SAKUGAN – 12 (FIN) – THICKER THAN BLOOD

The Big Twist that starts the SAKUGAN finale is that Memenpu actually is a “Rainbow Child”, a child with an exceptionally advanced brain. This not only explains why she’s a genius, but what the “place in her dream” is all about: it was never a dream, it was a memory. Rainbow Children retain vivid memories even from their infancy. As Rainbow Children were bred to be the guardians of the Labyrinth, they are anathema to Shibito, who want them all dead.

Fortunately, Muro’s boss doesn’t let her kill Memenpu right away, even though it’s debatable what if anything he intends to do with her before killing her. This gives the remaining members of Team Memenpu the time they need to zero in on her location and rescue her. It’s definitely a team effort, with Yuri using a second-hand computer in a store to guide Gagumber and Zackletu, then Zack distracting both Shibito and the Bureau with sheer ballistic chaos.

Gagumber locates Memenpu, but by then she’s been placed in a bell jar, which soon shatters due to the Animus dripping on top of it. Memenpu seems to be immune to its deleterious effects due to her Rainbow-ness. But by the time her pops arrives, Muro’s boss (I don’t believe we got his name) has convinced Memenpu that she has no father. Whether their surroundings were meant to evoke that same father-y scene from Empire, I don’t know.

All’s I know is, this Shibito guy is a huge prick for messing with Memenpu’s head, and for all her advanced intellect, Memenpu betrays just how sensitive and naïve she his, simply accepting the guy’s words about Gagumber not being her father. She even puts herself between the guy and Gagumber, offering up herself in exchange for her not-dad’s safety.

Gagumber, rightfully so, says fuck that, treading through the shallow pool of Animus to reach Memenpu, melting away his boots and burning his feet. He tells her he is, always was, and always will be her father, and she is, always was, and always will be his daughter. Whatever she wants to do and wherever it leads them, he’ll be by her side on her journey. Memenpu, realizing she does have a dad in Gagumber after all, has herself a good cry in his arms.

Seemingly moved by this dramatic and cathartic exchange, the Shibito boss decides to let Memenpu and Gagumber go…for now. Gagumber recharges Big Tony and they take the shortest route back to Dream Colony proper—by drilling through the colony’s retaining wall. There, Gagumber zeroes in on Muro and blasts her through a hole in the floor for making his daughter cry.

There’s a ceremony honoring Team Memenpu hosted by Merooro, but when he produces arrest warrants and the team is surrounded by Bureau cops and bots, Memenpu unleashes a cloud of purple smoke from Tony and the quartet escapes with the Bureau in hot pursuit. Not sure why Merooro held a ceremony just to arrest them, but whatevs.

Back on the Labyrinth “road”, Memenpu leads her team on their original mission: to find the place in her dreams, come what may. It’s what she truly wants to do, and that’s more than enough for Gagumber to accompany her, and by extension Zack and Yuri. It’s been fun watching this found family iron out their warts and beat the bad guys…fun enough that I’ll likely give the expected second season a watch.

Rating: 4/5 Stars

Sonny Boy – 12 (Fin) – Don’t Say Goodbye…

Sonny Boy’s finale begins boldly, with what amounts to a stirring five-minute music video. We follow Nagara, who has slipped right back into his usual existence. Things are so normal, he sometimes wonders if he was ever really adrift in the first place.

Notably absent from Nagara’s high school is Mizuho, whom Nagara looks up and waits outside her school’s gates, only for her to not have any idea who he is. You and I know how much Nagara grew while adrift with Mizuho, Nozomi, and Asakaze, and yet this world seems almost cruelly intent on keeping him isolated and alone.

His present existence back in his original world lies in stark contrast to the surreal, beautiful, and fantastical journey he and Mizuho undertake to get back to a world they’re certain hasn’t changed, even if they have. They tie themselves together, run out of the space elevator, and keep running, even when God tries to stop them. Asakaze bids them farewell, unable to follow even though there’s nothing left for him there.

The flashback to Nagara and Mizuho’s escape serves as a bridge between Nagara’s post-return life and Mizuho’s. Mizuho notes that “everything is gone” from the two-years-plus they were drifting. While Nagara has a part-time job, Mizuho spends her evenings sneaking into their old school and breaking a glass. But a cat doesn’t come delivering a new one; it just stays broken. That’s as it should be…so why is it so sad?

At least we learn that Mizuho was simply messing with Nagara when she pretended not to know him; maybe it was just that seeing him again got her old defenses up. And yet these two people who suddenly find themselves strangers in a simultaneously recognizable and unrecognizable world can’t help but spend time together, basking in both that contradiction and in the knowledge that the two of them are different from everyone else in terms of where they’ve been and what they’ve seen.

There’s a elegiac quality to their interaction, like they were the last surviving members of their unit in some long-finished war. Yet Nagara can’t help but worry that one day he’ll forget what he and Mizuho are feeling right now, and go adrift all over again. Before they part, possibly for good, Mizuho tells him as long as a part of him is still on that island, he’ll be fine. They’ll both be fine.

The episode ends with a third music video, focusing on Nozomi, but wordlessly, until we cut to Nagara preparing to inspect a bird’s nest at the station, only to find Nozomi has already rescued a surviving chick. Nozomi recognizes Nagara from middle school, but unlike him and Mizuho seems to have no other memories of their time in those other dimensions.

