Zombieland Saga: Revenge – 02 – Blazing Souls and Beckoning Winds

Franchouchou are training with renewed confidence after Koutarou pulled himself together, with Saki deciding to work on her abs with some sit-ups. Zombieland Saga’s slice-of-life scenes are always full of great little details, from the sound of the zombies’ bodies creaking, to the sound of Saki’s giant ponytail gently whapping Sakura. Koutarou announces their next gig as co-hosts of a TV tourism segment on Saga’s Yutouku Inari Shrine.

He does so in the most obnoxious way possible—thereby proving that he’s back!—by wearing a cardboard TV on his head and aggressively interviewing the idols. The details I loved here included the different ways they reacted to having a mic shoved into a facial feature, the change in the sound of their voice when the mic is close, and Tae’s spinning her head Exorcist-style once she gets the TV box…just ‘cause. It’s also the first time I’ve heard the current Japanese era of Reiwa—which began in 2019—mentioned in an anime.

Koutarou also mentions that they’ll be joined in the segment by The White Ryuu, a pompadour-sporting rock star from Saga who has also hosted a nationally popular radio show called So Saga Can Be Saga since 1992. Of the idols, only Saki shares Koutarou’s enthusiasm, as she’s a huge fan of everything White Ryuu, who is portrayed here by the real-life Hakuryuu, himself a pretty colorful character.

A little after Franchouchou arrive at the shrine and get set up with the TV crew, Ryuu makes one hell of a cool entrance, drifting in lying semi-supine across the hood of a ’59 Cadillac Eldorado. The White Ryuu is showing his age, with deep lines in a face partly obscured by a drooping, graying pompadour. It doesn’t matter; Saki is in awe, as am I! He explains he’s late because “the wind blowing down from Kyougatake gave me pause.” It won’t be his only mention of winds, nor the last philosophical thing he says.

In a refreshing development, the TV segment goes swimmingly, with a camera-shy Sakura bailed out by the consummate professionalism and knack for spontaneity of Mizuno Ai, as well as . The idols’ bubbly happy-go-lucky energy is nicely balanced (and sometimes usurped) by White Ryuu, who is full of bemusing little asides about life, society, and freedom.

In a beautiful little moment I’m glad was captured, Sakura asks Ai while they’re praying at the shrine if “zombie prayers count”, with a smiling Ai saying she’s “sure the gods are surprised we’re even here.” It reminds us something that you sometimes forget during their “human” segments: they’re zombies covered in makeup.

The segment is ready to wrap, but Ryuu insists on a torturous climb to the inner temple, where the zombie idols are fine but he collapses from exertion at the top. Even so, he raises a defiant fist and declares that “grasping hold of something real is never easy”, engendering a primal, avenging “RYUUUUU!” from Saki.

As the TV crew packs up, completely confused by everything Ryuu said, Saki has to hold herself back from picking a fight, just as she asked Sakura if she wanted to die when she said she’d never heard of him. To her, Ryuu’s words are like “fists fulla soul”, running out to say a proper goodbye to her idol and promising to start listening to his show again.

As he climbs back on the hood of his Eldorado (the guy commits), he says won’t be on the show much longer, as the winds are blowing him elsewhere. But he tells her not to sweat it, parting with the refrain “The answers you’re looking for can still be found in Saga.”

Back home, the other idols notice Saki is down in the dumps. The question of whether Saki is in love is brought up, and again we see how the different idols regard romance for idols. Junko is scandalized, even though plenty of her era’s contemporaries had secret love lives, while Lily is all for it, as long as it makes you shine brighter.

Sakura decides to approach Saki to find out for sure what’s troubling her, finding her out on the balcony listening to Ryuu’s show. Meeting him reminded her of how she thought everyone was out to get her, and how whenever she wouldn’t bow and scrape to them, they’d try to get rid of her. Even as a middle schooler she’d get in huge brawls, her victories leaving her lost and alone.

One night while lying on a riverbank she heard So Saga Can Be Saga from a fisherman’s radio, and White Ryuu’s positive affirmations to the troubled souls of Saga and beyond soothed her smoldering heart. Now we know why he said so many offbeat things during the segment: that’s his whole thing. And doggone it, he had some really nice things to say:

“No matter who you are, it’s rough not knowing where you belong. But it’s times like that you gotta keep your eyes and ears open. You’re gonna find somebody you feels the same way you do. Even now, me talking with you like this means you’re not alone.” Ryuu was right: Saki kept her eyes and ears opened and found Kirishima Reiko, jumping into her big brawl and fighting by her side, leading to the complex and deeply heartwarming relationship covered last season.

Saki is upset because she doesn’t want Saga or Japan to lose a voice like White Ryuu’s, finding and saving wretched souls like her. She’s lost enough already, damnit! So she hops on a bike (with Sakura accompanying her) and races to the radio station—utterly destroying the bike in the process—to confront Ryuu and beg him not to quit.

Ryuu welcomes Saki and Sakura (AKA Nos. 2 and 1) into the booth to discuss it. Saki tells him Saga is still full of folks who don’t know what to do with themselves, and even Saga itself doesn’t know what to do. Without him, where will smoldering hearts turn to? But Ryuu says that’s just it: the people need a place to turn to, not him.

He never said the show would be shutting down, only that he’d be departing. But not before finding someone with the passion in their soul to take over for him, and he believes that’s Saki and Franchouchou. He says they have the spark that lights a fire in folks. Brooking no input from the suits, he bequeaths the show to the idol group right there on the air.

Before Ryuu hops on his Cadillac’s hood to be pushed by the winds of Kyougatake, Saki confesses her love for him. He’s flattered, but assures her her passion will be needed elsewhere. Then he says what might just be the saddest string fourteen words ever uttered on Zombieland Saga, knowing what we know: “Look me up when you’re a bit older and have grown into fine women.”

