Jouran: The Princess of Snow and Blood – 04 – Snakes and Sinners

When Sawa sees the note from Janome she rushes to his hideout, but Kuzuhara heads her off in his car. He won’t let her walk into a trap and ruin the path to revenge he laid out for her just to save a little girl who wants to kill her. It’s not part of his plan, so he knocks her out with the back of his blade.

Unfortunately for him, Sawa is a part of Janome’s plan, and Makoto is working for him now (I guess?) and she siccs a group of changeling bomb dogs(!) on his car. In the ensuing explosions, he and Sawa are separated, and Makoto scoops her up and skedaddles. I guess Janome and Makoto knew Sawa wouldn’t make it to his hideout on her own…???

In a touching flashback to a happier past we’re reminded how cute and kind and human-behaving Sawa once was, as her brother assured her a bird would choose her someday. She wakes up to an array of disco lights and ominous organ music being played by our big bad, Janome with his back turned to her. It’s all a bit…Saturday morning cartoon villain, to be honest!

What was supposed to be dark and menacing comes off as goofy and cheesy, especially with his host of snakes that honestly might’ve have been slightly scarier if they were CG. Janome has a special restraining chair and birdcage all set up for Sawa, and forces her to submit to him fully, lest his badly-drawn snakes kill little Asahi.

He draws some of her blue blood while describing his evil plan, promising to free her and Asahi when that plan is complete, at which point she can kill him if she likes. Oh, and he’s got her brother Takeru strung up on the organ. He’s been keeping him barely alive while using his blood for his experiments, and Sawa is next. Pretty fucked up for a guy who claims to “worship” her clan!

This is when things go a bit off the rails. Makoto, who revealed she was working with Janome, switches sides again by killing the snakes holding Asahi. Another snake takes her arm in return. I guess I was right about her being a triple agent, but we know so little about Makoto that neither apparent turncoat move really did anything for me?

She feels more like a plot device than a character with discernable motivations, and it was time for her to side with Sawa here, so she did. Then Janome eats one of the crystals made out of Sawa’s blood, briefly becomes Mr. Freeze, and then turns into a frankly laughable snake-man monster. At this point, Matoko—who you’ll remember is missing an arm and bleeding profusely—still has the strength to ascend out of the hideout with a cable gun. Uh, bye, I guess??

Sawa enters her much cooler-looking changeling mode, but even that’s undermined by a transformation sequence that is frame-for-frame the same every time. Even this mode apparently isn’t enough, but with his last ounce of strength Takeru tosses some vials full of orange…stuff? at both Janome and Sawa.

The stuff seems to have opposite effects on the two, subduing Janome and powering up Sawa, who slices Janome clean in half. Her revenge thus complete, Sawa goes to her brother, who says it’s too late for him. Then she says in that case she’ll die with him, but then Asahi makes a noise and Sawa remembers why she came here in the first place! Roll Credits.

Sorry for the snarky tone, but Jouran kinda fell apart in this fourth episode, with thing upon thing simply happening and character upon character doing things that either didn’t make a lot of sense or were extremely heavy-handed (i.e. the organ schtick). With Sawa’s nemesis Janome turning out to be a relative pushover, I don’t know what’s next for her and the rest of Nue, but I don’t much care either.

Jouran: The Princess of Snow and Blood – 03 – A Blue Coffin

After Sawa learns that Yoshinobu himself ordered Kuzuhara to have the Treasurer killed, Makoto suggests that Sawa drop the “sister act” and cut little Asahi loose. All of them in Nue have assigned roles to play, and none of them can afford to let sentiment dull their wits.

After recalling when Kuzuhara first showed her a slideshow of her family and village’s destruction and the person responsible, ordering her not to cry, Sawa puts up the hard front Kuzuhara aimed to teach her in dealing with Asahi. Sawa refuses to let Asahi kill her until she’s killed Janome, and tells her to be gone by the time she returns that night.

Sawa, Elena, and Makoto all confront Nue’s cleaner, whom they suspect is a traitor passing secrets to Kuchinawa, finding money in the coffin he’s pushing. He pleads his innocence, then sets off a bomb with a detonator in his hat. Sawa follows him down a secret tunnel hidden in a tomb, while Elena intends to head him off on the surface. Meanwhile, a dejected Asahi seeks comfort in her grandmotherly neighbor Yamazaki.

