Sword Art Online: Alicization – 24 (Fin) – Bigger Fish to Fry

It’s all down to Kirito vs. Administrator now, and their climactic swordfight doesn’t disappoint. Despite having really long hair and only one arm, Administrator is no slouch in the swordsmanship department. She knows all the Aincrad-style moves Kirito showed Eugeo, plus a few that even Kirito doesn’t know about, and seems to revel in the opportunity to teach an insolent cur from the outside world an abject lesson in submitting to his betters.

Kirito looks like he’s just barely hanging on while Administrator is content to draw out his suffering, but Eugeo, barely hanging onto life, reaches out to Kirito, and they have a little tête-à-tête in which Kirito finally recalls the memories he lost of growing up in Rulid Village with Eugeo and Alice. Eugeo tanks Kirito for his friendship, brotherhood, and love these past few years, then bestows upon him the Blue Rose Sword, which becomes the Red Rose Sword in Kirito’s hand.

Now dual-wielding against a one-armed opponent, Kirito would seem to have the upper hand, but it ends up yet another draw, as in exchange for the increasingly crazed Administrator’s last remaining arm, Kirito loses his right one, while Admin reveals her hair is prehensile and can be used to restrain and strangle Kirito, which she does.

Administrator can’t get over how much insolence she has to contend with in this fight, but as Eugeo says, Kirito is going to keep standing up and dusting himself up as many times as it takes. He manages to cut through Admin’s hair, then delivers a strike to her core that does irreparable damage, forcing her to access a console and beam herself out of there.

Before she gets away, promising she’ll be seeing Kirito again in the real world, a naked, burning Chudelkin jumps onto her, seeking her loving embrace, resulting in a huge fiery explosion. Quite the ignominious end for the ruler of the Underworld…though it’s probably not a true end.

With Admin out of Kirito’s hair, he tries to tend to Eugeo, but it’s way too late for anything other than a tearful goodbye, with Eugeo relaying what he now understands about love being something you give, not something you seek. Both a younger Eugeo and a younger Alice appear in Kirito’s head to announce that while their paths may soon separate, their memories of one another will remain forever.

Just after Eugeo passes away, Kirito gets an “external observer call” from Rath: it’s Colonel Kikuoka and Higa. The control room is under assault, either from the military or some other power that wants their hands on the STL tech. They give Kirito instructions to deliver Alice to some place called the “World’s End Altar”, presumably to complete the process of bringing Kirito back to the real world with his brain in one piece. Asuna is also mentioned. But Kikuoka’s foes have other plans.

They seek to sever the main power line, which will cause a surge that could fry Kirito’s fluctlight, killing him before he can be safely extracted from the Underworld. The line is severed, the surge occurs, and Kirito experiences something akin to a lightning strike, inside of which a blurry image of Asuna from above, fitted out in her SAO regalia. Whether it’s Kirito’s memory or Asuna entering the “game” for the first time, I’ll have to wait until October to find out, when the Alicization saga continues with War of Underworld.

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Sword Art Online: Alicization – 23 – No Puppet, You’re The Puppet

This is a thrilling powerhouse of an episode, but it starts out a little slow, with over seven minutes of this:

Admin: [Describes in detail horrible things she’s done]
Cardinal: How dare you!
Admin: [Chortles]

Mind you, there are far worse things than listening to Sakamoto Maaya describe her evil plan and chortle. She gives Admin an extra dimension of imperious ethereal swagger.

Once the two pontifexes are done talking, Cardinal decides the only thing she can do is surrender: offer her life—and the guarantee she won’t resist and take potentially half of Admin’s life—in exchange for the three “youngsters.”

Admin agrees, though doesn’t exactly hide the fact that she still plans to sacrifice fully half of Underworld’s humans (40,000 of them) to complete the final version of her sword golem with which she’ll defeat the enemies of the Dark Territory, as well as the real world.

Then she has fun taking several hundred dark lightning potshots at Cardinal. She’s been waiting 200 years to get rid of her, and is clearly savoring the moment. Cardinal warns the others not to interfere—they’re not powerful enough to make a difference anyway—and instead puts all her hope in Admin’s assurances they won’t be harmed.

Something awakens in Eugeo, and suddenly he realizes what he was always meant to do, now that he’s in the time and place to do it. He asks Cardinal to use her remaining power to transform him into a sword, just as Admin turned hundreds of humans into parts of the golem.

The process isn’t exactly quick, and Admin attempts to disrupt it, but Alice is able to block her attacks just long enough for the transformation to complete, and Eugeo becomes a self-moving sword.

The sword wastes no time destroying the sword golem by hitting its weak spot, blowing it to pieces in a tremendous explosion. But Admin is #NotImpressed, and relishes the opportunity to put this “brat” in his place with her superior weapon authority.

Ultimately, Eugeo simply doesn’t have enough to take a suddenly very serious Admin down, and while he does relieve her of her left arm, it comes at the cost of being split in two. The split sword revert back into human form, and Eugeo lies lifeless in a pool of blood.

Admin then describes Eugeo’s mistakes that led to his defeat, then turns to Kirito, expressing her hope they’ll meet again in the real world after she kills him here (she’s apparently unaware he’s only alive here; he’s still in a coma out there).

Having lost Cardinal and Eugeo in quick succession, Kirito is feeling defeated and unable to do anything, but like Yuuki and others in Kirito’s past, Alice steps between him and his death, willing to sacrifice herself so he can live on and complete the mission.

This time, Kirito steps back in front of his protector, parries Admin’s strike, and pushes her back. Alice, totally out of gas, passes out, leaving it a duel between the one-armed Admin and Kirito, for the very soul of the Underworld.

