Vinland Saga S2 – 02 – The Wheatgrass Is Always Greener

Ketil introduces Einar to his new best friend Thorfinn. He’s given them a forest to clear and eventually sow wheat, which he’ll buy at a fair price when harvested. Ketil estimates that if the two men work hard, they’ll have made enough money to buy their freedom. This sounds like a sweet deal, except that the forest they have to cut down is enormous, the labor is ruinous, and the retainers eat most of their paltry lunch.

The best-case-scenario of three years seeming unlikely with this caloric intake, Einar is furious by the bullying from the freemen, but Thorfinn takes it all in stride, clearly playing a long game. When Ketil rides past them at the end of his first day, Einar is ready to report the retainers’ stealing their food, but he’s distracted by a gorgeous woman with piercing blue eyes—presumably Ketil’s daughter.

The next day Einar watches Ketil pitching in for harvest work, which is odd because Einar didn’t think the rich dirtied their hands with manual labor. But it’s clear Ketil is proud of this place, and intends pass it along to his son Olmar. Unfortunately, Olmar is a lazy, spoiled brat with dreams of going to England and being a badass warrior.

We actually get a fair amount of Olmar screen time that softens his character’s plight, but only so far. He has a hissyfit when he realizes the tenant farmers’ daughter is only sleeping with him in hopes of gaining some of his father’s favor and fortune (she may genuinely like him, her parents are clearly using her).

The bottom line is that Einar is wrong about rich people not having any cares, and Olmar is taking his victimization way too far. I mean, all he needs to do is look around the farm to see people far worse off than him. And yet the fact he’s not on a battlefield covering himself in guts an glory like he wants means he doesn’t consider himself any more free than the slaves or retainers.

That night, Einar condemns Olmar’s desire to go to war when he has no idea what awaits him. Einar tells Thorfinn how the English armies pillaged his village and killed his father, then the Danes came, pillaged again, and killed the rest of his family. He condemns soldiers as nothing but beasts in human skin, unaware that his new best friend used to be one.

Thorfinn’s role this week is passive to the point of background character. That’s fine, but to what end? Do the fires burning in his memory mean he yearns to return to the battlefield? Or has he given up on any kind of glorious future and is content to wile away the last of his youth chopping wood and sowing seeds? If he is playing some kind of long game to get back into the thick of things, he’s keeping mum so far.

Rating: 4/5 Stars

Vinland Saga S2 – 01 – Living is Winning

After a thoroughly badass James Bond-style OP followed by a downright poetic sequence about carving “that warmth” into anything and everything, Vinland Saga’s second season settles in the idyllic home of Einar, who lives there with his little sister Lotta and their mother. He’s practicing hacking with an axe in case their home is attacked again (the last time claiming their father), but their mother tells her children that as long as they’re alive, they haven’t lost.

Things don’t go well for Einar’s family, as their home is burned and pillaged. When the three try to flee, the mother is felled by an arrow, and neither Einar nor Lotta are able to leave her behind and keep running. Instead they are paralyzed by the prospect of doing so. When Lotta is carried away she stabs her captor in the neck, and is killed for it. Einar is taken away to be sold as a slave.

After a passage from the Old Norse poem Hávamál equating one with no love in their life to a fir tree on a barren land, Einar is on a boat filled with other slaves, one of the women can’t stop coughing. Their captors determine she won’t survive, so they toss her overboard to drown. Einar protests, but his captors are as cruel and unreceptive to mercy as the brooding ocean waves that churn before him. Once ashore, he and the others are washed and fed and put on display in the market.

Einar tries to escape, fleeing to a farm and stealing some food, but is immediately re-caught and severely beaten as a message to the other slaves: There’s no escape. There’s no going home. In this world, it is better to be a slave and be fed for their work than a runaway beggar. The world is utterly uninterested in your welfare.

Our first familiar face appears at the market, when the slaver presents Einar to Leif. Leif isn’t interested, as he’s looking for his relative, Thorfinn. But before departing, he grabs Einar’s arm and apologizes. It’s the first time anyone has apologized to Einar since he lost his home and family. He envies the man Leif is looking for, since it means there’s someone in the world who still cares about him.

Eventually a farmer inspects Einar and agrees to buy him, and escorts him to his sprawling farm, which reminds Einar of the idyllic home that was destroyed and stolen from him—the home and the family he was trying to defend, but could not.

At this farm, Einar meets the “blonde, small” guy Leif was looking for: our boy Thorfinn, who is chopping trees at the border of the woods. He has the look of someone who is carrying on with the same determination Einar’s mother demanded: to survive, and live at any cost, is what it means to truly win.

It may not feel anything like winning to Thorfinn or Einar. Their wait has only just begun, and may end fruitlessly. But as long as their wait continues, and their hearts continue to pump blood, they still carry the potential to carve their mark into the world. Maybe they can help one another.

Bleach: Thousand-Year Blood War – 12 – Tears of the Sun

After finishing the first of this week’s two-episode finale, I maintain that an entire arc devoted to how Ichigo’s parents met and fell in love would have been just fine with me. And indeed, the two-part flashback feels a bit rushed at times. But I’m still grateful for what we got, which is nothing less than the most beautiful and heartrending story Bleach has ever told.

Due to the fact no one has harmed and minimal damage done, Isshin is not punished by Old Man Yama for his unsanctioned excursion to the World of the Living. However, Isshin lies when he says there was “nothing else of note” to report … like, say, he discovered that some Quincy were still alive.

