Magical Girl Spec-Ops Asuka – 05 – Magical vs. Badgical

War Nurse reattaches Nozomi’s arm, heals her abdomen wound, and gets her to safety, but Abigail catches up to her and transforms into a full-fledged Badgical girl, with razor-sharp barber’s scissors.

As for Asuka, once she expends a great deal of her magic to destroy the Russians’ water spirit, the mercs are no match for her, even when she’s out of practice…which is as it should be. Asuka wouldn’t have survived this long letting herself get beaten by lightweights like these guys.

However Abigail came upon her magical gifts, she proves quite the challenge to War Nurse, especially when she summons not one but two Halloween-class Disas at her (her dominatrix getup certainly stands in stark contrast to Kurumi’s good witch garb).

Kurumi takes one of the Disas out, but Abby presses her attack with the other. Kurumi has to be bailed out by M Squad, who keep Abby occupied until Asuka can relieve them. As Iizuka says, you need a magical girl (or girls) to fight a magical girl.

Now Abby’s against the wall, until she’s rescued by her “Queen”, in masked badgical girl form, who then retreats. While Asuka couldn’t defeat Abby or the Queen, the fact they destroyed two Halloweens and recovered Nozomi makes this a victory.

But there’s a cost: Nozomi may be physically fine, but her PTSD is so bad she can’t look at Asuka or Kurumi for more than a second before going into a paroxysm of terror before passing out. But hey, it’s all good: Kurumi can heal her PTSD too—she just needs to erase all of Nozomi’s memories of the last week to do so.

With that procedure carried out, Asuka and Kurumi wait for her to rest and recover, with Asuka lamenting that she can’t protect anyone or anyting. Kurumi begs to differ, as neither she, Nozomi, or the M Squad would be breathing were it not for her, to say nothing of the bystanders saved when she stopped the terrorists. Suddenly convinced once and for all, Asuka informs Iizuka of her intent to officially join the Spec-Ops M Squad.

Iizuka reports to his superiors, who tell her the powers that be want Nozomi to stay at her current school where she’ll continue to serve as potential bait for their enemies. Kinda harsh, but they’re banking on Asuka and Kurumi continuing to protect her.

Meanwhile, Nozomi seems to be fine; she’s just forgotten their fun pool trip…not the greatest sacrifice if you ask me (Sayoko’s complete absence from this episode was puzzling…if she was there, wouldn’t she have corrected Nozomi?). Even when Asuka resolves never to go see that movie, letting the wind take her ticket, as soon as she turns around Nozomi is there to invite her all over again.

So basically, they got their first good  look at the bad guys and what they’re capable of, but the battle resulted in a draw, while hitting the reset button on Nozomi reduced her horrible suffering to a motivating cautionary memory for Asuka. It’s all rather neat-and-tidy, but at least she’s no longer in denial about having to fight in order to protect those she loves.

Magical Girl Spec-Ops Asuka – 04 – Taking the Bait

Asuka has a recurring dream where she’s too late to save her leader Fracine from her injuries. Before she dies, she names Asuka to succeed her, and assures her that while the world has a lot of problems, it is also full of beautiful things worth protecting.

Asuka apparently needed to be taught this lesson in the worst way  possible, as one of the current problems plaguing the world (groups who wish to use magic to hurt people and gain power) takes one of the beautiful things (her friend Nozomi) hostage.

Nozomi’s father is to blame for her capture, not Asuka. It would seem that terrible things need to be done in the name of national security, but it’s clearly better if the ones doing the terrible things didn’t have such lightly-protected family.

In a further display of cynical pragmatism that borders on comical, Nozomi’s dad is told his daughter will be a “sacrifice” that will give Public Safety the budget and mandate they need to go out there and really bust some heads.

Since no police or military unit will mount a rescue, it falls to Asuka. With Francine’s words still ringing in her head she doesn’t spend much time mulling over whether going into action to save Nozomi is the right thing to do.

