Yuru Camp△ – 08 – Caribou in Minobu

This episode takes place between camping trips, with Chiaki and Aoi returning to the spotlight. After stewing in envy at their last trip over their neighbors’ fancy camping, Chiaki decided to get creative, putting together a cute dining set for under $30. But the bowl she bought can’t accept hot foods unless the lacquer is removed, while her new cast-iron skillet must be cleaned and seasoned before use.

Both are time-consuming and there are no shortcuts available, so Chiaki ropes in Aoi to help her after school, despite the fact exams are in a couple days. Nadeshiko is the one to suggest they go “Christmas camping” after exams, and the other two even invite Rin’s friend Saitou, who says she’ll definitely consider it.

Between learning the intricacies of bowl and skillet maintenance, Nadeshiko’s wonderfully random photo essays, and the simple pleasure of watching two old friends in Chiaki and Aoi simply riff off each other, it’s a fun outing (one of the best exchanges: Chiaki: “You have a family?!” Aoi: “What’s your problem?!”) despite there being no actual camping.

We fast-forward to after exams (Aoi does well, Nadeshiko meh, Chiaki just barely scraped by, despite her glasses) with Chiaki and Aoi taking Nadeshiko to the cute retro town of Minobu to pay a visit to the area’s camping mecca, Caribou. They’re like three kids in a candy store…only most of the candy is too expensive.

Nadeshiko gets the hard sell for a $43 lantern she falls in love with, then she’s introduced to the different types of camping mats, while Chiaki and Aoi learn that Nadeshiko may have a high tolerance for cold and discomfort. Combined with her dog-like attention span and pack mule strength and stamina, Nadeshiko is one tough cookie!

The three decide to melt into some super-comfy camping chairs on display, and Nadeshiko learns that Chiaki works at the liquor store right across from Aoi’s supermarket. Chiaki also mentions that their new history teacher Toba-sensei, while pretty and nice, is also notorious at the liquor store for buying booze every day. Looks like my prediction about Nadeshiko and Rin’s boozy camping neighbor ending up at their school will be proven correct!

Rin comes home from school to get changed for work, and ponders what she should do for the break. On the one hand, a solo camping trip would be her usual speed. Then again, she really enjoyed cooking a big feast with Nadeshiko. Personally, I’d pick the option that involved the best food!

The Outclub caps their day of modest shopping by tucking into Minobu’s specialty steamed buns, with Nadeshiko’s gluttony rubbing off on the other two. As everyone else seems to have a part-time job, Nadeshiko decides she’ll seek one as well, both to fund the often-pricey outdoor hobby, and to keep her virtually bottomless stomach full!

Rating: 4/5 Stars

Jaku-Chara Tomozaki-kun – 04 – Standing Up to the Queen

Tomozaki just landed a lucky break. If there was no reason for Izumi Yuzu to approach him, he’d been making his presence known to the point that when he approached her, she felt she could come to him with her TackFam problem, which is really a Nakamura Shuuji problem. Bottom line: Izumi likes Shuuji, and wants to get good enough at the game to take him on. We also learn Shuuji recently turned down the Konno Erika, leader of the Neckties to which Yuzu belongs.

Yuzu invites Tomozaki to her place so he can teach her, and after one match he knows exactly what she needs to get better, starting with learning how to execute a short jump, which is simply a matter of practice and muscle memory. Yuzu is grateful for Tomozaki’s advice but wonders what the deal is with his various poses and gestures…turns out he’s mimicking Hinami’s teaching style without knowing it!

By the time Tomozaki is drawing detailed diagrams of all the moves Yuzu will have to memorize, she asks him: What is all the intense effort even for? He tells her what it’s not for: making friends or winning praise. When Yuzu claims she can’t ever change from her current status of superficially laughing with her necktie-wearing friends, he assures her he is proof that anyone can change; they just need to commit themselves and put in the effort.

While Hinami calls Tomozaki’s break with Yuzu pretty “miraculous” when they meet up for a debrief, she can’t deny he properly capitalized, using what he knows best (TackFam) to really connect with someone. That said, she still wants him to ask Fuuka out on a date, even producing movie tickets for them to use.

The night before, Tomozaki practices asking Fuuka out on the recorder Hinami gave her, showing how he’s learning how to listen to himself and adjust. But he also accidentally opens a folder of recordings Hinami didn’t delete: ones in which she too practices talking. He already considers it amazing she’s so good at the Game of Life; to hear the process firsthand is even more amazing.

