Vinland Saga – 16 – End of His Rope

Askeladd’s luck ran out the moment Anne was found by Thorkell’s men. The weight of his army steadily bearing down on Askeladd’s comparatively paltry band fills this episode with increasing tension. While there are warriors like Bjorn and Thorfinn who will never betray him, those two aren’t nearly enough to counter the precipitous drop in morale, and thus loyalty, among the majority of his men.

When I think of how much fun Askeladd and his men once had earlier in the series when his luck was riding high, it only puts his current predicament into greater focus. By episode’s end he can count on one hand the number of men he can truly count on, with fingers to spare. When an English captain simply won’t talk no matter how many fingers Askeladd snips off, it’s almost the final nail in the coffin for him; a sign that he’s lost his power.

When your men are all either worshipers of older gods or of no god at all, they put their trust in a leader with luck and strength, and Askeladd’s is almost totally out. His side plan to force Prince Canute to toughen up pretty much takes a back seat to the far more pressing matters of how long it will be before Askeladd’s men turn against him, and when Thorkell will finally catch up to them.

Thorkell’s name invokes far more fear than Askeladd’s at this point, which means Askeladd’s time is almost out. However, it’s not yet certain whether his longer-term plan to “reform” Canute will fail. All we see is that after he leaves Ragnar behind without any kind of funeral and slaps Canute across the face, Canute starts adopting a far more Thorfinnian visage.

Askeladd is nothing if not perceptive, and has no illusions about how things will go down once the men who are done with him gather enough allies within their ranks to pull something off. That’s why when Thorkell finally appears on that horizon—the glinting from the tips of his mens’ spears portending dread, while his own thrown spear impales three men and beheads a fourth—Askeladd has the best possible defensive position he can have.

Bjorn is at the reins of the lead sled with Thorfinn, Canute, the priest, and two horses when the rest of the men surround Askeladd, calling for an end to his leadership. It is without doubt the most precarious position he’s ever been in, but one should never underestimate Thorfinn’s desire to have at least one more duel with Askeladd—which means keeping him alive…maybe.

Vinland Saga – 15 – Every Father Loves His Child

In the aftermath of Askeladd’s cruel slaughter of the villagers, Prince Canute, Ragnar, and the priest pray to God the Father before the mass grave. When the drunken priest voices his doubt of that father’s love, Canute erupts in outrage, saying all fathers love their children.

But if the priest’s faith was shaken by the massacre, it should be buoyed somewhat by the fact a survivor—Anne, from last week’s masterpiece—managed to get away without anyone noticing. She makes it to Gloucester, where as luck would have it, Thorkell’s army is encamped. Eager both to see Canute and fight Thorfinn again, he immediately prepares to head Askeladd’s way.

The foundation for Canute’s outburst at the priest was no doubt laid by his first outburst, which was in response to Thorfinn’s disrespect. In other words, the kid is finally growing a bit of a spine, at least insomuch he’s less weary of speaking his mind. In the same way, Finn’s “domestication” continues thanks to being around Canute, who secretly cooks as a hobby despite his father’s deep disapproval with his son “acting like a slave.”

Ultimately, Canute will probably have to rely on his frenemy Thorfinn after the events of the episode’s final act, in which Ragnar is killed and Askeladd assumes Canute’s guardianship.

Askeladd believes it’s for his own good, and considering how much Ragnar had coddled Canute to that point, it’s hard to argue that point. Still, Askeladd makes this move unaware of a truth Ragnar ironically would only tell him with his dying breath: King Sweyn always intended for Canute to die in battle so his other son Harald would assume the throne.

Despite how badly his father has treated him, Canute still believes his earthly father loves him, but that’s not the case; he was fine with discarding him. Thankfully, the father upstairs may still love Canute, because Canute still has Thorfinn by his side.

Vinland Saga – 14 – The Luck of the Wicked

I’ve seen much of the rest of the world. It is brutal and cruel and dark, Rome is the light. —Maximus, Gladiator

Forget about Thorfinn for a moment. He’s not the protagonist this week, Anne is. Anne is a young Englishwoman whose family is large, poor, and devoutly Christian. But even if Rome was once “the light”, it has long since fallen, while the world remains as brutal and cruel and dark as ever, if not more so.

Anne has a secret: she’s come into possession of a beautiful ring. We later learn she’s not sure how much it cost, because she didn’t buy it; she stole it from the market. By doing so, she broke one of the Ten Commandments, which her pious father has no doubt drilled into her means a one-way ticket to hell.

Anne understands she’s sinned on one level, because she keeps the ring hidden from her family in the hollow of a tree. But on another level entirely, she’s just so goddamn delighted to have this gorgeous ring! It seems to give her no end of pleasure. At present, her love for the ring overrides her fear of God’s judgment.

Two of Askeladd’s men, whose banter we’ve seen during various marches and battles, are trying to understand the drunk priest’s concept of “love.” Does the longstanding brotherly bond between the two constitute that kind of love? The priest doesn’t know.

