SAKUGAN – 11 – THE PRINCESS AND THE MARKERS

Memenpu, Gagumber, Zack, Yuri and Merooro arrive in the bustling Dream City, which true to its name is apparently a place where people can live out their dreams. Merooro got everyone tickets for a recital from the Diva Sina, who is also the colony’s princess. When Memenpu catches Gagumber trying to ditch the recital for a gentleman’s club, Sina literally drops in on them and basically declares asylum from her lofty role.

Sina happens to have a stack of drawings she’s made throughout her life, her means of escaping to the world of dreams and possibilities when her actual future was fixed. But just for today, she wants to experience all of the things she dreamt of and drew. Memenpu notes how simple all of these things are, but like any member of royalty, the little things of normal life are what they often yearn for.

A sweet and lovely adventure ensues, as Memenpu secures the three of them disguises (the colony authorities and Bureau have branded the father-daughter a duo dangerous Shibito kidnappers) and Sina gets to wear regular clothes, gets a haircut to blend in, rides the packed rail transport, drinks beer in a bar, and plays video games with kids. Things take a turn when Memenpu tries to ask the kids what their dreams are and they don’t understand.

Turns out Dream Colony has a very strict system wherein your family determines your job. If your parents are electricians, that’s what you’ll become. Obviously this is anathema to Memenpu’s spirit of freedom and self-determination, and is frustrated both by the kids’ inability to get what she’s on about, and Sina’s insistence she can’t follow her dream to be an artist.

Memenpu moves heaven and earth to secure canvases and paint supplies so the two can paint together, and Sina gets into it, and starts to sing, revealing to the bystanders that she is indeed their Princess and Diva. That also attracts her secret service, who secure her and roughly arrest Gagumber and a very upset Memenpu. Sina flexes her political muscle by ordering they unhand her friends, but also agrees to return to the concert venue to perform. Her day of realizing her little dreams was fun, but it’s over.

Memenpu and Gagumber rejoin the others in their box and Diva Sina performs as planned. Sina’s seiyuu Hayami Saori sings a gorgeous song that moves Merooro to tears, but Memenpu remains upset. Even when Gagumber shows her drawings Sina made of being the very Diva she’s become, for Memenpu those only represent a small part of what Sina dreamed of. She can’t understand why Sina has to “lie” and remain in her current unfulfilled life. She may never understand.

I say that, because Memenpu might not have a lot of time left. Even though the episode seemed to end on a wonderfully bittersweet note, after the credits SAKUGAN brings down the hammer it didn’t bring down last week. Shibito attacks as everyone expected, yet still manage to get close enough to Sina to assassinate her. Even so, Muro is singularly focused on Memenpu, and this time she seems to capture her for real.

Muro also says Memenpu neither knows who and what she really is and who her real father is. Could Memenpu be a Princess like Sina? Or an even more powerful “child” that Shibito is resolved to either control or destroy? You could say Shibito is an organization takes Memenpu’s philosophy to a deadly extreme, while Dream City is the ultimate haven for people supressing their dreams in favor of maintaining the societal structure. Surely there’s a happy medium to be found…

Rating: 4/5 Stars

SAKUGAN – 06 – CRIME FOR JUSTICE

For his assistance in restoring the God of Wind, Gagumber comes into some money, which he quickly turns into a lot more money at Jolly Jolly’s casino. It’s all going quite well for him (unbeknownst to Memenpu)…until he loses everything on a bum hand. Shoulda quit while he was ahead. Gagumber Gambling Problem? Call 1-800-Gagambler.

He and Memenpu then end up captured by, essentially, a band of punks, led by Yuri, who calls his crew the “Yuri team.” They’re gentlemen (and ladies) of fortune, stealing from the rich and giving to the poor like Robin Hoods in the colony of AreYaar, whose university president Trevi claims to be a colony of “equality” but is really anything but.

Because Yuri was hired by Zackletu to do a hacking job for something like a million gold, both Yuri and Zackletu want what’s owed them from Gagumber, who it’s established is broke after flying too close to the sun at the casino. So instead he and Memenpu will work off their debt doing domestic labor for the Yuri team, who lives in an undertown under the already underground colony.

Memenpu and Yuri soon form a bond as the former learns the latter is a pretty good hacker, while she may be one of the first to tell him she thinks his prosthetic hands are cool. She and Gagumber accompany the Yuri team on a number of Robin Hood heists. They’re riding high, but Yuri doesn’t want to just make money; he wants to make Trevi and all the haves of AreYarr actually hurt and hurt bad.

Not only is his right-hand man Fidelio not okay with this, who understands that becoming more extremist or violent will only have the authorities cracking down on them harder, but Gagumber sees quite a bit of his old self as having big, bold, and ultimately reckless dreams, having left his friend Rufus’ side when Rufus wasn’t prepared to go so far. It ended in tears.

Gagumber is older and wiser and doesn’t wish the same of Yuri (i.e. losing everything, like Gagumber did both years ago and again at the casino), so he and Fedelio literally hang on to Yuri’s bot as he makes an ill-advised attempt to take over AreYaar’s central tower, which is also the center of the colony’s power. Yuri wants to “change the world” like the Labyrinth-widely infamous Shibitu, but Shibitu are pretty much just terrorists.

Ultimately Gagumber, Memenpu and Fidelio succeed in keeping Yuri from doing something that could get him and all of them arrested and at worst killed. Instead, Yuri and Memenpu use their hacking skills to embarrass Trevi by broadcasting his dalliances with the casino bunny girls to the whole colony.

The episode ends by teasing a new dynamic: both Zackletu and Yuri sticking close to Gagumber and Memenpu on their travels, making it a full-on adventuring party. I can’t say yet whether Zakletu has either wife or big sister potential, but Yuri makes a good big bro for Memenpu, and it will be fun to see them interact more.