Ultimately, Nagara seems fine with that, and fine with the fact Nozomi quickly runs to another guy who I believe is Asakaze. It would seem that by dying in that world, Nozomi’s existence transferred to this one…or something. No matter; I too am glad she’s still alive, bringing light and energy to dark and sullen places.

What I’m not glad about is that this spells the end of Sonny Boy…or at least it should. This just felt like such a wonderfully self-contained and authoritative twelve episodes, my urge for a sequel is tempered. Like Nagara back in his home dimension, everything that should happen will happen.

Vanitas no Carte – 10 – Into the Maw

Upon entering Dr. Moreau’s laboratory of torture and death, Vanitas makes sure to play nice, pretending to be reuniting with his old pal. As long as they’re chatting all friendly-like, Moreau is no threat. The good doctor recalls that unlike the other children, Vanitas (or rather “69” never cried no matter how cut up or battered he got, but he’s probably got a selective memory.

Soon, the casual conversation over coffee becomes a bit too much for Noé, who slams Moreau against the table once he’s heard enough, ruining Vanitas’ plan to keep things nice and copacetic. Then again, Moreau wanted to gouge out one of Van’s eyes so he could study it, so you can’t blame Noé or Roland for wanting to mop the floor with the guy.

Unfortunately, Moreau slips away before he can divulge the “exalted one” with whom he’s currently collaborating. Spider, one of the members of Charlatan, drops in to whisk Moreau away, while one of Moreau’s most deadly experiments breaks out of its cell, looking every bit like Spirited Away’s No-Name, and with just as big an appetite.

Because this Prédateur is a monster made of shadow, Roland and his underlings’ weapons have no lasting effect. Vanitas gets slammed hard against a wall and starts to give up hope, but Noé, who doesn’t know as much about the beast as Vanitas apparently does, insists they can defeat from the inside it if they work together.

Sure enough, Noé provides cover with his fists and legs while Vanitas uses the Memoir to heal and release the child from his curse. The Prédateur turns to stone and crumbles, leaving only Vanitas, Noé, and the rescued child. After Noé admits he grossly underestimated how close they were to dying, he and Vanitas break out in spirited laughter.

Hearing a human and a vampire charms Roland so much, he decides to let Noé and Vanitas escape, using his authority as Paladin. He admits that vampires had nothing to do with this incident, and if anything, it was the Chasseur’s mess for letting Moreau operated under their noses. But more than anything, befriending Noé has turned everything Rolly believed about vampire relations on its head. No doubt he can be a valuable ally in the future.

When Vanitas and Noé finally make it back to the surface, they take a few minutes to rest, with Vanitas leaning against Noé unexpectedly. Noé wonders if it was Vanitas’ duty as a doctor and the presence of a curse-bearer that kept him involved with this incident, of if he uses his crusade to save all the vampires whether they hate him or not as a crutch to get through his days.

Clearly Vanitas suffered a good deal of trauma by Moreau’s hand; I just with Moreau wasn’t such a goofy caricature of a mad scientist. But Vanitas also seems to bear a good deal of guilt for what happened to his white-haired little brother, “Number 71”. Noé notes that while Vanitas is hell-bent on delivering salvation unto every cursed vampire, he may just be the one who needs salvation most of all.

As for Lord Ruthven apparently putting out a hit on Noé for what happened to Moreau’s lab, well…I guess I should have known a dude that powerful and mysterious was up to no good.

Rating: 4/5 Stars

NIGHT HEAD 2041 – 06 – A Model of Peace

While an armed guard keeps Naoya hostage, Kazama’s sketchy-ass Free Speech Alliance takes over the main news government propaganda TV station. After a brief and frankly hackneyed speech about corruption, oppression, etc., Kazama intends to put Naoto and his power on display for the entire viewing public to behold.

Needless to say, with so much of the population brainwashed hook, line, and sinker, it’s patently silly for this guy to believe seeing someone demonstrate “powers” on a TV program will win hearts and minds. Just as Naoya warned several times, the operation fails when the super-skeptic guy—whose treachery, in hindsight, was telegraphed within an inch of its life—reveals he’s an undercover SWE agent, and kills Kazama.

Despite being surrounded by the newly-awakened SWE oficers, Naoto still manages to slip away, until he’s cornered in the parking garage by Takuya. The Kuroki brother has a lot of questions for Naoto, but Naoto is in no mood to answer them, and at least at the start of the battle he’s a better psychokinesis user; or at least a more controlled one.

Ultimately, Naoto, along with Naoya, Emily, and Masayuki’s mom (Shouko’s old friend) end up vanishing in a big ‘ol flash of light. While I shouldn’t assume anything with the limited information we’re given, I’ll go out on a limb and theorize that it was Masayuki’s mom’s connection to Shouko that led to everyone being sent…somewhere in a similar manner to Shouko herself in previous encounters.

To Your Eternity – 18 – Paradise Bound

Tonari, who has become somewhat fond of Fushi beyond his utility as a tool for advancing her interests, wasn’t about to leave him to the tender ministrations of the “hag” Hayase. So she rows back to the island to save him, only to discover he already freed himself from the pit, which wasn’t half as deep as Pioran’s prison wall was high. Faced with having to explain why she’s there, Tonari tries out her best tsundere act.

