Higehiro – 10 – A Warm Place

While Yoshida does his level best to hide it, Mishima and Hashimoto can tell he’s devastated by Sayu’s imminent departure, and how he’s mitigating it by trying to bury himself in his work. While he has many reasons to worry about the welcome Sayu will received from her mother upon returning to Hokkaido, her big brother Issa isn’t one of them.

Issa meets with Yoshida after work to bow in apology for the rude things he said the other day, while also asking him earnestly to continue taking care of Sayu in the time they have left together. He reveals how Sayu was their mother’s last best chance to keep their womanizing dad around, refusing to get an abortion. Alas, the asshole left them anyway.

Sayu’s mom wasn’t equipped to love a girl who was the symbol of her failure to keep the man she loved in her life, and so Sayu received no parental love whatsoever, something Issa believes every child needs. Honestly, it’s a wonder Sayu isn’t a lot more scarred.

While it’s nice to be reminded that Sayu’s brother is a legit good guy, if what he’s said is true, Sayu’s mom may simply be incapable of loving Sayu—or if she does love her on a fundamental/biological level, has never been able to express it. Why would that change when she returns home?

Later, Sayu presents Yoshida with a parting gift: a hand-written and illustrated cookbook with all of his favorite dishes she’s made for him over time. I couldn’t help but let out a loud awwwwwww that a roommate must’ve thought was me reacting to a cute puppy video. It’s such a cute, warm gift, and filled with love.

Sayu’s next parting gift is to share with Yoshida the view Asami shared with her, along with the wisdom she imparted about how even the tiniest stares have pasts and futures. Asami accepted Sayu and became her first real girl friend, just as Yoshida took her in with only the best intentions when everyone before had the worst.

Sayu doesn’t see Yoshida as simply “some guy who shared his apartment with her” for a while. That she met him when she did may well have saved her life, and she’ll never forget that, looking back fondly on the time she stopped running away, settled down, and found a way back.

Sayu admits that she’s tried to leave a few times while Yoshida wasn’t home, but has been unable to do so. Ultimately, he means enough to her not to want to leave without saying a proper goodbye. Because in all honesty, she kinda wants to stay with him forever. But she can’t settle her past unless she goes home.

Ichinose Kana does some really lovely voice work here, and has indeed done much of the heavy lifting in a show that doesn’t have the best production values. She even moves Yoshida to tears, because a part of him doesn’t want her to leave, both because he fears what might go down in Hokkaido, and because he’s become so accustomed to her living with him. He’d no doubt say she saved him just as he saved her.

Back at work, the ever-practical Mishima, independent of her individual crusade to win Yoshida’s heart, says if it’s so unbearable to say goodbye to and part with Sayu, then mabe he shouldn’t, and should instead follow her to Hokkaido. Sure, it would mean leaving his job, but both Mishima and Hashimoto doubt he considers his job or whatever project he’s working on to be anywhere near as important to him as Sayu.

In fact, it pisses Hashimoto off to no end that Yoshida tries—badly—to pretend otherwise, like when Asami calls him saying Sayu has disappeared and isn’t answering her phone. It takes Hashimoto telling Airi that Yoshida are feeling sick and going home early, and Mishima taking over Yoshida’s work for the day, to get him out of there.

While giving him a ride, Hashimoto expresses to Yoshida how it pisses him off that his best friend knows what to care about the most, but pretending he doesn’t. As his best friend, Hashimoto knows what Yoshida won’t admit: wanting what’s best for Sayu, or wanting whatever will make her happy, and his own fear of being apart from her aren’t mutually exclusive.

Sayu is fine (don’t scare me like that, show!); her phone simply died while she was waiting outside Yoshida’s office to surprise him and see where he worked; he and Hashimoto must’ve just missed crossing paths with her. Airi and Asami are there with her, and Yoshida acts like a worried dad when he sees her. This marks the first time Hashimoto lays eyes on Sayu, and seeing her makes him immediately understand why Yoshida is scared of losing her.

That night, the very last night together in Yoshida’s apartment, Sayu asks if she can climb into bed with him. Not for anything weird, but just for some warmth and human contact between two people who have come to mean much more to each other than they’d initially expected.

Sayu asks if she’d have grown up into a “normal girl” if Yoshida had been her dad. Yoshida should’ve answered by saying there’s nothing abnormal about her, she’s a lovely person who has admirably hung in there under abnormal and suboptimal circumstances. Okay, maybe that’s a little too wonky for the mood of that scene.

But whether he had decided earlier that evening, or right there in that bed, Yoshida tells Sayu he’ll come to Hokkaido with her, to keep an eye on her and see her mom with her. Sayu can’t contain her elation upon hearing those words. There’s nothing wrong with going back home to settle your past, but there’s nothing saying you have to do it alone…particularly if you’re someone who’s experienced enough loneliness for a lifetime.

Rating: 4/5 Stars

Fruits Basket – 59 – Useful Idiots


What does Tooru do when a soaked, filthy Akito approaches her with a knife, saying she stole everything from her? First, Tooru sees her mother standing behind Akito, echoing her words about being left behind and abandoned.

Instead of running away, Tooru runs towards Akito, who is startled and slashes her arm. But no amount of non-lethal dagger strikes or ghost moms will be enough to stop Tooru’s—and time’s—inexorable march forward.


Tooru admits to Akito that even as she rejected the eternity of the Zodiac curse, she wished for the same things: for unchanging feelings and eternal bonds, like she had for her mother. But then she fell in love with Kyou, and even if he doesn’t love her back (he does), she’s going on ahead without her mom. People and feelings can’t be bound down.

Tooru’s words (and complete lack of regard for her life) disarm Akito, literally and figuratively, but Akito’s anxiety remains. How can she live life with “strangers”, lacking promises or bonds or eternity? Tooru asks Akito to start over with her, here and now, and holds out her hand. Akito worries Tooru get sick of her if she cries, but Tooru keeps that hand of friendship out, and Akito is about to take it…when the earth below Tooru suddenly gives way.


The old Akito would have relished a scenario where Tooru was seriously injured and there was no one around; all she’d have to do is nothing. But even though she wasn’t quite able to take Tooru’s hand, Tooru still changed Akito in that moment. Instead of doing nothing, Akito screams her lungs out and runs for help, finding Shigure and Yuki, who calls an ambulance.

Yuki locates Tooru, who is still alive, and thanks to Akito calling for help immediately, she’s likely to stay that way. But for Kyou, who also heard Akito’s screams, that’s by no means a sure thing. In fact, it must feel like a second case of deja vu after the deaths of his mother and Kyouko for which he blames himself. Still, Tooru raises her hand to Kyou’s face and says “it’s all right now”, and then Kyou kisses her.

That night, Yuki is prepared to stay at the hospital all night, but Tooru’s gramps tells him to go home and go to school tomorrow, or Tooru will fret. He also asks where the “redhead” is. It’s clear Kyou doesn’t feel he deserves to visit Tooru considering his running away from her led to this.


But one person who is done running away from everything—from the inevitability of the future to the deeds she committed in the name of stopping that future—is Akito. She visits Kureno at the hospital, and he quickly forgives her. She’s waiting outside when Momiji arrives, and calls both Kureno and Tooru “idiots” for forgiving her no matter what she says or does

Momiji says that “idiots are useful”, since Akito isn’t guilty of her crimes thanks to the two of them being idiots. If they were less kind, soft-heared, loving people, they’d pressed charges at the very least and possibly hated her forever. But that’s not who Kureno and Tooru are.