Both he and Masaki don’t want to be done with one another, but Masaki is feeling the ill effects of being bitten by that weird hollow, and even bumps into none other than Urahara Kisuke when she momentarily faints.

Masaki comes home and is read the riot act by Ryuuken’s mother, who found out from Katagiri that she got in a hollow battle and was injured, all to save a hated soul reaper. Ryuu first rushes to Katagiri to castigate her for snitching, but Katagiri only did what thought she needed to to prevent the tainting of the Ishida bloodline.

Indeed, if it wasn’t for Katagiri informing Mrs. Ishida, Masaki may have well collapsed somewhere other than the entrance to the house, and it would be too late by the time someone found her. Because as a result of being bitten by the hollow, she’s undergoing the process of hollowification.

Ryuuken carries her out and flies through the sky, unsure where to go or what to do. A giant hollow sneaks up from behind, but is bisected by a returning Isshin. Ryuu exchanges some harsh words, but ultimately, the two men want the same thing: to save Masaki. Unfortunately, neither of them know quite how the hell to do that.

But Urahara does, and he introduces himself to both Isshin and Ryuuken as the only person who can save Masaki. He was banned from Soul Society for the very research he’ll draw upon to do so, warning that while he can save Masaki’s life, she’ll never be the same again. Meanwhile, Masaki is lost deep within her mind, descending into the mouth of a giant hollow.

Urahara describes what must be done to save Masaki—bind her now half Quincy, half Hollow soul with that of a half-Soul Reaper, half- human. Isshin is full Soul Reaper, but if he uses a special gigai developed by Urahara, he can become half-human, but will have to say goodbye to his life in Soul Society forever.

Both Urahara and Ryuu are amazed how quickly Isshin says he’ll do it, but I’m not. This is Ichigo’s dad we’re talking about, and even if Masaki isn’t his family yet, he can’t deny the two of them already shared a sense of justice and altruism that transcends their opposing factions.

He also admits that he’s not sure he really wants to throw his current life away, but he also knows that his future self will laugh at him or worse if he refused to save the person who saved him. The procedure commences, visualized by Isshin saving Masaki and getsuga tenshou-ing the giant mind hollow to hell. Masaki comes to giggling, wanting to know Isshin’s name.

Ryuuken heads home in the rain, knowing that while his potential future bride Masaki did not outright reject him, in a way fate and the universe did. He regrets not stepping in sooner before Masaki was injured, which turned out to be the beginning of the end of her being a suitable wife. Now her soul is literally bound to that of his historical mortal enemy of the Quincy.

Back home, Katagiri is waiting for him in the rain, and he tells her to inform his mother that he is no longer worthy or able to protect the Quincy anymore. But Katagiri, who met Ryuu when she was a small girl and has grown not just to dutifully serve him, but love and care for him, tells him that’s not true. She sheds tears that mingle with the rain; I’m sure she’d long hoped to be his wife one day, but probably not like this.

Isshin starts to wrap up the tale of his wife to Ichigo, their son, by saying she left the Ishida family when she graduated high school and would visit him as a college student when he opened up his medical clinic. He told her he’d been banished, but always assumed she immediately saw through the lie. The two soon fell in love, became inseparable, and she had Ichigo.

Again, I wish we could have watched more episodes of Isshin and Masaki getting to know each other both before the attack that would bind their souls and afterwards when he began his human life. The two are such compelling, rootable characters. Isshin is absolutely right that Masaki radiates light and warmth like the sun.

But there’s also a romantic quality to just how goshdarned fast everything happened to these young people, how they rolled with the punches, and came out of it living different but probably better lives than the ones they would have led had they never met. A life neither in the Quincy or Soul Reaper way, but in the middle way.

But that too had its cost, as Isshin wraps up this epic tale to Ichigo. The day Masaki died protecting a 9-year-old Ichigo, she shouldn’t have died. She was still part Quincy, and her Blut Vene should have been able to not only defend against Grand Fisher, but defeat him easily.

But she didn’t, and died instead, because her powers failed her. Rather, they were taken, by the awakening King of the Quincy, Yhwach. Uryuu’s mother Katagiri met the same fate, becoming frail and dying too soon as, like Masaki’s, she was deemed unworthy of keeping her powers by Yhwach.

That Yhwach is the father of all Quincy, and his blood runs through all their veins, means he was Masaki’s progenitor, and thus Ichigo’s as well. There may be no ecaping that. And like her mother, he inherited the part of her soul that had become Hollowified.

As if Ichigo needed any further motivation to defeat the guy, he can add “ultimately responsible for his mom’s death” to the list. When an uncharacteristically docile Ikumi stops by to give him his Soul Reaper talisman, Ichigo takes it, thanks her, then tells his father he’s headed off.

Now that he knows more about who he is and where he came from, there’s much work to be done … I just wish he’d at least said hi to his sisters!

More than a married couple, but not lovers. – 12 (Fin) – Double rainbow

Akari knew she faced an uphill battle to win Jirou’s heart before he and Shiori arrive back at the beach house looking very suspicious. As summer break continues after the beach trip, She offers a thousand-yen bill to the shrine of romantic success. But because Shiori’s sudden kiss in the rain wasn’t a 100% confession of love (she apologized profusely after it happened), Akari isn’t as long a shot as she fears.

