Sora yori mo Tooi Basho – 05

I only realized at the end of last week’s episode, with the camera lingering on a sad and lonely-looking Megumi, that she might not be particularly pleased about Mari actually going through with her Antarctica trip; especially without her.

This week, in an emotional powerhouse of an episode, all of the resentment and negativity that had been festering within Megumi comes to the forefront; but while there are constant signs she’s Had It, Mari doesn’t realize until the very last moment: the morning she leaves for Australia.

Before that, the show strikes a scintillating balance between being excited for Mari and thinking she’s being an awful friend to Megumi. Case in point: while packing for three months (she’s only allowed 100kg, including her own weight), she finds the game she once borrowed from Megumi under her bed (another sign of the friendship she took for granted)

She invites herself to Megumi’s house to play the game, but Megumi couldn’t be any clearer about how few fucks she gives about the game. When Mari can’t take a hint, Megumi pulls the plug, pretending to have slipped, and that’s the end of it.

It’s really quite brilliant what goes on here, because I honestly can’t even blame Mari for being such an oblivious ditz, because that’s the friend Megumi cultivated all the years they’ve known each other. Compound that with her very understandable building excitement and anticipation for a life-changing adventure, and it’s all too devastatingly obvious why Mari can’t respond to or even sense Megumi’s growing miasma.

Meanwhile, there’s just such a grand sense of occasion to the quartet of new friends finishing up their packing. They may only be going abroad for three-odd months, but it feels like they’re packing for much more than that. It feels like they’re packing for a new chapter in their lives, in which they’ll see and experience things they never have before.

The episode proceeds to throw everything it possibly can towards the goal of pissing off Megumi as much as possible, as Mari and Shirase (whom Megumi continues to stubbornly, scornfully call “Antarctica”) suddenly become a big deal at school. And it IS a big deal for high schoolers to be going to Antarcitca, for crying out loud!

But for Megumi, it’s just a constant and unyielding reminder that Mari is “leaving the nest”, so to speak. Megumi fires back by bringing up rumors going around about Mari, Shirase, and the depths they sunk to to acquire the funds to go on the trip. Megumi is then almost immediately punished when Shirase herself shows up, along with Hinata.

When Shirase hears of the rumors, she wants blood immediately. Three Cheers for the wonderfully mature-when-it-matters Hinata experly talking her down by being the adult in the shrine. Yet even she seems to inadvertently take a dig at Megumi’s macchinations with her latest self-quote: “Sometimes, people are just mean. Don’t fight mean with mean. Hold your head high.” Almost a haiku!

The torture of being outnumbered by Mari’s new friends wasn’t enough, apparently, so poor Megumi has to be dragged along to karaoke, despite the fact she is in no mood to hang out with anyone, especially Mari, but especially her new friends. Still, here more than elsewhere she seems able to mask her contempt.

It must very much take Megumi aback, then, that despite Mari’s complete inability to pick up the signals, she is still able to speak surprisingly candidly and eloquently about how she sees this turning point in her life.

First, Mari assumes Megumi considered the fact they hadn’t been hanging out a lot lately a “relief.” Then, Mari talks of how she always wanted to go far away, how she hated being where she was, and how she hated herself.

Megumi’s long acceptance of Mari as someone who would always cling to her had the unintended side effect of driving Mari to become someone who wouldn’t have to cling. Someone with worth of their own.

After parting ways, Mari comes home to find her entire family cooking their butts off to celebrate her imminent departure. Mari’s reflex is to send Megumi a photo message and an invite…but Megumi never responds.

The morning of departure comes, and what a morning. First, we watch Mari get up, wash her face, brush her teeth, comb her hair, get dressed, and give herself a final check.

All very routine morning activities given monumental status by the fact they’re the last such activities she’ll be doing for some time. And to be perfectly candid, when Rin gave Mari a big hug, I had already started to tear up, just like Mari’s dad.

And that was before a dark, brooding Megumi confronts Mari, who is just SO freaking ready to tear the world a new one, and tells her she came not to say “see you later”, but to break up; to cease being friends.

At first, Mari has no idea what’s happening, but once Megumi starts to list all the things she and she alone has done—spread false rumors, told the bullies about Shirase’s cash; told Mari’s mother before Mari could told her herself—it all comes into focus. All Mari can say is “Why?”

All those things—and even going there in the morning to confront her—were all meant to return the pain she felt from the feeling that Mari was abandoning her, and that it wasn’t Mari who had been clinging to her for some time now, it was the opposite. Without Mari, Megumi considered herself nothing, and if she was to be nothing, she didn’t want Mari to have anything either.

Megumi thought, even hoped that at some point Mari would catch on and get mad, but she never did, nor did her new friends. She considers that not just evidence of what morons they are, but that she wasn’t even worth being figured out; that Mari had moved on so much from what Megumi thought of her. That could only make someone feel even more worthless.

