Sword Art Online II – 24 (Fin)

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SAO completed the Sleeping Knights’ mission and resolved Asuna’s family problems to my satisfaction, leaving one episode to do, well, whatever it wanted as a curtain call. Preston seemed pretty miffed that she watched so much Chaika only to get a rudely rushed finale, but I knew that wasn’t going to be the case here.

The episode opens with a barbecue at Asuna and Kirito’s cabin; an opportunity for her new friends to meet her old friends. A montage follows, showing how they go on to fight more battles and go on missions as a united super-party, along with Asuna hanging out with her friends in the real world.

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But this isn’t just a goodbye to SAO, it’s a goodbye for Yuuki as well, who takes a turn for the worst. There’s nothing out of left field about this, though Asuna is still distraught that so soon after meeting Yuuki the universe means to rip her away.

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The Yuuki of the real world is too weak to talk, so Asuna grabs an Amusphere and meets her where they first met, on the isle with the great tree. Seeing the hale, healthy, and alert Yuuki there is a sight for sore eyes, but we know it won’t last long. This is her last full dive, and this time when she logs out, she won’t be waking up.

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There’s not much to say about Yuuki’s sendoff, except that it was pretty much perfectly done. Yes, it got pretty mushy there (even my roommate, who was watching SAO for the first time, teared up a little bit) but the emotions that let loose here were earned a long time ago. Asuna summons not only the other Sleeping Knights to say goodbye to Yuuki properly, but hundreds if not thousands of fellow players gather to pray for her safe journey to the hereafter, a fitting farewell to the finest swordsperson in the game.

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Yuuki could not have imagined a better way to go either; surrounded by friends and admirees alike; closing her eyes for the last time in the arms of someone she’s come to love like a sister. At her memorial service in the real world, those same masses from the game come to pay their respects, and Asuna is surprised to be able to meet Siune (An Si-eun), who took a turn for the better when her leukemia went into full remission not long after saying goodbye to Yuuki.

She also reports that at least one other Sleeping Knight seems to be on the mend as well. These aren’t taken as miracles endowed upon them by the departed Yuuki, but her love and strength, as well as Asuna’s, obviously helped their spirits and mindsets. And it’s understood that not all of the Knights will get better.

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Asuna also learns that Kirito knows Kurahashi too, and Kurahashi tells them that the original designs that led to the creation of the medical full-dive technology that’s now in development (and vastly helped by Yuuki’s cooperation in her last days) were created by none other than the late Kayaba Akihito AKA Heathcliff, the creator of SAO; an interesting (if sudden and oddly-timed) callback.

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We close with Asuna and Kirito enjoying a picnic with Sugu, Shino, Klein and the others in a park in Shinjuku. Yui is on Asuna’s shoulder, with eyes and ears to the real world, and probably more in the near future. Kirito and Asuna reiterate their desire to never leave each others’ sides, and as long as she keeps her grades up, she’ll be able to honor that desire. So Kirito…where’s the ring?

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Akame ga Kill! – 24 (Fin)

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As the big let down that was Hitsugi no Chaika: Avenging Battle demonstrated, it’s rare for a long-running series to field a finale that delivers on virtually all of its promises and potential. But Akame ga Kill! succeeded everywhere Chaika failed miserably,  pulling out all the stops for an ending worthy of the excellence that preceded it.

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Akame v. Esdeath was being billed as one for the ages, and in this it did not disappoint, from the moment a surrounded Esdeath seals scores of Revolutionary troops in a jagged ice wall, forming an arena in which to tangle with the raven-haired wielder of Murasame.

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The show could really take its time and do things right with this battle because it so painstakingly took care of everything else on its sizable plate, along with killing off most of the cast. Everything we’ve seen of Akame and Esdeath in combat is brought to the table here, along with a lot of new moves and counter-moves, and it’s just fantastic to see these two go at it like no one on the show has quite gone at it before. There’s the feeling that everything has naturally escalated up to this level.

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When she realizes she won’t be able to defeat Esdeath without her trump card, Akame uses it, merging further with Masamune to increase her speed and power to even more ridiculous levels; a testament to just how tough a customer Esdeath is. Esdeath has basically merged with the soul of a terrifying danger beast and the two share unending bloodlust out of a desire to destroy the weak – all the week.

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The deaths of ‘livestock’ mean nothing to Esdeath, but they mean everything to Akane. Masamune has remembered every life she’s taken, and while the weight of those deaths on her shoulders is considerable, it also gives her the strength she needs to fight not just on Esdeath’s level, but above it.

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Esdeath will always be weaker, because she doesn’t understand and thus can’t properly utilize the weight of the death and destruction she causes. Akame works for the good guys, but she’s not necessarily a good guy herself, just a necessary evil in a world where foes like Esdeath threaten peace and won’t stop killing unless they’re killed.

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A lot of Esdeath’s early confidence in the fight is knowing she can lean on her Makahadoma to freeze Akame if things get that serious. She even says it’s the second time she’s had to use it; the first being to defeat Susanoo. But she’s so confident it will work just as well against Akame, she doesn’t consider the possibility that Makahadoma is exactly what Akame wants her to do.

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Esdeath doesn’t realize this until it’s too late, the Akame before her is merely an afterimage, and the real one is coming down upon her with the full force of her blade. The certainty that Esdeath would use Makahadoma proves to be her downfall.

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After that, Esdeath is not only an arm short, but also mortally wounded from throat to hip, and she concedes defeat. She is not upset; by her own lifelong code, she deserves to die for being the weaker one. If anything, she’s glad it’s something else she can share with Tatsumi, whose body has been lying nearby all along. Before Akame can stop her, Esdeath embraces him and surrounds herself with ice and shatters, in just the latest in a series of gorgeous deaths.

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In their last talk, Akame tells Esdeath about how she draws strength from taking responsibility for the lives she’s taken, but she just can’t understand. And yet, Esdeath loved Tatsumi, something else she couldn’t understand, but still accepted.

