Mobile Suit Gundam: The Witch from Mercury – 20 – Who’s Allowed to Live?

As Norea watches the carnage unfold on earth, she gets even more worked up and filled with an unquenching thirst for vengeance. Guel and Kenanji head to the school for evidence of Shaddiq’s treachery, but Shaddiq already knows what he’s up to, and he and Grassley House intercept them. Finally, these two are facing off in mobile suits, but it’s no longer a school duel, nor a game.

Martin reports his progress to Secelia, but she and Rouji are more concerned with why Aerial is on Earth wreaking havoc. Martin, of course, has no idea. Earth House watches helplessly as what’s left of GUND-Arm’s reputation goes up in literal smoke. Lilique tells the others to shut the news feeds off and leave it to the president.

The Earth Housers are left wondering if they should just be good and go back to attending class, as Suletta is doing. That said, she’s not paying much attention, as she’s understandably preoccupied with just what the heck is going on with Miorine. Petra offers Suletta her notes as further thanks for saving Lauda. When Suletta asks if Petra is in love with him, she bristles, but doesn’t deny it (obviously).

When Cathedra, Dominicus, and Guel in his Darilbalde are barred from reaching the school by Shaddiq and his fellow Grassleyans, it doesn’t take long for Guel to play the only hand he has and accuse Shaddiq without evidence. But Shaddiq doesn’t care what Guel hurls his way if he doesn’t have hard evidence. That evidence is about to be moved, as Henao is overseeing Sarius’ relocation while Shaddiq buys time.

However, Kenanji and Dominicus manage to slip through and land within the school environment. That’s when the door to the holding area is unlocked and Norea heads out like a revenge-fueld missile. Elan tries to stop her, first from leaving their quarters and then from entering the cockpit of her Gundam, but fails on both accounts.

Norea won’t be denied. But while she has her singleminded mission to take as much away from the wretched Spacians as they took away from her, Nika is also suddenly free, and her look of determination indicates she’ll be making a beeline for Earth House.

I knew Norea would be one of the series’ most volatile wild cards, and she goes absolutely feral on the totally undefended Asticassia. She blasts and blows up buildings, vehicles, and people without any rhyme or reason. She simply wants to let it all burn. In the process, she ends up blowing up her fellow Earthians hangar.

Petra leads a stunned Suletta through the increasingly distressing amounts of wreckage and carnage, and each of them carry an injured classmate on their backs when Norea fires on their location and they’re both obscured by smoke, dust, and debris. Considering Petra’s quite blatant death flags earlier about making Lauda take her out to lunch and dinner, I didn’t feel good about her chances.

Meanwhile, Lauda listens in as Guel and Shaddiq battle both with words and souped-up mobile suits, and then the inevitable happens: Shaddiq lets slip that it was Guel who killed their father. Lauda had been a loyal and trusty younger brother to this point but that’s probably over now.

There’s no more damning sign that Things Will Never Be the Same as watching a Front security mobile suit crush what looks like Miorine’s greenhouse. And while the camera doesn’t linger on any crushed tomatoes, it doesn’t have to use symbolism; students are being crushed and killed.

At first, Felsi’s campus-calibrated mobile suit is the only thing standing between Norea’s rampage and utter destruction of the school, but then Secelia, Rouji, and Martin arrive at Earth House (that’s right, Secelia is running in this episode) and offers Chuchu (the only pilot around) her prototype mobile suit.

The suit still needs to be calibrated for Chuchu, so who should show up right on time to do just that but a contrite Nika, ready to help. Apologies and forgiveness are put on hold—everyone has work to do. That said, Chuchu tells Nika to tell her everything “from A to Z”, otherwise she won’t know what she’s forgiving her for.

As Shaddiq and Guel continue to duel in space, Shaddiq condemns Guel for getting Miorine’s hands dirty, and he and his Grassley comrades tell him a boy who grew up with a silver spoon knows nothing of the struggles they’ve faced, and the choice they’ve made as a group of orphans to break the “unjust peace” that’s been forged by taking the power from the Spacians.

Henao needs just five minutes to get Sarius safely to the rendezvous point with the Assembly League…but she doesn’t get it. Guel defeats both Sabina and Shaddiq, telling them if all they do is take, they’ll never gain anything, which I thought was a great line. While Guel technically wins the battle against Shaddiq, it comes at the cost of his mobile suit…and very possibly Lauda’s loyalty as well.

Elan sorties in Sophie’s suit to try to stop Norea one more time…and he actually succeeds, tenderly taking her suit’s hand into his and promising that he’ll stay by her side come what may. If she’s scared of dying, of the things in her sketchbook, he’ll help her find a way to live, because they’re both allowed to live.

Unfortunately, Elan stopped Norea far too late. The damage she did had been done, the people she killed aren’t coming back, and under such circumstances, the security forces are shooting to kill. Just as she tells Elan to tell her his real name later, her suit is shot through the core and she is obliterated in the explosion.

Norea isn’t the only major loss this week. Petra doesn’t survive either. She died having saved Suletta when she was a deer in the headlights after the attack, and in the process of trying to save the student on her back. May both Norea and Petra find the peace she couldn’t find in life.

In the aftermath, there are rows of dozens of dead Asticassia students. Chuchu slams her fist on her cockpit display, bitterly wishing she could have done more. But both she and Felsi definitely saved an even greater number from being added to Norea’s butcher’s bill.

That night, as security drones hover over the ruined school, the members of Earth House and Nika are reunited with Suletta. But before Nika can say anything to her, Suletta interrupts. Her hands are covered in cuts and bruises as she scratches and heaves and moves the mass of stone and metal rubble before her.

She simply asks that everyone help her. There are still students trapped under this debris, and some of them may not be beyond help. It’s only a glimmer of hope in an episode called “The End of Hope”, but it’s an important one. Suletta’s meager request galvanizes Earth House not to worry about what they did or couldn’t do, but focus on what they can in the here and now.

More importantly, no one is telling Suletta to do what she’s doing, and she’s doing what she feels she needs to do. It’s another first for her, and even if it wasn’t on her wish list, both that and more firsts like it will be essential in the days and weeks to come.


Vinland Saga S2 – 17 – Going Home

The fight between Snake and Thorfinn is impressively badass as expected. He’s shocked a warrior of Snake’s skill is guarding a farm, and Snake is shocked a warrior of Thorfinn’s skill is a slave. But Sverkel was right: it really came down to luck who ended up as what.

