Sakura Quest – 02

Yoshino I is still very much The Reluctant Queen, but Ushimatsu doesn’t care, and sets her to work immediately. He’ll let her vacate her one-year contract if she can sell a hundred a thousand boxes of “Chupakabura manju” sweets he ordered to celebrate her coronation. And she only has a week to do it—that’s their “best enjoyed by” date.

It’s clear Shiori doesn’t want her new queen to leave so soon, but she still helps Yoshino out, connecting her first with her timid but tech-savvy childhood friend Ririko, whose mother runs Manoyama’s sweet shop. The encounter helps Yoshino decide on the proper marketing strategy to sell the manju: a website.

For that, Shiori takes Yoshino to the home of another Tokyo ex-pat, Kouzuki Sanae, who seems to be slowly losing it in her dark, litter-filled apartment. When she screams due to a bug, Shiori and Yoshino barge in, and Shiori, like a boss, takes care of the bug while the other two cower. Between Riri and Sanae, I’m loving the detailed, isolated, lived-in little worlds these women inhabit within the town.

Sanae is eager to help her new town out (as well as for human contact) so she works through the night at Yoshino and Maki’s cabin to whip up a “fancyccult” website. Alas, on the first day of sales, Yoshino manages to part with precisely zero of one thousands boxes of manju.

When they try to make the queen seem contrite about ordering too much (after far too many hilarious provisos were attached to her beauty), that results of the sale of three boxes…to Shiori’s family.

Taking things up a notch, they decide to take Maki’s advice and make a video. Maki, AKA “The Oden Detective”, who has experience in acting, superhero shows, and part-time labor, plays the chupakabura, while Riri is the cameraperson.

It’s a modest but cute little production…but it only results in netting one more sale—to the creepy (Westerner?) musician Yoshi first met on the bus. The week comes and goes, and Yoshino is pathetically short of the thousand sales needed to release her from her year-long contract. 996 sales short, to be exact. And yet…she learns that’s not such a big deal.

When she asked Sanae why she left Tokyo, Sanae said she was simply sick of it. Sick of Tokyo, thought Yoshino? The place that has everything and where you can do anything? Where countless opportunities abound? Yoshino has this idea that she can’t make it anywhere if she can’t make it there, but she has it all backwards.

The economy of Tokyo alone may surpass the entire economy of South Korea, but if you apply to thirty-two companies and get thirty-two rejections, then end up with a gig as queen of Manoyama, maybe the universe is trying to tell you something: that, as Sanae says, “you don’t need Tokyo.”

At the end of the week, Yoshino made some great friends and had a lot of fun. So when Shiori tells her the cherry blossoms won’t come for a couple more weeks, she decides, all on her own, that it wouldn’t be the end of the world to spend those couple more weeks in Manoyama. And as much as I too love and admire Tokyo, I don’t blame her. She’s got a good thing going here. And she’s not anywhere near her ‘golden years’!

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Sakura Quest – 01 (First Impressions)

Koharu Yoshino has a memory of being crowned Queen when she was very little, and ever since, has felt like she was meant for greater things; that she wasn’t just a normal girl who escaped the sticks to attend college in Tokyo. Now 20, reality seems to mock Yoshino’s pretensions of royalty, and her phone’s inbox amasses “good luck” in the form of polite rejections from job interviews.

The last thing Yoshino wants is to move back in with her folks in her sleepy, aging speck hometown, and as a city boy myself, I can relate to never wanting to stray too far from the gleaming skyscrapers and sheer dense humanity of a big city.

But she’s down to 980 yen in her bank account, and when she graduates from college, her parents will either welcome her back with open arms, or cut her off. Gal needs cash, fast. So when she gets a phone call from a promotional agency she once modeled for (and by once I mean one time), offering work in the sleepy town of Manoyama, she’s in no position to decline. 980 yen will not get you far in Tokyo, after all.

So when the convertred City Girl takes the train out to Manoyama and catches the picturesque sight of mountains, gently rolling hills, farmland, and sky, she declares “there’s nothing here” and wonders if she got on the wrong train.

She didn’t, but it would seem she is the wrong Koharu. The town board chief Ushimatsu fumes about her not being the beloved (by him) idol Koharu Tsubaki, whom he meant to crown as Queen of the “Kingdom of Chupakabura”, part of a common practice of small towns raising “independent countries” for tourism purposes during the boom years.