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With Esdeath now diamond dust, the Empire really is done. Wave and Run aren’t going to fight for it anymore, and Minister Onest is scurrying through the palace like a rat until cornered by Leone. When he uses his Imperial Arms to destroy hers, I thought “Uh-oh…now he’s going to inject himself with something and become a ferocious beast-man.” Fortunately, I was wrong! He takes out a gun a gun! — and simply shoots her with what looks like small-caliber shot.

But Leone, born and raised in/by the slums, is a tough cookie, Imperial Arms or not, and gives Onest the death that, if I’m honest, I always wanted for him: getting his face smashed in by her bare hands. It’s gruesome, undignified, and downright icky, and underlines the fact that Night Raid are vicious killers too, but the difference being they kill for something other than themselves.

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As Leone later says her goodbyes to Akame (Onest shot her ten times in the abdomen), we also see that the ‘something’ Night Raid has fought for — a peaceful land free of the corruption and bloodshed of Onest and Esdeath — isn’t something they’ll be able to partake in. Leone ignores the calls from the townsfolk asking her to join them for a drink. Instead, she finds a dark alley to lie down in and die with a smile on her face, knowing she’ll be with the others soon. Night Raid gets a different kind of peace.

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With Esdeath and Onest gone, all that’s left is for the Rebellion to take one last life: that of the young, naive Emperor. It’s fitting and very nice of the show to give the lad as clean and dignified and honorable death by guilloutene as Onest’s was dirty and pathetic. The Emperor holds his head high until it’s lowered into the stock as the entire capital watches, while Onest died in the dark bowels of the castle, his killer the only witness to his end.

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Najenda, along with Wave and Run, take up new posts in the New Kingdom (who is actually ruling isn’t made clear yet). After all, those who remember the horrors of the war that brought them this Kingdom are well-equipped to stand and protect it from those who would threaten it again. But Akame leaves the capital, keeping the lives she’s taken on her shoulders. Her work isn’t done, and it will never be done as long as she’s alive, and there is no other course for her.

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The episode also ends with one last stirring hurrah with a booming narrator talking about everything Night Raid did…and how history will not remember any of it. They were assassins, killers, working in the shadows, doing dirty work for a clean world. They’ll have no honors or monuments or even songs or stories sung or written about them, ever…but what they did have was each other, and that was enough.

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In the post-credits epilogue, Akame continues her duty, facing those who would destroy the progress made, both burdened and fueled by the ones she killed before. She’s not with Leone, Mine, Sheele, Bulat, Chelsea, Lubbock, Kurome, and Tatsumi…yet, but one day she will be. Until then, she has work to do.

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Sword Art Online II – 23

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With the Sleeping Knight’s final victory sealed and her friendship with Yuuki forged and galvanized, Asuna still has a battle to fight; one that will define the rest of her life. And yet, here she is, setting her own problems aside and working feverishly with Kirito to help Yuuki ‘come to school’ via a remote-controlled A/V interface. It cannot be said enough: Asuna is The Best.

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It occurs to me that this like the first time in the whole two-season run of the anime (that I can remember anyway) where we sit down with Asuna’s class and just go through the normal school motions, without any other distractions (the virtual Yuuki on Asuna’s shoulder excepted). That, and the almost eerie, dreamlike way the classroom is lit, along with the enthusiasm of the class itself, gives this ordinarily mundane scene so much more weight and significance.

We’re seeing things, like Yuuki, for the first time. The cut to Yuuki in the school uniform as she gives a tremendously moving reading of “The Truck” — a story that starts with somebody looking from afar at something and wishing they could be there — so beautiful. I’m not surprised the class is enthralled by the reading, and Asuna, who can hear Yuuki’s experiences and feelings beyond the words of the book, even gets teary-eyed, as did I.

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Beautiful, contemplative, and tremendously moving — all are great adjectives to describe this episode, which I think is SAO’s best ever, despite not having one sword in it and only spending a small portion of its time in the virtual world. The first half of the episode is all about Asuna showing Yuuki both the world as it is that she’d never seen, and her life that was, in her hometown and abandoned family home.

Their entire walk, like the school scene, is filmed and lit extra-beautifully so as to underscore what a special occasion it is for Yuuki. Asuna (and Kirito) literally gave her the ability to exist in the real world again, if only in a limited way. Asuna doesn’t know it, but she’s about to be rewarded for her immense kindness.

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Yuuki talks about her mother, and how being here and now finally allows her to understand what her mother meant when she said: “God does not give us more suffering than we can bear”. She thought at first it was only another recited bible verse, but realized that her mother was surrounding and infusing those words with her own feelings and experience, as Yuuki herself did with her class reading.

Asuna tells Yuuki about own problems with her mother, and Yuuki gives her the advice she needs, borne out of the experience Asuna made possible for her, and burnished by the fact that every day Yuuki lives—be it in the real or virtual world—is to be treasured, and not wasted hiding one’s true feelings, or running away.

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Again, look how dark the room Asuna’s mother Kyouko is sitting in when she comes to her that night. They have been talking at each other rather than actually communicating, and the darkness represents their present impasse. Yet SAO II is smart and I daresay bold considering its past problems with bad guys to not portray Kyouko as just another unreasonable, irredeemable villain to be defeated and shamed.

There is hope for Asuna to connect with her mother; she just needs to figure out how to get her feelings to reach her, and how to reach her mom’s feelings as well. It’s clear to her that that can’t be done in the real world, face-to-face. Instead, she brings her mother a headset and begs her to join her in the virtual world so she can say what she has to say properly.

The office is dark, but it is also warm. There’s still hope and love in there somewhere.

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Kyouko, always driving the hard bargain, grudgingly agrees, but only for five minutes, and Asuna must first understand that she won’t be changing her mind about her having to transfer. She also demands Asuna fill out the necessary paperwork as soon as her five minutes are up.

The scene when Asuna logs in and finds Kyouko in her cabin, checking out the Sylph sub-account avatar Asuna assigned to her, is just so funny and charming, particularly when she and Asuna get in a little mini-spat about each others’ weights, which is such a mom-daughter thing to do…especially if both are lookers, which they are.