Does whatever amount of silver would break that bond constitute that love? Is the priest’s own veneration of booze love? He wouldn’t call it that; needing booze due to addiction and loving it are far from the same thing.

Ultimately, the warriors can’t understand the priest’s words, but they can remember another “weirdo” who used to talk in strange, seemingly contradictory riddles. Thors said “a true warrior didn’t need a sword”. Thors may not have been Christian, but to the drunken priest who never met him, Thors may as well have been describing Jesus.

Still, most warriors in this cruel dark world still carry swords, like Askeladd. He’s a man like Askeladd, who would probably be the first to say he owes a lot amount of his success as a warrior and a commander to luck. Even all the skill and experience he has, he could not have gathered without luck.

But his luck seems to have hit a snag: the countryside has been beset by harsh wintry weather that threatens to kill his men long before he reaches his destination. Ragnar believes Askeladd’s luck has run out altogether, and that nothing he does will be able to change that.

But Askeladd isn’t out of luck; not really. If he were, they wouldn’t have encountered a village to plunder for food…Anne’s village.

When Anne’s large, devout Christian family sits around the table for a meager (but very much appreciated) repast, her father says the Lord’s Prayer as Grace, and explains to the younger children why it is important to say it, and to obey the Commandments. When the day of judgment comes—and father believes it will comes soon—the faithful and righteous will ascend to heaven, while the sinners will descend into hell.

This is enough to frighten the little ones, but when Anne quietly excuses herself from the table to “go pee,” it seems more out of discomfort than fear. Outside, as the cold winds and snow lash, she recovers her precious ring, puts it on her raw, rough hand, and revels in its beauty. And while she’s out by the tree, Bjorn bursts into her family’s house.

Askeladd still has luck, but it isn’t perfect, and isn’t without cost. When he learns there’s only enough food in the village for fifty villagers to last the winter, the choice is plain: either he and his men starve, or they kill the villagers and take their food. He decides on the latter, making use of what luck he was given.

The villagers—men, women and children—are rounded up and slaughtered. Anne survives that slaughter, because she’s hiding behind a tree. You could say she was lucky, at least in terms of being able to stay alive, in spite of the fact she broke one of God’s commandments. If she hadn’t stolen the ring, or gone out to admire it, she’d have met her family’s fate.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God—Matthew 5:8

Was Anne’s father’s heart pure? Her mother’s? The hearts of her younger siblings and other relations? Did they ascend to heaven upon being murdered, leaving her alone in the cruel dark world below? Was her luck merely a curse, keeping her bound to cruelty and darkness her family will no longer have to endure?

Anne wanders off, neither spotted nor followed by Askeladd’s men, and the winter storm passes. She reaches a spot where the crescent moon looms large. She asks God if her family made it to heaven, but declares that she’s “elated” not to be sent there herself.

Shocked to have witnessed what Askeladd and his men did without fearing God’s punishment in the slightest (since, of course, they believe in entirely different gods), she’s as elated in that moment staring at the moon as she was when she stole the ring.

Maybe she sees in those wicked men, and in her own wickedness, a different kind of purity—of a kind she can’t quite describe, but which bestowed upon those wicked men the luck to find food, and upon her the luck to survive at least one more harsh winter night.

Val x Love – 01 (First Impressions) – Love is the Source

This is the story of Akutsu Takuma, who is huge and scary-looking and thus is always likened to an akuma or demon and ostracized. In reality, Takuma is just as scared of people as they are of him, and prefers to live and study alone.

And yet, after a discussion among class boys about the school’s three most beautiful girls, Takuma comes home to find not just those three beautiful girls (in the middle of undressing no less) but five other women of various ages, all of whom have the same last name Saotome which isn’t his. He doesn’t like this situation, but it’s been this way for some time.

Val x Love makes an interesting choice to ease us into its supernatural elements by first presenting everything mundanely, and offering only hints as to what the Saotome sisters really are, why they alone don’t fear him, and why Takuma has allowed them to take over the house he inherited from his departed parents.

What is prevalent throughout the episode are references to a spate of recent “suspicious attacks” that many attribute to akuma; but until one actually appears, one could imagine people were only being superstitious (if you didn’t watch the OP, that is). In reality the attacks are being caused by summoned demons, one of which Takuma encounters when he’s out shopping with the second-youngest sister Natsuki, on the orders of the second-oldest, Ichika.

The other sisters gather on the roof to watch the result. Turns out the nine of them are Valkyries of Valhalla, brought to Midgard by Odin to save humanity. Because “love is the source of a maiden’s power”, the more they are loved, the stronger they are. Natsuki was chosen by the others to level up first, and after Takuma is wounded saving her from falling debris (not the first time that’s happened), she disrobes, has him massage her breasts, and kisses him.

In a massive flash of heavenly flame, the giant akuma is utterly eliminated, and for a few moments we see Natsuki in her Valkyrie form as Siegrune, The Blade, before passing out in Takuma’s arms. This makes Takuma Einherjar (named after those who died in battle and go to Valhalla), here the lover of the nine Valkyries appointed by Odin to raise their levels.

