Fate / Zero – 22

For an episode preceded by such disturbing spectacle as a broken man murdering his best friend and making Rin an orphan, and followed by the casual malice of a born-again nihilist discarding his hostage before setting a foreboding trap, this episode has the most charming, heartwarming opening: an exhausted Waver finally arrives back home just before daybreak.

We know it’s not really his home, and he hypnotized its occupants into thinking he’s their grandson. But when his “grandpa” beckons for him to join him on the roof for a truly spectacular sunrise, something else dawned on me: Waver is Me. He’s the most normal, decent, well-adjusted participant in a war stocked with utter weirdos on all sides.

He seeks only simple glory and acknowledgement; the underdog raised high; his doubters and haters silenced. Sure, hypnotizing the couple was wrong, but how can I judge when even after the hypnosis wears off, the grandpa is not only forgiving, but wants Waver to stay. He’s a better grandson than they ever had.

On to the weirdos. While I more easily related to him early as a young kid having fun before all hell broke loose, and continue to recognize the emotions in his heart, support his goals (as laid out by Iri) and feel for his many losses, I simply haven’t lived a life as intense as Kiritsugu, so while I’m rooting for him, I’m on the outside looking in with Kiritsugu.

And Kiritsugu is alone again. It’s not ideal, but he’s not going to slow down or stop, even though he’s gone forty hours without sleep. He says “alone again” because, like Natalia, Maiya has left him. He doesn’t seem to count Saber as a person he can work with or trust, let alone a person at all; instead, she’s a tool to win the war, and he treats her as coldly as ever as she makes her report.

Kiritsugu probably also feels alone because Iri has been taken by the enemy, and he no doubt fears he won’t see her alive again. But a defiant Iri makes use of her captivity by Kirei to get in a number of barbs that cut the priest to the quick. Notably, that Kiritsugu isn’t an “empty man” like him; he seeks nothing less than the salvation of the world through the elimination of all violence and conflict.

Unsurprisingly, Kirei hears nothing but the naive utterings of a child in these words, but Iri does manage to give him something he didn’t have before he kidnapped her: Kiritsugu’s dream, which he will now proceed to destroy, along with the Holy Grail itself, which he can think of no use for. And since he gets all he needs out of Iri, he snaps her neck, seemingly killing her.

That I’m a bit fuzzy on how this whole Einzbern homonculus system works—and thus unclear whether Iri is dead dead or even ever alive—is irrelevant; it’s still absolutely gutting to see such a gentle, loving person treated with such contempt. Kirei is one hell of a villain, and his frustration and resentment for lacking something fundamental Kiritsugu seems to possess is palpable; he’s an almost pitiable wretch.

After that unpleasantness, what sure feels like the final day of the War transitions into the final night, and Waver awakes to find Rider in no particular hurry. Mage signals in the sky indicate that someone wishes to challenge them—Kirei arrranges for Archer to fight Rider while Berserker will keep Saber company—and Rider summons a horse, the backup to his chariot.

Waver has no intention of going along. As Rider said, only the strong remain, and Waver doesn’t consider himself strong. He’s Just A Guy, after all, the Everyman of Fate/Zero, with no business in the final battles. He even expends all of his Command Seals at once so he can say with certitude he is no longer Rider’s Master.

And yet Rider still picks him up by the scruff and dumps him in front of him on his horse. He wants Waver to accompany him as he has on all of their great battles thus far, not because he’s his Master, but because they’re friends and equals.

Having gone from gut-punch to heartwarm, the episode closes with a bit of a mindblower, as Iri, apparently not quite dead (or…whatever) after all, goes Beyond the Infinite.

In a surreal, bizarre and thoroughly unsettling sequence that calls to mind Akira, Evangelion, and Dalí, Iri sees hundreds of naked doll bodies piled up before her, one of which cracks a way-too-wide evil grin; then she has a touching scene with her daughter Ilya before an oozing black darkness encroaches upon them, and dozens of tiny arms grab at her and pull her down into the goo.

When she emerges, she realizes what’s happening: she’s in the Holy Grail. What exactly that means, and whether and how she can aid her beloved from there, remains to be seen. But I have to say I’m digging the extra metaphysical layer the show has revealed.

