Fruits Basket – 37 (S2 12) – One Fine Day

And now, we take a short break from Tooru’s mission to break the Souma curse to check in on Shiraki Mayuko AKA “Mayu”, a teacher at Tooru’s school who is also best friends with Kana. You’ll remember Kana as the woman who dated Hatori, provoking Akito to injure him. Kana went mad, Hatori had to erase all her memories of ever loving him, and Kana married someone else.

Throughout all of that, Mayu was in madly love with her best friend’s boyfriend Hatori. She could never get rid of those feelings—even to this day. She tried to date Shigure when he sensed she was lonely, but that only made Mayu feel more lonely, since she didn’t really feel anything for him. He was a placeholder and happy to be such.

It never occurred to Mayu that she’d ever get a legitimate, consequences-free shot at Hatori, and yet that’s exactly what happened when Kana’s memories were wiped. Heck, when Kana recovers from her mental breakdown, she laughs at the prospect of dating Hatori, and thinks Mayu is an ideal match for him. But Mayu never made a move. Even if it was fine with Kana and Shigure and even Hatori, it never felt right for her.

That brings us to the present, and Shigure has a scheme afoot. First he stops by to ask about a book he ordered from Mayu’s family’s bookstore, but it won’t be there until tomorrow. Then Hatori himself comes, clad in a stuffy suit, having been told by Shigure the book (which was for him) would be there. The next day he comes back, this time without the suit (so Mayu wouldn’t “sweat” while looking at him). When Mayu’s mom starts to sparkle, she grabs him and heads for a more private spot.

When Mayu remarks Hatori doesn’t “exude happiness” the way he did when he was with Kana, he laments that happiness might just not be for him. That causes over two years of Mayu’s pent-up frustration to suddenly burst out in a torrent of bawling. It reminds Hatori of a boy at the Souma estate also crying, and the doctor in him realizes the health benefits of a good cathartic cry, such that he thinks he could use one himself!

With that, the other shoe of Shigure’s scheme drops when Hatori tells Mayu that he actually has no current girlfriend (the woman Shigure mentioned was Hiro’s mom). He then causally asks her out to lunch, his smile returning at the realization of what a fine day it is. It’s the first step in both of them finding new happiness, as Kana already has.

Just as the first episode of Furuba’s second season started with the focus on a tertiary character in Motoko, its twelfth episode does the same. While I can’t say going in I was itching for a Shiraki Mayuko episode, like Motoko’s episode this was still a strong outing in its own right and a welcome follow-up to the first season’s episode 15. Now hopefully Mayu can stay far, far away from Akito…

P.S. Read Crow’s review of episode 12 here.

Chihayafuru 3 – 24 (Fin) – Gathering the Wind

Goddammit! This is a dark fucking period!—Dewey Cox

In the wake of Taichi’s sudden departure, the Mizusawa Karuta Club is still able to recruit four new members—two girls including one who is Class A, and two boys—and rather than quit like everyone expected, Sumire takes the lead on showing the newbies the ropes.

She has to, because Chihaya is too out of it. The cards “turn black” for her as well. Fukasaku advises that she “learn something”—anything—because karuta and the hundred poets can’t be all that holds her together.

As Mizusawa’s club loses its founding members, Arata remains determined to start one at Fujioka East. For that, he needs at least two new members, so he goes class to class in his black yukata, starting with the first-years and working his way up.

When he tells Yuu how he saw her as part of his team when they were caring for his grandpa before he passed, she decides to volunteer to join if he’s a member short—but he gains one more than he needs.

Wanting them to see one of the best at what they’re setting out to do, Arata arranges practice matches at the prestigious Fujisaki High, but Sakurazawa is the one to break to him the news that as he’s starting a new club, Chihaya and Taichi have quit theirs. He’s so shocked he can’t focus properly, but he’s still the only one on his team to come away with wins.

