Jaku-Chara Tomozaki-kun – 02 – Boosting Social XP

With Fumiya’s goals laid out, it’s time to grind! Talking to three different girls is a steep task for someone who virtually never speaks to any, but Aoi has a detailed plan for  him. First, she’s already chosen to whom he should speak from her circle of friends—a measure of quality control. But she notably doesn’t hold his hand the whole way. He has to get out there and execute on his own.

An added wrinkle is the the fact girls at their school have a choice of wearing either a bow or necktie, and the custom of only the popular girls wearing the latter. Two of the girls he must speak to are with the “necktie team,” which feels like an added level of difficulty. But in his very first exchange with necktier Izumi Yuzu, simply asking her for a tissue, Fumiya does fine; he even interacts with a second girl in bow-tier Kikuchi Fuuka.

Fumiya hesitates in his next interaction during home ec, with the lively Nanami Minami (AKA Mimimi), because the plan said Aoi would be present to have his back, but this also seems like Aoi putting him on the deeper end of the pool to see what he’s got when faced with the unexpected. He ends up lauding Minami for her “empathy” when she says “I get that”, sounding like an old man and eliciting genuine, non-mocking laughter from her.

So far so good, but what happens when the social situation—or “battle”—is complicated by additional “combatants”? First, Natsubayashi Hanabi (AKA Tama) arrives, adding a completely different vibe to the conversation as Mimimi affectionately gloms onto her and tells her “Fumiya is funny!”

Before Mimimi or Fumiya can explain it to Tama so she doesn’t feel out of the loop, the three main “in-crowd” dudes arrive. They’re led by Nakamura Shuuji, whom we know to still be sore over his TackFam loss to Fumiya. Mimimi explains Fumiya’s “joke”, Shuuji dismisses it as no joke at all, and Mimimi puts it to a vote.

Fumiya notices that Tama doesn’t vote, so he also abstains so as not to keep her feeling left out. Finally, Aoi arrives and votes for Fumiya, giving both him and Tama the cover they needed to vote for him. She even uses the opportunity to bring up the fact Shuuji lost to Fumiya, and how his resultant sour attitude may be why he was dumped.

If all this sounds extremely complex, it’s because we’re watching all of the intricacy that lies behind seemingly mundane or effortless high school social interactions through Fumiya’s eyes: as a novice trying to familiarize himself with the game’s  mechanics and and pitfalls.

In their afterschool debriefing in the sewing room, Aoi explains how she wasted no time broached the topic of Shuuji’s TackFam loss as part of a larger effort to avoid Shuuji—who like her has considerable social clout—from being rude to Fumiya and hurting his progress (since it would give others permission to be rude).

Aoi believes that on balance, Fumiya’s first “field practice” was a huge success. He was a little shaky out there, but the conditions were met without cheating. She also has him rely on his own instincts by garnering comments form him. For instance, he noticed Tama seemed “a bit off”, which Aoi chalks up to Tama’s strong will and hesitance to “go along to get along”

Between the vote and debriefing, Fumiya witnesses the interactions between just the trio of Aoi, Mimimi and Tama, and learns why Hanabi is nicknamed Tama (b/c “hanabi” means fireworks, and you traditionally say “tamaya!” when they explode…pretty clever!) We also learn that Mimimi is not afraid of showing affection for her friends, whether it’s glomming on Tama or tickling Aoi’s navel.

Aoi “returns fire” by going in for a kiss—which seems to throw Mimimi off balance—only to gently blow on her lips. Both this incident and the fact Aoi being the only one in class with the “guts” to tease Shuuji further reinforce the reality that Aoi is an elite, “utterly terrifying” player of this game. Like Fumiya in TackFam, if you’re coming at Aoi IRL, you best come correct!

Now that Fumiya has familiarized himself with conversation somewhat, the next step is to get better at it by continuing to recognize the reactions of the girls he talks to, the shifts in mood those conversations take, and become comfortable with adjusting on the fly.

Being able to join in conversations with girls multiple times per day (no one-and-dones here) will also help him make progress towards his medium goal of getting a girlfriend. The more girls Fumiya converses with, the more reactions Aoi will have to gauge whom he should be talking to more. It’s like researching a boss before entering battle to ensure victory!

While becoming more agile in conversation through the accumulation of XP, Fumiya will simultaneously be practicing proper posture. A stronger posture will result in a stronger state of mind, just as confidence can be boosted by drawing on the positive reactions better posture will engender. Aoi clutches Fumiya’s buttock, but not as a flirtation. It’s merely a clinical check to ensure he’s using those muscles properly.

