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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Kageki Shoujo!! – 04 – Opening of Borders

I was both fully expecting and looking forward to Sarasa either scaring Mr. Stalker away with her imposing stature or showing off her jujitsu moves if he persisted. Thankfully something completely unexpected and much better happens. Truly great art tends to challenge the viewer in some way, rather than giving them what they expect or predict.

That kind of narrative and thematic creativity really suffuses this, the best episode yet of Kageki Shoujo and the one that finally had me coming around hoping there’d continue to be less actual on-stage performance and more human drama. Like last week, there are some tough-to-watch moments, but also moments of great joy, goofiness, and redemption.

Mr. Gross Otaku, one of Sarasa’s many hilarious, unintentionally insulting nicknames for the guy, didn’t come to exact “revenge” on Ai; he came to apologize for being the one who ruined her career. He was a shut-in NEET who had lost hope until he first saw Naracchi on-screen, and it fascinated him how she was trying so hard never to smile.

In one unguarded moment, Naracchi does smile, and there’s video evidence, but that little smirk at the sight of her favorite mascot shattered Mr. Gross Otaku’s hermitic existence, inspiring him to get a job and make friends (naturally, other admirers of Naracchi). At the in-person event, he was so nervous about properly thanking her for helping save his life, he held on her her hands too long, leading to her making the remark that ended her idol career.

Taichi, who had been observing from a close distance in case Mr. Gross Otaku was a Mr. Total Perv, tells the guy that it wasn’t anything personal; in fact, it was likely only the straw that broke the camel’s back. Like Otaku Guy once did, Ai has given up on the world, and it led her to shut off her emotions. And yet, running away and leaving Sarasa alone invokes very strong emotions indeed, to the point Ai works up the courage to go back.

Naturally, her timing is terrible, and when she sees Sarasa doing goofy dance moves with the would-be tormentor while Taichi watches, Ai’s concern immediately curdles into something resembling hatred, and she storms off once again. The only problem is, poor Sarasa doesn’t know what she did to engender such hate!

Sarasa is persistent, and Ai finally makes a deal: she’ll tell her why she’s mad if she leaves her alone from now on. But when she does, Sarasa still doesn’t get it: if she came back out of worry for her, she should’ve been happy she was alright! As usual, Sarasa is right, but too blunt, and Ai retreats behind her curtain. Both girls seem incredibly unsatisfied where things end.

Sarasa, understandably getting a little fed up with being treated like this, declares that they’re “through”, though later confesses that might’ve been too harsh via Twitter to her friend Akiya—whose fellow Kabuki actor-in-training is tweeting more profound responses on his behalf. He tells Sarasa not to rush until they know each other, to be prepared for her feelings to be entirely one-sided, and appreciate that that’s beautiful in its own way.

The next day, Hijiri, Kouka’s Shit-Stirrer-in-Residence, confronts Sarasa with the pic she snapped of her with a guy (Mr. Gross Otaku), but Sarasa doesn’t have any time for this nonsense, as Ai is skipping classes and Taichi is worried about where she ended up. Sure enough, while staring at the sea, Ai is harassed by a couple of guys who recognized her, and one of them grabs her arm.

I have scarcely felt more fear and apprehension for a character than I did for Ai in this moment, but that was tempered by the knowledge that somehow in short order, Ai would be rescued. I just didn’t know it would happen by Sarasa calling Mr. Gross Otaku, who predicted Ai would go to the ocean to calm down (as she once stated in an interview) then run a social media search and locate her .

From there, all Mr. Gross Otaku has to do is buy a little time by haplessly trying to attack Ai’s harassers. He fails, faceplants, and gets a bloody nose, but still wins, as Taichi and Sarasa arrive and the latter screams for the police, who come running. There are no words for Sarasa’s transformation above as she voices satisfaction for scaring off the jerks.

What’s even more heartwarming about this entire scene that lets me forgive its many contrivances—as well as the entire premise of using stalking methods to save the target of stalkers—is that at this point, Sarasa is sticking to her guns when she said they were “through.” Yet even if she’s uncertain Ai will ever want to be her friend, she rescued her anyway, because it was the right thing to do.

When Sarasa explains to Ai how they found her and the role Mr. Gross Otaku —real name Kitaouji Mikiya—played, it’s Ai’s turn to do something completely unexpected: offer her handkerchief for Mikiya’s bloody nose. During the hand-off she drops the cloth on the ground, but it wasn’t intentional or meant as a slight.

As Ai says with tears welling up in her eyes, “this is the best I can do right now.” But Mikiya, being uncharacteristically cool, tells her to dry her eyes; all he and her other fans wanted was to see those rare and amazing moments when Naracchi genuinely smiled. Because that meant their idol was happy. He promises to return to see her perform on the Kouka stage.

Ai and Sarasa take the long walk back to their dorms, where they’ll face consequences for the incidents that transpired. While they walk, Ai opens up to Sarasa, asking her what she should do about something she wants to forget but can’t (though not going into detail). All Sarasa can tell her is to keep having good memories that will eventually cause the bad to fade from prominence.

Notably, Ai can’t see Sarasa’s face when she says this, but it sounds like a new invitation to make some of those memories with her, if she’ll have her. At this point, it’s safe to say the cat-and-mouse game between these two girls will continue, but they’ve definitely already made one of those memories Sarasa speaks of, and I’m looking forward to them making more.

As for poor, Yamada Ayako, who is now purging regularly and barely has the energy to sing, all I have to say is that every one of her upperclassmen and every adult on the faculty are totally failing her, and I’m terribly worried about how bad things will get until someone helps her. It shouldn’t have to fall to someone like Sarasa and/or Ai, but if it does I won’t complain. I just want Ayako to be happy and healthy!

