In / Spectre – 02 – Murder at Mount Tsukuna

Iwanaga Kotoko has a very cool job, a job I would love to have. This week, she’s summoned to a very fretful giant serpent guardian spirit of a swamp on Mt. Tsukuna. This serpent needs the calming, ironclad explanation for why a woman dumped a corpse into his swamp and said to herself “I hope they find you.”

Kotoko probably doesn’t expect this to be a dangerous mision, and this is confirmed when the serpent expresses his general distaste for humans. Her reason for inviting Kuro to tag along isn’t about protecting her or defeating a boss, like last week’s case. So what is it about?

I’d say it’s a combination of her genuine affection for him and desire to be his wife, and part of that if the Goddess of Wisdom can become involved with the human most youkai fear most, perhaps she can show them he’s not really so bad!

That said, she’s unable to convince him to accompany her to Mt. Tsukuna, though when she uses youkai to locate his apartment, he sends her off with a hoodie to keep warm in the mountains and a hot meal of miso soup and onigiri, so he doesn’t come off as completely heartless.

Also, unbeknownst to Kotoko until much later in her meeting with the serpent, Kuro actually does follow her and observe from a distance, perhaps trying to get a feel for who this person is without the benefit of her being able to put on any airs.

What he witnesses is a surpassingly clever and well-spoken young woman who not only shows the serpent spirit respect and deference he doesn’t believe he deserves, but holds his proverbial hand through all the facts of the case she has amassed with the help of the youkai who work with her.

As the serpent attempts to rebut Kotoko’s explanations, Kotoko simply zigs or zags to a new route, adding ever more color and depth to the story of what led to Tanio Aoi dumping Yoshihara Hiroo’s corpse in the serpent’s swamp.

Since Aoi lived at the foot of Mt. Tsukuna, she may well have been aware of the fact the serpent was once worshiped there as a water god who brought rain. While the serpent betrays a bit of godly haughtiness by saying he would have much preferred a beautiful living girl to a dead middle-aged man, Kotoko reminds him there are two ways to bring rain: presenting an offering to please the water god, and one to enrage him; Aoi did the latter.

That’s when the youkai Kuro used to track Kotoko reunites with its sibling, and Kotoko realizes Kuro has been there all along listening in—including the part where she called him her boyfriend. But before their “lovers quarrel” as she calls it, she wants to resolve all lingering questions and doubts the serpent might still have. Not only does she have a cool job, she knows it, and thus does the very best work she can.

Magia Record – 03 – My Friend Whom I Hate

As Iroha finds herself witnessing a friendship of three girls strain against deep-seated resentment, she has another dream about Ui, this time with her two friends Toka and Nemu. The three are very smart and build amazing things together (which also make amazing messes) but Ui is constantly the glue holding Toka and Nemu together; the Momoko to Kaede and Rena.

Before Iroha can investigate the lead her new dream has provided, her new Kamihama friends Momoko and Rena have a more pressing problem: Kaede is trapped in a Staircase!

The three visit Coordinator Yakumo Mitama, who offers to “adjust” Iroha’s Soul Gem to possibly awaken more power, and also connects them with Nanami Yachiyo, the unfriendly magical girl who already warned Iroha not to return.

Yachiyo puts aside her animosity for Iroha (whom she believes to be so weak as to be a nuisance) and agrees to help the others rescue Kaede. The four have their Magical Girl transformations, all of which are very cool and very stylish. Yachiyo’s sandals and Iroha’s sheer top are particular fashion standouts.

 

Yachiyo and Momoko attempt to draw out the Witch by writing their names on the steps and then apologizing, and when that doesn’t work, Rena tries to apologize to Kaede, but it’s insincere. Finally she goes off on a rant about how she actually hates Kaede, and she’s sorry for “making” Kaede her friend.

That brings for the Witch and an elaborate Labyrinth of branching staircases. They find Kaede, and she and Rena eventually reconcile, promising to compromise in their relationship so that Rena isn’t always made out to be the villain.

Momoko and Yachiyo detach the Witch’s core (in the form of a bell) from the Labyrinth’s summit, and Rena and Kaede combine their powers to eradicate it. But oddly, there’s no Grief Seed, which means the entity they just defeated might not be a Witch.