Admin would say he and Eugeo were only puppets for Cardinal, and Kirito continues to serve as a puppet for the good of the masses she sees only as resources, in reality Admin has herself long been a puppet of her own greed and lust for power.

Those traits define her and drive her totally, and they will destroy her, once they butt up against the amassed love and resolve of her foes. The hours of her reign appear to be numbered, but she’s not going down without (another) hell of a fight.

Sword Art Online: Alicization – 22 – Boy From The Other Side

Chudelkin and his fire demon don’t last long, thanks to Alice distracting the latter with her flowers while Kirito skewers the former—a sitting-duck—while also briefly donning his black suit from SAO. Administrator doesn’t lift a finger to help her loyal Senator. It was up to him to beat the rebels, and he failed. She has no further use for him.

Kirito’s momentary change of clothing proves something to Administrator she’d suspected something was up with him beyong his “unregistered unit” status. Now she knows, and he confirms, that he’s really a human “from the other side.”

When Alice gets to have her say, she ask her former Pontifex why she couldn’t trust the loyalty of her knights without tearing them away from their families and wiping their memories. But everything Administrator—what Quinella—has done thus far offers the only answer Alice needs, even if she doesn’t like it: Quinella doesn’t care about anyone but Quinella.

She doesn’t care about the freedom and happiness of her people. She doesn’t care about her knights beyond their loyalty and ability to defeat her remaining enemies. If they ever start to voice concerns, as Bercouli, Fanatio, and now Alice have done, she’ll simply re-synthesize them, wiping away that much more of their original selves that had managed to surface.

Things get more intriguing when Kirito questions the value of having absolute control over one world when the human creators of that world who dwell on the other side have ultimate authority, able to erase everyone and everything with the tap of a key.

Quinella puts it to Kirito: Does HE only live to please his higher authorities, those who created the human world, out of fear they’ll reset it? She won’t pander to those “gods of creation.” She won’t kneel, beg, or grovel. If they want to punish her by eliminating her existence, FINE.

Until then, she’ll keep perfecting herself and remaking the world she rules as she likes, and that means eliminating threats to her control. To that end, she uses a Release Recollection spell and uses Perfect Weapon Control to merge thirty individual weapons into one extremely dangerous-looking sword golem.

Within a minute, both Alice and Kirito are lying in pools of their own blood; their strikes parried and countered with vicious, one-strike critical hits. Eugeo prepares a final stand, but Charlotte pops out of Kirito’s coat, blows up to enormous size, and gives Eugeo the few moments he needs to thrust the dagger into a floating platform.

The dagger activates a column of light; within that light a door appears, and through that door walks Cardinal, sending the sword golem flying with a quick burst of offensive energy. She quickly heals Alice and Kirito, who introduces her as a friend. Charlotte, unfortunately, can’t be revived, and Cardinal takes a moment to mourn her trusty aide, before turning her gaze at the “hollow fool,” Administrator.

Hollow though she may be, her philosophy of validating her existence through total control (rather than through meaningful, equitable relationships with others) comes through as a tragic flaw in her character. She’s lived so long amassing so much power, the only part of her left that’s human is the worst part; the part devalues and forsakes all the other souls in her world—and it’s looking increasingly likely that will be her undoing. Quinella may be our arch-villain, but I still sympathize with how her life turned out.

I daresay this episode did a better job fleshing her out than her flashback ep, since this was all about who she is today, in person, and not who she was from Cardinal’s perspective. I like how her awareness of the human world gives her a chip on her shoulder and innate drive to disobey, and I’d wonder what else she has up her sleeve…if only she had sleeves.

Sword Art Online: Alicization – 21 – Love Isn’t Control, But Friendship Is Power

One would think a duel as significant and built-up as the one between Kirito and Eugeo would last an entire episode, but that assumption gives Administrator too much credit. Eugeo’s hasty synthesis was willing, not by force, and it happened in a profound moment of weakness for Eugeo.

He and Kirito cross swords and give each other matching cuts, but once Kirito asks Eugeo to recall who gave him his Baltio-style moves, not to mention all of the people waiting for them to return home with Alice, Eugeo’s piety module is quickly exposed.

But while Eugeo wakes up and even says Alice’s name, there’s still something off about him, and I dreaded Kirito dropping his guard, and with good reason: Eugeo uses Enhance Armament to bury both Kirito and Alice in ice before returning to the top level.

There, a skeptical Chudelkin asks if Eugeo eliminated the rebels, to which Eugeo responds the Pontifex only ordered him to stop them, and stop them he did. That’s not sufficient for the Prime Senator, who heads down below to finish them off, thereby playing right into Eugeo’s hands.

Without Chudelkin, Eugeo is all alone with Administrator, who assumes that while his piety module was compromised, he’s still loyal to her. But when she removes it outright in order to recalibrate it, she’s only freeing him to recall more memories, which motivate him to break free of her emotional and magical hold and attack her with the dagger provided by Cardinal.

Administrator is taken aback, but her shielding is close to perfect, and tells Eugeo that no blade, even one fashioned by Cardinal, can pierce her skin. As we know from the OP and flashbacks, Administrator prefers to hang around in the nude, and once her “loving partner” gig is up, she dispenses with the clothes and provokes Eugeo by mocking Alice’s ordeal (her synthesis was forced over many agonizing days).

That’s when Chudelkin returns all beat up to warn his Pontifex that the other two are free, and Kirito and Alice arrive on the top floor. Eugeo intended to make up for his initial betrayal by taking care of Administrator alone, but she’s too strong. In fact, it will be a miracle if the three of them working in perfect harmony can overcome her knowledge of nearly every cheat code in the world.