Like him with TackFam, no matter how high a level you achieve, you can never stop practicing. But with practice comes the realization that sometimes circumstances won’t always accommodate your plans, nor will practice always inform what to do when it’s go time. To whit: Tomozaki calls an laudable audible: coming clean to Fuuka about having not read any of her favorite author, and thus not yet being ready to read her own novel.

This could have turned out disastrously, but the risk was well worth the reward of starting fresh from a position of honesty. A white lie or misunderstanding rarely forms a strong foundation for a relationship. While there’s clear and justifiable disappointment in Fuuka’s reaction, there’s also the sense she’s happy he’s being so honest. He’s also able to break the news naturally and casually enough not to come off as dismissive or cruel.

Working entirely outside the letter of Hinami’s plan while hewing to the spirit of her training, Tomozaki shows great growth here, while rejecting her “an in is an in” mentality. Yes, the author misunderstanding, got Fuuka talking to him, but so did simply asking Yuzu for a tissue.

He also wisely realizes that to ask her out on a date so soon after basically restarting their friendship from a place of honesty would be overdoing it, so he withholds the tickets for now. If he gets any flak from Hinami, he’ll be ready with a pretty good explanation. However, their next meeting is preempted by Shuuji’s two mates: he wants a TackFam rematch, now.

In the AV room, Tomozaki plays Shuuji while Shuuji’s mates, Yuzu, and Erika and her two Necktie acolytes watch. Tomozaki proceeds to beat Shuuji handily in match after match, but Shuuji keeps asking to play again. He grows more frustrated, even as he starts to improve slightly, to the point he’s able to take out one of Tomozaki’s health stocks.

That frustration creates an increasingly unpleasant tension and aura of desperation around Shuuji, to the point Erika begins to mock him as “weak”, his obsession with a “stupid game” as “creepy”, and that she dodged a bullet when he turned her down. The “stupid game” comment draws the ire of Tomozaki, as does her assertion that all of Shuuji’s hard work and practice amounts to nothing.

The old Tomozaki would have muttered something and not followed through, but this newly Hinami-trained Tomozaki is at least adept enough at the Game of Life to call Erika out for the haughty tourist she is. Shuuji may have been a dick to him all this time, but at least he’s committed to improving and keeps fighting no matter how much he loses. All Erika can do is mock someone else’s effort when she (at least as far as Tomozaki knows) puts in none at all.

Yuzu even has the courage to chime in and call Shuuji’s efforts “beautiful in a boyish way”, despite the fact doing so is contradicting the vaunted Queen of the Neckties. But I have no doubt it was Tomozaki’s earlier words about her ability to change that helped her summon the courage to speak up. Erika slinks away, pretending not to have learned anything, but she did. So did Shuuji, who probably resents Tomozaki defending him but also appreciated it.

Notable for her silence during all this is Hinami, which was no accident. The thing is, while she observed that Tomozaki had things well in hand, I also think she stayed above the fray in order to avoid needlessly upsetting the apple cart with Erika & Co., who would have likely felt ganged up on if she’d joined Tomozaki and Yuzu—an example of maintaining balance through inaction. Regardless, both Erika and Shuuji stop giving Tomozaki a hard time, now knowing better what he’s made of.

At their next meeting over lunch, Hinami asks how things are going with Fuuka, wondering if he’s lost motivation. He assures her he hasn’t, but without explaining the whole situation with coming clean and not wanting to pile on with a date request, Tomozaki pulls another laudable audible: whipping out the very tickets she gave him and asking Hinami if she’ll join him instead.

Hinami’s look of surprise is followed by the kind of proud face a master makes when their student has just done something good. Unfortunately, she’s not free tomorrow (what do you know, she does have other obligations!), but she is free for a movie now. Is it just me, or do these two just make a good couple, full stop?

It’s too early to tell, but I appreciate that Hinami doesn’t go all cliché blushy or tsundere at the prospect of Tomozaki asking her out. Maybe she gets that it’s for more “training”, or as thanks for her help so far. But at some point all these times they’re meeting up one-on-one and having fun will start painting the picture of two people…going out. We’ll see if anything comes of their consistently pleasant proximity, and more importantly, if more people start noticing them together all the damn time!

Crucially, this outing proved Tomozaki isn’t just some automaton carrying out Hinami’s directives, nor does she want him to be. She’s taught him the basics, and it’s up to him to experience how to properly use them and switch things up when warranted. The recording of Hinami also shows that her life game is an ongoing work in progress. I know it’s Tomozaki’s name in the title, but I would love to delve more into Hinami’s growth, and if Tomozaki has anything to teach her—something his recent shrewd freestyling might portend.