Though the boom went bust, Ushimatsu is committed to restoring the “monarchy” and, hopefully, his rapidly aging and emptying town. Since Tsubaki died eight years ago, he settles for Yoshino, and her coronation is witnessed by a modest crowd of 150 (Note the similarity to Yoshino’s hazy memory of being a Queen).

After the coronation, Yoshino is honored with a feast—albeit just another night of eating and beer-drinking with the old town board members. It’s a warm and welcoming sight, but one gets the feeling she’s not planning on staying more than a day, and may even head back to the station and Tokyo before too long.

These are the dreaded sticks, after all. She sees the shuttered shops and wrinkled faces and remembers the hometown she left and to where she vowed never to return.

But when Shiori (who is her age) drops her off at an absolutely awesome log cabin, she meets another beautiful young woman who gives her a rude awakening: the Queen position is for a year, not a day. It was right there, black-and-white, clear as crystal, in her contract, which she clearly just skimmed.

Unable to accept her fate, Yoshino dashes out into the night, but there’s a weird ukulele player on the bus (her announcement she’s getting off and slow backing out of the bus is the best gag of the ep) and even though it’s barely 10pm, the station is closed.

She even encounters the town’s famed “Chupakabura”, the monster of legend ‘her’ kingdom is named after, and “saves” Shiori by smacking it good, revealing it’s Ushimatsu she smacked. On the ride back to the cabin, Shiori offers her heartfelt hope that Yoshino will stay, if for no other reason than so she can have someone her own age around, working together to make the town a livelier place.

Yoshino is grateful for the kind words, and the positive vibes she starts to get from the town only multiply when she returns to her ‘castle’ (the cabin was locked). A display of photos shows that she was here before. Not only that, as a little girl she was the kingdom’s 100,000th visitor, and crowned as Queen back then.

The realization that her memory was indeed real, and imbued in her a sense of privilege, was a really nice moment, but it doesn’t transform Yoshino; she’s still reluctant to stay and be Queen of Chupakabura, but with her last job prospect back in Tokyo fizzling out, she doesn’t have much choice.

Sakura Quest was a fun ride. Yoshino is an interesting character: she’s not a high schooler for once, but an adult, albeit a young one, and perhaps because of that her jadedness is much more susceptible to neutralization than she thinks. The rest of the cast seems strong too, and the show itself looks great. This has the makings of another P.A. Works winner so far.

Sword Art Online II – 23

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With the Sleeping Knight’s final victory sealed and her friendship with Yuuki forged and galvanized, Asuna still has a battle to fight; one that will define the rest of her life. And yet, here she is, setting her own problems aside and working feverishly with Kirito to help Yuuki ‘come to school’ via a remote-controlled A/V interface. It cannot be said enough: Asuna is The Best.

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It occurs to me that this like the first time in the whole two-season run of the anime (that I can remember anyway) where we sit down with Asuna’s class and just go through the normal school motions, without any other distractions (the virtual Yuuki on Asuna’s shoulder excepted). That, and the almost eerie, dreamlike way the classroom is lit, along with the enthusiasm of the class itself, gives this ordinarily mundane scene so much more weight and significance.

We’re seeing things, like Yuuki, for the first time. The cut to Yuuki in the school uniform as she gives a tremendously moving reading of “The Truck” — a story that starts with somebody looking from afar at something and wishing they could be there — so beautiful. I’m not surprised the class is enthralled by the reading, and Asuna, who can hear Yuuki’s experiences and feelings beyond the words of the book, even gets teary-eyed, as did I.

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Beautiful, contemplative, and tremendously moving — all are great adjectives to describe this episode, which I think is SAO’s best ever, despite not having one sword in it and only spending a small portion of its time in the virtual world. The first half of the episode is all about Asuna showing Yuuki both the world as it is that she’d never seen, and her life that was, in her hometown and abandoned family home.

Their entire walk, like the school scene, is filmed and lit extra-beautifully so as to underscore what a special occasion it is for Yuuki. Asuna (and Kirito) literally gave her the ability to exist in the real world again, if only in a limited way. Asuna doesn’t know it, but she’s about to be rewarded for her immense kindness.

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Yuuki talks about her mother, and how being here and now finally allows her to understand what her mother meant when she said: “God does not give us more suffering than we can bear”. She thought at first it was only another recited bible verse, but realized that her mother was surrounding and infusing those words with her own feelings and experience, as Yuuki herself did with her class reading.

