Magia Record – 17 – Back Into the Lions Den

In a usual cour, there’d be time and space for a cooling off episode, but with only eight episodes to work with, this lean, mean second season of Magia Record has no time to waste. And you know what? That’s just fine with me!

Not only did the entire first season feel more like an introduction and explanation of this world and its expansive cast, but it just makes sense to the flow of the story that once Iroha got caught up on what’s going on, she’d make a beeline for Nemu and not spend half the episode tidying up Mikazuki Villa with Yachiyo and Kuroe.

It also totally tracks that Iroha is almost fanatically eager to do her part in this story. Last week’s dreamy rescue mission got the ball rolling, but this week is where Iroha reasserting herself as the protagonist of this story really picks up momentum. Yachiyo is certainly weary of Iroha jumping right back into the dangerous realm of Magius, while Kuroe is a follow-not-lead sort.

So it’s really quite exhilarating to see Iroha take the initiative, get her friends aligned and on board; she’s both the glue bringing everyone back together and the lodestar guiding everyone to what’s good and right while Kuroe guides them through the fanciful book-filled caverns below Hotel Faint Hope. Unfortunately, in order to get those two through the portal, Yachiyo had to stay behind to keep the Amane sisters at bay.

Fortunately, it’s not long that due either to fate or coincidence—hell, why not both?!—Iroha encounters the ena, who is on her way out after deciding to defect from Magius. She has a very weak and vulnerable Kaede in tow, whose Doppel looks ready to pop out and kill everyone.

Again, alacrity demands that this reunion eschews the usual pleasantries; after all, all four girls are in a hurry with good reason: Nemu says she’s dying, while Kaede looks close to death, or a fate worse than it. But with the portal Iroha and Kuroe used closed, the four decide to team up for now.

What I’m glad there is time for is to check in with the Puella O.G. (including yours truly), who appear to have arrived in Kamihama City judging from the Alina Gray posters and Magius recruitment flyers. Besides it always being great to see these girls, it’s even more gratifying to know that there’s an actual reason for their inclusion here.

They’ve essentially crossed the dimensional barrier to find their beloved Mami, whom we know to be in way too deep with Magius. I like how their fish-out-of-water status is accentuated by the fact their colors are so much more muted than those of “native” magical girls like Iroha & Co. I can’t wait for if and when Madoka and Iroha meet and join forces.

But while on the way to the main exit (Rena and Kaede) and Nemu (Iroha and Kuroe), Iroha follows Little Kyuubey to another inconvenient truth about Magius: they’re farming witches. Knowing full well how fuzzy the line between magical girl and doppel, and goppel and witch, Iroha demonstrates why she’s the beating moral heart of the show, as she declares her distaste for this whole enterprise and questions what could possibly justify it.

Mind you, Iroha is not infallible in her role, and in fact her strong sense of what is right and what just seems wrong clashes with the real-world realities and wholesale suffering not only of less fortunate magical girls who lacked both the strength to defeat Kamihama witches and the support network to make up for their weaknesses. Iroha’s no Yachiyo (no one is) but she’s no slouch in terms of power or friends. Her moral certitude comes from a place of privilege.

But its that certitude and that privilege that make Iroha so well suited to leading the charge. When the girls are attacked by some kind of Uwasa sentry, Kuroe ends up cornered and her soul gem blackened, and almost takes the easy way out by using her doppel for perhaps the last time.

But Iroha won’t let her; instead, she clears Kuroe’s gem, and then the two Connect and their combined power obliterates the sentry. Magius is an organization that is hoping magical girls like Kuroe give up. Iroha’s selflessness and refusal to sacrifice anyone is anathema to them, because it’s explicit proof that their way isn’t the only way.

A new crisis emerges right on the heels of the defeated sentry, as Kaede has hit her limit. Her doppel emerges and goes berserk, and in another positively virtuoso battle sequences, Iroha, Kuroe, and Rena fight together to tame their gentle friend—turned chaotic monster.

As is usually the case with anime like this, stills just don’t due the battle animation the slightest bit of justice. Suffice it to say that in terms of artistry, grace, eclecticism and pure uninhibited style, there are few series out there that can match Magia Record. The benefits of putting 12-13 episodes worth of budget into 8 are on full display here.

Another estranged member of Team Mikazuki Villa, Momoko, arrives with Mitama shortly after the other thee girls manage to neutralize Doppel!Kaede. Mitama seals Kaede a big glass sphere, then wheels it into a gallery absolutely filled with similar spheres: an isolation ward for troubled doppels.

