The aquatope on white sand – 04 – The girl with the red boots

Aquatope continues to meld stories of personal pain and growth, hints of romance, and slice of life in a unique setting with aplomb. This week we meet another employee of the aquarium, the gentle giant Umi-yan. He’s the first to realize that Fuuka is the Fuuka formerly of Yona Pro, and soon spreads the word to Udon-chan and Karin.

After work when Kukuru stops by Udon’s, she and Karin tell Kukuru while Fuuka sits in awkward silence with Kai, who just happens to flip to a channel on TV showing Yona Pro at an event. Just seeing the girl she let usurp her causes a visceral reaction in Fuuka, and Kai, also in on the big secret, quickly changes the channel.

The next morning, three old ladies are drawn into the aquarium before opening time to bask in Fuuka’s youthful beauty. The next day is a big one; the “Touch Pool” where kids get to touch sea creatures rather than just look at them.

Kukuru decides to give Fuuka more responsibility by being an attendant to the pools. While gathering creatures for the pool, Kai asks Kukuru whether Fuuka, who entered their lives so suddenly, will leave it just as suddenly some day.

Fuuka takes to her new job like a fish to water, taking voracious notes and adding her own cute little touches to make it a more colorful and fun experience. She even upgrades to bright red boots, surprising the rest of the staff. But considering they all knew she was an idol, should they be surprised?

When the day comes, things go swimmingly…at first. The kids love Fuuka and she crammed enough knowledge of the creatures to back her charm up with helpful knowledge. But then some older kids spot her, recognize her as the fallen idol, and prepare to snap pictures. Karin steps into their shot just in time, asking that they please not take non-consensual photos of the staff.

Umi-yan takes over the pool while a visibly shaken Fuuka, who tried so hard to buck up, is taken to the back by Kukuru to calm down. Kukuru apologizes profusely for getting so caught up in making the touch pool a success that she didn’t consider how Fuuka would feel.

But Fuuka doesn’t want her to apologize. She chose to be an attendant, and was happy when Kukuru put her to work and praised her. It’s here when Fuuka realizes that she wants to do a good job because she wanted to get to know Kukuru better and get closer to her.

Kukuru, in turn, realizes she wanted to give Fuuka more work so she’d fall in love with Gama Gama even more, so she could become closer to her. Pracicing what they preach to the kids about how touching a sea creature is worth a hundred words about it, Fuuka takes Kukuru’s hand and places it on her face, and Kukuru does the same with Fuuka’s hand.

Like Karin and Udon, I was absolutely slain by this scene, as it was surpassingly adorable and heartwarming in equal measure. It’s also to date the most overt expression of the show’s shoujo-ai overtones. Kai seems to have a thing for Kukuru but they’re old old friends; it’s different. Fuuka, on the other hand, inspires passion in Kukuru, and the feeling is mutual. They make each other better while helping each other heal from their wounds.

Fuuka returns to the touch pools with heightened confidence and poise, looking the older kids head-on and welcoming them to ask her anything…provided it’s about sea creatures. They look suitably chastened…how would they like it if someone took pictures of them when they were working?

After a long, exhausting, but ultimately successful and immensely fun day, Kukuru and Fuuka ride home, and before hitting the hay exhibit a far closer and more comfortable rapport, with lots of smiles and laughs. No doubt due to the exertions of the day, they end up oversleeping, but don’t sweat it. In fact, Kukuru decides to start the day by pouncing on Fuuka.

Naturally, someone had to piss in this blissful bowl of Cheerios, but thankfully the dread I felt as they approached the aquarium that those loan sharks had committed some kind of vandalism was mistaken. Instead, Fuuka’s stern-looking mom has arrived in Okinawa…and she doesn’t look happy.

Considering we’ve got twenty more episodes to work with, would the series dare separate Fuuka and Kukuru just when they’ve gotten so close? I dearly hope not! Instead it’s my wish that, as they pray to Kijimunaa each morning, as long as they keep doing what’s right, everything will work out.