Rena disguises herself to gain access to the medical center, and learns that while no one remembers Ui, they do remember her friends Toka and Nemu. They were eventually discharged, though they don’t remember where. It’s the first concrete proof Iroha’s dreams aren’t just dreams. They contain truths about the past.

That brings us to a post-credit sequence in which a Magical Girl from the original Madoka series makes an appearance: Madoka’s mentor and friend, Tomoe Mami. Kyuubey has summoned her to investigate the strange goings-on Kamihama City—including the phenomenon that renders him unconscious whenever he tries to enter.

We know that Iroha interacts with a “Baby” Kyuubey in Kamihama of whom “Adult” Kyuubey isn’t aware. It seems inevitable that Iroha will cross paths with Mami at some point. As mysteries continue to be revealed and twist together, my enthusiasm for this new series grows.

Somali and the Forest Spirit – 02 – An Unusual Golem, A Contented Child

While chasing a horned rabbit who stole her mushrooms, Somali falls and skins her knee. Golem is low on medicine, but they’re fortunate to have caught the attention of Shizuno, a Dwarf Oni healer who is happy to dispense first aid. Two neat points: Golem can converse with any animal or plant, while the black-eyed Shizuno is depicted as kind and friendly despite being a “demon”.

Shizuno even invites Golem and Somali to his house in the forest (I want to go to there) where they meet his assistant and skilled baker Yabashira. Indulging a curious request from Shizuno, Golem agrees to part with a small piece of his crumbling “skin” in exchange for lessons on how to make medicines.

Somali, meanwhile, keeps busy helping Yabashira with daily chores; to the assistant’s surprised. This can-do attitude has a darker side. When we first saw Somali she was in chains; perhaps humankind are more servile in this particular world.

Still, Somali’s love for Golem is plain to see for Yabashira, while Golem basically decribes to Shizuno a similar affection, as he never wants to see her in pain again. Not addressed? Whether either of the oni would change their tune if they knew Somali wasn’t really a minotaur child.

That could be tough, following the revelation that explains Golem’s deterioration: he has precisely one year and 112 days left before his life functions cease. His goal is to return Somali to her parents within that time frame, but with no leads whatsoever—and the high likelihood her parents are dead—that is a tall, probably impossible task.

Thankfully, he hasn’t told Somali about this, and Shizuno and Yabashira both admit that she seems pretty content without her parents whom she most likely never knew. With that in mind, they likely see Golem’s frantic journey to be a futile one that will only take time away from the two of them enjoying what time they have left.

Still, it’s Golem’s journey to make, and Somali will follow no matter where he takes them. She’s almost certainly too young to be taught everything needed to survive in just a year and change, so we’ll see whether he makes any progress tracking down her folks, for if he devises a Plan B, such as leaving her with trustworthy friend like Shizuno.

Isekai Quartet 2 – 01 – Make that QUINtet

You heard that right: characters from a fifth Isekai join the already huge ensemble cast of Isekat Quartet. The first of them, Iwatani Naofumi AKA Shield Hero, is introduced immediately when he peeks into the class where all the other MCs are. He’s not transferring to their class, however: their only transfer student seems to be Megumin’s familiar, Chomusuke…who unlike Puck, has “student” status.

Raphtalia suddenly encounters Kazuma and Ainz Ooal Gown in the hallway and immediately assumes the latter is a monster that needs to be defeated, but Kazuma calms her down and they join her search for Naofumi. Filo, meanwhile, ends up in the pet area with Hamusuke and Death Knight. Raphtalia and Filo are reunited with the Shield Hero when he protects them from a particularly hard-hit baseball from the bat staff of Mare.

That’s pretty much it! The episode’s only eleven minutes, after all. Naofumi decides that while he’s not 100% sure what’s going on, he and his party will try to settle into a school life of following the rules along with the others who have been teleported. It will be interesting to see if he befriends the other lads from Japan…and here’s hoping Melty, Malty, or others from his world show up at some point!

Bofuri – 02 – The No-Damage Duo

Bofuri’s second episode is split between Maple’s first NWO battle royale and when Risa finally joins her. The battle is a cakewalk for Maple, whose ultra-defensive specialization ensures she takes no damage in the process of bagging more than two thousand kills, most of them absorbed as MP by her Great Shield.

