Kageki Shoujo!! – 06 – Such Sins Shall Not Be Endured

The 100th Class is restless. For four months they’ve been subjected to basics basics basics when each of them are anything but. They’re fed up of boring lessons…they want to ACT. Sarasa, never one to shy away from making her thoughts known, whatever they may be, airs the united class’s grievance to Andou-sensei.

He seems miffed by her impression of her, even though everyone agrees it’s as spot-on as her impressions of all the other teachers. They wonder if it’s because it’s so good that it struck a nerve. Such is Sarasa’s performative power.

Oh, it’s also Sarasa’s 16th birthday! Akiya’s older kabuki kolleague took the liberty of delivering sixteen roses to Sarasa under an alias, living as he is vicariously through Akiya and Sarasa’s chaste, minimalist long-distance relationship. But Ai isn’t going to lose to some “frog bot”; so she plays and plays the store lottery until she wins a figurine she knows Sarasa will cherish.

She also uses the opportunity to try to call Sarasa by her first name instead of “Sara…Watanabe-san”, and when prompted by Sarasa herself to do so, Ai is finally able to do it. More than by the figurine, Sarasa is made happiest by seeing her first name in Ai’s handwriting and hearing it in Ai’s voice. I love these two so much it hurts.

I could honestly deal quite well with a Kageki Shoujo!! that’s nothing but Sarasa and Ai hanging out and gradually becoming closer, but we’ve got a whole ensemble to cover here, and the results of spreading the love across multiple Kouka students isn’t bad either!

This week focuses on the other members of Sarasa and Ai’s Group E, who along with the other groups have two weeks to prepare to do a scene from Romeo & Juliet. Rock Paper Scissors is used to determine who plays what role, resulting in the suboptimal pairing of Hoshino Kaoru’s Romeo with Ai’s Juliet. Sarasa has to play the much darker Tybalt.

The role of Juliet was really won by Chika, one of the Sawada twins, but she decides to be the lesser role of Juliet’s nurse, later seeing her sister Chiaki claim the role with giddy elation. Is Chika less ambitious than Chiaki, or is she simply trying to differentiate herself from her sister in order to shine on her own? The twins have just been background noise until now, so I’m looking forward to them getting a bit more fleshed out.

Kaoru, whom I’d forgotten wishes to be a otoko-yaku like Sarasa, does not surrender Romeo to Sarasa. Instead, she takes Group E firmly by the reins and does not spare the whip. She harshly criticizes both Sarasa and Ai for seemingly not giving it their all, then finally snaps at Sarasa for daring to propose they practice on the sidewalk like common street performers.

As with Ayako last week, Ai sees a member of JPX in Kaoru, specifically the leader, who was always angry and never satisfied. She also learns why from the other girls; both of the previous generations of Hoshino women were Kouka performers. Ai bridges the gap between her and Kaoru by acknowledging the pressure Kaoru is under, while also admitting something she deems to be shameful and almost disqualifying for a Kouka actress.

Due to all of her years performing from a young age, she never properly learned to read kanji. Ai tells Kaoru there’s nothing wrong with her having a short fuse or being tough on them; if she’s not tough on them, Group E will fail. And if Kaoru doesn’t want to be the bad guy of the group, they’ll also fail!

Speaking of bad guys, Sarasa has zero experience embodying characters like Tybalt, but while she sucks at reading a script, watching a Blu-Ray of Romeo & Juliet is another thing entirely. She absorbs every moment of the performances on the screen, and the shape and color of every line, like a very tall, very efficient sponge. And lest you think I’m being harsh on Sarasa, I hold living sponges in high regard! We should all wish to live such an elegant existence!

When the time comes for the first-ever Great “Let First-Years Act” Experiment, Andou chooses Group E to go first. As they perform in their tracksuits on a rehearsal stage, the audience (including us) are transported to the fully-dressed performance stage, complete with lighting and costumes. This is a nice stylistic touch.

Kaoru makes a good Romeo, but Andou can see her gaze is uneven, indicating she’s distracted and letting her self intrude on her performance. Chika flubs a line by repeating it, but after a momentary breakdown, remembers Ai’s words about them continuing to the end even if they mess up, and improvises a great save. Ai isn’t bringing true love to the performance (because Sarasa is her true Romeo), and she’s also doing what she was trained to do as an idol: performing to an audience of one. A Kouka actress must perform for everyone.

Then Tybalt takes the stage, and we finally see why Kaoru said what she said earlier about people normally improving gradually. Sarasa isn’t normal. After watching the video, once, she manages to serve up a perfect performance of Tybalt, causing her classmates to audibly gasp in unison. Andou is also impressed by the way Sarasa stands, locks her gaze high as if she were performing to a packed Kouka theatre crowd of 2,500. It is stirring, but in the end, it’s too perfect.

In his critique of Group E, Andou-sensei tells Sarasa flat-out that she will never be a top star of Kouka…not unless she changes. As I am prepared to give my life to defend Sarasa’s smile (not to mention Ai’s), it’s here where I must apply Tybalt’s line “Such sins shall not be endured” and “He is naught but a villain” to Andou-sensei. He is a villain whose sin was turning Sarasa’s smile into a look of pained bewilderment. Curse him!

But here’s the thing…he’s absolutely right, and Sarasa needed to hear his harsh words sooner rather than later, because she wasn’t really acting on that rehearsal stage, she was mimicking what she saw—down to the last precise detail. That is an impressive talent, foreshadowed when she did impressions of the other teachers, but it isn’t acting. Sarasa can’t be a top star of Kouka by simply perfectly replicating what she’s seen and heard. At least, that’s what I think Andou-sensei is on about.

Sarasa will have to change. She may even have to forget everything she knows about performing and start over from scratch. Her friend Ai will be there for her, as will the other girls of Kouka. After all, if there’s one person they want to see on stage more than the Sarasa they’ve already seen, it’s the future Sarasa who has mastered how to deliver performances all her own. I know Ai wants to see that Sarasa, and I do too!

Kageki Shoujo!! – 05 – Staying in the World of Dreams

Trigger Warning: this episode frankly depicts bulimia and the practice of binging and purging.

Some time has passed; the girls are now in their summer unis, and Ai is trying her darndest to both apologize to Sarasa and call her by her first name…but she just can’t quite find the right time. Meanwhile, Sarasa confesses she only knows one Kouka show, so Sugimoto takes her and the others to one of the Winter Troupe shows. They run into Winter’s number two star, Satomi Sei, off-stage, and its top star Kazahana Sou on it.

Ai, totally unaccustomed to fighting with friends, follows her uncle’s advice to take her time and calmly tell Sarasa how she feels when the time is right. That time finally arrives when Sarasa suddenly recites verbatim lines from Romeo & Juliet.

