Akiba Maid War – 03 – Raging Boar

It didn’t take long to get on board with this episode, as the cold open shows us exactly what’s going down: Ranko in the corner of a boxing ring, looking battered but determined. Cut to a far gentler scene of Nagomi offering her roomie a cute hair tie to keep her hair out of her face while washing up.

While handing out cards on the street, Nagomi and Ranko encounter some unsavory figurine dealers (perfect for this Akiba), including one who talks to one of his treasured figurines in a cutesy voice. When this guy impugns maids, Ranko advances on him, but is stopped by an athletic woman with silver hair, who says she doesn’t acknowledge the stern Ranko as a maid.

They return to Oinky Doink to find Tenchou with the yakuza’s gun in her mouth. The café is behind on its payments, but in Ranko the guy sees a solution to that. I love how Ranko keeps pouring him water until it starts sloshing in his stomach.

Ranko is to report to the marvelously-named Akiba Fluffy n’ Sweet Club, which is actually an underground MMA club where maids beat the stuffing out of each other. It’s run by Madame Taira, who puts her cig out in Tenchou’s hand when she offers it.

Taira also happens to be an immense fan of “Gracey-poo”, AKA Inomata Grace, an obscure side character from an old anime who nevertheless inspired her to start her whole fighting enterprise. The figure of her watching from behind a tree as the protagonist trains reminds me of Nagomi: innocent and out of place in this temple of violence.

Ranko’s job isn’t to win, but to fall to Taira’s chosen champion. The only problem is, once she’s in the ring, Ranko finds it hard to hold back, and knocks the champ out with one punch. This is obviously a suboptimal result for both Taira and the Oinky Doink’s debtors.

As a naked Tenchou prostrates herself (we later learn she stripped of her own accord) she does manage to convince Taira into sparing her and Ranko’s life by proposing that Ranko win through to the finals, only to take a fall in the finals. We meet the serious silverhead, Zoya, who is Taira’s muscle. She and Ranko are at odds: Taira believes netiher of them are “true maids”, but Ranko says once one dons the uniform, anyone can be one.

Taira has Ranko dispose of the dead collector’s body (Taira killed him after Ranko won), and the genuine Gracey-poo figurine falls from his pocket (he sold Taira a fake). This episode is full of seemingly random yet ultimately extremely satisfying setups and payoffs.

Before Ranko and Zoya start tearing through one competitor after another on a collision course with one another in the final, Tenchou and Shiipon borrow betting cash from a bank that lets them put up their organs of choice as collateral, which is just…chef’s kiss. When the figuring dealer’s men come by, Taira shows them footage of Ranko disposing of the body, then promises them that her Zoya will kill her in the final bout.

The match between Ranko and Zoya arrives, with words from Ranko ringing in Zoya’s ears: “The only judge that determines whether you’re a maid or not is yourself.” Zoya, with her military training, is a far tougher opponent than the others, but Ranko is determined to last twelve rounds with her.

What follows is some truly splendid combat animation. Great care goes into depicting Zoya punching Nogami’s cherry hair tie off Ranko’s head, as well as the concussive force, bursts of air and sprays of sweat of each punch, block, and kick. Zoya talks shit not just about Ranko as a maid, but her fellow maids as well, which Ranko won’t let slide.

Borrowing a strawberry tie from her Gracey-poo Nogami to replace the cherry one, Ranko smiles and utterly rejects Zoya’s philosophy of “maidness”. As she fights Ranko Zoya looks back on the past that shaped that philosophy, from being denied cute dolls as a child in Russia, to moving to Akiba to be a café maid and giving up on it because she thought she wasn’t cute enough.

As the final round enters its climax, Ranko and Zoya come to a mutual understanding and respect, speaking telepathically with their fists and legs.

Ranko doesn’t need anyone to acknowledge her as a cute maid; she knows she’s a cute maid, especially with Nagomi-poo’s hair tie. Before Ranko lands the knockout blow to the side of her face, Zoya admits Ranko looks cute, and Ranko tells Zoya she looks cute too.