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The cabin is oddly cool in color and lighting, but like the school, the change gives what had been a routine locale for Asuna and Kirito’s crew much more of a sense of occasion and ‘special-ness’, because her mom is there for the first time. When she opens the window and the cold hush of the snowy forest fills the speakers, things get even more immersive.

Then we learn another reason why the cabin has so much sentimental value to Asuna, beyond her time there with Kirito and the others: it’s not at all unlike the real world cabin where Asuna’s grandparents – Kyouko’s parents – used to live. And one Obon when Asuna was there with them alone, and they told her how much their daughter Kyouko was a treasure to them, rising so fast and touching so many lives as a result of working so tirelessly to become great.

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Here, in that cabin, Asuna can tell her mother that while there’s nothing particularly wrong with putting the betterment of oneself above all else, it can’t be her way of life. She wants to support others, protect them, and improve their lives, while improving her own in the process. I’m not putting it nearly as eloquently or beautifully as Asuna, obviously, but it was a phenomenal exchange, perhaps one of the best in the show’s run.

T_T *Sniffle*…oh gosh, it’s so dusty in here. Does anyone have any Kleenex?

Heck, even Asuna’s mom tears up…a lot. While in the real world she can stifle her tears with her ‘armor’; here she can’t, and they come flowing out from the power of Asuna’s words. Her mom’s response to this: “What an inconvenient world”, is just such a perfect thing her character would say under such circumstances. Just one of so many great lines in this episode.

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The next morning, to Asuna’s relief, the dining room is full of light; her words and feelings reached her mother, no matter how stiff and stern she looks sitting there. She lauds her daughter’s desire to help and support others, but insists she do what is necessary to become strong enough to do that stuff, which means studying her fanny off, keeping her grades up, and getting into university.

If she can do those things, it’s fine for her to stay in the school she wants. It’s a transaction, a comrpomise; but it’s one arranged after the two parties had properly communicated, not one foisted upon the other, and so it’s one Asuna can live with.

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Aww, just look how goshdarn happy Asuna is. And she deserves it. She didn’t trick her mother or plunge a sword through her heart; she merely found a way to get what she needed to say through to her. That way was the virtual world, but in this case its trappings were that of Asuna’s memories and emotions, and not a wholly artificial fantasy world. SAO wasn’t just a game because lives were at stake; here Asuna uses ALO to fight for her life in a very different way, but it’s just as vital. And it’s all thanks to Yuuki’s moving, motivating words.

It’s a far better resolution to her conflict with her mother than I could have possibly hoped for. The writing really has soared in the Rosario Arc, as has the emotional resonance. This episode didn’t have a single sword fight or magic spell or crotch shot. Instead, it kept its characters shining even in the midst of considerable plot movements; and it moved me to tears more than once (though I’m told I’m a bit of a crybaby). For those reasons and far more, it is SAO’s best episode and masterpiece.

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Akame ga Kill! – 23

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With just Wave and Run still standing between Night Raid and Onest and the Emperor, AGK!’s milieu has become a much smaller and lonelier. But Wave is, er…wavering, and we already know Run’s designs. Also, this is the last two episodes, so it’s good there aren’t too many people milling around. It was also fairly certain someone would die…but who?

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After one final Night Raid mission briefing, Tatsumi, Akame and Leone blow right into the ornate but flimsily-constructed Imperial Palace, and none of the guards put up much of a fight. But they’re not here to fight grunts or kill unnecessarily.

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The guards won’t stand down until Run himself dismisses them. While he’s all for rebellion, he wants it done bloodlessly, from within, or something. Sorry Run, the ship has sailed on that! Still, he bars their path, but Leone is able to occupy him enough to let Tatsumi and Akame slip past and head to the throne room. This is it!

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With just a handful of palace guards around Onest and the Emperor, this looks like it’s going to be a cinch, but of course, it isn’t. Night Raid and the Jaegers may have had their Imperial Arms, but through the puppet Emperor, Onest has THE Imperial Arm: Shikotazer. Trump-cardier and trump-cardier…

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Backed into a corner and with the rebellion literally at the base of the throne, Onest directs the boy to harden his heart and assert his authority through force. Shikotazer rises from the wreckage of the shoddily-built palace, possessing the ‘Power of God’, which is to say the atom, apparently, and starts firing devastating (though hopefully not radioactive) volleys all over his own beautiful capital, burning and killing hundreds. Nice job, kid.

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Onest’s hold on the kid is as ironclad as Shikotazer’s armor, and Tatsumi is soon overwhelmed, but then Wave shows up, having made up his mind. Actually, pretty sure Onest made it for him by attacking innocent people. Wave is a soldier, and soldiers protect the weak. Even if the Emperor is a lost cause, I’m glad Wave ended up on the right side. Though man, he sure ‘saw no evil, heard no evil’ for a long time!

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The Emperor begs Tatsumi and Wave to give up (not sure why, since he’s fine blowing everything and everyone else up), but Tatsumi obviously perists, driven by his desire not to let those he’s lost down: Sayo and Ieyasu; Sheele, Bulat, Chelsea, Lubbock, and Mine. They all died so Tatsumi could be here and finish the job.

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He awakens a new stage of Incursio, golden and winged, and blasts a hole through Shikotazer’s weakest spot, blowing numerous holes in his own body in the process. His wounds are made worse and ultimately fatal by his final selfless act: slowing the descent of the defeated juggernaut to save a group of bystanders frozen in terror.

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Akame is not happy that Tatsumi breaks his promise not to die, but she just doesn’t understand how death flags work. She also isn’t aware of the title of the show she’s in, because this isn’t Tatsumi ga Kill!. The final battle was always going to involve Akame, and her opponent will be Esdeath, no doubt just as pissed off about Tatsumi dying…if he’s really dead…which he probably is.

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Sailor Moon Crystal – 11

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Many times during this run I wondered what the heck Queen Beryl and her minions ere trying to accomplish. While her earlier attacks-of-the-week had a certain poetic justice to them, they lacked punch and seriousness, and weren’t helped by the fact that Usagi & (later) Co. were able to defeat them despite just coming to grips with their power. They were potshots.