Shiori can think of nothing but that kiss, even smelling the dress she wore when it happened, and wants to know what Jirou was feeling. Jirou, in turn, wants to know what Shiori was feeling, and why she apologized. In any case, both of them realize they need to talk about this more, which is definitely the right instinct! They just didn’t expect to bump into each other at the manga store.

Remembering Mei’s advice, Shiori once again takes the initiative, inviting Jirou to her practice dorm. The fact the furniture and layout is the same as his lends a built-in comfort just like the one he has with his childhood friend. When she goes in to make sure it’s not a mess and returns to the door with a “Welcome Home, Darling!”,  I just about squee’d out of my chair.

When Jirou says [the tea] “smells so good”, Shiori briefly thought he was talking about her. They proceed to just hang out on the couch and read, but neither is actually reading their books so much as one another. When she notices him watching her closely, she has to retreat to her room, where she looks in the mirror and worries whether he might hate her, he worries the exact same thing.

The building awkwardness is softened by the auspicious appearance of a double rainbow in the sky, which Shiori says brings happiness. The selfie of the two of them with the rainbow behind certainly brings it too, and Jirou is about to take a step and bring up their kiss in the rain when Shiori shows him another photo: a photo of all of them. A photo of friends.

Presented with a photo like this where it’s not just the two of them, Jirou admirably asks himself the right questions: Which feeling is friendship? Where does love start? He knows he has feelings, but can’t quite understand them yet. But he should also know he’s not alone in this.

After a Jirou x Shiori summer break segment, it’s Akari’s turn. She’s bored, Jirou’s bored, so she LINEs him and nonchalantly schedules a date. He has no earthly idea just how nervous she really is, or how important it is that she look just right for him, which is why she’s fifteen minutes late.

But when she arrives, she’s wearing the kind of demure (for her) dress she believes to be more his taste (which is also generally how Shiori dresses). It’s a little thing, but the fact she wants to suit his tastes while remaining fundamentally Akari is sweet as all-get-out, and even he starts to realize that this gyaru isn’t just messing with him.

Jirou also shows he’s a Good Boy Who Remembers Things, as Akari takes them to a café she’d mentioned before was a favorite of hers. Akari is touched that he remembers, as it bodes well for her overall mission.

She also casually leans in for an indirect kiss (“there is some bitterness, but it’s good” is a resonant line) and when she calls Jirou out for being embarrassed about it, he’s honest, and so is she: she’d rather they get used to this kind of thing than lose their minds about it, because if all goes well they’ll be doing a lot more of it!

The date continues at a cat café, where Jirou gets to see the side of Akari who squees to the max in the presence of fluffy animals. When she shows him a picture of them as she’s holding a cat, he notes that it looks kind of like a family photo, which makes Akari laugh rather than creeping her out (she’s also clearly elated to hear him say that).

While he hews to his standing opinion that spending summer days gaming is best, he admits days like this are nice too. And it’s weird when they prepare to say goodbye at the station, since they’re so used to going home together. That’s when she suddenly heads back to the shrine, and as he follows behind her they run into Shiori. What a coincidence!

Shiori can see what’s going on here, and what needs to be done, but is aggressive and assertive in the best, sweetest, most Shiori way. She happens to be on her way to the shrine too, and challenges Akari to a race to the shrine. Akari, of course, is game, they make Jirou schlep their stuff, and off they go.

As they run with everything they’ve got, they pass a number of people who reflect their past, present, and future. Two childhood friends, a boy and a girl; a young couple, a couple getting married, having kids, and finally, at the top (where the two tie, of course), and old elderly couple, the husband of which is named Jirou!

I love how their competitive pursuit of Jirou goes unspoken, but is clear to both women all the same, even if it’s still somewhat irritatingly less clear to Jirou: this isn’t really the finish line, only the end of the first leg. And both Shiori and Akari are in it to win it.

Thus Fuukoi ends without a clear resolution to who Jirou will choose, and it’s to the episodes credit that it does not try to rush towards one after so much careful deliberation and development. Rather, this feels like a solid culmination of the episodes that came before.

It’s also a credit to the series that after twelve episodes I am myself still on the fence about whom Jirou should end up with, as both women make very strong cases for themselves this week, and there isn’t the slightest hint of mean-spiritedness to their competition. While not a tearjerker, my heart felt fuller for watching Fuukoi, and hopefully we’ll be blessed with a second season in which the three face their next adventure.

Akiba Maid War – 12 (Fin) – Bacon Bad

Before Ranko went cold, I had a pretty strong inkling which way Nagomi would break in response. She tried to turn the other cheek and live by Nerula’s example, but losing Ranko was a pig too far. As a result, while her fellow Oinky Doink maids don black to grieve the loss of their 36-year-old big sister, Nagomi dons black to announce that she’s gone to the dark side—the way of the gun. She intends to kill Ranko’s killer with Ranko’s revolver.

Nagi didn’t order Ranko’s death—rather, it was someone who, like Nagomi, wanted revenge for the death of her fellow Wuv-Wuv Moonbeam maids, so stylishly slain in the first episode. In that regard, Ranko reaped what she sowed, which is why she died with a smile on her face. She owned what she did, and was happy to have found a home and family at the Oinky Doink.

But with Ranko gone, it’s once again open season for the pigs, as Nagi has ordered their extermination. Nagomi is jumped in the street by the cow maid she shot in the foot and beaten to a pulp, and after the police release her, she goes through Ranko’s bag and finds little mementos that turn her away from the darkness and back to the light.

