Ikebukuro West Gate Park – 07 – Mars (Enterprises) Attacks!

“Everyone’s so worried about me…What am I, a little boy?” I doubt the people warning Makoto are doing so because they think he’s a kid, but because there is much he has to lose by diving too deep into this latest mess. Like his mother, his newly adopted sister Shungui, the family produce stand, and his reputation as a neutral troubleshooter.

Unfortunately, we don’t see his mom or Shungui either this week or last, which is a shame, not just because they could put the impudence of Makoto’s words into relief and even offer him perspective, but because I like those characters, and Shungui in particular seemed like someone we would be and should be seeing more of. Alas, Makoto is on an island at the beginning of this episode.

Ikebukuro is on the knife’s edge; war could spill onto the streets at any moment…yet he still finds time to work on Toshiaki’s film at the video store. His police buddy informs him “Shadow” is a lone operator, while his Hidaka PR buddy Saru informs him that Mars Enterprises hired both the Shadow and the masked thugs to create imbalance as a preface for expanding into Ikebukuro.

Unfortunately, Takashi is once again ghosting him, and the minute Makoto is off the phone with Saru, he has the bunny mask thug’s knife to his neck, clarifying that he and his guys have a grudge with him and Takashi personally. Bunny Mask is also helpful enough to perform his scene right in front of the “making of” camera, which is just icing for the cake in terms of how sloppy the masked thugs are.

Makoto determines that the masked thugs are Yamamoto and his men, who worked for OK Holdings and were previously run out of town. He informs Hiroto personally, but the Knight is already on his horse, and his men are itching for a confrontation with Takashi for control of the G-Boys present and future.

He finally gets to meet up with Takashi, who notes that one piece his old friend has left out of the equation are the Red Angels. Whether Makoto simply took Kyouichi at his word or has a blind spot due to his officially neutral status, Makoto isn’t willing to entertain the possibility the Angels could exploit the G-Boys civil war to expand their own influence.

Finally, and apparently quite by chance, “Shadow” presents himself to Makoto in the park. He further clarifies matters, saying the only job he did was on Donglong, while the thugs did the jobs on Hiroto’s men. He adds that they did a crap job while both they and Mars used the “Shadow” brand without his consent. This caused Shadow’s reputation to take a hit, and he paid Mars back by beating up each of their board members.

Shadow seems to consider himself an underworld equivalent of Makoto: an independent troubleshooter who works for justice (Shadow works for money; justice is just gravy), and someone for whom “reputation is paramount”. In the interests of preventing war, Makoto decides to ask Shadow to take care of the “weak link”: the war-mongering Hiroto.

Makoto institutes this gambit as much out of a desire to prove he’s not “just some kid” or a “nice guy”, but someone willing to do whatever it takes to protect the peace and balance of his town. But the gambit backfires, as Hiroto’s men blame King for the beating of their Knight and begin the march to war.

After consulting with Takashi once more, Makoto gets Kyouichi to agree to back Takashi in order to “quell the disturbance”. Kyouichi proves himself an honest and honorable man by doing his part, marching his Red Angels between Hiroto’s men and Takashi and declaring an alliance with the latter, then getting Hiroto’s uneasy No.2 to drop his bat and back down with a mere look.

With war averted—arguably way too neatly, but averted all the same—all that’s left is to take out the trash, i.e. Yamamoto and his ragtag quintet of thugs, who end up coming to them as Takashi and Makoto film a scene in Toshiaki’s film. In the adult video section, Yamamoto & Co. surround the two, but suddenly Shadow appears to even the odds. He takes out two of the thugs, and Takashi takes out the remaining three including delivering a knockout blow to Yamamoto.

The excellent fight scene really underscored how overmatched Yamamoto and his thugs were. Once the masked thugs identities and motives were made clear, they never had a realistic chance to instigate a full-scale turf war, especially since revenge was Yamamoto’s primary goal. Hopefully he won’t need a third demonstration of the futility of seeking revenge.

Toshiaki finally finishes his film, and it’s a hit, so he plans to make more, and Makoto notes the firm dedication inherent in Toshiaki’s efforts. He saw that same dedication in Shadow’s no-nonsense way of operating, and in Kyouichi’s dedication to protecting the town he’s come to like. After dancing on a razor’s edge these last two episodes, Makoto seems content to continue dedicating himself to selling fruit. Gotta pay the bills!

Rating: 4/5 Stars

Ikebukuro West Gate Park – 06 – Shadows in the Knight

Ikebukuro is a town of balance, and that balance ensures peace. But one otherwise ordinary night, a group from the G-Boys Hiroto Faction are pulled from their van and viciously beaten by toughs in animal masks. Makoto is busy acting in an indie film being directed by the clerk of a doomed video store.