Ranko, of course, wasn’t supposed to win, which means it was only a matter of time before Taira killed her, Tenchou, and probably the other Oinky maids just for the hell of it.

But the figurine collectors come calling again, and this time they have evidence that their boss met with her: a note on the door to her office from Ranko mentioning the body she disposed of. Instead of showing us the ensuing bloody shootout and Taira’s demise, we watch only Gracey-poo watching from behind her tree, getting splattered with blood. Perfection.

But, as we know, that’s the fake Gracey-poo. The real one? Yumechi ended up with it. That’s a good thing, because it means they can sell it to recoup the cash Tenchou and Shiipon lost betting for Ranko to lose as planned. This leaves them just as deep in the hole with the yakuza guy, but as Nagomi says, at least they still have all their organs!

The cherry, strawberry, or whatever fruit you like on top of this deliciously epic sundae of an episode comes when Zoya reports for duty as the fifth Oinky-Doink maid. Freed from her previous work by Taira’s death and her dream resurrected by meeting Ranko, she’s ready to give the café game another shot, to which I can only say khorosho!

Akiba Maid War – 02 – Oink-cean’s Eleven

Being a café maid was a dream for Nagomi, but after one day it’s become more of a nightmare. She gets scant sleep after her traumatic experience the night before, and wakes to the grunting of Ranko sewing up a graze wound.

The breakfast table is accompanied by TV news reports of the dust-up, while Manager is punished for letting Ranko go too far by having to serve as a golf tee. Life’s hard out here for a maid.

Nagomi can’t reconcile last night’s violence with the calm of business as usual at the Oinky Doink, and the squirt of ketchup causes her to retch. Shiipon suggests she take a “stroll”, which for a maid means handing out pamphlets.

Initially, she’s bullied by rival maids into handing them out somewhere less favorable, but she gets an encouraging pep talk from a kind maid. Unfortunately, just when she’s feeling better about trying her hardest, the manager makes an announcement: the café is going out of business.

She got a loan from an obvious loan shark, using the Oinky Doink as collateral, then pissed away even the meager amount she got at said shark’s underground casino. But Yumechi isn’t about to give up.

The only way to save the café (and the maids’ home) is to win the money back at the casino, which caters specifically to maids. Using the day’s take (a handful of ¥10K bills), the maids hit the slots, table, and wheel, and…lose it all.

But there’s one last slight hope, which is clearly a mechanism by which the loan shark collects maids for human trafficking purpose: high-stakes maid poker using their potential futures as currency.

Shiipon, Manager, and Nagomi all lose their chips pretty quickly (Nagomi doesn’t even know how to play), but Ranko entrusts her chips to Yumechi, who uses them for one final all-or-nothing gamble.

Yumechi almosts pulls it off, with her 8-Jack Full House being beaten by a 9-Jack. But her dealer and opponents were cheating, so she and the others shouldn’t really be the shark’s property. Ranko asserts that position most emphatically…by pulling out her gun and shooting the shark between the eyes.

A gunfight ensues, with even Shiipon and Yumechi brandishing pistols, begging the question of why they weren’t frisked and disarmed on entry? Was it arrogance on the part of their casino maid hosts…or sportsmanship?

No matter: the Oinky Doink maids and the sloppy manager who got them in this mess end up getting out of it, and even when the head casino maid tosses a fuck-you grenade out the front door, Ranko catches it, throws it back, then turns and walks away slowly for that classic cinematic explosion stroll.

A speechless Nagomi watches the burning money fall and be astounded once more by the death and destruction wrought by her roommate. At the breakfast table the next day, the news reports and exploded underground casino, and all she can do is celebrate the fact that at least she’s alive…and not crabbing on a ship in the freezing Bering Sea. That’s something!

Rating: 4/5 Stars

Akiba Maid War – 01 (First Impressions) – Welcome Home, Master

We begin in Akihabara 1985, with a Mercedes Großer pulling up to a cafe. A maid gets out, opens the back door and a second, older maid gets out. A third maid approaches this older maid, and after a moment or two of acting nervous, she pulls out a gun and empties a clip into the older maid before fleeing. The older maid’s kohai shoots a look that promises vengeance.

