Those Snow White Notes – 02 – Let Loose and Take Flight

Setsu remembers back when a girl in his class was mad he dropped out of a shamisen competition, calling him a coward who was running away with tears in her eyes. She wanted to beat him, but it was more than that: she clearly admired and respected his play as someone worth working to defeat. When he tactlessly tells her he only cares about his grandfather’s sound, she slaps him.

It’s that same cheek—along with the other one—that Setsu’s mother is grasping when he finally comes to after being gassed. Umeko, would never win Mother of the Year, but she’s at least concerned enough about her son to establish some structure to his new home in Tokyo, setting him up in a boarding house in the vibrant old town (Shitamachi) and enrolling him in school.

When Setsu tells his mom he’s lost his sound, Umeko asks how far it went, and insists he answer with his shamisen. Beside the boarding house room’s open window that overlooks a bustling street, Umeko challenges Setsu to make everyone down there turn and look as he accompanies her singing, warning she won’t tolerate disgraceful play.

It’s then, during his playing and her singing of “Tsugaru Ohara Bushi”, that we learn that while she’s by all appearances a pompous, arrogant, and overbearing force of nature, Sawamura Umeko is perfectly able to offset those traits with her singing talent. Tetsu says he “hates” her, but her voice has always made his heart tremble. You and me both, bud!

Unlike her personality when not singing, Umeko’s voice is more than a force of nature: it’s all four seasons. It’s apropos that her song can be interpreted as the life cycle of an apple tree…and a woman. From the first note she sings, the unyielding power, confidence, and beauty of her voice is plain…and terrifying.

For a bit under four minutes, I was transported to nirvana, experiencing winter, spring, summer, and autumn, feeling the wind blowing, smelling the blossoms and ripening fruit. Every single person in the crowd below stops what they’re doing, turns to the window, and listens. A girl seemingly falls in love before our eyes.

Umeko and Setsu put a spell on everyone, including me…and then Setsu breaks a string before he can finish his big solo, and it’s all over but the ovation below. Umeko admits she did this so Setsu would make a good first impression on the neighborhood, ensuring he could practice whenever he wants.

But that night, all of the praise and promised freebies from his neighbors amounts to nothing in Setsu’s angsty thoughts. All Umeko has done is ensure he can continue drifting along and going with the flow, accomplishing nothing; amounting to nothing. Methinks our boy doth protest too much…I think he’s got a pretty sweet deal here!

The next morning at the boarding house restaurant run by a father-daughter pair, Wakana arrives as promised to see Setsu to his first day at his new school. Umeko gave Setsu a choice: continue his education, or return to Aomori. The brothers’ breakfast and tense discussion is interrupted by their mother in a cosmetic ad on TV.

As they walk to Setsu’s school, Wakana tells him about the competition he just came from, in which he placed third. First Place went to Kamiki School master Ogata Kousuke, while Second Place went to his kohai, third-year high schooler Tanuma Souichi. Setsu recognizes the name Tanuma, as his little sister was in the same year as him, and indeed girl who slapped him in his flashback.

While Setsu gave up on competition to try to pursue his gramps’ sound, Tanuma Mai won in the competition’s women’s division, telling Wakana prior to the performances that he was no match for the Kamiki School…and turned out to be right. With Wakana and Setsu’s master deceased, it’s as if they’ve hit a brick wall and are “stuck in the dark”.

Between his good looks and refreshing accent, Setsu is well-received by his classmates despite his cool introduction. Wakana learns Umeko told some tall tales (and signed a fat check) to get Setsu enrolled so quickly. While in the faculty lounge with his homeroom teacher Kobayu-sensei, Setsu meets Maeda, a girl in his class who also happens to head up the school’s shamisen appreciation club.

She also happens to have a shamisen left at the school by one Ogata Kousuke. Setsu is initially troubled by the idea of a tourist like Maeda handling such a honed instrument, but lowers his hackles when she looks at him forlornly with trembling eyes and asks “Is it wrong for me…to touch it?” Phrasing!

He helps her assemble the shamisen, which has a torn skin as a result of disuse and neglect. But other than that correctable flaw (at the not insignificant cost of ¥40-50k!) he recognizes it as a particularly exquisite specimen. Maeda is smitten with it, and with Setsu, who clearly knows his shamisens. Alas, before she can properly thank him, Setsu has executed a perfect Batman exit.

Wakana meets up with him after school and presents him with the parting gift of a genuine kiri wood case, which Setsu clearly loves. Wakana also says he now understands more why Setsu left home, considering the burdens left for him there. Setsu tells Wakana how, like penguins and seals can recognize the call of their young out of a group of hundreds, he’ll always be able to pick his brother’s sound out of a chorus of shamisens.

