How Heavy are the Dumbbells You Lift? – 11 – Bridge Over Troubled Ratings

After a string of ten straight solid “8” episodes, the eleventh came off as somewhat sparse. As the teachers celebrate New Years Eve by drinking at home, the girls head to the Shrine of the Muscle God, which has a truly epic staircase for training purposes and is also maintained by none other than Machio.

After watching the sun come up and descending from the shrine, the girls still have enough energy to train. Gina suggests they use the equipment at a local park, but to her horror (and my surprise) most of the equipment on which to train has been removed from most parks in Japan, so they do a number of isometric exercises that require nothing but their own bodies. Handy if you’re training (as I plan to do upon completion of this show) but lacking in excitement.

Gina tries to spice things up by registering the group for a live TV talent show (directed by Deire Kutarou, from the idol competition) but the sum total of their performance is some poses and a perfectly-executed “Wrestler’s Bridge” from a masked Satomi. Deire is surprised to find the girls boosted his show to second-best in the time slot, and the producer and president want to see more of them.

Jason shows up and takes Deire aside to propose a “Nikunoshima Tour,” whatever that is, which will be covered in the twelfth and final episode. But I couldn’t help but feel like this was the weakest of the Dumbbell outings so far; unlike the others it felt more meandering, even listless, like it was running out of gas. Hopefully the finale can restore the lost momentum and bring things to a satisfying close.

Fruits Basket – 08 – All is Quiet on New Year’s Day

Everyone has somewhere to be for the New Year’s holiday…everyone but Tooru, whose parents are dead and whose remaining family is off to Hawaii. Yet no matter how hard Uo and Hana try to invite them to their places, she insists she’ll be fine, and that they should spend the time with their families.

After reveling in winter cleaning with the Soumas, Tooru learns the three are headed to the main house for the big banquet and other festivities. Tooru, not being a Souma, is not invited, but she’s content to hold the fort at Shigure’s house, even though it will mean ringing in the new year all alone.

Despite her insistence she’ll be fine, Yuki and Kyou are uneasy the whole time they’re en route to the main house. They know her well enough (it’s been four months) to know she can be a bit of a space cadet, and is prone to accidents. What if she gets hurt and no one is there to help her?

Shigure finds the two young lads’ worrying about her like their baby chick to be most entertaining, and so stirs the pot by saying there’s a burglar in their neighborhood who has yet to be caught. The final straw is when they run into Saki, who very simply and concisely asks them to consider how she’s feeling all alone at their house for New Years; to put themselves in her shoes, knowing both what she’s been through.

Yuki and Kyou bump heads rushing back home to her, cursing themselves for not realizing they accepted Tooru’s polite insistence far too easily. Saying you’re fine being alone and being fine alone are not the same thing, even with Tooru. Their suspicions are confirmed when they arrive to find her holding her mother’s portrait and crying while listening to Enka music on the telly.

Wondering what the heck happened, an exhausted Yuki and Kyou collapse to the floor and say, simply, “I’m home”…and Tooru tears right back up, only they’re tears of joy. Despite always smiling on the outside, Tooru is not always happy and cheerful on the inside; the lads were right not to leave her alone on the holiday; she’s happiest when she’s with people she cares about.

Shigure meets with Hatori, Hatsuhare, and Momiji, informing them Yuki and Kyou have skipped. Hatsuhare can understand, as he himself contemplates running from things he’d rather not engage in. But Shigure tells him this wasn’t about running away from Akito (in Yuki’s case) or Kagura (in Kyou’s); not this time.

Instead, it was about running to someone, someone both in greater need and more deserving of their presence. That’s hammered home when Shigure checks in on a morose Akito. Shigure is actually glad to see the family head reaping what he sowed. Shigure is the one harboring Yuki and Kyou during their self-exile, after all; it makes sense he’d be on their side with this…situation.

Meanwhile, by spending New Years with Tooru, keeping her company, sharing mochi (and chewing carefully!), and finally climbing up the roof together to watch the gorgeous first sun rise out of the horizon, the guilt Yuki and Kyou initially felt about abandoning their formal family obligations eventually melts away.

No, Yuki and Kyou needed Tooru every bit as much as Tooru needed them. Far from being a night they’ll regret, it turns out to be a night—and morning—the three of them won’t soon forget. They get to see Tooru smile without a hint of weariness hidden behind it as she looks forward to another year with two of the four people (along with Uo and Saki) most important in her life; her real family.