The head maids under Nagi’s employ don’t want to shed any more blood lest they attract too much police attention, but Nagi wants this done, and she kills the head Bear and Cow maids to impress upon the others the price of questioning her orders. The next morning Nagomi, rejoins her fellow Oinky Doink maids in her normal maid outfit

They’re ready to join her in taking a last stand right there at their home against the other Creatures, and she tells them they’ll give their enemies a real “maid war.” They tuck into what may well be their last supper at the ramen joint below them, buying an extra bowl for Ranko and each of them taking a slurp from her bowl. Meanwhile, Nagi and her army are on the march.

When Nagi enters the ramen joint and the owner gets a little too sentimental, she kills him. He was one of the few people who knew her when she was an orphan taken in by Miss Michiyo, and who ordered a hit on her adoptive mother when she went non-violent … due in no small part to the arrival of young Ranko.

I thought we’d get one more elevator gag, but Nagi is all business as she walks down the hall to the entrance of Oinky Doink, her soldiers standing at attention. But even though she envisions herself being shot in the head before opening the door, she’s met by an entirely non-violent and very moe Oinky Doink welcome.

Following Nagomi’s lead, the Oinky Doink maids treat Nagi and their would-be murderers just like any other masters or mistresses who walk through that door: like they’ve come home to the pigsty. And to most of the maids’ shock (including Ranko’s killer), Nagi actually humors them, ordering everyone to sit down.

The main event of their hospitality is a song-and-dance by Nagomi that embodies the gentle, immortal spirit of moe moe kyun from which she, Ranko, and Michiyo all believed the maids of Akiba had strayed. Watching Nagomi perform…not so greatly reminds Nagi of Ranko when they were still sisters. She shoots Nagomi in the side, but it’s apparently only a grazing shot, because Nagomi keeps on going.

Nagomi’s performance briefly captures the enthusiasm of the crowd, but when it comes to a close it’s met by cold silence and a light smattering of applause. Nagi responds by shooting one of her own Dazzlion maids in the hands. Nagomi tries to get through to Nagi with sentiment and words, even telling Nagi that if she ever feels lonely she’ll always find cozy companionship at the pigsty. But Nagi simply doesn’t want to hear it.

The fact is, she’s seen and heard enough, so she fires the rest of her bullets at an off-camera Nagomi. But then something happens that she never expected in a million years: the former Wuv-Wuv Moonbeam, now Axolotl maid, who killed Ranko, shoots Nagi in the head.

Apparently, Nagomi got through to her. And getting through to one among the dozens was enough. Okachimachi finishes the job by throwing Chekhov’s sharpened bamboo spear through Nagi’s gut. We didn’t get any more Hirano Aya, but the panda had her day.

After a credit sequence altered to include visuals of and vocals by Nagomi, we flash forward to 2018, where we learn that in the end, Michiyo, Ranko, and Nagomi won. As it was when I visited, Akiba is a vibrant but peaceful place, where the maids are no longer packing heat. In a final welcome surprise, a wheelchair-bound but alive Nagomi carries on Ranko’s legacy at the New Oinky Doink Café—as a 36-year-old maid everybody wants to meet.

Akiba Maid War was exactly what was advertised on the tin, and more. At times totally ridiculous and bonkers and at others genuinely moving and compelling, it held true to its weird and novel premise to the end, framing those bloody times we witnessed as a dark chapter in the history of animal-themed café maids. The doves beat the hawks, not with swords or bullets, but with the boundless power of moe moe kyun.

Bleach: Thousand-Year Blood War – 11 – Meet the Parents

I gave up on Bleach twelve or thirteen seasons or so into its run because it kept stalling on anime-only filler arcs, most of which were hot garbage and almost never masked the fact that they were meant to stall for time while the source material developed. Now that Bleach is back, it feels fresh, and something new happens in every episode.

Take this episode, one that finally begins to explore Ichigo’s parents’ past in detail. From the moment Isshin showed up at Ichigo’s boss Ikumi’s place in his shinigami garb and told his son the time has finally come to talk about this stuff, I was riveted. my only beef with Ichigo’s return is that we don’t get to see any Karin or Yuzu.

In the not-too-distant past, Shiba Isshin was the captain of the 10th Squad, with a short-haired Matsumoto as his lieutenant and Hitsugaya as his third seat (and heir apparent to the captaincy). Toshio delivers a report on soul eater deaths during patrols in Naruki City in the human world. Those deaths are part of hollowification experiments being run by Aizen, Ichimaru and Kaname, who are in the early stages of planning their takeover.

Kurosaki Masaki is a kind, capable, and somewhat lonely young woman. She’s lonely because she is the last surviving member of her Quincy clan, and has been taken in by the Ishidas. Uryuu’s father Ryuuken’s mom is not that crazy about this, no doubt being obsessed with maintaining a pure a bloodline as possible, while Ryuuken himself is a lot nicer to Masaki (probably because he sees himself one day marrying her).

Tying in Aizen & Co.’s slow-burn scheme with the origin story of how Masaki and Isshin met is a brilliant bit of retroactive continuity. Isshin comes to Naruki to investigate the source of the deaths, and meets Aizen & Co.’s eldritch abomination: a hollow whose hole has been filled, adn who fights like a soul reaper…a powerful one. Aizen even slashes Isshin in the back to give him a handicap.