As they watch the sun rise on Saga together, Saki tells Sakura that no longer how much time passes, she’ll never grow up into a fine woman. At first she tries to laugh it off with a brave smirk, but her eyes become flooded with tears and she’s suddenly on her back sobbing. Then Sakura starts sobbing, and I tellya, I had to fight back tears too! Then Sakura starts drying out like a mummy, and I was laughing again.

That’s the beauty and the magic of Zombieland Saga, which is so much more than a show about down-on-their-luck idols. The futures they should’ve had taken from them, and now they must try to build new futures from whole cloth. While initially depicted as “lame” and washed up, White Ryuu was a revelation here, imbuing the episode with wisdom, gravitas and optimism.

I never, ever tired of his entrances and exits atop his ridiculous car, while the episode completely sold Saki falling for him, making his parting words all the more heartbreaking. The only thing this episode was missing was a performance, which is what we get during the end credits, and it’s appropriately a heartwarming cover of a White Ryuu song. The idols’ outfits look great, the lighting looks great, their singing sounds great and the dancing animation is fantastic.

Saki assures the rapt audience that anyone lost out there will be able to see her soul burning, just like Lake Imari’s breakwater lighthouse. Taking over the mic at So Saga Can Be Saga, joined by the rest of Franchouchou, she tells the listeners to find their way back there if they ever feel worried or alone.

Wonder Egg Priority – 04 – Sunny Side Up

WEP made no secret of there being four main girls, so with its fourth episode it introduces the fourth girl: Sawaki Momoe. Still, Miwa, the egg girl she’s helping, calls her “Momotarou” because she’s so tall and manly. Miwa was driven to suicide by her dad’s boss who molested her, then fired her dad when she accused him.

Meanwhile, Ai is running, loath to fight the Wonder Killer alone, but it turns out she doesn’t have to: Yu-Yu’s fans lend her penlights, which turn into new weapons with which she slashes the Killer’s many tentacles. It’s a case where the Egg Girls won’t just stand passively by and wait to be rescued, but actively aiding their heroine.

Miwa looks poised to stand passively, but when Momoe starts having some trouble, she uses herself as bait to give her heroine an opening. She also taks the opportunity to tell the pervert to touch his wife whom he loves—not her. Back with AI, the Yu-Yu fangirls help their own case further when they stop the Wonder Killer in her tracks with a video of their shared idol.

They buy enough time for Ai to hang in there until Rika returns—as has been established, they’re immortal, so her petrification eventually wore off—and de-tentacles the Killer, allowing Ai to deliver the coup-de-grace, completing the rescue of the fangirls, who also declare themselves fans of the two-girl unit that is Ai and Rika before vanishing.

Momoe also says goodbye to Miwa, who insists on being held in the arms of the person she fell in love with in their short time together. Momoe is left alone on the train platform, no doubt wishing at some point one of the egg girls she rescues won’t see her as a man and fall in love with her.

At the hospital, Neiru makes a fast recovery to the shock of her healthcare providers, demonstrating she’s ready to be discharged by performing a brief but perfect floor exercise in the rehab room. As Ai confirms with her firmer abs, their exertions in eggland don’t just bring real injuries into the real world, but also increases their muscle tone, stamina, and general physical toughness.

Ai learns that Neiru doesn’t go to school either, but for a very different reason. After riding in her sumptuous Mercedes Maybach Pullman and heading up to the top floor of a snazzy office building, Ai learns that Neiru’s dad doesn’t work there, she works there…as president.

Momoe is urged by the two sackheads to make friends and look for the sunflower—a clear reference to Ai’s shirt. But as Ai and Neiru amiably chat, they walk right past Momoe without noticing her.

When Momoe tells her next Wonder Killer target that she’s actually a girl, the egg girl who falls in love with her doesn’t care; she loves her anyway, and leans in for a kiss before vanishing just like the others. Momoe visits the statue of Haruka, the girl she’s trying to save, who—you guessed it—also loved her.

Momoe returns to the egg gachapon, where Neiru and Rika are waiting for Ai. Rika immediately misgenders Momoe as a handsome, strapping young lad, but protests to the sackheads that boys shouldn’t be allowed. The sackheads tell Rika not to get hung up on gender, since they made this place for anyone who wants to bring children who succumbed to the “temptation of death”—i.e. suicide—back to life.

As the sackheads presumed, it would take a sunflower for Momoe to make friends among her fellow egg girl heroines. She stares into her reflection, desperate to be seen for what she is rather than have others project what they want her to be, and weeps. Ai approaches and asks if she’s okay, and Momoe asks her “What do I look like right now?” Ai gives precisely the answer Momoe needs: “Like a crying girl…who looks like a model.”

Ai, whose mom once ran a fashion magazine, has seen female models of all shapes and sizes. She’s seen femininity in all its forms, not just the “classical” or “conventional” ones (though I admit those are both super-loaded adjectives). She goes on to compliment the contours of Momoe’s neck, as Momoe recognizes Ai is the sunflower she sought.

With the ice broken, Neiru and Rika join the conversation about necks and Adam’s apples, with Rika half-jokingly asking for an assessment of her neck, which is likened to a “puppy’s”, leading all four to eventually join in the laughter. We’ve seen what Ai and Rika were able to do working together. I imagine that the four of them fighting as one would be more effective still!

Great Pretender – 19 – The Interpreter

Laurent could hardly have envisioned that his failed revenge mission in Paris would set him on the path—and connect him with the people—that would define the rest of his life. No one person is more important than Dorothy, the woman he accidentally stabbed when trying to kill the man who scammed his mom.

Turns out Dorothy is working a scam on the scammer, as Laurent learns when he meets her, Kim and Oz, a trio of confidence artists looking for a fourth operative who is good with languages (and other stuff too).

