More than a married couple, but not lovers. – 08 – Lost in the forest of decision

This week was difficult at times, but also necessary in a satisfying way. We start with Shiori, Mei, Jirou, and Akari all alone, wondering how long things will stay “this way”, in a state of confusion, frustration, and longing. Not forever, surely!

Even Jirou’s video game is asking him to make a choice between two princesses, warning him the wrong one would “destroy the kingdom”. That’s not far off! Suffice it to say, the current state of things is becoming untenable for everyone.

When the new monthly rankings come out, Jirou and Akari only make it to thirteenth place, which means they still lack the mechanism to enact a decision regarding whom they wish to truly be with. Even so, the marriage practical is a false obstacle. They really don’t need to make it to the Top 10 to sort this out!

In the meantime, Jirou and Akari’s marriage continues apace. Akari’s arachnophobia supplants any modesty about running in on Jirou when he’s nakked in the bath, and in her state of fear and vulnerability she’s never squeezed him tighter. Since the 2mm spider has disappeared, Akari insists on Jirou staying by her side all day, even as she does her nails.

Jirou can shrug off all this sudden intimacy with Akari as a product of her fear of spiders and need for someone by her side to protect her, not necessarily a romantic partner. Since they’re still playing the marriage game to make the Top 10 and swap for their crushes, he remains convinced Akari isn’t interested in him in any other way.

Of course, she is, and she wouldn’t bring up “what ifs” like asking what would’ve happened if they’d met outside the bounds of the compulsory marriage practical. Nor would she ask if they should try dating, like the fifth-ranked couple apparently has started to do. She only says “just kidding” because the silence grows too long, while Jirou wonders why he thought seriously about it for a second. Dude, because she was serious.

This is not the first, nor will it be the last time Akari says something straight-up only to amend it or dismiss it as messing around. The beautifully staged and lit overhead shot of the two alone in their bed that night says still more than her overt words. That thick, dark wall is doing a lot of work, visually and thematically.

Over at Casa de Sakurazawa-Tenjin, Minami can tell something’s troubling Shiori and offers to help, even if he’s not confident he’ll be able to. Shiori confides in him her “friend’s” situation, in which she’s kissed the person they like and now can’t think of anything else. Minami picks up pretty easily that Shiori is talking about herself, but steadfastly doesn’t break the charade.

We finally learn something interesting about Minami in that he apparently missed his chance to confess to the person he loved, and urges Shiori’s “friend” to have confidence and keep trying if there’s a possibility it will work out. We knew that he and Shiori had nothing going on romantically, but this proves it. Also, pretty rich telling her to be confident when he apparently has so little of his own!

As for the true third vertex in the Shiori-Jirou love triangle, Hamano Mei and Shiori have a deeply romantic little scene in the classroom after school, even if Shiori isn’t at all aware of  how her compliments truly affect Mei. Even Mei’s husband Shuu is aware of how much she loves Shiori, and arranges to go out with Minami on a karaoke all-nighter so the two girls can have a sleepover.

Shuu learns another nugget about Minami when he hangs out with him and their café boss that night: Minami has an older brother, and their boss says since it’s a family of “ikemen” even siblings are rivals. Sounds like his bro might’ve stolen his true love? As for the boss, he’s Sadaharu’s older brother.

When Shiori and Mei are planning sleeping arrangements, talk turns to looking at old photos. Mei looks forward to seeing lil’ Shiori … right up until Shiori bashfully says most of the photos contain Jirou as well. Mei checks her phone and heads off on a family errand, abandoning the sleepover plan because she knows who Shiori really loves.

Sadaharu ends up at a restaurant with Jirou, and despite not drinking like his big bro, comes up with the hair-brained idea that he needs to bring his new accidentally lecherous friend back down to his level … by kissing him. While he’s leaning in for that smooch, Shiori, now alone, just happens to pass by, and seemingly gets a look at them, and walks off with no reaction.

Jirou chases after her to explain things, but as she didn’t actually see him and Sadaharu, she assumes he’s talking about their accidental kiss. She was looking at the restaurant sign that contained the symbol for “kiss”. When they thankfully clear up this misunderstanding, they each take one of the handles of the bag and walk together.

When conversation turns back to their kiss, Shiori insists that Jirou hear her out. He doesn’t have to apologize for the kiss, because she asked him to kiss her for practice, and she admits she learned a lot, so she earnestly thanks him. Jirou is confused, since he still thinks she wants to be “friends (and only friends) forever”, but he can’t deny that she sets up another potential kiss for them right then and there.

Sadly, when two cats interrupt their moment Shiori quickly shifts to small talk, but hey, at least these two are talking again, and Jirou understands that Shiori doesn’t feel bad about their kiss.

Jirou’s video game princess warned that the kingdom will be destroyed if he makes the wrong choice. The “kingdom” in this case could be his friendship with Shiori, whether they take it to the next level or if he chooses Akari. The same scenarios apply to Mei: confessing to Shiori means possibly abandoning regular friendship in the future.

In either case, the old has to be torn down before something new can be built in its place. The fear and hesitance of doing so is all too understandable and relatable—as is the result of not making choices: the aforementioned increasingly untenable purgatory. Something’s gotta give, and hopefully something will!

I’ve watched many a frustrating-as-hell rom-rom in which characters didn’t make what I felt to be the obvious, easy choice. This show is doing a great job really putting us in each character’s shoes and explaining why they’re having so much difficulty, and making clear that there are no easy choices.

More than a married couple, but not lovers. – 07 – Okaeri, Akari

I just want to express my surprise and gratitude that Akari’s gyaru-friends Sachi and Natsumi are actually good people too! When they see Shiori with too many bags of garbage (a powerful metaphor for how accommodating and self-subordinating she is), they offer to help, even conscripting Jirou and Sadaharu when they slouch past.

When Shiori declines to carry a bag with Jirou, it’s a critical hit to his heart, but also shows their accidental kiss has left the two more awkward and distant than ever. Sachi and Natsumi can also tell that Akari must feel something for Jirou at this point, and she doesn’t deny it.

They’re not pushing her towards Jirou or Minami—in fact, they say those aren’t the only two guys in the world. They want her to be happy, and to settle on her own choice on her terms. Opportunity knocks when the girls see a poster for an upcoming fireworks festival.

