Utawarerumono: Itsuwari no Kamen – 03

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Unwatched nine-year-old prequel aside, Utawarerumono continues to churn out entertaining little yarns chronicling the adventures of the hapless Haku and capable Kuon. This week they join Ukon in escorting a kind and adorable young princess, Rurutie, to the capital.

Along the way, the girls enjoy a hot bath, but Kuon hears someone lurking in the woods and runs out to confront them, but in her absent-mindedness ends up presenting her naked self to Haku.

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The convoy is eventually attacked by bandits led by a feisty young woman (Nosuri) and a rapey old man who steal all their wagons containing tribute for the emperor, but Ukon lets them ride off without a fight, causing Haku to suspect the super-strong badass has a plan in mind for foiling the thieves.

Nosuri, by the way, quickly ends her alliance with the rapey dude when she learns he’s built a large hideout in the canyons where he intends to bring more women and children to victimize. She don’t want no part of that.

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Even when things don’t go exactly according to Ukon’s plan, and the rapey leader ends up right back where Haku and the girls are, the fact that Haku made Rurutie’s plump, affectionate riding bird fall for him back in the beginning of the episode pays off, when the bird dispatches the bad guys in a protective rage.

The bandits are arrested by imperial guards, and the way is clear for the rest of Rurutie’s journey to the capital, where Kuon is certain Haku can find a good job, even if he claims not to be ready for one yet, because he’s perhaps the laziest protagonist of the Fall, yet still somehow likable simply because I’m not sure I wouldn’t act the same way as he if thrust into such an unfamiliar world.

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Utawarerumono: Itsuwari no Kamen – 02

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That lovely, cozy, immersive quality I spoke of last week? It was largely supplanted this week by an ably executed but mostly pedestrian adventure-of-the-week.

When Kuon is hired by Ukon to hunt some giriri (giant centipedes) lurking on the outskirts of the village, and Kuon insists Haku comes along, it means a fast pace and more action than last week, with so much going on relative to last week it was hard to settle in. All the extra action also exposed the show’s sometimes iffy production values.

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Ukon is a pretty bland strongman with a penchant for being surprised whenever Haku makes himself useful, while Mororo is the archetypal prancing anime dandy. Neither are repellant, but they’re not as interesting as Kuon and Haku on their own.

The episode is effective in one regard: it shows there are all kinds of ways to contribute, not just to the village, but in a more high-stakes situation involving giant centipedes. Haku also demonstrates he’s a natural math whiz, which will serve him well in the capital.

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My problem with Utawarerumono: I find myself preferring a slighter cast and well-placed bursts of action punctuating more world-building slice-of-life; in other words, a series of episodes like its first. But that’s probably not what this show is going to be, judging from its 25-episode length and an OP positively bursting with dozens of different characters that made my eyes glaze over.

A trip to the capital means more introductions…a lot more, as well as a departure from the snowy environs that drew me into the show in the first place. I’m not saying I feel misled, nor expected the show to languish in that village for 25 episodes. I’m just saying the things I like about the show and the things the show intends to focus on may not be the same going forward.

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Utawarerumono: Itsuwari no Kamen – 01 (First Impressions)

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From White Fox and the director of Jormungand and Katanagatari comes Utawareumono, a show that ably demonstrates less is more by starting off simply and not trying to do too much in its first episode, yet still utterly drawing me into its fantasy world. We’re dropped right into the same plight as the protagonist: we know not his name nor from whence he came, but neither does he. He just suddenly wakes up in the middle of an achingly gorgeous wintry landscape, barefoot and wearing simple green robes, and he has to run, first from a giant centipede, then a frightening goo monster with a face.

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Unsure of who he is, where he is, and what to do, a hand suddenly grabs him, and when its owner turns around to face him, he learns it’s a beautiful young woman. She introduces herself as Kuon once they’re safe, and appoints herself his guardian, as she considers herself responsible for his life now that she’s gone and saved it. She lends him warmer clothes and the two trudge through the winterscape towards a village.

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Along the way the as-of-yet no-named man learns Kuon has ears and a tail (the latter she’s very cross at him for touching), and Kuon learns the man doesn’t have much energy or stamina to go along with his amnesia. But I enjoyed the fast rapport they develop; Kuon is unflappably kind and patient, and their environs are, as I said, arrestingly pretty. The show has a stirring score, but when it eschews music for the silence of the place, I could really feel the cold, just I could feel the warmth of the campfire.