Rating: 4/5 Stars

SAKUGAN – 05 – UNBROKEN CHAIN

At first, it looks like Merooro is transporting Gagumber and Memenpu to some off-site labor facility as punishment for their crimes, but that site turns out to be a lush forest brimming with flora and fauna known by the Bureau of Regulation as Windy Hill, which sounds like a Sonic level. There’s only one problem: the forest is dying. The genius Memenpu soon diagnoses the problem: not enough wind in Windy Hill.

That wind is produced by a labyrinthine ancient industrial metropolis that looks like a cross between Midgar and the world of Girls Last Tour. It’s packed with technology contemporary humans can only dream of, but a piece of that technology is failing, resulting in Windy Hill being in jeopardy. Fortunately for Merooro, Memenpu is a certified genius with seven doctorates from Pinyin University.

Having memorized the map of the complex after a glance, Memenpu leads the way, possessed of an eternal wellspring of curiousity and awe of her surroundings. The place is hella cool, but her reputation for having an excellent sense of direction is threatened when the trio run into one dead end after another.

That’s when Memenpu consults Urorop’s map, which of course includes the complex, and determines that the dead ends are a result of all the various pieces of the complex constantly shifting and moving to alter the wind speed and flow. The bright lines on the map represent the flow of the “animus”, the inscrutible element that provides the complex its power.

The gaps in those lines are where the animus isn’t getting, due to leaks from the aging pipework. After some shogiand tea—both things Memenpu had never experienced, as they’re part of the world of yore but Merooro’s stock and trade—she leads the other two on a confident march through the complex, tracking down leaks and making repairs.

When those repairs cause a buildup of pressure, Memenpu knows just what sequence of things to do to release that pressure. But she wouldn’t have even made it this far if Gagumber hadn’t caught her when her jump across a ravine was short and she almost plummeted to her death. She also relies on Gagumber and Merooro’s elbow grease to turn a crucial valve that happens to be very rusty.

Merooro admires Memenpu’s insatiable curiosity and Gagumber’s determination to nurture it by accompanying her, but curiosity killed the cat, and Merooro worries that if Memenpu doesn’t choose a safer way of life, her curosity will claim her life far too soon. Almost on cue, a big pipe cracks above Memenpu as she descends a ladder, and she gets absolutely doused in deadly, acid-like animus.

Fortunately, both her hazmat suit and her stuffed goat hold up. I mean, it’s not like this show was going to kill Memenpu! Still, it was a close call, and not the first of this mission to restore Windy Hil. With Memenpu determined to find her dream place, it likely won’t be the last close call, or the closest. Gagumber’s role as her safety net will only grow more crucial as their journey continues.

Rating: 4/5 Stars

Kiyo in Kyoto: From the Maiko House – 01 (First Impressions) – Always Giving Their All

Nozuki Kiyo and her best friend Herai Sumire moved to the Kagai district of Kyoto from Aomuri at sixteen. Sumire came to become a maiko (an apprentice geiko, the Kyoto version of geisha), while Kiyo found her place in the kitchen of the house where all the maiko live like a family. We meet Kiyo as she’s carrying a sherpa’s load of groceries for the next round of meals.

We meet Sumire when she sticks her head into the kitchen to say hi in between her extremely rigorous study and practice. After meeting with her sensei, she learns she’s been given permission to debut, making it official: she’s going to be a maiko. Kiyo hugs her and congratulates her from the bottom of her heart, and Sumire has to excuse herself to wash away her tears of joy. It’s a lovely moment between good friends on very different paths, who happen to be able to still live together.

While serving the sensei and Maiko House’s mother, Kiyo learns that Sumire is extremely special, and may have what it takes to become a “once-in-a-century maiko.” The sensei compares Kiyo’s cooking and baking skills unfavorably to her “truly impressive” friend, but Kiyo isn’t insulted or hurt…she’s in full agreement that Sumire is indeed amazing.

In fact, it’s precisely because Sumire is so amazing and always gives her all, Kiyo is able to work hard to provide the Maiko house with nourishing, savory, energy packed meals to sustain their packed schedules. Kiyo even goes a little overboard for lunch one day, serving over a half-dozen dishes that could each be supper by themselves.

While many of the maiko tap out before they can finish their portions, Sumire eats everything put in front of her, which is what Kiyo wants to see. If Sumire is going to give her all in becoming a maiko, Kiyo is going to give her all keeping her fed.

Then we meet a recently retired otokoshi, one of only a handful of men in the Kagai district who assist maiko and geiko with putting on their kimono, as well as doing heavy lifting and other manual labor the women either can’t or shouldn’t do (hernias are a bitch). In Kiyo’s case, she needs him to move the fridge so she can pull out the cookbooks that fell behind it.

Kiyo thanks the otokoshi by serving him coffee and a fresh-baked scone…a pretty good deal! Then Kiyo moves on to a matter of increasing concern for both her and the house mother: Sumire is working so hard, she’s skipping meals with regularity, and starting to lose weight.

Rather than, say, lasso Sumire and force-feed her, Kiyo plans to prepare some smaller dishes packed with energy so Sumire can quickly get the nutrients she needs to keep going. Her secret weapon is a local dish from their home prefecture of Aomuri: fried squid mince. A familiar taste of home is just what her hungry friend needs.

Kiyo in Kyoto: From the Maiko House is very straightforward, but with the subject matter it’s presenting it doesn’t have to be anything more than that. It’s also lovely to look at and full of lush blend of traditional and modern music. Hanazawa Kana and MAO are captivating as the voices of Kiyo and Sumire, and their little “Dish of the Day” omake bits provide fun punctuation between the three segments. It’s pure comfort food and a warm, soft blanket rolled into one, and I loved it!

