Vanitas no Carte – 02 – A Matter of Application

I’ll admit it: I missed the airship this week. They didn’t show as much of it as I would have liked even last week, just as they don’t show quite as much of Steampunk Paris as I’d like. That said, what we do see impresses “country bumpkin” Noé once he and Vanitas are released from jail on the orders of Count Orlok, a vampire charged with maintaining the human-vampire balance in the city.

While Orlok claims the Book of Vanitas to be a bunch of hooey, he’s also stolen the book, and intends to execute Amelia and “rake Vanitas over the coals” for his role in abetting her escape. Noé, clearly has strong feelings about “curse-bearers”, or vamps born under a blue moon based on flashbacks involving a childhood friend who became one.

Noé is having none of Orlok’s games, and smashes his desk to splinters with a kick to get his attention. He insists the book be returned to Vanitas so the two of them can apprehend a vampire who has been murdering humans in Paris, bring him to Orlok, and show the count firsthand how the book can save vampiredom.

After a conversation on their target, one Thomas Berneux, over rooftops with those awesome airships floating impossibly in the sky, the two soon find Tommy in the middle of trying to take his next victim. Noé gives Vanitas the opening he needs to use the book to temporarily paralyze him. Everything is going smoothly…until two new faces arrive.

They are the pint-sized Luca and his “chevalier” Jeanne (clearly taking after d’Arc), who are convinced Vanitas is using the book to create curse-bearers, not cure them. Clearly they’re misinformed; while the book can be used for such a nefarious purpose, Vanitas uses it to heal, not harm.

The thing is, even Noé is no match for Jeanne, who isn’t interested in talking things through, so the pair have to make a run for it. But as much as he claims to dislike Vanitas, as long as he keeps committing “resoundingly righteous acts” such as saving Amelia, he’ll keep protecting him with his not inconsiderable vampire strength and speed.

There were a couple nice bursts of action and Vanitas and Noé continue to be a hoot to watch, it can be hard to keep track of the show’s ever-expanding glossary of names, positions and terms, and thus hard to get too deeply invested. It’s as if Vanitas no Carte is so intent on setting up its many and varied game pieces on its ornate board, it forgot that the game actually has to start at some point!

The Saint’s Magic Power is Omnipotent – 04 – With Great Magic Power…

Both Johan and the Royal Magi Assembly director are bound by duty to report Sei’s handiwork to the king, but the only other person powerful enough to properly appraise her power—and determine whether she is the true saint—is the Grand Magus, who is currently in a “deep slumber”.

Meanwhile Sei continues to whip up potent potions at a rate so prestigious Johan has to eventually kick her out of the lab so she doesn’t use up their entire supply of herbs. Sei is working harder than ever, just like she did in her old office job, but the key difference is working hard here is making her happy, and it’s also helping the kind (and handsome) knights like Ser Wolff out a bunch.

She’s so satisfied with her work, in fact, that even when King Siegfried Salutania himself casually approaches her in the library, both to apologize for his son Prince Kyle’s rudeness and to offer her a reward for her services, Sei turns down all material offers. The work, and the good it does, is its own reward.

When the knights again return from a tough battle in Groshe Forest, she finds that Ser Wolff has lost a hand in battle, and as efficacious as her potions are, they aren’t enough to heal him or the many other maimed knights in the infirmary. Worse still, because the commoner Wolff can no longer serve as a knight, he’s lost the right to live in the palace and must return to his hometown, his dream shattered.

Sei, who had just been studying more powerful healing magic, knows that if she succeeds in restoring Sei’s hand she’ll likely no longer be able to pretend she’s an “ordinary person”, and her extraordinary powers will give her even more responsibilities and attention. But whether Wolff was the friend to her he is or just a stranger, she knows full well she wouldn’t be able to do nothing. So, in a powerful scene full of awe and wonder, she takes his arm and gives him his hand back.

When she realizes there’s more work to be done in the infirmary, Sei pulls up her sleeve and gets to work, not stopping until every knight is made whole again. This culminates in using an area-healing spell on the less-injured knights, which drains her energy considerably. Johan and Hawke arrive not to scold her for working too hard or exposing her saintly power, but to praise her for her good works and offer a shoulder to lean on.

