The aquatope on white sand – 15 – Seaslugfest

Buoyed in part by the return of Fuuka, Kukuru has found her rhythm in the marketing office, and is starting to show her competence. Of course, this means her boss Suwa just foists more work upon her. But it’s not done out of malice; it’s a sign that he trusts her to get it done. While having a relaxing lunch outside, Fuuka reminds Kukuru of that.

As such, when Suwa gives Kukuru her largest responsibility yet: a two week exhibition. Kukuru gives it her absolute all preparing a variety of proposals, not merely so she can silence Suwa’s doubt in her (though that’s part of it), but because it’s a golden opportunity to nerd the ef OUT over sea life. She ends up knocking it out of the park with her proposal, which is accepted on the spot. Mind you, Suwa doesn’t offer “Plankton” any praise…but it’s still a huge victory!

Kukuru decides the exhibition will be exclusively sea slugs, the jewels of the sea. I have to admit I hadn’t given sea slugs much thought up until this episode, but I have to admit they’re as gorgeous as they are weird. Kai gets all excited about Kukuru asking him to join her at the shore to collect the creatures, only to find Kukuru invited Fuuka too. His romantic fumbling doesn’t go unnoticed by Eiji, who suggests he try to be a bit more bold.

Like her earlier projects, Kukuru is constantly having to butt heads with people with whom she simply has a lot of trouble getting along besides the minimal professional cordialness. One of those figures is Kaoru, who granted comes of as pretty prickly and inflexible anyway. But Kukuru has gained more spine since joining Tingaara, and one thing she will not countenance is exhibiting the sea slugs without feeding them.

The vast variety of sea slugs doesn’t just pertain to their looks, you see, but also their diet. One species likes one kind of sea sponge or moss, the other ignores it completely. Eventually she finds the right food for all but one of the species to be exhibited, but in the process of obsessing over that eighth, Kukuru completely forgets her tour duties. Chiyu, another one like oil to Kukuru’s water, doesn’t let her forget she messed up, while all Fuuka can do is try to keep the peace.

On the eve of the exhibition, Kukuru is working late hours, and she’s got bags under her eyes. Who should press a cool canned coffee against her head but Kai, perhaps trying to be a bit bolder as Eiji advised. Kai asks if he can do anything for the clearly overworked Kukuru, and she says yes there is: he can put up his hands so she can punch them! In the heat of the stress-relieving spar session, Kai wraps his fingers around her fist, kinda-sora-unconsciously seeking gentler contact than the usual punches.

No sooner is this contact made than Kai apologizes and the drew draw back. But even if Kai’s courtship doesn’t pay off, a different kind of ritual takes place between Kukuru and Kaoru…they come to a détente! Over, what else, their mutual passion for all things living in or near the sea! I’m not sure why Kuuya misgendered Kaoru, but I for one am elated to see her and Kukuru put aside their differences and focus on the common ground they share.

Kaoru even invites Kukuru to the shore! At the same time, she and Chiyu may never get along, nor will Suwa ever give her a break or crack a grin. But that’s okay! Just as not all sea slugs eat the same food, not all people can get along. It’s just surpassingly gratifying when it suddenly, unexpectedly happens.

Rating: 4/5 Stars

The aquatope on white sand – 14 – Nunca te rindas

I don’t know about you, but Fuuka’s sudden appearance on the beach and her and Kukuru’s warm embrace are romantic as all get out. Just look at that shot: Fuuka is basically Kukuru’s valiant prince, drying her eyes strained from tears of frustration and filling them right back up with pure unbridled joy. Even better: Fuuka is back for good. She’ll be working at Tingaara…and even moved next door to Kukuru.

That’s a lot of surprises, but Kukuru is fine with all of them, because if ever there was a time she needed Fuuka close by, it’s now, when she’s feeling totally unmoored in her marketing job. Thanks to Gramps, Fuuka was able to get a job at Tingaara, and Chiyu is clearly not okay Gama Gama nepotism. If she’s going to accept Fuuka as a colleague and not a up-jumped hanger-on, Fuuka must memorize all 20 of the cape penguins.

“There’s no ‘Gama Gama Faction!'”, the Gama Gama Faction protested as they all went out to eat together. Though replacing Kuuya is Eiji, who is tastefully intrigued by the former idol-turned-penguin attendant. Rumors of cliquery aside, I like how the Gama Gama exiles still hang together after work, lay down their troubles, and enjoy Udon-chan’s widening culinary repertoire.

Kukuru admits after dinner that a part of her felt jealous that Fuuka got the job she thought she’d get at Tingaara, but fully admits that kind of thinking is childishness she wants to grow past. With  Karin, Chiyu, and her fellow marketeer Akari (voiced by the Saekano heroine herself, Yasuno Kiyano!) an now Fuuka, she has plenty of girlsboss to emulate. She even discovers she does have a knack for making people care and fall in love with aquariums, as she takes the aquarium-indifferent Akari on a rehearsal tour and wins her over.

This week Kukuru does indeed work harder and smarter than her first bumbling/arrogant days, staying meek and formal on the outside, but keeping that burning fire in her belly stoked. She learns the value of forming little alliances with others to make things easier, and figuring out the precise way to deal with people. Take Chiyu’s second-in-command Marina (Touyama Nao—this cast is stacked): since Kukuru is Fuuka’s friend and Fuuka is cool, Marina will go to bat to change Chiyu’s mind about including the penguins on the tour.

Speaking of intricate social patterns, this week was a low-key cape penguin documentary, as we observe along with Fuuka how to tell the twenty penguins apart not just by their colored wing bands, but how they behave. And while Fuuka was only at Gama Gama for a month, that was enough to know when the birds are agitated due to their sudden new environment (mirroring Kukuru’s own difficulties).

Kukuru believes it was not only Fuuka acing the name-that-penguin test, but recognizing and acknowledging the emotional state of the birds that impressed Chiyu enough to give the go-ahead for their (limited) exposure to tour groups. Kukuru only manages to get a family of four in her first tour, but she ends up nailing the tour just as well as Fuuka nailed her test, showing that the director didn’t throw her into this new environment willy-nilly. He knew she’d eventually figure it out and thrive.

Is Kukuru’s anhedonic ass of a boss Suwa pissed she only snagged one group of four? Absolutely. Does Kukuru let him get her down for long? Nope! She walks out of that office ready to keep up the fight. The episode ends as it began, with Kukuru and Fuuka looking like a particularly happily married couple, this time cooking dinner side by side.

Kukuru gives Fuuka the credit for changing Chiyu’s mind by proving she not only knew about but cared about the penguins. But that’s not entirely fair to herself…who helped Fuuka study for that penguin test? More to the point, Fuuka makes it clear that while she feels she belongs in an aquarium now, the main reason Fuuka is back is to be with Kukuru. Kukuru just so happens to also belong in an aquarium, so it’s allll sea gravy!