Before Wakana takes his leave, Setsu suggests they go somewhere and play something together. They invite the boarding room father and daughter (Sakura) to join them, and they pick out a nearby Inari shrine where Sakura assures them the kitsune won’t mind their music.

Talk about it! Once again a musical number sends me straight to heaven. The two brothers play a piece with no title they came up with when they were younger and “just messing around”. As Sakura and her dad stand absolutely rapt, the brothers’ music summons images of a golden light-soaked Aomori evening. Wakana recounts how Setsu would always follow him. He’d run ahead, or climb a tree, and Setsu would fall behind and cry.

But then Wakana would take Setsu’s hand and bring him along, making sure he didn’t fall too far behind or feel lonely. Back and forth they’d go, just as their dueling shamisens chase each other. The piece gets very quiet for a bit, then they both cut loose and take flight like birds.

Sakura recognizes that this is no idle strumming, but the melody of the two brothers; the vocalization of their love and devotion; a dialogue of souls bound by blood far stronger than words could manage. With fresh strings on Setsu’s shamisen, the piece ends properly with a two-note exclamation point: blang-blang. The duet is the perfect cap to another perfect episode of Those Snow White Notes. Now the wait begins for the third episode, when Maeda will no doubt attempt to recruit Setsu into her club.

Higehiro – 01 (First Impressions) – Inadvertent Guardian

Yoshida had the evening with his attractive co-worker Gotou all planned out in his head. They’d have a nice dinner at a fancy restaurant, and if things went well, he’d ask if she wanted to come home with him. He hadn’t banked on the possibility Gotou was already seeing someone for years, and simply never mentioned it at work because she wanted to keep life and work separate—which is perfectly reasonable.

Thus rejected, Yoshida goes and gets drunk with a friend until that friend has to head back home to his wife. Yoshida blabbers about how Gotou “tricked” him, and stole his heart and won’t give it back, but I’ll forgive his attitude as he’s allowed to wallow in defeat, drunk and horny as he is. The bottom line is Yoshida didn’t want to look past sleeping Gotou, and now he’s a little lost at sea.

He most certainly didn’t plan to encounter a runaway teenage girl (voiced by Ichinose Kana) outside his apartment, nor for this girl to offer to let him sleep with her in exchange for a roof over her head for the night. But even when her other options are seemingly ruled out, Yoshida makes it quite clear that he’s not sleeping with a “little kid”, nor is he prepared to leave her to the tender mercies of the night.

So, in his drunk and staggering state, he invites her in, then collapses into his bed to pass out. The girl, no stranger to crashing at men’s houses in exchange for sex (though she is thankfully not shamed for this), sits on the bed and asks matter-of-factly “Hey, are you sure you don’t want to do me?” He’s sure. When asked if there’s anything else he wants, before passing out he mumbles “miso soup.” The next morning, that’s what he gets: miso soup, made by the girl he flat-out forgot he invited in last night!

When he hears how he rejected her offer of sex, he salutes his last-night self, relieved nothing sordid happened. She also mentions how he mumbled about being rejected by someone named Gotou, and whether he wanted her to make him “feel better”. Once again, he declines, saying he’s not so far-gone he needs “a tiny little teenage girl” to do that.

When she points out that her breasts are quite big and asks “aren’t F-cups you can touch better than H-cups you can’t?” he flat-out asks why she’s trying to seduce him…and if she even wants to sleep with him. She says she doesn’t, but then embraces him and says she’s never met a man willing to let her stay for nothing in return, so maybe he’s the “abnormal” one. That’s when Yoshida, God bless him, asks for her ID, a gesture that again makes clear he’s not interested in her in that way.

He learns her name is Ogiwara Sayu, that she ran away from high school in Hokkaido six months ago. When he tells her to go home already, she says she’s sure they’re happy she’s gone, Ichinose Kana’s voice breaking ever-so-slightly. The more Yoshida thinks about Sayu, the worse he feels about it. He takes it out on her to a degree by calling her “stupid”, “dumb as a rock”, and “a spoiled brat”.

But beneath those harsh barbs, he understands that Sayu is not “fine” as she says in the slightest; that what she’s had to do to survive since leaving home is not right or okay. More than she’s an idiot, she’s a victim: both of a home that she felt she had to leave, and to a world apparently full of men who taught her all the wrong lessons and twisted values and standards. He’s also angry that such a kind and sweet young woman couldn’t have a “normal life” and a “normal love”.

Obviously, Yoshida’s positions are showing both his privilege and paternalism. The former was a result of his own upbringing and life experience; the latter was learned through both, just as Sayu learned a certain way of living the last six months. But I can forgive the motives behind his fundamentally principled choice to stop this child from being harmed anymore by offering her a safe, clean place to stay.

