Re: Zero – 29 – Take Care, Natsuki Subaru

Having episodes end with Emilia unconscious two weeks in a row was a bummer, but returning to the real world and getting to spend some time with Subaru’s remarkable parents made up for that and then some. Right from the word go, we know we’re in for a ride: Subaru’s dad executes wrestling moves to welcome him to the morning, while his mom (who shares his “scary eyes”) insists he eat a giant mountain of peas, which neither she nor his dad like.

They may have their amusing quirks, but his folks are alive, present, and relatively normal…which makes them among the rarest anime parents out there!

Subaru is a shut-in; he has been since about three months after high school began. His dad manages to coax him out for a walk, and sakura-strewn park in which they have that walk is particularly dreamlike and bright, as bright as his bedroom is dark.

Also bright, to the point of blinding: his parent’s absolute unconditional love and support, no matter how far off “the prescribed path” he’s strayed. Like so many others, Subaru’s problems weren’t caused by a rough or abusive childhood.

When periodic stabs of pain in his head resolve to the spirit of Emilia thanking him for saving her all the time, his memories from the New World flood back in, and with all that amassed experience and wisdom, is able to look at his past objectively and wrestle with it.

Subaru’s dad is a gregarious renaissance man, which put pressure on Subaru to achieve a similar level of greatness in anything and everything he did. But as he grew, he became less than the best, and eventually not that good at those things.

He tried to make up for the lack of talent and ability by acting out, gathering people around him he called friends but who ultimately were only around until he got boring. High school was the rude awakening for which he was not socially or emotionally prepared, and he gradually just stopped going.

Even so, his mom and dad treated him with the same affection and cheer as they always did, despite his desire for them to punish him or even throw him out for being such a pathetic loser. At a couple points during their talks, his dad asks if he likes someone. That’s because as his father he must sense a positive change in Subaru; that he’d figured out to get back on his own two feet.

Without naming names, Subaru admits there is a girl he likes, and a girl who loves him. Rem once told him giving up doesn’t suit him. She and Emilia saved him from his own complex because they didn’t have to pretend he wasn’t the son of the great Natsuki Kenichi—obviously neither of them know his dad. Subaru didn’t know how bad he needed to know it was okay to just be Subaru.

After a little cry and hug with dad, Subaru puts on his school uniform and prepares to return to school, Starting Over from Zero just as he did on Rem’s recommendation…only with school. His mom decides to walk him part of the way there.

She reiterates the things Subaru and his dad talked about, and when Subaru tells her he’ll never let go of people who helped him get over his troubles, and be sure to make himself worthy of them later, she declares he’s definitely “his kid”.

While those two words once caused stabs of pain (and still do one more time), his mom assures him not to worry about being “just as awesome” as his dad. After all, he’s only half his dad, and half his mom, so half as cool constitutes a “filled quota”.

Subaru, knowing he’ll leave both his parents soon and may never see them again, offers tearful apologies for not being able to do anything for them before going off to do his own thing. Again, his mom tells him not to fret; she and his father didn’t have him so he’d do something for him, but so they could do something for him. And they have, just by being there for him, loving him, and never judging him.

Subaru’s dad may have cast a shadow that inadvertently, temporarily stunted his son’s development as an individual. But because his son was half-him, he was eventually able to make it out of that shadow. It’s why when his dad says “do your best” and his mom says “take care”, he can hold his head high, smile, and go to school.

In this case, “going to school”, and specifically opening the door to his homeroom constitutes the completion of the trial, and Echidna is waiting for him (in his school’s uniform!) when he does so, remarking how he made it there faster than she expected.

As we return to his trials in the new world, it was both instructive and at times downright emotionally compelling to see of the old world from which Subaru came. The struggles he faced before arriving in the new world underscore why ending up there and meeting Emilia, Rem and the others was not only the best thing that could have happened to him, but also possibly meant to be.

Sing “Yesterday” for Me – 04 – His Lingering Shadow

After three episodes Hayakawa Rou is by far the weakest of the characters, but only because all we’ve known is that Shinako loved his late older brother Yuu, and Rou loves Shinako. She tries to be a good big sis to Rou by cooking him meals, but she can’t give him the one thing he wants from her most. In his frustration, he blames it not necessarily on his faults as a person, but because she can’t let go of a dead guy.

This week we learn why Rou is the way he is. This goes a long way towards making his character more sympathetic—even if he remains the least interesting of the four leads. Since Yuu was always the center of not just Shinako’s but everyone’s attention, Rou had to seek attention elsewhere: by being “the kid who can draw” in his class. Only now he’s in a tougher class in which everyone is that person.