Asuna tells Yuuki about own problems with her mother, and Yuuki gives her the advice she needs, borne out of the experience Asuna made possible for her, and burnished by the fact that every day Yuuki lives—be it in the real or virtual world—is to be treasured, and not wasted hiding one’s true feelings, or running away.

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Again, look how dark the room Asuna’s mother Kyouko is sitting in when she comes to her that night. They have been talking at each other rather than actually communicating, and the darkness represents their present impasse. Yet SAO II is smart and I daresay bold considering its past problems with bad guys to not portray Kyouko as just another unreasonable, irredeemable villain to be defeated and shamed.

There is hope for Asuna to connect with her mother; she just needs to figure out how to get her feelings to reach her, and how to reach her mom’s feelings as well. It’s clear to her that that can’t be done in the real world, face-to-face. Instead, she brings her mother a headset and begs her to join her in the virtual world so she can say what she has to say properly.

The office is dark, but it is also warm. There’s still hope and love in there somewhere.

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Kyouko, always driving the hard bargain, grudgingly agrees, but only for five minutes, and Asuna must first understand that she won’t be changing her mind about her having to transfer. She also demands Asuna fill out the necessary paperwork as soon as her five minutes are up.

The scene when Asuna logs in and finds Kyouko in her cabin, checking out the Sylph sub-account avatar Asuna assigned to her, is just so funny and charming, particularly when she and Asuna get in a little mini-spat about each others’ weights, which is such a mom-daughter thing to do…especially if both are lookers, which they are.

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The cabin is oddly cool in color and lighting, but like the school, the change gives what had been a routine locale for Asuna and Kirito’s crew much more of a sense of occasion and ‘special-ness’, because her mom is there for the first time. When she opens the window and the cold hush of the snowy forest fills the speakers, things get even more immersive.

Then we learn another reason why the cabin has so much sentimental value to Asuna, beyond her time there with Kirito and the others: it’s not at all unlike the real world cabin where Asuna’s grandparents – Kyouko’s parents – used to live. And one Obon when Asuna was there with them alone, and they told her how much their daughter Kyouko was a treasure to them, rising so fast and touching so many lives as a result of working so tirelessly to become great.

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Here, in that cabin, Asuna can tell her mother that while there’s nothing particularly wrong with putting the betterment of oneself above all else, it can’t be her way of life. She wants to support others, protect them, and improve their lives, while improving her own in the process. I’m not putting it nearly as eloquently or beautifully as Asuna, obviously, but it was a phenomenal exchange, perhaps one of the best in the show’s run.

T_T *Sniffle*…oh gosh, it’s so dusty in here. Does anyone have any Kleenex?

Heck, even Asuna’s mom tears up…a lot. While in the real world she can stifle her tears with her ‘armor’; here she can’t, and they come flowing out from the power of Asuna’s words. Her mom’s response to this: “What an inconvenient world”, is just such a perfect thing her character would say under such circumstances. Just one of so many great lines in this episode.

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The next morning, to Asuna’s relief, the dining room is full of light; her words and feelings reached her mother, no matter how stiff and stern she looks sitting there. She lauds her daughter’s desire to help and support others, but insists she do what is necessary to become strong enough to do that stuff, which means studying her fanny off, keeping her grades up, and getting into university.

If she can do those things, it’s fine for her to stay in the school she wants. It’s a transaction, a comrpomise; but it’s one arranged after the two parties had properly communicated, not one foisted upon the other, and so it’s one Asuna can live with.

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Aww, just look how goshdarn happy Asuna is. And she deserves it. She didn’t trick her mother or plunge a sword through her heart; she merely found a way to get what she needed to say through to her. That way was the virtual world, but in this case its trappings were that of Asuna’s memories and emotions, and not a wholly artificial fantasy world. SAO wasn’t just a game because lives were at stake; here Asuna uses ALO to fight for her life in a very different way, but it’s just as vital. And it’s all thanks to Yuuki’s moving, motivating words.

It’s a far better resolution to her conflict with her mother than I could have possibly hoped for. The writing really has soared in the Rosario Arc, as has the emotional resonance. This episode didn’t have a single sword fight or magic spell or crotch shot. Instead, it kept its characters shining even in the midst of considerable plot movements; and it moved me to tears more than once (though I’m told I’m a bit of a crybaby). For those reasons and far more, it is SAO’s best episode and masterpiece.