Jaku-Chara Tomozaki-kun – 03 – Character Creation, Phase 2

While a plethora of new characters were introduced last week, this episode keeps things simple by narrowing down the ones with whom Fumiya interacts to three: Aoi, Fuuka, and Yuzu. That not only keeps things from getting too scattered but is in keeping with Aoi’s desire to figure out who is best worth Fumiya’s time and effort.

Of course, first thing’s first: making him sufficiently presentable to converse with people. That means a trip to the mall for some new threads, a new haircut, and some lunch conversation practice. Fumiya has learned from the tapes that he has a tendency to mutter; Aoi tells him to use fewer words and rely more on gestures and tone to convey his emotions.

Quite by surprise, Fuuka is a waitress at the restaurant where they have lunch. Refreshingly, Fuuka doesn’t seem necessarily threatened by seeing them together, nor does she assume they’re on a date—she simply hadn’t pegged them as being friends material. Based on little details she noticed during their encounter, Aoi is convinced that Fuuka should be the “first heroine” Fumiya should pursue in his “playthrough.”

At their next meeting, Fumiya proudly reports that one of his small goals was achieved: his sister noticed he was putting more effort into his appearance. While Fumiya feels like he’s relying on “cheats” like dressing like the store mannquin or getting his hair done, Aoi insists that because he’s trusting in her and doing as she says, he deserves at least some of the credit for his success.

That said, Aoi isn’t going to start going easy on him. His next goal is to go somewhere alone with a girl who isn’t her. His related task for the week is to talk to Izumi Yuzu at least twice a day. Why Yuzu and not Fuuka? Because, as Aoi points out, real life isn’t a dating sim. Raising “affection levels” of one girl can raise them for all, along with increasing their innate possessiveness.

Fumiya is still weary that he’s not being “sincere”, but Aoi tells him it’s too early in his progress to worry about that. He’ll cross that bridge when he’s in a more serious relationship. For now, he needs “ins”, however he can get them. Things don’t go too smoothly with Yuzu at first; topics he chooses tend to lead to awkward conversational dead ends. But he keeps at it, and his quota for the week is eventually filled.

While in the library pretending to read a random book while coming up with TackFam strategies, Fumiya is approached by Fuuka, who notices the author he’s pretending to read is her favorite. Fumiya doesn’t correct her, and Fuuka ends up confessing something she’s never told anyone: she’s working on a novel, and would love it if he (and only he) read it sometime.

It’s a lovely little exchange because it’s the first of its kind fo Fuuka as well as Fumiya. Kayano Ai really sells Fuuka’s warmth and quiet enthusiasm, and Fuuka really does seem like a suitable person for Fumiya to pursue, and he has the perfect “in”.

As Aoi reiterates, it’s still too early to worry about “sincerity”; she can tell he’ll use it as an excuse to run away if she lets him. While he filled his quota in talking to Yuzu twice a day for a week, he may feel like he failed, like a battle he loses that results in KO and Game Over.

But unlike games of that kind, in the game of life you gain as much if not more XP by losing than by winning, so you’re better off keeping up the fight than starting over from scratch. That assertion really speaks to the gamer in Fumiya. The losses he tallied against Yuzu weren’t in vain; they got him to at least Level 3, and he can use what he learned from those failures to succeed with Fuuka.

But then life throws him for a loop when he spots Yuzu sitting alone and looking somewhat down. Remembering Aoi’s advice for him to mention something about her clothes or face, Fumiya tactlessly tells Yuzu she looks “gloomy”, but she doesn’t storm off. In fact, she just keeps looking gloomy, and even gets to the point that tears are welling in her eyes when she comes right out and asks him to teach her how to play TackFam.

I don’t believe this is the same kind of “in” as Fuuka’s secret novel reading—it’s possible Yuzu wants to learn to play so she can play with another boy she’s interested in, or maybe she just wants to learn TackFam, period. But the fact Fumiya reached out to her so much in the last week made him a viable person for Yuzu approach with such a request. So it could be an overture for a friendship. We shall see!

Rating: 4/5 Stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 4/5 Stars

Great Pretender – 23 (Fin) – How the Sausage is Made

In its penultimate episode Great Pretender pulled the wool over our eyes as well as those of con artists’ hapless targets. The finale opens with Liu, Chen, Suzaku, Ishigami, and a couple henchmen adjusting to their new reality: stranded on a deserted island with water and emergency rations.

There’s an absurd surrealism to seeing Liu, typically perched in his gaudy Shanghai tower, sitting on the beach looking defeated, or Suzaku lighting up a smoke in her ruined red throne, no longer surrounded by her lacquered and gilded office. They were well and truly conned like they’ve never been conned before.

