The aquatope on white sand – 09 – Compassion for the unfamiliar

Two very common ways anime deal with an interlopers is by either turning them into friends or putting them in their place. Aquatope does neither, opting for a far more nuanced, multifaceted, and ultimately more satisfying and enriching experience. In the complexity of emotions it expresses (and elicits), Aquatope is as diverse and colorful as its sea life.

Haebaru Chiyu is the interloper, and immediately an interesting choice was made to have Ishikawa Yui voice her. Ishikawa has one of the most charming and likable voices around, even as she voiced Mikasa Ackerman, one of the toughest motherfuckers in all animedom. I automatically like everyone she voices, even if they’re not easy to like otherwise.

Despite the only reason Chiyu agreed to go to Gama Gama for training was because of the “Legendary Aquarium Keeper”, Gramps pairs her up with Kukuru. Kukuru doesn’t know Chiyu, but hates everything she represents, and cannot mask her disdain and hostility.

It quickly becomes clear that beneath her polite façade Chiyu masks a similar contempt, but for an aquarium she believes (not without good reason!) to be a failure. The place is mostly empty and the equipment is falling apart. Not only is it a depressing place with which she has no emotional ties, it is to her the antithesis of a properly run aquarium.

Gramps and Fuuka are in the middle of the ensuing rivalry of passive aggression and pointed barbs; Gramps tells Kukuru it doesn’t matter what building an aquarium occupies; what matters is that people get to enjoy and come to love the creatures of the sea. Gran backs him up by telling Kukuru it would do her well to occasionally think outside her proverbial seashell.

To her credit, Kukuru does take a look at why exactly she’s trying so hard to save Gama Gama, and if she’s just selfishly clinging to her memories rather than facing reality and coming to terms with it. Fuuka tells Kukuru that she’s chasing her dream, and she’ll keep supporting her.

In response to this loving gesture, Kukuru brings up the possibility of having a sibling to someone for the first time. As the omniscient audience we’ve seen her look at those two maternity books, but now we know why: they’re in her parents’ shrine, but she’s never had the courage to ask Gran why there’s a second one.

Before going to sleep while holding hands, Kukuru promises she’ll be more civil to Chiyu tomorrow, but Chiyu has already had her fill of a teenaged assistant director, and basically demands that Gramps train her from now on. Gramps does his rounds, and Chiyu is suitably unimpressed with the “Legendary Aquarium Keeper.”

And why is that? Because with her outsider’s perspective she can’t quite see what he’s doing, and what he’s done, with Gama Gama. To him, an aquarium is more than just the building, but also more than just the fish. He knows and greets everyone, asks them how they’re doing. It’s a vibrant community of people young and old.

One could castigate Chiyu for so thoroughly missing the forest for the trees, but as we learn in her private moments, she has a dream too, and she’s not going to let what she regards to be a half-assed failing aquarium to hurt her chances at gainful employment.

That night in her Western-style hotel room—another sign she’s not interested in straying too far from her established world—she demands that her boss assign her somewhere else, and he agrees. She can’t afford to waste time…not when she’s come so far on her own.

Honestly, as much as she clashes with Kukuru and simply doesn’t “get” the appeal and value of Gama Gama, I can’t fault Chiyu for feeling or acting as she does. When Kukuru asks her what deficiencies she found there, Chiyu doesn’t hold back, and also makes the very good point that at the end of the day, Kukuru isn’t doing this for a living.

She may be slacking in her studies, but Kukuru is still young enough to do anything with her life. That’s less true for Chiyu, and because she desperately wants to work at an aquarium, she has to work that much harder in a country of 126 million with only about 100 aquariums.

Kukuru needs to use an unwitting Kai as a stress-relieving punching bag (a wonderful moment between the two old friends) not only because Chiyu pisses her off royally, but because Chiyu is right about a lot of what she said. For someone who earlier questioned her motives about saving Gama Gama, Chiyu adds salt to that wound.

The previous day, Fuuka overheard Chiyu remarking how no one at Gama Gama is actually looking at the fish. But as Fuuka learns, Chiyu was wrong: theyu have looked at the fish, over and over, with their cheap annual passes they’ve memorized most of them. They’re past that “tourist” phase of aquarium visitor. Now, Gama Gama is their living room, their lounge, their game room, their parlor….their home away from home.

Oh, and one of the kids mentioned he once say his dead dog, which means there’s something even more inscrutable and intangible about Gama Gama at which Ciyu turned her nose up. Between that kid’s comment and the brief look at Fijimunaa, the show wants to make it clear it hasn’t forgotten its magical realism elements.

Lest we forget Fuuka has her own baggage, she finally picks up when her old group-mate Ruka calls her. She eventually had to face her mom, and so it only made sense she’d have to face her very different past life as well. Unfortunately we don’t get to learn what exactly Ruka has to say to Fuuka, but it’s a great hook for next week.