Her peers are amazed both that she memorize the lines so easily, and by her performance on their walk home. Ai can’t help but reach out and grab the star shining brighter that all the others, and formally asks to be Sarasa’s friend. Sarasa, of course, is glad; she’s wanted to be Ai’s friend from the moment she saw her!

Later, Ai had hoped Sarasa would accompany her to the bathroom (as besties do), but instead Sarasa wants to check out the exam scores. Sarasa is delighted to have moved up from dead last to second-to-last in ranking, but the reason for that advancement is less about her studies improving and more about poor, poor Yamada Ayako’s plummeting.

As we saw at the end of last week, Ayako is in trouble. In a desperate effort to lose 5 kg (11 pounds—probably around 10% of her weight!), she is obsessively binging and purging. Her body and mind are suffering. Tachibana-sensei, who called her a “fattie” and started her on this path, defends how blunt she was with Yamada because all students must grow a formidable backbone in the cutthroat environment of the Kouka Troupe.

“If Yamada can’t cut it, she shouldn’t be there” is Tachibana-sensei’s position, while her music teacher Onodera-sensei disagrees in the strongest terms. He understands their role to toughen the girls up, but calling a sweet, sensitive Yamada a “fattie” was way beyond the pale. Tachibana-sensei is also unaware of how badly Ayako wants to make her loving big sister proud.

One night, Ai catches Ayako in the bathroom, and tells her something I never knew: throwing up as much as Ayako does causes the stomach acid to irritate the esophagus, leading to pain, swelling, and the deterioration of one’s voice. She knows because someone in JPX did what Ayako is doing.

The only problem is, Ai, inexperienced with interacting with people, is way too blunt at the wrong time, and Ayako mistakes her concern with kicking her when she’s down. Ayako also has an inferiority complex when it comes to the naturally stunning Ai, even if Ai herself isn’t aware of how her beauty affects other women around her.

One day in singing class, a wan Ayako with deep eye bags and chapped lips can’t sing a single note before collapsing on the ground. Onodera-sensei takes her to the doctor, who diagnoses her with pharyngitis. The only remedy is to rest and relax, something Ayako feels she can’t do because she fears falling behind even further. Thankfully, the doctor is totally unwilling to administer drugs to rid of her fever so she can continue. She has to rest, period.

While lying in bed, at rock bottom, Ayako gets an encouraging text from her sister, and Ayako expresses how she’s suffering by telling her sister all the delicious pastries and desserts her family makes that she wants to taste. Picking up on this, her sister says there’s no shame in quitting and coming home. She contemplates doing just this, prepared to look upon her time at Kouka as a passing dream as she returns to “the world she knows.”

Thankfully, and unlike the horrible Tachibana-sensei—who should be fucking fired for what she did in a just and fair world—Onodera-sensei breaks the rule about no men in the women’s dorm by rapping on Ayako’s door to tell her what she needs to hear. When the dorm mom protests, he asks her to regard him as “a beautiful Kouka girl on the inside.”

Onodera-sensei, who is a genuinely Good Guy, impresses upon Ayako the fact that she is far too young to be giving up on an opportunity as great as Kouka, and that stumbling, falling, and despairing are normal from time to time. He wants her to remember that over  girls couldn’t achieve what she did: get accepted to Kouka. Girls with “nothing to offer” simply don’t get it in. So he asks her to tell him why it is she got in: her beautiful singing.

Even before she got sick, Ayako had never given singing her all in class, so none of her peers heard what got her into Kouka. But apparently her soprano was so sweet and lovely, the normally bored teachers sat up and listened intently. When Ayako recovers from her pharyngitis and returns to class looking much better, Onodera-sensei asks her to sing the same song she sang at that audition, to build her confidence and show the others how beautiful a singer she is when she’s serious.

While it was lovely to see Ai reach out a hand of to Sarasa and begin her awkward little dance of friendship, this was really Yamada Ayako’s episode. Her seiyu Sasaki Rico delivers a stunningly beautiful performance that shattered my heart into a million shards only to painstakingly piece it back together better than ever by the end.

My chief complaint with this episode is that it seemingly solves Ayako’s eating disorder far too quickly and easily. But at the same time, I’m relieved beyond belief she’s okay, she’s not quitting, and a decent adult was in her corner when she needed one, reminding her how she earned the right to be here by her own talent and hard work, and that she belongs there just as much as top stars Satomi or Kazahana.

GODDAMN TEARJERKER™ CERTIFIED

Kageki Shoujo!! – 04 – Opening of Borders

I was both fully expecting and looking forward to Sarasa either scaring Mr. Stalker away with her imposing stature or showing off her jujitsu moves if he persisted. Thankfully something completely unexpected and much better happens. Truly great art tends to challenge the viewer in some way, rather than giving them what they expect or predict.

That kind of narrative and thematic creativity really suffuses this, the best episode yet of Kageki Shoujo and the one that finally had me coming around hoping there’d continue to be less actual on-stage performance and more human drama. Like last week, there are some tough-to-watch moments, but also moments of great joy, goofiness, and redemption.

Mr. Gross Otaku, one of Sarasa’s many hilarious, unintentionally insulting nicknames for the guy, didn’t come to exact “revenge” on Ai; he came to apologize for being the one who ruined her career. He was a shut-in NEET who had lost hope until he first saw Naracchi on-screen, and it fascinated him how she was trying so hard never to smile.

In one unguarded moment, Naracchi does smile, and there’s video evidence, but that little smirk at the sight of her favorite mascot shattered Mr. Gross Otaku’s hermitic existence, inspiring him to get a job and make friends (naturally, other admirers of Naracchi). At the in-person event, he was so nervous about properly thanking her for helping save his life, he held on her her hands too long, leading to her making the remark that ended her idol career.

Taichi, who had been observing from a close distance in case Mr. Gross Otaku was a Mr. Total Perv, tells the guy that it wasn’t anything personal; in fact, it was likely only the straw that broke the camel’s back. Like Otaku Guy once did, Ai has given up on the world, and it led her to shut off her emotions. And yet, running away and leaving Sarasa alone invokes very strong emotions indeed, to the point Ai works up the courage to go back.

Naturally, her timing is terrible, and when she sees Sarasa doing goofy dance moves with the would-be tormentor while Taichi watches, Ai’s concern immediately curdles into something resembling hatred, and she storms off once again. The only problem is, poor Sarasa doesn’t know what she did to engender such hate!

Sarasa is persistent, and Ai finally makes a deal: she’ll tell her why she’s mad if she leaves her alone from now on. But when she does, Sarasa still doesn’t get it: if she came back out of worry for her, she should’ve been happy she was alright! As usual, Sarasa is right, but too blunt, and Ai retreats behind her curtain. Both girls seem incredibly unsatisfied where things end.