Snake is a warrior of Miklagard, AKA Constantinople (now Istanbul), but he can only imagine what “monsters” surrounded Thorfinn, and how he must not have “experienced a single good thing” to be a match for him.

Call it a combination of Thorfinn being unarmed and a little rusty, or chalk it up to Snake simply being a bit better, but Thorfinn isn’t able to keep Snake away from the cart where Gardar lay. Gardar’s last line of defense is Arnheid, begging Snake not to take his life.

Snake is unequivocal: Gardar took the lives of five of his men, so he must die. He and his men may be “stupid nasty scumbags” who can’t even use their real names, but he’s right that Gardar’s life isn’t worth more than those five. So he stabs Gardar in the gut with his sword.

While he’s telling Thorfinn and Arnheid that they’ll be bound pending punishment fitting their actions, Gardar grabs Snake from behind and puts him in a chokehold. Neither Snake nor Thorfinn can so much as nudge Gardar’s tree trunk-like arms. The only one who can stop him from killing Snake is Arnheid, whose voice breaks him out of his trance.

Gardar and Arnheid take Sverkel’s cart (with his permission and blessing) and they intend to ride it home to their son Hjalti. Arnheid doesn’t tell him the truth because, well, why spoil the last moments the two of them have? Gardar drifts in and out of consciousness, and has visions of abandoned souls lining the road.

He also dreams of the day his son was born, took his first steps, pissed on his face while he was changing him. These memories are as full of love and happiness and joy as reality is full of pain, anguish, and despair. They were the best days of his life, when he was with his wife and son, at home, living in peace. No matter what happened afterwards, they lived those days together.

Gardar also relives the day he decided to leave his home and family to fight for honor and wealth, only he’s watching himself leaving while sitting beside Arnheid and Hjalti. He couldn’t see her face then, but he does now, and he’s filled with regret for leaving.

When he comes to one last time, he asks Arnheid how old Hjalti is (six), imagines he’s forgotten them but still become a prankster like him, and is certain that he’ll want to go off on Viking adventures. But he tells Arnheid he won’t let him go. Then he takes her hand and slumps over in her lap.

As Arnheid sheds tears as her husband’s life fades, Gardar finds himself riding the cart into his village, untouched since he last left it. He spots Hjalti on a sad looking morose until he spots his dad and starts running towards him. Gardar is home. Arnheid holds him in her arms, welcoming him home. Snake’s men catch up to the car and surround it, their shadows long in the low sun.

This was perhaps the most heartwrenching depiction of a death we’ve seen on Vinland Saga. In this period of Thorfinn’s life the loss of even one life is terrible and agonizing to behold, but also beautiful and sublime. Arnheid got to see her Gardar in life and Gardar will get to see their Hjalti in death. And one day, they’ll all be reunited in the hereafter; a family shattered by war and violence whose bonds of love frayed but never broke.


Vinland Saga S2 – 12 – No Love Lost

Here I was thinking Canute was going to march into Ketil’s farm and say “Mine.” But he can’t do that without angering other landowners. No, there’s an art to this. One that involves a mysterious man in a cloak who can kill a moth with a flipped coin, a pack of hyenas, and Olmar’s reliable hot-headedness and incompetence.

The five hyenas are sent to deliver the message that Olmar has been rejected for the guard, something he already knows. And since they know he failed to even pierce the skin of a roasted pig, they mock him mercilessly, unable to keep from laughing maniacally. Olmar is humiliated and drunk, of course he’s going to draw his sword.

Olmar challenges the lead hyena to a duel, and the hyena promptly dog-walks him, not even bothering to put in any effort against such a feeble opponent. Olmar is face down in the dirt and weeping when Thorgil arrives to see what the commotion is about.

He’s not here to bail his little brother out. Rather, he’s there to make sure one of two outcomes takes place: either Olmar properly addresses the insults by killing his opponent, or he’ll die by that same opponent’s sword. Kill or die. This is Thorgil’s lifelong philosophy.

Just as Olmar is sufficiently fired back up and charges the lead hyena, the cloaked man flips a coin right into the latter’s eye, which gives Olmar an opening he wasn’t expecting. His sword goes through his opponent’s throat, killing him. The coin was so fast no one saw it.

Thorgil, proud of his brother for finally becoming a man an killing someone, “handles the rest” with baroque, Thorkell-like gusto, not just killing the other four hyenas but chopping them to pieces, all while a clearly-in-shock Olmar kneels on the ground, wondering what the hell just happened as he is splattered with blood.

Upon inspecting the body, Thorgil sees the maimed eye and suspects something. When Ketil arrives and demands an explanation, Thorgil calmly says it was a fair duel that Olmar won, and the others were killed because they decided to attack the brothers, and got what they deserved.

Then royal guards arrive to arrest them for disrespecting the king, but Thorgil won’t give up his sword. Instead, he kills the guards, leaving one alive to tell him why they let Olmar win. When he won’t answer, he pierces the guard’s eye with the tip of his sword, and then he talks: they let Olmar win so that Ketil would be arrested.

It is then that Ketil realizes the king probably had his sights set on him and his land all this time, but his two sons certainly didn’t help matters by getting themselves tangled up in such a bloodbath. Even though Wulf’s men failed, Canute doesn’t care; he has the excuse he needs to move upon Ketil. Wulf also has to report that Ketil, Thorgil, and Olmar got away, but that too is of no consequence.

Canute is sending over 100 men to overwhelm the farm and take it over, whether Ketil is there when they arrive or not. But they will be there, as we see that Leif Erikson smuggled them out of Jelling in barrels, not out of the kindness of his heart, but in exchange for Ketil buying all of his cargo and releasing Thorfinn into his care. Ketil can hardly refuse such an offer.

Back at the farm, Thorfinn and Einar are wrapping up another day of good honest hard work, but there’s something about the sunset that seems to unsettle Thorfinn, as if he knows the storm that’s coming. Canute ignores King Sweyn’s head mocking him and stares into that very same sunset. War is coming to Ketil’s farm, just when Thorfinn has something to fight for besides the fighting itself.