More importantly, he learns a lot about how a karuta team must be run and who must run it. It’s rare that a great karuta player is also a great leader. Fujisaki’s best player is Rion, but Hyuuga (“Cheers”) is better at rallying the team. Mizusawa’s leader was Taichi while its best player was Chihaya. Seeing them create a team inspired him to do the same. But he just can’t fathom what happened to cause both of them to quit.

However, he knows instinctively that as a member of their triangle it’s his turn to try to cheer them up, as they once did. So as his team is heading home, he takes a selfie of them bathed in the light of the setting sun. He assures Chihaya that Taichi “will be back”, and that the two of them have to get stronger to prepare for his return.

I don’t share Arata’s optimism, as Chihaya’s response to Taichi’s confession seemed like the final nail in the dual coffins of friendship and karuta. This season ends with us not even 100% sure Chihaya definitely quit, we only hear it second hand, while Arata has no idea what happened between Chihaya and Taichi. That’s a lot of balls in the air for a fourth season. Hopefully it won’t take six years to come!

Chihayafuru 3 – 23 – Pitch Black

Chihaya’s Taichi Tournament is a huge success for all involved. Taichi is bowled over by how serious everyone is (even Sudo shows up to read) and is greatly cheered up, while other participants were glad to have fun with weird rules. Taichi and Chihaya end up tying for the lead in points, so the prize—a kiss from Taichi—is never presented.

The tournament is also suffused with nostalgia, as it’s the same type of matches and same place where Chihaya, Taichi and Arata first played as a team. Notably absent from the tournament? Arata, who admits he lost the Takamatsu Cup to Murao because he couldn’t re-focus after beating Taichi, and can’t wait to play him again.

Yeah…that’s not going to happen anytime soon, if ever. On a day when the karuta club isn’t active, Chihaya encounters Taichi alone in the club room. As she (poorly) fits new curtains for the incoming new club, Taichi first confesses to stealing Arata’s glasses back in sixth grade, then confesses his love for her.

First he simply lets the three most important words come out, while covering his face. To his credit, rather than laugh it off like a joke, he elaborates by describing all the parts of her he loves He leaves out the one part he dislikes the most: the part that changes when she thinks of Arata.

When he swiped his glasses, he didn’t want to lose to Arata, even though Arata was sure to mop the floor with him with the wide gap between their karuta ability at the time. While that gap has narrowed somewhat, the fact remains the cause is all but hopeless.

At least in this case, Taichi isn’t being a coward or a cheat. Arata already made his move, so all that’s left is for Taichi to make his and let the cards fall where they may. As the school bells sound, warning kids to go home, Chihaya says in her tiniest voice, “I’m sorry.” The cards don’t just fall, they turn jet black. And that’s that.

Time keeps marching on, and the new year starts with proficiency tests and club demos. After the former, Tsutomu is shocked to find he’s taken over the first spots in both maths and sciences, and worried Taichi’s mom will pull him out of the karuta club.

At the demos, when Chihaya, Oe and Sumire about to take the stage, resplendent in yukata, their adviser comes up and makes one small, devastating change to the speech, reducing the third-years by one: Taichi has quit the club. Chihaya tries to get through the demo, but has to stop in the middle and rushes off in tears.

As she runs off, a tearful Oe takes over (Sumire is crying too!) and waxes poetic about the hundred poems, songs of joy, sorrow and love that have endured for a thousand years, and urging newbies to join them in their magnificence. Of course, the themes of the poems are a big reason why Taichi can’t continue.

Chihaya doesn’t consider that as she races to his side and yanks on his sweater, tearfully begging him not to quit the club. Taichi draws her in and almost touches his lips to hers before pulling her back and telling her it’s no use; he couldn’t play if he wanted; all the cards have turned black. His love of the game and of her were too intertwined. She rejected him, so he must walk away. Quite the emotional roller coaster this week—will the Season 3 finale be funereal or redemptive?

Chihayafuru 3 – 22 – Smile, Everyone!

There’s a Taichi-shaped pall hanging over the karuta club, and Chihaya, Oe and Sumire agree it can’t go on like this. Since it’s February, Oe proposes the three of them raise Taichi’s—and the club’s—spirits by doing something fun and not karuta-related: making Valentines chocolate. That means it’s time for Sumire to shine!

