Oresuki – 06 – Effort Is Not Always Rewarded

A week has passed since “the breakup” between Joro and his friends, and the day of the Flower Dance has arrived. During that week Joro has had one and only one companion: Asunaro. That means when they learn of a new problem—the PTA is bristling at the idea of two boys dancing together—she’s all too happy to step in as the substitute. She doesn’t even have to ask; Joro asks her.

Turns out President—or should I say Detective—Cosmos has been On The Case all week, and finally has her conclusions to share with Asunaro, who insists on Joro being present. In the impromptu hearing within the StuCo office, Cosmos lays out the scenario that we had suspected: Asunaro spread false rumors about Joro so she could isolate him, and furthermore worked to get Sun kicked off the dance so she could take his place…and be the girl Joro would eventually marry.

Joro stays silent for the majority of this hearing, and all we hear are his reactions, including what even he deems may be a tonally inappropriate aside about how yet another girl fell in love at that damnable baseball game. In Asunaro’s case, she fell for Joro when he protected her from a foul ball. In reality, he was in the right place at the right time because he was trying to get a better view of the girl he’d learn was Pansy.

But once Cosmos is finished revealing all the underhanded things Asunaro did, and Asunaro’s first impulse is to beg him to be with her more than anyone else, Joro finally speaks up, and it’s in the voice of Dark Joro. He’s cruel and unyielding in his complete and utter rejection of her not just as a romantic interest, but a friend.

Of course, both Cosmos and I see through his act: in truth, he’s rattling her cage. There can’t be any doubt of his rejection of her if she’s to move forward, starting with recanting the libelious story in the next newspaper issue.

Cosmos’ closing lesson to Asunaro before Joro rejects her is that hard work alone isn’t enough to get rewarded with the desired results: in her case, Joro all to herself. As was explored in Fruits Basket more recently and many a romance before, a zero-sum game of love rarely succeeds. Even if Joro did love her, he’s going to hang out with other people and have his own life; that’s only healthy for both parties in a relationship.

With Asunaro’s plot revealed (but only to Cosmos, Joro, and Sun), the Flower Dance continues unabated, and it was worth the wait. Himawari and Cosmos are positively resplendent in their gowns as they twirl across the stage with a tuxedo-ed Joro. His third dance partner is of course Pansy, and even cold-hearted Joro can’t help but be charmed by her ethereal beauty, as well of her reciting the meanings three of the many colors of pansies.

When the dance concludes, Asunaro is hard at work on her retraction, while Pansy is officially welcomed into the circle of friends Joro had been working to get her into all this time, whether intentionally or subconsciously. It’s also become clear that Cosmos has something of a thing for Joro, and isn’t nearly ready to surrender him to Pansy. Still, considering her lecture to Asunaro, she’ll go about it the right way.

Hanebado! – 08 – Her Own Kind of Badminton

Ishizawa Nozomi, who was chosen over Nagisa for an elite school spot by her coach, is really only interested in winning and thus validating the trust her coach placed in her. Ayano, who has gradually abandoned all pretense of sportsmanship or empathy and has now become, essentially, a badminton murderbot, is also only interested in winning.

Both dispatch their opponents with ease and look down upon them as wasting their time. Yet I couldn’t help but feel like this episode was merely buildup for, even filler before the more substantial match involving Ayano. To be frank, I just don’t really care about Nozomi’s situation, while we’ve already dealt with Nagisa’s issues.

Ayano is on the shelf for the remainder of this episode; another spectator in the Nagisa-Nozomi showdown, and boy does she lay on the aloof bitchiness thick. I was hoping someone—say Elena—would kick her in the bum (either physically or verbally) but Ayano isn’t interested in discussing her conduct unbecoming.

As long as she wins, she doesn’t want to hear from anyone about anything…but is more than willing to giver her own running negative commentary about Nagisa’s chances against Nozomi, which she believes to be slim. Nozomi’s coach believes a strategy of making Nagisa run and change direction will blow out her knees.

And so in this match, we have a coach who is not only a constant verbal presence during play (which is hella annoying) but so obsessed with analytics and oppo research that he sees Nozomi as little more than an avatar or tool with which to execute his badminton.

The problem is, Nozomi is still a child, and trying to find out who she is, not just as a player but as a person. The coach’s constant browbeating is constantly undermining that growth, and the effects are just as serious as the fatigue on Nagisa’s knees.

After losing the first set, Nozomi stands up to her coach for the first time and basically tells him to butt out; she’s going to try things her way. To his credit, the coach is accepting of her choice and almost seems proud to be cast aside in this way, realizing he pushed her too far. So at least he’s not a complete two-dimensional jerk.

Nozomi proceeds to win the second set, but loses the third, giving Nagisa the victory, a spot in the Nationals and in the final match versus Ayano. But more importantly, she played the rest of that match for herself, not her coach, and despite losing, had a ton of fun, reminding her why she plays in the first place.

As for Ayano, she concedes she was wrong and that Nagisa is better than she thought…but likely doesn’t see Nagisa as even the slightest threat in the finals. We’ll see if her insufferable arrogance backfires next week, or if her precipitous abandonment of humanity will continue to proceed apace.

