The Faraway Paladin – 03 – Guardians of the Seal

Last week I was just complimenting Paladin for not wandering down the same seedy allies as Mushoku Tensei, but as Will is growing closer to adulthood, Blood decides to get him drunk and then try to spy on Mary undressing. There are a lot of problems with this—mostly that Mary is for all intents and purposes Will’s mom—but thankfully they fail, Will gets a swift slap in the face, and it’s over.

The next day is the day of the big duel between Will and Blood, and the combat animation and modeling was, if I’m being generous, a little rough. The surroundings at least were pretty, but the duel was not. It was also over seemingly as soon as it began, with Will figuring out that he has to bounce off Blood’s sword to get close. I will say Will’s trick of getting his opponent’s blade stuck in his ribs is a clever one…it just makes no sense that there’s black between those ribs.

The remainder of the episode has Blood and Mary basicaly giving Will a big old infodump of all the things they kept from him until he was old enough to hear and understand it. The two of them plus Gus were once humans, but in order to rid the city of demons loyal to the High King of the Eternals, they made a deal with the evil god Stagnate, and became undead guards of the seal keeping the High King at bay.

That was 200 years ago. At some point Will appeared in their lives, and Mary and Blood decided to raise him like a son. But now it’s time to say goodbye, and not just because Will is of age. Stagnate, it seems has come to take what’s left of the three in exchange for the peace they’ve enjoyed. He also probably wouldn’t mind having Will too.

Then Gus arrives and tells Will to take Mary and Blood and get out of there, presumably so he can engage in epic battle with Stagnate without worrying about collateral. I gotta say I’m not optimistic about that battle being any more impressive than this week’s duel, but I do care about what happens to this family.

The Faraway Paladin – 02 – Hero or Die

There’s not much of a sharp edge to Paladin, and yet it’s anything but soft. It’s as wholesome as Mushoku Tensei is raunchy, but it never feels too sweet. In fact, despite three of the four on-screen characters so far are a skeleton, a mummy and a ghost, there’s a profound realism to the proceedings. It’s a wonderfully balanced show that draws you effortlessly into its world.

William could easily have come off as boring or far too squeaky-clean for his own good. But he’s just such a goshdarn nice kid, you just want to protect and root for him. Now that he’s thirteen, the fruit of his three surrogate parents’ labor is starting to show: the kid is a badass. Blood knows this, which is why he leaves Will in the dungeon below the ruined city without escort. He’ll be fine!

But while Blood is passive in his instruction, teaching Will a lesson through the absence of his big, burly, protective person, Gus pushes Will to the absolute emotional limits with some truly diabolical mind games. Will doesn’t know if Gus is serious about trying to kill him, nor does he know if the dungeon and the city of death above it are somehow controlling Gus. All he knows is he’d rather die than hurt his “grandpa”.

With a father figure in Blood, a mother figure in Mary, and a gramps in Gus, Will has quite possibly the coolest and most loving families anyone could ask for, alive or undead. And yet questions like who his blood parents were and what happened to them and the city trouble him. He becomes more self-aware, introspective, and curious as he nears his fifteenth year, which in this world means you’re an adult.

Before the coming of age rituals that are certain to come, Gus and Blood show Will a more mischievous side by having him collect coins in the dungeon and then gamble over backgammon. This draws the ire of Mary, but both misbehavior and scolding are equally important lessons as Will will soon strike out into a world that will try to prey on his kindness and relative naïveté.

But the march of time is relentless, as is Will’s drawing nearer to the line between child pupil and adult paladin. He’s to swear an oath to one of the gods and thereby gain their divine blessing (along with a degree of hardship in exchange), and at some point Blood will challenge him to a serious one-on-one duel. There’s the bittersweet feeling that Will’s three parents don’t want him to leave the nest, but it’s inevitable that he’ll have to, and essential that he’s thoroughly prepared.

Rating: 4/5 Stars

The Faraway Paladin – 01 (First Impressions) – Enduring the Holy Flame

When we meet Will, looking every bit like the little brother of Chise and Shirayuki (which is very apropos), his world is very small. There are only three people in his life: Gus the ghost, Mary the mummy, and Blood the skeleton. You will note that none of those creatures should necessarily classify as “people”, but here they do, because they’re raising a little boy they could have easily killed…or left to die.

While I know if I was three years old I’d probably be scared out of my mind by the presence of three monsters in my life, but that’s only because I was raised by human parents. Will has never known anything in this world other than these three. The twist is, he’s not originally from this world, but from ours. This adds a wrinkle to a premise that, frankly, could have been just fine without the Isekai angle.

That’s because the idea of these three classic enemies of humanity were responsible for leveling the nearby human city taking pitting on the sole survivor and raising him like their own child is an attractive one. Unlike, say, Golem in Somali and the Forest Spirit, they all have a good grasp on humanity and raising children because all three of them used to be human.

Of course, Gus, Mary and Blood are not simply emulating three human parents; they’re imbuing Will with the wisdom and experience only three undead beings can. Gus helps Will unlock his affinity for magic; Blood toughens and hones him into a man who can kill when he needs to (for survival) and defend himself so he won’t die. Mary teaches him everything else about life—including empathy and unconditional love.

Inevitably, Will grows older (eight to be exact) and his curiosity about what his three adoptive parents haven’t disclosed or are currently hiding from him grows exponentially, as does his ability to investigate. Again, this is nothing different from what regular human parents go through—you try to hold off on explaining certain concepts until the kids are old enough to properly understand. But Will is already at that point, whether they like it or not, and it’s due in no small part to how well they’ve raised him.

