Steins;Gate 0 – 06 – New Year, Same Old Problems

“Kana” is definitely Shiina Kagari—even if the Oopa were a copy, there are certain things (the sound of her name, words from her future adoptvie mother) that give her an odd sense of nostalgia. And Suzu would recognize the girl who pulled a gun on her a mile away.

Okabe contacts Kiryuu to tell her Kagari has been found, but to request she continue investigating the group that was after her. After Kiryuu hangs up, we get our first sense that something is going to come to a head this week.

Little did I know when watching her teasing Maho that Judy Reyes of all people could also be involved.

It’s New Years, so the whole gang goes to the shrine, both to pray and give offerings and see Mayushii, Rukako, and Feyris in shrine maiden garb.

Everyone has lots of fun, but Judy shows up with Leskinen to say a quick ‘Hi’, while turning to leave she spots Kagari and gives her one hell of a sidelong glance.

There are more foreboding doings as Tennouji acts particularly shifty and a man in black lurks behind a wall, all while Mayushii & Co. bring the party to the lab and continue enjoying themselves.

Maho is among those having a good time, but gets a sudden video call from Amadeus, and answers the phone without leaving the room. Before long she’s surrounded by everyone curious about who her caller is, and Maho has no choice but to reveal the AI with Kurisu’s memories to them.

She apologizes to Okabe as the others talk with Amakurisu, but Okabe isn’t mad; he knows he has to start thinking of Kurisu, Amadeus, and Kagari as three distinct individual entities. He also needs to keep protecting the world Kurisu sacrificed herself to protect, no matter how much it might hurt or how easy it is to look back.

Unfortunately, Okabe is caught quite off guard when an armed gang once again infiltrates the lab and points their guns at Mayushii, Kagari, and the other guests. Suzuha is also caught off-guard, so it’s not like Okabe was alone in being lulled into a false sense of security. They weren’t direct witnesses to all of the strange things going on on the periphery of this episode like we did, after all.

When Kiryuu’s SERN assault team raided the lab back in the first season’s twelfth episode, it marked the official end of “fun and games.” That moment arrives six episodes earlier in S;G 0, and it also has the burden of trying to top that devastating, show-defining moment. Suffice it to say the ending of this episode wasn’t nearly as shocking, for the simple reason that we’ve seen it before.

History would seem to be repeating itself, and his loved ones apparently aren’t safe even here, in this Kurisu-less World Line. Then again, Mayushii wasn’t shot…yet. Perhaps, like Kagari and Kurisu, events only resemble what happened before, but may in reality be something completely different. But whatever that ends up being, it probably won’t be pleasant.

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Steins;Gate 0 – 05 – Time Goes On

Needless to say, the sudden appearance of Moeka Kiryuu puts Okabe on edge, and even if this is not the same world line in which she killed Mayushii, he suspects she’s still a “Rounder”, and cannot fully trust her. Suzu can tell almost immediately that Moeka is someone Okabe knows (or knew), even if he won’t come out and say it. Nevertheless, Okabe assents to Daru’s hiring of Moeka in order to find the lost girl.

Meanwhile, Hiyajou can tell that Okabe hasn’t been answering Amakurisu’s calls, and feels partially responsible for telling him that Kurisu he knows is dead, even if a part of her is jealous that he was so much closer to her. With Leskinen’s unsolicited blessing she strikes out into Akiba to meet with Okabe, but suddenly feels extremely paranoid about being followed.

The camera angles, editing, and music all conspire to make us really feel that paranoia, initially brought on by the sudden appearance of Moeka and only intensified here. By the time Hiyajou is calling Okabe in a near-panic, and he runs out to find her dropped bag, I truly feared for the worst, as he did.

Mercifully (though also a bit disappointingly) the person initiating contact with Hiyajou turns out to be Professor Judy Reyes, a colleague at her university. While communicating in English Okabe fails to correct Reyes’ assertion that he’s Hiyajou’s boyfriend (though the prospect makes Hiyajou blush).

Once they’re alone, Hiyajou brings up Okabe’s lack of responding to Amakurisu. She’s no dummy (obviously), and can tell Kurisu had an incredibly “large presence” in Okabe’s life; far larger than he lets on.

When she reminds him that Amadeus is merely a system, Okabe tells her he simply needs more time. He’s confused, but that’s because he’s not willing to dismiss Amakurisu out of hand, at least not yet (and with no other alternative).

Okabe (and the episode) finally remember the somewhat urgent call Rukako made to him about a guest of his family’s…he comes to the lab with that guest in tow, and Okabe is shocked to find that guest is a dead ringer for Kurisu. However, he later chalks it up as a coincidence (plenty of blue-eyed redheads with bangs out there, after all).

Rukako informs Okabe that the girl has amnesia, and they’ve simply been calling her “Kana” in lieu of her name. She’s hoping Okabe with all his brainy sciency know-how can find a way to help Kana find her real name, where she came from, and how she lost her memory.

While flattered, Okabe is honest about not being an expert in any of that stuff (even if he knows people who are), but Kana’s identity is quite surreptitiously revealed by Mayushii, who recognizes the oopa that is the only possession of Kana’s that might be a clue.

What’s odd is that the oopa is from a very recent movie, but looks like it’s much older than that. Upon the pointing out of that fact, Kana suddenly collapses, just as Suzuha shows up, and instantly recognizes the girl for Kagari, the girl she lost. Well, now she’s found. What’s next; and is it merely a coincidence that she so closely resembles Kurisu?

Steins;Gate 0 – 04 – Another Girl Lost in Time

Okabe experiences a number of strange flashes in various world lines before waking up in bed, only to eventually return to the roof of the lab with Maho. They include running from enemy forces (likely in the bad future) and answering a mysterious phone call. He wonders if he somehow experienced Reading Steiner, and fears for the worst.

Thankfully, both Mayushii and everyone else are fine, so if there was a world line change, it was a subtle one, at least in terms of how it affected his life. Later, Amakurisu suggests Okabe give his mismatched present (a sexy red dress) to Maho, saying she’d likely be “surprisingly happy.”

