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.