Considering how sweetly and adorably portrayed as Asuka’s friends were, it was fairly inevitable that one of them would end up in some real shit. But while Sayoko was merely caught in some crossfire, Abigail and her twin Russian sorcerer mercenaries spare no cruelty as they burn Nozomi’s skin off and simulate drowning, all while the cameras roll.

You get the feeling even if Kurumi can heal her many physical wounds, unless she can also remove all memory of the ordeal, Nozomi is going to be severely scarred by the torture. But first thing’s first: she has to be rescued. Asuka and Kurumi have no trouble getting past the initial waves of guards, but Abigail isn’t remotely concerned they’ve arrived. In fact, she’s delighted they took the bait. She feints “freeing” Nozomi, but slices one her arms off.

Unfortunately for her, in such close quarters Abigail has the disadvantage, which Kurumi exploits by impaling her with a giant needle, after which she and her familiar Sacchuu grab Nozomi and rush her to safety while Asuka keeps the Russians busy with a grenade.

She knows that won’t be nearly enough to kill them, but is still confident in her abilities to handle the three mages alone. But she underestimates the Russians’ magic, getting smashed into a wall and allowing Abigail to go after Kurumi (who hasn’t even started getting serious yet).

Overall, the stakes were succinctly set: poor Nozomi’s life and many other lives will be lost in gruesome fashion if Asuka and Kurumi (and whatever other magical girls/guys wish to participate) can’t get the job done. I would hope that whenever this is all over, Asuka will cool it with the “not my fight” attitude, and Nozomi’s dad will quit torturing people. Bad guys are going to do bad guy stuff regardless…so don’t give them any excuses!

Magical Girl Spec-Ops Asuka – 03 – The Enemy Disagrees…Vehemently

In Tijuana, Mexico, Mia Cyrus is taking care of business with her anti-cartel unit (her magical bullets can pass through any armor or barrier) when they find an emaciated, tortured prisoner tied up, who is then compressed to death into a magical energy cube. Clearly, there’s more going on here than drug cartels, Mia worries aloud.

Back in Japan, Kurumi has transferred to Asuka’s school to remain by her side in case another threat arises, and also to see the new life and friends Asuka has abandoned Kurumi and her duty to live. Suffice it to say, Kurumi is not that impressed with Sayako’s half-hearted “I guess we’re friends” and annoyed by Nozomi’s “if anything happens the magical girls will save us.”

Still, she tries to keep up a cordial front, as she warns that despite what Asuka might think, the enemy doesn’t agree that it’s not her problem. Whenever a good guy has something to lose, they’d better be ready to fight to protect it, or the enemy will try to take it away.

Kurumi must feel doubly frustrated by Asuka, who has always been in peak physical and mental condition. Kurumi was horribly bullied as a child, came to hate that weak version of her, and has worked extremely hard to become and stay strong and dependable. She sees that Asuka is still staying in shape, in contrast to her mindset of not wanting to fight anymore.

Iitzuka tries to entice Asuka once again by showing her the headquarters for the elite M Squad of the JSDSF, disguised as a maid cafe with training facilities in the sub-basement. Between the rise of illegal magial girls and the distribution and improvement of remnants from the old war, a new, potentially worse war is just on the horizon, and they can’t afford to have someone of Asuka’s skills on the sideline. Still, Asuka insists her war is over. If only repeating it enough would make it true…

Speaking of people with something to lose, Nozomi’s dad continues his brutal torture of the terrorist leader one minute, and is admiring the phone background of his cute daughter the next. It’s admirable this guy can switch from work to family so quickly, but there’s simply no way the enemies he’s made won’t become aware of the existence of his family, if they aren’t already. His work puts a target on Nozomi’s back.

The only solace we have is that, at least for some of the day, Nozomi and Sayoko are safe when they’re hanging out with Asuka and Kurumi, as they do when they all go to a Olympic-grade swimming center together. Fanservice is kept to a minimum as everyone’s in standard issue one-pieces, but Sayoko uses the high dive as an opportunity to get over some of her paralyzing trauma.

For her  part, Nozomi is grateful that Asuka and Kurumi came, since she’s looking out for Sayoko’s well being and Sayoko loves to swim. She also plans for the four to see a movie the next day. Before parting for the night, Asuka maintains her resolve not to fight because she now has things (or rather people) she cares about, which Kurumi feels is the exact opposite of what she should be doing.

