Otherside Picnic – 05 – Pale Horse

After treating Kozakura to well over $100 worth of dinner as an apology for her unwanted excursion to the Otherside, Toriko and Sorao complete their making-up by ordering another $100 worth of grub and drinks. During the meal, Toriko whips out Lady Hasshaku’s hat, which turns out to be much more than bad table manners.

After the waiter starts acting very strange (muttering about “sublance” and “abardmont”), Sorao leads a tipsy Toriko out of the oddly empty café and to the station, but something is off about Ikebukuro: all the lights are out and there isn’t another soul in sight. Before long the pair find themselves in an unfamiliar field, and encounter a bizarre two-headed robot horse-like monster, carrying several hanging bound bodies.

Neither brought guns to dinner, so they have to make a run for it, with Sorao doing her best to scope out potential Glitches. They reach a train track, which they believe will eventually lead to a station (i.e. shelter), but they’re then chased by a frightening mass of glowing purple faces.

Suddenly, Toriko hits the deck and has Sorao do the same, and bullets fly over their heads—bullets from the guns of soldiers. Their leader identifies the girls as human in Japanese, but his men chatter in English. The bullets aren’t meant for the girls, but for a third monster: a towering Groot-like hulk with branches for antlers.

Eventually the tree man wanders off, while the robotic horse doesn’t continue its pursuit. The lead soldier introduces himself as U.S. Marine Corp Lieutenant Will Drake, commander of the Pale Horse Battalion, Charlie Company 1/2 out of Okinawa. (“Pale Horse” is a reference to Death, the fourth Horse of the Apocalypse.) He and his unit have been trapped in the Otherside for over a month, while their robotic pack mule was transformed into a monster that has claimed a number of his men.

Lt. Drake & Co. lead Sorao and Toriko to “February Station”, which Sorao identifies as Kisaragi Station from the real world, but the group keeps moving until they reach the company’s well-equipped base camp. The thing is, a lot of Drake’s men distrust the girls and aren’t convinced they’re not monsters in disguise. They obeyed his orders to stand down this time, but what if fear of the unknown, or additional illusions, cause them to lash out?

The introduction of American marines from Okinawa to the Otherside, as well as the new manner in which the girls ended up their themselves, brings a fresh new dynamic to their adventures. Toriko may have been joking about marine basic training, but now they find themselves unarmed and exposed in a potentially paranoid hornets’ nest. As Toriko is also fond of saying, as long as they stick together, things will work out. Here’s hoping.

Rating: 4/5 Stars

Ikebukuro West Gate Park – 12 (Fin) – The Troublesome Troubleshooter

With Takashi out of commssion the G-Boys are rudderless and eager for revenge, and Kyouichi isn’t above acquiring guns from the yakuza in order to gain the advantage in an otherwise bats-and-clubs fight. Meanwhile, we meet one of the usually unseen victims of the fighting, a young girl whose brother was injured who will play a larger part in the episode’s climax.

Makoto remains in the shadows, relying on his trusted friends in Saru and Lin to get a bigger picture about what’s going on. He learns the Kyougokukai Group from Kansai is trying to make a move against Ikebukuro and the Hidaka Group, providing firearms to both Red Angels and G-Boys. The kid gangs will soften each other out, and Kyougokukai, will stomp them all out and take over.

Makoto still has allies in the G-Boys, including Masaru, who owes him a debt for helping him save Mizuki, only for Mizuki to end up in trouble and missing now. When some less friendly G-Boys spot him and give chase, he’s saved by a more unlikely ally in the recently banished Hiroto.

Hiroto is setting up new turf outside Ikebukuro, but can’t stand by and let his old turf go to shit, especially if it’s due to the machinations of outside yakuza groups. We later learn he and his men, like the little girl, have a crucial role to play in the endgame.

Then there’s Isogai, quite obviously the mastermind behind everything based on clues from last week’s episode. Makoto gives him a call still believing he’s someone who can be trusted, and they meet by a secluded shrine. Isogai gives him a new phone, which Makoto quickly checks for the spying app that confirms Isogai is indeed the mastermind.

Isogai goes on to explain his motivations. A native of Ikebukuro, he was bullied in school and had to stop going to classes. He ended up joining the Kyougokukai, and knowing their interest in Ikebukuro, volunteered to serve as a sleeper agent until the conditions were right to blow everything up.

For all his hatred of punks both red and blue, Isogai still sees value in Makoto as a good guy and troubleshooter, and asks him to join him, Makoto refuses, there’s a scuffle, and Isogai ends up putting five bullets in him. At the same time, Takashi wakes up in the hospital, wondering what’s keeping Makoto.

The two sides form battle lines in West Gate Park, and Takashi not only makes a surprise appearance, but starts a fight with Kyouichi despite still bleeding through his bandages. It would seem all the pieces are arranged on the board the way Isogai and his Kyougokukai superior Yoshimatsu want (the latter, Glasses Guy from last week, even watches the battle from his car).

The G-Boys and Angels are about to slam into each other when suddenly a video starts playing on the park’s Jumbotron: a video expertly recorded by Makoto’s film director buddy, capturing Makoto’s entire incriminating conversation with Isogai, exposing him as a traitor to the Angels and Ikebukuro itself. Everyone stops fighting, takes in the scope of Isogai’s treachery…and stews.

Isogai responds by pulling out his gun and shooting Makoto again, but as with the last time he shot him, it was with harmless blood rounds (lent to him by his director friend). Makoto switched the guns out when they scuffled at the shrine. Kyouichi delivers a  devastating, balletic kick to Isogai’s head and threatening to dance on him until he’s a pile of crushed bones—but Makoto begs him not to go too far.

As Hiroto’s men deal with Kyougokukai’s Yoshimatsu, who is invited to a nice chat with Saru of Hidaka Group, Makoto tries to do what he does best: call for all the warring parties to stand down, go their separate ways and think about whether they really want to fight a battle they were manipulated into fighting. Also, the riot cops are about to come in an arrest everyone.

He urges everyone to remember that while can sometimes lie and hurt each other, they also have the capacity to forgive. Everyone stands down…except that wild card little girl whose brother was injured. She isn’t satisfied until she’s able to stab Takashi, and he lets it happen, drawing her into a hug even after she sticks him in the kidneys.

Because Takashi is so gentle with his would-be killer, the avenging girl must sense that he had forgiven her before she even stabbed him, and thus can forgive him and those who cause her brother’s injury. Before passing out, Takashi tells Makoto to take over the G-Boys if he doesn’t make it.

While that would have been an thoroughly interesting development, Takashi pulls through, and even has the sister and her recovered brother visit him, completing the cycle of forgiveness and healing. Kyouichi disbands the Red Angels and moves into a house his parents left him just outside the Yamanote Line.

