Musaigen no Phantom World – 01 (First Impressions)

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The Winter 2015 season gets off to a whimsical, colorful start with Musaigen no Phantom World, the first episode of which called to mind everything from Haruhi Suzumiya and Charlotte to Chu2Koi and Amaburi. So immediately, then, we have a bit of an issue: this show reminds me of a lot of good shit.

The challenge then, will be to differentiate itself and make its case as a show worth watching for more than the trademarked lovely KyoAni eye candy (though I’ll admit, on Hump Day that might be sufficient anyway). And amidst its familiar setting, themes, character types, animation and dialolgue styles, MPW’s first episode still managed to distinguish itself.

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First, it makes a point to play off our expectations vis-a-vis fanservice. Atletic, busty female lead Kawakami Mai is more concerned with getting the job done than showing a little skin here and there. Shy, impressionable first-year Izumi Reina‘s boob looks ripe for grabbing, but male lead Ichijo Haruhiko manages to course-correct just in time, but thanks to “aid” from his pixie sidekick Ruru, still ends up in a bad position. Finally, Mai has a practical reason for bouncing her boobs up and down: it’s the only way to succeed in a limbo contest.

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Second, all three characters have their positive qualities. Ruru is adorable, obv., but she’s also quite savvy, serving as both a foil and an ally in Haruhiko’s exploits. Mai’s can-do attitude and fighting spirit is tempered by the need to occasionally sigh over dire financial straits (while scolding Haruhiko for sighing along with her). Reina, also frikkin’ cute as all get-out, also sucks stuff up like Kirby, which was very unexpected.

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The phantom-hunting team also gels quickly but believably. All three are competent in very specialized areas, but if one of the three wasn’t present for the utility pole phantom limbo-off, they would not have been able to achieve victory. Haruhiko’s freakish book smarts let the group know what they’re dealing with, Mai’s freakish athleticism appeases the phantoms, and then Reina eats ’em up. Even Reina is sold enough on how good a team the trio makes that she casts aside her initial uncertainty about joining.

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With such good chemistry coming off this trio, one wonders what MPW has in store for the fourth, a rose-haired, perpetually headphones-donning girl who looks like a lone wolf uninterested in teamwork.

So yes, I’m sufficiently charmed by MPW to keep going with it. There was a bit of an infodump rather inelegantly thrown in, and it looks no better or worse than the shows I listed up top, but there’s plenty to like and plenty to tune in to learn.

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GANGSTA. – 08

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GANGSTA.’s finest episode yet gets off to a wonderful start, as the Handymen are…actually doing handyman work, fixing up Constance’s shot-up gun shop. They’re even wearing matching overalls. It shows us that their service to their community isn’t just “dirty work” involving intimidation, violence and/or bloodshed.

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This show sometimes runs the risk of getting too serious, stodgy, or sappy, but avoids all of them by getting a little cheeky this week, from Constance grabbing what she thought was Ally’s fake boob (it isn’t), to her Granny sticking her cane into Worick’s buttcrack for loafing. These little moments of incidental comedy keep the darker stuff going on from taking over completely.

When Constance starts asking Ally innocuous questions about her family, Ally remembers she has a little brother at East Gate, but her memories of him are blurred and transition into more hallucinations of bloody Barry, indicating she needs to take her stabilizer. When her hands are shaking too much, Nic is there to calm her.

As you can see, the screencap can be very misleading; a big burly guy suddenly coming from behind would usually spell trouble, but here it’s Nic saving Ally from descending in a more serious episode. He brings her back.

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Worick apologizes for letting Ally out of her sight, but it’s telling that Nic has his back even in this instance. He also tells Ally that her memories will return as the drugs leave her system. Ally really is in a kind of purgatory right now, without sufficient information to go one way or another. What Worick suggest, however, is that whatever her memories are, when she gets them back would be a good time to leave Ergastulum.

He can’t promise her she won’t end up back under the control of drugs or the heel of another pimp if she stays, because he’s not sure if he’s going to still be alive tomorrow. It’s a volatile place that just happens to be calm…now.

Also for now, Ally is for all intents and purposes, one of the Handymen, so Worick brings her along to a Christiano soiree at their nightclub, Bastard; a fitting name for a club where Twilights—essentially the bastards of science and humanity’s hubris—are welcome.

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Once at the club, Ally curls up in a balcony window and loses track of Worick and Nic, who are busy rescuing Twilights from Anti-Twilight hunters. But on this otherwise clear, serene night, with her gorgeous evening dress and glass of wine, Ally feels perfectly at ease for the first time in a long, long time.

When she starts to hum the song being played downstairs, Loretta’s right-hand Twilight Galahad lets her in on Christiano’s under-the-table protection of Twilights, using the club as a front of sorts, just as the soiree is a front of sorts for the Handymen’s activities. Then he insists she take the stage and sing, which is why Worick brought her, having heard her humming before.