Considering both Connie and her mother could be in attendance, the timing for some kind of downfall for Ayano couldn’t possibly be worse!

Hanebado! – 07 – The Power and Price of Hard Work

The best and most thrilling episode of Hanebado! yet, in which Ayano and Kaoruko have their fated rematch, comes with a surprise: Ayano’s mom is nowhere to be seen; none of Ayano’s teammates mention her again; and there’s no indication she watched the Kaoruko rematch. Where’d she go? We never find out. But she’s there, and she’ll surely be back.

Her total absence reflects the new attitude towards her mother Ayano wishes to adopt: that she doesn’t have a mother, or at least not one whose opinions matter to her anymore. Ayano looks initially rattled by Kaoruko’s gift of a hankie for the tears/snot when she loses, but her pained look morphs into a wry girn.

Ayano isn’t scared of Kaoruko anymore; at least not on the surface. Her inner thoughts/feelings are off limits to Ayano’s teammates, Kaoruko, and we the audience, but it could well be she’s just as calm, cool, and committed to obliterating her opponent inside as out.

Yu loses her match, making Ayano, Nagisa and Sora the only three players left standing in the prelims. But frankly I just wasn’t that interested in the little subplots of the other characters. This was about a suddenly supremely confident Ayano and a Kaoruko humming with arrogance: an Unstoppable Force vs. an Unmovable Object.

Despite the distractions, the match lives up to the hype and then some. It’s the most high stakes match we’ve been able to watch, and the animation team pulls out all the stops, utilizing all manner of angles, zooms, pans, sweeps, etc. as well as a 3-D “floating camera” that soars from one end of the court to t’other. It really got the adrenaline pumping.

But even more important: for once, Ayano, supposedly one of the most talented players in the show, isn’t embarrassed or overwhelmed, physically or psychologically. She is in complete command of the match, and demonstrates virtual telepathy when it comes to diagnosing Kaoruko’s game plan and sabotaging it at every turn with unexpected counters.

This is where Kaoruko’s tireless hard work, ultra-granular attention to detail, and the ruthless drive to defeat Ayano at all costs actually work against her. She prepared so intricately carefully for an opponent based on what she thought she knew of them up and down, leaving no time to consider how Ayano’s skills would have improved or evolved parallel to her own.

Ayano is no stranger to hard work either, after all. She employs it here, and her grit on the court is reinforced by her conscious effort to block all of those negative and unpleasant thoughts that plagued her for so long. Free of the need for validation from her mother, she’s a player possessed.

She’s also in rare form on the trash talking front. Kaoruko talked a big game, but Ayano’s retorts are strategically toned and timed for maximum damage. Long story short: Ayano is all that’s in Kaoruko’s head. Winning is al that’s in Ayano’s head.

The final 21-16, 21-17 score in Ayano’s favor doesn’t do justice to the level of dominance she displayed against Kaoruko in 90% of the match. The defeat is devastating, and not just because she gave her entire team the middle finger prior to the match, so confident was she that she’d “mop the floor” with Ayano.

Ayano broke a fantasy that Kaoruko kept playing in her head as she worked so hard: that she could beat the first player her own age to beat her, without cheating by giving her a cold. She thought she was psychologically stronger. Her only loyal, sympathetic teammate helps her stretch post-match, both of them cry, for Ayano crushed those fantasies, then offered Kaoruko her hankie back.

Ayano, for her part, calls Kaoruko’s effort “pathetic”, which rubs Elena the wrong way. Ayano’s cold response is simply that on that court, winning is the only thing that matters (Sorry, Riko, Yu and Sora!). Another way to say that is that if you don’t win, then nothing matters. So yeah, Ayano may be playing her best badminton, but she’s gone to a dark, lonely place to do it.

Next up is Nagisa vs. Nozomi, but you know what? However it turns out, I can’t see how it won’t feel like a bit of a letdown after Ayano vs. Kaoruko. Both players are lower down on the character significance list. What could mitigate that is if we finally get the Ayano-Ayano’s mom reunion we’ve been waiting for all season. Who knows, maybe she did watch the match; the episode just never cut to her…

Hanebado! – 04 – A New Challenger Approaches

After her playground epiphany, Ayano joins the badminton club, and before she knows it she’s on a bus with the rest of the club to a summer practice facility. While on the ride, the classically alone Ayano has her hair tended to by Yu, resulting in a photo and a warm feeling of belonging; of finally not being alone, but part of something bigger: a team.

But wouldn’t you know it, the facility is already occupied by another badminton team, and not just any team, but the “FreGirls” of Frederica, one of the country’s top teams. One of their players wanted very much to play Ayano’s school. Ayano heads out to a konbini to buy water, but ends up lost thanks to Nagisa’s kiddy, nigh worthless map.

While lost, she meets a foreigner who’s also lost: a blonde from Denmark who offers her a lolly when they make progress with the map.

Things are going swimmingly until the foreigner learns the identity of the cute little girl she’s walked with. The moment she hears the name “Hanesaki” she freezes and drops her change, then accuses Ayano of playing mind games with her by “pretending to be friendly.”