Okabe doesn’t do that, but both Maho and Leskinen can tell he’s gotten close to Amadeus in not much time at all, feeding Leskinen’s hope that the AI will be able to fall in love, which would obviously be a huge breakthrough.

It seems like fate that they’d find the person who just happened to be in love with the real Kurisu. Maho just wants to know more about the side of her good friend and colleague that she never knew, lamenting that she “knows nothing”, despite the fact she is not Jon Snow.

Meanwhile, as Suzuha tries to get her eventual dad to go on a date with her eventual mother, Daru senses Suzu is hiding something, and isn’t thrown off by Suzu’s weak “it’s nothing.” What Daru learns is that Suzu did not board the Time Machine alone, but took Future Mayushii’s adopted war orphan daughter, Kagari.

In 1998, Suzuha and the 11-year-old Kagari were separated in Akiba, meaning in the present she’s a 22-year-old woman. Suzuha has been busy searching for her, with no success. Daru relays this information to Okabe, along with a request to help with the search.

Okabe quickly agrees, and when Amakurisu gets word of his task, she offers to search the vast networks she has access to in order to assist him. He pockets that offer for now, not wanting himself or Amakurisu to get into any unnecessary trouble (doing what she proposed may not be legal, strictly speaking).

After a flashback to 1998 when Kagari pulled a gun on Suzu in order to stop her from changing the future (the one in which her mother Mayushii lived), we’re back in the present, where Okabe asks Rukako and Feyris (who both grew up in Akiba) to put feelers out about a girl.

Feyris gets back to him about a “ghost with braids” asking people about a lost little girl (obviously Suzuha), but nothing concrete about Kagari. As Okabe is receiving Feyris’ call, he spots Dr. Leskinen turning a corner, but when he follows him he hits a dead end of boxes. Weird.

When Okabe returns to the lab, Daru has called someone he apparently knows who may have information for them. While waiting for this person to arrive, Okabe gets a call from Rukako with an urgent request to come meet him at his house, and no other time will do.

Then there’s a knock on the door, and who should be on the other end but Kiryuu Moeka, the sight of whom triggers all of the awful dealings Okabe had with her in other world lines. Oddly, I knew with some certainty that it would be her, partly because there was just something off about the suddenness of Daru’s connection.

Of course, this may not be a Killer Kiryuu…but from the glimpse of the hair of Rukako’s guest, it’s pretty clear her assistance isn’t needed to find Kagari…Kagari is that guest. All Okabe has to do is go to Rukako’s and he’s found her. The question is, will he be able to?

Steins;Gate 0 – 03 – Easy to Be Deluded

As Mayushii organizes a huge Christmas bash to cheer up Suzuha, Okabe is finding Amakurisu’s constant calls a nuisance. But she insists he keep his promises to her by showing her the lab. While her first impression is that it’s a dump, she admits she always yearned to share a room with people, with “forks and spoons and stuff.” She already feels so much like Kurisu, it’s almost as if Okabe’s Facetiming the real thing.

As Suzuha is visited by her benefactor Feyris to try to convince her to come to the party, all Suzu can think about is how to convince Okabe to accompany her to the Steins Gate.

At the Brain Institute, Leskinen is excited to see what comes of Okabe convering with Amakurisu, while Hiyajou is more weary, thinking of displacement behavior and knowing firsthand how easy it is to replace the Kurisu she lost with Amakurisu in her mind.  Leskinen has an answer for that as well: go out with Okabe for Christmas Eve.

The next day Leskinen and Hiyajou meet with Okabe, but before they do, Okabe and Amakurisu have a crucial conversation on her true nature as an “incomplete AI” due to the fact everything she sees and hears is logged, meaning she can never “forget” by anything resembling the same methods real humans forget, which is not so much about missing information as information that slowly changes over days, months…or decades.

Along those lines, Okabe and Hiyajou are at the mercy of their memories of Kurisu, which are constantly meshing with Amakurisu, to the point she feels more and more real.

Hiyajou looks the tiniest bit disappointed when Okabe says he has plans for the Eve (even if she likely wasn’t going to take Amakurisu or Leskinen’s advice and ask him out), but Okabe presents a third way: he invites them both to the party.

Everyone ends up turning up—even Suzu, whom Daru fooled and who nearly killed her mother when they all surprised her—and it’s a jolly good time, bringing back life and vitality to the lab. They even get in another “Hiyajou is kid-sized” gag when Nao asks her what grade she’s in, while Leskinen mistakes Ruka for a girl (though he’s dead sexy regardless).

Okabe’s participation in the party is interrupted by a call from Amakurisu, which he goes to the roof to answer. When he takes a while, Mayushii follows him up there, and after overhearing him talking with someone (whether she knows it’s Kurisu), heads back to the lab. Poor Mayushii, who had to tell her cosplay buddies that despite how close they are, Okabe likes someone else…without mentioning that someone else is dead, of course.

One thing Amakurisu will never forget is that Okabe called her Christina when they first met, and one of her three theories is spot on: it’s the name he used to call the real Kurisu (whom she calls “Original Me”). She didn’t think that theory was likely because of the way she knew she’d react, and says the exact same words she always said to him, and in the same way. He confesses he used to call Kurisu that because he was too embarrassed to use her real name.

The problem is, he’s talking to Amakurisu as if she were Kurisu. Escaping a Santa costume photo shoot, Hiyajou, who came to the roof to check on Okabe right after Mayushii, snatches his phone from him and turns off the app. The Amadeus app. Not a Facetime call with Makise Kurisu, whom she tells Okabe “isn’t here anymore.”

This upsets Okabe greatly, as if suddenly lifted from some kind of spell, and triggers a torrent of muddled memories from other world lines. Hiyajou may have thought Okabe was just another good friend of Kurisu’s who’d be all-too-easily deluded by Amadeus, but there’s a lot more going on than she knows or would quickly believe.

Like, say, the fact that Suzuha is from the future and her father is inventing a time machine.