The aquatope on white sand – 03 – First penguin

“Time not important. Only life important.”—Mondoshawan Caretaker, The Fifth Element

Before waking up for another busy day juggling school and thre directorship, Kukuru dreams of when her parents took her to the Gama Gama and she got to name her first penguin, Choko. He’s still with the aquarium fifteen years later, and was the first one in line when Fuuka’s doomed feeding session. Fortunately, she’s a lot better at feeding Choko here.

Besides being a surpassingly good boy, Choko, like the aquarium, is one of the ways Kukuru connects to her folks, who passed away not long after the aquarium visit in her dream. Fuuka learns this from Kukuru’s childhood friend Kai, who genuinely respects how hard Kukuru is working and wants to help in any way he can. Like Choko, Kai is also a good boy.

When Kukuru notices sores on Choko’s legs, she uses her authority as summer director to summon the vet Takeshita (Hanazawa Kana), who is on maternity leave and very pregnant, but also happy to stop by and examine the penguins.

But then, while at the aquarium, her water breaks. Kukuru initially panics, but when Kuuya addresses her by her position as acting director she slaps her cheeks, gets a grip, and makes Takeshita comfortable until a car (Karin’s) can arrive to take her to the maternity home.

While Kukuru and Fuuka are tending to her, Takeshita has a dream, not that dissimilar from the one Fuuka had that led her to want to get a job there. After Kukuru repeats what Takeshita once told her—that Gama Gama is a place where all life is protected, both aquatic and human—the aquarium seems to envelop the vet in its tranquil, watery bosom.

She sees the deity Kujimunaa playing with the image of her about-to-be-born son, who then swims down to hug her and tell her she’s about to meet him. It’s just such a moving, beautiful, and heart-swelling scene; one that demonstrates the true power behind what Kukuru is desperately trying to protect.

In this regard, Kukuru is like Choko: the “First Penguin” to dive into uncertain waters and have a positive effect on those around them. Those who either love the aquarium, or Kukuru, or both can’t help but want to give their all in trying to help Kukuru rescue Gama Gama.

And when Kuuya points out that the penguin keychain that catches Fuuka’s eye in the gift shop was made by Kukuru, she buys one for herself. After the two visit Takeshita and her healthy baby boy, Kukuru notices Fuuka has one of her keychains, it cheers her up after the bittersweet visit when the presence of a new mother in Takeshita reminded Kukuru that hers is gone.

Kukuru’s visit to Takeshita was also instructive, as she learned more about the “maternity handbooks” she found. They’re given to expectant mothers, meaning the ones Kukuru found were her mother’s. One bore her name, but the other was blank. I’m still not sure where this thread is going, as Kukuru confirms she’s never been pregnant, but the theme of maternity is certainly a rare and intriguing one for a slice of life anime.

Kageki Shoujo!! – 03 – Toughing it Out

Ai is aloof, standoffish and antisocial, and makes it crystal clear even to a lunkhead like Sarasa that she doesn’t want to be friends with her or anyone else, despite the fact they live and learn together. Sarasa is flummoxed by this declaration, but before they properly discuss it, Ai is whisked off by her big sister, Hijiri.

This week Kageki Shoujo! takes a long, hard, and sometimes downright distressing look back at how and why Narata Ai became the way she is. She always lied about being a perfect loving daughter to her glamorous actress mother, but the lying became harder as she grew older and more beautiful.

I can’t imagine the torment of men both young and old ogling you left and right, and What a cutie being akin to Hello for her, but that’s what Ai endured. When her mother shacked up with one of those older men, that constant public torment became private. She’d always been creeped out by Seiji, but then one day he was alone wither her and kissed her with his tongue.

After such a horrific assault, Ai no longer felt safe anywhere or with anyone…except her uncle, Taichi. And thank God for Taichi, because he was at least able to give her a measure of peace and security by installing a lock on her door and giving her a key to his place should she need to run away. But before he did that, she had already been assaulted, vomited, cut her hair, and tore apart her big teddy.

Considering her interactions with men who weren’t her uncle up to the point she became an idol, it’s not surprising that one day she’d say or do something to break the façade she’d created. Now that very scruffy dude whom she called a creep at a fan event has stalked her all the way to her school. Again, Ai is fortunate Taichi isn’t far, and she runs headlong into his arms. He’s the brother and dad, the family she never had.

Taichi will always be there for his niece, but he knows she can’t go on with no friends of any gender. Kouka is a chance for her to form new bonds with peers, and Sarasa, as bombastic and annoying as she is, really is a good person who would make a great friend. Sarasa is ready to accept Ai’s rejection, but Taichi insists she keep trying with Ai.

Sarasa does so, by escorting Ai home, which leads to the scene I was hoping for: the gigantic Sarasa spreading that massive wingspan to form an impenetrable shield for Ai against the smelly stalker.

Never mind if he’s not there to “get back” at Ai like she fears, but just wanted to return her bookbag and talk to her. The fact is he had absolutely ZERO right to meet with or speak to her after following her there.

Ai may have been rude to him at the fan event, but being rude isn’t a crime, and he doesn’t get to play the victim after committing the actual crime of stalking. While it wasn’t always easy to watch, I’m glad we gained new insight into Ai’s twisted childhood and coming of age, which only makes someone like Sarasa seem more, not less, suitable to be her friend.

My only gripe is that we’ve still gotten very little actual musical theatre education in, with the exception of a brief tap class in which the teacher berated the objectively scrawny Yamada a “fattie” and all but ordered her to give up food. Fuckin’ yikes! I also wish the stalker situation had been fully resolved, instead of us being left hanging.

