86 – 10 – We’ve Come This Far

86 eschews dialogue and even diagetic sound, sticking with visuals and music to tell the story of Spearhead’s newfound freedom. Followed by their ever-trusty robot porter Fido, Raiden, Theo, Kurena, Anju and a far happier, less haunted Shin continue their “deep recon” mission by heading further and further from their Republic minders, camping out and keeping a low profile as columns of Legion pass by in the night.

It’s so nice to finally see these good kids get to live like the kids they are, not always having to worry about going into battle or being killed or being turned into a Legion. Being in the vivid blues, greens, and purples of nature make for a nice change of pace from their usual gunmetal grays and blood reds. They wash their uniforms, and trip to an old Imperial town nets them a boiler in which to heat a much-appreciated bath.

Shin is smiling and laughing the whole time, but still seems distracted by something, though it’s no longer his brother, whom he’s satisfied is now at rest. Like the others, I feared the worst when they woke up to find him gone, but Raiden remembered the tunnel in the town Shin took a good look at, and it leads them to a zoo where he’s found an immobile Legion with the brain of an 86, which Shin puts out of its misery.

The five stare for a long time at the skeleton of an elephant and other beasts who died locked behind bars, and wonder if they’ll end up the same way. It’s Fido, of all of them, who tells them to stop talking about such things and keep moving forward. While Raiden withdraws his question of whether Shin will be going across the water by himself—and possibly to the good Major, who doesn’t appear this week—he probably already knows the answer.

After the credits roll with almost ten minutes left, we get a retrospective of sorts of the life of Fido, starting with him finding and befriending Shin. He’s been there since this most recent cycle of Spearhead began, and probably before that, and all this time has been capturing all of these small moments of joy and grief. Shots of characters long gone smiling and playing are shown, then immediately juxtaposed of images from the day they died.

The most foreboding and indeed deeply upsetting moment we see happens at the very end, with Fido, and all of the memories he contained that for many of the 86 represented their only record of having existed on this earth, is blown up, most likely by Legion, on October 30, the latest date we’ve seen so far.

On one level, I have to think Shin and the others will be alright, even if Fido very clearly isn’t. And even with Fido’s stored “memories” have gone up in smoke, those five still carry memories of the fallen—all 576 of them, including Shin’s brother. The question is, assuming they’re alright, what will become of them? Will Shin find a way to get to Lena? I suspect next week’s season one finale will focus exclusively on her, and what progress if any she’s made in her one-woman crusade to save the soul of her nation.

86 – 09 – No Signal

“If you find yourself alone, riding in green fields with the sun on your face, do not be troubled…for you are in Elysium, and you are already dead!”—Maximus

This week, Spearhead, whose living members now consist only of Kurena, Raiden, Theo, Anju, and Shin, ride out into a vast, dark, and bleak battlefield, where the five of them must face hundreds if not thousands of Legion, because they were never even meant to make it thisfar in their military “careers”.

Of course, Shin has something else in mind: he’s singularly invested in finding his brother and putting him out of his misery. He orders Raiden to take over the unit and find cover in the nearby forest, but his four comrades aren’t about to leave him. Instead, they do what they can to give Shin a clear shot at Shourei.

As it turns out, Lena has a surprise in store for all of them: she managed to get access to the republic mortars, while also being able to swap vision in one of her eyes with Raiden so she can target more precisely. In that split second, Raiden—and only Raiden—catches a glimpse of their “pig princess” Handler.

When Lena prepares to launch a massive mortar attack on Shourei Legion’s position—which is also where Shin is, dodging and grappling—the others are apprehensive: doe she mean to kill Shin too? Far from it; instead, she’s giving Shin the opening he needs.

The impacting mortars are represented in Shourei’s mind by the young Lena slapping him into something resembling coherence, and acceptance that Shin no longer needs his brother to look after him. Instead, his brother needs to know that he’ll be at rest.

The opening is created, and Shin takes his shot, saying goodbye to his brother and then sobbing his eyes out both in grief over his brother’s loss and relief that he’s no longer a technological abomination who wasn’t allowed to die naturally.

From here we shift to Lena’s little control room, and she heeds Raiden’s call to shut off the link for now, as Shin wouldn’t want anyone hearing him cry. She then turns to a sullen-looking Annette sitting in the corner with laptops. We go back a bit to before the battle, when Lena visits Annette despite Annette saying she didn’t want to see her again.