But the cleaner never went in the tunnel; he hid in the coffin. When Makoto, who lied to Elena about a twisted ankle, opens it and the cleaner pulls a gun. A shot rings out, and Makoto later reports that the cleaner killed himself. But at this point Makoto was already acting super suspicious.

While burying the cleaner themselves, Elena asks Sawa what coffin she’d want to be buried in, her preference being red. Sawa doesn’t answer at first, then says blue, like her blood and that of her clan. That said, she won’t be put into a coffin until Janome is in his.

Makoto meets with Kuzuhara, who reveals he is a woman by tearing his clothes to reveal her chest binding, warning her to never forget where she stands. But Kuzuharais seemingly in the dark about where Makoto actually stands. Before the Treasurer died, she gave Makoto a karuta card that serves as a treasure map. Makoto follows it and discovers a small book that the Treasurer said could bring down “Tokugawa, Nue…all of it.”

Sawa comes home to find Asahi gone, but on her desk is the piece of paper with “Yuki” written on it Asahi had reconstructed with paste. Sawa then sees that Asahi left the satchel she gave her containing cash and a boat ticket to her new home, and blood on the walls.

Her white crow comes to help her search for Asahi, but we find out where she is first: in the clutches of Janome, who had disguised himself as Yamazaki with an elaborate prosthetic suit. We also learn that Makoto is indeed in cahoots with Janome, serving as a double agent. Or maybe triple, if Kuzuhara knows she’s infiltrated Kuchinawa.

In any case, for Sawa, who’d prefer clarity and simplicity, nothing is simple or clear, and never really was. To whit: she aims to save her would-be murderer from the man who murdered her family, and with whom her fellow Nue agent is working. Not ideal!

Jouran: The Princess of Snow and Blood – 02 – Nothing Else Is of Any Concern

Makoto meets with Jin on two matters: one is to be briefed on a mission to find the one within Nue who is feeding Kuchinawa assassination targets. The other is to ask about Sawa. Makoto responds to the latter by saying “it saddens me to report that she survived”.

Last week, Asahi prepared to stab Sawa in her sleep. When we see both next, the only thing Asahi is slicing is a daikon radish, and Sawa is very much un-stabbed. This week we learn more about Sawa and Asahi’s pasts, and … Spoilers: those pasts are dark and bloody. First up is Sawa, and if Black Widow has “red in her ledger”, Sawa’s got “blue in her diary.” Well, her mom’s diary.

We know how Sawa hid while her mother, father, and brother were slaughtered. But how did Sawa end up an assassin with Yue? Jin arrived at the ruins of her village as she was trying to bury the charred remains of her family. His mere presence there the morning after their deaths might’ve normally raised a red flag for Sawa, but the very light had gone out of her eyes.

It didn’t matter at the time if there was a chance Jin had something to do with the death of her family. He was offering her a chance at revenge, and that chance brought the light back to her eyes. Under his tutelage she became a graceful and efficient killing machine. Jin made a deal: he’d use her to make Nue stronger, and she’d use him to get her revenge.

Sawa puts the blank diary of dark memories away and joins Elena for their next mission: make contact with a Nue agent named “the Treasurer” and get her to safety. They identify her waiting tables at a restaurant by the fact she can memorize everyone’s orders and whisk her away, crossbowing and beheading the Kuchinawa gunmen along the way.

While Sawa escorts her through the tunnels, the Treasurer mentions how the shogunate is content to ignore the mounting opposition to their regime outside of Tokyo. She also knows a lot about Sawa, because she’s a memorization savant. Meanwhile, Makoto pays Asahi a visit at the bookstore, offering her a bottle of black pills that “kill in ten seconds.” , to use on the person who killed her parents.

That’s right: in the recent past while on a mission, Sawa murdered Sawa’s parents while she was in the next room under burning wreckage of the house they were in. Granted, Asahi’s mother was apparently dolling her up in order to serve her up to a pervert before Sawa arrived, but facts are facts.