Even Sarasa looked a little uncomfortable confronting the guy, and no single high school girl, no matter how big or small, should have to go up against someone like that alone. I just hope that as we learned a lot about Ai, Ai also learned more about Sarasa, and how she’s someone she can lean on in times of strife.

The aquatope on white sand – 02 – Idol into water

Kukuru accepts Fuuka’s sudden offer to work, but since shes only the summer director of the aquarium, she gives Fuuka a ride to her house on her scooter (not a Super Cub, mind you!) to ask her gramps, who is director the rest of the year.

Kukuru’s gramps not only agrees to take Fuuka on at the aquarium, but will let her stay at their super cozy and comfy house. Kukuru isnt surprised by either, or by her gran accepting Fuuka’s offer to help her make Okinawan doughnuts. These are just really kind, laid back people.

The next morning starts out a little rough when Kukuru notices Fuuka’s painted nails for the first time, and perhaps too harshly demands that she remove it for the sake of the plants and animals there. Then our fish-out-of-water idol ends up in the water when she’s assigned the task of feeding some hungry penguins and makes a total cock-up of it.

While initially played for laughs (the little kids watching were certainly entertained), in the back room Kukuru chews Fuuka out for not considering the safety of the people and animals at all times. She tells Fuuka in no uncertain terms that if any creature is harmed as a result of Fuuka’s lack of care, she’ll never forgive her.

Karin, the tour guide who brought Fuuka to the aquarium in the first place, asks that she cut her friend Kukuru a little slack. The previous night, we saw Kukuru presenting a list of new equipment to Karin and their mutual friend Tsukimi (or “Udon-chan” since her fam runs a noodle diner and tsukimiudon is a thing) totalling over three million yen.

The bottom line is that Kukuru’s gramps intends to shut the long-struggling aquarium down to complete his retirement. But Kukuru is determined to stake her entire summer on breathing life into the flat-lining business. She knows that if such a special place were to close down, it would probably never come back.

When two unsavory loan sharks (heh heh) roll in and try to swindle Kukuru into debt she cant repay (or worse) and carelessly knock over the cute wooden sign welcoming guests with letters made from shells, Fuuka, having heard Kukuru’s struggle, finally shows some fire, chewing out the sharks and spraying them with the hose. As her employer, Kukuru is appalled; but as a person, seeing Fuuka go to the plate cheered her up big-time.

Karin arranges a impromptu welcoming party for Fuuka that night, with Udon-chan serving both alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks and the two boys in the show, Kuuya and Kai, also making an appearance. While Kuuya isn’t so good around girls, Kai seems to have a think for Kukuru, and the feeling isn’t necessarily not mutual. When he hears Kukuru could use another strong back, he’s not about to hide in the corner.

These scenes of people just kicking back and relaxing after a stressful day and welcoming their new gorgeous, mysterious friend, are just so lovely to behold. They emanate comfort warmth in smooth waves, like the gentle breakers on the beach. Ditto when Kukuru and Fuuka walk home in the serene darkness. You can really feel the quietude of the sleepy countryside they inhabit.

After hearing from Karin about Kukuru’s predicament with the aquarium, a fire was lit under Fuuka, resulting in her going off on those goofy loan sharks. Hearing Kukuru’s story also inspires her to open up to Kukuru about how she ended up there, living and working with her. If Kukuru’s dream is to protect her “home”—the aquarium—then Fuuka’s dream was to become a successful and beloved idol, making people happy with her singing…like Diva!

But then, quite suddenly, without warning, and without any fanfare or rancor…her dream simply ended. She heard a younger member wanted to be center for her ailing gran’s sake. She was a true idol, honorable and kind, but it was career suicide, and she was eventually cashiered out of the industry altogether.

But even if her dream ended, she still has what it takes to help support someone else’s dream; in this case Kukuru’s. At first she would have been fine ending up anywhere but back home where she’d have to face something worse than the scorn of her family and friends for her failure—but their love and understanding. Fuuka may be ready for that some day, but for now she’s fine being in a new place with new people.

And she definitely considers Kukuru a kindred spirit. The two even sigh at the same time, and the episode ends with them staring longingly into their big shimmering eyes. While their friendship has been steadily building up since the low of the penguin incident and the high of the shark-soaking, it is well and truly made official on that beach.

Fuuka is committed to helping Kukuru keep her dream alive, and her arrival has put a fresh, optimistic wind in Kukuru’s sails. I’m sure there will be more bumps (icebergs) down the road (sea?)—after all, this is a twenty-four episode series—but I’m looking forward to it more than anything else this summer.

Kageki Shoujo!! – 02 – Sink or Swim

The morning before their first day of actual classes, Ai deigns to attempt to wake Sarasa up…in the gentlest and most ineffectual way possible. But their class rep Sawa personally wakes Sarasa the hell up, because the people they’re facing this morning are far more fearsome than the JSDF: their second-year advisors, AKA “Big Sisters”.

The students of the centennial class have already demonstrated their capacity for ill-natured backbiting, but it’s the same way in the classes above them. We learn that Risa and Hijiri, Sarasa and Ai’s Big Sisters, are bitter rivals who usually hide their contempt for each other behind smiles and niceties.

When Risa flat-out tells Sarasa she’ll never be Lady Oscar, she makes the poor tall girl sob into the floorboards. When she asks why not through the tears, Risa mentions the curse of the tree, and in doing so gives Sarasa all the ammo she needs. If everyone believes the tree is cursed, she’ll just have to prove the curse is fake!