Mari begs Megumi to come with her, but Megumi is ready to take her “first step into a world without” Mari. In a way, she’s trying to do the same thing as Mari, Hinata, Shirase and Yuzuki: step into a world without any of the things they usually rely on; where they don’t know what lies around the corner; where they won’t know where they’ll be tomorrow.

Those sentiments are narrated by Mari as we watch scenes of the other three saying their goodbyes and taking those first steps. And then, before Mari joins her, she takes a few steps toward Megumi, hugs her from behind, and declares her breakup rejected.

Maybe Megumi wanted Mari to come to hate her that morning after all of the things she said and did without remorse. But sometimes people are just mean. Mari doesn’t fight mean with mean. She holds her head high. It’s an abrupt, almost brusque end to what had been an epic Friend Fight, and a clear instance of Mari having the last word.

But it’s also an acknowledgement that while Mari no longer sees Megumi as someone she must cling to at all costs or look to for guidance, that doesn’t automatically mean the end of a friendship. It just means that a change has taken place.

Now everything springs into action.

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Sora yori mo Tooi Basho – 04

Step by step, episode by episode, Sora yori mo Tooi Basho keeps building up the anticipation while continuing to build up the stories of its characters and their growing friendship as they embark on a life-changing adventure…but they still need permission from their parents!

That’s when we learn Mari hasn’t so much as mentioned this life-changing adventure to her mother, who has to find out from the neighbors. The slasher film-esque scen in which Mari tries to break the news she senses her mother already knows is a tour-de-force of tension and comedy.

Mari gets permission…but only if she passes all of her tests at school, meaning she’s going to have to study her ass off, and nobody is going to help her, because if she can’t do this much, how is she ever going to make it in the Antarctic?

The quartet meet up to be whisked off to their mountain training retreat, and while they’re underwhelmed by the beat-up HiAce, their instructor Maekawa (Hikasa Yoko) notes they’ve got to pinch every penny (she also mentions that Shirase still has her million yen, and in the next sentence, the fundraising needs of the expedition).

She also remarks that those outside of the expedition team have always been concerned about its viability and whether the ship will even leave port. But Maekawa tells the girls they tell those people to shut up. Back at school Shirase doesn’t even do that; she’ll show everyone up when they least expect it, leading to this golden exchange between her and Mari:

Mari: You’re kind of a jerk, you know.
Shirase: I certainly am. You mind?
Mari: Nope!

Once they arrive at the mountain training course, they are quickly given an overview of the basics, and then Maekawa introduces the expedition’s leader Toudou Gin (Noto Mamiko in her tough lady voice) whose no-nonsense demeanor and stirring oratory intimidate and inspire Mari, Hinata, and Yuzuki in equal measure.

What about Shirase? Well, she reacts differently; clearly they know each other, and Mari senses that, but leaves it be for the time being. That night, as the girls bone up on Antarctic exploration in what feels like a field trip sleepover, Maekawa and Toudou share a solemn moment outside.

Toudou didn’t want Shirase on the trip, but Maekawa didn’t help her; she got there by her own efforts (with the help of Mari, Hinata, and Yuzuki, but she befriended them on her own). Toudou accepts this, but the fact she know Shirase’s mother weighs on her.

The next morning, the quartet is sent off to plot a route with a compass, GPS, and marker flags. They start out a little rough and off course (as everyone does at first), but Mari turns out to have a knack for the compass, and soon they’re on the right track, make camp, and settle down for bed.

Mari doesn’t want to sleep yet, thinking this is like any other camping trip, but getting enough sleep is crucial to survival, so the other girls promptly rebuke her attempts to converse. Only Yuzuki flubs her words, leading Hinata to start giggling, which leads Hinata and Mari to start laughing.

Things turn a bit somber when Mari asks a clearly preoccupied Shirase how she knows “Captain” Toudou, and Shirase’s answer is heartbreaking in its brevity: “Toudou and my mother were friends in high school. They both went to Antarctica. Toudou returned. My mother didn’t.”

After a quick by-the-book radio check in with base, the four go to sleep, but Mari, who opened her bag in her sleep, is the first to awaken, and is greeted not only by a gorgeous pre-dawn, but Toudou, almost standing guard out there. Mari asks her about Shirase’s Mom, Toudou says she was “very strange” (sound familiar?) and that her daughter is her spitting image in stubbornness and conviction (not surprising).

Shirase, like her mom, is “trouble”, but Mari says “Isn’t trouble the best?” Indeed, it’s Shirase’s trouble(s) that got Mari to this point, where she’s finally realizing her goal of making the most of her high school years. She didn’t want them to end “the way they were going”, and so decided to join Shirase of her own free will.

This is Peak Awesome Tamaki Mari right here, clearly expressing her intention, desire, and excitement for the impending expedition. And when you see that conviction on her rising sun-washed face, you know she’s going to pass all of those tests. She has to.

