Kaguya-sama: Love is War – 01 – The First to Confess Loses!

Here it is: perhaps the romantic comedy of the Winter. All dramatic theatrical staging, lighting, and musical stabs, Kaguya-sama: Love is War elevates something as deceptively simple as mutual romantic interest between two high schoolers into a grand operatic life-and-death affair.

Part of that is because the two in question aren’t ordinary high schoolers: are the top two students at the most prestigious school in the country. StuCo Vice President Shinomiya Kaguya’s family owns a good chunk of Japan, while President Shirogane Miyuki, while a commoner by comparison, possesses unsurpassed academic prowess.

Let’s get one thing straight: these two like each other, but would never ever say as such, let alone confess it. To do so would be to surrender the upper hand, shift the power dynamic, and become the supplicant, ceding dominance to the confessee. Despite their disparate backgrounds, Kaguya and Miyuki have too much pride and dignity to let that happen.

As such, while the rest of the student body sees them as the perfect couple who may even already be secretly dating, the two exist in a constant state of war, with the StuCo office serving as the battlefield. The neutral party between them, the far less brainy secretary Fujiwara Chika, often serves as a wild card in the pair’s ensuing battles.

In the first sequence, she’s also a pawn: Kaguya planted movie tickets in Chika’s mailbox, knowing she wouldn’t be able to go and would offer them to her and Miyuki. This creates a scenario in which Miyuki asks Kaguya if she wants to know, knowing that boy-girl pairs who go to this specific movie tend to end up as couples.

Their battle of wills is a chess game of moves, counter-moves, and counter-counter-moves, but when Chika also points out the tickets are also valid for an innocuous kids movie, a chaotic element is added to the pair’s already complex calculations, overheating their brains. Worse, Chika snatches the only source of sugar in the office that they could use to recharge and rally. Thus, the first battle we witness, both Kaguya and Miyuki lose.

In battle #2, Kaguya receives an anonymous love letter, and makes it known to both Miyuki and Chika that she fully intends to go, hoping it will provoke Miyuki into slipping up and demanding she not go…because he loves her. Miyuki knows what Kaguya intends, and attempts to dissuade her not as a man, but under his authority as StuCo President to discourage illicit relationships. He even considers tattling to the teacher, a risky move, but one that won’t expose his true feelings.

Kaguya counters by declaring that if it’s true love, she will risk suspension or even expulsion to give her body and soul to the writer of the letter, which almost causes Miyuki to slip up. He turns things around by asking, very speifically for the sake of argument, if she’d still go on the date if he were to confess to her. Kaguya’s true feelings are momentarily exposed, and she admits, too easily, that she’d reconsider before coming to her senses and preparing to go through with the date.

Ultimately Chika again intervenes in the battle of minds, grabbing Kaguya and tearfully declaring she won’t let her get expelled for a date, because she loves her too much to let such a thing happen. And so, with a crucial but unintentional assist by Chika, Kaguya loses this round.

The theme of the third and final battle of the episode (which packs a lot of bang for the buck!) is lunch. Specifically, Kaguya’s desire to taste a good old-fashioned classic Japanese school lunch with all the standbys: omelettes, hamburger, white rice, miso, plum, and most important, octopus wieners. The lunches she gets are prepared by a team of professional chefs, but Miyuki’s got the stuff she wants.

Of course, she can’t simply ask for a taste. But Chika certainly can, and does, compounding Kaguya’s anguish. She brings in an extra-fancy lunch, hoping to entice Miyuki to trade, but he doesn’t bite. Miyuki even makes Chika an identical lunch just for her, and with every bite (and indirect kiss) Kaguya’s opinion of Chika gets lower and more sinister. Miyuki can sense Kaguya’s negative aura this whole time, but assumes she’s looking down on his meager commoner repast, when quite the opposite is true.

Miyuki suspects Kaguya is up to something, even though this time she just wants a taste of his lunch, and ends up retreating from the office for StuCo business rather than find out what that might be, to live another day. However, since he fled, and Chika ends up offering her a cocktail weiner unbidden, Kaguya wins this last round, bringing her and Miyuki’s week one record to 1-1-1 each (or 1-2 if the first battle is a loss for both; I consider that a draw).

And there you have it! Despite all their constant scheming and wheel-spinning, I found Kaguya and Miyuki to both be likable, rootable characters, even if they remain doomed to remain in a stalemate as long as they maintain their stubborn positions of waiting for the other party to make the first move. The closed-off, bottle-like nature of the StuCo office gives the episode a compactness and laser-focus, and while one more StuCo member has yet to be introduced, I hope the cast stays this small.

