The World’s Finest Assassin – 08 – The Only Way to Live

Last week aptly documented Lugh’s happy and successful life as Illig Balor with his right-hand women Tarte and Maha. Now two years have passed. While before Maha was powerless to save her friends from criminals, here she keeps an eye out for them when they’re out late and dispatches their would-be muggers with ease.

Lugh has learned that given a chance (and adequate resources), Maha has not only become someone who can protect herself and her friends, but thrive as a merchant. We learn that the shop purchased as the HQ of his now booming cosmetic brand was the first shop Maha’s father opened when he was a merchant. Both Maha and her friends are eternally grateful for Illig’s help giving them their new happy and successful lives.

But for Illig, this life is now over and it’s time to return home and to being Lugh Tuatha Dé. He leaves his thriving business in Maha’s capable hands, while Maha asks that if her Prince can spare a day a month for Dia, surely he can come see her sometime as well. Maha and Tarte also leave on warm, happy, and mutually respecting terms. They don’t see themselves as rivals for Lugh’s heart, because in their view there’s plenty of that heart to go around.

On the wagon ride home they run into some wolf monsters, which Tarteuses the skills Lugh taught her to easily defeat without Lugh having to lift a finger. Once they reach Tuatha Dé lands and he sees the new soybean fields, he gets out of the wagon to receive a warm welcome—and a big basket of produce—from his adoring people.

Unlike Maha and Tarte, they may not know there’s a lot of calculation in his behavior, but even if they did, like Maha and Tarte it’s his actions, not the motivations behind them, that would likely matter most to them.

Has the assassin from our world who is now Tuatha Dé become more sentimental now that he’s been in this world for fourteen years? It’s hard to say, but if he has, it hasn’t softened his edge one bit. When his father reveals that one of the most important reasons for sending him to be a Balor was to give his son the choice he no longer has: to walk away from the thankless life of an assassin anyone in the kingdom could betray and abandon at any time.

Lugh’s answer is a firm no, for the simple reason that he isn’t a Balor, or a merchant: he’s an assassin and a Tuatha Dé. Honor and duty to the kingdom mean nothing to him, but the happiness of the people he cares about means everything. Also, he mentions that he’s in love with Dia, and can’t marry her if he abandons his noble station to be a merchant. It’s another calculated move, but one that doesn’t preclude that he is in love with Dia, and simply calling it something more pragmatic.

Rating: 4/5 Stars

The World’s Finest Assassin – 07 – You Gotta Moisturize

“You know, I’ve tried all sorts of moisturizers. I even went fragrance-free for a whole year. Now my sister, she uses some kind of uh… uh… uh… uh… aloe vera with a little sunscreen in it, and ideally, we should all wear gloves when going to bed, but I found out that that creates a kind of an interference with my… “social agenda”, you know what I mean.”—Frank Catton, Ocean’s Eleven

“It’s all going according to plan”—‘Illig’ thinks this as he lay in bed flanked by the undyingly loyal Tarte and Maha. He says the loss of their parents makes them seek human warmth, and their infatuation with him has made them his “pawns”—he continues to insist in his head that there’s a distance between artifice of his precious Plan and the reality as the girls see it: that is and has been kind and generous enough to demand that their loyalty and love.

After Illig heals his father’s legitimate son with his Tuathe Dé skills, his father agrees to adopt Maha as Illig’s sister, and also agrees that no matter when this charade ends, Illig or Lugh will always have a home to go back to in Milteu—a smart backup plan Just in Case.

As far as the merchant world goes, Illig takes to it like a fish to water and intends to make a huge first splash, converting one of his father’s failed liquor stores in the city into a cosmetics and confectionary shop focused on women. Knowing brand trumps quality in this competitive industry, he has an ace up his sleeve: there are no moisturizers in this world.

Not only does Illig impress his father, but his mother too, though she’ll still always hate him as a symbol of her husband’s impropriety. I’m sure Illig appreciates her directness. Six months pass, and Illig and Tarte watch the women and the money pour into the store. Illig further galvanizes Maha’s loyalty and love by making her the store manager, who hires her friends.

Maha and her friends are now living the dream they dreamt while living on the streets before being captured. Maha couldn’t be more content, and we learn Illig has also trained her in the skills of assassination. Such are her and Tarte’s depth of devotion to their master and brother, they’ll happily brutally torture a corporate spy in the night. Illig didn’t even have to be there.