Tenten Kakumei – 12 (Fin) – In Rainbows

Last week ended with the promise of an unprecedented duel between Anis and Euphie, to decide who will become queen by being made to suffer in one form or another: Anis having to give up everything she is, or Euphie losing everything she has. Both want the other to be happy, neither wants to hurt the other. The duel, while only occupying five minutes, is nevertheless epic in is presentation (like a great boss battle, only between two bosses!) and in the catharsis it provides.

The duel ends quickly because, well, Euphylia Magenta is the titular Genius Young Lady: even with her Dragon Power, Anis’ magicology is simply no match for its power or beauty. And as Euphie repeats when Anis comes to in her lap (a nice callback to a simpler time), she’s only this way because Anis is the one who helped unlock who she is today; someone who won’t hesitate to claim the throne.

And Anis admits, she’s not okay with being queen. She was mostly doing it out of obligation to her parents, to whom she felt she was a “useless daughter”. After the duel, Anis father is holding back tears and her mother isn’t, drawing Anis into a warm embrace and insisting that no, it’s she who is unworthy of having such a splendid daughter.

That night, Anis visits Euphie in her bedroom, and decides the time is right to tell her, and no one else, her deep dark secret. No, it’s not that she’s gay; that’s quite established. Rather, it’s the fact she recalls having a previous life in another world. When she found herself in a world of magic, it felt like a dream, but then she became consumed with fear that she’d somehow replaced the real Princess Anisphia, and was a fake.

Euphie vehemently dispels that notion in no uncertain terms. There is simply no way in her mind that an Anisphia that delivered her from the depths of despair, and showed her what true freedom and happiness looked like, could ever be called a “fake”. She then takes the initiative and kisses Anis, surprising her. Anis insists that’s only something someone should do to someone they love, and Euphie says she does love her.

When Anis tries to qualify that, Euphie says she can be her friend and confidante and comrade, but she’d also like Anis to accept her feelings for what they really are. Before Anis knows it, she’s being thrown on the bed, and the camera tastefully withdraws out of focus.

However far these two lovebirds get that night, or what nature of pillow talk they engage in thereafter, by morning they’re ready to chart the course of the future of their kingdom. Euphie has successfully contracted with the spirit, so the king adopts her and then announces his intent to step back. Euphie will be queen, and Anis will support her as her “older sister”.

For some reason I envisioned undergoing to contract to immediately cause Euphie to not only forget everyone she ever knew but forget that she forgot, but that only happens after a number of lifetimes. With that fear allayed, my original plan for them to basically rule together while keeping their romance private seems to be the one they’ve adopted.

Euphie states in no uncertain terms she’ll be the last monarch chosen by traditional means, as she intends to end the nobility’s monopoly on magic and help Anis realize the dream of magic for everyone, everywhere. That said, Queen Euphie wishes to gently disassemble those old walls, not tear them down, so she and Anis prepare a gaudy, upbeat public demonstration of both the new flying machines and dresses that can enable the wearer to fly.

This is made possible after intense negotiations with the spirit faithful (who by their own precepts must grudgingly follow the will the monarch the spirits chose) and collaboration with Anis’ commoner craftsmen. But they manage to pull off one hell of a show.

As they take flight hand in hand, strike Magical Girl poses, and conjure a literal rainbow, we can see the immediate effect it has on the children of commoners. They run along the ground pretending to fly, but when they’re old enough, they’ll be able to fly too.

Now that the promise and possibility and potential of magicology is now out in the world and Euphie is firmly installed and accepted and celebrated as the new queen, her and Anis’ magical revolution can begin in earnest. It likely won’t be quite the instant success the demonstration indicated, but after that strong a start they can take their time making the world a place where freedom and happiness are available to anyone.

They can also take their time with their romance, as illustrated when Anis looks across the breakfast table at Euphie, Alia, and Lainie, the very picture of bliss. And as they run out for their next appointments, Anis gives Euphie a chaste peck on the cheek, to which Euphie responds with another kiss on the mouth.

Led by the love in their hearts for the kingdom, for magic, and above all for each other, Queen Euphylia and Princess Anisphia a poised to create a new and better world. And if we never see them in anime form again, I could’ve scarcely asked for a better way to close the book on their story. I just hope Anis’s research into immortality doesn’t take any macabre turns!


Tenten Kakumei – 11 – Can’t Throw It Away

During a lengthy meeting with the “Spirit Faithful” whose favor she must gain to be an effective queen, Princess Anisphia is praised for finally “growing up” from the carefree tomboy and dedicating herself to the kingdom. She is also treated like a heretic (for her magicology) and like a womb to be filled as soon as possible by someone of their choosing. I’m not surprised Anis has to vomit after the ordeal. But then, despite all evidence to the contrary all over her face, she looks at herself in the mirror and says “I’m perfectly fine.” Like hell, girl!

No, Anis is in a very bad emotional state, caught as she is between the responsibility now on her shoulders, the guilt of having pushed it upon Algard and all that wrought, and the fact that becoming the queen means ceasing to be who she is and who she’s always been…and even then the nobles might revolt if she puts a toe out of line. She’s wearier still when Euphie tells her she wants to meet with her, the king and queen, Ilia, and Lainie (now a maid-in-training) to tell her she now knows what it is she needs to do.

Before this meeting even began, and before I knew the true extent of who Lumi is and what that entails, I already knew it would fail. Because as much as Euphie loves Anis and wants to protect her, becoming an immortal spirit contractor who forgets all of her memories and feelings for others and becomes an ethereal husk of a person is definitely not what Anis would want! Indeed, by the time Lumi is done describing something akin to when Elrond told Arwen what would become of loving a mortal, suddenly becoming a queen doesn’t sound so bad!

Euphie is coming at this from a position of deep love and caring for Anis, but she badly miscalculates how she’d react to her requesting that the king adopt her after she enters into a spirit contract so she can take the throne instead of Anis. Nevermind losing Euphie forever; to have her birthright taken away feels, to Anis at this moment, like Euphie would be taking away the last bit of value she had. The challenges are immaterial to Anis: she is the goddamn Crown Princess, and she will be queen…or she’ll be nothing.

When Euphie offers a hand of comfort, Anis slaps it away—doing so for the very first time—and runs off in tears. She’s sulking in an alley in the pouring rain when Tilty finds her and takes her to her house to warm herself by the fire. At first Tilty goes with her usual aloof schtick but when she realizes how wounded Anis is, she too warms up, gives Anis a shoulder to cry on. She also gives her an alternative life: the two of them could travel the world plying their unique trade, free as birds. It’s sounds fun, but the bottom line is Anis can’t throw away her throne.