The question is, how? After that quick check-in, we rewind back to the morning of the job. Before waking up, Makoto dreams of the time she gave her mom a wizard figurine, and she hoped it meant she’d see Seiji soon. Abby visits Makoto unannounced, urging him to hurry up and forgive himself, noting she was saved by doing the same.

From there, we follow Makoto as he clandestinely puts a sleeping drug in coffee he serves to Suzaku and Ishigami, while Laurent drugs the champagne he serves to Liu and Chen. This way, the targets are asleep while they are transported to the island where they’ll eventually be marooned.

We learn that while only Eddie Cassano is involved in this game as a favor to Laurent (they’re apparently on good terms now), the similarly reformed James Coleman and Sam Ibrahim also tagged along. Another character from a previous arc who plays a role is Shougo, who provides the air transport to the island.

On that island, Oz has led the construction down to the minute detail of a replica of Suzaku’s Tokyo HQ office. He had Makoto order the real thing re-painted recently so that the smell of fresh paint could be explained, while Suzaku herself is too woozy from her “nap” that she shrugs off the presence of cat sculptures Cynthia included because she thought they were cute, but weren’t in the real office.

The gun battle from which Liu, Chen, Suzaki and Ishigami escape was really just the “police” and Cassano’s “henchmen” firing their guns into the air, making enough noise to cover their escape down the elevator. As for Makoto’s “slashing?” The sword was real, but Oz only cut deep enough to break the blood bag inside Makoto’s jacket.

Fast-forward to the immediate aftermath of the successful completion of the job, the con artists party on what turns out to be Cassano’s boat. Makoto feels good about getting one over on Laurent (as well as following Abby’s advice to forgive himself), while Laurent tosses Dorothy’s ring into the ocean, satisfied she was properly avenged.

In the epilogue, Oz visits his wife’s grave, and we learn she knew what happened to him all along, but never told Makoto. Oz dedicates himself to finding homes for all of the rescued refugees, though Cynthia takes one of the older ones under her wing, giving him the choice of what to do with his life.

Abby reaches the top of a rock in Nevada’s Red Rock Canyon and sends a bird-flipping selfie to Makoto; I really liked how their relationship progressed, how they remain in touch even though they’ve parted ways as con artists. Laurent, meanwhile, is still in the game, and picks the newly inaugurated U.S. President as his next target. Four Seasons, anyone?

Finally, in a feel-good surprise ending, it’s revealed Dorothy is still alive after all, having apparently washed up in Taiwan with amnesia (she could be faking it, but then why did she never reunite with Laurent?). One of her adoptive parents presents her with a ring he found in the stomach of a fish—her old good luck ring, which Laurent tossed into the sea.

And that about does it. What a ride this was! Every arc of Great Pretender had its strong points and a distinct atmosphere owing to their varying settings and types of cons. It’s a show that seemingly got better and better, and this longer final arc brought everything together quite nicely, with its usual stylish cheekiness. I’d highly recommend GP, especially as a gateway show for entering the world of anime.

Happy Sugar Life – 12 (Fin) – Nothing But Fun

That’s what Matsuzaka Satou sought for her and for Koube Shio: a world without bitterness or pain; i.e. a world quite the opposite of the one they’d inhabited to that point. Their love for, acceptance of and devotion to one another is the fuel that keeps them moving toward that goal—that, and Auntie’s trash bag full of cash.

All that’s left is to go to the airport, let Auntie do her work, be rid of the old sad bitter world forever, and when they step off the airplane they’ll be in a happy sugar world, where they’ll never have to suffer or despair again, and where they’ll have each other.

That was the plan, at least. Ironically, it’s Satou’s love that makes her take off her ring, so it won’t be sullied by the work of dressing Shouko’s corpse (if she is, in fact, 100% dead when we see her). Forgetting that ring, that symbol of their love, and going back for it at the worst possible time, proves to be Satou’s undoing.

Auntie ties Taiyou up in between “abusing” him—rape is heavily implied)—she didn’t gag him, perhaps because she liked hearing him squeal. That preference is also her undoing (if she cared about self-preservation, of course), as he’s able to get a call to Asahi telling him where he is.

Asahi arrives just as Taiyou escapes—and happens to bump into Satou and Shio in the lobby. They should never have come back for a stupid ring.

Satou and Shio head upstairs to find Taiyou, but they get away from him as well (he’s tied up) as Auntie, who assumes Satou is well on her way to freedom (and damn well should be) ignites the fire on the twelfth floor that will engulf Shouko and supposedly, any evidence tying her to Satou.