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When they arrive at the village, it’s an opportunity for Kuon to show Haku, as she officially names her (by the power vested in her as his guardian), other aspects of herself. She eats a huge amount of food in the form of the delicious-looking, fajita-esque spread she orders at the inn. She also has a bit of a mischievous streak in peeking in on Haku in the bath, which she soon regrets when he starts doing nude calisthenics, a scene for which you can tell the show didn’t skimp on the Foley artist.  In addition to bumping up her cuteness, her tail is also a good indicator of her mood. She even mixes up a salve for his blistered feet before he hits the hay. It’s all very pleasant domestic stuff.

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The next morning, Haku learns he’s not getting a free ride; if he wants to keep eating and staying at the inn, he needs to do his part. It’s here where Kuon learns Haku is, essentially, allergic to manual labor, and quite bad at it when forced to do it. However, he does show he can use his head and has a mind for machines when he fixes the waterwheel at the village mill. That achievement may have helped him find his niche, even if he only fixed the thing so he could sleep.

In all, this was a well-made and well-executed episode; a pleasure to watch. It reminded me a bit of Spice & Wolf in its immersive power; feeling like a nice, cozy blanket I can wrap myself up in. It’s actually a welcome change of pace from the more hectic Summer stuff I just got done watching. That being said, the cold close in which three men are attacked in the night by some kind of beast promises more action in the near future.

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Steins Gate – 17

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Hmmm…Well, that didn’t work. At least not all the way.

Steins;Gate may twist time into knots, but it never wastes it, snatching away Okarin’s (and my) sweet relief that Mayushii is safe in the first thirty seconds. Okarin stopping his past self from stopping Suzuha from going back to the 70s before the storm damaged her time machine (whew) only delayed Mayushii’s death a little; it didn’t prevent it. For that, he’s going to have to get that divergence number closer to 1.0. Much closer.

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So it’s back to the drawing board for Okarin. Thankfully, he has the adorable genius Kurisu on hand to help him decide what to draw up next. She theorizes that because sending one D-mail to cancel another made incremental progress, cancelling other D-mails that ended up changing the past will lead to further progress.

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It’s a good theory, but undoing D-mails will have a profound interpersonal cost on the lab members, touched on when Kurisu laments she won’t remember Okarin calling her Kurisu (not remembering the first time he did it). But that kind of change is peanuts compared to The last D-mail Okarin undid, which caused Suzuha to never meet her father. The next D-mail he has to undo is the Feyris sent; the one that somehow prevented Akiba from becoming an Otaku Mecca.

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That “somehow” is key, because Okarin can’t change anything if he doesn’t know what Feyris actually did. When he tracks her down, she’s slightly occupied; on the run from a gang of over-zealous Rai-Net Battler gamers sore over her beating them at a tournament. If Okarin wants to talk to her, he’s going to have to keep up.

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The difficulty of prying the truth from the frazzled Feyris is aggravated by his talk with her being constantly interrupted by bursts of chasing, but Okarin eventually able to get her attention by mentioning “May Queen”, the name of her cafe that never was, and a name no one but her should know.

Okarin goes so far as to bring Feyris to the site where her cafe was (or should be), and something very unsettling and haunting occurs: the area briefly shifts back and forth between its current abandoned state and the May Queen, causing Feyris to nearly faint. Even before this happens, the atmosphere is so thick you can cut it with a knife.

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This is a phenomenon I don’t believe we’ve seen before, and I think it has something to do with the effect of Okarin’s Reading Steiner “leaking”; making those he’s in close contact with remember along with him, at least to a degree. I’m interested to see how far this “leaking” goes and if it’s permanent or merely fleeting.

When Okarin tells Feyris that Mayushii’s life is in danger, Feyris is, surprisingly, still hesitant to cooperate, but she turns out to have a very good reason: she sent that D-mail to save the life of her father, who died ten years ago in the original world line.

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This explains why he so suddenly appeared in her apartment after she sent the D-mail, and fully re-inserts Feyris, whose D-mail had far-reaching effects on the timeline but who had been largely sidelined since episode 9, right back into the thick of things, showing just how deep a bench this show has. It also introduces the unenviable but  inevitable choice of saving one person’s life at the cost of another but not being able to save both.

But before they can determine how to proceed, the crazed Rai-Netters corner them, and we get a tense, stark scene in which they beat Okarin bloody and prepare to take Feyris away to their deranged leader for God-knows-what manner of unpleasantness.

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Even in his beaten-down state, Okarin is able to stall the thugs long enough for help to arrive in the most unexpected form imaginable: Feyris’ dad’s chauffeur squeezes his S-Class limo through the alley and scares off the thugs.