When Euphie arrives, Tilty gives them the room. Once again Anis slaps her hand away, and Euphie smiles softly and sadly, noting Anis has never expressed anger towards her before. Euphie worries that the nobles will never accept her. Anis tells her it doesn’t matter who accepts her, it’s her duty. She begs Euphie not to make her “somebody no one needs”, and tells her, with another face that insists otherwise, that she’s “perfectly fine.”

The two remain incredibly dedicated to one another, but neither will budge on their position. Euphie doesn’t want Anis to sacrifice herself to the throne, and Anis doesn’t want to sacrifice her so she can remain herself. However important Anis’ dream of magic is, it can’t begin to compare to Euphie’s life.

Anis is resigned to the fact neither of them will be able to convince the other with words…so she proposes a duel between them. Presumably, whoever wins will get their way…but considering both choices kind of suck, I still hope that after dueling it out these two can put their heads together and find a third way.

Tenten Kakumei – 08 – Brother’s Keeper

Laine’s life has been one ordeal after another. First she was born a commoner, hardly the most desirable station in this world. When her parents died, she was sent to an orphanage, where her unconscious power caused her to attract the adoration of some and bitter resentment of others.

Then Baron Cyan adopted her, and before she knew it she was the Crown Prince’s handpicked bride. It’s that latter part she thinks back on while looking into her tea. She saw a poor girl fall in the street and thought There but by the grace of God go I. She also remembers admiring Algard.

She admired him because he vowed that when he became king he’d demolish the walls between nobility and commoners. But now, like Euphie before her, Lainie is feeling lost and useless, and Ilia is there to give her small comforts like tea and kind words of support.

But suddenly, that pleasant moment is interrupted by one of Anis’ alarms and the lights going dark. Ilia tells Lainie that the villa has an intruder, and quickly whisks her away to the safety of the castle. I already admired the hell out of Ilia for many reasons, but add to those the fact she doubles as a bodyguard!

And she’d be an effective bodyguard against most anyone…except royalty like Prince Algard, who brutally impales her with a spear of light and then snags Lainie up like a fish on a pole. He tells Lainie he won’t apologize, nor will he seek forgiveness, before impaling her through the chest as well.

We know what he’s after: her vampire magicite. It is probably what he’s been after all this time, but Anisphila once again ruined his and Lord Chartreuse’s plans by harboring Lainie. At this point he believes he knows what must be done, but also knows he can’t do it without stealing someone else’s power.

The post-lecture gathering goes on seemingly forever, with Anis totally checked out. Then Moritz approaches her and is extremely pushy in his apologies for what went down with Euphie. Then the alarm goes off and he physically restrains her, and his friendly mask drops.

Moritz is Chartreuse’s son and Al’s buddy, and his job is to keep Anis and Euphie here while Al gets the magicite. The plan almost worked too, because Anis and Euphie took a summons that amounted to an elaborate diversion as a sincere attempt to sway some of the magical ministers.

When Moritz starts raving about Princess Anisphilia suddenly going mad, Anis says eff it and unleashes her dragon power to force him to let go of her. When a magical attack is thrown her way, Euphie is immediately there to reflect it.

Just when it looks like the two are in for a protracted fight against the guards who are swayed by Moritz’s ranting and Anis’ odd behavior, Tilty steps in and immobilizes everyone but Anis and Euphie, allowing them to fly off without delay (this time with Euphie carrying Anis). Great teamwork all around!

They arrive at the villa courtyard where Ilia and Lainie lie bleeding out. Anis assures them both they’ll be fine. Euphie starts using healing magic but isn’t sure she can save Lainie, but Anis tells her to do her best and hopefully Lainie’s vampiric body will heal itself.

That said, with the magicite now in Algard’s possession, all bets are off. While Anis had a dragon tattooed on her back, Al goes the Final Fantasy Big Bad route and just shoves the magicite straight into his chest. After a little wrenching in pain, his eyes turn red, and he looks much more like an opponent to be worried about.

More distressing than what Algard has done is why he’s done it. At the end of the day, both he and Anis have the same basic vision for the kingdom: one where everyone will be on equal ground. Except in his case that will be achieved through the wielding of the absolute power the vampire magicite provides.

A life of waiting has thoroughly curdled Al’s personality, to the point where he’s not even going to try a peaceful or bloodless path to reconciling nobility and commoners; he’s just going to kill and subjugate who he needs to until he’s satisfied a new kingdom has been born.

It goes without saying Al doesn’t believe magic should be used to make people happy. He sees his magical ability and his position as heir apparent to the throne to be nothing but curses, so of course he has no problem exacting suffering on others.

On the surface Al’s your typical deranged villain who is probably going to end up destroying himself before being beaten by our heroes. But there’s a lot more dimension to him. I still find him a pitable man (probably the last thing he’d want to hear). For someone who says they’re abandoning emotion (like his genuine affection for Lainie), he seems awfully angry!

What I can’t say is exactly how much Anisphia contributed to the creation of the present villainous monster that is Vampire Bro Prince. Al truly hates her for having so carelessly cast aside her birthright, and it could be she spent so many years buried in her magicology she neither spent enough time nor kept a close enough eye on her increasingly troubled little brother.

Now, desperate for power, Al took a shortcut and stole it from Lainie. Can we really say Anis is any better for having killed an ancient and noble dragon and taken its power? I don’t know, but at least Anis wants to make the world a better place for humans the right way, with cooperation, understanding, and rad inventions.

But at the end of the day, if Algard insists that the one with the most power wins, then she’ll indulge him by using her power—which she is confident far outstrips his shoddily stolen vampirism—to stop him. It should be one hell of a battle.

The Eminence in Shadow – 19 – Fear Is the Mind-Killer

Prior to her match with Mundane Mann, Iris practices her swordsmanship alone in the dark rain, all the while remembering all the times she was praised and admired throughout her life for her strength and ability. She has been both fueled and burdened by the collective wishes of the people of Midgar: as long as they have her, everything will be fine. She intends to maintain that narrative by beating Mann.

Little does she know that the real Mundane Mann is Claire’s mundane little brother, who happens to know his stuff when it comes to countering the bitterness of coffee. When her honored guest War Goddess Beatrix, the Legentary Swordmaster, arrives, Cid relishes a chance to be a background character, as he and other NPCs visually frame the Beatrix and Iris.