The seas aren’t suitable for heading back out by boat, so Tonari and Fushi spend the night in a cave beside a campfire. Tonari asks about what exactly the man in black is. Is he a thoughtful god, trying to stave off the world’s destruction by creating Fushi? Or is he a demon, and the Nokkers are the servants of the real God(s) tasked with stopping him?

She also owns up to her father having been a murderer, and how she came to see him no differently than any other lowlife on the island: deserving of death. But she doesn’t see herself any differently, as in her mind she kills anyone she doesn’t like. She believes the island has poisoned her heart.

Fushi tries to cheer her up by saying that even if both their “parents” are or were demons, the two of them still do what they want to do. Being in that cave is proof of it: Tonari wasn’t about to let herself be saved at the cost of Fushi, while Fushi wasn’t about to let himself live out his existence as Hayase’s toy.

That night, Tonari dreams a familiar dream of a happy home with a living mother and father proud of her for the books she writes. Upon waking up, Tonari decides she’ll need to come up with a new dream, a new story less grounded in the past. She envisions herself, her crew, Fushi, and Pioran all relaxing and loving life on the beach.

It’s a lovely, idyllic image, and also the last upbeat image to appear in the episode; it’s all downhill from there. That morning when about to cast off, the Creator notifies Fushi that the Nokkers are attacking the town. Despite everyone worth saving on the island already off of it, Fushi heads towards danger, turning his back on an exasperated Tonari.

To his credit, Fushi isn’t doing this because the Creator is goading him to do it—it was Fushi who asked him to warn him when the Nokkers returned. It’s just that Fushi always has and probably always will blame his existence for the death of all the people who’ve died around him. If he can lesson that even a little, he must try.

The thing is, Fushi is cursed to be just too goshdarn likable to be left alone by those who enter his orbit. When he arrives at a hellish scene of corpses being reanimated into zombies by the Nokkers and wreaking havoc, it isn’t long before Tonari comes to help, and the rest of her crew also show up to help the both of them.

It strains credulity just a bit that they not only returned to the island so soon, but knew exactly where Fushi and Tonari were. What should be a devastating emotional climax is once again undermined by the fact barely any of it is animated, as with two episodes left the show is blatantly running on fumes.

Finally, the fact we’ve seen Mia, Oopa, and Uroy as Nokker zombies every week leading up to this episode, so we knew exactly what would become of them. Thile their souls may have passed to a paradise similar to the one in Tonari’s new dream, their bodies remain on Jananda; shambling nightmares Fushi isn’t strong enough to put down.

To Your Eternity – 05 – A Family

Parona frees March, Fushi, and the old lady Pioran, but before they escape the prison, she wants to cut off a chunk of “Oniguma-sama” as proof to Ninnanah he was defeated. She even has a wolf toy ready to placate March, along with the justification that it will save the lives of many girls.

But March, who had just washed the great bear’s wounds and watched him die, won’t allow it. So Parona reconsiders. She’ll convince the villagers some other way—one that doesn’t require another life.

Parona proves as bad a wagon driver as she is an archer, but thanks to her asking March what she wants to do when she becomes a grown-up, it offers March a chance to set a death flag or three. Right on time, the casually relentless Hayase and her Yamone warriors close in on their fleet donkeys.

Hayase assures them she’ll spare their lives if they give up the dog, but Fushi is family, so that ain’t gonna happen. Parona gives a valiant effort to fight them off, but she has to be saved from an arrow by March, who declares “I can do something too” before saving her beloved husband.

Immediately after March is shot, Fushi leaps towards Hayase, transforming in mid-air from wolf to giant bear, wounds and all, and rakes her across the face. Then we take a look back at how Parona and March met. Parona watched from a distance as March played with her fingers in the dirt, imagining them as her kids.

When March approached her wondering why she was always alone, Parona presented her with a doll she made, and March returns the favor with a “thank you meal” that, while inedible, Parona still “eats” and voices how delicious it is. March suggests they become a family; her new doll can be their kid, she’ll be Mommy, and Parona will be Daddy.

Fast-forward back to the wagon, and March is fading fast. Parona finds another “thank-you meal” with which March was going to surprise her. March asks Parona to become a mommy in her place, then asks if Fushi is near, and as he causes a rampage in the city, Parona says that he is. Then March draws her last breath.

Between this and Fruits Basket’s tearjerker earlier today, I’ve gone through half a big box of tissues crying my eyes out. But Parona wears a smile as she approaches Fushi and tells him to stop; there’s no longer any need to fight.  He returns to human form, while Parona finds Hayase lying in a pile of rubble, wounded but alive. She picks up a nearby broken blade, telling March “Let’s go home together.”

In the space between life and death, March envisions returning to her village with Parona and leaping into the arms of her elated parents. She dreams of growing into a beautiful young woman with lots of stuffed “kids” made by Parona. But then March notices this isn’t really happening, and that she’s not really there, or anywhere. She doesn’t want to be nowhere, not when there was so much more she wanted to do.

She sees Parona with the blade, seemingly pointed at Hayase, but Parona, who is unwilling to live in a reality where she outlived March, turns the blade on her throat and prepares to plunge it in, thus “going home together” with her little wife. She can’t hear the spectral March pleading for her to stop…but Fushi does hear her, and stays Parona’s hand, all the while pouting like March. He takes her by the arm and transforms into Oniguma, and the two ride back to Ninnanah.