Lena tells Annette that her old neighbor Shin is none other than Undertaker of the Spearhead unit, that she speaks to him every day, and that this is now Annette’s third chance to save him, the first two times having run away. While at first apathetic, knowing it’s Shin forces Annette’s hand. She calls Lena “the devil” for pulling such a stunt, but Lena simply says “that’s right; I am…and so are you.” Better to be devils who care.

With what was supposed to be the battle that should have wiped out Spearhead once and for all ending in unlikely victory thanks in large part to Annette’s hacking, Shin and the others give their heartfelt thanks to Lena, as well as tease her for having turned into a “bad girl” by breaking the rules to save them.

But after that, the group continues their advance without further input from Lena. In fact, all she can say as they head closer and closer to a foreboding “UNKNOWN” area is “please don’t leave me!” It occurs to her that while she made little drawings of them, her only connection to them is the Para-RAID, and soon the distance between them will grow too great to maintain that connection.

Lena bolts out of her control room and runs out of the headquarters, out into the streets, and just keeps running, all while Kurena, Raiden, Anju, Theo, and Shin describe their surroundings, mentioning a “cathedral” the same time we see the one in Lena’s capital, and describing flowers that fall when you touch them carpeting the ground.

As they approach at the barrier of District 86 and the limits of the Republic’s control area, Lena’s desperate dash to maintain reception ends with her losing a heel and ending up collapsed on a lonely cobblestone bridge, suddenly, heartbreakingly alone. Her Para-RAID blinks out, and back at HQ the signals of the five remaining members of Spearhead are lost.

Losing  Spearhead is just one of many burdens Lena will have to bear if she’s truly serious about helping all Eighty Six—not just the ones with which she cultivated a quasi-friendship. Her resolute insistence on Doing What’s Right despite being a devil demands she keep doing what she can—as long as she is able—to end the unjust suffering of the oppressed.

86 – 08 – We Weren’t Ready

A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky dangerous animals and you know it.—Kay, Men In Black

The Alba are right: the Eighty Six aren’t human. They’re better than that. The humans who populate the serene Republic of San Magnolia blindly accept the government’s policy of ethnic cleansing as the cost of peace, order, and harmony. Lena, like the Eighty Six, knows there’s a wrong, but isn’t prepared to do more wrong to right it.

It’s why when Lena discovers the orders basically sentencing what’s left of Spearhead to their almost certain deaths, she wants to rescind them. Annette pulls her out of the records room for some tea and biscuits, but when Lena once again says it’s wrong not to try to do anything, all of the simmering resentment within Annette finally comes to a caustic boil.

Annette isn’t merely “pretending” to be a bad person; she’s fully embraced the role, heart and soul. She doesn’t need an excuse to do nothing; her inaction has already caused the death of her former neighbor and friend (who it’s pretty clear from the suspenders was none other than Nouzen Shinei) while her research is built upon the deaths of hundreds if not thousands of Eighty Six.

Like the vast majority of people would in such a situation, Annette chose not to fight a force that could not be beaten, but to join them. Even though her father committed suicide after the suffering he caused developing the Para-Raid, Annette carried on his work. She might’ve scared herself when she first called her friend a “filthy colored” like her classmates did, but that fear soon dissipated into acceptance.

After everything she’s been through and done in the name of not being able to do anything else, Annette doesn’t want to hear one more idealistic word out of Lena’s mouth. After all, the Para-Raid that enables Lena to speak to Shin and the other members of Spearhead was the product of involuntary human experimentation and state-sanctioned suffering. So is her comfy bed, her crisp uniform, her tasty coffee and sweets. It’s all tainted by evil.

Annette tells Lena she hates her and never wants to see her again. I mean, we already new full well Annette wouldn’t join any potential crusade against injustice Lena might concoct, but this really twists the knife, as Lena doesn’t even have a pretend friend in the capital in which to confide.

When she confronts her uncle before the statue of San Magnolia, he tells her the orders sending Spearhead to their deaths cant be recinded because it is the will of the republic that evry Eighty Six not only die, but be forgotten and erased from having ever existed. The only way San Magnolia will avoid becoming a pariah state after the war is if the atrocities they committed against the Eighty Six never come to light.

When Lena begs her uncle to remember the spirit of Saint Magnolia, he tells her their republic was never anything other than a country full of fools and villains who executed Magnolia for their wealth and greed. She says that’s just his despair talking, but he doesn’t consider his despair any different from her hope.

If Lena werent already having one of the worst days of her life, Shin also bids her farewell, fully accepting his suicide mission. Lena deduces he’s going after his brother, but Shin doens’t want her to hear his last words. Instead, he warns her that once the Shepherd is destroyed, the Legion is temporarily thrown into chaos, .