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I don’t know if this is what Worick planned for all along (he’s a pretty sharp, chess-playing kinda guy after all), but when Ally is literally put on the spot, she doesn’t disappoint, giving a gorgeous, soulful rendition of a song that almost plays like a lullaby, a song about putting your fears aside because everything’s going to be okay, and a new day will come. The show expertly cuts from her singing to Worick and Nic brawling, and I drew a parallel between the soundless fighting and how it’s a lot like how Nic lives in the world.

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The song takes up a lot of time, but rather than feel like too long, I almost didn’t want it to end. I love GANGSTA.’s penchant for giving parts of its episodes room to breathe, drawing us deeper into its world. And Ally’s song turns out to be a form of therapy when the blurry images of her little brother come into focus and she remembers singing it to comfort him when he was sad.

So her memories did come back just as Worick said they would, and faster than I expected. She’s also found out quite by accident that she’s not a bad nightclub songstress, further excising her of the persistent self-hatred and perceived worthlessness the drugs induced. So, will she stay or go…or go, find her bro, and come back?

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Worick isn’t wrong when he says Ergastulum isn’t the best place for souls such as Ally’s, because the guys he and Nic were fighting were merely ineffectual foot soldiers. The elites have yet to strike, and when they do, they will surely destroy all of the peace and serenity Ally got a well-needed taste of that night.

Ally isn’t a Twilight, nor is she a soldier, but before she knows it, her present residence will become a battlefield, and Worick and Nic may not have an eye to spare for her in the impending chaos.

10_brav2RABUJOI World Heritage List

Gakkou Gurashi! – 07

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Mii-kun’s friend Kei was fond of the author/poet/essayist Kamo no Chomei (1153-1216), and his serene masterpiece An Account of My Hut (Hojoki):

The flow of the river is ceaseless, yet the water is never the same.

The girls of the School Life Club travel that river; the river of life. Even holed up in that room at the mall, Mii-kun was like a leaf drifting atop the surface river; living but nothing else. Now she has encountered other leaves on the river; now joined in a clump, they travel along the flow together. Sometimes the currents are arduous, but they’re stronger together, both in body and mind.

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The foam that floats on stagnant pools, now vanishing, now forming, are not long in their duration. So, too, it is with man and his dwellings in the world. They are the blink of an eye.

How true is that statement in the world of our club: one moment life in their world is normal, the next, everything has changed. A great number of bubbles in that foam popped that day, and continue to pop, but the girls’journey continues.

Those who are powerful are filled with greed; and those who have no protectors are despised.

The “powerful” of Gakkou Gurashi are the zombies, who are the embodiment of greed (they want only flesh…no doubt including brains). They prey on those who have no protectors. Rii-san, Kurumi, and Mii-kun protect each other, as well as Yuki and Taroumaru.

Possessions bring many worries; in poverty there is sorrow.

You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t, eh? The girls’ possessions are few, but those they retain—from Rii-san’s hot plate; Kurumi’s shovel; Mii-kun’s Discman; Yuki’s hat; to the materials for letter-writing and distributing to a mysterious key that belonged to Megu-nee—as well as the friendships they share, bring them worry every day. Their greatest poverty is being the only living humans they know about, even as they assure themselves there are others out there.

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He who asks another’s help becomes his slave; he who nurtures others is fettered by affection. He who does not, appears deranged.

Mii-kun is only a “slave” as a result of being saved insofar as she has agreed to nurture Yuki’s illusions along with Rii-san and Kurumi. Rii-san, the mom of the group, is deservedly admired and loved by the others.

Wherever one may live, whatever work one may do, is it possible even for a moment to find a haven for the body or peace for the mind?

The club lives in the school, which is both a haven and a prison. They must ration food to keep their bodies alive, and they must kepe Yuki lucid and happy so that her smile can keep their minds at peace. Yet Mii-kun remarks this can’t go on forever; they ask too much of Yuki.

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It is a bare ten feet square and less than seven feet high. … I laid a foundation and roughly thatched a roof. … I have added a lean-to on the south and a porch of bamboo. Along the west wall I built a shelf for holy water and installed an image of the Buddha. The light of the setting sun shines between its eyebrows. … On the wall that faces the north I have built a little shelf on which I keep three or four black leather baskets that contain books of poetry and music and extracts from the sacred writings. Beside them stand a folding koto and lute.

The school by any other description; a shelter of modest dimensions and modest appointments, but full of thought and love and care. Solar panels, desk barricades, designated sleeping and eating facilities…

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Outside the hut is a fenced garden to the north and a rock pool to the south with a bamboo pipe draining water. The woods are close, providing plenty of brush-wood, and only to the west is a clearing beyond vines and overgrown valleys.

The garden where the club grows vegetables to supplement their packaged rations is on the roof of the school. The “woods” are the devastated, potentially lethal city beyond the school’s walls; the “clearing” is the schoolyard where the zombies roam much like wild animals; predators to be respected and avoided, but ultimately to coexist with. They too flow within the river, only they lurk below it, having drowned.

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Knowing myself and the world, I have no ambitions and do not mix in the world. I seek only tranquility; I rejoice in the absence of grief.

The club members could easily lapse into a state of hermitry, never venturing too far form the school or too long in the woods, where they know they could meet their death. Yet Rii-san, Kurumi, and Mii-kun all purport to have ambitions vis-a-vis the world. Things won’t be like this forever. It is a dream they will one day wake up from. That hope keeps them going.