Even though part of me, like Sei, fears her peaceful life is about to become more hectic and complicated. That’s especially once the Grand Magus wakes up and appraises her, setting up a confrontation between her and the other Saint, Aira Misono.

I doubt I could pretend any more than she could that I wasn’t the immensely powerful Saint I clearly was. She didn’t ask for the power, or to be summoned, or to be initially passed up for Aira by the prince. But now it’s no longer about what she might’ve wanted, but how she can help the most people. She’s ready to say goodbye to the illusory quiet life where no one expected anything of her, and not look back.

Rating: 4/5 Stars

The Saint’s Magic Power is Omnipotent – 03 – The Ice Knight Melteth

It’s a hot one at the research institute, so Sei dips her feet in some cold water, only to be visited by her present semi-crush, Albert Hawke. Once she’s decent, he asks if she’d like to join him on a trip into town on her day off, and she accepts. Between helping her out of the carriage, buying her a snack, using his ice magic to chill her drink, and holding her hand virtually the whole time, Al is a perfect gentleman.

When Al asks Sei if she wants anything at a jewelry store, she declines. On the carriage ride home, she falls asleep on his shoulder. Then before they part he presents her with a gift from the store anyway: a lovely hair ornament with jewels the color of his eyes. Sei had a wonderful time and wouldn’t mind doing it again. But due to her lack of a love life in her previous life, she doesn’t realize she was on a date until Johan breaks it to her the next day.

Liz too is proud of Sei for successfully melting the heart of the infamously cold Ice Knight (whom we learned is also a rare ice mage). Sei then ends up doing some work with the Royal Magi Assembly enchanting “foci”—essentially small gems and baubles—with magical properties and affinities. Casting these enchantments comes as easily to her as walking or talking, which isn’t surprising…she is a Saint, after all.

Rumors leak of her adeptness with enchantments, and the First Order of Knights puts in an order with the Assembly for more enchanted foci. Its silver-haired director beseeches Sei to assist them with a bit of a rush order for which she’ll be compensated, and she completes the work so quickly and successfully, she manages to squeeze a rare smile out of the guy.

Sei is given one of the buffing foci she enchanted as payment, which she then has embedded in a charm necklace which she presents to Al in his office. He thanks her by kissing her hand, only adding more fuel to the fire of their budding romance. To which I say: Good for you, girl!

With Ishikawa Yui voicing Sei, I can’t help but want her to be happy…especially after Eren did Mikasa so dirty in Attack on Titan! Otherwise, this is a pleasant if somewhat inconsequential series I’ll probably be sticking with for Yui and the comfort food factor.

The Saint’s Magic Power is Omnipotent – 02 – Exhausted…In a Good Way

When the Research Institute is rewarded for their diligent work healing the knights’ wounds after the salamander incident, Johan asks Sei if there’s anything she wants, and the result is a brand new kitchen. While contractors in this new world are unreal, the cooking apparently sucks, at least when judged by Sei’s palate.

Johan informs her that chefs will be hired, but Sei actually enjoys cooking. When she presents him with a simple yet savory herb-crusted chicken, he’s bowled over. I find it beyond charming that in this series, the OPed MC makes the best-tasting food anyone’s ever eaten, not just because of her magical power, but because no one in this world has ever tasted food from hers.

Another day, Johan introduces Sei to Albert Hawke, the knight commander whose life she saved with her high-level potion. Sei is not only amazed how perfectly he healed after being on death’s door, but he just happens to be her type, standing out in a world full of handsome men.

It’s Sei’s lucky day, then, when Johan tells her Hawke is going to the southern forest with his knights for a hunt, and she’s welcome to join for a medicinal herb-gathering mission. She also prepares lunch for everyone, and Albert makes it a point to sit close to her as he praises her luxurious cuisine. Sei returns home to her room exhausted, but in a good way—not in the way that eventually did her in in her old world.

The next morning, Sei discovers that the lotion she crafted for her face and skin has also somehow corrected her eyesight, eliminating the need to wear glasses anymore. She also learns from Johan that the meals she’s been preparing have resulted in attribute boosts. If her ability got out it could cause chaos, so he gives her the day off.