Makoto’s mom re-opens the produce stand, where Guo continues to help out. And finally, Makoto sits in West Gate Park when he’s approached by someone who has a problem that needs solving. In other words, life goes on in the town he loves. It’s not often a series concludes by bringing together most of its previous narrative elements into a satisfying whole, but IWGP pulled it off beautifully.

Don’t believe the low MAL score or lack of ANN reviews: IWGP was a strong Fall 2020 dark horse candidate. ambitious in its concept, resourceful with its protagonist and setting, involving at every turn (one iffy Youtuber episode aside), and realistic in its depiction of the complex social structures that make up a town, and the importance of maintaining relationships and balance.

Ikebukuro West Gate Park – 11 – Nightmare on Sunshine Street

If I haven’t already, I’ll go on record now: Thus far I’ve always enjoyed the IWGP stories that aren’t directly related to the G-Boy/Red Angel dispute, like when Mikoto gained a sister in Guo, or last week’s dive into restorative justice. That said, if the show wishes to close things out by refocusing on the Red-vs.-Blue divide, there are far worse ways to do so than what we got.

This week takes what had been a volatile tinderbox and blew it up with a few bold strokes. What keeps this episode out of four-and-a-half star territory—aside from the fact it’s only part one of two-part story—is that it takes a step back from the earnest urban realism and relies on predictable action-drama anime tropes.

Red/Blue tussles are becoming more frequent ever since the Angels helped the G-Boys put quell an internal dispute. A border dispute on Sunshine Street could quickly escalate into full-on gang warfare, so Makoto does his thing: works with Kyouichi and Isogai to arrange a peaceful meeting with King.

As soon as the Angels’ hotheaded number 3 Utsumi is introduced, we’re invited to believe he’s trying to up his team’s aggression against the G-Boys, just as King’s underling Hiroto tried to do the opposite. But there’s the additional element of a young Watanabe Kazumasa looking like he wants to say something to Makoto, but hesitates…then ends up with a knife in his heart.

The border dispute meeting is off, as the Angels are convinced the G-Boys killed their kid. Mikoto learns of the murder on TV, and rushes to meet with Takashi, who assures him he didn’t order the hit, while not ruling out that a hot-headed underling might have.

Then a bad-case scenario gets even worse when a drugged and clearly out-of-it Mizuki guns Takashi down and flees. As Takashi checks for vitals and calls an ambulance, a man in a white suit and glasses sits in a car watching while someone in the back seat snaps photos of Takashi standing over the gunned-down Takashi…someone with Isogai’s hairstyle.

Takashi is alive but unconscious in the hospital, but the misleading photos are posted online, and the general consensus among G-Boys is that Makoto betrayed their leader and tried to kill him. Their retribution is swift, as some of them launch a van at Makoto’s family produce stand, hitting his mom and nearly hitting him and Guo.

Guo, knowing her brother didn’t shoot Takashi, urges Makoto to start running and find out who’s responsible for this. That brings us to the episode’s cold open, in which Makoto felt like he was having a bad dream. While hiding from various roving bands of G-Boys, he gets a call from Makoto, who uses the call to get a fix on his location.

Judging from the look in his eyes, at this point I was convinced Isogai was responsible for Kazu’s murder, Mizuki’s drugging, and Makoto’s framing. By using Kyouichi and Utsumi’s rage over Kazu’s death, he creates a fine smokescreen in which to freely operate while all hell breaks loose.

As blood starts to spill on the streets, Chief Rei insists Makoto come to the station for questioning, as he was at the very least a witness to Takashi’s shooting. Makoto isn’t ready to do that quite yet, as he won’t be able to solve this riddle from the police station.

Meanwhile, as a satisfied man in white lounges on the bed of a hotel room enjoying a (possibly post-coital?) cigarette, Isogai takes a shower and grins like an evil villain. Which, fine…it’s an interesting turn for a somewhat dull but likeable character, but I was kinda okay with him being somewhat dull and likeable? Not to mention the unpleasant undertones of the only gay guy in the show being the big bad…

Makoto meets with Zero One in their usual café—which seems odd considering all the G-Boys are after him—but then again, most of the G-Boys are probably busy fighting Red Angels. Here is where Makoto is portrayed as perhaps a bit too ignorant of modern smartphone technology, as the hacker explains the spy app that allow his pursuers to pinpoint his location.

They’re interrupted by Detective Yoshioka, who politely asks Makoto to come with him for questioning. Makoto gets in Yoshioka’s car and explains what he knows so far, but instead of going into the station, he asks that Yoshioka let him go to track down the culprit as only someone with his skills and connections can. Yoshioka doesn’t endorse Makoto’s actions, but also can’t exactly legally detain him.

So off Makoto goes, through dark alleys and across the neon-lit boulevards of Sunshine Street, in the middle of a nightmare from which there is no waking. His mother and his best friend are laid up, and thanks to a devious setup job his neutrality has been utterly destroyed. While this episode took some sensationalist leaps to get to where it is, everything that has unfolded so far remains not only plausible, but inevitable.

I’m just not particularly elated about Isogai being the presumptive Big Bad, because this was a show that didn’t really need one, and in fact always thrived in the gray area between good and bad that best reflected real life.

Rating: 4/5 Stars

Ikebukuro West Gate Park – 10 – Moving Past the Hate

You have heard that it was said, “Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.” But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.—Matthew 5:38-39

One day, a serious young woman named Hayama Chihiro approaches Makoto at his fruit stand, shows him a photo of a young man, and flatly asks him to ruin that guy’s knee. Makoto learns why: a year ago the young man, Otokawa Eiji, kneecapped her brother Tsukasa and robbed him.

For all of ¥3,000, Tsukasa’s dream of opening his own restaurant was crushed along with his knee. Since Eiji was a minor, he got seven months in juvie, and is now wandering free. Chihiro has been tailing “the beast”, as she calls him, ever since his release, and now wants him to suffer as her brother suffers. A knee for a knee!

Makoto remarks that if Chihiro were okay with Eiji’s knee being smashed, she’d be no less of a beast that her brother’s attacker. But as with so many other issues with Makoto becomes entangled, there is much more information to be learned before a final decision is made. To that end, he contacts one of his mates, Chief Rei.

When Rei calls back, Makoto has tracked down Chihiro, who is watching Eiji at an arcade. He lends her one of his earbuds and they listen together as Rei goes over the particulars of the crime. Eiji was being extorted by a group of bullies in high school, and was warned to secure the money (any amount) by the day after the attack, or they’d ruin his knee.

Eiji only attacked Tsukasa because he needed money to give to the bullies, but only he was convicted and sent to juvie for the attack, while the bullies only received a scolding. As Chihiro learns more about Eiji and the context of the attack, her once pure and unwavering hatred suddenly becomes diluted with pity for the kid’s situation, and guilt for nearly making it worse. Now she’s not so sure she wants Eiji attacked.