Before the sunrise is complete, Mari wakes up the others (none of whom are morning people), and they all climb up a rock face and admire the beauty of the glowing mountains; just a small taste, mind you, of the jaw-dropping, otherworldly majesty they’ll experience way down south.

And in one of the more surprising ways to end the episode, Mari sends a picture of the sunrise to her friend Megumi, who looks incredibly lonely and left out. It occurs to me that Mari never once asked if she wanted to come along. Is this closing scene meant to convey that Megumi is proud of Mari, or dejected over Mari not even considering her participation?

Sora yori mo Tooi Basho – 03

AND THEN THERE WERE FOUR. While I initially liked it when it was just Shirase and Mari, I quickly ended up liking the addition of Hinata, who while fiery and is no more effective at advancing the group’s Antarctic plans than the other two.

Now Shirase’s worst nightmare has come true: another high school girl—celebrity, aspiring idol, social media personality, and former child actress Shiraishi Yuzuki—has beaten her to the punch, as the group learns she’ll be joining the expedition.

And yet the universe isn’t done with Shirase yet, as she soars from the deepest valley to the highest peak when no less than Shiraishi Yuzuki herself shows up at her house, and willing to give up her seat to Shirase. Yuzuki has no interest in going; it’s too cold (lol duh).

Showing she can be just as energetic as the others, Shirase gets a bit too worked up and bangs her foot on the door. As if to further punish her for celebrating too soon, Yuzuki’s manager and mother (apparently in that order) Tamiko puts the kibosh on her client-daughter’s plans to shirk her duty.

Mari and Hinata try their best to sell Shirase to Tamiko, but while she’s gorgeous, Shirase is too shy when put on the spot to be of any interest to the hard-nosed manager, while neither Mari or Hinata are pretty enough. Harsh!

However, Shirase persists as she usually does, and enters into a contract with Tamiko: if she, Mari and Hinata can convince Yuzuki to go to Antarctica, they can come to. Bang, just like that, they’ve got their in.

Again, Shirase is so brimming with excitement and giddiness Hinata has to knock her on the head to calm her down (Hanazawa Kana puts on a clinic this week showing every side of Shirase, but Iguchi Yuka keeps up as Hinata, as does Minase Inori as Mari).

Once Mari heads home, we get what was somewhat lacking last week: some Shirase/Hinata-only interaction, and we see that they to have become fast friends as well. While Hinata and Mari feed of one anothers’ energy (and Mari admires Hinata’s relative maturity), Hinata interestingly serves as more of a straight man to Shirase’s antics.

She’s serves as an open ear to Shirase’s very earnest self-assessment. She knows she’s being selfish, but Hinata considers it assertiveness, not selfishness, and wouldn’t be hanging out if she wasn’t okay with it.

After not-so-slyly staging a “chance encounter” with Yuzuki, they join her at a family restaurant where there are free refills where she can study. There, the trio begins attempting to convince Yuzuki into changing her mind. She’s on to them immediately, but they still want to hear her out: why is she so adamant about not going?

Her reason, as it turns out, is all to understandable: she’s been acting since she was four years old, and has been kept busy since then. As a result, while she may have a stout 38,000 followers (far more than fair RABUJOI), she has zero friends. Even now, when she tries to make them, they’re more interested in glomming onto her celebrity and aren’t that intereted in who she is.

Yuzuki fears she’s running out of time to make good first impressions for potential friends, and if she goes to Antarctica, she’ll lose more precious time still. When Mari hears this story, she feels suddenly compelled to give Yuzuki a big ol’ hug…and who the hell can blame her?! Thankfully for Yuzuki, she has not one or two but three potential new friends sitting at that booth with her.

She’s initially skeptical these three “best friends” could possibly understand her situation, but that’s before they reveal they haven’t known each other that long at all…they’re “just trying to go to the same place.”

In the end, Shirase, Mari and Hinata didn’t have to use any clever tricks to get Yuzuki to reconsider her refusal. They merely had to show up and present themselves as who they really are: three girls who practically just met and want very much to go to Antarctica. Yuzuki could be the fourth.

Add to that the fact Yuzuki’s last potential friends at school seem ready to give up on her, and a bizarre dream in which Yuzuki is plucked from the window by the three girls on a ladder outside her hotel window (which I briefly thought was real—and rather shark-jumping!)

Yuzuki is charmed by the dream, but acknowledges that that was all it was; a fleeting expression of hope friends would come to her rather than laboring to seek them out.

But hey, the basic idea of her dream comes true anyway, with the trio appearing at her door (not her window, thank goodness) to make their final plea. Their timing is impeccable, and moves Yuzuki to tears of joy. She agrees to go, but only if Shirase, Mari, and Hinata can come as well.

The newly minted quartet then head to the Polar Science Museum in Tokyo (which I must visit next time I’m there).

Shirase gets hyped by the realistic penguin models, the four explore an old Snowcat, watch the aurora in the theater, and take a selfie together. Things are starting to feel real.

