Kageki Shoujo!! – 04 – Opening of Borders

I was both fully expecting and looking forward to Sarasa either scaring Mr. Stalker away with her imposing stature or showing off her jujitsu moves if he persisted. Thankfully something completely unexpected and much better happens. Truly great art tends to challenge the viewer in some way, rather than giving them what they expect or predict.

That kind of narrative and thematic creativity really suffuses this, the best episode yet of Kageki Shoujo and the one that finally had me coming around hoping there’d continue to be less actual on-stage performance and more human drama. Like last week, there are some tough-to-watch moments, but also moments of great joy, goofiness, and redemption.

Mr. Gross Otaku, one of Sarasa’s many hilarious, unintentionally insulting nicknames for the guy, didn’t come to exact “revenge” on Ai; he came to apologize for being the one who ruined her career. He was a shut-in NEET who had lost hope until he first saw Naracchi on-screen, and it fascinated him how she was trying so hard never to smile.

In one unguarded moment, Naracchi does smile, and there’s video evidence, but that little smirk at the sight of her favorite mascot shattered Mr. Gross Otaku’s hermitic existence, inspiring him to get a job and make friends (naturally, other admirers of Naracchi). At the in-person event, he was so nervous about properly thanking her for helping save his life, he held on her her hands too long, leading to her making the remark that ended her idol career.

Taichi, who had been observing from a close distance in case Mr. Gross Otaku was a Mr. Total Perv, tells the guy that it wasn’t anything personal; in fact, it was likely only the straw that broke the camel’s back. Like Otaku Guy once did, Ai has given up on the world, and it led her to shut off her emotions. And yet, running away and leaving Sarasa alone invokes very strong emotions indeed, to the point Ai works up the courage to go back.

Naturally, her timing is terrible, and when she sees Sarasa doing goofy dance moves with the would-be tormentor while Taichi watches, Ai’s concern immediately curdles into something resembling hatred, and she storms off once again. The only problem is, poor Sarasa doesn’t know what she did to engender such hate!

Sarasa is persistent, and Ai finally makes a deal: she’ll tell her why she’s mad if she leaves her alone from now on. But when she does, Sarasa still doesn’t get it: if she came back out of worry for her, she should’ve been happy she was alright! As usual, Sarasa is right, but too blunt, and Ai retreats behind her curtain. Both girls seem incredibly unsatisfied where things end.

Sarasa, understandably getting a little fed up with being treated like this, declares that they’re “through”, though later confesses that might’ve been too harsh via Twitter to her friend Akiya—whose fellow Kabuki actor-in-training is tweeting more profound responses on his behalf. He tells Sarasa not to rush until they know each other, to be prepared for her feelings to be entirely one-sided, and appreciate that that’s beautiful in its own way.

The next day, Hijiri, Kouka’s Shit-Stirrer-in-Residence, confronts Sarasa with the pic she snapped of her with a guy (Mr. Gross Otaku), but Sarasa doesn’t have any time for this nonsense, as Ai is skipping classes and Taichi is worried about where she ended up. Sure enough, while staring at the sea, Ai is harassed by a couple of guys who recognized her, and one of them grabs her arm.

I have scarcely felt more fear and apprehension for a character than I did for Ai in this moment, but that was tempered by the knowledge that somehow in short order, Ai would be rescued. I just didn’t know it would happen by Sarasa calling Mr. Gross Otaku, who predicted Ai would go to the ocean to calm down (as she once stated in an interview) then run a social media search and locate her .

From there, all Mr. Gross Otaku has to do is buy a little time by haplessly trying to attack Ai’s harassers. He fails, faceplants, and gets a bloody nose, but still wins, as Taichi and Sarasa arrive and the latter screams for the police, who come running. There are no words for Sarasa’s transformation above as she voices satisfaction for scaring off the jerks.

What’s even more heartwarming about this entire scene that lets me forgive its many contrivances—as well as the entire premise of using stalking methods to save the target of stalkers—is that at this point, Sarasa is sticking to her guns when she said they were “through.” Yet even if she’s uncertain Ai will ever want to be her friend, she rescued her anyway, because it was the right thing to do.