Wotaku ni Koi wa Muzukashii – 02 – Settling into a Nice if Familiar Rhythm

If the newness of WotaKoi masked it in the first episode, Hiraike Yoshimura’s style has become apparent in the second, as this week’s episode is more of a loosely-connected sequence of joke-dense vignettes with plenty of self-deprecating commentary (and some that references Eva, including Hirotaka-as-Ikari Gendo…Oigakkosan Cameo!)

Where WotaKoi distinguishes itself from Working!! and its various sequels is the speed with which the main couple comes together. Even when Hirotaka and Narumi are a little awkward at work, their friends Koyanagi and Kabakura point out the positive aspects of the other party, and that they’ve made the right choice.

But when Narumi somewhat carelessly admits Kabakura might be more “her type” in earshot of her boyfriend, she draws his ire, and the episode takes on the structure of a multiple-choice RPG, in which her avenue of escape is blocked until Kabakura and Koyanagi—former captains of their schools’ volleyball teams—start going at it, and she exploits the opening to flee.

Hirotaka chases after her, however, which results in the two adults working things out right then and there. She was scared of his reaction, while he was worried she didn’t like him anymore and wonders if it was a bad idea to confess to her.

In response to that, Narumi hugs him tightly, telling him not to say such things. She makes sure he knows she’s happy he confessed, and likes where they’re at. Some initial awkwardness is to be expected in a romance where the two parties work together.

Those initial hiccups in the relationship are all but forgotten in the next segment, in which the quartet decides to go out for drinks after Narumi finishes up some OT work. But because all four of them are otaku, they decide to head to a bookstore first.

Once there, the women split from the men. Narumi and Hirotaka may be dating, but their forms of otakuism differ, which means on occasion they’ll give each other a berth in which to pursue their individual interests.

That’s especially the case on a night when Narumi gets to browse and shot with Koyanagi. Narumi has always hidden her otakuism from her friends, and feels liberated for finally not having to. Koyanagi, for her part, wants Narumi as a cosplay partner.

The result of the group’s extended shopping trip to the bookstore is that everyone other than Hiyotaka bought so much stuff and they’re so eager to read it, they skip going out for drinks altogether, part ways for the night, and stay up way too late. The next day they’re all groggy at work, which might actually work in Hiyotaka’s favor with regards to his attempts to learn how to wink!

While I’m sure it will expand to more people before too long, this is a fun quartet of people so far, consisting of a definitely-together-yet-casual couple and a long-standing love-hate/will-they-won’t-they. Those two kinds of dynamics on display lend balance to the proceedings, and the volume of jokes is high enough that even if some might not land huge laughs, there’s always more to come.

Steins;Gate 0 – 02 – Okabe Chooses Not to Run While He Still Can

When Dr. Leskinen (through Hiyajou Maho) announces he’s about to demonstrate an AI developed from memories stored as data, and there’s a bit of a delay before the Amadeus program starts up, a skeptic stands up and deems such a venture “insanity,” calling into question the research of a 17-year-old like the late Makise Kurisu.

He’s quickly rebuffed, not by Leskinen or Hiyajou, but by Okabe, who won’t stand by silently and let such slander pass. All scientific advances are borne from a desire to make the impossible possible, after all. With his outburst he gains the attention and applause of Leskinen.

Then the Amadeus demonstration proceeds, with an AI version of Hiyajou using her memories from four days ago splashes across the screen, making discreet observations about the room around her and also forgetting certain information. It really is Hiyajou from four days in the past…sort of.

At the social event that follows the seminar, Okabe and Hiyajou both end up in an isolate corner together, neither very good at such functions…and they find an easy, casual chemistry together. Hiyajou is an adult, and thus able to overlook Okabe’s initial misunderstanding about her age due to her stature.

When she discusses some of the problems she and Leskinen are still having with Amadeus, Okabe is reminded of Kurisu’s lecture about Top-down memory search signals, impressing Hiyajou. He then admits he can converse about such things because he was a friend of Kurisu’s.

She was more of a kohai to Hiyajou, but when they discuss her at length she can’t help but tear up, as it’s clear she cherished her kohai deeply; Okabe doesn’t look far behind with the tears, but manages to maintain his composure.

Leskinen then cuts into the conversation, and when he learns Okabe was a friend of Kurisu, he suggests to Hiyajou that they should introduce him to another Amadeus AI program they’re working on…using the eight month-old memories and taking the form of none other than Makise Kurisu.

Okabe thought he’d never see or hear Kurisu ever again, but after seeing how closely Hiyajou’s version of Amadeus emulated her living counterpart, it’s a stunning proposition. Hiyajou warns that the closer he was to Kurisu, the crueler meeting her Amadeus version will be.

Still, Okabe can’t resist accepting the invitation to the Brain Science Institute, where Hiyajou is waiting outside for him and guides him inside, all the while continuing to warn him that he may be in for a thoroughly heartbreaking experience—especially if he knew her better than Hiyajou.

The venue in which Okabe is poised to meet the digital “ghost” of Kurisu couldn’t be more spartan: a drab room empty save for an unassuming PC station with a single shortcut on the desktop. Hiyajou clicks on the application and steps aside for Okabe to behold.

Okabe reacts how one expected him to, and how anyone who’d just seen a ghost of a loved one might react. Part shock and despair, but also part wonder and relief. Leskinen and Hiyajou really did make the impossible possible; at least what Okabe had concluded would be impossible.

However, this Kurisu of the Beta World Line of eight months ago does not remember Okabe. Considering Miyajou’s Amadeus counterpart couldn’t remember the pajamas she wore a week ago, perhaps that’s part of the human flaws inherent in the program? Then again, perhaps not; it’s likelier the Kurisu whose data they used simply hadn’t met him yet—to say nothing of falling in love.

Speaking of love, “Amakurisu” is sharp enough to sense the nice vibes coming off of Hiyajou and Okabe, and briefly takes Hiyajou aside to address that observation, much to Hiyajou’s chagrin. Her blushing at the party and here suggest she has at least a passing affinity for the former Mad Scientist, something Amakurisu picked up on almost immediately; a testament to the program’s sophistication.