Full of lively competitive energy, but with underlying mutual affection and respect, I’m looking forward to watching Kaguya and Miyuki spar in the future, with Chika in the middle demonstrating that they could make things so much easier for themselves if they just lightened up!

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Bunny Girl Senpai – 09 – Two Friendless Sisters

When the second school term begins in September, Sakuta just can’t wait to see Mai. Due to the dating ban and her busy schedule he’s seen neither hide nor tail of her, and that trend continues when she fails to show up to school.

When he finally does happen upon her on a random street, there’s something…off about her. She claims to not know who Sakuta is. Then a short blonde girl appears, telling him she’s the real Mai, and that she and her half-sister Toyohama Nodoka have swapped bodies.

This happened quite suddenly after Nodoka ran away from home and her domineering mother (she and Mai have the same dad) and spent the night at Mai’s impressive, self-bought condo. When they woke up, they were switched.

This is clearly adolescence syndrome, but while the cause becomes clear enough—Nodoka has a lot of built-up resentment for her “perfect” big sis—the means to undo the swap remain elusive, short of propelling Nodoka to the top of the idol charts (something most likely beyond Sakuta’s abilities).

So the two carry on in each others’ lives, trying not to draw to much attention. The fact that Mai’s schedule is comparatively paltry compared to Nodoka’s not only speaks to how hard Nodoka’s mom is pushing her to succeed, but Mai’s desire to have as much time to hang out with Sakuta as possible during the second term.

Despite not having a perfect big sister, Sakuta diagnoses Nodoka’s issues pretty easily, leading to Nodoka confronting Mai and telling her things she’s kept inside, hoping honesty might be a step towards undoing the swap. Instead, Mai shoots her negative emotions regarding Nodoka right back at her.

While it’s not immediately clear from the montage of Mai and Nodoka’s days as one another is just how much easier Mai is able to slip into her little sister’s life, doing the necessary singing, dancing, and training required of a rising idol and purporting herself well.

Nodoka does alright with the photo shoots and interviews—things she’s done before—but when it comes time to film a commercial and memorize lines when a camera is rolling and an entire crew is surrounding her…it’s too much. She hyperventilates and the shoot has to be cancelled. When Sakuta reports the incident, Mai is surprised; she figured Nodoka would have been able to get a good take from that particular director.

Being somewhat out of his element with regards to younger siblings, Sakuta gets some insight from the most unlikely of sources: Kunimi’s girlfriend, Kumisato, who like Nodoka, has a hardworking, overachieving, brilliant, perfect big sister (I assume she’s pretty too).

Kumisato neither likes nor hates her, because it’s nothing that simple. What she can say is that she’s always annoyed by her mom’s constant urging that she take her sister as an example and study more.

Being a middle child myself, I can state that there was always the push-pull of wanting to set a good example for my little sis while not falling too far behind my big bro (who is much more academically inclined than me…not to mention more historically and politically informed. I can paint way better though!) But my siblings and I aren’t competing in the same field, so we never really competed the way Mai and Nodoka seem to be.

More importantly, we had parents who pushed us to be the best individuals we could be; we weren’t used as pawns in a proxy war between our mothers (for one thing, we all had the same mother, but still). I have no doubt a part of Nodoka is proud of her half-sis, and a part of Mai is happy to have a younger sister to inspire and support. But their folks have not made it easy for them to interact with each other on their own terms.

Body-swap episodes seem to be a dime a dozen these days, but I’ll admit to being a big fan of them when they’re well-executed, as this one is. It’s nice to hear Seto Asami switch up her voice style to match the Nodoka in Mai’s body, not to mention Uchida Maaya’s more upright measure as Mai in Nodoka’s body. The fact they are swapped, and the novelty therein, is secondary to why the swap occurred, as well as how to undo it, which, as with the other solutions to adolescence syndrome outbreaks, will require character growth to achieve.

But my main gripe with this arc is that I found it hard to garner as much enthusiasm as I did for the previous ones. Perhaps that’s due in part to the brisk, sudden manner in which Nodoka is introduced, and the fact the only time we saw her in her own body was in that brief TV interview with her idol group. Futaba, who interacted plenty with Sakuta prior to her own arc, is thus proving a tough act to follow for Nodoka, who entered this episode a virtual unknown.

Hanebado! – 13 (Fin) – The Other Side of the Net

Hanebado! seemed to take a bit of a nosedive in critical reception as it progressed, with most of the criticism centering on writing perceived as poor and character reactions and attitudes that were too often over-the-top or unrealistic.

Frankly, neither of these things ever bothered me, because the primary draw for me was always watching two players slap the shit out of a birdie (or shuttlecock, if you’re not into the whole brevity thing). Ayano and Nagisa close out their match, and the show, doing just that.