Sarasa, understandably getting a little fed up with being treated like this, declares that they’re “through”, though later confesses that might’ve been too harsh via Twitter to her friend Akiya—whose fellow Kabuki actor-in-training is tweeting more profound responses on his behalf. He tells Sarasa not to rush until they know each other, to be prepared for her feelings to be entirely one-sided, and appreciate that that’s beautiful in its own way.

The next day, Hijiri, Kouka’s Shit-Stirrer-in-Residence, confronts Sarasa with the pic she snapped of her with a guy (Mr. Gross Otaku), but Sarasa doesn’t have any time for this nonsense, as Ai is skipping classes and Taichi is worried about where she ended up. Sure enough, while staring at the sea, Ai is harassed by a couple of guys who recognized her, and one of them grabs her arm.

I have scarcely felt more fear and apprehension for a character than I did for Ai in this moment, but that was tempered by the knowledge that somehow in short order, Ai would be rescued. I just didn’t know it would happen by Sarasa calling Mr. Gross Otaku, who predicted Ai would go to the ocean to calm down (as she once stated in an interview) then run a social media search and locate her .

From there, all Mr. Gross Otaku has to do is buy a little time by haplessly trying to attack Ai’s harassers. He fails, faceplants, and gets a bloody nose, but still wins, as Taichi and Sarasa arrive and the latter screams for the police, who come running. There are no words for Sarasa’s transformation above as she voices satisfaction for scaring off the jerks.

What’s even more heartwarming about this entire scene that lets me forgive its many contrivances—as well as the entire premise of using stalking methods to save the target of stalkers—is that at this point, Sarasa is sticking to her guns when she said they were “through.” Yet even if she’s uncertain Ai will ever want to be her friend, she rescued her anyway, because it was the right thing to do.

When Sarasa explains to Ai how they found her and the role Mr. Gross Otaku —real name Kitaouji Mikiya—played, it’s Ai’s turn to do something completely unexpected: offer her handkerchief for Mikiya’s bloody nose. During the hand-off she drops the cloth on the ground, but it wasn’t intentional or meant as a slight.

As Ai says with tears welling up in her eyes, “this is the best I can do right now.” But Mikiya, being uncharacteristically cool, tells her to dry her eyes; all he and her other fans wanted was to see those rare and amazing moments when Naracchi genuinely smiled. Because that meant their idol was happy. He promises to return to see her perform on the Kouka stage.

Ai and Sarasa take the long walk back to their dorms, where they’ll face consequences for the incidents that transpired. While they walk, Ai opens up to Sarasa, asking her what she should do about something she wants to forget but can’t (though not going into detail). All Sarasa can tell her is to keep having good memories that will eventually cause the bad to fade from prominence.

Notably, Ai can’t see Sarasa’s face when she says this, but it sounds like a new invitation to make some of those memories with her, if she’ll have her. At this point, it’s safe to say the cat-and-mouse game between these two girls will continue, but they’ve definitely already made one of those memories Sarasa speaks of, and I’m looking forward to them making more.

As for poor, Yamada Ayako, who is now purging regularly and barely has the energy to sing, all I have to say is that every one of her upperclassmen and every adult on the faculty are totally failing her, and I’m terribly worried about how bad things will get until someone helps her. It shouldn’t have to fall to someone like Sarasa and/or Ai, but if it does I won’t complain. I just want Ayako to be happy and healthy!

Kageki Shoujo!! – 03 – Toughing it Out

Ai is aloof, standoffish and antisocial, and makes it crystal clear even to a lunkhead like Sarasa that she doesn’t want to be friends with her or anyone else, despite the fact they live and learn together. Sarasa is flummoxed by this declaration, but before they properly discuss it, Ai is whisked off by her big sister, Hijiri.

This week Kageki Shoujo! takes a long, hard, and sometimes downright distressing look back at how and why Narata Ai became the way she is. She always lied about being a perfect loving daughter to her glamorous actress mother, but the lying became harder as she grew older and more beautiful.

I can’t imagine the torment of men both young and old ogling you left and right, and What a cutie being akin to Hello for her, but that’s what Ai endured. When her mother shacked up with one of those older men, that constant public torment became private. She’d always been creeped out by Seiji, but then one day he was alone wither her and kissed her with his tongue.

After such a horrific assault, Ai no longer felt safe anywhere or with anyone…except her uncle, Taichi. And thank God for Taichi, because he was at least able to give her a measure of peace and security by installing a lock on her door and giving her a key to his place should she need to run away. But before he did that, she had already been assaulted, vomited, cut her hair, and tore apart her big teddy.

Considering her interactions with men who weren’t her uncle up to the point she became an idol, it’s not surprising that one day she’d say or do something to break the façade she’d created. Now that very scruffy dude whom she called a creep at a fan event has stalked her all the way to her school. Again, Ai is fortunate Taichi isn’t far, and she runs headlong into his arms. He’s the brother and dad, the family she never had.

Taichi will always be there for his niece, but he knows she can’t go on with no friends of any gender. Kouka is a chance for her to form new bonds with peers, and Sarasa, as bombastic and annoying as she is, really is a good person who would make a great friend. Sarasa is ready to accept Ai’s rejection, but Taichi insists she keep trying with Ai.

Sarasa does so, by escorting Ai home, which leads to the scene I was hoping for: the gigantic Sarasa spreading that massive wingspan to form an impenetrable shield for Ai against the smelly stalker.

Never mind if he’s not there to “get back” at Ai like she fears, but just wanted to return her bookbag and talk to her. The fact is he had absolutely ZERO right to meet with or speak to her after following her there.

Ai may have been rude to him at the fan event, but being rude isn’t a crime, and he doesn’t get to play the victim after committing the actual crime of stalking. While it wasn’t always easy to watch, I’m glad we gained new insight into Ai’s twisted childhood and coming of age, which only makes someone like Sarasa seem more, not less, suitable to be her friend.

My only gripe is that we’ve still gotten very little actual musical theatre education in, with the exception of a brief tap class in which the teacher berated the objectively scrawny Yamada a “fattie” and all but ordered her to give up food. Fuckin’ yikes! I also wish the stalker situation had been fully resolved, instead of us being left hanging.

Even Sarasa looked a little uncomfortable confronting the guy, and no single high school girl, no matter how big or small, should have to go up against someone like that alone. I just hope that as we learned a lot about Ai, Ai also learned more about Sarasa, and how she’s someone she can lean on in times of strife.

