Mars Red – 02 – Sin From Thy Lips

In the ruins of the bunker where Misaki was being held, Moriyama informs his newly-promoted boss Col. Maeda that there have been more vamp sightings in Kayabacho. Nitto News reporter Shirase Aoi is after the truth of the recent spate of “human combustion” incidents and keen for details on Misaki’s “elopement”, while yearning for her childhood friend, who never returned from battle in Siberia. She’s also miffed that Salomé has been replaced by Romeo & Juliet at the theatre.

We meet the vampiric members of Maeda’s vampire unit Code Zero—the “unranked” Yamagami, “A Class” Kurusu Shuutarou, and “mad scientist”-type Takeuchi—as well as Suwa, who seems to be human. Their first trip for intel on the vamps in Kayabacho is Tenmanya, a shop full of knicknacks, antiques, and curios. Its proprietor plays both sides of the human-vampire conflict.

Tenmanya is willing to offer some info in exchange for ruining his competition. Those rival “blood sellers” are selling a bootleg of his “product”—the vamp equivalent of the hard shit—and a vampire couple are enjoying it and themselves, though the woman seems to think her mate is drinking a bit too much.

While playing a bouquet of asters at the stigmata where Misaki burned up, Maeda encounters Aoi, and learns that one of his vampire agents, Kurusu Shuutarou, is her childhood friend reported dead. He doesn’t tell her of Shuutarou’s fate, nor why he’s leaving flowers, other than he “couldn’t keep his word.”

At midnight, all bridges and streets leading out of Kayabacho are sealed and Code Zero moves in on the vampire couple, who sense danger and aren’t prepared to go quietly. I love how simple yet frightening vampires are depicted in Mars Red, and once again the lighting and camerawork really sell their speed and ferocity that far exceeds human limits.

Unfortunately for our couple, they are cornered on a bridge, and Maeda has brought plenty of his own vampires to take them down. The male vamp chugs one more vial of the black blood and goes out in a blaze of glory, but it’s Suwa and not the Class A Kurusu who delivers the killing blow. Despite being an extremely powerful vampire, Kurusu is disgusted and even a bit scared of blood.

The “parent root” female vamp tries to flee, but she’s headed off by Maeda, who rather violently stuffs his fist through her mouth then slashes her with his sword. How he, a mere human, can do this is not clear. Is he not a mere human? Unfortunately Maeda’s aide Moriyama has to be put out of his misery. Maeda handles it, then has a solemn smoke on the bridge.

Like Tenmanya, Mars Red has the eclectic style and pleasantly musty scent of a shop with odd hours filled with neat things. I also like the connection between Aoi and Kurusu, though I wish after two episodes I could summon more than a shrug about Colonel Maeda, who’s almost too stiff and stoic for his own good.

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.

Re: Zero – 48 – Crunch Time

“Love Me Down to My Blood and Guts” almost feels like a finale. At the very least, it feels like the start of the climax of a epic blockbuster film. Every stop is pulled out and not a single moment of its 29+ minutes is wasted. You get a little bit of everything, starting with a well-balanced combination of badass action and lighthearted comedy.

Every wound Garfiel gives Elsa is instantly healed, but he doesn’t consider his fight futile, because he’s not necessarily fighting to beat her. He’s fighting to support his “Boss” Subaru, and no matter how many times Elsa heals and charges, he’ll keep meeting her steel with his.

That’s where we get a couple of impeccably-timed jokes, first with Garfiel boasting that the mabeasts will be no sweat for Boss, followed by the mabeasts being too much for Boss to handle. Subie also strikes out when he tries to demonstrate his real-world knowledge of dust fires, only to need to be bailed out by Otto and Petra igniting the beast with oil.

Those fires defeat the main mabeast but also beging to envelop the mansion. Subaru entrusts Rem and Petra to Otto while he runs into the flames to rescue Beako, whether she wants to go or not.

While the flames rage at the mansion, Emilia’s part of the episode serves as a calming, centering breath. Sure, she watched a number of unpleasant futures, but they come as a jumbled rush of voices and images, ultimately collectively blunting their individual discouraging effects.

There’s also the fact that they’re only “possible” futures, as Minerva tells her after the third trial ends. That means none of them are absolutely the real future, which means Emilia and those she loves will be able to avert disaster if and when it rears its ugly head.

Minerva appears to meet with Emilia in Bliss because Echidna was still “mad” at Lia for how the other two trials went, particularly the second. Perhaps Echidna really would have preferred to greedily feed off Emilia’s despair, but after reckoning with her past in the first trial, the witch’s prediction the other two would be a cakewalk turned out to be accurate.