So, what’s up with the woman with the beauty spot in a “Challenge for Antarctic” car looking at that photo of Shirase and her Mom? She’s neither of the women who turned Shirase down in Kabukicho. Am I supposed to read her somewhat inscrutable expression as “grave” or “neutral”?

In any case, the band has been formed, and I couldn’t be happier. But something tells me things aren’t going to get easier just because they’ve got their tickets all but stamped. Four high school girls going to Antarctica will require, I imagine, a degree of training and preparation. Looking forward to those next steps and how the group responds to them.

Sora yori mo Tooi Basho – 02

Mari’s seething wanderlust, as well as her determination not to waste what’s left of her high school youth, makes her extra susceptible to Shirase’s Antarctic plans. When Shirase tells her to get a part-time job at once, Mari is looking for ’em (interestingly, both of them come across the same sketchy job offer for “hospitality” work with guys).

Megumi thus plays the crucial role of managing Mari’s expectations. The expedition Shirase wants to join is in dire financial straits. The safety of those who join it is not guaranteed. They’re not simply going to let high school kids join them just because they really really want to.

When Megumi’s pragmatism slips into Mari’s interactions with Shirase, Shirase can smell the doubt and hesitation, and snaps at Mari, storming off. But Mari doesn’t doubt Shirase, and she does want to do it…she just wants to do it right. As Mari forlornly walks alone, it isn’t long before Shirase returns, realizing she was too harsh, but assuring Mari she does have a plan in place.

That same evening, Mari has a part-time job, at the local convenience store. There, she meets fellow 16-year-old Miyake Hinata (Iguchi Yuka, doing her Araragi Tsukihi voice), who shows an eager Mari the ropes.

The subject of The Trip comes up, and Hinata wants IN. Thankfully, Shirase isn’t particular about who else comes along, and so now the two are three. And while Hinata’s decision to join them seems abrupt (and it kinda is regardless), she’s a person who’s never liked blending in with the crowd, which is why she bypassed high school and is working towards college.

Her time working at the konbini also made her good at observing people, like the students of Mari and Shirase’s school, including the two of them. She always saw something different about them; something she calls “honesty”. Genuine-ness, earnesty, whatever you call it, she knew they were special, and wanted to be a part of what their noble undertaking.

Next stop: Shinjuku, and these three girls from Gunma stick out like a sore thumb-ma (sorry, that was really lame). The intense sights and sounds of the big city make all three a little crazy, but nobody more than Shirase, who reveals that her grand plan was to crash the Antarctic expedition meet-up (in Kabukicho of all places) by…seducing the guys.

The moment Shirase points her head up and tries to act like a “college student” like it’s no big deal, she’s immediately picked up by a guy, and becomes understandably flustered. She’s also adamant that she can’t be the one who attempts the seduction of the expedition team, because they know her.

So Shirase and Hinata shove Mari out, and her old-fashioned sexy pose utterly fails, they shove Shirase out. The people who know her spot her, and the chase is on. Why do the girls run? I’m not sure, but neither are they. Well, Shirase knows, because this isn’t the first time she’s tried to join the expedition.

But despite the fact Shirase’s plan is crumbling before our very eyes, the fact of the matter is that she, Mari, and Hinata are having a hell of a lot of fun running around Shinjuku…Youth In Motion. Unfortunately, none of the three (even Hinata, good in short-distance sprinting) can beat the stamina of their pursuers.

I love how I was just as taken in by the legitimacy and precision of her plan as Mari and Hinata, even with Megumi offering early words of caution. And yet, even with the adults here telling Shirase “this isn’t happening”, even when they refuse her part-time Antarctica fund…even if what she’s doing amounts to chasing her mother’s ghost, I’m still on Shirase’s side.

She has to go to Antarctica. She can’t not. What kind of show would this be if she failed? It’s just, she’s gone about it the wrong way. Seduction and bribes won’t be effective, but maybe something—or someone else will be. Someone like, say, the daughter of the wealthy-looking woman who was with the expedition team.

That girl happens to be on the same train as the other three girls, two of which—Hinata and Mari—vote to relieve Shirase of her leadership role. It’s for her own good. She’s been trying and failing to get on that ship her way for the better part of three years. Now it’s time to see if others have more luck.

Gorgeous, charming, emotionally satisfying, and brimming with the energy of determined youth, and the anticipation of adventure writ both small (Shinjuku) and large (further south), Yorimoi is a no-brainer Winter keeper.

Attack on Titan – 22

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Levi and Mikasa (but mostly Levi) succeeds in disabling the Female Titan to the point he can extract Eren from her mouth, betting everything that he’s still alive as Mikasa insists. That’s obviously good for Eren’s well-being, but part of me still wanted to see exactly where, or who, the Titan was taking him to, and for what purpose (though the fact he can transform like she can is obviously a front-runner for why).