This week is the wackiest Goddess interlude yet—in which she’s rap-dueling with The World’s Greatest MC, only to learn that 30 years later he’s done nothing because all he does is insult people. But while they provide a measure of comic relief, they also show us that of all the Worlds Best ___’s the Goddess has brought to a new world, Illig seems to be faring the best.

We also learn that once a month Illig travels to hang out with Dia, who is essentially his big sister. They collaborate on new spells and catch up. Just one day a month must be lonely (that bittersweet loneliness has been beautifully expressed in the Dia-centric ED), but even if Illig cynically thinks he’s just keeping another pawn loyal to him, there’s clearly more going on than that.

While Illig’s constant assurance to himself everything is going according to plan make me nervous for some kind of unanticipated setback, the first instance is pretty low-key: his body has arrived at puberty, and after a mana-intensive day at Dia’s, he sleeps soundly between Tarte and Maha…and wakes up to learn his body has had its first wet dream.

Tarte and Maha immediately assure him that in the future they will be able to “take care” of this new development without issue or delay, and Illig, who didn’t seem like much of a ladies man in his past life, is understandably flustered. While this first crack in his plan is mostly silly, the fact he now has less than five years to defeat the hero provides potential for many more. So much remains unknown of the hero, from their gender to the possibility of fulfilling his mission without killing them.

Rating: 4/5 Stars

The World’s Finest Assassin – 06 – The Merchant’s Daughter

Warning: This episode deals with some upsetting and potentially triggering themes, including rape and sexual assault, physical, mental, emotional, verbal, and sexual abuse, child abuse/pedophilia, and self-injurious behavior. 

Our cold open features Lugh and Tarte donning their new threads as they prepare to live their new lives as Illig Balor and his servant. But after the credits, we pivot to the much-anticipated story of third member of Lugh’s assassination team from the first episode: Maha. Herself the daughter of merchants but now an orphan on the streets, she and five other girls survive by giving sightseeing tours to travelers.

They’re close to making enough money for better clothes, and one day Maha dreams of them making enough to buy a house in which to live together. But one stormy day that dream is stamped out when all six girls are captured by men hired to round up kids for his lord’s “orphanage.” I knew shit was going to get bad, but had no idea how bad.

Ironically, Maha and the others get what they were dreaming of: a roof under their heads, food to cook and eat together at a table. But it happens to come at the price of their own freedom. They are essentially slaves, doing whatever is asked of them and being beaten when their captors feel like it. It gradually wears their once enterprising spirits down into the dirt.

Then the captors start getting rapey, pimping the girls out one by one to those with the coin to purchase them for the night. The oldest of them, Ifa, is the first to go through this, and Maha is forced to bathe, dress, and apply makeup to her, essentially making her the involuntary preparer of the lamb to the slaughter.

The sequence of this preparation is plenty disheartening, but then the episode’s absolutely brutal transitions have Ifa being doused three times in a row, succinctly indicating how many times she’s endured hell; the light in her eyes fading more each time.

For anyone still thinking it wouldn’t simply get worse from there, the episode is ready to change your minds in a hurry. At first Ifa is the only one sent away, until one day one of the other girls asks why they never get to go.

Then they go, one by one, each being subjected to the same pre-hell ritual of washing and dressing up as Ifa was. One of Maha’s friends decides the only way to protect herself from further torment is to cut up her face with a sickle; Maha is too late to stop her. It doesn’t matter; her torment doesn’t end.

One day, Maha overhears her captors talking about her being next, despite her having only just turned twelve. Having witnessed the aftermath of what all the other girls went thorough, Maha rushes to the barn, and is ready to cut her face when she’s stopped by a familiar figure, at least to us: “Illig Balor”.

Illig has come to purchase one of the girls—not for a night, but for good. He chooses Maha, and gives her captor more than enough gold. Even so, the captor asks for and is granted three days, during which he intends to pimp Maha out to make some extra money on top of what Illig paid, then rape her himself.

At first, on her way to one of those clients, Maha is trying to put on a brave face; she’ll only have to endure three days of hell, and then she’ll be in heaven with her “prince”. Then her captor has his hands all over her, and she can’t do it. She uses her mana to escape the wagon, but is quickly caught by the captor’s henchman, who also uses mana.

The henchman seems intent on being the first to rape her, but he is incapacitated by Illig, who tells the captor he saw Maha calling for help with her eyes when he bought her. When the captor and his ilk try to take Illig out, Illig has no trouble at all taking them out.