Naturally, dressing Akari in her yukata is a job for her “husband”, and while her talk with her friends leads to her mentioning Minami more as she teases Jirou, the fact of the matter is, having Jirou dress her is as big a deal for her as it is for him; he just can’t see her red face since he’s behind her. It’s also telling that she says a bow-style obi tie is too “childish”—again assuming Minami only likes mature things.

Akari meets Sachi and Natsumi at the festival with her head held high, ready to take a step forward in figuring (gestures everywhere) all this out. Of course, it’s not that easy, as she’s trying to go back to a place where she’s comfortable play-acting as a wife to Jirou and she’s back to thinking only of Minami in a romantic capacity. In effect, she’s trying to go back to a place that no longer exists.

Even if spending the evening with Minami cleared things up, that opportunity is torn away from her at the last minuite, as his friends arrive Minami-less and contrite; he had to take an extra shift at work due to the festival, and was too nice to turn it down.

Sachi tries to salvage the night by having the boys buy them a bunch of snacks and sweets as penance, but after psyching herself up, Akari is rightfully deflated. To add insult to injury, she spots Minami at the festival after all, in street clothes with Shiori and in what looks like pleasant conversation.

It turns out they’re just taking the shortest route to a point where he’ll go off to work while she’ll head home. They’re not on a date, and from their scene together, there’s still no actual romantic chemistry between them. They’re simply both doing their part as partners in a practical exercise.

Of course, that’s not what it looked liked to Akari, and that’s all that matters. Her friends see her turn pale and assume she’s disappointed in not getting to be with Minami. In reality, she’s that way because she did see him. When the other boys said he wouldn’t be coming, a part of her even felt relieved.

Jirou doesn’t have to spend this night alone at home. He could have called Shiori and taken a step towards that route had he wanted; I doubt she would have refused judging from her look back after she and Minami parted. I wouldn’t really have felt bad for him if his self-imposed loneliness had endured.

However, I do feel bad that, like Akari, he’s simply not sure of anything anymore. If he and Akari are a functional and happy fake couple, he knows one day they won’t be, like when it comes time to swap partners. He worries about what they’ll be after that, and even if they’ll be anything at all.

But when he gets a call from Akari and there are only tears on the other side of the line, if he’s paying attention he’s answering his own question with his reaction: slipping on his coat and running to wherever she is. Luckily for him, that turns out to be right outside their door. As Akari sobs into her hands, she apologizes to Jirou, and by extention, everyone who worked so hard to create an opportunity for her to move forward.

She also worked hard herself, taking extra time to make her hair, nails, and makeup perfect for Minami. And yet, at the end, she just came home. Jirou dries her eyes with his sleeve, then offers a hand up, saying “Welcome home”. Akari collapses into his arms, saying “I’m home”, and has the big, wet, cathartic cry she needs to have. And only Jirou’s arms will do.

Once the tears have passed, the two stand on the balcony as the fireworks start in the distance. When she teases him more and accuses him of being jealous, he doesn’t deny it, which surprises her, but she likes it. Then she takes his hands, puts them on her obi, and asks him to make the bow he wants to make.

When he gets to a step he can’t do, she takes out her phone to find the instructional video. When it slips out of her hands, it falls into his, and she puts her hands over his and draws them close, asking him to simply hold her and say her name, again and again. If he does, she thinks she can “try again”.

Jirou remembers Akari saying how she loses her confidence sometimes, and this is definitely one of those times. In this moment, and while upside-down heart-shaped fireworks start to explode above them, Jirou does as he’s told. She thanks him for not asking what happened, but simply being there for her.

In his mind, Jirou admits he didn’t ask because he didn’t want to know. Just as Akari felt relieved when she heard Minami wouldn’t be coming, Jirou felt relieved when she came home. While he still considers their happiness in this moment to be fleeting, perhaps both he and Akari would be better-served listening to those little pangs of relief and what that means not for Minami, or Shiori, but the two of them.

This episode surpassed the previous racy couch scenes because this felt a lot more overtly romantic. The two have identified those moments of relief and want to understand them better, even as they are still on some level committed to rooting for each other with their other potential partners. Combine the beautiful visuals, lighting, and colors of these scenes with Akari’s friends being The Best and we have the best Fuukoi outing yet.

More than a married couple, but not lovers. – 06 – Hearts Racing Together

One morning, Akari is acting like a caring, loving wife, the kind that is again propelling her and Jirou into the top of the practical rankings (which are a thing I find myself caring less and less about as the show goes on). The only thing that gives Jirou pause is the fact that Akari keeps calling him by his last name, even seemingly accentuating the “Yakuin”.

Jirou doesn’t know why, but it bothers him, and he even googles “why is a girlfriend suddenly calling you by your last name”. Seems like a step backwards, or some kind of message, right? Then Jirou and Sadaharu happen to witness Hamano Mei rejecting female kohai who just confessed her love for her.

Aside from it being a magnificently gay scene I was waiting for, Mei demonstrates that she’s very good at the gentle turn-down, and I have no reason to doubt she truly is happy that this girl fell for her, even if she can’t return the feelings. Mei also bears part of the burden for not “being mindful enough to notice” the girl’s feelings, then indulges her with a warm embrace and calls her by her first name.

Jirou wants to notice what’s causing Akari to use his last name, so that already shows he’s being mindful. He’s a good kid, thinking about how she feels! When he’s about to shower, Akari barges in with the rankings on her phone: they’re now in eighth place, and she hugs him while he’s shirtless, which is a first.

Later, she helps him dry his hair—which he washed with a shampoo she chose for both of them. When she hits the hair dryer, Jirou says her first name, then again. The third time he says it is when she switches it off, and she hears it, and calls him Jirou in turn. Now he gets it: she simply wanted him to call her Akari first. She says its for the benefit of their artificial marriage, but it’s clear him calling her Akari makes her blush every time.

While Jirou figured out this little mini-mystery of how he and Akari address one another, he’s still largely in the dark about Shiori’s true feelings. In that regard, his lack of mindfulness stems from her years-old friendzoning of him, which he felt at the time meant that was that and there were lines beyond childhood friendship she’d rather not cross.

But that was then, and Shiori regretted it then and has yet to resolve matters. In this, her best friend Mei most likely subordinated her own unrequited romantic feelings for Shiori in order to ensure she’s happy, by doing everything possible to bring her and Jirou together. She makes it clear if Shiori isn’t more aggressive in letting Jirou know her feelings, Akari (or some other girl) will beat her to the punch.