Maple actually gets pretty fierce once various parties start ganging up on her, even paralyzing and poisoning those who flee to up her kill count. Compare that to when she’s waiting for enemies, killing time by innocently drawing intricate Yakuza dragon and Nazca lines. I really dig Maple’s low-key drawing talent, which comes through in the game!

Leading up to Risa’s arrival, I was starting to think it would be a running joke for Maple to bring up the fact Risa hasn’t joined her in the game yet, and that she might never join her due to various circumstances IRL. However, once she finally enters (as “Sally”, her real name in reverse), it’s as a “Swashbuckler” class, high on agility and evasion.

This complements Maple’s tank class perfectly, especially when they have to get somewhere far away fast. Sally simply carries the ridiculously slow Maple on her back as she races across the overworld, while Maple dispatches incoming enemies with ease.

Their destination is an underground lake where they can find a particular kind of fish, the scales of which Maple needs for the white shield she’s having Iz forge once she has enough cash. The duo spends a lot of time fishing, while Sally maxes out her swimming and diving skills and finds a cool underwater dungeon.

Tanks like Maple can’t swim, so it’s all up to Sally to take out the beastly aquatic boss at the end of this dungeon. It’s a cool design with lots of pyrotechnic attacks. While both the boss and Sally are CG, and the frame rate screeches to a near-halt, that’s somewhat mitigated by the blur used to indicate they’re underwater. It’s also an exciting, fast-paced, and well-directed battle.

When it’s over, Sally returns to a worried Maple with a new awesome-looking outfit. That’s when the game’s dragon mascot informs them that the second level of the game will soon be opened for those who meet the conditions. In need of a new pair of boots to complete her Swashbuckling look, Sally tosses Maple on her back and races back to town.

The news of multiple levels to the game satisfactorily explains why Maple was able to become so powerful in so short a time: she’s still only on the first of those levels. This fact, and the tough fish boss fight, bode well for their future adventures and battles posing a greater challenge.

One of many details I’m liking about Bofuri is the restrained use of cutaways to online chatting, between the A- and B-parts and before the end credits. The chatting chronicles Maple and Risa’s progress and rise in notoriety. Like similar cutaways in Durarara!! it adds depth, texture and a sense of community to the show.

In / Spectre – 01 (First Impressions) – An Eye and a Leg

Two years ago, Iwanaga Kotoko saved Sakuragawa Kurou‘s life by catching him as he fell backwards. All she asked in return was that he remember his savior for the rest of his life. Kotoko later learned Kurou had a girlfriend, but they recently broke up. Having harbored a one-sided affection the last two years, Kotoko now approaches Kurou with her intentions to date him with eventual plans for marriage.

If Kotoko sounds like an unusual girl, she is: when she was eleven she was kidnapped by various youkai who asked if she would consent to serving as their “God of Wisdom”, one who could both mediate issues between youkai and between youkai and humans. In exchange for agreeing to help them, Kotoko lost her right eye and left leg, but considers becoming a god who can commune with youkai to be a fair trade.

When a particularly nasty ayakashi troubles a local library, youkai go to Kotoko to ask for aid. But as she’s outgunned in this particular case, she asks Kurou to accompany her. While youkai everywhere fear him like some kind of bogeyman, including a kappa whose reaction to seeing him led to his breakup with his girlfriend, Kotoko sees the value of having someone like him in her corner.

Thus, their “first date” involves confronting the giant beast in the library, and while Kotoko’s words fail, Kurou’s actions don’t. Only even Kotoko is surprised by how Kurou deals with the beast: he lets it rip his arm off, only for it to immediately regenerate, and the beast shortly dies, poisoned by Kurou’s flesh. Kurou confesses that something happened to him when he was eleven too: he ate youkai flesh.

While lacking in action until the final  minutes, the introduction of the forthright, no-nonsense, charming Kotoko and the inscrutable, unflappable Kurou is very well-handled and their dialogue never drags. They sport instant chemistry, owing in no small part to the voice talents of Miyano Mamoru and Kitou Akari, and I’m eager to see not just how they work together but how they become closer going forward.

Magia Record – 02 – With Friends Like These…

Iroha keeps dreaming of her little sister, Ui. Kyuubey questions if Ui is or was even a real person, wondering why anyone would bother erasing her. But let’s not forget: Kyuubey is a trickster and can’t be trusted! Iroha’s apparent wish was to cure Ui, a wish that might result in Ui being cured, but doesn’t preclude her from disappearing, both from Iroha’s physical world and her memory.