The other girls are not okay with this situation any more than what Magius is doing with witches. But Mitama is unmoved by their outrage, reminding them with almost Kyuubey-esque haughtiness that she warned them not to overuse their doppels.

She also reports that Kaede the other afflicted girls likely won’t wake up—let alone return to normal—until Magius’ “plan has succeeded”—an objective Iroha, Yachiyo, and now Rena and probably Momoko are committed to thwarting.

Again, Iroha serves a focusing and uniting role, corralling and calming the hotter heads and offering a possible Other Way. Even after all that has happened since returning to Faint Hope, her mission is the same: meet with Nemu, find out what’s going on, and find a way to save her.

Iroha has already demonstrated what can be accomplished by bringing the “family” together in a single, clear effort. Why can’t it be so with this? After all, unlike Touka, Nemu remembers Iroha, and the bond they shared. He’s hoping Big Sis gets to meet with her soon.

 

Attack on Titan – 56 – The MacGuffin Unveiled

After a very creepy dream, Armin wakes up atop the wall, beside an injured Sasha, remembering virtually nothing after Bertholdt transformed. Eren fills him in on everything that’s transpired since then. He learns he was chosen to live on over Erwin, not just because Eren and Mikasa insisted to the point of insubordination, but because Erwin gave Levi the final call, and he made it.

Furthermore, only nine members of the Scout Regiment remain: Hange, Levi, Eren, Mikasa, Armin, Sasha, Connie, Jean, and Floch…and that’s it. It’s a very end-of-The Last Jedi situation, with one important difference: they’ve dealt a serious blow to the Titans by freeing Wall Maria. Now there’s nothing between Eren, the others, and the mythical Basement. An an anime watcher only, I’ve been waiting for this for six years.

With such a long and drawn out buildup, a disappointment seemed nigh inevitable. And boy, do they ever lay the final buildup on thick, splicing scenes in the present day with scenes of Eren and Mikasa on the day the Titans came. But it works very well, thanks to the gorgeous scenery, haunting soundtrack, and all of the brooding closeups of the pair as they draw closer to the place where it all began.

After moving a boulder blocking the trap door, they access the hidden stair, but to Eren’s shock, his key doesn’t fit in the lock of the door they find. Levi simply smashes the door, and they walk into a seemingly innocuous chemist’s laboratory and office.

Even behind a locked door and hidden stair, Grisha took great pains to hide the secret of the basement from any possible incursion from the Interior Police. It’s not until Mikasa knocks a wooden cup on the ground that she spots another keyhole in the desk – one in which the key does fit.

Inside the unlocked drawer are three preserved books, the first of which contains a strange and very detailed and lifelike portrait. Grisha’s handwriting on the back describes it as a “photograph,” and reveals an entire society outside the walls that “lives elegantly.” Needless to say nobody in that room had ever seen a photo before, and there’s something very unnerving about that.

There’s an odd flash-forward showing Eren, Levi, Mikasa and Hange returning to further within the walls, where news has come Wall Maria has been taken back and the streets are full of celebration. Hange is holding the books they found in her arm. We don’t see their faces, but no doubt what they say in those books has changed them forever.

Post-credits, Grisha’s story begins when he runs out of the house with his little sister Kay in tow. His mother makes sure they’re wearing their armbands, and along with the whole bleak look of the place, high walls, loudspeakers, guards, and zeppelin, there’s a Nazi Germany ghetto vibe to the whole place, suggesting that life wasn’t so “elegant” for Grisha and his family.

Thousands of words could be written attempting to complete the picture this sequence only begins to paint. For instance, are the walls behind which Eren lived most of his life merely an upgraded version of the ghetto from which his dad hailed? What made the people in the ghetto different, besides clearly lacking the money of the zeppelin-riders?

Still, I’ll have to be patient at least one more week (since the French Open is wrapped up the next episode shouldn’t air late); no need for wild conjecture when the series seems committed to finally delivering the answers that had been delayed so long some feared they’d never come. But now here they are, and from what we’ve seen, they’re strange and disturbing…Classic Titan.

Attack on Titan – 51 – Homefield Advantage

With Shiganshina’s outer gate sealed, his troops atop Wall Maria, the Armored Titan on one side and the Beast Titan and his forces on the other, Irwin determines that the enemy is willing to wait out his forces in a siege. They’ll kill all the horses and starve the humans until even Eren can no longer resist capture, and it will be over. The two objectives this week are: keep Eren from getting captured, and prevent the horses, and any chance at resupply, from being killed.