To that end, when he spots Mary sneaking into the chapel to pray and finds her surrounded by white flame, Will runs in and grabs her to try to pull her out, causing severe burns that may scar his hands and arms for life. But when he comes to and Mary apologizes for keeping secrets, Will apologizes right back, for prying.

Mary also tells Will that she keeps praying to the goddess Mater she betrayed after death because she still reveres her, and because Mater provides bread to sustain Will. By all indications, Will didn’t live the best life back in our world, but these three undead monsters seem to be teaching him to be a better human.

Good-natured, charming, optimistic, possessing just the right hint of darkness lurking beneath the surface (that city looked pretty dead) and a kick-ass English title, The Faraway Paladin is promising slice-of-life Isekai, perhaps different enough from Mushoku Tensei to keep it on my watchlist.

Rating: 4/5 Stars

Tsukimichi: Moonlit Fantasy – 04 – Town at the End of the World

Moonlight Fantasy really is running on all cylinders this week, giving us a deliriously fun blend of bawdy comedy and righteous violence against bad guys who have no idea who they’re up against. Makoto does very little this week aside from hear a little girl out and try and fail to reign his two overpowered companions, who themselves find it exceedingly difficult to hold back enough to keep their human opponents alive. That this is played for comedy—quite successfully, I might add—is a credit to the writing, direction, and above all voice acting.

Rinon is in a pinch: her big sister, whom she drew a sketch of and who looks just like Makoto’s friend Hasegawa from his world, is missing after setting out to repay her debts against the local unsavory element. In truth, Rinon is being used by those same fiends to rob something they believe to be a spoiled rich kid. Rinon’s love for her sister means she’ll do anything, even spy on and agree to steal from someone who was nothing but kind to her. Rinon’s pure heart and inner conflict serve as both moral lodestar and emotional core of the episode.

Rinon’s Hasegawa-lookalike sister Toa is very much just along for the ride once Tomoe and Mio find her wasting away in a dungeon. Mio soon heals her completely, then opens a hole in the wall of the cell, only to be confronted by the ringleader of the bad guys, a preening pimpernel who is the strongest adventurer in the city. He even manages to block Tomoe and Mio’s first blow, which was their best and most admirable effort of the episode to hold back.

Its also the last such effort, as Mils Ace’s unguarded insulting of their dear young master puts the Dragon Samurai and Spider Madam in a cranky mood. Tomoe dispatches Mils’ entire gang with one solid haymaker then creates an illusion of being choked by a tangle of snakes in the guy’s top henchman. Mio slaps Mils face so rapidly he’s left a grotesquely swollen mess. Annoyed by the narrowness of the hallway, the two then proceed to destroy the entire building.

As Toa stands by helplessly, Tomoe and Mio continue their bickering outside over who did more or was more useful to their master. They decide to keep the competition going by destroying buildings both nearby and far off into the distance, essentially levelling the city. This is after Mils attempted to take Toa hostage, only to be punched to the edge of space, never to be seen again.

The two eventually bring Toa before Rinon for a truly sweet and joyous reunion, accentuated by that time-tested anime custom, the dramatic still with the hand-drawn look. Moonlight Fantasy employs that a lot, and it’s never not great looking, even though they’re just stills. Later, Makoto confirms that Toa looks exactly like Hasegawa but for her hair and eyes. Part of me wishes she’d ended up in this isekai with him, but it’s apparently a coincidence…or is it???

All’s well that ends well…except for the fact that Makoto was trying very hard not to make too large an impact in his first human town. Tomoe and Mio, in their fixation on one-upping one another, deprived him of that desire, and for that, he uses Mio’s own spider silk to tie them up and then shot them into the stratosphere with an exquisitely made Dwarven bow. Amazing what an anime can do when it’s not just people sitting around talking! And to close it out with that absolute banger of an ending theme…*chefs kiss*

The Duke of Death and His Maid – 04 – The Witch and the Snow Fairy

After three weeks of chiding her for getting so close to him, one day Alice is keeping her distance, seemingly avoiding Bocchan. When he tries to approach her, she Shunpos away like a Shinigami out of Bleach. But he soon deduces that she’s caught a cold and doesn’t want to give it to him.

Defying her caution, he tucks her into bed in her cottage and vows to stay by her side until she’s better. It’s a lovely inversion of their usual dynamic, with Alice seeminly capable of anything while Bocchan is weak an ineffectual.

Winter has come to Bocchan’s villa, and with it a fresh blanket of morning snow. The episode really captures the childlike glee that comes with the first sight of such a snowfall (assuming you’re not trying to drive to work that morning).

Bocchan is similarly elated to get to see Alice set against the pure white backdrop, accentuating her loveliness. The two and Rob build a snowman and have a spirited snowball fight, with Alice demonstrating she also has Matrix-like powers of evasion.

In the midst of all the wintry fun, Alice loses one of her earrings, which belonged to her mother and is thus precious and irreplaceable. By the time she realizes it’s gone it’s nighttime and snowing harder, but Bocchan goes out unbidden to dig through the snow looking for it.

The conditions quickly sap his energy, and he’s soon lying in the snow, exhausted. This is how the witch Caph finds him, and when she hears what hes doing, for whom, and why, and that he won’t give up, her initially hostile stance softens, and she decides to help him with her fire magic.

The earring thus found, Bocchan and Caph go in and the witch is introduced to Alice. A lazier or more obvious choice would be to make Alice jealous of Caph for vice versa, but the two women get along famously, and in any case, Caph apparently has her own guy friend whom she admires and adores the similar to how Bocchan and Alice adore each other.

What she doesn’t have is any concrete answers for Bocchan about his curse or how to break it, no matter how much Alice plies her with food, tea, and dessert. Caph is sympathetic to Bocchan’s plight and has even taken a shine to the guy, but she doesn’t consider herself anywhere near the league of the witch who did this to him.