There’s a medical center in her dream that’s a real place in Kamihama, so she sets off in the off-chance Ui is still a patient there. Her bus ride is interrupted by a Witch, who charms all of the passengers and lures them into a Labyrinth. Iroha transforms and follows, but again she is outmatched, as is a red-haired magical girl Akino Kaede. Fortunately Kaede has friends in Togame Momoko and Minami Rena.

Momoko, ostensibly the Mama Bear of their Kamihama trio, offers to help Iroha find her sister. Iroha supports Momoko, but Rena is opposed to any activities that deviate from their mission to investigate and stop the Chain Witch.

Iroha inadvertently serves as the catalyst for a huge dust-up between Rena and Kaede that leads to the latter saying their friendship is over, and Momoko only makes things worse trying to smooth things over. It’s clear that it’s hard in any universe for magical girls to get along, let alone maintain amicable friendships.

The thing about Rena is, she can shift her form to someone else, making a search for her the next day difficult. Momoko and Kaede want reconciliation, and so does Rena, but she’s held back, be it from pride, shame, or regret.

That’s when the infamous “Chain Monster” arrives, fulfilling the urban legend about writing your name and the name of a friend on a certain staircase to formally end your friendship. Just two episodes in and things get dark in a hurry, as the most cheerful and innocent of the magical girls is swallowed up by chains and dragged into the staircase. Rena and Momoko can do nothing to stop it.

The question is, is the Chain Monster the same as the Chain Witch, is the staircase a Labyrinth? If so, perhaps they can go in, rescue Kaede, and defeat the witch in one stroke. Or maybe Kaede is gone, forever. You just don’t know with this show!

Kabukichou Sherlock – 13 – Holes in Their Hearts

A dreary pall of despair is immediately cast on the second half of Kabukicho Sherlock as Watson, Sherlock, and Mrs. Hudson visit James in prison. He’s trying to keep a brave face, but there are clear signs he’s receiving beatings from other inmates.

It’s gut-wrenching to see such a bright kid of such potential to help people behind bars, but he doesn’t try to run away from the fact he chose to murder Jack, and this was the consequence.

Mycroft pays a visit to Holmes’ house and thoroughly examines it, while a client-of-the-week arrives with a murder case. As Sherlock starts to unravel the case on the spot, Watson is happy his friend is able to stay busy.

Mycroft tells Watson how Holmes left his accomplished family for Kabukichou because he was missing something very profound at home. It was a void he was able to at least partially fill in his new role as detective and performer of mystery-solving rakugo.

It turns out that rakugo was James’ idea, suggested to Sherlock soon after the two met quite by chance (the fact that Sherlock’s brother was James’ father’s secretary for five years was mere coincidence). When his mother took her life and even before losing his twin sister to Jack, James had a similarly large hole in his heart that Kabukichou and the people in it managed to fill.

Now he feels alone again, as his attackers in prison grow more brazen and one of his protectors being beaten half to death and being released early. It’s just a horrible situation all around. No matter how many cases Sherlock solves, as long as James is in prison (and danger) the emptiness and despair will always creep back into the spaces between the cases.

Bofuri – 01 (First Impressions) – I Don’t Want to Get Hurt, so I’ll Max Out My Defense

Kaede‘s friend Risa recommends that she start playing a fun new VRMMO called New World Online…so she does. That’s pretty much it! Oh, and because she doesn’t want to get hurt, virtually or otherwise, she uses her entire allotment of status points on Vitality, or defense, thus becoming a slow but stalwart Tank-class character named Maple.

When Maple finally encounters low-level monsters, they can’t hurt her, and to her dismay, the first of them (a cute bunny) disintegrates before her eyes. However, the violence remains PG-rated throughout, and she continues to gain levels, skills, resistances, and status points—all the latter of which she puts into ever greater defense. Maple’s single-mindedness and bemused commentary keep things lively.

Eventually she heads to a dungeon and buffs her way to the boss, a 3-headed dragon with poison breath that destroys her shield and shortsword. Still, once she gains a poison immunity, she nibbles the dragon to death, and earns some cool armor, among other treasures and abilities, as a reward. Bofuri is not on my list, but it’s competently generic and harmlessly pleasant.

