure whether they’re intrigued or repulsed.

The final segment of the episode involves Ichika studying at a café while waiting for Rio, and Ryou just happening to spot her in the window. I’ll take the fact that these coincidences are just that until proven otherwise, but Ryou sitting at Ichika’s table without even asking is a dick move, period!

Yes, he helps her with Ichika’s math problem, confirming Rio’s claim he’s smart (Rio gives her bro ten extra minutes with Ichika, no doubt hoping to be amused), but then one of Ryou’s fully adult conquests stops over, scolds him for getting his “filthy mitts” on a “bland little high school girl”, then warning Ichika that he’s a total womanizer.

Ichika speaks up for herself and says that “he’s not entirely bad toward me”—faint praise, if any, but honest—then walks off. Ryou then takes a handi-wipe and smears it on the woman’s face, ruining her makeup and false lashes. I don’t care how cutting or bitchy her remarks were, you cannot put your hands on someone like that. That is fucking out of bounds!

Alas, the anime seems content to shrug it off as a sign of how important Ichika is to him.  When Ryou tracks Ichika down apologizes, and tells her how happy her words made him, Ichika mildly blushes and responds that she just said what was in her head. Honestly, she’s probably better off nowhere near this guy, but at least he’s her friend’s brother. Better the pushy creep whose sister you know…?

#MeToo become a truly global movement around 2017. The Koikomo manga was first published back in 2015, which explains why this premise feels a bit dated and squicky, especially with modern shows like Wonder Egg Priority earnestly exploring the toxicity of the patriarchy.

After the Rain was not only a lush Wit Studio production, but about a girl who fell for a guy—a much nicer guy than Ryou, and a loving dad besides. I’ll watch a bit more to see if Ryou gets less creepy (I doubt it) or—more importantly—if Ichika makes a more overt effort in expressing what, if anything, she wants out of…whatever this is. Until then, I remain cautiously pessimistic.

Attack on Titan – 75 – Piecking Sides

Zeke barely survived the Thunder Spear explosion, but believes he may be soon pushing daisies until a Pure Titan arrives, cuts open its belly, and places Zeke inside; presumably to facilitate healing. Levi’s gambit failed and his fate remains unknown.

To the last, Attack on Titan is to tense, unpleasant meal scenes as Yuru Camp is to relaxing, pleasant ones, as Pyxis is forced to dine while soldiers wearing the same uniform hold a gun to his back.

Pyxis notes that various colored handkerchiefs adorning everyone—white for Jaegerists, red for those who found out they drank wine and forced to comply, and black for those who drank wine without knowing it—seem an awful lot like “how Marley does things”. But Yelena makes one thing clear: this isn’t about revenge.

In the jail, Connie and Jean want to know what Eren said to Mikasa that made Armin throw a punch at Eren, then get the shit beat out of him (though his Titan healing seems to be working fine). Mikasa doesn’t want to talk about it, Connie thinks it doesn’t matter; Eren is a piece of shit and now he’s gone mad; and Jean wonders if Eren is actually playing some kind of 4D chess.

Then Yelena arrives to tell the once-“heroes of Shiganshina” that they’re to sit quiet and behave until Zeke and Eren meet. When Niccolo berates Greiz for selling them out to become Yelena’s lackey, Greiz lays into Niccolo for falling in love with a “devil spawn whore”.

His words earn him a bullet to the head…from Yelena, who bows in apology and assures the others that Paradis “has no need for those who would call you devils”. She decides to come clean with Zeke and Eren’s true goal: the Eldian Euthanization Plan that will end the cycle of hatred.

Gabi, the rootable yet pitiable poster girl for that cycle throughout The Final Season, is visited by Eren, who asks her to help him if she wants her friend Falco to live, by calling for help on the radio to flush out her allies. Just as he’s making this not-a-request, one of those allies in Pieck slips right in, cuts the guard’s throat, and points her Luger at Eren, ordering Gabi to train the guard’s rifle on him.

Eren is unmoved. Pieck’s orders were to retake the Founding Titan, not kill him, otherwise he’d already be dead. He impresses upon her how both she and her family would be punished by Marley for disobeying orders. Pieck stands down and orders Gabi to do the same, declaring that her true goal is to free all Eldians—in Marley and around the world.