If that all sounds like a lot of poppycock, I’m here to tell you…it’s not the worst? I was expecting more comedy from a show that had it among its genres, but it mostly arose from the fact such a large brute as Akuma is so intimidated by everyone, and yet has what in his case is a case of very-unlucky lechery. The akuma designs are marginally striking, while the action was brief but convincing. High marks also go to Technoboys Pulcraft Green-Fund, who composed all of the music.

For those who see the Valkyrie angle as just another excuse for a lame harem, consider that Takuma’s strong reluctance to have in one feels more genuine than most harem MCs. His introverted personality and public perception that constantly feed his self-loathing make him a sympathetic lead. As he is the source of love that powers the Valkyries, they too could fuel a transformation in him from someone who only hopes to become a quiet, respectable person to something far greater.

DanMachi II – 12 (Fin) – A Goddess’ Love

While last week’s cliffhanger, in which Bell, Hestia, and Ais literally fell off a cliff, hinted at more action and peril in the finale, we end up with no such thing. My expectations were duly subverted; thank you, DanMachi! The episode skips to the part where Ais has already effortlessly saved everyone, and Hestia is in bed recovering from a fever.

They end up in a gorgeous mountain village, whose mayor Karm and daughter Rina are more than happy to host a goddess. When Rina proves more than capable of taking care of her, Hestia puts Bell to work helping the villagers prepare for their harvest festival. Ais joins him, donning some very fetching village garb.

So…what’s the twist? Isn’t everyone in this village a bit too kind? When does the other shoe drop? Well, it doesn’t. Bell and Ais never encounter any more enemies, be they Ares’ children or anyone else. The village doesn’t even have a dark secret; the scales of the legendary Black Dragon are on proud display for all to see, their mere presence keeping monsters away and enabling the village to prosper. Ais gives them the stink-eye, but that’s all.

The lack of any classic conflict allows the episode to be a meditation on the goddess-child relationship, represented in the present by Hestia and Bell, and in the past by Karm and his goddess Brigid. Once a brash young adventurer himself, he and Brigid loved one another, so much so that she saved his life at the cost of returning to heaven.

Filled with grief and regret, he swore never to take a wife and instead adopted Rina, who keeps him going. But as his life continues to wind down, he impresses upon Bell the importance of honoring and protecting his goddess at all costs.

Bell takes that to heart when a recovered Hestia joins him and Ais at the festival. Rather than bookending DanMachi with Bell-Ais dances, Bell remembers Karm’s words and how he spurned Hestia last week by saying the wrong thing, and formally asks her for a dance.

The fun is interrupted by Rina, who brings Hestia back to speak to Karm, who is very near death. While everyone around her is weeping, Hestia maintains an ethereal calm about the whole thing, keeping things light and upbeat as she speaks to Karm.

Turns out she and Brigid were best friends (though, like Loki she used to call her a shrimp), and she lets her hair down so Karm can see her as Brigid with his failing eyes, calling him to join her in heaven. Bell can’t help but weep as Hestia shuts the departed Karm’s eyes—he can’t help but see his own future in the scene.

Bell wanders off on his own, but is soon found by Hestia, who suspects he’s worried about their very lifespans and resultant perspectives on time. But she tells him not to overthink things. If he wants to be with her—and he very much does—then there’s nothing to worry about. She’ll be with him, all throughout his life, even when he grows old.

Even when his soul rises to heaven, is wiped clean, and returns to earth as someone else. She’ll simply find that person and ask them to be in her Familia. There’s no need to fear their love for each other, because even if his body isn’t eternal, she, and that love, most certainly are.

With that, Bell, Hestia, and Ais return to Orario. They vow to return to the village—I can’t blame them, place was super-cozy—and Ais has Bell promise to bring her along, inviting Hestia’s ire. Haruhime invites it too when she welcomes bell home with a big hug.

As action-packed, world-changing finales go, this…wasn’t that. In a way, it was something better—or at least far truer to what a goddess like Hestia is all about: the warmth and comfort of the hearth, and the kindness and love of a happy home.

Fruits Basket – 25 (First Season Fin) – Fighting Their Way Forward

Kyou quickly came to love Kazuma not just as a foster parent or guardian or shishou, but as a father, but because of the stigma carried by his status as the Cat, he always felt he didn’t have the right to call him one. Kazuma took Kyou in in part as an act of penance after even he treated his kind grandfather with cruelty and revulsion, only to be forgiven with a smile.

Then Kazuma began to love Kyou like a son, but found himself never quite able to say so. Matters weren’t helped when Kyou would forcefully insist he was no son of his when he (often) got into trouble. Kazuma also feels it would be too selfish to continue to see Kyou as a son after forcing him to reveal his true form to Tooru, so he leaves without saying goodbye.

But Kyou is glad what happened last week happened, and it could not have happened without Kazuma…or Tooru. After years of sparring with his shishou, the two finally connect on an emotional level and acknowledge that they are, in every way that matters, father and son. Tooru is the bridge that makes that possible…and in a neat touch, that connection happens on a bridge!