Lord Asshat doesn’t even notice Cid is sitting beside Iris until he shuffles of to the restrooms. He’s too busy helpfully letting us in on his, or rather Diabolos’, plan to use the drugged King of Oriana to assassinate the King of Midgar, throwing both kingdoms into chaos so the cult can swoop in and reign. Beatrix, who has shown she has keen insights, says both Asshat and the king “stink” as they pass by. They do stink!

Asshat is confident Rose will return with her drill tails between her legs out of love for her father. His marriage to her will give his rule legitimacy, while her possessed condition will also make her a prime subject for the cult’s experiments. Only one problem: Rose has been cured of her curse. As she sneaks into the arena, she encounters Diabolos corpses everywhere, along with Shadow Garden. They tell her to move forward “fulfill her mission”, unaware Cid didn’t give her one, confident she’d make the right choices.

I’m glad we got some time inside Iris’ head earlier to show that she isn’t this invincible warrior, like her subjects even her sister believe but someone full of insecurities and fears. It lends necessary context to her duel with Mundane Mann, which is more psychological than anything else. Just a slight movement from Mann causes her to hallucinate that he’s lopped off her head, her arm, or leg.

Ultimately, while she has the potential to be far more than she is, Iris could not unlock that potential against Mann. She still has a long way to go. And as I suspected, unlike Annerose, who took her defeat in stride but thanked Mann for showing her how far she had yet to go, Iris’ loss is devastating as it not only shatters where she thought she was (at or near the top of the pile) but what the people thought of her.

But if Mundane Mann is assassinating Iris’ reputation in the arena, it’s Rose who does the actual assassinating. When she arrives at the boxes where her father and Asshat are, she gives a beautiful and heartbreaking speech about following her own path, even if it means making one more mistake. It even rouses the king into a moment of lucidity, in which he forgives her all her sins.

This, of course, makes her weep, because it means there’s nothing holding her back from Doing What Must Be Done…nothing but her own fear. She lunges at Asshat, who uses the king as a shield (as she likely suspected). His last words are used to tell Rose he loves her. Asshat has now lost the weapon he aimed to use against Midgar, and when Rose puts her blade to her own neck, is about to lose his future wife—and the cult’s newest research subject.

That’s when Mundane Mann crashes through the window to stop Rose, asking her if this is really the choice she’s made. He transforms into Shadow and switches his voice to Shadow Mode, but it’s a third identity Rose immediately recognizes: that of the Stylish Bandit Slayer Rose watched from a shack where she’d been bound by said bandits.

If anything were to return a smile to Rose’s face, it would be the arrival of Cid/Shadow/Stylish Bandit Slayer. And the third one is most definitely her favorite, since he’s the one who inspired her to become a fencer to begin with. In that regard, Cid was influencing the geopolitical landscape of this world before he was even aware of it!

When Rose tells Shadow how she had despaired and tried to take her life because while she had the power to fight, it was still difficult to do so, and the consequences of any actions she might take terrified her. Shadow tells her to raise her head, saying her fight has not yet ended. Rose gets the picture and flees. After defeating all of Asshat’s cult bodyguards, he holds a sword to Asshat’s neck. He calls for backup, but Shadow Garden has taken out all of it.

The only one who answers Asshat’s call for help…is Beatrix. Now, I’m not under any illusions that she gives two shits about Perv Asshat, or either of the two kingdoms he’s planning to screw over. She’s not taking Asshat’s side, and may well not even know what that side is.

No, War Goddess Beatrix answered the call, because after watching how Mundane Man / Shadow defeated Iris, she wants to cross blades with the man herself. She’s a legendary swordmaster, after all—other than finding her niece, finding a strong and worthy opponent and fighting them is all that matters.

Bleach: Thousand-Year Blood War – 10 – Pass/Fail

In the depths of Muken, Unohana takes Zaraki to the brink of death over and over and over again. She recalls their first encounter centuries ago, when she found herself beside a mountain of bodies that she didn’t create. A small, malnourished boy crawled atop like some kind of ronin Gollum.

The Unohana Yachiru of that time was bored out of her damn mind, but in this boy she finally found a challenge, a worthy successor to the title of Zenpachi, and dare I say, a bit of fun? Two weary souls at the top of their game found each other, and validated their existence.

While Yachiru lost that first fight, she could tell Zaraki was holding back, which is why she’s continually all-but-killing and reviving him in Muken: to awaken the true power he had repressed for so long he forgot he even possessed it. Suffice it to say, this titular “Battle” will go down as one of the best in Bleach history.

A lot of that comes down to restraint. Sure, Yamamoto’s flame party was gorgeous and terrifying and badass in equal measures, but here in the bowels of Soul Society where there is nothing but darkness, blood, and the spark of clashing blades, there’s a stripped down elegance and gravitas to the proceedings.

Once Zaraki’s power is sufficiently awakened, Unohana ends “playtime” and unleashes her bankai Minazuki, covering her sword in blood and creating a blizzard of deadly strikes through which he must cut through in order to defeat her.

After repeatedly passing out and coming to in the earlier stages of the battle, the imagery in Zaraki’s head becomes more concrete, as he imagines himself and Unohana as undead skeletons fighting in a white void instead of two flesh-and-blood soul reapers in the dark.

Only in this deep, dark place could Unohana draw Zaraki’s true strength from the other deep, dark place he had hidden it hundreds of years ago. Just as she learned how to heal herself so she could keep a battle going for eternity, he weakened himself intentionally for the same purpose.

But as the first and former Kenpachi, once Unohana had found someone with the potential to surpass and succeed her, she decided that her remaining purpose in life was to nurture that successor. It’s why Unohana smiles when Zaraki delivers a killing strike she doesn’t bother to heal. Her purpose is complete, and she couldn’t ask for a more joyful end.

She knows that losing her as an opponent may mean a return to boring, lonely battles, but with the arrival of the Quincy, the new fully awakened Zaraki will have no shortage of new opponents, some even stronger than her. His awakening also means he can finally hear the voice of his zanpakuto, who introduces herself to him (though her name is unfortunately cut off by the commercial bump).

Rest in Peace and Power, Retsu.