When Shiori gets hit in the head by an errant football, Mei sends her to the nurses office and promises to send Jirou there, where it’s clear she wants Shiori to do what she couldn’t do during their shared classroom duties. When Jirou hesitates, Mei verbally kicks him in the butt to get in there and see Shiori already.

But while Mei can’t understand why her Shiori loves a “coward” like Jirou, she’s missing the fact that Shiori’s been a coward too! Coward is probably too strong a term; more like stubborn in their shared belief that the other isn’t interested despite plenty of evidence to the contrary.

When Jirou visits the nurse’s office to see Shiori, the two find themselves all alone in the dark. They exchange some awkward small talk, Jirou notices that Minami brought her a sandwich and sports drink before he did (though Mei gave him his). Shiori mentions how well Jirou and Akari are doing, he says they still fight a lot, and Shiori remarks how she’d like to see Jirou angry sometime. That is to say, she wants to know more about him beyond the childhood friend.

She also makes it clear when Jirou brings up making romantic progress that she and Minami have done no such thing, and that furthermore, even if it was with someone she liked, she’d worry about being too nervous and inexperienced. This must feel to Jirou like a comfortable mirror.

Shiori makes another blunder by saying she wants to “practice” kissing with Jirou, which suggests she’d rather kiss someone else “for real”, but Jirou, who had just gotten a talking-to from Mei to “go for it”, agrees and leans in to kiss Shiori.

At the very last second Shiori hesitates again, which happens before Akari’s gyaru-friend Sachi comes in to skip class, hears the bed creaking, and sees boy’s and girl’s shoes through the gap in the curtain. Sachi is scandalized and makes a quick exit, but her entrance caused Jirou to slip and fall … right onto Shiori and her lips.

Accident or not, the two have finally kissed, and it was so unexpected and so … so much for both of them they basically short-circuit in unison and agree to part ways for the time being. I feel so bad for both Mei and Akari, as these two are—and I can’t stress this enough—the fucking worst.

I mean everyone has their pace that they must follow (I think about Chuu2Koi handled this quite well). But you don’t have to jump each other’s bones; you can use their words and clear all this up! Say you like him! Say you like her! Boom! But they don’t.

All throughout this time, Akari has been trying to get ahold of Jirou, but he’s ignored her last four texts. Then Sachi shows up and tells her what went down in the nurse’s office, and right after hearing this Akari gets a text from Jirou saying he was in the nurse’s office. Naturally, her thoughts go straight to Shiori.

I continue to feel so bad for Akari. I’m sure Minami is a nice guy, but she doesn’t really know him. She does know Jirou a lot more, and is developing feelings for him that are quickly replacing the more shallow attraction nad idolization for Minami. Also, I doubt Minami is any more interested in her than he is Shiori.

And hey, what do you know, Akari is so preoccupied with Jirou that she doesn’t even notice Minami served her that drink! I am HERE for the Minami erasure. We’re in episode six. If we go another six without him so much as uttering a line, I’ll be perfectly content.

What we have here, then, is a love triangle. And with her assumption Jirou went and did something with Shiori in the nurse’s office, Akari is understandably lonely and depressed. It doesn’t help matters that her gyaru-friends stand her up at the café, though Minami gives her some free extra whipped cream and a note to cheer her up (though again, you get the impression he’d do this with anyone).

When she comes home late, Jirou is passed out on the couch. Akari sees the chocolates and deduces he waited for her. She doesn’t check her phone and see the text warning that the chocolates contained whiskey. She does unfold the couch (which of course becomes a bed), disrobe and curl up next to the dozing Jirou, asking him if this is what he did with Shiori, or did they take things even further.

What’s so heartbreaking is that Akari isn’t mad that Jirou might’ve slept with Shiori. After all, who wouldn’t want to have their first time be with someone so clearly important to them? Even more heartbreaking? Lines like “Did you go off and become an adult without me?” and “Don’t leave me behind,” and “I’ll cheer on in your love … but just for now, while I’m your wife, could you wait?” Just one dagger after the other.

Jirou regains consciousness from his inadvertent choco-bender very confused Akari is sleeping beside him in her underwear. When he asks what happened, Akari teases him for forgetting what happened … for forgetting what he did to her. She then asks “was last night your first time?” to which he answers yes, because he assumes she means the two of them.

When he proceeds to apologize if he didn’t perform to her standards and such, she admits she was lying, they didn’t do it. When Jirou is a bit too emphatic in his relief, since it means he’s still a virgin, Akari is miffed. I’m not sure he meant to imply he’s glad he didn’t lose it to her because he’d rather lose it to Shiori (I think he’s just glad he didn’t pop his cherry and not remember it)—but that’s how she interprets it.

It sucks that this is how the episode, and the first half of the season, wraps up: with another misunderstanding. But even if Jirou picks up on what Akari is mad and is able to smooth things over, the underlying triangle remains. While Shiori did stop them from kissing for real, they did lock lips, and once she and Jirou fully process that, that dance will continue. And this conflict will surely drive the second half.

Could Akari be clearer about how she’s acting toward Jirou is less about being a great pretend wife for the sake of getting Minami and more about legitimate feelings for him? Sure! Could Shiori, for the benefit of both Akari and the long-suffering Mei, please kindly shit or get off the pot? Perhaps! But Jirou can also keep being as mindful as he can be. As long as he’s wracking his brain, there’s potential for progress on all fronts. Whatever happens, I’m loving these characters, and this show.

More than a married couple, but not lovers. – 05 – Sharing fabric softener

Akari’s crush continues to be supplanted by feelings for the mock husband right in front of her, and throughout the episode she expresses this though lots of teasing and physical contact, starting with a loving wife’s hug before Jirou heads off for school duties. Little does he know that Shiori has arranged to swap duties with her sporty pianist wife Hamano Mei so she can get some quality time with Jirou.

Before the arrangement, Mei is trying to get Shiori to do what needs to be done to get the man she wants—which may yet involve a giant Acme-brand mallet with which to smack him over the head. Shiori says “Jirou doesn’t think of me that way” but Mei knows better; Shiori just needs to make her feelings plain and obvious before Akari snatches him up. Akari’s galfriends only tease her about the prospect of falling for Jirou, but they’re on the right track!

Despite my increasing affinity for Akari and Akari x Jirou, being a sucker for childhood friends I relished the opportunity for Shiori and Jirou to hang out together without interruptions from Akari, Minami, or Sadaharu (who sits this episode out; I don’t mind the guy but appreciated a break from him).

