Sword Art Online: Alicization – 09 – Stay Cool

When it comes to baddies, SAO isn’t exactly subtle. Lord Raios and his toadie Sir Humbert are both extremely hoity-toity noblemen, and it would seem they draw their power from their conceitedness and by comparing themselves to others. They seem acutely aware that Kirito and Eugeo are Good Guys and thus it’s basically in their nature to want to fuck with them at every turn.

After experiencing the power of Humbert’s conceit in a duel that Raios cuts short in a draw, the two noblemen warn Eugeo that “battle is more than swinging a sword,” suggesting they’ll seek other ways to mess with him. Humbert seems to find a way in Frenica, the dorm-mate of Eugeo’s page Tiese. Specifically, he’s sexually abusing her by, likely among other things, ordering her to massage him in nothing but her underwear.

Until now the duo seemed almost pathetically petty in their bullying (Stomping some flowers? Seriously?). But with his casual cruelty toward Frenica—while staying within academy regs—Humbert, and by extention Raios, have crossed the line into Despicable SAO Baddie territory. Rooting for Eugeo in putting a stop to the abuse is almost too easy.

But the fact that regs aren’t being explicitly broken (the page is merely following orders of her mentor, as is the order of things) and the extreme deference Eugeo must show to his social betters make things tricky for Eugeo. Last week he was holding Kirito back, but now it’s he who must be held back by Kirito. The baddies are counting on him making an unforced error and getting into trouble, or worse.

Of course, that’s not going to stop Eugeo from doing everything he can. He asks Raios and Humbert to knock if off the nicest way he can, though I doubt they’ll heed him, which means stronger measures will be needed that still fall within the strict rules of the academy and the world at large.

Then there’s the relationship between Eugeo and his page Tiese, which escalades very rapidly due to the Frenica incident. Tiese is of a lower-level aristocrat family, and once she becomes the head of the family a husband will be chosen from an equal or higher level. Tiese is terribly afraid of ending up with a man like Humbert.

So after making her formal report, she appeals to Eugeo, whom she knows to be kind, gentle, and honorable, to fight and win the Four Empires Tournament, which will allow him to become an aristocrat and thus an acceptable match for her*. It’s a big ask, but Eugeo will need to do a bit of social climbing anyway to have any shot at reuniting with Alice, so he agrees.

But in the meantime, Raios and Humbert won’t leave Eugeo or Frenica alone easily. I’m worried about what kind of trap they might have planned for him. It might be safer or easier for Eugeo to keep his head down and take everything they throw at him in stride. But that’s not who Eugeo is, any more than it’s who Kirito is. If there’s a wrong being done that they can stop, even the laws can’t get in the way of justice and honor.

*Since Tiese doesn’t explicitly ask for Eugeo to marry her, it could be she’s asking, and he’s agreeing, to simply be there for her when she marries someone else, which would also require him to rise to a higher station. Though marrying her makes the most sense to me. LN readers, set me straight!

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Sword Art Online: Alicization – 08 – Blooming in Foreign Soil

After a quick pep talk from Liena telling him not to remember that Volo’s power comes from his vaunted family line as well as the power of his imagination, and to keep his promise to her to show her everything he’s got, Kirito engages in his real-swords duel with the First Seat.

Volo also gives it everything he has, but Kirito remembers he has a family too; not just in Eugeo and Liena but in all his friends IRL. He also draws from the power of the Gigas Cedar his sword is made with, and successfully blocks Volo’s strike.

The faculty member ends the fight in a draw, but Volo is satisfied Kirito has been sufficiently chastened for staining his uniform. It’s good to see Volo has a good head on his shoulders and wasn’t going to take things too far. Liena is elated at Kirito’s feat, as are the rest of the assembled students.

After celebrating at Liena’s quarters, Kirito meets the two highborn bullies who didn’t like the result of Kirito’s fight with Volo, and come to deliver a message in the form of the snipped-off bud of the flowers Kirito had been growing in the garden. As I thought, the jerks just couldn’t lay off the garden…

Kirito had come to feel he had a lot in common with the flowers that don’t usually bloom in such a climate; he too is a stranger in a strange land, far from the family that knew, loved, and supported him. Sure, there’s Eugeo and Liena, but it’s not the same.