That afternoon, Aoi says she’ll be heading home with two of the three in guys (not Shuuji) and Mimimi, that he’ll be accompanying them, taking mental notes and honing his conversational skills. With Aoi with him this time, she’s able to support him with his “butt exercise” comment, which might’ve clanged to the floor without her seconding its efficacy.

Aoi then throws Fumiya a curveball mid-trip home: he and Mimimi are getting off early, since they live in the same area, so he’ll be interacting one-on-one with her, just like in home ec. Fortunately, Mimimi has no problem with his. On the contrary, she seems eager to help Fumiya come out of his shell even thought she’s unaware of his training, giving him an encouraging pat on the back.

Fumiya and Mimimi casually discuss his glumness and her liveliness, and when he asks if there’s ever times she’s not “all smiling and bubbly”, she says those times are when it’s most important to be that way. He then recalls what Aoi said about the body and mind being liked, and Mimimi can’t help but bring up the fact he and Aoi have been awfully buddy-buddy of late.

Fumiya sidesteps that by declaring Aoi out of his league, though that matter is far from closed. Mimimi maintains he should “let his fun side shine” more often, since he’s shown he’s actually pretty funny when he wants to be. Fumiya explains that fun isn’t the end-all-be-all for him; in TackFam, for instance, he plays because he loves it, and the fun is a bonus.

Mimimi also shows quite a bit of self-reflection when the subject turns to Tama, comparing her “won’t bend or be bent” nature to her “always be bending” attitude. It’s another great success for Fumiya, as he and Mimimi never had so much as an awkward silence while walking together.

As for determining who might be girlfriend material, that remains to be seen, but in their next debriefing Aoi has Fumiya acknowledge that his tendency to speak his mind regardless of the mood of the conversation makes him similar to Tama, who isn’t afraid to speak hers. Aoi believes that’s a strength in both, and Fumiya shouldn’t be afraid to use it.

Like the previous meeting, Aoi asks Fumiya to bring up anything else he learned, and he says he’s become aware that any productive conversation requires specific roles be filled, like different jobs in an RPG party: someone who introduces new topics (like Mimimi) and one who expands on existing ones (like Aoi).

Aoi is glad he’s picked up on this organically, and directs him to practice playing both roles. She expresses her joy with the phrase “HEXactly!”, which she finally explains was the catchphrase of a retro game she loved. She’s so delighted he’s heard of it she breaks out of teaching mode…but only momentarily!

To that end, Aoi has prepared flash cards of conversation topics for Fumiya to practice, and also recorded their meeting so he can listen to the sound of his voice. She also arranges their first Saturday meet-up. The fact she’s spending a day she’s free of club work on Fumiya means Aoi is determined to make her reclamation project a resounding success.

It’s great to see Fumiya not just making steady progress, but for the difficulty level not to be artificially heightened by, say, cartoonishly intractable personalities. At the end of the day these aren’t tough “bosses” Fumiya is being made to fight: Mimimi, Tama, Yuzu, and Fuuka are all nice people who aren’t hard to get along with, and all seem willing in one way or another to give him the benefit of the doubt despite his reputation.

At the same time, I’m thoroughly pleased Fumiya doesn’t need to be dragged kicking and screaming from his morose philosophy. While understandably a bit reticent at times, he’s neither resistant nor stubborn about submitting to Aoi’s prescribed plan. The best way he can show respect to her not inconsiderable efforts is by being a model trainee; a veritable sponge absorbing as much as he can, while not forgetting to have fun. So far, so good!

Rating: 4/5 Stars

Ikebukuro West Gate Park – 09 – Trouble in Paradise

There is a lot to sift through this week, but I’ll give IWGP this: there’s no other current show that makes people sitting at tables and talking quite so dang compelling! We begin with Makoto and Takashi being hired to guard an anti-immigration group during a particularly distasteful demonstration.

They’re doing it not for the money, but to keep the peace; in fact, an anti-hate pro-immigration group is paying them so their more radical elements won’t start anything. Even here, everyone thinks it’s a bit odd that the hate group is in Ikebukuro, where the ship has already sailed.

Makoto knows this all to well, as the new brother of a Chinese immigrant. Guo makes her return this week, and we learn she’d been working elsewhere and presumably living on her own, explaining her absence in previous episodes. She introduces Makoto to another mixed family: a Japanese husband and his Chinese wife.

They own a Chinese restaurant in building called Ikebukuro Paradise, and have been the recent victims of harassment. The perps were masked, but the couple suspects the anti-immigration group that’s in town. Makes sense. Makoto gets more insight walking with Guo, who tells him how much it hurts to hear people tell her to “go home” when she is home.