I’m not going to pretend that in the real world this isn’t his choice to make. As a matter of law, he should probably go to the police, right? And yet who’s to say Sayu wouldn’t be harmed anyway if he took that route? Considering what she’s been doing to stay away from her home, it’s clear going back there isn’t what’s best for her. Being placed into an overworked and uncaring social services system also wouldn’t be much better.

The fact there are no easy answers or cut-and-dried solutions add a lot of welcome emotional heft to the whole scenario. Yoshida, whom I mentioned is somewhat lost at sea, has encountered a fellow castaway adrift and rudderless, who has the added disadvantage of being far too young to have to endure the waves. So for now, he decides to lash their ramshackle rafts together and chart the course of least harm.

The more time he spends with Sayu, the more disappointed in his fellow man he becomes. When he heads out to the patio to smoke, she calls him “nice”, but our boy Yoshida is not so deluded to think he’s some saint, and makes it clear to her in perhaps his best line of the episode: “Listen up! I’m not nice. They were shit.” He contemplates the environment that put Sayu in such an unfairly precarious situation, and even implicates himself for “letting her stay spoiled” by giving her a place to run to.

But even as he checks headlines about an unrelated case of a man arrested for kidnapping a teenager, and Sayu walks over him, inadvertently giving him a look up her skirt, Yoshida isn’t about to cut the ropes of her raft free. He found her on those waves, which means he feels responsible for her well-being. That doesn’t just mean a roof under her head, but more appropriate clothes, pajamas, and a futon to sleep on.

Sayu isn’t ready to accept all this without worrying about not being able to repay him in some way. Yoshida is again disheartened by the fact a kid has to think that way, but indulges her by insisting that the cooking and cleaning she’s done constitute more than adequate payment, and that arrangement will serve for the time being.

The next morning over breakfast, Yoshida explains to Sayu that it isn’t the act of shaving that makes him feel old, but becoming too lazy to shave every day. Sayu spares no tact in saying he doesn’t look good with stubble, so he decides to shave after all. The exchange indicates this won’t be a one-way street. Perhaps in helping keep this lonely damaged girl safe, Yoshida can find a new course in life post-Gotou rejection.

Higehiro is fraught with potential problems, as all series involving an adult and a child always are. And yet unlike the horrifically skeevy KoikimoHigehiro presents its situation, questions and arguments in good faith, and from a place of human decency and empathy. It’s a compelling, hopeful tale of an imperfect person trying to do the right thing for someone who has already been wronged far too much. Unlike Koikimo, I don’t feel like I need a shower after what I saw, but rather want to see what happens next!

Rating: 4/5 Stars

Somali and the Forest Spirit – 07 – The Witching Hour

As he did with Shizuno and Yabashira, Golem confides in Haitora the truth of his dwindling lifespan, and how like Haitora he won’t be around to see his charge grow up. It’s like he’s getting the weight of the lie off his chest; dropping the facade of pretending everything’s okay with Somali.

Even so, Haitora considers Somali all too lucky to have found Golem, as she gets to live her life with a smile on her face and with peace of mind thanks to her guardian’s care, despite being a human.

Haitora’s words make Golem feel lighter in the chest. Anyone who thinks Somali hasn’t made him more human isn’t paying attention. The next day, Golem and Somali say goodbye to Haitora and Uzoi, but Uzoi promises Somali they’ll meet again once she’s found a cure for Haitora. I for one would have enjoyed them remaining together longer, especially since it makes sense for all four of them should be headed in the same direction.

That’s because Golem and Somali’s new destination is a village filled with witches who bear a solemn duty to amass all of the world’s knowledge. If there was a cure for eating harpy flesh, you’d guess you’d find it there. Alas, it’s just Golem and Somali, who are greeted by a bevy of witches selling all manner of delicious food an drink, in which the food-crazy Somali is all to happy to indulge. The village is gorgeous with its whimsical architecture and glowing light.

The pair are directed to the Witches’ Crest Library, a huge and grand structure containing millions of books of every conceivable topic. Just being led into the libarary and hearing the various voices bounce off the walls has a major impact, a feeling of being truly immersed into this gradually expanding fantasy world. Somali is eager to read a book about food, and I’m surprised she knows how to read!

Among the myriad non-human clans of this world, one would think witches, like harpies, would be able to “sniff out” a human in disguise. But if their magical hosts detect Somali’s true nature, they don’t make an issue of it. Instead, friendly librarian witch Hazel and her bookworm older sister Praline are happy to escort Golem to the location of a biography that makes mention of humans.

