Higurashi: When They Cry – 02 – Something is Rotten in Hinamizawa

From last week’s suddenly murderous Rena to Rika’s burning-red eyes, we open with Something Completely Different, with Rika waking up somewhere outside of normal time and space, welcomed by a little horned shrine maiden named Hanyuu with whom she is well-acquainted.

Rika asks if she died, but Hanyuu doesn’t have an answer. All she can say is that the “shard” on which they stand leads to July 1983, which angers Rika, who has apparently lived that month for a hundred years. With no other choice, and knowing everything there is to know about that place and time, Rika vows to “win their future” like they’ve won it before.

While offering an enticing taste of the “bigger picture”, and I now know July 1983 has happened many times before, it is only a small taste, and there’s plenty of mysteries yet to be revealed. It is only the second episode, after all! As for the cliffhanger of Rena with that scary blade, she reverts back to “kyute” Rena once Keiichi looks back at her.

Back at school it’s time for P.E., which means the girls are in super-tight bloomers for fanservice while guys get to wear shorts. Strange how such an otherwise laissez-faire school has such strictly-followed P.E. uniform guidelines! Especially when the physical activity of the day amounts to a game of “zombie tag”, with make-believe gory imagery filling in for the real stuff yet to come.

Keiichi and Rena head back to the junkyard that evening (they should really go in the morning of a weekend when there’s more light!), with Rena holding the creepy murder blade. When Keiichi offers to carry it, she shuts him up with another curt response—even though he ends up handling it anyway while freeing Kenta-kun.

As he delivers blows to the wood in the way of the statue, Keiichi suddenly gets a flash of him bashing someone to pulp with a bat—a vision of the future or merely a possible future? Considering Rika’s strange experience with Hanyuu and the shards, anything is possible. As for Rena, she keeps spacing out at times, as if revealing her true nature or an alternate personality.

Keiichi and the kids end up encountering Tomitake, who always seems to be on his way to something else. His quasi-military clothes suggest he’s up to more than harmless bird photography in the village, but Mion tells Keiichi that his true reason for being there is nothing more nefarious than looking for a single lady to date.

That night everyone attends the Watanagashi (or “cotton-drifting”) festival. The ceremonial dance is to be performed by Rika, who wears the same shrine maiden garb as Hanyuu…that can’t be a coincidence, right? In any case, she’s painfully cute, and Rena can’t resist fawning over her.

Before Rika’s dance, Keiichi, Rena, Mion, Rika and Satoko avail themselves of the many festival foods for sale, from takoyaki, snowballs, and cotton candy—particularly appropriate for a festival honoring futon cotton). Mion makes sure Keiichi gets to have a nice moment alone with Rena, though between Rena’s occasional momentary mood shifts and that whole future incident with the bat, I can’t see any romance between them lasting long!

Tomitake appears again, taking a photo of the group without permission before saying he can’t stay for Rika’s dance. Before he leaves, Rika approaches him and pats him on the head, almost as if to bless him. I guess she knows Tomitake—and everyone else in the village—a lot better than I initially thought.

Then there’s the episode’s pièce de résistance: Rika’s gorgeous, beautifully animated ceremonial dance. The convivial festival atmosphere abruptly shifts to something more sacred and profound as the crowds watch in silent awe. Then we cut to Tomitake in a field being greeted by blonde woman we’ve yet to meet.

What does it mean? is my most frequent question this week. The five friends continue to have youthful fun, but how much longer will it last? Well, the calendar indicates only a couple more days before shit hits the fan. So then the question becomes what Rika can do to stop a future where Keiichi is bludgeoning people to death—if that even is her goal—and how the adult characters fit into the equation.

Rating: 4/5 Stars

Higurashi: When They Cry – 01 (First Impressions) – Moe Horror Done Right

Higurashi: When They Cry wastes no time establishing that this story will not have a pleasant ending, as it opens on a boy beating a girl to death with a bat with at least one other corpse in the room. It’s not played off as a nightmare, either, as protagonist Maebara Keiichi wakes up in that same room some time before that bloody spectacle takes place.

While some horror anime that hold their powder until the end of the first episode (Gakkou Gurashi! comes to mind) Higurashi isn’t interested in keeping you in suspense about whether shit will hit the fan in this suspiciously idyllic village, but rather when, how, and why, and how bad…I’m guessing pretty bad!

We haven’t had much good horror on RABUJOI lately aside from Hannah’s great retro reviews of 2004’s Elfen Lied, but that same cute girl horror DNA is evident in Higurashi. This is actually a reimagining of an identically-titled series from 2006. I’ve personally only seen half of When the Seagulls Cry, a family murder mystery, but never finished, so consider me a Higurashi Novice.

That said, one of the changes that’s quite evident in the remake is the new character design by Watanabe Akio of Monogatari fame. The way he draws eyebrows and mouths in particular were a dead giveaway, and I’m a big fan of Watanabe-san’s work here. “Easy on the eyes” is an apt description; “as pleasant as the ending won’t be” is another.

We’re gradually introduced to Keiichi’s friends, starting with the meek but extremely good cook Rena, the green-haired “big-sis”-type Mion, and a pair of younger girls in the mischievous Satoko and adorable Rika. They’re all so cute and have such great chemistry with Keiichi and each other, you almost want to forget that things will go sideways without fail.

It’s a testament to Watanabe’s designs, the veteran voice talent, and the beautiful setting of Hinamizawa village that despite the bloody cold open we’re invited to enjoy some good times with this group first, and are thus lulled into a false sense of security and safety. The multilayered traps Satoko sets at school are a useful metaphor for what Higurashi does in this episode: the first trap you see is merely a decoy.

Case in point: As soon as the sun started to set and the crisp blue sky turned a simultaneously gorgeous and menacing orange and red, dread started to amass around me, even as Rena kept things light and breezy. She leads Keiichi to a sinister-looking junkyard and climbs over the junk with zero regard for tetanus, looking for treasure and finding it in a buried Kenta-san.