As a Quincy, Masaki is extremely attuned to spiritual pressure, and knows something is wrong when she senses Isshin and the Hollow fighting. But she’s also an empathetic and caring person with a strong belief in noblesse oblige. When she starts to run towards the trouble, Ryuuken tries to stop her, saying the lower-level Quincy can put themselves in danger.

But Masaki tells Ryuuken something I could easily hear Ichigo saying: it’s one thing to stay safe so one has a future. But if she stands by while someone dies, she won’t be able to forgive her future self. She runs into town under the pelting rain and finds a soul reaper locked in mortal combat with a strange hollow, Isshin’s fire-based zanpakuto lighting up the night.

To his warm flames, Masaki adds her icy Quincy arrows in order to save Isshin’s life. When the hollow charges her, she disarms and allows it to bit her shoulder, which allows her to kill it from point-blank range. So not only is Masaki a Quincy, but comparable in skill and power to a Gotei 13 Captain, and even possesses a sense of style to her fighting.

When the hollow prepares to self destruct, Isshin sees Masaki is in trouble and uses his body and spiritual pressure to shield her. On the ground, battered and bloody, Isshin thanks Masaki for saving her. She in turn thanks him for saving her, and he laughs, saying that must make them even.

When Isshin asks her who she is, Masaki considers how a soul reaper would react to learning that she’s a Quincy. Perhaps since he just saved her, Masaki isn’t in the mood to lie or deflect, and comes right out and tells him she’s a quincy. Isshin’s reaction of casual amusement is definitely not what she expected, and it puts a big Kurosaki smile on her face.

So there you have it: a shinigami captain and the last surviving member of a Quincy clan have a meet cute, all thanks to the series’ big bad’s machinations. Forget flashbacks; I could honestly watch an entire separate season of Bleach centered on these two (and the ensuing love triangle with Ryuuken). You can plainly see how Ichigo became such an honorable and upstanding young scamp from watching these two.

Akiba Maid War – 11 – Reservoir Hogs

Business at Oinky-Doink is booming thanks to Nagomi’s Lady Omoe status—call it the Michelin Star of Akiba Maid Cafés—but just when things seemed to be looking up, the maids find their Panda (or rather the empty suit) strung up on the iconic Radio Building sign.

On the panda suit’s head is a letter from Creatureland formally disowning the Oinky Doink—an almost certain death knell for the Café, and possibly its staff as well. The outside of the Café is covered in slanderous flyers, and higher-ranked maids come to scare off customers.

This is an untenable situation, but Ranko believes it to be entirely her fault; her former sister Nagi, the head of Creatureland, has a beef with her, so she’ll go to Nagi and settle it once and for all, even if it means her death. The other Oinky Doink maids except this, except for Nagomi. It takes Ranko pulling a gun on Nagomi to make clear that where she’s going, Nagomi can’t follow.

But while everyone seems grimly resigned to letting Ranko sacrifice herself, the next morning they’re waiting for her at the entrance, ready to throw down right beside her. Ranko issues a heartfelt thanks that is interrupted by the elevator door closing on her head (this has been a very good running gag).

The plan is pretty simple: Yumechi, Shiipon, Zoya, Tenchou and Okachimachi storm Dazzlion and take their top maid hostage while Ranko and Nagomi infiltrate Creatureland HQ. Nagi sends an army of maids who have no compunctions about killing their hostage.

Ranko and Nagomi initially believe that leaves the coast clear for them, but HQ is also packed with maids, who escore them to Nagi’s office. Nagomi returns the Lady Omoe statue and sash and apologize for taking them, but in response Nagi simply smashes Omoe on Nagomi’s head.

Surprisingly, Nagi would rather not kill Ranko, just as Ranko would rather not kill her. Unfortunately, her one and only compromise is completely out of the question: she’ll give Ranko a leadership role if she kills all of the Oinky Doink staff.

Ranko instead prostrates herself and offers her life in exchange for letting Oinky Doink off the hook. Nagi stabs her in the hand, and she draws a pig with her blood, explaining to Nagi that she’s enjoyed her time with the Oinky Doink maids and wouldn’t trade their lives for anything.

When Nagi threatens to slash Nagomi’s throat, Ranko does something we’ve never seen her do: cry and beg, not for her life, but for Nagomi’s and the others’ (who are besieged at Dazzlion). She admits that Nagomi reminds her of their old gentle boss Miss Michiyo, the kind of maid Akiba needs.

When offered the chance to shoot Nagi before Nagi kills Nagomi, Ranko chooses neither; both women are too dear to her, while Oinky Doink is her cherished home. Her display seems to finally get to Nagi, who loses interest in the whole situation and withdraws the order of disownment…in exchange for ten times the sweets money.

When Ranko and Nagomi reunite with the other Oinky Doink maids, Tenchou asks why they couldn’t haggle, but the bottom line is everyone escape with their lives and the café is still in one piece, so it’s a win. They’ll find a way to make all that extra money. They wouldn’t have been able to do anything if they were dead.

But just when my guard was down, and Ranko and Nagomi are shopping for a hairpin to replace the one Nagomi lost, a pink maid assassin drives a blade through Ranko’s gut from behind. She knew what she was doing, as Ranko quickly bleeds out and dies in Nagomi’s arms while stunned bystanders refuse to call an ambulance, as that would be interfering in Akiba maid affairs.