Then, suddenly, a voice comes out of the air, urging him to ask for the other flowers in the garden to aid him in restoring his plant. They answer the call and send some of their life energy to the ruined planter, resurrecting the buds.

Liena, having both learned from and been inspired by Kirito’s previous fight with Volo, manages to dig deep and defeat him to graduate as First Seat, and thanks to Kirito learning something new about the world he’s in, he has a bouquet of flowers from her homeland waiting for her.

Liena, Volo, and the other elites graduate, and Kirito and Eugeo become Elite Deciples themselves, complete with cute Novice Trainee pages in Tiese and Ronie. Eugeo may tell the latter that Kirito will be nothing but trouble, but the other side of the deal is she gets to be the first artificial fluctlight trained in his unique Aincrad Style.

Meanwhile, Kirito and Eugeo, after going at it like an old married couple, keep their eyes on the prize: Alice’s most likely whereabouts, the grand white tower in the center of the city. Swordcraft Academy may be fun, but it’s only a stepping stone.

Sword Art Online: Alicization – 07 – Trouble, as Usual, Finds Kirito

As Asuna has arrived at Rath and taken a seat at the table when one wasn’t offered, Kirito continues to play, or rather live, in the Underworld. Two whole years have passed since we last saw him, and his goals remain the same: to learn this new virtual game’s rules, abide by them as he and Eugeo seek Alice, and most importantly, get good enough to face any opponent that might crop up.

To that end, after winning a swordsmanship tournament, they enrolled at Swordcraft Academy in the capital Centoria, to serve as pages to their mentors. Kirito’s mentor is the Second Seat Sortilienta Serlut, or “Tiena-senpai” for short (SSSS could also work ;), ably voiced by Han Megumi. In the time he’s trained under Tiena, Kirito has learned that attaining strength in this world is, unlike SAO or ALO, as much about confidence and willpower as the hard numbers.

Since they’re now in the Big City, Kirito and Eugeo’s statuses as commoners makes them the target of pompous high class elites who are always trying to press their buttons. When Kirito showed Eugeo the progress on his garden, I thought for sure that garden was going to be destroyed by the two punks who tried to provoke Kirito in the dining hall.

Tiena can tell there’s something of Kirito’s “Aincrad Style” he’s been holding back, and she believes the key to her improving (and finally defeating First-Seat Volo Levantain…what a name) is for him to reveal to her what that is. Since training on a day of rest is forbidden (and rules aren’t broken in this world, only bent a little), he labels his last sparring session with Tiena a “graduation gift.”

But before the session, Kirito picks up a newly completed sword from the metalsmith’s which was forged from a branch of the Gigas Cedar. The resulting black/blue blade is definitely Kirito’s style, and when he successfully swings it, he even gets it free of charge.

Kirito can’t help try out sword skills he was unable to break out with a simple wooden training sword, but in his enthusiasm to do so, he gets mud on one Volo Levantain’s crisp white uniform. Volo lets him off for practicing on a day of rest (he himself finds it hard to keep back from doing that, and understands as a fellow swordsman)…but he won’t let the mud stain slide.

So he challenges Kirito to a public duel to first point (not stop short) with real swords, perhaps eager to see what he can do with his new black blade. Kirito has never defeated Liena in a training session, and she’s never defeated Volo, so his mentor is understandably nervous about what he’s getting into. As for Eugeo, he’s just surprised his friend didn’t get into trouble much earlier.

Of course, Kirito has only fought with wooden swords at Swordcraft Academy; more training tools than actual weapons. We’ll see if he gets embarrassed before his mentor, friend, and assembled fellow students (not to mention punished for breaking the sabbath), or if he’ll be able to call his new blade Volo Levanbane…should he choose to.