While Risa admires Sarasa’s innocence and drive (as does Sarasa’s childhood friend and kabuki actor-in-training, Akiya), Hijiri reports that “Naracchi” has “zero motivation” for Kouka. But just as Hijiri’s barbs about Risa only being suited for villainess roles have led her to strive towards greatness, she tells Hijiri they can’t know what future winds may lift Ai’s sails.

I can take a stab at the identity of that wind: she’s somewhere around 5’10” with green-tipped twin tails! But it won’t just be Sarasa’s bottomless confidence and enthusiasm gradually wearing down Ai’s apathy: she also isn’t just gong to sit back and take abuse, passive-aggressive or otherwise, from her classmates.

During class introductions (which are wonderful shorthand for the various girls’ personalities) Ai at first gives a curt description of herself, but Kaoru, the big shot legacy musume-yaku-in-waiting says everyone knows “that’s not all”. So Ai stands back up and says she’s there because she was forced to quit JPX48. It’s an important step for Ai standing up for herself against damn fools.

During a tour of backstage, Sarasa sees a dramaticaly-lit door and goes through it, leading to the main stage of the Kouka Revue. Andou-sensei warns her to get off the stage and under no circumstances walk out onto the “Silver Bridge”, the part of the stage where only Kouka’s top stars are permitted to stand.

Sarasa doesn’t break that taboo, but she also takes her sweet time leaving that stage! That’s because as soon as she stands on it, it’s clear she feels she’s where she’s supposed to be. As if by divine providence, a spotlight is cast upon her. Ai can feel that belonging too, dazzled as she is by Sarasa’s stage presence.

Incremental progress is made on several fronts. We’ve got a huge cast of young women, some sympathetic, some clearly villains, and some who are just kind of there. But as long as the spotlight stays on Sarasa and Ai most of the time, I’ll be a happy camper. As Ai’s stalker arrives in Kobe, we’ll likely learn next week how close he ends up getting to Ai, how she deals with that, and where Sarasa (or other classmates) might factor into the forthcoming confrontation.

Rating: 4/5 Stars

The aquatope on white sand – 01 (first impressions) – A strange place still near home.

First of all, kudos to Aquatope for starting out so cleanly and crisply, with a series of shots of Misakino Kukuru’s quiet Okinawa hometown that were so summery and relaxing that they gave me goosebumps. It was literally a slice of life in this place, and this episode’s full of ’em. It seems inconceivable Kukuru would be unhappy in what looks to an outsider like paradise, but maybe paradise doesn’t feel like paradise to its embedded residents.

I’m sure at some point Miyazawa Fuuka felt she was in paradise as a member of a popular idol group in Tokyo. But then suddenly it became a dreary slog, leaving her with nothing but shit-talking co-workers and an empty apartment. Her final interaction is with one of her former groupmate, who for all we know puts on just another performance, lamenting Fuuka’s departure.

Weary of an big embarrassing welcome home party in her own sleepy rural hometown, Fuuka hops on a plane to Okinawa on a lark. The tropical heat hits her like a ton of bricks, and she’s quickly scooped up by a fortune teller who turns out to be pretty nice, following as she does the local saying “meet once, and we’re siblings.” She tells Fuuka to follow Sagittarius.

Fuuka ends up nodding off on the beach, and wakes up the next morning surrounded by neat circles of washed-up coral bits. Was this the work of the cheeky looking deity to whom Kukuru offers fish heads every morning? Speaking of, Kukuru is a total fishophile, far more interested than the creatures of the sea than humans on land or their math.

When a tour guide happens to spot Fuuka suffering the onset of heatstroke, she stops her car, offers her water, and gives her some brochures. One of them promotes the Gama Gama aquarium, to which the guide, Kudaka Karin, gives her a lift. It’s here where’s I’ll admit I’m a sucker for aquariums too.

I was lucky enough to grow up in a city with one of the best in the world, and though I don’t visit nearly as much as I should considering I’m still not far, it always felt like you were crossing a threshold into an entirely new world: a world of endless, captivating blue, where the air was water and full of creatures “flying” in it.

It’s at this aquarium, which is understaffed and suffering cratering attendance and yet still absolutely magical, where Fuuka has what you might call a spiritual experience. After spotting her undersea counterpart—a little guy who hides in the corner but works the hardest, like she did in her idol group—and Fuuka starts to cry pent-up tears.

Those tears and the accompanying despair are soon washed away when the tanks start to expand out towards her. She tries to run, but is soon surrounded by water, yet is able to breathe. She becomes one with all of the fish, turtles, and even a particularly badass whale shark. Then she snaps out of it, and suddenly there is Miyazawa Fuuka.

Our two protagonists have finally encountered one another. Their stories have intersected, thanks to the otherworldly allure of the aquarium. Kukurui has a knowing look on her face; she knows that Fuuka saw “it”, as in experienced what it means to be temporarily tricked by that local deity, Kijimunaa. Apparently Kukuru has experienced something similar.

Such strange phenomena are nothing new to the aquarium or its ancient environs. It’s called “Gama Gama” due to the coral formations that make up part of the building’s architecture; thought to be the gateway between the world and underworld. And yet, as Kukuru remarks, as strange and enchanting as it all is, it’s still close to her home. It still feels like “your grandma’s living room.”

Kukuru needs staff. Fuuka needs a fresh start in a new job. These two are perfect for one another. Perhaps it was Kijimunaa’s will, fueld as it was by offertory fish heads, to point the wayward former idol to the struggling aquarium director. I foresee great things from this auspicious meeting.