Dorothy’s natural charisma and the lure of scamming bad guys proves irresistible to Laurent—He’s in, and the jazzy theme plays over their first jobs together, which span the globe and capitalize on their ability to pose as international dealmakers.

They scam a developer into buying overvalued land in Brazil, then scam a mafia boss into buying a soccer team in Milan. It’s basically what we watch Makoto go through in the first arcs of the show, but compressed into a montage.

The jobs keep coming, and with them the cash and security Laurent and his mom lacked. He also falls for Dorothy, despite her saying at the very beginning that they’re neither partners nor lovers, just a collection of lone-wolf strangers working towards the same goal from job to job.

Even so, in one of the loveliest-looking scenes of the whole series, Laurent tries to convince a just-awakened Dorothy to give up the increasingly dangerous life of conning powerful assholes and settle down together as husband and wife.

In another gorgeous scene, Laurent leads Dorothy up a frozen hill in Finland to see the Northern Lights. The combination of the reflection of the light ribbons in her cool jewel-like eyes and her rosy nose and cheeks is adorable, and brings an earnestness to someone who has played so many roles it’s hard to determine who is real.

That brings us to one of many meetings the con artists have in their Paris headquarters. Both Kim and Oz are considering retiring and enjoying the cash they’ve made (with Oz contemplating returning to the wife and son he abandoned). Laurent wants to retire with Dorothy, but she wants to do One Last Score. And wouldn’t you know it, that score involves Liu Xiao and the Shanghai mafia.

Laurent ingratiates himself with Liu by proving an adept Mahjongg player, but also a capable and loyal fellow who jumps in the way when an unknown assailant tries to stab Liu in the elevator. This is, incidentally, the same trick Dorothy pulled on him when they first met. Liu quickly hires Laurent as his interpreter.

Laurent introduces him to Oz, posing as a Japanese buyer of refugee kids at the auction, as well as Kim posing as a broker. They get Liu interested in the prospect of selling royalty, with Dorothy ultimately posing as an Ethiopian princess living in exile in Japan (a place she chose because she wanted to visit).

This episode gets the job done introducing Dorothy, who has more than a little bit of that Manic Pixie Dream Girl energy that can be simultaneously endearing and annoying (ennoying? andearing?) Mostly, it shows us a Laurent who would very much like to get out of the con artist business, marry Dorothy, and settle down, thank you very much. Of course, we know how that turned out, so tragedy is sure to strike at some point in this “one last job”.

Rating: 4/5 Stars

Cardcaptor Sakura – 43 – Meiling Out

While in the middle of another disastrous attempt to bake an edible cake for Syaoran (has she never heard of a timer?) Meiling gets a call from her mother: she’s to return to Hong Kong in a week. When Mizuki-sensei announces she’ll be transferring out the class is shocked, but it’s Syaoran’s tepid reaction that hurts her the most.

Say what you will about Meiling’s possessiveness and clinginess since arriving; Syaoran has almost always been a cold jerk to her, making her feel like she’s only in the way. They seem poised to part ways on not so great terms when Cardcaptor Sakura decides to try her hand at fence-mending, inviting Meiling to sleep over at her house for the first time.

After a delicious meal courtesy of Sakura’s dad, Sakura and Meiling get to have a nice chat over tea and later while curled up in their beds. Sakura tries to reassure Meiling that Syaoran does indeed care for her. During the sleepover, a Clow Card in the form of twins starts to cause mischief in town by doubling things, starting with a mailbox.

While Sakura admits it was love at first sight vis-a-vis Yukito, Meiling reveals her falling for Syaoran wasn’t immediate, due to how stoic and indifferent he acted around her while they trained together. It wasn’t until he saw her crying over losing her pet bird that he comforted her, went out in the rain, and retrieved the bird. It’s a sweet story unfortunately interrupted by Sakura sensing the TWIN card, and suiting up in a cool new battle costume as Tomoyo meets her at her house.

It’s at Syaoran’s suddenly twinned house (complete with twin Weis) that Sakura attempts to subdue and seal the twins, but when she only manages to immobilize one of the two, she’s not able to seal the card. She and Syaoran decide to try launching twin lightning attacks, but the fact they have to signal each other causes a lag that allows the card to escape.

Even though Meiling was ready to stay behind lest she “get in the way”, Sakura took her hand and had her join the party, because, as she says, there are things only Meiling can do sometimes. In this case, that’s stay in perfect rhythm with Syaoran as the two deliver a twin beatdown to the twins, restraining them long enough for Sakura to seal the card. It flies into Syaoran’s hand, but it’s just as much Meiling’s card.

With that, Syaoran and Meiling make up, and at the airport before departing, she asks him if he remembers their promise. Soon after he found her bird Meiling confesses to Syaoran, and badgers him into agreeing to make her his fiancee…until he finds someone he likes more. Whether she’s noticed Syaoran’s attitude towards Sakura softening/warming, and that’s the reason she’s not fighting her summons home, who can say. All I know is, I’ll miss the adorable, clingy, goodhearted little brat!

Fruits Basket – 44 – There’s Always Room for Kindness (and Jell-O)

For me this was one of most-anticipated episodes of Fruits Basket since Tooru saw Kyou’s true form. After learning the details of Rin’s life up to this point, I desperately wanted her to stay in that bed, or at least in that house with Tooru. If she just ran out in a huff, it would’ve felt like a major step backwards. I feel like there’s no more room for acting tough and aloof. Rin needs help, from others, now. She’s reached her breaking point.

Sure enough, she’s immediately unnerved and repelled by Tooru upon first seeing her, and when Hatori arrives to take her to the hospital for proper treatment, she damn near leaps out the window! She is every bit the wounded, stubborn Horse, kicking at anyone who tries to get close to her.