The results are predictable: having class duties together reminds them of when they had them in middle school, and the two settle into that warm, happy nostalgia and familiarity. But when it comes time to leave the safety of the past and try to grasp the future with a solicited kiss, Akari thinks he’s dreaming, while Shiori withdraws at the last moment and must beat the shit out of the erasers in frustration with herself.

Unfortunately, this leaves Jirou with the same impression as the start of the day: that while there are occasional signs here and there, Shiori doesn’t like him “that way”. That leaves him gloomy on the balcony an otherwise dazzlingly starry night, and Akari joins him with mugs of hot milk in a genuinely heartwarming gesture of trying to cheer him up.

That inherent kindness in Akari’s character is at odds with a deep resentment that he’s feeling so down over another girl, which of course reflects how he feels whenever she gets riled up about Minami. Akari decides to press the teasing by insisting he start calling her by her name, and is shocked when he does it immediately, while explaining why he had trouble before.

Akari gets much more than she bargained for here, and has to retreat before Jirou sees her beet-red face and ears. Gathering her patio door curtain around her, she curses these confusing feelings. To this point she’s been in love with the idea of Minami, but that idea is losing ground to the reality of Jirou.

When their teacher announces that practical couples’ scores will be combined and everaged together, Jirou is anxious, as he’s not sure the extent of Akari’s academic prowess. But rather than simply presume she’s a dunce, he asks her about it, and her tone and body language make it clear she’s far from confident about it.

He asks her to cancel her karaoke plans so they can study together, but she says it’s “not so easy” to break said plans because she was invited by other guys, as opposed to her galfriends. To this, Akari says “I’m asking for you too here,” and she relents, but believes he’s only being this “desperate” for Shiori’s sake. Meanwhile, Mei continues to prove that she may just be the most deserving of Shiori’s hand in marriage. If nothing else, she’s trying her best to make Shiori happy and successful in love.

Jirou finds that while Akari picks things up fast, she hates the fundamental idea of studying. Her frustration from the assumption he’s only doing this for him and Shiori leads her to up her teasing and flirting game considerably, cozying up to Jirou and saying he can “do whatever he wants”.

Jirou averts his gaze, and ends up seeing that Akari figured did a challenging math problem correctly. The rest of the study session progresses and their couple score continues to go up. When they’re done, Akari isn’t ready to eat dinner yet, and would rather get Jirou to admit she makes his heart race.

She does this by jumping into his lap, but she grows more frustrated when he tries to ignore her, so she turns around so they’re front-to-front, and tells him he can look at her if he wants. When he still won’t, she grabs him even tighter, and he ends up flipping them over so she’s on her back.

At this point the two are in dangerous territory, and Akari can hear his heart pounding now. It’s here where Jirou starts to let his hormones take over, caressing her cheek. Akari says he can’t once, then twice, but then takes hold of his shoulder to pull him nearer, and closes her eyes to prepare for a kiss …

I knew amorous congress was going to be interrupted by something, be it doorbell, phone, or Sadaharu. This time, it’s Jirou’s nose, which suddenly starts bleeding. Though Jirou thanks his nose profusely for stopping him from doing something he’d regret. Once the bleeding is stemmed by a tissue, the two fold laundry together—the hot-and-heaviness replaced by a picture of domestic bliss.

Akari laughs at Jirou for getting a bloody nose in such a situation, but Jirou in turn asks her what is up with her pestering him so heavily all night. She brings up how she’s frustrated by how desperately he’s trying to prevent Shiori from leaving him behind. He, in turn, tells her he’s not just doing it for him and Shiori, but her and Minami, and further tells her he’s sure she’d reach A-rank with anyone, not just him. He simply hoped that after she’d gained so many points for them, he’d try to contribute by helping with her studies.

Jirou doesn’t know just how happy it makes Akari to hear that, because as far as he’s concerned she doesn’t feel anything serious for him, and her amorous actions have only been to tease him. But Akari is feeling less grateful that he’s doing this for her and Minami when it’s currently the two of them together that makes her heart race for real. She thinks about a future where they switch partners, and their clothes no longer smell like the same fabric softener, and … it’s not necessarily something she wants.

Fuukoi continues to do tremendous character work in the midst of what will always be a silly and contrived premise, and its deft “couch time” animation and Akari’s facial expressions in general continue to impress. There’s still a lot of confusion and awkwardness from all parties, but Shiori is gradually fumbling her way closer to Jirou, while dangerous couch session Akari’s true feelings may be coming into better focus.

Jirou’s self-loathing-fueled obliviousness can’t hold out forever. If it isn’t already, his confidence in Shiori being his one and only will surely start taking the same dents as Akari’s in Minami being hers.

A Couple of Cuckoos – 24 (Fin) – Part of the Flock

Cuckoos eschews any more huge revelations or decisions and instead opts for a laid back finale full of warm family vibes. We begin with Nagi, Sachi, and Erika receiving a gaudy invitation to Papa Yohei’s birthday, a celebration that he prepares and executes all on his own. It’s never explained why, mind you, but it’s safe to say Yohei’s a good and cool dude, so his wife and kids let him have his fun.

I find it odd that it would slip Sachi’s mind that her brother and Erika share a birthday as they were switched at birth, and even odder that Nagi would only now do the math and realize he was conceived before his folks got married. Among the annual family portrait, there’s a pale-haired kid who goes totally unexplained…maybe she’ll show up if this gets a sequel.

The biggest takeaway for Nagi and Erika (and Sachi, who later reports it to Erika’s dad) is that their folks simply want Nagi and Erika to be happy, and for Erika to be in their lives like she is now. They no longer believe they have to follow through on their engagement and get married to maintain that.

Of course, by putting the onus on whether to get married or not, Nagi and Erika actually have to think about it beyond something being forced upon them. Sure, on the bus ride home they worry that Erika’s dad might not agree with Nagi’s folks, but in his head Nagi wonders whether Erika being able to convince him means the “end of their relationship for good.”

The episode then segues into Erika’s Dizzy Fever Day, as she suddenly collapses in the middle of a study session. Sachi and Hiro take her to bed, take her temperature, and prepare to change her into her PJs to rest more comfortably, and of course Nagi barges in while they’re disrobing her.