Momiji tells Akito to treasure them from now on, and that’s just what she does, starting with visiting Tooru in her hospital room, where shes awake, sitting up, her arm outstretched in friendship. Akito blushes and smiles, happy beyond words that a wretch like her can still be forgiven and welcomed.

Those of you who have zero tolerance for an Akito redemption arc will likely be disappointed in where things went this week, but I for one am all for it. Akito may have dished out no shortage of cruelty and suffering upon the other Zodiac members, but if Tooru and Kureno are willing to forgive her, and she’s willing to step out of the shadows and move forward, then that’s all good with me!

As for how all of this seemingly went according to Shigure’s plan, well…that was one hell of a convoluted, risky plan! One wonders if his novels are similarly chaotic…

Higehiro – 09 – The Things She Carried

Like Sayu, I was dreading the day someone from her family finally found her and forced her to come home…but that isn’t what happens. It turns out Issa is just as decent and kind a person as Yoshida, and doesn’t jump to conclusions even when Yoshida and Sayu greet him at the door in their PJs.

Instead, he’s the latest in a long line of refreshingly reasonable, level-headed human beings that populate Higehiro and make it feel more real. He’s not simply doing their mother’s bidding; he wanted to be the one who found Sayu, because he loves her and is worried about her.

Issa is greatly relieved Sayu managed to find a good soul who took her in without asking for anything inappropriate, and takes both of them at their word when they say nothing’s happened. As a high-achieving corporate type, I imagine Issa trusts his instincts when it comes to reading people.

But that’s not all: Issa can also tell, even if Sayu can’t, that she’s taken some important steps forward as a person. He notes how she’s more able to speak her mind, as she explains why she needs a few more days to think about things. He’s proud and caring n a way only a big brother can be, and grants her one more week.

I have to say, I never imagined in a million years that Issa would be such a good guy, especially considering the uncomfortable way the series has handled the bastard who took her in for sex and ended up her co-worker. But it’s not the show’s fault I automatically expect the worst…it’s because men, and especially anime men, are so often just that…the worst.

Of course, women are the worst too, as we learn when Sayu invites Asami over and sits her and Yoshida down to finally tell them about everything that’s happened that led her to run away. In effect, she’s unloading all of the burdens she’s carried before two friends who are all too happy to help share that load. Her first step in getting ready to go back is telling the people important to her about where she came from.

Sayu and her mother never got along. Her mother put all of her hopes and aspirations into her firstborn son Issa, and never had a kind word for Sayu. Because she never received love, Sayu didn’t bother putting any effort into anything, be it academics or socializing. She was alone, emanated a “stay away” aura, and came to prefer it that way.

But along came another outcast in Yuuko, for whom Sayu’s repelling aura had the opposite effect. Yuuko always told Sayu she was pretty and cool—as pretty and cool as Yuuko claimed not to be—and the two became fast, close friends. But Sayu’s looks and unimpeachable “goodness” kept the other girls from bullying her directly when she turned down a guy one of them liked, so they started bullying Yuuko instead.

Yuuko always said Sayu looked best when she was smiling and happy. But as the bullying intensified and Sayu dug in her heels, determined to stand beside Yuuko and fight for her, she stopped smiling and laughing, and was always depressed, because she felt responsible for her friend’s suffering and felt powerless to stop it.

Yuuko, however, felt differently. When Sayu told her she’d support her and fight for her against the bullying, it hurt Yuuko more than anything, as she believed she was ruining Sayu’s happiness by deigning to become friends with her in the first place.

So one day, Sayu found Yuuko standing on the wrong side of the balcony, waiting for her. Yuuko told her what happened was her fault, but it would be better if she were no longer in her life. Before leaping to her death, Yuuko asked Sayu to keep smiling, obviously in no mental state to realize how hard that would be if she killed herself.

Witnessing her first and only friend commit suicide for her sake would have been plenty of trauma for any teenager or adult to bear, but that wassn’t the end of Sayu’s suffering. As the Ogiwara household became besieged with press and stories and rumors of the true cause of Yuuko’s death, her mother did all the exact wrong things, only exacerbating Sayu’s despair.

Rather than support her daughter and help her grief, she blamed her for their predicament, and even went so far as to ask, seriously, if Sayu really did kill Yuuko. That despicable question is the last straw for Sayu, and you really can’t blame her for not wanting to spend one more second inside that house with that despicable woman. Instead, it’s Issa who offers Sayu a shoulder to cry on as she prepares to run away on foot.

Demonstrating he was just as empathetic and kind back then as he is in the present, he actually helps his sister get the distance and time she needs, giving her $3000 for a decent hotel and food for two weeks, if she promises to call him if she ever gets into trouble. If there’s a right way to run away, this was it: acknowledging and respecting what Sayu needed, but building checks into the arrangement.

But even with those measures in place, Issa would still need Sayu to actualy call him if she got in trouble, and she never does that. As she burns through her cash, she continues to be crushed by isolation and self-loathing, with no one there to help pull her out of her downward spiral. Issa’s mistake wasn’t getting Sayu away from their mom, it was sending Sayu away all by herself when she was in no condition to be entirely alone.

The episode includes a scene we previously saw only a flash of, in which Sayu masturbates and looks down at her hand afterwards. As this happens before she first sleeps with a man, I’m not sure why such a graphic scene was included, except to underscore that there was really not much for Sayu to do during this time but sleep, eat, and pleasure herself, and none of it was helping.

When Issa calls Sayu to check on her, her battery dies, and she tosses her phone out, believing in that moment that his kindness was merely pity she didn’t want or deserve. She wanders the streets, bumps into a man, and when she explains her situation he offers her a place to stay. He eventually asks for sex in return, and Sayu gives in, though doesn’t even remember the name of her first. She then went from guy to guy, trading sex for shelter, until ending up on Yoshida’s doorstep. The rest, we know.

The first to speak after her tale of woe is Asami, who gives Sayu the affection she needs and tells her just how hard she hung in there all this time. Having gotten all of this out, Sayu breaks down, having a much-needed cathartic cry. Once she’s calmed down and in bed, Asami asks Yoshida on the balcony what he’s going to do about her.

Yoshida says it’s up to Sayu’s family to figure this out and it’s not his place to interfere. Asami points out that’s not what she asked, idiot, and again asks: what does he want to do? He may say he’s a stranger, but he’s not; he and Asami are as much family to Sayu as Issa, and certainly more than Sayu’s mom.

What they want matters too, especially if it aligns with what Sayu herself wants. But first those things must be said, just as the things Sayu carried needed to be said to fully understand where she’s been, and determine what she should do. It’s not just Sayu who needs to think about things in the week she has left.

Fruits Basket – 58 – Forgiven for Existing

Kyou’s a real big jerk in this episode, not letting poor Tooru get a word in edgewise, and even then rejecting those words and running off, ignoring her feelings entirely. Then again, it was about time we heard Kyou’s full backstory, including how he met Kyouko quite by chance one day, as she noticed how his hair matched hers.

