Cardcaptor Sakura – 69 – Tsukimine Showdown

This is it: with just one episode left in reserve (presumably for an epilogue), the big clash between Team Eriol and Team Sakura has finally come. After revealing himself, Eriol releases the true forms of Spinel and Ruby, and the trio really play up the Big Bad Villain act.

Eriol shrouds the entire city in darkness, which puts everyone to sleep except for Sakura and Syaoran (though even he’s woozy). If Sakura can’t lift the darkness spell by daybreak, everyone will remain asleep…forever.

The show makes a point to underline the stakes by showing almost every secondary character out cold, including Touya, who has no more magical power, after all. Sakura asks Eriol why he’s doing all this, but Eriol will only tell her if she breaks his spell.

Spinny and Ruby aren’t just arrogant, but also exceedingly powerful, and even when Yue arrives to shield Sakura, both he and Kero have a tough time keeping pace with Eriol’s guardians. The aerial battle between Yue and Ruby in particular is a beautiful action set piece.

Once it’s clear Sakura will have to stop playing defense and do something about the darkness spell, she takes out her cards, notes that eight Clow Cards remain to be converted, and then proceeds to convert six at once. Two “refuse” to change, however: Light and Dark.

Since those cards are most closely tied to her guardians, Kero and Yue tell Sakura to absorb the two of them into her staff. She does so, and her staff becomes longer and grander; Syaoran helps her hold it steady, and relies on his Clow Reed blood help convince the cards to change.

Once both Light and Dark are Sakura Cards, Sakura invokes Light, which proceeds to shatter the darkness and restore the regular sky. Everyone wakes up, safe and sound, and Eriol and his guardians stand down, his mission to help Sakura convert all of his cards now complete. Call it tough love on his part: in order for Sakura to summon the power, he had to create a crisis only she could fix.

When Kero and Yue go chasing after Eriol, Spinny and Ruby, Sakura prepares to follow, but Syaoran holds her up so he can tell her something he’s been wanting to tell her practically all season: he likes her. That’s right; the kid finally got the words out!

Alas, all he gets in response before the credits roll is Sakura’s shocked expression. But as she puts it in the preview for the finale, she once had no idea how she felt about Syaoran…but now she does know.

Higurashi: When They Cry – 01 (First Impressions) – Moe Horror Done Right

Higurashi: When They Cry wastes no time establishing that this story will not have a pleasant ending, as it opens on a boy beating a girl to death with a bat with at least one other corpse in the room. It’s not played off as a nightmare, either, as protagonist Maebara Keiichi wakes up in that same room some time before that bloody spectacle takes place.

While some horror anime that hold their powder until the end of the first episode (Gakkou Gurashi! comes to mind) Higurashi isn’t interested in keeping you in suspense about whether shit will hit the fan in this suspiciously idyllic village, but rather when, how, and why, and how bad…I’m guessing pretty bad!

We haven’t had much good horror on RABUJOI lately aside from Hannah’s great retro reviews of 2004’s Elfen Lied, but that same cute girl horror DNA is evident in Higurashi. This is actually a reimagining of an identically-titled series from 2006. I’ve personally only seen half of When the Seagulls Cry, a family murder mystery, but never finished, so consider me a Higurashi Novice.

That said, one of the changes that’s quite evident in the remake is the new character design by Watanabe Akio of Monogatari fame. The way he draws eyebrows and mouths in particular were a dead giveaway, and I’m a big fan of Watanabe-san’s work here. “Easy on the eyes” is an apt description; “as pleasant as the ending won’t be” is another.

We’re gradually introduced to Keiichi’s friends, starting with the meek but extremely good cook Rena, the green-haired “big-sis”-type Mion, and a pair of younger girls in the mischievous Satoko and adorable Rika. They’re all so cute and have such great chemistry with Keiichi and each other, you almost want to forget that things will go sideways without fail.

It’s a testament to Watanabe’s designs, the veteran voice talent, and the beautiful setting of Hinamizawa village that despite the bloody cold open we’re invited to enjoy some good times with this group first, and are thus lulled into a false sense of security and safety. The multilayered traps Satoko sets at school are a useful metaphor for what Higurashi does in this episode: the first trap you see is merely a decoy.

Case in point: As soon as the sun started to set and the crisp blue sky turned a simultaneously gorgeous and menacing orange and red, dread started to amass around me, even as Rena kept things light and breezy. She leads Keiichi to a sinister-looking junkyard and climbs over the junk with zero regard for tetanus, looking for treasure and finding it in a buried Kenta-san.

While Rena is scrounging around, Keiichi meets a photographer who comes out of nowhere, identifying himself as Tomitake. The fact he’s the first adult we see other than Keiichi’s mom is disorienting, but then he mentions an unpleasant “incident” involving the loss of someone’s arm in the area. When Keiichi askes Rena about it later, her cutesy voice immediately shifts to a curt and dead serious “I don’t know.”