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Sword Art Online II – 21

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Much to my relief, this doesn’t turn into The Kirito Show just because he showed up at the end of last week’s episode. Heck, he’s not even the only guy who shows up; Klein does too. They’re only there to let Asuna and the Sleeping Knights focus on defeating the twenty people blocking the boss room. And that’s it.

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Kirito estimates he can give them three minutes; the Knights only need two ( I counted). After those two minutes of awesome, blistering battle, punctuated by a powerful charge by the Berserk Healer herself, the way is open for the boss, and Kirito stays behind, giving Asuna the victory sign.

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Facing the montrous two-headed boss for the second time, Asuna notices a special guard stance he takes whenever a gem between his two necks is hit. Asuna focuses on that gem and tells Yuuki to target it, which she does by using one of her male comrades as a step stool. In the heat of the battle, Yuuki slips up and calls Asuna ‘Sis’. That’s no surprise to me, but Asuna finds it odd.

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She shrugs it off when the boss is defeated and the Knights revel in their victory, rubbing it in the faces of the dastardly rival guild. Kirito is nowhere to be found, I guess he split after those three minutes. But as has been the case with him this entire arc, we’re just fine with him being a cameo.

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Kirito doesn’t even crash the Sleeping Knight’s party, which Asuna hosts, even though it’s held in his house. Classy move on his part, as the party is for the Knights, after all. During the party, Asuna asks if she can join them, but Yuuki seems oddly put off by the request. Sinue seems to want to say something, but never manages to. Changing the subject, Asuna suggests they check out their names on the Soldier’s Memorial.

There, Yuuki again slips up and calls Asuna ‘Sis’, but this time realizes it, and promptly and tearfully logs out. Throughout the boss battle and celebrations that followed, the idea that Asuna’s mom would pull the plug on her again was always in the corner of my mind, lending an extra layer of tension to the whole episode.

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Yet, in the end, it’s Yuuki, who has been sold as Asuna’s secret sister (or half-sister), who disappears from the game, without so much as an explanation. Why doesn’t she want Asuna learn the truth? How did Asuna play so long without getting yanked? Will they ever meet in the real world? All questions I’m hoping will be further explored in the next episode, forebodingly called “Journey’s End.”

Until then, I continue to revel in this Asuna-centric, and really Women-centric arc, really turning around what had been a lackluster SAO II Fall cour simply by treating its female characters as more than just Kirito’s suitors.

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Sword Art Online II – 20

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Asuna’s takeover of SAO II continues this week, much to my approval. When Zekken Yuuki whisks her off, I was partially expecting something more sinister than a guild of friends wanting to make memories before they have to split ways in the Spring, but it still worked incredibly well, because, Asuna was the anchor.

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Yuuki was dueling people in search of a seventh member to join the six of the Sleeping Knights – the smallest party allowed to fight a boss, and she chose Asuna to be that seventh. It’s while hanging with them that she realizes “Hey, this isn’t Aincrad anymore. My life isn’t literally at risk; I can let my hair down, go all out, and have fun!” It’s a liberating feeling.

I like the idea of this Asuna-for-hire. With her skills, exp, and rep, she can basically get work wherever and whenever she wants in ALOIt’s a similar situation in the real world in that she has the ability to be and be with whoever she wants…only in the real world, others are calling the shots for her.

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That point is made clear with the subtlety of a sledgehammer when, still beaming after meeting her new friends and agreeing to fight with them, her mom literally pulls the plug, because Asuna is hella late for dinner. It’s telling that its hard for Mom to wake her up gently, almost as if Asuna’s subconscious self doesn’t want to leave.

Pulling the plug is the only way to pull her out. Her mom is annoyed, but she’s also concerned about Asuna’s priorities, and her continued reliance on a device that stole two valuable years of her life. Still disoriented from being pulled out so roughly, “This isn’t like the NerveGear,” is all Asuna can muster. That distinction means nothing to Mom, but a multitude to us, knowing what she went through. What Mom can’t grasp is that for two years, Aincrad was her daughter’s reality.

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Depriving her of ALO, especially right now when she’d finding herself again, is to deprive her of the means to heal the psychological wounds of the NerveGear, and transition to the mindset mentioned above, that it is just a game, not life and death. Coming to grips with that and making that her new normal is a large step in re-establishing the real world as her primary reality.

