Ikebukuro West Gate Park – 08 – Hard Truths and Soft Landings

The stinger for this week is only a few moments long: a toddler playing with a toy plane falls off a balcony and lands in a bush. He’s fine, but his single mother Ohnuki Yui, age 22, is massacred in the papers and online for letting it happen. Kyouichi and Inogai stop by Majima Produce to give Makoto an unusual job: check in on Yui and ensure she’s okay. When asked why Kyouichi cares, he says it’s because Yui is a fan, and “you have to take care of your fans.”

The day he fell, Yui decided to leave her 3-year-old son Kazushi unattended so she could more closely watch Kyouichi’s ballet in the park, and the fall was the result. It was a stupid, reckless mistake from a young mother, and she’s lucky he wasn’t seriously hurt. But his fall mirrors her own: she works all night, every night at a konbini bento factory to make ends barely meet, and hardly has any time for anything else, including Kazushi…to say nothing of self-care.

As the son of a single mother, Makoto can relate to Yui and Kazushi’s troubles. But he doesn’t know as well as his mother. One meeting with the mother and son and she knows Yui isn’t just on the edge of a cliff; she’s already falling, and if “something isn’t done” she’ll be in trouble.

Sure enough, that trouble arrives in the form of the kind of predator that is common in a big city: men who scout women at the edge of cliffs, and ensuring they land not on their feet, but in the sex industry. The scout appears to Yui to be a new man who is interested in her, and lavishes her with luxurious gifts. As Yui’s mood brightens, Kazushi’s darkens. Both Makoto and his mom notice, and Detective Yoshioka confirms what is  going on with her.

However, scouts like the one working Yui are hard to catch, so he recruits Makoto to follow Yui and gather evidence the scouting is taking place. Makoto hesitates, and rightly notes that the sex industry is not automatically a shameful means of paying the bills, but that ignores the manner in which Yui is being preyed upon. His mom rightfully smacks him on the ass and tells him to get going.

The more Makoto watches from afar as the sex industry scout, Shinji, plays Yui like a cat plays with a mouse, he gets angrier and angrier. But unlike Kyouichi (who would line up and shoot all the internet people denigrating Yui and even wishing death on her) or even his mother (who would walk in and chew Shinji out), Makoto uses his people skills to become fast friends with the guy, starting with complimenting his fancy shoes.

Once Shinji believes Makoto is connected to the Hidaka Group, he’s all too eager to spill the beans about his operation, in hopes one of Hidaka’s clubs or brothels could be a landing spot for his latest catch. As Shinji coldly describes Yui as “the type that can’t get by unless someone looks after her”, Makoto can barely contain his rage, but he remains cheery and enthusiastic about working with the scum.

This pays off when the next time they meet, Makoto doesn’t come alone, but with his mother, Yui, and Kazushi. Makoto plays back the recording of Shinji incriminating himself, and then Yoshioka and the cops come in and arrest him. But while Yui is now free from a predator’s net, she’s still falling. Like the bush that saved Kazushi, she’s in dire need of a soft landing.

Makoto and his mom take Yui and Kazushi to the park, Makoto discovers why Kazushi’s mood had darkened so much since Yui met Shinji: she had been harming him. The bruises on his arms aren’t marks of malice or cruelty; she clearly loves her son, but a desperate, despairing woman grasping for a way to stop her fall.

Despite that love, she cannot help but think of the better job she could get and better life she could live, if only she didn’t have the child of a man she didn’t love. As her tears fall in the heavy rain, Kazushi notices and rushes to her, giving her a hug and telling her it’s “not your fault”. Hearing this out of the literal “mouth of a babe” only makes her tears fall harder.

Makoto’s mother is frank: Yui has pushed as hard as she can, but it hasn’t been enough, and probably won’t be; if she pushes harder still, she may end up killing the child she loves. But there is one option to explore: giving Kazushi up, as in having someone look after him long enough for Yui to get her life in order.

Then Makoto’s mom admits something he never knew: after his dad died shortly after he was born, she was falling off a cliff too, as a single mother with a mound of debt running the produce shop alone. So she placed Makoto in someone else’s custody for two years, worked her ass off, paid off her debt, and only then reunited with her son.

Makoto turned out to be a good boy, and she believes Kazushi can too, if Yui speaks to a caseworker she knows. It’s a drastic and awful choice for a mother to make, but even Yui realizes it’s now time for drastic measures. In order to help her usher in this new difficult but necessary reality, Kyouichi performs his ballet in the rain just for her and Kazushi, appearing to the boy to fly through the air, like his beloved toy airplane.