The aquatope on white sand – 13 – #aquadulting

We return to Aquatope with Kukuru in a new apartment, in a smart pantsuit, saying her usual prayer (this time to her parents’ shrine), starting her very first day at the brand-spankin’-new Aquarium Tingaara. Umi-yan and Kuuya are already working there, while Kai is in the same group of new hires as she is. But while Kai is assigned to the fish team, Kukuru is assigned to…marketing.

The director has high hopes for her in PR, where Karin is already working. Have you ever, due to various circumstances, ended up in a job you had no idea you’d be doing? Well, that was me about five months ago, and it’s Kukuru here.

Working at an aquarium, but not tending to the marine life? It almost seems like a cruel joke, and Kukuru doesn’t get it. That said, when Karin frees her from the mountains of manuals her director Suwa gave her and takes her on a tour of the modern, impressive facilities, the little kid in Kukuru immediately resurfaces. (This still, by the way, is my new desktop wallpaper, the previous one being the sky after the typhoon).

But she gradually learns that kid has no place at Tingaara. Here, not even Umi-yan can keep ice pops in the feed freezer. Gama Gama was loosy-goosy, and a lot of outsiders like Suwa and Chiyu (who is magnificently smug throughout this episode) believe that had a lot to do with its failure. Tingaara is a strict, by-the-book, professional enterprise, perhaps wound a bit too tightly.

Even so, after dinner at the restaurant where Udon is now working and training, Kai reminds her that Fuuka dove into the world she knew nothing about when she started working at Gama Gama. He himself didn’t originally really want to work there, but did so because he wanted to help her, and eventually came to like it. He thinks if she tries something new and sticks with it, she might have a change of heart.

Reinvigorated by his words, Kukuru goes back to work with her head held high, doing the work that’s in front of her. It seems like preparations are ready for a behind-the-scenes tour Suwa assigned to her, but as he puts it in a very public dressing-down in the office, she really only did the work she knew how to do. He suggests she cease relying on experience working at a failed aquarium and nicknames her Plankton…smaller than small fry.

After getting chewed out and again having her commitment and seriousness questioned by Chiyu, Kukuru leaves the aquarium exhausted and discouraged, declining Karin’s dinner offer and instead sitting on the beach alone. She starts to cry, not knowing how much more of life at Tingaara she can take.

Then, out of nowhere, Fuuka arrives, precisely when Kukuru needed her the absolute most. While they were still together in last week’s episode, the way Aquatope totally turned Kukuru’s life on it’s head and everything she endured made it feel like months had passed…which indeed they did! All of that also makes their reunion that much more heartwarming.

Kukuru has had a rough couple of days, but there’s a reason Tingaara’s director assigned her the role he did. Hopefully seeing Fuuka will remind Kukuru of how rough she was on her in her first days at Gama Gama, and how Fuuka didn’t give up, and ended up thriving.

Tingaara may seem like a cold, cruel, nasty, grown-up place—or at least most of the humans who aren’t Kukuru’s circle make it feel that way—but that doesn’t mean it will stay that way. Kukuru may struggle and fail a lot more before she finds the right wavelength in which to thrive, but I’m excited to watch her find it!

Kageki Shoujo!! – 13 (Fin) – Stage of Dreams

I heard the music of true forgiveness filling the theater, conferring on all who sat there, perfect absolution. God was singing through this little man to all the world, unstoppable, making my defeat more bitter with every passing bar.—Salieri, Amadeus

When it comes time for Sarasa’s turn at Tybalt, Andou-sensei doesn’t hold back his professional acting background. His Romeo is not just loud and forceful, but loud and forceful in all the right ways, drawing the crowd in, accentuating the most important parts of his soliloquy. It throws Juliet and the Nurse completely off…but not Sarasa.

Sarasa once again remembers when she was waiting for Kouzaburou and heard his master practicing in the next room. Sarasa joined in, as the Living Treasure indulged her desire, just for a few moments, to know what is was to be coached in kabuki projection by a master.

Being taught from such a tender age that acting is “no child’s play”, Sarasa is able to shake off Andou-sensei going full out, Sarasa embraces the Kabuki practice of mie, which basically amounts to focusing the audience on them and only them, and exhibiting how cool they are.

Sarasa’s Tybalt immediately captures the audience with her sudden shock, anger, sadness, and ultimately by letting his revealed true feelings for Juliet soften her performance. It’s the complete package, and it shows that she’s learned how to discern between mimicry and genuine individual performance. She tapped into her natural talent and blossomed before all.

After three agonizing days, the girls finally learn who won which role. Ai loses to Aya, and for a good reason, as her uncle explains: Juliet is simply more in Ayaka’s wheelhouse as an avatar of innocence, while Ai’s performance was a bit too mature. Hearing it logically explained doesn’t make the sting of defeat any easier to endure, however. That said, Ai doesn’t head home, but waits for her friend to learn her fate.

In what seems lke nothing more than another petty fuck you to Sarasa borne out of envy for her talent, Hijiri redirects her to hours of floor cleaning in Risa’s stead. Hijiri seems to be the rep for all of those Kouka students who mutter and whisper to each other in their mutual bitterness and inadequacy.

Ayaka hears that mutering when it’s revealed she’ll be Juliet, including false claims that her family got involved in her being chosen. Kaoru, who lose the role of Romeo to some complete rando (and we never even learned why!), stands up for Aya right there and then, telling the sore losers if they lost to her family they “lost to bread”. She then cries, not for Aya, but for herself, and Aya both thanks her and comforts her with her embrace.

It’s nighttime by the time Sarasa learns she’ll be Tybalt. Ai is struck how differently Sarasa reacts to this compared to how she reacted upon first being admitted to Kouka. No jumping or laughing or yelling, just cool reverent focus at the name on the wall. She stepped out of her comfort zone, embodied a dark villain, and won the day. With so much more to learn, possibilities for her seem endless.

Class Rep Sawa, meanwhile, tries her best to be a gracious loser, legitimately praising Sarasa’s Tybalt, but also going tothe faculty lounge to hear why she didn’t get it. The story of the musical and film Amadeus comes up, and Sawa bitterly admits she always identified with Salieri, who toiled in mediocrity while Mozart ran rings around him out of pure god-given genius.

Andou assures her that most actors are more like Salieri than Mozart, not at the top but always looking upward or outward at those better than them in some way. He also hastens to add that Sarasa did not mop the floor with her; the student vote was a tie, as was the faculty vote, until a single teacherr, Ohgi-sensei, voted for Sarasa out of pure “fangirl appeal.”

Having been so deeply cut by a single piece of paper, Sawa accepts the loss and takes it as a learning experience, as young raw students such as herself must. After all, both she and Sarasa still possess a multitude of shortcomings in their skills that will only be resolved in the terms and years to come, with hard work, practice, and rehearsal.

Sawa’s second-year counterpart Takei tells her in the meantime, the two of them will always be class reps, keeping their peers organized and focused; a crucial role not everyone can play. Sawa finally allows herself to cry, and Takei has a comforting hand for her shoulder.