Sword Art Online II – 23

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With the Sleeping Knight’s final victory sealed and her friendship with Yuuki forged and galvanized, Asuna still has a battle to fight; one that will define the rest of her life. And yet, here she is, setting her own problems aside and working feverishly with Kirito to help Yuuki ‘come to school’ via a remote-controlled A/V interface. It cannot be said enough: Asuna is The Best.

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It occurs to me that this like the first time in the whole two-season run of the anime (that I can remember anyway) where we sit down with Asuna’s class and just go through the normal school motions, without any other distractions (the virtual Yuuki on Asuna’s shoulder excepted). That, and the almost eerie, dreamlike way the classroom is lit, along with the enthusiasm of the class itself, gives this ordinarily mundane scene so much more weight and significance.

We’re seeing things, like Yuuki, for the first time. The cut to Yuuki in the school uniform as she gives a tremendously moving reading of “The Truck” — a story that starts with somebody looking from afar at something and wishing they could be there — so beautiful. I’m not surprised the class is enthralled by the reading, and Asuna, who can hear Yuuki’s experiences and feelings beyond the words of the book, even gets teary-eyed, as did I.

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Beautiful, contemplative, and tremendously moving — all are great adjectives to describe this episode, which I think is SAO’s best ever, despite not having one sword in it and only spending a small portion of its time in the virtual world. The first half of the episode is all about Asuna showing Yuuki both the world as it is that she’d never seen, and her life that was, in her hometown and abandoned family home.

Their entire walk, like the school scene, is filmed and lit extra-beautifully so as to underscore what a special occasion it is for Yuuki. Asuna (and Kirito) literally gave her the ability to exist in the real world again, if only in a limited way. Asuna doesn’t know it, but she’s about to be rewarded for her immense kindness.

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Yuuki talks about her mother, and how being here and now finally allows her to understand what her mother meant when she said: “God does not give us more suffering than we can bear”. She thought at first it was only another recited bible verse, but realized that her mother was surrounding and infusing those words with her own feelings and experience, as Yuuki herself did with her class reading.

Asuna tells Yuuki about own problems with her mother, and Yuuki gives her the advice she needs, borne out of the experience Asuna made possible for her, and burnished by the fact that every day Yuuki lives—be it in the real or virtual world—is to be treasured, and not wasted hiding one’s true feelings, or running away.

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Again, look how dark the room Asuna’s mother Kyouko is sitting in when she comes to her that night. They have been talking at each other rather than actually communicating, and the darkness represents their present impasse. Yet SAO II is smart and I daresay bold considering its past problems with bad guys to not portray Kyouko as just another unreasonable, irredeemable villain to be defeated and shamed.

There is hope for Asuna to connect with her mother; she just needs to figure out how to get her feelings to reach her, and how to reach her mom’s feelings as well. It’s clear to her that that can’t be done in the real world, face-to-face. Instead, she brings her mother a headset and begs her to join her in the virtual world so she can say what she has to say properly.

The office is dark, but it is also warm. There’s still hope and love in there somewhere.

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Kyouko, always driving the hard bargain, grudgingly agrees, but only for five minutes, and Asuna must first understand that she won’t be changing her mind about her having to transfer. She also demands Asuna fill out the necessary paperwork as soon as her five minutes are up.

The scene when Asuna logs in and finds Kyouko in her cabin, checking out the Sylph sub-account avatar Asuna assigned to her, is just so funny and charming, particularly when she and Asuna get in a little mini-spat about each others’ weights, which is such a mom-daughter thing to do…especially if both are lookers, which they are.

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The cabin is oddly cool in color and lighting, but like the school, the change gives what had been a routine locale for Asuna and Kirito’s crew much more of a sense of occasion and ‘special-ness’, because her mom is there for the first time. When she opens the window and the cold hush of the snowy forest fills the speakers, things get even more immersive.

Then we learn another reason why the cabin has so much sentimental value to Asuna, beyond her time there with Kirito and the others: it’s not at all unlike the real world cabin where Asuna’s grandparents – Kyouko’s parents – used to live. And one Obon when Asuna was there with them alone, and they told her how much their daughter Kyouko was a treasure to them, rising so fast and touching so many lives as a result of working so tirelessly to become great.