In this meeting of orange-haired Kyous, Kyou finally met someone who didn’t curse his existence; an intermittent surrogate mom of sorts, who treated him the way his real parents should have treated him, instead of blaming a mere child for everything wrong with their lives. For a boy thus psychologically tortured, Kyouko was a ray of light and hope—as was her daughter, whom Kyou only ever saw once, watching her from behind.

When Tooru went missing that day, Kyou made “a man’s promise” to Kyouko that he’d find and protect her. But while he searched all night and into the day, it was ultimately Yuki who found her and brought her home, all while wearing the blue cap he claimed from Kyou when the wind blew it his way.

Kyou was never going to accept a hat touched by someone he deemed his  mortal enemy and nemesis; a “bad guy” title he bestowed upon Yuki because a bad guy was needed. Kyouko urged him not to live his life that way, and even when Kyou pushed her aside, she assured him she’d hold him to his promise he made “another day.”

Lonely because he felt betrayed and ashamed because he couldn’t help, Kyou stopped seeing Kyouko, until one day by chance they were at the same crosswalk. When an out of control car careened towards her, he was ready to pull her towards him to save her, but if he did that, he’d transform, so he “let her die” to protect himself.

Despite hating himself so much, and wishing he could go away and disappear, he always saves himself in the end by running away. Even now, after all he and Tooru have been through, he can’t look at her face, so afraid he is that she loves the wretch who let her mother die. If that mother’s last words were what he thought they were: “I’ll never forgive you”, how could he ever forgive himself?

With his ray of light and hope extinguished, and wracked with the guilt of having done nothing to stop it, Kyou shut down. Shisho took him to the mountains and tried to get him to “keep living”. He began to refocus on Yuki as the bad guy who stole all of his hope, and Akito egged him on by promising to acknowledge him as an official member of the Zodiac and cease calling him a monster if he “defeated” Yuki by high school graduation.

This gave Yuki another reason to hate and compete with Yuki, so he followed him to Shigure’s house…only to come across the last person he expected to see: the late Kyouko’s daughter and treasure, Tooru.

Despite growing closer to Tooru since then, Kyou can’t forgive himself, and doesn’t want her to forgive him either. He’s the real bad guy, not Yuki, and he feels he doesn’t deserve hope, or love, or forgiveness. Finally given a chance to speak as the two are pelted by the rain, Tooru declares that if her mother really said she’d never forgive Kyou, then she’ll just have to “rebel against mom”.

She asks if there’s any way Kyou can accept that she loves him, and he in turns says he’s “disappointed in her”, even after saying he wouldn’t when nothing but a sheet separated them. Kyou then runs off, not letting her say anymore, and Yuki, who had been observing from a respectful distance, chases after him.

That leaves Tooru alone and vulnerable to attack from a dirty and clearly unhinged Akito, who approaches Tooru bearing a knife clearly intent on doing away with the one she’s deemed the bad guy. And while this is by far the most overt threat on Tooru’s life in all these fifty-eight weeks of Fruits Basket, something tells this non-reader that Tooru won’t be joining her mom quite yet…

Fruits Basket – 57 – Caught Up In a Fantasy

“I wonder how much time and effort it’ll take for you kids to find your answers…” Those are the words Kyouko said to a young Kyou. The answer? A fuckin’ lot. Only Kyou seems to be retreating into the answer forced upon him at birth. As Akito was born to be loved, he was born to be loathed and despised, his existence only causing pain.

Even if he didn’t believe those words, as far as he’s concerned they were proven true when his mother walked in front of a train, and then Kyouko died. In his dream, in his dark room in this mercilessly dark episode, he dreams of a third death at his feet, with his hands drenched in blood: that of Tooru. He believes his mother and Kyouko came to him for a reason: to tell him to know his place.

It’s ironic, then, that neither he, nor the other Zodiac members, would even be in this dreadful mess were it not for someone NOT knowing their place. Whether she genuinely loved Akito’s father Akira or was simply trying to get in on that sweet, sweet Souma fortune and prestige, I cannot say, because I have no reason to trust her. But Souma Ren was but a humble servant when she decided to approach Akira, saying she alone could see his pain and loneliness, and offered to take it all away.

Even if it was a cynical scheme at the beginning, Ren was profoundly attached and obsessed with Akira, so maybe she always was. And maybe Akira’s attendants would have found a suitable mate for him to produce a successor before he died…but maybe not. Instead, Ren overstepped her assigned bounds and stepped into that role, bearing the next family head. But it was she who demanded Akito be raised as a man…and a precocious young Shigure seemed to know what that was really all about.

Ayame, Hatori, and Kureno didn’t understand, but Shigure did, even then: Akito was always going to be someone to be pitied, for Ren was imposing upon her a life she never asked for, costing her access to a life where she might not have become a Machiavellian monster.

In the present, Ren thinks that she has a sympathetic ear (and possibly another lay) in Shigure, but he’s only there to fuck with her, as usual. He says he only looks at Ren “that way” because it lets him fantasize about whether Akito would look like her if she’d lived as a girl.

Meanwhile, Akito is sulking in her room, holding the box containing Akira’s remains, remembering her mother (who was never really a mother) challenging her to prove that nobody can break her little dream and rub it in her face. But the dream is dying; Akito can feel it. Bonds are breaking by the day. She’s interrupted by Ren storming in with a dagger, ready to use it unless Akito hands her beloved Akira over.

Akito, in a particularly nihilistic mood, tosses the box high into the air, and for a moment I thought there’d be a horrible cloud of ash. But the box is empty. It always was empty. The chief attendant prepared it as a charm when Akito was being consumed by grief after her father’s death.

As a bereft Ren stares into the empty box, Akito says she’s always been “Other”, and this has all been broken from the beginning. There will be no rubbing in the face of a victory, but she does seem poised to kill Ren with her own knife…until another bond breaks just then.

This time it happens to Hiro, who is playing with his siter Hinata and was probably finally swayed from Akito’s pull due to her. The first thing he does is hold her tight, and then his mom comes in and hugs him. Hiro is full of conflicting emotions, and his mom understands that “saying goodbye feels lonely” by nature. But ultiamtely, it’s a good thing. Hopefully Kisa can follow and these poor kids can start having ordinary lives!

As for Akito…I can pity her without forgiving the things she’s done. It’s not just a matter of her sticking to the “fantasy” that she was a god born to be loved by all forevermore. It’s that she herself was always fifty-fifty about whether Akira’s soul was in that box. No one ever gave her any other life to live than the one she had, and didn’t even know or think she had the ability to change any of it.

Kureno draws her in to comfort her, saying she can start learning the things she doesn’t know or understand. She can change, and escape the choking, crushing bonds of the Souma clan, and he’ll be right there beside her. But Akito believes they’re already past the point of “change”.

She blames Kureno for this, by staying with her out of “kindness”, while half-saving and half-rejecting her. She wishes he could have left her back when his curse was first broken. But it’s too late, and she demands he take responsibility with his life, stabbing him in the back. As Kureno collapses, there’s a devastating smash cut to Arisa looking at a dead bird in the rain.

With that, we return to Shigures, where Tooru and Kyou are just finishing up a meal. Kyou prepares to leave, but Tooru doesn’t simply let him go without a word. She stops him at the door and says there’s something she has to talk to him about. Judging from his face and the dream he had about Tooru, I doubt Kyou’s in the most perceptive mood. It’s going to take a little more time and effort for these kids to find their answers…

Fruits Basket – 56 – “Eventually” Isn’t Good Enough

With Rin safe at Kazuma’s, she and Tooru finally get to reunite, and while Rin insists otherwise, Haru, Yuki, and Kazuma all agree they’re good friends. No one tells Tooru that Rin was being held at the cat’s place, which is where Kyou is destined to end up if the curse isn’t broken.