While Rena is scrounging around, Keiichi meets a photographer who comes out of nowhere, identifying himself as Tomitake. The fact he’s the first adult we see other than Keiichi’s mom is disorienting, but then he mentions an unpleasant “incident” involving the loss of someone’s arm in the area. When Keiichi askes Rena about it later, her cutesy voice immediately shifts to a curt and dead serious “I don’t know.”

While I was certain something awful was going to happen in that junkyard (and the show most certainly wanted me to think that), Keiichi and Rena come out unscathed, though you could say Keiichi has now been “marked” by suspicion over surroundings that must now feel a tinge more threatening.

The next day after school, Keiichi asks Mion about the aborted dam construction project, and Mion offers him some information: the developers tried to ram the project through, but the village was spared from flooding and relocation thanks to some help from politicians in Tokyo. That said, when Keiichi asks about any violence, Mion has the same curt response as Rena.

Keiichi heads back to the junkyard as the sun once again falls, but Rena forgot he offered to help her unearth the statue. It’s clear she wasn’t prepared for him to show up, and heads home to grab them some tea. While waiting, darkness falls, in more ways then one, and Keiichi finds an old magazine detailing the story of a dam construction worker who was lynched, murdered, and dismembered.

As he reads, Rena creeps up on him, wielding a huge, curved, and very sharp-looking blade, while cute lil’ Rika stands behind Rena with glowing red eyes, suggesting she might be controlling Rena’s body. Roll credits, complete with an ending theme that absolutely slaps. Now that got dark quick, didn’t it?!

Higurashi is not for everyone, as those without the stomach for bloody horror will be joined by those who insist the franchise didn’t need rebooting. That said, had it not been rebooted, I would never have checked this out, and then find it right up my alley as a casual (and sufficiently-desensitized) horror fan. I’m looking forward to watching Keiichi and the town’s slow descent into madness and murder.

Rating: 4/5 Stars

Mahou Shoujo Ikusei Keikaku – 02

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This week we get to learn a bit more about the other magical girls and their various affiliations, the method by which Fav will determing which magical girls will be culled, and most importantly, the consequences of being one of those girls.

Calamity Mary is a loose cannon, in this for herself. Top Speed looks after Ripple, to whom trouble seems to always come. Ruler leads the largest alliance of girls, and won’t let anyone in her group drop out.

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While some of the girls’ abilities leave me wondering how they collect “Magical Candies” to determine who survives, with Snow White and La Pucelle there isn’t really any wonder. Koyuki is a good-deed-doing machine, and just being with her keeps Souta out of the points basement.

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Unfortunately, someone has to “go” every week for the next eight weeks, and this week is no exception. And while Nemurin’s “deeds” include saving the world and space multiple times, because she’s only doing it in people’s dreams, her candies are only dream candies.

She doesn’t seem to mind, since she’s having fun helping people in dreams. And in the real world, she’s getting ready to end her NEET status and move forward in her life, so if she’s the first to lose, it’s not that big a deal.

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Of course, things aren’t that simple. It was disquieting enough to see Nemurin’s avatar get rubbed out, followed by the curt message that she’s been “deleted.” It’s quite another matter when, after the stroke of midnight on her last night as a magical girl, Sanjou Nemu “says goodbye to everything”, and her mother finds her lying dead in her bead.

Now we know this isn’t just a competition to remain being a magical girl. These girls are fighting for their lives. Most, including Koyuki, aren’t aware of this yet. Fortunately for her, she’s at the top of the points. But that makes her a target; Ruler in particular sees her as an eyesore. We’ve got a tough, bloody, slightly frilly battle ahead of us.

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Mahou Shoujo Ikusei Keikaku – 01 (First Impressions)

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What is it: The story of Himekawa Koyuki, who has loved magical girls since she was a little kid, suddenly being selected to become a real magical girl by the mobile game MagiPro. She immediately set to work helping townsfolk, and the first fellow magical girl she meets in person is her childhood friend Souta, a boy. One day, MagiPro’s mascot Fav announces the number of magical girls in the region will be halved from sixteen to eight.

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Why You Should Watch: It’s above-average in terms of general looks and production values, once you get used to its character design, which tends towards the cute. Sure, Koyuki’s almost painfully earnest and naive, but the show seems fully aware of this, and unlike Gakkou Gurashi, doesn’t wait until the end of the episode to drop the hammer down.

It’s right there in the cold open: one magical girl standing over the bloodied corpses of her rivals. Even so, it’s nice to ease into this suddenly miraculous world along with Koyuki, and even though we know she’s doomed, we can still enjoy the little bit of good times she has early on. Her friend Souta’s situation is also an interesting wrinkle.

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Why You Shouldn’t Watch: The presence of over sixteen characters, most of which billed as mains, can be intimidating, and also allows for an almost overwhelming helping of moe (each magical girl has their own specific…very specific look). The show owes much to Puella Magi Madoka Magica, and Koyuki owes much to Madoka herself, while the format suggests a marathon/tournament on the scale of Akuma no Riddle or another Lerche series, Danganronpa.

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The Verdict: Unlike Touken Ranbu, MagiPro had a hook to it that made me invested in the protagonist and look forward to the next episode. There’s a lot of exposition in both shows, but for some reason it felt more natural and less drawn out here, and the concept was a lot simpler and, more importantly, actually executed well.

Koyuki’s transition is quick, but we feel the same wonder she feels, and the same dread when she sees the ominous word “halved” in the chat room. She’s committed to be a “pure, righteous, and beautiful” magical girl, but she may have to rethink that strategy if she doesn’t want to be a dead one.

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Taimadou Gakuen 35 Shiken Shoutai – 03

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I’ll say this for TG35—it isn’t wasting any time developing its characters. While Ootori was the reluctant outsider last week, that roles passes to Nikaido Mari, AntiMagic Academy’s very first witch Inquisitor-in-Training. What the other 35s don’t know is that she was picked up last week on suspicion of murder, but had a powerful (but not ironclad) amnesia spell placed on her.