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No more. This week, Beryl goes right for Usagi’s heart, first by delivering the shock of Mamo-chan being alive and well in the arcade, then making him her latest instrument of evil. Usagi is experienced and wise enough to know something’s not right, but her heart is constantly in conflict with her head this week.

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The Guardians don’t have their best week, either, letting Usagi slip away right into the lion’s jaws. Then Makoto confronts the ‘quasi’-Mamo-chan alone and falls for his power of suggestion to lead everyone else into a trap at the Command Center.

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In this regard, Beryl finally hit that magic formula to emerge as a legitimately nefarious threat using insidious tactics that take advantage of Usagi’s love for Mamo-chan, something she couldn’t do as effectively before with other pawns. Usagi only really snaps out of things when Mamo smacks a lunging Luna across the room.

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Beryl gets the crystal, and then rubs salt in the wound by revealing the Tuxedo Mask with her is no impostor or double, it’s the real Chiba Mamoru, only obviously under some kind of evil spell. She thought it fitting for Usagi to be killed by the one she loves. Ice Cold.

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Sword Art Online II – 22

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Asuna is troubled and confused after Yuuki suddenly disappeared and didn’t come back, and Siune doesn’t make things better by meeting with her and not answering any questions before quickly logging out herself. She did assure Asuna that it wasn’t because of anything she did…just that this has to be goodbye.

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While it would have continued her own dependence and time spent using a device her mother has threatened to take away if it makes her late one more time, Asuna was still excited at the possibility of continuing her friendship with the Sleeping Knights, even after they disbanded. But all the while she thought she was opening a book, they recruited her with the intent of closing a book, at the time and in at way of their choosing.

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Thanks to Kirito’s involvement with full-dive tech, he finds out where Asuna may be able to find Yuuki. Again, Kirito plays a small but crucial role, not only being a shoulder to lean into, but the source of the information that could give Asuna the answers she desires so badly. But unlike the previous episodes, where there was a battle to be fought and victory was achieved, those answers show Asuna that Yuuki can’t win the real-world battle she’s fighting.

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Now I finally understand why Kirito thought there was something “long-term full divey” about Zekken/Yuuki. Reinforcing the idea that you truly know someone by fighting them, he saw the same tendencies he himself has in VR combat as a result of his two years there fighting for his life. The real Konno Yuuki has been in full dive continuously for three years, because in the real world she’s bedridden in a hospital clean room, suffering from incurable, drug-resistant AIDS.

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The reveal of the rail-thin Yuuki surrounded by machinery, as well as the tragic story of how she ended up there, is desperately sad and tough to watch, yet also calls to mind the kind of reveal a mad scientist-type villain would pull to show Asuna he means business. Refreshingly, that isn’t the case here; Dr. Kurahashi is a good man and this is simply the future of medicine, though it’s more than a little strange and frightening to contemporary eyes.

On the other hand, considering Yuuki’s irreversible condition, being able to escape the body that failed her to new virtual worlds is a tremendous gift, and that’s how Yuuki sees it and how she saw her time with Yuuki on the Sleeping Knights’ final mission.

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Throughout Kurahashi’s discussion with Asuna, Yuuki is listening, but once she sees Asuna only wants to see and talk to her again, she invites her to dive into ALO to meet her. There, she explains that the Sleeping Knights are all hospice patients (hence the ‘sleeping’) with terminal illnesses. They decided as a group that the next time two of them were told they didn’t have long to live, they’d disband.

Thanks to Asuna, they were able to do so on their terms, and even leave their mark on the memorial wall. They wanted Asuna to forget them to spare her the pain of knowing the sad truth of the Knights, but Asuna isn’t that kind of person, and Yuuki knows that now.

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It was great enough that SAO finally got around to using my favorite character, and give her something important and exciting to do. It’s even better that they gave Asuna something she couldn’t do, no matter how strong she became: save Yuuki’s life. It also puts into perspective just how trivial her own problems with her mother and her life direction really are. After all, she haslife ahead of her, period. That alone makes her blessed.

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But while Asuna can’t save Yuuki’s life, she asks her what else she wants to do before it ends. When Yuuki says she simply would like to go to school, suddenly Asuna has something she can do for her, for the same reason she was able to find and speak with Yuuki at all this week. Kirito. His research on trying to give Yui a real-world experience could be used to let Yuuki experience school.

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Akame ga Kill! – 22

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Even with so little time left and an entire empire on the brink, AGK! decides it was still worth it to slow things down a bit and give Akane and the dying Kurome one final duel to settle things. It’s a decision I happen to agree with and appreciate.

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Giving their final reunion in the church and the duel that follows plenty of room does a service to one of the more tragic character dynamics in a show full of them. Though the presence of redundant backstory and narration felt unnecessary. Akane and Kurome don’t actually have to explain to one another why they’re fighting, but they felt the need to explain it to us, even though we already know.

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Barring an unlikely scenario in which Kurome got a lucky strike on her big sis (followed by her dying shortly afterwards), it never felt like Akame was in any particular mortal danger. Kurome is too weak and spent to stand toe-to-toe with her anymore. But whether Akame was going to die or not wasn’t the point, so much as the fact that both sisters felt this fight had to be fought.

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That fact doesn’t change when Kurome loses her last two puppets and the sisters are cornered by a massive danger beast that awakened from the fury of their attacks; either. Akame saves Kurome, because Kurome is her responsibility.

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It doesn’t change either when Wave comes, against Kurome’s wishes, to break up the fight and save her. Tatsumi shows up too, but not to stop Akame; but to stop anyone from interfering with the sisters. Wave seriously does not like this, but he honors Kurome’s wishes and stands by.

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After that, it only takes a little more for Kurome to fall to Akame. Kurome isn’t bitter about losing; some of her final words to Akame are of love for her, despite everything that’s happened between them. Being killed by Akame was basically the next best thing to Kurome killing her, and Kurome takes it.