Golden Kamuy – 31 – Borscht and Babes

Thus far, the two separate parties have enjoyed fairly easy going across the subarctic lands of Karafuto, but Sugimoto’s team finally runs out of good luck when their dogsled convey hits a nasty blizzard. The two sleds are separated, and Sugimoto, Tanigaki, and Cikapasi must dig a hole in the frozen ground and destroy their sled to build a fire, which Tanigaki quickly buries so it will burn slower.

They pile the dogs on top and wait for one of two things: the blizzard to let up, or death. Tanigaki warns Sugimoto not to fall asleep or he’ll die, but he still has a semi-waking dream about his time in the trenches with Toraji, followed by a vision of Asirpa which underscores his longing to return “home”—i.e. to her side.

The second group, composed of Tsukishima, Koito, Enonoka and Henke, manage to find shelter in the form of an old pre-war lighthouse occupied by a kindly Russian couple. They put the soldiers to work cleaning the soot off the old lens so they can activate the light, which Sugimoto and Tanigaki eventually see and realize to be their salvation.

Up here in the colder wastes when the weather turns, there are no flags or allegiances beyond to your fellow man, and the hospitable Russian husband and wife are truly a welcome salve in a show packed with double-crossers and chiselers. The Japanese and Ainu kids get to taste borscht for the first time, and find it very vkusno (yummy).

They learn the couple aren’t empty-nesters by choice; one day a Russian defector came upon their home and took away their only daughter, Svetlana. As soon as we saw her photo I suspected we’ll meet her at some point in the future. As thanks for their kindness, Sugimoto tells the couple he’ll ask around for Svetlana’s whereabouts. In exchange, should Asirpa visit the lighthouse, he gives them a photo of himself along with the message that he’s still alive.

From there, Sugimoto’s group camps at an Ainu village near Niitoi, still well south of the border Asirpa & Co. have already crossed. There, Enonoka regales a weary Cikapasi of the local legend of the meko oyasi, or thieving mountain cat. Koito likens the cat to Ogata, since “mountain cat” was not only army slang for “geisha”, of which Ogata is a son, but because a mountain cat is synonymous with deception.

We learn that Asirpa heard the same story of the meko oyasi from her dad that Enonoka tells Cikapasi, and she even shared Cikapasi’s replies. Kiroranke tells her he and Wilk once made bank selling a cat’s pelt, though the meat wasn’t anything to write home about. Asirpa wants to know more, so Kiroranke is taking them to a woman who knew Wilk well: their boss Sofia, currently imprisoned in the prison in Aleksandrovsk-Sakhalinsky, AKA Ako.

Like the meko oyasi, Sofia was an accomplished thief who stole to fund their anti-imperialist operations, earning her the nickname “Golden Hand”. We cut to her being whipped by a prison guard but laughing off the lashes; time and prison have clearly hardened her considerably. And while she’s no longer a young beauty, she just so happens to share a cell with none other than Svetlana, whom we see when Sofia receives a letter in invisible ink from her old subordinate Yulbars, AKA Kiroranke.

For all the raging testosterone of Sugimoto and the other soldiers, this season continues to cultivate a strong theme of feminism. Wilk and Kiroranke were led by a woman, and Wilk in turn raised his daughter to lead the Ainu into a new era. The introduction of Ako Prison, Sofia, and Svetlana presents the possibility that after Sugimoto and Asirpa split apart at one prison, they’re poised to reunite at another.

Rating: 4/5 Stars

Golden Kamuy – 30 – The Flag-Bearer

The dead Russian doesn’t just have a wanted poster with a sketch of Kuroranke, but Wilk as well, as we learn the two worked together to kill the emperor. Ogata’s game of cat-and-mout with Vasily concludes when he makes the Russian shoot first—at the wrong thing.

Vasily saw signs of covered footprints leaving the unmoving cloaked figure, which led to an Uilta coffin in a tree. But it turns out the coffin was the decoy, and when Vasily shoots it, thats when Ogata, the cloaked figure after all, shoots Vasily through the face.

Ogata masked his breath by eating snow, but hours of that and sitting in the bitter cold take their toll, and he end up with a horrible fever. He starts to have delirious dreams of the past when he was still trying to recruit his ultra-pure of blood and heart half brother Yuusaku, the flag-bearer for their unit.

There’s a superstition in the army about the flag-bearer being a virgin as a form of protection from the bullets. Ogata never cared for that, but he can’t really complain when Asirpa and Shiraishi participate in an Uilta healing ceremony designed to draw out the “wicked thing” causing his fever—in his case, lingering memories of his failed attempts to corrupt Yuusaku.

During the ritual, Shiraishi meets with Asirpa outside, telling her it’s not safe for her in Russia, particularly when their guide killed the emperor. Kiroranke leaves the tent too and comes as clean as you’d expect, telling them his old name was Yulbars, and he and Wilk killed the emperor who forged a treaty that threatened all far-east minority peoples. Asirpa decides not to run away, hoping to find the gold “when the killing is done”.

Ogata’s dreams resolve in a revisiting of the episode 19, when we first learned of Ogata’s unfortunate family situation. When Ogata notes Yuusuke hasn’t killed a single Russian during his tour, he offers up a prisoner for him to execute, but Yuusuke refuses. The next time he marches into battle bearing the flag, Ogata shoots him in the head, ending the failed mission to bring him into the fold with Tsurumi and negating the superstition of the flag-bearer’s invincibility in the same shot.

Because ultimately, Ogata is right: surviving bullets on the battlefield has nothing to do with chastity, nobility of one’s blood or the purity of one’s heart or soul. Yuusuke may have been the most moral man on the battlefield, but that made him an easy target for any bullet, not just Ogata’s. When his blood spilled, it was just blood, like anyone else’s.

After an Uilta fortune-telling ritual involving reading the cracks in burnt reindeer shoulder blade (that apparently goes well), Asirpa joins Kiroranke and a recovered Ogata further north, but Shiraishi is poised to stay behind. They say their goodbyes, but when Shiraishi remembers Sugimoto urging him to keep Asirpa safe, he runs after them.