Kageki Shoujo!! – 02 – Sink or Swim

The morning before their first day of actual classes, Ai deigns to attempt to wake Sarasa up…in the gentlest and most ineffectual way possible. But their class rep Sawa personally wakes Sarasa the hell up, because the people they’re facing this morning are far more fearsome than the JSDF: their second-year advisors, AKA “Big Sisters”.

The students of the centennial class have already demonstrated their capacity for ill-natured backbiting, but it’s the same way in the classes above them. We learn that Risa and Hijiri, Sarasa and Ai’s Big Sisters, are bitter rivals who usually hide their contempt for each other behind smiles and niceties.

When Risa flat-out tells Sarasa she’ll never be Lady Oscar, she makes the poor tall girl sob into the floorboards. When she asks why not through the tears, Risa mentions the curse of the tree, and in doing so gives Sarasa all the ammo she needs. If everyone believes the tree is cursed, she’ll just have to prove the curse is fake!

While Risa admires Sarasa’s innocence and drive (as does Sarasa’s childhood friend and kabuki actor-in-training, Akiya), Hijiri reports that “Naracchi” has “zero motivation” for Kouka. But just as Hijiri’s barbs about Risa only being suited for villainess roles have led her to strive towards greatness, she tells Hijiri they can’t know what future winds may lift Ai’s sails.

I can take a stab at the identity of that wind: she’s somewhere around 5’10” with green-tipped twin tails! But it won’t just be Sarasa’s bottomless confidence and enthusiasm gradually wearing down Ai’s apathy: she also isn’t just gong to sit back and take abuse, passive-aggressive or otherwise, from her classmates.

During class introductions (which are wonderful shorthand for the various girls’ personalities) Ai at first gives a curt description of herself, but Kaoru, the big shot legacy musume-yaku-in-waiting says everyone knows “that’s not all”. So Ai stands back up and says she’s there because she was forced to quit JPX48. It’s an important step for Ai standing up for herself against damn fools.

During a tour of backstage, Sarasa sees a dramaticaly-lit door and goes through it, leading to the main stage of the Kouka Revue. Andou-sensei warns her to get off the stage and under no circumstances walk out onto the “Silver Bridge”, the part of the stage where only Kouka’s top stars are permitted to stand.

Sarasa doesn’t break that taboo, but she also takes her sweet time leaving that stage! That’s because as soon as she stands on it, it’s clear she feels she’s where she’s supposed to be. As if by divine providence, a spotlight is cast upon her. Ai can feel that belonging too, dazzled as she is by Sarasa’s stage presence.

Incremental progress is made on several fronts. We’ve got a huge cast of young women, some sympathetic, some clearly villains, and some who are just kind of there. But as long as the spotlight stays on Sarasa and Ai most of the time, I’ll be a happy camper. As Ai’s stalker arrives in Kobe, we’ll likely learn next week how close he ends up getting to Ai, how she deals with that, and where Sarasa (or other classmates) might factor into the forthcoming confrontation.

Rating: 4/5 Stars

Don’t Toy with Me, Miss Nagatoro – 12 (Fin) – The Exhibition

With the cultural festival fast approaching, Naoto has managed to belt out a whole series of Nagatoro Being Nagatoro, and her friends are impressed. Hayacchi herself is happy they turned out well, even if they give off “creepy virgin vibes”—though it’s obvious by now she’s a virgin too.

When the others go to the other side of the clubroom to spy on the President’s progress, Naoto doesn’t go with them, and Nagatoro tells him even if the Prez is “Queen of the Lewds”, he can still beat her. That is, until she sees the Prez’s piece and passes out. Gamo assures the two that she, Yosshi and Sakura will figure something out to help them.

Naoto and Prez have a slightly tense but also very honest little scene together, with the Prez making it clear this is less about winning and losing and more about tapping into the artistic potential she knows Naoto has within him. She’s not holding back, so she urges him to “hit her with a soulful work of passion.”

She then produces a “Torocat” strap that closely resembles Nagatoro, and the next day Naoto learns what that’s all about: Yosshi and Sakura are in costume as Torocats to support Nagatoro in her now familiar catgirl cosplay—though it’s clear Nagatoro is not at all into having to “toy with” all the guys who come to visit Senpai’s exhibition.

That said, as the day goes on, she becomes less stiff and starts to have more fun. When Naoto sees her basically flirting with other guys the same way she does with him, it’s hard for him to hide his jealousy.

The reverse occurs when other girls approach Naoto, express how impressed they are with his work, and ask him to teach them how to draw. Nagatoro doesn’t like that one bit!

That said, when Naoto asks her to join him for lunch, she still comes along. She calls him out for suddenly being so popular with the ladies now, and he chalks that up to the paintings turning out so well, for which he credits her. This causes a rapid succession of Nagatoro faces, and ends with her toying with him, but unlike with the other guys, she genuinely enjoys it.

When they return from their break, which essentially serves as a little mini-date during the festival, they find a huge commotion outside the Prez’s side of the club: the Disciplinary Committee is censoring her super-provocative painting, citing it a threat to “moral order” after hearing rumors it was being used to “play with the male students’ lust”.

While I initially thought we saw the Prez meeting with the committee last week to set this whole thing up in order to create more buzz and win the competition, it seems that isn’t the case, and she’s not in on anything. In fact, she’s outraged her art is being censored.

That’s when her kohai Naoto comes in to defend her, stating that her amazing art has inspired him to find the subject he wanted to draw the most: Nagatoro. Gamo and Sakua push Nagatoro in to back Paisen up, and even she admits that Prez’s art is amazing. Yosshi even produces video footage that proves that there were more people were taking the art seriously than horny boys leering at it.

This might’ve been one of my favorite scenes not involving just Naoto and Nagatoro, because it subverts the “competition with the club on the line” trope in favor of something more interesting: doing the right thing, even if the person you’re doing it for is a rival. It’s not just Nagatoro; Yosshi, Sakura, and Gamo are good people at heart!

When the Prez returns, tells the others she worked out a compromise, and voices her appreciation for their support with her very first expression resembling a smile, the girls can’t help but gloat over the fact that she lost. That said, the Prez isn’t a sore loser, and even takes their chosen punishment: that she dress up as a bunny girl to help sell Torocat merch. Naturally, it all sells out.

With the festival in the rearview mirror, Prez pays Naoto a visit on his side, explaining her getup as “the fate of the defeated.” She admits it’s humiliating, but also “a new form of oppression” to “stimulate her creative desire” and bring her “unprecedented deliverance.” Let it never be said Prez doesn’t have a way with words, but Naoto’s reply—“Just get changed already!”—is equally sublime!