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Before carrying Kurome’s body away (leaving Akame to bawl into Tatsumi’s shoulder), Wave asks Tatsumi and Akame an odd question: “Why are we fighting?” I suppose for someone turning a blind eye to the empire’s horrors, it’s not that odd; but Tatsumi and Akame have their reasons, and it’s up to Wave to find his. Maybe he’ll join Run, who announced to him he supports revolution from within?

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Sword Art Online II – 21

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Much to my relief, this doesn’t turn into The Kirito Show just because he showed up at the end of last week’s episode. Heck, he’s not even the only guy who shows up; Klein does too. They’re only there to let Asuna and the Sleeping Knights focus on defeating the twenty people blocking the boss room. And that’s it.

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Kirito estimates he can give them three minutes; the Knights only need two ( I counted). After those two minutes of awesome, blistering battle, punctuated by a powerful charge by the Berserk Healer herself, the way is open for the boss, and Kirito stays behind, giving Asuna the victory sign.

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Facing the montrous two-headed boss for the second time, Asuna notices a special guard stance he takes whenever a gem between his two necks is hit. Asuna focuses on that gem and tells Yuuki to target it, which she does by using one of her male comrades as a step stool. In the heat of the battle, Yuuki slips up and calls Asuna ‘Sis’. That’s no surprise to me, but Asuna finds it odd.

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She shrugs it off when the boss is defeated and the Knights revel in their victory, rubbing it in the faces of the dastardly rival guild. Kirito is nowhere to be found, I guess he split after those three minutes. But as has been the case with him this entire arc, we’re just fine with him being a cameo.

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Kirito doesn’t even crash the Sleeping Knight’s party, which Asuna hosts, even though it’s held in his house. Classy move on his part, as the party is for the Knights, after all. During the party, Asuna asks if she can join them, but Yuuki seems oddly put off by the request. Sinue seems to want to say something, but never manages to. Changing the subject, Asuna suggests they check out their names on the Soldier’s Memorial.

There, Yuuki again slips up and calls Asuna ‘Sis’, but this time realizes it, and promptly and tearfully logs out. Throughout the boss battle and celebrations that followed, the idea that Asuna’s mom would pull the plug on her again was always in the corner of my mind, lending an extra layer of tension to the whole episode.

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Yet, in the end, it’s Yuuki, who has been sold as Asuna’s secret sister (or half-sister), who disappears from the game, without so much as an explanation. Why doesn’t she want Asuna learn the truth? How did Asuna play so long without getting yanked? Will they ever meet in the real world? All questions I’m hoping will be further explored in the next episode, forebodingly called “Journey’s End.”

Until then, I continue to revel in this Asuna-centric, and really Women-centric arc, really turning around what had been a lackluster SAO II Fall cour simply by treating its female characters as more than just Kirito’s suitors.

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Akame ga Kill! – 21

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Note: I have not read the manga, so I have no idea how the events of this episode or the episodes to come will be adapted. It’s all totally new to me.

Tatsumi is in the hands of the enemy. He’s not just alive so that the Empire can make a example of him in a highly public execution. He’s also live bait, in the off-chance Night Raid is foolish enough to attempt a rescue. Of course, they are: Mine doesn’t care if its a trap; she’s going to save her love. Akame decides to come along, so their chances will be better. Leone also volunteers: she scouted and recruited him; he can’t be dying before her. Finally, Najenda states they can’t let a public execution tank rebel morale at this crucial juncture.

Bottom line, the ladies aren’t going to sit back and let Tatsumi get executed. They all love the shaggy-haired little bastard too much, albeit in very different ways, and no one more deeply than Mine.

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Tatsumi, meanwhile, is fully prepared to die, knowing the remaining members of Night Raid got away with their lives. He doesn’t want to be saved, lest they throw those lives away. In this state, it’s understandable if he may not quite grasp just how much Esdeath is exerting every last morsel of her authority and standing in the empire…to save the life he’s willing to give away.

As the embrace they share makes clear, Esdeath’s love for him is real, and strong. So strong, she isn’t even asking him to betray his friends, only hang back and stay close to her. Part of me wanted Tatsumi to take her offer, but he can’t, and not just because he loves another, but because as beautiful and capable of kindness as Esdeath is, he can’t overlook the crimes she’s committed and continues to commit in service of an empire that’s taken everything from him.

Yet even when Tatsumi categorically refuses and pushes her away, it’s not as if she can stop loving him. She can only accept that the only course now is to kill him herself.

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When Wave hears Esdeath will be killing the man she loves, he’s greatly troubled and doesn’t understand…but Kurome understands. As Esdeath hasn’t stopped loving Tatsumi, she hasn’t stopped loving her sister, which is precisely why if Akame is going to be killed, better for Kurome to kill her. Kurome’s problem is, nature may step in and kill her first, as clearly shown when she pulls dead hair from her head.

My eyes welled up quite a bit at this scene, which I’m sure was the episode’s intent. And this was just a side scene with ‘bad guys’; the only scene with these two in the episode. But this serves as a good prologue for the final Akame-Kurome fight we know is coming.

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Did I mention this was a particularly beautiful episode of Akame ga Kill!? It was; it was staged and lit like a movie, an epic movie. The shot above is special. The remaining members of Night Raid, gathered in the sitting room of the late Lubbock’s home, the green upholstery suggesting he’s there to, just not in person. This is the last time this particular group of Night Raid members will ever be in the same room. Everything will change from this point on.

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One of my favorite live-action films is Gladiator, in part because no story about Rome before or since quite captured the slightly weathered but still strong and seemingly invincible power, grandeur, and glory that was the Roman Empire.

The descent through wispy clouds into the Imperial capital’s arena and the theatricality of a grand final battle seems inspired by similar scenes in that film. Only this is an execution, not a rigged duel.

I must say, the little Emperor gives a rousing speech, without the use of cue cards, that pretty comprehensively demonstrates how easy it is to twist words around to make Night Raid the enemy. They are killers, after all, and they are trying to throw the Empire into chaos, though that’s so they can root out its corruption and evil.

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Goosebumps gather as Esdeath draws near to the cross where Tatsumi hangs restrained. Even here, Esdeath prepares to deliver a blow that will look like it kills Tatsumi to the masses, but doesn’t actually kill him; still holding out hope Tatsumi will come to his senses so she won’t have to go through with it.