When we first saw the bone cracks indicating “someone approaching from behind”, I took it to mean Sugimoto’s group was closing on them and they’d eventually meet up. But here it’s revealed Shiraishi, was the person from behind foretold by the bone. Then, after they leave, more cracks appear on that same bone, turning the good sign into a bad one.

Rating: 4/5 Stars

Golden Kamuy – 29 – The Way of the Sniper

Sugimoto & Co. put on that big show for nothing; Asirpa & CO. were, as was hinted by the closing poop scene, already far to the north. We don’t check in on Sugimoto this week, and the possibility of the two groups reuniting anytime soon remains remote.

On one level, that’s a shame, because the relationship of Asirpa and Sugimoto forms the emotional heart of Golden Kamuy. Put simply, I care about the two of them more than anyone else, and the prospect of them being apart all season is…frustrating.

So far, Golden Kamuy has ably tempered that lingering frustration to a tolerable trickle, because on another level, the two groups together would simply be too many characters in one place. Separate, the two groups and their unique dynamics have room to breathe.

Also, while the main duo are a critical piece of the whole, they are not the only piece of interest by a long shot. The two split groups also mean double the cultural education and immersion, as demonstrated when Asirpa & Co. enter the lands of the Uilta, whose traditions include suspending the coffins of their dead in the air with planks rather than bury them.

In this part of the island reindeer are the main game, and Ogata immediately commits a cultural faux pas by shooting one. It was a kept Reindeer that, along with the rest of its herd, comprises the sum total of a Uilta family’s material wealth. Their first contact with the Uilta consists of an apology followed by a cooperative reindeer hunt to make up for the lost property.

Kiroranke was hoping for just such an encounter, because Asirpa’s father Wilk made the same mistake as Ogata back in the day. Watching the Uilta’s way of hunting wild reindeer—using their own reindeer as a decoy to mask their approach—awakens more childhood memories for Asirpa and her aca.

Ogata impresses the Uilta elder with his prowess with a three-shot rifle, killing the entire herd of wild reindeer without letting any escape. The Uilta only have a single-shot bolt-action rifle, but as they put it following Ogata’s success, if he lived there then there soon wouldn’t be any reindeer left to hunt!

That night Asirpa gets to satisfy her brain-tooth (and give us a Hinna Face) with the reindeer brains—which taste just like those of the southern deer she’s accustomed to. They also partake of freshly-baked bread and the equivalent of reindeer butter—no part of the animal is wasted, of course.

The nomadic Uilta may be nominally Ainu, but in their game, hunting methods, dwellings, and cuisine, they’re very distinct from their southern cousins, accentuating the cultural diversity that still endured during that time in one of the more remote parts of the world.

The group lucked out by making contact with the Uilta and helping them take down a herd. Hiring the dogsleds to take them north left them broke, but the Uilta don’t care about money, only reindeer. Kiroranke also knows that nomadic tribes are tacitally allowed to cross the Japanese-Russian border, so they disguise themselves as Uilta to cross the border by reindeer sled.

Things go pear-shaped due to an unforeseen development. Turns out Lt. Tsurumi’s maccinations can reach northern Sakhalin from Otaru, and he has no intention of letting Kiroranke move freely. Tsurumi learned that a young Kiroranke was one of the revolutionaries responsible for the assassination of Russian Emperor Alexander II in St. Petersberg back in 1881.

The Russians very much want to catch everyone involved in the regicide, so Tsurumi tips them off that one of them will be crossing the border in Sakhalin. Sure enough, border troops are  hiding in the woods, and a sniper shoots the Uilta elder in the head. Ogata realizes he wasn’t the one shot because he’d switched rifles with the elder, lending his new three-shot model to him.

This also tells Ogata that the sniper who fired isn’t just a good shot, but a suspicious one. Asirpa and the others hide behind sleds and reindeer, but they’re well and truly pinned down. Even so, Kiroranke exposes himself to fire in order to grab the wounded but still breathing elder, and the Russian sniper, Vasily, lets him, later citing “respect for someone risking their life for a comrade”.

That moment of Vasily’s hesitation gives Ogata the opening to shoot Vasily’s comrade, Ilya. He doesn’t shoot him fatally in the head, but in the stomach, which ensures the Russians will be slowed down in caring for him enough for them to give them the slip into the woods. Ogata also seems invigorated and even a little giddy at the prospect of a serious playmate with which to fight a two-man “Part Two of the Russo-Japanese War.”

What follows is an intricate and fascinating chess match between Ogata and Vasily. While the cultures of Russians and Japanese are wildly different, the mind and disposition of a sniper is pretty much the same no matter where you’re from: whoever has the colder ice water in their veins will prevail. Ogata knows the ideal sniper will only be interested in “murder and pursuing their prey”, and so Vasily would soon split off from his unit and wounded comrade for that second thing.

It dawns on Vasily it wasn’t respect that kept him from shooting Kiroranke, but the lack of agency: a sniper kills at a time of their choosing, not when the target says so. Similarly, when Vasily’s men fall for a simple gunpowder trap set by Kiroranke, they start screaming in pain, but Ogata isn’t surprised his opponent doesn’t react—a good sniper can listen to his comrade’s screams all night and not be fazed.

When Kiroranke, Asirpa and Shiraishi double back to the wounded Russian Ilya, he presents the wanted poster featuring a sketch of a young Kiroranke, shocking Asirpa and Shiraishi. But Ogata and Vasily are in their own little Sniper World, waiting for one another to make the first move. Vasily thinks he has the cloaked foe in his sights, but it looks for all the world like a decoy.

The episode ends leaving us in that suspenseful moment before Ogata presumably emerges from an angle Vasily didn’t expect and does him in, clearing their path to the prison where Kiroranke’s comrades are imprisoned. But how will Ogata, Asirpa and Shiraishi react to that wanted poster? And will this incident at the border slow their group down enough for Sugimoto & Co. to gain a little ground?