There was always going to be a fall-off from such an epic battle between two warrior behemoths to the goofiness of the Royal Palace, but clash makes for a good palate cleanser as Ichigo and Renji land in Hoohden, the entrance hall to which is half concert venue, half game show set.

Their host is the Blade King and inventor of the Zanpakuto, Nimaiya Oh-Etsu, and I gotta tell ya, it’s a weird feeling knowing this puffer-vest-wearing goofball surrounded by lovely honeys could probably defeat Unohana and Zaraki in his sleep.

Ichigo and Renji can’t really get on board with the vibes until they realize they have to if they want to get their swords back. We also meet Mera, Nimaiya’s no-nonsense right-hand woman who leads the two to the real Hoohden: an unassuming, ramshackle shed atop a promontory.

Ichigo and Renji step inside and immediately endure a ten-story drop. Like Zaraki in Muken, they’re surrounded by darkness. Unlike Zaraki, there’s stuff lurking in the shadows. Those things are Asauchi—the same “base” zanpakutos issued to every Soul Reaper student in academy.

As they progress through academy, a piece of the students’ souls pour into the zanpakuto, thus personalizing them into your Zabimarus and Senbonzakuras (btw, all the pretty ladies at the entrance hall were actually all zanpakutos themselves).

The trial before Ichigo and Renji is simple: fight the Asauchi and survive. Three days pass, and they do just that, but at the end of those two days, Oh-Etsu tells Renji that he’s passed, but Ichigo, who is on his back, fails. Ichigo insists he can keep going, but it’s not a matter of physical endurance, but emotional endurance.

Oh-Etsu flat-out tells Ichigo that he’s not a Soul Reaper. He’s a human who has no business in Soul Society. So not only has he failed, and won’t be getting a new Zanpakuto to replace Zangetsu, but Oh-Etsu transports him back home to the Kurosaki Clinic in Karakura Town. Ichigo is “no good” as he is now, having never fought with an Asauchi.

While there’s a finality to Oh-Etsu banishing Ichigo, he also leaves open the slim possibility of Ichigo one day becoming worthy again. To do so, he’ll need to not only go back to his “roots”, but learn what they are. The Blade King backed up his goofiness with some serious authority, and now our boy has some serious work to do.

While the Unohana/Zaraki battle was good for 4.5-5 stars, Ichigo and Renji’s Hoohden trial was only good for 3-3.5; my rating splits the difference.

Rating: 4/5 Stars

Spy x Family – 23 – The Flames of War

The Campbell siblings have no shortage of dirty tricks to try to stop the Phonys, from a net that moves up and down, a wind machine that affects trajectories, to a hidden sniper firing court-colored rubber bullets. But even they couldn’t have known they’d be up against a couple of elite spies.

Throw adversity at a couple of lunatics like Twilight and Nightfall, and they’re going to keep finding a way around it. Once they’re both in rhythm making impossibly acrobatic yet precise moves, it’s game, set, and match. The Campbells poked a couple of bears, and simply got mauled.

Whether it was Cloverworks or Wit Studio that animated this episode (or both), the “tennis” action was never not fantastic looking, adding a sense of legitimacy to a thoroughly farcical game. When it comes time to claim the painting, Cavi suddenly says it’s the one piece he can’t part with.

But Loid and Fiona prepared for the possibility the secret police would get to Campbell before they got to the painting, so Loid simply disguises himself as Campbell’s valet and pulls the ol’ painting switcheroo, Thomas Crown Affair-style. The mission is a complete success, and the two spies high-five.

Fiona drops Loid off to find Yor in the park with Anya, and decides she needs to challenge and defeat Twilight’s Strix wife right then and there … in a game of tennis. Thanks to Anya, we can witness Fiona’s ridiculous thought about how it’ll go down, as well as Yor’s worry about Fiona replacing her.

Yor also plays the bumbling novice perfectly when she whiffs on what starts off as a badass assassin’s serve. But the thing is, she didn’t whiff; she simply hit the ball so hard it went through the strings of the racket like Play-Doh through an extruder (or human beings in Cube). The concassé’d ball is a little masterpiece of comic timing and trick animation.

Even when Yor holds back on her serve, she hits the ball so hard it goes faster than sound, creates a shock wave that digs into the ground, and lights up like a comet. Fiona tries her best to absorb the serve and volley it back, but her racket simply isn’t up to it, smashing to bits.

Fiona, defeated utterly, runs to her Trabant and races off, not letting Loid or Yor see her mask crack to reveal the seething, churning tempest of emotion within. Yor, who is simply relieved she fought Fiona off this time, very empatically tells Loid that she Won, leaving out the “for Us.”

The punchline of this two-parter is that while the code hidden in the painting indeed leads to finding Zacharis’ Dossier, but it turns out to be a diary filled with photos of pretty young actresses. These are the “dark secrets” that could “re-ignite a war”, not between East and West, but between Zacharis and his wife. I also loved the uncommented-upon sight of the gaudy rings Fiona took from Campbell on Handler’s hand.

But after the punchline comes a moment of realization for Loid when he sees that Zacharis managed to maintain a happy marriage and family after burying away his creepy dossier. Keeping a marriage and family happy isn’t easy, as evidenced by a clearly frustrated-looking Yor at the end.

I imagine she was underwhelmed by Loid’s reaction to her win over Fiona, and still worried about Fiona continuing to try to usurp her. Sure enough, the episode wraps up with Fiona in the mountains strengthening her serve with a racket made from a boulder as the wildlife watches in morbid curiosity.

Bleach: Thousand-Year Blood War – 09 – The First Kenpachi

Ichigo is healing up nicely in Kirinden, to the point that when Kirinji strikes him and he doesn’t die, he’s deemed healed enough to head to the next palace. Renji, not one to be left behind, also takes Kirinji’s punch and gets to depart with Ichigo. Kirinji tells his brothers that they exceeded expectations, especially Ichigo. He can see why the Soul King has taken an interest in him.

Back down in Soul Society, the Central 46 have appointed Captain Kyouraku the new Head Captain and Captain of 1st Squad. His first official act is to strengthen the Gotei 13 by finally teaching zanjutsu to Zaraki Kenpachi. His teacher is to be the first Kenpachi: Captain Unohana Retsu, AKA Unohana Yachiru. The 46 forbade Zaraki from learning swordsmanship lest he grow strong enough to rebel, but desperate times…

Ichigo and Renji are rocketed from Kirinden to Gatonden, the Food Palace. There, Hikifune Kirio, AKA the Grain King, prepares them a massive feast of colossal food. There’s not trick to it, either: now that they’ve been healed in Kirinji’s baths, they must restore and augment their strength with large quantities of food.