Somali and the Forest Spirit – 01 (First Impressions) – Back to Fantasy Basics Done Right

Golem, Guardian of the Forest, never once doubted his purpose in life: to observe and protect the natural processes of the forest with a minimal of interference. Enter Somali, a human girl in chains he encounters. Suddenly, the parameters of his purpose have changed dramatically, and lacking emotions, he isn’t quite sure why.

What if, a fantasy anime didn’t start with a guy being transported from Japan to a new world? Or if, humans weren’t in charge, and monsters and demi-humans weren’t an oppressed minority? Somali and the Forest Spirit provides a welcome return to classic meat-and-potatoes fantasy slice-of-life, in the best traditions of Studio Ghibli—not to mention Disney.

The premise couldn’t be more elegant: Stoic Golem meets Exuberant Kid. While he teaches her how to live, she teaches him how to feel. But the fact said kid is a human is a big deal in this world. There was a legendary war between humanity and monsters, and the monsters won. Humans became a source of food, then curiosity before all but dying out.

Somali, therefore, is endangered in more ways than one. The sense of dread and imminent danger of revealing her lack of horns (sewed into her hood), as well as when Somali strays from Golem to follow a not-quite cat, brings a nice sharp-but-not-too-sharp edge to the proceedings. So does the fact the Golem’s arm is damanged; he may not be able to protect her from everything.

Still, while there are certainly dangers in store (though they may or may not reach the level of Made in Abyss craziness), the heart of Somali is the never unhumorous repartee between the two leads. Somali talks, well, like a kid should talk (Minase Inori is right in her wheelhouse), while Golem is much more verbose and robotic, as one would expect from a Golem.

With rich and lovely visuals, an appropriately otherworldly yet conventionally-orchestrated soundtrack, a strong central duo with fun dialogue, and just the right amount of inherent danger, Somali and the Forest Spirit checks all the boxes for a MagicalChurlSukui-Approved anime. Onward!

Magia Record – 01 (First Impressions) – Changing of the Guard

Same system, new universe. Magia Record’s English subtitle is quite clear: this is a side story, starring a new pink-haired protagonist in Tamaki Iroha (Asakura Momo). She’s an independent, reliable, somewhat lonely low-level magical girl whose school friends are unaware of her double life. Once in a while a Witch will interrupt her elevated train commute and force her into a trippy Labyrinth where she must do battle.

Lately Iroha has been trying to determine what her Wish was—the one Wish granted by Kyuubey in exchange for becoming a Magical Girl—but she’s forgotten, possibly due to part of the wish itself being for her to forget. Meanwhile, a number of Magical Girls are having the same dream about a mysterious girl telling them they’ll be “saved” if they go to Kamihama City.

Iroha’s comrade Kuroe (Hanazawa Kana) intends to visit the city to see for herself. Iroha misses her stop and accompanies her, but on the way they’re enveloped by another Labyrinth and attacked by another Witch, this one too powerful for either of them. In the ensuing fracas, Iroha encounters a tiny, apparently younger version of Kyuubey.

Madoka Magica’s trademark radical shifting of visual styles carries over into this series, and I can say with confidence that whether inside or outside of a Witch’s Labyrinth, this first episode looks like a million bucks. Iroha’s hometown of Takarazaki with its skinny, towering apartment blocks and hanging gardens are among the standout vistas to which we’re treated. The Labyrinth also blasts the girls high above the clouds at dusk. Gorgeous.

Iroha and Kuroe eventually come down to earth, crashing into a huge arcology-like skyscraper in none other than Kamihama City. Their savior is a dark blue-haired witch whose powers vastly surpass theirs, but more than anything she’s miffed to find two interlopers operating in her territory. She tells them that contrary to the dream, Kamihama is no haven for Magical Girls. There are more of them, and they’re more powerful because they have to battle tougher Witches.

Iroha and Kuroe return home with a warning from the third girl not to return, and to discourage any other girls from attempting to visiting; they’ll be considered enemies. Iroha ends up having another elaborate dream as she watches scores of seemingly brainwashed girls headed to Kamihama, luggage in hand, assured of their salvation. Then she remembers her Wish to Kyuubey: to save Ui, an ill girl who may be her sister.