He urges her to head for the Eastern border, where she won’t hear the Legion’s voices and go mad. He and the others will buy her some time. With that, he signs off, for what seems like the last time. Now all Lena has is her tears.

With Lena left very much at rock bottom, we return to Spearhead, now only five strong: Kurena, Anju, Theo, Raiden, and Shin. They clean up their barracks, polish up their Juggernauts, have a final meal, and then set off on their deep recon mission with their heads held high.

As we’ve learned, they’re not just doing this because the alternative is summary execution. They’re doing it for their fallen comrades, and because just because they were always called pigs doesn’t mean they’ll become them. There’s a biting sense of inescapable dread and crushing unfairness to their scenes. More than anything, they feel like five kids who shouldn’t have to be anywhere near a battlefield.

Post-credits, we get one more taste of despair in the absence of anything else, in the form of the complete flashback of Shourei choking Shinei. He had been barely keeping it together before that point, crushed by his powerlessness to do anything about the loss of his parents. In a moment of weakness, he let himself blame Shinei for everything, and nearly killing him until someone pulls them apart.

A roboticized, Legionized Shourei narrates this final scene, lamenting that he couldn’t protect Shinei before. But this time, as Shin and his four companions approach him and his Legion unit, Shourei says he’ll protect his brother forever. All he has to do is come to him…which is what he’s doing.

All I can say to any of this is damn…this is some good shit, but it is also incredibly heavy and upsetting. I can only hope that we’ll get some glimmer of light at some point before the end…but that’s hardly a sure thing.

Rating: 4/5 Stars

To Your Eternity – 06 – A Grand Objective

Note: This episode was originally mislabeled as episode 5. It is episode 6.

The original March may be deceased, but she lives on in Fushi, in the same way parents live on in their children…only different, because it’s Fushi, who can take on the physical form of his found mama. Thankfully, it’s not just her climbing ability he’s inherited, but a measure of her profound humanity.

There’s no doubt that March taught him generosity and gratitude, which he pays forward when he reunites with a stranded and hungry Pioran quite by chance. Pioran is her usual sardonic self, but isn’t beneath trying to take a literal bite out of Fushi in his boy form, causing him to switch to his defensive wolf form.

Eventually he becomes March again, climbs a tree, tosses Pioran some fruit, then says “Thank you” in a way that sounds like “This is what you say.” Pioran, in turn, starts to teach him more words, as well as how to write his name, as well as her own, March’s, and Parona’s.

The two make a good traveling team, and Fushi learns more and more, so by the time they arrive at a port town and board a boat to Pioran’s homeland, he’s able to communicate in a more-or-less conversational manner, a far cry from crudely mimicking sounds out of context. The youthful vigor of the late March as well as the seasoned wisdom of Pioran have quickly made Fushi more human than ever.

So it’s terrifying when he’s ambushed one night in the woods by mysterious tree golem-like monster who literally steals Fushi’s boy form, along with most if not all memory of the boy’s life. The narrator arrives and tells Fushi the score: the tree monster is the enemy, and if he wants the boy back, he’ll have to fight…and win.

Fushi transforms into the wolf, but the monster steals the wolf. He transforms into the giant bear, but the monster steals that too. In terms of corporeal forms, he’s down to just March, who while tiny and relatively weak, is quick and agile enough to dodge the monster’s bear form, enter its hollow chest, and grab the core that enables the golem to move.

This is a simply breathtaking action scene, marred only by the low light, which isn’t even that big a deal since it leds a great gloomy atmosphere to Fushi’s building panic at losing his forms. Like the drawings in the boy’s hut (which are updated in the card between the A and B parts), they are Fushi’s family, and he’s clearly distressed about losing them.

Fortunately, his March form is enough to grab the core, give it a good squeeze, and the wolf, boy, and bear flow back into him. He smiles in relief, and the mysterious cloaked narrator introduces himself as Fushi’s creator. He created him with a grand objective in mind: preserve the world before “the coming end”. The tree monster was their enemy, unable to take a true animal form and bent on impeding their objective.

That said, the Creator can tell Fushi can’t quite understand these concepts, and so parts ways with him until later, when he’s lived a little more in the world, and gained a few more forms. Pioran takes him to her hometown and the house of her lover, who is apparently a scholar who might be able to make heads or tails of Fushi. The house is also home to a boy wearing a distinctive mask that hides his face. Pioran rather rudely introduces Fushi as an “immortal freak.”

Rating: 4/5 Stars

Those Snow White Notes – 02 – Let Loose and Take Flight

Setsu remembers back when a girl in his class was mad he dropped out of a shamisen competition, calling him a coward who was running away with tears in her eyes. She wanted to beat him, but it was more than that: she clearly admired and respected his play as someone worth working to defeat. When he tactlessly tells her he only cares about his grandfather’s sound, she slaps him.