Golden Kamuy – 28 – Big Top, Big Turd

There’s no shortage of deep, dark, horrible stuff in Golden Kamuy (see: last week), but what keeps the audience from descending into despair is its well-integrated, irreverent, and sometimes gross comedy. Yet the comedy almost always serves and propels the more serious and dramatic central story, rather than simply serving as isolated points of relief.

Take Kiroranke introducing Asirpa to a opokay, a fanged deer that was her father’s first kill. He has her smell the musk glad, giving us another wonderful Asirpa Face (Ogata’s face, funnily enough, barely changes upon smelling it). Kiroranke tells the tale of how he and Wilk not just hunted this deer, but were called musk deer due to their wandering.

Our sense of smell is most closely tied to memory, so Asirpa remembers the beaded hohchiri her dad gave her to wear until her first kill (which is typically only for boys). This is how Kiroranke hopes to uncover the mysteries Wilk left in his daughter’s head: by continuing to familiarize her with the man her dad was, and that above all she can trust him, her father’s friend.

Comedy returns to the fore in a big way this week as Team Sugimoto ends up in Toyohara, the cultural capital of Karafuto, and fall victim to a circus acrobat who snatches bags in his spare time. Despite the kid’s speed and agility, Koito is up to the task of chasing him down with the Japanese equivalent of parkour.

When the circus’ ringleader Yamada hears the boy was thieving again, he whips out his sword and appears to cut his face, only for there to be no cut, only blood. Turns out the sword is part of Yamada’s show-stopping fake harakiri act, which was so good in Russia that he was declared dead in the newspapers.

This gives Sugimoto a fresh idea for reuniting with Asirpa: by performing his “Immortal Sugimoto” act in the circus, he’ll be putting himself out there in front of a huge crowd as well as the local media, meaning there’s no way Asirpa will miss him.

The other three soldiers also join the circus temporarily, as they are all united in the goal of finding Asirpa. Koito is an instant hit with Yamada and the girls for his considerable and effortless acrobatic feats. When asked what circus he came up in, he proudly proclaims “The 7th Division of the Imperial Army!”

Tsukishima and Tanigaki, who lack any acrobatic talent, are shunted off to join the dancing girls who perform between acts. Tanigaki reveals how sensitive he is to harsh criticism by the stern battleaxe of a choreographer, but is comforted by one of the older girls, Beniko, who cheers him on as she contemplates her final performance before the circus cuts her loose.

Then Sugimoto is taught the harakiri act by Yamada, who not only reveals what a good showman he is, but how damn big his nipples are! In truth, the sword has a grove containing red dye, and the water splashed on the body to “purify” it is really the liquid the dye turns red upon contact, leading the audience from afar to believe real cuts were made.

The day of the big show arrives, and the soldiers must before to a packed house, only with their natural or acquired artistic skills, not their fists. Koito performs almost perfectly until he finds a photo of his beloved Tsurumi on the tightrope.

Later, Tsukishima confesses he put it there worried Koito’s performance would overshadow Sugimoto’s, and thus their objective to find Asirpa. But Koito’s resulting improvisation ends up bringing the house down anyway. As for Tanigaki, he turns in a performance he can be proud of, and is finally acknowledged by the tough choreographer.

All that remains is the big closer: the Immortal Sugimoto Harakiri Show. His assistant Cikapasi (whom we learned received a hohchiri from Enonoka that he won’t be removing anytime soon) douses him with water in the right places, but Sugimoto soon learns that the sword he has is real—Koito switched out the fake as revenge for trying to sabotage him (before Tsukishima claimed responsibility).

Sugimoto shows he has a bit of a gift for showmanship by drawing the sword close and pulling it back with a chuckle, allowing the audience to let out the collective breath they were holding in. But this only works a couple times; they want to see blood. So after cutting his wrist, he cuts his leg, and prepares to cut his chest in a place where it will bleed a lot but not damage anything vital.

Right then, he’s bailed out from having to cut himself when one of a trio of suspicious Russians pulls a gun on him. He slices the assassin’s hand off then slashes him across the mid-section. He then takes out the other two, all to the rapturous delight of the crowd, who of course think this is all fake.

It’s delcious irony that just as Tsukishima’s attempt to sabotage Koito’s act made his act much better, the same happens when Koito tries to sabotage Sugimoto’s. More than that, if Sugimoto hadn’t had a real sword, he could have been in real trouble against those three Russians.

After the show, which was an undisputed hit, ringleader Yamada reveals that the Russians were likely hired to assassinate him, as he was an Imperial Army spy embedded in Russia before the war and provided intelligence to Japan.

Yamada’s intelligence bonafides also make him an ideal source of intel for their search for Kiroranke and Asirpa, as the newspaper only had two sentences mentioning Sugimoto. Yamada tells them about Alexandrovskaya Prison, where a large group of “eastern minorities” were recently transferred there for plotting a resistance.

As the four soldiers prepare to head further north to the prison, Sugimoto holds out hope Asirpa’s beautiful blue eyes will read those two sentences about him in the Toyohara paper, and learn that he is still indeed alive. Instead, in another irreverent comedy aside, we see that Asirpa is actually, in that moment, looking at poop she mistakes for that of big game, when it is actually the recent leavings of one Shiraishi Yoshitake.

Maybe it’s just as well she’s staring at a turd…what if the paper had erroneously reported Sugimoto’s death? In any case, the ED sequence in which both Sugimoto and Asirpa see the same snowflake glide by gives me hope that one of these days he’s going to finally catch up to her, and with some amazing new stories to tell.

Rating: 4/5 Stars

Warlords of Sigrdrifa – 04 – Seeing the Sea…and a Whole Lot More

The Pillars seem to have a new trick up their sleeve: attacking in a group of four, each time one of them is splashed by the Valkyries, it is almost immediately revived by the other three. All the while, a terrible high-pitched whine is emitted from the Pillars, distracting Azu enough to get hit and have to make an emergency landing, where the Pillars’ signal eventually knocks her out.