Call it a deus (or patrem?) ex machina if you must—it was quite a strange sequence of events—but the fact the thugs’ boss on the other end of the phone is promptly arrested suggests a coordinated, quick-response security system is in place to protect Feyris, a system necessitated by the fact she’s a celebrity in her own right, but also the daughter of a rich and powerful man and thus a target for kidnapping.

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But even with such a system, Feyris would have been in big trouble had Okarin not been there to delay them. That isn’t lost on Feyris or her dad, who agree to tell Okarin what became of the IBN 5100 he used to own, in a very slick segue. Ten years ago, while preparing to board his flight for work ten years ago, her dad received a text that his daughter had been kidnapped, and as he was not as wealthy back then, had to sell his IBN in order to afford her ransom.

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This talk is followed by Feyris paying Okarin a visit in the guest room where he’s resting after a day of running and being beaten up. Okarin has had many exquisitely tender, moving scenes with Kurisu, Mayushii, and Suzuha; now it’s Feyris’ turn…or I should say, Akiha Rumiho’s turn.

She drops their usual chuuni code and nicknames in order to thank him properly, and to tell him everything she couldn’t say in front of her father, in one of the most sharply written and powerfully-acted scenes of the series thus far. Not bad for a character we’ve barely seen for eight episodes, but always liked. Considerable props to Miyano Mamoru and Momoi Haruko.

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Ten years ago, Rumiho was so angry and bitter at her dad for going on his trip, she told him she hated him before he left. That was the last time she ever saw him, as he was killed in a plane crash. When Okarin let her send a D-mail, she sent the false kidnapping message, which kept her dad off that flight and brought him home by train, which led to the current world line. It was a selfish choice, but a perfectly understandable one. If the means to save a dead loved one you didn’t part ways with amicably was in the palm of your hand, who wouldn’t make that choice?

Now that she knows that D-mail may well have sealed Mayushii’s doom, she voices her willingness to send a D-mail undoing it. When asked if she’s “sure about this”, she answers honestly: not at all. But now she can see both the world as it is and as it was, and she is sure of one thing: her father loved her dearly as she loved him, and nothing she said or did would change that fact. Having her father back was a “beautiful dream”, but it isn’t something she’s willing to continue at the cost of Mayushii’s life. Her father died on that plane. He was supposed to die. Now she’s at peace with that. Mostly.

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But more than that, after what her “Prince” Okarin went through to protect her, she feels compelled to return the favor by helping him. She’s always admired and idolized Okarin (ironic as she herself is an idol to many others), but here that admiration takes a turn for the romantic. Calling him her prince, I half-expected her to steal a kiss, but she settles for a behind-the-back hug and permission to cry. It’s just beautiful all around.

Now Okarin finds himself in a situation with Feyris similar to the one with Kurisu: anytime he has these wonderful, powerful moments with either, he travels back in time and everything is lost. Here, Feyris hopes she’ll remember the experiences and words they shared. Okarin tells her she almost certainly will remember, but he expresses far more confidence than he actually has on that front.

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Once Feyris sends her father a D-mail telling him the kidnapping was just a joke, the past changes again. Okarin finds himself in the lab, and Feyris comes up behind him. When he puts his hands on her shoulders, ready to ask if she remembers anything, both Kurisu and Mayushii remark that he’s being awfully lovey-dovey with their friend.

I interpreted Feyris’ response to them — about her and Okarin fighting side by side as lovers in a past life — no less than three different ways. One: She remembers nothing, and is merely talking in their usual chuuni code, which she often uses to express her fondness for Okarin and only coincidentally describes their past dealings. Two: She remembers something, but the memories have to be triggered, as Okarin triggered her memory of the maid cafe before. Three: She remembers everything, and is telling Kurisu and Mayushii the truth.

I’m sorta leaning towards door number two. But whatever the case, Akihabara has returned to its proper state, Rumiho’s father is dead, yet the whereabouts of the 5100 remain unknown. This was still only one step on a very long stair. But it was a fantastic one.

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Black Bullet – 10

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Since the beginning of their careers as a civil officer/promoter and initiator, Rentaro and Enju have struggled to reconcile their duties with the feelings of bitterness and futility that come from protecting a population that not only outwardly hates and oppresses the cursed children. After the horrifying events of this week’s episode, they’ve never been in a stronger position to dust their palms and walk the fuck away; letting rabble to be damned.

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This week, the Gastrea remain entirely, forebodingly off-camera, despite the fact they’re only days from breaching Tokyo’s defensive perimeter, but Rentaro and Kisara continue their classes with the cursed orphans. They’ve little else to do, and the kids could use the human contact. Notably, they’re portrayed just as the innocent, normal little girls they are; including developing puppy love for the strapping young teacher.