After Yuki has a brief chat with Rin (who tells her Haru still loves her very much), we learned that she learned about Tooru through Haru, who tells her Yuki and Kyou’s auras have mellowed considerably thanks to her kindness. When Rin first spotted Tooru at Shigure’s, it was everything she could do not to rush over, put her head in her lap, let her head be pat.

Tooru came off as that kind and caring and parental to Rin, making her Rin’s Kryptonite. Shifting from Haru’s kindness to Tooru’s just wouldn’t do; she doesn’t want to involve or trouble kind people, because she’s so predisposed on leaning on, yearning for, and taking advantage of those people.

If people hate her, Rin thinks, she’s doing it right; and so she continues to be dismissive and hostile towards Tooru. When Tooru realizes that Rin is also trying to break the curse, she wants to help, but Rin doesn’t want her to meddle, because “kind people should just live in their kind world”.

It’s not enough to dissuade Tooru; she’s long since decided that Yes, she WILL Meddle, thank you very much! Like Rin, she has things (and of course people) she can’t give up on. Kind people live in the same world as everyone else, and Tooru is kind precisely because she knows how scary it is to be alone in that world.

But Rin isn’t all alone, nor does she need to be. She’s not putting Tooru out by leaning on her, she’s making her elated just to be needed. Tooru believes she was put on this earth to care for people. She’s not perfect like Rin thinks, as that compulsion is a product of her own trauma. But it’s why Rin feels she can bury her head in Tooru’s bosom and let herself be cared for, at least a little.

Iwami Manaka and Toyosaki Aki are so damn good in this cathartic, multilayered scene, as is the dramatic staging and lighting, and Rin’s slowly falling hair as she launches herself into a hug. In gently breaking down Rin’s self-imposed barriers—built so high they threatened to literally kill her—Tooru proves her value as…Zodiac horse whisperer. I’m sorry; I had to go there!

Rin stops running for running’s sake, and goes to the hospital to recuperate. At school, Haru informs Yuki that he visited Rin, and considered her throwing her IV stand at him as a sign that she was on the mend. While he may not know about Tooru’s plans, he knows he can rest assured with Rin in her care, considering how well she’s done with Yuki and Kyou.

Tooru ends up surprising those two and Shigure by making Jell-O for dessert. Kyou, perceptive rascal that he is, makes the connection between Jell-O and the hospital, correctly guessing Tooru visited Rin. She saw that Rin wasn’t eating the hospital food, and Rin told her she likes Jell-O. Tooru contemplated just how much Rin had taken upon herself for so long, and how tormented her heart was, to clutch her hand so tightly when they hugged.

To Rin’s surprise, Tooru not only comes back, but with homemade Jell-O. Rin blushes a little but calls her baka, which Tooru laughs off as a tsundere tic. I think Rin will find her usual tricks won’t work against someone as resolute as Tooru, who joins her for a walk on the hospital grounds. Rin surrenders and tells her about the curse. Whatever it was hundreds of years ago, now it is nothing but a chain.

Rin also tells Tooru that Kureno will be of no help due to his loyalty to Akito—not even considering him “one of them” since he has no will to break the chain. Tooru still thinks she should talk to him, but Rin grabs her leg to stop her from doing anything too rash too soon.

Rin then asks Tooru why she wants to break the curse, what its it she can’t give up, and what is most precious to her. Tooru seems poised to answer…but the words don’t come out. Rin still understands, and for the first time sees that her and his strange normal girl’s goals are aligned. She doesn’t explicitly commit to it, but the two become a duo against the curse right then and there.

That night, Tooru dreams of lying in bed in her old apartment when her mother says goodbye for the last time, leaving her alone. No doubt her time with Rin—fellow “orphan by any other name”—dredged that semi-mythical memory from the depths of her psyche.

As she tucks into Tooru’s Jell-O, Rin senses that, like she’s tried to do for most of her life, Tooru hides “what lies beyond the door” from everyone, but everyone who does that eventually reaches a breaking point. Haru helped Rin gently open that door, and Rin hopes someone like that will come to Tooru—unaware that Kyou more or less that person.

The road ahead will be long and potentially vicious, but I can’t tell you how much joy and relief I derived from simply seeing Rin in the hospital, no longer running or building walls around herself. She’s as at peace as we’ve ever seen her. She’s in a place where she can accept tasty Jell-O from a silly, ditzy, profoundly kind girl who is far more reliable than she looks, aims to keep meddling, and won’t be denied.

Read Crow’s thoughts on the episode here!

Fruits Basket – 43 – Having Nothing in the End

Hiro is talking with Kisa about his yet-to-be-born sibling, whose gender will be a surprise, when he spots Rin in her school uniform. He’s concerned about her ashen appearance, but she gives him basically the same treatment as everyone else who tries to reach out: Buzz off. Go have your happy life with your nice parents and leave me alone with my misery.

The episode then revisits the time Rin approached Shigure, and we learn that she seeks a means of lifting the Zodiac curse, just like Tooru. She’s willing to give him her body for the info, but Shigure—in a rare instance of not being a total slimebag—rejects her offer. But he also refuses to help in any way, while stating he’ll enjoy the benefits Rin’s and others’ efforts, because, as he himself says, he is the worst.

Spurned by Shigure, who may or may not possess the answers she seeks, she goes through a Souma storage room in hopes of finding something, anything related to the curse and a way to lift it. Exhausted and nauseous, she collapses on the ground, then remembers one of the happiest moments in her life—in bed with Hatsu post-coitus, wishing she could be his heart—followed by one of the worst: her parents telling her they “don’t want her”.

Around dusk, she returns to Shigure’s house, strung-out almost beyond belief, but nobody’s home…until Tooru comes through the door. Even that act of opening a door sends Rin into a hysterical fit, repeatedly begging Tooru not to yell at her. Tooru being Tooru, she does the only thing the situation calls for in that moment: giving Rin a warm, gentle hug to try to calm her down.