Steins;Gate 0 – 06 – New Year, Same Old Problems

“Kana” is definitely Shiina Kagari—even if the Oopa were a copy, there are certain things (the sound of her name, words from her future adoptvie mother) that give her an odd sense of nostalgia. And Suzu would recognize the girl who pulled a gun on her a mile away.

Okabe contacts Kiryuu to tell her Kagari has been found, but to request she continue investigating the group that was after her. After Kiryuu hangs up, we get our first sense that something is going to come to a head this week.

Little did I know when watching her teasing Maho that Judy Reyes of all people could also be involved.

It’s New Years, so the whole gang goes to the shrine, both to pray and give offerings and see Mayushii, Rukako, and Feyris in shrine maiden garb.

Everyone has lots of fun, but Judy shows up with Leskinen to say a quick ‘Hi’, while turning to leave she spots Kagari and gives her one hell of a sidelong glance.

There are more foreboding doings as Tennouji acts particularly shifty and a man in black lurks behind a wall, all while Mayushii & Co. bring the party to the lab and continue enjoying themselves.

Maho is among those having a good time, but gets a sudden video call from Amadeus, and answers the phone without leaving the room. Before long she’s surrounded by everyone curious about who her caller is, and Maho has no choice but to reveal the AI with Kurisu’s memories to them.

She apologizes to Okabe as the others talk with Amakurisu, but Okabe isn’t mad; he knows he has to start thinking of Kurisu, Amadeus, and Kagari as three distinct individual entities. He also needs to keep protecting the world Kurisu sacrificed herself to protect, no matter how much it might hurt or how easy it is to look back.

Unfortunately, Okabe is caught quite off guard when an armed gang once again infiltrates the lab and points their guns at Mayushii, Kagari, and the other guests. Suzuha is also caught off-guard, so it’s not like Okabe was alone in being lulled into a false sense of security. They weren’t direct witnesses to all of the strange things going on on the periphery of this episode like we did, after all.

When Kiryuu’s SERN assault team raided the lab back in the first season’s twelfth episode, it marked the official end of “fun and games.” That moment arrives six episodes earlier in S;G 0, and it also has the burden of trying to top that devastating, show-defining moment. Suffice it to say the ending of this episode wasn’t nearly as shocking, for the simple reason that we’ve seen it before.

History would seem to be repeating itself, and his loved ones apparently aren’t safe even here, in this Kurisu-less World Line. Then again, Mayushii wasn’t shot…yet. Perhaps, like Kagari and Kurisu, events only resemble what happened before, but may in reality be something completely different. But whatever that ends up being, it probably won’t be pleasant.

Takunomi. – 11 – Hot Pot, Hot Sake

Michiru is full of energy and kitted out in full yukata as all four housemates visit a shrine to pray for a prosperous New Year. Since everyone else is in modern garb, Michiru can’t keep up and get lost in the crowd, missing a chance to drink some traditional amazake with the others.

She also gets pretty cold with no coat, so when they get home Kae whips up the perfect meal for a cold day off: hot pot. Nao provides the booze-of-the-week: a special sake called Daishichi Junmai Kimoto, especially well-suited to be enjoyed hot (but also great cold). One thing I didn’t know: how quickly you heat it and the specific temperature results in different flavors being released.

Nao heats it up to “Atsukan” packs a rich punch that goes perfectly with the hot pot proteins, vegetables, and broth. The combination of hot food and hot sake quickly make Michiru very relaxed, changing into her PJ’s and cuddling up to Nao like she’s back home—where she was the talk of the town for her big city exploits.

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It’s the end of the year, and Kae is going to Okinawa with a colleague, reminding Nao of the time they went together so Kae could get over a heartbreak (both have embarrassing pics of one another from that trip). Nao is too busy at work to go, and eventually becomes burnt out, so Kae, with Michiru and Makoto’s help, arranges a way restore Nao’s spirits.

That results in an Okinawan-themed dinner and drinking party, which immediately cheers Nao up. Okinawa is a relatively small island, so it stands to reason they use every possible bit of the pig in their cuisine.

In a neat fact not mentioned in the ep, some of the pork Nao and Kae ate when they went was likely descended from the pigs shipped to the island by Japanese Americans in Hawaii after WWII to help deal with the food shortage.

The perfect beer to wash down the rich, fatty pork is Orion beer, which like all beers brewed for tropical locals, has a light, clean, refreshing taste, a sensation that comes through in the precise animation of the characters drinking.