Whether Nagi changed her mind and sent someone to kill Ranko, or someone acting on their own had a score to settle (Ranko did kill a lot of maids in her thirty-six years), her sudden death is a gut punch. The question is, what happens next? Will Nagomi hew to the nonviolent ideals that endeared her to Ranko, or will she seek to find and take revenge on her friend’s murderer?

Bleach: Thousand-Year Blood War – 10 – Pass/Fail

In the depths of Muken, Unohana takes Zaraki to the brink of death over and over and over again. She recalls their first encounter centuries ago, when she found herself beside a mountain of bodies that she didn’t create. A small, malnourished boy crawled atop like some kind of ronin Gollum.

The Unohana Yachiru of that time was bored out of her damn mind, but in this boy she finally found a challenge, a worthy successor to the title of Zenpachi, and dare I say, a bit of fun? Two weary souls at the top of their game found each other, and validated their existence.

While Yachiru lost that first fight, she could tell Zaraki was holding back, which is why she’s continually all-but-killing and reviving him in Muken: to awaken the true power he had repressed for so long he forgot he even possessed it. Suffice it to say, this titular “Battle” will go down as one of the best in Bleach history.

A lot of that comes down to restraint. Sure, Yamamoto’s flame party was gorgeous and terrifying and badass in equal measures, but here in the bowels of Soul Society where there is nothing but darkness, blood, and the spark of clashing blades, there’s a stripped down elegance and gravitas to the proceedings.

Once Zaraki’s power is sufficiently awakened, Unohana ends “playtime” and unleashes her bankai Minazuki, covering her sword in blood and creating a blizzard of deadly strikes through which he must cut through in order to defeat her.

After repeatedly passing out and coming to in the earlier stages of the battle, the imagery in Zaraki’s head becomes more concrete, as he imagines himself and Unohana as undead skeletons fighting in a white void instead of two flesh-and-blood soul reapers in the dark.

Only in this deep, dark place could Unohana draw Zaraki’s true strength from the other deep, dark place he had hidden it hundreds of years ago. Just as she learned how to heal herself so she could keep a battle going for eternity, he weakened himself intentionally for the same purpose.

But as the first and former Kenpachi, once Unohana had found someone with the potential to surpass and succeed her, she decided that her remaining purpose in life was to nurture that successor. It’s why Unohana smiles when Zaraki delivers a killing strike she doesn’t bother to heal. Her purpose is complete, and she couldn’t ask for a more joyful end.

She knows that losing her as an opponent may mean a return to boring, lonely battles, but with the arrival of the Quincy, the new fully awakened Zaraki will have no shortage of new opponents, some even stronger than her. His awakening also means he can finally hear the voice of his zanpakuto, who introduces herself to him (though her name is unfortunately cut off by the commercial bump).

Rest in Peace and Power, Retsu.

There was always going to be a fall-off from such an epic battle between two warrior behemoths to the goofiness of the Royal Palace, but clash makes for a good palate cleanser as Ichigo and Renji land in Hoohden, the entrance hall to which is half concert venue, half game show set.

Their host is the Blade King and inventor of the Zanpakuto, Nimaiya Oh-Etsu, and I gotta tell ya, it’s a weird feeling knowing this puffer-vest-wearing goofball surrounded by lovely honeys could probably defeat Unohana and Zaraki in his sleep.

Ichigo and Renji can’t really get on board with the vibes until they realize they have to if they want to get their swords back. We also meet Mera, Nimaiya’s no-nonsense right-hand woman who leads the two to the real Hoohden: an unassuming, ramshackle shed atop a promontory.

Ichigo and Renji step inside and immediately endure a ten-story drop. Like Zaraki in Muken, they’re surrounded by darkness. Unlike Zaraki, there’s stuff lurking in the shadows. Those things are Asauchi—the same “base” zanpakutos issued to every Soul Reaper student in academy.

As they progress through academy, a piece of the students’ souls pour into the zanpakuto, thus personalizing them into your Zabimarus and Senbonzakuras (btw, all the pretty ladies at the entrance hall were actually all zanpakutos themselves).

The trial before Ichigo and Renji is simple: fight the Asauchi and survive. Three days pass, and they do just that, but at the end of those two days, Oh-Etsu tells Renji that he’s passed, but Ichigo, who is on his back, fails. Ichigo insists he can keep going, but it’s not a matter of physical endurance, but emotional endurance.

Oh-Etsu flat-out tells Ichigo that he’s not a Soul Reaper. He’s a human who has no business in Soul Society. So not only has he failed, and won’t be getting a new Zanpakuto to replace Zangetsu, but Oh-Etsu transports him back home to the Kurosaki Clinic in Karakura Town. Ichigo is “no good” as he is now, having never fought with an Asauchi.

While there’s a finality to Oh-Etsu banishing Ichigo, he also leaves open the slim possibility of Ichigo one day becoming worthy again. To do so, he’ll need to not only go back to his “roots”, but learn what they are. The Blade King backed up his goofiness with some serious authority, and now our boy has some serious work to do.

While the Unohana/Zaraki battle was good for 4.5-5 stars, Ichigo and Renji’s Hoohden trial was only good for 3-3.5; my rating splits the difference.

Rating: 4/5 Stars

Love Flops Dropped

The third and final episode of Love Flops I watched focused on Amelia Irving, who starts the episode under Asahi’s covers trying to put his toeprints on a wedding license. Why yes, she’s not wearing pants. Her obsessively hypercompetitive personality hits a snag when a kanji test looms. She starts to learn, but only the symbols she finds in pornographic literature. Asahi helps tutor her, and her test scores improve drastically.