Zombieland Saga: Revenge – 03 – The Legendary Center Cannot Hold

Saki may be the de facto leader of Franchouchou, but their center has always been Mizuno Ai. While the group now has a radio show and their schedule is starting to fill out, much of that remains odd jobs. Ai warns the others that they can’t be complacent just because they’ve had a little success. Watching videos of Iron Frill, Ai knows the gap between them is a yawning chasm, but the only way to close that gap is to keep grinding.

During that grind, it’s Ai who is most often called upon by the other members for her advice and guidance. Other than Junko, who performed a long time ago in what was a very different idol industry, only Ai has the pertinent experience to help the others. So it’s deeply frustrating when a Kotarou in full drill sergeant mode announces Franchouchou will be opening for Iron Frill at the newly opened Saga Arena…without Ai.

His worry is that her resemblance to Iron Frill’s former center—her—is too risky. The others push back, but he’s made his decision. Ai leaves it to Junko, the next most-experienced idol, to head up the group and whip them into shape. Ai even thinks it’s a good opportunity for Franchouchou to grow up a bit.

Koutarou books a bunch of solo gigs for Ai, while Junko expresses doubt they’ll be able to make an impression on Iron Frill fans no matter how hard they practice. After seeing Iron Frill’s new center Shiori on TV basically declaring war on the opening act, the others put together a dance with improvised instruments in order to make more of an “impact”, when just the night before Junko was trying to google “impact”.

Junko goes up to the roof to play a song to cheer herself up, during which the colors fade and the frame adjusts to 4:3 aspect ratio—a nice nod to the era she’s from. Sakura, who came up to check on her, is so moved by the song she falls off the roof, with Junko only managing to save her head from falling. As such, their lovely dramatic scene together takes place with Sakura in two separate pieces.

Junko is worried that all she can do is demonstrate her own personal appeal, without knowing how to make that performance pay off in a group. I was thinking that she should just do a guitar and vocal solo that the others can eventually join in on, but the two decide to ask Ai instead, noting that Koutarou didn’t bar them from talking. In the meantime Sakura does what she does best: praise, reassure, and encourage.

But in a bit of awkward timing, Iron Frill’s Shiori confronts Ai after one of her solo gigs before Junko and Sakura can approach her. Shiori takes her aside, and after noting how similar Ai looks to her Ai, is very blunt in her assessment of Franchouchou. Basically, she believes the others are holding Ai back, and Ai would be better served joining Iron Frill to meet her full potential.

If Koutarou won’t allow Ai to do solo gigs outside of Saga, he certainly won’t let her go to a Tokyo idol group…or will he? Was leaving Ai out of the Saga Arena show while also booking multiple solo gigs to spotlight Ai all part of a scheme to get her poached away? Has Koutarou decided that the others should no longer rely on someone who, due to her fame in her past life, simply draws too much of the wrong attention (i.e. those journalist guys, who return this week)?

It’s telling that Ai doesn’t immediately refuse Shiori’s offer, but it’s also devastating for Junko to hear what Shiori said, because it confirms her fears she doesn’t have what it takes to lead the group in Ai’s stead. Just when everything was starting to look up, Franchouchou’s two most idolly members are facing personal crises. Can Sakura and the others pull together to help both Ai and Junko find their proper places?

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.

Zombieland Saga: Revenge – 01 (First Impressions) – The First Ragged Cry of Rebirth

After their miraculous show in the snow at Arpino, Franchouchou’s first CD sold like hotcakes, but then Koutarou booked them for the 30,000-seat Ekimae Fudosan Stadium (EFS)…and only 500 fans attended, or 1.66% capacity. They failed to get even a single encore, and ended up in humongous debt.

That would’ve been the end of the road for most idol groups, but the Franchouchou girls weren’t ready to throw in the towel. Sakura, Ai, Saki, Junko, Lily, and Yuugiri all secured jobs with which to gradually pay off that debt, and are working towards a comeback show at the metal club where it all began a year ago. But even a month after EFS, Koutarou remains a drunken, disheveled, distraught, and infuriating mess.