Shigure may believe he’s the worst, but delving into Rin’s horrific childhood establishes some healthy competition for the title. By all accounts, Rin’s parents tried for years to put on a happy, fun façade as they raised her. It wasn’t until it started to feel like a performance to her, and she asked them why that was, that they snapped. This is not at all to blame Rin for breaking the façade; it was doomed no matter what she said or did. But it’s clear she blames herself.

Verbal and physical abuse followed, until one day Rin collapsed from the injuries the marks of which her clothes concealed. Kazuma and Hatsu are with her in the hospital, and that’s when her parents tell her flat out they no longer want her. Hatsu responds not by turning into Dark Hatsu, but simply by getting extremely pissed off with the parents, and lays into them, getting no response in return.

From then on, Rin lived with Kagura’s family, and the mere fact it was a genuinely happy household caused her intense emotional and physical pain, since she wonders “what she did wrong” to cause her to lose her own home. The only person in whom she found true peace and comfort was her white-haired knight Hatsu, who eventually confesses his love, and she reciprocates.

For the one person with whom spending time was not painful to also be a Zodiac member only adds fuel to the all-consuming flame of misfortune that is Rin’s life. Akito finds out, and when Hatori’s eye is brought up, Rin declares that she was the one who seduced Hatsu.

Akito doesn’t hold back on the verbal or physical wrath, calling Rin wicked and devious “like all women” and calling her flowing black hair “repulsive”. Seemingly feeding off Rin’s fear by grabbing her, Akito tells her she has no value other than filling one of the Zodiac slots before throwing her out the window. This is witnessed by Hiro, and if he hadn’t, Rin might well have bled out. Instead, she’s still alive…and wishes she wasn’t.

For all of those times I misinterpreted Rin’s standoffish, quick-to-anger nature in the few scenes in which she interacted with others, I can only beg for the character’s forgiveness. She’s had every right to act the way she has. It’s now crystal clear she broke up with Hatsu in order to save him from Akito’s wrath, as well as her own belief her love for him would be so heavy it would one day crush him.

I can only breathe a sigh of relief that Rin is now in the safest possible place: in Shigure’s house and in Tooru’s care. She may act like every bit the wounded horse upon coming to, and stubbornly reject any and all offer of help from Tooru, but the fact is the two share the same goal, and they’ll need each other if they’re going to make any progress.

So ends the darkest and most devastating episode of Fruits Basket to date, an absolutely unrelenting look at the destructive effects of the Zodiac curse on its members. Few episodes of anime hit me as hard as this one. Rin is at absolute rock bottom, neither wanting nor feeling she is deserving of love, happiness, or anything at all. But if anyone can help her, it’s Tooru. As long as Rin is alive, there is still hope. And I hope to hell she gets the redemption she needs and deserves.

Great Pretender – 14 – Fake is in the Eye of the Beholder

Laurent goes all out renting out a damn castle for his intentionally over-the-top art auction for the ages that James Coleman has no choice but to attend. Despite his wounded sensibilities in the face of such crassness, Snow in London is on the block, and he’s prepared to bid as much money as his partner Farrah has.

Abby, who has nicely inserted herself in Coleman’s affairs and earned his trust, proceeds to warn Farrah’s butler Tim of Coleman’s intentions to squeeze her dry.

This gaudy charade is not at all the stodgy auction atmospheres Coleman is used to, but he chalks it up not to authenticity of the auctioneers, but the crassness of its clients, namely members of the seedy underworld (aided by Fudou and Kim posing as mob kingpins from their respective nations).

Just as the surroundings and people disgust Coleman, so too do the ridiculously overblown sums of money being spent on paintings that in a respectable auctioneer would get less than half what they end up get here. Even that prepares him to bid way too much for the Montoya, a painting he’s personally invested in.

When the big moment comes, Farrah is nowhere to be found, having been confronted by Abby during intermission. Coleman is all alone, and Cynthia takes Farrah’s seat and proceeds to bait him into not only spending all £70 million Farrah has (after liquidating her land holdings), but an additional £30 million since Cynthia doesn’t stop until £99, leaving Coleman with the painting and a very, very large bill.

Not one pence of that £100 million ends up coming from Farrah. Abby gave her a recording of Coleman gleefully playing her for the fool, but she gets the last laugh, locking him out of her estate and donating her entire art collection to the museum so everyone can enjoy and be inspired by their greatness. Farrah owes a lot to her loyal butler and friend Tim, who assures her that while she may feel alone, he’ll always be by her side (and she’s better off without James Coleman).

The final twist? Makoto switched the real and fake paintings before the auction, meaning Laurent, Cynthia & Co. weren’t actually con artists on this job, but legit art dealers (tax issues aside, of course).  That said, Makoto actually wanted the dad and daughter in Nice to have Thomas’ version of the painting, which he doesn’t consider a mere copy due to the hard work, talent, and passion that went into it.

Copying Snow of London was Thomas’ first new painting in years, but it rekindled his love of art. Marie agrees with Makoto, and comes to see Thomas’ version as more warm and kind. As for Cynthia, she and Thomas get to have one more late afternoon coffee at the cafe where they met, and have closure.

Back in Nice, Cynthia wonders out loud, somewhat bitterly, whether Laurent arranged for Makoto and Coleman to cross paths, knowing both Makoto’s moral compass would come into play and her sad past would be dredged up “for [Laurent’s] entertainment.” As always, Laurent is coy and noncommittal in his response.

Stripping away the Breaking Bad-style drug hijinx and the high-flying, high-rolling Singapore racing set to tell a rich, bittersweet story of love and art made this my favorite of the three Great Pretender arcs so far. Makoto has vowed to get out of the game for good yet again, but I’m sure he’ll get tangled up in something soon. Whether it will surpass Snow of London remains to be seen.