Fuuka only gets this chance in part because Kukuru doesn’t go home with her, instead riding out to the big city to see the great nemesis itself. And just as her nighttime ride reminded me of Akira, seeing her behold and be dwarfed by the towering behemoth, still under construction and looking like a great sleeping beast.

This episode defly introduced a new character who was both likable in her own right while also providing a welcome thorn in the whole Gama Gama kubaya environment. Not everyone needs to be friends, and sometimes that makes for great, sometimes downright thrilling  anime, as it did here.

It also marked what looks like the beginning of some significant growth and soul-searching for Kukuru. She’s faced the beast…but what does she make of it, and what will she do next?

Zombieland Saga: Revenge – 10 – How It Started / How It’s Going

After spending two weeks in the Meiji era with the exception of the final act of last week, when Yuugiri led Franchouchou in one of their best performances yet—and oh yeah, Saga is apparently an extremely long-lived person—we find ourselves a mere year in the past, before the EFS fiasco.

The idols are riding high on their success in the snow at Arpino, but that was only a crowd of five hundred people. But Koutarou, no less high on success, decides that Franchouchou have proven themselves legendary enough to fill the same stadium where Ai died. Her feelings about performing there aside, Ai knows right from the get-go it will be nigh impossible for them to scale up so much so fast.

Despite that, the girls put their faith in their manager and in their own considerable abilities, and even pros like Ai and Junko are swept up in the boundless optimism. Then, as we know, it all goes completely and utterly to shit. Because Koutarou didn’t bother to pre-sell any tickets, the amount of concert-goers who show up manage to fit what would be the soccer field’s penalty area.

While we’ve already been told this tale of woe before in super-abbreviated form, there’s something to be said for watching the disaster unfold in real time. Not even Saki can fight through the sheer dread of playing before a mostly empty venue, while their top fans decide not to call for an encore after the girls shamble off the stage, as it would be just too cruel.

You can really feel the pain of being on that stage in that stadium. They would never have been able to put on their best performance there. Koutarou really screwed the pooch on this one, and he initially reacts to the disaster by going on a weeks-long bender.

During these dark times, Franchouchou are splintered, then exchanged some recriminations, before Yamada Tae comes in and shocks everyone by not only buying her own dried squid with Koutarou’s cash, but doing her own makeup. Just by being Tae, she shows the others that they’ve been relying on Koutarou on everything for too long, and if they have to do non-idolly work to get out of their immense debt, then so be it.

That brings us up to speed. Fast forward nearly a year, and Koutarou announces to the girls that they will once again be performing at EFS for their revenge show. This time, they’re in a far better position to command a larger crowd: there’s the audience of Saki’s radio show, Lily’s inroads with the younger kids, Yamada’s legion of fans, Maimai’s high school, and the fact Iron Frill considers them rivals.

It almost feels like history repeating, but Koutarou is determined to properly promote the concert (and hopefully allowing pre-sales of tickets, for gosh sakes), and gives the others a pep talk worthy of Gurren Lagann. Unfortunately, there’s a huge potential snag in this plan: the reporter Ookuba knows he’s somehow revived seven dead girls and is profiting off their performances. When he learns of the revenge show he’s determiend to stop it.

Frankly, this feels like a little bit of eleventh-hour antagonism for its own sake, and I’m more than a little disappointed that Ookuba is taking such a hard stance rather than letting the idols whose unlives he’s trying to upheave have their say in the matter. By going straight to Koutarou he’s stripping them of their agency. Considering how much they’ve achieved, they’ve earned the right to decide to perform, not for Koutarou, but for each other and for Saga.

That brings us back to the bar where Old Man Saga works. Years ago, Koutarou was “gloomy and half-crazed”—instead of full-crazed like he is now—and thus bought into Saga’s claims that he was an immortal being who can revive the dead and has been fighting a curse that’s been at work in Saga for thousands of years.

Turns out everything that Koutarou has done with Franchouchou has been to prevent Saga’s prophesy—of a cataclysm that will make everyone forget Saga—from coming true. It’s why he flew to close to the sun with EFS the first time, but it’s also why he’s determined to make EFS II a success that no one will ever forget, weaving their past failure into the narrative.

But as the idols prepare for their show tomorrow, Saga is pelted with increasingly harsh rains, and the wind eventually knocks out power throughout the prefecture, just as Ookoba is about to publish his exposé.

But, of course, there are larger problems than whether he saved a copy; a building that looks like Koutarou’s run-down mansion seems to sink into the saturated earth, presumably with our zombie idols inside. While I’m sure they’re safe—they’re zombies—Saga is another question entirely. Are we past the point of singing and dancing  being able to save Saga, or will we simply not see them at their most legendary until the shit has truly hit the fan?

