Horimiya – 13 (Fin) – Gifting the Sky

Like Yuru Camp, Horimiya ends with an ending, namely high school graduation, and all the bitter-sweetness that comes with such an event. Kyouko and Shuu had been gradually emptying out their lockers day by day, but no one else thought to do so, which means they’re forced by default to help Yuki, Izumi, and Tooru with her much larger loads.

While cleaning up the StuCo office, Remi, Kakeru, Sakura, and Akane all agree to go on a post-graduation trip once one of them gets a driver’s license. Remi momentarily feels a bit lonely about the prospect of her boyfriend being able to drive far away from her, but…he’d never actually do that!

Speaking of hypotheticals, while Kyouko is napping in Izumi’s lap (a cute quiet couple moment I wish there’d been more of), he ponders what might have been were it not for all of the little coincidences—like saving Souta—that led to him not only befriending and falling for Kyouko, but everyone else in their circle of friends.

He imagines an alternate reality in which no one ever approached him or interacted with him, but things simply happened around him. Remi has shorter hair for some reason, Sakura doesn’t know Tooru, while Kyouko and an unnamed friend ogle Akane.

Kyouko wakes up, snaps him out of his daydream, sits in his lap, and says it must be fate that brought them together. But even if fate didn’t exist, Izumi likes to think the world would gradually move in the direction he wanted.

Graduation Day arrives, and as StuCo president and class rep, Kakeru is ready to give his big speech, only for Izumi to sneeze loudly before he can get a full word out, causing the entire class to start snickering. After the speech, Kakeru chases a contrite Izumi, who hides up on the roof.

There, he encounters his old, lonely self, tells him how well things have gone and how happy he is, and then looks at his old self for the first time, promising he won’t look away again. The old Izumi, in turn, decides he’ll “disappear” for him, no longer needed.

A parade of farewells and see-you-laters ensue. Tooru stumbles over a goodbye with Sakura before she holds her hand out for him to shake, and tells him she genuinely had the most fun ever this year, and he was a part of that. Awww. Similarly, Akane tells Yuki how he wants to join everyone on a post-graduation trip, and Yuki preemptively thanks him for doing the driving.

Kyousuke arrives after school to see Izumi, much to Hori’s chagrin, and is momentarily mistaken for Izumi’s dad (as opposed to future dad-in-law). Finally, Motoko gets a taste of Iura’s loud, peppy high school persona, and it’s a shock to say the least, though no doubt she’s happy to see that side of her brother.

Finally, our cozy lovey-dovey titular couple walk together to get some sushi with Kyouko’s fam, hand-in-hand. Izumi remarks how he once feared all the boundaries between him and Kyouko, but no longer. The two are so close, they might as well share the name Horimiya…and that’s fine with him, because wherever she goes, sunny days follow.

The spring sky looks bluer and more beautiful than he’s ever seen—so much so that he wishes he could repay Kyouko for shattering his old reality and wanting a future with him…by gifting her that sky. The vivid colors, soft focus, and dancing sakura petals add to the sense that Kyouko and Izumi are on cloud nine. If this ends up being the last we see them in anime form, I couldn’t ask for a lovelier parting shot!

Horimiya was by no means perfect. I didn’t always agree with some of the narrative choices made after the couple slept together, and there were ultimately a few too many characters to juggle (with Shuu, Akane, and Sawada getting particularly short shrift) but at its best the central romance was as fun and electric as anything I’ve seen in the genre. It certainly won’t be a series I’ll be forgetting anytime soon.

Rating: 4/5 Stars

Yuru Camp△ 2 – 13 (Fin) – It Goes Both Ways

From the first shot of the episode, we know something has ended, because the girls are walking down the mountain after watching the sun come up. It’s the last sunrise on their Izu trip, and indeed of Yuru Camp’s gloriously healing second season. Rin, seemingly sensing this end, makes sure to thank the others for inviting her.

Rin also leaves her moped at the campground and piles into Toba-sensei’s sister’s Lafesta with the others for a visit to the Iidas, where Toba, Ena, Aki and Aoi bow their heads in apology and thanks. The Iidas, being nice people tell them to think nothing of it, as it was fun to have a big group that night.

As Toba stocks up on the good libations, Rin and Nadeshiko meet Choko, only to for him to speed right past them to the more familiar Aki, Aoi, and Ena. The Iida daughter decides to accompany the group to Mt. Omuro, a perfect place and the perfect time of year to walk her heat-averse Corgi.

Rin and Nadeshiko share a chair lift and are startled by the automatic souvenir camera, resulting in a deer-in-headlights shot for the ages. As the girls again race to the peak, Toba and Iida take it easy, and Toba admires Choko’s spectacularly cute butt (a Corgi trademark).

From there, the group heads to a zoo beside the mountain, where Akari finally gets to encounter the Capybara Hot Spring in person, which turns everyone watching into the naturally chill-looking capybaras themselves; Akari comes right out and remarks “This is so healing” while snapping a picture. And really, that’s been Yuru Camp in a nutshell: a capybara hot spring.