We then learn from Isogai the true reason Kyouichi cares: like Makoto’s dad, both his parents were killed in an accident when he was young, and he had to live, make a living, and learn ballet in Chicago on his own. As such, he can’t look the other way when he sees a family in turmoil. Kazushi has a mom, and this way he gets to keep her. The next we see Yui, she’s wearing a business suit and pounding the pavement for a full-time job. Her falling has stopped and her landing was soft.

This is the best IWGP yet, and not because it was always easy to watch. Seeing Shinji get collared was righteous fun, but the ep is also unblinkingly frank in the fact that Yui is no saint, yet still doesn’t deserve unrelenting online scorn, nor the dark fate that awaited her on the other end of Shinji’s self predatory machinations. It also makes clear that as long as someone is making their own choices, entering the sex industry isn’t automatically bad.

In addition to the extensive nuance and complexity with which real-world issues are tackled this week is the portrayal of the importance of community, and shared concern for one’s neighbors. If something bad happens to someone and you and others can help, you fucking do it, and good outcomes are the result.

My only two marks against this outing: We still haven’t caught so much of a glimpse of Shungui since she was adopted (seriously…where is she?), and we still don’t know Makoto’s mother’s actual name. Considering her crucial role this week, that’s a pretty big oversight. But these are minor nitpicks in an otherwise strong and compelling episode.

Ikebukuro West Gate Park – 02 – New Kids on the ‘Bukuro

It was just the G-Boys in Ikebukuro, until one night at the Global Ring a young lad with fiery red hair and angel wing tattoos captivated a crowd with his flawless, shirtless ballet. That lad is Ozaki Kyouichi, and his upstart Red Angels are positioned to be the most serious rival to the G-Boys yet.

The question isn’t whether the G-Boys’ hegemony will be challenged, but when and how. But like last week’s IWGP, things don’t develop quite as predictably as I initially expected, once again demonstrating a preference for nuance and realism over black-and-white conflict.

But first, it’s lunchtime, and Makoto joins G-Boy King Takashi for a meal at OK Curry, a suddenly popular restaurant in the ‘Buro that also treats its mostly young, impressionable employees like shit. That, combined to the okay-but-not-great grub, suggests a company only concerned with maximizing its profits, not helping their community.

There’s an interesting choice to juxtapose the almost too-enthusiastic smiling employees in the front of the shop with one being mercilessly berated in an alley by OK’s suspiciously burly “management”. Since many of OK’s employees are G-Boys, Takashi suspects this is the Red Angels’ doing, and wants Makoto to investigate.

He starts with G-Boy Masaru, who knows Mitsuki, the blonde kid who was being abused by OK’s suspiciously burly “management”. Masaru doesn’t like how he and others are being treated, but he used to be a useless delinquent and his job at OK Curry put him back on the right track and made his parents happy, so he’s loath to mess that up.

Makoto also tries to meet the Red Angels’ ballet virtuoso leader, Ozaki Kyouichi, but is blocked by a bunch of thugs in red. Fortunately there’s someone among them with a level head—not too dissimilar to Makoto—who politely tells him Kyouichi isn’t currently around. Makoto says he’ll try again later.

That night, Mitsuki climbs to the top of the OK Curry building and prepares to jump to his death, believing he simply isn’t cut out for life. Masaru tries to talk him down with a police megaphone, but Mitsuki doesn’t want to trouble his friend, and jumps. Uh, killing yourself when he tried to stop it will definitely trouble him, my guy!

Fortunately, he only falls a few stories and the fire brigade catches him on a trampoline; his injuries aren’t life-threatening. But the two OK thugs were present for the incident, and before long Makoto gets a call from Takashi: Masaru was jumped, and ends up in the hospital beside his friend.

Makoto and Takashi visit Masaru, and then Kyouichi soon joins them, flanked by two toughs and a bouquet in hand. For a moment it seems like Masaru was attacked just to get Takashi’s attention, but as the two sides draw closer, Makoto wisely talks first, addressing Kyouichi’s friendly lieutenant to de-escalate.

Turns out Mitsuki is a new member of the Red Angels, and Kyouichi was just there to visit a member, just as Takashi came for Masaru. They also learn that OK Holdings are pitting the G-Boys and Angels against each other with rumors that each are moving against the other, thus keeping the two gangs off-balance enough to be ineffective at curtailing OK’s appalling labor practices.