When Asahi tried to stab Sawa in her sleep, Sawa woke up instantly (if she was even asleep) and stopped the knife, telling Asahi she needs to strike where she’ll do the most damage, and wait until she’s more vulnerable. When Asahi bursts into tears, Sawa is there to hug her. It’s a strange situation, but it’s true to Sawa’s code: she’s not about to be a hypocrite. If Asahi should exact her revenge by killing her before she can exact hers, so be it.

Sawa, now knowing of the Treasurer’s ability, decides threaten her into telling her everything she knows about the Karasumori village massacre. The Treasurer says how those responsible wanted to keep the Karasumori clan’s blue blood a secret, while Janome stole an imperfect variant of that blood’s power. But the Treasurer stops there, saying Yoshinobu doesn’t tolerate treason.

Her five-year old son is being held hostage; should she betray Yoshinobu, he will die. So Sawa offers to protect her and her son in exchange for the information she wants. When the Treasurer asks why Sawa would go so far for revenge, Sawa answers simply that her entire life is for revenge—just a stretch of borrowed time, in which she’ll either get the job done or die trying.

Sawa and the Treasurer exit the tunnel near a quiet dock where she can be smuggled to safety, but they are intercepted by Kuchinawa agents, along with a Changeling. Elena shows up, and she handles the agents while Sawa enters her blue blood trance and defeats the Changeling.

But when it’s time to put the Treasurer on the boat, Elena stabs her instead and lets her fall into the river, after telling her her son has already died. I’m a little fuzzy on the details, but either the Treasurer fed intel to Kuchinawa, or she and her intel-packed brain were simply too dangerous to be kept alive.

In any case, Sawa loses her best chance yet at learning about what happened at her village and who was responsible. I don’t think she’ll kill Elena or quit Nue, but she can’t be happy that her road to revenge just hit a detour. In any case, this was another dark, bloody, brooding episode of Jouran, packed with bursts of cool action and bookended by an OP and ED by RAISE A SUILEN that both absolutely slap.

Rating: 4/5 Stars

Jouran: The Princess of Snow and Blood – 01 (First Impressions)

Dark and brooding, stylish and cool, Jouran is the story of a small band of assassins under the employ of the Tokugawa Shogunate. In this alternate history, Tokugawa Yoshinobu is still in power in 1931 thanks in large part to the discovery of the energy source Ryuumyuaku, or Dragon Vein. As a result, Tokyo is a glamorous city where science and Edo-period tradition merge.

Among the assassins is Yukimura Sawa, our protagonist (voiced by Mimori Suzuko, Kamisama Hajimemashita’s Nanami). Sawa is a stoic, no-nonsense young woman who grudgingly shares her living space with the young orphan Asahi who cooks her meals, and is the type to threaten a flirting guy with murder and not be joking.

Her two fellow assassins are the sardonic Tsukishiro Makoto (the striking Shouta Aoi) and the seductive Hanakaze Elena (the musician Raychell), who refers to Sawa as “the little bitch”. Their group’s leader is grim man named Kuzuhara who believes the dissident group Kuchinawa will attempt to assassinate the shogun at a banquet celebrating the completion of the new Tokyo Castle.

Makoto and Elena go undercover as party guests and end up following a bigwig confirmed to be working with the dissidents on the sly. Sawa is notable for her absence from the party, while lil’ Asahi waits at the dinner table in vain.

Makoto and Elena follow the bigwig and his henchmen to a secluded warehouse where an exchange of materials is taking place, and the assassins quickly take down everyone there. Elena uses a rather unique umbrella crossbow, while Makoto uses what I’d describe as a lightsaber katana.

However, their true target, a kemono or “changeling”, is nowhere to be found. Makoto bombs the facility and he and Elena head to the eastern gate of the castle, where he knows one of the vast network of secret tunnels leads from their current position.

Sawa is there, ready to head off the changeling, doing so by transforming into one herself with the help of a white raven. It’s depicted as a volatile and extremely painful process, but once she’s transformed she resembles a serene yuki-onna.