He’s convinced it’s all over for Franchouchou and his Saga project, even dramatically standing on the edge of the water during a horrific storm and ranting incoherently. The girls start to consider that it may not be just about the money, because there’s no way he could’ve reasonably thought they could have sold out a stadium show. They break into his office and find a demo tape of the song they were going to perform as an encore but never did.

After Yuugiri, working at a fancier bar using the skills learned in her past life, encounters a horrendously drunk Koutarou mistakenly sticking his head in, then going outside to vomit. He’s in a very bad way!

The day of their concert arrives, and Sakura tries one more time to get through to him, but ultimately loses her patience. She returns to the others, and they go forward with the metal show, despite the fact almost no one in the crowd wants to see an idol group aside from their handful of hardcore fans.

The girls are confident if they can just take a step in the right direction they can begin the hard climb back to recognition, but the crowd is, to say the least, impatient and hostile. Their performance suffers due to Koutarou not being there, but a grizzled bartender eventually guilt-trips him into running to the venue, where he yells for an encore from the back and starts a huge brawl.

Re-energized by the timely arrival of their eccentric producer, Franchouchou slaps their collective cheeks, bears down, and belts out the encore song with power and confidence. As with the last season, the group is CGI, but I wasn’t bothered.

On the contrary, the performance really packed a punch, especially since the CG looks like an improvement on the first season. Even after that, they only get mild applause, but they managed to pull it off. The zombie idols clawed their way back from the dead…again!

A bit later, the girls assemble in the basement and are further heartened to find that Koutarou, still bearing the scars of the concert brawl, has shaved, cut his hair, and dried himself out. Recognizing how they’ve been able to pull off everything he’s asked for (aside from the totally unreasonable EFS gig). With their producer’s head back—and pocket squid—in the game, the Zombie Land Saga Project continues apace.

Zombieland Saga picks its zany story back up nicely without missing a beat, offering the same wonderful blend of weirdness (the foley on their undead body movements is always great), charming camaraderie, heartfelt drama, and of course, Miyano Mamoru being a completely unhinged lunatic! I for one am overjoyed the zombie idols are back!

Rating: 4/5 Stars

You can read Irina and Crow’s discussion of Zombieland Saga: Revenge’s first episode here!

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!

Wonder Egg Priority – 03 – Soft-Boiled

The bright colors and dark themes continue to intermesh as the third girl of the series is introduced. Kawai Rika’s ash-blonde hair is set off by a hot pink highlight and a magenta-and-purple jacket. Like Ai, she has a statue of someone she’s trying to save, though she makes a point to tell her she’s fat and ugly and her palm sweaty. When Ai meets her at the egg gachapon, Rika is on the ground, holding her ribs, but soon recovers miraculously.

After commenting on Ai’s heterochromia, and promptly asks for some spare change. Aka and Ura-Aka, always seated around a game of go, aren’t concerned with the injuries the girls endure; it’s part of the job. Ai’s excitement to meet a new egg heroine quickly shifts to bemusement, as her interaction with Rika feels like a “one-girl handshake event”, as Ai puts it to Neiru, with whom she’s now texting on the regular.

Between barging in on Ai’s visit with Neiru, always making sure people know her name is Kawai because she’s so darn cute, calling the doctor hot, labeling Neiru a tsundere, and most distressingly eating up all the kiwi, Rika creates the impression of a superficial, shameless, self-involved brat. Nevertheless, she keeps following Ai around, inviting herself over to her house (causing Ai’s counselor Sawaki—whom Rika also calls hot—to leave) and unilaterally deciding to sleep over.

When Ai tells her about why she’s currently a shut-in, Rika immediately jumps to the conclusion Ai is seeking attention from the hot Sawaki. Then Ai tells her about Koito, then asks about the person Rika is trying to save. Rika makes clear the “ugly fatty” Chiemi isn’t her friend, but her fan, and also refers to her as a patron and a wallet. Ai is more or less appalled.