While I was certain something awful was going to happen in that junkyard (and the show most certainly wanted me to think that), Keiichi and Rena come out unscathed, though you could say Keiichi has now been “marked” by suspicion over surroundings that must now feel a tinge more threatening.

The next day after school, Keiichi asks Mion about the aborted dam construction project, and Mion offers him some information: the developers tried to ram the project through, but the village was spared from flooding and relocation thanks to some help from politicians in Tokyo. That said, when Keiichi asks about any violence, Mion has the same curt response as Rena.

Keiichi heads back to the junkyard as the sun once again falls, but Rena forgot he offered to help her unearth the statue. It’s clear she wasn’t prepared for him to show up, and heads home to grab them some tea. While waiting, darkness falls, in more ways then one, and Keiichi finds an old magazine detailing the story of a dam construction worker who was lynched, murdered, and dismembered.

As he reads, Rena creeps up on him, wielding a huge, curved, and very sharp-looking blade, while cute lil’ Rika stands behind Rena with glowing red eyes, suggesting she might be controlling Rena’s body. Roll credits, complete with an ending theme that absolutely slaps. Now that got dark quick, didn’t it?!

Higurashi is not for everyone, as those without the stomach for bloody horror will be joined by those who insist the franchise didn’t need rebooting. That said, had it not been rebooted, I would never have checked this out, and then find it right up my alley as a casual (and sufficiently-desensitized) horror fan. I’m looking forward to watching Keiichi and the town’s slow descent into madness and murder.

Rating: 4/5 Stars

Cardcaptor Sakura – 62 – Dreaming of Darkness

New Year has come, and Sakura gets gussied up in a lovely pink kimono even her brother has to admit looks good (for a kaiju!). She and her fam visit the Tsukimine Shrine for New Years greetings and prayers, but Yukito is a no-show; Touya later finds him slumped over in his house, simply unable to stay awake.

On the bright side, Sakura spots Tomoyo with her mom Sonomi, and both Daidoujis make sure Sakura’s beauty is recorded for posterity. On the darker side, Eriol is the one to dispense Sakura and Tomoyo’s fortunes, and while Tomoyo’s foretells great luck, Sakura’s is a lot stranger, saying she’ll “find truth in her dreams”.

Speaking of dreams, Syaoran gets one granted when Tomoyo urges Sakura to pay him a visit and some tea; he quietly thanks Tomoyo for the gesture. They get to taste Syaoran’s homemade peach pastries, and Sakura learns from Wei that until her, only family have called him by his first name…which of course makes Syaoran as pink as Sakura’s kimono.

Her fortune gives her pause, and Kero-chan is increasingly concerned that Yue isn’t getting enough magical power to keep from fading out of existence, but for now Sakura goes to sleep. There, she finds no rest, but is urged by an ominous voice to release her wand and then convert and use the Dream card.

It shows her a foretelling dream of darkness descending on Tomoeda from the Tsukimine shrine. Upon its gate stand three figures in silhouette: a winged leopard-like beast, a winged human figure with long hair, and a boy with a staff.

While she hasn’t quite put faces or names to those shadowy figures, she’s closer than ever to discovering the source of the town’s many recent magical disturbances, and as Kero-chan warns, the day will come when she’ll meet them at the shrine. It’s in the cards.

Fruits Basket – 47 – Nothing Like a Prince

Yuki continues to open up to Manabe, expounding on the evolution of his relationship to Tooru. First she was a wierd classmate who lived in a tent, then he saw he could use her to rebel against the Souma clan. At some point, he started to realize strong maternal vibes coming off of her as a result of her showering him with unconditional love and kindness.

It started when she told him to become friends with her again even if her memories were taken by Hatori. And Yuki panicked when he felt this way, and immediately tried to deny and suppress those feelings, even trying to interact with her more “like a man does a woman,” creating a love triangle with Kyou even though the two men weren’t seeking the same thing.

It’s the first time Yuki’s able to talk at all about this being about more than competing or not being able to “beat” Kyou for Tooru’s heart, but rather feeling something other than romantic attraction and being okay with her and Kyou as a couple; after all, he’s observed the two together and is pretty confident they love each other.

The one thing Yuki doesn’t want is to waste the kindness and warmth Tooru gave so freely. He wants to use it to move forward and discover his own “special purpose in life.” He’s buoyed by being able to discuss it so candidly with Kakeru—who he notes is also a kind (in his way) person to listen without judgment. However, Yuki wisely doesn’t discuss any of this with Todou Miki!

Yuki sees a day coming that he’ll be able to tell Tooru how he truly feels and about the purpose he’s found thanks to her love and support. Until then, he’ll keep watching over her, as he does right after casually confronting Kyou about the hat, which causes Kyou to withdraw into his room.

Before Yuki came home, Tooru and Kyou were having a flirt-fight in the entryway over his confiscating of her Cinderella script after she let Shigure know about it. Kyou still hasn’t committed to even participating in the play, and he certainly doesn’t want Shisho to know about it.