As such, the animation of the match and of the character’s reactions grows ever more dramatic and stylized throughout the roller coaster of an episode. Ayano crawls all the way back, and Nagisa and her knee seem poised to crumble before the might of her opponent’s honed talent.

Coach Tachibana looks ready to pounce at any moment should Nagisa desire to end the match to possibly preserve her career; to lose to live to fight another day. But she doesn’t give up, nor does she let her knee stop her from hanging in there against Ayano.

After several end-of-match deuces (ties), it gets to the point that even Ayano’s body starts to give out. Indeed, when Nagisa’s winning point is scored, securing the narrowest of victories, Ayano’s racket flies right out of her hand and hits one of the net posts.

Once Nagisa realizes she’s won, she bursts into tears right there on the court, while an exhausted Ayano is helped off by her senpais, and takes that opportunity to thank them for supporting her, something that catches them off guard, since she was such an unapologetic bitch to them not too long ago!

Even though Ayano lost, she doesn’t feel like she’s going to be abandoned, nor that it’s the end of the world. Rather, both she and Nagisa realized during the match that they both love and play badminton because it’s fun; and it’s never more fun than when you’re playing such a close match against someone on or around your level.

Ayano and Nagisa might just represent the two peaks of their respective corners (talent and hard work), though it’s also clear that Nagisa has plenty of talent (otherwise she wouldn’t have beaten Ayano, period), while Ayano works plenty hard (otherwise she wouldn’t have had the stamina to almost knock Nagisa off).

Ayano also confronts her mother and states that she hated her, past-tense, because she thought she was abandoned for not having any talent. Uchika repeats her offer to bring Ayano back with her to Denmark, but Ayano wishes to remain in Japan, where she intends to keep playing and keep getting better. Uchika is impressed and moved by her daughter’s words.

As friends Riko and Nagisa share a post-victory moment of friendship, Ayano also takes the time to thank her friend Erena for always standing by her side, as well as for persuading her to get back into badminton.

When Ayano and Nagisa next meet, the latter is being told to take things easy, what with her patellar tendinitis. But Ayano immediately challenges her to a match. She quickly switches back to “Evil Ayanon”, but not out of straight-up malice; her intention to inspire Nagisa, not provoke her.

It’s also a way of acknowledging Nagisa’s skill; trash talk aside, Ayano wouldn’t play someone she believed wasn’t worth playing. And so the two arrange to practice together more and more in preparation for the inter-high tournament. After all, the person on the other side of the net is a “reflection of themselves”. Beat that, and they can beat anyone.

Hanebado! – 12 – Crossfire

Hanesaki Ayano is good, but not invincible, and while she wins the first game, it’s not a blowout but a 20-16 eke-through, because Nagisa refuses to play the game Ayano thought she’d play. Put simply, Nagisa goes on the defense, forcing Ayano to be the aggressor, which gives Nagisa time to think and keep Ayano off-balance, all while sapping her stamina.

Nagisa’s knee is a concern, but Tachibana examines it and she seems to be okay. Erena hears from Ayano’s mom that her intent, however monstrous, was to get Ayano to become a better player by playing for herself, not for the sake of her mother. Abandoning her made her hate her mother, and thus made her find a new reason to improve: revenge.

But while she won the first game and is determined to beat Nagisa in straight sets, it just doesn’t go that way. Nagisa keeps up the defense and keeps hanging in there long enough to finally release her jumping smash at the most devastating moment. It’s everything Ayano has not to completely melt down on the court.

That’s because despite her brave face and resolve to reject her mom, Ayano still fears abandonment over everything else. By losing the second set, she feels she’s on the cusp of being abandoned again; this time by everyone who isn’t her mom. She enters a tailspin, going down 0-8 in the third game, causing some to consider the match over before it officially ends.

But then something happens: despite how badly she treated her teammates, they still cheer her on and urge her to do her best, not just for her own sake, but for the sake of the team, who can say they sent two teammates to the Nationals. Erena adds her voice to a crowd that is suddenly on Ayano’s side, as if sensing the emotional turmoil in which she’s roiling.

The sudden surge of support works. No longer afraid she’ll be discarded for being useless, Ayano breaks out something new from her back of tricks: she ends Nagisa’s 8-point scoring streak by scoring a point of her own, with her right hand. Could it be she’s a natural righty even though she’s been playing lefty all this time? Or is she simply ambidextrous?

In any case, she’s back in the game. Also worth looking for in the final episode: whether Ayano’s come-from-behind win is really in the cards. Maybe Nagisa will upset her, but then again, maybe Ayano needs to learn that she doesn’t need to win all the time to avoid being abandoned.