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In any case, Eren is unconscious and goo-covered, but alive, as are many other scouts like Armin, Jean, and Sasha. But many are also dead, and they’ve been busy gathering the bodies and preparing them for the journey back behind the wall. This is like the grisly aftermath of the Trost battle, only there isn’t even a victory here with which to say it was worth it.

This was total defeat and failure, and it only gets worse when the bodies are loaded but the wagons can’t outrun Titans (who were led out of the forest and to the formation by two scouts desperate to find their friend’s body). Not only do they re-lose that body, but the soldiers on the wagon have to dump some of the bodies they have—including Petra’s, as Levi sees—in order to outrun the Titans.

It’s one more awful, morbid action people in this show must take in order to keep living, and a Sasha says, only half-believing it herself, being alive is something, right?

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In a manner that’s almost too rubbed in our faces, Eren dreams of the day the Scount Regiment returned, all solemn, defeated, bandaged faces and corpses, and when he got so damned mad at the townsfolk complaining about how the scouts just waste their taxes. When he wakes up, Mikasa is with him but is no comfort when they re-enter the walls to find just as cold and critical a reception, only now they’re the scouts.

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Even worse, Eren sees two bright-eyed, bushy-tailed youths watching the scouts’ procession full of excitement and hope. Neither Eren nor Mikasa can even put on fake faces of strength or confidence; they’re merely slack-jawed. That used to be them; now they know why those Scouts looked the way they did.

Finally, because Erwin didn’t actually accomplish anything on their expensive operation, they’re being called to the Capital to answer for his failure, while Eren is being placed back into custody. Things have just about hit rock bottom…but I won’t underestimate this show’s talent for finding still lower depths of despair.

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Attack on Titan – 21

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AoT’s pacing during its building up can be foot-tappingly sluggish, and it’s a show that loves to have its characters explain every last detail of what’s happening ad nauseum, but it can still stage one hell of an intense payoff, as it does this week when the She-Titan pilot takes out Gunter, transforms back into a Titan, and then kills off Erd, Petra, and Oulo in quick succession. All Eren can do is watch, as he made his decision to place his belief in his friends over his belief in himself.

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It proves to be the wrong decision, just as his decision not to fight the She-Titan when he first encountered it was the wrong decision. I thought that Levi looked somewhat surprised when Eren decided to press forward, allowing him to lead the Titan to Erwin’s trap. But the trap was the wrong decision, too.

Sure, you’re supposed to believe in your comrades, and perfectly-executed traps are supposed to work, but Erwin and Eren both learn that doing things that seem most reasonable aren’t effective when dealing with the Titans, especially this one. I knew some shit was going to hit the fan, but the shit was so thick it stopped the fan blades in their tracks. Gunter, Erd, Oulo, or Petra? Sure, one or two were bound to die. But all of them? That’s some rough carnage.

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But one good thing comes out of that carnage: it provokes Eren into a murderous, vengeful rage, transforming into full-on Titan Mode (no partial manifestation) and getting into the best Titan-on-Titan battle yet, an epic struggle in which Eren’s brute force intermittently finds purchase with the slick, slippery She-Titan, who also packs a punch due to her ability to harden her skin.

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Throughout this battle all the way until the end of the episode, my heart rate went up and my adrenaline didn’t stop pumping. But while it’s clear now who’s inside the She-Titan, Eren doesn’t pick up on it. He doesn’t realize someone used these kinds of moves on him before, in human form. No, he’s too goddamn angry to think about anything other than beating her into oblivion.

That proves his undoing, however, as he blasts his own fists away and has to wait for them to heal. Also, after appearing to walk away from the fight when he’s down, the She-Titan turns back and blasts Eren’s head off, exposing the human within, which she swallows. Now, we’ve been here before, so again, Eren clearly isn’t dead, but he definitely lost a fight I thought he’d win. He just lacked the experience in his Titan form and over-relied on his brutality. The way of water beat the way of fire here.

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As if this episode wasn’t awesome enough, Mikasa shows up just in time not to save Eren, but watch him get glomped by the She-Titan. Her sudden transition from shocked-and-fragile Mikasa to Pissed-and-Lethal Mikasa was wonderful to behold, as is her ultimately futile attempt to get Eren back immediately by chasing the She-Titan and slashing the shit out of her.

Like Eren, Mikasa falls victim to lack of experience when she goes for the nape only to hit the She-Titan’s crystalline shell. She took her shot and missed, but looks fully prepared to go at it again, but we can guess how it would have ended: out of gas, out of blades, and with no Eren to save her. Instead, Levi grabs her from death-by-blaze-of-glory, and we’re glad for it. Let them try it his way, if he has one.

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Next Week: My AoT Retro Reviews come to an end, just in time for Christmas.