Given a surprise vacation day for being too good at what she does, a bored Sei discovers the huge and inviting Beauty and the Beast-style library at the royal palace, and meets one Elizabeth Ashley, a noblewoman who looks like a porcelain doll. Before she sets off back to the institute, Albert offers her a ride on his horse. When she says she’s never ridden, he simply rides home with her in a princess lift.


Sei soon befriends “Liz” Ashley, who informs her of a beautifukl new girl at the academy who grew close with several already-betrothed male classmates, leading one of their fiancées to stop coming to class due to her acne. Liz believes this girl’s confidence would return if her skin condition were resolved, and is cetain Sei is the one to resolve it.

Liz introduces the girl, Nicole Adler, to Sei, who offers her a bottle of lotion she crafted. Nicole is dubious until Liz dabs a bit of it on her own skin, which instantly polishes it to a glorious shine. Nicole’s eyes emerge from her long bangs, and she gives a heartfelt thanks to Sei. Later, she writes her to say the lotion worked wonderfully, and invites her to dinner sometime.

So yeah, it’s all coming up Sei. After all of her hard work in her old world led to her demise, here her hard work has wonderous, even miraculous results that make her the toast of the research institute and royal palace alike. But she’s not totally bereft of problems, as Liz reports fresh rumors involving Sei and a certain “Ice Knight” whose heart she’s apparently thawed with her beauty…

Combatants Will Be Dispatched! – 01 (First Impressions) – Falling From Grace

With the director of Master Teaser Takagi-san (and this years excellent Those Snow White Notes!) and the creator of KonoSuba, you could say my hopes for this series were somewhat inflated from the get-go. So I regret to report that while this opening episode of Combatants Will Be Dispatched! was okay, it was not great. It didn’t come close to meeting those hopes.

We open with our (anti)hero Combat Agent Six meeting with two busty women in elaborate, skimpy fantasy cosplay and equally lofty names and titles. Everything is serious for the first few seconds as they inform Six of his mission to investigate an Earth-like planet. But then Six calls out Astaroth and Belial for their chuunibyou getup and dialogue.

While this knocking on the fourth wall is a common occurrence in KonoSuba, and it’s intriguing that Six’s two bosses have real Japanese names, his joking around felt premature and forced here, which can be said about a lot of the ensuing comedy. KonoSuba’s jokes based on Kazuma’s perviness and fish-out-of-water status was comparatively so natural and effortless.

It doesn’t help that right off the bat these characters are all some combination of generic, unlikeable, and inconsistent. Astaroth and Belial seem to be in a position of authority, yet Six apparently helped the two found the “Kisaragi Corporation” they all work for, and Astaroth even seems to be harboring a crush on him.

Why, then, does Six let the two women, along with generic “scientist girl” Lilith, boss him around by shoving him into a teleport tube to this random planet? Six is introduced to the “high spec pretty girl” android Alice and shoved in a teleport tube before there’s any satisfying explanation of what exactly is going on. The episode is waving its hands at us saying “just go with it,” but I’d have preferred something more solid to go with!

My initial theory, as Six and Alice are dispatched to the Earth-like world (appearing 30,000 meters above the surface) is that Astaroth, Belial, Lilith and Six are gamers in some kind of VR-RPG. That explains how they alternate between playing their roles as agents of universal domination and a group of regular human friends.

The remainder of the episode is all about Six landing in a vast ruddy alien wasteland, heading to a nearby city, and learning about his new android assistant. Alice’s primary feature is an apparently city-leveling self-destruct, which calls to mind KonoSuba’s Megumin’s all-or-nothing Explosion. Otherwise she’s just a little girl, and as such, when packs of dog-like beasts attack, it’s up to Six to defend them.

Alice also serves as a rather clumsy provider of exposition, explaining how Six amasses “Evil Points” by doing bad shit, which he can then spend on stuff by writing it on paper and scanning that paper with a gizmo on his wrist. While somewhat novel, it seems like a rather inefficient system. Also, while we know Six starts out with 300 Evil Points, we don’t learn how many he spends to put a shotgun in Alice’s arms.

The show seems to be full of decisions and details that force me to think about why those choices were made instead of just sitting back and enjoying the silliness. Alice just said she was physically just a little kid, yet we see her moments later wielding a shotgun without issue. And why just a plain-old shotgun? It’s a fantasy anime, why not come up with a more imaginative weapon?