Apparently she’s dangerous enough to held naked chained by her ankle in solitary confinement, but is given back her regular clothes, which is odd, because the director wants her to blend into the school. The best way to do that would be to give her a green Taimadou uni, but alas.

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Like Ootori, Mari wants to be left alone, and Suginami and Saionji are fine with doing just that, but Ootori can’t help but get into verbal spats with her. Not only does Mari represent everything Ootori hates—witches and magic—but she’s also competition for Takeru’s attention. The two snipe at each other and square off both in the classroom and P.E., to essentially a stalemate, periodically swapping smug victory and angry defeats, all of it very petty.

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When Takeru tries to get between them, the two girls reflexively punch him, something Ootori regrets immediately and Mari regrets…a little later. In a very effective and efficient scene, Takeru ably disarms Mari: he doesn’t hate witches or magic, and he’s willing to give her a shot, just like he gave Ootori.

Takeru also shows genuine interest in her motivations for enrolling, and she eventually opens up: she’s enthusiastic about changing peoples’ hearts and minds about witches and magic. By the end of their exchange, they’re on first-name terms—if only because Mari thinks “Kusanagi” is lame and Takeru thinks “Nikaidou” is awkward to pronounce.

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The next day Mari is in the Platoon’s HQ, sparring with Ootori. Once she knows Ootori likes Takeru, she wastes no time using their first-name basis (and some close contact) to enrage her even further. To her credit, Ootori doesn’t let it come to blows; in fact she barely tries to conceal the fact Takeru’s promise to “share half her burden” is something she values very much.

At the same time, Mari looks a little nervous clinging to Takeru, like she’s getting swept up in the competition with Ootori in spite of herself. Not surprisingly, the other platoon members, including Lapis, fade into the background this whole episode, which I didn’t mind.

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A little more incredulous is the fact that Mari has nowhere else to stay but Takeru’s dingy, creepy apartment. Naturally, the protective Ootori won’t let the two spend time in Takeru’s place alone (she figures a “closet perv” like Takeru would be all too easily wooed even by Mari’s “meager charms”), so she tags along, despite Takeru’s building freaking her out.

That’s when we end up with the most ridiculous scene of the episode, in which Takeru walks in on a totally naked (and “insecure”) Mari drying her hair, just when Ootori runs out of the bathroom also totally naked, scared by some kind of ghost. The two naked girls end up on top of Takeru, who meekly protests none of this is his fault, leading to an off-camera double slap (though no synchronized scream).

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The next day the 35th begins their first round of a mock battle tournament, and things start to go pear-shaped pretty fast, until Mari decides she will assist them after all and serves as a decoy so Takeru, Ootori, and Saionji can clean up and advance (Suginami doesn’t participate).

It’s the episode’s one concession to action (unlike last week which was mostly action), and it’s pretty inconsequential. But the lesson to take away is that with Ootori, Mari, and Lapis, the 35th is climbing towards respectability…or at least less ridicule.

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When Ootori acknowledges Mari’s contribution in her roundabout double-negative-laced way, we see that despite, or even perhaps partially due to their intense co-antagonism, Mari and Ootori are on their way to gelling with the 35th. That’s of course, until Ootori delivers her report to the director, finds him absent, and picks up a document describing Mari as an ancient witch under suspicion of murder, thus confirming all of her earlier suspicions about the witch, without knowing the whole picture about her amnesia.

The thing is, even Mari isn’t sure who she is. She gets a flash of her true past after making nice with Takeru, and before going to sleep at his place, warns him she may not be someone he should be trusting in. I don’t know whether her amnesia spell is permanent, but even if it is, Ootori can’t unsee what she saw, Mari may not have the means to fully explain herself, and Takeru will continue to be in the middle, trying to keep the peace.

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Nagato Yuki-chan no Shoushitsu – 06

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This week’s Yuki-chan was a bit of a “sampler” with a lot of different loosely-connected stories taking place within the episode. Because Yuki is trying to be bolder, so she speaks up when the opportunity arises to hear the story of Kyon and Mikuru’s “horrendous encounter” from Tsuruya—after Tsuruya launches Mikuru at Kyon, causing a boob-face collision.

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In a classic example of the listener being at the mercy of the narrator’s own biases and motives, Tsuruya recounts a story of Kyon shamelessly setting up a situation in which he bumps into Mikuru and takes her by the hand. In reality, both events were pure accidents, which, is actually why Kyon and Mikuru are able to converse normally: what happened wasn’t that horrendous to them at all.

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The theme of misunderstanding and withheld facts continues in the second segment, in which Kyon, who won’t admit he’s not doing so great with his studies, asks Asakura if she’ll help tutor him. She gives him a high-and-mighty lecture, whereupon he decides to ask someone else, like Nagato.

At the mention of Yuki, Asakura grabs his hand and the two exchange what I’ll call “smiles of understanding.” But because of those smiles and the fact they’re holding hands, Yuki’s skewed, hyperrealistic manga/video game vision presents a much more intimate scene unfolding before her.

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This misunderstanding is cleared up, but when Asakura and Kyon hit the books, Haruhi and Koizumi burst in, with their prep school education that’s a full year ahead of the two. I love the shot of Kyon’s POV when Haruhi sticks her head into the frame. Kyon and Asakura mistake Haruhi’s factual statements as an attempt to mock their “lesser” school and by extension themselves, so Asakura challenges a “math-off”, only to get in over her head and start crying.

Asakura had warned Kyon not to involve Yuki in anything related to schoolwork, but has little choice, and wins the challenge with Yuki’s superior academic prowess. Hey, she lacks confidence…no one said she was a dummy! In another nice nod to the show in which she’s an alien, Yuki is so bad at explaining how she arrives at answers so quickly it sounds like she’s speaking an indecipherable alien language at seemingly superhuman speed.