Amakurisu’s response to Okabe’s first question put to her—about what she thinks about the possibility of constructing a time machine—is actually different from the answer he got from the real Kurisu. The late Kurisu dismissed such machines as impossible, but Amakurisu adds the caveat that her belief in their impossibility doesn’t mean they actually are impossible, just that the crucial discovery that would make them possible has yet to be found.

Were she willing to dismiss the possibility of such a discovery, she’d be scarcely better than the skeptic Okabe took down back at the seminar. Okabe wonders if the difference in views is a matter of the difference between world lines, but it could also be a product of Amadeus having learned through conversations with Leskinen and Hiyajou, thus making her a being distinct from the person whose memories form her foundation.

When Leskinen makes an appearance and greets Okabe in English, Okabe’s attempt to respond in English nets him criticism from Amakurisu, causing him to instinctively call her “Christina”, something he does a couple more times, confusing everyone around them but also piquing their curiosity.

Ultimately, Leskinen wants Okabe to be a “tester”, talking with Amadeus on a semi-regular basis so they can collect more data than if just he and Hiyajou continued chatting with her (plus they’re running out of things to talk about, so “fresh blood” is crucial to the program). To that end, they give him an app that not only allows him to contact Amakurisu, but allows her to call him whenever “she” likes.

And she does just that…calling him eight times; the last few attempts occurring while Okabe is on a walk with Mayushii, who is planning a Christmas party to cheer Suzuha up and thinks Okabe should attend so he and Suzuha can make up. Mayushii notices someone calling him repeatedly and steps aside to let him address it.

When Okabe finally answers her call, Amakurisu is not pleased, and Okabe can’t help but admit that she really is Makise Kurisu, all stubborn and moody and spunky and wonderful. Sure, it’s not really her, but it’s most definitely a version of her, and having lived the last few months with a grey cloud over his head, there’s surely overwhelming comfort in the “next best thing”.

I’m frankly bowled over by the amount of material just the first two episodes of Steins;Gate 0 has managed to cover, and how deeply involved and invested I already am in this very bittersweet story. Yahagi Sayuri does some really fine work as Hiyajou, and just hearing Imai Asami’s voice again nearly brought tears to my eyes. We’re off to a stirring start.

Wotaku ni Koi wa Muzukashii – 01 – Otakus Reunite (First Impressions)

From the director and series compositor of Working!! (and Momokuri) comes another workplace romantic comedy involving two otaku who knew each other in both elementary and middle school suddenly realizing they work at the same drab office. Momose Narumi is a fujoshi, while Nifuji Hirotaka is a game otaku.

They fall back into their old dynamic almost immediately, as reflections of each other that don’t have to put on airs. Narumi also seems able to hold her liquor, while Hirotaka smokes like a goddamn chimney. They may not be kids anymore, but they remain steadfast otaku, and seem to draw strength and validation from one another’s continued sustained to their mutual odd obsessions, even if, at least initially, Narumi has no intention of dating her childhood friend.

Narumi is a particularly lucky otaku salarywoman, because her office senpai Koyanagi just happens to be “in the fold”, having cosplayed as a man at many an event. Koyanagi also happens to be a great fan of Narumi’s fujoshi work. Narumi took a risk by being open about who she is and what her interests ares, and it paid off Koyanagi is even cooler than she initially imagined.

As for Hirotaka, he’s slightly better at his job than Narumi, but that may well be a factor of him being with the company longer. Narumi left her old company due in part to having dated and broken up with her old boyfriend who worked there once he found out she was an otaku. Hirotaka has no such qualms, as he is himself an unapologetic otaku, and is all too happy to wait for Narumi to finish her work so they can go out for drinks.

It’s also Hirotaka who proposes Harumi should just date him. She herself voiced frustration over always “making the wrong choice” when it comes to love, so she’s willing to defer to Hirotaka in this case. He offers her a blindingly logical argument for why she should choose him: he will accept her for who she is, and she can do the same. He can also accompany her to events like Summer Comiket. It’s a match made in otaku heaven, really.

WotaKoi is a brisk and breezy little show that doesn’t waste a lot of time getting its main couple together. Their exchanges are easy, casual, and comfortable, and their pairing up feels both inspired, inevitable, and thoroughly reasonable. They sport a great effortless chemistry, and I’m eager to see how their new “alliance” works out.

Sora yori mo Tooi Basho – 05

I only realized at the end of last week’s episode, with the camera lingering on a sad and lonely-looking Megumi, that she might not be particularly pleased about Mari actually going through with her Antarctica trip; especially without her.

This week, in an emotional powerhouse of an episode, all of the resentment and negativity that had been festering within Megumi comes to the forefront; but while there are constant signs she’s Had It, Mari doesn’t realize until the very last moment: the morning she leaves for Australia.

Before that, the show strikes a scintillating balance between being excited for Mari and thinking she’s being an awful friend to Megumi. Case in point: while packing for three months (she’s only allowed 100kg, including her own weight), she finds the game she once borrowed from Megumi under her bed (another sign of the friendship she took for granted)

She invites herself to Megumi’s house to play the game, but Megumi couldn’t be any clearer about how few fucks she gives about the game. When Mari can’t take a hint, Megumi pulls the plug, pretending to have slipped, and that’s the end of it.

It’s really quite brilliant what goes on here, because I honestly can’t even blame Mari for being such an oblivious ditz, because that’s the friend Megumi cultivated all the years they’ve known each other. Compound that with her very understandable building excitement and anticipation for a life-changing adventure, and it’s all too devastatingly obvious why Mari can’t respond to or even sense Megumi’s growing miasma.

Meanwhile, there’s just such a grand sense of occasion to the quartet of new friends finishing up their packing. They may only be going abroad for three-odd months, but it feels like they’re packing for much more than that. It feels like they’re packing for a new chapter in their lives, in which they’ll see and experience things they never have before.