Even if her mom was in the mood to listen, Asuna lacks the means to properly explain why she needs this; their experience gap is just too wide. And if Asuna’s late for dinner again, Mom is taking the machine away, period. Asuna is trapped again, and runs out of the house. Looking at her missed calls, a snowflake settles on Kirito, the boy her mother won’t let her have.

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But Asuna, to her credit, doesn’t call Kirito. The next day, she dives into ALO, meets with Yuuki and the Sleeping Knights, and go over the gameplan: they’ll hit the labyrinth and look in on the boss, and if the conditions are right, they’ll have a go at him too. She’d never betray it to her new friends, but Asuna may benefit from a quick mission here, as she’s not sure when that plug will be pulled at any time.

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The strong and balanced Sleeping Knights end up impressing Asuna with how quickly they carve through the labyrinth, but her skills come in handy early when she detects scouts from a rival guild spying on them behind shrouds of invisibility. Interestingly, though the boss makes a badass entrance, we don’t see the fight at all, but they end up losing badly.

That feels like a cheat until Asuna takes the group aside and warns them that their battle was watched by the rival scouts’ lizard familiar, which explains why their last two boss losses resulted in that boss being defeated quickly soon after. The Sleeping Knights are so into the fights, they never noticed they were doing all the heavy lifting revealing the weaknesses to their rivals. Pretty dastardly, isn’t it?

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Asuna, again taking charge, cheers the group by saying it’s not too late to avoid a third theft of their rightful glory: if they hit the dungeon and defeat the boss before the rival guild can mobilize, they’ll their names carved on the memorial wall after all.

When they return to the boss, the partially-amassed rival guild blocks their way and won’t budge. From Yuuki’s perspective, there’s only one thing for it: fighting them. She walks up to the biggest, toughest member of their guild and takes him out in three blinks of an eye. It’s a nice reminder of just how tough this girl is.

In the process, Yuuki tells Asuna “some things can only be understood through fighting”,  and suddenly Asuna thinks of her protracted battle with her mother in the real world. Because words are the only weapon she can use out there, her Mom will never truly understand her.

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That’s not to mean she and her mom need to go have at it in the dojo, of course, but it does explain their impasse. Also, there are other kinds of fighting. I’m also mindful of the fact that Asuna’s mom is out there and doesn’t understand her, but someone who is probably her sister (she’s not called Yuuki for nothing) is in here, and does.

Yuuki’s words galvanize Asuna, such that even when the rival guild’s reinforcements arrive and prepare a pincer attack, and they’re outnumbered dozens to one, Asuna is not fearful. She puts her wand away, draws her sword, and gets ready to rumble. This is where she wants to be, right here and now: fighting beside her new friends. Even if they lose this battle — and they’re probably going to lose this battle — they’ll dust themselves off, come back, and win next time.

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Really the only thing that would make this better for her is if she were having this battle with people closer to her, like, say…this guy. Oh, hey, there he is, right on cue, hiding among the ranks of the charging rival guild members, Yui perched on his shoulder.

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Don’t be mistaken: Kirito isn’t here to rescue the Damsel in Distress and fight so she doesn’t have to…not this time. This time he’s here simply to even the very uneven odds in her present battle. He’ll take on one part of the rival host, while she and the Sleeping Knights can push through the other and fight the boss.

Because of the distinction in how he’s he’s utilized here, I’m not miffed in the least by his presence. It’s a good use for Kirito at a good time. Just being there reminds Asuna that she isn’t alone, those she loves have her back, and her own battles aren’t over and lost yet, either in here or out in the world.

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Sword Art Online II – 19

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It took until just five episodes left in the damn show, but SAO II finally delivered something I’ve been yearning for since the second season was announced: an episode with Asuna as the focus, doing things. While part of me is content we got an episode like this at all, I’m pleased to report that it was a damned fine episode in its own right.

By now we’re well aware of the inner turmoil Kirito, Asuna, and the others carry with them, even though only Kirito has gotten that much screen time to explore it (as well as Sinon, whose turmoil came from the real world, not the game). What we haven’t seen is much of Asuna’s struggles with that turmoil, and just how cold and uncaring her family is to her situation.

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Asuna leaves her very cold bedroom to the huge, stodgy dining room where her mother scolds her for not being five minutes early for dinner. The dinner starts off relatively innocuous until Asuna realizes her mother is using this opportunity to tell her she plans to marry her to a countryside banker and move her to a better school so she can start college early.