But while there are a lot of ragged toughs on both sides, the two gangs are led by cooler heads; even Kyouichi comes off as far more reasonable and less aggressive than his hair portended. Makoto comes up with a plan whereby he uses his press credentials to enter an OK Holdings shareholder meeting and confronts the president with their former employee Masaru.

Mitsuki’s near-miss convinced Masaru to do everything he can legally to put a stop to OK Holdings’ crap before anyone else gets hurt, and the G-Boys find him a lawyer to give his threat teeth. He’s then immediately surrounded by the black-clad toughs, who are themselves surrounded by an alliance of G-Boys and Red Angels—Masaru was acting as bait to draw out OK-hired mercenary goons, who are too violent and unscrupulous for either gang.

While Takashi and Kyouichi were able to talk things through and discover they had no real beef, talking won’t work against these goons, which means both gangs need to back up their words with action. It’s not a long fight, as the free-agent goons are no match against Takashi’s boxing prowess or Kyouichi’s balletic kicks.

The G-Boy/Red Angel team-up may have been a one-time thing, but as long as both sides put the well-being of Ikebukuro and their respective guys above pointless turf squabbles, coexistence is possible. That’s underscored when Makoto and Tomomi Isogai, the Red Angels’ friendly lieutenant, watch another one of  Kyouichi’s performances together in a mixed crowd of red and blue.

IWGP is as unflashy as Akudama Drive is flashy, but I wouldn’t go so far as to call it boring. It’s confidently presenting very down-to-earth scenarios that you’d see in any big city district anywhere, where open dialogue and compromise can and should always come before violence and destruction. Makoto keeping all possible channels of communication open in his town isn’t always thrilling, but it is admirable. So far that’s enough to keep be invested.

Hanayamata – 04

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Hannah has Zankyou no Terror (all nines thru three) and Preston has Akame ga Kill (all eights thru four), but it looks like Hanayamata is my rock—the show that has consistently performed a a high level in the first third of its run. That’s especially surprising considering the group we see dancing in the OP is still barely three-fifths complete as of this week’s episode.

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This week the focus shifts to Nishimikado Tami, somebody who is both Naru’s “big-sis” figure and the perfect princess from her fantasy tales, made flesh. Not surprisingly, Tami doesn’t have quite that high an opinion of herself, as she has always worked tirelessly to earn her rich, busy father’s praise and esteem, but not always gotten it.

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All that work includes delving into fields like tea, flower arranging, and piano, all of which are skills a proper Japanese lady supposedly needs to excel in, but in which she has less personal interest than say, ballet, which she had to quit to make time for the other things. Her friend (and the student council president) Machi is worried Tami is still stuck in “little girl” mode, placing far too much emphasis on pleasing Daddy, while neglecting her own passions and goals.

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Machi doesn’t dabble in any of the extracurriculars Tami does, as she’s putting much of her focus into attaining academic rather than cultural excellence. Then again, Machi doesn’t come from an old, rich, powerful family. Tami was raised to believe the Nishimikado name is something that must be lived up to. But at the end of the day, a life-sized doll in a kimono could accomplish the same task; that of being ignored when her father comes home.

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On the other hand, Naru declares “It has to be you,” meaning a doll won’t cut it. It may, but the complex is strong with Tami, and only the slightest hint of discouragement from her father is enough for her to reject Hana’s invitation to join the yosakoi club. It’s a reflex at this point in her life, but one that is almost immediately challenged by a lasting gloom and stinging in the chest that isn’t relieved until she crosses paths with Naru again.

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Having been given the little push she needed to move forward and try something new by Hana, it falls on Naru to do the pushing here, after recognizing the pain she’s in. Tami, in turn, comes around to the idea that she can’t go on deferring her happiness for daddy’s benefit. When she declares her intention to take up yosakoi, I’m certain her dad won’t be pleased, but that’s not her damn problem.

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Stray Observations:

  • Hana believes it’s the duty of every self-respecting Japanese student to eat their lunch on the school roof. I agree.
  • Tami shows off her ninja skillz as she sneaks up on Naru and Hana not once but twice.
  • She’s also still quite good at ballet, despite being out of practice.
  • Eating out and staying out late: mortal sins to Tamihime.
  • I kinda like the fact that I still have no frikkin’ clue how Machi is going to be brought into the fold.
  • MAL’s score of Hanayamata (7.19 as of this writing) feels really low to me. Not sure what they don’t like about it. (Too moe? What does moe even mean?)