Great Pretender – 13 – Same As They Used to Be

When a hungry Makoto finds a toffee tin in the fridge, Cynthia quickly snatches it away, declaring that the toffees aren’t on the menu. Back in the past, Coleman makes a deal with Thomas: all he wants are ten forgeries he can pass off as “miraculous discoveries” of masterworks, and in return he’ll make Thomas a Big Deal.

The Faustian deal gives Thomas what he always wanted—financial stability and a measure of luxury—but he knows it’s wrong, and whenever Cynthia mentions that it’s wrong, it shatters the veneer of success he’s trying to maintain, thus straining their relationship. Back in the present, Abby reports her findings on her investigation of Laurent, and shows she’s not above using her “vivaciousness” to gain the older man’s confidence.

Makoto eventually makes contact with present-day Thomas Mayer, whose life took a turn after breaking up with Cynthia. That said, his two million pounds in debt isn’t due to gambling or addiction problems, but a pure and just heart. When he saw a kid sketching one of his forgeries in a museum, he vowed to quit painting forever and borrowed heavily in order to buy back the three paintings he’d forged.

This us why he initially turned down Cynthia: why would he paint a forgery to make back the money he spent removing his forgeries from the art world? But then Makoto remembers the toffee tin and presents it to Thomas. It contains a detailed drawing of a wedding ring he drew for Cynthia in better days. That she kept it all these years means she must still feel something for him.

That proves to be the spark Thomas needs to come out of retirement—that, and Makoto telling him she needs his talent in order to settle the score with Coleman. It probably takes more than one all-nighter, but he manages to pull off a very impressive forgery of Snow of London.

When Cynthia stops by to inspect the work, Thomas is asleep in bed, but Makoto tells her that he was only able to create the forgery because of her. Trying to play matchmaker, he thinks that despite everything that’s happened, the two of them still bring out the best in each other, and that deep down they’re both the same people they were back then.

Great Pretender – 12 – The Unfathomable Subtleties of a Woman’s Heart

The con moves to London, with Makoto spearheading a revenge scam against art appraiser James Coleman. It starts with Abby approaching him and asking to be his protege, while Makoto and Kudou bug the house of Farrah Brown, a wealthy woman who buys the art he doesn’t want to sell at auction, and is also Coleman’s lover. That they’re able to plant bugs under the pretense of checking Farrah’s house for literal bugs is a nice touch.

When the team hears the recording of Farrah and James in bed, Abby concludes that Farrah is simply “a stupid woman”, but Laurent corrects her: she probably does know she’s being used, but “tells herself she doesn’t notice”—either because she genuinely values James’ companionship and attention or for some other reason only she knows.

In any case, this is an episode that may have more Cynthia than any other, and that’s a very good thing, as we see her separate from everyone else working a con of her own…or is it a con? This arc is called Snow of London after the Montoya piece, but the card used for the arc features the silhouettes of a couple I initially thought it was Cynthia and Laurent.

Turns out the man in the silhouette is Thomas, a starving London artist in the throes of painter’s block when he meets Cynthia, who is, presumably years ago, working at the cafe by his flat. The two have an instant easy chemistry, and eventually Thomas goes for broke and asks Cynthia to model for him.

In between taking dance classes and auditioning for acting roles, Cynthia ends up hitting it off with Thomas and becomes his muse. He paints gorgeous portraits of her that are filled with obvious love for the subject. Her stolen glances of the painter show that a part of her seems to be falling for him.

For all its lack of drug lab shootouts and planes threading through skyscrapers, this might just be my favorite episode of Great Pretender yet. It’s certainly the most human and intimate-feeling, with the coldness of London in winter creating a warm cozy atmosphere to the scenes with Cynthia and Thomas.

As this understated romance is taking place in the past, back in the present the gang scores a major victory. Snow of London comes up for auction and Laurent manages to outbid Farrah to get the painting back—for £30 million!—which Cynthia must liquidate some real estate to secure. It’s a slick case of Coleman’s greed (in this case having to accept the highest bid) undermining his own artwork-hoarding operation.

Still, Coleman thinks it could one day be worth ten times that, so he’s furious Farrah gave up. Knowing how Farrah operates, the team knows they can use her doghouse status with Coleman to compel her to buy back the painting in order to get back into his good graces. But the Snow of London they sell her won’t be the one Cynthia bought, but a fake.

Makoto gives forgery the ol’ college try, but he can only do so much with no experience, little practice and scant time. But as we know, Cynthia already knows an artist with the talent to reproduce Montoya’s masterpiece.

Back in the past, Coleman happens by Thomas’ painting stall and is duly impressed by the man’s reproductions, telling him straight-up that he’d do very well indeed in the world of forgery. This may be the genesis for the reasoning behind Cynthia’s present beef with Coleman, and why she wants to bilk him for as much as she can.

Arte – 05 – Art as Capital

This week Arte meets Leo’s oldest patron with whom he shares “an inescapable bond” despite not being able to stand the guy. Ubertino is a hugely wealthy merchant who presents a detailed order to Leo.

With the work and expensive media required there’s no way he’ll make a profit. Not eager to negotiate, Leo accepts Arte’s offer to go in his stead, hoping a pretty young girl might warm the old coot’s frigid heart.

Arte ends up failing completely, but asks Leo to give her another chance. Seeing that this is a valuable opportunity for someone who wants to someday go independent, Leo lets Arte keep trying. She first seeks advice in how to get what you want out of a negotiation from her new friend Veronica.

In normal circumstances an artisan’s apprentice would never dream of seeking help from a courtesan, but as we’ve seen Arte is hardly normal! Veronica’s advice helps Arte in Round Two, even though Ubertino immediately detects a courtesan’s manners in her constant smile, straight posture, and slow, steady manner with him.