As Rika bathes we see scars on her arm from cutting, which she’s promised to stop. It was clear she was using a veneer of carefree bravado to hide deeper issues, but the scars confirm it without anyone saying a word. She says everyone’s the same in that when you “scratch the surface” they’re all “slimy”—something you could also say of an egg. Neiru texts Ai to be careful with Rika, warning that “junior idol could mean bedroom stuff.” That Ai earnestly asks “like pillow fights?” really says it all about Ai’s sheltered existence.

Ai dreams of a memory of her walking in on Koito crying while in Sawaki’s arms, adding a fresh dimension to their past together. One could interpret such a scene in any number of ways both innocent and otherwise, but Ai quickly apologizes and shuts the classroom door, believing she’d seen something she shouldn’t have. She’s also pondered ever since whether Sawaki was a factor Koito’s suicide. She wakes up in her cocoon bed, over 50% of which is being taken up by the smaller Rika.

Ai then awakes in Rika’s dream. Due to their proximity in bed they “synchonized”, as Ura-Aka tells them, and it’s Rika’s dream because she’s apparently the one with the stronger feelings. They crack their eggs at once, revealing two fans of the singer “Yu-Yu”. They were so fanatical, in fact, that when Yu-Yu committed suicide, they did the same. When Ai says “just like that?” Rika corrects her: their choice was neither easy nor casual. She knows, because she had a fan.

When the usual horde of Seeno Evils (which Rika calls “bystanders”) starts to swarm, Rika and Ai get to work smiting them with their weapons; Rika’s two swords resembling giant versions of the box cutter she used to cut herself. It’s determined the field of flowers is too wide open, so the four girls head to a lighthouse within the nearby woods. It’s there, while they have a couple minutes to catch their breath, that Ai asks Rika to tell her about Chiemi.

After hand-waving the scars Ai spots as “just a youthful whatever”, Rika starts out by explaining the formal and emotional context of a junior-idol handshake event. When you’re only mildly popular like her group was, the lines were shorter, which meant the same fans would line up over and over. Chiemi did this with Rika, who shook her sweaty hand many hundreds of times.

Eventually, Chiemi would give Rika money. Rika accepted it, and began to expect and even rely on it. Like the two Yu-Yu fans who had “sugar daddies”, Rika saw Chiemi as a rich patron. She later learned Chiemi was shoplifting and fencing stuff to make money to give her. When Chiemi started to think of them as friends, Rika ended their relationship, ripping Chiemi off like a Band-Aid and telling her she was too fat and ugly to be anything more than a fan and a wallet.

She never saw Chiemi again until her funeral, and was forever haunted by what she saw that day. In a gutting inversion of the geography of the handshake event, Rika and Chiemi have switched places. Peering into the open casket, Rika saw nothing but skin and bones, like a mummy. Knowing she’ll never be able to forget her if she tried, Rika took Chiemi’s hand one more time. Since then, she’s vowed to kill as many Seenos and Wonder Killers as it takes if it will bring her back.

The Seenos break through, leading to a frenetic chase up the spiraling lighthouse stairs. Ai stumbles, still processing Rika’s heartbreaking tale, but also acknowledging that while she receded into the Seenos at a crucial time due to fear, a part of her also resented Koito for never talking to her like friends should; the kind of talking she just experienced with Rika, which helped her understand better where she’s coming from and why she is the way she is.

She also looks on the Yu-Yu fangirls with a measure of envy. They were able to die with their idol. If Koito had asked her to die with her, she thinks she would have. But what’s done is done, and what was left unsaid remains so. Ai gets back on her feet and powers up her rainbow mace, striking a very cool heroine pose at the top of the steps and assuring Rika she’ll kill ’em all with her. Rika’s quizzical reaction is priceless.

From there, we meet the fangirls’ Wonder Killer, an older woman who stalked Yu-Yu and pushed her into suicide. Ai and Rika spring into action like the pair of valiant heroines they are. Rika frees the fans by slicing off the Killer’s arm, while Ai delivers a crushing blow to the face with her mace.