Still, Administrator isn’t interested in fighting the three directly; not while she has one last subordinate standing in Chudelkin. She fires him up by agreeing to let him have every inch of her body for one night if he can eliminate the rebels, and he uses his fingers, toes, and eyes to summon his trump card: a monstrous fire genie.

Chudelkin has always been a wild card since his first appearance (which is only fitting as he looks like a Joker), so I honestly don’t know how Eugeo’s ice, Kirito’s black sword, and Alice’s scattering blades will hold up against this boss, but the important thing is that the three are finally fighting on the same side.

P.S. We get new OP visuals (same theme) as we’ve completed Alicization “Rising” and begun Alicization “Uniting” – featuring Kirito trying to hold his own against a very capable (and very nude) Administrator.

Boogiepop wa Warawanai – 13 – The Bug

Both the wills of individuals and the collective will of humanity can usually be likened to a swarm of bugs around a light; moving chaotically without coordination. But a majority of the bugs that comprise Nagi’s will are aligned towards a a confrontation with the serial killer, for which she is diligently preparing but may still be woefully overmatched.

That certainly seems to be Sasaki’s opinion on the matter, as the bug within him can’t simply let her be, lest she end up hurt or killed simply for following her own will and sense of justice. If anyone is going to protect her, he figures it should be the one who deprived her of her father, the person who would otherwise be responsible.

Sasaki’s supicions are confirmed: Kisugi has set a trap for Nagi, whom she suspected would show up in superhero guise (Nagi’s jumpsuit is indeed totally badass): have her tranquilized via sniper rifle, then proceed to explore her delicious fear.

Sasaki delivers a killing blow before he notices it isn’t Kisugi, but Pigeon, who stabs him right back as revenge for killing Kuroda (her own bug she couldn’t ignore). But Pigeon distracts Sasaki from Kisugi, who puts her arm through his chest.

Just like that, the backup both Sasaski and I believed would be crucial to Nagi’s survival has been taken off the board in gruesome fashion, a sentiment reinforced when Sasaki tosses his corpse out the window, then leaps out herself and lands on her feet far too close to Nagi for comfort.

But true to her name, Nagi keeps calm and carries on. She starts to flee Kisugi, first on foot then on bike, but the Kisugi’s personal flirtation with evolution has made her as fast in heels as Nagi can pedal, and it isn’t long before she’s caught her up.

Yet still, there’s something about the deliberate manner in which Nagi flees—constantly looking back to make sure she’s being followed—that suggests the chase is unfolding precisely how Nagi planned. Even when Kisugi loses her temper and starts dunking Nagi’s head in a pond and kicking the shit out of her, there isn’t a trace of panic on Nagi’s face.

Kisugi finally visualizes Nagi’s weakness—someone she loves dying before her, like her father—while her actions confirm to Nagi that she’s someone who preys on those perceived to be fearless. Kisugi is right that no one is truly fearless, which means there’s no one she can’t feed off of.

But Nagi’s fear in that moment is less that she’s about to be killed or worse, but more worry that the intricate plan she’s set up might fail. That she will fail to become the superhero she thought she could be. But it doesn’t fail, because Kisugi is part of the circuit of the pond, while Nagi in her thick insulated suit isn’t…and has a weapon that shoots electrical arcs.

Thus Nagi does the equivalent of drop a giant plugged-in toaster into the bathtub, zapping Kisugi with thousands of volts and doing significant damage to a body already taxed to the brink by all of her DIY “evolution.” When Nagi puts her in an arm hold, the arm pops off, and Kisugi flees.

It’s then when an ally far more powerful than Sasaki appears, only to voice their surprise Nagi didn’t need them after all. The situation was always under control, though Nagi could rightly say she relied on some luck in everything going perfectly.

Now Kisugi is the hunted, and full of fear. Turns out she’s a fear ghoul, and definitely an enemy of humanity, which means Boogiepop has popped up to finish her off. But they give credit to Nagi for defeating Kisugi and making the kill so easy.

Nagi manages to be with Sasaki before he dies, and his last words are of relief that she’s still alive, and that “the bug” within him isn’t so bad. Boogiepop then determines it would be best if the blame for the serial murders were placed on Sasaki, due to the complications of the culprit being a doctor of Kisugi’s caliber.

More than that, the bug in Sasaki would be fine doing whatever Nagi wanted, including piling the blame on him. Nagi, meanwhile, still feels like she messed everything up in the case. But she learned a lot from it too, and that wisdom gained will serve her as she keeps fighting. Not to mention “Boogiepop”, as they introduce themselves to Nagi, will be there to help when needed.

Back on the ruined world, which we learn isn’t the Earth of Nagi or Touka but some kind of “distorted world”, Boogiepop wrap up their story to Echoes, as the two contemplate the causality starting with Kuroda saving Nagi, all the way to Echoes and Manticore showing up on Earth.

Echoes muses that Nagi continues to fight because she’s “carrying on the feelings of those she encounters.” That’s one way you could describe an investigator, or a superhero, or both, which is what Nagi is. As Echoes takes his leave, Boogiepop commits themselves to leaving the distorted world and returning to Earth.

Because even if Boogiepop doesn’t know precisely how or why they pop up, they understand intrinsically that it is right for them to do so; that it’s beneficial to humanity and thus necessary to continue. Even Boogiepop has a bug.

Sword Art Online: Alicization – 20 – Student vs. Teacher

Kirito carries Alice and climbs up to the Cloudtop Garden, whereupon Kirito casts a spell to track the Blue Rose Sword. Find the Sword, Find Eugeo is his logic. The spell leads them to the bathhouse, still covered and ice, and to the petrified Bercouli, whom Alice affectionately refers to as Uncle.