With the first-year roles for the festival set, rehearsals are scheduled for the four winners before the actual performance. However, first comes an event involving the entire 100th Kouka class: a photo shoot to promote the school and recruit members of the 101st class. With Sarasa at the top and Ai at the heart of their symmetrical formation, they ask those future students to join them on the stage of dreams.

And that’s all we’ve got for Kageki Shoujo!! Sadly, it may end up being all we get, as no second season was announced and by some accounts may be a long shot due to its very specific (and thus not wide-ranging) appeal. The prospect of there being no more Kageki even as we never got to see Sarasa and Ai walk on that Silver Bridge is a bitter and sobering one, but I will hold out stubborn hope this is not the end of their anime journey.

Rating: 4/5 Stars

Meikyuu Black Company – 05 – The Rise of General Ninomiya

After a very nervy and fun fakeout in which Ninomiya dreams he’s back on Earth but Rimu followed him and is wreaking havoc on the city, he wakes up somewhere else entirely…or rather somewhen else. He was summoned to save humanity, who have been living in the underground town of Marcia for the last three centuries. This appeal is initially clumsily made by Marcia’s “Priestess”, Ranga (voiced with great verve by M·A·O), whom Ninomiya discovers is a boy…by grabbing his crotch.

This is obviously a despicable act, but not shocking considering it’s long since been established that Ninomiya is a slimebag. The “cute girl is really a boy” trope is also particularly outmoded and tone-deaf, especially for a show spouting progressive socioeconomic theories. It also isn’t dwelled on for too long, so I won’t either. Suffice it to say Ranga is determined to make his “Lord Messiah” fall for him—Why, I cannot say—but also is mainly on board so he can get to the surface; he can’t stand living underground.

When Ninomiya bristles at helping a bunch of needy losers, Marcia’s mayor Zazel pulls an old 9mm pistol on him, only for the gun to get chewed on by Rimu. Ninomiya, a constantly snacking Rimu, and Ranga travel across the surface by motorcycle. There, Ninomiya learns this isn’t a different world, but the same old Amuria, just in the future.

Raiza’ha Mining Corp. basically destroyed human civilization and made it ripe for conquest by the Demon Lord. Now the monsters rule the surface. Ranga directs the trio to what is “probably” the Demon Lord’s castle, but turns out to be home to the Demon Lord’s deputy assistant section chief, General Ant.

This ant turns out to be Ninomiya’s old friend and comrade Ant A, who treats them to a feast while he unburdens himself with the monsters’ current troubles. These are put into relief when one of the conquered humans bursts in complaining about the horrific conditions under which he works.

These conditions are, hilariously, the norm in both Japan and America: 8 hour days, only two days off (AKA the weekend), and a scam called insurance. While it’s a pretty on-the-nose critique of our present late-stage capitalist dystopia in which we live, there’s definitely something to plainly listing all the ways it sucks through the voice of someone acting like it sucks, rather than it being the norm.

Of course, this and many of the other humans aren’t aware that it could be much worse than the status quo; it could be like the state of Raiza’ha at the height of its power, when employees were treated like dispensable slaves. Seeing which way the wind is blowing and reunited with his good friend Ant A, Ninomiya decides to ditch the mission he was summoned for and join Team Demon Lord.

By employing more draconian labor practices upon the conquered surface humans while at the same time incentivizing rule-followers and hard-workers with the ability to boss other humans around, he quickly reorganizes the entire social structure of the human subclass, while increasing efficiency, output and earning favor with the big guy.

This results in Ninomiya returning to Marcia in a gaudy Captain Harlock outfit. As the Demon Lord’s newest deputy assistant section chief, General Ninomiya declares that he’s going to be running Marcia from now on. Flanked by Ant A, Cerberus, Rimu, and a Ranga who is simply going with the flow at this point, I’m not sure the underground humans have any choice but to submit, desperately short on supplies as they are.

At any rate, Ninomiya Kinji has once again climbed to the top of his situation by being nothing more or less than the asshole he is and always will be. We’ll see how long it lasts and what form his likely inevitable downfall takes.

Meikyuu Black Company – 04 – Shiacalypse Now

Shia leads Ninomiya and Wanibe on a training expedition on the second floor, armed not just with a sword, those lovely star-filled eyes, and those diamond highlights, but a filled-to-brimming tank of enthusiasm for Being a Good Corporate Drone and Doing One’s Duty The Right Way.

Ninomiya has even less energy for this nonsense than usual because he has to produce five million gold in a month or his loan shark will take his life. He doesn’t have time to do things by the book. With his literal life at stake, one can’t begrudge him embracing methods some might call…unsound.

The team encounters a Majin, the monster of legend that causes a “Death March”—treated by Raiza’ha as an unavoidable but potentially profitable natural disaster. Turns out Shia’s employers set her up to be the latest in a long line of powerful human sacrifices to appease the Majin.

What they didn’t count on is that one of the grunts with her is Ninomiya Kinji, who has an ant army at his disposal and soon starts farming monster parts for gold.

As for the Majin, it’s too tough even for the great Shia (its laser beams really pack a punch), so Ninomiya suggests they retreat. Unfortunately the emergency magic crystal dagger used to transport back to the surface only works on one person.

Naturally, Shia gives it to Ninomiya, but her ensuing melancholy goodbye melts his cold cold heart and he not only stays behind with her, but throws the dagger at the Majin, transporting it to the surface where it becomes the company’s problem, as it should be.

The Majin, drawn to Shia’s considerable mana, eventually makes his way back down into the dungeon, where Ninomiya is ready for him in the form of a giant pit trap into which the Majin falls. Ninomiya then has his ant minions fill the pit with cement, and has Shia dry it with her wind magic. When that isn’t enough, he sets the whole thing on fire. Shia can’t argue with Ninomiya’s ends, but the means disturb her.

When the Majin still won’t die, Shia resolves to defeat it, as is her “duty and destiny”, even at the cost of her life. It’s here where Ninomiya unfortunately decides grope her, losing a lot of goodwill he’d built up recently. He admits he looked up her family history, and how her father was of the absentee adventurer variety.

He deduces that Shia has been “brainwashed by thoughts that benefit Raiza’ha”, in part because she was happiest once she joined the company. But just because it improved her life doesn’t mean that life is theirs to throw away and call it “duty”. Raiza’ha isn’t a nation, and Shia isn’t a soldier. She’s just a damn at-will employee.

After being rescued in the nick of time by Rimu, who then quickly dispatches the Majin she reports was “incomplete”, Ninomiya claims victory…for himself, continuing to cement his role as an incorrigible sonofabitch. But he made some good points to Shia about casting aside the corporate conditioning and determining what she wants to do with her life.

If that’s continuing to work hard, fine. If it’s working hard for a company that just tried to sacrifice her to an eldritch abomination, that’s not fine. We’ll see if Ninomiya’s core message gets through to Shia, despite the messenger being a cad.