It’s a fitting setting in which to begin for an episode about the wider downfall of Ikebukuro’s hard-fought peace. Also on the film crew is Crow, an underling of Hiroto, whose boys were hit by the animal maskers, apparently led by a mysterious figure called “Shadow”. Hiroto suspects the attack was a warning from his boss, “King” Takashi, to keep his ambitions in check.

Before Makoto can confer with Takashi, Hiroto’s boys are hit by the Shadow again, and hard. In lieu of any word from King, Makoto meets with another childhood friend, Saru, the Hidaka Group’s PR man. He knows that Shadow is apparently elite muscle-for-hire, and that Hidaka’s position is that balance should be maintained, using his ice cream to illustrate his point.

He also warns his friend Makoto to “know where to draw the line” in his involvement, lest he end up in trouble. That’s when Hiroto reaches out to Makoto through Crow, and Makoto learns Hiroto is now having his men call him “Knight”—a direct challenge to King. With command of a third of the G-Boys, among them some of the toughest fighters, his faction has been waiting for someone to “pull the trigger” at them for some time.

In other words, even if it is King sending Shadow against his men, it doesn’t matter. He wanted an excuse to move anyway, and he got it. The spark has been lit, and the Hiroto faction is a tinderbox. Makoto gets him to agree not to move against Takashi until he’s spoken to him, but Hiroto warns if his boys are attacked one more time, it will be war.

With Takashi still not taking his calls, Makoto has no choice but to meet with the Red Angels instead. Kyouichi says he isn’t attacking Hiroto’s boys, as he has no reason to start a war that will endanger his people. However, he hastens to add, should one drop of Red Angel blood spill from the crossfire of an imminent G-Boys civil war, they’ll show no mercy.

Makoto walks down a dark Ikebukuro alley late at night with Sunshine 60 looming in the background. The mass of the tower behind him makes him look that much smaller and more alone; the town’s chief diplomat who has yet to make contact with the leader of its most powerful gang. Even as he makes no progress, he is followed by a sketchy guy in the shadows whose face he never sees, perhaps as subtle and bloodless warning as he’s going to get to quit while he’s still neutral.

As timing would have it, Takashi calls him immediately after the frightening encounter, and they meet in West Gate to talk for the first time. King hesitated to answer his buddy’s calls because he didn’t want him involved, because he can’t guarantee his safety this time. This enrages Makoto, with good reason.

When you think about it, he is one of the strongest and bravest players in this town precisely because he works alone and has no sworn allegiance, except to Ikebukuro herself. He commits to finding out who the Shadow is and who sent him to attack Hiroto’s men. As if to answer that question for the audience, the camera lingers on Isogai as he and Kyouichi walk on a bridge as cop cars race past.

Makoto and King end up shaking hands, symbolically sealing Makoto’s fate as a declared ally of King and thus a legitimate combatant in the G-Boys war to come. Because it is coming; and Makoto is out of time to stop it. The Shadow attacked Hiroto’s boys a third time, and this time a group from Dongfeng were hit as well.

Hiroto justifiably doesn’t care about the attack on Dongfeng muddying the waters; too much of his boys’ blood has been spilt. Just as Makoto is confident he can keep both King and Knight at bay, Knight draws his sword: he’s quitting the G-Boys, and no longer taking orders from Takashi. Their meeting in the alley was but a mere formality.

Maintaining peace and balance is not Hiroto’s goal. He’s thirsted for power, and is now taking the opportunity to grab it. Once he’s in charge of the G-Boys, he dreams of expanding their influence across all of Tokyo. Obviously, this is folly, and Takashi tells Makoto that it’s a product of his lack of strategic experience (Lao Tzu would also have some criticisms of Knight’s approach).

The episode ends with another suspicious lingering camera shot at Kyouichi, who is apparently pleased with how things are going. Did he and/or Isogai hire Shadow to destabilize the G-Boys? Were they simply biding their time all along? Or are they just looking forward to their largest rival eating away at itself from the inside, poised to fill the vacuum that results?

Whatever the case, IWGP is on a certified roll, following up two strong case-of-the-week episodes with a headfirst dive into the central gang conflict. It may be too late to keep a war from starting, but perhaps Makoto can still find a way to end it before it causes too much damage.

Rating: 4/5 Stars

Ikebukuro West Gate Park – 01 (First Impressions) – Just a Simple Fruit Vendor

In an Ikebukuro full of rival gangs like the G-Boys, Majima Makoto is a neutral mediator to whom anyone can come with a problem to solve. Thus he is one of the people helping to maintain a delicate balance in the town and keep it from descending into violence.

I’ve been to Ikebukuro, and perhaps due to watching a lot of Durarara!! prior to visiting, I got a very cozy, familiar feeling walking its streets. But aside from the Sunshine 60 building’s super-fast elevator, there’s nothing all that flashy about the town. It’s most prominent feature is a 600-foot…incinerator chimney.