As focused as the episode is on its two leads, it’s also ever contemplative of the state of Japan’s cutthroat idol culture (where a well-meaning girl who did everything right still lost) or the worsening crisis of an aging population. And while daydreaming in class, Kukuru recalls a memory of having  a “parenting journal”.

Whether kids her age are encouraged early to have babies or she actually got pregnant and either lost it or gave it away, there was such trauma and pathos coursing through Kukuru and Fuuka’s lives. Whatever wounds they both possess, perhaps they can start healing them together at the aquarium—the gateway between worlds.

Kageki Shoujo!! – 01 (First Impressions) – The Immovable Beanpole vs the Unmovable Idol

The apathetic, androphobic, recently canceled idol Narata Ai (Hanamori Numiri in top form) enrolls and is accepted into the exclusive Kouka School for Musical and Theatrical Arts, which is the training stable for the even more exclusive all-women’s Kouka Revue, a stand-in for the real-world Takarazuka Revue.

Her opening scene is a harrowing one, as she attempts to escape one pushy fawning fan only to nearly end up in the clutches of another. Considering she had to “graduate” from her idol group (an AKB48 stand-in) due to publicly calling a male fan “creepy”, the inherent unfairness of that industry has followed her to the outside.

Like Chihayafuru, Rakugo Shinjuu, 3-gatsu no Lion, and Snow White Notes, this is an anime about a very specific-to-Japan thing, which means we’re sure to get an education on the cutthroat world of elite all-women musical theater while reveling in the absolutely wonderful odd-couple pairing of Ai and Watanabe Sarasa, who is fleet, fearless, and five-foot-frikkin-ten. Ai’s quiet jadedness and practiced apathy pairs perfectly with her bold, loud skyscraper of a roomie.

The animators clearly have a lot of fun both with the size comparison and the confident ease with which Sarasa moves those impossibly long limbs. She simply moves differently from everyone else. We’ve yet to see what Sarasa can do on the stage, but it’s great to see how much chaos her huge frame and loud voice causes during ordinary life, as no bed—or hastily-built privacy curtain—can hold her.

Where the two women are similar, however, is that neither intends to play The Game of catty whispers, rumors, gossip, and bullying in which nearly all the other girls on their periphery seem to engage. Ai, because she’s trained herself not to care (though it’s clear she Idoes care); Sarasa because her head is literally in the clouds. Neither of them care what others think. In that regard, they’re two peas in a pod. They can, in theory, support one another in this hostile environment.

When a positively delightful JSDF captain drills the new students on moving in sync, he singles out both Ai and Sarasa. He tells Ai to improve her core and posture, as iodl “cutesiness” has no place in Kouka. As for Sarasa, he just reminds her to be mindful of her limbs, but is impressed when he shoves her back and she keeps her balance.

This in turn leads Sarasa to cheerfully challenge him to shove her again when she’s in a special stance that keeps her firmly grounded. It’s later revealed she used a stance taught by her grandfather, a former kabuki actor (lest we forget, there are no women in kabuki).

While she’s being a lot less aggressive about it, Sarasa is employing a similar stance with regards to Ai, insisting that as roomies they should be friends and support one another. It’s only fitting that Sarasa’s the only girl at school who doesn’t know about Ai’s dark idol past. But even if she did, I seriously doubt she’d turn on her!

Kageki Shoujo!! is off to a strong start, packed with colorful personalities and potential for some pretty cool musical and theatrical performances, which the first episode only hints at. Sarasa has also loudly proclaims she intends to be the school’s top star, and I dare anyone to try to move her from that position.

I’m totally psyched to watch the girl who won’t let herself be emotionally moved live and work with a girl who won’t let herself be physically moved unless she allows it. I imagine Ai will eventually thaw a bit in the searing sunshine of Sarasa’s personality. That stalker coming for Ai better watch out—he wants no part of that Watanabe Sequoia smoke!

Zombieland Saga: Revenge – 11 – Mall Zombies

Sakura wakes up in the morning to find she’s not feeling quite right, but it’s not due to her deteriorating zombie body, it’s because the mansion is literally adrift at sea. Yuugiri, master of understatement, declares things seem to have “taken a turn for the troublesome”.

Ookoba, who was about to publish an exposé that could have potentially shut Franchouchou down, is among those Saga residents wandering the muddy flooded streets in a daze. The goofiness of the floating mansion aside, this week takes a frank look at an all-too-realistic disaster befalling a part of Japan.

But when disaster hits, people tend to come together. After the mansion beaches itself and collapses (as flashes of their fun life there flash heartbreakingly by), Ai’s factory co-worker Machiko invites the girls to the Kaiton Mall, which has been set up as an emergency shelter. She finds a quiet spot for the girls to stay at the top of the stairs.

But the girls have no intention of sitting around idly. Even without Kotarou’s masterful human makeup at their disposal, they don’t shirk from pitching in wherever they’re needed, from helping out with cooking and distributing meals, to assisting with the sandbagging, to keeping the kids’ minds off their situation by having fun with them.

When night falls, many of the kids are scared and want to go home, but their tears dry up fast when Lily starts up her infectious scat-singing and dancing routine. The way Lily likes up the kids’ faces, even Saki can’t help but be wowed by Shrimpy’s idoly power.

The next day Ookoba finds himself at the mall, where NBK is interviewing the families who lost their homes and likely everything in them. To a person everyone keeps their chin up and stays upbeat and positive, both for their own sakes and for their children’s. That’s when Ookoba overhears a man being interviewed mention “the girls” who have been doing so much for the shelter.