Fourteen years later, in 1999, Wahira Nagomi has arrived in Akiba and is excited to start living her lifelong dream of being a cute café maid. When she arrives at the Oinky Doink Cafe just before opening, she’s initially greeted cheerfully like a customer, but when Yumechi learns she’s the new girl, the act drops immediately. No matter; Nagomi is just happy to be here.

Turns out she’s one of two new girls, the other being Mannen Ranko, who at 35 years old is clearly the maid with revenge in her eyes in the flashback. She and Nagomi join a team composed of the affable Tenchou, the two-faced Yumechi, and the ganguro Shiipon. There’s also a panda, despite the maid being pig-themed.

The rookies don’t get off to the strongest start. Ranko has all the lines and moves down, but delivers them in an uninspiring deadpan. Nagomi goes too far in the other direction, her ultra-enthusiasm and wordplay only overwhelming one of her masters. She’s also on the clumsy side, squirting omurice ketchup and drinks all over the place.

After closing, a suspicious-looking man arrives who treats Tenchou like someone who owes his bosses a lot of cash (which she does). As a compromise, Tenchou asks Nagomi to go on a little errand to a maid cafe owned by their parent company’s competitor. When Ranko offers to accompany her, I immediately felt better.

That opening scene in 1985 was ever in the back of my mind as the standard maid café stuff unfolded throughout the day, and I knew that Nagomi at least was totally unaware of the other side of Akiba café maiding. Ranko, on the other hand, knows the score. After ramen on Tenchou’s dime, Ranko gets a “doggy bag” and then leads the way to the space bunny-themed Wuv-Wuv Moonbeam.

After gaining access, they walk in on what is either an initiation of a new employee or a punishment for poor service: a girl being forced to cut off one of her pigtails. Their leader approaches Nagomi, immediately intimidating her. Nagomi presents her with the letter, which the lead bunny maid reads, then asks another maid to read it out loud. It’s an insult and a provocation.

After Nagomi gets smacked and slapped around a little, Ranko shoots through the paper bag from the ramen shop, putting a bullet right in the middle of the lead maid’s forehead. One, two, three blood fountains spurt out, landing conveniently on the paper apron a shocked Nagomi forgot to remove. From here…things get a little nutso.

The Wuv-Wuv maids, who suddenly number in the dozens are all mowed down and oblierated in a bloody ballet out in the streets of Akiba. The comically over-the-top bloodshed takes place while Yumechi is performing a J-pop concert for some rapt masters.

As someone who has never witnessed such violence, never mind committed it herself, Nogami is understandably no longer enthusiastic about being a maid in Akiba, and would just like to go home now if that’s all right, thanks!

When she and Ranko return to the Oinky-Doink,  Tenchou, Shiioin and Yumechi are amazed they’re still in one piece (Tenchou was already writing up want ads for new maids right after they left). Nagomi probably wants to scream after the horrifying sights she witnessed, but remains eerily calm and neutral, no doubt still numb from the experience.

In the room that’s been set up for her new live-in job, Nogami changes and then quickly packs up to get out of here while she’s still breathing, but that’s when she gets another surprise: Ranko is not only her new co-worker, but her roommate as well. She can’t go home. She already is home.

Will Nogami be able to maintain her sanity and innocence in this kooky scenario, or will her mature senpai train her to become as deadly as she is cute? I have no idea, but I can’t help but salute this show’s audacity and commitment to its bit, and will definitely keep watching to see where this goes!

Rating: 4/5 Stars

The aquatope on white sand – 17 – Pure bliss

Who could have predicted that one of the most fun, heartwarming, and overwhelmingly joyful episodes of Aquatope would come after Gama Gama closed down? After Kukuru reached détente with Kaoru and Chiyu in short order, it was only a matter of time before they had an opportunity to hang out on their time off. When Fuuka, Kukuru, and Udon-chan’s days off align, they decide to throw a hospitality party for their co-workers.

The three pull out all the stops. Fuuka gives Marina and Akari some skincare treatment tips she got from her idol stylist. Udon-chan whips up a varied menu of tasty dishes, and gets the constructive (and sometimes excessive) negative feedback she asked for. Kuuya comes over with Karin, drinks some plum wine, loosens up…and vanishes!

