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.

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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…