But while Sachi and Hiro bar Nagi from Erika’s room while she’s sick, they let their enthusiasm and drive to help her recover as fast and completely as possible ends up simply overwhelming her. They look up remedies like sake and leeks tied to the head, and develop the crazy eyes as they go on about how they’ll make Erika better than new.

When all of that fails to lower her fever, Nagi decides to step in and offer her a hot meal to regain her strength. Erika claims not to be hungry, but her grumbling stomach betrays her. Nagi also took exception when Erika told the others “sorry for being a bother”, as she’s been nothing but that for him since they met.

That being said, he doesn’t dislike that Erika, and so wants her to get better so she can get back to being that Erika. He knows that since Sachi and Hiro started living and coming ’round all the time, she’s worked herself hard to keep up with the energy level and it took a physical toll. It’s all well and good to want to be present and active in the group, but not at the cost of one’s health!

When Erika asks why he knows her better than herself, he says simply that they’re engaged. ‘Nuff said. For all of Sachi and Hiro’s good intentions, it’s his job as her fiancé to take care of her, and vice-versa. Hearing Nagi acknowledge their engagement and how it’s still important to him even when his parents have all but given them cover to break it off gives Erika a smile. What was thrust upon them at first has become something neither of them want to give up anytime soon.

When Papa Yohei delivers a copy of the latest family photo, it has Erika front and center. It’s a photo full of love and joy (or, er…RABUJOI) celebrating the addition as the gift that it is. Nagi, Sachi, and their folks are as happy Erika is part of their family as she is to be part of it. The fact that the episode ends with Nagi and Erika nagging each other over house chores just goes to show how close they’ve gotten.

If there’s a sequel that ties up the loose ends (Sosuke, that mystery kid in the photo, whether Nagi and Erika actually marry, etc.) I’ll be sure to watch it out of the affection for this colorful flock of cuckoos.

Rating: 4/5 Stars

A Couple of Cuckoos – 23 – Breaking Bad

Having come up with butkis in the search for Sousuke, it’s time for the crew to head home. But just as Erika and Sachi pile into their car, Hiro takes Nagi’s sleeve and declares that they’ll be taking the train home instead. On the ride home Erika tells Sachi about how Hiro said she wanted to “have” Nagi, and neither they nor their driver are convinced they’re not concerned.

As for Hiro, one reason for staying behind with Nagi is to visit a local shrine and collect another shrine stamp (naturally both these stamp nerds have their books on them). While Nagi prays for academic success with the occasional smidged of romance, Hiro admits to not praying for anything in particular, only expressing her gratitude that they made it there.

She could also be grateful for simply having Nagi to herself, a time that heavy winds and rain extend when the station is closed. With no buses home and a taxi too expensive, the two decide to spend the night in an inn. Sachi and Erika panic when they see Nagi’s text to this effect.

Nagi is a little out of his element too. It’s clear he and Hiro are being bad here, not just because they’re both engaged, but because they lie about being 22-year-old newlyweds (much to the delight of the inn staff). That said, youth is the time for being bad and testing boundaries.

This episode is replete with cute Hiro faces and poses, as she is in particularly playful mood, no doubt out of the aforementioned gratitude and contentment that comes with being all alone with the boy she likes. After the two bathe (in separate baths) and change into warm robes, they play the word chain.

Then a lizard (or gecko?) appears in their room and Nagi wigs out. Hiro moves towards it but trips on her robe, and the two end up in a very amorous position. Not only that, a flushed Hiro weaves her fingers into Nagi’s and asks him if, after a day of doing bad things, why shouldn’t they…keep going?

Nagi locks up, and Hiro then waves away the proposition by saying she wanted to go buy liquor, having placed a 1000-yen bill in Nagi’s hand. Nagi is scandalized, but understands Hiro’s desire to break free of her Model Student binds on occasion. That said, he’d rather they not get tore up. Hiro compromises and says she just wants sake.

Then a firm knock at the door comes, someone calls “POLICE!”, and Nagi indeed sees a Police badge through the peephole. Turns out it’s Erika and Sachi in sexy cop cosplay, complete with Sobasshi ID and pink cuffs. This is as Nagi was starting to change in preparation to make a run for it. I won’t linger on the questionable logistics of how the girls got there so damn fast.

Suffice it to say, their arrival prevented Nagi and Hiro from getting up to any more no good than they actually did, and on the ride home Nagi passes out after barely getting any sleep the night before. Erika asks Hiro what they did, and Hiro replies “just…stuff”, and cryptically declares that Nagi “really is a boy”.

Regardless of her lack of detail, Erika and Sachi now know Hiro is serious about Nagi. We’ll see if this spurs any action in them in the final episode, or if we’ll have to wait for another cour for any kind of break in the logjam.

Rating: 4/5 Stars

A Couple of Cuckoos – 22 – Shadows of Sousuke

At the end of Nagi and Hiro’s balcony convo, the subject of Sachi comes up; specifically, that Sachi’s a little odd, and seems to be in love with Nagi. To Sachi this feels like a betrayal, but I get it; Hiro is sick of the status quo and wants to move things along. Sachi, with her constant wavering, is an obstacle to that, so it figures she’d confront her here.

Nagi, who as we know was raised under modest circumstances, is anything but when confronted with that outdoor “bath”, meeting the Pacific Ocean with nothing but his birthday suit. Things suddenly get tense when Erika shows up, and the show even implies she’s naked as well (by covering her top and bottom with Sobasshi stickers.

Turns out she was fine getting in with Nagi because she’s wearing a swimsuit, like you’re supposed to in an outdoor hot tub, and didn’t realize Nagi didn’t get the memo. Still, up until then, she’s very happy to be sharing moments like relaxing in the hot tub with friends.

It isn’t until that night that Erika remembers there are only two double beds in the house. It seems unlikely this problem wouldn’t have come up earlier, and the need to draw straws to see who has to share a bed with Nagi seem particularly strained contrivance considering the gigantic sofa in the living room, and Nagi being worried about a spider should he sleep on it.

Nagi and Sachi end up having to share a bed, which Sachi splits 60-40 in her favor and will brook no trespassing. Erika and Hiro thus share the other bed, but preface bedtime with a spirited game of Twister followed by a bubble bath. Hiro confides in Erika that she’s never even met her fiancé but has no interest in him…and if Erika truly isn’t interested in her fiancé, Hiro asks if she can “have” Nagi…before falling asleep on the spot.