The episode proceeds to throw everything it possibly can towards the goal of pissing off Megumi as much as possible, as Mari and Shirase (whom Megumi continues to stubbornly, scornfully call “Antarctica”) suddenly become a big deal at school. And it IS a big deal for high schoolers to be going to Antarcitca, for crying out loud!

But for Megumi, it’s just a constant and unyielding reminder that Mari is “leaving the nest”, so to speak. Megumi fires back by bringing up rumors going around about Mari, Shirase, and the depths they sunk to to acquire the funds to go on the trip. Megumi is then almost immediately punished when Shirase herself shows up, along with Hinata.

When Shirase hears of the rumors, she wants blood immediately. Three Cheers for the wonderfully mature-when-it-matters Hinata experly talking her down by being the adult in the shrine. Yet even she seems to inadvertently take a dig at Megumi’s macchinations with her latest self-quote: “Sometimes, people are just mean. Don’t fight mean with mean. Hold your head high.” Almost a haiku!

The torture of being outnumbered by Mari’s new friends wasn’t enough, apparently, so poor Megumi has to be dragged along to karaoke, despite the fact she is in no mood to hang out with anyone, especially Mari, but especially her new friends. Still, here more than elsewhere she seems able to mask her contempt.

It must very much take Megumi aback, then, that despite Mari’s complete inability to pick up the signals, she is still able to speak surprisingly candidly and eloquently about how she sees this turning point in her life.

First, Mari assumes Megumi considered the fact they hadn’t been hanging out a lot lately a “relief.” Then, Mari talks of how she always wanted to go far away, how she hated being where she was, and how she hated herself.

Megumi’s long acceptance of Mari as someone who would always cling to her had the unintended side effect of driving Mari to become someone who wouldn’t have to cling. Someone with worth of their own.

After parting ways, Mari comes home to find her entire family cooking their butts off to celebrate her imminent departure. Mari’s reflex is to send Megumi a photo message and an invite…but Megumi never responds.

The morning of departure comes, and what a morning. First, we watch Mari get up, wash her face, brush her teeth, comb her hair, get dressed, and give herself a final check.

All very routine morning activities given monumental status by the fact they’re the last such activities she’ll be doing for some time. And to be perfectly candid, when Rin gave Mari a big hug, I had already started to tear up, just like Mari’s dad.

And that was before a dark, brooding Megumi confronts Mari, who is just SO freaking ready to tear the world a new one, and tells her she came not to say “see you later”, but to break up; to cease being friends.

At first, Mari has no idea what’s happening, but once Megumi starts to list all the things she and she alone has done—spread false rumors, told the bullies about Shirase’s cash; told Mari’s mother before Mari could told her herself—it all comes into focus. All Mari can say is “Why?”

All those things—and even going there in the morning to confront her—were all meant to return the pain she felt from the feeling that Mari was abandoning her, and that it wasn’t Mari who had been clinging to her for some time now, it was the opposite. Without Mari, Megumi considered herself nothing, and if she was to be nothing, she didn’t want Mari to have anything either.

Megumi thought, even hoped that at some point Mari would catch on and get mad, but she never did, nor did her new friends. She considers that not just evidence of what morons they are, but that she wasn’t even worth being figured out; that Mari had moved on so much from what Megumi thought of her. That could only make someone feel even more worthless.

Mari begs Megumi to come with her, but Megumi is ready to take her “first step into a world without” Mari. In a way, she’s trying to do the same thing as Mari, Hinata, Shirase and Yuzuki: step into a world without any of the things they usually rely on; where they don’t know what lies around the corner; where they won’t know where they’ll be tomorrow.

Those sentiments are narrated by Mari as we watch scenes of the other three saying their goodbyes and taking those first steps. And then, before Mari joins her, she takes a few steps toward Megumi, hugs her from behind, and declares her breakup rejected.

Maybe Megumi wanted Mari to come to hate her that morning after all of the things she said and did without remorse. But sometimes people are just mean. Mari doesn’t fight mean with mean. She holds her head high. It’s an abrupt, almost brusque end to what had been an epic Friend Fight, and a clear instance of Mari having the last word.

But it’s also an acknowledgement that while Mari no longer sees Megumi as someone she must cling to at all costs or look to for guidance, that doesn’t automatically mean the end of a friendship. It just means that a change has taken place.

Now everything springs into action.

Sora yori mo Tooi Basho – 04

Step by step, episode by episode, Sora yori mo Tooi Basho keeps building up the anticipation while continuing to build up the stories of its characters and their growing friendship as they embark on a life-changing adventure…but they still need permission from their parents!

That’s when we learn Mari hasn’t so much as mentioned this life-changing adventure to her mother, who has to find out from the neighbors. The slasher film-esque scen in which Mari tries to break the news she senses her mother already knows is a tour-de-force of tension and comedy.

Mari gets permission…but only if she passes all of her tests at school, meaning she’s going to have to study her ass off, and nobody is going to help her, because if she can’t do this much, how is she ever going to make it in the Antarctic?

The quartet meet up to be whisked off to their mountain training retreat, and while they’re underwhelmed by the beat-up HiAce, their instructor Maekawa (Hikasa Yoko) notes they’ve got to pinch every penny (she also mentions that Shirase still has her million yen, and in the next sentence, the fundraising needs of the expedition).

She also remarks that those outside of the expedition team have always been concerned about its viability and whether the ship will even leave port. But Maekawa tells the girls they tell those people to shut up. Back at school Shirase doesn’t even do that; she’ll show everyone up when they least expect it, leading to this golden exchange between her and Mari:

Mari: You’re kind of a jerk, you know.
Shirase: I certainly am. You mind?
Mari: Nope!

Once they arrive at the mountain training course, they are quickly given an overview of the basics, and then Maekawa introduces the expedition’s leader Toudou Gin (Noto Mamiko in her tough lady voice) whose no-nonsense demeanor and stirring oratory intimidate and inspire Mari, Hinata, and Yuzuki in equal measure.