Tooru is paying her mom a visit at the graveyard with Uo and Hana, and Yuki offers to go too, but Kyou says he won’t be going and shuffles off. Shigure then pays Rin a visit and tells her Ren doesn’t know how to break the curse and was only using her.

He does this because he wants Rin to know the curse is going to break eventually anyway, citing the fact all of the Zodiac members are alive at the same time means they’re all in attendance for the final banquet. Tooru, whom Shigure didn’t know had arrived, overhears.

She asks Shigure what “eventually” means, becaue if it’s years or decades, it’s not good enough for her. It has to happen by next spring, or she’ll lose Kyou forever. Shigure then lets slip to Rin what Kureno already told Tooru: that the Rooster isn’t “one of them” anymore, and little by little, “tiny changes and catalysts” will build up and cause the curse to collapse altogether.

But he admits, at the present rate things are going, Kyou will probably still be locked up, and none of the other Zodiacs will do anything about it, because “that’s the Cat’s role.” Going Full Villain, Shigure twists the knife in Tooru, telling her that the Cat is the “other” creature for the others to exclude; that as monstrous as all of them are, they can say “at least I’m not him.”

This causes Tooru to shout out Shigure’s name, as he’s simply said too much, and she runs off, distraught. She doesn’t want him to say that she’s Kyou’ ticket out of the curse, because that would mean putting someone before her beloved mother. She’s already worried that she’s the last person carrying Kyouko in her memory, and if she were to fall for Kyou, even that would vanish.

When Kyou happens to run into her, a tearful Tooru exclaims that she “doesn’t know what to do”, to which he replies she should do nothing, and think carefully before acting. Until then, he says as he puts his hand on her head, it’s okay to keep crying. Tooru can’t help but cry, knowing already who she’ll let go of when the time comes—and it won’t be Kyou.

Kyou visits Kyouko’s grave separately, and encounters her father, who has a habit of calling Tooru Kyouko. It’s not that he’s getting old, but because he wanted to try to find a way to keep Kyouko alive for Tooru, and for himself. Gramps also tells Kyou that Tooru gets her overly polite way of speaking from her father. It was an affectation she adopted after her dad died and Kyouko fell into despair.

Once again, awful relatives come into play, and little Tooru overheard them saying she looks nothing like Katsuya and would offer “little comfort” for Kyouko. While they likely thought she was too small to understand, she understood them, and it became a complex.

Meanwhile, Tooru visits Rin at Kazuma’s while Kagura hides from her, unable to face the person she knows Kyou loves and yet won’t get together, causing Kagura to continue to waver. Kazuma just hopes Tooru loves Kyou for who he truly is, not out of pity or compassion, as the former cat’s companion merely feld bad for the poor wretch.

But Tooru makes clear: what she’s feeling is too “cruel and greedy” to be merely pity. A part of her is not only willing to set aside her mother, but ”
trick” Rin and the others into thinking she wants anything other than Kyou, who is the person most precious to her. Kagura runs into the room and slaps her, saying that such a confession is pointless if she doesn’t tell him!

As Kyou contemplates a younger Tooru deciding to become as close to her father as possible in order to save her mother, he recalls Kyouko asking him to check in on her periodically when she was working late. He encounters Tooru hanging laundry outside, and asks what her father looked like. While at first she says she talks politely like he did, she eventually admits that in spite of all the love he gave her when alive, she came considered him a bad guy for dying and almost taking mom away with him.

Like her grandfather calling her Kyouko, Tooru wanted to keep her mom alive. Watching her hide her loneliness and foolishly torture herself for such a reason tugged at Kyou’s heart, such that when she says she’s awful, he embraces her through the sheet. When she once again apologizes, he says it’s fine; she can say whatever she needs to and he won’t be disappointed. These are the words she needed to hear, and she draws closer to him, causing him to transform.

Later, Tooru decides to show Kyou a photo of her father, which she kept behind the photo of her mother. She’s about to take Kagura’s advice and confess to him, but looks down at the picture and sees that her mother has vanished, leaving only an empty sky. For a moment, Kyouko appears in spectral form behind Kyou, and Tooru reconsiders.

Then Kyou remembers something: Kyouko lying face down in the street in a pool of her life’s blood, bitterly saying “I’ll never forgive you.” This causes Kyou to suddenly freeze up, and Tooru is so concerned she drops her precious photo of her mom, causing the glass to shatter.

Had she simply not looked at the photo and confessed to Kyou, I really felt the confession might’ve broken the curse for him. But after he recalls that bloody Kyouko, it’s not only clear he’s not yet ready to accept that confession, but that he might believe he deserves the Cat’s fate due to whatever went down back then, thus tightening the bonds of the curse.

Fruits Basket – 55 – The End Comes So Suddenly

This final season’s ED pairs off all of the romantic couples, and this week we check in on a number of them, starting with Ayame and Mine. When Ayame asks Mine if she’ll leave him if the curse is never broken, Mine being Mine assures him she’s not leaving his side ever, so if he has a problem with that, tough!

Meanwhile at Mayuko’s bookstore, she and Hatori talk about maybe going on a trip, though Hatori pointedly doesn’t have anywhere in particular he wants to go.

Finally, Machi is falling for Yuki, and hard, such that she’s actually taking her StuCo work seriously. Yuki knows he has to tell her about the curse at some point, but the right time keeps getting interrupted. Ultimately he may have to simply arrange a time—say, a date—for just the two of them to talk with no hangers-on.

Akito, still distraught over her fight with Hatsuharu, gets precisely zero sympathy from Shigure, who continues to mock her for thinking hiding in a dark room will solve anything. He knows that time, people, and emotions will move on in time.

Akito was sold a bill of goods about unchanging bonds and continues to cling to it, but that’s not Shigure’s problem. It’s not often I say this about the most despicable member of the Zodiac other than Akito herself, but…good for Shigure. Scratch that; I want neither of them to win anything, ever.

But Shigure’s not wrong. Would it surprise you to learn that these past four weeks when I watched both the OP and ED, I had no idea who the lanky blonde was, despite the fact that if you discount him, Momiji was nowhere to be found in either? Turns out that’s because Momiji had one hell of agrowth spurt. He’s a full-on man, complete with fully male school uniform.

Despite now looking like yet another handsome prince, he’s still the same playful, cheerful bunny boy who’ll take Tooru by the hand and walk around campus, completely oblivious to the fact it makes them look like a doting couple.

While Shigure is away getting his fix of Akito suffering, his house becomes a hub for all of the young Soumas, as Kisa, Hiro, and Momiji join Kyou, Yuki, Tooru, and Haru for a night of curry and family fun. I love how organically it all comes together; clearly these Soumas have had their fill of Akito’s gloom.

But while Momiji still puts on his usual adorable act, he makes clear to Kyou that as someone who has always loved Tooru and is now big enough to confess to her, he won’t accept Kyou continuing to be wishy-washy about her. If Kyou gives up on Tooru, someone else will come along and take her before he knows it—and that will surely sting.