Sumire may be one of the least experienced karuta players in the club, but she’s by far the most practiced chocolatier. She’s made a lot of chocolate for a lot of people since the second grade, and to quote the Architect, she’s become “exceedingly efficient at it.” She helps chocolate novices Oe and Chihaya through the process, in the midst of which Chihaya tears up because she’s having so much fun.

Chihaya wants Taichi to smile and have fun too, and obviously Sumire can relate, being in love with him and all. When Sumire and Oe head home, the latter notices Sumire has procured Coverture chocolates, which people say have a “100% chance of success.” Sumire is no longer that naive, but also think she’s being too pessimistic when she says she has “zero” chance. So does Oe.

It doesn’t matter where the chocolates are from or when she gives them to Taichi, as long as she realizes she can get her feelings across whenever and however she wants. So, the next day at school, she does just that. When she spots Taichi jogging with other guys outside, she tosses the bag out the window for him to catch, tells him how she feels, and also tells him he should tell the person how he feels.

In a nice touch, it’s not fancy chocolate after all, but fermented squid guts Chihaya joked about him being happier about (after all, the guy gets a lot of chocolate from admirers). It’s a beautiful, cathartic moment, but it’s also bittersweet (see what I did there) because the chances of Sumire’s feelings reaching him are still so slim.

Part of that is, Chihaya aside, Taichi still feels awful about losing to Arata. As he explains to Hiroshi, who drags him to a bar after they bump into each other fortuitously, playing Arata made him feel how dedicated to the game and to becoming Master Arata has been all his life, while making Taichi feel like a tourist and a dabbler all over again.

Before they part, Hiroshi admits that Chihaya asked him to talk with him, to try to get him to talk about what specifically was eating him. I’m sure Taichi would prefer if Chihaya simply talked to him upfront, but considering his aura the last few weeks that just wasn’t realistic.

When White Day comes along, Taichi has a dutiful gift for Sumire, but it comes with the dagger to the heart: he’s going to tell the one he loves how he feels after all. Again, I feel horrible for poor Sumire—whom I never thought I’d care so much about when we first met her so long ago!—but she has my everlasting thanks for finallying compelling Taichi to act. Only…she wants him to wait two more weeks before doing so, which…confuses him.

Eventually, when his birthday comes along and he’s on a Chihaya-mandated cherry blossom viewing, the truth becomes clear: all this time, Chihaya & Co. have been scheming behind his back to give him a birthday present for the ages. That gift? A wholly volunteer-organized and operated “Taichi Cup”. 

Chihaya tried to get him to smile by making chocolate, but her dad ended up eating everything and ruining their clubhouse party. This time, she’s going to try to make karuta a fun and happy experience for him again. Little does she know he’s sitting on a much-belated confession of love that burns red as the Tatsuta river in autumn. Will he manage to do so before this third season concludes?

Honestly, these characters make it way too hard for themselves. It’s really quite simple:

Chihaya x Arata
Sumire x Taichi
Oe x Desktomu
Porky x His Next Meal
Shinobu x Snowmaru

There. Everybody’s happy. WAS THAT SO HARD?!!

Jibaku Shounen Hanako-kun – 05 – Love is In the Air

…Or at least it seems that way, with Nene and Aoi’s class suddenly chock full of new couples. Rumor has it when you confess to someone under a certain tree on school grounds, you’re assured to become a couple. When Aoi’s childhood friend who likes her practices on his male friend, the next day they’re a lovey-dovey couple.

When Hanako-kun suddenly asks Nene to meet him under the tree, she begins to consider if he likes her, rather than wonder what apparition he’s trying to rein in. The source of the successful confessions turns out to be a kodama, or tree spirit. Hanako does indeed confess to Nene, but compels her to reject him, rendering her bait for the kodama, which he then defeats.