Once there, Parona approaches March’s parents and presents them with the “letter” containing only March’s handprint, which Parona translates as “March is doing great.” That, along with Parona’s demeanor tells the parents all they need to know. But rather than shun her like her parents did when she dared to live, March’s mother embraces Parona, thanking her for everything she did—and tried to do—for their March.

As the watch announces the Yanome are coming, Parona tells a suddenly far more expressive Fushi to flee before the enemy arrives. After all, life is never merely given, it must be won. He transforms into a wolf and departs.

Using an arrow that’s served her well for more than half a year and a heavy bow borrowed from a watchman, Parona takes aim at Hayase as she aims at Fushi, and her arrow goes right through Hayase’s hand. Even so, Hayase merely smiles, and Parona admits she missed her intended target, which was no doubt meant to be fatal.

As for Fushi, as the narrator says: “In meeting its mother and parting with her, its humanity increased.” Not only that, he can now take March’s form, and does so in order to grab one of the fruits his mommy once so generously fed him. So ends the most moving episode of To Your Eternity yet, in my books surpassing even the sublime first episode.

If I’m honest, I always knew March would be a goner and probably end up another one of Fushi’s forms. And yet the show kept serving up hope she might have a future, right up to her act of self-sacrifice. Parona may not have to live with the loss of March and her sister, but she’ll keep living all the same. It’s what her wife would have wanted.

GODDAMN TEARJERKER™ CERTIFIED

To Your Eternity – 04 – Put to Good Use

Parona remembers when her big sister hid her away in a tree hollow, only to learn her sister had taken her place as an offering to Oniguma-sama. Lil’ Parona had to learn when she tripped over her dead and buried sister’s foot. She wakes up in a wagon with March and Fushi, headed to Yanome, bastion of the enemy. Also in the wagon is the shamaness who turns out to be a fake and a captive in her own right, admitting she only chose March because she was the prettiest.

Through the shamaness Parona and March learn that the Yanome are envious of Ninnanah’s lush lands and are using the ritual to exert control. When Fushi wets himself, the wagon stops at a lake for everyone to bathe, and Fushi remembers the boy and re-assumes his form. Hayase treats her captives gently as they enter the bustling Yanome city of which she’s clearly proud. But as soon as March, Parona, and Fushi eat, they’re all knocked out; Hayase drugged their meals.

She then presents Fushi to other Yanome officials, declaring the immortal creature a weapon essential to Yanome’s future. As two prisoners hack at Fushi, who regenerates almost instantly, he learns a new phrase: “It Hurts”, and then attempts to flee by changing back into a wolf. Hayase leaves him in March’s care, while Parona, in the cell above her, plans their escape, not content to spend one more day than necessary in their prison.

Hayase also puts March to work tending to Oniguma-sama, whom she learns is just a really big bear covered in arrows and spears from various attackers throughout its life. Once she’s removed them all, the bear dies in peace.

Once she has sufficient rope, Parona commences her escape plan, but nearly almost slips and falls to her death at least three times before landing in a storage room. There, a Yanome guard threatens to rape her, but she kicks the shit out of him, steals his uniform, and arrives at March and Fushi’s cell to announce they’re getting the hell out of there, vowing to put the life her sister gave her to good use.

Parona basically owns the episode, taking on the mantle of the classic Ghibli heroine who is refreshingly not perfect in everything she does. She’s as charming and lovable as the much-more-perfect Hayase is loathsome and despicable. I really hope she and March, maybe with Fushi’s help(?) are able to come out on top, or at least make a good fight of it.

Rating: 4/5 Stars

Mars Red – 02 – Sin From Thy Lips

In the ruins of the bunker where Misaki was being held, Moriyama informs his newly-promoted boss Col. Maeda that there have been more vamp sightings in Kayabacho. Nitto News reporter Shirase Aoi is after the truth of the recent spate of “human combustion” incidents and keen for details on Misaki’s “elopement”, while yearning for her childhood friend, who never returned from battle in Siberia. She’s also miffed that Salomé has been replaced by Romeo & Juliet at the theatre.

We meet the vampiric members of Maeda’s vampire unit Code Zero—the “unranked” Yamagami, “A Class” Kurusu Shuutarou, and “mad scientist”-type Takeuchi—as well as Suwa, who seems to be human. Their first trip for intel on the vamps in Kayabacho is Tenmanya, a shop full of knicknacks, antiques, and curios. Its proprietor plays both sides of the human-vampire conflict.

Tenmanya is willing to offer some info in exchange for ruining his competition. Those rival “blood sellers” are selling a bootleg of his “product”—the vamp equivalent of the hard shit—and a vampire couple are enjoying it and themselves, though the woman seems to think her mate is drinking a bit too much.

While playing a bouquet of asters at the stigmata where Misaki burned up, Maeda encounters Aoi, and learns that one of his vampire agents, Kurusu Shuutarou, is her childhood friend reported dead. He doesn’t tell her of Shuutarou’s fate, nor why he’s leaving flowers, other than he “couldn’t keep his word.”