When Nagatoro, eager to see Naoto, leaves her friends and enters the club room to find the Prez seemingly about to undress, she nearly flips her shit…but the Prez is only joking. She has a sense of humor! She also admits she likes Naoto’s paintings of Nagatoro, which not only contain “a definite passsion”, but love as well.

She may have lost the competition, but the fact her underclassman learned a valuable lesson about art and vastly improved his work renders that competition moot. As a senpai, the President actually won. When Naoto is hesitant to admit his pieces contain his love for Nagatoro, he’s mercifully saved by the bell for the festival’s closing concert.

Remembering Nagatoro’s words at the summer festival, Naoto meekly comes out and asks her if she’d like to go together. Nagatoro, happy beyond words, asks him to ask again, only louder, then takes him by the hand and off they go!

After the credits, we see Nagatoro and Naoto alone again in the clubroom they won back together. Nagatoro is resting her eyes, but looks up to flash a soft smile before returning to her catnap. When Naoto’s drawing is complete, she tells him to close his eyes and accept his reward, which this time is a real kiss on the cheek.

Even this chaste peck proves too much for Nagatoro, who runs out of the club room after pulling down an eyelid and sticking out her tongue. But she can’t undo that kiss, nor does she want to. This has been a relationship of small but meaningful steps forward all along, and I have no reason to think that slow but steady progress won’t continue.

And that’s a wrap! Don’t Toy with Me may have started out with a sharp edge of kinkiness, but turned out to be one of the sweeter loves stories of the last couple years. We watched both Naoto and Nagatoro come into their own as two people who found each other, navigated the often stormy waters, and found happiness and inspiration in one another. We should all be so lucky!

Episode 12 “Senpai” Count: 9 (+2 “Paisens”)—hardly any at all!
Final Count: 391

Don’t Toy with Me, Miss Nagatoro – 11 – Art Is Thus To Pursue

The girls try to encourage Senpai by laying into the President and her scolding, scripted manner of speaking, but Naoto doesn’t want them talking shit about her, from whom he’s learned so much about art and still deeply respects.

He’s also dubious about a cosplay art cafe being sufficient to beat the Prez, who helped the Art Club nab sixth place last year—out of over sixty presentations—with a bold, provocative nude self portrait.

Gamo points out what she believes to be a simple fact: when it comes to mass appeal, Senpai and Hayacchi don’t have “the goods” with which to compete with the Prez’s Kardashian-esque proportions. Nagatoro takes it as being dissed—but Gamo still has a point; a lot of horny guys are going to be voting for the better club.

But there’s one horny guy—Naoto—who tells Gamo and the others that he doesn’t think any less of Nagatoro than the President. Both have their charms, and he wants to try to win by depicting Nagatoro as she normally is. Even though he imagines President as a Titan swallowing him whole, he’s still feeling positive.

Nagatoro is determined to ensure he wins, and when her swimsuit isn’t motivating enough, she dons nothing but a white sheet. But in doing so, and with the constant interruptions of the other girls, Naoto becomes increasingly iffy in his drawing, and grows frustrated with the whole venture, deeming any attempt to beat the Prez as futile.

Finally, as the show takes on a de-saturated palette akin to Super Cub, Naoto says this isn’t going to work. He doesn’t want to draw Nagatoro, because if he fails, he’ll drag her down with him. She says she doesn’t care about that, but Naoto insists this is between him and the President. A genuinely angry and hurt Nagatoro storms off in her sheet. The others call Senpai a loser…and in that moment, he absolutely is!

Alone again in his club room (well, half the club room; in an amazingly petty gesture President has cordoned off the other half for third years only!) he gets back to his bread-and-butter: dull still-lifes. President pays him a visit —also wearing only a sheet, as she was taking pictures for her next piece, and tells him it’s dull and no good.

She’s not just being a bitch; she’s right! Naoto’s painting is technically fine, but lacks any kind of passion, other than the desire to be neat and tidy. Prez tells him the most important aspect of a piece isn’t its theme, but love. And when she witnesses Nagatoro peek in and promptly run away after she sees Senpai with her, Prez orders Naoto to pursue her with all due haste.

He does, but when he catches up to her in the hall he blanks on what to say, and the moment is spoiled by two other girls who think he’s stalking Nagatoro. The chase continues until the sun starts to go down, ending at the swimming pool. As he runs after her, he summons all his favorite memories of her, which aren’t of her teasing him, but revealing her genuine self to him.

As she hops from starting block to another away from him, Naoto tells her he wants her to model for him. When she tells him to go back to his precious president, she slips off a block, but before she can go into the pool he grabs her, both demonstrating he does have some strength. When he repeats his desire to draw her the way she usually is, she asks him why, and this time he doesn’t waver: because she’s more attractive to him.

Nagatoro is so shocked by this declaration, and turns so red, she kinda almost has to jump into the pool, taking Senpai with her. They end up walking home soaked, but Naoto’s honesty and the quick plunge into the pool washed away their fight and brought them back together. When he lets slip that he often notices how cute she in ordinary times (as opposed to wearing cosplay) it’s another blushfest for both of them.

Senpai walks right up to the line of confession this week, while Nagatoro leaves no doubt about how she feels when he keeps defending her nemesis. But while she’s scheming something with who I presume to be the StuCo President, the President came off as less of a villain (or Titan) this week.

Instead, she’s issued this challenge to push Naoto out of his comfort zone so he can be the best artist he can be. You can only do that by pursuing your passions—and when it comes to his passions, there’s no beating Nagatoro. Even if he and Nagatoro do lose to her voluptuous magnificence, they’ll lose together, having fought their hardest!

Episode 11 “Senpai” Count: 14 (+3 “Paisens”)—the fewest yet!
Total: 380

Those Snow White Notes – 12 (Fin) – An Abrupt Coda

Last week I railed against Notes for splitting Setsu’s climactic performance across two episodes, since it left us hanging in the middle with no cathartic payoff. Now I understand that such a choice was probably intentional: the last episode marked the end of him merely imitating his gramps, and this final one marked the first time we’ve heard Setsu at 100% His Own Sound.

Kudos to the musical direction and performance here; Setsu As Setsu sounds like no one else, and this sound not only fills the physical venue, but summons long-forgotten memories in one of the judges, moves Sakura and Shuri to tears, makes Mai to make a face that screams “I KNEW it!”…and pisses off his mom royally. It also makes young master Kamiki want to play the shamisen in the worst way.

It’s a triumphant performance, and I’ll admit I was as caught up in it as Setsu and his friends, to the point I felt it impossible that he would lose. Alas, he’s not the final performer, and the best was saved for last. I was fully prepared to listen to Souichi and declare him inferior, but credit where it’s due: Souichi’s performance was better the Setsu’s and everyone else’s.