Makoto managed to find Orion beer at a store a little further out of the way, prompting Nao to embrace her sister, pronounce her love, and beg her to never find a man so they can be together forever (Makoto is understandably noncommittal).

The quartet also remarks how they’ve been together a whole half-year, and it’s been so much fun they should all go to Okinawa together next year.

As it is, Michiru is headed home to spend New Year’s with her mom, but due to all the Okinawan celebrating, she oversleeps and nearly misses her flight; another reminder that part of mastering drinking is making sure you can meet your scheduling obligations afterwards. Still, lots of good food, beer, and fellowship this week.

Just Because! – 04

I’ve got some nice variety in my Fall watchlist. Food Wars is chugging along, with Souma scoring a big win thanks to his friends; MMO Junkie our elite NEET seems to be where she wants; and in ShoBitch we’ve had a steady, happy couple since the first episode, with all the comedy coming out of their mutual inexperience with being in a relationship.

That leaves Just Because!, the Fall show I’m watching in which people seem to suffer the most without much in the way of payoff. Just take Natsume’s interactions with Souma, trying to be a good friend by helping him get closer to Morikawa, despite the fact she still harbors feelings for him.

An experienced anime watcher it’s clear Natsume is in pain, but Souma’s your typical oblivious guy, and combined with Natsume’s silence on the matter and apparent interest in helping him with Morikawa, there’s really no way for him to question her smiles, even if she’s forcing them.

As a photog, Komiya knows all about smiles…and other expressions, like the one on Izumi’s face as he’s looking at Natsume in a candid photo Komiya took of them. Even after failing her last mission with Izumi (she brought a cat instead of a dog), she says she’ll delete the embarrassing shot if Izumi tells her something he likes about Natsume.

When she says “her awkwardness”, Komiya laughs, because it’s such an earnest, unflattering answer. It is itself an awkward answer, coming from someone just as awkward as Natsume (and, like her, unable to get his feelings to reach the one he likes).

Komiya then proposes another deal with Izumi: she’ll support him in trying to go out with the (former) president, and in exchange he’ll let her submit that photo she took of him, which she believes will win her a award and keep the photo club alive.

Of the five, Komiya is the hardest to read; she comes right out and says “I like you” to Izumi, throwing him off, before finishing with “…as a person”, inviting his ire. She’s clearly there to provide a yang counterbalance to Izumi’s yin main love interest and present multiple possible routes for the various characters.

When New Years comes around and it’s time for a shrine visit, Souma and Morikawa’s friends conspire to flake out on the visit, leaving the two alone. The two have a nice time, though Souma is often at a loss for words due to his stress over the task at hand.

That stress would seem to have been justified, for no sooner does he finally get the words “I like you” out and ask if Morikawa will go out with him, Morikawa…gravely declines. 

Ouch…that’s gotta be a fastball to the gut of Souma; all that preparation and anticipation, and at the end of the day, it wasn’t whether he could confess, but whether Morikawa would say yes, and she does not. Another sign Just Because! isn’t interested in doing things the easy way or taking the pressure off its characters.

After several instances of having someone—either Natsume’s plucky older sister or Yoriko—be a third wheel, Izumi and Natsume finally find themselves alone, and they continue to circle one another warily, putting on antagonistic airs to conceal the fact both of them have basically the same problem: their first choice likes someone else.

The fact that Souma was rejected is irrelevant here. Whether he wanted her to or not, Izumi is inspired enough by Komiya’s encouragement to at least broach the subject blocking any possible move in Natsume’s direction: her crush on Souma. She brings up exams again and again, which he calls nothing but an excuse.

That angers Natsume, who says the worst thing she can to Izumi in that moment: that it doesn’t involve him. That he doesn’t matter at all in this. Izumi sets the record straight: he’s always “cared about her”, so she can’t say it doesn’t involve him.

This may well be news to Natsume, and she’s definitely affected by the look on Izumi’s face as he passes her by to head home. Elsewhere, Souma also retreats following Morikawa’s rejection. Lots of emotions to sort through and pieces to pick up for everyone involved.

Ore Monogatari!! – 18

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Ore Monogatari!! isn’t one to stray too far from its main couple for too long, so it’s back to the Rinko x Takeo Show this week, and as expected, Nanako and Kurihara’s quick first kiss puts pressure on the two, if for no other reason than kissing is now on their minds. Takeo is content to wait until the “autumn of his third year” of high school, but Rinko wants it to happen sooner. A lot sooner. Like, New Year’s, which is the day after she asks Suna and Ai for advice. Which is also Takeo’s sixteenth birthday.