Hanebado! – 11 – Creating a Monster

“Why do you play badminton?” That question is oft asked in Hanebado!. Characters ask other characters, and also ask themselves. “Because I love it” seems to be a pretty popular answer. I mean, why participate in a sport and work hard at it if you don’t feel a kind of affinity for it, or because it makes you feel good?

Ayano claims not to subscribe to such a glib answer. Everyone who says they play because they love it seems to get on her nerves. Perhaps it’s envy, or perhaps it’s obfuscation. Regardless, Ayano isn’t in this for the love of the game; she’s in it for revenge against the mother who abandoned her—even as that mother claims she left her so she would become stronger.

You can call Ayano’s decision to renounce her mother a kind of growth, but there’s just as much Nagisa growth on display this week. For one thing, she’s learned not to get bothered by Ayano’s haughty provocations. She’s also learned not to push herself too far.

As Ayano is trying her best not to let the sudden reappearance of her mother throw her off her game (she sees it as yet another hurdle to clear), Nagisa is trying to get to bed at a reasonable hour the night before the match; though she can’t sleep and instead studies film of Ayano, ending up with less than three hours of sleep.

The day of the match, Ayano’s “teammates” encourage her, but she rejects that encouragement as a waste of time; her performance won’t be affected either way by their words. It’s the last display of cruel pomposity Elena is willing to bear. She takes Ayano aside and learns of Ayano’s plan to abandon her mom. And Elena blames herself for making Ayano join the club.

I can’t say I disagree with that placing of blame; while Ayano was hardly in a good place emotionally prior to being forced into joining club, the fact that she had come to hate badminton meant she had find a reason other than love of the game in order to prosper in it. With the best of intentions, Elena created a monster.

When play begins, Nagisa shows growth once more by playing a different game; not relying too much on her smash, and using more deception and less aggressive bull-headedness. She’s rewarded by winning the first two points of the first set. She also has the crowd behind her.

Elena spots Uchika walking out after her daughter’s two lost points, and as the rain starts to fall, expresses her desire to talk about Ayano with her. Meanwhile, Ayano, who didn’t see Uchika leave and probably doesn’t much care anymore, is hardly fazed by Nagisa’s surprisingly strong start.

In fact, she’s mildly amused, and then blurts out the strategy Nagisa is trying to employ. Nagisa was able to use the element of surprise to steal a couple of points, but she knew it wouldn’t be long before Ayano picked up on what was going on and adjusted her game.

While it only took Ayano two points for her to analyze Nagisa’s strategy, the show seems to want to present the possibility Nagisa could beat Ayano…but we’ll have to wait at least one of the final two episodes to know the final result. All we know is that Ayano will have a counterattack…and that we’re probably in for more flashbacks next week!

Grand Blue – 10 – Tell No Lies in the Ocean

The club finally makes it to Okinawa for real, and while events don’t unfold much like the overly dramatized preview last week, it’s an enjoyable outing and as a complete diving noob I was also educated as I was entertained.

The beach house is short on bedrooms, so Iori and Kouhei immediately jump at the first chance to compete to see who gets a bed and who gets the floor (even though there’s an huge unused sofa in the living room).

Their constant bickering and competing mars an otherwise enjoyable day at the beach, and Grand Blue notably doesn’t employ the usual slow upward pans. Yet even though Chisa isn’t really having fun, Aina is jealous that she’s out there with Iori.

It’s not all fun and games, as the newbies Iori Kouhei and Aina have to pass a bunch of tests and exams in order to be cleared for diving. Because he’s stashed with Nanaka and Azusa overnight, Iori can’t sleep (without choking himself out) so he studies instead.

Ultimately all three pass, and the next day their practical exercises commence. Diving Time! Here Grand Blue gets super-instructional, and the hand signals are accompanied by the voices of those making them. I learned about how a diver descends and ascends, as well as the standard 60-psi limit to remaining underwater.

Not only that, I learned it only takes one diver hitting that 60-psi limit for all of the divers’ dives to ends. It’s a team exercise, and so the team ascends as one. Traumatized by the much less “team-y” tennis club that rejected her, Aina is worried about being the first to hit 60 and “causing trouble.”

But as Iori explains, she has nothing to fear or be ashamed of; their seniors aren’t the kind who will hold it against her for shortening their dives. Rather than needlessly worry about what others think, she should focus on improving her underwater breathing. As with anything, it will improve with practice, and Iori gives Aina the comfort and confidence to keep at it.

And herein lies a competition far quieter than the far more annoying ongoing one between Iori and Kouhei: that between Chisa and Aina for Iori’s attention. Whether Chisa is on the boat with him or he’s comforting Aina, the women are watching each other very closely. I wonder if anything will come of it?

