Sword Art Online: Alicization – War of Underworld – 02 – A Knight of the Human Empire

In the first half of an episode split right down the middle between Underworld and the real world (still a rarity in isekai anime), Alice leaves Kirito at the cottage to deal with the goblin and orc raid on Rulid. While I feared the raid was merely a diversion meant to separate the helpless Kirito from his protector, it’s much simpler than that: the goblins and orcs just want to mess shit up.

The village’s chief man-at-arms, whom Alice’s father must obey, almost lets that happen, since the richer villagers want to protect their possessions at the cost of the lives of the poor. Alice arrives in time, and with Selka’s support and by revealing her identity as an Integrity Knight of the Axiom Church, she convinces the villagers to follow her retreat plan.

While the villagers fall back, Alice stands alone between them and the massive horde, but does not falter. Naming herself a Knight of the Human Empire, she orders an air attack from her dragon, then uncovers her right eye and unleashes the power of the Fragrant Olive Sword, decimating the monsters.

After watching her uneasily live a much simpler life, Alice rises to the occasion when the stakes are raised, and watching her act as a one-woman army without a moment of uncertainty is extremely satisfying. It gives me hope that other former Integrity Knights can shrug off Admin’s residual chains of control and stand up as fellow Knights not of the Axiom Church, but of humanity itself.

She allows the remaining goblins and orcs to flee, with the warning that she won’t hesitate to finish wiping them out if they return. Confident they won’t soon bother Rulid again, she takes Kirito and leaves, until such a time that her self-appointed mandate is realized.

She hopes one day she can hang up her sword for good and return as plain old Alice Zuberg, daughter and sister. In addition to being damned fun to watch kicking ass, Alice has emerged as one of the most motivated and compelling characters in SAO. I just hope she’s not killed off needlessly.

That first half on its own scores a solid 9 in my book, as in concert with last week’s episode completes the arc of Alice returning to her role as knight for her world rather than mere caretaker to Kirito. The second half, entirely set in the real world, isn’t quite as strong due to all the exposition, but is just as necessary to watch play out, as adds an extra layer of peril and challenge.

The way SAO works is that we gradually get lost in the fantasy of the virtual worlds, thus that they feel as real as the worlds from which their “players” originate. With the added dimension of severe time disparity between the worlds, and the fact that in our own world about two years have passed, the events aboard Rath’s Ocean Turtle have felt frozen in amber.

But as soon as Asuna grabs Kikuoka by the scuff and all but promises he’ll be a dead man if he loses Kirito, I’m immediately reinvested with what’s going on here, and how it will affect life in the Underworld.

Asuna, Kikuoka, Higa and Rinko are safe for the time being in the sub control room, but a mysterious black ops outfit has successfully taken control of the main control room, STL room, and most of the lower section, and whoever sent them may have enough official sway to keep the SDF escort ship Asahi from intervening.

Whoever they are, it’s clear they’re after A.L.I.C.E., but neither side is able to extract her Fluctlight externally; it must be done within the Underworld simulation itself. Assuming they’re on their own, the mission it to retrieve Alice before the men in black. Kirito, their man on the inside, would seem to be their only hope…or would be, were it not for his present condition.

Higa learns that Kirigaya Kazuto emerged in the Underworld with his memories intact, and has been living the equivalent of two years, training, fighting, gaining and losing friends along the way. When the men in black cut main power, it fried his “self-image circuit”—the virtual equivalent of his ego—which explains his condition. Kirito can’t talk, doesn’t know who he is, what he needs to do, and only responds reflexively to “deeply ingrained memories” (which explains why he reacted to the goblin raid).

That means someone will have to head in there and either help him recover or execute the mission in his stead. Asuna is closely eyeing the spare terminal beside Kirito, so surely she’s that someone. But so are the men in black. As the combatants prepare to enter the battlefield, the true War of Underworld is about to begin, and I couldn’t be more pumped.

Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu 2 – 05

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Yota is stoked. He’s flying high. He’s learned how to command a crowd, the theaters are full, his material is killing. He owes much of this to a lifting of a weight of uncertainty since Yakumo performed “Inokori” for him. Yakumo maintains that mastering that—and in just they way he instructs, by summoning one’s ego—is Yota’s next step.

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But Yakumo is no longer Yota’s sole source of instruction or inspiration. Whether he knows it or not, Yota has also fallen under the influence of Higuchi Eisuke, the outsider who shows Yota the wider world of rakugo, not just the venerable but narrow Yuuakutei canon.

The implication is obvious: like a smattering of gutted clans in days of yore, an alliance must be formed – a new rakugo – in order to survive modern times, and Yakumo’s death.

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Yota seems to rarely leave the open entrance to his home, sitting their first listening to his predecessor Sukeroku, then to all the myriad versions of Inokori provided by Higuchi, no two of them alike. It’s strong enough stuff for him to laugh and react loudly deep into the night. He’s so immersed, Konatsu has to snap him out of it so he can get some sleep for the family performance.

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And it is truly a family performance, as Konatsu will be at the shamisen per her father’s bidding. Of the three family members, she’s by far the most nervous. Performing rakugo for a bunch of kindergartners and a smattering of their parents is one thing: playing pros at the very top of the game in and out to a giant packed theater is another. But Yota (and indirectly, Yakumo) know she’ll be fine.

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Damn…when Yota offered to give Mangetsu an pregame audience with Yakumo and I saw that loooong foreboding hallway, for a few moments I feared for the worst: that Yakumo was keeled over dead in his dressing room, just like that. Blame the seductively creepy OP in which the ghost Sukeroku opens Yakumo’s cloak to reveal nothing but dry bones, and the earlier mention by someone that his voice has lost something.

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Thankfully, Yakumo is fine, but everything I mentioned before still casts a pall on him. Yota’s meeting with him is another great one, as Yota proudly shows what he’s really been up to in the red light districts: getting his carp tattoo finished. This is Yota literally not letting things go unfinished; not apologizing for who he was and who he is.

Yakumo may think rakugo is finished once he dies, but he’s wrong. His rakugo won’t even be finished; it’s not his call, but history’s. So even though he’s pissy about the fact Yota is taking into account other methods for “Inokori” (likely aware this is Higuchi’s influence), you can’t expect someone who claims, and is pretty certain, they don’t have an ego to use that ego.

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Yota warms up the crowd, getting them “laughing like fools”, which might be fine in a solo show, but Yakumo needs to put them in a different, more nuanced mood; Yota’s winding them up makes it tougher. Still, he’s more than up to the challenge, and performs “Hangon-ko” with both musical accompaniment from Konatsu (who he says he’s counting on, and who doesn’t let him down despite her nerves) and an extra prop: streams of incense.

The significance of the titular incense to the story—that it brings back the soul of a dead loved one—is all too apropos for Yakumo’s darkening state of mind as the days ahead of him dwindle. And even though at this part in the story he tells, the widower buys the wrong incense and burns way too much of it, the incense still has the effect of summoning the ghost of Miyokishi before Yakumo, in one of the most chilling and intense moments of the show’s entire run.

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Yakumo manages to finish the story to polite but not raucous applause, and Yota quickly orders the curtains dropped. Yakumo collapses and enters what must seem like the afterlife. Miyokichi is nowhere to be found. Instead there are off-kilter shelves after shelves of countless burning candles – no doubt signifying lives.

Like the end of the deliciously haunting OP, Yakumo’s candle must be burning very low indeed, flickering, and threatening to be snuffed out. Sukeroku also comes before him, as young and vital as the day he was killed. He asked him why he’s there, ignores his questions of whether he’s in paradise or hell, and starts to choke him.

As we ponder what medical malady struck Yakumo on that stage, an attack that will most likely result in the cancelling of the remainder of the family performance, including Yota’s “Inokori”, but more importantly, may mark the commencement of the trial of Yakumo’s soul.

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