Minerva is decidedly unwrathful in her interactions with Emilia. In fact, she treats her a lot like Mother Fortuna treated her, with tenderness and love, embracing her when Emilia turns back to see her. I suppose Minerva knew her mother, and maybe even knew Emilia as a baby, which is why she’s so aunt-like here?

In any case, Emilia has passed all three trials, and gains access to a tomb where the intricate barrier spell emanates from the deceased Echidna’s chest. With a cute little “Hi-yah!” Emilia deactivates the barrier and exits the graveyard, only to be welcomed by a raging winter storm.

Elsa and Garfiel are still going at it in the midst of the spreading flames when Maylie bursts through the outer wall with her giant hippo. Frederica isn’t far behind, turning the duel into a battle between sibling duos. After some trash talk the four get down to business, in a fury of bloody, kick-ass combat.

Frederica takes on all of Maylie’s other mabeasts, then Garfiel starts getting serious by transforming into his beast mode, ripping half of Elsa’s face off then not only going toe-to-toe with the hippo, but twisting and ripping it’s damn head off. Unlike the hippo, even Gar’s most vicious attacks fail to faze Elsa.

It’s at this point Garfiel realizes he’s dealing with a vampire. Elsa takes a few moments to tell the story of where she came from, and how she suffered to get to this kind of existence. When she was caught and stripped by an shop owner while stealing off starvation, Elsa reached for a shard of glass and opened the man’s belly.

Elsa, who’d previously only known the cold bleakness of her homeland, was both soothed and excited by the warmth of blood and innards, and never looked back. She tells Garfiel all of this because she finds him so precious and endearing. When he says there’s already a girl he likes, she clarifies that she only has business with his insides, and her love for him will begin after she kills him.

It’s a stirring final monologue for a baddie who has been around since Subaru first arrived, and distinguished by the utter inability to kill her. However, thanks to an assist by Frederica using Maylie to distract her, Gar gets in close and bites Elsa in the neck. Elsa bites him back, but he gives as good as he gets.

Before Elsa’s wound heals (or perhaps it won’t heal because of where he bit her), Gar lifts up the giant headless hippo and throws it on top of her. In her final moments, she recalls the very first thrill of disemboweling someone, then exclaims “What a thrill” in sheer ecstasy before being crushed with an ugly crunch. Hard cut to the title card and that oh-so fitting title, “Love Me Down to My Blood and Guts”.

At this point we’ve reached the 21-minute mark, which is when most other anime are rolling credits. Re:Zero keeps it going with an entire extra act, which is perhaps the most visually stunning and emotionally affecting in an episode that’s already full of those.

It deals with Ram and Puck fighting Roswaal, a battle that moves outside to protect Ryuzu Meyer’s crystal. Roswaal stirs shit by confessing to messing with Puck’s contract with Emilia when she was depressed after her fight with Subaru, essentially kicking her while she’s down in hopes Subie would scoop her up and do everything for her.

Roswaal admits to always looking back on the past, and with fondness, deeming all the wonderful things that ever happened to be in the past, and all that exists now is a phony standing atop a pile of corpses. Puck name-drops Beatrice, provoking him into launching fire attack.

Roswaal is disappointed in Ram’s weak outing thus far; as he wanted her to exact justice for her brethren and find happiness by defeating him. That’s when Ram drops a bombshell on him: he never properly realized her true intention: that she really was a demon, and not someone who was in love with Roswaal.

It’s a confession she delivers while both of her eyes exposed, a trademark of the demon maid sisters. When Roswaal asks her what of keeping her promise to her brethren, Ram simply says she’s prioritizing her own feelings over those of the dead. Puck, energized by Ram’s confession, grows to mammoth size (though maintaining his cute appearance) and seals Roswaal in a giant ring of ice, through which he can spot multiple Rams flitting back and forth.

Roswaal begins destroying the ice walls and the giant ice crystal attacks Puck rains down on him, but in the process he ends up with one of the crystals directly behind him. It shatters on its own and out comes the real Ram, snatching the gospel Echidna gave him, while suffering a horrific wound. Calling it “the root of all evil”, she drops the book in the fire, destroying it.

She wears a smile as she says “Now, at last…” before being hit by Roswaal’s retaliatory flames, which cause a huge explosion that consumes them both. Then the credits roll, and for me at least, the process of starting to breathe again commenced. As it has demonstrated many times in its previous forty-seven episodes, when Re:Zero decides to go big and epic, it does not disappoint.