Afterwards, Hanako teases Nene for hoping it would be a real confession, only to make her cry genuine tears. Realizing he was reckless with her feelings, Hanako chases after her, takes her hand, removes his hat, and offers a sincere apology, and insisting she stay with him until her tears stop. It’s a very moving scene, aided in no small part by Ogata Megumi’s excellent voice acting.

Seeing Hanako-kun without his hat sparks a newfound interest in learning more about the mysterious ghost boy, including what crime he committed and how he died. Hanako is suspicious of her prying, however, and places Kou between them as a buffer. When Minamoto-senpai is brought up, Nene sings his praises in an admiring, flowery tone, unaware the subject of her praise is not only right behind her, but Kou’s big brother.

As it happens, Teru has come to take Kou aside and admonish him for his lack of progress. His duty is to defeat the Seven Wonders, including Hanako, and Teru is not pleased with the fact Kou seems to have become chums with him. “There are no good apparitions,” warns Teru, who decides if Kou can’t do the job, he will, setting up a major confrontation with Hanako in the near future.

Nene, meanwhile, just wants to learn more about Hanako, and having limited success in the school library. Then a gorgeous, doll-like green-haired girl approaches her, and suggests she visit the Fifth Wonder, the 4 O’clock Library, for more info. Later Aoi warns that while white and black books are fine, one must never read a red book. Three guesses what color Hanako’s book is…

Fruits Basket – 08 – All is Quiet on New Year’s Day

Everyone has somewhere to be for the New Year’s holiday…everyone but Tooru, whose parents are dead and whose remaining family is off to Hawaii. Yet no matter how hard Uo and Hana try to invite them to their places, she insists she’ll be fine, and that they should spend the time with their families.

After reveling in winter cleaning with the Soumas, Tooru learns the three are headed to the main house for the big banquet and other festivities. Tooru, not being a Souma, is not invited, but she’s content to hold the fort at Shigure’s house, even though it will mean ringing in the new year all alone.

Despite her insistence she’ll be fine, Yuki and Kyou are uneasy the whole time they’re en route to the main house. They know her well enough (it’s been four months) to know she can be a bit of a space cadet, and is prone to accidents. What if she gets hurt and no one is there to help her?

Shigure finds the two young lads’ worrying about her like their baby chick to be most entertaining, and so stirs the pot by saying there’s a burglar in their neighborhood who has yet to be caught. The final straw is when they run into Saki, who very simply and concisely asks them to consider how she’s feeling all alone at their house for New Years; to put themselves in her shoes, knowing both what she’s been through.

Yuki and Kyou bump heads rushing back home to her, cursing themselves for not realizing they accepted Tooru’s polite insistence far too easily. Saying you’re fine being alone and being fine alone are not the same thing, even with Tooru. Their suspicions are confirmed when they arrive to find her holding her mother’s portrait and crying while listening to Enka music on the telly.

Wondering what the heck happened, an exhausted Yuki and Kyou collapse to the floor and say, simply, “I’m home”…and Tooru tears right back up, only they’re tears of joy. Despite always smiling on the outside, Tooru is not always happy and cheerful on the inside; the lads were right not to leave her alone on the holiday; she’s happiest when she’s with people she cares about.

Shigure meets with Hatori, Hatsuhare, and Momiji, informing them Yuki and Kyou have skipped. Hatsuhare can understand, as he himself contemplates running from things he’d rather not engage in. But Shigure tells him this wasn’t about running away from Akito (in Yuki’s case) or Kagura (in Kyou’s); not this time.

Instead, it was about running to someone, someone both in greater need and more deserving of their presence. That’s hammered home when Shigure checks in on a morose Akito. Shigure is actually glad to see the family head reaping what he sowed. Shigure is the one harboring Yuki and Kyou during their self-exile, after all; it makes sense he’d be on their side with this…situation.

Meanwhile, by spending New Years with Tooru, keeping her company, sharing mochi (and chewing carefully!), and finally climbing up the roof together to watch the gorgeous first sun rise out of the horizon, the guilt Yuki and Kyou initially felt about abandoning their formal family obligations eventually melts away.