Kurumi is proven right (which probably gives her no joy) and Asuka pays for her lack of vigilance when Nozomi is confronted in the street by ominous members of the “Babel Brigade”, a group both tortured prisoners muttered about being involve in a “new, more terrible war.” As I predicted, they know who Nozomi’s father is, and that they can hurt him by hurting her.

The bad guys have a sizable head start on Asuka, who just got the text Nozomi sent about being excited for the movie just before being kidnapped, no doubt lulling her into a false sense that Nozomi is okay, when the exact opposite is true. Asuka is going to have to come to terms with the very problematic opposites that dwell her life…very soon.

Magical Girl Spec-Ops Asuka – 02 – Being Served By Power, Not Serving Power

Gaining Sayoko and Nozomi as friends only added both to the list of things Asuka has to lose and the things she must use the power she had laid down to protect. Iizuka admonishes her for battling in downtown Tokyo so brazenly, and repeats his desire for her to join Spec-Ops. Asuka isn’t budging; she’ll protect herself and her friends, but she won’t go back to that life.

As we learned last week, however, there’s no way to have one foot in this world and one foot out. You’re either all-in or not, and Asuka not using her power last week would have meant Sayoko buying it. For her part, Sayoko remains subconsciously traumatized by the terrorist battle; the magic that occludes ordinary peoples’ perception must not have worked on her 100%.

We also learn that unbeknownst to Nozomi, her “boring desk work” policeman dad is actually a top interrogator (read: torturer) with the National Police Agency, and is torturing the terrorist leader for info on future attacks. One such attack is being facilitated by a group of “bad” magical (badgical?) girls, who possess an enhanced Disas from the bad old days.

Sayoko’s incomplete memory wipe aside, she is feeling terrible about having not been able to do anything to help her fellow bystanders, which means while she got to go home safe and sound, some people didn’t. Asuka tells her it’s better to be cowardly than to pretend you’re stronger than you are. Naturally, Asuka’s not telling her friends she’s Rapture, and you can’t help but wonder how long she can keep them in the dark.

A call from Iizuka warns Asuka that a powerful Halloween-class Disas has been deployed by the terrorists, and “War Nurse” is the only active Magical Girl in Japan who can engage it. That doesn’t sit right with Asuka, who after all was the one who recruited War Nurse, AKA Mugen Kurumi. Kurumi was perhaps the weakest of the Magical Five, and her success in combat relied on the cooperation of the other girls beside her.

Kurumi is confident she can deal with the Disas herself—she doesn’t have any other choice—but it proves more powerful and dangerous than the Halloweens of yore, and it isn’t long until she’s in the same position as the mother and young daughter she saved: about to be slashed to bits by a giant evil plush bear.

While I maintain the resting states of the Disas are hella goofy, when this bear version gets serious it’s actually pretty goddamn creepy-looking, what with its giant claws, buzzsaw-like teeth, and the bloody carnage it unleashes. Fortunately, Asuka is Just In Time to bail Kurumi out.

While the bear is tough, it’s no match for Asuka, who dispatches it with ease, angering the badgical girl who lent it to the terrorists (she works out her anger by stabbing a passing policeman in the eye). As her catlike familiar fights pigeons for food crumbs, Kurumi tells Asuka that she has been and will continue to be a “terrible person” for recruiting her while knowing she wasn’t strong enough to fight alone, only to abandon her.

She’s not wrong. Sure, it was Kurumi’s choice to make, but she made it believing Asuka would remain by her side, and that hasn’t been the case of late. Still, she’s willing to forgive Asuka as long as Asuka keeps her promise “from now on.” When Kurumi then transfers to Asuka’s school and class, it’s apparent that Asuka has some trust to rebuild with her friend and comrade. She’s strong; stronger than Kurumi. Standing on the sidelines is no longer an option.