More to the point, Souichi is confident, even after hearing Setsu (or maybe because of hearing him,), that he would win. I have no problem with that. But like Sakura, I was super-steamed that Setsu came not in second but in third, behind that twangy jackass Arakawa Ushio, who might be tied with Mai for most one-dimensional character of the season.

Umeko hands out the rewards, but intentionally drops Setsu’s and lets it shatter between their feet. Never mind that this was the first time he ever played in a competition, has no teacher, and can’t read music. She leans in and tells him he’s pathetic and he embarrassed her. What a mom!

But while Umeko gives off SAO villain vibes, Setsu’s dad—whom we only found out a couple of weeks ago even was his dad—is more Ikari Gendo. [Soup Nazi Voice]: NO LOVE FOR YOU! Honestly, both of Setsu’s parents should be jailed. Once it’s Kamiki’s turn to point out to Setsu how such a two-faced performance was always giong to suffer in a competition, well…

Having your angsty protagonist reach his highest high only to be ground into the dirt by evil adults is a strange way to end a series it’s by no means guaranteed will get a second season. There isn’t even any glimmer of hope that things will look up for him, as the episode ends with him sulking in the darkness, too immersed in his own despair to notice Sakura is on the other side of his door.

The musical performances were spellbinding, but they were overshadowed by all the doom and gloom at the end. Even if everything Kamiki said about Setsu was absolutely right, I don’t watch anime to get depressed, man! We’re rewarded for watching for twelve weeks with a big ‘ol F-You. If this is a one-and-done season, this finale is as big of a failure as Umeko perceives her son to be.

I’ll end with another Simpsons quote, which perfectly encapsulates Setsu’s journey:

“You tried your best and you failed miserably. The lesson is, never try.”

Don’t Toy with Me, Miss Nagatoro – 10 – Taking It Seriously

A day after feeding Senpai “steamy snaps” (of chicken, not her), Nagatoro watches him lollygagging during a marathon, and makes her displeasure with his performance plain. He tries to say he’s good at nothing but drawing and practicing is only for talented people, but Nagatoro knows better on both counts.

She’s not about to let her Senpai get off with such a lousy defeatist attitude, and orders him to show up at the park bright and early, where she meets him in a skintight two-piece track suit and ponytail, ready to run with him and show him he can do it if he tries.

While I’m sure on some level Nagatoro understands her attire turns Senpai on, to the point he tries to overtake her because he’s too embarrassed to watch her running from behind, that’s just the icing on the cake for her. She wants Senpai to see her and thouroughly enjoys his reactions, but she’s just as invested in helping him improve himself and to dispossess him of the notion it’s okay to just give up because something is hard.

Speaking of hard, Naoto is revealed is extremely inflexible during the crucial post-run stretching, so after putting herself into some teasing poses to get him all red, Nagatoro helps him stretch properly, which gives her an excuse to get as close and physical and sweaty with him as she dares. This culminates in the two doing a side-stretch together when Yosshi stops by with her dog…though at this point it should come as no surprise to her with whom Nagatoro is spending her weekend.

The Cultural Festival is approaching, and Naoto needs to start putting out some work worthy of the Art Club exhibition. He wants to have a male model so he doesn’t get embarrassed looking closely at them, but Nagatoro insists on modelling for him, showing him the sketch of her as a catgirl as proof of where his true artistic desires lie.

When he gives her the condition that she has to model in catgirl cosplay, he feels bad about it later, as he assumes she’d never be able to find such a costume, much less wear it for him. I don’t know why he thought this, considering the clothes she’s worn (or not worn) for him so far, but the next day she shows up in the literal costume of his dreams, courtesy of the needlecraft club.

She is playfully beating him with her big paws for not having complimented her enough when Gamo, Yosshi and Sakura come in, wondering if they interrupted something they shouldn’t have. But eventually the whole group is there hanging out and Naoto settles down and starts drawing Nagatoro.

The girls even offer to help Senpai make his exhibit more “hype”, not because they’re keen to use that scenario to torment him (well, not only because), but because they’re all friends now, and friends help each other out. This is in stark contrast to his relationship to the estranged Art Club President, whose stern, purposeful footsteps Naoto hears approaching and has the girls hide in the prep room.

When the unnamed President (voiced by the effortlessly imperious Mizuki Nana) enters, it’s clear from the couch and the snacks that she believes the “unsavory rumors” she’s heard about the club room becoming a gathering place for some “nasty characters”. At no point in this scene or Naoto’s flashback of her does the President treat Naoto as anyone other than an employee, at an emotional remove but also exerting absolute control.

There’s no give-and-take in their exchange, and both Nagatoro and the others feel bad for Senpai getting reamed out due in large part to their entering his world. When the President asserts that the club room is “no place for merrymaking”—as if you can’t do good work and have fun doing it—and threatens to turn a termination form for the art club into the faculty office, Naoto is unable to speak up for himself.

But before President leaves, Nagatoro emerges from the prep room with the others, having heard quite enough. She calls the President selfish for having been AWOL so long and leaving Senpai all alone only to come back out of nowhere to shut it down. The President doesn’t flinch in her assertion that the club shouldn’t exist if its members won’t take it seriously.

Surely Nagatoro also must realize how unserious she looks in her getup, but it doesn’t matter; she’s going to stand up for her Senpai! She draws upon her amassed wealth of knowledge about Senpai to declare that President simply can’t make that assertion. After all, she hasn’t been watching Senpai off by himself drawing like a man possessed. She has, and she knows he takes it seriously—so seriously, in fact, he wrongly believes he isn’t good at anything else!

The President accepts this challenge to her judgment, and decides to settle the fate of the art club with a festival competition. She will run the art club’s exhibit, while Naoto will have to run his own separate exhibit, and whoever gets more votes will be the victor; in his case, the art club will survive. If she wins it gets shut down.

Naoto can’t even fathom taking on the President all by himself…but he doesn’t have to. Nagatoro puts her hand on Senpai’s shoulder, just like the President did after last year’s successful exhibit. The President said “they made a good memory” but otherwise didn’t him much of anything emotionally, and since then has left him completely alone.

If President hadn’t done this, Nagatoro would have never had the opening she needed to begin her relationship with Senpai, so it’s not all bad. But she, and her girlfriends who were clearly moved by her passionate defense of her boyfriend Senpai, will surely help him do whatever it takes to beat the President. And even if he can’t, who’s to say they can’t start a new club; one will art and fun are allowed?

Episode 10 “Senpai” Count: 29 (+3 “Paisens”)
Total: 363

Those Snow White Notes – 11 – Get To the Good Part!