Hell, I was that person in high school, then went to art college and got a rude awakening. It’s an understandable hit to the ego of someone who’d taken for granted one’s superiority in a smaller pool. Still, Rou worked hard to be as good at art as he is, so he’s going to rely on that work ethic to pull him through this phase.

One thing he wants to avoid at all costs is ending up like Rikuo, whom he still can’t believe Shinako even gave the time of day to. Worse, he learns of Haru and Rikuo’s “deal” rudely labeling her a “backup” when the two meet in context at the konbini. Kinoshita insists Rikuo help out in the back, so it falls to Rou to walk the young lady home.

Haru, who it must be said still sees love as in illusion, wonders what Shinako is doing so differently that she is so beloved by both Rou and Rikuo. Ruo rebuts by pointing out how not interested in him that way Shinako really is, but Haru doesn’t want Rou discouraged.

If Rou were to find a way to win Shinako’s heart, that frees Rikuo up for Haru, so she’s firmly on team Rou X Shinako, so gives him a supportive back on the back and runs off with her pet crow, which leads Rou to call her a weirdo.

Rou returns to find his dad and Shinako have already returned to Hanazawa. Once there, his dad informs Shinako that he’ll be renting out the house where they lived with Yuu, and presents her with a box of Yuu’s assembled belongings. In the room where she tended to him until the day he died, Shinako breaks down when she finds the eraser he lent her the first day they met, with the message “baka” concealed by its sleeve.

Outside cheery blossoms glow and she catches a glimpse of Yuu as a student, and she transforms into her younger self to approach him, only for him to disappear behind the tree. In a heartwrenching scene Shinako weeps bitter tears of loss, the shadow of Yuu still looming. It may be “okay to forget” as Yuu and Rou’s dad puts it, but Shinako can probably never fully erase Yuu’s shadow—nor would she want to.

Sing “Yesterday” for Me – 03 – No Demands? No, Demands!

Yesterday starts with Haru following Rikuo in the rain. He basically tells her she could do better than the likes of him. She tells him she has no particular hopes or demands about the likes of him anyway. She also feels like she’s playing catch-up to Shinako, but her war declaration freed her to act.

In the space of a few minutes, Rikuo suddenly knows a lot more about how Haru feels…but he still doesn’t know much about Haru the person, which she’s intentionally keeping vague as a long-established way to remain at enough of a distance to run away if things get too painful or messy.

As a result of their chat, Rikuo catches cold from the rain. Haru ends up with his phone number from Kinoshita unbidden, but she hesitates to call him (with her rotary telephone!), for the same reason she hesitates to reveal too much about herself. As a result, Shinako get the jump on her, as it were, by stopping by Rikuo’s to give him some hardy leftovers to keep up his strength.

When Rikuo is better and back to work, Haru invites him out to a monster movie on Sunday. Rikuo bites, and Haru is so happy a the prospect of a date she shares her happiness in the form of free coffee for Rou, whose change was eaten by the vending machine.

Haru also gets excited about looking her best for the date, after visiting her mom for the first time in three months (the two are cordial but hardly close) and stopping by the konbini to say hi to Rikuo and voice how much she’s looking forward tomorrow.

Haru’s anticipatory cuteness is particularly heartbreaking because I knew there was just  no way that movie date was going to unfold without a hitch. Sure enough, Rikuo learns Shinako has come down with her own fever while calling her about returning her Tupperware.

Rikuo proceeds to return the favor by taking care of her, and ends up falling asleep at her kitchen table. By the time he wakes up and realizes what’s happened, the rain clouds have returned (they really know when to show up for maximum effect) and Haru believes Rikuo either forgot, stood her up, or chose Shinako over her.

A contrite Rikuo eventually finds her soaking away in the rain and apologizes profusely, but is way too blunt about where he was, even if he insists it was all innocent. Because of the timing of his standing her up and the fact he didn’t have her contact info, even having cell phones wouldn’t have solved this matter.

Despite having clearly said she had “no demands”, Haru realizes later that she still had expectations with Rikuo. She then determines that if she stops going to the konbini, that will be the end of things. She has an exit ramp…right up until she yells out at a stop light and Rikuo hears her and comes over, blocking her escape.

Their exchange is tense at first, but Haru decides to drop the Mysterious Girl act and start over fresh with a proper introduction (including height and weight!). Rikuo reiterates his regret at standing her up, and Haru accepts his regrets, making him promise to take care of her should she ever come down with a fever, then immediately feigning one.