Caph flies off in her bat form, but I’m sure she’ll be back. The next day while outside touching up the Bocchan snowman, Alice recalls a memory from when she was bullied by the rich kids for not being rich, even though she was adorable. Only Bocchan was kind to her, dusting the snow off of her (he could touch people at the time) and saying she looks like a beautiful snow fairy when set against the white powder.

It really brings into focus Alice’s love and devotion to Bocchan, and when he says the same thing he said back then—that she’s like a snow fairy—Alice can’t help but chortle gleefully, for her beloved Bocchan has scarcely changed in all these years. Indeed, the main change is the curse, about which hopefully something will be done before this series concludes.

Rating: 4/5 Stars

The Duke of Death and His Maid – 03 – A Distant Kiss

Bocchan loses a game of pool to Alice, and so cannot refuse when she asks if he’ll accompany her into town for a festival. Because many will be in costume, he’s able to wear a steel-framed suit to avoid contact with both Alice and bystanders. It’s a way for him and Alice to feel like they’re on an actual date out in the world for the first time, even if they still can’t touch.

When they become separated by the crowd, Bocchan demonstrates how despite the rumors around town about a monstrous shinigami, the actual person of whom they speak is actually a kind and gentle young man. When a lost boy clings to his coat, he cheers him up by playing a song on the piano set up in the town square.

Bocchan sheds his heavy disguise to join Alice atop the clock tower, where they gaze at the moon and she tells him the story of another couple separated by a witch’s interference. In the case of the story, the man is on the moon while the woman is on earth.

But the man could be on Pluto and the basic tragedy would be the same as Bocchan and Alice’s; they are together in their hearts, but can never actually touch as long as the curse remains in force.

One night Bocchan gets a note from Alice to meet her in her bedroom (set off from the mansion) if he has trouble sleeping. When he enters to find her brushing her hair while nude, he assumes she has naughty plans for him. In the end, however, between a calming scented candle and cammomile tea, she really was simply trying to help him sleep…though it’s clear she was also hoping he’d get the wrong idea so she could gleefully watch his reactions.

Another night, when a once-in-a-decade meteor shower is to occur, Bocchan is the one to invite Alice to an intimate boat ride on the lake. His true intention is to properly confess his feelings—as opposed to the offhanded ways he’s told her he loves her. Things go pear-shaped when the wind snatches his hat, Alice leaps into the drink to grab it, and he can neither stop her nor help her out of the water due to the curse.

When she tells him straight-up that she’d be fine dying by his kiss, he leans as close as he dares before backing off, not willing to sacrifice Alice for just that one kiss. Alice, knowing he wouldn’t do it, tips the boat so he falls in the water with her. Thankfully, the water doesn’t conduct his curse like it does electricity!

In all the excitement, they missed the meteor shower, but as they both dry off by the fire, Alice says she’ll accompany him to the next one, in ten years. Bocchan is constantly worried that he’s not properly expressing how he feels, but Alice already knows, and feels the same way about him. It’s why she’s stayed with him this long; it’s why she has every intention of being with him in a decade, curse or no curse…but hopefully no curse!

The Duke of Death and His Maid – 02 – Moonlight Waltz

The third member of Bocchan’s family, Rob, makes his first appearance, and proves to be your typical jovial, dependable old butler who might just be a bit long in the tooth for the strenuous work of maintaining a mansion. Even so, he gives it the old college try, which incidentally leaves Alice with little to do but toy with her beloved duke.

She eventually agrees to behave herself and sit quietly as Bocchan plays some of the new piano piece he’s working on, which is indeed both somber and beautiful. Alice’s rush of emotion during the piece precedes the good duke telling her he composed the piece for her; as a reward she leans in to kiss him, her lips stopping only an inch from his.

Bocchan may be relatively content with Alice and Rob, but a member of his original family does come to visit him now and again, treating it like a special service and act of welfare on her part, but visiting him nonetheless.

Viola (Minase Inori in Adorable Squeaky Mode) may not be as overtly honest as Alice about how she feels about her brother—she wants him to break the curse so he can return home—but it’s clear that unlike her mother she does care.

When a black cat appears in the mansion, Bocchan is terrified, not because he’s scared of cats but because he’s scared of killing it if it touches him. So he runs from the cat, Rob mistakes him for the cat, and Alice makes much of the fact the cat tore her dress in just such a way.

They find a note with that cat—”Forgive Me”—that Bocchan takes to mean it was abandoned, as he was. As for me, I wondered if that black cat wasn’t sent by the witch as a messenger; maybe the curse wasn’t intentional? It would explain why it was cast upon a five-year-old boy who no one had reason to curse.

The pièce de résistance of the outing is the ending, as Alice finds Bocchan in the deserted ballroom and the two dance inches from one another under the gorgeous, massive full moon, a scene lifted from a storybook. Like the music Bocchan composes, it’s sad, beautiful, and with just enough of a touch of hopefulness.

The Duke of Death and His Maid – 01 (First Impressions) – Ducal Distancing

An young duke (or Bocchan) is cursed by a witch at age five to bring death to any living thing he touches, like the Grim Reaper, AKA Death. He is shunned by his family and exiled to a villa in the woods. His only companion is Alice, the daughter of the head maid who grew up with Bocchan. There’s also a butler, he doesn’t show up in this first episode—bad back!

While everyone is scared of Bocchan and thinks him a monster, only Alice (and presumably the butler) treats him like an ordinary guy. She is absolutely fearless in how close she gets to him, and loves to toy with him by presenting her ample bust or garterbelts because of his innocent reactions.