What follows is why it’s particularly hazardous to engage in boss fights before you’re aware of their special moves. The Killer unleashes a cloud of dark smoke that everyone is able to dodge except Rika, who is immediately paralyzed and soon turns to stone. Before her face petrifies, she wishes Ai good luck. It’s all up to Ai now: she must protect the petrified Rika and the helpless Yu-Yu fans while defeating the biggest toughest Wonder Killer yet.

Perhaps Ai and/or Rika haven’t considered that Aka and Ura-Aka are just using them. Or they’re fighting even while part of them is well aware they may end up getting cheated. But in either case they have no other choice. Now Ai’s mettle will be tested like never before. Hopefully she can get the job done and wake up beside Rika, with neither of them too seriously injured.

Kakushigoto – 06 – Pride and Privilege

Someone keeps giving Hime expensive backpacks every year, despite the fact her dad already bought her one. Because she’s a kind and gentle soul, Hime tries to wear both at once, inspiring Kakushi. But to him, giving a kid a backpack is a privilege that must be earned and appreciated, not an obligation to be fulfilled.

When this philosophy is applied to the manga industry, Kakushi imagines a kind new world where everything is a privilege to be grateful for, whether it’s the artists being grateful for the privilege of having their art published, or the readers being grateful for the privilege of that art. But when taken too far, Kakushi ends up overextending himself, having accepted the privilege of too much extra work. Rasuna thinks he sounds like a corporate slave, but as he’s self-employed he’s more of a “man-slave”. 

We eventually learn that the mysterious serial backpack provider is Kakushi’s father-in-law, who judging from the Toyota Century is some kind of big shot. Kakushi still seems to hold a grudge for the man’s reluctance to allow his daughter to marry a gag manga. But now that Kakushi has been a father for ten years, he would feel the same way if Hime brought someone like him home. As Kakushi says, he’s “a freakin’ paradox.”

One of the extra tasks Kakushi took on to realize his Kind World was an autograph session, which is booked the same time as his day-date with Hime at the very popular and sought-after Kidzanira, where kids get to try out a bunch of adult jobs in a controlled environment. Fortunately, the bookstore where he’ll be signing autographs and the Kidzanira are in the same mall. But that also means a risk of Hime finding out his job, so his assistants take turns keeping an eye on her.

During the morning session Kakushi is convinced everyone in line is either someone he knows (Ichiko), a friend of someone he knows, or people paid by his editor to stand in line. The way he phrases his questions to the latter group furthers his misinterpretation of events. It’s not until after spotting a poster for a famous painter that he realizes that those in the line are there because they are legitimate fans who love and respect his work. Even a father and young son are united in their love of Balls of Fury.

Just as his confidence returns and he yells “I’m a manga artist, damnit!”, his exuberance accidentally knocks down a partition, revealing Hime in a cloud of smoke. For a moment it looks like the gig’s up, but Ichiko swoops in with a tremendously creative save, telling Hime she and Kakushi are at the “Kidzanira for adults” trying out different jobs. Even so, Hime doesn’t even recognize her dad in his manga uniform, so he didn’t have to worry. What he may have to worry about? Hime wanting to work in a bookstore!

Fast forward to the future, where the older Hime opens the “17” box to reveal envelopes full of manuscripts. At first she seems unmoved by the manga, which is about a father, mother, and daughter. It’s all so boring and ordinary…which is why as she continues to read the tears start welling up. There may not be swords or magic on those pages, but there is a bunch of real life; a life very familiar to Hime.

This closing scene is one more emotional “bomb” that had been intricately constructed in the “past” sequences that preceded it. All those mundane moments of her and Kakushi just living life together given gain deeper resonance in the future where he’s suddenly absent.

Despite Kakushi’s reservations—not to mention his father-in-laws about him—Hime may well fall for someone like him. Not because that person will be a gag mangaka, but because they’ll be kind and loving, and consider loving and caring for her to be an honor and a privilege…because that’s exactly what it is.