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This is one of those episodes that brings up a certain fact about a couple—like, for instance, how they haven’t kissed yet, at least while both parties were awake—and thus commits to giving the audience some payoff. That is to say, if this episode had ended with no kiss, due to whatever circumstances (and early obstacles like Takeo’s prying mom or Takeo’s horde of childhood friends), that audience, i.e. me, would have been most displeased. I want mah damn kiss, yo.

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So I was a bit tense about the couple’s day together—right up to the moment Rinko shifted over to where Takeo is sitting and planted a kiss on him while his eyes are closed for his birthday wish. HOWEVA, it seems like Takeo didn’t notice the kiss at all, which makes sense: he’s a bit dude with big lips; if you want to kiss him, you’ve got to go all out. So, would Rinko’s little closed-eyes peck be all we get this week, after Rinko promised Takeo she’d give him a birthday he “wouldn’t forget”?

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I suspected not, since the episode still had a bit of time, and I seriously doubted it would cut away to Ai or Nanako x Kurihara at a time like this. Instead, as Takeo describes his birthday with Rinko in detail to Suna, his description of the “bug” that landed on his lips as he wished is the tidbit Suna needs to set him straight. Ashamed he didn’t recognize Rinko’s kiss for what it was (and remembering her body language throughout), Takeo goes to Rinko’s place to make things right.

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And then, without too much fuss, the two kiss, for real, for a long time, in the snowy night. We got the payoff, thank God. Yes, Takeo is comically taller and bigger than Rinko, but that doesn’t matter in this moment, just as it’s never mattered throughout the show’s run. These are two hearts beating as one. They’ve shed their embarrassment and misunderstandings in the past, and they do so here as well, thus progressing to the next level in their relationship: the post-first-kiss period.

Next up: the second kiss! A couple’s work is never done.

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Re-Kan! – 09

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The mystery of who Amami is making a very specific kind of handmade chocolate for, and why, isn’t all that mysterious. But as always with Re-Kan, the emotional resonance, not the mystery or animation, did most of the heavy-lifting, and succeeded admirably.

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Not only that, as we watch Amami’s activities through the lenses of both her living and dead friends, all of whom have fairly reasonable theories, I felt the episode kept things in doubt long enough for the final twist to have some impact.

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Working with the info we’re given from the start, Amami is going to make a traditional Japanese sweet, the recipe for which she learns from the kindly wife of a grouchy old humbug who infests the park scaring the Valentines-crazed youngs away.

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The episode staves off the last piece of the puzzle with the use of editing and camera angles to keep the wife’s status up in the air until Amami finally presents the chocolates to the husband, at which point we see he is a widower.

Yet again, Amami did a favor for a ghost who couldn’t do it herself: make chocolates for her still grieving, lonely husband. She also doesn’t disappoint the ravenous Yamada or her friends by offering all of them chocolates, so everyone wins!

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When the grumpy old man is alone again, he polishes off the whole box of chocolates, and realizing his departed wife is still there beside him on some plane or another, thanks her, his heart having been lifted from the gloom. The final shot that tracks from him sitting alone on the bench to the shadows of both him and his wife, was quite lovely and affecting.

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Re-Kan! – 08

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Teachers in anime are usually portrayed as single, miserable, and resentful of the youth that surrounds them, but Re-Kan! is a trend-bucker, so in its world, two of the teachers at Hibiki’s school, Moriya-senpai and Kimura-senpai, end up getting married. They’re a very cute couple, and both the guys and girls are super-excited.

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Around the same time, however, a new ghost appears before Hibiki, one unlike any other she’s encountered before. This is the ghost of a very young girl who can only say one word: “Morya.” The Samurai concludes something is tying her to the living world, but she can’t seem to remember what. Yamada suggests they give her new memories to make up for the one’s she’s lost, but first they have to teach her to talk properly, which everyone, even Inoue, gets in on.

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In the cold open that sets the bittersweet mood of this whole episode, we see her and a boy of the same age in adjacent hospital beds. The boy turns out to be “Morya” or Moriya-sensei, who Hibiki brings to the girl to play with for a while. There, he remembers that he used to give his carrots to her in the hospital, but now he can eat them himself. He’s grown up.

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While spending the night with the motherly Hibiki, the girl finally remembers the rest: she loved Moriya and he her, and they promised they’d meet again when they grew up. She was sicklier than him and couldn’t keep her promise, but she still loves him. With her memories restored, she’s able to pass on, which she does in the arms of Hibiki.