The next they meet, the tall blonde, Connie C, is one half of Ayano and Riko’s doubles opponents, and promises to show her how “meaningless” Ayano’s “team” is. She warns her partner not to interfere and let her play alone. Clearly, what she really wants is a one-on-one match against Ayano.

When her partner does interfere, Connie quits in a huff, letting the other girl struggle alone in a two-on-one match until she basically taps out. Connie doesn’t believe in teams, after all; she’s a team of one, and gets what she wants. As for why her captain and coach do nothing to stop her selfish behavior, who knows?

Connie takes over, effortlessly turning a 10-3 deficit into an 11-10 lead with mammoth vertical leaps and a smash that even the guys doubt they could return. Neither Ayano or Izumi can do anything. It’s Serigaya Kaoruko all over again.

Only…it’s actually worse than Kaoruko. “Connie C” Is Connie Christensen, a Danish prodigy who has already won the world championship in her age group. In every physical measure pertinent to badminton, she’s Ayano’s superior, and wants to make it clear she’s superior in every other aspect of the game as well. Tachibana knows her, and doubts Ayano will be able to hang.

Connie is also the blonde girl in the magazine article in which Ayano learned her mother had basically replaced her as daughter, which makes this even more fucked up. Connie even ties back her hair the same way as Ayano’s mother, adding insult to injury.

Apparently not satisfied with everything she’s already taken from Ayano, Connie now seems to want to crush Ayano’s spirit, such that even being in a fun high school team won’t give her joy or relief. That said, she relied on an awful lot of coincidences to end up in the match. Among them:

  • She knew Ayano had joined the badminton club, even when Ayano herself wasn’t sure until very recently;
  • Her school’s team ended up at the same facility as Ayano’s club;
  • Ayano ended up going out for water, and ended up meeting Connie first;
  • They ended up playing against each other.

Coincidences aside, one has to wonder what Connie’s true motive is, and why she is so intent on psychologically crippling a stranger. I mean, isn’t the fact that Ayano’s mom abandoned Ayano for Connie enough proof for Connie that’s she’s better? Did she really travel all the way to Japan just to beat someone who had already ‘lost” to her? Apparently! And that makes Connie a garbage person…until further notice.

Hanebado! – 03 – For the Sheer Love of Badminton

Overshadowed last week by Nagisa’s slump was the fact that Ayano still didn’t really want to play badminton. The exact reason why was not explicitly laid out until now, and it paints both her reluctance to join the bad club and Elena’s adamant insistence she join anyway. By getting to the roots of the two girls’ motivations, the episode succeeds in strengthening both characters and elevating the show’s drama.

We start with a series of flashbacks from Elena’s perspective, always on the sidelines watching Ayano with a combination of awe and pride, but also loneliness, and even envy. Mostly though, since they were wee girls Elena has always known how much Ayano loves badminton, and so simply couldn’t allow her to reject it. It wasn’t just about wasting talent, but denying herself that which both of them know she loves.

Of course, we’ve known that love is tainted by the huge expectations others put upon her, and the unwanted attention she gets from other badminton lovers for her body and her skills. Elena watches the others fawning over Ayano, gets bored, and goes to the movies with Noriko…where she’s also bored.

Afterwards, Noriko goes off on a date with Saionji, leaving Elena alone. She spots Nagisa on her run, but doesn’t call out. It’s Nagisa, on her run back, who spots Elena, who explains she wanted to see how Ayano would do on her own. Nagisa asks Elena why Ayano quit badminton, because she’s since fallen far from the “perfect” player who crushed her at the junior nationals. Elena promises to get to the bottom of it.

The next day, Ayano’s personal slump is compounded by the sudden arrival of her former self-appointed rival, Serigaya Kaoruko. After nearly falling for the cool Tachibana, Kaoruko challenges a very lethargic Ayano to a set, and totally embarrasses her.

This is another beautifully-animated badminton game, and it’s thrilling to see Kaoruko so easily confound, befuddle, and decimate Ayano, who had been impressing her teammates with her skills thus far. Kaoruko is disappointed, and vows that Ayano will never beat her. Considering Ayano is lying on the floor drenched in sweat, it’s hard to argue with that assessment.

Ayano rushes out, and when Elena catches up to her, she says she’s quitting badminton after all; Elena can stay if she wants, but she won’t. In that moment I couldn’t help but feel bad for Elena, who had stuck with Ayano all this time only for her efforts to be impulsively discarded after just one frustrating set. It felt like Ayano was taking Elena for granted.

The next day, Ayano doesn’t come to school or practice. Tachibana and Nagisa visit her house where her stately, adorable grandparents take care of her; there, they learn that Ayano’s mother was Shindo Uchika, the greatest badminton player of her generation and winner of ten straight national titles.

Both Elena and I considered the pressure of following in the footsteps of an almost impossibly elite parent ample motive for feeling like one’s own badminton career is pointless…but Ayano’s situation turns out to be far more fucked up. Elena may know more about Ayano than anyone, but even she didn’t understand the depths of Ayano’s pain.

She also didn’t know who Kaoruko was. When the two were scheduled to have a match, Kaoruko caught a cold, so she tied Ayano up and gave her her cold so they could play “on even terms.” Kaoruko ended up beating Ayano by a hair, and Ayano passed out on the court.