As with calling out Sachi’s feelings, it’s the most overt Hiro has been to Erika about her desire to be with Nagi, and for the other girls to shit or get off the pot. Hiro still seems to be the #1 Girl for Nagi, but between his hot tub time with Erika and the fact he suddenly can’t sleep a wink in a bed with Sachi, things remain complicated.

That brings us to the morning, when a knackered Nagi finds Erika staring at the Twister and bubble bath. The four conduct a search of the house and find all the other things that connect her and Sousuke, as they used to visit together as a family. When a video game they played has save data from just three days ago, Nagi runs out of the house, hoping to find Sousuke in town…for some reason???

I mean, three days is a lot, right? If Sousuke wasn’t staying at the house from the day Erika & the others arrived, why would he still be hanging out in town? That would mean he got a hotel or something there, but why, when he could stay free at this fam’s house? Erika chases after Nagi, suddenly scared to reunite with Sousuke even though her Insta efforts were primarily targeted at him.

Nagi takes her hand and assures her there’s nothing to fear; he’ll be right there with her when they meet Sousuke. Alas, he’s nowhere to be seen, and no one in town has seen him either. At this point I’m still not 100% convinced he even exists, or is another weird game Erika’s dad is playing; hotel magnates are capable of anything, after all.

There’s also the odd fact that Nagi and Erika just flat-out ditched Hiro and Sachi for the whole day. That ain’t right! So now we have just two episodes to go, and so much left up in the air, including whether Sousuke even exists, and if so how he’d react to reunion with Erika. While admittedly drowsy when she did so, Hiro did ask Erika if she could have Nagi, and that was just…left hanging. The last two eps have some heavy lifting to do!

My Stepmom’s Daughter Is My Ex – 12 (Fin) – Weaving a New Tale

As predicted, Yume knocks it out of the park with her festival yukata and hair, but it’s her who wants a picture of Mizuto in his the second she sees it. Instead, he snaps a pic of her, and happens to know her phone’s password.

In her thoughts, Yume admits to feeling considerably lighter after having a good cathartic cry. Now she can hold hands with her stepbrother without embarrassment, and mimics Madoka’s treatment of Chikuma by helping “steady” Mizuto during the shooting game.

Just when the fireworks are about to start, Mizuto disappears, something Madoka says he always does around this time. All of his relatives have told her to make sure to look after him, like he wouldn’t be able to “survive” without someone watching over him. But as she volunteers to go find him, Yume celebrates how she’s been able to see all these new facts of Mizuto since becoming family.

When they were merely in puppy love and dating, she idolized and glorified him, projecting her ideal of a BoyfriendTM without looking deeper. Meanwhile, while sitting alone at a shrine, Mizuto muses about how he considered the world of books to be the true reality, and the outside world a mere illusion.

The first thing in the world that felt real was Ayai Yume, who was also the first person to evoke the same sentiment everyone had for him: that he would not survive if left alone. That’s why Ayai Yume still occupies that “slot” in his heart that even Isana could never hope to replace.

Yume finds Mizuto at the shrine, and the two have the mother of all passive-aggressive verbal duels with one another, all the while happy they were on the same wavelength. She recounts the phone call they had that he ended abruptly, and she gathered that he called her from this very shrine.

Yume also gathered that Mizuto knew her phone code because it’s 1027, the day of their first kiss, a day they both remember with fondness. Then Yume asks Mizuto why he went out with her, and he says it really just amounted to her finding a seat next to his in a game of musical chairs.

Sitting side by side as the fireworks begin—the fireworks they never got to see together until now—what initially stirred in Mizuto towards Yume stirs again. A tear falls down his cheek before Yume takes his face in her hands and kisses him.

It’s her second first kiss, and with it comes a vow that she, Irido Yume, will eventually win him over, defeating Ayai Yume for that single slot in his heart. The next morning, and then back at school, the two are back to their playfully adversarial selves.

The happiness of the past will never leave either of them, etched into their souls as it is, and they will never feel that particular novel happiness ever again. But that doesn’t matter, because now that they’re both a little older, wiser, honest, and clear-eyed they can now achieve a new happiness; weave a new tale together.

My Stepmom’s Daughter Is My Ex – 11 – A Mess Under the Hood

Ahhh, is there anything nicer than a scene of two lovebirds talking on the phone just to hear each other’s voices? That’s how the episode starts, and it’s like being wrapped in a warm, fluffy blanket. So serene…but also so bittersweet. After the credits the Iridous have arrived at their relatives’ country house, and Yume meets Mizuto’s second cousin, who happens to be an absolute babe—a megane babe, at that!

When the fam hits the river for a barbecue, Madoka again compliments Yume’s figure and swimsuit, while also noting she’s “watched over” Mizuto since kindergarten. Mizuto is off in the shade reading and being antisocial, as always, but Yume learns that when his mom died, he and his dad must have endured a good bit of hardship, making her that much more determined to protect their new family by rejecting her feelings.

Later that night Yume enters the study of Mizuto’s late great-grandad’s study to tell him the bath’s ready, and finds him reading an old book entitled The Siberian Dancing Girl. Mizuto notes that it is his great-grandad’s autobiography of when he was interned in Siberia. It was the first book he ever read start to finish, and reads it every year he comes to his relatives.

He invites her to read it, and she takes him up on the offer, reading it through in one sitting. By the end, she’s in tears, and notices an old dried tear right next to her fresh one. She can’t help but feel closer to Mizuto, having now read the book that shaped him, which no one else but the two of them have ever read.

The next day, Madoka has laid out yukatas for the fireworks festival, and notices Yume sighing profusely. She quickly diagnoses it as Yume being in love with Mizuto and…Yume can’t necessarily refute that! Instead, she opens up a little to Madoka, who proves surprisingly deft at analyzing Yume’s whole deal, invalidating her feelings and trying to find excuses not to be with Mizuto

Madoka also figures the only thing for it is some direct action. To that end, she finagles things so Yume ends up alone in a relatively small, dark room with Mizuto for at least a half-hour. She figures that should be enough time for Yume to build up the courage to say what she wants to say and then say it.

At first, all Yume can do is look forlorn and say “Mizuto”, but in her head the words are streaming like the river she sat beside. She recalls the weight off her shoulders when they broke up, but she’s full of regret over things she never did that she should have, like call him over the summer, or sharing Christmas and Valentines with him.