While everything is peaches in Kyou-land, and he is committed to becoming more independent and tempering his fiery nature when needed, the rancor between him and Yuki has not ceased. Judging from Yuki’s body language, part of that may be due to Kyou’s recent “monopolization” of Tooru.

In this regard he’s going through something similar to Saki, who had to fight back the notion of Tooru spending less time with her and more with the Souma’s as something bad, since constant possession isn’t love. Heck, Kagura is experiencing the same thing, only with Kyou.

While Tooru’s attention—and her heart—is split among many different parties, she’s not alone in worrying about Yuki. Haruhatsu, one of the more emotionally intelligent Soumas, also notices something’s off, and so makes sure to remind Yuki that just because Tooru’s been busy with Kyou of late doesn’t mean she’s forgotten about him or worries about him any less.

Yuki then seeks Tooru out on the stairs, thanks her for her continued worrying, and commits to spend more time outside doing things with people this summer…and with Tooru in particular, even breaking out a modified wall slam in semi-jest!

It’s clear the second season will likely involve the continued push-pull of Tooru between Yuki and Kyou, but both have become categorically better people with her in their world, so it’s all good in the Soumahood.

While the show makes it clear that it will be far from smooth sailing all the time in the second season, those hoping for the first season to end on a hopeful positive note can breathe a sigh of relief. One after another Soumas gather at Shigure’s for a big celebratory meal with Tooru; the only major players missing being the two yet-to-be-introduced Zodiac animals, and Shigure, who is meeting with Akito.

Before joining the others, Hiro meets with Rin, perhaps one of those two  animals, while the other could be the faceless guy with the faceless female friend who spots Yuki at school. But there’s no devastating cliffhanger that upends everyone’s lives or threatens Tooru’s marvelous little world.

Instead, she’s looking forward to a fun-filled Summer with everyone. I hope, after all she and the Soumas have been through, they’ll be allowed at least some of such a Summer before the next storm(s) arrive. With quite a bit of source material yet to be adapted, we can reasonably expect plenty more of this wonderful show well into 2020 and beyond. I can’t wait!

Fruits Basket – 24 – The Rosary

When Kyou’s mother committed suicide, everyone blamed him because he was cursed with the Cat spirit; everyone but Souma Kazuma, who took him under his wing and trained him without judgment. It was Kazuma’s grandfather, after all, who carried the spirit before Kyou, so even though he himself didn’t know what it was like, he was close to someone that did, and had empathy for them both.

Now Kazuma is back, and while he doesn’t show it around the others, Kyou is elated. He assumes he’s to go back to living with his shishou and continue his training. But Kazuma is there for something else. He’s seen Kyou with Tooru, and believes it’s time to tell her the truth about what Kyou is, even if Kyou would prefer to keep running away from that truth.

Kazuma doesn’t see much point in dragging things out. After informing Tooru, he takes Kyou’s arm and removes the rosary of red and white beads that never leaves his arm. Once it’s off, his true form is revealed, and it’s a truly terrifying, monstrous form with a smell to match. Throughout the transformation, Kyou recalls how Akito reacted (how you’d expect Akito to react—with utter disgust and rejection).

He expects the same reaction from Tooru, and while she’s initially frozen in shock, and later nauseous from the sight and smell of him, she still dutifully chases after him, completely forgetting that she just got over a cold!

Assuming she’s only there to have pity on him and offer hollow comfort, both things he’s sick to death of, he tosses her aside, hoping to hurt her enough so she’ll never forgive him. This strategy fails, of course, because we’re talking about Tooru here.

Kyou is weary of Tooru’s comfort (the “lukewarm bath” in which he’d gotten too pruny) because that’s what he got from his late mother: she gave him the rosary, checked his arm dozens of times a day to make sure he was wearing it, and wouldn’t let him outside. He could never trust or accept the love she insisted she had for him because she worked so tirelessly to hide his true form, sweeping it under the rug like it didn’t exist.

Even though his mother told him all the time that she’d die for him, that wasn’t what Kyou needed, or needs. What he needs, and what Tooru ultimately provides, is not an assurance she’ll die for him, but that she’ll live life with him. She doesn’t claim to have all the answers, but she won’t look away or turn away from him, even in his true form.

Tooru fears Kyou never returning to Shigure’s house more than the reality of his true form, so she takes hold of his misshapen limb and doesn’t let go, until he transforms back into human form, and then into his cute Zodiac cat form, and they return to the house together triumphant and to Kazuma’s relief.

In this regard, Tooru has emerged as his new proverbial rosary; one that doesn’t hide what he is but accepts it and is committed to living with him anyway. And however dark the future gets, he’s able to move past his dark past because she’ll be right there facing that future beside him.

Fruits Basket – 23 – Back to Basics

After episodes introducing various new Soumas and episodes that delved into the pasts of Arisa and Saki, this week’s Fruits Basket refocuses on the core of Tooru, Kyou and Yuki and the imperfect but effective dynamic between them that makes this whole thing work so well.