Made in Abyss – 07

Just as Habo is telling Nat and Siggy about the badass White Whistles (who kinda remind me of the Espada) and wondering if he should have gone against Riko’s wishes and accompanied her and Reg after all, Riko and Reg face their toughest challenge yet: An Ozen the Immovable as their enemy.

But while both kids get beaten within an inch of their lives, it isn’t physical punishment that cuts the deepest—it’s Ozen’s utterly curel and tactless presentation of the giant white cube, which turns out not to be merely a vessel that repels curses. Ozen reveals to Riko that she was stillborn, and upon being placed in the vessel, she was brought back to life.

Ozen further explains that she put some of the meat she uses for dinner in the vessel, and it came back to life as well: that weird, threatening-looking but also bumbling and pitiable thing that made Riko wet the bed. The final twist of the knife? Before long, the thing turned back into lifeless meat, and Ozen wonders when Riko’s time will come to turn back into a corpse.

This is harsh, merciless stuff, but Ozen is just getting started. When she threatens to hurt Riko, Reg intervenes with his arms and ties her up, but she frees herself effortlessly, noting how the arm cables are made of extremely tough stuff. She then proceeds to try to pound Reg into dust, and when Riko tries to stop the madness, a light flick of Ozen’s finger sends her flying across the room, knocked out and bloodied.

Goddamn was this shit hard to watch. Reg tries to break out his Incinerator, but while trying to narrow the focus his beam so he doesn’t blow up the whole camp, the bitch grabs his still-charging cannon and points it at the out-cold Riko.

Where it not for a last-second kick of his own arm out of harm’s way, Riko would be gone. Fortunately, she’s not, and the hole his arm blasts in the ceiling doesn’t cause any serious structural damage. But using his cannon makes him pass out, and when Riko comes to, she sees Reg bruised and bloodied, the result of Ozen continuing to beat his unconscious body.

And yet, after three-quarters of an episode of the most heinous, villainous, evil-ass conduct one could imagine, the other shoe drops: Ozen was TESTING Reg’s strength, as well as Riko’s resolve. And let me tell you, she got me, just as she got them.

I never thought for a moment that she wasn’t simply being the evil monster the build-up to her appearance portended. Marulk ‘saved’ Reg and Riko by calling Ozen’s band of cave-raiders to her in…something Ozen both thanks her apprentice for and promises to string her(?) up for.

Frankly, I didn’t know what she was thinking. It’s another way she’s “immovable”…as in unable to be “moved” by anything … except, perhaps, by the prospect of learning more about the Abyss. Riko on her own would never, ever have gotten this far, let alone any further, without becoming, as Ozen says, “poor meals, little seedbeds, or a stain on the ground or some wall.”

And yet while her approach underscores how far from her humanity Ozen has strayed, it also makes perfect practical sense: the Abyss is fundamentally not a place for little kids. Beasts far tougher, crueler, and more cunning await them in the lower layers.

And as flashbacks prove, Ozen isn’t as emotionally “unmovable” as she appears, as she recalls the first day a Red-Whistled Lyza asked to become her apprentice. In virtually no time, Lyza had earned her Black Whistle, and credits her quick success to Ozen, who may have an “irredeemable” personality, but is still the “best mentor ever.”

Does Ozen truly “despise” Riko? Could it be because she sees Riko as Riko saw that meat? Is she, dare I say…scared of what Riko is and might become as she draws nearer to the bottom? With Ozen, deep questions abound.

One thing’s for certain: as much as she has changed (her armor and the 120 or so implants in her body make her cut quite the menacing figure), there’s still some humanity in there; the humanity that lets Riko know the grave she found was empty; Lyza could well still alive and waiting for her daughter.

In the meantime Reg might might might just be tough enough to protect Riko as she continues her descent, but Ozen isn’t willing to send them on their way yet, she needs to gather more ‘data’. She takes the kids out to the far edge of the layer, far from camp or anyone else, and tells them to survive with the supplies they have for ten days.

Furthermore, Reg is forbidden from using his cannon, as the hours she’s determined he shuts down for would likely be fatal to Riko…unless, of course, he manages to bring down whatever threatens them. It’s the toughest of tough love, but in a world where kids are regularly punished by being strung up naked, I guess it’s par for the course.