RABUJOI
WORLD
HERITAGE
LIST

Vlad Love – 06 – The World’s a Stage, Not at Stake

The title above is essentially the thesis for my review: by not involving combat aircraft or blowing up entire cities and simply focusing on something, Vlad Love’s quirky hyperactivity can be distilled into something competent, approaching greatness. Nothing like a good old class play to lend structure and purpose!

After the inaugural night class roll is called, Chihiro gets right to the point: they’re going to put on a show. Kaoru suggests an adaptation of the disk version of something very similar to Castlevania—an inspired choice not just because of the vampire theme but because earlier video games were so wonderfully elemental.

Mai is the final vampire boss/love interest, while the hunter is played by Mitsugu, with Nami, Kaoru, and Katsuno playing level bosses. Maki relishes filming a “making-of” docu.

The most controversial assignment is Sumida Jinko as director. Her Ultra-Type-A blood ensures a production fraught with tension and drama, as she immediately treats everyone as if they were professional stage performers and crew.

Every major cast member has something to do, and each voice actor is clearly having a metric fuckton of fun—looking at you, Kobayashi Yuu…Sasha lives on in Nami! The show puts a welcome fun spin on its beloved insets by having Jinko pop out of her windows to kick and push others around.

A tough day of rehearsal ends with a rarity these days—a scene with Mitsugu and Mai actually alone, staged like the yuri romance it should be, only for Jinko to interrupt with some midnight whippin’ lessons.

Before anyone knows it, it’s showtime. To its credit the rehearsals don’t go on too long, allowing the show itself room to breathe. Of course, there’s a crisis just before the curtain rises: Mai is suffering from anxiety-fueled acute anemia. She needs someone’s blood, and because things are so hectic, Jinko is chosen as the donor without thinking about it too much.

The play actually starts relatively smoothly, with just the right amount of following the script and improvising. I liked how Mitsugu had to exit stage left and run down steps, through corridors beneath the stage, and up steps to enter stage right…because it’s a sidescroller play!

Once Mai takes the stage, it’s clear she’s operating under the influence of Jinko’s perfectionist Type-A blood. As such, she decides to play her own role, ignoring the script. An enraged Jinko runs on stage to scold her, but Mai attacks her, and the curtain has to drop, and Chihiro manages to tranquilize Mai.

Jinko is beside herself and starts bawling from the fiasco that has unfolded, but Chihiro tells her to listen to the crowd: her play isn’t the disaster she thinks it is. The cast and crew walk out for their curtain call, and by the time the crowd is chanting “Jinko, Jinko, Jinko”, Jinko is holding back tears of pride and joy, which come after a veritable Odyssey of complex facial expressions.

This was the best episode of Vlad Love yet, and it did it by not biting off more than it could chew and simply capitalizing on the immense voice talent at its disposal. It’s the first episode where Jinko is utilized properly and Hikasa Yoko gives the Type-A stickler texture and appeal as her character transitions from outsider to “one of them”, them being the Blood Donation Club’s collection of big ol’ weirdos. Most importantly, this episode had a satisfying share of Mai x Mitsugu moments. Well played!

Rating: 4/5 Stars

Jujutsu Kaisen – 18 – Exchange Crashers

This episode’s got a lot to cover, so we jump right into the middle of the duel between the stuffy Kamo Noritoshi, which is basically a battle of creative blood manipulation vs. shikigami. The battle is not only notable for how awesome it looks, but the fact it takes place indoors, and is the first time in a while we’ve seen Megumi and his menagerie of spirit friends in action.

We also check in on poor delightful Kasumi, who is still in a state of shock over being suddenly bereft of her cherished sword. She gets a call from Mechamaru, but it’s Toge on the other line, officially retiring her when he says the word “sleep”. Like Megumi, there’s a lot of pent-up anticipation to watch Toge operate. Like Momo, he plays a key support role.

The faculty notes Kasumi’s retirement, and Utahime heads off to retrieve her (there are cursed spirits still lurking around). We learn that chief among those is a semi-tamed semi-first grade, which Principal Gakuganji tells Kamo will be unleashed upon Itadori Yuuji as soon as his battle with Toudou is over.

That “ringer” demon turns out to be a complete red herring, as no sooner does Toge spot it lurking in the forest is it decapitated…not by any sorcerer, but by Hanami. That’s right, Big Bad Mahito and his fellow special-grade curses have arrived to start some shit, and they’re accompanied by a bald human.

Before their presences is known to Megumi and Kamo, the former ups his game by calling forth a new shikigami he just tamed, a goddamn glowed-up pink elephant that spews forth a torrent of water which blasts Kamou out of the building, where he’s exposed to the aerial Nue’s electricity.