When Sarasa explains to Ai how they found her and the role Mr. Gross Otaku —real name Kitaouji Mikiya—played, it’s Ai’s turn to do something completely unexpected: offer her handkerchief for Mikiya’s bloody nose. During the hand-off she drops the cloth on the ground, but it wasn’t intentional or meant as a slight.

As Ai says with tears welling up in her eyes, “this is the best I can do right now.” But Mikiya, being uncharacteristically cool, tells her to dry her eyes; all he and her other fans wanted was to see those rare and amazing moments when Naracchi genuinely smiled. Because that meant their idol was happy. He promises to return to see her perform on the Kouka stage.

Ai and Sarasa take the long walk back to their dorms, where they’ll face consequences for the incidents that transpired. While they walk, Ai opens up to Sarasa, asking her what she should do about something she wants to forget but can’t (though not going into detail). All Sarasa can tell her is to keep having good memories that will eventually cause the bad to fade from prominence.

Notably, Ai can’t see Sarasa’s face when she says this, but it sounds like a new invitation to make some of those memories with her, if she’ll have her. At this point, it’s safe to say the cat-and-mouse game between these two girls will continue, but they’ve definitely already made one of those memories Sarasa speaks of, and I’m looking forward to them making more.

As for poor, Yamada Ayako, who is now purging regularly and barely has the energy to sing, all I have to say is that every one of her upperclassmen and every adult on the faculty are totally failing her, and I’m terribly worried about how bad things will get until someone helps her. It shouldn’t have to fall to someone like Sarasa and/or Ai, but if it does I won’t complain. I just want Ayako to be happy and healthy!

Kageki Shoujo!! – 03 – Toughing it Out

Ai is aloof, standoffish and antisocial, and makes it crystal clear even to a lunkhead like Sarasa that she doesn’t want to be friends with her or anyone else, despite the fact they live and learn together. Sarasa is flummoxed by this declaration, but before they properly discuss it, Ai is whisked off by her big sister, Hijiri.

This week Kageki Shoujo! takes a long, hard, and sometimes downright distressing look back at how and why Narata Ai became the way she is. She always lied about being a perfect loving daughter to her glamorous actress mother, but the lying became harder as she grew older and more beautiful.

I can’t imagine the torment of men both young and old ogling you left and right, and What a cutie being akin to Hello for her, but that’s what Ai endured. When her mother shacked up with one of those older men, that constant public torment became private. She’d always been creeped out by Seiji, but then one day he was alone wither her and kissed her with his tongue.

After such a horrific assault, Ai no longer felt safe anywhere or with anyone…except her uncle, Taichi. And thank God for Taichi, because he was at least able to give her a measure of peace and security by installing a lock on her door and giving her a key to his place should she need to run away. But before he did that, she had already been assaulted, vomited, cut her hair, and tore apart her big teddy.

Considering her interactions with men who weren’t her uncle up to the point she became an idol, it’s not surprising that one day she’d say or do something to break the façade she’d created. Now that very scruffy dude whom she called a creep at a fan event has stalked her all the way to her school. Again, Ai is fortunate Taichi isn’t far, and she runs headlong into his arms. He’s the brother and dad, the family she never had.

Taichi will always be there for his niece, but he knows she can’t go on with no friends of any gender. Kouka is a chance for her to form new bonds with peers, and Sarasa, as bombastic and annoying as she is, really is a good person who would make a great friend. Sarasa is ready to accept Ai’s rejection, but Taichi insists she keep trying with Ai.

Sarasa does so, by escorting Ai home, which leads to the scene I was hoping for: the gigantic Sarasa spreading that massive wingspan to form an impenetrable shield for Ai against the smelly stalker.

Never mind if he’s not there to “get back” at Ai like she fears, but just wanted to return her bookbag and talk to her. The fact is he had absolutely ZERO right to meet with or speak to her after following her there.

Ai may have been rude to him at the fan event, but being rude isn’t a crime, and he doesn’t get to play the victim after committing the actual crime of stalking. While it wasn’t always easy to watch, I’m glad we gained new insight into Ai’s twisted childhood and coming of age, which only makes someone like Sarasa seem more, not less, suitable to be her friend.