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The last segment involves both misunderstandings and Yuki being bold. Kyon decides to eat lunch in the clubroom and finds Yuki there tapping away at her video game (which looks like a dating sim). He decides to tease her by snatching the game and making her jump up high to grab it, resulting in the two accidentally embracing. Asakura enters just in time to witness this embrace, and quickly withdraws with her apologies.

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She bursts in again to find Kyon feeding Yuki, and again apologizes and withdraws. Kyon worries she misunderstood everything…but did she? The hug may have been accidental, but both of them held that hug an awful long time…almost as if they enjoyed it. Also, it makes no sense why splitting Kyon’s lunch would be easier if he fed her. That’s just Yuki seeing if Kyon would actually feed her…and he does! Nice moments for this couple; I just wish they wouldn’t always dismiss them as misunderstandings.

The final scene has Haruhi, Koizumi, Tsuruya and Mikuru at the club’s door in preparation for Haruhi’s “Training Camp”, which she’s sure she told Yuki about, just as she told Yuki she got a faculty pass to come to their school for club. In both cases, Yuki forgot being told these things because she was so engrossed in her video games. But approving Haruhi’s requests has increased Kyon’s exposure to Haruhi, making Yuki’s job to woo him that much harder. So Yuki: When Haruhi’s around, put the game down and concentrate!

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Nagato Yuki-chan no Shoushitsu – 05

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Last week was a compelling turning point in the show, when the streak of everything going Nagato Yuki’s way ends with a bang, with that bang being her homemade chocolates hitting the ground. This week, Nagato Yuki disappears, and it’s up to Ryouko to pick up the pieces.

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To her surprise, Haruhi joins the search. Haruhi claims it was just a misunderstanding; that she was giving Kyon courtesy chocolate just like she gave to Koizumi. It isn’t her fault Yuki overreacted, or takes the ritual so seriously.

Ryouko is angry, first at Haruhi, then at herself for blaming others for what she deems her own failure. This is the angriest and most emotional we’ve seen Ryouko yet, and it’s the culmination of putting “Miss Nagato’s” hopes and dreams on her shoulders, while also possibly forcing ideals on the lilac-haired waif.

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When the two finally locate that waif, sulking on a stair, they learn they misunderstood her running away, as did we. Yuki wasn’t devastated by the sight of Haruhi and Kyon, nor is she giving up; she merely felt like she shouldn’t be there while someone else is giving chocolate to someone, because she wouldn’t want anyone watching while she was doing it. Yuki puts herself in the shoes of others, and treats them the way she’d want to be treated. She really is a good girl.

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But will she have the fortitude to hang in a fight with Haruhi for Kyon’s heart? Haruhi makes it clear she “doesn’t dislike” Kyon (i.e. she likes him) when Yuki asks her point blank (and good for her for doing so!) so it’s no longer a one-horse race. But Yuki is game for now, and Haruhi wishes her rival luck.

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Yuki finally, finally delivers the chocolates to Kyon, with trembling hands and a face so red he really should know how much this means to her. He opens them eats them, praises their taste and Yuki and thanks her. He does everything he should do considering what he was presented with, but it isn’t enough. Someone like Kyon needs a clear-as-crystal confession or it’s going to sail over him.

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With nothing else to do but watch from a secluded spot, Ryouko decries the fact it doesn’t seem to be going so smoothly, while Haruhi, nervously playing with her shoe thinks she understands at least part of how Yuki feels, and how giving something to someone, as a courtesy or not, is still an achievement to be proud of.

Haruhi looks particularly weary when Yuki seems to be going in for the confession, but a terribly-timed tackle by Tsuruya causes Yuki to fall to the ground and Kyon to land on her chest, ruining her chance once more. Haruhi seems more than a little relieved by the Tsuruya ex machina.

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While this week did resort to some standard rom-com stall tactics, I appreciated how it kept things tough for Yuki, and more importantly, brought Ryouko’s formerly flawless facilitating powers down to earth. In one of her better lines, told in her temporary rage, Ryouko tells Haruhi “you’re the kind of person who can act to make what you want happen”—referencing Haruhi’s supernatural powers in the original series—compared to Yuki, who has trouble making anything at all happen.

But after this week, Ryouko and Haruhi seem like something resembling friends, their bond forged in large part because of Yuki: Ryouko’s devotion to her, and Haruhi’s competition with her. And I think Haruhi understands Yuki all too well in one notable regard: for both of them, getting Kyon to properly notice their feelings looks to be a Herculean challenge.

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Nagato Yuki-chan no Shoushitsu – 04

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Oh dear…I realize I may have been hasty about choosing Nagato Yuki-san as the Spring’s “feel good” anime. Her inflexible reliance on conventional courtship rituals like Christmas and Valentines left her vulnerable the battle for Kyon’s heart Four weeks in, he has no idea how deeply she feels for him.

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Haruhi arrived on the field of battle late, and even provided moral support for Yuki to advance at a quicker pace, which lessoned the threat she posed. At the same time, her strict non-adherence to societal norms, striking looks, and impish aggressiveness made for a formidable arsenal, with which she’s able to steal a march on Yuki.

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The most heartbreaking part (if you’re a Yuki shipper)? By going home to make chocolate rather than stay at the club to hang with Kyon, Yuki gave Haruhi the only opening she’d need. Mind you, Haruhi doesn’t have anything against Yuki, and she’s not some villainess hell bent on making her life miserable. On the contrary, I doubt she was planning to make the connection she made with Kyon, or vice versa. It was almost as if destiny itself was against Yuki.

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All Haruhi sees is a lonely Kyon waiting for her by the school gate, a potential free coffee, and later, an open ear to her philosophy of “good things will come to those who seek them,” not those who wait. Even when she tests him by asking if he thinks water imps exist, he doesn’t bore her with a scientific explanation for why they don’t. Instead, he ponders whether they do…and who can blame him, with Haruhi fording the February river in her bare feet at sundown; the very picture of impish beauty?