After defeating the beasts, Six and Alice are approached by Snow, a female knight straight out of SAO. While initially both suspicious of the two but otherwise noble and dignified, Snow’s not-always-hidden “other side” is apparently extremely obsessed with recognition, money, and glory—in the same way Darkness is obsessed with being punished and ravaged.

Snow is also the personal knight for the Kingdom of Grace’s lovely Princess Tillis, and she’s apparently such a good bodyguard that she lets two total strangers—a highly-trained spy and his android assistant/bomb—into the same room with their weapons! Grace is also a land where real-world items like tanks are regarded as mysterious ancient artifacts.

One such artifact used to make it rain in the kingdom, but is malfunctioning. Alice shows her worth by fixing it, only for Six to insist on resetting the activation password to “Dick Festival”. He helpfully explains that making Princess Tillis say those words will net him Evil Points, and I can’t argue with him there.

The problem is, Tillis’ father, who I’ll call “King Santa” for now, would also have to say those words, so Six and Alice end up tied up. Even so, the King is grateful the artifact was repaired, and Tillis, citing her country’s desperate need for warriors to fight beasts, decides to make Six one of her knights. Snow is dubious, but Six reminds her she said she’d take “full responsibility” for whatever happened with the rain-making machine.

As a result, Snow essentially gets demoted to Sir Six’s XO in their interceptor group. Along with Alice, the three-person party has been set—I just wish I was more excited about it! Not helping matters is the fact that while overall the series looks fine, there are some glaring off-character model moments that are less excusable in a first episode whose job is to impress.

But mostly, Dispatched! is too similar to KonoSuba not to invite unfavorable comparisons to the older series, which not only aired first but crucially also aired at a time when I frankly had more of a stomach for Kazuma / Six / Rudy’s pervy antics. If I’m sick of Six’s schtick one episode in, it does not bode well for the future.

The next-episode preview is presented as a broadcast on a TV in Kisaragi Corp.’s break/club room as Astaroth, Belial and Lilith have tea and snacks, adding credence to my theory the “corporation” is more of a gaming club formed in high school. We’ll see if the show can redeem itself next week.

Hortensia Saga – 02 – The Girl Who Cried Werewolf

While Alfred is on monster patrol with Maurice, Marius is helping carry flowers for Nonnoria, who visits the Albert family grave to pay her respects to those who took her in when she was orphaned. Marius looks back four years ago to the dreadful night she lost everything she had, when Maurice told her she’d have to cut her hair and live under an assumed identity “until the time came” to reclaim her kingdom.

When talk of Magonia (complete with flying cities and fantastical beasts) comes up—specifically, a shapeshifting  monster that dwells in the nearby Tron Cavern—young Conny desperately wants to see and prove his skeptical big sis wrong. The next day, just after Alfred, Marius, and Maurice head to the cavern to investigate, Conny’s mom arrives at the Albert’s door. Sure enough, the little scamp went off on his own.

Even though help is on the way, Tron is a veritable labyrinth, so Nonnoria fills her knapsack with a ridiculous amount of supplies and heads out without a second thought with Qoo (basically a Moogle), showing what she’s truly made of even though she’s otherwise a complete space cadet. She finds Conny before the others, but they’re still lost, and then get chased by goblins.

Nonnoria huddles against the cavern wall with Conny and Qoo, hoping Alfred will make it in time to save them just as he saved her before from a wolf. He does, with Marius and Maurice close behind. Then they notice a blue light that leads them to a moonlit spring. There, the beast makes its appearance, in a form identical to the werewolf that killed both of their fathers.

Ever since hearing the Tron monster could take the form of a wolf, Marius has been uneasy, but once she sees it, she freezes in terror, as if being transported four years into the past to the night she could do nothing but watch in horror as her life was taken away.

As Alfred fights the werewolf, Marius retreats, slips, and falls into the spring, and she relives more memories of the night Maurice whisked her out of the capital to the Albert Dominion. Maurice is aided by an even grizzlier Sir Balthazar, who warns him the Pope may be in cahoots with Camelia to install Prince Charlot as a puppet king.

While Princess Mariel wants to stay and protect her little brother, the fact is neither she nor her remaining allies are strong enough to stop the coup that has unfolded. The only thing for it is to disappear until the time is right. When she arrives at Albert’s lands, she finds kinship in Alfred’s grief for his lost father. When she comes to in the cavern, Alfred has fished her out of the spring.