It turns out, Mizuto doesn’t have to hear Yume say any of these things. It’s all in her face, and in the tears that start to fall. So he calls her as Ayai—which was just her old last name but sounds so much more intimate when he says it—and says that just this once, they can go back in time. So they embrace, and just hold one another until it’s dark out. They’re not pretending, they’re just being two people, not collections of ideals.

When Yume tells him how she figured Madoka was his first love, he immediately shoots that down; he never had feelings for her. He then tosses a jab at her—something about having so much good for her “on paper” but being a “mess under the hood.” He then says her nose is running, and she reacts, only for him to be kidding. That makes her laugh, which allows him to tell her who his actual first love was without saying it. He just says she loved to laugh. She still does!

I’m officially convinced that this show suffers from a terrible title, especially the English translation. All it does is tell you the surface scenario: step mom, daughter, ex. This is about that, but it’s also about so much more, about everything that came before that, and has managed to make something so wacky on paper incredibly moving and compelling under the hood.

GODDAMN TEARJERKER™ CERTIFIED

Rent-a-Girlfriend – 23 – Super Sakurasawa Practice Partner Part III

All Hail Sumi, High Queen of the Andals and the Rhoynar Rental Girlfriends. She has Chizuru ask Kazuya if he’ll spend another day with her under the pretense of a “practice date”. In truth, we know Sumi has big birthday plans for Kazuya, and this is a part of that. Also, she’s clearly crushing on the guy. She even wears a school uniform because she thinks he’s into that!

At first the date has an almost breathless pace to it, such that Kazuya and Sumi both are short on breath, but perhaps that’s Sumi’s way of making sure she stays ahead of her jackhammering heart. Unfortunately, watching Kazuya totally geek out over marine life is all too endearing for her.

When she miscalculates the distance to sit for the dolphin show and they get soaked, she feels down for failing as the guide on their date, but Kazuya sweetly lifts that burden by telling her he’s having fun and getting wet is part of the fun of a dolphin show. He also offers her his shirt, as her blouse has gone see-through.

Sumi simply brings out the best in everyone she’s around, Kazuya included. It’s easy to label her a cutie pie, but that label belies an iron strength of will that allows her to cut through her shyness and taciturnity and present her crush with a birthday gift: a hand-knit hat. That same willpower has her grasping Kazuya’s hand when she knows something’s troubling him and tells him he can tell her.

He does, and unloads about Chizuru (without using her name) and how he’s distraught that he can’t do anything about the pain she’s clearly in. It turns out to be a major cathartic moment for Kazuya, as both he and Sumi simply hold hands and cry it out at a spot in Odaiba with a view of Rainbow Bridge.

That extended cry is something he’s never shared with the other girls, and leads to him having a eureka moment at episode’s end about what to do for Chizuru. Naturally, I feel awful that Sumi’s feelings will ultimately be unrequited, and AS next week’s episode is the last, we might not see her at all. But like all good things, it’s best to just enjoy a Sumi date while it lasts. And hopefully it’s spurred Kazuya to finally take some decisive action.

Rating: 4/5 Stars

My Stepmom’s Daughter Is My Ex – 10 – Lapping the Competition

Yume and Mizuto are home alone in the middle of a typhoon, reading alone in their respective rooms, when Yume encounters a cockroach, which renders her room no longer habitable. The two top students in their grade, neither of whom are particular fans of bugs, decide the only option is to sleep together in his bed.

While they start out back-to-back, Yume eventually shifts positions in her sleep, and when Mizuto wakes up and rolls over, he finds himself closer to Yume’s face than he’s been in a long time (not counting that recent time on the couch). He rolls back over, saying he has no room for “lingering feelings” in their new life together.

The next morning, Yume and Mizuto unconsciously act like a couple going through a rough patch, leading their parents to make that observation. Yume’s mom also suggests Mizuto buy a swimsuit for the upcoming family trip to Mizuto’s dad’s riverside hometown.

For their parents’ sake, the former couple proceeds with the swimsuit-shopping trip, and while Yume tries to “disguise” herself with the same glasses she wore in middle school, the fact she’s wearing her new, more form-fitting style would certainly give her away to, say, Akatsuki.

Mizuto waits outside the changing area, somehow not expecting Yume to show him the cute frilly pink bikini she’s trying on…but she does. When he says it merely looks “good” on her, “he thinks”, she asks him to say something nicer, and so…he compliments her devotion to her family.

On their way home they pass by the very quiet side street where they kissed for the first time, at the very same time of day. When the wind knocks Yume’s hat off, Mizuto naturally lunges toward her, resulting in the two ending up in a very similar position to that magical day.

Yume even closes her eyes and prepares her lips for another kiss, seemingly overcome by the atmosphere…but Mizuto hesitates. Later at home, Mizuto and Yume converse awkwardly, trying to keep up appearances, leading their folks to remark how they’re like “a couple working up the nerve to pop the question”.

While it seems like their parents are oddly perceptive, the fact is neither Mizuto’s dad nor Yume’s mom have any idea about their real past. That’s probably for the best, as considering how nice they both seem, it would pain them to know end to know their marriage inadvertently put their kids in such a strange, even cruel situation.

Speaking of cruel, when Isana comes over for the umpeenth time during summer break to watch a movie with Mizuto, she reclines on the couch, rests her head in Mizuto’s lap as he strokes her hair. They’re a picture of a couple destined for a fifty year-plus marriage, so comfortable Isana thinks nothing of scratching around her bra area in his presence.

After the movie Isana gets up, but continues to monopolize Mizuto by engaging in a lively critical conversation in which Yume cannot hope to participate. When Mizuto asks for tea without saying please, Yume serves him some…in her mugwhich Isana immediately identifies as an indirect kiss.

The movie and discussion cause Mizuto to suddenly nod off, but rather than falling into Isana’s lap, his head falls into Yume’s. Isana briefly considers kissing him since the opportunity is there, but as it would be her first kiss and Yume is right there, she wisely thinks better of it. How horny is this girl?!

Looking down at the sleeping Mizuto in her lap, she realizes why he hesitated, both when they were in the same bed and when they almost kissed in their first kiss place: they both feel the same longing for the way things were, and wanting to go back to those times, but believing it not worth destroying the new life they have together.

Later, Yume’s mom wants details about what’s up with Mizuto and Isana (who earlier said she wouldn’t mind being fuck-buddies or FWB with him). Isana indulges her mom, who then tells Yume she can’t let Mizuto leave her behind; she needs to find a boyfriend for herself.