Asahi hurries to Room 1205 and finds Shouko there, dead and surrounded by flames, inflaming his rage even more. When he, Satou and Shio cross paths again, he lets her have it with his bat, injuring her leg, but Shio steps between them to prevent further violence.

Shio, exercising her own agency, tells her brother she’s done with her family, and all she wants or needs is Satou, and he’s just going to have to deal. Asahi tells her that their mother only abandoned her because she was in over her head and didn’t want to become their monster father (whom she poisoned to death).

But it doesn’t really matter why she did it anymore; Shio has moved on and isn’t coming back. She’s going to live for herself now, as Asahi should learn to do, rather than defining his life as finding and protecting her. Just then, the flames cut their chat short, and Satou and Shio make a run for the roof…where they are trapped.

Shio tells Satou that it would be alright if they die together by jumping, because they’ll surely be reborn together in that new world they’ve been hoping to reach (but again, couldn’t thanks to one dumb ring).

That potential New Happy Sugar Life flashes before them as they fall, but Satou makes one small change to Shio’s plan: she doesn’t let Shio die, shielding her from the impact of the ground with her larger body.

Shio survives, but Satou does not. She and Shouko are mentioned in the same news report, but as casualties of the fire, not murderer and victim.

Rather, Auntie is suspected, and gladly surrenders herself, having done everything she could for the sake of her niece’s love. Satou’s teacher is arrested in front of his family, Taiyou continues to obsess over his angel in his room.

As for Shio, she’s in hospital, and Asahi comes to visit her, promising to fill the void left by their parents, by society, and finally, by the loss of Satou. But Shio smiles in a very Satou-esque way; there is no void, not from her perspective.

Shio believes Satou sacrificed herself and became a part of her—which is kind of true, in an emotional sense—and as such Shio feels she’ll never be alone again. She still doesn’t need Asahi. She gained more than she lost, and she’s resolved to live her best life for herself and Satou. How exactly she’ll be supporting herself, a minor with no money or job, is left unspecified.

HSL is the story of deeply damaged people and the different ways the consequences of that damage unfold in their lives. There’s a solid causality to everything that, while hardly absolving most anyone of their numerous crimes or obsessions, at least explains them satisfactorily, and makes them subjects of pity rather than simple loathing.

People can grow up to be decent people even if there’s abuse or trauma in their lives, and without traditional families, or no families at all. But that’s an ideal; it doesn’t always happen. It usually doesn’t happen. And when it does (see Taiyou) it doesn’t always mean someone will “turn out” “alright.”

But even in the darkest places, some small amount of light can emerge, some small amount of happiness can be found, and a sweet but twisted love can take root between kindred damaged souls, filling their jars and giving them reason to keep living.

Shokugeki no Souma 2 – 06

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Barring something bizarre (like a tie with one judge abstaining), this battle was only going to end one way: with Souma victorious. There’s no way he’d lose and give up cooking six episodes in.

The show knows we know the outcome, so it must, as it often has in the past, dazzle and entertain us with the process that leads to that outcome. And it succeeds!

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After whipping out bacon that demonstrates his curing and smoking expertise are on par with Ibusaki’s, and revealing that his profiling job was made much easier by guessing Sotsuda’s password and reading all his notes on Souma’s prep.

The very harsh alumnai judges believe the multifaceted umami of the bacon is something Souma simply cannot overcome, until he starts improvising, whipping out four distinct cuts of meat—cheek, tongue, tripe, and fillet—each perfectly prepared in a manner ideal to it, and added as garniture for the stew, in what Souma deems a “meet theme park.”

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Mimasaka predicted someone of Souma’s confidence would turn to improv, but is confident his profiling and detailed preparations will be able to weather anything Souma throws at the judges.

Mimasaka serves his dish first, and the beef/pork umami is violently, knock-’em-sock-’em good, leaving Mimasaka laughing villainously and the judges more weary than ever that Souma’s seemingly thrown-together dish will be any match.

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…But of course it is. Rather than being tossed around in a boxing ring with meat heavyweights, the judges are spirited away to “Yukihee Land” (trademark pending), where they transform into giddy high school girls (yes, including Dojima) running around enjoying life and youth.

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While Mimasaka’s carefully erected house of cards is impressive, it pales in comparison to the encyclopedic display of skill on display, as he puts a Chikuzen stew-like twist on beef stew rather than sticking with the French classic. The individual meats he used impress the judges with how well each was prepared and how they create and exhilarating ride in their mouths and imaginations.

By the end of their meal, the judges are gleefully holding hands without knowing it. The voting is unanimous, and Souma defeats Mimasaka…but he also teaches Mimasaka a lesson.