There’s also the matter of Tooru simply not being able to act like anything resembling an evil stepsister, as expected. She promises to work hard and even go without food in order to master the role, but it seems hopeless. With Ayame and Mine sure to provide some unique takes on Cinderella costumes and both Kyou and Saki also seeming miscast, the scriptwriter decides to scrap what she has and write a script that better fits the actors.

I’m all for that, and it’s great to see Ayame trying to support his brother in any way he can, once again making up for all the neglect Yuki suffered in the past, including from a then-indifferent big bro. It’s also fun watching Yuki’s classmates react to finally meeting his very different brother—while I’m sure Mine probably felt like she just struck gold upon meeting Saki and Arisa!

When Yuki goes off to look for Kyou for Tooru, he finds him sulking on the staircase. Kyou is going over what he said to Yuki when his hat was offered back to him. Remember: Kyou still considers Yuki not only a rival for Tooru’s heart, but the underdog, even if the truth is he’s running more or less unopposed.

As such, Kyou interprets Yuki bringing up the hat and the fact he gave it to Tooru to be another instance of looking down on him. When Yuki dares bring up Tooru (specifically why Kyou is making her worry by ditching rehearsal), all of Kyou’s insecurities come pouring out.

He lists all the ways he sees Yuki as better—having a living mom and dad, being needed and praised by others, surpassing him easily as he desperately struggles, etc. Had they ever deigned to open up to one another, Kyou would know all those things Yuki has “over” him are more curses than blessings. What I’d give for Kyou to watch last week’s episode and the first half of this one!

Instead, Kyou sees Yuki’s expression—one not of anger but of sadness, almost on the brink of tears—and sees it as yet another instance of looking down on him. So he punches a window and storms off. This results in another welcome interaction betweeen Yuki and Machi, as Machi contradicts her classmate saying he’s the least prince-like person she knows—again, because she knows Yuki’s pain.

Kyou finds Tooru sitting in the classroom after everyone else left, and his thoughts stray towards what she was thinking about before he arrived, when she was alone. When she excitedly presents Kyou with the revised script, I was fully prepared for him to dismiss it out of hand, or even slap it out of hers, like the old Kyou; like the Kyou who might’ve resurfaced after his rant to Yuki.

Instead, he draws ever so close to Tooru, and then agrees to do the play, warning her not to laugh at him! The two share blushing looks before heading home together. The now-explicit contrast between Yuki’s and Kyou’s feelings for Tooru paves the way for potential happiness for all three of them in the future. I’m also not discounting the potential for a relationship between Yuki and Machi—stranger things have and will happen!

Fruits Basket – 46 – More than Just Darkness

Technically, things stay still this week, as Yuki takes a deep dive back down memory lane as he sits with Kakeru. But while the vice president gets the Cliff Notes at the end about Yuki’s devotion to Tooru (who goes unnamed), we get the full and devastating play-by-play, starting with Yuki’s first meeting with a younger, less evil Akito and culminating in the full retelling of the “baseball cap” incident.

Yuki was so young when he first met Souma Akito, he didn’t question the fact his parents were basically selling him to the Zodiac god as a goddamn human sacrifice. But in their first meeting, Yuki does suddenly tear up. One of the household women states that other Zodiac members did the same upon meeting Akito and that’s it’s a sign of their powerful, inscrutable “bond.”

In reality, the tears were the response to the “shouting” of two opposing voices in his chest, both wanting and not wanting to meet Akito, both wanting to embrace and escape, beloved and repulsing. It’s a lot for anyone, let alone a sickly little kid who has yet to grasp just how much his life has changed.

Yuki admits that Akito was indeed less sadistic once and his tantrums far more tame. But one day Akito became twisted, without any precise cause of explanation. He just…snapped, and Yuki became a canvas much like the walls and floor Akito covered in pitch-black ink (like the ink he saw in the StuCo storage room). The black ink of constant verbal and emotional abuse, liberally, chaotically thrown about like a supernatural Jackson Pollack.

Akito never let Yuki forget for a single day how useless and hated he was by everyone, and how he what little worth he has is entirely dependent on Akito’s benevolence. Such sentiments were borne out in the rare instances Yuki interacted with other Zodiac members. When he meets Kyou, the first thing he thinks is how pretty his hair is, while Kyou, who blames the Rat for his mother’s suicide, vows never to forgive Yuki and wish he would simply disappear. Those are Kyou’s first words to Yuki, who he’d never met!

Yuki does to a fancier school than the other members, despite Kyou, Haru, Kagura and Momiji all being of similar age. The dissonance between all the household talk of how important and venerable and “close to God” the Rat is, and the way he is universally resented and loathed, causes Yuki’s heart to wither…a person can only take so much!

Yuki actually does make some friends organically at his school, but the first time a girl accidentally hugs him and he transforms into a rat, all of those friends’ memories are deleted by Hatori, and he’s suddenly alone in the dark again.