They cannot free Bercouli from his stone prison; their options are either to get Prime Senator Chedulkin to break the spell, or kill him for his refusal to do so. Bercouli gives Alice his blessing, telling her she has nothing more to learn from him.

Alice and Kirito ascend to the Senate level, where Kirito learns that the weird bald headed dude who appeared after he attacked the noble rapists was a Senator. They observe and detect breaches of the Taboo Index, then dispatch Integrity Knights as needed.

The existence and function of the Senate is something previously unknown to both Kirito and ourselves, and even Alice is a bit fuzzy about it. But it makes sense for Administrator to leave the day-to-day operations to proxies in the form of the Senate rather than be hands-on about everything and never get any beauty rest.

They locate Prime Senator Chedulkin’s tacky chambers (which somewhat resemble those of the giant baby in Spirited Away), but when Alice confronts him, he merely reminisces on the day four years ago when young Alice first appeared, tearfully begging not to have her memories of those she loved erased.

Chedulkin’s deeply goofy appearance is matched by his boundless cruelty and sadism, but when Alice runs him through with her sword, he merely explodes into a puff of smoke. Getting rid of the little chud won’t be so easy.

More distressingly, he largely succeeded in his mission to stall Alice and Kirito with stories that only served to further boil Alice’s blood. And clearly, Administrator used that extra time wisely, quickly transforming Eugeo into her thirty-second and newest Integrity Knight.

When Eugeo appears before Kirito and Alice, he has no memory of his relationship to either, nor does he care. The Pontifex has given him something he’s apparently been missing his whole life, and something neither of his friends could provide to his satisfaction. So Kirito and Alice are naught but rebels and enemies of his Pontifex to be eliminated without delay.

While Kirito warns Eugeo that he’s the master and Eugeo the student in their imminent duel, I imagine Admin didn’t send Eugeo to fight Kirito without a few tricks up his swanky new sleeves Kirito might not be able to predict. And then there’s the whole matter of Kirito not wanting to go all out lest he accidentally kill Eugeo, while Eugeo is completely wrapped around Admin’s finger. In any case, it should be some duel.

Boogiepop wa Warawanai – 09 – The Tower

All quotes are from Biddy Tarot.

The Tower shows a tall tower perched on the top of a rocky mountain. Lightning strikes set the building alight, and two people leap from the windows, head first and arms outstretched. It is a scene of chaos and destruction.

The Tower itself is a solid structure, but because it has been built on shaky foundations, it only takes one bolt of lightning to bring it down. It represents ambitions and goals made on false premises.

When Masaki visits Aya’s flat, he quickly finds evidence that she was up to all kinds of strange, and when Aya answers, she’s reluctant to involve him any further than he is. After all, she’s been using and betraying him all this time. Their relationship was built on lies, so it’s only natural for it to crumble now.

Except that Masaki doesn’t care what Aya says she’s done to him. He cherishes the time they spent together, and he fell in love with her. So no matter how shaky she insists the foundation of his love may be, he’s still willing to take a leap of faith for her. He won’t give up on her, even after she’s given up on herself.

The lightning represents a sudden surge of energy and insight that leads to a break-through or revelation.

It enters via the top of the building and knocks off the crown, symbolising energy flowing down from the Universe, through the crown chakra.

Desperate to solve—and witness the resolution of—the case of the Imaginator, Suema speaks with Kotoe, who tells her where she was when Spooky E first brainwashed her: the abandoned Paisley Park, with its tower called The Ladder. It’s the tower Masaki sees a plane fly over—a plane he can hear on Aya’s end during their call.

Thus both Masaki and Suema head towards this Tower: a symbol of change, upheaval, chaos, revelation, and awakening. Atop that tower, Jin/Imaginator seek to bring about all of those things by tearing out Aya’s heart a creating a seed that will take root in the hearts of everyone in the city, bringing them under Imaginator’s control. From there, the seed will spread across Japan and eventually, the rest of the world.

The people are desperate to escape from the burning building, not knowing what awaits them as they fall.

Around them are 22 flames, representing the 12 signs of the zodiac and 10 points of the Tree of Life, suggesting that even in times of disaster, there is always divine intervention.

Masaki gets a head start to Paisley Park by borrowing Nagi’s motorcycle, but he’s met by Jin’s army of “thralls”, all of them protected by the thick padding of mascot costumes. Just as he’s about to be injected with nothing good, the real Boogiepop suddenly comes to the fake Boogiepop’s aid.

After dispatching the thralls, Boogiepop blares some Wagner on the park’s loudspeakers while she explains to Masaki that all his fear had been brainwashed away by Spooky E. This leads him to question whether his feelings for Aya were genuine or a product of his brainwashing.

Boogiepop puts the question to him: how does he know when, if ever, he’s exercised his true free will? After all, isn’t the process of adapting oneself to society its own kind of brainwashing? In the context of not having freedom one way or another, her next question is: what does he value most?

Thankfully, the Tower doesn’t always associate with pain and turmoil. If you are highly aware and in tune with your inner guidance system, then this Tarot card can indicate a spiritual awakening or revelation.

You may be able to see the cracks forming and take action before the whole structure comes tumbling down.

Boogiepop leaves Masaki and reappears atop the tower, where Jin is poised to sacrifice an Aya seemingly resigned to this fate. When he looks into her heart and finds nothing, Jin panics; this is someone he can’t manipulate. Yet after a brief interlude with a gun, she assures him he can do what he was planning to do and she won’t stop him.