Now that Makoto knows Chihiro’s feelings on the matter, he wants to know those of Eiji’s victim, her brother Tsukasa. Makoto visits to their home under the guise of Chihiro introducing a new boyfriend. Chihiro’s reaction to Makoto’s suit is priceless. Tsukasa is voiced by Ishida Akira, a seiyu so very skilled at projecting the vulnerability of his characters and the weight they carry.

Tsukasa admits that for a long time he thought about finding and stabbing Eiji for what he did, but when he stops to think about what that would make him, his certainty and thirst for such revenge wavers just like his sister’s. Now he feels it would be better if he were to meet Eiji, look him in the eye, and talk to him about what happened.

If Tsukasa did that, he could learn whether Eiji was a “beast” or just a human (the vast majority of criminals being the latter). If he learned Eiji was the latter, his hatred would subside. Above all, Tsukasa doesn’t want to “stand in a  place of hatred” forever. He wants to move past it, and into “tomorrow.”

Tsukasa’s noble words move Makoto to arrange just such a meeting. In order to get Eiji to agree, he offers membership into the G-Boys. To both Eiji and Makoto’s surprise, Takashi shows up with a couple of his boys, as he’s curious to see how Makoto resolves this situation. He makes Eiji a G-Boy on the spot and promises he’ll never be hassled by his extorters again.

But first, Eiji must endure the trial of his life: sitting down across the table and looking the man he attacked a year ago in the eye. It’s a gloriously tense scene that grows more and more cathartic as Eiji and Tsukasa and Chihiro learn more about each other. The siblings learn that Eiji, like them, lost a parent at an early age, though they don’t sympathize with how he handled it. Eiji learns that his attack cost Tsukasa his dreams.

Finally, Eiji learns that nothing he says can undo or make up for what he did, any more than Tsukasa and Chihiro’s hatred or revenge exacted upon the pathetic Eiji will truly satisfy them. Chihiro’s description of how she “never gave in” to criminality as Eiji did due to her brother’s love and cooking is matched by Eiji’s description of all the un-scalable “high walls” he faced once outside of juvie.

Once the accusations and grievances have flown, the time comes for Eiji to accept that his wrongdoing will never disappear and think about what he can do from now on. Tsukasa reveals he knew all along Makoto was the famous troubleshooter, and thus had an inkling that a meeting like this was in the works.

The bottom line is, the meeting does work: Tsukasa has learned conclusively that Eiji is not a beast, and as such Eiji’s remorse will probably never disappear. Tsukasa then chooses to forgive him, and they shake hands while Makoto and Takashi exchange approving glances.

What Makoto accomplished by having the Hayamas and Eiji meet and talk things out amounts to what Chief Rei calls “restorative justice”, a reunion that serves both victim and perpetrator by aiding the former’s recovery and the latter’s rehabilitation. Knowing Makoto can pull such justice off without even knowing what it’s called, Rei is confident Ikebukuro can remain a safe and peaceful town.

Having passed his trial, Eiji is aided by the G-Boys, who convince his extorters to return all the money they stole from Eiji. No blows are landed or blood spilled, as the tacit power of the G-Boys community and its “King” is more than sufficient, proving the value of a well-balanced network of groups with shared interests as a deterrent to escalating violence.

Makoto continues to see the Hayamas, who plan to buy a food truck outfitted with equipment and modifications that will enable Tsukasa to stand less while cooking. They also plan to hire Eiji to work for them, since they’ll need help running the truck, and he needs a job. Who better to work for than the people you wronged, but ultimately forgave you? That cooperation will likely allow him to forgive himself one day.

That famous Matthew passage up top is highly instructive of how society can and often must go. In most cases, it isn’t productive for victims to vilify or dehumanize criminals who did them wrong, nor seek empty, self-defeating vengeance. Often there are humans on either side and beasts on neither, and understandings can be reached by direct interaction, learning from one another who they are and why things were done.

Often…but not always. Enter the unpleasant spectacle that follows the atmospherically moody but hopeful end credits. G-Boys and Red Angels are brawling in an alley, staining the streets with their blood. Still, I see this display not as a rebuttal or repudiation of the more peaceful and conciliatory tactics employed by Makoto.

Rather, this kind of scrimmaging is the inevitable other side of the double-sided sword: a scenario involving large groups of restless young people, each with their own histories. At some point they’ll grow large enough to butt up against the turf of another group, with the resulting enmity bringing out the beasts in everyone.

Yet even this can be mitigated by those who lead these groups, namely Takashi and Kyouichi, sitting across a table, with mediators observing. Even if wars can’t be outright avoided, their duration and the amount of blood spilled can be minimized, as long as all concerned parties remember that they are all human, and always were.

Ikebukuro West Gate Park – 09 – Trouble in Paradise

There is a lot to sift through this week, but I’ll give IWGP this: there’s no other current show that makes people sitting at tables and talking quite so dang compelling! We begin with Makoto and Takashi being hired to guard an anti-immigration group during a particularly distasteful demonstration.

They’re doing it not for the money, but to keep the peace; in fact, an anti-hate pro-immigration group is paying them so their more radical elements won’t start anything. Even here, everyone thinks it’s a bit odd that the hate group is in Ikebukuro, where the ship has already sailed.

Makoto knows this all to well, as the new brother of a Chinese immigrant. Guo makes her return this week, and we learn she’d been working elsewhere and presumably living on her own, explaining her absence in previous episodes. She introduces Makoto to another mixed family: a Japanese husband and his Chinese wife.

They own a Chinese restaurant in building called Ikebukuro Paradise, and have been the recent victims of harassment. The perps were masked, but the couple suspects the anti-immigration group that’s in town. Makes sense. Makoto gets more insight walking with Guo, who tells him how much it hurts to hear people tell her to “go home” when she is home.

The Chinese restaurant incident isn’t the first at Ikebukuro Paradise; previously a café burned down, though its owner insists it was an accident reacted to the cafe’s audio system, and he basically curtly asks Makoto to stop digging. Of course, Makoto doesn’t, contacting his pal Saru, who tells him a Chinese fund linked up with a Japanese corporation.

Lin fills in more blanks, saying the Chinese real estate company intends to redevelop the Paradise by knocking down the old building. It seems the immigration kerfuffle and harassment could be unrelated strings, but only so far. Then the latter problem escalates when a member of the anti-hate group is attacked and its more radical elements want an eye for and eye.

Then the Paradise problem reasserts itself, as a fire breaks out, killing a resident and at least temporarily shutting down the restaurant. It’s to early to ascertain if it was an accident or arson, but Takashi has seen enough, and urges Makoto to “figure out who needs crushing” so his G-Boys can crush them.