But behind the playful and occasionally raunchy teasing, there’s genuine affection and devotion behind everything Alice says and does that has nothing to due with the fact she’s a family employee. She is happy when their old childhood friend Phillip shows up, but even when it goes predictably pear-shaped, Alice flatly refuses Philips’s offer to get her a “safer” job, while Bocchan forbids Phillip to disrespect her.

Bocchan has his issues—he’s a little traumatized during every meal due to the unpleasantness of meals with his family between getting the curse and being exiled—but a monster he is not; he really is just an ordinary young man who cannot be touched. Alice is hoping by being with him and treating him with love, kindness, and occasional sexual harassment, they can break his curse together, and he can do what it’s clear from the outset they both want: for him to put a ring on her finger.

As is typical of first episodes of new series that don’t introduce the whole cast at once, I enjoyed the elegance of following just Bocchan and Alice. Phillip and his four(!) bodyguards were a well-timed break from their routine, and while it wasn’t a fun experience, Phillip isn’t an altogether bad person, as he is capable of pitying Bocchan even as he fears his curse.

If you’re not a fan of CGI or canvas-textured backgrounds then this show will not be your visual cup of tea! I’ll admit the characters are a bit stiff and uncanny as they tend to be with this animation method, but like most things it grows on you. One advantage, however, is that the models remain perfectly consistent from shot to shot, and some very subtle hand gestures, body movements, and facial expressions are possible.

These subtleties are crucial in a show all about how close Alice is willing to get to Bocchan without actually touching him, and her acceptance of his wilted white rose—interpreting it through the language of flowers as swearing his whole life to her—was genuinely moving and gorgeously shot to boot. Also, Alice’s azure eyes of deepest summer are mesmerizing to the point you can see why Bocchan cherishes her so.

Hanae Natsuki and Mano Ayumi get the lion’s share of credit for bringing the characters to life and making me care about them right from the get-go. The classy Victorian aesthetic and classical score also heighten the material, while both OP and ED go pleasantly against the grain with more contemporary music and visuals.

I may have just finished a show about a girl teasing a guy, but that turned out to be way more heartwarming and profound than I expected, and I foresee enjoying this new take on the formula as well.

Rating: 4/5 Stars

Higehiro – 07 – What Then?

It’s telegraphed from the beginning of the episode: someone who knows Sayu (or is working for them) has found her. There’s no other reason a suspicious black car would keep showing up at the konbini where she works, and Sayu is right to be weary. After all, she’s committed to working towards a future for herself, but hasn’t had enough time to figure out what that might be. Simply going home now would solve nothing.

This week marks the return of Mishima, whom I castigated for literally stalking Yoshida the last time we saw her, but the more I think about it, the more she’s the most realistic of the bunch. She invites herself to lunch with Gotou to express her frustration with her supervisor’s boss: if she’s in love with Yoshida, why is she just sitting around when Sayu could “take” Yoshida from them any day?

Gotou says she simply doesn’t see the point of artificially forcing anything with her and Yoshida. If it happens, it happens, but she’s not going to pretend she can control the feelings of others. Mishima says flat out that Gotou is simply scared to stick her neck out, while she’s far more scared of losing what she could’ve had because she didn’t do anything.

Neither Mishima nor Gotou are presented as the person with the “correct” philosophy…and that’s okay! Anybody who says they have all the answers is trying to sell you something. But Mishima is determined to try her way, and so asks, nay, demands Yoshida’s contact info. Yoshida is taken aback, because he doesn’t consider himself “attractive enough” to be worth giving his contact info for no special reason.

At this Mishima snaps at him for deciding everything by his standards, including his own appeal. She says he has a bad habit of doing what he wants to do while convincing himself its for the sake of others. Then she confesses her love for him (“a little”) and texts him a request to go out for a movie when Sayu isn’t making something special for dinner. He texts back a sheepish “sure”, which lifts Mishima’s spirits.

The next day when Yoshida is off work, he’s just kind of sitting around while Sayu cleans around him. He offers to help, and she pushes him into his bed, tripping in the process and landing on him. Their resulting position is lovingly drawn and lit the way a romantic scene would, and Sayu lingers there before Yoshida asks her to take the wet rag off his shoulder.

After this awkward scene that appears to play right into Mishima’s worst fear —that Sayu has the inside track on winning Yoshida’s heart—Sayu decides to go through a box of stuff in his closet (with his okay…but it’s still hella random!) and finds his high school yearbook, along with a photo of him and his gorgeous senpai girlfriend.

I for one am willing to give both parties the benefit of the doubt regarding the bed incident, but then Yoshida starts talking about how that girlfriend called him “clingy” and that she didn’t want somebody who cared about him so much. Again his standards come through, as he tells Sayu it’s only natural to care about someone, to want them to smile and be happy, and to be the one who makes that happen. Sayu mutters “what about me?”, but Yoshida doesn’t hear (naturally).

Back at work at the konbini, Sayu ends up sharing a shift with her former attempted rapist, which is never something you want. When the mysterious guy in the black Lexus comes in and reveals he’s Sayu’s big brother (and clearly loaded), Yaguchi tells Sayu to hide in the break room and then covers for her.

While I appreciate the show’s dedication to showing the good and bad in people, I really didn’t need this guy performing a remotely redemptive act, and it frankly sours the whole scene, especially when Sayu thanks him. Now, if he actually owned up to what he actually did and earnestly apologized, maybe I’d feel a bit different…but probably not!