Zombieland Saga – 06 – Not Ready to Be History

Let’s face it: as quirky and hilarious as Tatsumi is, he has technically been holding the zombie girls in a kind of servitude. As such, they find themselves compelled to rebel now and again, as Ai does when she sneaks onto the internet during Tatsumi’s long baths.

She lets the others in on her little act of resistance, and they even find a potential new gig for Franchouchou: the famous Saga Rock Festival. Here, the differing philosophies between Ai and Junko (already shown when Junko can’t quite keep up with Ai’s faster, more modern dance moves) are laid bare.

Junko thinks incremental improvement is better in the long run than aiming too high, while Ai’s past career and present purusal of the ‘net has taught her that you have to strike while the iron is hot; stiving for perfection is a luxury they can’t afford.

The next gig Tatsumi lines up for FSS is the kind of even that is commonplace in the present day for idols: a mini-concert followed by a swag sale and photo-op with fans (and yes, they have a good number of those now, as hilariously reported by an oddly kabukiesque Tatsumi).

Everything goes swimmingly—as their gigs tend to do—until its time for the picture-taking. Suddenly, Junko is completely out of her element. Idols in her time would never dream of closing the distance between their fans to such an extreme. She walks out of the job.

Because Junko and Ai are two idol veterans living in the present, they both believe they are right in their views on what an idol should and shouldn’t be. But because they’re from different eras, they end up clashing, and because they’re both stubborn, it flares into a lasting fight the other girls can’t extinguish.

Junko goes to the beach for contemplation, but Sakura catches up to her. That’s when Sakura learns why Junko is so loath to interact so closely with fans: it would be crossing a boundary and going against what she believes an idol is supposed to be: a timeless dream to aspire to, not a fallible chum.

That brings us to how Junko died: while on her way to her next gig, her plane crashed into the sea. Sakura’s death was presented as a joke, but Junko’s is treated far more soberly.

That brings us to the most tragic (and, incidentally, most metal) death to be revealed thus far: Ai’s. We learn what her fate was when Saki finds her cowering in a thunderstorm. Unlike Junko, in less than a year Ai’s Iron Frill was performing in front of tens of thousands in packed arenas. At her biggest show yet, which happened in an open-air venue, it started to rain.

One moment, she was lighting up the crowd with her energetic performance…the next, a lightning bolt zapped her into a cinder. Her charred remains, still holding her final pose, simply stood there in front of her stunned fans. It was a deeply traumatizing experience for all, and a national tragedy.

Most distressingly for Ai, it was history. She became history because of the completely bonkers, completely heartbreaking way her life was snatched away at the very height of her powers.

She may be deathly (undeathly?) afraid of lightning to this day, but she’s not ready to be history quite yet. She’s back, and she’s going to make the very most of it. I liked Sakura and Saki, who each heard the sad tales of Junko and Ai’s respective demises, meeting up when neither could sleep. After all, being told what they were told would unsettle anyone.

But neither of them have an answer for how Junko and Ai can make up. Right now, Junko isn’t even sure she can be in FFS, if they have to do things like the photo op. It’s as much a question of pride and identity as shyness. But by episode’s end, Tatsumi has already made another decision for them: he’s booked them for Saga Rock, just as they had intended to do anyway.

That means Ai will have to perform in an open-air venue, which literally killed her the last time she did it. Even worse? Her old group, Iron Frill, will also be there. Will they recognize her (if they’re even the same members, which is doubtful after ten years)? Will Junko participate? Can they find a way to put their generational differences aside? We shall see.

Really strong and emotionally resonant outing for Zombieland Saga, showing it can be just as adept at serious drama as madcap comedy.

Keppeki Danshi! Aoyama-kun – 01 (First Impressions)

Morita-san is taciturn. Tanaka-kun is listless. Sakamoto is…Sakamoto (haven’t you heard?). And Aoyama-kun…is a clean freak. He’s also a elite young soccer talent who was selected for the national team’s under-16 squad.

But unlike Tanaka in particular, there’s not much to Aoyama beyond those dual main qualities. His constant scrubbing, and the adoration of his legions of mostly-female fans, becomes tedious pretty fast.