My only gripe is that we’ve still gotten very little actual musical theatre education in, with the exception of a brief tap class in which the teacher berated the objectively scrawny Yamada a “fattie” and all but ordered her to give up food. Fuckin’ yikes! I also wish the stalker situation had been fully resolved, instead of us being left hanging.

Even Sarasa looked a little uncomfortable confronting the guy, and no single high school girl, no matter how big or small, should have to go up against someone like that alone. I just hope that as we learned a lot about Ai, Ai also learned more about Sarasa, and how she’s someone she can lean on in times of strife.

Bloom Into You – 12 – Changing the Ending

Actors put draw from personal pain to express pain in their performances, but in light of what Ichigaya told her about her sister, the line between performance and real emotion is perilously thin. Sure, Touko blows everyone away with her line-reading, but they don’t know that almost all of those lines could be said about her!

Everyone, except for Yuu and Sayaka. But all throughout camp, just as Yuu’s affection for Touko seems to be growing, the combination of Touko’s promise to hold back and Sayaka assigning herself in charge of “looking after” Touko, you can see Yuu grow increasingly lonely and frustrated. Yuu knows that Touko wasn’t acting when talking about who the “real her” was.

After Sayaka dismisses Yuu’s concerns (and frankly doesn’t see the need to discuss it with a kohei at all), Yuu seizes an opportunity when she and Touko are alone and all but orders her to walk her home. She asks about Touko and her family’s further Summer plans. She stops at the railroad crossing and remembers the kiss Touko gave her.

Then, she takes the initiative once more. When Touko’s about to go her separate way, Yuu invites her to her room, and is honest about why: if they part there, they won’t see each other for a while, and she doesn’t like that. She wants Touko to have more faith in her, for she’s holding up her end of the bargain, neither loving nor hating her. Touko accepts, but warns Yuu that she’s going to “indulge” herself.

What ensues is the steamiest scene between the two yet, and another demonstration of how Yuu is probably not being fully honest with herself when it comes to how she feels about Touko.

The show pulls no bush-league parent barge-ins; the two have each other all to themselves, and spend it on the bed until dusk. Kudos to the sound designer and the voice actors for the very immersive blowing fan, as well as the extremely subtle sound effect of the girls’ lips meeting. Touko’s flowing hair is also impressively handled.

During that time, Touko opens up to her about why she’s upset, just as she hoped she would. She expresses how lost and aimless she feels now that her idea of who her sister was might not be remotely accurate. Yuu asks why she needs to “become” someone other than who she currently is.

Again, Touko’s self-loathing surfaces in response. Assuming (perhaps wrongly) Yuu feels nothing for her, she questions why she’d stay the way she is. Then, after getting on top and kissing Yuu some more, Touko whispers in her ear “Don’t fall in love with me. Because, you know, I hate myself. And I can’t be in love with someone who likes the things I hate, right?”

Well, wrong, Touko! Staking her love entirely on the person she loves never loving her back just…that’s not how this works! That assumes Yuu’s feelings will never change no matter what, even as Touko insists upon changing into someone better than she is.  Like she can evolve, but Yuu can’t. It’s unfair, selfish, and utterly misguided. But it’s also what you’d expect of someone with Touko’s experiences.

Yuu agrees with me, in that just because you can logically explain why Touko feels this way doesn’t mean you have to accept it. And Yuu won’t. She yells “Senpai, you idiot!!” when they part, hoping Touko heard her. After spending some time alone with her thoughts, she calls Kanou: she wants to change the ending.

She runs to Kanou’s house to explain, and ends up drawing out the very reason Kanou was so frustrating with the ending as she wrote it (the girl ends up becoming the person her lover remembers).  It all comes down to why the character would pick that version of her: the motivations are totally couched in the past, rather than in the present duration when she’s lacked memories but gained insights from three different people.