On a makeshift stage lit by car headlamps, Franchouchou put on a show every night both to entertain the hell out of the kiddies (who are unassailably adorable) and soothe the adults’ hearts. There was more than one occasion when I teared up, their good works were so heartwarming.

The Grinch-like Ookoba was all gung-ho about exposing Koutarou’s “exploitation” of the idols for profit, but being in that dark mall full of people trying to avoid letting their minds stray to dark places, and seeing the light and joy Franchouchou give both on and off the stage, and he finally starts to understand why Koutarou brought them back to life.

And whither Koutarou, you might ask? Like the girls were initially on the S.S. Mansion, he’s in a somewhat ridiculous situation: the underground bar is completely flooded and both he and an ailing Gramps are just barely keeping their noses and mouths above water. Fortunately Policeman A finds them, making the first time Policeman A has done something useful!

Koutarou is freed from Davy Jones’ Locker none too soon, as the girls’ hastily applied makeup finally begins to chip, flake, and crumble. Before long all of them are in full zombie mode, and with a show to put on that night, their options are limited. An eavesdropping Ookoba spots them all with their natural looks, astonished more than anything else.

Koutarou is on his way to reunite with Franchouchou (thanks to a ride from Misa, using her boat to transport releif supplies) but won’t make it in time to help them. No matter; Junko comes up with a rather ingenious solution, using the materials she brought to make Ozaki dolls to make masks for everyone.

Unfortunately, while they’re able to sell the masks to the kids, who notice their resemblance to the dolls, as soon as the idols leap into the air and come back down, the masks crumble and fall away, and the crowd gets a good hard look at their dead gray skin, scars and bandages.

But here’s the thing: the kids are more confused than anything else. When the idols come clean and say they’re zombies, the kids dispute this. They define zombies as being scary. Franchouchou aren’t scary to them, they’re fun and cool and cute. Ergo, they’re not zombies, they’re Franchouchou.

Ai and the others go for it, hardly able to believe their luck. But in a way, it’s only appropriate that their hours of tireless, selfless hard work at the shelter, doing what they can taking care of others because it’s the right thing to do, be rewarded with a pass on their zombie “disguises.”

Ookoba can also hardly believe how lucky the girls are, but now appreciates how many risks they take every day of their existence. Koutarou sidles up to him and declares, simply, that Franchouchou are the [dis]”embodiment of pure idols”, and Ookoba is in no position to disagree.

As he lovingly reapplies each of the girls’ proper makeup to make them look alive again, Koutarou declares that their revenge concert at EFS will go on as planned in sixteen days, with little or no practice. It has to go on, especially now. Saga was hit by catastrophe, but came out all the stronger and closer for it.

As he takes his leave, Sakura tracks him down and thanks him for making her in idol from the bottom of her no-longer-beating heart. Sakura’s words cause Koutarou to recall flashes of his own failed past trying to make it big  when he attended Sakura’s funeral and held her battered, un-mailed audition package. While he knew he couldn’t save Saga on his own, he reached out to Gramps to bring back Sakura and the rest of the best of Saga throughout history.

For what I believe is the first time ever, he fully acknowledges Sakura, telling her she has “it”. She and the others have the potential to become “eternal idols loved around the globe, and being Franchouchou’s manager, he’ll eternally have “it”, too. It all starts with their revenge!

Irina and Crow talk episode 11 here. Check it out!

Zombieland Saga: Revenge – 10 – How It Started / How It’s Going

After spending two weeks in the Meiji era with the exception of the final act of last week, when Yuugiri led Franchouchou in one of their best performances yet—and oh yeah, Saga is apparently an extremely long-lived person—we find ourselves a mere year in the past, before the EFS fiasco.

The idols are riding high on their success in the snow at Arpino, but that was only a crowd of five hundred people. But Koutarou, no less high on success, decides that Franchouchou have proven themselves legendary enough to fill the same stadium where Ai died. Her feelings about performing there aside, Ai knows right from the get-go it will be nigh impossible for them to scale up so much so fast.

Despite that, the girls put their faith in their manager and in their own considerable abilities, and even pros like Ai and Junko are swept up in the boundless optimism. Then, as we know, it all goes completely and utterly to shit. Because Koutarou didn’t bother to pre-sell any tickets, the amount of concert-goers who show up manage to fit what would be the soccer field’s penalty area.

While we’ve already been told this tale of woe before in super-abbreviated form, there’s something to be said for watching the disaster unfold in real time. Not even Saki can fight through the sheer dread of playing before a mostly empty venue, while their top fans decide not to call for an encore after the girls shamble off the stage, as it would be just too cruel.

You can really feel the pain of being on that stage in that stadium. They would never have been able to put on their best performance there. Koutarou really screwed the pooch on this one, and he initially reacts to the disaster by going on a weeks-long bender.

During these dark times, Franchouchou are splintered, then exchanged some recriminations, before Yamada Tae comes in and shocks everyone by not only buying her own dried squid with Koutarou’s cash, but doing her own makeup. Just by being Tae, she shows the others that they’ve been relying on Koutarou on everything for too long, and if they have to do non-idolly work to get out of their immense debt, then so be it.

That brings us up to speed. Fast forward nearly a year, and Koutarou announces to the girls that they will once again be performing at EFS for their revenge show. This time, they’re in a far better position to command a larger crowd: there’s the audience of Saki’s radio show, Lily’s inroads with the younger kids, Yamada’s legion of fans, Maimai’s high school, and the fact Iron Frill considers them rivals.

It almost feels like history repeating, but Koutarou is determined to properly promote the concert (and hopefully allowing pre-sales of tickets, for gosh sakes), and gives the others a pep talk worthy of Gurren Lagann. Unfortunately, there’s a huge potential snag in this plan: the reporter Ookuba knows he’s somehow revived seven dead girls and is profiting off their performances. When he learns of the revenge show he’s determiend to stop it.