Akito has no words of comfort for him, only of scolding: this is the result of you deluding yourself. For hoping. For believing there is anything bright in this world. Here I was thinking Rin got the very worst of treatment from Akito, but it was almost a mercy that she was so much less coveted a member of the Zodiac than the Rat, constantly suffering under Akito’s foot.

Yuki and Kyou cross paths once more, and Kyou loses his blue baseball cap—that’s right, that cap—but when Yuki offers to hand it back to him, Kyou runs away, and into the arms of Kazuma. That sight makes Yuki yearn for parents who would embrace rather than discard him, as well as a home to which he wanted to return, where everyone could smile and no one would keep their distance.

Yuki becomes ill (well, more ill), and with an apathetic “poor Yuki” Akito is his only visitor as he’s confined to a chair. Akito decides this is the best time to explain why Kyou hates him so much sight unseen, while asking mockingly if he’s going to die. Yuki gets to the point that he’d rather die and disappear, as he believes it would be the first and last time he’ll ever “be useful”.

But as those suicidal thoughts swirl in his head, the mirror in his hands shatters. Rather than cut himself, Yuki puts the baseball cap on and runs. Runs out of the compound to no destination and for no reason other than to simply run.

And run he does…right past a crying little girl (Tooru) and, a little further on, a young mother (Kyouko) chewing out police for asking her for a more detailed description than “cute in every way”. Yuki backtracks, makes eye contact with the girl, and before he knows it, she’s following his every move. Every time he turns a corner he hesitates a bit until she locks back onto him.

From that point on, the girl was relying on him for everything. He wasn’t just useful…he was absolutely needed. Once the two are in front of her house, he places the cap on her head, says “well done,” and runs off, without even asking for her name.

Despite the brevity of their interaction, Yuki’s hopes were buoyed for quite a long time…until he again descended into the darkness of Akito’s abuse and slow torture. Then he met Tooru again without even realizing she was the girl who saved him the first time, and let her save him all over again. The rest we know!

Even though much of what Yuki recalls isn’t relayed to Kakeru out loud, it is still important that Yuki has found someone in Kakeru—a non-Zodiac—whom he can trust and in whom he can confide. He may still not fully grasp what exactly Tooru is for him, he knows for sure that she is beloved, “like a mother.”

The loving, caring, smiling, nurturing mother Tooru herself had all too brief a time, and whom Yuki never, ever had. Thanks to Tooru, he knows Akito was wrong about the world. It’s not all light, but it’s not all pitch-black either.

Check out Crow’s review here!

Fruits Basket – 40 – Daring to Meddle

It’s parent-teacher conference time, which means the inevitable re-reunion of Mayuko and Shigure. Tooru doesn’t know what the deal is with the “diamond dust”, but Mayuko impresses upon her the importance of not bearing everything by herself.

With Tooru’s folks passed she’s believed for a long time that her only path is to immediately join the workforce without further education. But she shouldn’t feel trapped on that path; there are still other possibilities.

After the conference, Tooru can’t fool Saki, who can detect her turbulent “waves”. Still, Tooru dismisses it as general anxiety they’re all feeling about the future. Arisa could model, but hasn’t really thought anything through, while Saki is taking baby steps: first she has to graduate, then she’ll go from there!

Meanwhile Kyou has his conference with Kazuma, and it’s notable for the fact that we never actually see it. Kazuma simply came to support Kyou, not to dictate to him what path he should choose. And while I’m confident Tooru, Kazuma, and others will be able to foil Akito’s plans to confine him, Kyou should still savor the peaceful present while it still exists.

That results in Tooru, Arisa, Hana, and Kyou having a somen party, but Yuki can’t have fun, because he’s on the phone with his mom asking if she could, ya know, actually show up. The next day he might wish he hadn’t urged her and simply had Shigure come for him, but the growth that comes out of their confrontation makes it worthwhile.

“Worthwhile” is not a word I’d used to describe Yuki’s mom. She embodies the soul of Gordon Gekko: “greed is good”, and sentiment is for losers. Yuki has always been a tool, and when Akito took a liking to him, his mom was all too happy to toss him into the abyss. I simply cannot stress enough how unforgivable this was, considering the psychological damage done to Yuki in that accursed estate.

Just hearing his mom on the phone or being in her presence is enough to not only return him to the dark and lonely, hopeless room of his childhood, but darken and sap of color the very room in which the conference is taking place. When Mayuko tries to interject, Yuki’s mom is ready with barbs about her unmarried status and silly school.

Then Ayame bursts through the door, resplendent in one of his handmade suits and bearing a huge bouquet of roses for his pal Hattori’s new squeeze. But more than anything, he’s there for his beloved little brother, who gave him a second chance even though he didn’t deserve it. He also blames his own failure to meet mom’s expectations, which made her shift them all to Yuki.