Meanwhile, Yuki rejoices in the absence of grief; inadvertantly refusing to fully acknowledge the real world. She is the ideal of tranquility and peace of mind no undeluded person in this world will ever hope to achieve. There’s a close call when Yuki thinks about who was in the car after rescuing Mii-kun, but a few white lies and she finds Megu-nee right where she should be.

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The dew may fall and the flower remain, of the flower may wither before the dew is gone.

The girls, Yuki excluded, face their mortality every day, see places and things that may, and in all likelihood will, outlast them. The choice they face is whether to despair at their seemingly inevitable end, or to embrace the relative beauty and peace of their present. situation.

The fact that Hojoki, words written by Chomei eight hundred years ago, is a testament to the fundamental truth of the ceaseless river upon which we only drift a short while. But hopefully Rii-san, Kurumi, Mii-kun and Yuki will see many more evenings together.

The question is, will Yuki ever emerge from the hut of tranquility her mind created, where she currently resides?

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GANGSTA. – 07

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Another night, another nightmare Worick has about the day his life changed and became inextricably tied with Nicolas’. Only this time, Ally is there to give him a comforting hug to calm him down. This week fills in most of the remaining blanks of that fateful day, giving us a full picture of that early scene of a blood-soaked Nic standing over Worick, missing an eye. In short: it isn’t quite what I thought went down, but that’s a good thing.

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But first, both thanks to Theo and Nina, Nic and Doug are all fixed up, and Nic thanks Nina by taking her on a ride as he does his flying-between-buildings thing, which looks terrifying and hella fun at the same time. It’s a great little scene, because it shows how close Nina and Nic are, and how much Nina trusts him, but also that neither Doug nor Nic hold any grudges against each other. If anything, Doug is embarrassed most of what he said during the fight went unheard by his one-time opponent. Doug also learns that Nic is a rogue, like him, and from the West Gate, which is a big deal.

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As Monroe, Paulklee, Corsica and Christiano (whose boss is a schoolgirl) meet in a dark smoky room trying to maintain balance in Ergastulum, Ally is with Dr. Theo trying to do the same thing with her head. He has her on mild tranq to keep her calm and is optimistic she’ll eventually recover now that she’s not seeing her dead pimp anymore.

Ally also gets to break out her newly-learned sign language to thank Nic and ask if she can hang around for the time being. Does Nic really not understand her “weird” signs, or was her message fully received, with Nic essentially replying that of course she can stay; that she didn’t even have to ask. Thus Ally really connected with both of her handymen roommates this week.

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That brings us to that day, or rather that night the show has given us glimpses of for many weeks now. Turns out Nicolas didn’t randomly kill Wallace’s family in some kind of contract job. In reality, Wallace saved Nic’s life by buying a supply of Celebrer to keep him alive. The mercenaries fired him, leaving him with Wallace.

When Wallace’s abusive father found out Wallace was smoking, he puts the cigarette out in Wallace’s eye, a scar he still carries on his face. Nic made the sign for “kill”, and saw Wallace’s lips word something, which he took as an order to kill…everyone, including himself, when he was done with everyone else. Wallace stops him, telling him he can’t die until he’s suffered more; much more.

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So there you have it: Wallace sic’ed  Nic on his father and family, not knowing the full extent Nic would go, and unable to undo what he did, took it upon himself to stay with Nic to ensure he’d endure the punishment of a long, tortured life. But has the life Nic has lived really been worse than a quick death? In reality, it hasn’t been all bad, what with he and Worick developing a friendship and symbiotic business relationship…not to mention getting to hang out with Good People like Nina and Ally.

These years have proven Nic hasn’t just been pretending to act like a human. He is one, albeit a deeply damaged one. Still, every time his bad eye hurts, Worick remembers that night, and remembers the hatred he had for Nic and all Twilights, while simultaneously pitying him/them. And there’s a nasty, efficient-looking pair out there hunting down and mutilating great numbers of Twilights. Nic is almost certainly one of their targets. And it’s clear there’s a part of Worick—perhaps residing in that festering eye socket—that doesn’t care if this is where Nic finally exits.

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Gakkou Gurashi! – 06

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Miki wakes up in school to find Yuki standing over her, and then introduces her to “Megu-nee”, someone Miki can’t see, handing the invisible person a bottle of water that just falls to the ground. Miki wonders if her horrible experience at the mall was all a dream, but once Yuki shows her the music room—bright and clean to Yuki’s eyes but trashed and blood-stained to Miki—she realizes it was no dream.

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Miki’s arrival means a disruption of the School Life Club’s routine, and also a potential disruption of Yuki’s presently stable condition. After being with Yuki for a while, she understandably has lots of questions for Rii-san and Kurumi, and she’s not entirely okay with “playing along” with Yuki’s illusions. That’s when Rii-san breaks out her threatening face, but it’s not played for comedy.