Things are derailed a bit when Somali locates the book in question on a shelf and recklessly pulls it off the shelf, dislodging a school of skeletal book-eating fish who are particularly interested in that particular book. Praline summons several little blue penguins to eat the fish, while Hazel produces a cloud of rose petals that squash the remaining beasts out. Their magic, and the accompanying music, adds the whimsical, wondrous atmosphere.

Even Hazel’s spell isn’t enough, however, as the surviving bookfish coalesce into a single giant subspecies. Somali refuses to give up the book, runs off, and inevitably trips over her feet. The book goes flying and the bookfish destroy it before a single page can be written. Worse, Golem must sacrifice the remaining “skin” on his arm and enter into a reflexive Attack Mode to rescue Somali and defeat the fish boss.

Somali is tearfully apologetic for getting Golem hurt, but he’s not concerned as long as she’s okay. Praline also suggests that all is not lost if they can find the previous person to have read the book, who could then share its contents with Golem and Somali. It turns out the last borrower of the book was Isolde Nebsolv, their boss and Head Librarian.


Somali and the Forest Spirit – 06 – Love Never Lies

When Uzoi tells Somali what she’s doing and why, Somali doesn’t take it lying down. She screams so hard she hurts Uzoi’s sensitive ears and runs. While fleeing, Somali falls off a cliff into a pond, and Uzoi jumps in and saves her.

As Somali whimpers, soaked and cold, Uzoi extends one of her harpy wings around her, inverting its previous use as the prelude to an attack. When Golem and Haitora arrive, Somali protects Uzoi from her dad, while Uzoi crumbles into her dad’s arms, lamenting that she just couldn’t do it.

As we gathered last week, Haitora is nothing but glad she couldn’t do it, and we learn why when he delves into his past to explain to Golem why he’s not deserving of Uzoi’s love. For he was once in her position, after he and his wife and daughter were forced to flee their small human settlement when it was raided by “grotesques.”

Trapped in a cave with no food or water for days, a desperate Haitora happens upon an adult harpy—Uzoi’s mother. And because he and his family is starving and there’s no other option, he kills the harpy without a moment’s hesitation, then drags the body back to the cave. “We have to be like them” to survive, he gravely tells the family in his failing voice.

They all tuck into the raw harpy meat, and within a few minutes, both his wife and daughter suffer unspeakably agonizing deaths before his eyes. This is the kind of graphic horror I came to expect of Made in Abyss, and it’s just as unsettlingly naturalistic in its depiction here.

As we’ve learned, Uzoi has great hearing, so she hears Haitora’s confession to Golem and learns her whole life with him was based on lies. Even after Somali lazily forgives her friend for trying to kill her and drain her blood, Uzoi (whose name sounds a lot like usoi, Japanese for “lying”) faces existential despair and emptiness in the wake of Haitora’s words.

She’s so depressed, in fact, that when they come across a dragon twister while traversing the desert, and the winds pick her and Somali up, she takes one last pained look at Haitora and lets go, in that moment preferring death to living a terrible lifelong lie any further.

The moment also confirms to Haitora that Uzoi heard him last night. He wants to rush out to save her, but Golem insists they stay put until the storm subsides, using his fancy eye to calculate where the girls are likely to survive grave injury by landing on the soft sand.

When Golem spots the girls later, they’re being attacked by an aggressively territorial canterbird. He quickly formulates a plan wherein he serves as a decoy to allow Haitora to get the girls to safety, but Haitora quickly adopts his own plan, hoping to give what’s left of his wretched life leading the canterbird away. To his surprise, upon being cornered the canterbird is stopped…by Uzoi.

Unwilling to let him die without talking to her, Uzoi would much rather he stay alive with her, proving true Somali’s earlier words that “love doesn’t lie.” Love isn’t always happy, or clean; even Somali is aware of this if she doesn’t know her father is dying. Sometimes those who love each other wound each other, but the scars can’t be ignored, even if they’re deepened by confronting them.

Hayami Saori puts on a clinic performing this scene, which comes as no surprise if you follow her voice work. When you need a character to deliver dramatic dialogue movingly and convincingly, Saori-chan is someone you can always count on. Even so, she never ceases to amaze me with her remarkable vocal talent.

Haitora, realizing he was only trying to take the easy way out, re-commits to living with Uzoi as long as he humanly can. Not out of obligation to atone for his past sins and lying about them, but for a more important reason: he and Uzoi are family, and they love one another, period.

But even if he’d been persuaded to drink Somali’s blood (something he’d never do after what happened with his family) it likely wouldn’t have worked. Harpies are magical creatures, so it’s likely magic is needed to heal him. If you need magic, you’ll need witches, whom we glimpse in the preview.