But thanks to some rest, a tasty meal provided by the grateful civilians of Tateyama, and some video footage from three kids, Azu is able to determine that the high-pitched signal is what the Pillars use to communicate their need to regenerate when destroyed. If the Pillars can make that signal, then they can disrupt it.

The problem is, they won’t have the element of surprise if they just fly in, because the Pillars are strategically positioned so that one is far from the others, as well as widening their effective search range. The three-man support wing devises a solution for the Valkyries: taking a detour to base by sea. And because they’ll be at sea, everyone will have to dress accordingly. That’s right, folks: it’s a swimsuit episode.

Last week Sigrdrifa successfully engendered genuine and profound drama pathos when Miko and Claudy performed their Valkyrial duty to help a soldier pass on. This week it switches gears entirely, declining to build on that drama and instead dispensing with both peril and seriousness in favor of a gonzo fanservice bonanza.

Mind you: this isn’t only about putting our main quartet of ace pilots in skimpy swimsuits—there’s ample beefcake (and buttcheek-slapping) to go along with the bikinis (or in Sono’s case, a standard-issue school one-piece). The Valks’ support crew consider it an honor to guid their idols through an Abyss-like vertical labyrinth, even locking their bodies together to form a bridge.

By the time the four emerge from a swimming pool and Claudy sneezes, the Pillars are on their tail, but fortunately they’re able to run to their Hero Wings and take to the skies, thanks in part to well-timed backup by a fifth Valkyrie, whom we’re sure to be introduced to next week. Was this a shameless expedition in conspicuous exhibition? Hell yeah it was. Was it also a ton of fun as long as you kept your brain switched off? Also yes.

Golden Kamuy – 27 – The Woman With the Seaweed Hair

Asirpa arrives at the site of the village of her father’s birth to a Karafuto Ainu mother and Polish father. However, it was abandoned decades before the present fox-breeding farm was established. According to Kiroranke, Asirpa’s parents, grandparents, and all the Ainu of Karafuto were “crushed between two nations”—Japan and Russia. The same fate will befall the Hokkaido Ainu.

Wilk believed Asirpa to be the last best hope for her people’s future, but Kiroranke and Ogata only seem to care about in Asirpa for the knowledge locked in her brain that will unlock the secrets of the tattoos. Kiroranke is hoping to gain enough trust that, combined with the “further maturing” of Asirpa, will compel her to give up the information willingly.

Unfortunately, that’s all we get of Asirpa’s crew this week, which was initially a bummer, especially when followed up by some slapstick antics involving Lt. Tsurumi, a bedridden Nikaidou, and a new wooden hand that shoots out chopsticks. We already know Tsurumi is a strange cat; this wasn’t necessary.

Things, however, look up when we return to Sugimoto’s gang. The officer who is actually in charge is Tsukishima Hajime. He lets Gansoku Maiharu free to escape to Japan, with the warning that he’ll kill him if he ever sees him again. He also warns Sugimoto that he’ll kill him if he goes berserk again. He needs soldiers who can control themselves.

From there, we pause from where Tsukishima is going to where he’s been, namely death row. We learn how there was a woman with hair like the seaweed called igogusa with whom he fell in love and promised to elope with her upon returning from military service.

Back in his home village, Tsukishima was ostracized as the son of a murderer, and a thug in his own right. But in Igogusa he found love and solace, as she alone called him Hajime. But he never saw her again. Upon returning home, everyone assumed he was dead, and Igogusa disappeared ten days before he returned, and her sandals washed up on the shore.

Assuming his fiancée killed herself upon learning he died, Tsukishima determined that his rotten father created the lie that killed her. He beat his father to avenge her, but went too far and killed him, thus earning him a spot on death row. But Tsurumi, his commanding officer from his tour of duty, took it upon himself to investigate Igogusa’s disappearance.

He learned that a bigwig from Mitsubishi took a liking to Igogusa, who ended up marrying his son and moving back to Tokyo with them. Her suicide was faked so when the “thug” Tsukishima returned, he wouldn’t pursue her. Igogusa in tern assumed her Hajime had died in the war, and asked Tsurumi to bury a lock of the hair he loved at his grave.

Instead, Tsurumi used the lock of hair to motivate Tsukishima into learning Russian like his life depended on it—because it did. Tsurumi manages to get Tsukishima’s sentence commuted and recruits him into the 7th. Then, nine years later in a medical tent, a soldier from Tsukishima’s village tells him Igogusa did die, and her bones were found under his father’s house.

Right in the heat of the Battle of Mukden, an enraged Tsukishima confronts Tsurumi, who explains that he told him whatever he needed to hear to restore his will to live. The two are caught in a mortar attack, and Tsukishima pushes Tsurumi aside. Tsurumi’s scalp is burned off, but he and Tsukishima survive thanks in part to Sugimoto, who offers the second of two remaining sleds because his comrade is too far gone.

As Tsukishima and Tsurumi recovered together, Tsurumi further explained that he spread the story of Igogusa’s suicide to his village—which the inhabitants still believe—in order to get him out of jail without a trial. So he told him Igogusa was alive to motivate him, but told the village Igogusa was dead to get him out of prison. The gods’ honest truth is that Igogusa was still alive, married to the Mitsubishi son and living in Tokyo.

But as it had been well over a decade since they parted, Tsukishima decided to let Igogusa go forever, tossing her lock of hair into the inky, frigid waters of Otaru. In this way, Tsukishima and Igogusa were crushed between the same two nations as Asirpa’s father’s people. But he still chose to commit the remainder of his life to Tsurumi’s service—a loyalty that endures to the present day.