Shigure, who acknowledges the various kinds of kindness doled out to Akito by Hatori and Kureno, but has no intention of becoming Akito’s “father”, quickly loses all the goodwill he built up kicking Akito when she was down by getting all creepy with a thankfully oblivious Tooru, whom he considers a more worthy “god” than Akito to be devoted to.

That night, Akito dreams of her father telling her how she was born to be loved and how there will be no loneliness or fear in her future, only to see another rope snap, waking her up in a panic.

It comes as both a huge surprise and entirely no surprise whatsoever that the next Zodiac member to be liberated from the curse is Momiji. Akito can feel it, and rushes to his place to beg him not to leave her, and in his newly liberated state he sees Akito for the pitiful, pathetic wretch she is and curses his former self for feeling otherwise.

Still, because he’s also a nice guy he tells her to leave for now; he’ll come talk to her once he’s sorted some things out. The next day at school he is aloof and elusive, but from the roof he catches Tooru gazing at an unaware Kyou in the hall. Kyou goes to the roof and finds him there, and Momiji says “my curse is broken” and tries to pass it off as a joke, all while telling Kyou that he, Momiji, is the one truly being stung.

Later, Momiji tells Akito that he can’t stay by her side all his life, and she can’t tie him down, either magically or emotionally. She tries her best to tell her that neither his parents nor anyone else will welcome him back, but he already knows that. He’s free now, and it’s lonely and terrifying, but he also feels a sense of almost infinite potential.

Even if he can’t find happiness with Akito, and even if he won’t get the girl he wants, he knows deep in his newly freed heart that he can find happiness somewhere, and with someone, at some point in the future. That happiness may only be waiting for him to catch up. But he won’t find it unless he walks his own life’s path.

He then asks Akito how long he’ll stay in that place, which I believe is the very first time someone suggested that Akito could simply give this all up and find her own path. Naturally, Akito ignores the questions and tells him to buzz off, but she’s only delaying the inevitable. I have to believe Kureno and Momiji are only the beginning. The curse is on borrowed time.

While walking to school, Momiji chooses a route that goes past his birth mother and sister Momo. His mom talks about going on a trip soon, and even though Momiji can’t and won’t be going with them, his mood is improved dramatically simply by hearing the words “take care” from his mom.

Osamake – 02 – The Cost of Assumptions

Maru Sueharu was indeed a famous and talented child actor, while his dad was a stuntman and his mother an “unsuccessful” actress. Abe Mitsuru asks why Sueharu suddenly quit acting six years ago, but I doubt the answer matters much to him, as once Mitsuru found out Sueharu liked Shirokusa, he decided to date her for the express purpose of humiliating him and proving that he “won”. I take it back; this guy’s a dick!

Mitsuru also makes clear his intentions to officially confess to Shirokusa at the confession festival, in hopes of squashing Suehar’s first love for good. Why he cares so much about Sueharu is anyone’s guess, but the bottom line is that if Sueharu will need to make a big splash at the festival to foil his scheme.

Despite Kuroha loudly proclaiming she and Sueharu are now dating, Shirokusa still agrees to write a script for a play Sueharu will perform for the festival—provided he’s the star and she gets properly compensated. She then contributes to his persona non grata status with the boys by exchanging NINE info with him.

Kuroha, who we learn is one of four beautiful Shida sisters who live next door to Sueharu, stops by to check on him. Once again the two exhibit a warm, lovely lived in chemistry. While she’s organizing his books, a photo slips out of one of them: a photo of him as a kid with someone who is clearly Shirokusa.

Sueharu, who calls Shirokusa Kachi, doesn’t make the connection to his old friend “Shiro”, because he is very dumb and possibly face-blind. Right on cue, Shirokusa then calls Sueharu up, and they have a playful little chat to arrange a place and time to meet and talk about the play. After the call, Kuroha knows it was Shirokusa on the line, and is worried about Sueharu jumping back into acting after so long.

She also makes clear that even if it doesn’t go well it doesn’t matter, because he has other qualities besides acting ability, and she reiterates that she likes him. When she teases his red face, he raises a mirror to show her hers, then tries to go further by taking her by the chin and teasing a kiss, only to chicken out when she was ready to go.

I realize I said this last week, but it sure would be a lot easier if he got over Shirokusa and dated Kuroha for real! I know, I know, love polygon romcoms need these kinds of bumps to provide drama. Speaking of drama, on the day Sueharu practices on stage with Tetsuhiko, he suddenly suffers what I’d describe as a panic attack and passes out.

He wakes up in the nurse’s office, with Shirokusa by his side, ready to begin their meeting when he’s ready. She admits she decided to write the script for him because she’s supporting him getting back into acting. As far as payment goes, she wants neither cash nor groveling, but an explanation for what happened to his acting career. Sueharu proceeds to tell a sad tale of his mother getting the role of his mother in the second season of Child Star, the show that made him famous.

But his mom put so much into her role, she ended up hitting her head while filming a scene where her character was to be hit by a car. The show was going to be cancelled, but Sueharu insisted the show go on. But after that second season it went on indefinite hiatus, along with his career. He couldn’t tell anyone at the time what happened due to a gag order.

Sueharu’s story moves Shirokusa to tears, and not just because it’s a sad story, but because it throws off her whole revenge plot against him—which predates his by six years! As expected, the “Shiro” Sueharu and Kuroha saw in the photo was her. She was spellbound by his performances on TV, and had him invited to her house to hang out. I particularly love how in this flashback her younger self looked his way with her head sideways on the desk, just like she did in the present when he asked her to write him a script.

Back then, she asks if she could write something for him to act in, and he was enthusiastic about it. He thus became her muse, as she began to write prolifically. But when he stopped coming by without explanation and his show ended, Shirokusa took it as a personal affront. She dedicated to becoming stronger, prettier, and famous to get back at him for leaving her.

As she walks home after their meeting, Shirokusa is in tears, because he’d gone from her first love to her hating him, and now she’s back to loving him, especially knowing what happened wasn’t her fault, or anyone’s. My questions are, is she in cahoots with Mitsuru or are they using each other to make Sueharu envious, and will this revelation lead to her cancelling her vendetta?

Whatever path she takes, Sueharu and Kuroha are proceeding with the play in which he upstages Mitsuru and confesses to Shirokusa. But Kuroha doesn’t trust Shirokusa and worries that this is a trap by her and Mitsuru to kick him as low as he can go just when he’s riding high. Nevertheless, Sueharu wants to give it a try.

While Kuroha is worried about him, as a childhood friend would, she’s also supportive, telling him that even after all this time his natural talent is still there, and he’s a better actor than he gives himself credit for. As long as he’s acting for someone, she knows he’ll do great. Ideally, that someone is her!

Rating: 4/5 Stars

To Your Eternity – 02 – I Don’t Don’t Wanna Grow Up

I’ll tellya, you can have Tsuda Kenjirou read the friggin’ phone book paired with an epic Kawasaki Ryou score and I’ll be entertained, but TYE gives the man far more stirring things to say. It manages to achieve what the doomed poor boy whose form he assumed could not: escape the tundra and reach a lush, fertile land.

It doesn’t do so without incident, dying six times by starvation, exhaustion, or infection, and a seventh when it’s eaten by a giant white bear. But as Tsuda’s smooth, smoky voice proclaims: It died again…but that was not a problem. With each death, It regenerates faster and faster. It learns.