While Amelia is the most interesting character by dint of having an episode centered around her, and I heart her seiyu Taketatsu Ayana always and forever (and appreciate that she needs to pay the bills), I’m content with just three episodes of this mostly dumb mess and calling it a day. If I need tutoring rom-com, I’ll wait for We Never Learn S3.

Mobile Suit Gundam: The Witch from Mercury – 04 – New Friends from the Third Rock

Suletta responds to Guel’s proposal, on which he immediately tries to backpedal, as you’d expect: running back into her Gundam and booking it out of there. The next day she arrives at class in the standard Asticassia uniform, but Miorine quickly changes it to her white Holder uni; she should proudly wear it, along with the title of holder and her groom.

After duels and legal hearings, it’s finally time for Suletta to participate in actual practical exams, one of which involves traversing terrain and avoiding simulated mines. Chuatury Panlunch, the giant pink pom-pom-haired Earthian, is sabotaged by slow-acting blackout spray, underscoring the oppression and discrimination of her people by the Spacians.

As for Suletta, she fails before she even starts, because she has neither a mechanic or a spotter to assist her with the exam. When she asks around, she finds no one will help her lest they get on the Jeturks’ bad side. Nika can’t help her either since she already has to assist Chuatury, AKA Chuchu, but introduces her to her Earth house and to other mechanics who can help.

Following Nika’s lead, the other Earthians are nice to her, but when Chuchu arrives she flies into a rage at having a “Spacian turd” in her house, Suletta is forced to flee. Elan later offers to help Suletta, but Miorine arrives and warns her that he’s bad news: just another corporate executive’s son trying to win her hand (which he denies).

Still, Miorine won’t hear of Suletta availing herself of Elan’s assistance; not when she has her. To Suletta’s surprise, Miorine is both willing and able to perform both mechanic and spotter roles, as she’s read the necessary manuals. To get their ducks in a row, Miorine invites Suletta to her makeshift apartment, which was once her dad’s office.

While it’s obvious that Miorine is a bit of a slob (she no doubt grew up with servants cleaning up after her), inviting Suletta to her home is a lowkey gesture of trust and intimacy. But she can see her groom has a lot of studying to do if she’s going to make it. That night, we also see another side of Chuchu, as she contacts her family and friends back home. They’re being cracked down on by the Spacians, but they urge her to worry about her studies and leave those Earthly troubles to them.

Also that night, Miorine wakes up to find Suletta still hard at work studying, and asks her why she’s working so hard. Suletta says she has a dream to start a school on Mercury that will bring more offworlders there. She also mentions how her friends and family there are all counting on her to succeed. Miorine doesn’t see why Suletta doesn’t just live for herself, but Suletta insists she wants to “carry the burden” for her Mercurian people.

The big day of Suletta’s make-up exam comes, and we see that the same two girls who blacked out Chuchu’s windshield do the same thing to Suletta. Chuchu calls Miorine and Suletta “Spacian turds” again but Miorine tells her she’s no different than Spacians who discriminate against Earthians if she’s prejudiced against two people she doesn’t even know.

The examiners don’t allow the exam to be suspended since exterior inspection is part of the exam, so when Suletta’s screens go black Miorine has to be her eyes, upping the difficulty level significantly. She can re-try the exam as many times as she wants, but after failing five straight times, Suletta has a crisis of confidence and bursts into tears.

When Miorine tries to coax Suletta into trying again, she appeals to her obligation to her fellow Mercurians back home, and Chuchu hears this while she watches the two saboteur girls yukking it up. While Suletta may have been the enemy that morning, now she’s someone Chuchu will throw hands for, sucker punching one of the girls and starting a huge fight.

Suletta and Nika break up the fight, and the end result is simply that Suletta and Chuchu will have to take another make-up exam. Chuchu says Suletta’s the reason for her failure, but when Nika officially invites Suletta to join their Earth house, Chuchu doesn’t stand in the way—as long as Suletta calls her senpai.

Suletta is such a kind and gentle soul it was only a matter of time before she met similarly-minded folks at school who wanted to be friends with her. Chuchu definitely has a chip on her shoulder, but sees that with Suletta not all Spacians are turds; some are just like her: someone into whom a lot of people back home placed their earnest hopes.

Rating: 4/5 Stars

Love Flops – 02 – Menage a Cinq

Asahi is so distracted by Aoi’s, er, display, he completely misinterprets her confession to him as a confession to going commando. When she asks him what he thinks and he says he might give it a try and isn’t one to judge others for their preferences, Aoi gets embarrassed and runs off. Not five minutes later Ilya confesses to him, Mongfa runs off and gives him hickeys when two men in black come by, and both Karin and Amelia try to ambush him with a spontaneous wedding.

After a day of absolute madness, Asahi is glad to be home…only to find it full of the mad ones. There they are, all lined up to welcome him home as if they were his five wives. His annoying robot plays a message from his father, who arranged all of this and is hoping Asahi ends up picking one of the girls (or the guy) to marry for real.

The audacity of having his house doubled in size in the few hours he was away from it is weird enough, but now we learn that his dad is undoubtedly someone of considerable means. We also learn that all five of his would-be brides (and one groom) are way too enthusiastic about asserting themselves.

They’re all over him and won’t leave him alone, and while this is clearly a fantasy for some, the episode does a good job heightening the sheer anxiety of dealing with five caffeinated wannabe waifus in a relatively small space. When Asahi escapes to the quiet blue night, it’s as much a relief for me as him!