When she realizes her changeling opponent is the young man who flirted with her at the bookstore, she hesitates momentarily, and is wounded, but ultimately takes care of business, slicing off the changeling’s hand and finishing him off with a haunting poem that matches Sawa’s icy beauty and that of the scene:

Amidst the pitiless white snow
A fleeting dream is scattered
The path back leads only to Hell
I have no regrets

Makoto and Elena arrive just after she returns to human form and passes out. The threat to Yoshinobu would seem to be dealt with, but the next day at the official opening ceremony of Tokyo Castle, we witness scenes of carnage involving more changelings, presumably within its walls.

Sawa is recovering at home, but even in sleep she gets no rest, as she’s transported back to when her brother was murdered along with the rest of her family, by Janome, Kuchinawa’s executioner. She’s vowed not to die and join her family until she gets revenge on Janome, but Asahi seems prepared to kill her in her sleep with a kitchen knife. I guess she doesn’t like being kept waiting for dinner, huh?

Like Sawa, Jouran and its familiar-yet-bizarre alternate Tokyo carries itself with a quiet, assured dignity, but just as Sawa is tormented by trauma and tragedy, corruption, suffering, and death lurk beneath the gleaming Shogunate capital, much of it delivered by monsters in suits and with claws.

Assuming Sawa survives her tiny assassin’s attack, I’m excited to watch her continue to walk the line between her official duty and blood debts.

Rating: 4/5 Stars

Dororo – 20 – Red Autumn

Even with its often subdued, earthy palette, Dororo is a looker of a show, its gorgeous, painterly and serene natural environments forming a backdrop for all the grittier, brutish human-on-demon (or human-on-human) interactions. When the autumn season arrives, it provides a burst of colorful splendor that further elevates the setting.

Of course, Dororo points out that red is also the color of demons for Hyakkimaru. The vivid foliage is foreshadowing for the carnage to come, as the two meet a ronin who is hunting a demon who killed his ma. The fall also represents the beginning of the end of prosperity for Daigo and Tahoumaru’s lands.

When our duo meets the beast—a nue or chimera—we learn the ronin is actually helping it by serving up victims, since when others are dying it helps him forget about the gaping void in his heart after the loss of his mother. It’s just that the victims aren’t usually as tough as Hyakkimaru, who only doesn’t defeat the beast because he and Dororo take a spill of a crrumbling stone cliff.

As Daigo ponders his next move now that the deal with the demons seems to be off (remembering his wife mention the one demon who didn’t claim a part of their son’s body), Dororo wakes up from the fall with his arm trapped under rocks, and my thoughts immediately went to the grisly resolution in 127 Hours.

Worse, the spot where he’s stuck is riverbed, and the water starts to rise. Hyakkimaru can’t get any leverage on the rocks with his false arms, and as Dororo’s head slips below the waterline, Hyakkimaru resorts to slamming his head against it in desperation, screaming in desperation. It’s a sickening scenario, even if we know Dororo will somehow survive it.

That’s thanks to Biwamaru, whose continued following of the duo seems to indicate he still has a role to play with regard to Hyakkimaru. Biwa rescues Dororo, but Hyakkimaru is devastated by the fact that Dororo would have died had Biwa not been there, all because Hyakkimaru’s arms were stolen by demons.

He rushes to the nue to take back what’s his, and as the ronin watches him fight we see the truth of his story with his ma: he sought the nue out to defeat it and prove his worth both to his ma and his village. But things went south, and when the nue grabbed his ma, his ma grabbed him.

In a panic, the ronin cut his own mother’s arm off so he could flee. After that, the village ostracized him, but he ended up filling that hole in his chest by either killing them or feeding them one by one to the monster. As he watches Hyakkimaru fight, he sees the samurai he had hoped to be.

Realizing it’s too late for that, or anything else, he offers himself to the nue, which proceeds to heal the face Hyakki maimed and then sprouts wings.

By the time Dororo catches up, the sun is low, turning the surroundings suitably, intensely red. He sees the aftermath of Dororo’s vicious battle with the nue, walking past various parts of the monster sitting in pools of blood. Before Hyakkimaru kills what’s left of him, it dawns on the ronin why this man doesn’t have any fear: because he’s not entirely human.