Now we finally have Tsukishima’s backstory, and see how his fate got interwoven in those of both Tsurumi and Sugimoto long before present events. It’s also another illustration of how deftly Golden Kamuy can spill one hell of an engrossing yarn, no matter on which character it chooses to focus.

 

 

Warlords of Sigrdrifa – 03 – The Secret to Strength

Move over Claudia—Miyako has quickly risen to my favorite of the four Tateyama Valkyries, and it really isn’t much of a contest. Early in the morning, after a vision-like meeting with Odin during which he warns Claudia not to get her new friends killed (what a dick), Claudia meets up with Miko, as they’re the only two who use the dojo.

Claudia used it because her father lived in Japan and imparted a lot of its culture into her upbringing, while Miyako grew up in a dojo. It was a stern and structured childhood, and her mom told her “she’s cute, but dumb, so learn housework”. Miyako took that to heart, and can now cook breakfast for the entire base.

But it’s more than cooking for Miyako, as we’ve seen in past episodes and reinforced this week. She’s basically both wife and mother to Azuzu, who doesn’t function well outside the cockpit (or in the morning). Of course, Miko doesn’t mind taking care of her, while Azu tries not to take it for granted.

After breakfast, the sleepy commander (a lot of people are yawning around the base) issues Claudia, Miko and Sono a special mission: a “Disaster Recovery Assessment” of Umihotaru, the shopping and entertainment isle they successfully defended last week. Miko is initially hesitant to agree to go, but when Azu (staying behind for maintenance meetings) reassures her, she’s in.

The “assessment” that follows is totally unlike the official military operation Claudia expected. Instead, the three girls (with three very happy and lucky escorts from among the guys) have was amounts to a day full of fun and diversion. They hit up the arcades. No one lets them pay for anything, because the Valkyries are their idols and saviors.

When Claudia finally asks when the actual assessment will happen, Miko tells her, simply, they’re doing it. It’s enough for them to avail themselves of Umihotaru’s facilities and witness all of the people happy and smiling. Miko runs out into the middle of a crowd to yell out “How’s everyone doing?” and sure enough, everyone’s super.

On the way home, the girls stop for ice cream, but Miko gets a call from Azu and immediately returns to base on the back of a motorcycle. When Claudia and Sono catch up, Claudia learns why Miko had to go so suddenly, why she was weary of going on the trip at all, and why everyone is so sleepy. Turns out a member of the recon team is in critical condition and near death.

Miyako takes her additional Valkyrie role of sending off soldiers as seriously as Azu scornfully shirks that duty entirely. It’s clear this is not the first soldier she’s been with when they die, nor will it be the last, but no one will ever tell her it’s stupid or a superstition.

If, as Azu says, only “idiots” do it, then Claudia would rather be an idiot too, joining Miko for the solemn task, and aiding the soldier’s passing by singing a soulful song. It’s a beautiful, heartbreaking, poignant scene I didn’t think this show had in it, but I was mistaken.

A few hours later, Miyako is back in the dojo training vigorously, tears mixing with her sweat as she goes through her practiced combat motions. Claudia, who arrives in time to train with Miko, doesn’t feel worthy. After watching the soldier pass away and thinking of Odin’s words and all the others who died while she piloted her plane, Claudia is feeling weak and ashamed what she feels to be an unearned reputation for strength.

When Miko finds her outside, Clau asks her, “How are you so strong?” To her surprise, Miko answers that she doesn’t think she’s strong at all. Claudia isn’t alone in never thinking she’s doing enough, that everything she doesn’t do will hurt others. But Miko adds, if Clau insists she’s strong, she’ll let her in on the secret to that strength: Don’t be a picky eater! So Claudia tries the sashimi for breakfast, and finds it delicious.

That Miyako is always trying to keep everyone smiling and positive, whether they’re going through the daily grind, in the heat of battle, or on death’s door. Her generosity and emotional intelligence is unmatched among the characters of Sigrdrifa, which when paired with Odin’s warning of something big on the horizon gives me terrible pause. Could this episode have been one big Miyako Death Flag? I sure hope not.

Rating: 4/5 Stars

Golden Kamuy – 26 – Some Like it Hot ‘n’ Punchy

After winning his first stenka, Sugimoto approaches Gansoku Maiharu, the tattooed ex-prisoner, and they heartily shake hands in expectation of facing off in a future stenka. Gansoku, an otherwise civilized and affable man, was simply born to punch people in the fucking face. He’s lived a life of violence and likens his passion to that of a painter or dancer.

This philosophy is why Sugimoto doesn’t accept the Russian tavern owner’s demand that the Japanese fighters throw the next match so he’ll make more money. Intentionally losing won’t let them get anything out of Gansoku, whether it’s the gold or the info on Asirpa, but the four of them fighting him honestly could, so Sugimoto accepts another stenka.

While Sugimoto, Tanigaki, Tsukishima and Koito again dominate, defeating three of their four opponents, Gansoku is in a whole other league, and takes even Sugimoto’s best punches like a champ. This is a guy, after all, who even beat Ushiyama back at the prison in punches-only contests.

This stenka surpasses the ultra-fun madness of the first one thanks to Gansoku’s participation. It’s particularly hilarious that he acts like a character in a shoujo manga, complete with sparkly eyes and playfully beating his fists on Sugimoto’s back when he turns away from him. He’s having an absolute blast.

Then Sugimoto throws a kick, and proceeds to beat on everyone, even his own comrades, and the brawling pours into the crowd. An old Russian guy declares “This is real stenka!” until Sugimoto takes things too far and whips out a hammer and sickle, then declares “This is not stenka!!” Make up your mind, Pops!

Despite Koito’s hopes, this is not all part of Sugimoto’s “plan” to get everything they want; he’s simply taken too many blows to the head and has gone into Immortal Sugimoto Preservation Mode (ISPM). When in his frenzy he mentions gold, Gansoku realizes they’re after his tats and flees with all the adolescent emotion of a scorned high schooler.

