Zombieland Saga: Revenge – 11 – Mall Zombies

Sakura wakes up in the morning to find she’s not feeling quite right, but it’s not due to her deteriorating zombie body, it’s because the mansion is literally adrift at sea. Yuugiri, master of understatement, declares things seem to have “taken a turn for the troublesome”.

Ookoba, who was about to publish an exposé that could have potentially shut Franchouchou down, is among those Saga residents wandering the muddy flooded streets in a daze. The goofiness of the floating mansion aside, this week takes a frank look at an all-too-realistic disaster befalling a part of Japan.

But when disaster hits, people tend to come together. After the mansion beaches itself and collapses (as flashes of their fun life there flash heartbreakingly by), Ai’s factory co-worker Machiko invites the girls to the Kaiton Mall, which has been set up as an emergency shelter. She finds a quiet spot for the girls to stay at the top of the stairs.

But the girls have no intention of sitting around idly. Even without Kotarou’s masterful human makeup at their disposal, they don’t shirk from pitching in wherever they’re needed, from helping out with cooking and distributing meals, to assisting with the sandbagging, to keeping the kids’ minds off their situation by having fun with them.

When night falls, many of the kids are scared and want to go home, but their tears dry up fast when Lily starts up her infectious scat-singing and dancing routine. The way Lily likes up the kids’ faces, even Saki can’t help but be wowed by Shrimpy’s idoly power.

The next day Ookoba finds himself at the mall, where NBK is interviewing the families who lost their homes and likely everything in them. To a person everyone keeps their chin up and stays upbeat and positive, both for their own sakes and for their children’s. That’s when Ookoba overhears a man being interviewed mention “the girls” who have been doing so much for the shelter.

On a makeshift stage lit by car headlamps, Franchouchou put on a show every night both to entertain the hell out of the kiddies (who are unassailably adorable) and soothe the adults’ hearts. There was more than one occasion when I teared up, their good works were so heartwarming.

The Grinch-like Ookoba was all gung-ho about exposing Koutarou’s “exploitation” of the idols for profit, but being in that dark mall full of people trying to avoid letting their minds stray to dark places, and seeing the light and joy Franchouchou give both on and off the stage, and he finally starts to understand why Koutarou brought them back to life.

And whither Koutarou, you might ask? Like the girls were initially on the S.S. Mansion, he’s in a somewhat ridiculous situation: the underground bar is completely flooded and both he and an ailing Gramps are just barely keeping their noses and mouths above water. Fortunately Policeman A finds them, making the first time Policeman A has done something useful!

Koutarou is freed from Davy Jones’ Locker none too soon, as the girls’ hastily applied makeup finally begins to chip, flake, and crumble. Before long all of them are in full zombie mode, and with a show to put on that night, their options are limited. An eavesdropping Ookoba spots them all with their natural looks, astonished more than anything else.

Koutarou is on his way to reunite with Franchouchou (thanks to a ride from Misa, using her boat to transport releif supplies) but won’t make it in time to help them. No matter; Junko comes up with a rather ingenious solution, using the materials she brought to make Ozaki dolls to make masks for everyone.

Unfortunately, while they’re able to sell the masks to the kids, who notice their resemblance to the dolls, as soon as the idols leap into the air and come back down, the masks crumble and fall away, and the crowd gets a good hard look at their dead gray skin, scars and bandages.

But here’s the thing: the kids are more confused than anything else. When the idols come clean and say they’re zombies, the kids dispute this. They define zombies as being scary. Franchouchou aren’t scary to them, they’re fun and cool and cute. Ergo, they’re not zombies, they’re Franchouchou.

Ai and the others go for it, hardly able to believe their luck. But in a way, it’s only appropriate that their hours of tireless, selfless hard work at the shelter, doing what they can taking care of others because it’s the right thing to do, be rewarded with a pass on their zombie “disguises.”

Ookoba can also hardly believe how lucky the girls are, but now appreciates how many risks they take every day of their existence. Koutarou sidles up to him and declares, simply, that Franchouchou are the [dis]”embodiment of pure idols”, and Ookoba is in no position to disagree.

As he lovingly reapplies each of the girls’ proper makeup to make them look alive again, Koutarou declares that their revenge concert at EFS will go on as planned in sixteen days, with little or no practice. It has to go on, especially now. Saga was hit by catastrophe, but came out all the stronger and closer for it.

As he takes his leave, Sakura tracks him down and thanks him for making her in idol from the bottom of her no-longer-beating heart. Sakura’s words cause Koutarou to recall flashes of his own failed past trying to make it big  when he attended Sakura’s funeral and held her battered, un-mailed audition package. While he knew he couldn’t save Saga on his own, he reached out to Gramps to bring back Sakura and the rest of the best of Saga throughout history.

For what I believe is the first time ever, he fully acknowledges Sakura, telling her she has “it”. She and the others have the potential to become “eternal idols loved around the globe, and being Franchouchou’s manager, he’ll eternally have “it”, too. It all starts with their revenge!

Irina and Crow talk episode 11 here. Check it out!

Zombieland Saga: Revenge – 10 – How It Started / How It’s Going

After spending two weeks in the Meiji era with the exception of the final act of last week, when Yuugiri led Franchouchou in one of their best performances yet—and oh yeah, Saga is apparently an extremely long-lived person—we find ourselves a mere year in the past, before the EFS fiasco.

The idols are riding high on their success in the snow at Arpino, but that was only a crowd of five hundred people. But Koutarou, no less high on success, decides that Franchouchou have proven themselves legendary enough to fill the same stadium where Ai died. Her feelings about performing there aside, Ai knows right from the get-go it will be nigh impossible for them to scale up so much so fast.

Despite that, the girls put their faith in their manager and in their own considerable abilities, and even pros like Ai and Junko are swept up in the boundless optimism. Then, as we know, it all goes completely and utterly to shit. Because Koutarou didn’t bother to pre-sell any tickets, the amount of concert-goers who show up manage to fit what would be the soccer field’s penalty area.