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Tatsumi refuses, but before Esdeath can kill him, Mine arrives and fires a shot she has to dodge, followed by Leone, Najenda, and Susanoo on the big flying manta ray. This would be a terrific specacle to watch at the arena if the participants’ attacks didn’t cause widespread collateral damage, so the spectators flee, and we’ve got ourselves a battle some people won’t be walking away from.

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Najenda and Susanoo take on Esdeath, which, duh, while the hard-hitting Leone backs up Mine in her fight with Budou. Mine is confident both her love for Tatsumi and the intense pinches Budou will put her in will make Pumpkin’s shots strong enough to defeat him.

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She’s proven right, but in the process, the tiny frail Mine gets tossed around and beaten up quite a bit, and her final shot takes a lot out of her, and more to the point, she may well have known it would take too much out of her, but she had no other choice. Budou is defeated, but we can’t score one for Night Raid, now or later.

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Meanwhile, Najenda’s battle with Esdeath is everything we hoped for from these two powerhouses. Najenda leans heavily on her human-type Arms while Esdeath relies on the ice demon within her. Both use their trump cards, but while Esdeath’s time freeze is a once-a-day affair, Najenda’s ability at this point in her life is one-time-only and unrecoverable. She puts much of her remaining life force into healing Susanoo, knowing she can’t defeat Esdeath but can keep her busy long enough for Tatsumi, Mine, and Leone to escape.

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And yes, Tatsumi gets away with his beloved Mine, scolding her for coming after him as he rushes out of the city at top speed. But Mine is not in a good way at all, and tells him to stop and put her down, not because she’s embarrassed — we’re light years away from that childishness now — but because she doesn’t have long, and she has something to say.

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And this…this just isn’t fair. After all that fighting, after she defeated Seryu and Budou, the toughest badasses anyone from Night Raid has ever taken out, after Tatsumi just manages to catch her before she falls to her death…she’s simply at the end of her never-sturdy-to-begin-with body’s rope. But there’s still time for her to tell Tatsumi she loves him and she’s glad she fell for him, and that they’re on the winning side, and always were, and then share their first and last kiss.

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In a show that’s become very good at farewell scenes, this one really knocked it out of the park, and is all the better due to its simplicity inevitability, and raw emotion. I really really wanted Tatsumi and Mine to come out of this and live a happy, loving life together, to make a family. I wanted this so much that I ignored just how ridiculously unlikely the chance of that happening really was. R.I.P. Mine.

This was the most epic, thrilling, heartbreaking episode of Akame ga Kill! yet, but we’re not done yet. Mine can no longer create the fair, peaceful world she fought for all her life, which led to her meeting and falling for Tatsumi, who wants the same thing. He, Akame, and Leone have three more episodes to make it happen.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go sob in the dark.

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Sword Art Online II – 20

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Asuna’s takeover of SAO II continues this week, much to my approval. When Zekken Yuuki whisks her off, I was partially expecting something more sinister than a guild of friends wanting to make memories before they have to split ways in the Spring, but it still worked incredibly well, because, Asuna was the anchor.

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Yuuki was dueling people in search of a seventh member to join the six of the Sleeping Knights – the smallest party allowed to fight a boss, and she chose Asuna to be that seventh. It’s while hanging with them that she realizes “Hey, this isn’t Aincrad anymore. My life isn’t literally at risk; I can let my hair down, go all out, and have fun!” It’s a liberating feeling.

I like the idea of this Asuna-for-hire. With her skills, exp, and rep, she can basically get work wherever and whenever she wants in ALOIt’s a similar situation in the real world in that she has the ability to be and be with whoever she wants…only in the real world, others are calling the shots for her.

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That point is made clear with the subtlety of a sledgehammer when, still beaming after meeting her new friends and agreeing to fight with them, her mom literally pulls the plug, because Asuna is hella late for dinner. It’s telling that its hard for Mom to wake her up gently, almost as if Asuna’s subconscious self doesn’t want to leave.

Pulling the plug is the only way to pull her out. Her mom is annoyed, but she’s also concerned about Asuna’s priorities, and her continued reliance on a device that stole two valuable years of her life. Still disoriented from being pulled out so roughly, “This isn’t like the NerveGear,” is all Asuna can muster. That distinction means nothing to Mom, but a multitude to us, knowing what she went through. What Mom can’t grasp is that for two years, Aincrad was her daughter’s reality.

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Depriving her of ALO, especially right now when she’d finding herself again, is to deprive her of the means to heal the psychological wounds of the NerveGear, and transition to the mindset mentioned above, that it is just a game, not life and death. Coming to grips with that and making that her new normal is a large step in re-establishing the real world as her primary reality.

Even if her mom was in the mood to listen, Asuna lacks the means to properly explain why she needs this; their experience gap is just too wide. And if Asuna’s late for dinner again, Mom is taking the machine away, period. Asuna is trapped again, and runs out of the house. Looking at her missed calls, a snowflake settles on Kirito, the boy her mother won’t let her have.

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But Asuna, to her credit, doesn’t call Kirito. The next day, she dives into ALO, meets with Yuuki and the Sleeping Knights, and go over the gameplan: they’ll hit the labyrinth and look in on the boss, and if the conditions are right, they’ll have a go at him too. She’d never betray it to her new friends, but Asuna may benefit from a quick mission here, as she’s not sure when that plug will be pulled at any time.

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The strong and balanced Sleeping Knights end up impressing Asuna with how quickly they carve through the labyrinth, but her skills come in handy early when she detects scouts from a rival guild spying on them behind shrouds of invisibility. Interestingly, though the boss makes a badass entrance, we don’t see the fight at all, but they end up losing badly.

That feels like a cheat until Asuna takes the group aside and warns them that their battle was watched by the rival scouts’ lizard familiar, which explains why their last two boss losses resulted in that boss being defeated quickly soon after. The Sleeping Knights are so into the fights, they never noticed they were doing all the heavy lifting revealing the weaknesses to their rivals. Pretty dastardly, isn’t it?