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To Rii-san, Miki doesn’t fully understand the situation yet, or know Yuki well enough, to decide that it’s time for Yuki to “wake up.” Indeed, without access to profesional help or drugs, the way things are with Yuki are probably for the best (as long as she doesn’t descend too deep into fantasy). It’s not ideal, but it’s the best they can do.

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More than that, though, to Rii-san and Kurumi, Yuki is more than just the crazy girl who sees things (like their dead teacher Megu-nee) that they have to keep an eye on and take care of. She also represents their beacon of hope, something crucial in their particular situiation.

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Rii-san, Kurumi, and Miki can’t escape from the despair of their daily lives the way Yuki can without trying. And because Yuki is convinced the school is just fine and they’re in a club, she and she alone comes up with ways to break up the monotony of survival, like the mini sports fest this week, or the trip to the mall last week that led to the discovery of Miki and Taroumaru.

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When she first arrived, Miki probably figured a good way to repay the girl who saved her was to help her “get better” from her illness, rather than accept and perpetuate her illusions. But now she realizes the three people who aren’t seeing things need Yuki there, seeing the people and places they can’t, reminding them of the world that was, and maybe one day will be again.

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Understanding this, and that again, this situation is not ideal (ideally, Yuki would get professional help), but it’s better than simply living day-to-day not dying and fearing death. So she joins the School Life Club, and to her surprise, Rii-san welcomes her with an open hand, which may just be the first time Miki has embraced a girl’s hand since her friend Kei pulled away from her to go search for help.

Kei may be gone, but Miki is no longer alone. And she’s very glad about that.

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GANGSTA. – 06

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Nic spends the episode recovering from his injuries (Paulklee shot him with drugs, not bullets) under Nina’s admirable ministrations as the clouds continue to dump rain on Ergastulum, as if to wash away the blood of the last battle. But the duel with Doug and the shootouts that accompanied it may only be a taste of what’s to come, as the Corsicans are about to throw off the delicate balance that has been sustained by going after the Christianos, a family beholden to Monroe.

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It’s fitting in an episode called “THORN” that everyone deals with various literal and emotional thorns in their sides or minds. Both Nic and Worick carry a lot of baggage from their highly traumatic pasts. Nic was the son of a prostitute shanghaied into mercenary service; Wallace is the unwanted and unloved son of a drunk, violent crime boss whose light we know is destined to go out.

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Wallace got over his prejudice for his perceived low-rent bodyguard and befriends Nic and even teaches him to read and write, most likely out of a desire to have one friend in his life; someone who doesn’t curse his existence. While we’re still missing a couple of bits and pieces in the middle, the genesis of their friendship, which would persist for decades to the present, is making more and more sense.

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Ally has her own thorn in the form of  withdrawal due to an appalling drug her pimp plied her with regularly in order to keep her submissive and in line. The horror movie scene that ended last week’s episode turned out to be hallucinations from that withdrawal, and Dr. Theo informs Worick that Ally has yet to fully recover, though it will happen with time. Some thorns can’t be removed too quickly.

When a shoeless, rain-soaked Ally kisses Worick on the street, it’s filmed as if it were a climactic, passionate romantic scene, right up until she tries to undo Worick’s pants and we realize she’s still hallucinating Barry, and is ready to do anything to him if only he doesn’t hurt her. Ironically, Worick does technically hurt her—by head-butting—in order to snap her out of it (not sure how that works medically, but whatever), but since her head’s harder than his he ends up hurting himself more.

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At any rate, it’s one of the show’s best scenes, and combined with Nic’s recovery, the Handymen and their administrative assistant are back in business…just in time for another war. Even in his hospital bed, Nic looks as ready as ever to take on whole battalions on his own, but a part of me thinks Worick would really rather just kick back in his apartment and talk about his crappy day with Ally-chan.

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Gakkou Gurashi! – 05

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There’s no getting around it: these past two episodes, as fantastic as they were, had their peril somewhat dampened by the fact this is all happening in the past, and we know everyone will survive these events. They actually wouldn’t have made a bad first two episodes to GG!, but considering the shock the actual first episode delivered by delaying the story we get here (and feigning normalcy), I was more than willing to suspend my belief and dive into a good zombie mall episode. And it’s a good one.

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This episode is less about its inevitable destination (Yuuri, Kurumi and Yuki meeting Taroumaru and Miki) and more about the journey it takes to get there. The mall is dark and eerily silent, but Rii-san tells Yuki it’s because there’s a concert in session and they have to be quiet. Malls are usually so noisy with crowds and muzak, so in addition to visual impact of the trashed mall, there’s an aural impact from the white noise so unusual in such a place. And despite knowing she’ll be okay, watching Kurumi dart through the darker stores with her flashlight really does a good job isolating her in a hostile, threatening place that isn’t secure.

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I also liked how the girls spend a bit of time simply shopping like high school girls do, because that’s what they are. If they don’t want to be defined as simply survivors, they have to do more than just survive, but have fun when they can. Of course, that fun is cut short by a sound and their new ward Taroumaru’s yipping, indicating someone is near.