The episode becomes far more conventional than the first, by dint of featuring more than one character speaking. It’s also not a self-contained mini-film but the first part of an arc in this new green setting. Neither of these differences are bad things, mind you. In fact, it feels like Peak Ghibli a la Princess Mononoke.

A large part of that is due to March, the vivacious, instantly endearing heroine of this arc. Voiced by Hikisaka Rie with a nice balance of cutesiness and precociousness, March has a “family” of eight stuffed animal “children” with her “spouse” and big-sis figure Parona. But March wants to grow up ASAP so she can be a real mother.

Her village could use more mothers, too: she’s one of only three children, which makes her fate that much more maddening. One day, March hears a clanging bell, and Parona grabs her and runs off. They’re caught by an menacing, matter-of-fact warrior priest named Hayase and four guards who hide their faces with Beefeater hats.

Parona and March’s village has been chosen (I assume by the elders) to provide the next offering to Oniguma-sama, a god-beast who lives atop the nearby mountain and demands an untarnished female sacrifice every damn year. Seems like a bad idea if you, I dunno, don’t want to die out as a people.

March makes clear this is bullshit and she doesn’t want to die, because that means she’ll never grow up or be a mom. But both her reasonable words and her tiny punches fail to move Hayase from her absolute devotion to tradition. Hayase warns March that if she runs, Lalah will be killed in her place. If Lalah runs, they’ll use her infant sister. Real piece of work, this Hayase!

The preparations proceed, and while March’s parents hid their despair upon learning their daughter would be chosen, they don’t spare their grief and anguish when her procession commences its climb to the sacrificial altar atop the mountain.

Parona stood with the other villagers looking helpless, but that was only an act. While she is absolutely terrible at archery, one of her wayward arrows manages to smack Hayashitbag right on her haughty nose, and Parona uses the opening to tackle her. At the same time, March runs off as fast as her little legs can carry her, and is eventually aided by gravity.

She ends up face down in a pond, where she encounters It. It is also face down, and dead, and a mangled, decomposed corpse. But while Hayase’s pursuing guards turn tail upon seeing his grotesque form, March stands fast and watches with wonder as the husk of a boy reconstructs itself. March washes off the ink on her face—which in her village is done when a girl officially becomes a woman—and follows the wordless white-haired boy.

She grows increasingly frustrated with his complete lack of communication, but soon their speaking the same language: rumbling bellies. March climbs a tree and grabs him a fruit, which he proceeds to eat like he did when he was a wolf: ravenously and greedily. Every fruit March picks for herself ends up in his stomach until he’s had his fill and curls up to sleep.

After she eats and falls asleep beside her, March dreams of coming home, only to learn that Lalah and her baby sister Lisa were sacrificed to Oniguma-sama in her stead, and then, because this is To Your Eternity, we are shown the small child and infant being eaten by the great bearlike beast.

Upon waking, March heads back to her village, not willing to let the other kids die in her place. It knows to stay close to her if it wants an easy meal, so it follows her like a lost puppy.

Despite all the suffering and duress she’s had to endure the last few days, March can still maintain a sense of humor about things, turning around, flashing a gentle smile, and telling It “I’m not your mommy!” But she’s wrong: she is It’s mother. She became quite by accident what she’d always dreamed of becoming. How long will it last? Hopefully, as long as it can.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fruits Basket – 51 (S3 01) – There’s No Night that Doesn’t End

Where we last left off, Kureno had just revealed to Tooru that not only was Akito a woman. No matter how much he loved Arisa, he couldn’t leave Akito’s side, not even after being freed from the curse—or especially because of that. He further explains that Akito was raised a male from birth because it was decreed by her mother Ren, to whom we are finally introduced.

Ren still lives on the grounds, but as Kureno puts it she has “some…troubles, mentally and physically.” Akito freaks out when Ren even tries to touch Hatori, while Ren insists Akito’s belief that her bonds with the Zodiac animals are real love and eternally unchanging is nothing but fantasy.

Her cruel taunting of her daughter—whom she made into a sun by pure will—causes Akito to fly into a rage, but Ren wouldn’t mind being killed, because it would mean reuniting with Akira, Akito’s late father. In a flashback Akira tells Akito she was “born to be loved”, but to Akira that probably doesn’t mean being venerated as a god.

The thing is, Ren may question whether the Zodiac bonds are right or even real, Kureno, Shigure, Hatori, and Ayame all woke up in tears the same morning Akito was conceived. Before appearing in Ren’s belly, Akito came to them in a dream, and the four kids ran to Ren, who didn’t even know she was pregnant.

From that day, Kureno felt the other self that lived inside him, in his blood, and knew he could never betray her. Even if the bond was unnatural, or painful, he simply could never push away a crying Akito, and so can’t see Arisa. Because just as Akito wounds others, she herself is wounded.

Kureno said all of this to properly explain why he can’t leave Akito ever, and that the choice to stay with her is his alone, not guided by any curse. As he leaves her in the courtyard, the DVD falls out of Tooru’s hands and she cannot move for some time, frozen by the weight of this new information.

Her scarf flies away, she falls to her knees. Rin, her ally in ending the curse, watches this from afar. Kureno explains how he went out for fresh air, gets a vicious slap from Akito, and then the two gently embrace. Then, like a gothic fairy, Saki approaches Tooru, flanked by Megumi, and announces she is “here to save the day. Ta-da.”

After informing Yuki that Tooru is in her “custody” and will be her’s “all night” (phrasing!) Saki prepares a “Nightgown Festival” to soothe Tooru’s troubled soul. She tells Tooru that she was able to detect Tooru crying in a voice no one else could hear, but was deafening to her. Tooru explains how she tried to bring Kureno and Arisa together, to make up for all the things people like Arisa did to help her…but she failed, so she’s useless.

As we see Kyou spot Tooru’s scarf lying in the street, Tooru tells Saki how Kureno is someone who puts others’ feelings before his own. I’m glad Saki’s there to essentially say “look in the mirror…that’s you!”. Saki worries if Tooru keeps taking everyone’s feelings on her shoulders, it will crush her, and her smile will disappear. Arisa enters Saki’s room to add that if Tooru’s smile disappears, “it will be the end of the world.” Neither of them will let that happen.

Arisa sits with Tooru and says she’s “trash” for maing her cry. Tooru says she’s not trash, and Arisa in turn says Tooru isn’t useless. What she is is a dummy, just as Kureno is a dummy, and Arisa can’t help but love dummies. But because she loves them, she doesn’t want to cause problems for them, so she gathers Tooru in a hug and assures her she needn’t worry; she’ll be fine. With that, the Nightgown Festival commences in earnest, and Megumi’s heart pounds as he’s surrounded by older women, the little scamp!

Rin continues slinking around the Souma compound, only to be caught by Ren, who asks her if she wants any “help.” No doubt Ren would love to lift the curse, though it’s interesting that she only comes into the picture now.

Fatigued by their emotional exertions, Tooru and Arisa fall asleep early. Megumi asks Saki if she thinks it’s really hopeless for Arisa and Kureno. Who can say? Arisa may have said “that’s it”, but Megumi isn’t so sure. Sometimes it takes a long time for lovers to find each other.