Rating: 4/5 Stars

Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba – 26 (Fin) – Catching the Evening Train

After semi-binging this series to the tune of 26 episodes in 30 days, I can’t help but feeling now that I’ve arrived at the end that this first season was nothing but a prologue for the real story to come.  Heck, It wasn’t until last week that Tanjirou was able to use Constant Total Concentration—an absolute necessity when fighting elite demons.

Mind you, I am not complaining. If this is a prologue, it’s one of the best I’ve seen, and instantly makes any future adventures with Tanjirou, Nezuko & Co. more meaningful because we know how hard everyone’s worked to get this far—and how far we have yet to go.

The end of this epic beginning starts with a meeting similar to that held by the Demon Slayer Corps commander with the Hashira, only it’s Kibutsuji Muzan and the five surviving Lower Six of the Twelve Kizuki. The meeting takes place in a gorgeous, trippy, Relativity-style space of his own making. Unlike the Corps commander, Muzan doesn’t lead with a serene, considered manner, he rules by absolute fear.

With the loss of Rui, he’s decided the Lower Six aren’t even worth his effort anymore, and he executes them all except for one: the Lower One. Unlike the others, this one tells Muzan what he wants to hear, and is rewarded not only with his life, but Muzan’s blood, and a mission: defeat a Hashira and Kamado Tanjirou.

Just before dawn a Kasugai Crow wakes Tanjirou, Zenitsu and Inosuke, informing them of their new mission to join the Flame Hashira Rengoku Kyoujurou on the Mugen Train, a crisis that has already claimed forty lives. The balance of the episode consists of Tanjirou preparing to depart and saying his goodbyes.

Tanjirou’s sweet nature and pure heart reassure Aoi, who feels like she’s a coward for not fighting on the front lines, that he’ll carry her emotions on the battlefield in her place, and should he hurt himself again, he’ll be relying on her care once more. Say what you want about his idealism, but our boy possesses emotional intelligence in spades.

But the true highlight of the episode is his parting interaction with Tsuyuri Kanao, who flips a coin to decide whether to talk to him, and then does. Tanjirou asks her about the coin, and when he learn she basically takes orders from chance, he suspects it’s because the voice in her heart is soft.

He asks her to make a deal with him: He’ll flip the coin, and if it comes up Heads, she’ll try listening to her heart more, even if she has to strain to hear its whispering. She watches carefully as he flips it and notes he does not cheat, and it comes up Heads. He returns the coin to her and takes hands in his as a sign of heartfelt optimism, promising they’ll see each other again.

As he runs off, she raises her voice in asking why it landed on Heads, to which he replies that it was only chance, but had it been Tails he would have kept flipping it until he got Heads. If Tanjirou, who bears his heart on his sleeve, and Kanao, whose heart was buried deep in her chest by her past, eventually become a romantic couple, I will be 100% and fully Here for it. They are surpassingly adorable.

Tanjirou, Zenitsu, and Inousuke pass Naho, Kiyo, and Sumi’s Giant Gourd Test, meaning they now possess the breathing to fight some serious demons. Giyuu stops buy for a quick, stoic goodbye, telling Tanjirou he can thank him for vouching for Nezuko by “doing good work.”

With that, the trio set off West to the train station, and we realize that neither Tanjirou nor Inosuke have ever seen a train. Inosuke believes it’s some great sleeping god; Tanjirou speculates it may be an benign deity. It’s here where Zenitsu’s city smarts shine as he castigates his “country bumpkin” comrades for making a scene.

We also learn that Demon Slayers are not officially recognized by the Japanese government, and so they’re not legally allowed to carry swords in public. They hide their swords—well, Inosuke tries but also insists on going shirtless, so it doesn’t go well—and wait for nightfall to board the train while avoiding the police.

As they leap onto the departing train and it begins to steam into the night, we get a great closing shot of the three slayers on the caboose, ready and excited for their new mission, while Tanjirou tells Zenitsu that the safest place for Nezuko is together with him, in the box on his back.

We spot Rengoku Kyoujurou in one of the passenger cars, as well as the Lower One Kizuki standing atop the engine. The stage is now set for the Mugen Train arc, which is covered in the film that premiered in Japan October 2020, which surpassed Spirited Away as Japan’s all-time highest grossing film. I look forward to watching it as soon as it’s available in the states, as well as the second season that will air at some point in 2021.

Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba – 25 – Chestnut Flower Drop

Tanjirou intensifies his Constant Concentration Breathing, asking the three little girls (named Naho, Kiyo, and Sumi) to slap him with carpet beaters if he breaks the breathing in his sleep. I love how the girls are rooting for him all the way, and will gladly do what appears to Zenitsu and Inosuke to be straight-up torture.

It may be torturous, but it goes a long way toward Tanjirou making progress. He’s definitely getting closer and closer to tagging Tsuyuri Kanao, who we can be quite sure isn’t going easy on him, while he’s eventually able to break the Lv. 1 Gourd with his breath.

Soon Inosuke and Zenitsu grow weary of falling too far behind. Also, Shinobu knows exactly how to motivate each of them: in Inosuke’s case, talking down to him and saying it’s okay to be weak; in Zenitsu’s case, batting her lovely eyelashes and saying she believes in him.

Shinobu also asks Kanao to get more involved in the boys’ intensifying training, but seems weary of approaching them, leading to her taking out a coin to flip. We learn how she came to rely on that coin for most of her decisions, but first we learn where she came from: nothing. She was dirt-poor and horribly abused by her parents until she one day just snapped and couldn’t feel pain—or anything—anymore.

One day her parents sold her off, and her buyer is preparing to sell her into slavery when they cross paths with Shinobu and her big sister Kanae (Kayano Ai). Disturbed by the sight of the young girl bound by rope, Shinobu tosses all of the cash she’s carrying up in the air and runs off with the unnamed girl.

Eventually Shinobu learns that Kanao was so horrifically traumatized by her life so far that she’s unable to do anything without being told to do it, even eat, resulting in her stomach grumbling far longer than it should. Kanae gives the newly-named Kanao a coin so she can make decisions for herself. Kanae also hopes that one day she’ll fall in love with someone, which will further help her understand her own agency and will. Back in the present, she gets tails, and doesn’t join the boys.

However, as a result of Tanjirou’s intensive training, one day he’s finally able to not only grab Kanao’s hand during tag, but win the cup game, all without splashing tea on her. It’s a stunning victory, and while Kanao never actually speaks to Tanjirou, you can tell she’s impressed by his progress.

After Haganezuka and Kanamori arrive at the mansion with Tanjirou and Inosuke’s reforged swords (and Inosuke re-chips his up with a rock, enraging the swordsmiths), Shinobu declares Tanjirou’s jaw healed and training complete. All that’s left is actual combat, and she tells him she’s expecting great things. As we saw back when she rescued Kanao to how she’s guided Tanjirou, it’s clear by now that Shinobu is definitely one of the good ones.

Interesting, she doesn’t know anything about the “fire breathing” Tanjirou brings up, only the distinct flame breathing in which Master Rengoku specializes, though he’s away on a mission, so more info on that will have to wait. Meanwhile, we see a Twelve Kizuki demon aboard a train eating its occupants—an apparent preview of the hugely popular October 2020 feature film Mugen Train.