Because they’re on the fourth floor and the zombies have trouble climing steps, they consider the possibility it’s another survivor, but then Kurumi calls off the search when she peeks in a previously-barricaded theater packed with zombies. The wide shots peppered with quick close-ups and those horrible zombie noises accentuate the peril.

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The girls, led by Kurumi, blast through a gauntlet of zombies and hide in what looks like the child care room, which is apropos because Yuki is listing, exhausted from all the unexplained running. She also gets a couple of square looks at the zombies, and, at this point in the timeline, she’s still seeing partial flashes of what happened in her classroom the day of the fall, including an image of a blurry Megu-nee with a bloody arm, suggesting her teacher was infected.

As they rest, Kurumi thinks about the theater full of zombies—many of them kids—and shudders to think how their lives as humans ended, and how scared and alone they must have felt, before they were infected one by one. And in another unsettling juxtaposition of cheery high school girl life and the apocalyptic scenario, Kurumi makes Rii-san pinky-swear not to hesitate to kill her if she gets infected.

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Miki, meanwhile, has been sitting in her miniaturized, stifling little world, until she hears the yips of Taroumaru and is convinced they’re not in her cabin fever-addled brain. She braves the mall beyond her shelter, and immediately gets surrounded. She’s literally ten seconds from zombie lunch when Taroumaru, followed closely by Yuki and the others, come to her rescue.

Miki’s leaving the room and getting rescue shows her that survival isn’t just something to grasp  or hoard alone in a dark, stuffy room, but a gift to enjoy to its fullest, preferably with others. Before everyone piles into the Mini, Miki asks if the others saw anyone else, but it’s left up in the air what became of Kei. With Miki leaving the mall, it will be much trickier for them to ever reunite, but I for one hope she met a better fate than those kids in the theater, or Taroumaru’s owner.

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Gakkou Gurashi! – 04

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GG! has taken on a LOST-style narrative, in which the present is constantly being informed and updated by the pasts of its characters. This week it’s Naoki Miki’s turn. While helping Yuki with a hand-drawn yearbook, Yuki asks about one of Miki’s (very good!) drawings of her in a bookstore with another girl. It’s Kei, a good friend of Miki’s from before The Fall.

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An ordinary day at the mall turns into a life-upheaving nightmare for both of them. This is handled with the show’s usual deftness, with particular care taken to lighting, background sounds, camera angles and focus. Miki and Kei manage to hide from all the zombies and gain the puppy of an elderly woman who became one. Survival supersedes processing what the fuck is going on.

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They manage to make it to a safe room, where they hole up in a room with ample food and water. But Kei almost immediately grows curious about the outside world; about what’s going on, and worries that if they stay, they’ll never be found. Miki, on the other hand, is content to stay put and wait for help to come to them. Enough times passes that Kei’s patience runs out, and even Miki’s maneuver of tenderly taking Kei’s hand isn’t enough to keep her.

Kei promises she’ll be back with help, but right there and then, she’s abandoning Miki, who is too scared to leave the mall, or even that room. Her life has shrunk into a miniature, but she’s intent on holding on to what life it is, not risking it on the unknown beyond those walls. When Kei up and leaves, it’s a gut punch, but we knew it was coming, for no other reason than Kei doesn’t exist in the present.

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Meanwhile, at this time, Yuuri and Kurumi and Yuki are off on their own, having not yet met Miki (or Toromarou; we now understand a little more about why he’s a little standoffish with Miki in the present). Yuki spontaneously comes up with the idea for a school trip, using a loophole in the club rules prohibiting leaving school grounds by saying it’s a school function. Yuuri tells her to get Megu-nee’s approval, and she gets it, but we don’t see her get it, indicating Megu-nee isn’t alive at this point either, but just a delusion of Yuki.

That fact is reinforced when Kurumi volunteers to drive Megu-nee’s car. She and Yuuri are willing to maintain the Megu-nee delusion for Yuki’s sake, and must resort to loophole of their own (Megu-nee hasn’t driven in a while, and Kurumi insists she’s better, despite later confessing she only played racing video games).

Kurumi’s journey to the faculty parking lot, through a phalanx of vicious, but thankfully slow and dumb, zombies is breathless in its presentation. I know this is a flashback, but Kurumi still felt so vulnerable out there, especially when her trusty shovel was flicked away. But she gets to Megu-nee’s MINI Cooper, fires it up, and picks up Yuuri and Yuki (Megu-nee only appears in the car once Yuki’s in there, like anthropomorphic Hobbes).

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After a little bit of sliding around the schoolyard and hitting a couple of zombies for good measure, the car bursts out of the front gates, and all of a sudden the saturation of the episode intensifies, as if we were watching a visual manifestation of freedom itself. A quiet, gorgeous, haunting piece of music plays as the Mini drives through the desolate, ruined city, made beautiful by the vivid colors of the setting sun. It feels like a movie. If only it was only that, and they could walk out of the theater into a world where they didn’t have to fight every day for survival.

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That piece of music playing turns out to be on the Discman Kei left Miki before she left Miki. It wakes Miki up in that same room she’s been holed up in, and the contrast between her self-imposed captivity and the freedom being experience by the others isn’t lost on me. Nor is the open transom that indicates Toroumaru escaped, leaving Miki alone, though the dog may well be the one who unites her with the others.