Frankly, this feels like a little bit of eleventh-hour antagonism for its own sake, and I’m more than a little disappointed that Ookuba is taking such a hard stance rather than letting the idols whose unlives he’s trying to upheave have their say in the matter. By going straight to Koutarou he’s stripping them of their agency. Considering how much they’ve achieved, they’ve earned the right to decide to perform, not for Koutarou, but for each other and for Saga.

That brings us back to the bar where Old Man Saga works. Years ago, Koutarou was “gloomy and half-crazed”—instead of full-crazed like he is now—and thus bought into Saga’s claims that he was an immortal being who can revive the dead and has been fighting a curse that’s been at work in Saga for thousands of years.

Turns out everything that Koutarou has done with Franchouchou has been to prevent Saga’s prophesy—of a cataclysm that will make everyone forget Saga—from coming true. It’s why he flew to close to the sun with EFS the first time, but it’s also why he’s determined to make EFS II a success that no one will ever forget, weaving their past failure into the narrative.

But as the idols prepare for their show tomorrow, Saga is pelted with increasingly harsh rains, and the wind eventually knocks out power throughout the prefecture, just as Ookoba is about to publish his exposé.

But, of course, there are larger problems than whether he saved a copy; a building that looks like Koutarou’s run-down mansion seems to sink into the saturated earth, presumably with our zombie idols inside. While I’m sure they’re safe—they’re zombies—Saga is another question entirely. Are we past the point of singing and dancing  being able to save Saga, or will we simply not see them at their most legendary until the shit has truly hit the fan?

Rating: 4/5 Stars

Zombieland Saga: Revenge – 09 – The Legend Continues

As those who share Kiichi’s views grow in number, he still finds time for tea with Yuugiri, who whips up a medicine for his ailing grandfather. Kiichi and Itou pose with Yuugiri for a photograph, which for me meant that somewhere in the present day there’s a very old black-and-white photo of the Legendary Courtesan out there—assuming it survived the war.

However, those who have joined Kiichi don’t necessarily want a new Saga for all; they want their old Saga back, and as many of them are veterans of the war lost eight years ago, they’re willing to take up arms and spill blood to do it, which is far beyond the peaceful return of Saga of which the idealistic Kiichi dreams.

Itou, in between ripping down Kiichi’s flyers and passing messengers disguised as vagrants, gives his friend one final warning to give up his crusade now that it is poised to become a violent one beyond his control. But Kiichi isn’t quite ready to give up on Saga, either for himself or the comrades he’s gathered.

Unfortunately, those comrades armed themselves and planned an armed rebellion behind Kiichi’s back. On the snowy night when they spring into action, Itou meets them in a quiet street…and cuts them all down on orders from the government.

By the time Kiichi catches up to his comrades, Itou has already slaughtered them all. It turns out he was watching out for spies all along, and while he knew Kiichi didn’t mean for things to turn out this way, he’s crossed a line he can’t un-cross, and now it’s Itou’s duty to kill him.

Yuugiri doesn’t let him, whipping a katana out of her shamisen to meet his, saving Kiichi’s life. When the local police approach with whistles blaring, Itou flees one way while Yuugiri and Kiichi go another. All the while, Kiichi’s gramps is having some kind of attack and collapses before he can reach the medicine.

After losing the fuzz, Kiichi starts to sob and whine, and Yuugiri slaps him, telling him he’s come this far for Saga’s sake and can’t give up now. As we saw in a previous scene, she’s already written to some of her many powerful friends who have sworn to protect Kiichi until things cool down. Kiichi doesn’t want to leave the Saga he loves, but he listens to the legendary savior whom he loves.

By the time Itou finds a casually smoking Yuugiri, Kiichi is long gone. Yuugiri forewarns that she was trained by someone called the “Sheathed Kichiemon”, whom Itou knows as “The Demon of Hibiya,” and thus knows he can’t go easy on her. In the ensuing one-slash duel, Yuugiri bests Itou, killing him, but is shocked that he let himself be killed.

No doubt if Itou failed to kill Kiichi, he was as good as dead anyway; he simply let Yuugiri take care of him for him. And with the snow ceasing and the clouds opening up to reveal a majestic full moon, Yuugiri accepts her fate. The next morning, Gramps wakes up and finds a letter from Yuugiri amongst the medicine.

In it, she says by the time he reads it she’ll likely be dead; beheaded by the military in a unilateral execution for killing Itou, a government official. Interspersed with her beautifully lit and solemn execution scene, she tells Gramps that if he’s truly “Saga” (as in, the human embodiment of Saga) as claimed, he’ll guide the new Saga Kiichi creates.

The following spring, May 1883, Saga re-gains independence from Nagasaki thanks to a peaceful appeal from supporters in the prefecture, and by August, unilateral execution was banned, and just nine days after that, Kiichi’s dream officially came true, as the first Saga prefectural assembly is held. Yuugiri’s death, and that of Kiichi’s comrades, weren’t in vain.

With that, we find ourselves back in the present, as Yuugiri takes center stage in a bopping swing-style concert, resplendent in period-inspired garb as her fellow idols support her. This particular concert hits different now that we’ve seen everything Yuugiri’s been through to come to this part of her (after)life.

In a very cheeky epilogue, she has some very nice whiskey in a very classy bar tended by a man who looks and sounds like a younger version of Kiichi’s gramps. He is aware that Yuugiri was alive in the Meiji era, and the black-and-white photo of her with Kiichi and Itou is behind the bar, so this guy must really be the immortal Saga.