Aoi ends up finding him at a shrine, and tells him how all of them are simply excited to finally meet their potential future husband, and it resulted in them being a little too overeager to please. With her gentle touch she’s able to convince him to come home and give this thing a try, while she and the others will “do their utmost” to tone it down a bit. Somehow I doubt that!

With that, Asahi’s wacky new home life begins. I’m honestly still not sure what to make of this, and will take at least one more episode to determine if it’s something I’ll watch to the end. So far it’s like train wreck from which I can’t quite look away!

Spy x Family – 03 – A Grand Ooting

Yor arrives at her new home and the Forger family is complete. Loid is surprised by how little luggage she has and how quickly and efficiently she puts it away; Yor is surprised by how clean the place is and how good a cook Loid is. Anya almost opens up Yor’s box of death, but is warned by Yor’s own thoughts not to.

While the three get along just fine to start, once they actually have to start practicing the Eden interview, things go sideways fast. Anya’s answers are too honest (she’s ordered to stay home and watch TV all day) while Yor’s are all over the place (and strangely bloody). Loid begins to doubt if this mission can work.

That said, they all go out for the kind of outing (mispronounced “ooting” by Anya) that upper class families go on. They certainly look the part. First up is the opera, then a museum (where Anya gets a kick out of the classical nudity while Yor digs the guillotine). In the kids section Anya scribbles her parents’ true identities (which, again, they don’t know she knows), but since they’re just that—kid’s scribbles—Loid and Yor chalk it up to her vivid imagination.

When a political rally turns out to be too much for Anya (she’s overwhelmed by the combined negative thoughts of the hundreds of people assembled)  the three head to a café for some lunch. There, Loid’s doubts about the viability of the mission resurface, as Anya has terrible table manners for a purported upper class child, and Yor is again way too blissed out on cutlery.

Yor suggests they have a nice after-lunch rest at a quiet park with a great view of the city (I got a kick out of Anya saying the people look like “tiny bits of trash”—now that’s upper class thinking). But when one of those people turns out to be a thief stealing a purse from an elderly woman, Yor springs into action, though quickly loses the culprit in the crowds.

Anya scans those crowds for the thoughts of the thief, and when she finds him, rather than expose her power she simply points at a restaurant near to where the thief is, and Loid does the rest. Yor watches Anya while he chases him down and retrieves the wallet. Then they take the grandma, who has quite a strong handshake to the hospital to be checked out.

When the three start interacting naturally in front of the granny, she remarks what a lovely family they are. That’s when Loid starts to think that maybe, just maybe they can pull off this academy admission plan. That, and after a day full of upper-class activities (and one citizen’s arrest), Anya’s answers in the next mock interview are a lot more convincing.

They may be an odd family who are keeping profound secrets from one another (with only Anya knowing the truth about everyone), but they also happen to be adorable, and their interactions throughout this episode were a pure joy to watch unfold as they take their first tentative steps to being a family.

86 – 23 (FIN) – Something New

Having dealt with the potentially civilization-ending Morpho and lived to tell the tale, the five Spearheads return “home” to their adoptive father Ernst’s home just in time for the Giad equivalent of Christmas. As Frederica finishes her homework, they open their gifts, all of which could aid in their most difficult mission yet: living civilian lives.

Like the first time they were brought to Giad and given the freedom to choose, the kids all find their respective niches and genuinely enjoy the time they spend in those niches, as well as sharing various first-time experiences together. But the Legion are merely down, not out, and the battlefield beckons. When informally asked to join an independent unit, the five don’t hesitate to take up the call.

It’s there where we learn their unit will be led by a “foreign officer”, and where I once again started to get my hopes up about Shin & Co. meeting Lena—despite knowing how 86 loves to operate. As he visits Eugene’s grave, apologizes to Marcel and Nina, and finally places his brother’s shard of metal in the memorial with the others, Shin wants to find “something new” with his four comrades. He wants to take them to the end, and he doesn’t want that end to be a battlefield.

In a return to the first season formula of splitting the episodes between Shin and Lena, we see her visiting her father’s grave, walking around the ruined first district, and asking her departed uncle for more time before her “hopes are crushed”. Her white-haired brethren throwing racial slurs at the Giadian solders feeding them shows that it could be generations before the state-sanctioned bigotry fades…if ever. 

But just as Shin found peace with Eugene, Marcel, and his brother, Lena comes to a détente with Annette, who is now no longer of the mind that nothing she does matters. She’s also curious about the Giadian’s Para-RAID resembling her own so closely, and has decided to accompany Lena as a tech officer. Lena, who already found a stray cat to keep her company, is elated at the news. Annette knows that the more she stays by Lena’s side, the more surprises she’ll see.

But the biggest and most pleasant surprise of all is that 86 doesn’t go out without letting Lena come face-to-face with Shin, Anju, Kurena, Raiden, and Theo for the first time. Even when she sees these five soldiers, she doesn’t know who they are, having just paid her respects to the five soldiers she believed to have died. Her reaction to Shin introducing himself was priceless, and so earned by everything that had preceded it.

While I worry about their trials in the battles to come, it fills my heart with joy and glee to see Lena triumphantly standing shoulder to shoulder with her  comrades. These are the final moments that made the long wait more than worth it. This final episode provided both closure and enduring hope for the future of these crazy kids.

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