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Growing up, Mimasaka imitated his stern father’s cooking, and the first time he put a twist on it, he beat his father’s cooking, leading to his exile. He used that same approach intentionally—and with increasing cruelty—throughout his cooking career to advance himself, because it worked.

But for the first time, it didn’t work, and Mimasaka must surrender all of the treasured tools that embody the pride of the previous chefs he beat (in a scene that looks a lot like Hunger Games, what with all the past losers rushing into a container full of knives). Only Takumi refuses to take back his Mezzaluna; it goes to Souma instead, and he’ll get it back when he beats him in a Shokugeki.

Now that Mimasaka has experienced the same shameful, pride-robbing defeat what all the chefs he defeated, like them he begins to question whether he should even cook anymore. But the point of Souma’s lesson was to demonstrate that a true professional chef takes the worst defeat of their life in stride, because the kitchen must open tomorrow, and the customers must be fed.

Meanwhile, Souma continues to look ahead to his future match with Erina (who looks down imperiously before demanding he get her that manga she wanted), while Round 2 of the semifinals between Hayama and Kurokiba begins immediately. And what do you know, I have no idea who’s going to win this one!

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Shokugeki no Souma 2 – 05

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Souma made a big, bold bet, one that Nikumi, for one, is none too pleased about, because unlike us she can’t be sure that he’ll win, which means someone she deeply respects will be throwing their life of cooking away if he loses.

The wager also attracts the attention of a young, eager Totsuki junior high student who spends way more time with journalism than cooking. After relentlessly courting Souma for an exclusive, Souma uses him as his taste tester.

The dish for the Shokugeki is the same thing Souma served Mimasaka in his dorm when the challenge was made: beef stew. And unlike (or more likely, like) many Mimasaka’s previous 99 victims, he’s trying to switch things up by being very transparent about what he’s doing.

Souma knows he’s not going to win by being secretive; Mimasaka will find out or predict what he’s up to. Nor can he win by emulating his opponent’s specialty: Mimasaka doesn’t have one. Instead, Souma is treating this like the ultimate creative battle…against himself.

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After her loss to Hayama, Arato is too ashamed to stay by Erina’s side, and takes a leave of absense. Mind you, she makes this decision before Erina had a chance to talk about the match with her (during which time she’d likely have told her she was proud of her effort and wanted her to remain by her side).

On the bright side, when Erina needs the next volume in a shoujo manga she’s reading, the absence of Arato means Souma has something to compensate her for in exchange for her tasting duties (since someone at the dorm has the complete set).

Erina has her largest role in an episode this season, and she shines. By not making things easy for Souma, she (intentionally or not) contributes greatly to setting Souma on the proper path, being immediately dismissive of his pathetic diner stew (and its white miso secret ingredient) without elaborating why.

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While Mimasaka relives the last 28 episodes as Souma, starting back at the diner with Souma’s hometown friends, Nikumi, like Erina, lends Souma a subtle hint for how to proceed in the form of a meat care package, warning him she won’t let him lose and give up being a chef as she runs away flustered.

The final four days leading up to the match pass by in montage form, with Souma ditching the journalist (no longer useful at this stage in his dish development) and Megumi and Nikumi periodically looking in to see how he’s progressing.

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The day of the match Souma must win arrives, judged by five Totsuki alumni (including Dojima, Mizuhara and Hinako), who along with Kikuchi, Tsunozaki, and Erina, imagine how difficult it will be for Souma to break out of the diner mentality of dishes tasting best on the third bite (gourmet dishes must taste good on the first).

Erina expects a crushing defeat for Souma, meaning the end of his stinking up her academy once and for all, right up until she notices what he’s up to down in the arena. Instead of the usual cuts of beef, he goes with high-gelatin oxtail seasoned with cloves to deepen the white miso, and a veggie matignon to add sweetness near the end.

Souma has always been a sponge for culinary knowledge, even if it isn’t being directly taught to him by those he absorbs it from. But he caught on to what Erina was hinting at, as well as the meat that Nikumi gave him, and crafted a game plan for evolving his diner’s signature dish into something one would be proud to serve in the kind of elite gourmet restaurants the judges run.

Conspicuous in his lack of screen timeat the start of the match is Mimasaka; because Souma bet everything on this match, he’s the center of attention, but once he and the crowd notice the opponent, they see that he’s mimicked him in every regard. There is simply no way to surprise Mimasaka; he’s always going to be one step ahead. Oxtail, cloves, matignon – he’s got all that…plus his signature twists that usually corner and decimate his opponents.