After Ichigo briefly feels guilty, Kirio emerges from the kitchen to support Renji’s encouraging words: they are preparing for battle, just like those in Soul Society. Kirio’s far more slender figure is a result of her pouring her spiritual pressure into the food she’s making, which means Ichigo and Renji are becoming more powerful than they’ve ever been.

Kirio tells them that she invented Gikon, which eventually led to the creation of Kon and Soul Candies—an extremely useful development. The next member of Squad Zero invented the Zanpakuto, and were Ichigo and Renji not itching to hold swords in their hands once more, the next palace might be quite an unpleasant experience.

The comic relief provided by Ichigo, Renji, and the Squad Zero weirdoes is fun, but I appreciate that the balance of the episode adopts a far more serious tone. Unohana and Zaraki descend to Muken, the very lowest level of the Soul Society prison. A vast, virtually limitless empty space, it is the perfect place for to ridiculously powerful shinigami to have at it.

I always assumed that despite her role as Gotei 13’s chief medical officer, Captain Unohana concealed hidden, never-used powers and/or a dark past. Turns out it’s both: she was one of the OG Gotei 13 and former Captain of the 11th Squad. Before she joined the Gotei Unohana was the most notorious criminal in Soul Society

Zaraki is one of my favorite captains due to the fact he cares so little for the pomp and circumstance of his station, and simply wants to fight the strongest opponents possible. In Yachiru he certainly gets his wish. He may have defeated her to gain the 11th Captaincy (and gave her a scar on her chest that itches when he talks) but she makes it clear her hands were largely tied in that battle.

Here in Muken, there are no rules or boundaries. She can summon any and all criminal tactics and dirty tricks of yore in this rematch. As the first person Zaraki ever fought that he actually feared could kill him, he knows he might’ve gotten lucky that last time, and she even seems to use a bit of Aizen-like illusion to make him think she had killed him.

But she didn’t; she only brought him to the verge of death, which as she knows is the only way he gets stronger. It’s basically the opposite of everyone else (except for the Hulk). And since this “training” exercise is almost certain to be fatal to either Zaraki or Unohana, we see their lieutenants grappling with the fact they may never see their beloved captains again.

If Unohana is the one to emerge victorious, she’ll likely return to her 4th Division duties, but consider herself a failure. The job Shunsui gave her to do is to make one of their strongest warriors even stronger. If that means sacrificing herself so Soul Society can survive, so be it. If Zaraki returns from those black depths as the victor, he’ll be a changed—and even more utterly fearsome—shinigami.

Bleach: Thousand-Year Blood War – 08 – Zero Hour

In the aftermath of the Quincy invasion and subsequent withdrawal, triage operations underway. Lieutenant Kotetsu tearfully asks Captain Unohana if it was really the right call to remain in the Squad 4 barracks for the entirety of the battle. Unohana reminds Kotetsu not to let emotion rule her decision-making.

They made the right choice because it was Head Captain’s final order, and now they’re still alive to take care of the wounded. Ichigo is there, and while he’s received first aid he still needs a lot of work. Less, though, than his pals Rukia and Renji, who are in stable condition. Rukia can tell something’s troubling Ichigo beyond the destruction of his zanpakuto and failure to protect everyone.

At the captain’s meeting, the younger, more hot-headed Captains like Soi Fon and Muguruma get into it and have to be calmed by Iba and Shunsui, who reminds them that if Old Man Yama were there he’d smack them all for whining about this defeat. They do receive some good news: both Byakuya and Kenpachi are still alive. The bad news? They may never wake up.

Captain Kurotsuchi invites Ichigo to his lab to give him the good and bad news: restoring his shikai is possible, but his bankai is gone forever. He then takes Ichigo to where the other captains have gathered near Seireitei’s protective wall…to await the arrival of the Royal Guard, AKA Squad Zero, which consists of five captains, each one stronger than the combined Gotei 13.

Here I was, wondering who the hell was going to fight the Quincy when they’ve taken out Yamamoto and neutralized Ichigo. It’s these guys. And while the Gotei 13 captains find them irritating, the fact is they infuse both optimism and comedy to the proceedings.

As one would expect, the character designs of the five Squad Zero captains are extremely extra, including a dude with a huge, sharp pompadour that’s almost a character in and of itself, a due with a white puffer jacket instead of the standard captain’s obi, and a lady with six golden legs she uses for everything from playing the squad’s arrival fanfare to holding four spheres that contain Ichigo’s broken zanpakuto, Rukia, Renji, and Byakuya.

Squad Zero has come down from the Royal Palace realm to rebuild the ravaged Gotei 13, but first they’re bringing the injured Kuchikis, Renji, and Ichigo back home with them, where they’ll be able to heal properly. After receiving a video call from Kisuke, Inoue and Chad reassuring him they’re all right (and have apparently made a deal with Grimmjow) Ichigo agrees to go with Squad Zero.

They all pile up in the giant pillar-shaped conveyance they used to travel to Seireitei, and with help from Shiba Kuukaku (joined by Ganju and making a reference to her uncle, Ichigo’s dad) it launches back to the realm of the Royal Palace, which is very cool and austere looking. The main palace is surrounded by five city-sized plates where the five Squad Zero captains’ castles are located.

Ichigo and his injured comrades are sent to Kirinden, the castle of Captain Kirinji Tenjirou, who is apparently the healer of the bunch, and someone whose healing powers far surpass Captain Unohana, who was a past student/apprentice of his.

That said, his methods are pretty simplistic on the surface, consisting of soaking the injured in a white-colored hot spring, then tossing them into a red-colored hot spring, then repeating the process. In Ichigo’s case, only one night in the spring will be enough to restore him, while Byakuya will need more intensive treatment.

Once Squad Zero arrived I started to feel a lot better about Ichigo and the good guys’ chances against the Wandenreich. They’re certainly an eccentric bunch, but I’m sure glad Bleach’s cheeky levity is back, anyone who fixes up Rukia is fine by me. They’re also able to re-forge Ichigo’s sword, so even if he can’t restore his old bankai, perhaps he’ll be able gain a new one, or perhaps even something beyond a bankai.