Kamou restrains Nue in blood bindings, but what had the makings of an all time epic JJK battle is rudely cut short by the explosive emergence of a colossal mass of tree matter. Suddenly all of the cursed talismans burn away at once in the faculty viewing room, alerting the adults that something is off.

That something is off becomes far more obvious when the bald curse user with Mahito erects a veil over the group battle area. Gojou, Gakuganji and Utahime race to the veil’s edge before it is complete, but it doesn’t matter: it’s a veil that will allow anyone but Gojou to enter.

This can be seen as either (or both) a means of keeping Gojou from interfering in Hanami dealing with the sorcerers within the veil, and isolating Gojou on the outside so Mahito can take a stab at the guy Jougo couldn’t beat.

When they’re confronted by the bald guy, now weilding a big axe, Gakuganji sends Utahime off to protect the kids, while he stands his ground and removes the contents of the big black case he’s carrying around. Turns out it’s a Gibson Flying V guitar, which not only means we’re in for some epic shredding at some point, but it’s a battle of axe-vs.-axe. So absurdly awesome.

Yuuji, Toudou, The Zenin twins, Nobara, and Momo are all still on their own, wondering what the heck’s going on, while Megumi, Toge and Kamo find themselves being stared down by a particularly intimidating tree spirit in Hanami, who pledges to heal the earth by purging it of humanity. Their individual attacks have no effect, so they’ll either have to get creative with a collab or wait for help from stronger sorcerers.

After all that built up to the interschool competition, the event has been rendered totally irrelevant, while those who were planning to kill Yuuji must shift their targets to the far more pressing cursed threats. Heck, as the stable-for-now vessel of Sukuna, he looks to be instrumental in pushing back Mahito & Co. Good thing they weren’t able to kill him yet!

Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba – 14 – Aurora Boarialis

Tanjirou punches the boar-man to get him off Zenitsu, breaking his ribs in the process while scolding him for raising his sword(s) to a fellow Demon Slayer. The boar-man, named Hashibira Inosuke, decides to fight Tanjirou hand-to-hand (and foot-to-foot).

As both have cracked ribs, they fight on more or less an equal level. Inosuke has an advantage in flexibility and how damn low he can get (Tanjirou likens it to fighting a four-legged beast). Tanjirou isn’t really trying to fight, but when Inosuke won’t let up, he deploys his secret-weapon: his titanium-hard skull.

The headbutt is devastating enough to knock Inosuke’s boar mask off, revealing a beautiful, feminine face that seriously freaks out Zenitsu (though to be honest everything freaks the guy out). Inosuke passes out, then wakes up to find the others burying bodies from the mansion.

When he says he won’t help, Tanjirou chalks it up to Inosuke’s wounds hurting too much, only angering the boar-man more. A Kasugai crow arrives, gives the three rescued siblings a wisteria charm so they can return home safely, and leads the three slayers to a manor with a Wisteria crest at the gate, ordering them to rest there until fully recovered.

A comedy triad ensues at the inn-like manor, whose owners were saved by Demon Slayers and thus allow them to stay there free of charge. Tanjirou is glad for the change of clothes, food, and bedding, and even Zenitsu mostly calms down, but Inosuke is constantly trying to pick a fresh fight with Tanjirou.

Fortunately our laid-back protagonist doesn’t rise to the provocations, preferring to rest up so that he can more effectively fight the real enemy: demons. When the three lay down for the night, Inosuke tells the others how he, an orphan with no family, stole a Nichirin blade from a Demon Slayer who “trespassed” on “his mountain”, then heard about the Final Selection and basically thought it’d be cool to do that.

Zenitsu steers the conversation to the box Tanjirou has been carrying, and asks him straight up why he travels with a demon. Tanjirou thanks Zenitsu for protecting it even though he knew of its contents, and the praise goes straight to Zenitsu’s head (though he vehemently denies he’s strong). Before Tanjirou can tell him that the demon is his sister, Nezuko starts scratching at the door of her box, scaring the shit out of Zenitsu.

She crawls out and grows to her normal size. Once Zenitsu gets a good look at her, he draws his sword on Tanjirou for keeping such a “cute girl” in a box and not telling anyone, and threatens to “purge” him. Meanwhile, Inosuke can’t remember why he first picked a fight, and falls asleep instantly, missing the big Nezuko reveal. This was probably the most laid back and fun episode of Demon Slayer to date, a well-timed breather from all the recent demon battles.