Like the town where it’s set, IWGP is similarly restrained, un-flashy and ordinary. After a more theatrical cold open in which G-Boys leader Takashi is on a literal stage knocking out a junkie his gang has surrounded, things unfold relatively straightforward manner.

Takashi visits his old friend Makoto (who runs a fruit stand with his mom), and presents him with the 12-year-old Kurashina Mion, who tried to burn a whole building down because it was the hideout of a drug addict who hit her mom with a car. He’s hopeful Makoto can get Mion justice without violence.

Practically speaking, Makoto’s case is composed of a number of sit-down meetings in restaurants. That’s not very interesting, but it gradually emerges both to us and to an initially skeptical Mion that Makoto knows everybody who’s anybody in Ikebukuro, from gang higher-ups to cops, making him the best person to help her.

The fact Mion insists on tagging along even when Makoto cases a suspicious smoke shop, leading to her panicking and smashing a jar of “high grade herbs” and resulting in a chase. It’s here where Makoto’s encyclopedic knowledge of his town and its rooftops comes in handy, as he makes sure Mion can manage their escape route.

Makoto naturally also knows a super-hacker rather embarrassingly named Zero One, and once he gets the leads he needs from the official police, he relies on Zero and Takashi’s G-Boys to help stake out the smoke shop owner’s various properties.

Once they learn he’s almost certainly dealing illegal drugs, Makoto and Takashi discover the apartment is a marijuana-filled grow-house and drug lab. It’s here where I must assume that weed is still illegal in Japan (in many U.S. states you buy it legally for medical or recreational use), and that there are harder drugs than weed being made/sold by these guys.

Mion sticks her neck out to delay the smoke shop clerk from discovering Makoto and Takashi in the apartment. The clerk chases her down and nabs her, but Makoto comes to her rescue by delivering a devastating kick. It’s clear he prefers to avoid violence unless absolutely necessary, which makes sense as this is not a “stylized” version of Ikebukuro or Japan where anything goes.

In the end the bad guys are arrested for their illegal deeds, and Mion’s mom is released from the hospital with a clean bill of health. In the titular Ikebukuro West Gate Park, Mion thanks Makoto while introducing her mom. Thanks to him she knows that “some grown-ups are cool” and that she wouldn’t mind if someone like him was her dad.

Makoto and Takashi are confident the drug bust won’t come back on them since no one knows they’re involved…but their assumption is incorrect: someone is watching them, so there may be consequences that may threaten Makoto’s neutral status in the near future.

IWGP isn’t a show that will dazzle with its visuals, over-the-top action, or outrageous characters. It looks like it aims to be a more down-to-earth and realistic version of Durarara!! in which we’re presented with a complex tapestry of relationships and loyalties, with Makoto in the middle.

It’s a show with a quiet, confident competence. If that sounds like “boring”, it might be for some. But I for one enjoyed its relative subtlety and nuance, and will be back next week for more.

DRAMAtical Murder – 06

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It’s ironic that DMMd brings up the concept of mind control, since that’s what one could call the effect that led me to continue to watch a show that isn’t quite up to snuff and probably never will be. Last week’s action was diverting enough, but only led to more of everyone gathered around the table as Grams talks, and talks, and talks some more. It was boring and tedious.

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The show had been stubbornly maintaing an atmosphere of mystery, and I’d been hankering for some answers, but this gratuitous infodump didn’t satisfy as I’d hoped. Brain research; human experimentation; brainwashing; conspiracies; accidents; latent abilities; it was too many cliches dropped on us too fast, and all kind of ran together.

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I also have found myself unable to ignore the show’s thoroughly lackluster animation. I’ve dropped shows with similarly iffy stories that have looked better than this in much less busy seasons. And the monocled villain and his goals are just…not interesting. I stuck around for six episodes, but there hasn’t been enough improvement to merit continued watching.

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DRAMAtical Murder – 05

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Aoba wakes up from his fist nap face to face with Mink, leader of Scratch and the guy who punched him…only to get beaten again for protesting the situation. I was right there with Aoba in his combined confusion and rage: damn it, show, what’s going on here?

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The show eventually relented, but only partially: Mink wanted information from Aoba; information he has now acquired. Mink agrees to help Aoba find Grams if Aoba agrees to do what he says. Mink is not the sort of guy you want to try to haggle with, and Grams comes first, so Aoba agrees.

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Returning home to find a worried Clear and Koujaku, Aoba has to play peacemaker between Koujaku and Mink, which is fine; it’s not as if opposing gang leaders are supposed to get alng. When Mink discovers Noiz has the house under surveillance, they invite him to join them in the operation to save Grams.