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Asuna, again taking charge, cheers the group by saying it’s not too late to avoid a third theft of their rightful glory: if they hit the dungeon and defeat the boss before the rival guild can mobilize, they’ll their names carved on the memorial wall after all.

When they return to the boss, the partially-amassed rival guild blocks their way and won’t budge. From Yuuki’s perspective, there’s only one thing for it: fighting them. She walks up to the biggest, toughest member of their guild and takes him out in three blinks of an eye. It’s a nice reminder of just how tough this girl is.

In the process, Yuuki tells Asuna “some things can only be understood through fighting”,  and suddenly Asuna thinks of her protracted battle with her mother in the real world. Because words are the only weapon she can use out there, her Mom will never truly understand her.

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That’s not to mean she and her mom need to go have at it in the dojo, of course, but it does explain their impasse. Also, there are other kinds of fighting. I’m also mindful of the fact that Asuna’s mom is out there and doesn’t understand her, but someone who is probably her sister (she’s not called Yuuki for nothing) is in here, and does.

Yuuki’s words galvanize Asuna, such that even when the rival guild’s reinforcements arrive and prepare a pincer attack, and they’re outnumbered dozens to one, Asuna is not fearful. She puts her wand away, draws her sword, and gets ready to rumble. This is where she wants to be, right here and now: fighting beside her new friends. Even if they lose this battle — and they’re probably going to lose this battle — they’ll dust themselves off, come back, and win next time.

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Really the only thing that would make this better for her is if she were having this battle with people closer to her, like, say…this guy. Oh, hey, there he is, right on cue, hiding among the ranks of the charging rival guild members, Yui perched on his shoulder.

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Don’t be mistaken: Kirito isn’t here to rescue the Damsel in Distress and fight so she doesn’t have to…not this time. This time he’s here simply to even the very uneven odds in her present battle. He’ll take on one part of the rival host, while she and the Sleeping Knights can push through the other and fight the boss.

Because of the distinction in how he’s he’s utilized here, I’m not miffed in the least by his presence. It’s a good use for Kirito at a good time. Just being there reminds Asuna that she isn’t alone, those she loves have her back, and her own battles aren’t over and lost yet, either in here or out in the world.

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Akame ga Kill! – 20

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After last week’s almost total victory, in which the Jaegers took a heavy loss, we knew Night Raid was due for a casualtie or two of their own in battles we knew would get tougher from here on out. The episode helpfully narrows down the choice based on who gets initial scenes of levity in which death flags fly: Lubbock and Mine were our predictions.

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The intricate plan to storm the palace and kill the Minister runs into trouble almost immediately when Tatsumi and Lubbock’s rebel contacts all end up dead by the hands of Shura, Honest’s demented, woman-hating man-child of a son. Shura’s way of life is refreshingly simple: He wants to have fun, and everyone and everything in the world are his toys. Hey, he’s his father’s son!

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So yeah, we’re obviously not sympathizing with Shura. As for Budou, Commander-in-Chief of the Imperial Army, he’s just freakin’ HUGE, as in ‘not-human’ huge, so despite the fact he has no personal quarrel with Tatsumi and even admires his swordsmanship, there’s not much to sympathize with him, either. But that’s okay; these bad guys are meant to impede our heroes, not garner sympathy.

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The two matchups work out pretty tidily, too. While Tatsumi and Budou are primarily hack-and-slash knights, Lubbock’s and Shura’s Imperial Arms employ preparation, deception, and delay. Shura has set up marks all over the city and the skies above with which to teleport using his Shambhala, which Lubbock counters by setting up his Cross Tail’s threads like rigging.

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Lubbock also fights by making it seem like he’s the underdog, when in reality, due to his cunning and Cross Tail’s versatility, he’s a tougher out than Shura. Shura catches a break when the palace informant interferes, stabbing Lubbock in the back in hopes Shura will free her parents for her service…after he already cut her neck open, mind you. Unfortunately for her, Shura already had her parents killed. Yeah, we GET IT. SHURA’S NOT A GREAT GUY.

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That break allows Shura to grab his Shambhala and send Lubbock to a kind of Subspace, but Lubbock has his threads tangled around Shura, and pulls him in too. As Shura blusters and tries to escape, Lubbock throws a thread-spear into his heart and pops it, like he did with one of the Demons a couple weeks back. Hey, if it ain’t broke (and the enemy is as dumb as Shura), why fix it? Night Raid 1, Empire 0.

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When Shura dies, Lubbock is teleported back to the regular world, several hundred feet in the air. His last thoughts are of his would-be love, a particularly adorable-looking Najenda, as he falls to his death atop several well-placed spears. I have to continue to hand it to AGK for giving its characters pretty fantastic death sequences, and Lubbock was cool as a cucumber as green as his hair till the end. Night Raid 1, Empire 1.

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But “Wait,” you say, “What about Tatsumi’s fight with Budou?” Well, it doesn’t go so well for Tatsumi. Budou is regarded as the only person in the empire whose strength is a legitimate match for Esdeath’s, and let’s face it: Tatsumi hasn’t faced an opponent that strong yet, so with very little fanfare, Tatsumi is taken into custody and bound in irons. Minister Honest is upset about the death of his boy…for about five seconds, then starts licking his chops at the possibilities of having Tatsumi as a captive. Empire 2, Night Raid 1.

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And who’s volunteering to interrogate him before his public execution? Why, his true love, General Esdeath, fresh off another successful expedition (I like how she admits she’s better on the battlefield than in the city on guard duty; recent history bears that out). The members of Night Raid still alive and free are down to three: Najenda (with Susanoo), Leone, and Mine. Meanwhile, not counting an ailing Kurome, the Jaegers are down to Esdeath, Wave, and Run. Just four episodes left; I’m starting to get excited here!

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Sword Art Online II – 19

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It took until just five episodes left in the damn show, but SAO II finally delivered something I’ve been yearning for since the second season was announced: an episode with Asuna as the focus, doing things. While part of me is content we got an episode like this at all, I’m pleased to report that it was a damned fine episode in its own right.