Rating: 4/5 Stars

 

Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba – 13 – Poetry in Motion

It was the previous episode combined with this one that I first started to notice Demon Slayer starting to develop some pacing issues. Yes, Kyogai’s (the name of the tsuzumi demon) ability to spin and change the rooms of the mansion Inception-style and launch fatal slashes is pretty cool…at first.

Then it simply goes on too long. Kyogai drums, Tanjirou is thrown around and gets frustrated, rinse, repeat. This episode tries to break up the repetition with a trip back to Kyogai’s past when he was still a human, and attempts to explain why he went bad: his editor/publisher thought the stories he wrote stunk. The anguish of failure curdled into hatred and Mr. Literary Critic was Kyogai’s first victim.

When psyching himself up doesn’t work, Tanjirou uses his nose and realizes that he needs to whip out a Water Breathing Form to get this guy, but first he asks him his name. There’s a lingering question of how much of Kyogai’s humanity is left, because he clearly reacts to Tanjirou not trampling on his pages as a sign the kid acknowledges his writing.

Before Tanjirou decapitates Kyogai, he also praises Kyogai’s Demon Art Form as pretty incredible, which it is, even if it’s a bit one-note. In fact, had Tanjirou not been suffering broken bones from his last battle, it feels like their stalemate would have gone on indefinitely. Instead, as Kyogai’s head slowly dissolves, he takes comfort that the opponent who defeated him finally recognized his dual passions of writing and drums.

When Tanjirou emerges from the house with two of the three kids, he finds Zenitsu shielding Nezuko’s box with his body as the boar-headed guy absolutely wails on him. It marks the second-straight episode where my opinion of the orange scaredy-cat has improved, as Zenitsu remembers Tanjirou saying the box’s contents are “more important than my life”, and protects them accordingly without hesitation, trusting in his new friend.

Zenitsu can hear things few people can, in the same way Tanjirou smells things others can’t. He could hear there was a demon in the box from the start, but could also hear such “kind” sounds emanating from Tanjirou, he felt he could trust him to explain what was in it if he asked.

Unfortunately, the scene of Tanjirou emerging from the house to find Zenitsu being beaten is repeated for no apparent reason, other than perhaps to pad out the run time. We watch Tanjirou react, then jump back to a few minutes ago when Zenitsu and the third kid ended up outside, then boar-man appears, then we watch Tanjirou react again. Finally, when Tanjirou decides to stop boar-man’s assault, his charge is almost comically drawn out, as that action ends up taking us to the credits.

Considering the promo art, OP and ED make it quite clear the boar-man will become a member of the “gang”, it seems odd to keep up the charade that he’s a “bad guy” for yet another episode. Had Kyogai’s backstory/demise and the scene with the two siblings throwing things at Tanjirou been tightened up a bit, there could have been more time at the end for Tanjirou to engage with the boar-man. Just some odd, clunky choices.

Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba – 12 – Bang the Drum Quickly

This week Tanjirou meets the boar-faced man with chipped blades while the guy is inexplicable stepping on poor little Teruko. Tanjirou throws him off and the guy is intrigued by his human opponent’s strength. Just when you thought this guy would help out, he doesn’t—but hopefully thanks to the tsuzumi demon’s room-spinning and slashing drums, he doesn’t have to deal with him too long.

For the record, I like the boar-man and his joyful belly laughing as he tears through the ever-changing layout of the mansion. He’s certainly less annoying than Zenitsu, for whom there is not enough cheese in the world to go with his whine.

It sure looks like Teruko’s brother Shouichi got paired up with the wrong demon slayer, as Zenitsu whines and quivers so much he only adds the boy’s considerable anxiety, especially when a long-tongued demon starts chasing them. Zenitsu eventually faints from acute terror, and we finally see his useful, dare I say badass side.

He’s able to literally defeat the demon in his sleep using his lightning breathing form, only to wake up freaking out with no memory of doing so. After an ignominious introduction, I like this new wrinkle in Zenitsu’s character, though it means that in order to be effective he has to be knocked out so his unconscious instincts can take over.

Tanjirou and Teruko eventually find the captive brother Kiyoshi, who has one of the demon’s tsuzumi that fell off when the three demons were fighting to determine who would eat him. Zenitsu destroyed one demon while boarman defeated another. The tsuzumi demon would seem to be the last demon standing. Tanjirou figures out which drums do what, but as he’s still recovering from his previous battle, he briefly loses his spirit along with his strength.

He has to remember Urokodaki’s training, in which he told his student that water can take on any form that could be needed. Even with limited mobility due to his injuries, as long as he trusts in his water breathing, he can adapt to the tsuzumi demon’s pattern of attack, dispel his fear, and go on the offensive.

Rating: 4/5 Stars