It’s that same cheek—along with the other one—that Setsu’s mother is grasping when he finally comes to after being gassed. Umeko, would never win Mother of the Year, but she’s at least concerned enough about her son to establish some structure to his new home in Tokyo, setting him up in a boarding house in the vibrant old town (Shitamachi) and enrolling him in school.

When Setsu tells his mom he’s lost his sound, Umeko asks how far it went, and insists he answer with his shamisen. Beside the boarding house room’s open window that overlooks a bustling street, Umeko challenges Setsu to make everyone down there turn and look as he accompanies her singing, warning she won’t tolerate disgraceful play.

It’s then, during his playing and her singing of “Tsugaru Ohara Bushi”, that we learn that while she’s by all appearances a pompous, arrogant, and overbearing force of nature, Sawamura Umeko is perfectly able to offset those traits with her singing talent. Tetsu says he “hates” her, but her voice has always made his heart tremble. You and me both, bud!

Unlike her personality when not singing, Umeko’s voice is more than a force of nature: it’s all four seasons. It’s apropos that her song can be interpreted as the life cycle of an apple tree…and a woman. From the first note she sings, the unyielding power, confidence, and beauty of her voice is plain…and terrifying.

For a bit under four minutes, I was transported to nirvana, experiencing winter, spring, summer, and autumn, feeling the wind blowing, smelling the blossoms and ripening fruit. Every single person in the crowd below stops what they’re doing, turns to the window, and listens. A girl seemingly falls in love before our eyes.

Umeko and Setsu put a spell on everyone, including me…and then Setsu breaks a string before he can finish his big solo, and it’s all over but the ovation below. Umeko admits she did this so Setsu would make a good first impression on the neighborhood, ensuring he could practice whenever he wants.

But that night, all of the praise and promised freebies from his neighbors amounts to nothing in Setsu’s angsty thoughts. All Umeko has done is ensure he can continue drifting along and going with the flow, accomplishing nothing; amounting to nothing. Methinks our boy doth protest too much…I think he’s got a pretty sweet deal here!

The next morning at the boarding house restaurant run by a father-daughter pair, Wakana arrives as promised to see Setsu to his first day at his new school. Umeko gave Setsu a choice: continue his education, or return to Aomori. The brothers’ breakfast and tense discussion is interrupted by their mother in a cosmetic ad on TV.

As they walk to Setsu’s school, Wakana tells him about the competition he just came from, in which he placed third. First Place went to Kamiki School master Ogata Kousuke, while Second Place went to his kohai, third-year high schooler Tanuma Souichi. Setsu recognizes the name Tanuma, as his little sister was in the same year as him, and indeed girl who slapped him in his flashback.

While Setsu gave up on competition to try to pursue his gramps’ sound, Tanuma Mai won in the competition’s women’s division, telling Wakana prior to the performances that he was no match for the Kamiki School…and turned out to be right. With Wakana and Setsu’s master deceased, it’s as if they’ve hit a brick wall and are “stuck in the dark”.

Between his good looks and refreshing accent, Setsu is well-received by his classmates despite his cool introduction. Wakana learns Umeko told some tall tales (and signed a fat check) to get Setsu enrolled so quickly. While in the faculty lounge with his homeroom teacher Kobayu-sensei, Setsu meets Maeda, a girl in his class who also happens to head up the school’s shamisen appreciation club.

She also happens to have a shamisen left at the school by one Ogata Kousuke. Setsu is initially troubled by the idea of a tourist like Maeda handling such a honed instrument, but lowers his hackles when she looks at him forlornly with trembling eyes and asks “Is it wrong for me…to touch it?” Phrasing!

He helps her assemble the shamisen, which has a torn skin as a result of disuse and neglect. But other than that correctable flaw (at the not insignificant cost of ¥40-50k!) he recognizes it as a particularly exquisite specimen. Maeda is smitten with it, and with Setsu, who clearly knows his shamisens. Alas, before she can properly thank him, Setsu has executed a perfect Batman exit.

Wakana meets up with him after school and presents him with the parting gift of a genuine kiri wood case, which Setsu clearly loves. Wakana also says he now understands more why Setsu left home, considering the burdens left for him there. Setsu tells Wakana how, like penguins and seals can recognize the call of their young out of a group of hundreds, he’ll always be able to pick his brother’s sound out of a chorus of shamisens.