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Hibiki, along with Inoue and the others, had grown quite attached to the little girl as they taught her how to speak properly and played with her. For Inoue, she’s another example of a ghost who she didn’t have to fear; and more to the point, a ghost that needed help that she wanted to help.

They’re sad to see her pass on, but in doing so inspired the friends, starting with Yamada, to look more closely at the bonds they share and spend as much time with one another, making new memories as they go forward. This Re-Kan! was another poignant, earnestly-felt triumph, exploring the bittersweet nature of loss, love, and life with grace and dignity.

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Re-Kan! – 07

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Hibiki’s ridiculous generosity and utter inability to say no to a ghost is taking its toll and  burning her out, so her friends stage an intervention on the streets, insisting she needs a break from her supernatural drudgery. They head over to her house, which while not a Gothic haunted mansion, could certainly pass for that house in Kwaidan with a few minor tweaks.

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Hibiki’s dad concurs, and produces a pair of sixth-sense-sealing glasses her mother used to wear when she needed a break from ghosts to, ya know, eat or sleep. I like how this story subverts the standard anime glasses girl trope. Sure, they make her look even more adorable (and more bookish), but they also fundamentally change how she interacts with the world. Simply put: all contact with that which most people cannot see or hear ceases. It really is like a vacation.

But the urge to take them off and sense of who’s floating around her—and more importantly, the urge help them—is strong. So Inoue makes a very childish threat: if she takes off the glasses, they won’t be friends any more, and it works; Hibiki keeps those puppies on like her life depends on it.

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Her sidekicks Roll Call Samurai and Kogal don’t like it, but they’re big enough to realize Hibiki could use a break. But when the little sister of a boy Hibiki is playing with goes missing and it starts to get dark, Hibiki desperately needs more sets of eyes to search for her.

Hibiki makes a very difficult phone call to Inoue, who is studying and absolutely scared shitless by Hibiki’s foreboding ringtone. Hibiki seems ready to accept the end of their friendship, but Inoue assures her not to worry. If it’s an emergency, it’s fine to take the glasses off. Hibiki does, and show us yet again how handy it is to have an army of the dead at one’s disposal.

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The balance of the episode is a New Year’s shrine visit by the whole gang. While I miss Glasses Hibiki, I loved how she lets spirits vote on what she wears, and the fact Inoue got drunk and loose-lipped on Amazake, and her friends decided to get her to open up.

To their disappointment, her response to almost every question is “Nana!”, so ingrained is her love for her late gran. Hibiki, not wanting to do anything untoward, simply asks Inoue if she’ll be friends with her in the next year, for which Inoue offers a more sober tsundere response of “I suppose.”

We finish things off with a fun little brawl between the incorrigible Ero-Neko versus Samurai and the Killer, who are sick of the cat’s sexual harrassment, as Kogal watches with enthusiasm.

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P.S. Like Hannah with Food Wars, I’ve taken over Re-Kan reviews from Zane in order to even out our workloads. -Preston

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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Koufuku Graffiti – 09

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This week, it’s not just New Year’s Eve, but also the anniversary of Ryou and Kirin meeting. That calls for more than just New Year’s Soba. Shiina, who will be off with her family (apparently a dangerous affair) suggests Oden, and Ryou agrees: Oden it is.

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Kirin doesn’t reserve a seat and has to wait for an late train because she was watching TV, while Ryou polishes her home to a blinding sheen, starts cooking, and a single innocent taste ends up being closer to a dozen tastes, to the point we thought Ryou might accidentally eat all the oden before Kirin arrived.

To me, this sequence kind of felt like early Thanksgiving day, when everyone is either in transit or preparing the feast. To avoid further temptation, Ryou leaves the house to wait for Kirin at the station, as she did the first time they met.

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She recalls how lonely it once felt to watch loved ones reunite at the station. Now, she has someone to wait for, and after waiting out in the cold so long with a skirt and no gloves or hat, Kirin, who is still warm from the train, is a welcome presence. You can really feel the love as they hug again on the way to Ryou’s house.

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After positively stuffing themselves on soba, boiled eggs, daikon, konjac, fishcakes, and mochi-stuffed fried tofu (!), they, along with Ryou’s aunt, strike back out into the cold night for their first shrine visit of the year, and cut through that cold with piping cups of amazake, which I’ve never tried before but now MUST, as the way its described and the manner in which it’s enjoyed make it all but irresistible.