What about Shirase? Well, she reacts differently; clearly they know each other, and Mari senses that, but leaves it be for the time being. That night, as the girls bone up on Antarctic exploration in what feels like a field trip sleepover, Maekawa and Toudou share a solemn moment outside.

Toudou didn’t want Shirase on the trip, but Maekawa didn’t help her; she got there by her own efforts (with the help of Mari, Hinata, and Yuzuki, but she befriended them on her own). Toudou accepts this, but the fact she know Shirase’s mother weighs on her.

The next morning, the quartet is sent off to plot a route with a compass, GPS, and marker flags. They start out a little rough and off course (as everyone does at first), but Mari turns out to have a knack for the compass, and soon they’re on the right track, make camp, and settle down for bed.

Mari doesn’t want to sleep yet, thinking this is like any other camping trip, but getting enough sleep is crucial to survival, so the other girls promptly rebuke her attempts to converse. Only Yuzuki flubs her words, leading Hinata to start giggling, which leads Hinata and Mari to start laughing.

Things turn a bit somber when Mari asks a clearly preoccupied Shirase how she knows “Captain” Toudou, and Shirase’s answer is heartbreaking in its brevity: “Toudou and my mother were friends in high school. They both went to Antarctica. Toudou returned. My mother didn’t.”

After a quick by-the-book radio check in with base, the four go to sleep, but Mari, who opened her bag in her sleep, is the first to awaken, and is greeted not only by a gorgeous pre-dawn, but Toudou, almost standing guard out there. Mari asks her about Shirase’s Mom, Toudou says she was “very strange” (sound familiar?) and that her daughter is her spitting image in stubbornness and conviction (not surprising).

Shirase, like her mom, is “trouble”, but Mari says “Isn’t trouble the best?” Indeed, it’s Shirase’s trouble(s) that got Mari to this point, where she’s finally realizing her goal of making the most of her high school years. She didn’t want them to end “the way they were going”, and so decided to join Shirase of her own free will.

This is Peak Awesome Tamaki Mari right here, clearly expressing her intention, desire, and excitement for the impending expedition. And when you see that conviction on her rising sun-washed face, you know she’s going to pass all of those tests. She has to.

Before the sunrise is complete, Mari wakes up the others (none of whom are morning people), and they all climb up a rock face and admire the beauty of the glowing mountains; just a small taste, mind you, of the jaw-dropping, otherworldly majesty they’ll experience way down south.

And in one of the more surprising ways to end the episode, Mari sends a picture of the sunrise to her friend Megumi, who looks incredibly lonely and left out. It occurs to me that Mari never once asked if she wanted to come along. Is this closing scene meant to convey that Megumi is proud of Mari, or dejected over Mari not even considering her participation?

Sora yori mo Tooi Basho – 03

AND THEN THERE WERE FOUR. While I initially liked it when it was just Shirase and Mari, I quickly ended up liking the addition of Hinata, who while fiery and is no more effective at advancing the group’s Antarctic plans than the other two.

Now Shirase’s worst nightmare has come true: another high school girl—celebrity, aspiring idol, social media personality, and former child actress Shiraishi Yuzuki—has beaten her to the punch, as the group learns she’ll be joining the expedition.

And yet the universe isn’t done with Shirase yet, as she soars from the deepest valley to the highest peak when no less than Shiraishi Yuzuki herself shows up at her house, and willing to give up her seat to Shirase. Yuzuki has no interest in going; it’s too cold (lol duh).

Showing she can be just as energetic as the others, Shirase gets a bit too worked up and bangs her foot on the door. As if to further punish her for celebrating too soon, Yuzuki’s manager and mother (apparently in that order) Tamiko puts the kibosh on her client-daughter’s plans to shirk her duty.

Mari and Hinata try their best to sell Shirase to Tamiko, but while she’s gorgeous, Shirase is too shy when put on the spot to be of any interest to the hard-nosed manager, while neither Mari or Hinata are pretty enough. Harsh!

However, Shirase persists as she usually does, and enters into a contract with Tamiko: if she, Mari and Hinata can convince Yuzuki to go to Antarctica, they can come to. Bang, just like that, they’ve got their in.

Again, Shirase is so brimming with excitement and giddiness Hinata has to knock her on the head to calm her down (Hanazawa Kana puts on a clinic this week showing every side of Shirase, but Iguchi Yuka keeps up as Hinata, as does Minase Inori as Mari).

Once Mari heads home, we get what was somewhat lacking last week: some Shirase/Hinata-only interaction, and we see that they to have become fast friends as well. While Hinata and Mari feed of one anothers’ energy (and Mari admires Hinata’s relative maturity), Hinata interestingly serves as more of a straight man to Shirase’s antics.

She’s serves as an open ear to Shirase’s very earnest self-assessment. She knows she’s being selfish, but Hinata considers it assertiveness, not selfishness, and wouldn’t be hanging out if she wasn’t okay with it.

After not-so-slyly staging a “chance encounter” with Yuzuki, they join her at a family restaurant where there are free refills where she can study. There, the trio begins attempting to convince Yuzuki into changing her mind. She’s on to them immediately, but they still want to hear her out: why is she so adamant about not going?

Her reason, as it turns out, is all to understandable: she’s been acting since she was four years old, and has been kept busy since then. As a result, while she may have a stout 38,000 followers (far more than fair RABUJOI), she has zero friends. Even now, when she tries to make them, they’re more interested in glomming onto her celebrity and aren’t that intereted in who she is.

Yuzuki fears she’s running out of time to make good first impressions for potential friends, and if she goes to Antarctica, she’ll lose more precious time still. When Mari hears this story, she feels suddenly compelled to give Yuzuki a big ol’ hug…and who the hell can blame her?! Thankfully for Yuzuki, she has not one or two but three potential new friends sitting at that booth with her.

She’s initially skeptical these three “best friends” could possibly understand her situation, but that’s before they reveal they haven’t known each other that long at all…they’re “just trying to go to the same place.”

In the end, Shirase, Mari and Hinata didn’t have to use any clever tricks to get Yuzuki to reconsider her refusal. They merely had to show up and present themselves as who they really are: three girls who practically just met and want very much to go to Antarctica. Yuzuki could be the fourth.