Which is why, after the zoo visit, when Iida parts ways with the group and Rin hops back on her moped for the long ride home, it really starts to feel like the end. Because what else could really come after a capybara hot spring but the ride home? Nadeshiko snaps a picture of Rin on her moped before they part, and after they do, Nadeshiko’s smile fades. I know why, too: with Rin headed home, the ending to their Izu trip is really starting to hit her.

It hit differently for me in particular, since I only just recently started Yuru Camp from the beginning, and only needed to hit “next episode” when the first season concluded (and you better believe that’s exactly what I did!) But this time, there is no next episode readily available. I’m reasonably sure we’ll get a third season, but who knows when.

This final episode perfectly captures that unique and powerful bittersweet feeling one gets of the end of a fun trip and the journey back home to the status quo. Nadeshiko is the only kid to stay up as Toba drives, knowing Toba would be lonely if she napped too. Even Rin feels a bit lonely in the saddle after experiencing so much liveliness with so many other girls in so short a time.

But as Aki said in her military general voice, the camping trip isn’t over until everyone is home safe and sound. There was even a foreboding quality to the photo Nadeshiko snapped of Rin, as if it would be the photo she’d chose to put on a milk carton should she turn up missing.

Of course, this isn’t that kind of show at all and would never take a turn like that, but it was still in my mind, just as Nadeshiko remains worried when Rin doesn’t answer her texts. So when her sister comes home, Nadeshiko asks her to drive her out to Minobu town border so she’s there to greet Rin the moment she finally does arrive.

It turns out Rin knew the way back and was focusing on driving, and so didn’t use her phone, which…good for her! When Rin is about to tell Nadeshiko she didn’t need to worry, she remembers when she was sitting in that massage chair and couldn’t help but worry about Nadeshiko on her first true solo trip. Realizing that concern goes both ways, she expresses her appreciation for Nadeshiko.

As they gaze on the now-familiar hometown view of Fuji-san, Nadeshiko remarks how it’s kind of sad the trip’s over. And it is! They’ll never have another trip quite like that one, with that collection of people going to those particular places and eating those particular things. Even if that was all arranged, it wouldn’t be the same, and it would be missing the point in the first place, which is to experience something new with each trip.

And that’s how Rin replies: it may be a little sad, and a little lonely but they can always go somewhere together again, and the options from there are almost limitless. If they were always on a trip, the trip wouldn’t be special, would it? We watch Aki, Aoi, Akari, Ena, and Toba all returning home to their families, then Rin returning to hers and eventually mailing her gramps a thank you letter and some Izu miso-pickled meat for camp cooking.

School starts back up, and Nadeshiko, Rin, Aki, Aoi and Ena all reunite at the ramp that leads to their school, no longer in their cozy puffy camping outfits but their school unis. Life may be back to normal, but they still carry in their hearts all the warmth, joy, and magic of the time they spent together in the great outdoors.

I’ll vicariously carry all of that in mine as I hope for third season of Laid-Back Camp. But even if we don’t get one, I’ll always treasure this show as a singularly cozy therapeutic experience. And you better believe I’m going camping as soon as I can!

Vlad Love – 12 (Fin) – Interview with Vampire Girl A

The Vlad Love finale begins with one of its typical pop culture tangents, this time with Maki talking about the 1994 film Interview With the Vampire, which not only affirmed her inherent fujoshi nature and that of countless other young women, but was about the sorrow and suffering of vampires, so often the baddies (Other contemporary works working with its themes include the anime Shiki and the Jim Jarmusch film Only Lovers Left Alive.)

Maki wants to interview her own, real-life vampire, but when she goes to Mitsugu with the idea, even promising to protect Mai’s identity, Mitsugu demurs, not wanting Maki to make waves in her “happy little life” with Mai. Maki wonders out loud if Mitsugu’s true issue is she’s scared of what she might learn about Mai. Grudingly, Mitsugu agrees to let Maki ask Mai, and Mai is excited to be interviewed.

The problem is, Maki’s non-confrontational interviewing style means she doesn’t get much from Mai, other than her insistence that she was raised not to be picky about blood and would never insist on her preference (the blood of aggressive men)—at least not until they (meaning vampires) “win the war”. During a dinner break, Chihiro-sensei drugs Mai and intends to use hypnotherapy to bring her memories to the surface.

It’s a dastardly, profoundly unethical choice, but we’re talking about Chihiro, who’s had no qualms throughout this series about drugging (and slapping!) her students and stealing the blood of all her past lovers. The truth is, Mitsugu probably is scared of learning more about Mai’s past, but she allows Chihiro and Maki to press on.

Chihiro puts Mai into a semi-conscious trance and we learn how she, her father and birth mother were driven from their home when they were attacked by humans. Mai recalls an entire world consumed by flame. They eventually arrive in a fine house in a different part of Europe, but they’re tracked down once more, and this time her mother is murdered.

Mitsugu doesn’t want to continue, but again Chihiro hits her with the fear card, and the next session begins. Mai and her father arrive in America, and settle in a plantation in the south not unlike the one in Gone with the Wind —AKA “that long-ass movie”. Her father soon introduces her to her first friend: Caroline Irene, or Carreen, and the two soon become as close as sisters.