But nothing tops Kukuru luring Chiyu in to Fuuka’s apartment and giving her a back massage, which Chiyu is happy for, even if Kukuru sucks at it! Chiyu ends up giving Kukuru a proper back massage, noting that Kukuru’s lack of muscle knots is a sure sign of someone ill-equipped to remove them from others.

Kaoru came with Chiyu and her little boy Shizu, then Kai and Eiji arrive, having collected a still-plummy Kuuya who had passed out on a nearby bench. A takoyaki party breaks out, with Kuuya and Eiji having a friendly blind-sea life-takoyaki filling competition that eventually devolves into just everyone stuffing themselves with delicious takoyaki. Note Kai’s look of distress masking his delight that Kukuru sat next to him.

When lil’ Chizu does that typical little kid thing where they make a big stink about not wanting to go home, Fuuka and Kukuru break out the fireworks to put a sparkly capper on a perfect day. Everyone has fun, with no exceptions. Drunk Kuuya even scores a ride home with Umi-yan! It’s just so nice to see everyone outside of Tingaara, together, taking a break from all their troubles.

When Kukuru and Fuuka return to their adjacent apartments, two delectable mango parfaits are waiting for them in the fridge, courtesy of Udon-chan. The two best friends savor the treats on the balcony, talking about all the fun things that happened. I can’t tell you how much it swells my heart to see both of them so content. They’ve come a long way, baby!

The aquatope on white sand – 16 – Can’t help but relate

I’ve never disliked Haebaru Chiyu. When she first showed up at Gama Gama, it was clear she was trying her hardest to excel in what was established to be a very exclusive industry. Nor did I ever particularly side with Kukuru in their many spats; Chiyu is absolutely right that Kukuru was, in many ways, spoiled and privileged by being the granddaughter of a aquarium legend.

But this is the episode where my feelings about Haebaru Chiyu shifted from mere understanding to affection. Because, you see, all along, Chiyu has been busting her ass at both Gama Gama and Tingaara…she’s been doing that while being a single goddamn mom. When the attendant team has to take on overnight shifts for a pregnant penguin, she can’t do it, because she’s got a damn son named Shizuku.

They say context is king, and all along Kukuru has had it all wrong. Chiyu isn’t simply some arrogant go-getter looking down on her, she’s a desperate mother trying to balance her lifelong passion of marine life with ensuring her child has sufficient attention. That’s why, when Kukuru takes the shifts Chiyu would have had, Chiyu gets extremely upset with her. When Chiyu yells “I want to work too!”, I teared up, because I knew she was being brutally honest.

Once Kukuru learns Chiyu’s deal, she’s understandably, as she puts it, “torn”. Here she was, hating on Chiyu for being so ambitious and imperious, but all along, Chiyu had this whole other life completely outside the aquarium. It makes Kukuru want to try to experience something like what it means to be responsible for another human life. So she asks the vet Takeshita (who has also joined Tingaara) if she can babysit her son.

Fuuka, ever the peacemaker and moderator, pays Chiyu a visit at her home, and learns from Chiyu the strife she experienced. She was once married, but when she first tried to balance having a kid and working at an aquarium, she was eventually fired and her husband left her. Considering all that happened to her, it’s not surprising she’d want to keep her parenthood a secret at Tingaara. But Fuuka says there’s no need for that, nor is there any need to scorn Kukuru or Gama Gama.

After all, rather than press forward with her shallow hatred of Chiyu, Kukuru committed to learn a little bit more about what it’s like to be mother. Takeshita’s little boy never stops crying for the half-day Kukuru is taking care of him, and nothing she does can calm him until his mama comes home. Even so, Kukuru feels she’s learned something precious about loving all living things—including little humans—as her gramps wanted.

Last week, Kukuru reached  détente with Kaoru, and I said it was fine if she couldn’t do the same with everyone she butted heads with, most of all Chiyu. But leave it to Aquatope to find a way for even Kukuru and Chiyu to drop their antagonist act and admit that they do in fact share common ground, namely a love of aquariums and a desire to protect the life within them.