The next morning, Tooru comes home, all cheered up, and becomes even more cheered up when she finds her scarf waiting for her, courtesy of Kyou, who even washed it (though some stains remain, which is apropos!) Tooru bops him with a pom-pom once more, then Yuki and Shigure bid her good morning. As Tooru gets on with her life—no mean feat after what she’s learned—she resolves to gradually think upon the thinks Kureno told her bit by bit.

With this beautiful, magical, heartrending-and-mending opening outing, Fruits Basket continues to prove it is the final word in supernatural romantic comedy/dramas. After two exquisite seasons of painstakingly introducing characters, delivering their backstories and developing and strengthening relationships, this third, The Final, will introduce and execute the endgame.

Some of the darkest and most painful episodes may be yet to come, but I’ll happily endure them with Tooru, Arisa, Saki, Yuki, Kyou, and everyone else to see how things turn out!

Those Snow White Notes – 01 (First Impressions) – Challenge Issued

AOTS Alert. Repeat, we have an Early AOTS Alert. Those Snow White Notes is an absolute joy to experience from beginning to end. Its absolute banger of a first episode tells a story of inspiration, loss, loneliness, listlessness, self-worth and self-actualization, jealousy, love, and much more—so much it feels like a little self-contained mini-film.

Oh yeah, did I mention it centers around a shamisen player, so the show’s music is supervised by The Yoshida Brothers, in addition to being directed by the fellow who not only gave us the tone-setting first episode of Rakugo Shinjuu, but both seasons of the excellent Master Teaser Takagi-san, of all things? We’re clearly dealing with some talented folks, so it’s amazing it doesn’t feel nearly as pretentious as it should.

A lot of that has to do with how simply and how efficiently the story is laid out and how easily it is to slide into the lives it follows. We start with Sawamura Setsu and his big brother Wakana listening through a cracked door as their grandfather plays to a transfixed crowd. An aside: I’m probably not alone when I say the sound of a well-played shamisen activates my sense of musical awe in addition to my ASMR, resulting in persistent goosebumps every time I hear it…or even think of it!

That said, as soon as the sweet music is over, the warm scene is replaced by a face-slap of a bitter winter scene, in which the Setsu is leaving home. When his gramps died, his “sound” disappeared too, so he’s going “somewhere loud” in hopes he can get it back. He doesn’t know if Tokyo is that place, but he knows he can’t stay home, saying “there’s nothing here anymore.”

We’re only two minutes in, and we’ve already learned so much while being treated to what is the first but hardly the least shamisen number. (It’s also clear I’m going to end up writing way too many words in this review! If only we had an editor around here…)

SWN’s next efficient-yet-effective character portrait is of Tachiki Yuna, an actress/model who is paying the bills with a hostess club job, having to keep smiling and pretending to be happy to be there even after her agency notifies her that she was passed over for a role. After her shift she’s encouraged by her boyfriend Taketo’s texts, and she considers herself fortunate to “have a man who’s talented.”

Yuna happens to be in the bustling streets of Roppongi when Setsu literally bumps into her after getting temporarily dazed by the sheer brightness of the city lights. The two part ways, but Setsu immediately bumps into some less savory characters who start to beat on him. It’s here we learn that Yuna has a heart of gold, as she comes to the Setsu’s rescue with some karate kicks.

After dreaming about his grandfather essentially telling him to stop playing the shamisen if he dies, Setsu wakes up in girly pajamas in Yuna’s cozy apartment, and she cooks the two of them breakfast. Setsu learns that Yuna is a 22-year-old gravure model. Yuna learns Setsu is a Tsugaru shamisen player, but he can’t play for her because he’s “empty inside”, which just happens to be how she’s been feeling lately.

When Wakana hears from Setsu in a letter, he assumes his little brother just went to Tokyo to get laid. But seeing in Setsu a kind of kindred soul, she proposes he continue living with her and doing the housework until he can get his sound back. Before long, a week passes, the longest he’s ever gone without playing since first picking up a shamisen.

Yuna takes Setsu to a restaurant to meet her great and talented boyfriend Taketo along with his band, and Taketo is revealed to be a preening, self-involved jackass who is far beneath Yuna. Setsu intervenes when he sees Taketo trying to extract some serious cash from Yuna to pay for studio he’s renting. He then tells her he’ll be too busy writing music to hang out later that night.

When Yuna and a bandmate have to hold Taketo back, Setsu peaces out, running through the crush of people and noting just how much noisier Tokyo was than a bumpkin like him could have imagined. He gets caught up on a word his gramps used about his sound—”disgraceful”—not because Setsu sucked at shamisen, but because all he ever did was imitate his gramps.

But right here and now Setsu is mad and wants to express it. He wants to play. So he sits down beside the river and plays. Yuna happens to pass by as he’s starting to play, and while he’d later describe the performance as rough and ugly due to the rust of a mere week, but Yuna and I become entranced.

As someone who can only understand between 1-10% of any given spoken Japanese sentence, the language itself is a kind of music, although I know enough words and phrases to know that it isn’t, so it remains separate from the real thing. But pure music like Setsu’s strumming transcends words as it expresses emotions, ideas, and memories of both player and listener.

In Yuna’s case, she’s transported back to her meeting with her agent, who was trying to get her to audition for racier movies and TV. Rightfully insulted by the insinuation she’s nothing but a pretty face and body, she throws a glass of water in his face, and is warned that she won’t go far if she turns such jobs down.

In the midst of listening to Setsu’s raw and angry performance, Yuna takes comfort in knowing even if her career doesn’t amount to anything, at least she has a good man in Taketo. She stops by the good man’s place to find him with having slept with some other woman, to whom she says “you can have him” and leaves as Setsu’s piece comes to a bitter, final note.

When Setsu comes home, Yuna is still awake, and tells him she heard his music. When she did, she realized they’re not alike at all. Setsu isn’t a “sad person with nothing going” for him like she is, and so she can’t help but feel jealous of him. She says she’ll be going away for a while, and asks him to vacate her apartment while she’s gone.

Another day, Setsu encounters Taketo on the street, who is preparing for a concert with his band. Taketo decides to use Setsu as a hostage, telling Yuna he’ll break his arm if she doesn’t show up. For this shitbaggery, Taketo is promptly punished with a Karma Kick from Yuna, coming to Setsu’s rescue once more.

She apologizes for involving Setsu in her drama, but with the wind kicked out of Taketo, she needs to ask for him to be involved a little bit longer. They need someone to go out there and entertain the crowd until the scumbag recovers. Just like that, Setsu finally gets a stage and a crowd on which to test whether he can get his lost sound back. Three guesses as to whether he manages this.

The ensuing powerhouse of a performance by Setsu calls to mind the best music scenes of Your Lie in April, only in this case the crowd was expecting a rock band, not a Tsugaru shamisen player. As he nervously tells the initially confused crowd, he plays “Jongara Bushi”, and as he does, he recalls in black-and-white memories what his grandfather had to say about the peice.

Gramps described the beginning as passionate and hot-blooded, but it starts to calm, grow progressively sadder and heartrending, weakening and waning. He’s basically describing a life. But, unlike a fiery youth who calms down in middle age and eventually withers and passes away, “Jongara” claws its way back, refusing to be beaten down, issues a challenge with its final furious crescendo.