Somali and the Forest Spirit – 05 – Sun of the Harpy

With Somali fully recovered, she and Golem bid farewell to their kind shurigara hosts and continue their journey. Upon arriving in Winecup Village, dramatically nested in the caldera of an extinct volcano, they meet a very similar pair of travelers: the harpy Uzoi and her guardian Haitora.

Like Golem, Haitora is dying, but he’s a human in disguise like Somali. Uzoi is not only aware Haitora is dying, but the purpose of their journey is to seek a cure for his illness. Finally, someone has finally sniffed out Somali: Due to her heightened harpy senses, Uzoi can tell from Somali’s smell she’s no minotaur.

After a brief clash over last serving of sweet corn ice cream, Uzoi enthusiastically offers free passage through the desert on their wagon if Golem and Somali assist with loading their baggage. They take her up on her offer, but later that evening, Uzoi reveals her ulterior motive to Haitora.

This is the first important scene in painting Uzoi as more than a malicious villain. The clock is ticking on the one and seemingly only other person in her life, for whom she clearly harbors deep affection. She’s run out of time and options, and may never come across another human again.

While she’s willing to do whatever it takes to save Haitora, it’s clear throughout their ensuing desert journey that Uzoi is conflicted and not at all happy about what she believes must be done. She and Somali quickly form a sororal bond, that between an older and younger sister.

All the while, both Uzoi and Haitora shift in their seats, knowing they’re on the cusp of doing something terrible to good people for selfish reasons. Hayami Saori’s kind, soothing, gentle voice is the perfect choice for the conflicted Uzoi. Whenever Haitora tries to dissuade Uzoi from carrying out her plan, he suffers a coughing fit, underscoring the urgency of their plight.

When the four seek shelter in a cave full of flowing crystals and light-bearing torchbugs, Uzoi makes her move, going off with Somali to fetch water, pouncing on her, and spreading her wings to reveal her full harpy form. She feels bad about killing Somali so her blood can save Haitora, but she’s still going to do it.

That is, unless Golem can stop her in time. Haitora finally speaks up to Golem about his human status, and begs him to help him stop the misguided Uzoi. Haitora wants no part of making someone so young suffer and die so he can live a little longer. Like Golem, he’s struggling to prepare Uzoi for a life without him, which to both her and Somali must seem as unthinkable as living without the sun.

Somali and the Forest Spirit – 03 – When Their Journey is Over

It’s clear Golem has been made more human by having Somali around. Heck, he only got her near the very end of his millenium-long life, meaning he’s already been bestowed the limited mortality of a human. He’s been good at keeping her safe and her true identity hidden, but he still has a long way to go when it comes to maintaining her emotional welfare.

This is evidenced by the sudden speed and urgency of their journey, which leads to the gorgeous, fantastical Anthole City. Golem learns the meager loot he carries fetches only a modest price. To keep Somali fed and to gather the supplies needed to continue the journey, he needs more money.

He finds a source when Kokilila, the owner of a cafe, needs a waiter. Golem institutes a strict agreement with Somali: she’s to stay within the cafe, under his supervision, at all times while he’s working. Even with Kokilila’s son Kikila as a fluffy playmate, she gradually grows bored and restless (as does Kikila).

However, for Golem the need to make as much money as possible overrides Somali’s need for recreation stimulation. He knows it’s not ideal for her to be cooped up in the cafe all day, but as he doesn’t trust anyone else to watch her and isn’t certain others will be okay at all with the fact she’s a human, there’s no choice.

Even when Golem isn’t working, his tendency to count his earnings is not lost on Somali either, and absent any explanation for her dad’s haste, she begins to believe he wants to end their journey and part ways with her as soon as possible. Sure, it might well trouble her more to learn he’ll be dead in less than two years, but at least she’d know it wasn’t because he didn’t want her around.

Because that’s what she gleans from his behavior, when Golem finally allows her to join Kikila on a simple errand, Somali grasps onto the city legend about yozame flowers and their ability to grant a wish. That leads the two kids (and fast friends finally sprung from their cafe prison by their guardians) to the city’s majestic but perilous subterranean caverns.

Of course, the moment Somali left Golem’s supervision, a knot formed in my stomach. This early in the show I’m still not sure how far it will stray to the dark side and present situations in which Somali is in true peril (like, say, Abyss, which was merciless to its young characters). We get a slightly clearer picture here, as Somali’s innocent plucking of a flower awakens an toothed eyeball mushroom monster.

She is rescued from said monster not by Golem or Kikila—who let us just say truly failed in his mission to keep her safe—but by a big, gruff, crossbow-wielding wolf-man who may be able to tell she’s a human from her smell. He could even be a member of the clan that originally put her in chains before she got separated and found by Golem.