At midnight, all bridges and streets leading out of Kayabacho are sealed and Code Zero moves in on the vampire couple, who sense danger and aren’t prepared to go quietly. I love how simple yet frightening vampires are depicted in Mars Red, and once again the lighting and camerawork really sell their speed and ferocity that far exceeds human limits.

Unfortunately for our couple, they are cornered on a bridge, and Maeda has brought plenty of his own vampires to take them down. The male vamp chugs one more vial of the black blood and goes out in a blaze of glory, but it’s Suwa and not the Class A Kurusu who delivers the killing blow. Despite being an extremely powerful vampire, Kurusu is disgusted and even a bit scared of blood.

The “parent root” female vamp tries to flee, but she’s headed off by Maeda, who rather violently stuffs his fist through her mouth then slashes her with his sword. How he, a mere human, can do this is not clear. Is he not a mere human? Unfortunately Maeda’s aide Moriyama has to be put out of his misery. Maeda handles it, then has a solemn smoke on the bridge.

Like Tenmanya, Mars Red has the eclectic style and pleasantly musty scent of a shop with odd hours filled with neat things. I also like the connection between Aoi and Kurusu, though I wish after two episodes I could summon more than a shrug about Colonel Maeda, who’s almost too stiff and stoic for his own good.

Mars Red – 01 (First Impressions) – On a Silver Platter

Tokyo, Japan, 1923: Major Maeda Yoshinobu is escorted to a maximum-security underground prison at Tsukishima Island housing a single inmate: Misaki, an actress who was performing Salome at the Imperial Theatre when she was turned into a vampire. When Maeda meets her through thick glass, she’s still reciting the lines of the play, as if she were still on stage.

Later on, a suspiciously vampiric-looking young man at the theatre tells Maeda that when the lights go out and the curtains rise, the audience is transported to the underworld. I can’t help but watch Maeda and his chatterbox underling’s journey deeper and deeper into the Tsukishima  facility and think they too are on a journey to the underworld.

While Japan and its military are rapidly modernizing and westernizing, it’s ironic that the covert vampire hunting unit Lt. General Nakajima has created deals with ancient monsters. The general reminds Maeda not to allow sympathy or pity to dull his blade, and Maeda assures him if Misaki cannot be brought to their side, he’ll promptly dispose of her.

Maeda visits the theatre, where the stage is still a mess of blood and ruined scenery, and he meets the inscrutable actor Deffrot, who played Jokanaan, AKA John the Baptist, whose head is served to Salome on a silver platter as payment for her Dance of the Seven Veils. In a very neat piece of “camera”work, the shadow of Maeda’s head is cast on the play’s poster, held in Salome’s hands.

Outside the theatre Maeda is approached by a young lady he mistakes for Misaki, but she introduces herself as Shirase Aoi, a reporter for the Nitto News. Maeda ignores her requests for comment and access to the theatre, and then Moriyama arrives by car to report that Misaki has escaped. For a second there, I wondered if Aoi was Misaki after all.

As Moriyama speeds Maeda back to Tsukishima, Misaki effortlessly smashes through all of the steel doors and barriers in her way, takes a bullet with barely a flinch, bleeds black blood, bites a neck, casually nudges a bullet away and dodges the others with her vampiric speed. Through it all she moves with a dancer’s grace, embodying the role of Salome—whom I learned was transformed by French writers from her biblical role to the “incarnation of female lust”.

A different dance ensues, with both Maeda and Misaki gradually making their way to the same spot: across the Nihonbashi bridge to Marunouchi Plaza at Tokyo Station. It’s the capper to an episode that serves as a Where’s Where of Taisho-era Tokyo.

Misaki gets closer and closer to Maeda, but when he grips his sword and prepares to draw, she places her hand over his, embraces him a little while longer, then steps aside and lets herself be consumed by the morning light, without further bloodshed. The same stigmata design on her tongue appears on the spot where she incinerated.

Back at HQ, General Nakajima promotes Maeda to Colonel and puts him in command of Code Zero, with the mission of apprehending or disposing of vampires in Japan. If I had to describe Mars Red in one word, it would be classy. Given another word, I’d use deliberate. As Maeda navigates a Tokyo in flux and deals with Misaki, every scene is given room to breathe.  Maeda is a bit of a stiff, but still…I’m intrigued.

The Promised Neverland – 13 (S2 01) – Freedom! Horrible, Horrible Freedom!

When the first season of The Promised Neverland wrapped at the end of March 2019, none of us could have imagined what life would be like a year from then: a pandemic unprecedented in modern times spreading death, chaos, and uncertainty across the globe. Now it’s January 2021, and things are looking up in the U.S., a nation that has handled the pandemic the worst proportional to its size and wealth.

A new president will be inaugurated in just two weeks, joined by the first woman vice president. Just today we learned he may have a cooperative Senate on his side. Vaccines to tackle the virus have arrived. Now that the second season of Neverland has arrived and picked up right where it left off, I can’t help but relate to Emma, Ray, and the other kids who escaped the farm.

Like them, we are getting the first taste of freedom in what feels like far more than four years. Also like them, it is far too early to celebrate or rest easy. Yes, elections were won by reasonable, non-sociopathic, non-authoritarian people, and the vaccines are being shipped. But the winners must still implement policies to heal the nation, and the vaccines must still be distributed while maintaining the necessary safety guidelines that have caused so much economic harm.