Add to that the fact Yuzuki’s last potential friends at school seem ready to give up on her, and a bizarre dream in which Yuzuki is plucked from the window by the three girls on a ladder outside her hotel window (which I briefly thought was real—and rather shark-jumping!)

Yuzuki is charmed by the dream, but acknowledges that that was all it was; a fleeting expression of hope friends would come to her rather than laboring to seek them out.

But hey, the basic idea of her dream comes true anyway, with the trio appearing at her door (not her window, thank goodness) to make their final plea. Their timing is impeccable, and moves Yuzuki to tears of joy. She agrees to go, but only if Shirase, Mari, and Hinata can come as well.

The newly minted quartet then head to the Polar Science Museum in Tokyo (which I must visit next time I’m there).

Shirase gets hyped by the realistic penguin models, the four explore an old Snowcat, watch the aurora in the theater, and take a selfie together. Things are starting to feel real.

So, what’s up with the woman with the beauty spot in a “Challenge for Antarctic” car looking at that photo of Shirase and her Mom? She’s neither of the women who turned Shirase down in Kabukicho. Am I supposed to read her somewhat inscrutable expression as “grave” or “neutral”?

In any case, the band has been formed, and I couldn’t be happier. But something tells me things aren’t going to get easier just because they’ve got their tickets all but stamped. Four high school girls going to Antarctica will require, I imagine, a degree of training and preparation. Looking forward to those next steps and how the group responds to them.

Just Because! – 09

Whew, there’s a lot to unpack this week. A lot happened!…or at least a lot seemed to happen. Morikawa’s new ‘do causes an unexpected sensation from just about everyone in her class, except for the one guy whose reaction mattered most to her—Souma, because he’s an idiot.

After her not-confession (which Izumi mutters to himself had the exact same effect as a not-not-confession), Komiya is awkward with him, and all the times they naturally bump into each other always end with her retreating wordlessly.

Souma and Natsume encounter one another at the shoe lockers justs as Morikawa starts to play her trumpet, which sounds like it’s beckoning Souma, particularly when Natsume tells him he should go to her. Souma doesn’t want to be a bother…but he is.

No matter, Natsume goes to Morikawa instead; she wants to know how she decided on her future. Morikawa answers earnestly as always, citing her devotion to her family and paying them back for their kindness, but also wanting to taste life on her own for a bit, hence a woman’s university.

Morikawa wonders if it’s just a matter of her not wanting to be an adult, but Natsume thinks Morikawa really has “her act together”, especially compared to her.

After some unintentional synchronization after school (after which she exclaims “this day sucks!” with a smile), the third time turns out to be the charm for Komiya, as she runs into Izumi again while he’s on a run. She runs into the konbini and buys him a cold tea; he goes in and buys her a hot one in return.

There’s a Valentine’s Day sign in sight, and Izumi tells Komiya it’s almost time for his least favorite time of the year. Komiya coyly replies that even if Natsume never got him chocolate, he should expect some this year. Did I mention how fun these two are to watch?

Before leaving hastily yet again, Komiya expresses hope they can “get along like this from here on out!”; after she leaves Izumi mutters that that’s impossible. I think Komiya kinda knows that; Natsume still probably enjoys a lead in Izumi’s heart, regardless of how few nice interactions they’ve had.

The next day, Morikawa’s brothers spot Souma on the baseball field and run out to meet him. Souma finally has the opportunity to compliment Morikawa, and while she seems grateful, there seems to be something on her mind.

That gets back to the continuation of her talk with Natsume, after she asked how Natsume if she had feelings for Souma. Natsume responds that she liked him, past-tense, in a one-sided middle school crush, but locked the feelings away, but they eventually dispersed naturally.

Natsume was satisfied with “nothing coming of it” and “not trying to let anything come of it.” She also says there’s someone else she likes anyway, and when on her way home, she can’t resist buying chocolates for that person…and has made the decision to change her university to Izumi’s recommended school.

That means, of course, Izumi’s now studying for enrollment to the wrong school! It’s an object lesson in why you should really be more open about their plans, especially with someone you has feelings for. It would have obviously been a nice surprise if Natsume had stayed put, but that’s no longer the case.

I definitely dig Natsume’s bold move in escaping her sister’s orbit, even if neither she nor Izumi are making it easy for each other to come together. Still, while I’ve instantly come to love the idea of Izumi and Komiya, that “impossible” from him certainly leads me to assume Natsume is the one he’ll choose, even if they attend different universities.

I’m okay with that; I like both girls but there has to be a winner and a loser. All I’m sure of is that the next two-three weeks are going to be a roller coaster.

Just Because! – 08

Komiya Ena took Izumi’s photo before getting his permission, but after an extensive yet completely organic charm campaign, she eventually got it…and developed feelings for Izumi along the way. Perseverance and optimism won the day.

Komiya does the right thing by asking Natsume permission to ask Izumi on a date, but Natsume’s stern “no” doesn’t discourage her. Komiya knows intrinsically that she’s responsible for her own happiness and can’t wait around for things to happen on their own.

Natsume may have thought she’d bought a little time with her “no”—itself a huge move for her that confirmed she’s at least not indifferent towards Izumi—but she does nothing with that time. Izumi even asks her what she wanted to talk about, but she gives him the “never mind, it’s nothing.”

Natsume and Izumi’s situation takes a back seat when they join Souma and Inui for lunch at Morikawa’s house, which could and probably should have been just a Souma-and-Morikawa (and her little brothers) lunch.

It’s a cordial meal, but there’s something distancing about the way Natsume speaks of the support she got from everyone when Izumi provided the lion’s share of said support during the snowy exam day. It’s like the warmth of that day has been replaced by the more familiar coolness of earlier episodes.

That said, it’s not all Izumi’s fault; Izumi is the one so stealthily demonstrating his feelings for her by applying to the same school, where they’ll presumably be able to see each other. But if that’s what he wants, what the heck is he waiting for? Like Natsume, he simply lacks the proper amount of gumption to act on his feelings, or even put them in forthright words to the necessary party.