Hyakkimaru finishes him off, but receives no new body parts in return, leading him to fume and hack at the monster’s body as Dororo tries to calm him down before he goes too far and loses himself. But Hyakkimaru believes he’ll always be lost as long as the demons have the rest of his body.

So he’s heading to the source of it all: back to Daigo, once again opening up the moral can-of-worms in which he is both justified in taking back what was taken, and Daigo is justified in wanting to stave off the destruction of his people.

Surely another clash with Tahoumaru and his retainers is imminent, all with little Dororo in the middle, doing what he can to keep his bro a human with whom he can walk through the gorgeous autumn woods, and who can live with himself and his actions.

Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress – 11

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Both Kuromukuro and Kabaneri managed to reignite my passion for watching them in their eleventh episodes. I didn’t really know what to expect after last week cliffhanger would have had us believe Ikoma had been stabbed through the heart and tossed into the sea for dead by a Mumei now lost to him. This week quickly debunks the first assumption and paves the way to debunk the second, even though shit is still hitting the fan, as it were.

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First, Kongokaku: it’s a grand, peaceful, and impressive place when the Kotetsujou arrives at its gate, but we see from the shogun eliminating a messenger with knowledge hat could sow public panic, theirs is clearly an uneasy peace, especially with Kabane lurking right outside those “impregnable” walls.

Biba doesn’t need to besiege his father’s seat, however; he comes in through the front door; a “captive” of Ayame; a role she’s forced to play because he’s holding her people hostage. Of course, going by his script only proves to Biba that’s he’s weak, and it’s become painfully apparent that the weak don’t live long once they meet him.

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To his credit, the shogun immediately knows Biba is up to something; he just doesn’t know what until it’s too late. Biba uses the same fear his father used as an excuse for stabbing him in the dark as a child to destroy his father. The dagger he gave him contains a hidden needle that infects the shogun with the virus, and his own men gun him down in a panic.

Biba need only deal the killing blow with his sword, and just like that Kongokaku is his. The Kabane in his hold are released onto the city to stoke up fear, paranoia, and people killing people, but he simply sits on the throne, not smirking an evil smirk, but remembering a day when he rode a horse with his father. Do I detect a hint of…weakness, AKA love? No matter; there’s no one around to punish Biba for it.

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While all that excitement is going on, Ikoma, having washed up on a shore not in the greatest shape but very much alive, is temporarily incapacitated by the immense weight of the guilt and regret over what went down, including Takumi’s death. He didn’t run, he was tossed out, and he’s right that at the time there was nothing he could do.

Kurusu, who has one of Biba’s scientists captive, finds Ikoma, and is actually patient with him as he goes through various stages of grief. In the end, Kurusu makes Ikoma set aside all the reasons he should simply die, and asks him why he’s still alive in the first place: his chest wound is so precise, Mumei must have intended to miss his heart, meaning she is not totally lost.

Granted, as we cut back to the capital, we see that Mumei is considerably more lost than the time she spared Ikoma. And she’s just as helpless here as Ayame, or as Ikoma was back on the train. Biba controls every aspect of her life, and despite all he’s done she still harbors loyalty to him, because she’d have died long ago (and been “beckoned by the butterflies”) were it not for him.

That combination of coercion-by-obligation, as well as the reality that Biba has kept Mumei weak and unable to oppose him even if she wanted to (and she did try), have led to her simply giving up. She will let the butterflies come, with the small consolation that at least she was able to free Ikoma a similar fate.

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Only thing is, Ikoma hasn’t given up, thanks largely to Kurusu and the captive he has for some reason (I forgot why; sue me). That scientist just happens to have on hand two serums: one is white, and could save Mumei; but to get to her Ikoma knows he needs to be stronger (and apparently, less scruffy) than he is.

So he injects the black serum, an accelerant that indeed causes him to undergo yet another transformation. When we leave him, he seems that much less human, and particularly stable, but fueled by his resolve to stop Biba and save Mumei, odds are he’ll be able to endure. I certainly hope so, because Mumei deserves better than the same fate as Horobi—who also didn’t deserve it.

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(Almost a 9 based solely on the new Aimer ED, “Through My Blood”, which brought it)