Rating: 4/5 Stars

Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba – 24 – Getting Back in the Game

While rest and recovery are the order of most days at the Butterfly Mansion, relaxation is most certainly not. That’s not just because of Zenitsu’s constant bellyaching, but the fact that Shinobu wants to begin their rehabilitation training ASAP, starting with Tanjirou and Inosuke. The training is handled by Kanzaki Aoi, Tsuyuri Kanao, and three pint-sized masseuses.

Zenitsu is perturbed when he sees the two returning from their first session as if they had just been beaten to a pulp, but Zenitsu soon finds out the score for himself, and he’s very disappointed in his companions. Why, he raves like a madman after taking them aside, are the complaining about getting massages, playing cup games, and light sparring, all with cute girls?

Zenitsu has no trouble with the massages or with beating Aoi at cups or tag, but Kanao is another story. She beats them at everything, and handily, as befits Shinobu’s apprentice. Zentisu and Inosuke are so frustrated that they stop showing up, but Tanjirou is determined to become strong enough to beat her.

The three little lady masseuses, who have really taken a shine to the sweet, wholesome Tanjirou (let’s be honest, Zenitsu’s a creep and Inosuke’s a forlorn beast) offer him some key advice. Kanao, along with Shinobu and all the other Hashira, are practicing Total Concentration Breathing … continuously. That is, every breath, morning, noon, and night.

The girls present him with a small, extra-hard beginners gourd he’s expected to break with nothing but his breath; Kanao can break a gourd over ten times its size. But while he clearly has a lot of grueling work to do (even short bursts of breathing wear him down), Tanjirou knows he can’t save Nezuko unless he’s stronger, so he puts the work in.

His efforts don’t go unnoticed by the lady of the mansion, Shinobu, who visits him on a rooftop while he’s practicing and even getting him to blush due to her close proximity and striking beauty. Shinobu is rooting for him because she too would like to live in a world where humans and demons got along.

It’s just, unlike him, she’s growing tired of believing that will ever be possible, having been ground down by battle after battle with lying, deceiving demon opponents. Tanjirou can smell anger behind her smile, which surprises Shinobu, causing that smile to briefly fade.

She tells him how her older sister, pure of heart like him, fought for peace with demons even when they ended up killing her. Due to her love and admiration of her sister, Shinobu promised to always carry the smile her sister loved, no matter how much she might want to frown or cry.

Knowing how much it sucks to lose a sister, she implores Tanjirou to keep Nezuko safe with everything he’s got—and there’s no reason to think he won’t. While I enjoyed this episode and the added depth given to Shinobu, Nezuko’s total absence is both conspicuous and disappointing—especially with only two episodes remaining.

Rating: 4/5 Stars

Jaku-Chara Tomozaki-kun – 04 – Standing Up to the Queen

Tomozaki just landed a lucky break. If there was no reason for Izumi Yuzu to approach him, he’d been making his presence known to the point that when he approached her, she felt she could come to him with her TackFam problem, which is really a Nakamura Shuuji problem. Bottom line: Izumi likes Shuuji, and wants to get good enough at the game to take him on. We also learn Shuuji recently turned down the Konno Erika, leader of the Neckties to which Yuzu belongs.

Yuzu invites Tomozaki to her place so he can teach her, and after one match he knows exactly what she needs to get better, starting with learning how to execute a short jump, which is simply a matter of practice and muscle memory. Yuzu is grateful for Tomozaki’s advice but wonders what the deal is with his various poses and gestures…turns out he’s mimicking Hinami’s teaching style without knowing it!

By the time Tomozaki is drawing detailed diagrams of all the moves Yuzu will have to memorize, she asks him: What is all the intense effort even for? He tells her what it’s not for: making friends or winning praise. When Yuzu claims she can’t ever change from her current status of superficially laughing with her necktie-wearing friends, he assures her he is proof that anyone can change; they just need to commit themselves and put in the effort.

While Hinami calls Tomozaki’s break with Yuzu pretty “miraculous” when they meet up for a debrief, she can’t deny he properly capitalized, using what he knows best (TackFam) to really connect with someone. That said, she still wants him to ask Fuuka out on a date, even producing movie tickets for them to use.

The night before, Tomozaki practices asking Fuuka out on the recorder Hinami gave her, showing how he’s learning how to listen to himself and adjust. But he also accidentally opens a folder of recordings Hinami didn’t delete: ones in which she too practices talking. He already considers it amazing she’s so good at the Game of Life; to hear the process firsthand is even more amazing.

Like him with TackFam, no matter how high a level you achieve, you can never stop practicing. But with practice comes the realization that sometimes circumstances won’t always accommodate your plans, nor will practice always inform what to do when it’s go time. To whit: Tomozaki calls an laudable audible: coming clean to Fuuka about having not read any of her favorite author, and thus not yet being ready to read her own novel.

This could have turned out disastrously, but the risk was well worth the reward of starting fresh from a position of honesty. A white lie or misunderstanding rarely forms a strong foundation for a relationship. While there’s clear and justifiable disappointment in Fuuka’s reaction, there’s also the sense she’s happy he’s being so honest. He’s also able to break the news naturally and casually enough not to come off as dismissive or cruel.

Working entirely outside the letter of Hinami’s plan while hewing to the spirit of her training, Tomozaki shows great growth here, while rejecting her “an in is an in” mentality. Yes, the author misunderstanding, got Fuuka talking to him, but so did simply asking Yuzu for a tissue.

He also wisely realizes that to ask her out on a date so soon after basically restarting their friendship from a place of honesty would be overdoing it, so he withholds the tickets for now. If he gets any flak from Hinami, he’ll be ready with a pretty good explanation. However, their next meeting is preempted by Shuuji’s two mates: he wants a TackFam rematch, now.

In the AV room, Tomozaki plays Shuuji while Shuuji’s mates, Yuzu, and Erika and her two Necktie acolytes watch. Tomozaki proceeds to beat Shuuji handily in match after match, but Shuuji keeps asking to play again. He grows more frustrated, even as he starts to improve slightly, to the point he’s able to take out one of Tomozaki’s health stocks.

That frustration creates an increasingly unpleasant tension and aura of desperation around Shuuji, to the point Erika begins to mock him as “weak”, his obsession with a “stupid game” as “creepy”, and that she dodged a bullet when he turned her down. The “stupid game” comment draws the ire of Tomozaki, as does her assertion that all of Shuuji’s hard work and practice amounts to nothing.

The old Tomozaki would have muttered something and not followed through, but this newly Hinami-trained Tomozaki is at least adept enough at the Game of Life to call Erika out for the haughty tourist she is. Shuuji may have been a dick to him all this time, but at least he’s committed to improving and keeps fighting no matter how much he loses. All Erika can do is mock someone else’s effort when she (at least as far as Tomozaki knows) puts in none at all.