Miyamoto Yume’s performance in this scene (and just prior when she was alone on her bike), and the animation of Haru’s face, are the highlights of this episode. The murky muddy palette returned with a vengeance, but that only made the eventual reconciliation at the end, when the rain clouds had finally passed both literally and emotionally, that much more powerful. After so much darkness, some healing light.

At this point I don’t even care if Haru is a MPDG (and for the record I don’t think she is)—she’s winning my heart!

Gakkou Gurashi! – 04

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GG! has taken on a LOST-style narrative, in which the present is constantly being informed and updated by the pasts of its characters. This week it’s Naoki Miki’s turn. While helping Yuki with a hand-drawn yearbook, Yuki asks about one of Miki’s (very good!) drawings of her in a bookstore with another girl. It’s Kei, a good friend of Miki’s from before The Fall.

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An ordinary day at the mall turns into a life-upheaving nightmare for both of them. This is handled with the show’s usual deftness, with particular care taken to lighting, background sounds, camera angles and focus. Miki and Kei manage to hide from all the zombies and gain the puppy of an elderly woman who became one. Survival supersedes processing what the fuck is going on.

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They manage to make it to a safe room, where they hole up in a room with ample food and water. But Kei almost immediately grows curious about the outside world; about what’s going on, and worries that if they stay, they’ll never be found. Miki, on the other hand, is content to stay put and wait for help to come to them. Enough times passes that Kei’s patience runs out, and even Miki’s maneuver of tenderly taking Kei’s hand isn’t enough to keep her.

Kei promises she’ll be back with help, but right there and then, she’s abandoning Miki, who is too scared to leave the mall, or even that room. Her life has shrunk into a miniature, but she’s intent on holding on to what life it is, not risking it on the unknown beyond those walls. When Kei up and leaves, it’s a gut punch, but we knew it was coming, for no other reason than Kei doesn’t exist in the present.

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Meanwhile, at this time, Yuuri and Kurumi and Yuki are off on their own, having not yet met Miki (or Toromarou; we now understand a little more about why he’s a little standoffish with Miki in the present). Yuki spontaneously comes up with the idea for a school trip, using a loophole in the club rules prohibiting leaving school grounds by saying it’s a school function. Yuuri tells her to get Megu-nee’s approval, and she gets it, but we don’t see her get it, indicating Megu-nee isn’t alive at this point either, but just a delusion of Yuki.

That fact is reinforced when Kurumi volunteers to drive Megu-nee’s car. She and Yuuri are willing to maintain the Megu-nee delusion for Yuki’s sake, and must resort to loophole of their own (Megu-nee hasn’t driven in a while, and Kurumi insists she’s better, despite later confessing she only played racing video games).

Kurumi’s journey to the faculty parking lot, through a phalanx of vicious, but thankfully slow and dumb, zombies is breathless in its presentation. I know this is a flashback, but Kurumi still felt so vulnerable out there, especially when her trusty shovel was flicked away. But she gets to Megu-nee’s MINI Cooper, fires it up, and picks up Yuuri and Yuki (Megu-nee only appears in the car once Yuki’s in there, like anthropomorphic Hobbes).

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After a little bit of sliding around the schoolyard and hitting a couple of zombies for good measure, the car bursts out of the front gates, and all of a sudden the saturation of the episode intensifies, as if we were watching a visual manifestation of freedom itself. A quiet, gorgeous, haunting piece of music plays as the Mini drives through the desolate, ruined city, made beautiful by the vivid colors of the setting sun. It feels like a movie. If only it was only that, and they could walk out of the theater into a world where they didn’t have to fight every day for survival.

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That piece of music playing turns out to be on the Discman Kei left Miki before she left Miki. It wakes Miki up in that same room she’s been holed up in, and the contrast between her self-imposed captivity and the freedom being experience by the others isn’t lost on me. Nor is the open transom that indicates Toroumaru escaped, leaving Miki alone, though the dog may well be the one who unites her with the others.

The song plays through the credits, accompanied by black-and-white imagery from the episode. So lovely, mellow, soulful, and sad. This show just keeps getting better.

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Gakkou Gurashi! – 03

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In the first two episodes, Sakura Megumi or “Megu-nee” was treated at turns like an apparently deceased teacher/semi-comic relief whom only Yuki, in her delusional state, can still see, hear, and interact with, and whom the other girls play along with so as not to further disturb their already disturbed friend. This episode goes deeper into who Megu-nee is, or rather who she was, by taking us back to the day Everything Went South.