When Pieck asks Gabi what they are, she says “Honorary Marleyans”, but Pieck says they’re Subjects of Ymir first and foremost. Port Slava showed that the time of the Titans’ usefulness is nearing an end due to the advancement of military technology. When it does, Marley will slaughter the lot of them.

While Pieck tries to convince a still-thoroughly conditioned Gabi of their need to fight for their right to live, Yelena finishes explaining to the prisoners how the Jeager brothers’ plan will end the Eldians’ time on this earth “gracefully and peacefully”. Armin is moved to tears by the nobility of such a cause, apparently in agreement that the only way to end the cycle is to end the Titans.

Having agreed to point out her fellow Marleyan invaders to Eren from atop the Shiganshina citadel’s tower, they walk through the citadel. She waves to soldiers like an idol and is met by blushing faces…there’s no denying Pieck is extremely cute—and cool-headed to boot. But until Eren is satisfied she can be trusted, he has her shackled to Gabi so if she tries to transform into the Cart, she’ll kill her.

Just when Gabi couldn’t be feeling lower, Pieck squeezes her hand in hers and gives her a soft, kind smile. When Eren orders her to point out where the enemy is, Pieck turns around and dramatically points…right back at Eren. She’s not lying, nor is she talking about Eren, as Porco/Jaws blasts through the floor and snaps up everything below Eren’s waist.

Unfortunately he wasn’t able to snap his head off, gobble him up whole, and Eren simply transforms into the Founding Titan. But that’s apparently just what Pieck, Porco, and their compatriots want, as five Marleyan airships arrive right on time, with both Commander Magath and Reiner Braun on board. We get one last look at the Founding Titan’s glorious glutes before the cut to yet another To Be Continued.

That’s right: The Final Season isn’t over yet, only the first part. This actually came as news to me, but I’m also eternally grateful things don’t end here with some kind of “Want to find out how it ends? Read the manga!” message. As the minutes were counting down I had a feeling there simply wouldn’t be adequate time for an anime-original wrap-up of everything going on. But the endgame is certainly nigh, and this first part of the final season covered some serious ground and ended with Eren as the Big Bad.

Will he remain so in Part 2, or go against his brother’s plan to exterminate their race? Is his relationship with Mikasa and Armin been permanently destroyed, or will a chance at redemption present itself, possibly aligned with his split from Zeke? How many more twists are we in store for? Questions abound, just as they always do at the end of a cour of Shingeki no Kyojin—and as always, the next cour can’t come soon enough.

Kemono Jihen – 12 (Fin) – How to Melt a Frozen Heart

Nobimaru presses his attack on Yui, but learns he can’t even touch the nullstone without freezing and cracking his arm, as the thing literally feeds on life. Nobimaru, who is unquestionably loyal to Inari despite knowing full he’s nothing but a tool to her, allows himself a moment to stew in the knowledge that Inari knew about the damage the stone would do to him…and didn’t care.

But if Inari left him on his own to succeed or perish, Kabane won’t have it, and he steps in as Nobimaru’s flaming champion. The nullstone grabs still more power from Yui to give him an ice suit of armor, and just like that we’ve got a dazzling Ice Boy vs. Fire Lad duel. Kabane’s constantly burning and regenerating body provides some of the cooler images this vibrant series has yet offered.

Akira manages to use all the fog and steam the battle is creating to smash his ice cage and wastes no time coming between Kabane and Yui before either of them do any permanent damage. And it’s here where I must declare my undying love for any show whose MC crumbles into flaming pile of burning flesh and bones without anyone batting an eye.

Moments later, the nullstone has nearly sucked Yui’s life dry, and his own body begins to become brittle and crack. Fortunately, Kabane has regenerated enough to give Akira a hand pulling the nullstone out of Yui’s chest. Kabane then coughs up his lifestone, which merges with the other stone on contact, releasing it from Yui.