Hanebado! – 10 – Shuttlecock Tease

Finally, the long-awaited rematch between Nagisa and Ayano in the…wait, we’re not getting that this week? It’s just the boy’s matches? LAME. I won’t apologize for simply not caring about chunks of Hanebado! I feel to be padding, and a sure as hell don’t care any more about Yuu’s weird crush on Hayama or his and Isehara’s matches than I did before.

do care about Ayano, so it’s good to see her deliver the only appropriate welcome to a mother who peace’d out and found a taller, blonder girl to be her daughter and successor: a nonexistent welcome. Ayano doesn’t say one word to Uchika the whole episode, and frankly, one word would be one too many.

You can lay into Ayano all you want for being such an awful, insufferably haughty jerk to Nagisa and everyone else, but her mother’s shunning is primarily to blame.

We don’t even meet Nagisa’s parents, but we can assume they’re better than Ayano simply because they’ve stayed in her life and presumably didn’t betray her. One wonders why none of the kids on the team seem to have parents or siblings to watch them play.

Isehara and Hayama proceed with their matches, and it’s all a bit of a yawnfest, honestly. It’s just another version of the “hard work means something” and “you don’t have to have the most talent to play” trope. Isehara is talented—and handsome—but he loses anyway, just as Hayama does even though he works his ass off and has the enthusiastic support of his team

As for Yuu—Ebina Yuu; we finally get her last name, ten episodes in!—her crush dies shortly after Hayama loses, or possibly even during his match, but not because she thinks he sucks. Rather, her desire to support her came out of her own inadequacies. Now that he showed her there’s still value in fighting on despite not being any good, she’s content to part ways with a hearty thank you and goodbye.

This is honestly the boringest way things between them could have ended, which serves to fully justify my lack of enthusiasm for their plotline all along.

With the boys out of the way, all that remains is the final between Nagisa and Ayano…and if it doesn’t take place next week, I’m honestly going to skip the episode! Ayano is either intentionally or unintentionally continuing to provoke Nagisa into a “practice” match with her, as a kind of dry run to the finals, because she finds no one else (save the Olympics-caliber Coach Tachibana) a worthy opponent.

Nagisa doesn’t necessarily rise to the provocations; she wants to play in the finals with Ayano for a different, more personal reason. This isn’t about revenge, it’s about redemption. Nagisa acknowledges that she gave up in the All-Japan Juniors; she lost more to herself than Ayano. So she doesn’t see this as fighting Ayano, but fighting the person she was back then. It didn’t have to be Ayano.

As for Ayano, her mom mentioning she knows about her match with Connie, and her mom’s sudden offer to take her away from Japan (presumably to be a real family along with Connie), may yet create a psychological hitch in Ayano’s match with Nagisa. It’s not much, but especially with her troublesome knees, Nagisa will need all the help she can get.

Hanebado! – 09 – Turnabout is Fair Play

Ayano and Nagisa’s preparations for their finals match are interrupted by the inauspiciously conspicuous return of Connie Christensen, who wants a rematch with Ayano. Ayano, who as we know is not the same Ayano Connie embarrassed the last time they crossed, stays cordial, but her first words to Connie—that her panties are showing—demonstrate how unseriously Ayano is taking her.

Ayano’s attention turns to her broken Wei-Wei mascot on her bag, and Shiwahime invites her to a kind of Wei-Wei theme park with Connie (Erena also tags along). The Wei-Wei-ness is like catnip to Ayano, who switches off Badminton Mode and has a lot of fun for once, to the relief of Erena. Meanwhile, Shiwahime inadvertently sabotages Connie’s olive branch to Ayano in the form of a Wei-Wei keychain.

It turns out Connie didn’t return for a rematch at all; she came to express her desire to be a family with Ayano and her mother Uchika. When Connie finally gets the words out, Ayano completely brushes them off, and affably leads Connie to a badminton court, where her first devastating shot sends a clear message that it won’t be a friendly match.

We see more of the perennially lonely Connie’s past when Uchika takes her under her wing and essentially adopts her, while all the while Connie’s knowledge of the existence of a “big sister” who is Uchika’s biological daughter looms over her as a kind of challenge to clear. She wants the acknowledgement of both Uchika—who never once told Connie she was better than Ayano—and Ayano herself.

She doesn’t get it, and I’d argue she doesn’t really deserve it after how she entered Ayano’s life. Sure, Connie thought Ayano was playing mind games with her when they first met, but it doesn’t change the fact that Ayano sought a friendship in good faith, unaware of Connie’s identity.

That being said, Ayano lays the contempt on a little thick, as she essentially transforms into a Badminton Youkai, all crazy eyes and twisted smirks, in utterly rejecting Connie on the grounds she’s resolved to abandon her mom the way she abandoned her.