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Here, in that cabin, Asuna can tell her mother that while there’s nothing particularly wrong with putting the betterment of oneself above all else, it can’t be her way of life. She wants to support others, protect them, and improve their lives, while improving her own in the process. I’m not putting it nearly as eloquently or beautifully as Asuna, obviously, but it was a phenomenal exchange, perhaps one of the best in the show’s run.

T_T *Sniffle*…oh gosh, it’s so dusty in here. Does anyone have any Kleenex?

Heck, even Asuna’s mom tears up…a lot. While in the real world she can stifle her tears with her ‘armor’; here she can’t, and they come flowing out from the power of Asuna’s words. Her mom’s response to this: “What an inconvenient world”, is just such a perfect thing her character would say under such circumstances. Just one of so many great lines in this episode.

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The next morning, to Asuna’s relief, the dining room is full of light; her words and feelings reached her mother, no matter how stiff and stern she looks sitting there. She lauds her daughter’s desire to help and support others, but insists she do what is necessary to become strong enough to do that stuff, which means studying her fanny off, keeping her grades up, and getting into university.

If she can do those things, it’s fine for her to stay in the school she wants. It’s a transaction, a comrpomise; but it’s one arranged after the two parties had properly communicated, not one foisted upon the other, and so it’s one Asuna can live with.

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Aww, just look how goshdarn happy Asuna is. And she deserves it. She didn’t trick her mother or plunge a sword through her heart; she merely found a way to get what she needed to say through to her. That way was the virtual world, but in this case its trappings were that of Asuna’s memories and emotions, and not a wholly artificial fantasy world. SAO wasn’t just a game because lives were at stake; here Asuna uses ALO to fight for her life in a very different way, but it’s just as vital. And it’s all thanks to Yuuki’s moving, motivating words.

It’s a far better resolution to her conflict with her mother than I could have possibly hoped for. The writing really has soared in the Rosario Arc, as has the emotional resonance. This episode didn’t have a single sword fight or magic spell or crotch shot. Instead, it kept its characters shining even in the midst of considerable plot movements; and it moved me to tears more than once (though I’m told I’m a bit of a crybaby). For those reasons and far more, it is SAO’s best episode and masterpiece.

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Chuunibyou demo Koi ga Shitai! – 07

Summer vacation arrives, and Shinka, Kumin, Sanae, Isshiki, and Yuuta travel with Rikka to her grandparents’ house by the beach. Yuuta notices Rikka is quieter than usual, and when they arrive at the house, she retreats to her room. Later Tooka tells him Rikka hasn’t been able to accept that their father is dead. Tooka wants him to help Rikka grow up and accept, but Yuuta takes Rikka’s side instead, and they bike to the house where she used to live with her father, mother, and Tooka, now just an empty lot for sale.

If you’d told us some of the most poignant drama and most important character development of the series thus far would come in the beach episode, we’d have had our doubts. But unlike a (sub)standard obligatory beach outing, the fanservice isn’t the raison d’être of the episode; merely garnish (there aren’t even bikinis until ten minutes in). Instead the beach is just where Rikka and Tooka’s grandparents happen to live, and where Rikka doesn’t want to but probably should face some painful truths, namely: her father is dead, her mother is gone, and it’s time to grow up. It’s implied he was ill, but his wish to go suddenly without warning Rikka, along with all the domestic fallout thereafter, is a big reason why she turned to Chuunibyou.

We always knew Rikka’s living situation wasn’t ideal, but now we have firm and highly reasonable rationale for her obsession with fantasy. Fantasy is an escape; magic can distract from not only the mundane, but the painful. Feeling for Rikka, Yuuta can’t rip the band-aid off the way Tooka wants. He knows Rikka shouldn’t go on like this – it’s not even a matter of liking the things she likes or saying weird things, its the fact she’s also hiding from real life. Yuuta and Rikka’s scenes this week are, as usual, the best. He helps her escape to her old house, not wanting to destroy his clout as Dark Flame Master. But Tooka is clearly running out of patience. She wants progress and she wants it soon.


Rating: 8 (Great)