Tales of Zestiria the X – 20

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Both Alisha’s enemy Bartlow and her “supporter” Lunarre wrongly believe she’ll take the bait of her suffering Maltran, but they’re both wrong. Maltron knows if Alisha does as she taught, she won’t come for her.

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Instead Alisha and her people infiltrate the palace. It’s not at all certain that Alisha’s order that no one is to die is carried out in the process, as both her men and many of the palace guards are injured and shot with arrows, and it’s asking a lot to think none of them will succumb to their injuries.

In any case, Alisha gets an audience with her father at last, but he’s consumed by malevolence. Baltrow enters the room alone and attempts to take out Alisha by himself…which makes no sense. Why did he go in alone, without any backup?

What would be his killing blow to Alisha is blocked by the king in what I gather is one last act of sacrifice to make up for, charitably, over a season and a half of complete inaction.

Then, before the young, athletic Alisha or her knights can stop him, the slow old Baltrow runs outside and jumps off the balcony, spiting Alisha by not being taken alive. Um, why did everyone just stand around and let him do that?

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With the internal power struggle thus hastily ended and Alisha now the de facto ruler of Hyland, she turns to the next existential crisis: that giant tornado. There’s a dragon inside, and Sorey believes he’ll be the first shepherd to purify it, erasing the myth that such a feat is impossible.

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He manages to get the job done, thanks not only to Mikleo and Rose, but his other squire Alisha joining in to help share the burden of the dragon’s malevolence, as Lailah, Edna, and Dezel handle the small fry.

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And once the dragon is purified and the sun shines over Ladylake once more, our heroes get to enjoy the victory for all of ten seconds before Symmone appears, telling them her master will cover the entire earth in malevolence and end the world, and they don’t have what it takes to stop them.

Well, I asked for more action to masked the seemingly increasing blandness characters, and I got it. But with so much significance placed on Baltrow over the last few months, and the immediate introduction of an even bigger threat, then an even bigger one after that, it all felt rather anti-climatic.

And once more, a preview in which 2D Rose and Alisha bicker over whose late master was strongest was more far more engaging than anything either of them said in the actual episode.

I’m quickly doubting whether my master adequately trained me or if I have enough squires to help bear the burden of Zestiria. Because the eye candy isn’t nearly enough to keep me interested.

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Tales of Zestiria the X – 19

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Zestiria can still effortlessly deliver vista after gorgeous vista, but the excitement and urgency came up a bit short this week, and reminded me that it’s rarely been able to satisfying depth beneath its shiny surface. It also has a tendency to be clunky in its pacing, as demonstrated in this Alisha-focused episode filled with perfunctory talking scenes.

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Giant tornadoes are threatening Ladylake…until they aren’t, as they’ve all dissipated so far. Alisha is waiting for the Big One, all while being branded a criminal by the sniveling Lord Baltrow, who is the worst kind of dull wallpaper paste villain. Unable to catch Alisha, he tries to bait her by putting her mentor Maltran on display to starve to death or be picked at by birds. Swell.

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After Zaveid decides to randomly show up to save Alisha and her knights from a giant mud hellion, then leaves to go find and shoot a dragon (see ya Zaveid) Alisha sits by a pond, seemingly for hours, wondering what to do. Lunarre is another random visitor, basically asking her to change up her methods, since, like Ned Stark, her unswerving dedication to high-minded nobility and honor may well get her killed.

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That is, if she didn’t have a Shepherd for a friend. She managed to contact Sorey last week, but he and the others take their sweet time starting off for Ladylake. I know their contact was cut off, but surely her saying “Ladylake is in dire straits” tipped him off that maybe he should hurry to Ladylake, which he, Rose, and the seraphim finally do at the end of the episode.

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I can’t help but think some of the overarching stiffness and vanilla-ness of the show could be pepped up a bit with the kind of light humor in the previews. But those are fourth wall-breaking affairs, and Zestiria isn’t meant to be a comedy.