While Ayano refuses to forgive and forget or turn the other cheek, a dejected Connie returns home with Shiwahime to find the rest of her team has done all three, giving her emotional support when she’s never felt lower. Sorry, Hanebado, but this whole “actually Connie is the victim now, let’s all feel bad for her” isn’t quite working for me.

Who has two thumbs and doesn’t care about Yu’s attempts to get one of the male players to notice her? [holds up two thumbs] This guy. Also, I’m not confident Nagisa practicing until her knees give out is the best strategy for having a good match against Ayano. If Ayano doesn’t clean her clock I’ll be very surprised.

What could turn the tables slightly in Nagisa’s favor is the fact that Ayano returns home to find her mother, big stupid hair bow and all, waiting there to greet her like nothing’s happened. However unpleasant a character Connie may be, she’s no match for the awfulness that is Hanesaki Uchika, Ten-Time Worst Mother of the Year.

Hanebado! – 08 – Her Own Kind of Badminton

Ishizawa Nozomi, who was chosen over Nagisa for an elite school spot by her coach, is really only interested in winning and thus validating the trust her coach placed in her. Ayano, who has gradually abandoned all pretense of sportsmanship or empathy and has now become, essentially, a badminton murderbot, is also only interested in winning.

Both dispatch their opponents with ease and look down upon them as wasting their time. Yet I couldn’t help but feel like this episode was merely buildup for, even filler before the more substantial match involving Ayano. To be frank, I just don’t really care about Nozomi’s situation, while we’ve already dealt with Nagisa’s issues.

Ayano is on the shelf for the remainder of this episode; another spectator in the Nagisa-Nozomi showdown, and boy does she lay on the aloof bitchiness thick. I was hoping someone—say Elena—would kick her in the bum (either physically or verbally) but Ayano isn’t interested in discussing her conduct unbecoming.

As long as she wins, she doesn’t want to hear from anyone about anything…but is more than willing to giver her own running negative commentary about Nagisa’s chances against Nozomi, which she believes to be slim. Nozomi’s coach believes a strategy of making Nagisa run and change direction will blow out her knees.

And so in this match, we have a coach who is not only a constant verbal presence during play (which is hella annoying) but so obsessed with analytics and oppo research that he sees Nozomi as little more than an avatar or tool with which to execute his badminton.

The problem is, Nozomi is still a child, and trying to find out who she is, not just as a player but as a person. The coach’s constant browbeating is constantly undermining that growth, and the effects are just as serious as the fatigue on Nagisa’s knees.

After losing the first set, Nozomi stands up to her coach for the first time and basically tells him to butt out; she’s going to try things her way. To his credit, the coach is accepting of her choice and almost seems proud to be cast aside in this way, realizing he pushed her too far. So at least he’s not a complete two-dimensional jerk.

Nozomi proceeds to win the second set, but loses the third, giving Nagisa the victory, a spot in the Nationals and in the final match versus Ayano. But more importantly, she played the rest of that match for herself, not her coach, and despite losing, had a ton of fun, reminding her why she plays in the first place.

As for Ayano, she concedes she was wrong and that Nagisa is better than she thought…but likely doesn’t see Nagisa as even the slightest threat in the finals. We’ll see if her insufferable arrogance backfires next week, or if her precipitous abandonment of humanity will continue to proceed apace.

Considering both Connie and her mother could be in attendance, the timing for some kind of downfall for Ayano couldn’t possibly be worse!

Hanebado! – 07 – The Power and Price of Hard Work

The best and most thrilling episode of Hanebado! yet, in which Ayano and Kaoruko have their fated rematch, comes with a surprise: Ayano’s mom is nowhere to be seen; none of Ayano’s teammates mention her again; and there’s no indication she watched the Kaoruko rematch. Where’d she go? We never find out. But she’s there, and she’ll surely be back.

Her total absence reflects the new attitude towards her mother Ayano wishes to adopt: that she doesn’t have a mother, or at least not one whose opinions matter to her anymore. Ayano looks initially rattled by Kaoruko’s gift of a hankie for the tears/snot when she loses, but her pained look morphs into a wry girn.

Ayano isn’t scared of Kaoruko anymore; at least not on the surface. Her inner thoughts/feelings are off limits to Ayano’s teammates, Kaoruko, and we the audience, but it could well be she’s just as calm, cool, and committed to obliterating her opponent inside as out.

Yu loses her match, making Ayano, Nagisa and Sora the only three players left standing in the prelims. But frankly I just wasn’t that interested in the little subplots of the other characters. This was about a suddenly supremely confident Ayano and a Kaoruko humming with arrogance: an Unstoppable Force vs. an Unmovable Object.