Right on cue, Inari arrives on the scene to snatch up the stone, but Inugami is right there to remind her that neither half of the stone is hers, so she an Nobimaru slink off. In yet another demonstration of empathy and fellow feeling, Kabane asks Nobimaru to go with them to the Ohana clinic where Aya can surely heal his ruined hand…only for Nobimaru to politely decline, intending to bear the wound as a warning not to get careless again.

As Yui recovers at the clinic (and Aya calculates the exorbitant bill), Kabane hangs around outside his door, waiting for him to wake up so he can ask him about his parents. Akira sees him out there and immediately apologizing for saying he hated him, which he obviously only did because he was afraid Yui would kill him. On the contrary, Akira reiterates his love for Kabane, and their little making-up dance in the hall is just precious as all get-out.

Yui eventually wakes up, and is ready to talk with Kabane, starting with the “Kemono Incidents”, a period of history forgotten by most humanity when kabane and humans were in devastating open warfare. An agreement was made to end the hostilities, and all the kabane higher-ups had stones like Kabane’s to maintain balance through the threat of force—the only way a group as fractured and ungainly as kemono could be controlled).

While this is a lot of exposition for a final episode, it provides welcome setup for a second season that, while not yet announced, seems likely due to strong manga sales and a studio that often produces sequels. It also includes Akira’s inner voice worrying about falling asleep during all this talking, which is a wonderful little moment.

As for the question of what’s to become of Yui, he’s content to shuffle off into the shadows and bear all of the horrible things he did. Akira won’t hear of it, and it takes a slap to Yui’s face to get him to listen when Akira says they’re brothers and twins and should share the burdens together. Yui is also heartened when Kabane forgives him, though the others know that’s just who Kabane is. He gives and forgives.

The gist of Yui’s stories (as well as Inugami’s contribution to the discussion) is that for Kabane’s parents to have had the lifestone meant they were either kemono chiefs themselves or found it themselves. The best way to learn more about his stone and all the others that are out there is to track down their owners, some of whom Inugami knows.

Meanwhile, Inari, in her appropriately noir-ish office at the police HQ, assures Nobimaru she’s not done trying to get her hands on either stone (now that they’re merged, which one she’d rather have is irrelevant). But she knows she can’t take from those the tanuki is protecting by force. So he tells Nobimaru to relay Kon’s next mission: to seduce Kabane and get him to give her the stone willingly.

While there’s nothing Inugami can do about that scenario, asking Kon to seduce anyone—particularly Kabane—seems doomed to failure. Neither Kon nor Kabane quite grasp the concept of love or romance quite yet, and Kabane clearly knows more since he now has more of it in his life.

But there’s no denying Kon is smitten on one level with Kabane, so it’s just as likely he’d seduce her to his side than she’d get him to give up the stone that—lest we forget—is crucial to keep him under control. As Akira goes on a trip with Yui and Shiki minds the shop, Kabane and Inugami prepare to head to Shikoku to meet the first of many stone-keepers.

Kon super-awkwardly inserts herself into their trip, and Kabane urges her to join them, which is fine with Inugami. He’s no fool, and so knows full well Inari sent Kon to try to steal the stone. But he also knows Kabane isn’t half as guileless and manipulative as he once was, and so he’ll probably do fine against Kon’s inept attempts.

The three board the shinkansen, bound for more adventures in search of answers to the mystery of Kabane’s folks. That should make for a heckuva second season, the announcement of which I eagerly await. Even if for some reason it never comes, I had a lot of fun watching this eclectic and lovable bunch of characters work through their dark pasts, and differences, grow closer as a family…and kick some monster ass together.

Rating: 4/5 Stars

Horimiya – 12 – The Mantis

This week it’s Christmas in Horimiyaland, and everyone is figuring out how—and with whom—they want to spend their holiday. It’s just too perfect that Yuki fell in love with Tooru having absolutely no clue that the boy’s family was freakin’ loaded. Money can’t buy you love! If anything, it intimidates a girl of more modest means like Yuki.

At a time when everyone needs Christmas cake, Izumi is scheduled to work through the holidays at the bakery, meaning he won’t be able to join Kyouko and her family. While she’s understanding—her boy’s fam gotta earn, nothing you can do about it—her dad, mom, and Souta are less forgiving. Never mind if it’s Kyouko’s the one technically dating him. They want Izumi!