The Chinese restaurant incident isn’t the first at Ikebukuro Paradise; previously a café burned down, though its owner insists it was an accident reacted to the cafe’s audio system, and he basically curtly asks Makoto to stop digging. Of course, Makoto doesn’t, contacting his pal Saru, who tells him a Chinese fund linked up with a Japanese corporation.

Lin fills in more blanks, saying the Chinese real estate company intends to redevelop the Paradise by knocking down the old building. It seems the immigration kerfuffle and harassment could be unrelated strings, but only so far. Then the latter problem escalates when a member of the anti-hate group is attacked and its more radical elements want an eye for and eye.

Then the Paradise problem reasserts itself, as a fire breaks out, killing a resident and at least temporarily shutting down the restaurant. It’s to early to ascertain if it was an accident or arson, but Takashi has seen enough, and urges Makoto to “figure out who needs crushing” so his G-Boys can crush them.

In a nice scene with Makoto, Takashi acknowledges the need for Ikebukuro to change and grow the way it’s doing, but also laments the Ikebukuro he grew up in, and fears the town will lose its unique character if the change and growth go too far and “hate and indifference” continue to rear their ugly heads.

Makoto arranges a full-on summit between the pro- and anti- immigration groups. While testy, the anti leader insists they weren’t behind the fire, and the pro leader is willing to take her at her word. Takashi believes the leader, warped as her views are, but gets an odd unsavory vibe from her second-in-command, Tsukamoto, whom he suspects is into some shady shit.

Sure enough, the former café owner Torii, hearing about the fire and death, comes forward to Makoto and the restaurant owners about the true reason he closed up shop: he was harassed by land sharks. The owners thought they were targets of racial and cultural hatred, but they and the other tenants were rather victims of cynical corporate goons.

Tsukamoto, it turns out, was the director of the company that forced Torii out, the missing link Makoto needed to tie the two problems together. Tsukamoto and his superiors intended to use the anti-immigration group as cover for their land-sharking activities.

But by the time Makoto informs the anti-immigration group’s other leaders of Tsukamoto’s intentions, it’s too late to cancel the demonstrations. It’s a tense moment the next day when the red and blue groups march past each other, but it’s a third group, a hastily-assembled gang led by Tsukamoto himself, that tries to incite violence.

Makoto expected this, and so hired his buddy Shadow to take Tsukamoto out before he could achieve his goal. Takashi’s G-Boys mop up, and all the would-be escalators are arrested. The demonstration ends peacefully, and the restaurant owners and other residents of Ikebukuro Paradise can breathe a sigh of relief, as they’re no longer in the crosshairs.

That said, Lin warns Mikoto and Takashi that some shady Kansai organization that was behind Tsukamoto’s company as well as the smoke shop many weeks back is still looking to plant a foothold in Ikebukuro and destroy the harmony Makoto & Co. have been fighting for so hard.

It’s clear IWGP holds the anti-immigration hate group in pretty low regard, as they should. But it’s also upfront about the reasons people have to join and participate in such groups—people who might start out like Takashi, yearning for The Way Things Wereand becoming more radicalized by the growing influx and influence of immigrants.

At the same time, IWGP is just as clear in promoting the proper way forward, and it obviously isn’t brawls in the streets, but respectful, considered conversations between groups who come to the table in good faith. Makoto once again demonstrates his keen ability to mediate tough issues and keep inevitable brush fires from spreading too far.

Ikebukuro West Gate Park – 08 – Hard Truths and Soft Landings

The stinger for this week is only a few moments long: a toddler playing with a toy plane falls off a balcony and lands in a bush. He’s fine, but his single mother Ohnuki Yui, age 22, is massacred in the papers and online for letting it happen. Kyouichi and Inogai stop by Majima Produce to give Makoto an unusual job: check in on Yui and ensure she’s okay. When asked why Kyouichi cares, he says it’s because Yui is a fan, and “you have to take care of your fans.”

The day he fell, Yui decided to leave her 3-year-old son Kazushi unattended so she could more closely watch Kyouichi’s ballet in the park, and the fall was the result. It was a stupid, reckless mistake from a young mother, and she’s lucky he wasn’t seriously hurt. But his fall mirrors her own: she works all night, every night at a konbini bento factory to make ends barely meet, and hardly has any time for anything else, including Kazushi…to say nothing of self-care.

As the son of a single mother, Makoto can relate to Yui and Kazushi’s troubles. But he doesn’t know as well as his mother. One meeting with the mother and son and she knows Yui isn’t just on the edge of a cliff; she’s already falling, and if “something isn’t done” she’ll be in trouble.