The song plays through the credits, accompanied by black-and-white imagery from the episode. So lovely, mellow, soulful, and sad. This show just keeps getting better.

10_sesRABUJOI World Heritage List

Gakkou Gurashi! – 03

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In the first two episodes, Sakura Megumi or “Megu-nee” was treated at turns like an apparently deceased teacher/semi-comic relief whom only Yuki, in her delusional state, can still see, hear, and interact with, and whom the other girls play along with so as not to further disturb their already disturbed friend. This episode goes deeper into who Megu-nee is, or rather who she was, by taking us back to the day Everything Went South.

Like the first two episodes, this third one expertly juggles normalcy with abnormality, with dread lurking just out of sight or in the far corner of the frame, at least early on. A perfect example: Megu-nee noticing an abnormal number of sirens while on her normal drive to school in her cute Mini Cooper.

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The normal day proceeds, with Megu-nee getting warned by the vice principal to maintain an appropriate emotional distance from her students. That morning, Megu-nee’s Mom expressed a similar worry with her daughter’s ability to “cut it” as a new teacher.

Yet when, say, Kurumi comes to her and is able to talk about her dilemma with the boy she likes, Megu-nee proves she actually is cut out to be a teacher, in that she’s a trustworthy, approachable nurturer of minds and an open ear or shoulder to cry on.

At the same time, she’s willing, nay, determined to go the extra mile for students in need of extra help like Yuki. It’s confirmed she was never a great student and had problems focusing.

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Interestingly, it’s Yuki who suggests she and Megu-nee head up to the rooftop to try to finagle some tomatoes from the gardening club member, namely Wakasa Yuuri, whom Yuki meets for the first time. This action essentially saves both Yuki and Megu-nee, because it isn’t long before everything goes to hell both in the school below them and the city beyond. The vista of just-out-of-focus students feeding off one another as buildings burn is another one of GnG!’s awesomely chilling images.

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Megu-nee takes a chance on opening the door to let Kurumi on the roof, with her beloved senpai in tow. This scene gives us the whole picture of how she came to kill him with a shovel, and we see that Yuki witnessed the whole thing and in fact grabbed Kurumi to stop her from whaling on an already-dead body. Yuki’s fear and disgust at watching a fellow human being in full-on, vicious Survival Mode, is another likely contributing factor to her eventual mental break.

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I like the fact that Megu-nee isn’t just an invented figment of Yuki’s imagination; she was a real person who, for a time, at least, did what she thought was her duty as a teacher, doing everything she could to protect the remaining students under her care at the school, even in a Zombiepocalypse. But while much of this episode is told from her perspective (with a grainy-film framing device), the fact remains, in the present, she is no longer alive, and exists only in Yuki’s head.

Even so, Kurumi, Yuuri, and even Miki let Yuki keep believing she’s still around, and I think it’s more than just humoring their troubled friend (and let’s face it, in a world like this, they’re all troubled). I also believe they take some comfort in the idea of Megu-nee still around protecting them.  Hell, five’s better than four.

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Gakkou Gurashi! – 02

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After watching the first episode a second time (man was that creepy!) and now this one with full knowledge of what’s going on from start to finish, I’ve gained an even greater appreciation for GG!’s ability to show us one thing in the center of the frame while something slithers on the edges, and I mean that both visually and thematically. As the show’s point of view shifts to more aware characters, the dark imagery is far more overt, but remains just as effective and creepy.

We start off inside the head of Yuki’s friend Kurumi, who is dreaming of the time the guy she liked (and joined the track club for) suddenly…turned, and grabbed her while on the rooftop, enjoying the sunset. Just when she was wishing that time would stop in that moment, she’s thrust into to a purgatory far darker and harsher than she’d bargained for.

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That purgatory is, of course, the school, where only four girls remain alive and uninfected by whatever malady turned the rest of the school into zombies. Kurumi, Rii-san, and Miki not only struggle to survive, but also take care of Yuki, who still believes the school is the way it was. She even believes the club advisor, Megu-nee, is still alive, if she ever was, of course.

The show does an exquisite job placing Megu-nee in the clubroom at angles where it’s clear Yuki sees her (and even an extra meal at her seat), but the dialogue of the girls carefully makes clear Megu-nee is not there. But they don’t let that on to Yuki, or about anything being amiss, lest she suffer another, even more severe mental break. As Rii-san says, they’re not experts, so it’s best to wait and see.

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Thankfully things don’t seem to be that dire as zombie-surrounded schools go. Part of this is that the zombies are slow and dumb, as demonstrated when Kurumi uses one of the box of ping pong balls that fell on Yuki last week to distract a zombie that’s come close to the desk barricade. With it’s back turned it’s an easy kill for Kurumi, but she catches a glimpse of her still-charged cell phone, and has to re-steel herself to finish it off.

And she has to believe they’re “its” now, despite some evidence to the contrary: the boys still “play soccer” out in the yard; and most of them leave school around nighttime, as if they’re headed home. Is this behavior explained by the fact they still harbor a piece of their memories? The girls don’t know. All they know is, they can’t let them touch them.