The most important advice Veronica offers is for Arte to show Ubertino that’s she’s worth paying a high price for her work. Arte doesn’t use her noble status to demand a higher payout, but cites the crochet skills she learned as a noble as evidence of her value to him as an artisan.

Ubertino claims not to care about art in the least, but understands its value as capital; that is, as gifts to rich business partners or donations to the church. Thus, Arte must come to terms with the fact that not all of her future customers commission work out of a love for art, but out of an appreciation for its monetary value.

Arte also learns Ubertino’s salon is full not just of Leo’s work, but that of his master’s, then learns that Leo was a beggar whose natural talent and hard work was nurtured by that master. When the master passed, Ubertino’s patronage passed to Leo (hence the inescapable bond).

Learning about Leo’s modest past excites Arte, since as we’ve discussed, she’s in a similar underdog situation, and like Leo must reach out and take what she wants from life; it will never be given to her. She’s also amused that while Leo and Ubertino claim to not stand each other, they’re a lot alike—especially when it comes to never spending money on themselves.

Arte – 04 – The First Step to Hell

When Arte first experiences heartache, she has no idea what it is, just that it is negatively affecting her work and making her absent-minded. All of that makes Leo annoyed with her. Fortunately, his regular patron Veronica, who requests that Arte paint her portrait, is a font of wisdom in matters of love.

Arte comes right out and says she doesn’t necessarily respect Veronica’s profession, but does respect the hard work and resolve Veronica puts into it. Veronica is flattered, but makes it clear that her job and success is only possible because she avoids falling in love. If she falls for one of the men she entertains, she could end up ruined and in the gutter like one of her former contemporaries.

When Arte learn part of Veronica’s routine with men is to play hard-to-get and intentionally make them wait for days so they’ll be more devoted when they do see her. This angers Arte because she knows what heartache feels like and can’t imagine someone being okay with causing suffering on purpose.

While Arte was initially smitten with Veronica’s smile and charms, she soon see’s it’s to a large degree by design. Veronica and her manner is a brand, and the portrait is part of that—posing in a library with a book to evoke intellectualism). But Arte’s condemnation of how she manipulates men doesn’t preclude their becoming friends who can talk to one another anytime.

As for avoiding love, Arte tries to bury herself in her work and not let Leo distract her. It may seem like cynical advice from Veronica, but in their day and age women who want to live by their own power must fiercely maintain that power, and not cede it to others. Of course, in Leo’s case, maybe clearing the air could be advantageous?

Arte – 03 – Different Kind of Animal

It’s Carnival in Florence, and Leo has Arte dress like a boy so they can sit in on a hospital dissection. On the way, Arte meets one of Leo’s patrons—a courtesan—and sees him smiling in a way she’s never seen before. While normally forbidden by the church, Carnival time is an exception. Some guys go pale or faint from the sight of a cadaver being carved up, but Arte is just fine…she truly has the guts to draw guts!

What the church apparently will not abide is to have a woman at a dissection, so when Arte loses her hat and lets out a very feminine yelp, Leo has to get them both out of there lest they get into some serious legal trouble. It ain’t fair, but that was the time. In the process of running and hiding from their pursuers, Leo draws Arte so close that she notices for the first time how a man’s bone structure and skin differ greatly from a woman’s. She also feels an unpleasant pain in her chest that she’s never felt before. Hmmmmm…I wonder what that could be?????

Arte dismisses such sensations as temporary illness and moves on. She also moves up, as Leo is willing to accelerate her progression through the artisan ranks by assigning her the task of a journeyman: creating a background for a real commissioned painting. Arte sets out and braves the cold, comes back with a fine sketch of a cityscape, and it’s rejected.

She goes back out and does it again, and again…and many more times before Leo has her look at the painting and discern what it is the client truly wants. The woman subject should be the focus, which means the background should have less detail.

That Leo doesn’t spell it out for her, but lets things dawn on her naturally, speaks to his growing respect not just for her work ethic, but artistic instincts. It’s why he’s drawn up a new contract that gives her both a promotion and a raise, and why he rejects her feeling that in obsessing with art she neglected her womanlike charms. Like her father, Leo is one who prefers an independent woman with a strong will and drive to the period’s ideal of a woman: quiet, complacent, and above all idle.

That’s why I’m not the most enthusiastic about Arte suddenly developing a crush on Leo. In her defense, she’s been so absorbed in art in her life she’d never felt romantic feelings for anyone before. The only other person who didn’t look at her like something was wrong with her was her dad. It makes sense that the first man not related to her not to treat her like “just a woman” would make her heart beat a little faster.

KonoSuba Movie: Legend of Crimson – Megumin’s Homecoming

First of all, it’s been some time since I’ve seen Kazuma, Aqua, Megumin, and Darkness in their original non-chibified form, so it’s a rare pleasure to see them in their regular proportions and setting. KonoSuba’s twenty episodes proved you can make an often over-the-top isekai comedy with genuine heart.

If you liked the TV show, you’ll love the movie (as I did), which delivers more of everything. Though it contains roughly a half-cour’s worth of story, the ninety minutes just breeze by. Officially a sequel to KonoSuba 2, we return to Kazuma’s party’s mansion, where notoriously involuntary loner Yunyun has an unusual request: she wants—nay, must—make a baby with Kazuma. She comes to this belief upon receiving a letter from her father, Chief of the Crimson Demon Village.

While that letter turns out to be a work of fiction written by one of her academy classmates, Yunyun is nevertheless compelled to return to her hometown to help fight the forces of the Demon King. Megumin and the others decide to follow her, and rely on Iz to teleport them there.

Unfortunately, they end up far from the village, and in the midst of a stampede of rabidly horny she-orcs (there are no more male orcs) after Kazuma. After Yunyun’s request, this marks the second instance of Kazuma being entangled in romance (for good or ill) which he comes to call his “popular phase.”