Like the first two episodes, this third one expertly juggles normalcy with abnormality, with dread lurking just out of sight or in the far corner of the frame, at least early on. A perfect example: Megu-nee noticing an abnormal number of sirens while on her normal drive to school in her cute Mini Cooper.

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The normal day proceeds, with Megu-nee getting warned by the vice principal to maintain an appropriate emotional distance from her students. That morning, Megu-nee’s Mom expressed a similar worry with her daughter’s ability to “cut it” as a new teacher.

Yet when, say, Kurumi comes to her and is able to talk about her dilemma with the boy she likes, Megu-nee proves she actually is cut out to be a teacher, in that she’s a trustworthy, approachable nurturer of minds and an open ear or shoulder to cry on.

At the same time, she’s willing, nay, determined to go the extra mile for students in need of extra help like Yuki. It’s confirmed she was never a great student and had problems focusing.

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Interestingly, it’s Yuki who suggests she and Megu-nee head up to the rooftop to try to finagle some tomatoes from the gardening club member, namely Wakasa Yuuri, whom Yuki meets for the first time. This action essentially saves both Yuki and Megu-nee, because it isn’t long before everything goes to hell both in the school below them and the city beyond. The vista of just-out-of-focus students feeding off one another as buildings burn is another one of GnG!’s awesomely chilling images.

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Megu-nee takes a chance on opening the door to let Kurumi on the roof, with her beloved senpai in tow. This scene gives us the whole picture of how she came to kill him with a shovel, and we see that Yuki witnessed the whole thing and in fact grabbed Kurumi to stop her from whaling on an already-dead body. Yuki’s fear and disgust at watching a fellow human being in full-on, vicious Survival Mode, is another likely contributing factor to her eventual mental break.

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I like the fact that Megu-nee isn’t just an invented figment of Yuki’s imagination; she was a real person who, for a time, at least, did what she thought was her duty as a teacher, doing everything she could to protect the remaining students under her care at the school, even in a Zombiepocalypse. But while much of this episode is told from her perspective (with a grainy-film framing device), the fact remains, in the present, she is no longer alive, and exists only in Yuki’s head.

Even so, Kurumi, Yuuri, and even Miki let Yuki keep believing she’s still around, and I think it’s more than just humoring their troubled friend (and let’s face it, in a world like this, they’re all troubled). I also believe they take some comfort in the idea of Megu-nee still around protecting them.  Hell, five’s better than four.

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Gakkou Gurashi! – 02

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After watching the first episode a second time (man was that creepy!) and now this one with full knowledge of what’s going on from start to finish, I’ve gained an even greater appreciation for GG!’s ability to show us one thing in the center of the frame while something slithers on the edges, and I mean that both visually and thematically. As the show’s point of view shifts to more aware characters, the dark imagery is far more overt, but remains just as effective and creepy.

We start off inside the head of Yuki’s friend Kurumi, who is dreaming of the time the guy she liked (and joined the track club for) suddenly…turned, and grabbed her while on the rooftop, enjoying the sunset. Just when she was wishing that time would stop in that moment, she’s thrust into to a purgatory far darker and harsher than she’d bargained for.

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That purgatory is, of course, the school, where only four girls remain alive and uninfected by whatever malady turned the rest of the school into zombies. Kurumi, Rii-san, and Miki not only struggle to survive, but also take care of Yuki, who still believes the school is the way it was. She even believes the club advisor, Megu-nee, is still alive, if she ever was, of course.

The show does an exquisite job placing Megu-nee in the clubroom at angles where it’s clear Yuki sees her (and even an extra meal at her seat), but the dialogue of the girls carefully makes clear Megu-nee is not there. But they don’t let that on to Yuki, or about anything being amiss, lest she suffer another, even more severe mental break. As Rii-san says, they’re not experts, so it’s best to wait and see.

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Thankfully things don’t seem to be that dire as zombie-surrounded schools go. Part of this is that the zombies are slow and dumb, as demonstrated when Kurumi uses one of the box of ping pong balls that fell on Yuki last week to distract a zombie that’s come close to the desk barricade. With it’s back turned it’s an easy kill for Kurumi, but she catches a glimpse of her still-charged cell phone, and has to re-steel herself to finish it off.

And she has to believe they’re “its” now, despite some evidence to the contrary: the boys still “play soccer” out in the yard; and most of them leave school around nighttime, as if they’re headed home. Is this behavior explained by the fact they still harbor a piece of their memories? The girls don’t know. All they know is, they can’t let them touch them.