While we’ve already been told this tale of woe before in super-abbreviated form, there’s something to be said for watching the disaster unfold in real time. Not even Saki can fight through the sheer dread of playing before a mostly empty venue, while their top fans decide not to call for an encore after the girls shamble off the stage, as it would be just too cruel.

You can really feel the pain of being on that stage in that stadium. They would never have been able to put on their best performance there. Koutarou really screwed the pooch on this one, and he initially reacts to the disaster by going on a weeks-long bender.

During these dark times, Franchouchou are splintered, then exchanged some recriminations, before Yamada Tae comes in and shocks everyone by not only buying her own dried squid with Koutarou’s cash, but doing her own makeup. Just by being Tae, she shows the others that they’ve been relying on Koutarou on everything for too long, and if they have to do non-idolly work to get out of their immense debt, then so be it.

That brings us up to speed. Fast forward nearly a year, and Koutarou announces to the girls that they will once again be performing at EFS for their revenge show. This time, they’re in a far better position to command a larger crowd: there’s the audience of Saki’s radio show, Lily’s inroads with the younger kids, Yamada’s legion of fans, Maimai’s high school, and the fact Iron Frill considers them rivals.

It almost feels like history repeating, but Koutarou is determined to properly promote the concert (and hopefully allowing pre-sales of tickets, for gosh sakes), and gives the others a pep talk worthy of Gurren Lagann. Unfortunately, there’s a huge potential snag in this plan: the reporter Ookuba knows he’s somehow revived seven dead girls and is profiting off their performances. When he learns of the revenge show he’s determiend to stop it.

Frankly, this feels like a little bit of eleventh-hour antagonism for its own sake, and I’m more than a little disappointed that Ookuba is taking such a hard stance rather than letting the idols whose unlives he’s trying to upheave have their say in the matter. By going straight to Koutarou he’s stripping them of their agency. Considering how much they’ve achieved, they’ve earned the right to decide to perform, not for Koutarou, but for each other and for Saga.

That brings us back to the bar where Old Man Saga works. Years ago, Koutarou was “gloomy and half-crazed”—instead of full-crazed like he is now—and thus bought into Saga’s claims that he was an immortal being who can revive the dead and has been fighting a curse that’s been at work in Saga for thousands of years.

Turns out everything that Koutarou has done with Franchouchou has been to prevent Saga’s prophesy—of a cataclysm that will make everyone forget Saga—from coming true. It’s why he flew to close to the sun with EFS the first time, but it’s also why he’s determined to make EFS II a success that no one will ever forget, weaving their past failure into the narrative.

But as the idols prepare for their show tomorrow, Saga is pelted with increasingly harsh rains, and the wind eventually knocks out power throughout the prefecture, just as Ookoba is about to publish his exposé.

But, of course, there are larger problems than whether he saved a copy; a building that looks like Koutarou’s run-down mansion seems to sink into the saturated earth, presumably with our zombie idols inside. While I’m sure they’re safe—they’re zombies—Saga is another question entirely. Are we past the point of singing and dancing  being able to save Saga, or will we simply not see them at their most legendary until the shit has truly hit the fan?

Rating: 4/5 Stars

Fruits Basket – 52 – An Unwavering Truth

I’m not here to forgive Akito for her two-plus seasons (and years before that) of acting horribly shitty to just about everyone, from all of the Zodiac spirits to Honda Tooru, probably the human being least deserving of malice and cruelty in the universe.

But I’m not going to pretend she’s had it easy, either. No one cursed with the Souma name does, and just because she’s revered as god who can boss the others around doesn’t mean doing so makes her feel remotely happy or fulfilled. Nor is she immune to the nefarious Shigure’s twisted mind games!

Akito recalls a beautiful memory of years ago when she asked Shigure if he loved her. He plucks a nearby red tsubaki (Camellia) bloom—a symbol of love and desire—and tells her he not only loves her but cares about her more than anyone, which he calls “an unwavering truth”. She recalls this while in bed with a sleeping Kureno.

It’s apparently a tradition to make paper carnations at Tooru’s school, and Shigure decides to join her and make one of his own. Tooru is sitting on the bombshell of Akito’s true gender and Kureno being free of the curse, but in her usual deference to others’ feelings, she’s unable to broach the topic with Shigure. But thinking about it is like staring down a deep dark cave, and if she doesn’t tell someone, she could fall in.

This episode helpfully reminds us that school, Prince Yuki, and the much less brazen Kyou Fan Club still exist, and if the school stuff is often the weakest material Fruits Basket offers, it’s still better than 90% of other school stuff in my books!

Nearly everyone at school is fake-flower crazy. Motoko and Co. launch a raid to steal the paper flowers Yuki made for themselves, while Kyou’s admirers steal his, invoking his ire. Arisa assembles a posse to round them up.

And then there’s Machi, who quietly tails Yuki around the school as he checks in on everyone and offers to help out; everyone politely refuses, unwilling to sully a prince’s hands with common man’s work. But Machi eventually catches up to him, out of breath, only to freeze up and say she just wanted to say hello.

When Machi complains about him “roaming an unpredictable route” in which she’d kept “losing” him, the words carry more weight and meaning then mere practical considerations. When Yuki realizes she came to him and only him “of all people”, he blushes and gently puts his hand on her head. She lashes out at him, but he ends up with a flower in his hand: a flower even more of a mess than the ones he made…but of course it’s not about the quality of the flower, but whom you give it to.

While Arisa, Saki, and other classmates are chasing down Prince Yuki, Tooru is alone with Ryou, and she feels she can try to bring it up to him. She asks hypothetically what he’d do if there was someone in the Zodiac whose curse was broken, Old Ryou spits back not to ask such questions, because he couldn’t begin to answer them.

However, when he sees Tooru’s face suddenly go flat and hollow, the New and improved Ryou resurfaces, and when a simple and emphatic apology isn’t enough, he offers her his flower, which she gently takes as they’re bathed in the golden sun of the late afternoon. Their beautiful moment is rudely interrupted by Arisa & Co announcing the culprits have been found and justice done.