Yuzu even has the courage to chime in and call Shuuji’s efforts “beautiful in a boyish way”, despite the fact doing so is contradicting the vaunted Queen of the Neckties. But I have no doubt it was Tomozaki’s earlier words about her ability to change that helped her summon the courage to speak up. Erika slinks away, pretending not to have learned anything, but she did. So did Shuuji, who probably resents Tomozaki defending him but also appreciated it.

Notable for her silence during all this is Hinami, which was no accident. The thing is, while she observed that Tomozaki had things well in hand, I also think she stayed above the fray in order to avoid needlessly upsetting the apple cart with Erika & Co., who would have likely felt ganged up on if she’d joined Tomozaki and Yuzu—an example of maintaining balance through inaction. Regardless, both Erika and Shuuji stop giving Tomozaki a hard time, now knowing better what he’s made of.

At their next meeting over lunch, Hinami asks how things are going with Fuuka, wondering if he’s lost motivation. He assures her he hasn’t, but without explaining the whole situation with coming clean and not wanting to pile on with a date request, Tomozaki pulls another laudable audible: whipping out the very tickets she gave him and asking Hinami if she’ll join him instead.

Hinami’s look of surprise is followed by the kind of proud face a master makes when their student has just done something good. Unfortunately, she’s not free tomorrow (what do you know, she does have other obligations!), but she is free for a movie now. Is it just me, or do these two just make a good couple, full stop?

It’s too early to tell, but I appreciate that Hinami doesn’t go all cliché blushy or tsundere at the prospect of Tomozaki asking her out. Maybe she gets that it’s for more “training”, or as thanks for her help so far. But at some point all these times they’re meeting up one-on-one and having fun will start painting the picture of two people…going out. We’ll see if anything comes of their consistently pleasant proximity, and more importantly, if more people start noticing them together all the damn time!

Crucially, this outing proved Tomozaki isn’t just some automaton carrying out Hinami’s directives, nor does she want him to be. She’s taught him the basics, and it’s up to him to experience how to properly use them and switch things up when warranted. The recording of Hinami also shows that her life game is an ongoing work in progress. I know it’s Tomozaki’s name in the title, but I would love to delve more into Hinami’s growth, and if Tomozaki has anything to teach her—something his recent shrewd freestyling might portend.

Jaku-Chara Tomozaki-kun – 03 – Character Creation, Phase 2

While a plethora of new characters were introduced last week, this episode keeps things simple by narrowing down the ones with whom Fumiya interacts to three: Aoi, Fuuka, and Yuzu. That not only keeps things from getting too scattered but is in keeping with Aoi’s desire to figure out who is best worth Fumiya’s time and effort.

Of course, first thing’s first: making him sufficiently presentable to converse with people. That means a trip to the mall for some new threads, a new haircut, and some lunch conversation practice. Fumiya has learned from the tapes that he has a tendency to mutter; Aoi tells him to use fewer words and rely more on gestures and tone to convey his emotions.

Quite by surprise, Fuuka is a waitress at the restaurant where they have lunch. Refreshingly, Fuuka doesn’t seem necessarily threatened by seeing them together, nor does she assume they’re on a date—she simply hadn’t pegged them as being friends material. Based on little details she noticed during their encounter, Aoi is convinced that Fuuka should be the “first heroine” Fumiya should pursue in his “playthrough.”

At their next meeting, Fumiya proudly reports that one of his small goals was achieved: his sister noticed he was putting more effort into his appearance. While Fumiya feels like he’s relying on “cheats” like dressing like the store mannquin or getting his hair done, Aoi insists that because he’s trusting in her and doing as she says, he deserves at least some of the credit for his success.

That said, Aoi isn’t going to start going easy on him. His next goal is to go somewhere alone with a girl who isn’t her. His related task for the week is to talk to Izumi Yuzu at least twice a day. Why Yuzu and not Fuuka? Because, as Aoi points out, real life isn’t a dating sim. Raising “affection levels” of one girl can raise them for all, along with increasing their innate possessiveness.

Fumiya is still weary that he’s not being “sincere”, but Aoi tells him it’s too early in his progress to worry about that. He’ll cross that bridge when he’s in a more serious relationship. For now, he needs “ins”, however he can get them. Things don’t go too smoothly with Yuzu at first; topics he chooses tend to lead to awkward conversational dead ends. But he keeps at it, and his quota for the week is eventually filled.

While in the library pretending to read a random book while coming up with TackFam strategies, Fumiya is approached by Fuuka, who notices the author he’s pretending to read is her favorite. Fumiya doesn’t correct her, and Fuuka ends up confessing something she’s never told anyone: she’s working on a novel, and would love it if he (and only he) read it sometime.

It’s a lovely little exchange because it’s the first of its kind fo Fuuka as well as Fumiya. Kayano Ai really sells Fuuka’s warmth and quiet enthusiasm, and Fuuka really does seem like a suitable person for Fumiya to pursue, and he has the perfect “in”.

As Aoi reiterates, it’s still too early to worry about “sincerity”; she can tell he’ll use it as an excuse to run away if she lets him. While he filled his quota in talking to Yuzu twice a day for a week, he may feel like he failed, like a battle he loses that results in KO and Game Over.

But unlike games of that kind, in the game of life you gain as much if not more XP by losing than by winning, so you’re better off keeping up the fight than starting over from scratch. That assertion really speaks to the gamer in Fumiya. The losses he tallied against Yuzu weren’t in vain; they got him to at least Level 3, and he can use what he learned from those failures to succeed with Fuuka.

But then life throws him for a loop when he spots Yuzu sitting alone and looking somewhat down. Remembering Aoi’s advice for him to mention something about her clothes or face, Fumiya tactlessly tells Yuzu she looks “gloomy”, but she doesn’t storm off. In fact, she just keeps looking gloomy, and even gets to the point that tears are welling in her eyes when she comes right out and asks him to teach her how to play TackFam.

I don’t believe this is the same kind of “in” as Fuuka’s secret novel reading—it’s possible Yuzu wants to learn to play so she can play with another boy she’s interested in, or maybe she just wants to learn TackFam, period. But the fact Fumiya reached out to her so much in the last week made him a viable person for Yuzu approach with such a request. So it could be an overture for a friendship. We shall see!

Rating: 4/5 Stars

Jaku-Chara Tomozaki-kun – 02 – Boosting Social XP

With Fumiya’s goals laid out, it’s time to grind! Talking to three different girls is a steep task for someone who virtually never speaks to any, but Aoi has a detailed plan for  him. First, she’s already chosen to whom he should speak from her circle of friends—a measure of quality control. But she notably doesn’t hold his hand the whole way. He has to get out there and execute on his own.

An added wrinkle is the the fact girls at their school have a choice of wearing either a bow or necktie, and the custom of only the popular girls wearing the latter. Two of the girls he must speak to are with the “necktie team,” which feels like an added level of difficulty. But in his very first exchange with necktier Izumi Yuzu, simply asking her for a tissue, Fumiya does fine; he even interacts with a second girl in bow-tier Kikuchi Fuuka.