Yuki is shocked to see that their mother has no idea how to deal with Ayame, and eventually storms out in full retreat. Yuki decides not to squander the chance Ayame gave him, and proceeds to chase his mom down in the hall. It’s then that he notices, for the first time, how small and thin she is. Of course, his most vivid memory is of her towering over him, utterly ignoring his pleas for help with a placid, complacent smile.

Furuba doesn’t pretend that Yuki’s mom’s hardships weren’t real and considerable, but it doesn’t excuse what she did either. Yuki uses the simplest terms he can: he wants to live in the world, which requires effort he wants to put in.

Even if he fails, he’ll take pride in the effort. But to him, letting her decide what his life will be is no better than ending it altogether. Considering what she’s done to his life thus far, that’s not an exaggeration!

His mom leaves without responding, but perhaps maybe finally she heard his words. That’s the first step towards exploring what other times she hadn’t heard them, and the price he paid.

As with Ayame, she won’t get anywhere if she doesn’t reckon with what she did and didn’t do for Yuki when he needed love and protection her most. Unlike Ayame, she may ultimately be beyond saving. But hey, Yuki made the damn effort!

For that effort, Yuki gets to see Tooru in the hall just as the sun peeks back out of the clouds. Sakuragi grabs him for a StuCo emergency (Ayame has invaded the office and is considering re-taking command) but as he passes Tooru he smiles and they exchange the same words as family when leaving for the day: I’m off. Take Care.

Tooru’s “meddling” against Akito has barely begun, but it starts with little things that mean everything, like telling Yuki earlier in the episode that his path and future are his to choose, no matter what anyone else says, and being in that hall later, just when he needed her smile.

Read Crow’s episode 40/15 review here!

Shironeko Project: ZERO CHRONICLE – 03 – What a King (and Queen) Need

Well, SPZC has one thing going for it for sure: the story ain’t hard to follow! As with last week, a lot less happens on the light side that has to be stretched out. Queen Iris is troubled by the recent violence, but looks back to the time when she and Cima were still candidates.

Back then she managed to dispel a cloud of darkness on her own when the Rune answered her call. The look back reminds her of her duty not just to protect her people, but maintain the balance of Black and White, even if no one else understands that bit.

Indeed, the only person she can probably relate with on the matter of balance (as opposed to simply eliminating one’s enemy completely) is the Dark Prince. As I said, more happens to him, as he has yet to succeed the present King. However, this week eliminates the obstacle of competition for his spot as successor.

Like Iris, the prince’s commitment to balance causes him to act in a way the other candidates fight inexplicable, like helping one of them rather than letting them die. But the prince remembers the horrors that befell his village and has determined he’ll be a king who doesn’t just look after himself and his own power.

The competition is quick and efficient: after the larger group is whittled down in a beast battle, the last two standing duel each other, with the Prince beating Adel, who like Cima takes the loss very well and is willing to befriend the winner.

Groza bestows upon the Prince the symbol of his right of succession—the unimaginatively named Greatsword of Black—and his first mission: for him and Adel to go to the Kingdom of White as official envoys and deliver the news of their succession to the Queen of Light.

It looks like the fourth episode will be the one when Iris and Prince (God I wish he had a name) finally meet. I wish these first three episodes had delved a little deeper into who these two characters are besides their very simplified archetypes and shared ideals, but this isn’t that kind of show.

Instead, Iris and Prince are more symbols of hope in the idea that a lasting peace beneficial to all could be struck if they can come together. The stage is now set for that encounter. Will Cima and Adel stand by their friends throughout these efforts, or undermine them, more confident in the strength of their side than with the prospects of balance?

P.S. Here’s the poppy ED. It rips!

Shironeko Project: ZERO CHRONICLE – 02 – Marking Time

As befits a show shows central message is balance, this episode is evenly split between White and Black. First the White: elemental spirit-summoning Elf mage Alantia leads the defense of Metis against a Bahamut-style dark boss named Bahl. Queen Iris eventually shows up and puts on quite a light show, but isn’t really able to put a scratch on Bahl, which is concerning to say the least. She’s worried the Progenitor Rune is being taxed to its limit, and her kingdom can’t afford to lose it.

The would-be Prince of Darkness’s story is progressing at a much faster clip. This makes sense, as Iris is already Queen of Light so he has some catching up to do. Still, the difference in the pacing of the light and dark halves is noticeable…and not necessarily complementary. Valas impresses upon the young prince that becoming king is about more than just being good with a sword. It means learning how to govern and pitching in when needed (as presented in a montaaaage).

This “king of the people” angle is seemingly at odds with the present King of Darkness, who is little more than a smoke monster with a Sauron-like “cover everything in darkness” policy. He considers future generations like the prince to be unnecessary. Where “Egoism of the world” Bahl fits into this isn’t quite clear yet.