As for the escaped kids, they are free, and freedom is sweet, but also terrifying. The Grace Field House sheltered, clothed, and fed the kids, but now all their survival needs are up to them, and the threat of being caught or killed by forest monsters is constant. And of the fifteen or so kids, only four (Emma, Ray, Gilda, and Don) are old enough to keep the group organized, and even these four are mere tweens. They’ve had to grow up in a hurry.

Fortunately, the kids have an ally out there somewhere in William Minerva, whose smart pen serves as a map and guide for those who have his books to decipher the code. That code points them to a particular spot on the map; they just need to get there and they’ll (presumably) be safe, though I won’t rule out the possibility Minerva could be dead or this could all be another cruel trap.

But potential threats on the horizon are of far less concern than those more immediate, starting with the giant monster that chases them in the cold open. The forest is very Nausicaä-esque with its giant trees, whimsical plants and creatures, but the kids have inserted themselves into a food chain that would be glad to avail themselves of easy prey.

It’s a good thing the kids practiced “playing tag” so much, because those organizational skills prove crucial to their survival. The group branches off twice, first with Gilda and the slower kids, then with Emma and the rest. Ray volunteers to lure the monster into a vine trap they find on the forest floor. But before he can implement his plan, the monster is beheaded by a sword-wielding demon pursuer, aided by bloodhound-like demons seekers who detect Ray’s scent.

If Neverland stretched credulity a bit by having all the kids run fast enough to elude the beast, and only one little kid stumbles (and happens to do so right beside Emma), it restores that credulity by not forgetting about the fact that Emma is missing an ear, and a wound like that can and does open up if you run around too much.

The blood loss becomes too much and Emma faints at the worst possible moment, but they are met by an unlikely ally—a mysterious cloaked figure—at the best possible moment. Meanwhile, Ray runs as fast as he can as far as he can, but ultimately collapses from exhaustion, at the complete mercy of the demons bent on returning the product to the farm.

Thankfully, their task is made harder by the fact that killing or harming such prime stock would defeat the purpose of catching it. A second mysterious cloaked figure on demon-horseback exploits this by snatching up Ray and riding off, leaving smoke bombs in his wake that confound the seekers.

Ray wakes up in a serene cave, safe and sound, and more importantly not tied up or otherwise restrained. He explores the caves and finds Emma also safe and sound, her ear wound re-dressed. They are approached by the female cloaked figure, who has apparently never heard of Minerva. She leads them to the other kids, who are about to be fed.

Then Ray notices the figure isn’t human, but a demon, based on her clawed bare feet. The second figure, the one who saved Ray on horseback, also appears. Emma and Ray have every right to be suspicious considering recent events (along with their upbringing, obviously). Do these two represent a faction of “good demons” opposed to the ones running the human farms?

Maybe. Then again, this sounds too good to be true. It could be these demons simply have different plans for the kids. For now, I’ll hope that’s not the case, and the fact the kids can roam free after waking up is a sign they don’t have to fear their rescuers, and could even regard them as allies in their ongoing struggle for freedom.

I just hope that we, as well as Emma, Ray, and the kids, don’t end up like the poor space ants who provided the title for this review:

P.S. Crow is reviewing Neverland too.

Akudama Drive – 12 (Fin) – Good Trouble

You could sense this was going to be a particularly intense finale when it starts with Swindler, Courier, and the kids surviving a violent Shinkansen derailing. Brother thinks it’s all over, but Sister still believes in her big sis. Swindler may have a badly broken leg, but she’s not ready to give up.

She produces the 500-yen coin that started her run of “bad luck” (putting it quite mildly) and places it on Courier’s chest. It’s payment for one last job: ensure the kids get to Shikoku safely. Through their prickly, foul-mouthed repartee, Courier too can sense that Swindler is cashing out.

After wishing the kids godspeed, Swindler limps out into the open and almost immediately spotted and surrounded by police drones. But she finally gets her own official Akudama intro sequence (this show’s version of the magical girl transition) as she pulls off one last Swindle.

At first, it seems like nothing other than stalling the Executioners—whose mundane banter in the midst of such carnage only heightens their monstrousness. She pretends to be an ordinary civilian caught in the crossfire, but she’s quickly identified as Swindler, and is stabbed through the chest by one of the Executioners.

That woman Executioner thinks it’s creepy that the Akudama wears a bright smile even in death, but Swindler has every reason to smile: not only did she succeed in buying crucial moments for Courier and the kids, but also sparked something even the Executioners won’t be able to contend with.

Oh, they certainly put on a show of force in surrounding Courier’s bike with seemingly every Executioner, drone, and airship in the city. A feisty Executioner is even able to lunge at Courier, but Brother comes between them an ensures the wound isn’t deep enough to kill Courier yet.

That’s key, because they still need Courier to help them out of this mess. Of course, Courier isn’t enough, especially in his battered state and woefully outnumbered and outgunned. That is, until, the fruits of Swindler’s Last Swindle are borne. Her execution, ruthlessly carried out while pleading she was just an ordinary person? That was caught on video.