In any case, Somali is now in serious danger. I just hope Kikila can keep the wolf at bay until Golem can find them.

Somali and the Forest Spirit – 02 – An Unusual Golem, A Contented Child

While chasing a horned rabbit who stole her mushrooms, Somali falls and skins her knee. Golem is low on medicine, but they’re fortunate to have caught the attention of Shizuno, a Dwarf Oni healer who is happy to dispense first aid. Two neat points: Golem can converse with any animal or plant, while the black-eyed Shizuno is depicted as kind and friendly despite being a “demon”.

Shizuno even invites Golem and Somali to his house in the forest (I want to go to there) where they meet his assistant and skilled baker Yabashira. Indulging a curious request from Shizuno, Golem agrees to part with a small piece of his crumbling “skin” in exchange for lessons on how to make medicines.

Somali, meanwhile, keeps busy helping Yabashira with daily chores; to the assistant’s surprised. This can-do attitude has a darker side. When we first saw Somali she was in chains; perhaps humankind are more servile in this particular world.

Still, Somali’s love for Golem is plain to see for Yabashira, while Golem basically decribes to Shizuno a similar affection, as he never wants to see her in pain again. Not addressed? Whether either of the oni would change their tune if they knew Somali wasn’t really a minotaur child.

That could be tough, following the revelation that explains Golem’s deterioration: he has precisely one year and 112 days left before his life functions cease. His goal is to return Somali to her parents within that time frame, but with no leads whatsoever—and the high likelihood her parents are dead—that is a tall, probably impossible task.

Thankfully, he hasn’t told Somali about this, and Shizuno and Yabashira both admit that she seems pretty content without her parents whom she most likely never knew. With that in mind, they likely see Golem’s frantic journey to be a futile one that will only take time away from the two of them enjoying what time they have left.

Still, it’s Golem’s journey to make, and Somali will follow no matter where he takes them. She’s almost certainly too young to be taught everything needed to survive in just a year and change, so we’ll see whether he makes any progress tracking down her folks, for if he devises a Plan B, such as leaving her with trustworthy friend like Shizuno.

Somali and the Forest Spirit – 01 (First Impressions) – Back to Fantasy Basics Done Right

Golem, Guardian of the Forest, never once doubted his purpose in life: to observe and protect the natural processes of the forest with a minimal of interference. Enter Somali, a human girl in chains he encounters. Suddenly, the parameters of his purpose have changed dramatically, and lacking emotions, he isn’t quite sure why.

What if, a fantasy anime didn’t start with a guy being transported from Japan to a new world? Or if, humans weren’t in charge, and monsters and demi-humans weren’t an oppressed minority? Somali and the Forest Spirit provides a welcome return to classic meat-and-potatoes fantasy slice-of-life, in the best traditions of Studio Ghibli—not to mention Disney.

The premise couldn’t be more elegant: Stoic Golem meets Exuberant Kid. While he teaches her how to live, she teaches him how to feel. But the fact said kid is a human is a big deal in this world. There was a legendary war between humanity and monsters, and the monsters won. Humans became a source of food, then curiosity before all but dying out.

Somali, therefore, is endangered in more ways than one. The sense of dread and imminent danger of revealing her lack of horns (sewed into her hood), as well as when Somali strays from Golem to follow a not-quite cat, brings a nice sharp-but-not-too-sharp edge to the proceedings. So does the fact the Golem’s arm is damanged; he may not be able to protect her from everything.

Still, while there are certainly dangers in store (though they may or may not reach the level of Made in Abyss craziness), the heart of Somali is the never unhumorous repartee between the two leads. Somali talks, well, like a kid should talk (Minase Inori is right in her wheelhouse), while Golem is much more verbose and robotic, as one would expect from a Golem.

With rich and lovely visuals, an appropriately otherworldly yet conventionally-orchestrated soundtrack, a strong central duo with fun dialogue, and just the right amount of inherent danger, Somali and the Forest Spirit checks all the boxes for a MagicalChurlSukui-Approved anime. Onward!

Utawarerumono: Itsuwari no Kamen – 04

uta41

In the big capital, Haku, Kuon, and Rurutie meet Ukon’s little sister, Nekone, who has her doubts about Haku for most of the episode until she realizes he’s actually a pretty nice and interesting fellow, and learns from observing him not to worry so much or overthink things.