As we know, Tooru has a bit of a complex when it comes to valuing herself, and setbacks like failing a test Yuki helped her study for only acts as a catalyst for her self-loathing, as she repeatedly calls herself a “disgrace.” Then she catches a cold, only adding fuel to that fire.

Once the Soumas finally get her to lie down and rest—the only way she’ll get better—Kyou prepares rice porridge for her unbidden, and provides an open ear who’ll listen to her troubles. Turns out she’s worried about breaking her promise to her mom to graduate high school.

Kyou tells her not to sweat it—she can take makeups—nor to worry about putting Yuki out—he’s happy to help her and provides more notes. Ultimately, Kyou just wants her to feel better so she can get back to being the bright, cheerful, dottering Tooru they all know and love.

Kyou manages to cheer her up, and thanks to Yuki’s notes, she passes the makeup tests. While walking home in the rain (which makes Kyou uncharacteristically sluggish) the camera cuts to an unfamiliar figure whose face is obscured by an old-fashioned umbrella.

But the real storm is back home, where Kagura is lying in wait to see Kyou. Shigure manages to get the two out of the house to buy groceries with a minimum of property damage, which he bills to Kyou and Kagura’s bank accounts. Tooru learning that all the Soumas have these interconnected accounts reminds her how much she has yet to learn about them.

We’ve seen Kyou and Kagura “interact” (read:brawl) before, but never in a public place, where Kagura mentions “that thing” he hasn’t yet told Tooru, and he erupts at her without regard to the fact they’re in the middle of a crowded supermarket.

Kagura may be overbearing and clingy but you’d think Kyou would learn that being an ass to her won’t make her stop loving him, so he might as well make the best of the situation. He has his moments, as when he agrees to hold hands home, but alas, only half of the way.

Tooru’s weathered old ballcap and Kyou’s secret are enticing callbacks issues lingering under an otherwise pleasant slice-of-life outing, and one more wrinkle is added at the very end when Kyou encounters the umbrella guy at the front door, and refers to him as Shishou, indicating this is the man who trained him in martial arts.

I wonder what he wants with just two episodes left in the season?

Fruits Basket – 22 – An Answered Prayer

Or: Why Kids Are Total and Complete Trash, Volume #3,692

Present-day Hanejima Saki’s “Waves” aren’t just a rumor about her, or some kind of occult quality she happens to believe in. They are an actual power, like ESP. I shouldn’t be surprised—this is a world where people turn into adorable animals when hugged by the opposite sex—and seeing how much a younger Saki suffered from the inability to control those powers really puts the person she now is into perspective.

But here’s the thing: she didn’t become a different person. She’s always been the same person: quiet, kind and gentle, and loyal to those who love her. Her problem in the past was, she feared her powers, and when human laws couldn’t be employed against her, she decided that whatever horrible bullying she received was punishment she was due.

Kids bullied the hell out of Saki, and it wasn’t until two shitty boys were holding her down to make her eat a live newt that she finally thought I want this boy to die that her ability had a physical effect, knocking the kid out for hours.

While its understandable for her to fear her power and even hate herself for it, that position totally ignores the fact that the little shit instigated things, and bears most of the responsibility. If he’d simply treated her with kindness, he wouldn’t have been hurt.

This week we also learn the extent to which Hanejima’s family loves her. It would be all too realistic for her mom and dad to one day reach their breaking point, but that never happens, and their love, protection, and desire for her to be happy never fades for an instant, even when she starts considering herself nothing but a burden to be discarded.

When the environment at school gets too bad—she has to sit and be burned and fight with everything she’s got not to fight back lest she hurt her bullies—the entire family moves, and urge her not to give up. Her devoted little brother Megumi wears all black in solidarity, and prays that one day someone will come who will love Saki as he does and end her crushing loneliness.

That day comes at her new school, where there’s no black in the uniforms, so she paints her nails black as a “mark of sin”, that original sin of harming the boy that she’ll never forget or forgive herself for. While in line for lunch, Honda Tooru chats her up. Little does Saki know that Megumi’s prayer has been answered in the form of this odd, ditzy, extremely polite and upbeat girl.

Of course, back then Tooru and Arisa were already hella tight, so they invite Saki to lunch with them, and won’t hear any objections based on her low self-worth. They make it clear to her that no matter how strange she may think herself to be, they’re just as strange, and welcome her company.

For the first time, a peer tells Saki “see you tomorrow,” and to her delight, they say “good morning” to her the next day, another first. As much as Saki tries to stick with her M.O. of staying away from people, she finds herself with Tooru and Arisa all the time, until even the once-oppressive sun seems to take on a gentler color.

All her progress with her new friends is suddenly threatened when two classmates ask her about her old school, having heard nasty rumors. But while Saki isn’t the one who burned a girl’s arm, she does own up to almost killing that boy, and for that reason, she believes Tooru and Arisa should distance themselves from her before they get hurt.

Needless to say, Tooru and Arisa..don’t do that. Not two minutes go by after Saki flees that Tooru catches up and declares that no matter what she does or doesn’t know about Saki, she loves her, and doesn’t want to stay away. Arisa joins them and asks simply: Does Saki want them to stay away? Of course, she doesn’t, and so they won’t.