Shuu and Sengoku were both convinced Tooru and Yuki were already an item, but by saying he only “recently” harbored a crush on Kyouko, Tooru he reveals he’s still in a transitory place: not yet far enough removed from the pain of not having those feelings returned, and thus not quite ready to look for love elsewhere. Compounding matters is that he likely considers Yuki his best mates.

Why else would he so helplessly waver when she asks if she can come to his place to play video games? Or sneak in the house like something elicit is afoot? Or so determined to keep the family’s statuesque personal assistant Yashiro’s nose out of his business? Like his other friends, Tooru likely doesn’t want Yashiro or his family to get the wrong idea in the present—even if it may well turn out to be the right idea in the future.

After they both calm down after tea and cake (from Izumi’s bakery!) and fire up the video games, Tooru lets slip that he’s “happy with the way things are.” And honestly, I really don’t see Yuki disagreeing with that. As they watch that loading screen, they both seem content and comfortable. No need to rush things.

There’s a bit of drama at school when Sengoku doesn’t immediately agree to spend Christmas with Remi at Remi’s, and for a very bizarre reason: her dad is into catching bugs and putting them in boxes. When it’s trifling things like this that come between lovers, you know it’s true love. Sengoku simply has to grow a pair. The bugs are DEAD, dude!

When Kyouko shows her parents her superlative marks (all A’s save gym and art…kinda the opposite of me!) her mom remarks how there will only be one more report card, and then she’ll graduate. As her parents bicker and Souta asks her to look at his marks, Kyouko gets lost in thought: What will her life be like after graduation?

But before that, it’s Christmas, and the episode doesn’t want to leave anyone out as it checks in on just about everyone, starting with a contact-wearing Yanagi and Yuki’s big sister, who have a cute little exchange by a big outdoor Christmas tree. Tanihara and his brother wrestle over a clear view of the TV.

In what is a promising development, Yuki and Tooru are hanging out together for Christmas. I’m rooting for you two tentative bastards….take all the time you need!

Motoko is studying hard even the night before Christmas, but Shuu makes sure she takes a fried chicken and cake break. Sakura urges Sengoku to stop being a goddamn wimp and go hang out with his adorable girlfriend on one of (if not the) most important nights for couples both potential and extant. On the latter front, Shindou asks his girlfriend to wait one more year for him to graduate, and she agrees.

The entire Hori residence—including Souta’s cute friend Yura—is united in their elation when Izumi stops by to drop off their cake. When he says he can’t stay, Kyouko is again understanding, but her family won’t let him leave without a hot drink, eventually stealing a whole hour of his shift at the bakery.

When they finally allow him to leave, Kyouko walks him home, despite not being dressed for the chilly night; she’s in slippers, for goodness sake! But there’s something she wants to say to Izumi, and mercifully it’s not to ask him to berate or hit her; that particular pothole on their relationship road seems to have smoothed out off-camera…and that’s fine.

No, Kyouko tells him the same thing he told her back when they first started going out: she still doesn’t know very much about him. But due in part to that and other factors, she wants to be with him even after they graduate. Izumi goes quite a few steps beyond agreeing, and proposes marriage! Whoa, boy! Immediately embarrassed by blurting out what is surely deep-seated but still premature desire, he shuffles off.

But Kyouko promises she’ll “make him happy”, something Izumi says is usually what the guy is supposed to say in such a situation—which ironically is the kind of cisnormative comment you’d expect from Kyouko! She insists she should be the one to say it, as she admits she’s self-centered and “only good at studying and chores” though she’s selling herself short.

These two lovable dorks then bow to each other, expressing how they’re looking forward to their future together. All I can really say to that is BAAAAAWWWW.

After the credits, we fast-forward to New Year’s, which Kyouko and Izumi are spending together at a festival. They get their fortunes, but they hardly matter, since they both agree that as long as the other person is smiling, it’s all gravy. They grab some amazake and reflect how they were the last people they saw at the end of the previous year and the first people they saw at the beginning of the new one.