Before Wakana takes his leave, Setsu suggests they go somewhere and play something together. They invite the boarding room father and daughter (Sakura) to join them, and they pick out a nearby Inari shrine where Sakura assures them the kitsune won’t mind their music.

Talk about it! Once again a musical number sends me straight to heaven. The two brothers play a piece with no title they came up with when they were younger and “just messing around”. As Sakura and her dad stand absolutely rapt, the brothers’ music summons images of a golden light-soaked Aomori evening. Wakana recounts how Setsu would always follow him. He’d run ahead, or climb a tree, and Setsu would fall behind and cry.

But then Wakana would take Setsu’s hand and bring him along, making sure he didn’t fall too far behind or feel lonely. Back and forth they’d go, just as their dueling shamisens chase each other. The piece gets very quiet for a bit, then they both cut loose and take flight like birds.

Sakura recognizes that this is no idle strumming, but the melody of the two brothers; the vocalization of their love and devotion; a dialogue of souls bound by blood far stronger than words could manage. With fresh strings on Setsu’s shamisen, the piece ends properly with a two-note exclamation point: blang-blang. The duet is the perfect cap to another perfect episode of Those Snow White Notes. Now the wait begins for the third episode, when Maeda will no doubt attempt to recruit Setsu into her club.

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.

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.

Warlords of Sigrdrifa – 12 (Fin) – Sending Odin to Bed Without Supper

Looking our live Big Board, Assault Lily narrowly beats Sigrdrifa as the higher-rated of the two Top Cute Girls Doing Military Stuff shows I watched this Winter. Both shows had their flaws, and while combining the best bits of both into one show would result in a superior product, I won’t pretend either was groundbreaking or life-changing.

That said, Siggy has always been more interesting and consistent than Lily with its character work, and it also happens to deliver a more satisfying and beautifully animated finale. Our four Valkyries have never been closer or more comfortable in their own skins and cockpits, and once their sights were set on victory, their dad Odin never had a chance.

Odin’s heel turn was sudden, but actually made sense when you consider he was declaring war on a world that had forgotten him and everyone he ever loved. Odin gets the second Ragnarök he wanted, but he ends up on the losing side. Claudia may remember the words to the song of Valhalla, but she doesn’t sing it for him, or for the past.

She sings it for her friends and for herself, and this week we hear a new arrangement of the song with full orchestration that makes for some absolutely kick-ass final boss music, in addition to Claudy’s singing ending the interference and revealing the location of the Pillar’s core. She destroys Odin’s illusory ideal of the attentive daughter who will stay by his side forever.

Odin is lonely and miserable in this post-mythology era, and it’s no coincidence he’s taken the form of a small child. Letting his grief pour into the human world and wreak destruction is pure petulance; a divine temper tantrum from a petulant kid in desperate need of a time-out.

In one of the best-animated scenes of the series, Azuzu is the first to crash into his god cave. He’s able to overpower her and knock her gun out of her hand, but it was never the plan for him to shoot him, only to distract him until “her hero” Miyako arrived to cleave the Pillar’s core in two with her katana. This is after Miko had already splashed Thor with her Ultra Hero Cannon. She was busy this week!

With the core—sorry, the Vandrande destroyed, the Pillar disappears, giving the Takayama command crew an unmarred view of Fujiyama for the first time in a long while. Moe and Kurumi tow Sono (who awesomely jettisoned her floats to destroy a Dark Valkyrie), Azuzu gives Miko a lift in her Wing, and Claudia joins them in a loose formation as they head home victorious.

The battle wasn’t without cost, as the Shield Squadron sacrificed themselves to ensure Miko could take out Thor. The four Valks pay their respects after the eager younger Shield Squadron successors vow to carry on their legacy for being loud, somewhat inappropriate bros. Moe and Kurumi are subjected to Satomi’s toenail clipping (it’s been a while!) and then get an official tour from their four Valkyrie senpais.

The six young women then take flight once more, dedicated to taking out the last secondary and tertiary Pillars that still threaten humanity, but armed with the knowledge that they’ve prevailed over the worst of it. All’s well that ends well in a well-executed, action-packed, and thoroughly satisfying finale.

Rating: 4/5 Stars

Great Pretender – 20 – One Mistake and You’re Gone

The fake princess job turns out to be the last job, but not in the way Dorothy’s crew had hoped. Of course, at first things unfold exactly as planned: a few doctored pictures are sufficient to convince Liu to part with $10 million for the Ethiopian princess.

Chen accompanies Kim and Oz to Osaka to abduct her while she’s being driven home from college classes. Laurent visits Dorothy, who is sleeping soundly in her tawdry cell despite the rats and foreign insects. They share a kiss before they part for the night. It turns out to be their last kiss.