Meanwhile, Tarte sets up a honey trap to get the pervert Viscount arrested, and the hellish orphanage is shut down. The girl who scarred her face even gets it healed by Illig. Maha then joins Illig, her “Prince’s” party, and all’s well that ends well, tempered of course by all of the other mental and physical scars the girls still carry.

Maha had by far the most intense and fucked-up backstory of the trio. Lugh came from another world where he was the finest assassin; Tarte suffered and endured, but for a briefer time. Maha saw and went through some shit.

I left the episode exhausted by the horrors Maha and her friends endured, but also happy relieved they’re now free and safe. The two-plus years that passed in this episode were the crucible in which a future Maha—an assassin Maha—was first forged.

Rating: 4/5 Stars

The World’s Finest Assassin – 05 – Making a Name, then Taking a New One

When Lugh goes into town with Tarte by his side, he’s practically mobbed by townsfolk eager to give him free stuff as thanks for all the kind assistance he’s given them. Whether it’s developing a fertilizer for the grocer’s onions, replenished a water supply, or mended the leg of a cow, he demonstrates every day that being a noble is more about power and strength, but winning hearts. And he’s not shy about one of those heart’s being Tarte’s.

One night Cian summons his son to the dark room where he usually examines his growth. Instead, he does so in another manner, by asking Lugh “how Tarte is.” After reporting how in two years Tarte has become the equal of any member of the branch families, he also assuages his pops’ suspicion that Tarte was a spy meant to steal Tuatha Dé techniques.

Lugh admits it was incredibly fortuitous for him to just happen to run into someone like Tarte, but he can’t very well say the Goddess drew him to her she’s too busy watching the other hundreds of “finest” fighters not doing as well as Lugh.

Cian eventually invites Lugh to a special training center where they go up against each other. Lugh is impressed by his dad’s ability to mask his true movements and intents with traps and feints, but at the end of the day Lugh is faster, stronger, and if I’m guessing right, possesses at least a decade more experience in assassination that Cian, and wins the day. Huis dad couldn’t be prouder.

From there, we get a glorious montage of Lugh accompanying his father on jobs, which begs the question, just how many people need assassinating in this kingdom that Cian is so damn busy? That said, I’m willing to table that question since it’s fun watching the two slink around, Lugh dying his hair black so he doesn’t stand out, and just offing dudes in all manner of ways.

Cian and Esri hold a grand banquet to celebrate the next step in their son’s progression: moving on his own to Milteu to pose as the son of a wealthy and powerful merchant, the better to gain access to the fortresses of nobles in need of killin’. It seems like an awfully public party with lots of opportunities for agents of those nobles to infiltrate. Then again, it might just be Tuatha Dé and its branch families who are invited.

One branch son who is not ready to accept Lugh as the future main family head is Ronah…until literally moments later when his throat is nicked and his arm broken with ease by Lugh, proving on the spot who the “stronger” person is.

But to the show’s credit, Ronah isn’t just cast aside as an upstart punk who got taught a lesson by the protagonist. Instead, he accepts his loss and is determined to improve. Lugh encourages this, and even offers to make Ronah his subordinate and knight, gifting him a superlight sword of his own design. Ronah is all for it, and wishes Lugh well on his next journey.

While Lugh is “leaving the nest” and his parents, Tarte naturally tags along…who would dress him? Apparently Esri taught Tarte…something that she’d rather not elaborate on when they’re about to depart. But once in the wagon on the way to Milteu, Lugh reminds Tarte that he’s not Lugh anymore, and won’t be for two years. He’ll be Illig Balor, son of the head of the Balor Trading Company.

Rating: 4/5 Stars

The World’s Finest Assassin – 04 – Nice to Be Needed

Ansatsu Kizoku is by no means the best-looking or most original anime of the Fall, but it just might have the best structure, or rather most interesting structure to its narrative. I love the way it darts and weaves back and forth through time. Macro-wise, we’ve already seen Tarte in action, but this is the episode that truly introduces her as a character, not merely an ass-kicking machine.

We begin with Tarte in pretty much the most dire situation someone can be in. Winter is coming, so the family decided to cast her out so there’d be enough food (it’s implied their lord overtaxes, which caused families to make impossible choices). Starving and running out of strength, she’s set upon by a pack of wolves.