Izumi wants every year to be like that. Izumi walks Kyouko home hand-in-hand, assuring her that they can and will indeed be together forever. And damnit, I believe him. And like them, I’m happy just seeing the two smiling together, shrugging off the anxiety around what would happen after high school, laying out their future, and sharing in the warmth, relief, and elation of knowing graduation will only be the end of their beginning.

Jujutsu Kaisen – 24 (Fin) – Only So Many Open Seats

When Eso—who like his more monstery-looking brother Kechizu isn’t a cursed spirit but a physical being—unleashes his special attack Wing King, Yuuji grabs Nobara in a princess carry and uses his superhuman speed to flee Eso’s range of attack.

They’re then headed off by Kechizu, who douses them both with his blood. Eso then activates a cursed technique called Decay that ensures both Yuuji and Nobara’s skin will be rotted away until by morning nothing will be left but bones.

We learn that Eso, Kechizu, and their brother Choso comprise The Cursed Wombs: Death Paintings One through Three—the result of either failed or successful (depending on your point of view) experiments in cross-breeding humans and cursed spirits. The three see each other as one and are devoted to one another, as they are all they had when they were sealed away prior to Mahiru stealing and releasing them into the world.

Unfortunately, Eso and Kechizu fucked with the wrong jujutsu sorcerers. Nobara is one of the worst opponents they could have, as she can use her Straw Doll Technique Resonance on the blood splattered on her to turn their curse back on them. Yuuji is an even worse match, as thanks to being possessed by Sukuna he’s immune to all poisons and poison-like techniques.

Nobara makes clear that Yuuji still makes pain, but pain alone isn’t enough to stop the likes of Yuuji. Together the two bust out their own techniques and deliver crippling blows to Eso and Kechizu. Just as last week was Megumi’s time to shine, Jujutsu Kaisen saves its finale for some of Yuuji and Nobara’s most badass moments.

Eso can’t use Wing King unless he releases Decay, but when he fears his brother is near death he does just that, playing right into the sorcerers’ hands. Both he and Kechizu are killed—not exorcised—they are physical beings their bodies remain. Choso senses their loss while playing The Game of Life with Getou and Mahiru.

Yuuji and Nobara win the battle without suffering serious harm. Yuuji asks if Nobara is okay psychologically after killing a physical being. Nobara’s answer is superbly true to her character: when you’re a sorcerer, “these things happen.”

There are only so many people you can save, and as she puts it, only so many open seats in her life for people who will sway her heart. Yuuji just so happens to be the rare person in her life to bring their own seat and sit down. It’s her way of saying Yuuji is one of the few people she cares about, and it’s beautiful.

The two are initially distraught upon finding Megumi passed out under the bridge, and when he wakes up, they’re over the moon with relief. Megumi gives Yuuji the Sukuna finger he secured, but both of them are surprised when a mouth emerges from Yuuji’s hand and eats it. Thankfully, Yuuji’s body is able to withstand yet another finger. Then Nitta arrives and chastises them for not keeping in contact.

Yuuji, Nobara, and Megumi managed to defeat three Special-Grade curses, a feat for which Gojou claims credit for his diligent instruction as he chats with Utahime on her day off. Megumi and Nobara agree to keep the fact Yuuji “resonated” with Eso and Kechizu a secret to protect their bud. Toudou Aoi and Mei Mei officially recommend the three sorcerers—along with Maki and Panda—for promotion to First Grade status.

Maki and Panda spar together as Toge (who I assume is already a First Grade) keeps score; both of them determined not to get left in the dust by the three first year up-and-comers. Nobara then goes on a celebratory shopping spree with Yuuji and Megumi, using Yuuji as her pack mule.

Getou, Mahiru, Choso, and a host of other high-level baddies remain at large to be eliminated, while perhaps the greatest threat remains within Yuuji in Ryoumen Sukuna. A “To Be Continued” at the very end of the episode serves as a promise that at some point Jujutsu Kaisen will return to settle these matters with its trademark blend of bombastic action, heartwarming camaraderie, and rib-tickling comedy. I already can’t wait.