Despite the distractions, the match lives up to the hype and then some. It’s the most high stakes match we’ve been able to watch, and the animation team pulls out all the stops, utilizing all manner of angles, zooms, pans, sweeps, etc. as well as a 3-D “floating camera” that soars from one end of the court to t’other. It really got the adrenaline pumping.

But even more important: for once, Ayano, supposedly one of the most talented players in the show, isn’t embarrassed or overwhelmed, physically or psychologically. She is in complete command of the match, and demonstrates virtual telepathy when it comes to diagnosing Kaoruko’s game plan and sabotaging it at every turn with unexpected counters.

This is where Kaoruko’s tireless hard work, ultra-granular attention to detail, and the ruthless drive to defeat Ayano at all costs actually work against her. She prepared so intricately carefully for an opponent based on what she thought she knew of them up and down, leaving no time to consider how Ayano’s skills would have improved or evolved parallel to her own.

Ayano is no stranger to hard work either, after all. She employs it here, and her grit on the court is reinforced by her conscious effort to block all of those negative and unpleasant thoughts that plagued her for so long. Free of the need for validation from her mother, she’s a player possessed.

She’s also in rare form on the trash talking front. Kaoruko talked a big game, but Ayano’s retorts are strategically toned and timed for maximum damage. Long story short: Ayano is all that’s in Kaoruko’s head. Winning is al that’s in Ayano’s head.

The final 21-16, 21-17 score in Ayano’s favor doesn’t do justice to the level of dominance she displayed against Kaoruko in 90% of the match. The defeat is devastating, and not just because she gave her entire team the middle finger prior to the match, so confident was she that she’d “mop the floor” with Ayano.

Ayano broke a fantasy that Kaoruko kept playing in her head as she worked so hard: that she could beat the first player her own age to beat her, without cheating by giving her a cold. She thought she was psychologically stronger. Her only loyal, sympathetic teammate helps her stretch post-match, both of them cry, for Ayano crushed those fantasies, then offered Kaoruko her hankie back.

Ayano, for her part, calls Kaoruko’s effort “pathetic”, which rubs Elena the wrong way. Ayano’s cold response is simply that on that court, winning is the only thing that matters (Sorry, Riko, Yu and Sora!). Another way to say that is that if you don’t win, then nothing matters. So yeah, Ayano may be playing her best badminton, but she’s gone to a dark, lonely place to do it.

Next up is Nagisa vs. Nozomi, but you know what? However it turns out, I can’t see how it won’t feel like a bit of a letdown after Ayano vs. Kaoruko. Both players are lower down on the character significance list. What could mitigate that is if we finally get the Ayano-Ayano’s mom reunion we’ve been waiting for all season. Who knows, maybe she did watch the match; the episode just never cut to her…

Grand Blue – 05 – Beauty is Only Skin Deep

As punishment(?) for neglecting her at the festival, Chisa puts the word out that she’s dating Iori, immediately making all the other guys at college hate him and wish him ill will in a very over-the-top, repetitive opening act that went on a bit too long.

Chisa does nothing to stop the false rumor—on the contrary, she fans the flames—and Iori tells the guys that Kohei is dating Azusa (making him Public Enemy #2), but they both get a reprieve when they promise to arrange a mixer for them.

Oddly, their job is made easier by the fact the legions of haters are curiously whittled down to just two ornery classmates. To that end, they beg Azusa to introduce them to other women at her college. She agrees, but only if Iori continues to act like Chisa’s boyfriend until, as she puts it, Chisa “accepts it.”

With Iori’s promise secured, Azusa introduces her kohai, none other than Yoshiwara Aina, who the lads find extraordinarily adorable when she’s not wearing the thick layers of makeup that earned her the unwanted nickname “Cakey.”

Aina has wanted to join the diving club anyway since the festival, leaving the tennis club full of fakes who treated her like shit. Despite calling her cakey and drooling over her non-cakey appearance, Aina is still willing to scrounge up three of her friends for the mixer. But she also gives Chisa one hell of a sidelong glance; I believe Chii-chan just got some competition.

The quartet of lads, among them a virgin who will sleep with any girl as long as they’re a girl and he can sleep with her, are shocked to find Aina has somewhat tainted the mixer by giving her three friends as well as herself the same Cakey treatment, giving them the appearance of four clowns.

But if the girls are clowns, the guys are circus animals, constantly jockeying for attention and braying and snorting at one another whenever more than one of them focuses on one girl. Like the lecture hall scene, it gets a bit repetitive.

A look at a selfie shows them one of the girls is quite attractive behind the makeup, and they all go after her, but when Kohei asks her if she’ll come to his place later all four girls retreat to the restroom.

Iori uses the time to inspire his men, only to steal the show, thus invoking the other lads’ collective ire. Kohei breaks a mixer taboo by blurting out that Iori has a girlfriend (something he can’t deny lest he break his promise to Azusa), but the girls don’t even care; they already know that fact.