One assumes from the OP and ED that the prince and queen will meet someday, but for now, the prince settles for meeting Princess of Black Groza, AKA the “Gray-Green Demoness.” She’s a bit spoiled what with her squad of loyal troops, but when the Prince rescues her from a stray monster, she proves quite amiable to the lad, and tells him of the official competition with other potential successors in which he must participate in order to become an official Prince of Darkness.

After two episodes Shironeko Project: ZERO CHRONICLE remains perfectly watchable, if unexceptional and a bit sluggish. I continue to be driven to watch by the simple premise, Iwasaki Taku score, and promise of the eventual meeting of Iris and the Prince. Mainly I’m neither turned-off nor busy enough to drop it!

Shironeko Project: ZERO CHRONICLE – 01 (First Impressions) – The Desperate Pursuit of Balance

In the Kingdom of Darkness, an unnamed young lad (Kaji Yuki) flees from his village with younger children when monsters attack. Neither the villagers nor the children survive, leaving the lad alone. Not knowing what else to do, he digs a huge hole for the dead, but also for himself, because he comes to like how the sun pours in, coating everything in the hole equally.

He encounters an old but stout knight named Skears, who urges the kid to come out of the hole and direct his energies elsewhere. He manages to inspire the kid into having a little duel with him, and he shows a bit of skill. That’s apparently enough for Skears, who by the way is dying, to name the kid his successor as well as the next Prince and future King of Darkness, a title Skears himself failed to gain.

Meanwhile, high above the clouds in the Kingdom of Light, Queen Iris (Horie Yui) leads an attack on an encroaching darkness that is expanding in both size and density, making each battle tougher. Shironeko Project takes pains to accentuate the stark contrast between the kingdoms of darkness in light.

Obviously, there’s more light, but more saturation, richer hues, and an ethereal vividness. It’s as squeaky clean and gleaming up here as it is muddy and brooding down there. And just as important as the visuals are the sounds, and Iwasaki Taku’s lavish orchestral score is excellent, featuring distinct leitmotifs for the two kingdoms: more orchestral and soaring in the sky; more grungy and metal down below.

The Lad makes it to the capital where he’ll become stronger and challenge the current King, but he’ll need allies. He gains his first in Valas, a knight friendly with Skears (and possibly his former student). Valas presumes the kid is a thief, but after flashing some skill and more importantly Skears’ words, Valas changes his tune, pledges his loyalty to the kid’s claim, and takes him to Skears’ mansion.

This all happens rather fast, but as the Bard said, “brevity is the soul of wit.” If you’re using my viewing time wisely and efficiently I’m rarely going to be mad, as long as you don’t run out of story or worse, the speed hurts my ability to get engaged with the material. Neither is the case here…at least not yet.

Back in the Lightdom, we get to know Queen Iris’ top officers, like the knight Faios and mage Sima. They know their queen is more concerned with maintaining balance than achieving a total victory. Interestingly, Sima was once a candidate for Queen but lost to her best friend. Refreshingly, she seems to hold no hard feelings, and wants only to serve her queen as best she can.

Iris’ commitment to minimizing fighting and death is noble, but the expanding darkness is forcing her hand, and a report comes that the Western capital is under attack, she must immediately head back into battle. Even so, she sees this latest incursion as a sign it’s time for the King of Darkness to be replaced. She’s confident his successor will work with her to maintain the balance.

I first approached SPZC with skepticism—with so many fantasy anime out there (isekai or no) any newcomer would have to make quite the impression. I wasn’t encouraged by the breakneck speed and simplicity of the early scene of the kid and Skears, but once I saw both sides of this dark-light coin, and heard more of that sweet, sweet Iwasaki sound, this gradually grew into something I’d tentatively recommend.

I’m also a sucker for star-crossed love stories in the midst of warring nations, and a big fan of both Horie and Kaji, so the inevitable meeting of Prince and Iris is a built-in reason to keep watching. SPZC is telling a very old story with very basic elements, but telling it reasonably well. We’ll see if it can elevate that material.

KonoSuba Movie: Legend of Crimson – Megumin’s Homecoming

First of all, it’s been some time since I’ve seen Kazuma, Aqua, Megumin, and Darkness in their original non-chibified form, so it’s a rare pleasure to see them in their regular proportions and setting. KonoSuba’s twenty episodes proved you can make an often over-the-top isekai comedy with genuine heart.

If you liked the TV show, you’ll love the movie (as I did), which delivers more of everything. Though it contains roughly a half-cour’s worth of story, the ninety minutes just breeze by. Officially a sequel to KonoSuba 2, we return to Kazuma’s party’s mansion, where notoriously involuntary loner Yunyun has an unusual request: she wants—nay, must—make a baby with Kazuma. She comes to this belief upon receiving a letter from her father, Chief of the Crimson Demon Village.

While that letter turns out to be a work of fiction written by one of her academy classmates, Yunyun is nevertheless compelled to return to her hometown to help fight the forces of the Demon King. Megumin and the others decide to follow her, and rely on Iz to teleport them there.