I don’t usually harp on structural issues, unless they’re detrimental to an episode on a level that can’t be overlooked. Unfortunately, this was one of those episodes. It just…wasn’t built right, and that starts with last week ending with Kaji breaking a string, instead of ending with him and all the other stiffs getting the hell off the stage and giving way to Setsu.

So, instead of getting all of the other stuff out of the way and giving us a climactic musical performance in which Setsu finally figures out the happy medium between imitating Gramps and building his own sound from what he’s experienced since Gramps…get get more other stuff.

Look, Kaji’s a nice guy, but I just don’t really care about him that much, and I’m certainly not that chuffed about having to watch him finish out his song on two strings. I could have also done without Umeko stepping up to Setsu when he’s just trying to eat the love-filled onigiri Sakura made for him and basically telling him he’d better resurrect her dead unsung father or else.

That said, I’ve never had a problem with the fact that Setsu’s mom is both a literal Bond Villain and Bond Girl, isn’t the issue, nor to I mind her fantastic royal blue dress or surpassingly cheesy hired cheer team. It’s just I wish Setsu could just have some time to himself to organize his thoughts and play however he was planning to play.

Instead, his mom’s unmistakable hold over him kicks in, and I was fully expecting him to lay an egg up there by constantly wavering between his own uncertain sound and perfectly imitating what he could never perfectly imitate, and coming off forced, boring, or even pathetic!

Once Setsu finally does take the stage—fifteen minutes into the episode!—I knew whatever performance he had, we were only going to get half of it, tops, due to the perfectly avoidable time constraints.

At the same time, we see that Setsu truly does love playing like his Gramps, or at least as close as he can come. He remembers a day he came home with a skinned knee, the victim of bullies, and his Gramps welcoming him with a soft smile and permission to cry as much as he wants, get angry at those who caused him to cry, and when he’s done, simply smile.

Setsu doesn’t turn in an embarrassing performance, but he is initially playing right into his mom’s hands by doing the best darn Matsugorou imitation anyone alive could ever do, which simply comes down to him having heard his gramps play for years. Umeko smirks her Dr. Evil smirk and holds her hands out to clutch not her son, but the tool with which she’ll show the world her father’s—not his—sound.

In the midst of his music, everyone who has heard Setsu’s real sound acknowledge that his performance is amazing, but also somehow deeply wrong. Those who haven’t heard him before are amazed a 16-year-old is producing such a simple yet mature sound. Setsu knows it’s wrong too; that even his Gramps told him simple imitation of the kind Umeko is demanding was “disgraceful”.

Perhaps Gramps could have chosen better words than that and “never play again”, but by taking a break from the instrument, Setsu got to live his life, meet new friends, experience new things and make new memories. Those, combined with past memories of Gramps and not just how he played but why—because he loved doing it, not to win—can be used to craft his own sound.

Now that Setsu has a blueprint, his performance suddenly changes to his more youthful, mercurial sound. Alas, that’s all the time we’ve got for this week, and so we cut to credits in the middle of a performance. The magic and the power of these musical performance scenes is in how they draw you in and cover you in goosebumps. To suddenly end in the middle without that needed final payoff (or climax, if you must) saps the scene of that immersive power.

Also constantly pulling us in and out of Setsu’s performance is the running commentary. I get it: this isn’t just about the awesome, sakugo-filled performances; the show is trying to tell more stories than that and wants us to be invested in a larger group of characters. But that doesn’t change the fact that filling scenes with dialogue, lowering the music he’s playing and replacing it with a comparatively subpar score, and cutting the performance off just feels like a real bummer, and a needless one to boot.

If I were the showrunner, I’d have wrapped up Kaji and the others plus Setsu’s scenes with Umeko and his friends, and ended last week with Setsu taking the stage, but not yet playing. Then this episode could have been his performance in its entirety. But this is the end of my ranting, and so I’ll close by saying for all its frustrating choices I still enjoyed this episode, and look forward to seeing where the second, more personal, more mom-enraging half Setsu’s performance takes everyone—and him—next week!

Rating: 4/5 Stars

Those Snow White Notes – 10 – A Little Longer

Sakura has made a special bento for Setsu on the day he’s to perform in the individual competition. Of forty entrants, he’s to perform 36th, meaning he’s been given a place reserved for competitors with proven skills. While set up to be bitter rivals Souichi continues to treat Setsu as a friend, sitting close beside him while eating his red bean rice.

We then learn something of a bombshell: Setsu’s dad is also Mai and Souichi’s dad! In fact Setsu is the only child related to Kamiki Ryuugen by blood, as Souichi and Mai are adopted. Kamiki has come to “ascertain his son’s skills”, clearly not ashamed even in his wife’s presence of his love child with Umeko.

As Yui thinks impure thoughts about Setsu and Mai (quickly shot down by Kouta, Sakura delivers her special lunch to Setsu, along with the best wishes from the entire shopping district. This seems to be the first time Sakura and Shuri encounter one another, and each regards the other as incredibly cute.

Umeko has her hired goons escort Kamiki to her, where she declares her father’s sound to belong to her, and as such she’ll never let him take Setsu and train him. Kamiki, on the other hand, has the opposite goal: he wishes Setsu to inherit his title. He and Umeko have a spirited argument, and neither is particularly interested in Setsu, only how he can help either of them expand their power.

After that, that’s pretty much it for Setsu & Co., as the episode shifts to the individual performances of Arakawa Ushio and Kaji Takaomi. Ushio is naturally daring and rebellious, and while his super-twangy performance isn’t enough to win, the sheer fun he was having playing rubs off on the audience in a big way.

Knowing if he sticks to what he did in the group stage, he won’t be able to summon the full measure of his musical potential, Takaomi is forced by Arakawa’s brash performance to swing for the fences himself. All who know him in the crowd can tell hes fiercer than usual.

Through Takaomi’s sound, Setsu envisions a fierce gale blowing down from the mountain peaks. But he’s also described as “a good kid trying to be rebellious.” Then his frikkin’ string snaps, and since a shamisen only has three, I imagine that’s enough to keep Takaomi out of the running.

But we knew from the get-go that neither Ushio nor Takaomi were going to win. That’s why we’re getting their performances now, rather than at the end when they’d have more of an impact. This somewhat lessons my interest in the episode, as neither of these kids makes much of an impression besides “confident brat” and “meek puppy dog.”

Like his birth father, I’m waiting for Setsu, and to see how he compares to Souichi. But I’m also as disappointed as Mai herself that she’s not able to compete in the individual, and thus diurectly against Setsu.

Those Snow White Notes – 09 – You Got Me All Excited

This week’s Captivating Shamisen Performance is the longest yet, clocking in at over seven minutes, but it also features the most shounen battle-style crosstalk by the most characters yet as well. I have to admit, there were times when I wished everyone would stop blabbering (in their heads or otherwise) so I could just listen properly!