It turns out the “werewolf” was only an impostor, as the cavern monster takes the form of the thing you hate most. Alfred assumes he provided the werewolf template, and Marius isn’t able to tell him her father was killed by the same monster at nearly the same time.

They head home, Conny is reunited with his family, and Alfred scolds Nonnoria and Qoo for racing into danger. Marius’ last memory is of cutting her hair with a dagger, which not only marked a profound turning of a page in her life, but in the present represents her willingness to turn the page from those horrible memories and re-fix her gaze on the more important present and future.

I once again enjoyed this episode, which was absolutely fine, if not particularly original. In fact, I liked it a bit more than the premiere, which to its credit had more narrative lifting to do out of the gate. Conny requiring rescue was hilariously telegraphed from a country mile away, but Nonnoria going into Battle Maid Mode was unexpected, and I came away actually liking her in spite of her deeply annoying voice and extra-ness. If nothing else, she can really spin a knife.

As for the romance angle, Alfred had no idea he was carrying a girl on piggyback. Who knows when he’ll learn the truth, but I hope it’s sooner rather than later in the 12-episode run—and not because he walks in on her or something. If there’s anyone in the world she could trust to tell, it’s him.

Mushoku Tensei: Jobless Reincarnation – 01 (First Impressions) – Getting Serious About Living

Fast on the heels of Zane’s Horimiya comes another contender for Anime of the Season: Jobless Reincarnation, the latest in a rare collection of common stories told uncommonly well. Our protagonist is a 34-year-old NEET hit by a car and killed, but he’s reincarnated as a baby in a fantasy world with all his adult mental faculties and memories intact.

That all-too-familiar premise (for the record, the source LN dates back to 2012) hardly does Jobless justice: from the moment our boy realizes he is the child of the well-endowed young woman who just gave birth to him, his droll adult voiceover (Sugita Tomokazu, I believe) provides a hilariously dry running commentary on his new world.

Rudeus or Rudy, as his parents Zenith and Paul name him, grows up fast, going from a highly mobile infant to a precocious toddler. When he falls down go boom and his mom uses a real healing spell on him, he seeks out the five tomes in his family’s house, learns to read, and gradually learns how to wield water magic.

There’s a wonderful procedural structure to Rudy’s early journey of just figuring things out, but not so rigid a structure that it detracts from the human and emotional sides of his experience. His precociousness also goes noticed by Lilia the live-in maid, as Rudy’s facial expressions betray an older man’s inner wisdom of the world.

While his first attempt to conjure water results in him looking like he fell asleep and wet himself, Rudy hangs in there, gathering any and all basins in which to deposit the water he conjures. Notably, he is able to use magic without the incantations or magic circles the books describe as vital to the process.

Without really trying to, his magical growth remains largely hidden from Zenith and Paul, who are portrayed as dimensional characters with their own needs and wants (they get it on often, as one would expect of a healthy young couple). His family’s home is his entire world, and he’s usually shut up in his room, much as he was as a 34-year-old NEET. This explains a bit why we don’t get to see as much of his family as I’d have liked.

With that hikikomori mentality in mind, it’s as symbolic as it is momentous when Rudy accidentally obliterates the wall of his bedroom with his most powerful water conjuring yet—a giant orb that streaks through the bright blue sky, creating rain for the crops and a rainbow as well. The top-notch animation really sells how powerful—and frightful—magic can be in untrained hands, and how exciting it is to “figure things out.”

When Zenith sees him unharmed and with the magic book nearby, she puts two and two together, and cannot contain her pure joy and delight to have reared a magical prodigy. She and Paul bicker over the promise that he would be raised as a swordsman, but Lilia (showing she’s more than a mere maid—more of a second wife) suggests “Why not both?”

Rudy’s parents—his dad’s a Knight who basically runs the village, and so is not without means—hire a magical tutor to train him, but both they and Rudy are shocked to find she’s no bearded retiree but an adorable young woman with bluish-violet air, ably voiced with by with vulnerability and defiance by Kohara Konomi.