Not only did this two-parter give the legendary Yuugiri the epic backstory he deserved, in which she was revealed a hero, martyr, and unsung founding mother to the new Saga—it also expands the mythos of the show by introducing an undying character who has been on the margins of this whole story all along, and may well be behind the necromancy that brought Yuugiri and the other idols back. In any case, I’m eager to see where this goes!

Crow and Irina talk episode 9 here!

Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba – 18 – Big Bad Spider Daddy

Puppet Mama and Spider Boy were only a warm-up for two of the three remaining members of the Spider Demon Family: Father and Rui. Needless to say they are much tougher customers, which is as it should be; why would the difficulty level go down in a demon gauntlet?

Even with Water Breathing, Tanjirou isn’t able to slice through one of Papa’s arms, and Inosuke inarguably saves his life by parrying the counterattack. Even dropping a huge tree on Papa doesn’t kill him, it only seems to make him mad. As Tanjirou goes flying, he begs Inosuke not to die, but wait for him to make his way back to him.

Zenitsu defeated Spider Boy definitively, but continues to pay the price as the poison starts shutting down his limbs. He’s all but ready to step into the light when a series of butterflies appear before him, followed by Shinobu, one of the two elite Demon Slayers sent to salvage the mission.

Tanjirou manages to cushion his fall with water breathing, but he’s only thrown from the frying pan to the freezer. Due to his strong sense of family and morality, he objects to the Spider Brother Rui apparently punishing his sister by cutting her face with his threads as she cries out in pain. Demon or no, that’s not cool. The Brother doesn’t take well to being told his familial bond with his sister is nothing but a sham.

Rui threatens to carve Tanjirou up, but is momentarily distracted by another Demon Slayer who comes out of nowhere. While claiming to be taking the easiest path to higher ranks (and higher paydays), he doesn’t practice what he preaches. He rushes in without knowing a thing about Rui, who dices him into cubic chunks with his threads.

Finally, we have Inosuke, trying to hold out against Papa Spider. While he briefly starts “using his head” like Tanjirou, he shakes that off and follows his own primal instinct to charge the enemy without fear. He keeps hacking at the arm until he manages to slice through, and Papa flees…but only to molt his own skin, revealing a bigger, tougher, meaner skin beneath it.

Inosuke’s chipped blades shatter when he attempts Beast Breathing, and Papa grabs him by the head and squeezes. Inosuke’s life flashes before his eyes, including when his bloodied mother sent him away to avoid being killed, and the interactions with Tanjirou and Zenitsu which seems to value.

Just before his skull pops (and the foley is pretty ripe) Inosuke is rescued by Giyuu, who cuts off Papa’s arm with one slash and defeats him with a single elegant Water Breathing Form. It’s a pretty convincing and awesome demonstration of just how much more powerful Giyuu is than Tanjirou, Zenitsu, or Inosuke.

Inosuke is safe, and so too is Zenitsu, but Tanjirou is still out there on his own against Rui, and we get a cliffhanger of Rui’s vicious thread cutting straight through Tanjirou’s sword on a collision course with his face. It’s a big forest, so it could take a while for help to arrive. Could the sister demon be an unlikely ally to Tanjirou? And what about his own sister—when will she pop out of her box?

Rating: 4/5 Stars

Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba – 17 – Lightning in a Bottle

Zenitsu would rather be anywhere than Mount Natagumo. He is literally shaking in his sandals, and that crushing fear is only compounded when he spots a shack and numerous bodies suspended from threads, the latter in various stages of gruesome transformation. It feels like a nightmare, and Zenitsu just wants to wake from it. Unfortunately, he’s already wide awake, and since he didn’t follow Tanjirou, he’s on his own.

It gets worse: the Spider Demon Brother’s lesser spider minions bit Zenitsu earlier, which means he’s currently doomed to transform into one of the hundreds of grotesque spiders with human heads that are currently chasing him. The Brother doesn’t see Zenitsu as much of a threat, mocking his cowardice. When Zenitsu notices his hair start to fall out, he faints in a tree.

If there’s anything we know about Zenitsu, it’s that he’s at his most effective when he’s unconscious. He recalls the day he was struck by lightning while hiding in a tree, turning his hair yellow. During his ensuing training he was only ever able to pull off the first of six Lightning Breathing Forms.

His master urged him not to be discouraged. If he could only unleash one form, then he needed to perfect that one form, just as a swordsmith hones steel into the hardest, strongest blade. Brother doesn’t expect and isn’t able to deal the fruits of Zenitsu’s rigorous training, and as a result, is beheaded.

While brother’s pocket watch breaks upon his death, his poison is still coursing through Zenitsu’s blood. Zenitsu attempts to slow his breathing and blood flow, the better to hold out if and when someone finds him.

While this episode spent a lot of time fleshing out Zenitsu’s character, it also continues the development of Inosuke as someone who detests being coddled or seen as weak. He laughs off his clearly serious bleeding wounds, and refuses to leave the mountain until the job’s done.

Tanjirou, obviously, isn’t going anywhere until he’s had his shot at the member of the Twelve Kizuki, whose blood could help cure Nezuko. Unfortunately his usually reliable sense of smell continues to be adversely affected by a distractingly acrid odor, such that he doesn’t even notice the presence of the Spider Demon Sister.

Sister gets Inosuke to chase after her, but she’s only posing as a lure for her Father, who looks to be the berserker (and possibly the Kizuki) of the family. Inosuke may end up learning the hard way not to leap headlong into a battle when you’re at less than 100%.