Komiya, meanwhile, has a lot more gumption, which is why she comes so tantalizingly close to asking Izumi out via LINE. She wants to send something, but gets caught up on the structure, formality and perceived tone (another reason to just talk to someone).

She needs a little nudge—or in this case, the paw of her big fat cat—to send it, and when it’s read immediately, I really related to the waiting game she had to endure, as well as her elation upon getting a positive response from Izumi.

Komiya doesn’t know exactly what she’s feeling or what she wants, but she does want to move forward with exploring it, and more importantly, has the wherewithal to follow through in a timely, direct fashion. It would help her out a bit if Izumi wasn’t so dense—asking Siri (or a Siri equivalent)  what “date” means? Really?

Then we have Haruto, who like me, sees the wonderful chemistry Izumi and Komiya share, and see Komiya get so pumped about her date, and I just can’t help root for Komiya.

Naturally, on the morning of the date, Izumi runs into Natsume first, and Natsume is on to him; they’re so in sync, she even asked Siri the exact same question. Natsume’s on her way to cram school; she wasn’t trying to break up a date; but she looks awfully bitter when Komiya shows up, leading to one of the better-delivered exchanges of the episode, if not the whole show:

—”I told you no.”
—”Do I need your permission?”
—”Then, why did you ask?”
—”Well, just because.”

In addition to Komiya finally delivering the TITULAR LINEthis dialogue so nicely encapsulates the differences between Natsume and Komiya. Komiya didn’t ask permission just so she could do it anyway; she didn’t think Natsume would say no, or feel so strongly about Izumi at all.

After all, who’s spend more time with Izumi of late? Komiya. She’s not saying “shit or get off the pot,” but her way of doing things just naturally runs roughshod over Izumi’s more deliberate approach.

Also great? Natsume and Komiya having a moment of solidarity when they both tell Izumi that their cryptic discussion is “none of his business.”

Natsume doesn’t protest any further; she has to go to cram school. So Komiya carries on with her date with Izumi. And it’s such a nice, low-key date! She takes him places where she snaps photos…and he snaps a photo of her, which she then makes his wallpaper!

They look like they’re having so much goddamn fun, even sitting in the dark clubroom looking at photo albums. One of those albums show a first-year Natsume with her older sister Mina…

…Who we then segue to! Mina asks Mio why she wants to attend the same university as her, telling her she should go to the one she wants. Seems a bit late in the game to be telling her this, but it does expose a certain “running on inertia” style to Natsume’s life.

Right now, she defines her purpose, first and foremost, of entering college, which is the same one as her sister, probably just because! What’s wrong with just because?

The sisters don’t happen to spot Izumi walking Komiya home after their adorably awesome date…which is for the best; enough coincidences, already! But that album photo reminded both Izumi and Komiya that there’s another side to their triangle, and it’s a side Izumi is studying hard to stay beside in the future.

With that in mind, Komiya asks Izumi why the heck he doesn’t just confess to her. His answer—”I would if I could”, doesn’t satisfy anyone; particularly himself.

So Komiya does what she’s always done to reasonable good effect: go her own way, proceed, persevere, hope. Now winning a prize at the photo competition isn’t just about keeping the club alive, it will determine whether she confesses her love to Izumi.

And no, Izumi, she’s not making a funny joke, she’s picking a direction and going. If you don’t like it, say something; do something. Otherwise, enjoy the journey.

*****

With all this talk about the triangle, I almost forgot about Souma and Morikawa! It’s…fine, they’re fine; they’re just not quite as compelling. She still owes him an answer. It was good to see Souma continue to get along with the bros, and Morikawa’s little makeover, which Izumi of all people sees first (and does a double take), was a cute and unexpected way to close the episode.

Net-juu no Susume – 03

Sakurai receives a reply from Morioka first thing in the morning, and he looks nervous, but also excited. We later learn that it’s a gentle and respectful decline on his offer of dinner out of a misplaced sense of not wanting to “cause any more trouble” after he did so much for her post-elbowing. But it’s pretty clear Sakurai wants “trouble” from Morioka. Why offer dinner in the first place?

When he does research on her career at a prestigious Bussan, he learns both from his own research and his co-worker Koiwai (who interacted with before) that Morioka was an exemplary employee and businessperson…who suddenly resigned. A old photo of her confirms she’s the one he accidentally knocked over.

Perhaps he’ll learn, as we have, that despite being damn good at her job, it just wasn’t something she wanted to do anymore. She wants to be a NEET and play MMOs now, and if she can afford to, who’s to say she can’t?

I’ll say, from the perfect structure and syntax of her text message to Sakurai, Morioka’s business skills probably haven’t dulled that much. She’s a talented, capable woman. But she does get a bit nervous in any kind of social situations, which is why after sending her reply, Morioka feels as though a great weight has been lifted from her shoulders, and she goes out to buy some snacks, some beer, and some extra points for FdM.

There, she quickly receives a gift from Lily – a super-expensive coat, and wonders what the underlying purpose of the gift was, considering it will be hard to reciprocate considering its cost. Lily is briefly taken aback by the, well, accusation of ulterior motives, but cannot entirely plead innocence. In fact, she’s come to feel a deep connection for Hayashi and wants him to be her partner in the game.

It’s a big step, and even though it may be a while before Sakurai and Morioka connect the dots on who each other are in the real world, it’s a good sign that they’re growing close enough in-game that a truth-revealing real-world meetup won’t be out of the question down the road. Of course, Morioka needs to realize that she’s not the only one using an avatar of the opposite sex.

NjS is getting better and better as we spend more time with “Mori-Mori” and “Sakura-chan;” particularly their moments of victory and elation when things go well for them. The narrative method of switching between worlds rather than going “full-dive” (ala SAO, NGNL, or KonoSuba) also tethers the story and makes it feel more real. It’s a great balance other shows with similar themes lacked. The music’s pretty bangin’, too.