The next morning, the worst thing that can happen to con artists dealing princesses-in-exile happens: pure dumb coincidence. There’s a prominent story in the paper about an Ethiopean princess-in-exile—the real one. Dorothy ends up on a boat anchored offshore.

Laurent is helpless to save Dorothy, but Dorothy doesn’t sweat matters, sticking to her code till the end by repeating “make a mistake and you’re gone.” Liu’s men go after Kim, who is apparently killed in a car chase, while Oz gives up the location of the cash in hopes of currying favor with Liu.

All Laurent can do is interpret between Liu and Dorothy…until Dorothy tells Liu to go fuck himself in his native tongue. He has an underling shoot her, and she falls overboard. The bullet just happens to break the chain holding her good luck ring, which lands on the deck at Laurent’s feet.

In the aftermath, Laurent can’t hide his pain, and envisions stabbing Liu right there in the middle of their game. He lies to Liu about his mother in France falling ill, and Liu gives him leave to visit her. The moment he’s in the air, however, he regrets not killing Liu.

Back at Paris HQ, Laurent goes down a spiral of guilt and grief when Dorothy doesn’t magically reappear. Despite watching her get shot and fall off the boat, he still held a small hope it was an expertly faked death, but while Kim did manage to pull that off, Dorothy did not.

In her last moments, she knew the time had finally come when she made a mistake, and that was it; she just wished it hadn’t been their very last job. Laurent hears a pot breaking outside and rushes out to the patio. For a moment he spots Dorothy, alive and well…but it’s just one of the cats from the end credits.

Fast forward a few years. Laurent meets Cynthia when she tries to scam him. Ozaki, who intentionally got himself arrested and put in jail for his mafia activities, is now out of jail, and we see how close he comes to bumping into his son when he visits the hospital. Laurent meets Abby right after she’s beaten up three would-be rapists. And, of course, Makoto approaches Laurent with his wallet con, which brings us back to the beginning.

I imagine those first episodes (and indeed first arcs) where his background remains so opaque would have quite a different vibe to them, now that we’ve learned so much more him. Building the team he has in the present was an effort to create a con job that would make Dorothy proud and honor her unwavering adherence to their noble thieves’ code.

And now we know why $10 million is a plenty large score this time. It was never about the money—It was about the people they were taking it from.

Warlords of Sigrdrifa – 11 – Once More Unto the Breach

A haunting dream in a field with Odin transitions to Claudia waking in the morning with a gorgeous smash cut of her outstretched arm. Her eyes are full of tears, and then the camera jumps to each of the other Valkyries: Miko doing her morning dojo routine, Azu not being a morning person, and Sono watering her sunflowers as the sun that nourishes them rises like a beacon of hope for the day.

All this pure and lovely imagery is somewhat marred by some blatantly shameless fan service of the girls disrobing and changing into their flight outfits, but the mood is salvaged when the quartet proudly marches onto the tarmac, high-five their mechanics, jump into their cockpits and take flight for a parade sortie.

Like the Valkyries, the rookies, the old farts, Satomi and his CIC staff haven’t won anything yet, but they are intent on starting off the day as confident in victory as possible. For one thing, they trust in the cute genius that is Komagome Azuzu. For another, humanity is putting everything they’ve got left into this battle. This is their second shot at the Fuji Pillar, but there won’t be a third.

Odin is similarly smug in his woody god cave, sitting on his Yggdrasil La-Z-Boy while watching the battle unfold on his waterfall TV. Visiting Claudy again in a waking dream, he offers her and her alone a chance to come over to his side. She answers this offer by thrusting her katana into his throat, and he laments his beloved daughter’s foolishness.

Part of Azuzu’s strategy is to keep humanity’s most powerful weapon—the four of them—out of the fighting for as long as possible, saving them for when things get serious. Everything goes according to plan, with the rookies and fogies reaching beyond Point C before the Valkyries relieve them.

Despite the progress, and the fact his secondary pillars are being engaged all over Japan in a coordinated attack, Odin is unconcerned. He still has his wing of Zombie Valkyries and Thor and his hammer. The first hammer attack misses the base, but they can’t let it get off too many more if they want to come out of this alive.

Azuzu has been able to predict all of Odin’s moves thus far, which only inflates her ego further. Miko trusts “her Azu” from head to toe. Sono is embracing her tough side. Claudia has embraced the other three as her sisters and Tateyama as her home, and you can bet your ass she’ll fight with her last breath to protect those people and that place she’s come to love.