This dynamic works because while Asuna’s mom is basically the villain here, she’s decidedly not evil, only cold and pragmatic: she didn’t come from money, but married into it, and she’s determined to make sure Asuna avails herself of the opportunities she’s been given in life.

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And that’s all well and good…if ignoring the fact that Asuna “one of those children who spent two years killing each other.” Her mom’s phrasing seems to be designed to underplay just how traumatizing the experience is, and shrug it off as an unfortunate inconvenience, but she can’t just wave away the emotional scars, nor the bond she formed with Kirito. Her mom’s checked into him as well (again, devaluing him by calling him a child), and forbids her to choose him as her mate.

When Asuna questions her judgment after subjecting her to the criminal Sugou as her first betrothed, her mom dismisses that as her father’s choice, not hers. Asuna is forced to retreat, but not before tossing that dig about her mom being ashamed of being from poorer parents.

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Asuna doesn’t want the path that’s been laid out for her; it’s a path laid out by parents who may on some level care about her happiness, but are forcing their own definition of happiness upon her, “for her own good.” It’s pretty tough love, and unlike Kirito, whose family situation is just peachy (aside from his sister briefly being in love with him), it’s made diving into ALO a kind of emergency release for Asuna. With the weight of the world and her parents’ expectations bearing down on her, ALO is where she has strength and agency.

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Yet even in the virtual world, Asuna admits she hasn’t done much and is worried the Lightning Flash Asuna of yore is gone, along with her innocence. Fighting Zekken — whom she’s surprised to find is a girl — is a way of validating whether she’s still “got it”, which in turn could give her more strength to face her problems in the real world.

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Zekken is a perfectly nice, polite young lady, but the surprise of her gender throws Asuna off at first – as does her ridiculous speed.

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Taking a step back and another deep breath, Asuna realigns her resolve, remembering why she’s there: not just to prove she’s still a power in ALO, but to blow off some steam. The difference in the two halves of the fight are like night and day; in the latter half, Asuna goes all out and is able to keep up…

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…Right up until Zekken turns it up and breaks out her overpowered, almost-cheating special skill. At this point, while Asuna’s resigned to losing, she’s not upset by her performance; it was a duel she can look back upon with satisfaction. Then, at the last second, Zekken holds back her blade and ends the fight. It turns out she wasn’t necessarily looking to win the duel either…only test her opponent. And Asuna passed.

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Before the duel, Kirito confided in Asuna that he thought something was fishy about Zekken, as if she were a “product of the full-dive environment.” I don’t understand that term any more than Asuna, but it is an unsubtle hint that there’s more to Zekken than just a duel-loving heavy user. The fact her player name is “Yuuki”, Asuna’s last name, is also telling.

Kirito’s suspicions are confirmed when Yuuki flies Asuna up into the sky to formally ask her to “please help [them],” meaning whatever Yuuki is, there’s more than one of her, and as powerful as she is, their duel impressed her enough to believe Asuna could be of help. And I’m sure that notion alone raised Asuna’s spirits considerably. This episode sure raised mine!

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Sword Art Online II – 18

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We start in a warm and familiar log cabin in the forest on a cold and snowy night…

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Perhaps well aware its audience would only tolerate so many recaps, SAO II wisely avoided a re-telling of what was a brief, self-contained Excaliber arc. What we got instead was still lightweight enough to make Colin Chapman blush, but rather than a random, partially-baked, pulled-out-of-its-ass Norse-loaf, both distinct halves of this episode were steeped in the SAO we’ve lived through and emotionally resonates the most for us. It was a warm, cozy episode.

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Full-size Human Yui > Tinkerbell Yui. There, I said it.

God, I almost forgot Yui was once normal-sized! Yes, we go all the way back to the halcyon time of almost perfect contentment on Aincrad’s 22nd Floor, a log cabin in the forest where Kirito and Asuna fell in love and built a home and family. Unlike Kirito, Asuna didn’t really like her home and family in the real world, so when they lost their cabin, it was like losing the only home where she’d ever been happy.

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So when Egil notifies Kirito and Asuna that the 21st through 30th floors of New Aincrad are open for exploration and clearing in ALO, they jump at the chance to find and reclaim that home. Their friends and family help out, and unlike the Jotenheimr arc, there’s an actual important purpose to their fighting that I care about. The boss on Floor 21 puts up a fight (on Christmas Eve!), but with their usual excellent teamwork the party brings it down and advance to the next level.