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Yuki means well, but her omission absence, and hesitation are no match for Haruhi. Yet she doesn’t even consider Haruhi to be a threat when she tries and fails to sleep that night, then goes to school with a lump in her throat. Her challenge, as she sees it, is to get that chocolate into Kyon’s hands. As long as she does that, everything will be fine. But putting so much importance into the ritual also means she’ll be that much more devastated if things don’t go as planned.

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Mikiru, Tsuruya and Asahina’s collective “attagirl” encouragement and Asahina’s plan in which she comes to Kyon rather than wait for him, are all designed to make the exchange as painless and idiotproof as possible. But at this point, I’m pretty certain she’s walking into an ambush. There will be no feel-good ending in that room.

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The scene she walks in on couldn’t have been worse if they were in flagrante delicto on the tabletop, because frankly, Yuki’s threshold for romantic defeat is about as low as humanly possible. There’s Kyon, to whom she was about to present the chocolates she put her goddamn heart into, his hand connected via the conduit of a store-bought chocolate bar—”Showa”, a play on Meiji—to Haruhi, the usurper Yuki herself allowed into the club. It’s a regular imperial coup.

The one slight glimmer of hope? The box Yuki drops on the floor doesn’t bust open and scatter the pieces all over the floor, so maybe that’s not quite the state of her heart. But this is going to sting, and her skight step back indicates she intends to retreat.

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Nagato Yuki-chan no Shoushitsu – 03

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By formally introducing the main character of the Haruhi franchise in just the third episode of a spin-off starring a meek bookworm, Nagato Yuki-kun seems to be issuing a challenge—to itself—can Yuki hold her ground when a charm factory like Hirano Aya’s Haruhi crashes her show, or will she disappear, as the title suggests?

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I would imagine most of the audience turned off by all the show’s changes have already checked out (unless they’re hate-watching). Now it’s up to the show to deliver for the cautiously optimistic viewers who stuck around to see where they’re going with this.

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In terms of Yuki being replaced as the protagonist, that isn’t going to happen, nor would I want it to: Haruhi is a supporting character who just happens to steal every scene she’s in with her charisma, and instant chemistry with Kyon. Their half-hostile, half-flirtatious sparring on display here is nothing new for veterans of the franchise. And listening to two true pros at work in Hirano and Sugita is always a pleasure in and of itself.

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As it has every episode thus far, the show doesn’t forget to give Yuki and Kyon a romantic moment or two to keep their romantic potential active. Here, Yuki gives Kyon an extra-formal thank you for helping her this year, and then prays at the shrine for the courage to tell him her feelings—her real feelings, not the word salad she dropped on Haruhi and Kyon in that cafe.

That being said, I loved how her melon soda refilled when she realized she could call Kyon a friend without anyone thinking it’s weird.

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The new year brings with it more Haruhi, and when she infiltrates North High with her transfer student pet Koizumi Itsuki (who doesn’t appear to be an esper) and moves right in, getting Yuki to agree to make them members and make her Executive President. In an odd moment, it seems like Haruhi heard Kyon’s inner monologue. Was that just an easter egg, or a sign things could get more supernatural?

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That’s going to be another big question: assuming Nagato will still have the greater share of screen time as the official protagonist, how much will the people Haruhi has amassed change? Does she have the same godlike power to make her delusions reality she possessed in the original series? Did the show start out like a conventional, non-supernatural rom-com as a feint?

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I’m skeptical of that. I see this Haruhi as no more a god here than Yuki is an alien or Asahina a future-girl. I’m not saying there’s no way they’ll become those things under extended exposure to Haruhi, but I doubt it. The challenge remains, the lit club is now much louder and livelier (the whole cast does a great job creating the aural chaos of such a club), and Yuki must become louder and more aggressive in order not to be left in the dust.

The good news is, Nagato doesn’t need to grow her hair long enough to put it in a ponytail…though if she really wants to, Kyon won’t stop her.

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Nagato Yuki-chan no Shoushitsu – 02

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Despite the rather disquieting presence of the word “disappearance” (or “vanishing”) in the title, and barring any crazy plot twists, this second episode all but cemented Nagato Yuki-chan’s place as my Official Feel-Good Anime of the season, a position that Koufuku Graffiti occupied this past Winter. Both shows are warm, sweet, and pleasant, if a little lightweight compared to the original series it’s based upon.

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Kyon’s a lucky guy…but we knew this

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Like Ryou in Graffiti, Yuki starts out lonely and depressed, as we see in the flashbacks that break up the Christmas party preparations, which are proceeding apace. Not too long ago, the school threatened to shut the lit club down if Yuki didn’t find more members.

Asakura promises to support her as a friend should, but first Yuki needs to crawl out from under that kotatsu and take action to save the club. In other words, she has to take the lead in taking a stand…and Asakura will follow. She won’t fight her battles for her, but beside her.

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While Yuki is out one night rustling up some grub, a strange girl with yellow ribbons in her long brown hair beckons to Yuki, asking for assistance writing a large rehearsal message for Santa in the park, hoping to “nab” him and “string him up”. This girl’s goal may be unusual and somewhat absurd, but there’s no denying her commitment and dedication to making it happen, going so far as asking a stranger for help…a stranger who forgot her glasses, no less!

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The bizarre encounter inspires Yuki, who is pounding the school pavement the next day, trying to convince strangers to join her club after formally asking Asakura, who gladly joins. She gets turned down by everyone except Kyon. Why does Kyon agree to join? I dunno…maybe he didn’t have anything else going on. Maybe he just thinks Yuki is cute…which she is, especially when working hard for a cause she believes in.

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…And the rest is history…or should I say histurkey? 

I’ll show myself out.