The rest is history! In time, and probably in large part to emotional support not just from her family and two BFFs, Saki learns how to control her power, and the voices vanish. Now, as we know, she only uses it “a bit” to teach shitty people a lesson, but isn’t in any more danger of losing control.

But even if she’s more or less cured from a malady that was as life-debilitating as it was mysterious, she still wears all black, as it keeps her calm, while Megumi keeps wearing black for the same reason. His prayer was answered, but more importantly, Saki never gave up.

Fruits Basket – 21 – Prince Yuki, The Witch, and The Demon Queen

The cold open was so different from what I’m used to with Fruits BasketI momentarily thought my fansub might be a mislabeled episode of some dark mystery or maho shoujo anime. That is, until the appearance of Hanajima Saki, just before Minagawa Motoko wakes up from her nightmare in her hair bonnet.

Motoko is the third-year rep for the Souma Yuki fan club, Prince Yuki, of which we haven’t seen much since much earlier episodes. But along with her first- and second-year counterparts Yamagishi Mio and Kinoshita Minami, Motoko is committed to “getting rid” of the vile “witch” Honda Tooru.

They believe she has stolen their beloved Yuki’s heart with an evil spell, but she’s under the protection of the “demon queen” Hanajima Saki, whom they must defeat in order to get to Tooru.

If it sounds like these three girls have a case of chuunibyou, well…it kinda is, what with the specialized jargon, military-like procedures, and serial pose-strikin’! But mostly, they’re simply jealous of Tooru and Yuki’s relationship, despite knowing next to nothing about it, and believe their numbers give them the right to determine what’s best for Yuki.

While Motoko, Minami and Mio all have the same idea of Saki’s home (a haunted western mansion surrounded by graves), they’re surprised to find it’s…just a normal house. Her room is normal too, aside from the persistent black-and-purple theme (she even has some of the same shoujo series as they do!).

They’re looking for a weakness…anything they can use. Instead, they find Saki’s little brother, Megumi, who was hiding in the closet and only comes out when Saki tells him to.

Megumi: New friends of yours?
Saki: No. They’re strangers that happen to go to the same school and be the same gender as me.

I love how Saki and Megumi never for a moment stop being the people they always are, but by doing so keep the three Prince Yuki reps in a perpetual state of unease and dread. Saki warned them not to say their names in the house, and later Megumi explains why that is: all he needs is someone’s name to put a curse on them…or to counter-curse their counter-curse.

When the youngest of the reps starts wanting to leave immediately, the three finally come out with it: they want Saki to tell Tooru to stop being so close to Yuki. Megumi immediately takes their position for what it is—jealousy—and in trying to explain that it’s not jealousy, just being mad about someone having something they don’t have, she just ends up…describing jealousy.

Both Megumi and the musical score turn serious when he gravely warns them not to assume they can do what they want just because they like someone, and that pushing such intense love as theirs on someone can burden or hurt them, not loving them back. He asks them to consider how Yuki feels and respect those feelings, before they end up making him hate them.

Then he gravely says their names, one after the other, which sends them bolting out of the house, passing by the youngest (and most normal) Hanajima sibling in the process. They clearly forgot that Megumi could hear them using their names while he was hiding.

Hopefully, Motoko, Minami and Mio learned something from their visit to Saki’s house about taking such strong and unyielding positions about things they know so little about…but I’m not going to hold my breath, because the next day they’ll still have their huge fan club with its book of rules, and their two simultaneous, contradictory believes Yuki shouldn’t belong to anyone, but also should secretly belong to each of them.

Saki, on the other hand, took Megumi’s words to heart about jealousy, because she admits that’s what she’s felt ever since Tooru started living with Yuki, Kyou, and Shigure and had many adventures with them and the other Soumas. She tells herself she mustn’t let those feelings of loneliness make her selfishly think her needs and desires vis-a-vis Tooru are any more important than those of others.

With that, her loneliness is extinguished when Arisa and Tooru arrive at her front door; turns out Tooru doesn’t have to work until later, so she can hang out with Arisa and Saki. That brings a big, bright, very ungothic smile to Saki’s face.

The next morning, Motoko again awakes from a nightmare involving the “demon queen” Saki and hell, let’s call him Saki’s “death squire” Megumi. Minami and Mio also had nightmares, even though Saki teases them that the “curse” won’t take effect for three days.

But like their vilification of Saki and Tooru, perhaps those dreams are nothing more than a manifestation of their ugly jealousy, which starts as less ugly loneliness. After all, not a single member of Prince Yuki can possibly be happy, since they all love him, yet cannot be with him.

*  *  *

After twenty-one episodes, who is my favorite Fruits Basket character? Uotani Arisa. NEXT QUESTION. Who is my second-favorite? Hanajima Saki. NO MORE QUESTIONS. 