When Jin attempts to tear out Aya’s heart, his hand goes right through the rose. Aya laments that she expected such a thing to happen, because Jin needed a human sacrifice, and she’s not a real human. Boogiepop revels in the fact that even had she not intervened, Imaginator had already lost by choosing Aya. By only looking towards a new future under her control,  Imaginator chose “shaky foundations” to build her tower, and now it’s crumbling.

You may create a massive transformation before you reach the point where change is your only option.

In its most positive form, the Tower card is your opportunity to break free from the old ways of thinking that have been holding you back.

Imaginator separates herself from Jin, who leaps out of the tower in the process. But like the divine intervention suggested in the Tower Card, Boogiepop arrests his fall before he dies. Without Imaginator, Asukai Jin is no enemy of Boogiepop’s, and Boogiepop doesn’t take lives without purpose.

She tells Aya that even if Imaginator had succeeded in changing everyone’s hearts and removing the pain, that change would only be temporary, and eventually fade away. Imaginator and Jin alike were missing a very important fact about the hearts they saw: that they can change without their help; and grow through communication with others. Boogiepop also assures Aya there’s something deep in her heart that would have protected her from tampering.

Be it real or synthetic, a different kind of seed has taken root in her heart; that of love for Masaki. It’s a seed that’s replicated in his own heart, and survived all emotional attacks against it. Before disappearing into the either, Imaginator salutes the half-paralyzed Masaki and the love in his and AYa’s hearts, which neither she nor Jin could manage to break through.

Suema, disappointed she arrived too late to have any significant role in the resolution of the case, is asked by a departing Boogiepop to go up the tower and bring Aya down so she can be with Masaki, whose head is again in Aya’s lap when he comes to, while Nagi is by their side, glad he’s okay.

Aya and Masaki built a stronger structure than they thought, and it holds together even after those of Spooky E, Towa, Asukai Jin, and Imaginator have crumbled to dust…all with nothing more than a little help from that plucky reaper, Boogiepop. Suema takes comfort in knowing some like that really is out there.

Boogiepop wa Warawanai – 08 – What Friends Are For

This week all the disparate parties involved in this arc begin to confront and communicate with one another, starting with Suema meeting Jin. She watches one of the girls Jin “initiated” walk by while engaged in a phone call, and decides she can’t let this go on. She wants answers. Boogiepop momentarily speaks through Touka offering help, but Suema insists she’s got this.

In the case of Imaginator, I consider it fine for Suema to ask for any help offered; she’s quite out of her depth here. While Jin is initially taken aback by how much she’s been able to figure out for herself, he manages to successfully gaslight her, and even if she doesn’t walk away a convert, it remains to be seen if his plan-reveal-couched-in-artistic-rhetoric proves useful to her solving the case.

Then again, maybe I’m underestimating Suema just as Jin is, or just as Spooky-KotoE underestimates Masaki when he realizes he’s being followed by six or more people. He heads underground to confront them, and uses a nice bit of misdirection to catch KotoE’s goons off-guard (Towa should invest in less disposable goons) and put KotoE herself on her back.

The only problem is, she won’t talk, he can’t really make her talk, and if he kills her he’ll be branded a murderer. Like Suema, Masaki seems doomed to be disappointed in his efforts to crack the case. He’s only caught a pawn, just as Jin can shrug off everything he told Suema as messing around.

When Nagi suddenly shows up to keep his half-brother in check, he slips away, and KotoE reveals she was keeping some goons in reserve. But these goons aren’t any match for Nagi’s skills any more than the first wave were to Masaki’s. She makes quick work of them, including KotoE’s attempts to attack her with a butterfly knife, but isn’t interested in getting any information from her. Her focus is probably catching up to her brother.

When KotoE wakes up, she’s still in her brainwashed mode, but Jin appears and manages to snap her out of it by reaching into her soul and taking note of the missing blooms on her rose (much like Suema’s problem). But while he’s always known of Kotoe’s feelings and yearning, she was mistaken in thinking her sadness mirrored his own; he’s never been able to feel sadness; only despair.

Jin also laments he can’t save her, but will change the world to a place where no one has to feel like she feels ever again. With Spooky E’s brainwashing undone, Kotoe breaks down, but engenders no more sympathy from Jin than a stranger, which is a devastating sight to see. Then Jin moves on to Spooky E’s command center atop the amusement park tower, apparently led there by the part of Spooky that copied his will into Kotoe in the first place.

Jin introduces himself as Imaginator, the one Spooky and Towa have been looking for, but calmly warns Spooky that they’re on completely different levels. They may possess similar brainwashing abilities, but while Spooky basically mind-rapes people by shoving information into their brains, Jin’s is far more…therapeutic? Horticultural? Since he can see everyone’s plant—even Spooky’s—he can control them as he sees fit, adding or removing parts with Imaginator’s help.

Rather than stuff info in the brain, he finds what is lacking, and offers whatever a person desperately desires: to be whole. The result of this: Imaginator will “normalize the psyche” of the human race, eliminating all emotional want and yearning. There are a LOT of problems with such a world, so it goes without saying Imaginator can’t get away with this.

But Spooky E can’t do shit about it; Jin removes his aggression in the blink of an eye, intending to use him to take over Towa, in order to expand his reach and accelerate his plans. While unable to attack Jin, Spooky E decides it better to attack and kill himself, so at least he won’t be the conduit through which the enemy takes control of Towa.

Jin, however, doesn’t believe in enemies, except as parties who exist to be turned into allies with the right manipulation. His plan to use Spooky E as an ally thus backfired, he discovers Orihata tied up in that same location. She begs for help, but Jin isn’t there to save her. He’s there to use her as a sacrifice; the kind that will propel his dreams forward and make them a reality for the next generation.