In a nice scene with Makoto, Takashi acknowledges the need for Ikebukuro to change and grow the way it’s doing, but also laments the Ikebukuro he grew up in, and fears the town will lose its unique character if the change and growth go too far and “hate and indifference” continue to rear their ugly heads.

Makoto arranges a full-on summit between the pro- and anti- immigration groups. While testy, the anti leader insists they weren’t behind the fire, and the pro leader is willing to take her at her word. Takashi believes the leader, warped as her views are, but gets an odd unsavory vibe from her second-in-command, Tsukamoto, whom he suspects is into some shady shit.

Sure enough, the former café owner Torii, hearing about the fire and death, comes forward to Makoto and the restaurant owners about the true reason he closed up shop: he was harassed by land sharks. The owners thought they were targets of racial and cultural hatred, but they and the other tenants were rather victims of cynical corporate goons.

Tsukamoto, it turns out, was the director of the company that forced Torii out, the missing link Makoto needed to tie the two problems together. Tsukamoto and his superiors intended to use the anti-immigration group as cover for their land-sharking activities.

But by the time Makoto informs the anti-immigration group’s other leaders of Tsukamoto’s intentions, it’s too late to cancel the demonstrations. It’s a tense moment the next day when the red and blue groups march past each other, but it’s a third group, a hastily-assembled gang led by Tsukamoto himself, that tries to incite violence.

Makoto expected this, and so hired his buddy Shadow to take Tsukamoto out before he could achieve his goal. Takashi’s G-Boys mop up, and all the would-be escalators are arrested. The demonstration ends peacefully, and the restaurant owners and other residents of Ikebukuro Paradise can breathe a sigh of relief, as they’re no longer in the crosshairs.

That said, Lin warns Mikoto and Takashi that some shady Kansai organization that was behind Tsukamoto’s company as well as the smoke shop many weeks back is still looking to plant a foothold in Ikebukuro and destroy the harmony Makoto & Co. have been fighting for so hard.

It’s clear IWGP holds the anti-immigration hate group in pretty low regard, as they should. But it’s also upfront about the reasons people have to join and participate in such groups—people who might start out like Takashi, yearning for The Way Things Wereand becoming more radicalized by the growing influx and influence of immigrants.

At the same time, IWGP is just as clear in promoting the proper way forward, and it obviously isn’t brawls in the streets, but respectful, considered conversations between groups who come to the table in good faith. Makoto once again demonstrates his keen ability to mediate tough issues and keep inevitable brush fires from spreading too far.

Ikebukuro West Gate Park – 08 – Hard Truths and Soft Landings

The stinger for this week is only a few moments long: a toddler playing with a toy plane falls off a balcony and lands in a bush. He’s fine, but his single mother Ohnuki Yui, age 22, is massacred in the papers and online for letting it happen. Kyouichi and Inogai stop by Majima Produce to give Makoto an unusual job: check in on Yui and ensure she’s okay. When asked why Kyouichi cares, he says it’s because Yui is a fan, and “you have to take care of your fans.”

The day he fell, Yui decided to leave her 3-year-old son Kazushi unattended so she could more closely watch Kyouichi’s ballet in the park, and the fall was the result. It was a stupid, reckless mistake from a young mother, and she’s lucky he wasn’t seriously hurt. But his fall mirrors her own: she works all night, every night at a konbini bento factory to make ends barely meet, and hardly has any time for anything else, including Kazushi…to say nothing of self-care.

As the son of a single mother, Makoto can relate to Yui and Kazushi’s troubles. But he doesn’t know as well as his mother. One meeting with the mother and son and she knows Yui isn’t just on the edge of a cliff; she’s already falling, and if “something isn’t done” she’ll be in trouble.

Sure enough, that trouble arrives in the form of the kind of predator that is common in a big city: men who scout women at the edge of cliffs, and ensuring they land not on their feet, but in the sex industry. The scout appears to Yui to be a new man who is interested in her, and lavishes her with luxurious gifts. As Yui’s mood brightens, Kazushi’s darkens. Both Makoto and his mom notice, and Detective Yoshioka confirms what is  going on with her.

However, scouts like the one working Yui are hard to catch, so he recruits Makoto to follow Yui and gather evidence the scouting is taking place. Makoto hesitates, and rightly notes that the sex industry is not automatically a shameful means of paying the bills, but that ignores the manner in which Yui is being preyed upon. His mom rightfully smacks him on the ass and tells him to get going.

The more Makoto watches from afar as the sex industry scout, Shinji, plays Yui like a cat plays with a mouse, he gets angrier and angrier. But unlike Kyouichi (who would line up and shoot all the internet people denigrating Yui and even wishing death on her) or even his mother (who would walk in and chew Shinji out), Makoto uses his people skills to become fast friends with the guy, starting with complimenting his fancy shoes.

Once Shinji believes Makoto is connected to the Hidaka Group, he’s all too eager to spill the beans about his operation, in hopes one of Hidaka’s clubs or brothels could be a landing spot for his latest catch. As Shinji coldly describes Yui as “the type that can’t get by unless someone looks after her”, Makoto can barely contain his rage, but he remains cheery and enthusiastic about working with the scum.

This pays off when the next time they meet, Makoto doesn’t come alone, but with his mother, Yui, and Kazushi. Makoto plays back the recording of Shinji incriminating himself, and then Yoshioka and the cops come in and arrest him. But while Yui is now free from a predator’s net, she’s still falling. Like the bush that saved Kazushi, she’s in dire need of a soft landing.

Makoto and his mom take Yui and Kazushi to the park, Makoto discovers why Kazushi’s mood had darkened so much since Yui met Shinji: she had been harming him. The bruises on his arms aren’t marks of malice or cruelty; she clearly loves her son, but a desperate, despairing woman grasping for a way to stop her fall.

Despite that love, she cannot help but think of the better job she could get and better life she could live, if only she didn’t have the child of a man she didn’t love. As her tears fall in the heavy rain, Kazushi notices and rushes to her, giving her a hug and telling her it’s “not your fault”. Hearing this out of the literal “mouth of a babe” only makes her tears fall harder.

Makoto’s mother is frank: Yui has pushed as hard as she can, but it hasn’t been enough, and probably won’t be; if she pushes harder still, she may end up killing the child she loves. But there is one option to explore: giving Kazushi up, as in having someone look after him long enough for Yui to get her life in order.

Then Makoto’s mom admits something he never knew: after his dad died shortly after he was born, she was falling off a cliff too, as a single mother with a mound of debt running the produce shop alone. So she placed Makoto in someone else’s custody for two years, worked her ass off, paid off her debt, and only then reunited with her son.

Makoto turned out to be a good boy, and she believes Kazushi can too, if Yui speaks to a caseworker she knows. It’s a drastic and awful choice for a mother to make, but even Yui realizes it’s now time for drastic measures. In order to help her usher in this new difficult but necessary reality, Kyouichi performs his ballet in the rain just for her and Kazushi, appearing to the boy to fly through the air, like his beloved toy airplane.