Fumiya hesitates in his next interaction during home ec, with the lively Nanami Minami (AKA Mimimi), because the plan said Aoi would be present to have his back, but this also seems like Aoi putting him on the deeper end of the pool to see what he’s got when faced with the unexpected. He ends up lauding Minami for her “empathy” when she says “I get that”, sounding like an old man and eliciting genuine, non-mocking laughter from her.

So far so good, but what happens when the social situation—or “battle”—is complicated by additional “combatants”? First, Natsubayashi Hanabi (AKA Tama) arrives, adding a completely different vibe to the conversation as Mimimi affectionately gloms onto her and tells her “Fumiya is funny!”

Before Mimimi or Fumiya can explain it to Tama so she doesn’t feel out of the loop, the three main “in-crowd” dudes arrive. They’re led by Nakamura Shuuji, whom we know to still be sore over his TackFam loss to Fumiya. Mimimi explains Fumiya’s “joke”, Shuuji dismisses it as no joke at all, and Mimimi puts it to a vote.

Fumiya notices that Tama doesn’t vote, so he also abstains so as not to keep her feeling left out. Finally, Aoi arrives and votes for Fumiya, giving both him and Tama the cover they needed to vote for him. She even uses the opportunity to bring up the fact Shuuji lost to Fumiya, and how his resultant sour attitude may be why he was dumped.

If all this sounds extremely complex, it’s because we’re watching all of the intricacy that lies behind seemingly mundane or effortless high school social interactions through Fumiya’s eyes: as a novice trying to familiarize himself with the game’s  mechanics and and pitfalls.

In their afterschool debriefing in the sewing room, Aoi explains how she wasted no time broached the topic of Shuuji’s TackFam loss as part of a larger effort to avoid Shuuji—who like her has considerable social clout—from being rude to Fumiya and hurting his progress (since it would give others permission to be rude).

Aoi believes that on balance, Fumiya’s first “field practice” was a huge success. He was a little shaky out there, but the conditions were met without cheating. She also has him rely on his own instincts by garnering comments form him. For instance, he noticed Tama seemed “a bit off”, which Aoi chalks up to Tama’s strong will and hesitance to “go along to get along”

Between the vote and debriefing, Fumiya witnesses the interactions between just the trio of Aoi, Mimimi and Tama, and learns why Hanabi is nicknamed Tama (b/c “hanabi” means fireworks, and you traditionally say “tamaya!” when they explode…pretty clever!) We also learn that Mimimi is not afraid of showing affection for her friends, whether it’s glomming on Tama or tickling Aoi’s navel.

Aoi “returns fire” by going in for a kiss—which seems to throw Mimimi off balance—only to gently blow on her lips. Both this incident and the fact Aoi being the only one in class with the “guts” to tease Shuuji further reinforce the reality that Aoi is an elite, “utterly terrifying” player of this game. Like Fumiya in TackFam, if you’re coming at Aoi IRL, you best come correct!

Now that Fumiya has familiarized himself with conversation somewhat, the next step is to get better at it by continuing to recognize the reactions of the girls he talks to, the shifts in mood those conversations take, and become comfortable with adjusting on the fly.

Being able to join in conversations with girls multiple times per day (no one-and-dones here) will also help him make progress towards his medium goal of getting a girlfriend. The more girls Fumiya converses with, the more reactions Aoi will have to gauge whom he should be talking to more. It’s like researching a boss before entering battle to ensure victory!

While becoming more agile in conversation through the accumulation of XP, Fumiya will simultaneously be practicing proper posture. A stronger posture will result in a stronger state of mind, just as confidence can be boosted by drawing on the positive reactions better posture will engender. Aoi clutches Fumiya’s buttock, but not as a flirtation. It’s merely a clinical check to ensure he’s using those muscles properly.

That afternoon, Aoi says she’ll be heading home with two of the three in guys (not Shuuji) and Mimimi, that he’ll be accompanying them, taking mental notes and honing his conversational skills. With Aoi with him this time, she’s able to support him with his “butt exercise” comment, which might’ve clanged to the floor without her seconding its efficacy.

Aoi then throws Fumiya a curveball mid-trip home: he and Mimimi are getting off early, since they live in the same area, so he’ll be interacting one-on-one with her, just like in home ec. Fortunately, Mimimi has no problem with his. On the contrary, she seems eager to help Fumiya come out of his shell even thought she’s unaware of his training, giving him an encouraging pat on the back.

Fumiya and Mimimi casually discuss his glumness and her liveliness, and when he asks if there’s ever times she’s not “all smiling and bubbly”, she says those times are when it’s most important to be that way. He then recalls what Aoi said about the body and mind being liked, and Mimimi can’t help but bring up the fact he and Aoi have been awfully buddy-buddy of late.

Fumiya sidesteps that by declaring Aoi out of his league, though that matter is far from closed. Mimimi maintains he should “let his fun side shine” more often, since he’s shown he’s actually pretty funny when he wants to be. Fumiya explains that fun isn’t the end-all-be-all for him; in TackFam, for instance, he plays because he loves it, and the fun is a bonus.

Mimimi also shows quite a bit of self-reflection when the subject turns to Tama, comparing her “won’t bend or be bent” nature to her “always be bending” attitude. It’s another great success for Fumiya, as he and Mimimi never had so much as an awkward silence while walking together.

As for determining who might be girlfriend material, that remains to be seen, but in their next debriefing Aoi has Fumiya acknowledge that his tendency to speak his mind regardless of the mood of the conversation makes him similar to Tama, who isn’t afraid to speak hers. Aoi believes that’s a strength in both, and Fumiya shouldn’t be afraid to use it.

Like the previous meeting, Aoi asks Fumiya to bring up anything else he learned, and he says he’s become aware that any productive conversation requires specific roles be filled, like different jobs in an RPG party: someone who introduces new topics (like Mimimi) and one who expands on existing ones (like Aoi).

Aoi is glad he’s picked up on this organically, and directs him to practice playing both roles. She expresses her joy with the phrase “HEXactly!”, which she finally explains was the catchphrase of a retro game she loved. She’s so delighted he’s heard of it she breaks out of teaching mode…but only momentarily!

To that end, Aoi has prepared flash cards of conversation topics for Fumiya to practice, and also recorded their meeting so he can listen to the sound of his voice. She also arranges their first Saturday meet-up. The fact she’s spending a day she’s free of club work on Fumiya means Aoi is determined to make her reclamation project a resounding success.

It’s great to see Fumiya not just making steady progress, but for the difficulty level not to be artificially heightened by, say, cartoonishly intractable personalities. At the end of the day these aren’t tough “bosses” Fumiya is being made to fight: Mimimi, Tama, Yuzu, and Fuuka are all nice people who aren’t hard to get along with, and all seem willing in one way or another to give him the benefit of the doubt despite his reputation.