Magical Girl Spec-Ops Asuka – 01 (First Impressions) – Voice of Destiny

Three years ago the Disas invaded Earth, but thanks to a treaty with the Spirit Realm, nine select human girls were transformed into Magical Girls. Four were killed defeating the Disas, and five remained…and went their separate ways.

The ostensible leader of the Magical Girls, one Ootorii Asuka, lives her life as a normal high school student, though whenever she sees any kind of animal mascot, she thinks back to the bad old days. Magical trappings aside, Asuka is a traumatized combat veteran trying to move on from the horrors she experienced.

But at school, she’s the cool mysterious transfer student. She stands out by dint of her physique and apparent aloofness. And when her classmates are accosted in the street, she rushes to their aid…and has to remember not to kill the guy.

The beneficiaries of small act of heroism, Nozomi and Sayoko, thank Asuka and announce their intention to befriend her. Nozomi wants her to join track since she’s in great shape; Sayoko wants her to join the lit club because she sees her reading.

But while Sayoko reads because she loves it, Asuka does it to escape; to keep her mind busy so it doesn’t go back to those bad old times of blood, sweat, and tears. When her guardian Iizuka arrives to tell her about a new squad being assembled, she passes on his offer without hesitation.

Back when she was in middle school, she came home to find two Disas had already killed her parents and were prepared to “give them back” to her one piece at a time, which is why Iizuka ended up her guardian.

Her takeaway was that while she fought to save the world, those around her suffered and died. Now that she has two new adorable friends, she doesn’t want history to repeat itself. Of course, Asuka she puts it, despite all the effort she’s put in to escape her past, battles keep finding her, because “a Magical Girl’s battle never ends”.

Whether it was a minor incident like the asshole who shoved Nozomi (who dared to call him out on his assholery), or an escaped terrorist leader and his kill squad with Sayoko in the crossfire, when duty calls, she’ll always answer. Once a Magical Girl, always a Magical Girl.

While Magical Girl Spec-Ops Asuka is almost painfully straightforward in its premise, the Disas are super goofy-looking, and the show lacks anything resembling originality, I found Asuka’s emotionally-wounded vet profile resonant, and the show is crisply designed and animated and accompanied by a cool Square Enix JRPG-style soundtrack.

The idea of Magical Girls moving on to more conventional military operations after the Magical enemy has gone is also intriguing, as Asuka is not alone and we’ll soon see what became of the other four of the Magical Five. Both the bloody action and the lighter school life scenes are executed with aplomb. Definitely entertaining enough to stick with for now.

Hanebado! – 07 – The Power and Price of Hard Work

The best and most thrilling episode of Hanebado! yet, in which Ayano and Kaoruko have their fated rematch, comes with a surprise: Ayano’s mom is nowhere to be seen; none of Ayano’s teammates mention her again; and there’s no indication she watched the Kaoruko rematch. Where’d she go? We never find out. But she’s there, and she’ll surely be back.

Her total absence reflects the new attitude towards her mother Ayano wishes to adopt: that she doesn’t have a mother, or at least not one whose opinions matter to her anymore. Ayano looks initially rattled by Kaoruko’s gift of a hankie for the tears/snot when she loses, but her pained look morphs into a wry girn.

Ayano isn’t scared of Kaoruko anymore; at least not on the surface. Her inner thoughts/feelings are off limits to Ayano’s teammates, Kaoruko, and we the audience, but it could well be she’s just as calm, cool, and committed to obliterating her opponent inside as out.

Yu loses her match, making Ayano, Nagisa and Sora the only three players left standing in the prelims. But frankly I just wasn’t that interested in the little subplots of the other characters. This was about a suddenly supremely confident Ayano and a Kaoruko humming with arrogance: an Unstoppable Force vs. an Unmovable Object.

Despite the distractions, the match lives up to the hype and then some. It’s the most high stakes match we’ve been able to watch, and the animation team pulls out all the stops, utilizing all manner of angles, zooms, pans, sweeps, etc. as well as a 3-D “floating camera” that soars from one end of the court to t’other. It really got the adrenaline pumping.