His soccer senpai (and advantaged rich kid) Zaizen also grows weary of Aoyama’s shtick pretty quickly. We get it; dude’s a germophobe…though even that’s arguable, since he doesn’t wear surgical masks everywhere and doesn’t seem to have much of a problem being outside.

We learn in the cold open, and it is confirmed when the team practices against a rival elite team led by the washboard abs-bearing Takechi (who is trying to poach Aoyama) that Aoyama is indeed a singular, if bizarre, soccer talent; applying his obsessive “cleanliness” with a gameplan completely devoid of physical contact, combined with sharpshooter precision on passes and shots. But look to someone else for checks and headers.

Admiring Aoyama from afar (and possibly content to keep it that way) is the very cute but also clearly fixated Gotou Moka, who would like to think she’s locked in on what Aoyama thinks and does, since they’re soulmates or something.

But ostensible side characters like Zaizen, Takechi, and even Moka herself are all more dimensional characters than Aoyama, simply because they have more to say and we see things from their perspective.

Don’t get me wrong: Studio Hibari has rolled out a very good-looking anime in Keppeki Danshi; many of Aoyama’s moves in slow motion are cinematic in their presentation. The character design is clean and crisp. Overall the production is competent. The comedy is well-timed if unexceptional so far (the abs-bearing guy is particularly lame). Colorful—if still shallow—personalities abound.

But the main problem so far is the titular character. Aoyama is little more than cleanliness and soccer ability, and he’s always observed from a distance. He has to develop as more of an actual human being if the audience is going to be expected to connect with and keep rooting for the guy.

There’s a slight but promising glimmer of that when Aoyama suddenly comes to life with five minutes to go, even getting dirty in service of winning the game because he really hates losing.

But if we don’t see more of stuff like that, and continue in the vein of “OMG look at what clean-freak thing Aoyama’s doing now!” ad nauseum, Aoyama-kun won’t just be a “Cleanliness Boy”…he’ll be a Boy I’m Not Watching.

Sore ga Seiyuu! – 10

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As the OP states, even though Kohana Rin is only fifteen, she’s been working for ten years. As such, she’s by definition not your ordinary, run-of-the-mill fifteen-year-old junior high schooler. She’s a special case, which is why her counselor counsels her to seek education at a high school better suited for special cases such as hers, in which she can take acting classes and her work-related absences can be worked around.

The whole reason Rin’s been working so long (in addition to being talented) is that she used to be so painfully shy, so her parents put her in a theater trope. Since then, she’s simply gone with the flow, but it isn’t until now, when she’s now faced with going to a different school than her oldest and best friend, the heart-eyed Sayo, that she starts to doubt whether she even should be a seiyu.

The episode makes it a point to show that unlike Futaba and Ichigo, her present situation didn’t come about as a result of a choice she consciously made; her parents made it for her in hopes it would help her social skills. Futaba and Ichigo don’t lets their doubts get the best of them because they know they’re on the path they want to be on. But Rin isn’t so sure anymore.

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Things become a little clearer when, suddenly and coincidentally, her manager hands her a script for an anime film where she’ll be playing the little sister of the lead, voiced by Kamiya Hiroshi (making his second appearance on SgS). The director specifically chose Rin because he wanted a real 15-year-old actor.

With few actors her age out there with as much experience, she seems the perfect choice, but Rin’s recent realization she hasn’t led a typical 15-year-old’s life makes her uncertain. The director cuts several times because she’s either sounding too responsible or too young. But that’s to be expected, considering Rin is more responsible and composed than most kids her age.

Even Kamiya tells her she impresses him; when he was fifteen, all he did was goof off, and even though he’s regarded as one of the industry’s top voices, his own opinion of himself is of someone constantly unsure if he’s even cut out to be a seiyu. He can be negative and overthink things. He never thinks he’s good enough, so he’s always polishing.

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Learning this insight from such a towering voice works wonders for Rin, now that she knows she’s not the only one who feels the way she does. And however her career started, she is a seiyu, and she wants to become a great one. For that, she decides she’ll change schools for high school.