Poor Orihata: poised to become a tool for Imaginator immediately after Spooky E and Towa did the same. Is there any saving her or Kotoe, and are Suema and Masaki up to the task?

Golden Kamuy – 24 (Fin) – Skin in the Game

As Hijikata defeats Inudou by playing dirty (tossing the blood from his arm he let Inudou cut to blind him), and Tsurumi mows down the inmates with a Maxim gun (channeling Tony Montana), A heavily-wounded Sugimoto happens to cross paths with the very person everyone’s been looking for since before episode One: Nopperabo (AKA Wilk). There’s no mistaking those eyes, but it’s confirmed when he recognizes the makiri he made for his daughter.

Nopperabo won’t say anything about the gold until Asirpa is brought to him, but Sugimoto has a non-gold-related question first: Why? Why involve his innocent daughter in what he knew would be a horrible blood-drenched mess that would stretch beyond his life and possibly hers? Sugimoto could sense the fear and apprehension she felt about the possibility Nopperabo turned out to be her father. Why put her through this?

The answer doesn’t quell Sugimoto’s pain, and perhaps that’s because he has no children of his own. Nopperabo was entrusting Asirpa with the future, believing she’d become the leader of the Ainu in that future. All of the time he had with her, he spent teaching her the ways of the Ainu, how to take care of herself, and how to defeat overwhelming foes. Before she turned ten, Asirpa was able to kill a giant red bear all by herself.

When Inkarmat hands the binoculars for Asirpa and she lay eyes on her father for the first time in a long time, she weeps, and perhaps not because she doesn’t understand her aca’s motivations. After all, she knows she’s an Ainu Woman of The Future. Perhaps she’s weeping more for the simpler life she knows her father wanted for her, but could not afford to provide; weeping for the time she and their aca were apart.

Then, to everyone’s utter shock, Nopperabo and Sugimoto are both shot through the head and fall, both shots carrying the very familiar sound of Ogata’s rifle. Tanigaki later rushes in and saves them from further shots (getting shot in the wrist himself) then finds Inkarmat lying in her own blood, a silver dagger in her belly. She tells Tanigaki that Kuroranke was giving someone a signal once the shots were fired.

Shiraishi manages to get Asirpa safely away, but Tanigaki and the wounded Inkarmat are captured by Tsurumi and his men. After all that planning and getting so tantalizingly close to the answer to the location of the Ainu gold, everything seems to have unraveled, and the lives of key players are either gone or in hanging from threads.

Ogata and Kiroranke meet up with Shiraishi and Asirpa, and Ogata confirms that Sugimoto and Nopperabo are dead, sending Asirpa into a frenzy of grief. However, less than a minute later we see Sugimoto, heavily bandaged and resting in bed, scarfing down onigiri. Both his life and Inkarmat’s were saved by the expert ministrations of Ienaga (who may have removed and eaten some of Sugimoto’s brains – channeling Hannibal Lector).

Now “brain damage pals,” Sugimoto is back in Tsurumi’s custody, along with Tanigaki. Inkarmat tells them that Kiroranke and Ogata’s likely next destination is Karafuto, which is where they turn out to be. The two are also well aware that Sugimoto may yet still be alive (he is Immortal Sugimoto after all) and that he’ll surely want to kill them both the moment he sees them again.

As for why Kiroranke stabbed Inkarmat, it wasn’t what I initially thought. Turns out, it was an accident. Kiroranke was merely threatening her with a knife, but in the ensuing struggle he fell and stabbed her. Kiroranke’s intent was to share the location of the gold with his former guerrilla comrades in the far east. And with Nopperabo dead, Asirpa is a vital key in discovering that location.

That’s not to say she’s the only key, however. Before leaving Abashiri, Tanigaki manages to find a consolation prize inadvertently left to him by Inudou: information relating to the tattoos no one else has. With none of the interested parties having the complete puzzle, there will surely have to be more confrontations alliances, and/or betrayals for any one of the parties to find the gold (if it even still exists).

Tsurumi sends Sugimoto to Karafuto to find Asirpa. He’s accompanied by Tsukishima, Koito, and his transport provided by Vice Admiral Koito, the lieutenant’s father. The Admiral had seemed to be only a means to an end up to this point, but he shares insights crucial to Sugimoto’s understanding of why Nopperabo did what he did.

Being a father himself, Koito knew that he could not ask the fathers of those beneath him to sacrifice their sons, nor ask those sons themselves to die, if he did not have skin in the game. Whether he liked it or not, the success of the battles being fought required that he put aside a life of safety and comfort he wanted for his son to legitimize the sacrifices of other sons.

He believes it was the same for Nopperabo. He didn’t simply cynically using her to help craft his ideal of the future for the Ainu. He simply could not ask the Ainu to pay for it with only their blood. Honor, obligation, justice, and an eye toward the future: these are the things parents in positions like Nopperabo and Koito must consider when raising their children.

Still, Sugimoto also happens to love Asirpa, and as long as he’s alive, he will see to it she doesn’t become a murderer like him and his ilk. Indeed, the kamuy may well be helping Sugimoto stay alive in order to serve as her guardian, and a check to the designs of both her father and the unceasing tides of history.

Asirpa comes to believe this in a dream with Sugimoto, in which he promises he’ll come for her again. The Dream Sugimoto insists it isn’t the kamuy speaking to her through him, but him, Sugimoto himself. He hasn’t joined the ranks of the kamuy yet, and nor has she.

Upon waking, Shiraishi share’s Asirpa’s insistence they haven’t yet seen the last of that big unkillable lug. Sure enough, he’s aboard a ship, with a bearing brimming with purpose and resolve, steaming to their location to reunite with them.

Until Golden Kamuy Season 3.