The crowd watches in dead silence, just as Yuna did, and you can’t help but think of what is flashing through their heads while they listen; while they’re being taken on this roller coaster ride of powerful emotions. Just like April, the stage lights illuminate dust motes to give the simultaneous appearance of snow and magical sparkles. Setsu is casting a spell on everyone in that hall with his sound, and not even Taketo can deny its power.

Not only that, but the performance is being live-streamed on the internet, where even if it doesn’t go viral, it’s being watched from home by someone Setsu is sure to meet at some point; perhaps someone who like him has been around shamisen music enough to know that by their standards his performance was just okay. But I’m with Yuna, Taketo, and rest of the crowd: that was fucking awesome.

Also awesome? Yuna doesn’t take Taketo back. They’re done, and he knows he “lost himself a good woman”, even if Yuna would argue that she’s good at anything. Also, while I’m sad to see her go, Yuna does go on her trip to find her…well, not sound, but I guess to find what it is she can contribute to the world and feel good about it. Modeling and porn were decidedly not those things, but I hope the show won’t lose sight of her journey.

Setsu continues to live in her apartment after she leaves, but Taketo tends to come by a lot, so it’s clear that while he’s an asshole, he and Setsu will probably continue to interact with each other, if not outright befriend each other. While Setsu has the kettle on, he recalls walking Yuna to the train station, gives him a kiss before pushing him away and boarding the train with a final wave goodbye. Assuring him that whatever girl he ends up with “will be very happy”.

Back at her apartment, Taketo says that Setsu seems most alive when he’s playing, but if the shamisen is what gives him life, then sooner or later that world will “drag him in.” Taketo is hitting the nail on the head when their talk is abruptly interrupted by the most ridiculous occurrence in the episode: on the snap of a woman’s fingers, the door to Yuna’s apartment is forced open, a smoke bomb goes off, and two SWAT officers flank a glamorous woman with silver hair, blue eyes, and an April O’Neil jacket.

She’s here for Setsu, whom she calls “Baby-chan”, and Setsu calls her Umeko, but I know from the initial description of the show that this is his mom…who it’s immediately clear is a lot. Looks like however much of his sound Setsu believes he’s found in Tokyo, Umeko will have an unnegotiable say in his life…at least as long as he’s still a kid.

Talk about a mood-changing, enticing record-scratch of an ending! And it’s followed by an end theme that positively slaps: Miliyah Katou’s Kono Yume ga Sameru made, featuring the Yoshida Brothers. This was an opening episode that scratched all of my itches and then some. If you’re tired of my incessant gushing, go give it a watch yourself! I for one am probably going to go watch it again!

Wonder Egg Priority – 12 (Fin?) – Over Easy

Aragorn: Frodo’s fate is no longer in our hands.
Gimli: Then it has all been in vain. The fellowship has failed.
Aragorn: Not if we hold true to each other.

With Momoe and Rika seemingly completing their quests only to be met by fear and rage, respectively, Rika wants recriminations and revenge for Mannen, while Momoe simply wishes she never got involved with this business. Only Neiru and Ai remain beside each other while the other two seem lost.

Ai’s final egg is…herself. Or rather, as Acca puts it, an Ai from a parallel world who was also bullied for her eye but didn’t have a Koito, so she took her own life. Ai doesn’t judge—hell, she knows how Ai must feel, being herself and all—and doesn’t treat this other Ai any different than the other girls she’s saved from Wonder Killers.

When the Seenos chase the Ais up to the rooftop pool where the other Ai drowned, a horrifically repulsive Wonder Killer rises out of the chloronated water, and of course, it’s Sawaki-sensei, with tentacles of paint that eats away like acid on contact. Calling himself Ai’s “first love”, Sawaki says Ai was simply one more woman who was easy to fool because he’s handsome.

But Ai doesn’t see Sawaki in this monster; only the manifestation of her doubts and suspicions. She asserts the real Sawaki is “much nicer,” but the monster only says he had her completely fooled like all the rest. WEP has ensured that we can’t easily dismiss our own doubts and suspicions about Sawaki, who lest we forget, named a portrait of Ai…[Shudders] “Latent Heat”.

Ai won’t give up the fight, but between defending her doppelganger and the fact the battlefield is a pool, it isn’t long before both Ais plunge into the deep end. Much like the first episode of WEP, as we plunge deeper into dreams within dreams, the same feeling of not quite knowing what’s going on, but definitely wanting to know where the rabbit hole goes.

Our Ai, identified by her triangle hairpin (as opposed to the other Ai’s X) is pulled out of the pool by Koito in a version of the school blanketed by night. She kicks off her soggy shoes and socks and runs with Koito through the school as Sawaki Wonder Killer continues to taunt her.

On the same rooftop where Koito jumped to her death Sawaki is there, in his regular human form, but as the embodiment of the temptation of death. He tells her that her pure love for him betrays an innocence impossible for adults. Adult love is “dirty” and full of self-interest, which is why she should die before she grows up.

But as Ai stands at the edge of the roof holding hands with Koito, she remembers the words of her mom, who said ‘You only live once. Enjoy it.” The Ai who took her life expresses her regret, but our Ai smashes through the barrier between the light and dark rooftops and embraces her double.

The Sawaki Wonder Killer’s final gambit is to tell Ai how her own mother betrayed her by loving the same man she did, and “tried to put her own desires first.” But our Ai recalls to the other Ai how her mom never blamed her once when she stopped going to school, worrying about her where she couldn’t see, so she couldn’t know.

The Sawaki monster is barking up the wrong tree, because our Ai has already given her mom her blessing with the real Sawaki-sensei. When she was at her lowest, her mom supported her without judgment. Now that it’s her turn to support her mom, there’s no choice. Ai summons her multicolor pen mace and blasts the Sawaki monster into oblivion.

As Ai later tells Neiru on another rooftop, she thought she wanted to hear the truth from Koito, but maybe she didn’t need to, and she thinks she’s grateful she never did. Once the Sawaki monster is defeated, Koito is revealed and quickly vanishes, and a third AI created by Frill appears: one named Kirara Rodriguez Matured XVIII Evening Star SS Plum.

No doubt Kirara is there to kill Leon and stoke fear, rage, or something else in Ai, but Ai doesn’t rise to her provocations. As Rika is banished from the Accas’ domain as a cause lost to Frill, the other Ai basically takes a bullet for our Ai, as Kirara takes her blue eye.

Ai wakes up in her house, with both eyes intact, knowing the other Ai protected her. Unlike Momoe and Rika, she got out of her dream before Frill’s creation could cause any serious psychological damage. But before she parted with the other Ai, our Ai resolved to become a warrior of Eros, fighting Thanatos, the temptation of death.

It’s a hopeful, if somewhat confusing finish to what was for me, by far, the most visually and thematically ambitious and emotionally immersive series of Winter 2021. Rika and Momoe are in rough shape, but Ai seems to be stronger than ever, and Neiru seems…fine? Even more encouraging is that this is not the end; the story will be concluded in a special that’s scheduled to air June 30. It’s too early yet to declare the fellowship failed.

However it ends, Wonder Egg Priority was a deeply visceral, powerful, unforgettable ride that would have restored my faith in anime had I lost that faith in the first place. I’ll surely be revisiting this series somewhere down the road, and most definitely checking out whatever else director  Wakabayashi Shin and writer/creator Nojima Shinji make in the future.