Later, the girls laugh off the mixer as an entertaining lark, likening it to going to the zoo. But Aina, ever the romantic, still ponders whether the person who saw through her cakey makeup and helped her out when she was down in the dumps could be a good match for her. No doubt she sees a decent guy beneath Iori’s own thick layers of alcohol-soaked machismo.

Hanebado! – 06 – Not Just One More Match

Prelims are upon us this week, and it’s Izumi Riko’s turn to be angsty. It’s her last year and last prelims, and she wants to win. The only problem is, her first opponent is her childhood friend Nozomi, who also happens to be one of last year’s final four. Riko is not confident she can hang with the likes of Nozomi, and even though Nagisa tries her best to fire her up, Riko ends up frustrated and the two part ways for the evening on a bad note.

The day of the matches arrives, and Riko and Nozomi are cordial but cool, as imminent opponents must be. The team rocks their slick new one-piece uniforms, and Riko’s four cute siblings are in attendance, but she still manages to stink up the joint in the first half of the first set overwhelmed by her own lack of confidence as well as Nozomi’s unbeatable aura.

When the interval comes, Riko knows she has to do something…so she goes over the shots of the match so far, analyzes them, and finds that Nozomi is avoiding her backhand. Riko goes on the offensive and gets a point or two before Nozomi re-adjusts. It’s a beautifully-animated, fast-paced story told through the smooth, graceful, yet powerful motions of the players; a chess match of adjustments and counter-adjustments.

Riko still loses, but she makes Nozomi work for her win, going against her opponent’s strict coache’s insistence she conserve her stamina. It was just another match for Nozomi; a stepping stone to the next round. But for Riko, it was the match; the only match left in her high school career. And as her coach directed, she had fun out there.

Whither Ayano? Well, for most of the episode she seems to be putting up a strong front of Everything’s Okay, and may even believe she’s past worrying about her mother or Connie. But these prelims are uniquely equipped to not let Ayano escape her troubles so easily. Not only is she facing Serigaya Kaoruko in the next round, but her mother will be in attendance to watch their rematch. That should be interesting…

Hanebado! – 05 – The Discarded Daughter

Ayano lived her childhood absolutely idolizing her mother and soaking up every bit of badminton know-how she could. Other than Elena, there was virtually no one else in her life she cared about. In other words, her mom was her family…until she took off, and Ayano has felt alone ever since (sorry, Elena).

Or, at least she had felt alone. Now that she’s been welcomed and embraced by her team, she feels like she can keep playing with their support. Riko offers as much at the end of their first game which they lost to Connie, 21-12. Kentarou resets the defense so Ayano has the run of the back 2/3rds of the court for the second game.

By throwing her out of the frying pan and into the fire, Ayano eventually picks up her game, returning shots that she’d previously let drop. Her sly persistence starts to frustrate Connie, who in turn steps up her game, and all of a sudden their respective teammates are treated to one hell of a grudge match, with neither Ayano nor Connie believing defeat to be an option.

Connie draws from her own childhood, which looks as lonely as Ayano’s post-mom time, while Ayano gets all Sadako-y like she did when she beat Nagisa in the nationals. The two competitors are so focused on each other, Connie ends up getting a cramp in her leg, and her partner leaps in to score the winning point, catching Ayano and Connie alike off guard and leading them to declare the result of the match corrupted.

Both go off skulking, only to be picked back up by the very people she felt were unnecessary (in Connie’s case) or the people whom she felt she’d let down (in Ayano’s). Sora, who’d been pretty quiet up to this point, confesses that she hated Ayano for seeming not to care despite being so talented, but has revised her feelings about her after seeing how far she went in that match. The two girls end up spending the evening having fun with their teammates.

The next morning when both teams are set to return home, Ayano confronts Connie, who tells her what I (and probably everyone else watching) had suspected last week: Connie is the girl Ayano’s mother replaced her with as daughter. Connie’s goal is to prove to her “mama” that she’s the better player by beating Ayano.

As I mentioned last week, one would assume the question of “who is best” had already long been settled by the fact Ayano’s mother f-ing abandoned her biological daughter for Connie. I guess Connie just isn’t satisfied with her mom’s decision, but wants to be sure she’s better than Ayano. As for Ayano, on the bus ride home she breaks out her crazy face once more, declaring that she “doesn’t need” her mother any more.

While that’s a depressing sentiment, somewhat creepily delivered, I can hardly blame her for wanting to give up on the person who gave up on her. But I still feel there’s a reconciliation story brewing here. Simply stating she’s done seeking her mom’s approval doesn’t magically make it so…right?