Rating: 4/5 Stars

Zombieland Saga: Revenge – 09 – The Legend Continues

As those who share Kiichi’s views grow in number, he still finds time for tea with Yuugiri, who whips up a medicine for his ailing grandfather. Kiichi and Itou pose with Yuugiri for a photograph, which for me meant that somewhere in the present day there’s a very old black-and-white photo of the Legendary Courtesan out there—assuming it survived the war.

However, those who have joined Kiichi don’t necessarily want a new Saga for all; they want their old Saga back, and as many of them are veterans of the war lost eight years ago, they’re willing to take up arms and spill blood to do it, which is far beyond the peaceful return of Saga of which the idealistic Kiichi dreams.

Itou, in between ripping down Kiichi’s flyers and passing messengers disguised as vagrants, gives his friend one final warning to give up his crusade now that it is poised to become a violent one beyond his control. But Kiichi isn’t quite ready to give up on Saga, either for himself or the comrades he’s gathered.

Unfortunately, those comrades armed themselves and planned an armed rebellion behind Kiichi’s back. On the snowy night when they spring into action, Itou meets them in a quiet street…and cuts them all down on orders from the government.

By the time Kiichi catches up to his comrades, Itou has already slaughtered them all. It turns out he was watching out for spies all along, and while he knew Kiichi didn’t mean for things to turn out this way, he’s crossed a line he can’t un-cross, and now it’s Itou’s duty to kill him.

Yuugiri doesn’t let him, whipping a katana out of her shamisen to meet his, saving Kiichi’s life. When the local police approach with whistles blaring, Itou flees one way while Yuugiri and Kiichi go another. All the while, Kiichi’s gramps is having some kind of attack and collapses before he can reach the medicine.

After losing the fuzz, Kiichi starts to sob and whine, and Yuugiri slaps him, telling him he’s come this far for Saga’s sake and can’t give up now. As we saw in a previous scene, she’s already written to some of her many powerful friends who have sworn to protect Kiichi until things cool down. Kiichi doesn’t want to leave the Saga he loves, but he listens to the legendary savior whom he loves.

By the time Itou finds a casually smoking Yuugiri, Kiichi is long gone. Yuugiri forewarns that she was trained by someone called the “Sheathed Kichiemon”, whom Itou knows as “The Demon of Hibiya,” and thus knows he can’t go easy on her. In the ensuing one-slash duel, Yuugiri bests Itou, killing him, but is shocked that he let himself be killed.

No doubt if Itou failed to kill Kiichi, he was as good as dead anyway; he simply let Yuugiri take care of him for him. And with the snow ceasing and the clouds opening up to reveal a majestic full moon, Yuugiri accepts her fate. The next morning, Gramps wakes up and finds a letter from Yuugiri amongst the medicine.

In it, she says by the time he reads it she’ll likely be dead; beheaded by the military in a unilateral execution for killing Itou, a government official. Interspersed with her beautifully lit and solemn execution scene, she tells Gramps that if he’s truly “Saga” (as in, the human embodiment of Saga) as claimed, he’ll guide the new Saga Kiichi creates.

The following spring, May 1883, Saga re-gains independence from Nagasaki thanks to a peaceful appeal from supporters in the prefecture, and by August, unilateral execution was banned, and just nine days after that, Kiichi’s dream officially came true, as the first Saga prefectural assembly is held. Yuugiri’s death, and that of Kiichi’s comrades, weren’t in vain.

With that, we find ourselves back in the present, as Yuugiri takes center stage in a bopping swing-style concert, resplendent in period-inspired garb as her fellow idols support her. This particular concert hits different now that we’ve seen everything Yuugiri’s been through to come to this part of her (after)life.

In a very cheeky epilogue, she has some very nice whiskey in a very classy bar tended by a man who looks and sounds like a younger version of Kiichi’s gramps. He is aware that Yuugiri was alive in the Meiji era, and the black-and-white photo of her with Kiichi and Itou is behind the bar, so this guy must really be the immortal Saga.

Not only did this two-parter give the legendary Yuugiri the epic backstory he deserved, in which she was revealed a hero, martyr, and unsung founding mother to the new Saga—it also expands the mythos of the show by introducing an undying character who has been on the margins of this whole story all along, and may well be behind the necromancy that brought Yuugiri and the other idols back. In any case, I’m eager to see where this goes!

Crow and Irina talk episode 9 here!

Zombieland Saga: Revenge – 08 – The Celestial Maiden

Note: This episode was originally accidentally labeled episode 7. It is episode 8.

This is it, the much-anticipated backstory episode(s) for the oldest (by more than a century), wisest, and most elegant and domestically capable members of Franchouchou. One and a half seasons seems like far too long without Yuugiri being the focus, but good things come to those who wait.