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Asuna’s well-earned jubilation at returning to Floor 22 to find their cabin just as they left it, and Yui returning to her normal size after they press they “Buy” button together…I’m not gonna lie, I got a little glassy-eyed myself. It’s a beautiful little moment; filled with joy. And now we know why in the episode’s cold open the gang was in that cabin!

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The timing couldn’t have been better for Asuna, either. As the daughter of a super -rich aristocratic family in Kyoto, her family subjects her to meet-and-greets and omiais with sketchy rich douchebags. There isn’t any indication she’s being forced into anything, but it’s clear ALO isn’t just an idle escape; it’s where she finds strength and control over her life. There, she has a family in Kirito and Yui and the rest of the gang. But still, you’d think her folks would let her choose for herself after she came so close to being freaking coma-raped last season.

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It’s at her home in the cabin in the woods where she’s having a study sleepover session with Kirito, Yui, Sugu, Liz, and Silica, where she learns of Zekken, a mysterious but singularly powerful dueler offering a unique eleven-hit combo sword skill that matches her preferred setup to the one who beats him (or her; they’re continually referred to without gender).

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Liz, Sugu, and even Kirito have already gone up against Zekken and lost, so it would seem to fall to Asuna to get the job done and win that skill for herself. That’s a good thing, as it would be nice to have Asuna front and center kicking ass again, as we’ve only seen the slightest tastes of her in action thus far this season.

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When Asuna is shocked Kirito couldn’t beat Zekken, Liz has a very good theory for why he lost. Sugu remarks that Kirito wasn’t slacking off, but nor did he dual-wield. As Liz puts it, Kirito will probably only ever fight with everything he’s got if the game is no longer a game, such as it was in the days of SAO and when he was fighting to free Asuna. It’s a nice bit of analysis from Liz, another one we hear far too little from.

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No green-bobbed Slylph Asuna? BOOOO!

Just kidding, Blue Asuna will do just fine for the upcoming fight. A new ending sequence prominently shows a girl who somewhat resembles Asuna but isn’t Yui or anyone we’ve met before, and furthermore matches Zekken’s general color scheme. Combined with the way the gang talked about Zekken without specific gender articles, this girl is probably Zekken herself. I for one am excited to see where this new Asuna-centric arc takes us.

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And now, your SAO II Moment of Zen:saoii18mz

Wizard Barristers: Benmashi Cecil – 08

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Well, it isn’t as if the show’s been coy about this, but damn, Cecil really is beset on all sides by foes! Thanks to the progress made between them in these last couple episodes, Natsuna isn’t one of them. She even offers to help out with research on Cecil’s mom’s case, albeit in a tsundere kind of way. And Cecil’s wise-seeming father looks past the surface tension to perceive Natsuna as a valuable friend and ally. And it looks like Cecil is going to need as many of those as she can get.

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What looked ostensibly like a “girl’s road trip”-turned-“coming home” story turned out to be much more, as the other members of the Butterfly delegation are led into a trap by their Boston counterpart, Diana who turns out to be very evil. At the same time, Cecil and Natsuna’s lovely little log cabin/maple/syrup/boat retreat is crashed by the hitchhiker Kaede, whom Cecil’s familiar Nanajiinyi felt a faint murderous intent from earlier. In addition to the correct tarot readings by both Sasori and Cecil’s dad, it’s clear that on this show, you take people’s intuitions seriously!

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Kaede challenges Cecil to a metamoloid duel, and when Cecil’s childhood home is destroyed in an instant, it’s enough to force her to summon metal from distant cities to build her own, overpowering and defeating Kaede in the process. But both Kaede and Diana’s Sudden But Inevitable Betrayals are soon cut short by a combination of Cecil and the other Barristers fighting back (respectively) and by their sudden and quite horrific deaths by unknown magical powers. Back in Tokyo, Shizumu reports to his dad that they bowed out of their “missions.” Things are definitely afoot.

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Even more intriguing is the fact that a couple weeks after saving Cecil’s life, Tento appears in Canada—and not by plane—apparently annoyed that Diana and Kaese “jumped the gun.” Obviously Tento is more than just a flirty, ketchup and whipped cream-loving paralegal, and she’s far more powerful than anyone around her is aware. We’re not even sure she’s actually on Cecil’s (or anyone’s) side. All we know is, we fully agree with Cecil that it’s time to get back to researching the incident with her mom…and this time she’s got Natsuna to help out!

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