We have the fascinating situation in which Rudy is mentally older than his parents, let alone this mage Roxy Migurdia, and his otaku side comes out when he first sees her and sizes her up (or down, as it were). Roxy isn’t aware of this, has dealt with other parents who thought their kid was The Chosen One, and is dubious of Rudy’s abilities.

Still, she does her job, showing him how a focused magical attack can cleave a tree down in one swipe, then how said tree (treasured by Rudy’s mom) can be repaired with healing magic, which Roxy also knows. Then Rudy demonstrates he can use magic without incantations (again, accidentally, as he’s thrown off when Roxy’s skirt flips up), and re-fells the restored tree, and Roxy knows she’s dealing with someone worth training.

Roxy takes the blame for the tree, but Rudy uses a dating sim-esque line to comfort her, and it works. Then the family welcomes Roxy like one of their own to a sumptuous welcome banquet, and during these lovely warm images Rudy beautifully recites the mission statement of the show:

“It’s like a dream…a dream I’m having as I die from that crash. No, even if it is, I don’t care. In this world, I bet even I can make it. If I live and try as hard as everyone else, get back up when I fall, and keep facing forward, then maybe I can do it. Maybe even I, a jobless, reclusive bum like me can get a do-over at life…and get serious about living.”

I would never have thought I’d be so quickly and easily drawn into yet another Isekai series, but the characterizations and technical execution are so well done, the world it’s crafted so gorgeous and inviting, and the comedy so effortless, it renders Jobless Reincarnation all but irresistible. Yes, we’ve seen this story before, and yes, Rudy is a bit of a creep, but for once it doesn’t matter, at least for me. It goes without saying I can’t wait to see more.

P.S. Looks like Anime News Network’s early reviewers of JR weren’t as enamored as I was, focusing on Rudy’s abhorrent skeeviness and the fact this premise has been done to death.

While I respect their takes, which are just as valid as my own, I prefer to take a more clean-slate approach to the show, and execution can—and in this case, does—outweigh familiarity.

Also, and this is key, Rudy isn’t supposed to be immediately likable or virtuous. He’s just started on a long road of redemption, and his closing monologue suggests he wants to become a better person than he was in his past life.

P.P.S. Crow has written on this episode as well. Check it out here.

Hortensia Saga – 01 (First Impressions) – A Glimmer of Hope in an Age of Turmoil

What have we here….an un-ironic, non-isekai, no-nonsense Euro-style medieval fantasy epic? Welcome to Hortensia Saga, which plunges us right into the thick of an attempted coup…what odd timing

One of the king’s loyalist retainers transforms into a giant werewolf and kills him right before his daughter’s eyes, and then goes on to kill one of his baddest-ass knights, Fernando Ober (or Albert, depending on the subs).

The late Fernando’s brother Maurice Bauldelaire (Hi, Tsuda Kenjirou!) arrives at the Ober estate to tell his nephew Alfred the news that his father is dead, making Alfred the new Lord of Ober.

Maurice also rescued the adorable Princess Mariel, who cut her hair short and poses as a young lad named Marius whom Alfred takes under his wing as his squire. That’s fine with Mariel, who wants to become stronger so she can protect those she cares about.

Marius and Lord Alfred were brought together by shared tragedy and grief and become fast friends. If Alfred is aware Marius is actually a princess in disguise, he never mentions it, even after four years pass and she becomes his trusty squire. That’s a helluva time jump, and I kinda wish a little more time was spent on developing their friendship, but alas, this saga has a lot of ground to cover.

In those four years both were trained by Maurice and feel ready for their first real battle against the forces of Camelia (the retainers who betrayed the Hortensian crown). It doesn’t go particularly great, as their allies were pre-slaughtered and both youngins have to be saved by Maurice, but the two had each other’s backs, didn’t give up, and escaped with their lives, so call it a learning experience.

Marius is sufficiently injured that she doesn’t wake up for days, but when she does, Ober’s maid Nonnoria (Ueda Reina, pushing a bit too hard) is there to welcome her back to the land of the awake.

Marius joins a discouraged Alfred at his family grave where they met four years ago, Alfred declares his resolve to become much stronger, and Marius declares she’ll become stronger right beside him. The one thing they can’t do is give up hope. Little does Al know his squire is a girl and the heir to the kingdom he serves!