Souma will have to weather those twists—some possibly drawn from his own culinary history, some of Mimasaka’s own imagining—keep his cool, and simply out-cook his clone. How will he prevail where 99 chefs fell? Will he put it all on that first bite, or manage to flip the script in a way even Mimasaka could not predict?

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Shokugeki no Souma 2 – 04

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In hindsight, SnS wouldn’t have brought a character like Mimasaka Subaru into the foreground unless he had some extended role to play. And if he knew so much about Arata and Hayama, he’s doubtless know even more about open book Takumi. That meant Takumi probably never had a chance.

This week, Mimasaka takes Takumi apart, matching him move for move, then adding “twists” that push him even further into the corner, until his own gameplan and emotions become the enemy on top of the incredibly talented but demented chef he’s up against.

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He may not be the most nuanced character (frankly, it might have been nice if his character design weren’t so huge and threatening to so obviously match his predatory personality), but there’s no denying Mimasaka has a system, is utterly committed to it, because it works.

Even a judge has some real problems with how Mimasaka goes about his business in the kitchen, but Mimasaka knows people don’t like him, and doesn’t care. In a Shokugeki, it’s all about the food, and Mimasaka’s food is simply better than Takumi’s, and it’s not close.

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Thankfully, Takumi doesn’t simply curl into a ball and accept his defeat, even when it’s too late to start over with something new (and he’s limited by the ingredients on hand he himself chose). He manages to produce an ace in the hole with his homemade lemon curd layer made with the family olive oil.

It’s a brilliant, clutch counter to Mimasaka’s many twists, and at just the right time…but Mimasaka knows everything about Takumi, including the lemons and the oil, and his dish’s true genius isn’t revealed until the judges have tasted both and can compare. Mimasaka’s preserved lemons are in every layer of the semifreddo, and beat out Takumi’s curd.

It’s a total victory for Mimasaka—his 100th Shokugeki win—and he claims Takumi’s beloved mezzaluna, confident he’s stomped out yet another career. On to the semifinals, which occur in a week’s time.

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Rather than console Takumi, Souma simply goes home, and whether he expected it or not, Mimasaka is in his room (having used the spare key, to the girls’ horror). Souma maintains a neutral calm throughout most of their talk, being just as gracious a host as Mimasaka was to him last week. Mimasaka has come to announce they’ll be going up against each other. He wants a Shokugeki with Souma, and he wants his beloved knife.

Just as he knew how to push Takumi’s buttons, Mimasaka things he has Souma right where he wants him: angered that someone he respected has been so thoroughly humiliated. Indeed, it could be argued Mimasaka trampled Takumi as part of his overall strategy should he get Souma in the next round, which he did.

And he’s right: Souma is angry, and does take the challenge. But the terms are different. If Souma wins, Mimasaka will give him all of the hundred tools he’s claimed from those he’s beaten, essentially undoing his entire legacy. Souma considers Mimasaka and his methods more of a virus than an opponent; something to be wiped out entirely. He also considers those methods a waste of Mimasaka’s own considerable skills.

If Souma loses, he’ll quit being a chef. Well, we’re only four episodes into the season, and Souma is not going to quit being a chef…so I guess the result of his next match is clear, right? Perhaps, but it will surely be something to see how (not if) he bests someone who knows him better than he knows himself…at least on the outside.

I’m excited to see that, but I can’t help but think Mimasaka has been a wasted opportunity thus far, lacking the nuance of Souma’s other rivals. We’ve yet to see anyone defend Mimasaka’s philosophy or methods, nor has there been any attempt to explain how he came to adopt them. Perhaps that will come to light in his battle with Souma.

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Shokugeki no Souma 2 – 03

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Megumi lost. You knew she was always going to lose, if going by the spoilery OP that showed Kurokiba, Souma, and Hayama as three of the finalists. But it wasn’t a blowout by any means. While Senzaemon did not go shirtless, he did go loincloth-less, something he didn’t notice until getting up to leave. There’s veins of greatness within Megumi left to mine; she just didn’t mine enough to beat Kurokiba.

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The OP also hints that Hayama will be one of the victors, and it only feels more likely when he rejects Jun’s assertion that he’s already made her proud by advancing past the prelims. Arato Hisako also pledges to win for Erina-sama, while Takumi vows to defeat his foe for his brother’s sake. All have people they love whom they don’t want to let down. But at least one of them will; two if the fourth guy wins.

Who is the fourth guy? The huge motorcycle punk Mimasaka Subaru, who finally introduces himself to Souma. Rather than give him a ride to the arena, he locks up his bike right there and they continue on foot together. His bike-locking procedure, like everything else he does, underscores his obsessive attention to detail, which belies his appearance.