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When Yuki unilaterally announces there’s to be a test of courage one night, Rii-san uses it as an excuse to brave the area beyond the barricades to make a supply run. Everyone stocks up on Nummy Sticks in the school store without incident, but when Rii-san and Yuki enter the library, Rii-san encounters a zombie in there, in a sequence that’s pitch-perfect for dread, atmosphere, timing, and intensity.

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Here, as was indicated on other occasions, Megu-nee serves not as an endangering ghost on the side of the zombies, but as a guardian angel: Yuki’s common sense and survival instinct given human form only Yuki can see and hear and even touch. 

Yuki is clearly dealing with quite a few delusions right now, but Megu-nee is one of them that provides some peace of mind for the others. If Yuki tells them Megu-nee is near, they can rest assured she’ll be okay on her own for a while, as we see when she stays put so they can lure the zombie to them and take it out, all without Yuki noticing anything amiss (she also assumes they’re playing up the test of courage.)

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Though back behind the safety of their barricades with no harm done, Kurumi can’t escape her nightmare of the guy she likes suddenly turning and grabbing her. We see more of the dream the second time round, as she falls to the ground and, in a moment of terror, grabs the object closest to her—her now-trusty shovel—and swings as hard as she can, taking the guy out.

She wakes up in a panic, but then we see the value of having Yuki and her unique perspective around despite all the extra work taking care of her involves. The half-asleep Yuki wants to repeat her third and final year together with Kurumi, which gives Kurumi comfort.

Yuki phrases it this way because her grades suck and she’s believes she’s at risk of repeating her final year of high school But I’m sure Kurumi doesn’t want this to be the final year of their lives, and thus “repeating” the year—a year in which they’re alive and well-fed and most importantly, together, is something she and the other two can get behind.

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Gakkou Gurashi! – 01 (First Impressions)

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For two-thirds of its first episode, Gakkou Gurashi expertly lulled me into a false sense of security, looking every bit like another bright, colorful, perfectly pleasant and innocuous moe school slice-of-life, starring a Kaname Madoka look-alike voiced by Hestia, with friends who like cooking, reading…and shovels,  are members of a silly club, and spend much of those two-thirds chasing a puppy.

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And yet, by the time the final third of the episode had come and gone, it was an entirely different show altogether—and a damn intriguing one, to boot; one that made me want to watch it again to see if there were any other clues as to what was really going on before the overt symbol of the just-out-of-focus rooftop grave. 

Things like Yuki saying her teacher “doesn’t stand out much”, Miki being so brazen in interrupting classes, and the fact the puppy is allowed to run around, and Yuki and Miki able to chase after him without any repercussions, all come to mind as other subtle clues.

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Then, all of a sudden, when Yuki returns once more to her class to chat, and Miki comes in after her, everything comes crumbling down. The school is abandoned and full of gloom, death, and decay. The “students” outside appear to be zombies; giving a grim irony to the “school life club” and introducing the premise of a school of the dead/undead having such a club.

And then, perhaps most disturbing of all, is the fact that Yuki doesn’t see any of this. All of the happy life at her school full of living people (other than her three club-mates) was all in her frikking head, and from the look on her face as the episode fades to black, it would seem those illusions are persistent.

How did the school get this way? Did Yuki suffer a mental break and is now in a dissociative state? Are her underclassmen protecting her as she wanders around blissfully unaware of the perils of reality? The mind races at the possibilities. This was a damn good start!

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Owari no Seraph – 04

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Mika screwed up, in part because he put everything on his shoulders. His plan to free his family, which was more than fine going along with it, ended up killing them all except for Yuu. Mika himself would have bled out, were it not for the intervention of Krul Tepes, Loli Vampire Queen, offering him, nay, forcing upon him, her blood.

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Now he’s a vampire, and the pain and guilt could stay with him for centuries, potentially twisting him into a wretch. Yet he still carries out his duties alone, eliciting resentment form his vamp peers but gratitude from a single girl he saved from a monster, who gladly offers her blood to him as thanks. Once his escape plan failed he had no choice in becoming a vampire (Tepes wouldn’t let him die), but he can choose what kind of vampire to be. It’s a choice that’s perhaps lost on someone so racked with guilt.

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From checking in on Vampire Mikaela the episode segues to Yuu and Yoichi transferring to the Moon Demon class, where he makes the most ridiculous overbaked shonen speech possible about not being there to make friends and declaring he’ll get the best gear. His seat happens to be positioned right in front of that of Kimizuki Shiho, the dude who picked a fight with him earlier to test his ability.

And so we have our two arrogant, hotheaded rivals who both have something to learn from one another and will become tentative pals by the end of the episode through greater understanding of where they’re coming from. If this sounds somewhat rote, it’s because it is; nothing out of the blue here.

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Like Yuu, Shiho lusts for power…all of the power, though not for revenge, but to save his sister, who is dying from the Apocalypse virus. But Guren warns him, with demonic visual aids, no less, that Shiho can’t go anywhere near cursed gear as long as that lust for power drives him. Like Yuu, Guren needs him to make friends and learn to rely on the strength of others. Going it alone won’t end well for anyone.