While still in bed recovering, her mother turned her back on her, ignored the calls of her daughter, walked out the door…and never came back. Ayano kept playing and kept winning, transforming herself into a badminton WMD, hoping that if she won enough, her mom would come back.

Not only did her mother never come back, but Ayano had to learn from an article in Badminton Magazine at the konbini that her mother had taken on another student in a faraway land and trained her to be her successor. Earlier I wondered whether perhaps there was a good reason her mom had to go, but no, she was just a garbage mother and human being.

Elena ponders the shocking new information Ayano has given her on her walk home, but one image over all others continues to be prominent in her mind: that of a tiny her watching a tiny Ayano playing badminton with her mom and loving every minute of it.

Elena considers it her duty as Ayano’s friend to help her get that feeling back—a feeling independent of pressure and  betrayal. To do so, she elicits the help of Nagisa. Elena and Ayano meet at their usual meeting spot atop the red playground octopus. Elena tells Ayano she needs to go back to school, and Nagisa makes her appearance.

Then Elena tells Ayano something she didn’t know before: How then, and now, she felt/feels “left out” when she watches Ayano play. Elena always thought she doesn’t have anything she can devote herself to, but she does. Ayano loves and devotes herself to badminton, and Elena loves and devotes herself to Ayano. Even if she feels lonely, or left out, or envious at times, it’s all worth it to see Ayano have so much fun.

With that, Nagisa draws a makeshift court in the sand, and the two have a match. It’s a bit of a mess of a match, with the wind wreaking havoc on the shuttlecock…but it doesn’t matter. Ayano is able to drop the baggage surrounding the sport she loves and simply enjoy playing it again.

The rest of the club is contacted and they join in the fun. And the next day, Elena and Ayano turn in their forms indicating their intention to join the Badminton Club. Ayano was dealt a terrible hand in moms, but in turn was dealt a great hand in BFsF.

Hanebado! – 02 – Smashing a Slump

The epic clash between Nagisa and Ayano…doesn’t go well, mostly due to the massive differential in both talent and motivation. Ayano just doesn’t care, so when Nagisa gets too into it, she just gives up, which of course makes Nagisa even more angry.

Ayano still stays in the club—ostensibly because Elena elects to become the manager, and she and Ayano can never be apart…I guess?—but Nagisa is caught in a bad slump, and feels she can’t get out of it unless she beats Ayano in a match in which both players are invested…easier said than done.

The three quitters also converse with another first-year, Yuu, who has a ritual of eating a hot dog on a stick after every workout. They can tell things are no less tense at practices than before they quit.

When paired up for doubles, Nagisa and Ayano crash into each other, but you get the feeling the collisions are all Nagisa’s fault, because she’s thinking about coming out of her slump and proving something far more than she’s thinking about the team. Coach Tachibana switches her out for Riko, who ducks to let Ayano return the shot.

Nagisa sees this as nothing but making Tachibana’s “favorite” look good, which she says is all everyone thinks people without talent are good for: making the talented look better. Nagisa’s huge chip on her shoulder is long-standing; she’s always been tall for her age, and despite working harder than almost everyone, that height was seen as a natural (and unfair) advantage.

When the quitters see Nagisa yelling at Yuu out of frustration, one of them confronts her, saying she used to envy her love of badminton. Left unsaid is the fact she probably pities her now.

Having watched enough of Nagisa’s play (and attitude) to diagnose the cause of her slump, Tachibana engages in a bit of tough love by having a match with her. Before he blew out his knee he was an Olympics-bound player, and it shows: he straight-up schools the slumping Nagisa.

But then, he says all the things she needed to hear: the misconceptions people have for tall people like her; the acknowledgement she’s good because of hard work, not her height; and perhaps most important, that she can’t just rely on being tall to deliver jumping smashes at this stage in her career, but have more trust in her shot and be less obsessed with controlling everything.

It’s a pep talk with immediate positive effects, and by the end of their match, Nagisa has scored a point against a would-be Olympian, and a smile returns to her face. She later apologizes to the team, promises she’ll be less selfish going forward, but also vows to one day beat Ayano. I’m just glad she’s out of her funk!

Hanebado! – 01 (First Impressions) – Everything is Pointless

Hanebado! opens fast and crisp, in the midst of a match in the badminton nationals. One player is struggling as hard as she can and sweating bullets; the other is just calmly, coolly blowing her opponent away with a 21-o game.

The scene features some really decent sports animation, elevating the action to a kind of heightened reality with viewing angles, cuts, and shifts in speed. But as exciting as the match looks, neither player is happy at the end; neither the victor nor the defeated.

Cut to six months later, the victor (Hanesaki Ayano) along with her longtime friend (Fujisawa Elena) are first years at the same school as third-year player she defeated (Aragaki Nagisa), who is so upset over the loss she’s taking it out on the other players in the club, forcing several to quit rather than endure more abuse.

Ayano wants nothing to do with badminton, but while exchanging easy volleys with Elena on a tennis court, an errant bounce of a serve by the boy’s tennis club’s first-year ace Saionji nearly hits Elena in the face, but Ayano lunges in front of her and smashes it away, gaining a point in a game she wasn’t even playing.