By now we’re well aware of the inner turmoil Kirito, Asuna, and the others carry with them, even though only Kirito has gotten that much screen time to explore it (as well as Sinon, whose turmoil came from the real world, not the game). What we haven’t seen is much of Asuna’s struggles with that turmoil, and just how cold and uncaring her family is to her situation.

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Asuna leaves her very cold bedroom to the huge, stodgy dining room where her mother scolds her for not being five minutes early for dinner. The dinner starts off relatively innocuous until Asuna realizes her mother is using this opportunity to tell her she plans to marry her to a countryside banker and move her to a better school so she can start college early.

This dynamic works because while Asuna’s mom is basically the villain here, she’s decidedly not evil, only cold and pragmatic: she didn’t come from money, but married into it, and she’s determined to make sure Asuna avails herself of the opportunities she’s been given in life.

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And that’s all well and good…if ignoring the fact that Asuna “one of those children who spent two years killing each other.” Her mom’s phrasing seems to be designed to underplay just how traumatizing the experience is, and shrug it off as an unfortunate inconvenience, but she can’t just wave away the emotional scars, nor the bond she formed with Kirito. Her mom’s checked into him as well (again, devaluing him by calling him a child), and forbids her to choose him as her mate.

When Asuna questions her judgment after subjecting her to the criminal Sugou as her first betrothed, her mom dismisses that as her father’s choice, not hers. Asuna is forced to retreat, but not before tossing that dig about her mom being ashamed of being from poorer parents.

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Asuna doesn’t want the path that’s been laid out for her; it’s a path laid out by parents who may on some level care about her happiness, but are forcing their own definition of happiness upon her, “for her own good.” It’s pretty tough love, and unlike Kirito, whose family situation is just peachy (aside from his sister briefly being in love with him), it’s made diving into ALO a kind of emergency release for Asuna. With the weight of the world and her parents’ expectations bearing down on her, ALO is where she has strength and agency.

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Yet even in the virtual world, Asuna admits she hasn’t done much and is worried the Lightning Flash Asuna of yore is gone, along with her innocence. Fighting Zekken — whom she’s surprised to find is a girl — is a way of validating whether she’s still “got it”, which in turn could give her more strength to face her problems in the real world.

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Zekken is a perfectly nice, polite young lady, but the surprise of her gender throws Asuna off at first – as does her ridiculous speed.

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Taking a step back and another deep breath, Asuna realigns her resolve, remembering why she’s there: not just to prove she’s still a power in ALO, but to blow off some steam. The difference in the two halves of the fight are like night and day; in the latter half, Asuna goes all out and is able to keep up…

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…Right up until Zekken turns it up and breaks out her overpowered, almost-cheating special skill. At this point, while Asuna’s resigned to losing, she’s not upset by her performance; it was a duel she can look back upon with satisfaction. Then, at the last second, Zekken holds back her blade and ends the fight. It turns out she wasn’t necessarily looking to win the duel either…only test her opponent. And Asuna passed.

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Before the duel, Kirito confided in Asuna that he thought something was fishy about Zekken, as if she were a “product of the full-dive environment.” I don’t understand that term any more than Asuna, but it is an unsubtle hint that there’s more to Zekken than just a duel-loving heavy user. The fact her player name is “Yuuki”, Asuna’s last name, is also telling.

Kirito’s suspicions are confirmed when Yuuki flies Asuna up into the sky to formally ask her to “please help [them],” meaning whatever Yuuki is, there’s more than one of her, and as powerful as she is, their duel impressed her enough to believe Asuna could be of help. And I’m sure that notion alone raised Asuna’s spirits considerably. This episode sure raised mine!

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Sailor Moon Crystal – 10

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Sailor Moon Crystal has been very brisk and efficient in its storytelling of late, and also liberal in its distribution of Shocking Truths. With all the developments coming so hard and fast, it makes me, a mere Moon tourist, wonder how the remaining sixteen episodes will be filled. My self-answer: They will be, with something; I’ll just have to wait and see what.

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But first, to the events of this week: the Sailor Guardians hold hands directly beneath a full moon and transport there, and the stony, soundless remains of Silver Milennium and the Moon Palace are a morose sight, to say the least. Such vital grandeur once stood there, and now it’s all ruin. All but the central prayer room, where a hologram containing the will of Usagi’s mother from her first life, Queen Serenity, fills in the blanks of that life, and how it ended.

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Basically, Usagi, AKA Princess Serenity, loved the greenery and wind of Earth so much, she regularly snuck away to visit when no one – her Sailor Guardians included – noticed. There, she fell for Prince Endymion, and he for her, but the evil force of Metalia and Beryl stoked the fires of war between Earth and the Moon, with the lovers caught in the middle. Endymion was slain protecting the princess, and, she in turn takes her own life, Juliet style. Sealing Metalia meant sacrificing the entire kingdom. Now, in the present, the good guys have an opportunity for a do-over, and they can’t afford to waste it.

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Today is the day the Sailors finally visit the home of their former lives, but it’s also the day Beryl’s four pawn-princes decide to follow her down to the basement to see what she’s up to. Her words with Metalia awaken their own lost memories, but only for a moment; Beryl quickly uses her evil magic to suppress them and restore her hold over them.

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As the Crystal isn’t on Mamo-chan (at least physically), she sends the princes after the sailors, and we get a nice full-strength fight in a Tokyo frozen by ice, the crucial point of which is for Sailor Venus to point out that the princes aren’t their enemies, or at least they didn’t use to be. Back in their previous lives, they were knights who served Endymion as the Guardians served Serenity. Not only that, the guardians and knights were in love with one another, which works out nicely; not love polygons here!

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When the Guardians, not wanting to fight the men they loved, end up in a bad way, Usagi is the one who saves them, using her healing power to thaw the city. The Guardians then try to extract the evil from the princes, but Beryl snatches them up before they do so. The stakes are now high for all the sailor guardians, not just Usagi. But the next time she faces her beloved Mamo-chan, he’ll be another one of Beryl’s mind puppets. So yeah, there’s still plenty more to overcome before victory is achieved.

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