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The party goes off without a hitch. As was the case with Saekano’s Megumi Kato, Yuki is in danger of being edged out by louder (Tsuruya) bolder (Asakura) and bustier (Asahina) personalities, but ends up in the right place at the right time in the end. While she didn’t out-and-out plan to meet Kyon outside (she only wanted to see how the clubroom looked), she realizes it’s the perfect opportunity to confess to Kyon, especially when it starts to yuki. Alas, a Asakura accidentally sabotages the moment, something for which she’s legitimately sorry.

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BAAAAAAAW

 

Fortunately, that isn’t that, as Kyon mistakes a flustered Yuki for a cold one and places his coat on her. This makes him cold, so Yuki switches from words to actions, offering to share the coat with Kyon. The snuggle session that ensues is the totes adorbs highlight of the episode, and another sign that one day at a time, Yuki is drawing closer to world domination living a happy, confident life, achieving what she wants to rather than just worrying about it.

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Which brings us to post-credits. While on their way to the after-party clean-up the next day, Yuki realizes she never got to take that wierdo up on her offer to visit the park to see Santa. That’s when the girl leaps out of the bushes and collapses in the snow. The appearance of Migi Suzumiya Haruhi presents a fresh challenge to Yuki, as she’ll have to work that much harder to defend her position as the protagonist of this show.

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Nagato Yuki-chan no Shoushitsu – 01 (First Impressions)

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For many, this new Suzumiya Haruhi property has huge shoes to fill. It picks up in a place where the Disappearance film (one of the longest, but best, anime films ever made, IMO) briefly spent time, namely the alternate universe where Haruhi never assembled the SOS brigade and where Nagato Yuki wasn’t a stoic alien but a shy bookish human girl.

Therefore, technically a spin-off.  This Nagato Yuki doesn’t share much beyond her looks with the Nagato Yuki of the original series(s). This isn’t even a KyoAni production, but rather the work of Satelight. It’s also more of a conventional romantic comedy, nearly devoid of metaphysical, supernatural elements, and the focus will be not on what’s going on with this universe, but what’s going on inside Yuki’s human heart.

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As a moderate-core fan of the Haruhi franchise, I viewed this opening salvo of Yuki-chan not as a safe or cynical dilution of a storied brand, but as another demonstration by that brand’s creators that Haruhi herself and the supernatural trappings weren’t all that endeared us to the series. Placing its solid characters in a less magical setting, while leaving the former main heroine out, gives them a new place to shine, and shine they do!

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That being said, Yuki-chan still has moments of playfulness, with Asakura still exhibiting qualities that could be described, but perhaps she’s really only very athletic and multi-talented. Comparisons to Haruhi’s de facto KyoAni rom-com successor, Chu2Koi, are inevitable, and like that solid franchise, Yuki-chan doesn’t forget to show off now and again, whether it’s a bold punctuating gesture or more subtle, intricate details in the presentation.

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One other advantage Yuki-chan has out of the gate is its built-in lived-in world. Sure, it’s not the exact world we know and love, and in fact, it was specifically portrayed as the wrong world in the film, but the same gang is on hand (save Haruhi) and the same locales as well, with all the differences you’d expect considering the changes to the universe. Asakura is a mom-like protector/mentor figure for Yuki, rather than her hard-headed back-up and rival.

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And in a world without Haruhi, Yuki is free to explore her feelings for Kyon and the best way to express them…and vice-versa. Kyon can sometimes miss the point of things like keeping the lit club going, or the significance of having a Christmas party in said clubroom, but his value to bringing Yuki out of her shell can’t be overstated.

Overall, Kyon comes of as his usual kind, perceptive self, always willingly to call out the quirkiness of his peers (mostly in his head), but also devoted to Yuki and willing to go at her pace, which much like Rikka and Yuuta, isn’t that different from his pace. In this way, after mishaps like Kyon seeing Yuki’s belly, things can be patched up between the two while waiting for the dryer.

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With it firmly established the Lit Club consists only of Yuki, Kyon, and Asakura, the introduction of Asahina and Tsuruya is a little…clunky. The conceit that Tsuruya has the Christmas turkey Yuki is hell-bent on serving for the party, and that she must duel Asahina in various random challenges for said turkey, is a bit random.

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The randomness continues when Asakura and Tsuruya hijack the duel and the episode with an increasingly elaborate, over-the-top antics, which end in stalemate and the two becoming friends. Then again, the fact they shoved Yuki out of the frame so easily speaks to work that lies ahead for Yuki to more strongly assert herself in the show that bears her name, both for Kyon, and for the audience.

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I’m guessing some among that audience are understandably dubious, but I’m not among them. Unless there’s going to be some twist in which this universe suddenly changes, or everyone’s superpowers manifest, it’s probably appropriate to proclaim “Nagato Yuki is dead; Long Live Nagato Yuki-chan.” I’ve definitely room this Spring for a pleasant conventional shy girl rom-com with KyoAni (er, Satelight) flair. Your mileage may vary.

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Stray Obervations:

  • nagatoicI liked that little Iron Chef moment, where Kyon chose to bite the pepper not like the Chairman, but like…Kyon.
  • Let’s just sit back and admire the fact that Asakura managed to get through this entire episode without stabbing Kyon! She deserves a mincemeat croquette.
  • There’s also something very amusing about the way Asakura snatches up Yuki as if she were a ragdoll.
  • I also liked the fact that Yuki wanted snow in the classroom for the party, but Kyon insists she settle for the fact that her name means snow. A technicality, but a good one!
  • She also seems to have a very nuptual aesthetic in mind, what with the five-layer cake and white dress. Perhaps Kyon should just give in and get her a ring for Christmas?

Saenai Heroine no Sodatekata – 04

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We open in Utaha’s room, where she’s on the phone with her editor Machida, who tells her something so surprising, Utaha moves too quickly and smacks her foot against her desk, hard. This is a mishap that befalls me all too often, and that visceral bang really brings both Utaha and the scene to life. It’s also nice to see that like “Mr. Ethical”—and myself!—she spends much of her creating time…staring at a blank screen.