But even more important: for once, Ayano, supposedly one of the most talented players in the show, isn’t embarrassed or overwhelmed, physically or psychologically. She is in complete command of the match, and demonstrates virtual telepathy when it comes to diagnosing Kaoruko’s game plan and sabotaging it at every turn with unexpected counters.

This is where Kaoruko’s tireless hard work, ultra-granular attention to detail, and the ruthless drive to defeat Ayano at all costs actually work against her. She prepared so intricately carefully for an opponent based on what she thought she knew of them up and down, leaving no time to consider how Ayano’s skills would have improved or evolved parallel to her own.

Ayano is no stranger to hard work either, after all. She employs it here, and her grit on the court is reinforced by her conscious effort to block all of those negative and unpleasant thoughts that plagued her for so long. Free of the need for validation from her mother, she’s a player possessed.

She’s also in rare form on the trash talking front. Kaoruko talked a big game, but Ayano’s retorts are strategically toned and timed for maximum damage. Long story short: Ayano is all that’s in Kaoruko’s head. Winning is al that’s in Ayano’s head.

The final 21-16, 21-17 score in Ayano’s favor doesn’t do justice to the level of dominance she displayed against Kaoruko in 90% of the match. The defeat is devastating, and not just because she gave her entire team the middle finger prior to the match, so confident was she that she’d “mop the floor” with Ayano.

Ayano broke a fantasy that Kaoruko kept playing in her head as she worked so hard: that she could beat the first player her own age to beat her, without cheating by giving her a cold. She thought she was psychologically stronger. Her only loyal, sympathetic teammate helps her stretch post-match, both of them cry, for Ayano crushed those fantasies, then offered Kaoruko her hankie back.

Ayano, for her part, calls Kaoruko’s effort “pathetic”, which rubs Elena the wrong way. Ayano’s cold response is simply that on that court, winning is the only thing that matters (Sorry, Riko, Yu and Sora!). Another way to say that is that if you don’t win, then nothing matters. So yeah, Ayano may be playing her best badminton, but she’s gone to a dark, lonely place to do it.

Next up is Nagisa vs. Nozomi, but you know what? However it turns out, I can’t see how it won’t feel like a bit of a letdown after Ayano vs. Kaoruko. Both players are lower down on the character significance list. What could mitigate that is if we finally get the Ayano-Ayano’s mom reunion we’ve been waiting for all season. Who knows, maybe she did watch the match; the episode just never cut to her…

Hanebado! – 06 – Not Just One More Match

Prelims are upon us this week, and it’s Izumi Riko’s turn to be angsty. It’s her last year and last prelims, and she wants to win. The only problem is, her first opponent is her childhood friend Nozomi, who also happens to be one of last year’s final four. Riko is not confident she can hang with the likes of Nozomi, and even though Nagisa tries her best to fire her up, Riko ends up frustrated and the two part ways for the evening on a bad note.

The day of the matches arrives, and Riko and Nozomi are cordial but cool, as imminent opponents must be. The team rocks their slick new one-piece uniforms, and Riko’s four cute siblings are in attendance, but she still manages to stink up the joint in the first half of the first set overwhelmed by her own lack of confidence as well as Nozomi’s unbeatable aura.

When the interval comes, Riko knows she has to do something…so she goes over the shots of the match so far, analyzes them, and finds that Nozomi is avoiding her backhand. Riko goes on the offensive and gets a point or two before Nozomi re-adjusts. It’s a beautifully-animated, fast-paced story told through the smooth, graceful, yet powerful motions of the players; a chess match of adjustments and counter-adjustments.

Riko still loses, but she makes Nozomi work for her win, going against her opponent’s strict coache’s insistence she conserve her stamina. It was just another match for Nozomi; a stepping stone to the next round. But for Riko, it was the match; the only match left in her high school career. And as her coach directed, she had fun out there.

Whither Ayano? Well, for most of the episode she seems to be putting up a strong front of Everything’s Okay, and may even believe she’s past worrying about her mother or Connie. But these prelims are uniquely equipped to not let Ayano escape her troubles so easily. Not only is she facing Serigaya Kaoruko in the next round, but her mother will be in attendance to watch their rematch. That should be interesting…