When Shigure presents the red paper flower he made to Akito, she asks him if there’s something familiar about this scene, but he’s evasive. As Tooru and Yuki wash dishes, Ryou reports that Shigure will be out late. Yuki assumes he’s out torturing his editor, whiel Tooru just realized one person she might be able to talk to about Kureno is Rin. But her search for Rin at her school comes up empty, as Rin’s classmates say she’s on one of her absence streaks “somewhere far away”.

In an unfortunate coincidence, Mitchan picked the same restaurant for their meeting where Akito, Shigure’s parents, and other important guests are having a big dinner. Mitchan catches a glimpse of Akito in a black suit, agrees with Shigure that he’s as white as a ghost, but also says he’s pretty. Akito spots Shigure snubbing her and leaving with the other woman…which is probably exactly what Shigure intended.

In a call with Kureno at an undetermined date, Shigure, who knows his curse is broken, berates Kureno for not abandoning Akito. Shigure also makes perfectly clear that he hates Kureno’s fucking guts—apparently another unwavering truth. Kureno pleads with Shigure not to keep being so cold with Akito.

That’s because for as loyal and present or Akito as Kureno is at all times, Akito never loved him as much as she loved—loves—Shigure. Akito comes home in a foul mood and when she’s informed Shigure is there, orders everyone to stay the fuck away.

Their encounter begins with her asking about the woman he was with and whether he slept with her like he sleeps with every woman. Like he slept with that woman…her own mother, Ren. We learn that when he did, she punished him by telling him to leave. But Akito still thinks he only slept with Ren as an excuse to leave, as he didn’t put up a fight.

When an increasingly upset Akito rants about Shigure liking and wanting “her”—whether that’s Ren or, uh, someone else—Shigure repeats what he said the day he gave her a camellia: I care about you more than anyone. That’s an unwavering truth. He remembered. He didn’t waver. And he says he only slept with Ren because she slept with Kureno.

As Shigure puts it, he loves Akito so much that sometimes he wants to “spoil her rotten”, and sometimes he wants to “crush her to a pulp”. Jesus. He starts to leave, concerned they’re simply repeating the same argument they always have, but then Akito throws herself—HERself—at him, and in a thoroughly steamy gesture, rips her tie off and embraces her.

The day Shigure told Akito he loved her, she fell in love with him, and never stopped. When Akito and Kureno became an item, it doubtless hurt Shigure profoundly…but the unwavering truth endured. I still can’t trust the guy any farther than I can throw him, but damn it all if his and Akito’s love and longing isn’t gorgeous in its gloominess.

Fruits Basket – 51 (S3 01) – There’s No Night that Doesn’t End

Where we last left off, Kureno had just revealed to Tooru that not only was Akito a woman. No matter how much he loved Arisa, he couldn’t leave Akito’s side, not even after being freed from the curse—or especially because of that. He further explains that Akito was raised a male from birth because it was decreed by her mother Ren, to whom we are finally introduced.

Ren still lives on the grounds, but as Kureno puts it she has “some…troubles, mentally and physically.” Akito freaks out when Ren even tries to touch Hatori, while Ren insists Akito’s belief that her bonds with the Zodiac animals are real love and eternally unchanging is nothing but fantasy.

Her cruel taunting of her daughter—whom she made into a sun by pure will—causes Akito to fly into a rage, but Ren wouldn’t mind being killed, because it would mean reuniting with Akira, Akito’s late father. In a flashback Akira tells Akito she was “born to be loved”, but to Akira that probably doesn’t mean being venerated as a god.

The thing is, Ren may question whether the Zodiac bonds are right or even real, Kureno, Shigure, Hatori, and Ayame all woke up in tears the same morning Akito was conceived. Before appearing in Ren’s belly, Akito came to them in a dream, and the four kids ran to Ren, who didn’t even know she was pregnant.

From that day, Kureno felt the other self that lived inside him, in his blood, and knew he could never betray her. Even if the bond was unnatural, or painful, he simply could never push away a crying Akito, and so can’t see Arisa. Because just as Akito wounds others, she herself is wounded.

Kureno said all of this to properly explain why he can’t leave Akito ever, and that the choice to stay with her is his alone, not guided by any curse. As he leaves her in the courtyard, the DVD falls out of Tooru’s hands and she cannot move for some time, frozen by the weight of this new information.

Her scarf flies away, she falls to her knees. Rin, her ally in ending the curse, watches this from afar. Kureno explains how he went out for fresh air, gets a vicious slap from Akito, and then the two gently embrace. Then, like a gothic fairy, Saki approaches Tooru, flanked by Megumi, and announces she is “here to save the day. Ta-da.”

After informing Yuki that Tooru is in her “custody” and will be her’s “all night” (phrasing!) Saki prepares a “Nightgown Festival” to soothe Tooru’s troubled soul. She tells Tooru that she was able to detect Tooru crying in a voice no one else could hear, but was deafening to her. Tooru explains how she tried to bring Kureno and Arisa together, to make up for all the things people like Arisa did to help her…but she failed, so she’s useless.

As we see Kyou spot Tooru’s scarf lying in the street, Tooru tells Saki how Kureno is someone who puts others’ feelings before his own. I’m glad Saki’s there to essentially say “look in the mirror…that’s you!”. Saki worries if Tooru keeps taking everyone’s feelings on her shoulders, it will crush her, and her smile will disappear. Arisa enters Saki’s room to add that if Tooru’s smile disappears, “it will be the end of the world.” Neither of them will let that happen.

Arisa sits with Tooru and says she’s “trash” for maing her cry. Tooru says she’s not trash, and Arisa in turn says Tooru isn’t useless. What she is is a dummy, just as Kureno is a dummy, and Arisa can’t help but love dummies. But because she loves them, she doesn’t want to cause problems for them, so she gathers Tooru in a hug and assures her she needn’t worry; she’ll be fine. With that, the Nightgown Festival commences in earnest, and Megumi’s heart pounds as he’s surrounded by older women, the little scamp!

Rin continues slinking around the Souma compound, only to be caught by Ren, who asks her if she wants any “help.” No doubt Ren would love to lift the curse, though it’s interesting that she only comes into the picture now.