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Shinoa fixes it so at their first major evaluation, Yuu and Shiho are paired up. Predictably, they try rushing in opposite directions despite the fact they’re handcuffed to each other. Seriously is their mutual lust for ultimate power so strong, it affects their basic understanding of the physical limitations of handcuffs?

Apparently, but they don’t get to demonstrate just how badly they fight together, because word comes Shiho’s sister has taken a turn for the worse. Suddenly understanding why Shiho is so gung ho about beating him, Yuu insists, with prejudice, that they go to the hospital. Being with his family is more important than the evaluation.

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Shiho relents and goes, and doesn’t regret it. His sister pulls through, but the doctors warn regular medical equipment will only keep her alive so long. The military has tech that might be able to cure her, but the military, like society, is transactional: if Shiho wants that tech, he’ll have to distinguish himself in the Moon Demon Squad.

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Yuu, jerk that he is, still won’t back down on claiming the best demon gear the army has to offer, but he won’t stop Shiho from taking the second-best, now that he understands what Shiho is fighting for. Both guys failed the evaluaiton, but while Shiho feels defeated, Yuu tells him it’s no time to give up. He’s going to do everything he can to avenge his family, regardless of evaluation scores or moon squads. He expects Shiho to do no less to save his sister.

Mind you, I’m not sure the lesson about teamwork has quite stuck, since both seem dug into their own separate aspirational trenches, but the seeds of a alliance or possible friendship were certainly sown.

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That’s good, because Yuu and Shiho can ill afford to stay ineligible for handling cursed gear. They need to get into good fighting shape soon, because Tepes has formally declared war on the humans who would organize into armies to oppose them. A rancher wouldn’t let thier cows join a union barring slaughter, now would they?

As for Mika, he’s determined to “rescue” Yuu, and while I’m not sure what that entails, if he’s planning on loading everything back on his shoulders once again, he hasn’t learned much. As repugnant as Ferid is, he could be a valuable ally against Tepes, the mutual thorn in their side.

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Owari no Seraph – 03

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Episode three opens with Yui receiving a love letter from a cute girl. Falling for a not unattractive young lad who saved you from being drained by an escaped vampire prisoner is not an unreasonable thing for this girl to do, but as strong and brave as he is, she still doesn’t know him, and he’s too busy with his quest for vengeance to notice or deal with romance.

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While this girl sees him as a hero, Shinoa continues to look down at him as a novice, as well as a frustrated virgin. She points out the Demon Army isn’t just about killing vamps, but also creating an environment suitable for human procreation. The virus killed 9/10ths of them, after all, so the remaining tenth “needs to make babies”, to quote Commander Adama.

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Shinoa doesn’t doubt Yui’s physical strength or his courage, but warns him he shouldn’t move to fast with his training. Only those with cursed gear can fight vampires, and the demons within them will consume, rather than contract with, those with “weak hearts.” Shinoa believes Yui’s unyielding thirst for vengeance makes his heart weak. Not a bad conclusion, but incomplete, as we see.

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When one of their classmates wanders into a forbidden dungeon below the school, where demons roam ready to take the souls of the weak, Yui, Shinoa and Yoichi head down there. Shiona reveals it’s really a training ground for the VEU, and the whole school is a human experiment for recruiting VEU members, who are naturally drawn to said dungeon.

So while there are bullies and love letters and cut euniforms, the school isn’t just a regular school after all. Shinoa even mocks Yui for potentially thinking “such a peaceful place” as the school appears on the surfact could ever exist in such a messed up world.

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If Shinoa was hoping to intimidate Yui with all this show-and-tell, she failed, and if she didn’t want him to do anything rash, she shouldn’t have let him in the dungeon at all. Then again, when Yui goes through the forbidden door, she doesn’t stop him, suggesting she’s letting him make his own choices. Once there she insists he not touch he demon gear his classmate is holding, lest he become consumed by a demon. Again, Yui ignores her warnings and grabs the ax with a nifty little move.

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Then all of a sudden he’s gone back in time with Mika and his family. Shinoa didn’t say how the demon would consume him, but creating a very real illusion of his past is a good way to start. But where both Shinoa and the demon underestimate Yui is in not in their calculation of his desire for revenge—which is high—but the fact such a desire is a weakness.

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Yui knows his desire is wrong, so it can’t hurt him as badly. He also knows it’s something Mika wouldn’t want, so as soon as Mika and the other kids are acting totally out of character, Yui knows he’s in an illusion and breaks free.Doing so impresses Shinoa once again, who again seems put out that he proved her wrong yet again.

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Yui’s heart isn’t as weak as she thought, but will see what happens if and when he learns Mikaela not only wasn’t killed, but became the very thing Yui wants to wipe off the face of the earth. We finally get a good look at Vampire Mika, who doesn’t seem particularly friendly with Ferid. More likely, he’s done what he’s done all this time to survive. He always put others before himself, so I’d like to think a few years of being a vampire hasn’t bleached out that inherent goodness.

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