A coach grabs Ayano and inspects her wrists and hands, forcing Elena to defend her. Meanwhile Nagisa (whom Ayano beat) wanders off, regretting how harsh she was with the now-departed players. She’s comforted by her friend Riko, who remains with the team and is likely the only person Nagisa is comfortable crying around.

So the main players in Hanebado! are a girl possessed with phenomenal natural talent who has no motivation to actually play, and a girl who is basically the opposite, with a good metric fuckton of angst between them. A classic talent-vs.-hard work dynamic, which results in a very shounen manga-style challenge at the end: If Ayano beats Nagisa, she won’t have to join.

That means in this rematch, Nagisa will have to find some way to turn the tables. Perhaps in the last six months she’s narrowed the gap between them? I’m a couple weeks behind in this show because I was trying to avoid watching a sports anime, but there’s no way I’m backing out of this before I watch the result, which will no doubt feature more of that sweet sweet shuttlecock action!

Shokugeki no Souma 3 – 24 – Environmental Factors

Not surprisingly, Kinokuni Nene’s dish is a sublime expression of the Edo-style soba tradition coursing through her veins. Creating a dish composed of two distinct light delicate flavors is no mean feat, but Nene pulls it off effortlessly, almost automatically. As if we didn’t know already, Souma is facing an uphill battle.

Souma also has to worry about the judges getting too stuffed on Nene’s soba. The noodles and sakura shrimp tempura disappear so easily from their plates, they seem to create an infinite time loop. Nene may have an inferiority complex when it comes to Satoshi, but he never failed to bear witness to the immense amount of hard work and dedication Nene put into everything she did—not just cooking—while other kids her age played around.

Her “environmental factors”, i.e. her strict upbringing that demanded results and perfection, are why she’s in the Elite Ten, and why she thoroughly impressed three Priests of The Book. But Souma also has something he’s “sunk a lot of time into”, and he calls it “Yukihira-style Seared Soba”. And at first glance it looks…kinda tragic? Especially compared to the austere work of art that was Nene’s dish.

Of course, if an ugly dish tastes better than the good-looking one (not to mention beats it in exciting every other sense), it’s easy to overlook it’s…looks. While Nene used the purest form of buckwheat flower (ichibanko, which only uses the endosperm), Souma used sanbanko, a flour made up of parts very near the outer shell of the grain.

Sanbanko trades ideal mouthfeel for increased aromas, but in his quest to replicate the genre of instant noodles to gourmet stature, he leaned into that coarseness by crisping the noodles via stir-frying. Ichibanko’s delicate flavor would have been ruined, but the sanbanko noodles hold up.

Other bold touches include the generous use of duck, as well as a variety of seasoning spices to diversify the judges’ experience. While Nene’s soba let them travel through time to eat it over and over again, Souma’s seems to transport the judges back to an ideal moment in their lives: enjoying their friends’ company at a summer festival as fireworks blaze in the sky.

Nene is ultimately correct that she utilized all of her amassed knowledge and experience to create the very best Edo-style soba she could for the judges. BUT, it wasn’t the best dish FOR THE VENUE. The environment that matters most is the one in which the shokugeki is taking place, which grew colder and colder as the storm worsened outside.

As a result, the delicate aromas of her dish suffered, while Souma’s held up. Nene herself confirms this when she tastes her noodles and then Souma’s. Her soba is best enjoyed in a much more controlled environment. I believe this is the first instance in Food Wars anime of the ambient temperature of the shokugeki hall playing a factor in the judges’ decision. And I loved Alice conferring with Akira on the science of how Souma beat Nene.

One more environment that favored Souma is his upbringing in a busy diner. From a young age, he learned how to keep track of a lot of different things and dishes at once, because diners are places where the food is slung fast, eaten fast, and the customers turn over fast. Compare that to Nene’s restaurant, whose sophisticated clientele are willing to wait for the best possible meal.

Souma’s extra stamina and the speed with which he experiments and crafts new flavors and methods with which to defeat his opponents, is second to none (I’d wager Subaru is close, owing to his dedication to stalking and copying his targets). And it pays off here.

Megashima soundly defeats Kaburagi off-camera, proving even a former third-seat is still a formidable challenger; which gives the rebels a clean 3-0 sweep in the first bout of the Team Shokugeki. It’s a major setback for Azami, who only shows his frustration in the shadows.

However, that’s all for this second cour of Shokugeki no Souma 3; we won’t learn who wins (or more likely, how the rebels ultimately defeat Azami) until the third cour. Whenever that comes, I be waiting with an empty stomach.

Shokugeki no Souma 3 – 23 – The Natural

I was a little out of the loop regarding Isshiki’s pedigree, but that’s cleared up early this week: the Isshiki family has been, along with the Kinokuni family to which Nene belongs, one of the two pillars of Japanese cuisine in Kyoto. Not only that, when he turned four, Isshiki moved in with the Kinokunis to train away from home.

As such, he and Nene have known each other since they were little kids…though Nene resists the assertion that they’re “childhood friends.” When Satoshi asks why she’s always so opposed to his existence, she says “you know why.”