Tanigaki, Tsukishima and Koito pursue Gonsaku, who ends up tangling with a damn wolverine. The four of them seek safety in a shed, but it’s actually a banya, or Russian sauna, which is so hot everyone has to strip down. Gonsaku, no stranger to banyas, starts whipping them with a venik or white birch branch, which increases circulation and makes the air even hotter.

This is one of the rare times I knew exactly where Golden Kamuy was going with its cultural snapshot. Prior to Covid, me and my friends would semi-regularly go to a local Russian spa to sit in 160°-190° F hot saunas, jump into 40° F water to cool down, repeat that process, then eat kickass Russian food, drink Russian beer, and watch goofy Russian music videos. A Russian spa basically the best place in the world, but Gonsaku intends to sweat the others out so they’ll get eaten by the wolverine.


Meanwhile, Cikapasi and Enonoka are able to free the captured lead sled dog and lure the wolverine away while escaping via sled. When Cikapasi falls off the wolverine pounces, but both Ryu and a still-crazed Sugimoto save him, while a still-naked Tanigaki helps him line up a shot to kill the wolverine.

That leaves Sugimoto and a steaming nude Gansoku to slug it out while the others watch. Gansoku can tell via Sugimoto’s fists that he’s carrying a great deal of anger and rage, but not directed towards him, but within. When Sugimoto says he’s “useless”, as images of his beloved Asirpa flash through his addled head, Gansoku tells him to forgive himself. He’s clearly working as hard as he humanly can.

Sugimoto then delivers an almost knockout blow that pauses their duel long enough for the other (still naked) men to intervene, but then they discover they’re all walking on ice, which cracks and gives way, sending them plunging into the cold. Turns out this is just what was needed to snap Sugimoto out of his ISPM, and he’s back to normal, but now at great risk of hypothermia, along with the others.

There’s only one thing for it: everyone piles back into the banya, which after being in frigid water, must feel absolutely magical. This absurdly masculine scene of naked sweaty swole men is where Sugimoto reveals they were never trying to kill Gansoku, merely copy his tattoos. But others will try, and they’ll bring guns (or katanas) to his fistfight, so they strongly recommend he leave Karafuto and head west to Russia. Since it’s the birthplace of stenka, he can still live a happy life there.

Gonsaku rewards Sugimoto’s peaceful offer by bringing up a name Sugimoto mentioned while in his violent trance: Asirpa, whom Gonsaku saw back at the tavern with Shiraishi. Specifically, he overheard Shiraishi saying that Sugimoto may not have gotten out of the prison dust-up alive, and Asirpa confidently declaring that he’s goddamn Immortal Sugimoto. She believes he is alive, and he is. It’s now just a  matter of reuniting.

With that, we’re treated not only to a heroic shot of Asirpa descending upon a massive sea lion (headshotted by Ogata but not killed due to its thick skull), but our first official Asirpa Face of the season, as she scarfs down the extremely fatty, stinky, tasty meat.

It’s one of so many images in this episode that brought me laughter and joy. When it’s letting its hair down and/or stripping off its clothes, there is no anime out there having more ludicrously infectious fun than Golden Kamuy. I just hope the good times can keep rolling.

P.S. There’s a new OP and ED for the season, and they are both kick-ass and beautiful, as expected.

Warlords of Sigrdrifa – 02 – Operation Sneaky Eel

After a doozy of a welcoming party for Claudia, most of the base sleeps in with raging hangovers, which doesn’t seem ideal for battle readiness? The culture of Takeyama Base is a far cry from the iron samurai and the elegant ladies who supported them described by her dad upon visiting Japan. Still, now that she’s not considered a Grim Reaper here, Clau is ready to learn and eager to fit into this base full of eccentric misfits who are really not that bad once you get to know them.

Between Sono’s gardening and Miko’s cooking and cheerleading, Takeyama is more than just a place of war, but of life—thriving in spite of the threat of the Pillars. Clau’s open-mindedness even inspires her to come up with a choreographic introduction, but she’s interrupted by the Gjallarhorn, or Pillar alert. The recon squadron heads out first, but not before Miko sees them off with her blessing, a promise to come home safe, and rewards like breakfast when they do.

As with last week, this is a Pillar that is more powerful than an over-water Pillar should be, suggesting the enemy continues to evolve as they defeat it. We also get the first look of the effect Pillars have on civilians, as an entire island of them are rendered unconscious. The Valkyries only have 3600 seconds (an hour) to eliminate the threat, or all those people are dead. Just one problem: the Pillar has surrounded itself with an impenetrable water barrier.

Thankfully, that barrier doesn’t extend below the water surface, which means the girls have a route into the barrier: through the underwater tunnel to the island. The sight of four planes screaming through a tunnel meant for cars is a pretty awesome and harrowing sight, especially when they start getting fired upon from both ends of the tunnel. And even once they’re inside, the Pillar puts up a water wall that blocks their attacks.

Luckily the water wall is open at the top, but the Pillar protects itself with a cushion of heat so intense it melts all ordinance. That’s where Sono with her payload of coolant bombs does the trick, freezing the Pillar so it can be shattered and Claud can destroy the core so a giant tree can be born—while also reciting the intro she prepared. Rescue teams were dispatched so there are no casualties…but how long can that good fortune last?

Once back at base, Clau and Miko bump fists over a job well done while Azu and Sono look on. The quartet demonstrated much more cohesive teamwork, a product not just having been in the air together before, but of Clau knowing her comrades better and trusting them, and they trusting her with taking the lead.

There’s something inherently charming about the inoffensively fine Sigrdrifa’s quirky battle system, even if the enemy itself is a dull-as-sand force of nature the rules for which are always changing. The main draw here is the team of bright and endearing Valkyries, and while the peril has been underplayed so far, Odin’s close observation of his “daughter” Claudia and ominous warnings suggests it won’t all be smooth flying from here on in.

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