Sure enough, that trouble arrives in the form of the kind of predator that is common in a big city: men who scout women at the edge of cliffs, and ensuring they land not on their feet, but in the sex industry. The scout appears to Yui to be a new man who is interested in her, and lavishes her with luxurious gifts. As Yui’s mood brightens, Kazushi’s darkens. Both Makoto and his mom notice, and Detective Yoshioka confirms what is  going on with her.

However, scouts like the one working Yui are hard to catch, so he recruits Makoto to follow Yui and gather evidence the scouting is taking place. Makoto hesitates, and rightly notes that the sex industry is not automatically a shameful means of paying the bills, but that ignores the manner in which Yui is being preyed upon. His mom rightfully smacks him on the ass and tells him to get going.

The more Makoto watches from afar as the sex industry scout, Shinji, plays Yui like a cat plays with a mouse, he gets angrier and angrier. But unlike Kyouichi (who would line up and shoot all the internet people denigrating Yui and even wishing death on her) or even his mother (who would walk in and chew Shinji out), Makoto uses his people skills to become fast friends with the guy, starting with complimenting his fancy shoes.

Once Shinji believes Makoto is connected to the Hidaka Group, he’s all too eager to spill the beans about his operation, in hopes one of Hidaka’s clubs or brothels could be a landing spot for his latest catch. As Shinji coldly describes Yui as “the type that can’t get by unless someone looks after her”, Makoto can barely contain his rage, but he remains cheery and enthusiastic about working with the scum.

This pays off when the next time they meet, Makoto doesn’t come alone, but with his mother, Yui, and Kazushi. Makoto plays back the recording of Shinji incriminating himself, and then Yoshioka and the cops come in and arrest him. But while Yui is now free from a predator’s net, she’s still falling. Like the bush that saved Kazushi, she’s in dire need of a soft landing.

Makoto and his mom take Yui and Kazushi to the park, Makoto discovers why Kazushi’s mood had darkened so much since Yui met Shinji: she had been harming him. The bruises on his arms aren’t marks of malice or cruelty; she clearly loves her son, but a desperate, despairing woman grasping for a way to stop her fall.

Despite that love, she cannot help but think of the better job she could get and better life she could live, if only she didn’t have the child of a man she didn’t love. As her tears fall in the heavy rain, Kazushi notices and rushes to her, giving her a hug and telling her it’s “not your fault”. Hearing this out of the literal “mouth of a babe” only makes her tears fall harder.

Makoto’s mother is frank: Yui has pushed as hard as she can, but it hasn’t been enough, and probably won’t be; if she pushes harder still, she may end up killing the child she loves. But there is one option to explore: giving Kazushi up, as in having someone look after him long enough for Yui to get her life in order.

Then Makoto’s mom admits something he never knew: after his dad died shortly after he was born, she was falling off a cliff too, as a single mother with a mound of debt running the produce shop alone. So she placed Makoto in someone else’s custody for two years, worked her ass off, paid off her debt, and only then reunited with her son.

Makoto turned out to be a good boy, and she believes Kazushi can too, if Yui speaks to a caseworker she knows. It’s a drastic and awful choice for a mother to make, but even Yui realizes it’s now time for drastic measures. In order to help her usher in this new difficult but necessary reality, Kyouichi performs his ballet in the rain just for her and Kazushi, appearing to the boy to fly through the air, like his beloved toy airplane.

We then learn from Isogai the true reason Kyouichi cares: like Makoto’s dad, both his parents were killed in an accident when he was young, and he had to live, make a living, and learn ballet in Chicago on his own. As such, he can’t look the other way when he sees a family in turmoil. Kazushi has a mom, and this way he gets to keep her. The next we see Yui, she’s wearing a business suit and pounding the pavement for a full-time job. Her falling has stopped and her landing was soft.

This is the best IWGP yet, and not because it was always easy to watch. Seeing Shinji get collared was righteous fun, but the ep is also unblinkingly frank in the fact that Yui is no saint, yet still doesn’t deserve unrelenting online scorn, nor the dark fate that awaited her on the other end of Shinji’s self predatory machinations. It also makes clear that as long as someone is making their own choices, entering the sex industry isn’t automatically bad.

In addition to the extensive nuance and complexity with which real-world issues are tackled this week is the portrayal of the importance of community, and shared concern for one’s neighbors. If something bad happens to someone and you and others can help, you fucking do it, and good outcomes are the result.

My only two marks against this outing: We still haven’t caught so much of a glimpse of Shungui since she was adopted (seriously…where is she?), and we still don’t know Makoto’s mother’s actual name. Considering her crucial role this week, that’s a pretty big oversight. But these are minor nitpicks in an otherwise strong and compelling episode.