The clock turns all the way back to 1881 (Meiji 14), when the proud proprietor and madam are meeting with the Legendary Courtesan Yuugiri at the very height of her powers. Such is her beauty and talents of entertainment, she literally priced herself out of her market!

Her richest and most devout patron showed his gratitude for her services by setting her up with her own household in Saga. I imagine he intended to live with her, but he died of an illness, and a year later, Yuugiri arrives in Saga completely alone and knowing no one. She spends her days giving the local girls dance lessons, and her evenings staring wistfully at the gorgeous Saga sunsets.

Ay, but there’s the rub: the region she moved to was once known as Saga (and will be again in the present day), but in 1882, the Meiji government considered it a nuisance prefecture, and after losing a regional war to Meiji, Saga was split up between Mizuma and Nagasaki, effectively erasing it from the map.

Local boy Momozaki Kiichi is determined to “Bring Saga Back”, making him the spiritual (if not biological!) descendant of Tatsumi Koutarou (he’s even voiced by Miyano Mamoru) . He tries to pass out flyers urging others to join his cause to create a new beginning for Saga, but he’s stopped often by the local cop, and just as often bailed out by his more jaded friend Itou.

One day, Yuugiri’s students urge her to leave her stately roost and view the cherry blossoms. She purchases a windmill, and the wind—and possibly fate—blow it out of her hands, landing at Kiichi’s feet. Kiichi is understandably bowled over by her beauty and politeness.

They’re almost both bowled over by a rickshaw, but when he leaps to push her out of harm’s way, she deftly dodges the ride on her own, and in the opposite direction, while he lands in a muddy bog. To his continued shock and shame, she soils her yukata to dry his face. We get another gorgeous shot of Yuugiri staring at the sunset, but because the red pinwheel is there, it feels significantly less lonely than the first shot.

The woman aboard that rickshaw looks just like Tae, just like many extras in the background resemble characters from the present day. It’s an fun artistic choice that reminds me of Farscape’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again” and Star Trek: DS9’s “Far Beyond the Stars”—two episodes that placed the casts in totally different roles.

Kiichi learns who he met from Itou, who is more up to speed with gossip in the prefecture formerly known as Saga. It’s rumored Yuugiri was so good, it almost brought down the Meiji court. Kiichi comes calling at Yuugiri’s house to offer a humble comb as thanks for her help; it’s then he learns he’s the first person to actually visit her other than her dance students.

Itou says that Yuugiri and Kiichi are “from different worlds” and thus hopelessly incompatable, but Kiichi rejects that cynicism and begins to build a friendship with Yuugiri, which isn’t hard because she’s incredibly nice and he’s her only adult visitor.

And then, one day, Yuugiri is in the kitchen when she feels what she charitably describes “a fresh presence” that turns out to be Itou. From this point on, and really before that too, something seemed off and sinister about this guy. That he perfectly blocks Yuugiri’s chopstick strike doesn’t dispel that notion!

The aura around Itou is so menacing, in fact, that I half believed he drugged Kiichi in order to be alone with Yuugiri. Instead, he has her put down the shamisen, offers her a drink (she graciously declines), and the two talk about Kiichi. As Yuugiri learned from Kiichi while visiting him at his “gramps”,  he was taken in by an old man after he was orphaned in the Saga war.

While Itou thinks Kiichi’s wild dreams and guileless optimism will lead to heartbreak and despair, Yuugiri admires the lad’s capacity for dreams. For all of Yuugiri’s comfort and luxury, in this era she remains the proverbial bird in a cage, idolized by all and avoided by all. Yet Kiichi, with his wild dreams, visits her and talks to her like they’re equals, and Kiichi-han’s Saga is a Saga where she truly can be free.

Before taking his leave for the night, Itou insists Japan is still too “twisted” and “barbaric” a nation for Kiichi’s dreams to ever come to fruition. Yet the next morning, a hot one, two strapping young lads approach Kiichi with his flyers in hand, interested in a new Saga themselves.

That glimmer of hope Kiichi has finally found some like-minded folks is all but snuffed out when Itou tosses a scrap of paper to an beggar who moves a lot faster and with far more purpose than you’d expect. This elicits a host of suspicions in me, from Itou plotting something horrible for Yuugiri (perhaps on orders from the Meiji court), to those two lads interested in Kiichi’s cause actually being hired muscle waiting for their chance to silence Kiichi, possibly for good.

And then there’s the overarching pall hanging over this look back: it is a look back. We know Yuugiri is already dead. I feel we just may have experience the happy half of the Legendary Courtesan’s saga. One way or another, the second half will end in tragedy as Itou predicted (and could well be an architect in that tragedy), and more than a century will pass before Yuugiri is revived by Koutarou and actually gets to see the New Saga Kiichi-han dreamed about.

Rating: 4/5 Stars

Read Irina and Crow’s discussion of episode 8 here!