The judges are also introduced as belonging to the revered book of restaurant ratings known as the WGO Guide, led by their marshal Anne. The WGO is akin to the real-life Michelin Guide, giving one to three stars to gourmet restaurants which propels them to the apex of the culinary world. They’re kingmakers and kingbreakers.

Taking stars away can lead to a restaurant’s ruin, as well as the end of that chef’s confidence. Anne notes quite blatantly that Yukihira Diner isn’t even in “The Book”, but makes it clear that this fact has nothing to do with the Shokugeki at hand, and that she and her two colleagues will judge the dishes put before them with fairness and impartiality.

Shiratsu Jurio presents his dish: the quintessentially Italian capitone in umido. With a rich San Marzano tomato sauce and crispy-creamy polenta perfectly complementing the fatty umami of the eel, the judges feel like they’re being cradled in a large bosom of flavor. It’s a masterpiece of by-the-book Italian cooking, and a testament to Jurio’s tireless hard work trying to reach Isshiki’s level.

Isshiki’s dish is not traditional Japanese or anything else, except in its very basic structure, that of Hitsumabushi. However, this is “Polar Star Style”, which integrates a number of ingredients developed (and in some cases not yet perfected) by his beloved Polar Star juniors, which he admits he just flat-out stole from them in order to showcase their skill in their individual specializations.

It really is the best dish someone fighting for the rebellion could present: one that doesn’t just show the judges what a good chef he is, but the potential of chefs below him, as well as his own judgment and confidence in their skills, even if they don’t have the same confidence in themselves.

Satoshi wins the match with Jurio running away, but after curt congratulations, Nene tells him she’ll defeat him in the second bout. She sees this as yet another example of Satoshi, whom she’s known longer than anyone else present, excelling at things with minimal effort, as he did with everything she threw at him when they were kids.

Things that took her endless effort came frustratingly easily to Satoshi, but what has always angered her more than anything is that is was so clearly she felt he wasn’t putting in 100% of his effort. If he did, he’d surely have been above her in the Elite Ten rankings. Really, she’s not disputing his greatness, but lamenting that he isn’t as great as he could be if he, say, worked as hard as she has.

That distinction in her long-standing grievance with him makes all the difference; this isn’t petty jealousy, but disappointment. However, Satoshi tells her they won’t be facing off in the second bout, because Souma is going to defeat her. With one episode until the 24-ep mark, we’re potentially looking at tresults of the remaining two matches in this first bout.

Will Souma beat Nene with his “instant soba”, or will Nene crush his “desperate improvisation” with her Elite soba knowhow? Can Megishima make it a clean rebel sweep by defeating Kaburagi? Or will one of the remaining two rebels fall to Central, making the other win the clincher? We shall see.

Sora yori mo Tooi Basho – 13 (Fin) – Ten Thousand Times More Beautiful

With no more conflicts or catharses left to have, the girls enjoy their final days in Antarctica. They’ve settled into such a routine and gotten so used to the astonishing environment, one adult jokes they won’t be able to reintegrate into society, presenting Shirase and the other Mahjong junkies as evidence.

Their final journey to the frozen sea affords them the opportunity to taste snowcones made from ice with thousand-year-old air pockets, which Mari attests to be delicious. They also learn that much of the winter team’s activities will include sleeping, drinking, and games to pass the time.

Shirase finally gets her wish to be surrounded by adorable penguins, but she’s locked in a cycle of being disgusted by the smell and delighted by being in their presence while asking for some unspecified form of help. I imagine many of us would feel the same way.

Mari is getting cold feet about leaving, and wonders out loud to the others why they can’t just stay. Hinata flicks her forehead and doles out reality; they have to get back to their homes, their families, and their school. But all four promise that they’ll come back together someday.

They then present their final request to the rest of the team: that they play a game of snow softball. Captain Toudou is, naturally, the ace, but just like Takako, Shirase is not only able to hit her pitch, but drive it out of the “park.”

On the eve of departing, Shirase decides to have her hair cut short—her heart wasn’t broken by a guy, but such a change makes sense after her catharsis with the laptop (she also wisely chooses Hinata to cut it, not Mari). The whole team musters for the girls’ farewell ceremony, and after a heartfelt speech by Gin that starts everyone crying, Shirase confidently delivers and even more heartfelt, tear-jerking speech.

In it, she expresses the understanding she reached in this place beyond the universe, and why both her mother and her love it so much: It’s a place that strips everything bare, with nothing to protect you and nowhere to hide. It’s a place where someone can come face-to-face with who they really are…and she did that.

Before embarking for home, Shirase hands Gin her mom’s laptop, stating she no longer needs it. Later, Gin discovers there’s still a message from Takako in the outbox; the last she ever composed. The quartet waves goodbye to their Antarctic summer home where they experienced and learned so much about the world, each other, and themselves.

Yuzu wonders if maybe they all got a little stronger during the journey. A ‘little’? I think she sells herself and the others short here. They were the first high school-age students to explore Antarctica, and they made it. Now, all of a sudden, they’re headed back to the normal world. Even if and when they come back, it will never be the same as their first time.