The need to choose one and only one of the three version to “become” was always a false one; both Kanou and Yuu see this strongly implicitly. Realistically, there’s a fourth way to go, an ending where that false choice isn’t made. But Yuu doesn’t simply seek to change the play’s ending. She wants to change Touko herself; to somehow get her to see that there’s no single answer. She doesn’t want Touko to hate herself.

It may be selfish or arrogant (and her gaze into the stars of the mini-planetarium do give her a very imperious bearing), but it’s what she’s setting out to do. Hopefully, she’ll take a second at some point and figure out why she has to…though something tells me she already knows.

Bloom Into You – 11 – Working from Incomplete Blueprints

The StuCo summer rehearsal camp seems like a whole world of trouble for Touko and Yuu, not to mention Sayaka, and the three only grow more nervous and excited as the day turns to night and relatively normal StuCo operations switch to a bath and sleepover setting.

For her part, Yuu is committed to not letting herself get too flustered while in the bath with Touko (or at least not appearing as such), and Touko and Sayaka take her complete lack of hesitation in stripping down to be “going too fast.”

But once they’re in the bath together as a trio, they calm down, as all three know it’s just not the right environment to make a move, were a move to be made, due to the very presence of three of them. Were it just Touko and Yuu, or Sayaka and Yuu, or Sayaka and Touko, things might be different, but each serves as a firewall for the other, resulting in a less romantic and more collegial vibe, both before and during bedtime.

I particularly liked the three lying awake, wondering if the others were similarly awake, voicing to themselves the impossibility of anything happening that night. But while there’s perhaps a bit of frustration from being “blocked” by one another, most of what they feel is relief it’s the three of them. After all, they have a play to get down, such distractions are for another time…if they’re for any time at all!

With it thus established that no “first moves” will be made by any of the three, day two arrives with much less anticipation and suspense. But the day also marks the arrival of Tomoyuki Ichigaya to coach up the council. Not only is he in Hakozaki-sensei’s theater troupe, but he was a former student at their school, a member of the student council…and as such was close to Mio.

Kanno’s play is about a girl known as three different things based on who is remembering. Touko has spent so long trying to mold herself into a perfect replica of her sister Mio, she never stopped to wonder who Mio really was, beyond the physical manifestation of perfection she saw as a little girl.

She never considered that maybe what she knew of Mio was just one small piece of a much larger tapestry. Like the three people who know her character in the play, she’s working without the full picture she thought she had, which means she isn’t as perfect replica as she thought.

Indeed, according to Ichigaya, Touko has already surpassed Mio as a StuCo prez, and while he himself doesn’t have the full picture of Touko, we know that she’s been working a hell of a lot harder than he claims Mio worked. Mio seems to be someone who used the council as her own personal force of worker bees, using her charm to get them to do her bidding. And Ichigaya maintains that he and the others didn’t necessarily feel taken advantage of, since they genuinely liked Mio and it was fun being around her.

Still, this is a big blow to Touko, and she can’t hide how it affects her from either Yuu or Touko. Further, Touko can tell from just one little look from Yuu that she’ll be there for her, should she tell her what’s up. Touko wants to just melt into Yuu’s arms and bathe in her kindness, but is still worried about taking that kindness for granted too often, leading to it “drying up.”

Of course, as Yuu has said, that will never happen, but Touko holds back anyway. Instead, she sits back with Sayaka as the three kohais play with fireworks, content with their more old-fashioned sparklers. Sayaka goes first, asking about what she talked about with Ichigaya, and admitting she knows he was in Mio’s council.

Touko mentions the discrepancy between his memories of her sister and her own, and how she now feels lost now knowing she never had a “complete blueprint” to work from. Sayaka apologizes for not mentioning Ichigaya connection before, but Touko doesn’t blame her, doesn’t mind her knowing, and thanks her for worrying about her, which brings a bashful smile to Sayaka’s face. All the while, Yuu watches the two from afar, wondering what they’re talking about…and why Touko felt she couldn’t come to her.

Things seemed to slow down a bit this week, and while it may just be me noticing now, but some of the animation took a bit of a nosedive in quality, which was pretty distracting. Nevertheless, Touko’s Mio revelation is an crucial development going forward.