I was ready to pass on Hortensia when its opening sequence involved a hefty helping of lazy CGI extras, and featured characters who weren’t that much better designed or animated. If you’re going to go as arrow-straight with your milieu as this, you’d better bring it with the execution.

What actually kept me watching was the voice acting of Horie Yui and Hosoya Yoshimasa, two seiyuu I admire but haven’t seen in a lot of leading roles of late. Their work elevates a classic but bland premise, a rushed narrative, and merely serviceable production values. I’m putting this in my “maybe” pile for this season.

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

Our Last Crusade or the Rise of a New World – 01 (First Impressions) – An Astral Meet Cute

In a premise last encountered as recently as Spring’s KURONEKO Project: Zero Chronicle, the two most powerful young members of their respective warring nations want the same thing: to end the war and attain balance. They are Saint Desciple Iska of the science-oriented Empire and Princess Aliceliese Lou Nebulis IX of the magic-oriented Nebulis Sovereignty.

When we meet Iska, he is freeing a Nebulis witch from an Empire prison, presumably as a show of good faith to her and her nation. For his crime, Iska is himself is imprisoned for a year, after which his bosses the Eight Great Apostles assign him a redemptive mission: defeat the purebred “Ice Witch of Calamity”.

Iska gets his old team together, the Special Defense for Humankind Third Division, Unit N07. It is composed of the cheerful redheaded engineer Nene, the silver-haired stoic Jihn, and their petite scaredy-cat Captain, Mismis. All are happy to see their friend free and back in the mix, but Mismis warns him that either the Great Apostles have set Iska up for failure, or he’s their very last path to victory.

That’s because the Ice Calamity Witch is one tough customer, capable of dominating a battlefield all on her own. After reaching their lightly-guarded base and heading to the front, Iska’s unit’s humvee is upturned and they are ambushed by astral mages (AKA witches).

Iska is a little rusty after a year in jail, but he’s got the skills, the tools, and the teammates to make quick work of what turns out to be a group of low-level Nebulis grunts, whose flame magic doesn’t even singe his ahoge.

Turns out the Ice Calamity Witch is in the vicinity observing the fight, and her maid-uniformed attendant leaps out of their tree perch to join the fray, summoning an earth golem to overwhelm Iska. However, her mistake is believing these are mere Empire grunts.

Iska quickly shows this sub-boss otherwise, handling everything she throws at him with only a few scratches in exchange. It’s our first taste of extended combat in Kimisen, and it’s not bad: quick, precise, exciting, and dynamic.

Ultimately Iska proves he’s no grunt by handily defeating the maid, whom her mistress the Ice Calamity Witch Alice calls Rin upon arriving to save her. She’s already frozen the Empire base and its reactor and shatters them, revealing Rin and the grunts were a diversion.

Alice and Iska order each other to surrender simultaneously, but when they do battle they are pretty much equally matched. Both are also determined never to back down or retreat until the war is over and the nations are united. This gives the Ice Witch pause, as she expected an Empire soldier to threaten her, not have the same geopolitical outlook!

Once Iska’s attacks make Alice step back—apparently that something rarely if ever happens—the icy earthen back upon which she lands gives way and she starts to topple to the ground. Iska catches her and holds her in a princess carry, and the two…just kind of freeze like that for a moment.

When she protests to having been caught by the enemy, Iska says it was just reflex. In any case neither has the will to fight any further, and so Alice and Rin retreat on her giant eagle-like bird, and Iska doesn’t stop her. The battle basically ends with both thinking “Well, that was weird…”

Back home, Alice attempts to wash away the strange feelings she got from her encounter with Iska with a long bath, to no avail. Eventually she convinces Rin to attend her favorite opera in Neutral City, which just happens to be a tragedy about two lovers from nations that are bitter enemies. Alice cries easily and profusely during the opera, to the point she has to borrow a handkerchief from someone behind her.

When the lights come up, that someone is revealed to be…Iska. Assuming he wasn’t stalking her and this is a coincidental meet-cute…what are the odds? And so, her favorite opera begins to play itself out in real life, only it hopefully has a happier ending. Magic Romeo & Juliet, anyone?