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Following the credits is a live taste of her work, in which Sayuka chooses her dreams over tearfully clinging to Naoto, even though she truly love him and always will. It’s a nice segue to Tomoya on the train with Kato, who has just blasted through Utaha’s five-volume Metronome in Love series and is impressed with it.

Tomoya couldn’t be happier, as he utterly worships Utako Kasumi, and isn’t afraid to profess it emphatically on the train (Tomoya does a lot of emphatic professing in this episode, all of it good). Notably, he seems capable of separating Utako from Utaha, with whom he shares a past we only see in brief flashes; a past that may have inspired Utako’s work, as well as the Mr. Ethical moniker.

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Utaha’s foot-stubbing shock was a reaction to the news the inteview she didn’t want to do will be performed by none other than Aki Tomoya (I love how diverse his part-time jobs are). Initially, Utaha comes in and puts up a Beast Mode-esque wall, but Tomoya is able to get her to cooperate (sorta) by telling her he took the job so he’d get a chance to learn more about her next book before anyone else.

The interview takes many twists and turns, including Utaha’s assertion that it wasn’t her that made her books take off, it was him. Machida qualifies that by saying Tomoya’s review caused a spike in interest and increased sales at a crucial time for the novel, but I heard Utaha loud and clear: she wasn’t just talking about the publicity or buzz Tomoya provided. I like to think the novels are based, at least in part, on her experiences with “Mr. Ethical”.

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It’s for that same reason that Utaha agrees to show up for their first official circle meeting to talk about the details and responsibilities. Eriri repeats a misstep by going all tsundere at Tomoya before seeing who’s actually in the room with him: Utaha, as well as Kato. Though Kato is mostly out of the frame, I’ve trained myself to keep my eyes peeled for her.

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That’s the last we see of Kato for 90% of this scene. The rest is dominated by Utaha and Eriri alternating between teasing or torturing Tomoya and fighting each other tooth and nail. They turn Tomoya’s lovely whiteboard diagram of the project schedule into a piece of modern art, while Utaha offers to provide funding in exchange for “favors” from Tomoya, which earns Tomoya some twin-tail slaps from an irate Eriri.

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Eventually, they literally toss Tomoya aside and simply start bickering nonstop, with neither girl prepared to give an inch, although Utaha’s calmer demeanor means she’ll have more stamina. Tomoya breaks them up and gets them to work by again appealing to their vanity. Utaha will write up the plot, while Eriri will get some character designs going.

Tomoya asks them if they’re capable of that, and both girls put down their dagger for each other and grab a laptop and a sketchbook. The success of Tomoya’s dating sim depends on how well he can manage/juggle these two undeniably talented but just as undeniably prickly and emotionally needy artists.

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Of course, it also depends, at least form Tomoya’s perspective, on his ability to transform Kato into the ultimate dating sim heroine. Of course, considering she was in the a/v club room that long without any of the other three noticing her, as well as the substantial talent of said artists, I’d argue Kato isn’t really needed for the circle to belt out a decent dating sim. The one who needs Kato, rather, is Tomoya.

At the end of the day, this dating sim is a way for him to make the world care about and worry about and love Kato Megumi just as much as he does. He’s not going to come out and say it, but his actions and demeanor speak louder than words.

The way she affected him when he first “met” her on that hill (and their other encounter, for that matter); the fun they had simply hanging out in his room all night; the way they talk on the phone; and the jealousy he feels when she walks into the restaurant he’s working at with a tall, handsome young man; it’s all there, plain to see.

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I must admit my heart sank a little when I saw Kato with that guy, but it turns out to be her cousin, and they were simply going out to eat because their parents were at the theater. Being an otaku and thus a consumer of media in which blood is not always an obstacle to romance (his voice actor Matsuoka Yoshitsugu also played Kirito in SAO, whose sister liked him), Tomoya is still worried, but Kato makes it clear in her passive way that this is his problem, not hers.

That means, if he feels threatened by the fact she hangs out with her tall, attractive cousin, it’s up to him to step in and take the cousin’s place. So he does: he asks her he can accompany her shopping instead of her cousin, and she accepts instantly.

At that point Tomoya seems worried that it could be construed as a date. As ever, he’s in surface denial about what he has with Kato, even as he embarks on an incredibly tough road to create a dating sim from scratch in time for Winter Comiket that will essentially validate his feelings for Kato to the rest of the world.

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Stray Observations:

  • “What’s with that reaction, like you’re reliving past trauma?” Kato, hitting the nail on the head
  • I was immensely pleased by the fact that Utaha and Eriri drew on each other off-camera.
  • I also enjoyed how they scared Tomoya by telling him just how much they make off their work, with the actual yen figures censored by tweeting birds and gunshots.
  • “I’m gonna take that utterly moe-less heroine and raise her into the ultimate main heroine that everyone will worry about!” Tomoya, not realizing that if Kato wasn’t moe-less, he wouldn’t care about her so much.
  • “Kato, do you understand your position here?”
    “I’m a second-year high school girl with absolutely no agency who was brought into a game circle by the biggest otaku in school?”
    “That’s your pre-transformation, assumed identity! The real Megumi Kato is a pure beautiful dating sim heroine who makes everyone’s hearts beat faster!”

    All of this.
  • Tomoya’s classmates occasionally stopped talking and looked over in his direction, possibly worried that he was raving at himself, due to Kato’s inconspicuousness. Remember Tomoya himself didn’t know she was in his class for a year!

Saenai Heroine no Sodatekata – 03

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Tomoya needs to deliver an awesome game proposal to the tentative circle if he’s to convince them—and himself—that he’s serious about his dream. But as an otaku in a room filled with media to consume, Tomoya finds himself easily slipping from his task of creating.

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The three girls in his circle lend him support in their own ways. Eriri simply stops by unannounced (she literally sneaks in without him knowing) and draws in his room as he works. It doesn’t take Tomoya long to learn his childhood friend’s intent, and her textbook tsundere act only adds fuel to the fire. He’s grateful to her, but he’s also keen on surpassing her one day.