And, oh yeah, the Soul King is awake … so there’s that.

Rating: 4/5 Stars

Bleach: Thousand-Year Blood War – 07 – Night of Fallen Souls

The last battle between the Gotei 13 and the Quincy looked a lot like the current one, only in reverse. Yamamoto’s thirteen captains back then were vicious, savage killers who made quick work of the Quincy … yet Yamamoto wasn’t able to take Yhwach’s life.

That day of slaughter is memorialized in a painting in Yamamoto’s dojo, as seen by a young Shunsui. Yamamoto warned Shunsui that if the subject of the painting ever returned to Soul Society it would be a dark day indeed. And so it is, with Yamamoto being sliced in half by the real Yhwach after expending all his energy fighting a fake one.

With the Head Captain defeated, Yhwach orders the Stern Ritter to summon their foot soldiers to complete the slaughter of shinigami. The soldiers meet little resistance, mowing down their opponents with east and leaving Soul Society dark, burning, and drenched in blood.

It would appear Yhwach and the Quincy have had their revenge, but after being unable to simply stand by and watch countless lights of souls in Soul Society wink out, Ichigo manages to power his way out of Quilge’s prison and completes his journey through the Garganta.

The first Quincy to encounter him falls quickly by his sword, but before engaging Yhwach, Ichigo pays a visit to Kuchiki Byakuya. Before the sixth captain dies, he takes solace in knowing Rukia and Renji are still alive, and asks Ichigo for a final favor: protect Soul Society—what’s left of it, that is.

Yhwach is surprised but not totally shocked to see Ichigo before him, having defeated Quilge’s prison. It only reinforces the fact that Kurosaki is one of the five special threats that stand in the way of total victory over Soul Society. Ichigo, meanwhile, is already bloodied and battered and not in the best shape to face off against the Quincy king.

That said, he still puts up a hell of a fight, even if Yhwach is likely holding back from killing him. Their ensuing battle is nothing like the flame-wreathed inferno of Yamamoto vs. Yhwach. Things get downright 2001 trippy with the colors and patterns created by the sheer force of their attacks upon one another. But in the end, Yhwach puts his blade in Ichigo’s throat.

Confident he’s disabled but not killed Ichigo, Yhwach prepares to take him back to their realm so that he can revive him and turn him to his side, But he encounters another surprise: Ichigo is still conscious, Yhwach’s stunning strike blocked by a Quincy technique: Blut Vene.

Yhwach surmises that Ichigo’s persistent contact with Quilge’s prison when he busted himself out caused the Quincy’s spiritual pressure to mix with Ichigo’s, enabling him to unconsciously use the Blut to save himself. Yhwach takes off the kid gloves and surrounds and restrains Ichigo with rocks.

But then, just like that, he gives the order to withdraw. It isn’t a retreat, merely a break in the invasion that will be resumed again soon. The Quincy have only a limited timespan in which they are able to function outside of their realm, and that time comes sooner than Yhwach expected due to a little illusory fuckery from his brief encounter with Aizen.

Speaking of fuckery, Yhwach gives Ichigo something to chew on while heals up and awaits his return: the fact that he’s … a Quincy? Or, at least, possesses Quincy blood. It’s why Yhwach hesitates to refer to himself as Ichigo’s “enemy”—as far as he’s concerned, Ichigo is family: a prodigal son to be brought back into the fold. But something tells me Ichigo won’t be going quietly.

Rating: 4/5 Stars

Bleach: Thousand-Year Blood War – 06 – Rug Pull

Old Man Yama is always fun to watch, especially when he casually flexes, like when Yhwach thinks he’s slowly walking towards him, then a moment later Yamamoto is twenty feet away, Zaraki in his arms. When three of Yhwach’s subordinates descend on Yamamoto, he ethers them with a column of flame so big it gives his Captains another morale boost.

But Yamamoto isn’t here to play around. In what comes as a shocking escalation so early in the season, he releases his bankai for the first time in a thousand years. And it’s not a one-trick pony, but a four-cardinal-direction Swiss army knife of overpowered goodness. When he pulls all his flames within his sword, just touching the tip to the ground creates a yawning chasm instantaneously.

That first stage temporarily turned Soul Society into a waterless desert, but the second stage of his bankai makes him as hot as the surface of the sun, melting the very stone beneath him and making it impossible for Yhwach to touch him. This is when Old Man Yama starts his withering trash talk.

When the Quincy King summons the ultimate Quincy defense, Yamamoto changes gears once more, summoning not just any old undead army, but an army made up of Yhwach’s fallen subordinates. He can plow through them, but he must look each one in the face as he does it. It’s enough to make the hardened king weep.

That’s when Yamamoto brings the hammer down, as the fourth stage of his bankai is a blast so devastating it slices Yhwach clean in half at the midsection. But at this point I was already convinced that Something Wasn’t Right.

We just saw way too much of Yamamoto’s repertoire in just the sixth episode of the season, and the Quincy boss can’t already be dead. Sure enough, we learn that Yhwach wasn’t Yhwach at all, but another one of his subordinates disguised as him.

While his double fought Yamamoto, Yhwach infiltrated the dungeon below the 1st Squad barracks to have a few words with Aizen Sousuke, who is imprisoned down there. He doesn’t mince words, and asks Aizen to join him. Aizen may hate Soul Society and Yamamoto, but he may just hate the Quincy just a bit more, because he refuses without hesitation.

As for Yamamoto, his big light show didn’t seem like something he could easily repeat after such a brief rest. His intention from the start of the fight was to end Yhwach’s life, but he was deceived, and not being a Spring chicken anymore, dude is clearly winded. Worse, the defense he held against the Quincy—that they didn’t know enough about his bankai to steal it—goes out the window, since he just showed Yhwach virtually everything he had.

That enables Yhwach to steal Yamamoto’s bankai, then draw his glowing blue Qunicy sword and unleash one of his special attacks on his opponent. The episode ends with Yamamoto’s flames being extinguished, and Yhwach’s strike causing a great deal of blood loss and the clipping of one of his trademark long eyebrows.

But just as Yhwach couldn’t be beaten so quickly, it’s hard to believe Old Man Yama will be out for long. If nothing else, that was one of the best-looking battles in Bleach’s long and illustrious history.

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