As for Ogiwara Kazuto, well…it’s interesting that this President and CEO of Ogiwara Foods is Sayu’s brother and not a parent. I’d also guess he’s about Yoshida’s age. The look on Sayu’s face when she realizes who he was was, and then upon realizing that she may not get to decide when she goes home, is heartbreaking. I’m hoping Kazuto is reasonable and doesn’t just drag her into the car, but Sayu ran far, far away from these people, so all bets are off.

Higehiro – 06 – Doing the Best We Can

Trigger Warning: This episode contains a scene of attempted rape.

With Sayu now working a part-time job, it was only a matter of time before the show’s first truly unsavory character reared their ugly head. Yaguchi Kyouya is that character, and to call him “unsavory” is putting it all too lightly. Just because he and Sayu slept together a few times, he believes he’s entitled not only to know where she lives now, but to sleep with her whenever he wants.

Yaguchi is a truly detestable scumbag in the SAO tradition of scumbag villains: a guy specially formulated to be loathed with extreme prejudice. There are moments when his presence in this show is so out-of-place compared to all the caring, compassionate, and protective people around Sayu, he feels like a caricature.

Lest I forget: Yaguchi and men like him who took what they could from Sayu and then discarded her are not only a crucial part of this story, but all too common in real life. Yaguchi shows no regard for Sayu’s agency or choices, blows past all personal boundaries, lies to her face about “just wanting to talk.” And the worst of it? When he attempts to rape her, she puts everything on herself, fearing the consequences to Yoshida and Asami.

That she’s of the mind that she has to let Yaguchi have his way with her so others won’t get hurt shows how far Sayu still has to go in being able to protect and value herself. And she would have absolutely been raped had Yoshida not taken it upon himself to read her text as a call for help. While I normally detest violence, I feel Yoshida goes far to easy on him; he should have to bear at least a shiner for his transgressions.

Yaguchi is absolutely wrong that they’re the same and the only difference is Yoshida isn’t sleeping with her. Yaguchi is definitely a criminal for having sex with a minor, while Yoshida’s harboring of Sayu is a lot more of a gray area. But worst of all to Yoshida is that at no point does Yaguchi think about Sayu. It’s all about what he can get, and why Yoshida isn’t getting it to.

Thankfully, Yoshida is firm enough to get Yaguchi to promise not to bother Sayu again, but we’ve already seen the value of this guy’s promises. Yoshida knows he may not know if he can save Sayu or how, but at least he’s trying! All the others did was hurt her more. They don’t get to protest his attempts to save her when they never tried.

When he returns to the room to comfort Sayu, she doesn’t know why she got so scared when he tried after they’d done it so many times before. Yoshida simply says that’s normal. She was right to turn him down, did and said nothing wrong, and needs to think about herself more. Seeing her not able to be the normal teenager she should be hurts, but becoming one starts with caring about herself.

The next day, Asami notices that something happened between Yaguchi and Sayu, and when Sayu won’t say anything, she confronts him. He tells the truth about what he tried to do to Sayu, then apologizes after Asami slaps him and leaves the break room, admitting he “got a little rough” (ya think?) Sayu asks why he didn’t tell Asami about them, and he says he promised not to if she brought him to her place. So I guess he’ll keep some of his promises?

Sayu doesn’t forgive Yaguchi—she never should, frankly, unless he shows serious signs of changing—but isn’t “mad” anymore, and is also present enough to make clear to him if he tries anything again she’ll be mad. His assurance he won’t seems more couched in the ferocity of her two “guard dogs” in Yoshida and Asami, but if there’s one quality of this guy I’ll put my faith in, it’s his cowardice, and if that means he really won’t try to touch her again, I’ll take it.

After Sayu’s shift, Yoshida texts that he’ll be at work late, so Asami invites herself over to her place to protect her. She stops by her palatial estate for some stuff, and we learn that she’s the daughter of a politician and lawyer who are almost never around, and Sayu’s the first friend she’s told about her house. By opening up a little about herself, she inspires Sayu to do the same, telling her plainly about how she came from Hokkaido and stayed at various guys’ places, including Yaguchi’s.

She continues that she kept running from place to place and nothing ever changed, until she met Yoshida and then Asami, and realized how “stupid” she was being. Heartened by Sayu opening up, Asami takes her to a special spot where you can see the stars despite still being in Tokyo.

As the two gaze at the stars, Asami tells Sayu more about herself, how she dressed up as a gyaru, but her parents didn’t understood she was doing it for attention she simply wasn’t getting from them. And while she’s expected to follow in her mom’s footsteps in law, what she really wants to study is literature and become a writer. That led to a huge argument with her mom.

That’s when her dad took her to this starry spot and assured her their worries are nothing compared to those stars. But while Asami knows humans are to small to be seen compared to the stars, they still have pasts and futures that matter. She knows Sayu’s past was rough, but she got through it to get to where she is: in a position to choose her future. It’s the second straight week of heartwarming girl talk, only this time between girls of the same age.

The next day after Yoshida comes home early, Sayu tells him that living with him, she’s finally able to start thinking about a future. She just needs a little more time. Yoshida will give her all the time she needs. She may have  met one too many Yaguchi Kyouya’s on the way, but those assholes are but insignificant specks compared to the growing constellation of good people she knows, who care about her and are slowly but surely teaching her to care about herself.

Rating: 4/5 Stars

Higehiro – 05 – The Mysterious Woman

I love the series that can replicate the same butterflies in the viewer’s stomach that the characters have in a particular scene, such as when Yoshida takes Gotou to his place to see Sayu. They stop at a konbini first, where Gotou prepares an extravagant bag of drinks and snacks to break the ice.

It’s not like there was going to be any melodramatic blow-up between Gotou and Sayu, but the episode is always cognizant of how strange this particular scenario is without going too over the top with it. It’s an episode titled “Reality”, after all, so Gotou and Sayu’s meeting unfolds realistically.