And while Sigrdrifa has broken our hearts a couple of times during its run, I highly doubt it will be so cruel as to withhold a victory for humanity. Especially in his gaudy new getup, Odin is a villain specially engineered to be brought low by the heroes and done in by his own smug arrogance.

Assault Lily: Bouquet – 11 – A Drop of Morning Dew

Apprently, there is no separating Yuyu from Misuzu. Wracked by grief and guilt in the third and sixth episodes, Yuyu went on rampages and Riri was able to calm her, probably by using her Rare Skill Charisma. But that seems to have only been a temporary fix, as some lingering version of Misuzu continues to haunt and influence her.

As Riri’s Legion decides to throw a “ramune party” for Riri, Moyu reports the findings of her research, which suggest that not only did Misuzu possess the Rare Skill Charisma (like Riri), but that Charisma has influenced the Huge and caused them to evolve.

Moyu, an old friend of Yuyu’s, isn’t able to get much of anything useful out of Yuyu, as the Misuzu in her head seemingly tightens her hold on her, making her less useful and responsive. Moyu knows something is wrong, but unless Yuyu says something, she cant help.

Instead, Yuyu keeps returning to her past with Misuzu, who comes off like a young Anakin Skywalker, slowly being consumed by the fear and anger her powers are creating, and thus talking about things she wouldn’t say to anyone else. Young Yuyu is so glad to be loved, she doesn’t seem to realize Misuzu is serious about wanting to be killed if she “goes too far”.

When Riri tries to bring Yuyu back into the here or now, she’s unsuccessful; Yuyu’s simmering pain and the influence of the Misuzu in her head are too overwhelming to bother with Riri or parties. Misuzu wonders if it’s Yuyu with the Charisma. Just then, three bright lines streak up into the sky from the Huge Nest.

Those three objects eventually land, creating craters and forcing the evacuation of the academy. The three objects become active and combine their Magie into a single object. Even the Acting Chairman seems unsure if they’re going to be able to get out of this one. All of the Lilies discover their CHARMs have no Magie; the objects created some kind of dampening field. Only Riri’s CHARM works, and she heads off to find Yuyu.

Yuyu, who has all but Gone Bye-Bye, reliving a disturbing memory of Misuzu comparing her to a drop of morning dew. Misuzu is fighting with every fiber of her being not to destroy Yuyu like she did that beautiful but ephemeral drop…to hold back “wicked feelings.” Very Dark Side-y. It’s confirmed when the developing Huge flashes the same Rune Misuzu flashes when she uses Charisma to silence Yuyu in the flashback.

It’s clear Misuzu controls Yuyu still, as Yuyu tries to enter Lunatic Tracer mode to attack the developing Huge. When Riri arrives to try to take her out of harm’s way, Yuyu accuses her of trying to control her like Misuzu did. Riri, noting Yuyu’s CHARM has no Magie, she smacks it out of her hands, ruining it in the process.

Riri assures Yuyu that the Misuzu she’s seeing and interacting with isn’t the “real” Misuzu…but how can she know that? She then heads off, again, on her own…again. How did that work out for Yuri, again? The rest of the Legion may be all but powerless, but they’re still united in their desire to help Riri…somehow.

As for Riri, she comes face to face with the biggest, meanest, most advanced Huge yet; a Huge whose evolution has seemingly been sped along to near-perfection by Misuzu. Back in the dorm, Yuyu calms herself enough to remember there’s a CHARM she can use: the Dainsleif in the research lab. Sure enough, its Magie is still active. But will Yuyu use it to help Riri fight the Huge, or will she simply fight Riri?

Assault Lily gets super dark this week, building on a lot of bandied-about ideas about the similarities between the Lilies and their Nemeses the Huge. But I can’t help but feel like we’re treading on worn ground with Yuyu and Misuzu. I like all the dark new revelations that surfaced this week, but Yuyu’s previous struggles lend these events an air of repetitiveness.

The Yuri arc, on which considerable time was spent, doesn’t seem to offer much to all of this, or at least the show isn’t making a potential connection clear, other than possibly Misuzu chose to be a Huge while Yuri chose to be a Lily. I almost wish the Yuri story had been excised in favor of more development of Yuyu and others.

Warlords of Sigrdrifa – 10 – Don’t Be a Memory Just Yet

Odin makes it official via hacked video feed at an international summit: he’s provided humanity with weapons to use, a motive to fight, and now enemies to fight. Now it’s up to them to resist their destruction. As far as he’s concerned, Ragnarök isn’t over—it’s still nigh.