No, Yuki and Kyou needed Tooru every bit as much as Tooru needed them. Far from being a night they’ll regret, it turns out to be a night—and morning—the three of them won’t soon forget. They get to see Tooru smile without a hint of weariness hidden behind it as she looks forward to another year with two of the four people (along with Uo and Saki) most important in her life; her real family.

3D Kanojo: Real Girl – 21 – What About Us?

I’ve never been particularly interested in 3DK’s longstanding ticking clock on Hikari and Iroha’s relationship. It’s a two-dimensional source of drama and dread on a show that’s proven itself capable of developing nuanced solutions to conflicts that rise organically from its cast of 3D characters.

Case in point: 3DK invested so much time and loving care to bringing Ishino and Takanashi together, yet the biggest threat to Hikari and Iroha’s relationship remains frustratingly murky.

There’s nothing unclear about the statuses of their friends, however: Ishino x Takanashi is very public, while Itou confirms to Hikari that he and Ayado made love. It’s quite on point for Itou to cry tears of joy afterwards, as well as to tell Hikari that it probably has changed his world, but a lot more changes are to come as he and Ayado share more experiences.

I kinda wish we’d gotten more of Ayado’s perspective—perhaps telling Ishino or Iroha about it—but still, kudos to the show for being both unambiguous and tasteful in the portrayal of a very common milestone in young people’s lives.

As their final year in high school begins to draw to a close, Takanashi, Ishino and Itou are all thinking about their futures…while Hikari hasn’t. Why would he? The future, to him, is just a place where there’s no Iroha.

Better to make the most of the present lest he come away with regrets. For Hikari, this means blowing off career surveys, studying and even some classes to spend maximum time with Iroha.

A side-effect of all the dating is a precipitous drop in his grades, something he keeps from both Itou and Iroha until the former hears it from the teacher. Like any best friend as kind as he is, Itou is concerned about Hikari, and urges him to be mindful of finding a school/romance balance.

However, Hikari doesn’t want to tell Itou why he’s neglecting his studies. He doesn’t want to tell Itou that Iroha is moving in a month, because that will only make that move—that future without her—more real.

Instead of getting back to his studies, Hikari takes Iroha out on more and more dates, even as she gets increased pressure from Mabuchi (the doctor) to stop what she’s doing presumably due to an undisclosed medical condition…but we just don’t absolutely know for sure!

One thing’s for sure: frolicking on a frigid beach in October isn’t going to help that condition…and I’d be very surprised if one or both of them didn’t come down with a cold next week.

But fine: Hikari doesn’t know the truth, and neither do we. Iroha doesn’t know about his bad grades until Itou tells her, and when she pulls out what she thinks are his notebooks for studying, they’re filled with things he’s planned for them to do together.

Seeing this note makes Iroha cry, because Hikari is planning a future for them that may not be possible. When he comes back with warm drinks, she tells him she lied: she’s not going to transfer schools. But that still doesn’t explain if and why they’ll separated in a month’s time.

Then again, perhaps Hikari’s request to his mom to loan him a large sum of money from his mom, and both his and Iroha’s reluctance to “go home” means they’re going to run away together, finally taking charge of their future.

But if Iroha’s real circumstances are so serious she’s yet to breathe a word of them to the man she loves, out of a reluctance to hurt him, what if those circumstances worsen, and there’s no longer any way to hide them…or avoid hurting Hikari anyway?

Iroduku: The World in Colors – 10 – Diving In

As a result of Shou confessing to Hitomi, she and Asagi find themselves “at odds”, as he puts it (naturally he has no idea why, the big dolt). But neither of them want to keep not talking to each other. So Hitomi doesn’t give up trying to reach out to Asagi, and the two end up making up pretty quickly and easily once Asagi works through her frustrations as more her own fault that Hitomi’s.

After all, someone who’s known Shou as long as she has should know full well how direct and clear she has to be, and she hasn’t been, leading to him seeking love elsewhere. No matter how obvious it may seem to her that she’s in love with Shou, it’s ultimately up to her to make it known to him beyond doubt. Besties once more, Asagi and Hitomi scarf down some healing parfaits and then partake in therapeutic karaoke with Kurumi and Kohaku.