Unfortunately, and paradoxically, the person you’d want kept away from the fighting, Eren himself, is their trump card against Braun, so he must serve as bait to get Braun to change his prime objective from the horses to Eren. Irwin doesn’t give him time to mull over the decision, so he descends the wall he just climbed and goes after Eren, who packs a much more devastating (and armor-shattering) punch now that he’s focusing all of his hardening power on his fist.

Meanwhile, the newbies are having a hard time even with the small-fry Titans. Irwin observes that the Scout Regiment is far weaker than it once was, but the thousands of sacrifices of the men and women under his command were what made this final stand possible. He visualizes himself standing atop a pile of scout corpses, but  if he can get to Grisha’s Basement before he dies, it may all be worth it.

As Eren grapples with Braun, the more experienced Levi and Hange squads advance, with Hange and Mikasa scoring direct hits on both the Armored Titan’s eyes with Lightning Spears, a weapon Braun didn’t know about until it was used on him.

The Scouts keep up the fight, even as they think they’ve “got him”, launching a dozen or more Lightning Spears into his nape, blowing it open so another volley can take out the vulnerable Braun within. The likes of Sasha and Connie momentarily hesitate at the prospect of killing their former friend and comrade, but Jean snaps them out of it, and the…apparently? fatal blows to Braun are delivered.

Mind you, I’m pretty damn skeptical Braun is 100% dead yet…more likely he’s just hurt and has another ace or two of his sleeve. And the absence of Bertholdt is very suspicious. Irwin and the Scouts can’t afford to revel in small victories. This battle’s for all the marbles.

Attack on Titan – 49 (S3 Fin) – To The Basement

The bigwigs decide that the serum Kenny gave Levi should stay with Levi, to use if, when, and where he deems necessary. Where Levi bumps up against the brass is when Erwin insists on leading the battle to retake Wall Maria.

Even when Levi threatens to break his legs, Erwin is adamant about being present when they learn the truth, and if they retake the wall and gain access to the basement of Eren’s house. If he dies before that, so be it; Hange will take command in his place, and someone else if she dies.

The night before the battle (which is kept secret from the public) is to commence, the Scouts are treated to a morale-boosting feast that includes meat, something that’s been in short supply since Maria fell.

The mere sight of the meat on the table sends Sasha into an uncontrollable berserk mode, and she has to be tied up. Meanwhile, Eren and Jean start heartily going at it, at first with words, then with their fists…but no one stops them, at least until Levi kicks their asses and orders them to bed.

Mikasa and Armin decided not to interfere in Eren’s fight with Jean, both due to his quick healing, and the fact that it’s just nice to see Eren being “spunky” again, rather than moping or skulking or wallowing in despair. No doubt his experiences with Historia have changed his perspective and narrowed what he deems his responsibility.

He’s no longer trying to do everything on his own, or feeling like he needs to. Rather, he now accepts that nobody, not even Mikasa and Levi (of whom he always jealous for their ridiculous strength and skills) can accomplish much alone. Individuals have to find what they can do, and then rely on others for the rest.

The next morning, it’s quickly apparent the embargo on news relating to the battle for Maria was broken by Flugel, whose company provided the meat for the scouts the previous night.

As a result, the regiment gets perhaps its warmest and most enthusiastic sendoff, with the crowds below cheering as the scouts scale the wall, and Erwin pumping them up with battle cries and an order to commence.

It’s all very triumphant…but I couldn’t help but feel uneasy. It’s not going to be easy to retake a whole wall, after all, and it’s certainly not going to happen this third season.

Rather, we’ll have to wait for a fourth, and judging from the little teaser we get mid-credits—in which a bloodsoaked Levi slugs Eren and ends up with Mikasa’s blade at his throat—it’s clear that all of the hardships overcome this season will be replaced by a whole new batch of new ones.

And then there’s the nagging question of whether we’ll ever see that dang basement—or if it will continue to endure as one of anime’s longest and most frustrating teases. Until next year (or whenever), farewell, AoT.

Fate/Extra Last Encore – 01 (First Impressions)

After an appropriately intense prologue in which a red Saber is magnificently defeated by what looks like some kind of golden deity. She starts falling and her eyes meet those of a dying girl—perhaps the female version of our protagonist (in a different life). Like Bakemonogatari or Madoka Magica, Shinjo starts things out loud and brash.

Things tone down a bit (or possibly reset), as we settle into a more-or-less ordinary high school class. There, familiar faces abound as our protagonist, Kishinami Hakuno, has interactions with Matou Shinji, Toosaka Rin, Matou Sakura in short order.

These faces are familiar, but the setting is strange, and there are constant flashes to a darker, more sinister reality lurking beneath the bright top layer. Kishinami can sense the death, and he questions what anyone is doing in this place, or why it even exists.