As far as baths are concerned, overthinking is definitely not a problem for Kuon: Clothes come off, Kuon gets in the water. Kuon also makes sure Rurutie and Nekone are as God made them that they might fully enjoy the experience of bathing. When talk that Ukon is with Haku on the men’s side, Rurutie’s inner fujoshi comes out. We even see Maroro without his white base mask.

uta42

The next morning, Haku is very refreshed, and Nekone invites him, Kuon and Rurutie to join her on a tour of the capital, during which she’ll determine whether Haku is worthy of being a friend to her brother. On the tour, they catch sight of the hugely-popular general Oshutaru, and Nekone clashes with Haku on what she perceives as his arrogance, ignorance, and general dimwittedness.

The girls find him a job waiting tables, and to Nekone’s surprise, after a rough start, Haku starts to fit right in. No one has a problem with him the way she does, so she starts to wonder if her perception of him is the true problem. Stepping back from her preconceptions of him, she starts to see the odd but comforting charisma he exerts, and which Kuon, Rurutie, and even her brother Ukon have come to like.

uta43

After a hard day’s work and with the cost of his mistakes subtracted, Haku has made barely enough money to buy a meal, let alone a room at an inn. Nekone is still dubious, but delivers an invitation from Ukon to Haku and the others. When they arrive to find Oshutaru, he reveals “Ukon” is merely a false identity he uses on occasion. With Ukon and Oshutaru being one and the same means he and Haku are already good friends.

Seeing how much her brother truly trusts and cares for Haku, Nekone takes a page out of Haku’s book. She, Kuon and Rurutie have already hit it off, so she decides, without overthinking, to simply regard them as friends, as they clearly already consider her one.

Meanwhile, two cloaked messengers report Haku’s presence in the capital; news that is very well-received by a venerable elder-type whose face is concealed. We saw Haku as a simple waiter this week, but it’s clear there are many people whose existence he’s not even aware of who have far grander plans for him.

8_brav2

Utawarerumono: Itsuwari no Kamen – 03

uta31

Unwatched nine-year-old prequel aside, Utawarerumono continues to churn out entertaining little yarns chronicling the adventures of the hapless Haku and capable Kuon. This week they join Ukon in escorting a kind and adorable young princess, Rurutie, to the capital.

Along the way, the girls enjoy a hot bath, but Kuon hears someone lurking in the woods and runs out to confront them, but in her absent-mindedness ends up presenting her naked self to Haku.

uta32

The convoy is eventually attacked by bandits led by a feisty young woman (Nosuri) and a rapey old man who steal all their wagons containing tribute for the emperor, but Ukon lets them ride off without a fight, causing Haku to suspect the super-strong badass has a plan in mind for foiling the thieves.

Nosuri, by the way, quickly ends her alliance with the rapey dude when she learns he’s built a large hideout in the canyons where he intends to bring more women and children to victimize. She don’t want no part of that.

uta33

Even when things don’t go exactly according to Ukon’s plan, and the rapey leader ends up right back where Haku and the girls are, the fact that Haku made Rurutie’s plump, affectionate riding bird fall for him back in the beginning of the episode pays off, when the bird dispatches the bad guys in a protective rage.

The bandits are arrested by imperial guards, and the way is clear for the rest of Rurutie’s journey to the capital, where Kuon is certain Haku can find a good job, even if he claims not to be ready for one yet, because he’s perhaps the laziest protagonist of the Fall, yet still somehow likable simply because I’m not sure I wouldn’t act the same way as he if thrust into such an unfamiliar world.

7_brav2

Utawarerumono: Itsuwari no Kamen – 02

uta22

That lovely, cozy, immersive quality I spoke of last week? It was largely supplanted this week by an ably executed but mostly pedestrian adventure-of-the-week.

When Kuon is hired by Ukon to hunt some giriri (giant centipedes) lurking on the outskirts of the village, and Kuon insists Haku comes along, it means a fast pace and more action than last week, with so much going on relative to last week it was hard to settle in. All the extra action also exposed the show’s sometimes iffy production values.

uta23

Ukon is a pretty bland strongman with a penchant for being surprised whenever Haku makes himself useful, while Mororo is the archetypal prancing anime dandy. Neither are repellant, but they’re not as interesting as Kuon and Haku on their own.

The episode is effective in one regard: it shows there are all kinds of ways to contribute, not just to the village, but in a more high-stakes situation involving giant centipedes. Haku also demonstrates he’s a natural math whiz, which will serve him well in the capital.

uta24

My problem with Utawarerumono: I find myself preferring a slighter cast and well-placed bursts of action punctuating more world-building slice-of-life; in other words, a series of episodes like its first. But that’s probably not what this show is going to be, judging from its 25-episode length and an OP positively bursting with dozens of different characters that made my eyes glaze over.

A trip to the capital means more introductions…a lot more, as well as a departure from the snowy environs that drew me into the show in the first place. I’m not saying I feel misled, nor expected the show to languish in that village for 25 episodes. I’m just saying the things I like about the show and the things the show intends to focus on may not be the same going forward.