Both women are as strong as they are because they are able to be upfront and honest about their “weaknesses,” and while they have no time for childish challenges thrown their way by their would-be, so-called “adversaries,” they’re not above putting a good ol’ scare into them—and not below delivering wise advice when it’s called for. Tooru is as blessed to have them as they are blessed to have her in their lives.

Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention how goshdarn funny this episode was…I was laughing from start to finish at the Prince Yuki reps’ petty machinations and while watching their absolute drubbing at the hands of a young woman (and little brother) they never had any business trifling with.

Fruits Basket – 19 – The Audacity to Live

While Shigure’s editor Mitchan is on a mission to collect his manuscript, he misdirects her, and she ends up crossing paths with the latest member of the Soumas to be introduced: Souma Ritsu, or “Ritchan-san.”

Immediately, her defining characteristic seems to be “cripplingly apologetic and self-loathing” on a show where Tooru, Yuki, etc. are already here!

When Tooru accidentally hugs Ritchan, who is trying to run away for being such a nuisance to everyone, she suddenly transforms into her form, the Monkey, and Tooru learns that she is actually a he in women’s clothes, which he’s always worn since he was a young lad.

Upon transforming back (off-camera), Ritchan is challenged by Shigure and Tooru not to reflexively apologize so much, and when Mitchan returns he’s called upon to placate her. That’s when Mitchan prepares a noose with which to hang herself then writes to her parents in her will, apologizing for leaving this world before them.

Ritchan and the others are able to talk Mitchan down, and Shigure reveals he has his manuscript ready for the deadline, but then Ritchan spills coffee all over it and Mitchan faints from the shock. That’s when Ritchan decides to climb up to the roof, indicating his desire to jump off and end his miserable, worthless life.

The source material of Fruits Basket shows its age by once again making light of both Mitchan and Ritchan’s threats of suicide, only for Ritchan’s latest threat to be taken seriously by Tooru, complete with her trademark relaying of lessons she and her mom learned together and empathetic pep talk.

The juggling of disparate tones didn’t work for me, largely because it’s initially treated as a silly character quirk. That left a bad taste in my mouth that is hard to set aside even when the show suddenly takes Mitchan and Ritchan’s intermittent intentions to die seriously. It’s as if it’s trying to have its (fruit)cake and eat it too (or at least a book about fruitcake).

Tooru’s assurance that no one knows the reason they were born, but that it’s enough to just keep living until they find that reason, be it through something or someone, is definitely a welcome and vital message to all who feel like Ritchan and Mitchan sometimes feel.

But I’ll admit I was a little distracted not just by the show’s past flippancy on this subject, but the fact Tooru nearly died herself by slipping on the roof tiles.

Fruits Basket – 18 – Cry of the Tiger

While Tooru and Yuki are waiting under a shelter for the rain to stop, they encounter a soaked Haru carrying…a tiger cub. That cub is the Tiger of the Zodiac, Souma Kisa, and she ran away from home. She also doesn’t talk due to a “psychological” issue that locked her words away. Now she only bites.

Since her previous circumstances brought her to this state, Haru takes her to Shigure’s house for a change of scenery, and Tooru learns the silence is a result of bullying. Zodiac parents tend to either overprotect or reject their odd children. Kisa’s mom is more in the middle, but looks close to her limit.

So it’s Tooru to the Rescue! I’ll admit, any episode that lacked Uotani Arisa was going to be a slight letdown, but this isn’t the Uotani Arisa show, now is it? Instead we get the introduction of another zodiac member who is simply not coping as well with her differences as her older counterparts have (more or less) managed. Of course, the reason many of them can do that is thanks to Tooru.

Once again, Tooru can relate at least in part to Kisa’s situation, as she was once bullied too. Kyouko gave her the unconditional love and support and encouragement she needed to keep getting up, dusting  herself off, and going to school, and things worked out. She just needed to hear that “it’s okay.” So does Kisa, and she transforms back into a girl and embraces Tooru.

From that point onward, Kisa never leaves Tooru’s side and rarely lets go of her, save to let her use the bathroom. Yuki gets a little jealous of all the glomming and rests his head on Tooru’s shoulder. As annoying as this looks to, say, Kyou, Tooru is loving every minute of it, very much the Kyouko to the adorable Kisa’s young Tooru, who was also adorable.

Tooru, Yuki, Haru and Momiji discuss the nature of Kisa’s bullying, which involves her strange hair color and eyes, and later became a campaign of ignoring her and snickering at everything she said until she stopped talking. Momiji is overcome by sadness, having never experienced such bullying (as far as he knows) and thus being unable to imagine the pain that would lead to closing off your very words.

But like Tooru when she was bullied, only in a more concentrated state, Yuki can imagine all too well. As a result of Akito’s abuse, he too retreated within himself, and the more he did, the more he hated himself. When Kisa’s homeroom teacher writes her a platitude-filled letter that blames her for not loving herself as the reason no one else will, it’s enough to make Haru puke, and Yuki doesn’t much like it either.