Eriri doesn’t laugh this off, because she’s not sure it’s something to laugh about. Neither do we. Tomoya may be procrastinating, but he’s definitely trying. His heart is in it…his brain and body simply need to catch up.

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To Eriri’s horror, Utaha shows up at Tomoya’s house, first to pretend she’s there to mess around, but then fesses up that she’s merely “visiting a soldier on the front.” I’ve really just met Utaha, but that just sounds like such an Utaha expression. Once she learns how little Tomoya has accomplished (he’s honest, because she’s a creator, but also because he’s serious), Utaha tries to discourage him from continuing and advises him to return to a life of consuming media.

What’s great about this tack is that condescension, while present and accounted for, is not her primary intent. When she goes off on a passionate rant, seemingly channeling Eriri’s energy for a moment (only more frightening since she’s usually so calm), she admits she likes having consumers like Tomoya read her work without trying to attack her with it or analyze her to death. He’ll analyze her work, sure, but not her. He believes she’s at the top of her game, and is above such pettiness.

(Oh, and I was mindful of the fact that a large chunk of the second straight episode was taking place in Tomoya’s room. I was also mindful of the fact I didn’t care in the slightest. After all, think about the rooms you inhabit throughout the day. You’re in those rooms a lot, right? Why should it be any different for Tomoya, especially with the task before him?)

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Once Salt & Pepper peace out, Tomoya gets a call from Vanilla, her second to him in the episode. The first one was quite obviously checking in, albeit in the casual, semi-involved way Kato does most things. Her second call is also checking in, but neither call feels the slightest bit out of obligation.

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It feels like Kato and Tomoya want nothing else than to be talking to each other, here and now. The conversation flows so easily, it almost drizzles like warm honey into a cup of piping hot tea. It’s very much a routine boyfriend-girlfriend chat, right down to Kato being in a loud place where it’s hard to hear, but not hanging up or calling back later.

But it also happens to be extremely well-written and nuanced boyfriend/girlfriend chat, with double significance, as they’re also talking on the level of artist and muse. Saekano likes to joke around with the tropes of its genre, but it is also perfectly capable of being dead serious and sincere when it’s called for.

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Here’s just a taste of the honey, which starts with a few seconds of silence by Kato, indicating even she must steel herself to say certain things:

Kato: What was it about me that appealed to you, Aki-kun? …You know, like, “Boy, it sure was fun when we did that,” or, “Wow, I sure love that about her,” or even the opposite, and something that you didn’t like.
Tomoya: Have you contracted a fatal disease and you won’t live to see me tomorrow?
Kato: It’s nothing that dramatic, but, well, is there?
Tomoya: Let me think…Well, everything was fun. Really fun.
Kato: Then there’s no room for improvement?

Tomoya goes on to say he maybe wished she had been a little more overbearing, though not mean-spirited like the other two girls. Kato doesn’t get the difference, but in any case, signs off for the night. The phone call strikes a perfect balance of honesty, bluntness, relaxedness, and excitement.

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Tomoya proceeds to sit at his laptop and then hastily waste another day, and then a fair chunk of another, and then the voices of self-doubt start to ring in his head.

Returning to the hill where Kato dropped her beret in a desperate search for inspiration, Tomoya finds only a hill, and the doubt continues to build until his eyes water, feeling helpless to stop this whole enterprise from ending before it began…

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…Then a white beret floats into his field of vision, almost like a flying saucer in the sky. The alien before him is only Kato, but she’s been…transformed. The cherry blossom petals return at the sight of her in her super-moe dating-sim heroine outfit. Not only that, Kato is talking and acting precisely the way such a heroine would in a game. Every word; every gesture.

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Before Utaha left Tomoya’s place, she told him if he’s truly serious about this dream, it’s not enough to merely convince her and the rest of the circle of his plan’s merit. He must bring them into it, and get them to want to give it their all, through the sheer force of his will and charisma. Utaha, not surprisingly, wants him to be forceful.

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In her motivational heroine act, Kato is already being pretty forceful. Turns out she went to Eriri and Utaha and begged them to lend her their strength. Eriri perfected her wardrobe, while Utaha handled her dialogue and mannerisms. And by God, not only do they prove they’re the real deal, but Kato proves she’s the ideal blank(-ish) canvas upon which to paint Tomoya’s dream game.

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And while I know part of her is simply putting on an act to inspire him to press on, that act, and the desire to carry it out, comes from a place of genuine affectionate concern for Tomoya; a place of love, just as his legitimate, if not overtly-stated, affection for her is what started him on this path in the first place.

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And there’s no better ‘cover’ to say the things they say and do the things they do with minimized embarrassment, than under the more detatched guise of creator+heroine. It’s not just a guise I see through, but Eriri and Utaha as well. Any girl who can kick Tomoya out of his disappointing sedentary existence to this extent is a girl to be taken seriously.

But the bottom line is, Kato makes everyone around her better. Individually, she, Eriri, and Utaha had a slight motivating effect on Tomoya. Working collaboratively increased that effect exponentially, which in Tomoya’s case, meant he eventually did write something down.

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While negotiating when Kato will be able to leave his place Tomoya agrees to 6 AM rather than 7, not just because “girls take longer to get ready”, but because “it would be crazy to end the same way two episodes in a row!” The meta moments of earlier eps are still here, but they’re more smoothly integrated in the narrative, and when they do pop up like here, they’re a pleasant and hilarious surprise rather than a distraction.

Naturally, Eriri and Utaha lambast Tomoya’s proposal for being too overt and indulgent, which makes sense, considering he’s really telling the story of how he met and fell for Kato Megumi…who he worked so hard last night, she’s asleep beside him in the cafe booth. Those facts alone guarantee Salt & Pepper’s criticism will be tinged with resentment. This show is just too frikkin’ good.

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