Unfortunately, they end up far from the village, and in the midst of a stampede of rabidly horny she-orcs (there are no more male orcs) after Kazuma. After Yunyun’s request, this marks the second instance of Kazuma being entangled in romance (for good or ill) which he comes to call his “popular phase.”

What better way to learn more about Megumin than to visit her home? Turns out she’s hardly an anomoly, the town is nothing but overly-dramatic chuuni dressed in cool outfits with an emphasis on reds and blacks. The orcs are scattered by their overwhelming offensive magical power, a quality Megumin also shares with her clan.

Megumin’s parents are each eccentric in their own ways, while her little sister Komekko is adorable as all-get-out. Her family is poor, so the moment her parents smell money on Kazuma (he’s in the process of a 300m-Eris deal with Vanir to sell his memoirs), Kazuma finds himself at the mercy of a mother who wants to pair him with Megumin with all due haste.

To this end, she locks Kazuma and Megumin (sleeping due to a recent Explosion) in a room together. She comes to when he’s about to kiss her after much hand-wringing about how to proceed, and she escapes through the window to spend the night at Yunyun’s, fearing further lecherous advances.

The next day, Megumin shows her friends around the village, including to her and Yunyun’s (very Hogwarts-y) magical academy. We learn that when goblins attacked Komekko, Yunyun sacrificed her amassed skill points to repel the enemy. Because Megumin hesitated, that meant she was able to preserve her points and attain Explosion magic she cultivates to this day.

Megumin finds herself locked in her room with Kazuma again, this time by ice. Kazuma assures her that he won’t do anything, and offers his apologies as well as thanks for all the things she and the others have gone through with and for him.

It’s a very nice heartfelt scene, and Megumin even ends up clinging to Kazuma under the covers, commenting on how he’s really a “wimp” when it comes to making a move. Unfortunately, their tender moment is interrupted by the return of Sylvia, the voluptuous Demon King who leads the attack on the village.

Kazuma managed to scare her and her goblin army off with bluster earlier, but when she learns he’s not really Mitsurugi of the Cursed Sword, she takes him hostage…and Kazuma lets it happen. First, because it’s more proof of his Popular Phase; second, because it’s comfy between Sylvia’s boobs; and third, he has an ax to grind with his comrades regarding his treatment.

Kazuma accompanies Sylvia to the Crimson Demon Village’s underground storage facility, and inadvertently unlocks the chamber where Mage Killer, the one weapon he can’t let a demon king get ahold of, is stored. While he doesn’t intend to make things worse for the village, Kazuma’s so out of it he doesn’t realize punching in the classic cheat code on the Nintendo-style control pad would unlock the weapon.

He manages to lock Sylvia in the chamber, but once she has the Mage Killer and absorbs it into her artificial body, she blows the entire facility to kingdom come, then heads to the village to start blowing it up. Megumin leads Kazuma & Co. to more underground caverns, where they find Japanese carvings that explain the origin of the Crimson Demons, and why they’re so “pretentious yet nerdy”

Turns out their culture was basically created by another Japanese man sent there by the goddesses. He also built the Mage Killer, but also created a countermeasure for it: something he tentatively called “Railgun” that Kazuma previously noticed being used as a backyard clothesline in the village.

When Crimson Demons march out to defend their town, Sylvia engulfs them in an “Ancient Dispel” field that nullifies all of their magical power. They’re “saved” by a suddenly cool and confident Yunyun, finally taking up the mantle of her father the chief and luring Sylvia away.

Turns out she’s acting as a lure to bring Sylvia in firing range of the Railgun. Aqua fills it with magial energy, but it still fails to fire. That’s when Megumin unleashes an Explosion meant to his Sylvia directly, but is instead shunted into the rifle, which her little sister Komekko then fires.

Sylvia is killed, and ends up in the same place as fellow defeated Demon Kings Verdia and Hans. She merges with them an is resurrected into a huge, bizarre four-legged beast. Turns out her old comrades Wiz and Vanir have arrived in the village on an unrelated errand, and join in the fight, but even they are barely able to keep Sylvia at bay.

That’s when Kazuma decides to use his Popular Phase for good; by appealing to Sylvia’s innate need to be loved and wanted by somebody other than her adoring hordes of goblins. Kazuma, his luck boosted by Aqua’s blessings, is that person, and stands before her unarmed and ready to be taken into her arms…or tentacles…or whatever.

I never thought I’d empathize with a Konosuba villain so much, but Sylvia turns out to be one of the most dynamic and sympathetic of Demon Kings KonoSuba has served up. Her feelings, and specifically her romantic longing, isn’t entirely played for jokes, but portrayed as a very human side of her that turns out to be the Achilles Heel Kazuma must betray her heart to exploit.

He succeeds in gaining her trust and becomes one with her as Wiz gathers the magical energy from all of the villagers and transfers it to Megumin and Yunyun, who combine their powers to unleash a gargantuan Explosion beam that, combined with Kazuma breaking her heart, destroys Sylvia and ends the threat to the village for good.