Gotou also has Sayu send Yoshida off on a shopping errand in short order so they can talk in private as two women. Gotou asks simple and direct questions—where Sayu is from, how long ago she ran away—but also knows not to press when she asks a question Sayu isn’t ready to answer (why she ran). Another important question Sayu tries to consider is how long she intends to stay with Yoshida.

Gotou makes clear that no matter how hard or respectable Sayu is, a high school girl cannot escape the high-school girl label, so it’s best to use it to her benefit rather than detriment. Sayu admits that in the process of running she was probably looking for someone to tell her not to run away.

Before Yoshida, the men she let use her body in exchange for a place to stay were only enabling her. “Something inside me just went crazy”, and she couldn’t deny that, at times,  when they wanted her it made her feel good. Then she met Yoshida, who not only didn’t do anything to her, but said he’d set her straight.

Gotou may not have Sayu’s sexual experience, but she’s still a woman who was a teenager and knows how hard it was and is. So shetells Sayu she’s glad she found somewhere safe, and because she knows and trusts Yoshida, she thinks it’s fine to let him be nice to her…as long as it’s the right way.

Sayu knows she shouldn’t run from her past forever, and resolves to face it, leave Yoshida’s, and “go back to where I was”. But Gotou, gathering Sayu into a supportive hug, makes clear she should take her time facing what she needs to face, while accepting the kindness she needs to accept.

It’s such a staggeringly lovely and understated scene of empathy and sisterhood, with superb voice performances from Ichinose Kana and Kanemoto Hisato, it makes what goes on with Yoshida in the meantime that much more disappointing. Because he happens to run into Yuzuha…who has been stalking him and Gotou all night. Yikes!

It’s the first time on this show I didn’t quite buy a character’s behavior. After inviting herself to go shopping with Yoshida, she makes a scene at the station as if Yoshida were two-timing her. While she initially accepted that Sayu was living with him, she deems it “weird” for him to let Gotou and Sayu in the same room on a night she thought he and Gotou were spending the night.

While Yoshida could have cleared up matters rather quickly by simply telling Yuzuha that Gotou wanted to meet Sayu, and that was the sum total reason she went to Yoshida’s place, the fact remains Yuzuha is reacting to a situation she knows far too little abhout to make judgments.

Especially when she questions Yoshida’s “priorities” and doubts whether he actually loves Gotou, she seems motivated by her own jealous rather than genuine concern for him or Sayu. She is right about one thing, however: Yoshida is far too nice…in not more forcefully telling her off!

Before Yoshida returns home, Gotou makes clear to Sayu that she loves Yoshida and isn’t interested in anyone else, while Sayu confirms that Yoshida loves Gotou. Sayu is frustrated by Gotou’s “mysterious woman” act but still offers her blessing. Then Gotou puts some makeup on Sayu, partly so Sayu can feel better after her little cry, and partly to mess with Yoshida when he comes home.

Yoshida walks Gotou home, and learns that she and Sayu have a “hotline” if he tries anything. But Gotou is impressed by Sayu, whom she regards a a great girl. Yes, she’s a little unstable and “doesn’t understand herself at all”—but she’s a teenager, what else is new?—but she thinks it will all work out. After all, Yoshida is known by the bosses at work as the “problem-solver.”

With Gotou making clear her true feelings for Yoshida, it’s lookig likelier than ever that neither Yuzuha nor Sayu have a chance, should the latter end up truly falling for him. As for the introduction of a young man who works at the konbini with Asami , I’m desperately hoping he doesn’t turn out to be one of the men Sayu stayed with.

Rating: 4/5 Stars

Higehiro – 04 – Protective Lies and Different Smiles

Let’s get one thing out of the way: I Shaved. Then I Brought a High School Girl Home. is a crap title. It reads more like a cheap hook for what this show isn’t, and so does the show it’s attached to a grave disservice. Hell, it’s not even accurate; his grooming habits didn’t improve until after he invites Sayu into her home. Basically any title would have been better than this. Fortunately, we can abbreviate the Japanese title to Higehiro, which at least rolls of the tongue, and leave it at that.

[Long Title Rant Over]

This week begins with Sayu begging Yoshida to let her get a job, then learning she never had to beg: he’s fully on board with her getting out of the apartment, keeping busy, and meeting new friends. Sayu gets a job at the local konbini, and immediately hits it off with her work senpai Yuuki Asami, who becomes the latest in this show’s much-appreciated procession of kind, thoughtful decent characters who feel and act like real people.

When talk of Sayu’s place comes up, Asami learns that Sayu is living with a man who isn’t her boyfriend, and invites herself over to check the guy out. When Yoshida gets Sayu’s text about her guest, Hashimoto learns Yuzuha also knows about Sayu, while on the other end of the office Gotou looks at the downward slope of the graph on her monitor also serving as a graph for her increasingly left-out mood.

Yoshida’s cramped apartment becomes even more so with the bold and expressive Asami there, but she’s immediately relieved that he seems like a good guy. And as an attractive high school girl, with all the unique experiences they face, her assessment, while quick, doesn’t seem rushed or half-assed. Both at school and work, she’s surely interacted with enough guys to know Yoshida is different.

As she stays for dinner, she also learns that Yoshida is incredibly lucky to share his home with a cute girl who is also a great cook. Asami has Yoshida walk her home, where she reveals she knew he and Sayu were lying about being old childhood friends, and asks him what the truth of their relationship is. Yoshida says not going to lie more, but he’s also not going to talk about things Sayu still wants to hide.