Here’s what immediately made Tarte interesting: she smiles moments before her death. She neither fears nor blames the hungry wolves; hell, she respects them. If this is how she goes, at least she’ll be put to good use keeping other living things alive. When her family abandoned her, she felt she had lost all reason to exist. Then our friend Lugh arrives, and uses the wolves to practice his killing skills while Tarte watches.

Mind you, Lugh doesn’t arrive to save her until after we get an extended scene of him at the harvest market, watching the townsfolk prepare for the winter by preserving and rationing. There’s even a brief little aside of comic relief when the Goddess checks in on another person like Lugh who isn’t faring so well. It’s when Lugh goes hunting so his family will have meat in the winter that he comes across Tarte.

Tarte happens to be backing a huge amount of mana—more than he’s seen in anyone in town—and the grizzled assassin in him knows it can’t be a coincidence; the Goddess must have sent her to him. The thing is, that seemingly throwaway gag of her watching The World’s Finest Special Ops Guy become a NEET over four decades proves she’s not always watching Lugh and making things happen. Sometimes…things just happen, like meeting Tarte.

Lugh’s initial interactions with Tarte are seemingly kind, if somewhat emotionally distant and logical. It’s only after he’s struck a deal for her to bind herself to him mind body and soul that he reveals he manipulated this font of mana into someone who would never betray him; someone who owes their existence to him and so exists only for him.

Two years pass, and Lugh has been training Tarte into the fellow assassin he’ll need to take on the Hero. He hasn’t told her why he’s training her, nor is she curious. When he performs the same examination of Tarte that his father performed on him, it’s super clinical, medical…professional. Lugh may have the body of a twelve-year-old, but he’s no Lewd Rudy.

When I think about how Lugh interacted with Tarte with such precision calculation, I remember what his father said: they are people, not tools. A tool would not have been able to get Tarte to trust him or devote herself to him so easily, but Lugh has been raised to be empathetic and curious, and so is a much better judge of character than your stock killing machine.

The same can be said of Tarte. Takada Yuki does such a fine job initially voicing the starving Tarte and then imbuing her voice with more strength and confidence once two years pass. Tarte may be really really good with a spear (collapsible or otherwise), but she’s also a good person…or as she once said of Lugh, a good person “as far as I’m concerned”.

How we treat others matters. Tarte witnessed Lugh slaughter the wolves with the deftness of a surgeon, and hears how he’s killed people and will go on killing people as part of his duties. But he’s still a good person to her, because he and he alone saved her when he didn’t have to.

Now that both Dia and Tarte have been properly introduced (and are both exceedingly charming, rootable characters to complement Lugh’s aloofness) I imagine the cool beauty Maha’s story is next up. I’m looking forward to more taut, confidently structured storytelling.

The World’s Finest Assassin – 03 – Wonderful First Time

Lugh’s very first magic lesson with his new mentor Dia goes awry when Dia, unaware of just how much goddamn mana her student possesses, tells him to put as much as he can in one of her family’s Materia-like Fahr Stones. He does so, and it quickly turns into a magical bomb that shatters every window in the Tuatha De mansion. Even so, his parents aren’t angry, they’re proud and excited.

If this were the soul of Rudeus Greyrat, not an old grizzled assassin in Lugh’s body, there might be ample potential for pervy unpleasantness (especially considering Lugh is seven and Dia ten). Fortunately, there’s none of that; even when Dia decides to sleep with Lugh, it’s no big deal. When she teaches him mana conversion for his “first time”, it’s oddly intimate, but ultimately pure.

Another common pitfall for a dynamic like this is to assume that in addition to the young callow student being attracted to his pretty older teacher, the two always have to be bickering or competing. Instead, Lugh and Dia collaborate equally, with Dia bringing her knowledge of the spells of this world to the table and Lugh applying his ability to synthesize his own spells. Together, the two literally make gold out of thin air.

Two weeks pass, and Dia is feeling sad about having to leave, as there’s nothing more she can teach him. So in addition to gifting her with an impossibly sharp beta titanium knife, Lugh earnestly promises her that if she even needs him, he’ll go to where she is without fail. Two weeks may not seem like a long time, but lest we forget, they’re probably share a father, and kids always bond faster than adults.

With the pure, charming innocence of Dia departed for her home, Lugh’s dad admits that despite only being seven, Lugh is ready to learn more about the family business. To whit: Lugh takes him to a prison full of death row inmates from around the kingdom who are there for the purposes of experimentation in the service of further honing their assassination skills.