Fatigued by their emotional exertions, Tooru and Arisa fall asleep early. Megumi asks Saki if she thinks it’s really hopeless for Arisa and Kureno. Who can say? Arisa may have said “that’s it”, but Megumi isn’t so sure. Sometimes it takes a long time for lovers to find each other.

The next morning, Tooru comes home, all cheered up, and becomes even more cheered up when she finds her scarf waiting for her, courtesy of Kyou, who even washed it (though some stains remain, which is apropos!) Tooru bops him with a pom-pom once more, then Yuki and Shigure bid her good morning. As Tooru gets on with her life—no mean feat after what she’s learned—she resolves to gradually think upon the thinks Kureno told her bit by bit.

With this beautiful, magical, heartrending-and-mending opening outing, Fruits Basket continues to prove it is the final word in supernatural romantic comedy/dramas. After two exquisite seasons of painstakingly introducing characters, delivering their backstories and developing and strengthening relationships, this third, The Final, will introduce and execute the endgame.

Some of the darkest and most painful episodes may be yet to come, but I’ll happily endure them with Tooru, Arisa, Saki, Yuki, Kyou, and everyone else to see how things turn out!

Jujutsu Kaisen – 23 – Swinging for the Fences

The good news: this week gets right down to the business of kicking some cursed spirit ass. The bad news: Nobara gets swallowed up again! It’s like every other battle with Megumi and Yuuji this happens. At least it reveals there’s a third baddie the three sorcerers have to contend with…and this one fancies himself a Chippendale’s dancer.

Megumi sends Yuuji in after Nobara and finishes off the “whack-a-mole” bridge curse by himself…or so he thinks. Its final form is a “bodybuilder” demon that looks identical to the one he and Yuuji faced way back when; the one that required Yuuji to bring Sukuna out to defeat.

Megumi looks back to a recent training session with Gojou, who tells him bunts are all well and good in baseball, but in jujutsu sorcery you’d better swing for the fences. Megumi does using Domain Expansion, imagining a future self you surpass his present limits. While it’s incomplete, he’s able to defeat the spirit with some help from his shikigami.

With the curse defeated, Megumi’s surroundings revert to the river under the bridge. About to pass out from overexertion, he remembers the “live and let live” code he used to live by at middle school. He hated bad people for obvious reasons, but was also disgusted by good people for always forgiving bad people.

His sister Tsumiki was one of those “good people” who disgusted him, but he’s revised his opinion of her since she was cursed, and now simply wants her to wake up. We also learn in an older flashback that Megumi’s father intended him to be a trump card against the Zenin clan, but Gojou stopped his sale to the clan and arranged for him to be trained and work as a sorcerer in exchange for financial support for him and his sister.

While the added dimension to Megumi’s backstory is welcome, it does have the side-effect of stopping the action dead in its tracks. As a result, there’s barely any time left for Nobara and Yuuji’s battle against the cursed spirit “brothers”—one of whom is very self-conscious about his back.

That fight will bleed into next week. The flashbacks and character work on display here suggest Jujutsu Kaisen is content to close out its second cour with this case. With Megumi in no condition to help them, hopefully Nobara and Yuuji can get the job done. Maybe Nitta Akari will show up to lend a hand…

Jujutsu Kaisen – 22 – Crossing the River

Yuuji, Nobara, and Megumi are driven by Asst. Supervisor Nitta Akari (a new face) to Saitama to investigate a string of curse-related deaths involving a malfunctioning automatic door. They arrive at the home of an acquaintance of one the three victims to find they’ve become the fourth victim. With that lead lost, they head to the school all the victims attended.

Nobara is super-excited about beating up a couple punks, who suddenly shrink not in her or Yuuji’s presence, but Megumi’s—turns out he attended the middle school and already beat up all the punks and gang members. A school staff member Takeda arrives and tells the sorcerers that all four victims once bungee-jumped from the Yasohashi Bridge, something of a school custom. Yuuji and Nobara also learn about Megumi has a big sister, Tsukimi.

As Mahito feeds some poor bastard one of the special-grade cursed thingies stolen from Jujutsu High, Yuuji, Nobara and Megumi go to the bridge, but after a nightlong stakeout turns up nothing curse-related, they hit up the konbini for some breakfast, and bump into one of the school delinquents, who has his big sister with him, whom Megumi recognizes is Fujinuma.

It turns out she too went to Yasohashi Bridge one night, and has started to notice the doors of their family’s shop malfunctioning whenever she’s near them. Megumi notes that at least two weeks pass between the four victims first noticing something and their deaths, which means they still have a chance to save Fujinuma, who also tells them that Tsukimi was with them then.

Megumi recedes from the other two to ask Ijichi to have his sister guarded, but the supervisor laments that there’s no one available stronger than second-grade. The only way to deal with the curse affecting the victims both dead and alive is to exorcise it right away, before it activates a cursed technique from within the still living-Fujinuma and Tsukimi.

Naturally, he returns to the bridge alone in order to do this, literally shoving Yuuji and Nobara back into the car with Akari. But they show up beside him anyway, scolding him once again for holding too much back about himself. Megumi doesn’t protest their help, but informs them that the curse won’t appear unless they themselves become potential  victims by “crossing over” the river below the bridge, which symbolizes crossing over into the afterlife.

Once they do so, they’re suddenly confronted with a whack-a-mole-like curse emerging from the stone, along with several other orifices from which other curses could emerge. Then the curse unrelated to the bridge, which Mahito had fed to that poor dude, arrives on the scene. Yuuji volunteers to take it on while Megumi and Nobara handle the bridge curse.

It’s hard to believe this week marks the first time ever our three sorcerers worked on a curse case together. While the case that dominates the runtime seems more like the of-the-week type, I didn’t mind because the three young sorcerers are never not fun to watch bounce off each other, while Nitta “Ding-Dong!” Akari made for an entertaining new chaperone.