Miko notes that Sono has seemingly become stronger following the loss of Yayoi, and also proposes they carry on with Tateyama’s summer festival in spite of the ongoing crisis. After all, if not now, when? Claudia accompanies Satomi on various PR gigs to shore up support for the next battle.

As for Azuzu, she’s extra-burdened by the weight on her shoulders, believing she’s the only one around her “smart” enough to comprehend that if they lose the next battle, it’s curtains for humanity. When Miko wakes her up and presents a yukata for the festival, Azu is furious: how can you think of festivals now?

She lashes out at Miko and runs off because she’s scared, and Miko knows it, so she runs around trying to locate her. Sono hides Azu, but maks it known that pretty much everyone agrees with Miko that this isn’t just an appropriate time to celebrate and make memories, but the only time. After the next battle, memories may be all remains of them.

After a brief chat with Claudia, who is as happy and at home in Takeyama as ever, Miko realizes where Azu has gone: the same vantage point where she used to gaze out at the sea when she first arrived. Azu is scared, and apologizes for being weak; Miko tells her she’s scared too, and tells her not to confuse being a crybaby with being weak.

The two lean closer, acknowledging that they may die very soon, but Miko assures her that if one of them dies, both of them will, leading to the most haunting lines of the series: “I’ll wake you in heaven for breakfast.” Now that they’ve made up, they join Claudy and Sono for the festival.

It’s a big success, as they and the townsfolk have a ton of fun doing standard festival stuff. Miko has Azu cram into her Hero Wing to apply the finishing touch: a fireworks display during the casting of water lanterns, meant to console the living as much as guide the dead.

Claudia takes it all in, as it confirms her feeling of home in this place where she one felt so out of place, and adds her song to Miko and Azu’s display, tearing up in the process. When Satomi and the head mechanic see her cry, that settles it: they, and everyone beneath them will do everything they can to protect those tears. The calm has now come and gone, and now it’s time for the decisive storm.

Assault Lily: Bouquet – 10 – Four-Leaf Clover

The big question going into this week was “What Now?” Would Riri and her Legion try to find a way to bring Yuri back, or would she accept and process her loss? This is answered pretty quickly: Yuri is gone, and she’s not coming back. As a formality, Riri is serving a week in solitary confinement.

Even her Schutzengel Yuyu can only visit her for ten minutes. It’s clear Riri’s building a hard shell in which to put all of her regret and sadness, and Yuyu wants to do something about it. So she asks the rest of the Legion to help her look for her missing four-leaf clover hairpin, which she lost in the battle.

They all think of ways their perception-based rare skills can be combined and experiment over the next six days, but without success. They mostly end up exhausting themselves and requiring long soothing baths to recover, but no one wants to give up.

During one of those bath sessions, other Lilies learn what Riri’s Legion is up to, and they want to help contribute if they can. Meanwhile, Kaede seems busy using the crafts workshop to create a new four-leaf clover for Riri.

On the seventh and final day before Riri is released, Yuyu and her Legion are shocked to find virtually the entire school has come out to the beach so they can all combine their magie into one massive ultra-precise search net.

It works: the location of the pin is determined, and Kaede rides on Thi Mai’s back and they race out to the open water to recover the pin…at the cost of getting very cold and wet and needing to sit by a fire afterwards.

When Riri emerges from her cell, she’s surprised to find not just her Legion members, but all of the other Lilies who helped out and were concerned about her. Kaede presents the four-leaf clover she made, and Riri recognizes it as a fake, as hers always had a crack in one leaf.

Kaede owns up to having found the genuine article early in their weeklong search, but it was so badly damaged she feared presenting it to Riri would do the opposite of cheer her up, so she spent long nights crafting a new one from scratch.

Kaede is contrite for duping everyone, but Riri gives her a big hug, thankful for her and everyone else’s efforts on her behalf. Then, despite being happy, tears start to fall, and before long she’s bawling her eyes out. Yuyu is glad she’s letting it all out; its a catharsis Riri’s imprisonment had unnaturally delayed.

Now that she’s free, Riri can finally visit Yuri’s grave and pay her respects, and the subject of Yuyu’s Schutzengel Kawazoe Misuzu comes up, with regard to how Yuyu managed to get over her death. Yuyu says it simply takes time and the acceptance that the past can’t be changed. Then the “ghost” of Misuzu appears and speaks to Yuyu (Riri can’t see her).

This is an odd coincidence, because a CHARM has been recovered from inside a Huge five months ago, and Moyu determines that its owner was…Kawazoe Misuzu. Is the ghost just in Yuyu’s head, or is it a product of Mizusu’s CHARM somehow “influencing” the Huge?