While lying in bed contemplating her mom’s words about getting a boyfriend, Yume says, out loud, that she doesn’t see herself with anyone but Mizuto, which surprises her. So far, the two have maintained the position that they can’t go back to the way things were, but that’s increasingly easier said than done.

Rating: 4/5 Stars

Rent-a-Girlfriend – 22 – More than a Lie

Kazuya probably feels like Ruka’s kiss, complete with tongue and the requisite saliva strings, lasted the entire week between the last episode and this one. But Ruka felt threatened by Chizuru and didn’t want to lose, so she marked her man. She also hastens to notify Kazuya that it was her first kiss, and despite the saying that the first taste like strawberries or lemons, hers just tasted like booze.

A frankly obscene amount of Kazuya inner dialogue ensues as he tries to deal with having been wall-slammed and made out with by Ruka only to have to return to the table with his mom, grandma, and Chizuru, who can all tell something’s off about both of them. Gran then produces her gift to Chizuru: her heirloom engagement ring. Chizuru says she couldn’t possibly accept it, as one does, but Gran and Kazuya’s mom insist.

Having seen how backed in a corner and desperate Ruka is and seeing Chizuru struggle, Kazuya decides he’s going to come clean, right then and there, or at least say what needs to be said to shatter the charade. Both Ruka and Chizuru can tell he’s about to say something to the effect of “Chizuru and I broke up”, but before he can get the works out, Chizuru gets a call…from the hospital.

Her gran is unconscious, so she, Kazuya, and Kazuya’s gran take a taxi to the hospital, where they find Chizuru’s gran not unconscious, and her usual tough, cheerful self. The grans have fun talking about their young grandkids, and when the doctor asks Chizuru to come with him to talk, she leaves them in Kazuya’s care in a very relationship-y way.

After torturing Kazuya a bit, the grans send him to a konbini for snacks, and he meets Chizuru in the dark corridor, where she tells him that things aren’t great, and despite her smiles and laughs she doesn’t have much time left. Kazuya asks if she’s okay, and she puts on a brave front. When he heads to the hospital room to finish coming clean and making things right, Chizuru grabs his sleeve and tells him not to.

She knows her gran is worried about her being along when she’s gone, so telling her she and Kazuya broke up on her deathbed simply isn’t something she’s willing to do.  I don’t think she’s using this as a pretense to remain in…whatever it is she and Kazuya have.

But when she says that whatever is now “more than a lie”, it feels like she’s saying that more for just her gran’s sake. She and Kazuya head home and go their separate ways, and Kazuya curses himself for not being able to do more for her, while also finding himself in a spot where revealing the truth will cause more harm than good.

That said, the lie is still doing harm to Ruka, but when she and Kazuya go on a grammable pancake date, she shows genuine empathy when she asks about Chizuru and her gran. She also decides to call a truce, as with Chizuru’s family situation it’s just not an appropriate time to continue her “offensive”.

That said, she’s now convinced that now that they’ve had their first kiss, they can now kiss whenever. Kazuya’s not so sure about that. He’s also even more flummoxed that not only Chizuru but also Ruka have decided that the status quo should be maintained until further notice. And that’s even before he’s aware of whatever it is best girl Sumi is planning to celebrate his birthday…

Rating: 4/5 Stars

My Stepmom’s Daughter Is My Ex – 09 – Bittersweet Symphony

This episode, which finally fully chronicles the height and eventual fall of Mizuto and Yume, begins simply, with the two sharing a tender kiss without fanfare during the golden hour on a quiet street. The look they share after said kiss may just be the only time in the entire episode that they are truly on the same wavelength with one another.

When Yume is invited to Mizuto’s house, room, and bed (to sit on) when his parents aren’t home, she gets understandably excited, only for the two to spend hours reading a book together. It’s pleasant, but it’s less than Mizuto hoped for; she was ready to take the next step. So was Mizuto. But it just…didn’t happen. And it never would.

The first sign of the couple drifting apart is when they find themselves in separate classes for the third year of middle school. They still meet in their treasured library after school, and make a pinky promise to make wonderful memories for Christmas and Valentine’s. But then Yume gradually opens up and makes friends in her class.

Mizuto is irked by her newfound popularity, and when they are together, all she talks about is her friends this or her friends that. Feeling like they’re drifting away from each other hurts, so he hurts her back by snapping at her. He fully prepares to apologize the next day, but when Yume first sees him in the library, he’s chatting with another girl…in her chair.

His apology goes right through her, as she feels he betrayed her in the special place where they met and shared so many memories. And that bitter memory of seeing him with that other girl haunts him. It’s just a fight couples always have, but they let it fester and see less and less of each other.

When they finally encounter one another, it’s by chance at a bookstore, and Mizuto suggests, and Yume agrees, that they should make up and put the rancor behind them. But it’s just words. Mizuto is still hung up on being accused of cheating, while Yume is vexed by how far ahead he’s walking.

Once inseparable, the two fall completely out of sync, and their relationship falls off the rails. Yume thinks of inviting Mizuto to the festival where he found her, but fails to send the invite text and goes alone, hoping things will just work out like they did a year ago, even though she knows they won’t. Then their one-year anniversary comes and goes with nary a text from him.

The Christmas and Valentine’s memories they promised to share become exercises in bitter solitude, as both Mizuto and Yume remain incommunicado for those holidays. Finally, when graduation comes along, Mizuto quietly suggests, and Yume agrees, that they should break up.

At that point it felt less like and end and more like a “liberation.” He couldn’t deny his affection for Yume, but couldn’t deny the building resentment either. Little things turned into big things and finally the only thing: pain and anguish. The rest, we know: their parents get married a few months later, and they are introduced to each other as stepsiblings.

Fast-forward back to the present, where Yume is helping herself to one of Mizuto’s many many books, and happens to land on the same one they read together the first time she entered that room. The two reveal to one another in reminiscing that they both had the same intentions that day: to take their relationship to the next step.

You could say that day was really the beginning of the end, since it led to “aged plagued with regret” for Mizuto and “wasted time feeling she was undesirable” for Yume. And yet, thanks to their parents, a new beginning was written; one that allows them to reflect on their past missteps while seeing each other in a new light.

It was powerful and affecting watching their bittersweet first relationship crash and burn so utterly. From the cozy warmth of their (presumably) first kiss to the stark chill of their breakup scene, it was a harrowing roller coaster of a tale that added fresh context, richness, and gravitas to their present-day dynamic.

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