When Lugh asks why his parents didn’t simply raise him to be an unfeeling killing machine, Cian’s answer is both profound and obvious: because while they are assassins (and damned good ones), they’re people, not tools. In contrast to his previous life, Lugh must use his own humanity in addition to knives and guns to optimize his assassination skills.

The final three minutes turn the chipper magical training nature of the epiode to that point on its head, as Cian orders Lugh to make his first kill. The convict is seemingly scared out of her mind and tearfully begs Lugh not to kill her, but Lugh doesn’t shrink from his duty, lopping off a hand with his own titanium blade and telling her she’ll die a relatively peaceful death.

This draws out the true criminal, who is not scared of dying and curses Lugh to be sent to a hell full of demons. To this, Lugh responds that that might be a nice change of pace next time he dies. This is dark, good stuff. Its consistent, sincere, and serious tone (matching our protagonist’s demeanor without his adult voice intruding upon his new world) more than makes up for its merely adequate visuals.

Rating: 4/5 Stars

The World’s Finest Assassin – 02 – New World, Same Calling

This episode does away with both OP and ED to shove in as much material as possible about this new world and how our antihero will be living it. He agrees to the goddess’s proposal to kill the Hero before he goes insane and destroys the world, then picks out his five skills and elemental affinities. It’s honestly a bit pedestrian, as this lengthy first act of preparation can’t hide the fact it’s primarily exposition.

Our grizzled assassin is then transported to the womb of Esri Tuatha Dé, born, named Lugh by his father Cian, and declared the heir to the Tuatha Dé legacy…which just happens to be assassination. Seven years pass in this second act, which is just as well, as scenes of Lugh as a baby and toddler were going to be tedious. We see scenes of Lugh’s family of three’s happy life, including an extremely detailed explanation the nutritional benefits of rabbit stew.

We then get a look into the family’s seedy underbelly. Turns out that the public face of the Tuatha Dé clan is not of assassination, but medicine—they control both life and death, keeping the royals healthy while eliminating their enemies in the shadows. Lugh’s father doesn’t just teach him combat, but chemistry. He also performs ocular surgery that gives him Mystic Eyes, allowing him to see great distances clearly as well as visualize the mana emanating from every soul.

Lugh, no stranger to the field in which he is straining, only a stranger to the particular methods of this new world, impresses his parents to the point they hire someone to teach him how to wield magic far earlier than most children would. His instructor is someone we met last week: Dia, from a prominent family of mages. She may be tiny, but she’s no child, and one of the strongest five mages in the land. In other words, a perfect tutor for Lugh’s continued development.

The World’s Finest Assassin – 01 (First Impressions) – One Last Job

From it’s bold, brash OP, TWFS has the confident swagger of a James Bond film, placing us right in the middle of a highly distasteful Rich Guy Girl Auction, run by the diabolical Lady Collide. Little does she know that two of her lots are undercover magical assassins, who make it a point to kill every last dusty pedo in the joint. It’s stylish fantasy pulp, and the action and teamwork keeps me interested…

…But then the story takes a 90-degree turn off to an entirely different world—our own. There, an elite but grizzled assassin is on One Last Job that he completes to the letter, not hearing a word of his young apprentice’s desire to be a hero of justice and kill all the mafia guys. This guy may be old, but he’s still sharp as a diamond-cutter, as he demonstrates again and again that his student has indeed much to still learn.

But between an unexpected drone/car chase and the presence of the relative newbie, “Allen Smith” is sufficiently thrown off his game enough to board a commercial airliner not thinking the “Organization” who raised him would kill everyone on that plane to assassinate him. That’s just what goes down, and the sardonic assassin can only chortle and admire the “marvelous coffin” his employers arranged for him

But when he dies and ends up in a deep ocean of darkness (naked, thus balancing out the fanservice quota somewhat) all he feels is bitter frustration. He was prepared to end his career as an assassin, but wasn’t done training others.

Fortunately for him it’s not the end: an aloof and somewhat eccentric goddess (Tamura Yukari) plucks him out of oblivion and prepares to drop him into a world of swords and sorcery. She’s got a new job for him, which provides a great hook for the second episode: assassinate the hero of that world. After the baffling choices and disappointing visuals of The Detective is Already Dead, I’m game for something like this.