Rating: 4/5 Stars

Wonder Egg Priority – 06 – Omelette Rice

Now that each girl and the group as a whole have had their spotlight episodes, it’s time to return to Ohto Ai’s story. While she’s exhausted and sore from her last battle, Ai’s mom insists she get out of bed for breakfast. Her mom also made her omelette rice for lunch and they’ll be having sukiyaki for supper. Ai notes that they usually only have sukiyaki on special occasions. Then her mom asks if she’ll have a “proper talk” with Mr. Sawaki today.

When Ai joins the others, it’s clear she’s in a mood. First of all, she’s skipping emphatically, then starts kicking a traffic cone around and then a sandwich board that she accidentally shatters. The other three are understandably curious what caused this change in her. The four visit the Accas, who inform them of a new threat: Haters, who disguise themselves as Seeno Evils but are far more powerful.

Haters are the result of the four girls “standing out” by their protecting the egg girls. “Those who stand out pay for it”, Acca says, reminding me of how conformity was also the best defense in Ikuhara’s Yuri Kuma Arashi. They present the girls with a different kind of defense: cute pendants that awaken when spoken to in Latin and imprint upon their owners.

Each girl finds somewhere private to awaken their “Pomanders”. Neiru’s is a snake, Rika’s a turtle, Momo’s is an alligator, and Ai’s is a chameleon. While envy and spite birth the Haters that attack Ai and her latest egg girl, those same qualities are like “bread and butter” to her Pomander, who proceeds to gobble one up. As a big fan of beast-taming in FFXIII-2, I like the extra boost they provide to Ai as the difficulty level increases.

In life, Yoshida Yae could see dead people and “strong grudges” no one else could. Because only she could, no one believed her, and she was eventually committed. The facility was full of the very thing only Yae could see, which do doubt led to her suicide. Ai tries to keep her safe by hiding her, but this time the Wonder Killer itself is invisible.

While it’s a little confusing at first, it becomes apparent that Ai’s defense of Yae and battle against an invisible foe comes after the “special occasion” for which her mom is making sukiyaki: Mr. Sawaki is joining them for dinner…and not to talk about school. While the sukiyaki is a clue, it still feels like an ambush, especially when Ai is still drying her hair from a bath when he basically invades her safe space.

Ai’s mom and Sawaki aren’t done with the surprises, as they announce to her their intention to start dating, if it’s okay with her. YIKES. Look, I get it, her mom is divorced and ready to find love again, and Sawaki seems on the surface to be a kind and decent guy. But your daughter’s teacher, who was a major presence in both her and her only friend’s lives prior to Koito’s sudden suicide?

The cynic, i.e. the Rika in me smells something rotten in the state of Denmark. Just as she supposed Ai’s mom used Ai’s need for counseling as an excuse to make Sawaki’s visits a regular occurance, leading to their growing closer, Rika has even darker concerns based on her own mother’s relationships. In her experience, live-in boyfriends always abuse their girlfriend’s kids—violently if it’s a son, sexually if it’s a daughter.

When Ai tells the other girls about this, Momoe is giddily over the moon, as it could mean she and Ai could be family someday. She does not take Rika’s aspersion casting well, and not just because Rika makes a distinction between how a boy or girl would be abused. Momo trusts her uncle, and believes Rika is letting her perspective curdle Ai’s. For him to use Ai’s mom as a decoy to get to Ai…she just can’t believe he’d be that way.

And yet…sometimes it’s the closest friends and family members who have a blind spot where their loved one is concerned—just ask anyone who was close to someone who has been #MeToo’d in the last few years. “[What they are alleged to have done] isn’t them” is a common refrain. The bottom line is, Ai seems most troubled by the fact she still doesn’t know what caused Koito’s suicide, and as long as the mystery remains unresolved, Ai will understandably feel uneasy.

And then there’s Neiru’s input, which is to draw in so close to Ai she can’t hide her face. She brings up Occam’s Razor—the simplest theory is the best—and wonders if the bottom line is that Ai likes Mr. Sawaki. From where they each stand, Momoe, Rika, and Neiru all have valid reasons for how they feel about Ai’s predicament. There simply isn’t enough information for anyone to be proven right or wrong.

All that is certain is that the uncertainty is extremely frustrating for Ai, so much so that after getting beaten by Yae’s invisible Wonder Killer, and Yae tosses her prayer beads that enable Ai to see it, Ai wastes no time taking out those frustrations on the Killer, kicking and smashing it into oblivion.

Before Yae also vanishes, she gets to experience the release and relief of having Ai embrace her and tell her in no uncertain terms that she believes her. For Yae, Ai was the only one. Upon returning home, she decides to name her new chameleon buddy Leon. It’s a bit obvious, but it feels right.

The next day, it pours. Ai’s mom comes home while she’s still in the bad, and scolds her for leaving her dirty clothes out. When she says she’ll turn out the pockets before putting them through the wash, Ai bursts out of the bath without drying off, dresses herself, and runs out the door into the torrential rain. When her mom asks where she’s going, she defiantly yells “SCHOOL!”

Ai keeps running, and by the time she reaches her school, the rain has let up and the sky has become clear and beautiful. She spots Mr. Sawaki as two other schoolgirls are saying goodbye to him. She runs up to him takes hold of his arm, and catches her breath. It looks for all the world like she’s about to confess her love, but she doesn’t. Instead, she brightly declares that she’s going to start going to school again, purposefully brushing the hair out of her face to reveal her blue eye.

Ai doesn’t give Sawaki an answer about whether its okay for him to date her mom. She also doesn’t have any satisfying answers about Koito; at least not yet. Depsite all that, she’s emerged from her cocoon after a lengthy hibernation, and to give ordinary school life another go. Not for Koito, not for her mom, and not for Mr. Sawaki…but for herself.

Perhaps she was “egged on” (I’m so sorry) by her mom and Mr. Sawaki’s announcement, but defending all the egg girls and hearing their stories, as well as those of her fellow egg defenders, and even Leon helped her put her own situation into relief.

Avoiding school hasn’t brought her all the answers she’s sought since losing Koito. Maybe by returning to school they’ll reveal themselves…or maybe not! Either way, she’s moving forward with her her life. I just hope she didn’t catch a cold running forward through all that rain!