With a stylish presentation, super-cool wardrobe, stirring soundtrack, and cloudy mysteries waiting to be tackled, Magia Record looks to pick up where Madoka Magica left off, showing us the darker sides of Magical Girldom in a new setting with new players. I for one am full steam ahead on this one!

Cautious Hero – 12 (Fin) – Who Cautions the Cautious?

Determined not to let him die alone, Rista opens a gate in the final area of the Demon Lord’s palace. It’s against Divine regulations, but she doesn’t have time to trudge through a dungeon. When she, Mash, and Eruru arrive, Seiya is already trapping the Demon Lord in the Gate of Valhalla.

The only problem is, time and time again the gate fails to close. The episode plays with our emotions as just when we think everything is over (Rista and Seiya even return to their antagonistic repartee), a more monstrous version of the Demon Lord spills out and fights on.

Rista manages to unlock all of her divine healing power—another instance of breaking the rules—but suceeds in fully healing Seiya, only for the Demon Lord to burst out of the gate once more. Seiya is prepared right to the end, summoning a second, bigger Gate of Valhalla to swallow both the Demon Lord and the smaller Gate.

The gambit succeeds, but this Gate can talk (and laugh), and insists upon collecting its payment immediately: Seiya’s life. Rista’s healing can only slow down his deterioration, until all she can do is let herself be drawn into Seiya’s resigned arms and say goodbye. Before he disincorporates, Seiya recognizes Rista for who she once was—Tiana—and his last expression is a smile of relief he was able to save her this time.

Rista leaves the knighted Mash and Eruru under Queen Roselie’s care and returns to the Divine Realm. She’s momentarily haunted by a ghost of Seiya—a low blow for the show, to be sure!—but more than anything you truly feel his absence and a sense of emptiness and emanating from Rista and her house.

The other gods and goddesses try to cheer her up in their own goofy ways, but they can’t change the fact that in saving the S-Class world Gaeabrande, she lost her hero, someone whom she loved implicitly. Aria also has the unhappy duty of bringing Rista before Ishtar, who announces her punishment for violating regulations.

At first, the punishment seems almost too cruel: she must liberate the SS-Class world Ixphoria, the world where her human self died, and where the Demon Lord took over and transformed into a Demonic Realm. Furthermore, her healing powers will be locked away, preventing her from offering any support for her hero. If she fails, she’ll be stripped of her godhood forever.

Just when we (and Aria for that matter) think Ishtar is needlessly piling on poor Rista, Ishtar reports that Seiya’s Double Gate of Valhalla ended up swallowing not only the Demon Lord, but the Chain Destruction effect that would have prevented him from returning to his own world upon dying. She then hands Rista a letter with the name and stats of her new hero.

She’ll be reunited with Ryuuguuin Seiya, albeit with a thousandth of the power he once had. She’ll have to somehow support him without the use of her divine powers, and he’ll more than likely have no memory of his previous lives with her. He’ll also be just a ridiculously cautious.

Cautious Hero took a very bold turn towards the serious and dramatic in its final two episodes, but it was an incredibly effective turn that felt both earned and necessary. All of the previous clashing of hero and goddess was suddenly placed in proper context, while the emotional stakes shot through the roof.

I was glad for a happy compromise of ending. Ristarte and Seiya will be reunited, but face a far greater challenge than Gaeabrande. If a second season is produced, I’d definitely want to see how they manage, and who will help them.

Kabukichou Sherlock – 12 – One for the Cats

As one could have reliably predicted, Sherlock ends it’s first half by following up its most serious, hard-hitting, emotional episodes with one of its weakest, a calm after the storm, if you will. All of the detectives are feeling down since Moriarty was hauled away for murder, but Mrs. Hudson has a new case for them: Pipe the Cat is missing and possibly catnapped. The reactions of the detectives mirror my own enthusiasm for the case.

Don’t get me wrong, I love cats, especially comically huge ones like Pipe, but watching the detectives chase after him wasn’t particularly thrilling, nor is Sherlock’s innovative solution to catching him: a trail of strawberries. The detectives and Irregulars celebrate the retun of Pipe with a big party that raises everyone’s spirits somewhat, and while Irene leaves Sherlock’s life, Watson becomes his official assistant. With Jack gone, I wonder what overarching case will occupy the second half—and if Moriarty ever gets out of prison.