Attack on Titan – 20

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Hmm…this is what I was afraid of: either the episode would feature everyone besides Erwin and Levi heeing and hawing about what’s going on, delaying the reveal of who is inside the Female Titan, or they’d simply be unable to get her out. We get both. But while this episode lags at times with its scores of characters who don’t know as much as we do, I still didn’t hate it, because it went in a different direction and opened my eyes to a through line I hadn’t yet fully considered.

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Speaking of eyes, both they and the short blonde hair got me thinking Krista is the Female Titan, but we see her positioned on the edge of the forest, distracting the lesser Titans along with Armin, Mikasa (who has been criminally sidelined this arc), Sasha, etc.

So Krista’s out, leaving only one blue-eyed blonde, who oddly chose not to join the others in the Scout Regiment. If that’s Annie Leonhart in there, it explains her past aloofness and desire to be independent from the scouts when the time came to nab Eren, not to mention her martial arts background.

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Unfortunately, Erwin and Levi aren’t able to get past the Titan’s hands, and before they can blow them off with explosives, she gives out a blood-curdling cry that sends legions of Titans to her position, where they proceed not to free her from her restraints, but eat her, leaving Erwin no choice but to give the order to retreat, with their prize now gone.

Erwin, clearly feeling pretty defeated and distraught, notes that the She-Titan gave up everything to foil his plans, mirroring Armin’s notion that those who aren’t prepared to lose it all won’t be able to enact the necessary change to save humanity. Well, it works both ways.

Meanwhile, and less interesting, are Eren, Petra, & Co. sussing out exactly why they were left in the dark, concluding that there’s a pro-Titan traitor in their midst, so need-to-know was the name of the game.

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When Eren was told the expedition isn’t over and you haven’t officially survived until you’re back home, I knew it probably wasn’t going to be an easy retreat. Erwin also makes it a point to order Levi to fill up on gas and blades for the return trip, just in case something happens. And something does, with the “pilot” of the Female Titan masquerading as Levi and luring his squad to their potential doom.

For the first time, this episode turned me on to the idea of humans collaborating with Titans, even if I don’t quite understand how the hell it works. When everyone was accusing Eren, I obviously thought they were full of it, because I watched what Eren went through firsthand.

But this female traitor (who is probably Annie?) She’s the real deal: she’s killed dozens of her fellow humans and isn’t done, and is still very much after Eren. I’d say a Titan-on-Titan duel in the forest is pretty much inevitable.

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Attack on Titan – 19

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What does Levi’s big flare gun shot set into motion? Well, in the immediate moment, not all that much; it’s only an acoustic round that doesn’t seem to affect the She-Titan at all, but could serve as a signal for the soldiers ahead of them, as well as wiping everyone’s slate clean, so to speak, and focusing them.

But the more Eren focuses on what’s behind him—scouts engaging the Titan and getting killed, while he runs away—the more upset he gets, to the point he’s ready to bite his hand and become a Titan himself so he can stop the killing. Levi, looking ahead the whole time, doesn’t discourage him from this. Rather, he tells him to make his own choice, though Petra begs Eren to believe in her and his other comrades.

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Those words—“Believe in us.”—triggers a flashback, which is another suspension of the momentum of the present events, but actually turned out to be a worthwhile detour. When Eren climbs down a well to test his Titan-transforming powers, biting his hand doesn’t work. Levi tells him not to sweat it, and they have some chow.

But as Eren reaches for a spoon that’s just out of reach, the Titan transformation occurs, as he unwittingly creates a partial Titan torso and arm grasping that spoon. All of a sudden, Eren’s comrades draw their swords and start yelling, ready to kill him if he so much as flinches. The sense of cascading fear and mounting chaos in this scene was quite palpable.

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Eren tries to de-escalate by shouting “Be quiet for a second!”, but he’s really saved by an elated Hange Zoe, whose mouth is literally watering at the chance to see Eren’s ability in the hot, skinless flesh. Ironically, it’s Hange’s crazed, reckless thirst for knowledge and unapologeticly light mood that defuses the tense standoff. And Romi Park is immensely entertaining in this role.

An assist goes to Levi, who stood between Eren and his trigger (or rather blade)-happy officers and insisted they all basically chill the fuck out. No one acts in the time between Eren’s transformation and Hange’s arrival because the others are heeding their Captain, even if the compulsion to act decisively without thinking too much is strong.

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In fact, those instincts are one of the very reasons Levi chose them for his unit. None of the men or woman directly under Levi can be said to be like Armin; they’re not overthinkers. If they see an imminent threat, they don’t assess; they act. But another reason he chose them is their unswerving loyalty. When Hange determines Eren’s actions were involuntary, they know when they’re wrong and that they were threatening jerks to Eren, and not only apologize, but bite their own hands.

Would they act exactly the same way as they did if the clock was turned back (as tends to happen on this show) and they faced identical circumstances? Definitely, but that’s not going to ever happen, because now they know a little more about Eren and his ability: he only transforms when there’s a specific purpose to it, whether it’s protecting his friends from a cannon, plugging the gate, or reaching for a spoon.