Hearing Yoshida be so considerate of Sayu’s feelings earns him more high marks in good-dudeness from Asami, who agrees to drop the matter and bring it up with Sayu when she thinks she’s more ready. She understands that while you choose who you get involved with, you can’t choose who you can meet, so it’s lucky when you meet a good one.

She’s certain both Yoshida and Sayu are good people, and looks forward to seeing more of them. Yoshida, in turn, asks Asami to be Sayu’s friend, just like a good dad. Asami’s only warning to Yoshida is to be careful, as “Sayu-chiso”, as she nicknamed her, is “really good at using different smiles.” Of course, we’re already aware Yoshida is aware of this, as he was able to see through some of Sayu’s smiles last week.

Sayu has a safe, comfortable, and supportive home, a new job and a new friend. The second half of the episode opens new opportunities for Yoshida, and I’m not talking about advancement at work. At the end of the day, Gotou approaches him, draws a bit closer than workplace sexual harrassment rules would probably be okay with, and takes him out for yakiniku.

They leave Yuzuha alone holding two cups of coffee; suddenly she’s the left-out one. Gotou doesn’t beat around the bush: she wants to know what’s been up with Yoshida, between all the time he’s spent with Yuzuha, passing up a work trip, and checking his phone all the time. While he’s under no obligation to answer any of that, he agrees to do so if, and only if, she answers his question: why is she so fixated on him?

That’s when, in between a lot of nervous fidgeting, that she actually likes him. When she said she had a long-term boyfriend, she was lying. Stating she (like Asami) has good intuition, she lied because while she was happy enough to jump for joy upon hearing he liked her, she didn’t think it was time, and was scared it wouldn’t go well.

Yoshida, who actually doesn’t have any reason to trust what Gotou is saying now, oversteps a boundary by saying she can prove she’s not lying about liking him…by sleeping with him. It oversteps because he’s not 100% lying. Only when he sees how flustered this makes her does he say he was only kidding. But she also admits the reason she was worried it wouldn’t work out: she’s a virgin.

Gotou’s behavior, from lying about having a boyfriend and confessing her feelings to revealing her virginity, could all feel like a goofy soap opera if handled improperly. But here’s the thing, it isn’t. None of it is out of left field or simply for the sake of increased romantic drama. It absolutely tracks that Gotou’s lack of experience with sex would make her reluctant to rush into something with a guy she really likes.

Gotou truly did wound Yoshida’s heart with her false rejection, because at the end of the day if she’d explained her true intent he’d have understood; we know that much about him from his interactions with Sayu and Yuzuha. And to their credit neither the show nor Yoshida let her off the hook without a penalty, as Yoshida vows never to ask her out.

Instead, he’ll wait until the time comes when she can ask him out on a date, and he’ll look forward to it. So yes, Gotou initially made a big mess of things and hurt the guy she liked. But it wasn’t the end of the world with him, and he’s happy to forgive her as long as their interactions going forward are open and honest. Both Yoshida and Gotou are able to leave that yakiniku restaurant feeling a lot better about things, and it all feels earned.

But wait: their agreement is only half-complete: Now that Gotou has answered his question—and he learns that Sayu has more sexual experience than the adult woman he likes—it’s time for him to return the favor. Instead of sticking with Yoshida and Gotou as he answers, we return to his apartment, where Sayu is eating some pretty bangin’ looking beef stew.

It doesn’t taste “as good as it should” because food always tastes better when you’re eating it with others (that’s an unwavering truth). But especially after experiencing the apartment with both Yoshida and Asami around, being alone still feels lonely. It also gives Sayu’s trauma-addled brain a chance to leak glimpses from her past.

These glimpses include what could be her first sexual encounter along with a very stark POV image of her on a bed with what looks like ejaculate in her hand—and an unidentified crying girl. Sayu starts to blame Yoshida for not coming home and heading off these painful, unwanted thoughts, but she scolds herself for “blaming it on someone else,” not yet ready to assign blame only to those who exploited her. It’s in this state of mind that she receives a text from Yoshida saying he’s bringing Gotou home.

This is it, Sayu laments, this is when I’m abandoned again. She texts back she’ll stay somewhere else (and thank goodness she knows Asami now, as she could stay there if she needed to), but Yoshida texts back that it’s not like that: Gotou wants to meet her. It’s a great way to reveal that, like Yuzuha, Gotou learned the truth from Yoshida, and because she knows him to be a good guy (and no one on this show has watched him closer or longer), is ready, willing, and eager to know more about it, not less.

Yoshida, in turn, is learning like Gotou that lies (and omissions!) can only hurt more than they can help. The only way forward is in the light of the truth. And I never thought I’d say this, but I can’t wait for Gotou to meet Sayu. I think she’ll not only be impressed by what a nice girl she is, but understand completely how Sayu and Yoshida ended up in this scenario. I officially love this show. Even at its messiest, it’s brimming with good faith and empathy and I am here for it.

 

Higehiro – 03 – Fated Encounters

Sayu has a dream about a past night she spent with a man in exchange for a place to stay. She lies under him passively, her eyes devoid of their usual glimmer, making no noise except to say “yeah” when he asks if it feels good. It’s not a love scene; it’s a transaction scene, depicted in all its awkward frankness. Sayu wakes up in her own bed as Yoshida dozes away in his. The glimmer is back in her eyes, but there’s also worry.

When Yoshida heads off to work, all Sayu has are household chores and her thoughts. And her thoughts are constantly asking why Yoshida won’t touch her. Shouldn’t he want to, at least a little? All the other men did, and took what they could. We learn Yoshida turned down a business trip, and his male co-worker assumes it’s because he has a girlfriend.