Kimisen is already better than Kuroneko Project. Iska, Alice, and their friends are broad strokes, but share great chemistry, and Iska’s unit has a pleasant lived-in family dynamic. The show also looks much better, with decent character design and combat animation. Finally, there’s no messing around…the two potential future lovebirds meet immediately, with instantly charming results.

I’m definitely in for now. I imagine next week will have a bit less expositional lifting to do, which will only work in its favor as we get to know Iska and Alice and they hopefully get to know each other. After all, if the two most OP’ed warriors in their respective nations can get along and they’re supported by their friends, then peace has a chance!

Rating: 3/5

Shironeko Project: ZERO CHRONICLE – 04 – The Bodyguard

When the Prince and Adel arrive at the Kingdom of Light, the show isn’t quite sure what to do with them, so an interminable amount of time is spent in a standoff with Faios. While en route Adel decides he’ll play the role of envoy while the Prince plays his bodyguard, concerned that if the spotlight is on the air to the Black Throne he’ll be the first one cut down.

Adel may be a better talker, but shunting the Prince off to the side was misguided, in my view. We’ve seen him go through a lot in a short time, but now that he’s aligned with the snail’s pace of the Kingdom of Light, I’d hoped he and Iris would have some things to say. Instead, Adel takes the lead. There’s an increased sense of occasion when they finally meet, yet it almost immediately fizzles out when they go their separate ways.

More maddeningly, time that could have been spent with, say, the Prince and Iris conversing over a meal or some such, is instead utterly wasted on pointless side characters: a quartet of identical brothers goofing off in the hold of the skyship that ferried the Prince to the Kingdom of Light. I honestly don’t know what the point of this was other than some comic relief, but I would have preferred more A-plot for this comedy to relieve.

The Prince asks Faios about Iris only to be shot down, as his stated status as a mere commoner bodyguard makes him unworthy of even speaking the Queen’s name, in Faios’ eyes. The night passes, and the next morning Iris asks the Prince directly about the regular people of Black. The Prince’s response is barely an answer, but repeats Adel’s initial entreaties: this is about establishing a united front against Bahl, who is destruction incarnate.

In other words, this felt like a wasted opportunity, not helped by a host of iffy production values that are increasingly hard to overlook. The ending in which the Prince and Iris are so lovey-dovey almost felt mocking in the wave of such inconsequential first impressions. Iris has very little to go on other than the Prince seems to be reasonable. But they could have interacted a little more.

Shironeko Project: ZERO CHRONICLE – 03 – What a King (and Queen) Need

Well, SPZC has one thing going for it for sure: the story ain’t hard to follow! As with last week, a lot less happens on the light side that has to be stretched out. Queen Iris is troubled by the recent violence, but looks back to the time when she and Cima were still candidates.

Back then she managed to dispel a cloud of darkness on her own when the Rune answered her call. The look back reminds her of her duty not just to protect her people, but maintain the balance of Black and White, even if no one else understands that bit.

Indeed, the only person she can probably relate with on the matter of balance (as opposed to simply eliminating one’s enemy completely) is the Dark Prince. As I said, more happens to him, as he has yet to succeed the present King. However, this week eliminates the obstacle of competition for his spot as successor.

Like Iris, the prince’s commitment to balance causes him to act in a way the other candidates fight inexplicable, like helping one of them rather than letting them die. But the prince remembers the horrors that befell his village and has determined he’ll be a king who doesn’t just look after himself and his own power.

The competition is quick and efficient: after the larger group is whittled down in a beast battle, the last two standing duel each other, with the Prince beating Adel, who like Cima takes the loss very well and is willing to befriend the winner.

Groza bestows upon the Prince the symbol of his right of succession—the unimaginatively named Greatsword of Black—and his first mission: for him and Adel to go to the Kingdom of White as official envoys and deliver the news of their succession to the Queen of Light.

It looks like the fourth episode will be the one when Iris and Prince (God I wish he had a name) finally meet. I wish these first three episodes had delved a little deeper into who these two characters are besides their very simplified archetypes and shared ideals, but this isn’t that kind of show.

Instead, Iris and Prince are more symbols of hope in the idea that a lasting peace beneficial to all could be struck if they can come together. The stage is now set for that encounter. Will Cima and Adel stand by their friends throughout these efforts, or undermine them, more confident in the strength of their side than with the prospects of balance?

P.S. Here’s the poppy ED. It rips!