When the penguin’s egg finally hatches and brings forth a new life, Kukuru, Chiyu, and her son Shizuku are all embracing, rapt by the awe of watching a new life enter the world. Shizuku did her due diligence to understand Chiyu better, and in return, Chiyu opened up to Kukuru and her other Tingaara co-workers about the fact that she’s a kickass single mom. Character growth all around!

The aquatope on white sand – 15 – Seaslugfest

Buoyed in part by the return of Fuuka, Kukuru has found her rhythm in the marketing office, and is starting to show her competence. Of course, this means her boss Suwa just foists more work upon her. But it’s not done out of malice; it’s a sign that he trusts her to get it done. While having a relaxing lunch outside, Fuuka reminds Kukuru of that.

As such, when Suwa gives Kukuru her largest responsibility yet: a two week exhibition. Kukuru gives it her absolute all preparing a variety of proposals, not merely so she can silence Suwa’s doubt in her (though that’s part of it), but because it’s a golden opportunity to nerd the ef OUT over sea life. She ends up knocking it out of the park with her proposal, which is accepted on the spot. Mind you, Suwa doesn’t offer “Plankton” any praise…but it’s still a huge victory!

Kukuru decides the exhibition will be exclusively sea slugs, the jewels of the sea. I have to admit I hadn’t given sea slugs much thought up until this episode, but I have to admit they’re as gorgeous as they are weird. Kai gets all excited about Kukuru asking him to join her at the shore to collect the creatures, only to find Kukuru invited Fuuka too. His romantic fumbling doesn’t go unnoticed by Eiji, who suggests he try to be a bit more bold.

Like her earlier projects, Kukuru is constantly having to butt heads with people with whom she simply has a lot of trouble getting along besides the minimal professional cordialness. One of those figures is Kaoru, who granted comes of as pretty prickly and inflexible anyway. But Kukuru has gained more spine since joining Tingaara, and one thing she will not countenance is exhibiting the sea slugs without feeding them.

The vast variety of sea slugs doesn’t just pertain to their looks, you see, but also their diet. One species likes one kind of sea sponge or moss, the other ignores it completely. Eventually she finds the right food for all but one of the species to be exhibited, but in the process of obsessing over that eighth, Kukuru completely forgets her tour duties. Chiyu, another one like oil to Kukuru’s water, doesn’t let her forget she messed up, while all Fuuka can do is try to keep the peace.

On the eve of the exhibition, Kukuru is working late hours, and she’s got bags under her eyes. Who should press a cool canned coffee against her head but Kai, perhaps trying to be a bit bolder as Eiji advised. Kai asks if he can do anything for the clearly overworked Kukuru, and she says yes there is: he can put up his hands so she can punch them! In the heat of the stress-relieving spar session, Kai wraps his fingers around her fist, kinda-sora-unconsciously seeking gentler contact than the usual punches.

No sooner is this contact made than Kai apologizes and the drew draw back. But even if Kai’s courtship doesn’t pay off, a different kind of ritual takes place between Kukuru and Kaoru…they come to a détente! Over, what else, their mutual passion for all things living in or near the sea! I’m not sure why Kuuya misgendered Kaoru, but I for one am elated to see her and Kukuru put aside their differences and focus on the common ground they share.

Kaoru even invites Kukuru to the shore! At the same time, she and Chiyu may never get along, nor will Suwa ever give her a break or crack a grin. But that’s okay! Just as not all sea slugs eat the same food, not all people can get along. It’s just surpassingly gratifying when it suddenly, unexpectedly happens.

Rating: 4/5 Stars

The aquatope on white sand – 14 – Nunca te rindas

I don’t know about you, but Fuuka’s sudden appearance on the beach and her and Kukuru’s warm embrace are romantic as all get out. Just look at that shot: Fuuka is basically Kukuru’s valiant prince, drying her eyes strained from tears of frustration and filling them right back up with pure unbridled joy. Even better: Fuuka is back for good. She’ll be working at Tingaara…and even moved next door to Kukuru.