Even so, since this is as much a shounen anime as a music one, especially during a fierce competition, there were just as many times when I appreciated the commentary. It turns out Setsu talked with Rai about employing Nagauta-style techniques normally reserved for theatre in their arrangement.

That’s the kind of simultaneously smart and bold tactic that makes Setsu a great leader of his group despite his staunchly soloist background. Having spent so much time with the other four, he knows their strengths and weaknesses and how to best harness the former while minimizing the latter.

For most of their piece, this angers Mai to no end, because it means Setsu is “playing in the shadows” by using his sound to support Kaito and the others. Compare that to her, who didn’t give a damn about the rest of her group and simply dared them to try to keep up.

After helping to make his team’s “ordinary” sound still sound better than all the other ordinary groups that came before, Setsu does eventually bring out his own cold, quiet, snowy sound, a sound that indeed captivates the crowd. It’s quite a journey, from cheering during their playing to being awed into silence by the end. Least impressed in the crowd is Umeko, who only set up this whole tournament to hear her father through her son.

After leaving the stage to raucous ovation, the groups’s very first post-performance high is exhilarating, only to be interrupted by Mai glaring ruefully at Setsu. She’s about to turn about and leave without saying a word, so Setsu speaks up instead, telling her her shamisen was “really stimulating” and “got me all excited.”

Mai’s (and Yui’s) faces go neon pink, but Mai shakes it off and is back to Miss Competitive. She won’t ever utter a compliment about Setsu’s playing, and vows never to forgive him for running away from Aomori. It’s all about winning and being the best for her; the opposite of her brother Souichi, who set aside their impending individual competition and enjoyed his new friend’s sound.

Similar to Souichi and with the additional quality of being far more of a normal young man is Kaji, who praises Setsu’s sound like an eager puppy. Contrast that to loud brash guy (Arakawa-something), who gave Setsu his life story unbidden and eliciting little more than a “huh?” from Setsu. Honestly, it’s an absolute crime that this guy (name forgotten) is in the Individuals while Mai isn’t.

The episode really nails the intense anxiety and tension that comes in the moments before the winners are announced. Only six of the 22 teams get an award and the rest leave with nothing but competition XP. While Setsu’s team initially worries they failed to place, they’re somehow even more crestfallen when they come in third.

Mai’s team beats them, but they still only place second to Kaji’s team. While Setsu and Rai were carrying Kaito, Shuri and Yui on their shoulders and Mai and her teammates basically fought each other, Kaji’s teammates complemented each other perfectly. They truly were the best all-round ensemble.

Setsu & Co. get a brief respite from their third-place despair when they’re awarded the Judges’ Special Award for having the greatest effect on the crowd. But once they’re again off the stage and preparing to leave, their spirits have fallen again. Neither Koyabu-sensei nor Oodawara can shake their blues over losing to Mai’s team by just one point and Kaji’s by only three—that’s a close freakin’ margin!

But the adults in the room are right: Kaito, Shuri, and Yui in particular should be extremely proud of themselves, while Setsu should be commended for helping such green players place third in the entire dang country. Back home at the tenement house while having an understated celebration with his brother and his friend, Setsu lets Sakura know he appreciates how much she’s always doing for him.

At this point, I wanted him to invite her to join them—not as the daughter of the landlord, but as a friend—but instead they part ways, with Sakura quietly wishing him luck in the Individuals. Here’s hoping he doesn’t screw it up!

Those Snow White Notes – 08 – Modern Maimai and Her Fantastic Friends

The Matsugorou Cup’s team division marches on, Team Umezono’s time on stage grows near, and Shuri is scared. Yui encourages her to focus on getting the first notes right and the rest will fall into place, but only adds to her anxieties by announcing this will be the one and only time she plays on stage.

While Mai waits her turn in the green room, and a braggadocious Arakawa Ushio blows past the rest of his team with his signature twang, the sheer audacity of his performance makes Rai jealous, angry, and fired up, spooking Shuri and Yui upon returning to them. Let’s just say everyone’s face game is in top form this week.

I’ll just get this out of the way: our Power Rangers-colored team doesn’t take the stage this week, which after not doing so last week feels at times like the show is intentionally stalling. It nearly overplays its hand, were it not for some great character development that goes on in between the other performances.

For one thing, we finally get a look back at how the dynamic between Yui, Kaito, and Shuri began, with Yui taking responsibility for protecting the “idiotically kind” and guileless Shuri from the real world (and Kaito’s teasing). Back in the present, when Shuri sees that Yui is just as nervous as her, she curses herself for only thinking about herself.

She believes Yui has every right to hate her for that, but of course Yui doesn’t feel that way at all. She’s angry at herself for talking so big only to be terrified of taking the stage out there, and if she fails, she knows everyone will hate her for the “mean-spirited, ugly woman” she is. Shuri shuts down that kind of talk with a big hug and she won’t let go until Yui lets herself cry, promising to help share her worries from now on.

Meanwhile, as soon as Mai hears where Setsu’s team is prepping, she storms there to “declare war” before her performance, only to walk in on him and the others striking energy-releasing (read: goofy) poses, and slinks away. Honestly I wished she had gotten to actually speak to Setsu there.

That’s because when she takes the stage, she puts on nothing less than the best performance yet in the competition. Her sound is alluring, charming, powerful, and wonderfully modern without coming off as tacky or gimmicky like many of the other groups.

Additionally, while her group is called “Her Fantastic Friends”, there’s a much more cutthroat dynamic in her group where she goes off and does her thing and dares her teammates to try to keep up. It’s at this point that I’m starting to seriously consider Mai to be the show’s Best Girl, though she continues to face stiff competition from Shuri and especially Yui!

Mai’s performance also sinks Kaito, Yui, and Shuri’s motivation to new lows, only for Setsu to stand up tall and proud and say his motivation is at its max after hearing Mai. As they prepare to take the stage, Yui notices Kaito’s parents have turned out to see him, and assures him no one (aside from her perhaps) worried about him more after his soccer career-ending injury.

She gives him an encouraging punch to the face, for which he thanks her by patting her head and assuring her that she’s kind and not ugly. This turns her face as red as her samue. After placing a calming hand on Shuri’s shoulder, Setsu smacks both Kaito and Yui on the back and tells everyone to go out there and do it, after having consulted with Rai in secret about doing “something unorthodox” in response to Mai’s performance.

I can’t wait to see what he came up with, and I know the show isn’t going to be so cruel as to let them make fools of themselves out there. With Setsu leading the way and having had more than adequate time to sort through all their smoldering emotions, it’s finally time to play…next week!

Rating: 4/5 Stars