Still, it’s troubling that the biggest rise I got was from the preview, not from anything in the episode that preceded it. Alisha’s daring stealth raid on Ladylake looks like it might be interesting, but this week was a bit too leisurely getting her there.

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Sakurako-san no Ashimoto – 08

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In this, the finest episode of Sakurako-san to date, One solved mystery leads to a second, than a third, and opens up the possibility of the larger, deeper truths involving Sakurako and her brother, whom Shoutarou reminds her of so much. Shoutarou feels he’s created a rift between him and Sakurako after his outburst about her cat Ulna.

Asking if she’ll accompany him to personally deliver Sasaki-sensei’s effects to his surviving relative is a way for him to reestablish contact, but she claims she’s just “tired”, not avoiding him, and must have been mistaken when she mentioned cat bones at the school, noting quite pointedly “Even I make mistakes, sometimes.”

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Sasaki’s sister, the wheelchair-bound Haruma Sayuki, greets them warmly and thanks them for bringing her brother’s belongings. She’s also able to confirm the identity of the bones in Sasaki’s office, those of Sone Natsuko. The alleged child of a sex worker who came to live with Atsurou and Sayuki, her brother fell for “Nacchan”, but she had a baby out of wedlock—not by him—that was born premature and died soon thereafter.

It was the bones of that baby—whom Natsuko buried that very night many years ago—Sayuki had hoped Shou had brought, so she could lay them and her mother’s bones to rest in the family grave, something her family would probably never have allowed back in the old days.

Sakurako has all she needs to deduce the location of the babe’s bones: in the vicinity of a monument to Mistletoe, a book both Natsuko and Atsurou loved. Sure enough, they find bones, but she also discovers a different truth that differs from Sayuki’s account, and all because Sayuki happened to be wearing open-toed sandals when she first met her and Shou.

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Sayuki has “Celtic-style” feet, with the index toe taller than the big toe; the same kind of foot Sayuki has and Atsurou had. Combined with the extremely high risk of a woman who just gave birth exerting herself buring a child, Sakurako believes Sayuki is the mother, which she finally admits. Natsuko had helped her get in touch with a man she fell in love with, and she got pregnant out of wedlock.

Because her father had arranged a marriage for her, she could not keep the baby, so the fiction was created that it was Natsuko’s, thus preserving Sayuki for marriage, but destroying any chances of Natsuko and Atsurou getting marrying. Natsuko died alone, and Sayuki was going to as well, but now she’ll be reunited with Natsuko, whom she loved as a sister, and her own child, before she dies.

It is strongly hinted at that Sayuki didn’t give birth to a premature child, but rather aborted her, the means for which must have been crude and dangerous.

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It’s a heartbreaking change to an already heartbreaking narrative, in this show that deals with themes and events in real life that few anime bother to. When Shoutarou wonders why Sasaki-sensei never married Natsuko even after being disowned by his family for pursuing a life of education, Sakurako has a simple answer: he believed Natsuko herself may have been a half-sibling by blood, with a shared father. That may not have been the real truth, but it was still a truth he believed in until his death. “Sometimes there’s more than one truth,” Saku remarks.

Back when Shou gave Sayuki her brother’s effects, he kept the photo with the poem, fearing it meant something bad or sad. But with all this new information coming to light, he does further research, and gives the photo to Sayuki, who identifies the poem as one by Roka, and concluding Natsuko wrote it to express her own grief when she was close to death. For a moment, Sayuki transforms into her younger self, filled with grief but also a sense of closure and catharsis. It’s a very moving scene, and it’s thanks to Shou for not closing the case too early.

But that’s not the end of Shou’s sleuthing this week. Staring at a diagram of a skeleton in his school’s lab and thinking about Sakurako’s comment about “more than one truth”, it dawns on him that Sakurako indeed stole the cat bones, and knows why: Because the ulna is only one of two bones in the forearm: the other is the radius. Sakurako had two cats.