We then learn from Isogai the true reason Kyouichi cares: like Makoto’s dad, both his parents were killed in an accident when he was young, and he had to live, make a living, and learn ballet in Chicago on his own. As such, he can’t look the other way when he sees a family in turmoil. Kazushi has a mom, and this way he gets to keep her. The next we see Yui, she’s wearing a business suit and pounding the pavement for a full-time job. Her falling has stopped and her landing was soft.

This is the best IWGP yet, and not because it was always easy to watch. Seeing Shinji get collared was righteous fun, but the ep is also unblinkingly frank in the fact that Yui is no saint, yet still doesn’t deserve unrelenting online scorn, nor the dark fate that awaited her on the other end of Shinji’s self predatory machinations. It also makes clear that as long as someone is making their own choices, entering the sex industry isn’t automatically bad.

In addition to the extensive nuance and complexity with which real-world issues are tackled this week is the portrayal of the importance of community, and shared concern for one’s neighbors. If something bad happens to someone and you and others can help, you fucking do it, and good outcomes are the result.

My only two marks against this outing: We still haven’t caught so much of a glimpse of Shungui since she was adopted (seriously…where is she?), and we still don’t know Makoto’s mother’s actual name. Considering her crucial role this week, that’s a pretty big oversight. But these are minor nitpicks in an otherwise strong and compelling episode.

Ikebukuro West Gate Park – 07 – Mars (Enterprises) Attacks!

“Everyone’s so worried about me…What am I, a little boy?” I doubt the people warning Makoto are doing so because they think he’s a kid, but because there is much he has to lose by diving too deep into this latest mess. Like his mother, his newly adopted sister Shungui, the family produce stand, and his reputation as a neutral troubleshooter.

Unfortunately, we don’t see his mom or Shungui either this week or last, which is a shame, not just because they could put the impudence of Makoto’s words into relief and even offer him perspective, but because I like those characters, and Shungui in particular seemed like someone we would be and should be seeing more of. Alas, Makoto is on an island at the beginning of this episode.

Ikebukuro is on the knife’s edge; war could spill onto the streets at any moment…yet he still finds time to work on Toshiaki’s film at the video store. His police buddy informs him “Shadow” is a lone operator, while his Hidaka PR buddy Saru informs him that Mars Enterprises hired both the Shadow and the masked thugs to create imbalance as a preface for expanding into Ikebukuro.

Unfortunately, Takashi is once again ghosting him, and the minute Makoto is off the phone with Saru, he has the bunny mask thug’s knife to his neck, clarifying that he and his guys have a grudge with him and Takashi personally. Bunny Mask is also helpful enough to perform his scene right in front of the “making of” camera, which is just icing for the cake in terms of how sloppy the masked thugs are.

Makoto determines that the masked thugs are Yamamoto and his men, who worked for OK Holdings and were previously run out of town. He informs Hiroto personally, but the Knight is already on his horse, and his men are itching for a confrontation with Takashi for control of the G-Boys present and future.

He finally gets to meet up with Takashi, who notes that one piece his old friend has left out of the equation are the Red Angels. Whether Makoto simply took Kyouichi at his word or has a blind spot due to his officially neutral status, Makoto isn’t willing to entertain the possibility the Angels could exploit the G-Boys civil war to expand their own influence.

Finally, and apparently quite by chance, “Shadow” presents himself to Makoto in the park. He further clarifies matters, saying the only job he did was on Donglong, while the thugs did the jobs on Hiroto’s men. He adds that they did a crap job while both they and Mars used the “Shadow” brand without his consent. This caused Shadow’s reputation to take a hit, and he paid Mars back by beating up each of their board members.

Shadow seems to consider himself an underworld equivalent of Makoto: an independent troubleshooter who works for justice (Shadow works for money; justice is just gravy), and someone for whom “reputation is paramount”. In the interests of preventing war, Makoto decides to ask Shadow to take care of the “weak link”: the war-mongering Hiroto.

Makoto institutes this gambit as much out of a desire to prove he’s not “just some kid” or a “nice guy”, but someone willing to do whatever it takes to protect the peace and balance of his town. But the gambit backfires, as Hiroto’s men blame King for the beating of their Knight and begin the march to war.

After consulting with Takashi once more, Makoto gets Kyouichi to agree to back Takashi in order to “quell the disturbance”. Kyouichi proves himself an honest and honorable man by doing his part, marching his Red Angels between Hiroto’s men and Takashi and declaring an alliance with the latter, then getting Hiroto’s uneasy No.2 to drop his bat and back down with a mere look.

With war averted—arguably way too neatly, but averted all the same—all that’s left is to take out the trash, i.e. Yamamoto and his ragtag quintet of thugs, who end up coming to them as Takashi and Makoto film a scene in Toshiaki’s film. In the adult video section, Yamamoto & Co. surround the two, but suddenly Shadow appears to even the odds. He takes out two of the thugs, and Takashi takes out the remaining three including delivering a knockout blow to Yamamoto.

The excellent fight scene really underscored how overmatched Yamamoto and his thugs were. Once the masked thugs identities and motives were made clear, they never had a realistic chance to instigate a full-scale turf war, especially since revenge was Yamamoto’s primary goal. Hopefully he won’t need a third demonstration of the futility of seeking revenge.

Toshiaki finally finishes his film, and it’s a hit, so he plans to make more, and Makoto notes the firm dedication inherent in Toshiaki’s efforts. He saw that same dedication in Shadow’s no-nonsense way of operating, and in Kyouichi’s dedication to protecting the town he’s come to like. After dancing on a razor’s edge these last two episodes, Makoto seems content to continue dedicating himself to selling fruit. Gotta pay the bills!

Rating: 4/5 Stars

Ikebukuro West Gate Park – 06 – Shadows in the Knight

Ikebukuro is a town of balance, and that balance ensures peace. But one otherwise ordinary night, a group from the G-Boys Hiroto Faction are pulled from their van and viciously beaten by toughs in animal masks. Makoto is busy acting in an indie film being directed by the clerk of a doomed video store.

It’s a fitting setting in which to begin for an episode about the wider downfall of Ikebukuro’s hard-fought peace. Also on the film crew is Crow, an underling of Hiroto, whose boys were hit by the animal maskers, apparently led by a mysterious figure called “Shadow”. Hiroto suspects the attack was a warning from his boss, “King” Takashi, to keep his ambitions in check.

Before Makoto can confer with Takashi, Hiroto’s boys are hit by the Shadow again, and hard. In lieu of any word from King, Makoto meets with another childhood friend, Saru, the Hidaka Group’s PR man. He knows that Shadow is apparently elite muscle-for-hire, and that Hidaka’s position is that balance should be maintained, using his ice cream to illustrate his point.