When she breaks the news to Sayo, Sayo takes it as you’d expect. She can’t hide her sadness or tears, but nor does she think it’s the end of their eternal relationship; not by a long shot. In fact, Sayo’s tears are both of sadness they won’t see as much of each other, but also joy and pride that her once-profoundly shy friend has grown so strong, and can now stand on her own two feet.

Of course, Rin still needs Sayo’s help with one thing, and will continue to year after year, no matter what: their annual end-of summer giant parfait.

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Sore ga Seiyuu! – 09

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After eight episodes focusing on the seiyu, mostly Futaba, this episode switches things up a bit and re-tells many of the past events, along with a couple future ones, from the perspective of Futaba’s petite but tireless manager Konno Aoi.

As the intermediary between numerous seiyu and numerous production companies, her day is never not busy, and it’s full of small victories and failures, either made better or worse by how she reacts to them and how she delivers the news to her charges.

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From a flashback in the cold open we see what brought Konno into this kind of work: while taking the stage or the spotlight isn’t for her, facilitating the rise of others is not only something she’s good at, but something she enjoys, especially when she gets a big hug from the recipient as a reward.

Just as Futaba makes up for her relative deficiency of otherworldly talent of the Kamiyas and Hories by working hard and trying to stay positive, Konno works no less hard to get Futaba two jobs in one day, further building up her experience, motivation, and confidence as she gets better with time.

Plus, their increasingly dramatic run through the city to make a recording appointment (instead of simply calling to say they got held up in traffic) made for an unexpectedly amusingly action sequence.

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Sore ga Seiyuu! – 08

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This week Futa-Futa, Ichigo and Rin-Rin are reunited for an in-store event marking the release of their first CD single, “Into Your Ears.” There, they learn of the stress and anticipation prior to the event starting, along with the understanding that the designated performance room will not be packed, judging from the wider spacing of the seats and the fact a couple of employees will be in the crowd (I count 31 total people above).

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But despite all that, the girls do their best for their small but passionate mini-legion of fans who did turn out to watch their first performance, and while the song doesn’t start exactly when they think it will, they don’t make any mistakes in the actual performance, which is good. Far from a fiasco, everything goes pretty smoothly.

It becomes clear to Futaba that Rin and Ichigo are more popular than she, but is heartened by an encounter with one particular fan of hers who not only knows her C.V. and traveled from Saga to see her, but bought the same Korori doll she has. I’m also glad the show didn’t go too dark or cynical with regard to the intensity of the fans; they all behaved themselves…except, perhaps, Rin’s hyper classmate/”first fan” Sayo!

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Earphones as a group also learns that they have to be realistic about the speed of their ascent into J-pop relevance, and have to be satisfied with a few CD sales rather than selling out, just as they have to be satisfied with a third- to half-full hall. Everything takes time, patience, resilience, and work work work.

After the event, Futaba ends up being called into Gonzo’s TV studios to do a narration for a show, her first such job. She’s understandably nervous about this too, especially when she learns the guy doing the job with her is the famous TV voice Machi Yuji (also the voice of Ultraman Tiga, and Tsukino Usagi’s dad). Machi-san is a Pro with a capital P, having amassed enough skill and experience to nail a script that’s literally just been handed to him, even offering the producers corrections down to the frame.

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Watching Machi work and make it look so easy is obviously quite intimidating to Futaba, to the point she totally blows her dry run. But when Machi-san tells her he used to be in her position—no one starts out perfect, or even good—she’s stops worrying about how bad she was and starts working to be as good as she can be.

Her second try is much better, and Futaba’s seiyu Takahashi Rie does a fine job clearly differentiating between bad and better to even the untrained ear. She gets through the job, and impresses enough that Machi mentions finishing a story he started next time they meet, suggesting she’ll get more work there.

If she does, each time she goes, she’ll learn more and more, and get better and better. But she won’t ever be able to stop working any less hard than she is now. Constant improvement requires constant struggle, especially for people like Futaba.

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