The next day, Kohaku announces the magical presentation which will be her contribution to the club for the festival. She intends, with Hitomi’s help, to transport visitors into a drawing; specifically, one of Yuito’s fantastical pastels. But Kohaku makes it clear to Hitomi she can’t do it without her. Hitomi has a special ability to reach into the heart of the artist (in this case Yuito’s), and has faith she’ll be able to do it. All it will take is dedication to the goal, discipline, and practice, practice, practice.

First she sends one paper airplane into a Seurat painting on the computer. Then two, then five, then one for every member of the club, in under three minutes. Kohaku may have asked a lot of Hitomi, but she knows how powerful Hitomi’s magic is, as well as how it’s been dormant much of her life. It’s time to let it out to stretch its legs, and once Hitomi gets it, it’s as invigorating for her as it is exciting for her granny.

Yuito completes his drawing—one with a theme park aesthetic that combines all of the club members’ disparate requests—and Hitomi and Kohaku successfully transport everyone inside. For the first time, Hitomi and her friends can see the same colors at the same time.

It’s a glorious sequence, diving into the drawing, and reminded me more and more of the similarly trippy What Dreams May Come, which starts out all vivid and lush and slowly grows more dark and menacing as its protagonist descends into the bowels of the hereafter.

Hitomi and Yuito are enjoying a lovely stroll in the forest when he spots his neon fish and follows it into a dark corner of the painting. Before long, he finds a stone statue of a seated, forlorn Hitomi, then gets shut into an even deeper darker chamber where he finds a young and even more forlorn Hitomi drawing sad monochromatic pictures of a princess and queen seemingly perpetually separated by a deep black boundary.

No matter how hard Yuito tries to cheer up this illusory ‘lil Hitomi, she rejects his attempts as unwanted and futile. Nothing can cross that black boundary. She doesn’t know why; she just knows you…just can’t. When Yuito snaps back into reality with everyone else outside the picture, Hitomi finds herself suddenly crying.

Clearly, just as Hitomi was able to reach into Yuito’s heart and bring his drawing to life for everyone to share in, Yuito’s drawing drew out a part of Hitomi. Now that he’s seen it, he’s not just going to pretend he didn’t.

She and Yuito go to their vantage point and talk through it. Yuito brings uncomfortable things up Hitomi would rather be left unsaid, right up until she’s shouting for him to stop already, but she realizes he’s trying to help and so she talks, for the first time, about how things were.

Hitomi’s mother was the first Tsukishiro woman in a long, long time who had no magical ability, but Hitomi had plenty. She believes her having magic is the reason her mother suddenly left, and blames and curses herself for not calling out to her. Yuito rightly assures her that Hitomi shouldn’t feel responsible just because she had magic and her mother didn’t, and rather than shoulder all the blame, it’s okay for her to be angry.

Hitomi’s guilt over the abilities she was born with led to her hatred of, and turning of her back on, magic. Until now, of course. Even without her mother around, she’s not alone. She has friends who care about her and are amazed and moved and made happier by the magical gifts Kohaku is helping her hone. And perhaps that’s why her grandmother sent her to the past to begin with: to show her that her magic is a blessing, not a burden.

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.

Chio-chan no Tsuugakuro – 12 (Fin) – Going Commando

Chio’s School Road comes to an end with two more stories of situations girls may find themselves in during their high school years. First, when Andou’s sister Chiharu approaches Chio for tutoring help, Chio gets to experience what it’s like to be the knowledgeable, reliable senpai, suggesting Chiharu make her 500 yen  by collecting cans.

The only problem is, none of the advice Chio dispenses is any good. They collected way too few cans, crushed them needlessly, and only collected the hard steel ones when the softer aluminum ones are worth ten times more. When confronted with her failure by Chiharu, Chio devolves into a child and cries.