Wonder Egg Priority – 05 – Scrambled

We hadn’t been privy to Aonuma Neiru’s Egg missions until this week; only the interludes between recovering from battles and purchasing new Eggs to protect. Her dream-battlefield is a majestic suspension bridge with a huge city nightscape as the backdrop; as bold and dramatic as Neiru herself is modest and unflappable.

Her egg this time is a runaway dealing with an abused, but Neiru has it covered, darting around the bridge like she’s in FLCL and defeating it with her compass-turned-gun with action movie fluorish, complete with the catchphrase “I’m going to blow your mind.” She means the words literally.

The runaway thanks her savior, but Neiru remains businesslike and aloof. She’s not doing this for her. She’s merely completing objectives, like a good operative. In a thematic transition only a eclectic show like WEP can pull off, we shift to real life, with Ai welcoming Neiru, Rika, and Momoe to her home.

Ai can’t contain how happy she is to have friends over, and neither can her adorable mom, who recognizes Momoe as Sawaki-sensei’s niece. Ai mentions that Koito seemed to have a thing for Sawaki. Rika, in true Rika form, stirs up a conspiracy that’s plausible enough to give Ai pause: What if Koito was dating Sawaki? What if she got pregnant? What if Sawaki only visits Ai regularly because he suspects she has proof of the affair?

The talk of Koito and Sawaki leads Ai to remember when Sawaki was sketching her for a portrait as his means of entry to a life of painting. In the memories Koito seems to be projecting envy in the way she tells Ai that if her heart isn’t in being Sawaki’s subject, she’d better bow out, as his “future is on the line”…as if an adult man’s future should be anyone’s responsibility but his own!

The messy can of worms Rika opens and stirs threatens to curdle the vibe of Ai’s friends’ visit. It also reinforces the fact that a great deal of mystery surrounds Koito’s death. When Rika asks why she doesn’t just ask her mom, who seems to be close to Sawaki, Ai voices her reluctance to make her mom worry more than she clearly already is about her string of recent unexplained injuries, which…fair enough!

Rika gets that. So do the other girls. No matter how nice and understanding her mom is, nothing good can come of Ai telling her she sneaks out at night to fight monsters in her sleep on behalf of youth suicides…it will only worry her more! That’s what re-knits the tentative bonds Rika’s speculation briefly frayed and lightens a conversation that had turned dark: the four of them can’t tell anyone.

It’s their story that no one else knows about. While before they were toiling alone, not even sure what the fuck was going on, now they have context through each others’ shared burden. They are seen by one another; they recognize the pain, guilt, and curiosity in one another. Then Rika and Ai compare mothers: Rika took one look after being born and thought “this lady wants to stay a woman her whole life and never be a parent.” Ai wonders if her perfect, imminently capable mom drove her dad away.

There’s an excellent exchange in which Rika looks Neiru’s way after stating that capable women can spoil men, both because she sees Neiru as capable, and because it’s her turn. They’re playing Jenga, and the way Rika steers the convo throughout makes the group dynamic almost feel like a Jenga game in and of itself: gradually removing blocks while maintaining integrity. In a similar fashion, Rika pounces on Neiru and tickles her. She doesn’t get the right spot at first, but when she finds it, Neiru can’t help but burst into laughter, while Ai and Momoe note how well the two opposites get along.

We can’t be sure if her battles on the bridge take place before or after the friends meet at Ai’s, but her latest egg is a real piece of work, criticizing Neiru’s hair while going off unbidden about the ephemeral nature of a girl’s beauty, and how dying while at one’s most beautiful is preferable to becoming an “ugly hag” in a pointless adult life.

The four girls meet up and break into a shuttered bowling alley and arcade. Acca tells them to get out of there and buy some damned eggs already, but they push back, declaring what they’re doing to be necessary “group therapy”. Ura-Acca lets them have a little fun, declaring that “soldiers” need R&R.

For a few blissful hours, four girls who have been battling monsters in their dreams get to live their lives as ordinary girls. Momoe talks about how at least six people have confessed to her—all girls—but only Haruka saw her as a girl. Remembering how she handled Haruka stripping before her, she wonders if she could have done things differently.

While Rika and Ai are off playing a different game, Momoe and Neiru have a chat while playing a racing game. Neiru points out that Momoe doesn’t necessarily hate being popular, even with girls. Neiru concedes that, adding that “sometimes you end up enjoying something even though you didn’t mean to.” That’s something Neiru needs to hear, especially as she’s enjoying hanging out with the others despite herself.

Later, in Acca and Ura-Acca’s garden, the four exchange contact info for future hangouts together, and Rika lies on her back, looks up at the sky, and asks a very fair question: Why don’t they stop buying eggs? Rika admits she got caught up in her mission, but at the end of the day Chiemi “died on her own”, and dying isn’t “playing fair”, so why should she bear responsibility? She asks the same questions of Ai, as Koito died without ever talking to her, and may not even want to come back to life.

What if their egg-protecting missions led to them meeting each other in real life, and now that they have new friends, they can ditch the eggs and dreams, move forward together, and live their lives? Again, this is all fair, and I’m glad Rika goes with her instinct to probe and prod and bring up hard truths regardless of how she’ll be seen by the group. It means she feels safe enough with them to to do.

The problem is, this isn’t just about bringing their respective friends back to life. That was never the case with Neiru, because her statue is of her sister. Her sister ran away and jumped off a bridge, but only after stabbing Neiru in the back, quite literally. To this day, the scar aches and keeps her awake, especially when she tries to forget her. It’s like a curse she’s trying to exorcise from her body. As she tells the eggs she protects, she’s not doing it for them…she’s doing it for herself.

In a similar way, Ai’s desire to keep going isn’t only couched in saving Koito or righting any wrong she might have done. It’s to crack the mystery; to feed her insatiable curiosity, like a splinter in her brain that won’t let up until she has the answers. As Ura-Acca puts it to the stricter Acca, the girls are in a state of teenage rebellion: they’ll stop if told not to stop, and will keep pushing boundaries to build up their own identities.