When night falls, Mari finally gets to experience the one thing they couldn’t due to the laughably short Antarctic nights: view the aurora. Just when they do, Gin sends the last email Takako wrote to Shirase, stating how the real thing is “ten thousand times more beautiful”—something of which, in that moment, Shirase and the others are all to aware.

The four friends, having forged their bonds in the coldest and harshest crucible on the planet, go their separate ways with confidence and return to their lives that were with a serious sense of accomplishment, self-awareness, and maturity.

They discovered as much about themselves in Antarctica as they discovered about the place itself, like how there are no “nothing” days but there’s still more to discover upon returning, like the smell of one’s house.

And in a perfect capper to a marvelous series, Mari texts Megumi that she’s home, and gets a near-immediate response, along with a photo of her posing with the aurora: “Too bad. Right now, I’m in the Arctic.” Well played, Megu-chan; well played.

 

Sora yori mo Tooi Basho – 12

Shirase vividly remembers the day she was suddenly pulled out of class and informed of her mother’s death. How can she not? We all carry days like that in our memories. For her, it was the end of life feeling as it had before, and the beginning of a dream; an awful dream from which she hoped every day to wake up from.

She’s worked so hard, endured mockery, made and fought with friends, and arrived at the place where she lost her mother. Yet she still doesn’t feel like the dream is over. Now Gin has invited her and the other girls to join the team that will press inland, to the observatory site from which Takako never returned.

Shirase tells her friends it’s not so much that she’s depressed to stressed out about her mother. Rather, she’s weary that if and when she gets to the end of the road, there will be nowhere left to go. If nothing changes, the way it hasn’t thus far, what if she keeps feeling the way she does the rest of her life? What if she can’t wake up?

The girls decide to give Shirase space, proof, according to an adult colleague, that they’re truly good friends. Shirase sits with Gin, who tells her that neither of them know what Takako felt, or whether she wanted them to return to Antarctica, where she’d be waiting in some form.

All Gin can say for certain is that she came because she wanted to come: “At the end of the day, those ideas we latch on to aren’t enough to motivate us. But when we run around on the injustices of reality, they’re the only things that can break through, make the impossible possible, and allow us to proceed on.”

After laying out all of her cash and listing all the ways she made it, Shirase regains the idea that brought her to Antarcica, and joins Gin and the other girls on the inland trip…because her mother is waiting there.

Along the slow, cold slog of a trip, Shirase and he girls experience the harshest conditions so far, but still have to work in them, because there’s no other choice. They also experience some of the most otherworldly sights, like a sun pillar.

When Shirase asks Gin if her mother saw the same thing, Gin answers in the affirmative. Later, Gin has Shirase check in with Syowa Station. From then on, as Shirase realizes she’s following in her mother’s last footsteps, the journey adopts an increasingly melancholy mood.

When a punishing blizzard arrives identical to the one that suddenly claimed Takako, Gin remembers Takako’s last call on the radio, saying “it’s beautiful” but not telling Gin where she was, because if Gin went out to attempt rescue, nature would likely have claimed her as well.

The girls are snug in their sleeping bags as the winds lash against the snowcat, and Shirase sees a vision of her mother sitting nearby, working on her laptop. Mari wakes up to thank Shirase for taking her for allowing her to get the most out of her youth.

It doesn’t matter to her whether they went to Antartica or the Arctic or anywhere else; what made the trip special was that they took it together, as friends. Shirase then tells her mother that she, who thought she’d be fine alone forever, now has friends: slightly weird, frustrating, and broken friends, but friends who were willing to come this far with her.

Now, there’s only a little further to go, and once the snowcats arrive at the observatory site, those same friends rush into the underground complex to try to find something, anything that serves as proof Shirase’s mother was there. And boy do they ever find it: Takako’s laptop, with a photo of Takako and Shirase taped to the back.

Again Shirase’s friends recede to the hallway as Shirase fires up the laptop. She gets the password right on the second try, and when Takako’s inbox opens, it immediately starts updating, with a dozen, then a hundred, then a thousand emails gradually pouring in…and Shirase loses it. Her friends hear her anguish and then they start crying.

In a show that’s had no shortage of episode climaxes that tug at the heartstrings, no scene to date has tugged quite this far (I pretty much lost it too!). It truly feels like Shirase has finally awakened from her hazy three-year-long dream, having experienced a profound measure of closure from this. In any case, her fear of not feeling anything once she came to the end of her journey didn’t come to pass. She didn’t just feel something; she felt everything.

Sora yori mo Tooi Basho – 11

It’s the year’s end, and the members of the expedition get to communicate with family and/or friends via a satellite feed. This is how Mari’s mom and sister get to laugh at her ski goggle tan, but it’s also how three high school track club members reopen a wound for Hinata; a wound she decided to forget about and move on from in…the furthest place in the universe.

But just the sight of those three girls boils Hinata’s blood to the extent she must run outside and wreck some shit while yelling for them to “piss off!” Shirase witnesses this display, and it only reinforces the concern she felt the minute Hinata covered up the camera lens.