There’s also the fact that after a year, Kirin has gotten better at acting like her lovely charming self around adults. It’s a subtle but welcome development, as one day Kirin will be an adult herself, so she’d better get used to interacting with them, beyond her own parents.

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Akira ditches Kirin and her niece to drink with some dudes, so Ryou and Kirin head back home and have some oden leftovers. As Ryou watches a content Kirin resting her head on the table, she tells Kirin how it was her who taught her that food tastes better when sharing it with those you love.

Ryou also wishes, in her head, that even many New Years from now, the two of them will remain friends who share their cooking with one another. Kirin then echoes Ryou’s thoughts out loud, suggesting they will indeed be good friends many years down the road.

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Sword Art Online II – 18

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We start in a warm and familiar log cabin in the forest on a cold and snowy night…

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Perhaps well aware its audience would only tolerate so many recaps, SAO II wisely avoided a re-telling of what was a brief, self-contained Excaliber arc. What we got instead was still lightweight enough to make Colin Chapman blush, but rather than a random, partially-baked, pulled-out-of-its-ass Norse-loaf, both distinct halves of this episode were steeped in the SAO we’ve lived through and emotionally resonates the most for us. It was a warm, cozy episode.

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Full-size Human Yui > Tinkerbell Yui. There, I said it.

God, I almost forgot Yui was once normal-sized! Yes, we go all the way back to the halcyon time of almost perfect contentment on Aincrad’s 22nd Floor, a log cabin in the forest where Kirito and Asuna fell in love and built a home and family. Unlike Kirito, Asuna didn’t really like her home and family in the real world, so when they lost their cabin, it was like losing the only home where she’d ever been happy.

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So when Egil notifies Kirito and Asuna that the 21st through 30th floors of New Aincrad are open for exploration and clearing in ALO, they jump at the chance to find and reclaim that home. Their friends and family help out, and unlike the Jotenheimr arc, there’s an actual important purpose to their fighting that I care about. The boss on Floor 21 puts up a fight (on Christmas Eve!), but with their usual excellent teamwork the party brings it down and advance to the next level.

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Asuna’s well-earned jubilation at returning to Floor 22 to find their cabin just as they left it, and Yui returning to her normal size after they press they “Buy” button together…I’m not gonna lie, I got a little glassy-eyed myself. It’s a beautiful little moment; filled with joy. And now we know why in the episode’s cold open the gang was in that cabin!

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The timing couldn’t have been better for Asuna, either. As the daughter of a super -rich aristocratic family in Kyoto, her family subjects her to meet-and-greets and omiais with sketchy rich douchebags. There isn’t any indication she’s being forced into anything, but it’s clear ALO isn’t just an idle escape; it’s where she finds strength and control over her life. There, she has a family in Kirito and Yui and the rest of the gang. But still, you’d think her folks would let her choose for herself after she came so close to being freaking coma-raped last season.

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It’s at her home in the cabin in the woods where she’s having a study sleepover session with Kirito, Yui, Sugu, Liz, and Silica, where she learns of Zekken, a mysterious but singularly powerful dueler offering a unique eleven-hit combo sword skill that matches her preferred setup to the one who beats him (or her; they’re continually referred to without gender).

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Liz, Sugu, and even Kirito have already gone up against Zekken and lost, so it would seem to fall to Asuna to get the job done and win that skill for herself. That’s a good thing, as it would be nice to have Asuna front and center kicking ass again, as we’ve only seen the slightest tastes of her in action thus far this season.

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When Asuna is shocked Kirito couldn’t beat Zekken, Liz has a very good theory for why he lost. Sugu remarks that Kirito wasn’t slacking off, but nor did he dual-wield. As Liz puts it, Kirito will probably only ever fight with everything he’s got if the game is no longer a game, such as it was in the days of SAO and when he was fighting to free Asuna. It’s a nice bit of analysis from Liz, another one we hear far too little from.

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No green-bobbed Slylph Asuna? BOOOO!

Just kidding, Blue Asuna will do just fine for the upcoming fight. A new ending sequence prominently shows a girl who somewhat resembles Asuna but isn’t Yui or anyone we’ve met before, and furthermore matches Zekken’s general color scheme. Combined with the way the gang talked about Zekken without specific gender articles, this girl is probably Zekken herself. I for one am excited to see where this new Asuna-centric arc takes us.

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And now, your SAO II Moment of Zen:saoii18mz