Then one day her father announces the true reason he brought Carreen into Mai’s life: not merely for companionship, but a live human on which to practice her vampirism. Up to that point, Mai had lived off of her father’s blood, but vampires, like raptors, must learn to hunt their own prey. Hidaka Rina pulls out all the stops with the entranced Mai’s narration throughout this episode—it’s truly some of her best work.

When Mai refused to use Carreen in this way, her father punished her with fasting. Mai suffered unspeakable suffering as a result, until her hunger led her to Carreen’s room, and she ended that hunger, killing her friend in the process. The pain and shock of these resurfaced memories cause Mai to scream out, startling Mitsugu, Chihiro, and Maki, and the “interview” ends there.

The images of Mai’s memories throughout the hypnotherapy sessions are some of the most gorgeous Vlad Love has yet presented, and are given that much more weight by the fact there’s a distinct reason for showing them other than they look cool. The images, in turn, are enhanced by Kawai Kenji’s haunting score. One cannot dismiss the fact that Chihiro extracted Mai’s memories without her consent, but because she did what Mitsugu could not, Mitsugu has gained a deeper understanding of her dear friend.

Now that she has, does Mitsugu run from that knowledge? Of course not. Later that night, as Mai cheerfully leads the others in calisthenics, Maki says she won’t be using the footage she shot after all, while Mitsugu assures Chihiro that she doesn’t have to worry about Mai, because she’s not alone anymore. She has her, and her blood brothers and sisters.

Chihiro sternly tells Mitsugu that one day Mai may drink her blood, and she’d better be prepared. Mitsugu, no stranger to blood, promises she will be. The beaming smile Mai wears at the end while clutching Mitsugu’s arm is something Mitsugu will do anything and everything to protect, and she’s not alone in that commitment either.

I must say, I didn’t expect Vlad Love to get so serious and dramatic on us, but as with typically comedic show like SKET Dance, by doing so it churned out its best outing. Some of the early eps were a bit too heavy on indulgence and audience-winking and too light on substance, but that wasn’t an issue here, with gags taking a backseat to Mitsugu and Mai’s happy little life together, complementing the drama rather than drowning it out.

May their happy little life continue as long as Mitsugu lives, and then, someday before Mitsugu gets too old, perhaps Mai will turn her into a vampire so it can continue beyond that!

Vlad Love – 11 – Undead Bait

Here it is: the Vlad Love Beach episode. When the Blood Donation Club requests a “training camp” trip to cut loose, Chihiro brings up the club’s utter lack of a budget. No problemo; Kaoru finds a steal of a deserted tropical island vacation: just ¥10,000 (bout $90) per person.

Unfortunately, the low cost means they travel by boat, and end up in a homage to The Great Wave off Kanagawa with crippling seasickness; only Mai seems to be having fun. However, they do eventually make it, and the summer sun, white sands and blue sea deliver as advertised.

As the sun sets, everyone save Nami (who goes for a solo swim in the ocean) check out their dilapidated accommodations, which are in such a state due to the immense age of the innkeeper and sole employee, the tiniest of obaasans. When Jinko searches the beach after sundown, Nami is nowhere to be found, save her swimsuit, which means wherever she is, she’s nakked.

The obaasan innkeeper tells them the legend of a Fishman who for five hundred years has been visiting the beach on hot summer nights ever since he and his true love, a beautiful young human woman, were separated. Maki goes on a Creature of the Black Lagoon tangent, but the group decides to head out to the beach and lure the Fishman out, and rescue Nami from his clutches.

After Kaoru dancing erratically in fishgirl cosplay yields no results, everyone agrees, and Mai volunteers, to be the blonde bait sea creatures seemed to love so much in the movies. Tied up like Andromeda as an offering to Cetus, the Fishman emerges from the waves: a hilariously awkward giant beast with the head and body of an eel and muscular human legs—more Trogdor than Gill-Man.

When Katsuno cosplaying as Perseus is smashed under the Fishman’s foot, an 80% charged Franken is activated and transforms into Hulk Mode. In his somewhat lest than three minutes of operating time, he’s able to give the larger Fishman a German suplex, knocking him out cold. The battle is too brief and uneventful to be deserving of the cool poster that flashes on the screen.

Back at the inn there was a running gag of the tiny old innkeeper’s yelling literally bringing down pieces of the inn. It’s revealed she was the woman who fell for the Fishman 500 years ago, and the sight of him unconscious leads her to let out a scream that causes the entire island to explode, ripping everyone’s clothes and giving everyone fluffy perms.

The final loose end is Nami, whom Mitsugu had completely forgotten about as she’d been too busy worrying about Mai. Turns out she’s fine too, as the fisherman’s daughter emerges from the Fishman’s mouth naked but otherwise unharmed and unfazed. The group lines up on the beach to watch the Fishman swim out into the sunrise.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vlad Love – 09 – Nuts and Bolts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 4/5 Stars

Vlad Love – 08 – The Hematologist’s Lament

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vlad Love – 07 – Vla Vla Vland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 4/5 Stars

Attack on Titan – 75 – Piecking Sides

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 4/5 Stars

Horimiya – 12 – The Mantis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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