Hinata—and, unwittingly, Mari—conspire to keep Shirase from ever being able to broach the topic with Hinata, almost intuitively senses what Shirase wants to talk about, and wants nothing to do with it. Shirase gets so worked up about what Hinata might be hiding, she crosses a line and opens Hinata’s email.

I was as curious as Shirase to learn why Hinata was acting this way, and truly wanted both her, Mari and Yuzu to find some way to make things better for Hinata. I may have even done what Shirase did…but it doesn’t make it right.

Hinata comes to realize she’s partly to blame for Shirase’s breach of privacy by being so inaccessible. So she tells Shirase and the others her sob story of being too good at running, showing up the upperclassmen, and getting ostracized. Not only does she leave the club, but she quits school due to the fallout.

Now the girls know why she was so put off by seeing her friends on camera: she doesn’t see them as friends. Later, when the girls get to do some expeditionary work in an alien landscape that looks kind of like chocolate cake with white frosting, Hinata reiterates that she doesn’t care about the noise from the past, and came to Antarcitca precisely to get away…not just from petty high school drama, but everything.

Shirase ponders all that Hinata said, and puts herself in Hinata’s shoes. Taking Hinata aside to get some of that pure, crisp Antarctica water (my mouth hadn’t watered over water since Last Exile; good job, show!), Shirase tells her that she wouldn’t be okay with it, or be able to smile with it hanging over her.

Hinata makes the good point that she’s not her; different people get to deal with things in different ways. But she also admits she may still simply be too scared to face those track girls, whether it’s to forgive them, to tell them to eat shit…or both. She thanks Shirase for having her back, but tells her she doesn’t need all the words Shirase wants to say…the warmth of her hands is enough.

When those three girls show back up in the satellite feed, Shirase shows she isn’t done. With Hinata’s emotional well-being at stake, Shirase completely shaks off her usual camera shyness, interrupts the planned schedule of the broadcast, and confronts the track girls directly, telling them to leave Hinata the hell alone.

Shirase goes OFF with an epic tirade that only further expanded my love for both Shirase and Hanazawa Kana. Hinata is doing fine without your lame asses, she basically says. She is taking steps forward, with her real friends:

“Unlike Hinata, I’m a real jerk, so I’ll say it straight: You can’t live your lives in this halfway state forever! You hurt someone and made them suffer! Now you get to live with that! That’s what you get for hurting someone…for hurting my friend! You think you can come crawling back now? PISS OFF!”

Masterful shit right there…that not only brings Hinata, but the other girls and Shirase herself to tears, while Toudou Gin has a glint of pride in her eye, surely seeing the passion of her dearly departed friend burn in her daughter. When they ring in the new year, it may be with a block of wood and an steel drum, but it’s no less triumphant. Time to turn the f’in page. A new year and new experiences await.

Sora yori mo Tooi Basho – 10

Now that they’ve arrived at Antarctica, the expedition weighs anchor and starts to bring supplies ashore using a very badass helicopter. The high school girls take a trip (which Yuzu likes not at all) and get to see the ship from the sky (it’s a thrilling bit of CGI) before being deposited at Syowa Station.

Kanae gives the girls—and by extension us—a tour of the facilities, including seperate bedrooms for all four of them, a luxury after having to share a berth at sea. While spartan, the habitations are also quite cozy and homey, far nicer than what I was expecting.

I really enjoyed the contrast between the cool Antarctic “night” (light-wise it stays dusk at its darkest) and the warm, inviting, lived-in interiors; the perfect place to kick back after a hard day’s work.

As unloading, cleaning, and other duties mount, Yuzu learns she’s been offered a role on a popular Japanese TV drama (there’s cell service at the station), but is worried it would mean, as it’s always meant throughout her career, the end of her time with Mari, Shirase and Hinata.

True to that career, she even comes up with a “friendship contract” for them to sign, causing Mari to cry and hug Yuzu with a distinct “you poor thing” vibe.

There were times when Yuzu seemed almost painfully naive about what friends and friendship are, but then I remembered that these three girls are her first, so naturally she wouldn’t be sure when the threshold of friendship had passed. Of course, no one really knows when that happens; friendships may not be as solid and structured as marriages or parenthood, but that’s what sets them apart as something special.

Mari takes the time to impart some wisdom to Yuzu regarding what she considers friendship (since it can be different for everyone) using Megumi as an example. Mari has been sending her pics, and whether Megu responds right away or as often or not, she always knows when Megumi has seen the message by the notification on the phone. That, in turn, helps Mari imagine what Megumi might be doing or thinking about in that moment.

With that, the other three arrive and unveil what they had been planning for Yuzu all along: a surprise birthday party. Her real birthday passed when they were all horribly seasick, so the Christmas party made her sad.

So the girls prepped some poppers and cake so that she could celebrate her very first birthday with friends. It’s almost too much to handle, as Yuzu starts bawling and can’t even speak clearly because of all the tears and snot.

But the next day, when Mari and Yuzu are off doing different tasks, Yuzu sends Mari a text not apologizing, but thanking her. Just a simple little check-in that lets both Mari and Yuzu know that they’re thinking of one another. Finally, Yuzu seems to get what friendship is, and that one should never overthink it.