It’s Manana who ends up inadvertently showing Chiharu what kind of woman her big bro’s girlfriend should be. Chio insists Manana step out of a long line to go to school, but Manana wants to sell her spot and ends up making over 2,500 yen, inspiring Chiharu to try being a “line agent.”

The second half elaborates upon Yuki’s exhibitionism: not only does she love running while wearing as little as possible, but she walks around her house in the nude, as does her whole family! She assumes lots of families do this…but she’d be wrong.

Manana tries to get one over on Chio by professing to also walking around the house while naked, but Yuki suddenly becomes threateningly suspicious. Manana panics and blurts out how she’d love to not be wearing underwear right then.

She gets her wish, as she and Yuki spend the rest of the walk going commando, which needless to say provides quite a few thrills and close calls for the both of them. They frolick about as if they’ve attained another state of being, living on the edge and loving every minute of it.

The only way Chio can be part of their world is to follow suit and go commando, which she does, and she is immediately welcomed warmly into the fold. Unfortunately, the trio comes afoul of Kushitori Madoka, who can pick up the fact that her kohais are even more radiant than usual.

She doesn’t get a chance to confirm why, however, as Chio manages to scoop up Yuki and Manana gives the excuse that the three have to go pee before Kushitori can get an impromptu game of Kabbadi in.

The episode concludes with some faux previews for other segments (who knows if this will get a second season), followed by “outtakes” of key scenes from past episodes, in which the characters either flub their lines or actions, leading to banter between the “cast and crew”; a neat meta way to end.

While neither as weird nor hilarious as last season’s Hinamatsuri, Chio’s School Road is still a smart, solid, cheeky slice-of-life comedy that stays focused on its premise throughout its run while providing a lot of creativity and variety in its scenarios. Oozora Naomi and Omigawa Chiaki do some very nice voice work and exhibited a wonderful fizzy chemistry.

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…

Steins;Gate 0 – 17 – Fiasco

I could say “if only Suzu had left in more of a hurry”, but “if onlys” are at the very core of Steins;Gate. The future is the product of countless “if onlys” that were combined just so. Besides, there’s an element of inevitability, such that Suzu’s departure was meant to be delayed by Mayuri, and Mayuri was meant to know everything everyone else knows.

Suzu, Daru, and Maho tell her what they know, and it confirms what she suspected: Rintarou is in this state because he lost Kurisu, whom he loved. Mayuri exclaims that she loves Okarin every bit as much as Kurisu did if not more, but loved Hououin Kyouma even more than that, even though that persona has vanished, along with any joy in Rintarou’s life.

Because she loves him so much, Mayuri cannot stand by and allow him to remain so sad. So she decides not to stop Suzuha, but to join her on her trip back to August 21 of last year, in hopes they can both find the Steins Gate World Line. Rintarou races to the rooftop to plead with Mayuri not to go, but she’s determined to, as she poetically puts it, “clear away the clouds that loom over his sky”.

By having to deal with both Mayuri and Rintarou (the latter of whom she shoots, grazing his leg). Suzuha wastes a lot of time she should be using to get out of 2011 while she still can. She even leaves Mayuri alone on the rooftop as she takes Rintarou aside to patch him up.

The cell network blackout should have been a sign—a very ominous sign—that her window for escaping to the past was becoming smaller with every passing second. Earlier in the lab, Daru, Rintarou and Maho find messages from AmaKurisu on @channel, and Maho learns that the system was hacked and Kurisu’s memory data stolen.

All of the actions and inactions, observations and failures to observe, culminate in a D-Mail being sent to Suzuha from 2025; the first of this 0 arc. It’s from the future Daru, but from a slightly different world line than the one she left. The lines diverged when Suzuha and Mayuri decided to use the time machine. But they never get to actually use it.

Instead, Mayuri is taken hostage (making her announcement back in the lab heart-breakingly prescient) and the entire rooftop is swarming with soldiers; I’m guessing the Americans. They surround Suzuha and force her to surrender, but she has one more ace up her sleeve in the form of a knife hidden in the time machine.