Golden Kamuy – 23 – Ainu Nothing Like The Real Thing

Turns out Inkarmat was working with Lt. Tsurumi…which is why Tsurumi has arrived with a flotilla of four-stack destroyers. With the prison alarms sounded, she declares Sugimoto and Shiraishi to have failed, and Tsurumi is the only one who can get Asirpa and Nopperabo out now.

When a shocked Tanigaki says that means he’ll get the Ainu gold, she tells him neither she nor he particularly care who gets the gold, further unsettling Tanigaki. The ships open fire, blasting holes in the wall, but also collapsing the entrance to the tunnel where Tanigaki and Inkarmat flee. Tsurumi and his large platoon of around sixty men get into small boats and arrive on the beach, fully armed and ready to rumble.

When Inkarmat is trapped by rubble, Tanigaki forgets who she was working for and bursts every button on his shirt to save the woman he loves. Fortunately for both, Ushiyama arrives to save the both of them, and just when you think it’s goodbye for Ushiyama, he casually tosses away the entire roof of the collapsed structure, then dusts off his jacket.

Tsurumi and his men storm the prison and kill everyone in sight…until he spots Sugimoto with “Nopperabo,” promising to kill him if they don’t lay down their arms. When the fake Nopperabo warns the others of a growing fire in the cell with loud grunts, they mimic the grunts. Like Tanigaki’s buttons, the show effectively tempers all the action and drama with moments of absurd, often pitch black comedy.

Meanwhile (there’s a metric F*CKTON of moving pieces in this episode) Toni Anji promises to take Asirpa to Nopperabo’s true location, but not without meeting up with Tanigaki Genjirou, whom Toni was always loyal to. Sugimoto realizes that Tanigaki wanted him out of the picture lest he cause trouble down the road.

On top of that, Nikaidou disobey’s Tsurumi’s order not to shoot, unknowingly hitting “Nopperabo” in the head, killing him. Shiraishi starts sawing through the floor so they can slide down into the crawlspace below. A wounded Kadokura releases all 700 deadly prisoners, unleashing them on Tsurumi’s outnumbered platoon, and, well, all hell breaks lose.

As soon as Asirpa sees that Warden Inodou is keeping Nopperabo in the chapel, she waits for another volley from the ships to escape from Toni and Hijikata (who applauds how tough the young woman is). But he still has the photos he had taken of himself with Asirpa to show Nopperabo.

It isn’t long before she runs into Kiroranke, and then Shiraishi runs into them, having dislocated his shoulders to exit the prison crawlspace. Kiroranke uses grenades to get Sugimoto out (as he has no clue how to dislocate his shoulders) and Sugimoto tells Kiroranke to meet the others at the front gate, while he takes the dagger Asirpa gave Kiroranke (and which was made by her aca) and heads to the chapel.

He’s stopped by Nikaidou, and the two have a vicious, bloody duel, with Sugimoto taking a blade through his mouth and left cheek and a bullet to the leg from the gun hidden in Nikaidou’s false leg. He manages to wrest that leg away and beat Nikaidou half(?) to death with it. I must say, if he survives this, Nikaidou might deserve the “Immortal” title as well…

In the chapel cellar, Inudou orders the real Nopperabo out of his cell, but Hijikata and Toni are waiting for him upstairs. Toni and Inudou shoot each other, but the latter plays dead so he can shackle Hijikata and lock him into a duel with katanas.

This allows Nopperabo to slip away. Outside the chapel, Sugimoto, crawling on the ground, spots him, and his unmistakable big, blue eyes. If only he could get Nopperabo to the front gate, where Asirpa and the others await.

All this time, mind you, Tsurumi and his men are completely occupied trying to fight off the wave of violent inmates. Like I said, a lot going on. One could even accuse it of being too busy, but I for one loved the sense of building chaos, with every character the show fleshed out playing a role.

It just worked, and was yet another example of the payoff tasting doubly sweet thanks to all the painstaking setting-up. After such a powerhouse penultimate episode, next week’s finale will have some big shoes to fill.

Zombieland Saga – 07 – A Truly Shocking Performance

(Apologies for the horrible pun that titles this post.—Ed.) Last week’s episode proved ZLS is far more than just a venue for Miyano Mamoru’s manic voice performances or a showcase for idol-dancing CGI. It can also do serious character drama. How would it resolve the generational rift between Franchouchou’s dual aces?

With Junko unwilling/unable to continue in this new and scary idoling world and holed up in one of the mansion’s many rooms, Ai commits to doing Junko’s part as the days to Saga Rock count down, even as the strain causes her head and limbs literally fall off (kudos to the foley artists for appropriately gross sound effects as the zombies move about).

Even Lily admits there may be nothing any of them can to to convince Ai to come back. Sakura asks Tatsumi for help, but he shouts her away. Even so, Tatsumi later breaks down the barricade Junko had built over the door and, surprisingly enough, provides the sober voice of reason. He acknowledges Junko’s fear of how things have changed in the last thirty years, but assures her the calling of idol is no less noble than it was in her time.

He also suggests something Junko didn’t consider a possibility: that if she doesn’t want to get so close to her fans…that she just shouldn’t. She can still sing and dance with the others while continuing to carry the Showa flag and live the life she’s most comfortable with.

He also reminds Junko that she’s not the only one with fears as a result of waking up a zombie in a strange time and place. He informs her how Ai died, and the weather forecast for the festival, and how Ai is going forward to face her fears. Considering she’s already dead, what harm would it do Junko to give this idol thing one last try?

With that, Tatsumi leaves Junko with her outfit for tomorrow’s festival…and a casual order to fix the door he busted (hey, this is still a comedy first and foremost). The next morning everyone waits as long as they can, but then pack into the van without Junko.