When he goes against a teacher’s warnings and approaches “Limbo”, the incinerator in the bowels of the school, he gets a fresh lecture from a bespectacled teacher. This is indeed an artificial paradise; a “digital hell” made in the image of heaven. He calls it a “Moon Cage”, where those with Master compatibility are sent.

Once the number of potentials reaches 100, there is a purge, and only the strongest selectees survive. An already disoriented Kishinami is quickly stabbed in the back by Matou Shinji (I guess he’s a jackass in any reality!) and as he starts to bleed out, an army of terminators starts mopping up the losers.

But Kishinami refuses to die, not without “vengeance” or “bliss, ” and presumably, not without more answers. As he’s chased by some kind of stone golem, he makes it to Limbo and falls in.

When he’s at the bottom, he finds a red sword waiting to be plucked…some version of Excalibur? His would-be destroyer is breathing down is neck, but Kishinami reaches and grasps the sword in time, summoning the servant Saber, who cleaves the foe in two in a sumptuous display.

By choosing to fight rather than simply run or survive, Kishinami seems to have earned the favor of the most powerful of Heroic Spirits, and a chance at an “encore” to attain vengeance for his plight and the bliss of victory—and Kotomine Kirei seems to be rooting for the kid, in his way.

Hmm…I found this a fresh an interesting twist on the Fate formula, going virtual and combining advanced Matrix-esque technology with the more low-tech history of the various servants. The Holy Grail would seem to be, at least in part, release from all of the layers of virtual prisons; a “true freedom”.

Akiyuki Shinbo directs this much like Bakemonogatari and Madoka, juxtaposing epic spectacles with mundane daily life and not afraid to let things get a bit trippy. While I would like to see a little more humor infused in the proceedings, I understand the need to establish this world with a straight face. Let’s see where this leads.

Attack on Titan – 37 (Fin, For Now)

Erwin manages to tie off his arm stump and stay conscious enough to witness a lot more of his scouts get eaten by the swarming Titans, but Eren and Mikasa are rescued from “Momeater” by Hannes, looking to settle a score from the very beginning.

Historia, who is now correcting people who call her Krista, tells Ymir it’s time for them to live for themselves, and when Ymir is around, no matter how messed up things get, Historia isn’t scared. Seeing her brandishing a sword and a confident smirk is a great way to close this chapter on the character.

Hannes lasts about as long as one would expect, but Momeater ends up eating him in much the same way, as Eren and the injured Mikasa can only watch. Eren tries to transform before his hand is fully healed, resulting in failure and an emotional breakdown.

But Mikasa is there to pull him out of it, bringing out the Full Adorable Mikasa routine and essentially charming Eren into calming the eff down, which still leaves the matter of Momeater starting to finish up with Hannes.

When it reaches out to grab another snack, Eren stops its hand with his fist, and something happens: Eren gains a new power. That power transforms his ravings into orders for all the rank-and-file Titans to follow, making them his minions.

They surround and tear Momeater apart, then aid the scouts’ retreat by swarming Reiner, forcing him to give up on grabbing Eren. Seeing that Reiner and Bertholdt are in deep trouble, Ymir runs to their aid, leaving Historia behind with a simple “I’m sorry” and tender caress of her hair.

Reiner and Bertholdt survive the day, and that night, Ymir tells them why she helped: because the day they brought Wall Maria down was the day she was freed from her nightmare of a life, into a life that’s, if we’re honest, still a nightmare, but maybe not quite as bad because she does have a measure of freedom.

As for Eren, he has no idea what happened, so Armin has to put two and two together for him, having talked it over with Jean. That Eren now knows he can control Titans without becoming one (he’s the “coordinate”, as Reiner says), is huge. It means civilization behind the wall isn’t as imminently doomed as everyone thought the previous day.

Not that there’s going to be smooth sailing ahead. As the scouts look out, the camera speeds past the horizon and beyond any point the humans we’ve been following have ever reached…all the way to another wall; another civilization, where a shirtless man with glasses sits atop the Beast Titan…whom I’m guessing is Eren’s dad.

That’s an effective, world-expanding teaser for a continuation of the story…whenever it happens to come around. While I’m not greatly informed of the particulars, it seemed like a huge effort just to get these twelve new episodes produced and aired, so I’m not holding my breath for episodes 38-50.

However, for all the questions from the first season the second failed to answer, I still feel it did the job most people expect of Titan: to entertain. I can’t say I wasn’t, or that I don’t look forward to the next chapters.