He also warns his friend Makoto to “know where to draw the line” in his involvement, lest he end up in trouble. That’s when Hiroto reaches out to Makoto through Crow, and Makoto learns Hiroto is now having his men call him “Knight”—a direct challenge to King. With command of a third of the G-Boys, among them some of the toughest fighters, his faction has been waiting for someone to “pull the trigger” at them for some time.

In other words, even if it is King sending Shadow against his men, it doesn’t matter. He wanted an excuse to move anyway, and he got it. The spark has been lit, and the Hiroto faction is a tinderbox. Makoto gets him to agree not to move against Takashi until he’s spoken to him, but Hiroto warns if his boys are attacked one more time, it will be war.

With Takashi still not taking his calls, Makoto has no choice but to meet with the Red Angels instead. Kyouichi says he isn’t attacking Hiroto’s boys, as he has no reason to start a war that will endanger his people. However, he hastens to add, should one drop of Red Angel blood spill from the crossfire of an imminent G-Boys civil war, they’ll show no mercy.

Makoto walks down a dark Ikebukuro alley late at night with Sunshine 60 looming in the background. The mass of the tower behind him makes him look that much smaller and more alone; the town’s chief diplomat who has yet to make contact with the leader of its most powerful gang. Even as he makes no progress, he is followed by a sketchy guy in the shadows whose face he never sees, perhaps as subtle and bloodless warning as he’s going to get to quit while he’s still neutral.

As timing would have it, Takashi calls him immediately after the frightening encounter, and they meet in West Gate to talk for the first time. King hesitated to answer his buddy’s calls because he didn’t want him involved, because he can’t guarantee his safety this time. This enrages Makoto, with good reason.

When you think about it, he is one of the strongest and bravest players in this town precisely because he works alone and has no sworn allegiance, except to Ikebukuro herself. He commits to finding out who the Shadow is and who sent him to attack Hiroto’s men. As if to answer that question for the audience, the camera lingers on Isogai as he and Kyouichi walk on a bridge as cop cars race past.

Makoto and King end up shaking hands, symbolically sealing Makoto’s fate as a declared ally of King and thus a legitimate combatant in the G-Boys war to come. Because it is coming; and Makoto is out of time to stop it. The Shadow attacked Hiroto’s boys a third time, and this time a group from Dongfeng were hit as well.

Hiroto justifiably doesn’t care about the attack on Dongfeng muddying the waters; too much of his boys’ blood has been spilt. Just as Makoto is confident he can keep both King and Knight at bay, Knight draws his sword: he’s quitting the G-Boys, and no longer taking orders from Takashi. Their meeting in the alley was but a mere formality.

Maintaining peace and balance is not Hiroto’s goal. He’s thirsted for power, and is now taking the opportunity to grab it. Once he’s in charge of the G-Boys, he dreams of expanding their influence across all of Tokyo. Obviously, this is folly, and Takashi tells Makoto that it’s a product of his lack of strategic experience (Lao Tzu would also have some criticisms of Knight’s approach).

The episode ends with another suspicious lingering camera shot at Kyouichi, who is apparently pleased with how things are going. Did he and/or Isogai hire Shadow to destabilize the G-Boys? Were they simply biding their time all along? Or are they just looking forward to their largest rival eating away at itself from the inside, poised to fill the vacuum that results?

Whatever the case, IWGP is on a certified roll, following up two strong case-of-the-week episodes with a headfirst dive into the central gang conflict. It may be too late to keep a war from starting, but perhaps Makoto can still find a way to end it before it causes too much damage.

Rating: 4/5 Stars

Ikebukuro West Gate Park – 05 – The Golden Land

IWGP has done a great job mixing up Majima Makoto’s cases-of-the-week thus far, underlining how valuable someone with his skills and relationships can be to a diverse array of people. This week he’s approached by Lin Gaotai, an advisor to immigrant labor trainees from China. He is looking for 19-year-old trainee Guo Shungui. If she’s not found within a week, she and all 250 of her fellow trainees will be forcibly deported back to China.

This isn’t just a case-of-the-week for Makoto, but a kind of wake-up call, as he puts it prior to the OP. He’d never thought of himself or the people of Ikebukuro and Japan in general as “blessed”, but they most certainly are compared to the crippling  poverty of rural China from where both Lin and Guo hail. The lure of life-changing pay leads to fierce competition; Lin and Guo are where they are only due to working themselves to the bone.

At first, Makoto isn’t sure what to make of Lin, a “trainee advisor” who not only knows enough kung fu to scare off some Dongleng toughs, but has a keen enough grasp of Japanese to speak appropriately formally and modestly to the local Dongleng boss. He even bails the less courteous Makoto out of what could have been serious trouble. The boss is loath to give up Guo, but when Lin asks the boss’ boss in Shanghai for a favor, Guo is freed from her position at the China Doll Hostess Club.

When Makoto finally meets Guo, she looks quite a bit more glamorous than the photo provided by Lin, but the look of “the incurable illness of poverty” is still in her eyes. Turns out she didn’t know leaving her sweatshop would cause 250 people to be deported; she accepted the Dongleng hostess job because her father’s health back in China was worsening and she needed more money fast. For a 19-year-old to have to sell her body to save her family is a heartbreaking choice, but Makoto respects it’s her choice to make.

Ultimately, Guo weighs her father’s life with those of the 250 and, knowing firsthand how hard they all worked to make it to Japan (and their financial reasons for doing so), decides she’ll return to the factory. The day before she’s to leave, Makoto takes her out on the town. Guo marvels at everything from the beauty and vitality of Tokyo’s people to the newer cars and cleaner streets. Makoto can’t help but see it all in a whole new light. She even meets Kyouichi, who dances for her.

That night when Makoto’s mom feeds him, Lin, and Guo, we learn that when Lin brought up the Japanese woman who adopted him, he was planting the seed for Makoto’s mom to adopt Guo, which is what she decides to do. Guo, obviously, is overwhelmed with joy and gratitude, as she didn’t want to leave Tokyo but also really didn’t want to work in the sex industry. Makoto’s mom took one look at Guo’s hardworking hands and knew she’d be a good addition to her produce stand.

Makoto not only gains some welcome perspective on his extremely fortunate lot in life relative to other parts of the world, but gains an lovely sister as well! I am one am glad the episode ends on a high note, and hope we’ll get to see more of Guo. Rather than ending up like the first pen she used to learn Japanese—devoid of ink without anything to show for it—Guo will be free to realize her potential and live the life she deserves.

Rating: 4/5 Stars

Ikebukuro West Gate Park – 04 – Knowing the Whole Story

Last week was a half-baked and tedious exploration of the online content culture featuring an unlikable YouTuber. But that was just one episode of a show that can be about a lot of different thing. The first two episodes were decent, and this fourth happens to be the best yet. It’s also the heaviest emotionally, starting out the night of Christmas Eve with Makoto encountering an old man named Nanjou at the very spot where his son Toshi was killed five years ago.