What better way to learn more about Megumin than to visit her home? Turns out she’s hardly an anomoly, the town is nothing but overly-dramatic chuuni dressed in cool outfits with an emphasis on reds and blacks. The orcs are scattered by their overwhelming offensive magical power, a quality Megumin also shares with her clan.

Megumin’s parents are each eccentric in their own ways, while her little sister Komekko is adorable as all-get-out. Her family is poor, so the moment her parents smell money on Kazuma (he’s in the process of a 300m-Eris deal with Vanir to sell his memoirs), Kazuma finds himself at the mercy of a mother who wants to pair him with Megumin with all due haste.

To this end, she locks Kazuma and Megumin (sleeping due to a recent Explosion) in a room together. She comes to when he’s about to kiss her after much hand-wringing about how to proceed, and she escapes through the window to spend the night at Yunyun’s, fearing further lecherous advances.

The next day, Megumin shows her friends around the village, including to her and Yunyun’s (very Hogwarts-y) magical academy. We learn that when goblins attacked Komekko, Yunyun sacrificed her amassed skill points to repel the enemy. Because Megumin hesitated, that meant she was able to preserve her points and attain Explosion magic she cultivates to this day.

Megumin finds herself locked in her room with Kazuma again, this time by ice. Kazuma assures her that he won’t do anything, and offers his apologies as well as thanks for all the things she and the others have gone through with and for him.

It’s a very nice heartfelt scene, and Megumin even ends up clinging to Kazuma under the covers, commenting on how he’s really a “wimp” when it comes to making a move. Unfortunately, their tender moment is interrupted by the return of Sylvia, the voluptuous Demon King who leads the attack on the village.

Kazuma managed to scare her and her goblin army off with bluster earlier, but when she learns he’s not really Mitsurugi of the Cursed Sword, she takes him hostage…and Kazuma lets it happen. First, because it’s more proof of his Popular Phase; second, because it’s comfy between Sylvia’s boobs; and third, he has an ax to grind with his comrades regarding his treatment.

Kazuma accompanies Sylvia to the Crimson Demon Village’s underground storage facility, and inadvertently unlocks the chamber where Mage Killer, the one weapon he can’t let a demon king get ahold of, is stored. While he doesn’t intend to make things worse for the village, Kazuma’s so out of it he doesn’t realize punching in the classic cheat code on the Nintendo-style control pad would unlock the weapon.

He manages to lock Sylvia in the chamber, but once she has the Mage Killer and absorbs it into her artificial body, she blows the entire facility to kingdom come, then heads to the village to start blowing it up. Megumin leads Kazuma & Co. to more underground caverns, where they find Japanese carvings that explain the origin of the Crimson Demons, and why they’re so “pretentious yet nerdy”

Turns out their culture was basically created by another Japanese man sent there by the goddesses. He also built the Mage Killer, but also created a countermeasure for it: something he tentatively called “Railgun” that Kazuma previously noticed being used as a backyard clothesline in the village.

When Crimson Demons march out to defend their town, Sylvia engulfs them in an “Ancient Dispel” field that nullifies all of their magical power. They’re “saved” by a suddenly cool and confident Yunyun, finally taking up the mantle of her father the chief and luring Sylvia away.

Turns out she’s acting as a lure to bring Sylvia in firing range of the Railgun. Aqua fills it with magial energy, but it still fails to fire. That’s when Megumin unleashes an Explosion meant to his Sylvia directly, but is instead shunted into the rifle, which her little sister Komekko then fires.

Sylvia is killed, and ends up in the same place as fellow defeated Demon Kings Verdia and Hans. She merges with them an is resurrected into a huge, bizarre four-legged beast. Turns out her old comrades Wiz and Vanir have arrived in the village on an unrelated errand, and join in the fight, but even they are barely able to keep Sylvia at bay.

That’s when Kazuma decides to use his Popular Phase for good; by appealing to Sylvia’s innate need to be loved and wanted by somebody other than her adoring hordes of goblins. Kazuma, his luck boosted by Aqua’s blessings, is that person, and stands before her unarmed and ready to be taken into her arms…or tentacles…or whatever.

I never thought I’d empathize with a Konosuba villain so much, but Sylvia turns out to be one of the most dynamic and sympathetic of Demon Kings KonoSuba has served up. Her feelings, and specifically her romantic longing, isn’t entirely played for jokes, but portrayed as a very human side of her that turns out to be the Achilles Heel Kazuma must betray her heart to exploit.

He succeeds in gaining her trust and becomes one with her as Wiz gathers the magical energy from all of the villagers and transfers it to Megumin and Yunyun, who combine their powers to unleash a gargantuan Explosion beam that, combined with Kazuma breaking her heart, destroys Sylvia and ends the threat to the village for good.

Back home in Axel, Kazuma receives a hero’s welcome, proving his Popular Phase still has a bit left in the tank. While having a picnic with Aqua and Darkness, Megumin asks Kazuma to allow her to learn advanced magic, setting aside her Explosion magic so she can be of greater use to the party.

Kazuma may have long railed against her utter lack of versatility and durability in battle, but spending so much time in close quarters with her and meeting both her family and the villagers who shaped her, Kazuma suddenly isn’t so quick to deprive her of her “Explosiveness”. Whatever he does to her skill card, she’s still able to cast a beautiful Explosion that creates a heart-shaped cloud. And for that, Megumin is happy.

Did Aqua and Darkness get the short end of the stick in this movie? Perhaps, but that meant a lot of great development for Megumin, Kazuma, and their unique bond. They may get on each others nerves at times, but at the end of the day they’ll always be there for each other: Megumin blowing up something that needs blowing up, and Kazuma carrying her home on his back.

It’s quite simply KonoSuba at its absolute best, firing on all cylinders with confidence, comedy, and chemistry. My main gripe with this movie is that it makes me long that much more for KonoSuba 3!