Back in the battle protecting the girl obsessed with the pure, inimitable beauty of youth, Neiru realizes the three pompom-like monsters aren’t the Wonder Killer’s true form, it’s the girl’s hair. After shooting it, Neiru notes that her sister (whose statue stands on the edge of the bridge) “tempted” her to die by stabbing her, before ending her own life.

Was her sister’s rejection of reaching adulthood an ultimate act of rebellion against What Is and What Should Be? As with Ai’s inquiries into Koito, it’s a question that may only be answered if they keep fighting—egged on by the Accas all the way. I just hope that the fact the four girls are not alone in this business will make their struggles a little easier to bear.

Higurashi: When They Cry – Gou – 18 – Oyashiro Sleeps

At an undetermined point in time, the usual gang plus Hanyuu in the flesh witness Takano about to be arrested by commandos in the forest after firing a shot at them that misses. Tomitake arrives to order them to take her to the Irie Clinic for treatment, as she’s in the late stages of Hinamizawa Syndrome.

Shift to early June 1984: a year has passed since the many unpleasant Watanagashi loops and murders. It’s a new year at school, and the absence of Mion, who is now attending high school in Okinomiya, is deeply felt by the gang, to the point Rika and Satoko duck out of club activities because it’s just not the same.

Still, the fact is, June 1983 came and went without the town descending into chaos and destruction…which is good! The question is how, and can the peace last? Rika accompanies Satoko to the clinic, where Dr. Irie not only makes an inappropriate comment about what Satoko should be wearing, but declares that after a year of treatment, she has been fully cured of Hinamizawa Syndrome (there’s no mention of Satoshi).

When Rika asks why he said before that sufferers could never be healed after a certain stage, he believes that changed because the root cause of the syndrome somehow changed somewhere along the way. Rika knows what changed: after a millennium, Oyashiro stopped mistrusting humans.

Rika intends to make a new era of peace in Hinamizawa official, so after she performs her offertory dance, she has Kimiyoshi and Oryou join her on the stage. She’d met with the other two main family heads the previous night, and they all agreed to make a joint announcement that the Dam War is over and Oyashiro’s curse wasn’t, like, a thing.

According to Rika, Oyashiro is happy with the town and returned to his slumber. With the weight of the priestess, Kimiyoshi and Oryou behind them, the words reach the people of Hinamizawa. Confident that new wind has lifted the town’s sails, Rika has Satoko join her at an Okinomiya book store, where she buys St. Lucia Academy study guides for the both of them.

It’s been Rika’s dream to attend the academy longer than Satoko knows, and now she wants to make that dream a reality for the both of them. Surely nothing bad can come of that in an arc called the “Village-Destroying Chapter”, eh?

Higurashi: When They Cry – Gou – 17 – The Dice Roll for Thee

After a cold open in which Takano shoots Rika and her friends, we cut to a different version of the scenario in which Takano tells her she was going to kill everyone, but didn’t, and was leaving town with Jirou. What follows is a lot of stuff that comes out of the blue, but may have been happening off-camera for many loops.

The Tokyo Bloodhounds and Mountain Dogs are rival elite tactical groups, with Jirou being a member of the former. With Dr. Irie’s cooperation, the underground research lab is shut down, even though he has yet to find a cure for Satoko’s brother Satoshi’s “Hinamizawa Syndrome.

Honestly, I was pretty confused by most of this, and assume that’s because stuff similar to this went down in the original Higurashi. But whatever all these events mean, the bottom line is there have still been no demon-ing away or gruesome murders on this loop, days after the festival. So why is Rika so uneasy?

It’s simple: the events of the present loop are so far out of the usual norm, her only conclusion is that “someone else” is rolling the dice of fate. She considers killing herself with the blade shard, but decides to stay put for now. Satoko can tell she’s down about something, but urges her not to look gift horses in the mouth and simply enjoy these moments of happiness while they last.

Rika ends up taking everyone’s money in a game of poker at school, and her “punishment” for them all is to arrange a party for Satoko’s birthday, which falls on June 24 (usually once the shit has hit the fan). Satoko seems a little uneasy about being the center of attention, but still accepts gifts from Keiichi, Rena and Mion.

When it comes time for Rika to present her gift to her, Satoko instinctively ducks and covers, apparently knowing it was a gag gift containing a boxing glove on a spring. Rika lifts the box to reveal it’s just a teddy bear (not unlike, if not the same bear Satoshi sought to give his sis), and asks how Satoko knew. Satoko’s eyes turn red and she pulls a gun on Rika with an evil smirk. I guess we know who’s “rolling the dice”, but why, and to what end?

Higurashi: When They Cry – Gou – 16 – Escaping the Doom

In the fifth and final loop before Rika calls it quits, Satoko wakes her up in bed as usual, but she has a heavy fever and hurts “all over”. Turns out she’s already dead right out of the gate—she just doesn’t know it yet. In this loop, Satoko is the neck-scratcher, and has already killed everyone else. The Oyashiro-sama in her head has told her the priestess-hood must pass from Rika to her.

What awful sin has caused Satoko to be compelled to disembowel a conscious Rika and hack away at her guts with a ceremonial staff? The simple reason that Rika wished and dreamed of leaving Hinamizawa, abandoning Oyashiro-sama and everyone she knows for a sophisticated life elsewhere. There is no greater sin for a priestess than to forsake their deity thus.

But before she dies, Rika expresses her sorrow and guilt and essentially begs for forgiveness, which Satoko is sure Oyashiro-sama will bestow upon her if she’s serious in her contriteness. The younger and older Rikas converse in an idealized Hinamizawa and wonder why their dreams ever strayed from the village. Then, as Satoko embraces her, hopeful that things will be better next time, Rika closes her pinky and snaps.

Satoko wakes Rika up as usual, only this time outside. Rika’s guts are where they belong, inside her body, and the whole gang is in their bathing suits for a day of summer fun in the river. It’s Higurashi’s version of a beach episode, portraying the Sonozaki twins in bikinis and the other girls in school swimsuits.