The girl whose parents were killed last week steps between the Executioners and Courier and the kids, and even shoots one of them with a gun she found. She’s not alone. Soon the Executioners and their arrogant Boss are surrounded by a far larger force of ordinary citizens rising up against the violence. Even Bunny & Shark’s message is retooled: the Executioners are the Akudama now.

The resurgence of public unrest keeps the Executioners busy enough that Courier is able to charge up his bike railgun and not only bring down the Police station and its looming tower, but uses the tower wreckage as a goddamn ramp to escape with the kids.

He follows the train tracks towards Shikoku until his bike warns him it’s running low on juice, and in any case there are three Executioner airships still in pursuit. Courier stops near a windswept tree, the kids alight from the bike and continue on foot while he’ll go back and stop the airships…at any cost.

Akudama Drive has never had a problem with absolutely bonkers action sequences, but as expected the finale takes them to entirely new heights, reaching Synthwave Music Video levels of serene awesomeness. Courier dances on his bike to dodge enemy fire as long as he possibly can, but is eventually swallowed up by a railgun beam and seemingly vaporized, all while Brother and Sister run away as fast as their little legs can carry them.

BUT…it turns out Courier isn’t quite dead yet after being turned into a black-on-white sketch—usually a death sentence for most characters, but Courier and the Akudama aren’t “most”! He uses his metal arm to replace one of the two prongs on the bike’s railgun that melted away, focusing the beam enough to land a direct hit on the third and final airship pursuing the kids, and destroying it.

With nothing and no one else chasing Brother and Sister, Courier slumps over wearing a smile of relief and satisfaction as the morning sun washes over him. He just managed accomplished his final delivery mission. Before parting with the kids, he gave them the 500-yen coin Swindler gave him, making his last job technically gratis.

Aside from a parting shot showing the wreckage of the police tower, the remainder of the episode is given over to Brother and Sister continuing on to Shikoku as the end credits roll. They reach a tunnel through which there is nothing but light, and walk through it while holding hands, vanishing into the blinding white.

What Shikoku is like and what becomes of them is left ambiguous; suffice it to saw they are safe and free. So is Kansai, it would seem, with the fall of the murderous Executioners. Swindler’s heroic death made her a martyr, and caused the spark that lit the match that brought about the downfall of the region’s old, unjust order—what the late John Lewis called “good trouble.”

Hey, I never thought I’d be quoting a civil rights icon in a show about goofy Danganronpa-style archetype criminals on the run, but here we are! In its finale Akudama’s lyrical action sequences, heart-wrenching character moments and operatic soundtrack all combined to elevate a previously goofily over-the-top series to an epic cinematic experience. And like any great movie or series, I’m holding myself back from immediately watching it all over again.

Great Pretender – 17 – Coward of Oz

Edamame is moving up in the Scarlet Company thanks, in part, to the Chinese lessons his late mother insisted he take. Back then, he idolized his valiant attorney father Seiji, as did his mom, whose only complaint was that her husband worked too much. Both were completely unprepared for the news that he was helping the mafia traffic children.

While Makoto responded to his dad’s betrayal with rage and resentment —and eventually turning to a life of crime just like the ol’ Pops, only pettier. His mother collapsed from the shock, and was bedridden the rest of her days, but she never gave up hope in her Seiji.

The flashbacks to good times abruptly turning bad then worse for Makoto are efficient but particularly well-done. His mom warmth and forgiveness despite the harsh betrayal she endured—something it’s clear Makoto never understood.

“Sleepy Princess” Abby and her reluctant jailor Makoto is such a bizarre scenario, such is her keeping-it-real ethos, Abby doesn’t treat her jailor any differently than the guy with whom she jumped out of a building in Singapore. Their growth as something like friends is evident when she asks him if he’s alright working for such a despicable business, and isn’t just asking, but is genuinely concerned.

She should be! Suzaku Ikemi’s Scarlet Company is on the brink of war with their satellite organization in Shanghai, which due to China’s economic boom has grown more profitable than its parent and unilaterally declared independence. Their disdain for their Japanese bosses is expressed when their boss, Liu, sends his second-in-command—the boorish Chen—instead.

Chen is accompanied by his interpreter, whom Makoto recognizes is his damn dad, who now goes by the name “Oz”. So that’s where he slithered off to!

Suzaku isn’t impressed by Shanghai’s little power move and declares an ultimatum, claiming 80% of Shanghai’s profits, even she must know won’t be forthcoming without a degree of bloodshed. Still, her options are limited; with their Chinese cash cow’s leash becoming slacker by the day, she can’t appear weak, lest they regard her as a paper tiger.

Makoto, meanwhile, is furious with the news of his dad’s participation in this job, and suspects it was kept from him on purpose by Laurent, who is flirting with a couple local women when Makoto violently confronts him. That leads Laurent to ask: if the geezer truly “means nothing” to Makoto, why get so worked up about him?

In his next meeting with Abby in her cell (where she’s playing way too many video games), she raises the possibility Seiji did what he did “out of necessity”, got in too deep. She suggests he compare his “loser scumbag” critique of his dad to what he himself was, before he met her and Laurent. Perhaps Seiji has returned to his life because he wants to be forgiven.

Makoto tests that theory by visiting Seiji in his hotel room. Seiji reveals he was actually just outside the door of Mom’s hospital room, but was too ashamed to walk inside. If he walked inside, she might forgive him, and he wasn’t sure he deserved that. But seeing what a shell of a man his dad has become, Makoto decides to be like his mom, and give him that second chance to be in his life. After all, Seiji is still wearing his wedding band.