What does that mean, “learn to love yourself?” It just didn’t work that way for him. He had to be told he was loved by someone before he could start feeling anywhere near like that about himself; enter Tooru. In actions and words, Tooru has demonstrated her love for Yuki, as well as Kisa. The kind of love that can spur someone to muster the courage to speak.

With persistent love and encouragement from Tooru, Yuki was able to face his fears, and learn that every tear he shed was purposeful towards that end. And so, following his own advice as Kisa decides to go back to school,  Yuki accepts the student council president’s request that he run to become his successor.

We don’t get to see what becomes of Kisa facing her fears, but the episode ends with her knowing even if it’s not great, and the tiger ends up feeling like retreating back to the jungle of darkness and silence, Tooru and Yuki will still be there to say it’s okay.

Fruits Basket – 17 – Paying It Forward

Uotani Arisa was a broken and rudderless teen, subsumed by dirt and blood from pointless beatings; lost in the darkness. Things were briefly made worse when her idol Kyouko turned out to be the “lame” doting mom of the even lamer and impossibly sweet Tooru.

And yet, when Arisa is alone and on the run from more beating than she can take in a day, who does she barrel into once more but that sweet and polite Tooru, who immediately senses her friend is in danger, grabs her by the arm, and runs.

At Tooru’s apartment, Arisa finds herself back in an atmosphere of warmth, tranquility and love that is so foreign to her it’s uncomfortable. She figures her dirty delinquent self wouldn’t change even if she had such an atmosphere at her home, with her dad. Nevertheless, she’s jealous of it, and she wants it.

Tooru Kyouko are more than willing to share it with her, and to soothe her crushing loneliness that has been the core of her struggles in life so far. Back in the present, we see that Arisa is no longer lonely, and loves Tooru and Saki very much. That’s when the three young delinquent wannabes finally confront Arisa, but she ignores them as if they were mere gnats.

While her story about how she became besties with Tooru is complete, there remains the rest of her story: how she became the strong, beautiful, wonderful person she is. It’s a story she doesn’t tell the Souma boys, but is generous enough to share with us.

Hanging out with Tooru and Kyouko is a positive force for change in Arisa, but that change doesn’t come as quickly or easily as removing the stems peas. She may have returned to school and studies with Tooru, but her teachers assume she’s bullying her, while her gang takes none to kindly to her efforts to go straight.

Other students are weirded out by Tooru hanging out with Arisa all the time, and rumors spread about Tooru actually being a delinquent beneath a goody-goody facade. To Arisa’s relief and joy, Tooru pays such rumblings absolutely no mind. She’s going to make an extra muffin for her dear friend Uo-chan, no matter what anyone says.

But while the bond of friendship between Tooru and Arisa can’t be easily broken, the same doesn’t go for Arisa’s bones. While in the present she credits Kyouko and Tooru with saving her, it’s not like Arisa did nothing to help her own cause, and while she might not have known it at the time, going back to her gang to tell them she’s out and facing the consequences was actually the first step towards saving herself.

Thanks to her older gangmate Akimoto, Kyouko learns of the horrible beating Arisa’s doomed to receive if no one intervenes, so the Crimson Butterfly dons her duster for one last rodeo, intervening in the fight, extracting the battered Arisa, and carrying her back to her place on piggyback.

As Arisa demeans and insults her idiotic self for not realizing sooner she was on the wrong path, Kyouko offers some sage life advice, having experience quite a bit of that life herself. She tells Arisa that sometimes you need to hit rock bottom to realize you want to change; and that neither the light nor purity of life she seeks would be possible without the presence of darkness and dirt from which she emerged.

Arisa didn’t understand the feelings she bore until she got hurt exploring them, but now that she’s come out the other side, she knows with the clarity of a mountain lake what she wants to do: to become a strong, beautiful, wonderful best friend in whom Tooru can take pride.

So Arisa abandons her delinquent past to become just that, and eventually she and Tooru befriend Saki as well. And while she is utterly devastated when Kyouko suddenly dies, she’s also eternally grateful for the things Kyouko gave her and the things she left behind, with which she can not only continue to be a better person with a kinder soul, but pay the love and kindness and wisdom she received to others.

That means not simply socking the redheaded delinquent punk (Ishi-chan) who keeps bothering her, but offering her words of advice she wished she’d received earlier: Stop acting out while you still can, before something serious happens. If you need someone to scold you, I’ll do it anytime.

Ishi is immediately smitten by Arisa’s blend of warmth and coolness, and her two friends fall in line, becoming fans of Uotani Arisa on the spot. After the credits, Ishi not only cosplays as Arisa, but wears the exact same outfit Arisa wore the day they met! Needless to say, this is exceedingly cute and heartwarming.

Just like Arisa idolizing someone like Kyouko instead of a less savory gang member, it’s almost as if the universe is looking out for these three still very young kids who have a lot of life yet to live before giving up.

Because they chose the right woman to idolize, just as she did. And perhaps, one day, when they’re better people, they’ll pay Arisa’s wisdom and kindness forward, and help others become better too. Along with Tooru—essentially a demigoddess of love and kindness—this is the enduring gift Kyouko left behind, and why she’ll never really be gone.