Just as they start off, Junko heroically leaps over the mansion gate lands in front of the van…which absolutely pummels her, in such a similar fashion to Sakura’s own demise it sparks a vague memory for her. Like a zombie horror movie, Ai slowly gets up…but not to eat brains; to join her fellow members of Franchouchou, all of whom but Ai run to embrace her.

Still, Ai decides to bury the hatchet as the group prepares for their show, promising Junko she’ll have her back. Tatsumi liberally sprays shoe waterproofing all over the girls so their makeup won’t melt in the coming rains.

The others join Ai as she watches her old group Iron Frill knock it out of the park (without anyone getting roasted by lightning). Why the more popular band would open for unknowns like Franchouchou, I have no idea, but that plot contrivance is only one of a long chain of them that, IMO, somewhat mar the group’s biggest moment yet.

While Iron Frill’s dancing and singing was 2D animation, the show breaks back out the smoother-moving but still far creepier CGI models of the Franchouchou members. I remain mostly unconvinced this was the best way to animate them performing, as it really pulls you out of the otherwise 2D world of the show.

Technical aspects aside, I liked how the storms made Ai so frightened she couldn’t sing properly, threatening to make their big break a disaster right from the start (the rain also forces much of Iron Frill’s crowd to flee, combined with the fact they don’t know who Franchouchou is). I liked Junko having Ai’s back even better, especially when Ai said she’d have hers. Junko may have nerves too, but they don’t relate to performing in a thunderstorm.

The idols regroup and finish out their first song strong, but the entire stage is suddenly destroyed by lightning, making real Ai’s worst nightmare: a repeat of the events that killed her. However, due to them already being dead and zombies (and perhaps the thick coats of spray Tatsumi applied), their exposure to lightning only makes them glow, and makes their voices distorted.

The group proceeds to perform their last song in “autotune” remix mode, their bodies providing the only light on the stage, and occasionally shooting lightning beams out of their fingers. This sequence of events represents a new level of preposterous-ness for the show.

While a show about zombie idols already demands one to suspend disbelief about quite a number of things, the piling on of absurd events culminating in glowing idols shooting lasers while singing autotune…was just a bit much.

The attitude that created this sequence seems to be: “So we carefully crafted a nuanced character conflict between Junko and AI rooted in generational differences…but SCREW ALL THATAnything goes when they take the stage; nothing has to make sense!” Never mind the fact that there were zero consequences for Junko not practicing with the group for weeks. I know she’s one of the best from her time, but no one’s that good!

All that criticism aside, the festival, ridiculous as it was, had the intended effect of getting Franchouchou much-needed publicity, as news of their “illuminating” performance at Saga Rock ends up published in a magazine. We’ll see how that translates into cash to fund their operation, but more importantly how it heightens their statute in the idol world, and how they’ll respond to that increased fame.

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.

Chio-chan no Tsuugakuro – 05 – When You Gotta Go…

Both of the two stories that unfold in this week’s episode are focused, polished, and consistently hilarious. Chio faces a dilemma we’ve all faced: having to pee really bad. She fortunately finds a bathroom, but doesn’t realize until after she’s gone in and relieved herself that she went in the Men’s bathroom, near a busy bus stop to boot.

As we’ve learned, Chio is far more proactive, resourceful, and athletic than a below-average high school girl would be, but that’s what makes her so imminently watchable. We’re there with her as she susses out the best way to escape, finally making use of “mysterious bright-colored balls” that one would never find in the ladies’ room (because they’re for urinals).

One of those balls excites the nearby cat, who starts playing with it in the street. Two girls in miniskirts lean over to watch the cat, and two older men lean over to watch the two girls in miniskirts, giving Chio the opening she needs. It’s a brilliant tactic that almost goes terribly wrong when Chio’s momentarily stuck in the window, but manages to get out.

She even explains away her sudden and surprising appearance to the two men and girls by pretending the cat is her pet “George”, who clearly has no idea who she is and runs off again, allowing her to follow and extricate herself from the situation as everyone shrugs it off as a girl really liking cats…which a lot of people do!

The next episode begins from the perspective of Shinozuka Momo, member of the Disciplinary Committee and deep admirer of its faculty advisor Gotou-sensei. In an effort to be “useful” to him, she takes it upon herself to discover what student(s) from their distinguished academy have been chronically misbehaving in the vicinity of the campus.

This leads to her tailing Chio and Manana, who at first appear to be carrying themselves with “calm and grace”…until Chio pulls a long root out of a flower bed and whips Manana in the bum, setting off a good old-fashioned plant duel. The mortified Momo continues shadowing the two girls, and watches as Chio climbs a wall to see if she can beat Manana up a hill.

She can’t, and Manana rubs it in by denying Chio water, instigating another grappling match. Momo can’t hold her tongue anymore, and orders the two girls to stop hanging out, as they’re terrible influences on each other, going on to describe “true friends.” That leads Manana to correctly assert that Momo…has no friends. Poor Momo!

They make a deal where if they can prove their friends, Momo won’t record or report what she’s seen today. And boy, do they ever prove it, performing a thoroughly embarrassing (and long un-practiced) dance of friendship they devised back in grade school. It moves Momo to unironic tears, and the girls get off scot-free.

In fact, Momo asks them for advice on how to get closer to someone they immediately infer to be Gotou-sensei. As we know, Manana isn’t the person to ask about such things as she has no relationship experienced, but Momo doesn’t know that! As a result, next time she’s with Gotou, Momo acts mysterious and attempts to keep her blondie rival in check…with mixed results. That closes the book on a pair of very strong stories.