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That night when Petra and the others bite their hands pledge to believe in Eren, and urge him to believe in him; that’s the end of Eren’s deliberations. Petra’s look up top is the same as the one from that night, an earnest plea for him to put his trust not only in himself, but in her, and Levi, and the rest of his comrades. Rather than transform, with the purpose of beating the She-Titan, he decides to keep racing forward on his horse. He’s growing a lot on this mission…without having to grow into a Titan.

His faith in his comrades and the Scout Regiment in general pays off, as the She-Titan, having been harried by several scouts who gave their lives to enable Levi, Eren, Petra & Co. to stay just ahead of her, is led straight into an elaborate trap consisting of hundreds of restraining wires that stop her in her tracks.

This was Erwin’s plan all along: using Eren to draw the She-Titan into captivity. She’s covering her nape, but they believe someone is in there (probably someone with that same hairstyle, I’m thinking), and they’re itching to get her out of there so she can answer for what she’s done…whoever she is.

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Attack on Titan – 18

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A survival crisis crops up when Armin, Jean, and Reiner are stuck in an exposed area with only one horse, and consider leaving someone behind, possibly to die, but Krista Lenz, who happens to be some kind of horse whisperer, rescues the three guys by bringing two horses with her, causing them to fall for their pretty savior right then and there.

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That scene is a nice little breather before returning to the dilemmas at hand: the formation is off course and being torn to smithereens by the Female Titan, who continues to repel any scout attack against her, displaying intelligence and creativity even most elites have never seen.

The show’s penchant for dark humor is amplified when she spins one poor soldier around like a stone in a sling, before apathetically letting him loose behind her. I was waiting for the awful crunching sound of the guy hitting the ground,but we were spared.

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Ultimately, the She-Titan’s goal is Eren, as Armin deduced from her course. The balance of this episode becomes about Commander Erwin’s strange orders and how all the lower-downs handle them. He shoots his elite core with Eren into the depths of a forest of really tall trees, which is really cool and looks like a place I’d want to camp were there not Titans around.

In fact, one wonders why humans didn’t just build settlements in the treetops, out of reach of the Titans. I guess there just wouldn’t be time to build, and in any case, the Colossal and Armored Titans would wreak just as much havoc on a forest as on a wall. That doesn’t change my opinion that a tiered tree-city would be cooler than a walled one, but I’ll table that wish in the interests of proceeding with she show we have.

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In the show, Jean, Eren, and several others are outright confused by Erwin’s moves, and wish he’d just explain to them what his plan is so that they won’t be so damned jittery. That doesn’t happen; even the elites under Levi’s command look like they have no clue what’s going on. Again, one can hardly blame them; when the She-Titan suddenly appears in the forest and goes after Eren it’s pretty damned frightening.

But neither Erwin nor Levi will tell anyone anything until it’s time to set into motion whatever trap they’ve set for the Female Titan, if that’s indeed what’s going on. Levi simply orders everyone to cover their ears (what about their horses’ reins?) before firing what looks like a flare gun. And that’s where the episode leaves us, on the edge of our seats, wondering what pulling that trigger will do (beyond launching a flare, of course). Fortunately I won’t have to wait a week to find out.

Also…I doubt it’s just me, but isn’t it a bit suspicious that Krista and the She-Titan have the same hair and eyes, and that Krista showed up immediately after the She-Titan disappeared? Probably just a coincidence.

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Attack on Titan – 17

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Wow, AoT really geeks out this week with the intricate enemy scouting formation dealie Erwin cooks up for the regiment. It’s a clever way to make a group of mounted humans work like one big organism, complete with eyes on the flanks that communicate to the brain controlling navigation in the center, through the use of colored signal flares. Considering the enemy is one big organism, strength in numbers makes sense, just as it does on the Serengeti.

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And naturally, because this is AoT, it doesn’t take long for Erwin’s delicately-crafted formation to start getting completely torn up by Titans, including one very frightening “centipede” variant that chases and nearly nabs a straying Sasha, who is thoroughly freaked out by the experience, causing me to wonder if she should really even be out there participating in an operation.

It’s a bit harsh to say Sash should be used to it by now, this job is going to entail a lot more close calls with Titans than steamed potatoes. Also, that crawling Titan was pretty freaky. Hell, she reacted like I would have. The thing is, Crawly isn’t the scariest Titan this week by far. That goes to one a lot…different.

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I’m talking of course about the 14-meter elephant in the room: a female Titan that is incredibly fast, quick, and smart. So smart, she’s aware her nape is her weak spot and guards it from attacks, and rather than step on the cloaked Armin, daintily pulls his cloak back and gets a good look at his face before getting up and moving on. Without eating him. This is a weird Titan, indeed. And as Armin, resident brainiac, opines, it’s behavior that puts her in a very small class of Titan, along with Colossal, Armored…and Eren.