Back home in Axel, Kazuma receives a hero’s welcome, proving his Popular Phase still has a bit left in the tank. While having a picnic with Aqua and Darkness, Megumin asks Kazuma to allow her to learn advanced magic, setting aside her Explosion magic so she can be of greater use to the party.

Kazuma may have long railed against her utter lack of versatility and durability in battle, but spending so much time in close quarters with her and meeting both her family and the villagers who shaped her, Kazuma suddenly isn’t so quick to deprive her of her “Explosiveness”. Whatever he does to her skill card, she’s still able to cast a beautiful Explosion that creates a heart-shaped cloud. And for that, Megumin is happy.

Did Aqua and Darkness get the short end of the stick in this movie? Perhaps, but that meant a lot of great development for Megumin, Kazuma, and their unique bond. They may get on each others nerves at times, but at the end of the day they’ll always be there for each other: Megumin blowing up something that needs blowing up, and Kazuma carrying her home on his back.

It’s quite simply KonoSuba at its absolute best, firing on all cylinders with confidence, comedy, and chemistry. My main gripe with this movie is that it makes me long that much more for KonoSuba 3!

Isekai Quartet 2 – 08 – The Things We Do for Lunch

Hidden by the vertical sign: Ristarte from Cautious Hero!

Lt. Viktoriya Ivanovna “Visha” Serebryakova was a reliable source of comedy in Youjo Senki, but both she (and her seiyu Hayami Saori) been generally underutilized in Isekai Quartet. This week the doe-eyed beauty gets a spotlight of sorts, as the rest of her class wonders where she rushes off to after school. Turns out she’s working multiple part-time jobs around town to earn enough money to indulge in the ¥30,000 “Special Menu” at the cafeteria.

She also mentions that all of her workplaces feed her for free, and that, combined with the mystery of the Special Menu, compel others to seek employment (since the Butcher is present at all these locations I imagine this was a scheme on his part to get some cheap labor). Subaru, in one instance, serves the fully-assembled Pleiades combat maids, a rare sight indeed on this show!

The resulting discovery that the Special Menu is simply the normal menu served in ridiculously huge portions is a disappointment to all but Visha, who looks ready, willing and able to consume the food-mountain with ease in one sitting, garnering some unnerved looks from other characters. As for the others, they know to save the money they earned for something else.

Isekai Quartet 2 – 07 – Let’s Get Physicals

It’s a scary time for a lot of people across the world with the outbreak of the Coronavirus, so it’s somewhat inauspiciously coincidental for IQ2 to come out with an episode in which everyone gets a physical. This physical only seems to consist of taking the students’ height and weight, with no injections or other health tests taken.

What this episode does test is my patience with Pandora’s Actor. In the shadow of fellow Miyano Mamoru-voiced character Betelgeuse, PA’s quirkiness seems forced. He’s random and crazy enough to be annoying, but not enough to be fun to watch. Ram seems to agree.

As for the parties who strive to see members of the opposite sex in their skivvies, Rem prevents Shalltear and Albedo from glimpsing too many of Ainz’s bones, while the normally super-lucky Kazuma is a hair too late in initiating his peeping mission.

Speaking of hair, the prominent ahoge of both Tanya and Filo prevent Wiz from taking accurate height measurements, while Darkness is the only girl disappointed that neither Kazuma nor any other men decided to peep on them. The excessive Pandora’s Actor marred some otherwise funny moments in an unfocused outing.

Isekai Quartet 2 – 06 – Condiment Civil War

Personal preference for something even as trivial as chicken wing condiments can nonetheless cleave normally ironclad alliances. Tanya and Ainz may usually get along, but she’s a salt-and-pepper gal. Ram may love Subaru, but not enough to put mayo on her wings. Cocytus may be a loyal subject of Lord Ainz, but not to the point of using ketchup.

Rerugen sees that he won’t make any progress in class until the conflict is resolved, so he recommends the three factions play each other in condiment preference dodgeball, conscripting Shield Hero, Raphtalia and Filo to round out the teams. Visha and the butcher provide play-by-play and color commentary.

Darkness is predictably the first to be out, as the notorious M makes no effort to avoid a hard-thrown ball. Ram, Rem, and the Bello twins match kick attacks before Rerugen warns them that kicking is disallowed. Aqua’s God Blow is blocked by Albedo’s Walls of Jericho. The cats are not normal.

Eventually, Ainz and Megumin launch an explosive combo attack that Tanya manages to block with a magical barrier, only for the ball to burst. No one remembers what they were bickering about, so they decide to let the matter rest and go out for croquettes…only to start another argument about condiment preference.

Isekai Quartet is all about bringing all these heroes and villains down to a more realistic and normal planet earth, to a place more like where we live, and where in lieu of daily dramatic life-or-death disagreements, we place outsized importance on silly things like Coke-or-Pepsi (it’s Coke, obviously).