7_brav2

Utawarerumono: Itsuwari no Kamen – 01 (First Impressions)

uta11

From White Fox and the director of Jormungand and Katanagatari comes Utawareumono, a show that ably demonstrates less is more by starting off simply and not trying to do too much in its first episode, yet still utterly drawing me into its fantasy world. We’re dropped right into the same plight as the protagonist: we know not his name nor from whence he came, but neither does he. He just suddenly wakes up in the middle of an achingly gorgeous wintry landscape, barefoot and wearing simple green robes, and he has to run, first from a giant centipede, then a frightening goo monster with a face.

uta12

Unsure of who he is, where he is, and what to do, a hand suddenly grabs him, and when its owner turns around to face him, he learns it’s a beautiful young woman. She introduces herself as Kuon once they’re safe, and appoints herself his guardian, as she considers herself responsible for his life now that she’s gone and saved it. She lends him warmer clothes and the two trudge through the winterscape towards a village.

uta13

Along the way the as-of-yet no-named man learns Kuon has ears and a tail (the latter she’s very cross at him for touching), and Kuon learns the man doesn’t have much energy or stamina to go along with his amnesia. But I enjoyed the fast rapport they develop; Kuon is unflappably kind and patient, and their environs are, as I said, arrestingly pretty. The show has a stirring score, but when it eschews music for the silence of the place, I could really feel the cold, just I could feel the warmth of the campfire.

uta14

When they arrive at the village, it’s an opportunity for Kuon to show Haku, as she officially names her (by the power vested in her as his guardian), other aspects of herself. She eats a huge amount of food in the form of the delicious-looking, fajita-esque spread she orders at the inn. She also has a bit of a mischievous streak in peeking in on Haku in the bath, which she soon regrets when he starts doing nude calisthenics, a scene for which you can tell the show didn’t skimp on the Foley artist.  In addition to bumping up her cuteness, her tail is also a good indicator of her mood. She even mixes up a salve for his blistered feet before he hits the hay. It’s all very pleasant domestic stuff.

uta15

The next morning, Haku learns he’s not getting a free ride; if he wants to keep eating and staying at the inn, he needs to do his part. It’s here where Kuon learns Haku is, essentially, allergic to manual labor, and quite bad at it when forced to do it. However, he does show he can use his head and has a mind for machines when he fixes the waterwheel at the village mill. That achievement may have helped him find his niche, even if he only fixed the thing so he could sleep.

In all, this was a well-made and well-executed episode; a pleasure to watch. It reminded me a bit of Spice & Wolf in its immersive power; feeling like a nice, cozy blanket I can wrap myself up in. It’s actually a welcome change of pace from the more hectic Summer stuff I just got done watching. That being said, the cold close in which three men are attacked in the night by some kind of beast promises more action in the near future.

8_brav2

Ai Tenchi Muyo! – 28

atm281

There’s a basic sincerity to ATM!. For all the panty shots, unintended compromising positions Tenchi ends up in, and occasionally clunky delivery of plot or exchanges of dialogue, it’s heart is almost always in the right place. It’s not just here to titillate us or make us laugh; it wants us to care about its characters too, because they care about each other. Specifically, Tenchi cares about his students, and won’t sit by while one sits on the roof suffering.

atm282

Kinojou Beni’s story isn’t complicated: she came to this planet charged with protecting Momo and hence possessing immense strength, but she lost her memories and fell in with the sworn enemy of Momo’s Student Council. She knows she’s not a normal human, and she fears truly hurting someone someday with her power. Someone…not Tenchi.

atm282a

When Tenchi arrived, it set something into motion for Beni: suddenly, there was someone else with freakish strength, who stands (or tries to stand) alone, above all the warring clubs and school rivalries. Only unlike her, he almost never uses them, except to prevent harm or protect others. She resents his passivity, and wont say anything to him unless he demonstrates his strength, which means swinging her spiked club at him.

atm283

Tenchi won’t rise to her violence, however, and the precise thing she fears occurs when Momo suddenly pops on the roof to see what the ruckus is about. Tenchi manages to block the terrifying blow, and he and the two girls end up on the ground, and appear to be sharing a loving embrace, but we know Tenchi is only holding them to protect them. Such subtleties do not move Kurihara-sensei, who drags Tenchi away.

atm284

That leaves Beni with Momo, who takes her hand, concerned about her cuts. In that moment, Beni gets a flash from the past of a baby clutching her finger in apparent friendship. But Momo backs away from Momo, either unready to remember or unwilling to risk hurting her again. What she hasn’t grasped yet is that maybe it’s okay to be friends with Momo.

7_ses