Nanjou raised Toshi alone, and couldn’t keep him out of trouble, but considered him a fundamentally kind boy. His appeal to Makoto is simple: find out what happened to Toshi and who is responsible. As thanks in advance, he gives Makoto a ride home in his Jazz Taxi, which sounds like just about the perfect way to get a ride home on a snowy Christmas Eve night in they city.

Thanks to Takashi, Makoto learns that Toshi started a gang in Ueno called Team Apollo. As a mediator of note with powerful friends, Makoto walks through the territories of various gangs with confidence, but he’s initially regarded by Apollo as a trespasser trying to stir the shit. They refuse to tell him anything about Toshi, and when he doesn’t give up, they beat the shit out of him.

But it seems clear to Makoto that he wouldn’t get anything at all out of Apollo if he didn’t let them beat him up a little, then come right back with no hard feelings…and Toshi’s dad. Makoto’s mom assures Nanjou that Makoto gets in scraps all the time, but he’s tough and can take it, and she’s right! Makoto ends up meeting the current Apollo leader, Rintarou, who reveals that Makoto beat his girlfriend Harumi, as well as her eventual husband, Kouji.

That leads Makoto to meet with Harumi, whose son Akihiro is treated by Nanjou like his blood grandson. In truth, after suffering brutal beatings by Toshi, Harumi found comfort, safety, and eventually love in Kouji, and Akihiro is his son. She was already pregnant with Akihiro when she told Toshi she was leaving him.

Harumi’s story is familiar and sadly all-too-common: at one point she loved Toshi and he her, but he became increasingly twisted and violent towards her, yet the love was still there, mixed with fear. That’s why Harumi followed Toshi when he ran out of the house that night, only to find him dead. She felt horrible about his death, but also relieved, since it meant he could no longer hurt her, Kouji, or Akihiro.

The question remained: Who killed Toshi? It turns out the answer was right there in the opening scene when we first met Nanjou and Harumi. Makoto contacts his police friend who gives him the details of Toshi’s unsolved murder case. Turns out a young couple was on the scene, and the woman was fairly tall; only 5cm shorter than the man.

When Makoto calls his police friend, that friend is about to go on a date, and he can hear that Makoto is troubled and asks what’s wrong. Makoto ends the call soon thereafter, but his friend was right: this “case” definitely took its toll. Makoto should be with friends or family on this night, but instead he’s all alone in the cold, learning more and more about a story that can only further hurt everyone involved.

Still, he promises Harumi he won’t tell Nanjou that Akihiro isn’t his blood grandson, nor drag Toshi’s memory in the dirt. Aside from the harm it could do, it isn’t his place as an outsider. That’s why it’s gratifying that when Makoto meets with Nanjou to feed him a fake story, not only is Harumi there to tell the truth about Toshi’s violence, but so is the couple who were present for Toshi’s death.

Turns out in his rage, Toshi assaulted the husband, and when the wife shoved away him he fell awkwardly down the steps and suffered a fatal head injury. It was an accident caused in self-defense, but the couple never turned themselves in, and now the wife is with child, making things more complicated. They promise Nanjou that once their kid is born and older they’ll turn themselves in.

Nanjou doesn’t seem eager to let them do that, as it would only ruin their lives and that of their child. Instead, he turns all the blame in on himself; had he raised Toshi better, he wouldn’t have hurt Harumi, not to mention put himself in the position where the young wife pushed him to his death. He apologizes to Toshi, and Makoto, whose father is gone, can’t help but feel pride for the poor old man.

This episode got downright noir-y and hardboiled, and Makoto showed off his detective chops, much of which come down to his considerable people skills (and ability to take a beating). The setting of snowy Ikebukuro adds to the brooding atmosphere, as does Makoto’s early comment about how some spots in the city feel like they’re devoid of air—like the otherwise unexceptional spot where Toshi died.

At least now Nanjou can breathe knowing the truth of what happened and why, and if he doesn’t want to dwell on it, he can always turn up the jazz in his taxi.

Rating: 4/5 Stars

Ikebukuro West Gate Park – 03 – Chasing Views

Like myself, Majima Makoto is the age where he missed out on the big YouTube content creation boom, and marvels how people can make so much money off of doing what is essentially stupid shit. We’re both tourists in this world, but here’s the thing about this episode: I don’t feel I learned much more than I already knew about the industry. Instead it felt like we were getting second-hand and not entirely reliable information about How This Stuff Works.

Am I jealous of a guy like 140★ Ryuusei making money off silly videos of eating onions and falling down stairs? A little, sure! But I also happen to find him extremely unlikable and both his and the Gorilla rivals’ antics are deeply, profoundly lame. I’m not going to discuss in depth something I know little about, and it is true that people have become millionaires for doing stuff just as stupid. But that doesn’t mean it’s fun for me to watch them do it.

Makoto loses some points with me this week because he seems to be really into this, at least insofar as he respects Ryuusei’s enthusiasm and hard work. That’s fine, I guess…but again, it’s just not any fun to watch? The fact Ryuusei and the Gorillas were working together was pretty obvious based on the shifty looks of his assistants. Ryuusei involving Takashi and the G-Boys after not involving them for five years doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, either. This was a miss for me, plain and simple.

Ikebukuro West Gate Park – 02 – New Kids on the ‘Bukuro

It was just the G-Boys in Ikebukuro, until one night at the Global Ring a young lad with fiery red hair and angel wing tattoos captivated a crowd with his flawless, shirtless ballet. That lad is Ozaki Kyouichi, and his upstart Red Angels are positioned to be the most serious rival to the G-Boys yet.

The question isn’t whether the G-Boys’ hegemony will be challenged, but when and how. But like last week’s IWGP, things don’t develop quite as predictably as I initially expected, once again demonstrating a preference for nuance and realism over black-and-white conflict.

But first, it’s lunchtime, and Makoto joins G-Boy King Takashi for a meal at OK Curry, a suddenly popular restaurant in the ‘Buro that also treats its mostly young, impressionable employees like shit. That, combined to the okay-but-not-great grub, suggests a company only concerned with maximizing its profits, not helping their community.

There’s an interesting choice to juxtapose the almost too-enthusiastic smiling employees in the front of the shop with one being mercilessly berated in an alley by OK’s suspiciously burly “management”. Since many of OK’s employees are G-Boys, Takashi suspects this is the Red Angels’ doing, and wants Makoto to investigate.

He starts with G-Boy Masaru, who knows Mitsuki, the blonde kid who was being abused by OK’s suspiciously burly “management”. Masaru doesn’t like how he and others are being treated, but he used to be a useless delinquent and his job at OK Curry put him back on the right track and made his parents happy, so he’s loath to mess that up.