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When Yuki unilaterally announces there’s to be a test of courage one night, Rii-san uses it as an excuse to brave the area beyond the barricades to make a supply run. Everyone stocks up on Nummy Sticks in the school store without incident, but when Rii-san and Yuki enter the library, Rii-san encounters a zombie in there, in a sequence that’s pitch-perfect for dread, atmosphere, timing, and intensity.

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Here, as was indicated on other occasions, Megu-nee serves not as an endangering ghost on the side of the zombies, but as a guardian angel: Yuki’s common sense and survival instinct given human form only Yuki can see and hear and even touch. 

Yuki is clearly dealing with quite a few delusions right now, but Megu-nee is one of them that provides some peace of mind for the others. If Yuki tells them Megu-nee is near, they can rest assured she’ll be okay on her own for a while, as we see when she stays put so they can lure the zombie to them and take it out, all without Yuki noticing anything amiss (she also assumes they’re playing up the test of courage.)

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Though back behind the safety of their barricades with no harm done, Kurumi can’t escape her nightmare of the guy she likes suddenly turning and grabbing her. We see more of the dream the second time round, as she falls to the ground and, in a moment of terror, grabs the object closest to her—her now-trusty shovel—and swings as hard as she can, taking the guy out.

She wakes up in a panic, but then we see the value of having Yuki and her unique perspective around despite all the extra work taking care of her involves. The half-asleep Yuki wants to repeat her third and final year together with Kurumi, which gives Kurumi comfort.

Yuki phrases it this way because her grades suck and she’s believes she’s at risk of repeating her final year of high school But I’m sure Kurumi doesn’t want this to be the final year of their lives, and thus “repeating” the year—a year in which they’re alive and well-fed and most importantly, together, is something she and the other two can get behind.

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Gakkou Gurashi! – 01 (First Impressions)

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For two-thirds of its first episode, Gakkou Gurashi expertly lulled me into a false sense of security, looking every bit like another bright, colorful, perfectly pleasant and innocuous moe school slice-of-life, starring a Kaname Madoka look-alike voiced by Hestia, with friends who like cooking, reading…and shovels,  are members of a silly club, and spend much of those two-thirds chasing a puppy.

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And yet, by the time the final third of the episode had come and gone, it was an entirely different show altogether—and a damn intriguing one, to boot; one that made me want to watch it again to see if there were any other clues as to what was really going on before the overt symbol of the just-out-of-focus rooftop grave. 

Things like Yuki saying her teacher “doesn’t stand out much”, Miki being so brazen in interrupting classes, and the fact the puppy is allowed to run around, and Yuki and Miki able to chase after him without any repercussions, all come to mind as other subtle clues.

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Then, all of a sudden, when Yuki returns once more to her class to chat, and Miki comes in after her, everything comes crumbling down. The school is abandoned and full of gloom, death, and decay. The “students” outside appear to be zombies; giving a grim irony to the “school life club” and introducing the premise of a school of the dead/undead having such a club.

And then, perhaps most disturbing of all, is the fact that Yuki doesn’t see any of this. All of the happy life at her school full of living people (other than her three club-mates) was all in her frikking head, and from the look on her face as the episode fades to black, it would seem those illusions are persistent.

How did the school get this way? Did Yuki suffer a mental break and is now in a dissociative state? Are her underclassmen protecting her as she wanders around blissfully unaware of the perils of reality? The mind races at the possibilities. This was a damn good start!

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Hanasaku Iroha 18

Nako’s the quiet, shy, nervous one, right? Well, yes and no. Turns out Nako would have preferred to be born a fish, because she prefers swimming in a sea to the ordinary human world. But she considers her home a sea, and a haven, in which to be herself. She has a big, loving family that can be a hassle sometimes.

But this “Real Nako” is loud, cheerful, and assertive. Somebody we’ve only seen in the shortest of bursts – when she rescues the author from drowning, for instance. She is also grown quite comfortable with Ohana and Minko, to the point they’re almost like sisters…almost. She’s still nowhere near as loose and free around them as she is at home.

When she recieves a considerable raise from the madam manager, she assumes it comes with the expectation she’ll improve. This comes from her father’s philosophy towards child-rearing: praise your child, and she’ll strive to improve herself to be worthy of that praise (contrast this with her mother’s more tough-love stance). Nako is aware of the disconnect between her “real” self and how she acts at the inn, at school, and anywhere else in public.

After trying in vain to “change” herself by spending lots of money on a new outfit and coming to work trying to act like she does at home, she makes a mistake that lands her in trouble. It is then that the manager tells her her raise wasn’t a challenge, but a reward, after guests wrote her a glowing report. Despite not having to change, I do hope to see a little more of that real Nako; she was way more fun to watch.


Rating: 3.5