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SnS actually switches things up by not having the arena audience and judges be the only spectators. Mimasaka warmly invites Souma, Megumi, and Takumi to his standby room to watch the fight, and we learn more about him by watching his reactions to the match between Hayama and Hisako.

While the former tends to an impressive cylinder of doner kebab, Arato seemingly pulls out all of her medicinal stops by using every bit of a Chinese soft turtle (or suppon) that she personally butchers on the spot (exciting Nao) without flinching to craft a very inventive hamburger.

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I say “seemingly” since throughout her cooking, she aspires only to walk “close” to her beloved Erina, “following a few steps behind.” In essence, she’s conceding the top spot to someone else, which is certainly reasonable considering Erina’s talent; but it’s not ambitious enough.

Hisako’s burger is creative, beautiful and delicious; it excites both the taste buds and the soft palate with its exquisite texture, and it also restores vigor by right of being crafted with her extensive knowledge of Chinese medicine.

It even sends Senzaemon into rapture, as he imagines a Godzilla-style Hisako turtle monster roaming the streets; he growling noise she makes while doing so is fantastic.

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But “Details” Mimasaka knows what I knew: Hisako was going to lose to Hayama. Even if Souma, Megumi, and even Takumi don’t quite see it, he sees it all too early. Hayama brings the full galaxy of spice lore to bear on his kofte, doner kebab, and pita “burger.”

Perhaps Hisako’s largest flaw in her dish is the ever-important “pickles” component. She used ginger and ginger alone; Hayama made achaar with onions and a dozen other ingredients to create a pickle unlike any other that made what looked like a heavy, overbearing meat-filled bread pocket into something the judges salivate for like ravenous dogs and inhale just as quickly as said dogs.

Miss Secretary created a dish that doubles as lunch and medicine, but the Sultan of Spice hijacked the basic human instinct for food and blew it up. Even Hisako herself realized she could not win against that.

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Hayama twists the knife by calling Hisako’s goals and cooking “too small”, and she rushes out of the theater, straight past Erina, the number one she never considered trying to supplant.

That takes us to the next match: Takumi vs. the Mimasaka guy. Like Yuki in Momokuri, Mimasaka has been stalking Takumi and knows every last detail about him. Because of that, he knows how to get under his skin: by badmouthing his brother. It works, and the match becomes a Shokugeki, the winner of which is not clear from the OP (at least from what I saw).

That’s fine; whether or not an OP spoils things is beside the point; what matters is enjoying the battles and watching how one chef’s unique skillset and style beats another chef, not necessarily which chef will win.

I entered this episode with an empty stomach, and like many other episodes before, took basic culinary knowledge I was aware of and took it further, demonstrating new and exciting methods and combinations of flavor. Now that it’s over, I really do need to eat something.

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Mawaru Penguindrum 4

One of this series’ many strengths is its excellent, almost neurotic attention to detail. Every frame is replete with incidental sights, sounds, and conversations, some of which turn up later (or earlier, in awesomely-presented flashbacks). Case in point: Ringo’s friend mentioning Kanba dumping an actress like “she was no big deal” last week. Not only do we meet this actress, but learn that Kanba has been set up for an ambush by her and two other women scorned, which hell hath no fury than.

But Kanba and Himari make only brief appearances on the periphery of this episode. This is primarily a Shoma and Ringo affair. Kanba orders him to tag along with her and sneak a look at her diary – stalking in plain view, as it were. And naturally, Ringo’s day plans include a birdwatching date in the park with Tabuki. Much to her chagrin, Tabuki has invited Yuri, his gorgeous blonde actress friend (lotta actress love interests in this, innit?), and with Shoma by her side, it’s practically a double date.

She and Shoma even swap clothes after a skunk attack – a skunk that was reported on the news on tv in the background earlier in the episode. While I was initially weary of Ringo’s stalking craziness (and her multiple elaborate daydreams that end with her screaming), I really liked her in this episode, and I’m fully behind her quirky but sweet character. She’s gonna make happen what’s written in her diary, and she does not give a shit who or what stands in her way. And just when I thoughYuri was too perfect, she calls Ringo out; warning her she hasn’t a chance with Tabuki. Mwrow!

Of course, while things that are written in her diary have always ended up happening, they hardly ever do quite in the way she envisions in those daydreams. It was written that she’d kiss Tabuki by a certain time, which she cheats by jumping into the drink to warrant rescue and mouth-to-mouth. But it’s Shoma who rescues and “kisses” her, not Tabuki. It matters not; she believed it was Tabuki, so in her mind, the fate written in the diary was realized.


Rating: 4