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The operation that follows is the first time the show has gathered so many disperate actors in a loose coalition, all helping Aoba out. Koujaku, Mink, and even Clear prove quite capable of dealing with the Morphine foot soldiers sent at them, many of whom are former members of Dry Juice.

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When Aoba arrives in the parking lot where Grams is being moved, there’s another surprise: Mizuki is the one shoving her into a truck. He clearly isn’t himself from Aoba’s perspective. Things get a little bit weird when Aoba suddenly involuntarily enters a virtual world where the “real” Mizuki describes how Morphine betrayed him.

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Then Aoba’s head starts pounding again, and an evil-looking “inner-Aoba” says “Destroy” again and again, causing Mizuki intense pain. Not sure what’s up with all that, but I will say this episode was never boring.

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DRAMAtical Murder – 02

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With most of the characters introduced, the plot gets a chance to thicken this week, as a mystery surrounds Aoba and Ren’s impromptu trip to Rhyme, and none of his elaborately-dressed buds can shed any light on it. There’s a ton of questions asked, but its slim pickings, answer-wise, which combined with the leisurely pace of this episode, made it more of a drag than the first.

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The entire first half consists of a rehash of the Rhyme battle with that annoying bunny thing, which I really didn’t need to see again. Turns out the outdated Ren’s initial attacks are no match for the foe, but Aoba instinctively busts out some kind of orders that win the day. He wakes up where he passed out, is excused from work, and goes home to rest and repair his Allmate. Things are very slice-of-lifey.

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That’s not a lot an awful of ground covered, by the standards of some of the better-paced shows out there, but it’s also arguably admirable the show is still keeping its cards close, preferring to show Aoba interacting with his friends and grams more and let subtle clues trickle out one by one. It’s obvious, for instance, that Aoba has played Rhyme before; he even has a handle: “Sly Blue.” The popularity of Rhyme is also sapping the ranks of real-world gangs.

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But due to an unspecified “accident” a while back, Aoba’s memories must have been messed with, the same way the data in Ren was damaged. He also must have been a player of no small accomplishment, since he not only seems to have some antagonist on his trail, but also has an apparent fan who reverently calls him “master”—that’s Clear, the gas-masked fellow we thought was behind that first battle but turned out not to be. In any case, Aoba’s a popular guy right now, and there’s a lot more to him than even he knows.

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DRAMAtical Murder – 01

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Bodacious. Stylish. Crisp. Zany. Rad. These kinds of words swirled through my head during the OP (with a catchy theme by techno rock band GOATBED) and those descriptors served me well all the way through a very introductory episode to the ED (also a catchy theme by techno rock band GOATBED). On further research (Wikipedia) I learned this show is based on a BL visual model, which explains the lack of any female main characters, along with the reliable attractiveness of all of the male characters we come across.

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The gender of the various players isn’t of much consequence in the first episode; but what is evident is that they all cultivate extremely elaborate, colorful looks; clearly a lot of effort was put into giving them very memorable, eye-popping appearances. One could even throw around the word flamboyant without fear. The setting is similarly impressive; as the protagonist Seragaki Aoba and all his pals live in the somewhat rundown”old city” (let’s say it has “character”) on an island now dominated by a massive, pristine arcology-looking thing.

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We follow Aoba through a pretty typical day in which he crosses paths with many different folks, from a trio of neighborhood urchins, to his hairdresser friend Koujaku, to his gang leader friend Mizuki, two the non-twin brother yakuza duo of Trip and Virus, and finally, some big dude he bumps into who drives off on his motorcycle without a word. There’s also a kid with a gas mask on, Zvezda-style, but Aoba doesn’t run into him. The whole time, his pet Japanese Spitz Ren is by his side, who happens to be able to talk, serves as a mobile computer, and takes human form in game fields. Everyone seems to have a little mecha-animal on their person. Wish I had a mecha-animal…

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While Aoba’s clearly done a few unsavory things in his past, he seems content with a quiet, honest living at the Junk Shop “Mediocrity” and living with his battleaxe Grams. But he’s also a lad being pushed and pulled by his pals to doing something more with his life; something he’s capable of doing. The final straw comes when he’s drawn against his will into the VR combat game “Rhyme” that’s all the rage in the city. While he pleads with the guy who instigated the game that he’s never played Rhyme, he’s clearly played something before, because he uses something called a “Jubilation Set” to defeat him.

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Keeping track of so many new faces on new shows is often, to borrow a word from Aoba, a “hassle”, but DMMd at least makes it easier by making them so distinctive, and there’s a nice flow to Aoba’s travels around the huge, surging city. I can’t say much about Rhyme, except that Ren looks really cool in human form and their evil bunny rabbit opponents were lame as hell. Between Grandma throwing death flags and the gas mask guy, I’d bed on Aoba’s quiet, unassuming life getting a bit louder and more assuming in episodes to come. And by all means, keep rockin’ those moon boots.

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