Suzuha goes on a mini-rampage, but there are too many soldiers to take out, and in the mean time Mayuri is badly exposed. Just steps away from the safety of the stairs, she’s shot in the head and falls lifelessly to the ground. At first I thought it was just a stray bullet—there were so many—but the headshot is the work of Mayuri’s own future daughter Kagari, AKA K2605.

Never mind “if onlys”—I can’t see how this could have possibly gone worse.

Steins;Gate 0 – 16 – It’s Not Just a Cheap Coat

Daru and Maho are hard at work on “Phone Microwave (Temporary) Unit-02”; progress is slow and full of smoky setbacks, but neither party has any intention of giving up anytime soon. Meanwhile, in Mayuri’s words, the “normie life” of Rintarou (who has given up on trying to have both Kurisu and Mayuri in his life, without starting WWIII) is taking off, and he can’t tell how left behind she feels.

Rintarou can’t so much have a conversation with her without checking his buzzing phone. He says things like his going to America is “good for everyone”, even though it’s not good at all for her. She decides not to go eat with him, but ends up encountering Ruka, who calls her Rintarou’s “Orihime-sama”, pertaining to Vega and the heroine of the story upon which the Tanabata festival is based.

While the lovers representing Vega and Altair were banished to opposite ends of the galaxy, once a year a flock of magpies forms a bridge for them to meet. Mayuri, who can tell that Rintarou loved/loves Kurisu and not her, can’t subscribe to Ruka’s assertion, and all Ruka can do is offer a handkerchief to dry Mayuri’s tears.

Rintarou suddenly arrives at the lab while Maho is showering and Daru is unprepared. He’s ready to drag Daru along with him to America, but the trash is full of bananas and there’s a curtain covering the back of the lab. A light dawns in Rintarou’s head, and his initial suspicions are proven right when he pulls a bunch of slimy green ‘nanners from the trash.

When he discovers the new Phone Microwave, he whips himself into a damn frenzy trying to remind Daru just how much torture he endured and who died last time the device was constructed. Eventually his rantings are interrupted by Maho (in a towel, at first), but he soon turns on her, going so far as to call her a murderer if she proceeds. That earns him a much-deserved punch to the face.

Once heads have cooled a bit, Rintarou and Maho debate the “laws of the world” and whether messing with them is “challenging God.” While Maho can appreciate and even respect certain aspects of Rintarou’s theory about how the world works, she doesn’t believe humans would have the ability to make a time machine if they were never meant to.

Rintarou rebuts, telling her how she couldn’t possibly understand what it’s like to fail and fail hundreds and thousands of times, which is laughable to us because we know that the entire time Kurisu was alive, Maho was struggling and failing to reach any of the breakthroughs or earn any of the accolades or gain any of the fame her kohai had. But she never gave up then, and she’s not giving up now, no matter how much Rintarou yells at her.

Rintarou skulks off, and by chance, ends up encountering Mayuri in the park where they used to spend a lot of time before they met Daru. She used to wait for Rintarou just as we saw her wait outside his college in the present. What Rintarou doesn’t know, but eventually finds out as she talks, is that Mayuri heard every word in his rant back at the lab about how saving Kurisu meant killing her off.

She also tearfully notes how much he’s looked like he’s suffered ever since he made the decision, which makes her think he might’ve made the wrong choice. There’s no way he can be okay with how things have turned out if he has that look. His eyes have always betrayed how he actually feels. Rintarou is devastated, and tries to tell Mayuri to do the impossible: “not think about it.” Things aren’t that simple, Okarin. The clouds part, revealing Vega and Altair.

This was an emotional powerhouse of an episode, with clashes between characters of an intensity that’s been mostly missing from this season. With those scenes came brilliant performances from Miyano Mamoru, Hanazawa Kana, Seki Tomokazu and Yahagi Sayuri. Also brilliant is the fact that there are no right or wrong answers.

As Daru and Maho search for that one perfect solution to the formula among an infinite possibilities—for the Steins Gate—they must be cognizant of the fact that they are imperfect, lest the despair Rintarou has already experienced not only return, but worsen.