Makoto also tries to meet the Red Angels’ ballet virtuoso leader, Ozaki Kyouichi, but is blocked by a bunch of thugs in red. Fortunately there’s someone among them with a level head—not too dissimilar to Makoto—who politely tells him Kyouichi isn’t currently around. Makoto says he’ll try again later.

That night, Mitsuki climbs to the top of the OK Curry building and prepares to jump to his death, believing he simply isn’t cut out for life. Masaru tries to talk him down with a police megaphone, but Mitsuki doesn’t want to trouble his friend, and jumps. Uh, killing yourself when he tried to stop it will definitely trouble him, my guy!

Fortunately, he only falls a few stories and the fire brigade catches him on a trampoline; his injuries aren’t life-threatening. But the two OK thugs were present for the incident, and before long Makoto gets a call from Takashi: Masaru was jumped, and ends up in the hospital beside his friend.

Makoto and Takashi visit Masaru, and then Kyouichi soon joins them, flanked by two toughs and a bouquet in hand. For a moment it seems like Masaru was attacked just to get Takashi’s attention, but as the two sides draw closer, Makoto wisely talks first, addressing Kyouichi’s friendly lieutenant to de-escalate.

Turns out Mitsuki is a new member of the Red Angels, and Kyouichi was just there to visit a member, just as Takashi came for Masaru. They also learn that OK Holdings are pitting the G-Boys and Angels against each other with rumors that each are moving against the other, thus keeping the two gangs off-balance enough to be ineffective at curtailing OK’s appalling labor practices.

But while there are a lot of ragged toughs on both sides, the two gangs are led by cooler heads; even Kyouichi comes off as far more reasonable and less aggressive than his hair portended. Makoto comes up with a plan whereby he uses his press credentials to enter an OK Holdings shareholder meeting and confronts the president with their former employee Masaru.

Mitsuki’s near-miss convinced Masaru to do everything he can legally to put a stop to OK Holdings’ crap before anyone else gets hurt, and the G-Boys find him a lawyer to give his threat teeth. He’s then immediately surrounded by the black-clad toughs, who are themselves surrounded by an alliance of G-Boys and Red Angels—Masaru was acting as bait to draw out OK-hired mercenary goons, who are too violent and unscrupulous for either gang.

While Takashi and Kyouichi were able to talk things through and discover they had no real beef, talking won’t work against these goons, which means both gangs need to back up their words with action. It’s not a long fight, as the free-agent goons are no match against Takashi’s boxing prowess or Kyouichi’s balletic kicks.

The G-Boy/Red Angel team-up may have been a one-time thing, but as long as both sides put the well-being of Ikebukuro and their respective guys above pointless turf squabbles, coexistence is possible. That’s underscored when Makoto and Tomomi Isogai, the Red Angels’ friendly lieutenant, watch another one of  Kyouichi’s performances together in a mixed crowd of red and blue.

IWGP is as unflashy as Akudama Drive is flashy, but I wouldn’t go so far as to call it boring. It’s confidently presenting very down-to-earth scenarios that you’d see in any big city district anywhere, where open dialogue and compromise can and should always come before violence and destruction. Makoto keeping all possible channels of communication open in his town isn’t always thrilling, but it is admirable. So far that’s enough to keep be invested.

Ikebukuro West Gate Park – 01 (First Impressions) – Just a Simple Fruit Vendor

In an Ikebukuro full of rival gangs like the G-Boys, Majima Makoto is a neutral mediator to whom anyone can come with a problem to solve. Thus he is one of the people helping to maintain a delicate balance in the town and keep it from descending into violence.

I’ve been to Ikebukuro, and perhaps due to watching a lot of Durarara!! prior to visiting, I got a very cozy, familiar feeling walking its streets. But aside from the Sunshine 60 building’s super-fast elevator, there’s nothing all that flashy about the town. It’s most prominent feature is a 600-foot…incinerator chimney.

Like the town where it’s set, IWGP is similarly restrained, un-flashy and ordinary. After a more theatrical cold open in which G-Boys leader Takashi is on a literal stage knocking out a junkie his gang has surrounded, things unfold relatively straightforward manner.

Takashi visits his old friend Makoto (who runs a fruit stand with his mom), and presents him with the 12-year-old Kurashina Mion, who tried to burn a whole building down because it was the hideout of a drug addict who hit her mom with a car. He’s hopeful Makoto can get Mion justice without violence.

Practically speaking, Makoto’s case is composed of a number of sit-down meetings in restaurants. That’s not very interesting, but it gradually emerges both to us and to an initially skeptical Mion that Makoto knows everybody who’s anybody in Ikebukuro, from gang higher-ups to cops, making him the best person to help her.

The fact Mion insists on tagging along even when Makoto cases a suspicious smoke shop, leading to her panicking and smashing a jar of “high grade herbs” and resulting in a chase. It’s here where Makoto’s encyclopedic knowledge of his town and its rooftops comes in handy, as he makes sure Mion can manage their escape route.

Makoto naturally also knows a super-hacker rather embarrassingly named Zero One, and once he gets the leads he needs from the official police, he relies on Zero and Takashi’s G-Boys to help stake out the smoke shop owner’s various properties.

Once they learn he’s almost certainly dealing illegal drugs, Makoto and Takashi discover the apartment is a marijuana-filled grow-house and drug lab. It’s here where I must assume that weed is still illegal in Japan (in many U.S. states you buy it legally for medical or recreational use), and that there are harder drugs than weed being made/sold by these guys.

Mion sticks her neck out to delay the smoke shop clerk from discovering Makoto and Takashi in the apartment. The clerk chases her down and nabs her, but Makoto comes to her rescue by delivering a devastating kick. It’s clear he prefers to avoid violence unless absolutely necessary, which makes sense as this is not a “stylized” version of Ikebukuro or Japan where anything goes.

In the end the bad guys are arrested for their illegal deeds, and Mion’s mom is released from the hospital with a clean bill of health. In the titular Ikebukuro West Gate Park, Mion thanks Makoto while introducing her mom. Thanks to him she knows that “some grown-ups are cool” and that she wouldn’t mind if someone like him was her dad.

Makoto and Takashi are confident the drug bust won’t come back on them since no one knows they’re involved…but their assumption is incorrect: someone is watching them, so there may be consequences that may threaten Makoto’s neutral status in the near future.

IWGP isn’t a show that will dazzle with its visuals, over-the-top action, or outrageous characters. It looks like it aims to be a more down-to-earth and realistic version of Durarara!! in which we’re presented with a complex tapestry of relationships and loyalties, with Makoto in the middle.

It’s a show with a quiet, confident competence. If that sounds like “boring”, it might be for some. But I for one enjoyed its relative subtlety and nuance, and will be back next week for more.