Early in the morning, Makoto executes a modified version of the prison break plan, this time threatening the kids with his dad’s handgun; a necessary tactic to get them to go with him. Cynthia arrives with a bus big enough to hold them all, and seems both amused and heartened to see not one but two Edamuras in her presence.

Everything seems to be going smoothly until they get off the main highway and are immediately sandwiched and forced to stop by two mafia cars. One of them carries Ishigami, who while so charming and friendly before suddenly exudes cruel menace. He laments that both he and Suzaku saw something in him, and are disappointed it “didn’t work out”—i.e. that now he’ll have to murder him for his treachery.

Speaking of treachery: Seiji is the one who ratted Makoto, Abby, and Cynthia out to Ishigami, identifying them as the same group of con artists who have been causing trouble in the underworld. When Makoto can’t contain his rage and rushes at his dad, Seiji puts a gun to his forehead, reminding him he’s not his dad anymore…he’s “Oz.”

It’s possible he’s playing a longer game that requires he betray his son so he could save him later. Or he could just be a bastard. We shall see. In the meantime, Makoto & Co. are in deep shit!

Great Pretender – 16 – Surly Princess in the Demon Castle

Makoto knowing he’s in on Laurent & Co.’s latest scheme doesn’t make coming to work at Scarlet every day any easier. He cooks tasty food for the captive children, who then leave it untouched—one of their only available acts of defiance. It wears on him, but Laurent tells him Cynthia is about to make her move.

The next day, she does just that, posing as a wealthy foreign “dealer” who speaks English—I’ll note some of the best English I’ve ever heard in an non-dubbed anime. I’m glad they didn’t skimp on that detail, as the language barrier makes Makoto’s role as Ishigami’s (and later Suzaku’s) interpreter crucial to the deal.

Cynthia and Kim take Ishigami and Makoto out to the UAE, where they situate themselves at a vantage point from which to watch their services in action. They use Clark and Abby to stage a desert kidnapping, with Abby posing as a royal princess.

As is typical of a GP episode, this scene wears its Hollywood action influence on its sleeve, and is quick and well-executed—like a Hollywood action movie, only animated. Makoto also notes how convincing Abby appears during the staged attack, considering she’s not one to panic when a gun is pointed in her face.

More importantly, the charade and “Princess Abigail” convince Ishigami, who brings Cynthia, Kim, and Abby before Suzaku Akemi herself for inspection. Suzaku treats Abby no differently from any other human trafficking victim: like a piece of meat to be stripped down and viewed from all sides. Makoto wisely averts his eyes to avoid Abby’s ire.

Suzaku indicates her interest without strongly expressing it, and initially low-balls Cynthia with an offer of 100,000,000 (Cynthia hopes that’s not yen, since that would amount to less than $1 million). When Cynthia forces the issue, Suzaku blows smoke in her face and cops a feel, stating that if Cynthia were a little younger she’d get a pretty good price.

Cynthia doesn’t react to the abuse, which is clearly Suzaku testing her mettle, because she revises her offer to a cool billion. While that’s over $9 million US, it still feels like small potatoes compared to Laurent and Cynthia’s previous con jobs.

The deal is struck, and Princess Abby gets Ishigami’s winddown room as her cell, complete with TV and video game console. Meanwhile, Makoto continues to switch out the kids’ untouched food, and urges them to eat for their own sakes. But their looks indicate they don’t care about their sakes.

Hanging his head the whole way back to his apartment, Makoto is shocked to find Laurent, Cynthia and Kim waiting to surprise him with celebratory drinks. Makoto rightfully suggests this is sloppy on their part (who knows if Suzaku is following any or all of them since they arrived?) and they leave.

The plan from there is to spring Abby after they get their money. To do so, Makoto needs the key to her room, which Ishigami all-too-easily offers up when he falls asleep after drinking too much beer. Makoto presses the key into a bar of soap, and Kudou makes a copy.

On the appointed night, everything goes smoothly except for Makoto’s not-so-sudden crisis of conscience. (I particularly liked Abby hesitating to escape because she was in the middle of a game—it really nailed her character’s nonchalance in a crisis) He’s not prepared to simply hurt Scarlet by taking their money then stealing Abby back; he wants to free all ten kids being held there too. But when he and Abby try to do so, the kids don’t budge. Just like they wouldn’t eat because they have nothing to eat for, they won’t escape because they think they have nowhere to go.

They might reconsider that once they’re sold off to people who will use them for unspeakable purposes, but the bottom line is these kids’ spirits have long since been broken. They were already abandoned by their families for cash, after all. They don’t care what happens to them, and care even less about helping Makoto realign his moral compass. When a kid asks where they’d go from there, Makoto doesn’t have an answer. As Rachel Menken said to Don Draper: “You haven’t thought this through.”

Due to a security guy Makoto initially relieved returning when he forgot his phone, Makoto is unable to free Abby, so the op will have to wait for another day. But it feels like even if they do free Abby and get the money, this isn’t the whole job. Or maybe it is, and the job that follows may lead us more into Laurent’s past—the apparent focus of this final arc.

Rating: 4/5 Stars

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