That prospect upsets Mishima, who asks him out to a movie after work. On the way out he and Gotou nearly walk into each other. Seeing him leave with Mishima, Gotou wears a look I’d describe as…left out?

Long before Yoshida returns home, Sayu is simply out of things to do around the house, so she has nothing but those lingering, worrying thoughts. Even though Yoshida hasn’t touched her like all the other men, she still believes he’ll kick her out when he doesn’t want her anymore.

When he texts her that he’s going out for a movie with a colleague, Sayu decides to stalk him…just a little. She happens to be watching just as Mishima finished talking to Yoshida about fated encounters, both the ones in the sad movie and ones in reality. Mishima is certain it’s better to realize that it’s fate the moment it happens, rather than months or years later.

While Yoshida isn’t 100% with her on this line of thinking (one, because he considers her a co-worker and friend first; two, he’s a bit dense), Mishima thinks she’s having such an encounter with him now, and doesn’t want to let it go. He’s taken aback when she hugs him, but the hug is all Sayu sees when she rushes off.

She doesn’t see Yoshida rebuff Mishima; not that she’s going to give up on him anytime soon. When Yoshida comes home to find Sayu’s phone but no Sayu, his first worry is that she was kidnapped, not that she ran away because she saw him with Mishima.

Even though I knew her running away would be a distinct possibility, I was still hugely relieved to see she didn’t go far; just to a nearby park to think. Heavy on her thoughts is how Yoshida looked when Mishima hugged him, how different it was from how he is with her. It made her jealous, but also reinforces her worry that once a guy as kind as him finds a girlfriend, she’ll be abandoned.

But this episode deals with three fated encounters: Yoshida and Sayu, Yoshida and Mishima…and Sayu and Mishima, who happens to find Sayu in the park looking forlorn (and out of place!) before Yoshida does. She sits with her so she can think without being bothered by a cop, and asks what’s troubling her. She’s not in a fight with her “parents”—i.e. Yoshida—as “they’re unbelievably nice”.

Rather, there’s something Sayu can’t tell “them”, or they might abandon her. Mishima tells her that fear can freeze you in place, but it can also spur forward action. In her book, the latter way is the better one. From what she’s heard, Mishima thinks whoever this is believes in Sayu, so she should believe in them and say This is who I am! This is part of me! Will you stay with me anyway?

Of course, Mishima is speaking from her experiences with Yoshida, who just happens to be the same person Sayu is talking about. Mishima learns this when Yoshida arrives at the park. And from the way he treats Sayu—like a worried-sick guardian would treat his lost kid—it’s clear Sayu and Yoshida have some “family stuff” to discuss. So she takes her leave, but insists that Yoshida explain himself later.

I love how low-key and empathetic Mishima’s reaction is to learning Yoshida is looking after a teenage runaway. She knows she doesn’t have the whole story, and while she very much wants to hear it, it’s not the time or place, so she’ll wait until it is. She doesn’t jump to conclusions or express premature outrage.

When Yoshida and Sayu comes home, Sayu takes Mishima’s advice, stops standing in place, and steps forward … in her black underwear … towards Yoshida. She refuses to dress before they talk. She again mentions how her breasts are big for someone in high school. She presses against Yoshida, and asks again if he wants to have sex her, like all the other men wanted to.

When pressed (literally) by Sayu, Yoshida admits that of course he finds her extremely cute and attractive. Sayu is flattered by his praise, and explains that this is the way she decided on to be able to live without going back home. She knows there are disadvantages to an adult having a teenage girl around, and so thought there must be some kind of advantage way to make up for that.

At first, she hated using her body in that way. But while she was doing it with someone she also felt she could be herself; that she was needed. The advantage she provided to the other men made her feel fulfilled. Maybe in her dream, when she said ‘yeah’ when asked if it felt good, she wasn’t lying. It felt good emotionally for there to be what she saw as a balanced give-and-take; something for something.

But ultimately the disadvantages would win out, and she’d get kicked out. However many times this happened to Sayu, she’s now of the mind that her crushing uneasiness won’t be quelled unless Yoshida sleeps with her. So she asks once more, if it won’t upset him, if he’ll do so. Yoshida gathers Sayu into a solid but thoroughly platonic hug, and make it clear that sleeping with someone he’s not in love with would upset her, so the answer is no.

Once she’s dressed again and they’re seated at the table, Yoshida calmly rejects Sayu’s assertion that she “hasn’t done anything” for him in return to justify keeping her around. Again, he tries to reorient her belief that only sex can pay for the roof under her head and make up for the disadvantages of having her there.

He admits he’s changed since she came. He takes better care of himself. They eat and talk about nothing special. His apartment feels like a real home with her there, and a place he wants to hurry back to after work. Just having her there has made his life more fun and more rewarding. She doesn’t have to do or say anything special to maintain that atmosphere; she just has to be there. That’s it.

Saying this moves Sayu to tears. Yoshida realizes that he wasn’t doing himself or Sayu any favors by thinking he could change her back into a “normal teenage girl”, and that there was nothing more to it than that. Denying her transactional mindset and sexuality only heightened her anxiety about properly paying him back for his kindness.

Acknowledging the role of sex in Sayu’s life up to this point was a crucial step in acknowledging Sayu herself, just as making it clear that sex with her is neither wanted nor required establishes firm boundaries. It sets him apart from all the other men, thank goodness.

Thanks to Mishima, Sayu was able to break their stalemate of unspoken tension, and was able to learn from Yoshida not only why he didn’t want to sleep with her, but why just being there was enough for him. Now that they’ve bared their hearts and cleared the air, they can begin truly living together, like a family. It’s an honest, beautiful, and heartwarming catharsis between two lonely souls who claim to be pathetic, but are actually inspiring!