Combined with Hange’s discovery that Titans are far lighter than one would think, and those secrets in the basement, and Eren’s unique-so-far ability to transform into a Titan, the body of evidence is growing that some Titans may be humans in Titan bodies. Could there be a civilization far beyond the horizon that sent Colossal, Armored, and this She-Titan as “generals” of sorts to herd the dumber hordes of Titans to feed, like so many foot soldiers? The mind boggles at the possibilities.

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But the Scout Regiment doesn’t have time to stoke their chins and consider those possibilities. They have a formation to keep and a mission to complete. Armin, with help from Jean and Reiner, manage to escape the She-Titan after trying and failing to take her out, and from the direction she’s headed, Armin believes she’s looking for Eren.

This was a thrilling episode pretty much from start to finish, doubly admirable considering Eren and Mikasa weren’t even in it, and it took place on a mostly flat field. The 360-degree cameras following the soldiers as they fought the Titans, as well as the unique way the She-Titan looks and moves, all added to the engrossing spectacle. And because much of the episode took place on horseback, things literally moved along quite nicely.

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Terra Formars – 02

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Well, I was right: the show entered its element, as after thirty-eight days of milling around, flirting, and playing catch, on day thirty-nine all hell breaks loose aboard Annex One, as terraformars appear out of nowhere and start wrecking up the place (and the people). Now it makes sense why U-NASA recruited a guy who could hold his own against a bear in a Thai cage match!

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But herein lies the catch, and it’s a pretty big one: this show wants to show a lot that the network censors won’t allow. As a result, so much of the dismemberment and gore is totally blacked out, you can barely tell what the heck’s going on, which kind of kills the intended intensity of those scenes. I’ve a strong constitution for television violence, and can’t help but feel like I’m not missing out on the creators’ vision.

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As for the terraformars, they’re exceedingly dumb-looking. They manage to be terrifying anyway due to their size, strength, and inability to be brought down by huge guns, but they’d be a lot more terrifying if they didn’t have such goofy designs. For the record, I prefer Aliens to Predators, because the Aliens are just less humanoid in characteristics, and thus scarier to me. Ditto the briefly-seen aliens of Independence Day.

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Still, once the bugs appear, things go downhill quickly, especially when they destory all the precious medicine required to fight them. It’s all very bloody and hopeless…and I reiterate: they’re not even on Mars yet! Meanwhile, back in Japan, U-NASA employee and JSADF Major Hiruma Shichisei, finds a researcher from the Bugs 2 Project tending bar in Saitama, seeking information he’ll use to “protect Japan.” Major, after seeing what those bugs can do, good luck – you’re going to need it.

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Terra Formars – 01

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Curiously enough, this show begins with an underground cage match between a very muscular human (not a maiden fair) and a giant bear, held deep beneath Bangkok for the amusement of the super-rich. Hizamaru Akari isn’t doing so well, until he remembers why he’s in that cage: so his beloved childhood friend Yuriko can get a life-saving organ transplant, but even when he “hulks up” and wastes the bear, almost Ghoul-style, his handlers don’t do it. Yup, even in the 27th Century the rich are still assholes.

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Instead the richies “sell” Yuriko to a couple of sunglasses-indoors-wearing characters, Komachi Shoukichi and Michelle Davis of U-NASA, who regret to inform Hizamaru that they tried to save her but simply got to her too late. Hizamaru is wracked with guilt and grief, but they give him an opportunity to see to it no one has to go through what he and Yuriko did again, while saving the world in the process. That means traveling to the place where her virus came from: Mars.

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Upon resting and recovering from a surgery to toughen him (more than he already is) for what lies ahead, Hizamaru meets some of his colleagues, about half of whom are statistically dead already, including the trio of friends Marcos, Alex, and Sheila, along with negative newbie Eva Frost. They make up part of a group of one hundred that comprise the third expedition to Mars, the first two having ended in failure. The virus is believed to be capable of eradicating all of humanity, so developing a vaccine is of utmost importance, which explains the not inconsiderable resources of U-NASA.

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Of course, Mars isn’t just red dust; it’s been partially terraformed over the centuries by shipping algae, moss, and the highly resilient cockroach. Naturally, those cockroaches have evolved in no time at all into gigantic terrifying monsters who’d just as soon squash a human as a human would squash a roach back on Earth. So it would seem both the virus that threatens extinction and the titular “Terraformars” they must fight were originally created by humans in the first place. It’s a big mess, and it’s up to Hizamaru and a ragtag group of tough guys and gals to clean it up.

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We’re in for something totally different thematically speaking next week, be it the space voyage or their arrival on Mars, so as this first episode was more about introductions and exposition, I’m delaying my decision to review this show until I’ve seen it in its element. That said, this wasn’t a bad start, if TF keeps maintains its irreverent tone, “aw shit, what now” milieu, and amusing U-NASA camaraderie, I’ll forgive the uninspired character design and highly-censored (and thus somewhat pointless) gore.

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