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Sakurako and Shou, who looked so cold and grey and distant during the car ride at the start of the episode, are enrobed in the warm, sensual light of the setting sun as Shou argues his case and she listens attentively. He further deduces that because she knew her way to the lab so quickly, and the school was once all-girls, that she was an alumna at his school. Sakurako heartily applauds Shou’s skills of observation: he is correct.

Someone poisoned her two cats, Ulna and Radius, when she was little. She went to Sasaki-sensei with the corpses, who understood what she wanted to do. In life, the cats were always inseparable, so she wanted to reunite them in death as well once she found Radius again, if only briefly.

She hid the theft from Shou thinking he wouldn’t understand, but ironically it’s because she acts like, as she says, an “emotional, foolish human being” that he can finally realize there are some things about the two of them that are alike; that it isn’t hopeless to be friends with her; that he can understand her, sometimes. When he says she can keep the cat in exchange for fox bones, she shows more of that emotion.

That brings us to the relationship we now know of between Sakurako and Sasaki, who taught her osteology and considered her an apprentice. And to Saku admitting “even she makes mistakes sometimes.” Did Saku and Sasaki’s relationship go even deeper into “absurd emotional human” territory?

Could the titular “bones under her feet” (and the small skull that orbits her in the ED) be not her brother’s, but those of her son? All speculation on my part, but I don’t think it’s that wild. There are many more truths and mistakes and motivations to unpack in the final three episodes.

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Black Bullet – 09

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As knowledge of the deteriorating monolith becomes public (and the brunt of that public’s apprehension falls upon the slender shoulders of Seitenshi), Rentaro continues to build his “adjuvant.” Turns out that’s a real word, though we never came across it during SATs. It’s a medical term for a substance that enhances the body’s immune response to an antigen.

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That’s an apt term for a team of civil officers charged with preventing Tokyo from being infected by the Gastrea. But at the outset, Rentaro’s team sits at just two pairs; one shy of qualifying for their own JASDF tent. The identity of the third pair he scores is foreshadowed while he and Tina are visiting Muroto: it turns out to be Nagisawa Shouma, his estranged senior practitioner in the Tendo Style of martial arts—a connection I’m shortening to “mentor.”

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Shouma and his shy and adorable initiator Fuse Midori (a gin-u-wine nekomimi) are more than happy to join Rentaro’s merry band, having heard of and been impressed by his protege’s exploits. The fourth pair is made up of Tina, whose initiator rank had been revoked, and Kisara, who went to Seitenshi to have her reinstated. Rentaro isn’t happy about Kisara running into the jaws of danger, but she makes sure he knows she feels the same way about him.

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Rentaro even moves to confess to her after a briefing from the civil officers’ commander (who gives a nice speech that doesn’t change the fact they’re the rear guard), but he’s unfortunately interrupted by the rest of the now-whole adjuvant. After introductions, Enju leads a cheer, and the air around that campfire is suffused with hope, optimism, and love. But this could be the last time they’re all together and happy like this. The night will grow darker from this point on.

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Ao no Exorcist 13

The pieces of the Shura picture fall into place this week, as does Rin’s ultimate goal: to rise to become Paladin, this proving his dad right. This episode also did quite a lot to galvanize the legend of Fujimoto. This guy was truly something; a tamer of wild things. He molded Shura, once a feral, directionless terror, into his apprentice. He raised a son of satan not as a weapon against said satan, but as a son. He even tamed Kuro the cat sith.

Shura misunderstood why her master would go and throw away his life for a demon, but combined with her own demonic past and the love and kindness she sees in Rin during their “interrogation”, she concedes her late master’s wishes. It’s her job to toughen him up, while making sure he keeps his inner rage under control. Another thing we learn about Shura; she’s practically always had an aversion to shirts. Seriously, she’s so silly-looking.

Finally, we see that Mephisto is still hiding his true intentions. He says he abandoned Gehenna to help maintain peace and balance in the human world, but we have every reason to doubt him; I mean, look at his get-up, and the ridiculous decor his office. While Shura will probably become Rin’s tough-but-fair mentor, Mephisto and his ‘brothers’ are sure to make trouble for Rin in the future. Rating: 3