As the sun goes down, Rika talks to Satoko about a realization she hand about two very long, very different dreams she was having. One dream was painful while she was liviing in it, but looking back knows it was full of “shining wonders”. In her other dream, she never noticed those wonders, and was punished for clinging to an “ungrateful” dream (the one where she leaves town for a fancy school).

Rika concludes by saying she loves Hinamizawa, and everyone in it, and Satoko, almost serving as a proxy to Oyashiro-sama, embraces her once more, glad to have heard Rika speak such words. With Rika no longer dreaming of being anywhere else, her curse is seemingly lifted. No one gets the neck itch, nobody kills or dies, and everyone watches her perform the Watanagashi dance.

Then Rika spots Tomitake wandering into the woods and she stops him to say something about her and Takano, only for Takano to emerge from the trees. She wants to talk to Rika too. I wonder what about, and if and how this latest loop, so ideal and peaceful so far, will suddenly go sideways.

Higurashi: When They Cry – Gou – 10 – Leaving No Marks

Keiichi wakes up from a dream of beating Satoko’s Uncle Teppei to death with a metal bat, only to find Satoko is late for school. Keiichi doesn’ have any success asking Rika about her, and instead is approached by Ooishi for the first time in this arc. He asks about Satoko, grabbing Keiichi so hard on the shoulder it hurts despite not leaving a mark.

Dr. Irie rescues Keiichi from Ooishi’s piercing gaze, saying the locals call him “Oyashiro’s familiar” due to his obsession with solving all the crimes attributed to the curse. Irie also tells Keiichi about Satoko’s harsh home life ever since she and her brother Satoshi moved in with their aunt and uncle. Now, of course, it’s just Satoko and her uncle.

Satoko finally arrives, but looks depressed and sleep-deprived, and can barely keep up her peppy formal-speech act. After seeing this clearly-changed Satoko come and go without playing games with them, Keiichi, Mion and Rena finally get Rika to talk about what she knows.

Last night, Satoko didn’t come back from a grocery run until very late, only to tell Rika she had come to collect her things; she was moving back in with her uncle. This time the abuse is likely worse for Satoko, since Satoshi is no longer around to shield her. Mion mentions having called social services last year, but they offered only lip service.

The next day, Satoko is absent from school, and her friends rack their brains for how they can help her from what is clearly a worsening situation. They decide to go to an adult, Chie-sensei, and leave the matter in her hands, but when she visits Satoko’s house the Uncle stonewalls her, not even letting her see Satoko.

The excuse that she was in bed with a fever is repeated by a much more chipper and back-to-normal Satoko the next day, but while horseplaying during lunch Keiichi moves to pat her gently on the head, her hand reflexively slaps his away, and she vomits and has a complete mental breakdown, yelling how sorry she is and how much she “hates it.”

Not knowing exactly what kind of abuse Uncle Teppei is inflicting upon poor Satoko makes it particularly awful, since it forces us to contemplate the extent of it, but even worse is the fact that because Satoko lied about abuse to get her real father removed from the home, social services seems to be skeptical of any subsequent reports.

Satoko’s friends feel crippled by their inability to act, but know that if someone doesn’t do something, Satoko could end up dead. Will the violent events of his dream come to pass, or will he and his friends find another way?

Higurashi: When They Cry – Gou – 09 – Never Make Her Cry

We reset back to before everything turns to shit, but as we’ve learned from the previous arcs, there’s plenty of shit lurking just beneath the shiny happy surface of Keiichi & Co.’s daily life in Hinamizawa. Having had Rika and Mion/Shion-centric arcs, now it’s time for the focus on Satoko.

When Mion brings in fancy leftovers, Mion and Keiichi agree to a cooking duel, but Keiichi is abysmally bad at cooking. Seriously, he’s so clueless he almost burns his house down. Luckily Satoko and Rika are there to not only put out the fire, but salvage his dinner, and Kei-chan is thankful for both.

As Rika puts it to Kei before biking home for the night, Satoko is in need of someone Rika can’t replace: her big brother Satoshi, who ran away from home under myterious circumstances. Despite, or perhaps because of their sibling-like combative manner with each other, Kei makes for the perfect surrogate nii-nii.

Simple things like shopping for ingredients, cooking them, and sharing meals together clearly brightens Satoko’s day immeasurably. Similarly, when Satoko needs someone to cheer her on in a crucial at-bat, Kei arrives just in time, and as a result, she hits the winning home run and wins her team free BBQ.

At this BBQ, during which everyone has fun, Kei meets someone new: Irie, who loves Satoko’s smile, and while he can’t adopt her for “various legal reasons”, has no qualms about citing his plans to eventually ask for Satoko’s hand in marriage when she comes of age. Shion is similarly enamored of Satoko, considering herself a big-sis figure.

Irie’s words to Kei—never make Satoko cry—sound like his prime directive for this arc, which he’ll have to follow to avoid disaster. But that will surely come anyway, since Kei overhears two boys talking about how Satoko’s brother Satoshi was a victim of Oyashiro’s curse.

The destructively-curious Kei is eager to pick at this particular scab, and while Rena will have none of it, Mion tells him more: Satoko’s parents were the leaders of the pro-dam movement, as the gov’t offered big payouts to anyone who agreed to move out of the village. They died falling off an observation deck, which is super-suspicious, while Satoshi is believed to have run away to avoid the curse, but could also have been “demoned away”.

In any case, part of “not letting Satoko cry” means keeping all this under wraps, especially around her. And as we learn, and as I’ve suspected since that unsettling end credits image of her looking frightened as a man in a Hawaiian shirt looms over her, Satoko already has enough to cry about.

As we see the loud, drunk, boorish “Uncle Teppei” lead her into an isolated house, It’s almost a certainty some kind of physical and/or sexual abuse is taking place. For all the people who love Satoko and are watching over her, there’s clearly a huge gap in their blanket of protection. However explicit the arc gets about this, I hope Kei & Co. can manage a way to free Satoko from this particular hell…assuming they ever learn about it.