At the same time, I’m thoroughly pleased Fumiya doesn’t need to be dragged kicking and screaming from his morose philosophy. While understandably a bit reticent at times, he’s neither resistant nor stubborn about submitting to Aoi’s prescribed plan. The best way he can show respect to her not inconsiderable efforts is by being a model trainee; a veritable sponge absorbing as much as he can, while not forgetting to have fun. So far, so good!

Rating: 4/5 Stars

Jaku-Chara Tomozaki-kun – 01 (First Impressions) – Don’t Blame the Game

“You cannot lose if you do not play.”—Marla Daniels, The Wire

“I’m not fucking crazy … I’m just goal-oriented.”—Annie Landsberg, Maniac

Our protagonist Tomozaki Fumiya (handle nanashi) is teen with a dearth of social skills and friends and seeks solace and contentment in the world of gaming. In the first of a veritable festival of metaphors this show dishes out, he’s a god-tier player of the popular fighting game Tackfam, but a bottom-tier player in the Game of Life. As such, even though he splashes the popular Nakamura Shuuji in Tackfam, it’s Shuuji who leaves school flanked by two pretty girls.

This leads Fumiya—who is not a refugee from a war-torn nation—to declare “The game of life is garbage”, followed immediately by an establishing shot of his family’s above average-sized detached home in a quiet neighborhood, thence to his spacious bedroom with hardwood floors, a Mr. Slim, and his own entertainment center.

I actually laughed out loud at this juxtaposition, even if it wasn’t quite the show’s intention. Then I couldn’t help but think: This guy is a whiny loser and I don’t like him. But hey, that’s the point: I’m not supposed to! In stories like this, something or someone becomes a catalyst for positive change.

In this case, it’s a someone—a fellow gamer (handle NO NAME) who is second only to Fumiya in the Tackfam national rankings. Fumiya respects NO NAME a great deal, and when he plays him he can tell how much effort and dedication he puts into training. When NO NAME suggests they meet up IRL, Fumiya doesn’t hesitate.

Little does Fumiya know that not only is NO NAME not a guy, but she’s someone he already interacted with at school prior to their meet-up, as she extended him some obligatory class-rep friendliness upon learning he and Shuuji played. NO NAME is Hinami Aoi, the “it” girl at his school: top grades, top athletes, loved by all. He considers Aoi a god-tier player of the game of life, like Shuuji.

Thankfully, Aoi’s reaction to Fumiya being nanashi is spot-on: “This sucks,” she declares, quickly losing her interest in further interaction. Her reason is plain: just as Fumiya is in awe of her as a player of life, she was in awe of nanashi as a player of Tackfam. To learn the real nanashi is a “rock-bottom loser” who has “given up on life” is deflating, and in turn reflects poorly on her, since she pegged nanashi to be a better person IRL.

Voiced by the wonderful Kanemoto Hisako, in with a feminine strictness that had me wondering if Aoi was really Nakiri Erina with dyed hair and contacts, Aoi brings legitimacy to “polite rudeness”—a term I may have just made up—in her takedown of Fumiya. She also has just the right response when Fumiya protests that the game of life is unbalanced, and her “high initial stats” imbue her and those like her with baseless confidence.

What’s so satisfying about her response, and can be tied to the tightness and cleverness of the dialogue throughout the episode, is that she repeats to Fumiya the very same words Fumiya said to Shuuji when he called Tackfam trash: There’s nothing more shameful than blaming the game, especially when you’d barely played. Fumiya goes on to argue that you can’t change characters IRL…and that’s when Aoi takes his hand, and before he knows it, he’s sitting in her bedroom.

It’s at this point in the ep when I began to develop a measure of concern about the emergence of a somewhat unpleasant subtext: Aoi seemed to be going extremely out of her way to be this dude’s archetypal “guardian angel”. After all, what does she get out of helping him? You can say she’s simply being every bit the “good person” and “perfect heroine” Fumiya saw her as to this point: helping those in need help themselves.

But there’s more to it than that, which justifies the extent of her effort vis-a-vis Fumiya, which we learn when she invites him to her room…her very similarly-sized and appointed room:

They’re practically mirror images of each other! Whether this was intentional or the creator/producers simply drew up some normal high school kid rooms, I appreciated the symbolism. There’s common ground between Aoi and Fumiya: their passion for the games at which they excel. Aoi happens to be good at both Tackfam and life, but she shows Fumiya the latter success isn’t due to high base stats.

She does this simply by being who she is—someone Fumiya didn’t know—by appearing before him in cozier clothes and without makeup. She assures him he can attain normie-level looks just fine by practicing better expressions and proper posture. When Aoi watched Fumiya play as nanashi, she saw the same serious effort she applied IRL—in fact, she thought him more capable of effort than she!

So yeah, from where Aoi stands and how hard she’s worked, Fumiya doesn’t get to say the game of life is unbalanced garbage. He just needs to start applying the same effort of which he’s already proven more than capable in Tackfam. She’ll prove he can—and validate her ideals—by helping him out. Fumiya is initially dubious because he assumes Aoi ranks life higher than Tackfam, but when she reveals her belief that life is tied for first with Tackfam, he’s moved.

He’s moved because while he’s always gotten online recognition for his online efforts, those same efforts have netted him precisely zero friends and recognition…until he met NO NAME/Aoi, who bridged the divide between games. In Aoi he finally has someone IRL who recognizes and moreover values his efforts.

As flawed as Fumiya is, he still recognizes his own hypocrisy and has a sense of honor, and is thus motivated to put more effort into “playing” life as Aoi suggests, so he can find out for himself if the game is actually good. This, along with Aoi using the Fumiya Reclamation Project as a means of continuing to grow herself, goes a long way towards making their budding relationship both balanced and compelling.

As for what form Fumiya’s training will take, well here’s where we must suspend disbelief in Aoi having a half-hour to spare in her clearly packed academic, athletic, and social schedule. They meet at the school’s deserted sewing room (where I thought for a moment she’d teach him how to make better clothes, LOL) and Aoi lays out an aggressive plan composed of large, medium, and small goals. The primary goal is “to be as satisfied with offline life” as she is.

Fumiya can see by the structure of the plan that it’s not all that different from how he trains for Tackfam, a realization Aoi was both counting on and appreciates as it will save some explanation time. She’s already given him a facemask behind which he must constantly smile behind in order to improve his expression (this leads to an awkward scene with his imouto, who asks him not to be more creepy than he already is).

But like Nakiri Erina, Aoi has no intention of going easy on Fumiya offline, considering she knows the effort he’s capable of online. He must acquire a girlfriend before starting his third year. Before that, he must get a third party to notice his appearance/vibe has improved, which has already started with the smiling training, but also means he must actually talk to at least three girls at school.

That’s no mean feat for a bottom-tier character in a game he’s barely played to this point, but part of improving one’s character involves occasional stumbling and getting ones ass kicked (figuratively, of course). I notice there are four girls in the middle ground of the promo art, so I imagine Fumiya will start with one of them. So begins a long, fraught, but hopefully rewarding journey towards not thinking life is a garbage game. And as you can tell by how many damn words I’ve written about it, I’m game!

Rating: 4/5 Stars