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When they’re told to write about their dreams for the future, none of them write “I don’t have one,” but it was one of several bad signs that whether the Gastrea are fought off or not, and no matter how much spare time Rentaro and Kisara put into it, nothing good was going to become of the poor wretched girls. I just didn’t expect their fate to arrive so soon, or so brutally.

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Two nights before that awful event, Rentaro joins Kisara on a walk on a beautiful starlit night, and they even lie beside each other staring up at it. Kisara professes her happiness with the lives they’re living and the family they’ve built, and she’s terrified of losing it. Rentaro assures her he’ll protect her and everyone else. It’s a truly lovely moment when their awkward hand-hold transitions to tightly but tenderly linking fingers. Neither recoils in embarrassment; they simply enjoy that moment.

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Things get uglier and uglier from then on. The next day, Rentaro is just in time to save the blind urchin from a lynching. The day after that, Rentaro and Enju arrive at the site of school, only to find a smoldering crater. His students, all eighteen of them, were killed by a varanium-laced bomb. To recall all those smiling girls full of life and hope for the future, and then to see their shrouded corpses neatly arranged on the floor of the morgue…it’s just a rough moment.

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It’s more than enough to open a bottomless well of despair for Rentaro and most definitely in Enju, who once again has has seen far too much hatred and death in her short life. And like I said, they’d be well within their rights to refuse to lift one finger to help the people who did this, or did nothing to stop it. It takes a call from Kisara, Rentaro’s rock, to try to explain to him why they need to do their duty as civil officers.

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She says that if they’re successful in saving the city from the Gastrea, some of the people they saved may actually be grateful, and let go of their hatred of the cursed children who saved them. Kisara isn’t naive enough to say all of them will be, or even a large number. But she realizes that exacting revenge or letting the city burn won’t be any more just than what happened to their ill-fated students. Even if they only enact a little change, that could make a significant difference in the lives of the cursed.

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Or, if Rentaro and Enju can’t fight for the people who hate her and hurt her sight unseen, then they should just fight for themselves; for each other; for the people they hold dear. There’s little time to grieve, as Monolith 32 collapses a day ahead of schedule, possibly aided by the haunting lament sung by the blind girl…the one who makes Enju and Tina look very, very lucky. With the life she’s led, I really can’t fault her for wanting to speed the city’s demise (again, if that’s what she did), along with her own.

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Stray Observations:

  • Some may say this episode verged on the gratuitous, exploitative, manipulative, or even maudlin. I’d have to disagree. No matter what awful situation is going down in which part of the world, the children are always the first to suffer, and the ones to suffer the most. This episode portrayed that perfectly, and its emotional weight felt earned.
  • Kisara finds out her father had something to do with Monolith 32’s construction. The fact none of the other monoliths are deteriorating suggests shortcuts may have been taken in erecting 32. It may even have been meant to fail.
  • No Shiba Miori flirting this week. Yeah, I didn’t really miss her; her comedic antics would’ve been a bit inapproprate this week.

Black Bullet – 09

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As knowledge of the deteriorating monolith becomes public (and the brunt of that public’s apprehension falls upon the slender shoulders of Seitenshi), Rentaro continues to build his “adjuvant.” Turns out that’s a real word, though we never came across it during SATs. It’s a medical term for a substance that enhances the body’s immune response to an antigen.

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That’s an apt term for a team of civil officers charged with preventing Tokyo from being infected by the Gastrea. But at the outset, Rentaro’s team sits at just two pairs; one shy of qualifying for their own JASDF tent. The identity of the third pair he scores is foreshadowed while he and Tina are visiting Muroto: it turns out to be Nagisawa Shouma, his estranged senior practitioner in the Tendo Style of martial arts—a connection I’m shortening to “mentor.”

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Shouma and his shy and adorable initiator Fuse Midori (a gin-u-wine nekomimi) are more than happy to join Rentaro’s merry band, having heard of and been impressed by his protege’s exploits. The fourth pair is made up of Tina, whose initiator rank had been revoked, and Kisara, who went to Seitenshi to have her reinstated. Rentaro isn’t happy about Kisara running into the jaws of danger, but she makes sure he knows she feels the same way about him.

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Rentaro even moves to confess to her after a briefing from the civil officers’ commander (who gives a nice speech that doesn’t change the fact they’re the rear guard), but he’s unfortunately interrupted by the rest of the now-whole adjuvant. After introductions, Enju leads a cheer, and the air around that campfire is suffused with hope, optimism, and love. But this could be the last time they’re all together and happy like this. The night will grow darker from this point on.

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