That’s a lot of surprises, but Kukuru is fine with all of them, because if ever there was a time she needed Fuuka close by, it’s now, when she’s feeling totally unmoored in her marketing job. Thanks to Gramps, Fuuka was able to get a job at Tingaara, and Chiyu is clearly not okay Gama Gama nepotism. If she’s going to accept Fuuka as a colleague and not a up-jumped hanger-on, Fuuka must memorize all 20 of the cape penguins.

“There’s no ‘Gama Gama Faction!'”, the Gama Gama Faction protested as they all went out to eat together. Though replacing Kuuya is Eiji, who is tastefully intrigued by the former idol-turned-penguin attendant. Rumors of cliquery aside, I like how the Gama Gama exiles still hang together after work, lay down their troubles, and enjoy Udon-chan’s widening culinary repertoire.

Kukuru admits after dinner that a part of her felt jealous that Fuuka got the job she thought she’d get at Tingaara, but fully admits that kind of thinking is childishness she wants to grow past. With  Karin, Chiyu, and her fellow marketeer Akari (voiced by the Saekano heroine herself, Yasuno Kiyano!) an now Fuuka, she has plenty of girlsboss to emulate. She even discovers she does have a knack for making people care and fall in love with aquariums, as she takes the aquarium-indifferent Akari on a rehearsal tour and wins her over.

This week Kukuru does indeed work harder and smarter than her first bumbling/arrogant days, staying meek and formal on the outside, but keeping that burning fire in her belly stoked. She learns the value of forming little alliances with others to make things easier, and figuring out the precise way to deal with people. Take Chiyu’s second-in-command Marina (Touyama Nao—this cast is stacked): since Kukuru is Fuuka’s friend and Fuuka is cool, Marina will go to bat to change Chiyu’s mind about including the penguins on the tour.

Speaking of intricate social patterns, this week was a low-key cape penguin documentary, as we observe along with Fuuka how to tell the twenty penguins apart not just by their colored wing bands, but how they behave. And while Fuuka was only at Gama Gama for a month, that was enough to know when the birds are agitated due to their sudden new environment (mirroring Kukuru’s own difficulties).

Kukuru believes it was not only Fuuka acing the name-that-penguin test, but recognizing and acknowledging the emotional state of the birds that impressed Chiyu enough to give the go-ahead for their (limited) exposure to tour groups. Kukuru only manages to get a family of four in her first tour, but she ends up nailing the tour just as well as Fuuka nailed her test, showing that the director didn’t throw her into this new environment willy-nilly. He knew she’d eventually figure it out and thrive.

Is Kukuru’s anhedonic ass of a boss Suwa pissed she only snagged one group of four? Absolutely. Does Kukuru let him get her down for long? Nope! She walks out of that office ready to keep up the fight. The episode ends as it began, with Kukuru and Fuuka looking like a particularly happily married couple, this time cooking dinner side by side.

Kukuru gives Fuuka the credit for changing Chiyu’s mind by proving she not only knew about but cared about the penguins. But that’s not entirely fair to herself…who helped Fuuka study for that penguin test? More to the point, Fuuka makes it clear that while she feels she belongs in an aquarium now, the main reason Fuuka is back is to be with Kukuru. Kukuru just so happens to also belong in an aquarium, so it’s allll sea gravy!

The aquatope on white sand – 13 – #aquadulting

We return to Aquatope with Kukuru in a new apartment, in a smart pantsuit, saying her usual prayer (this time to her parents’ shrine), starting her very first day at the brand-spankin’-new Aquarium Tingaara. Umi-yan and Kuuya are already working there, while Kai is in the same group of new hires as she is. But while Kai is assigned to the fish team, Kukuru is assigned to…marketing.

The director has high hopes for her in PR, where Karin is already working. Have you ever, due to various circumstances, ended up in a job you had no idea you’d be doing? Well, that was me about five months ago, and it’s Kukuru here.

Working at an aquarium, but not tending to the marine life? It almost seems like a cruel joke, and Kukuru doesn’t get it. That said, when Karin frees her from the mountains of manuals her director Suwa gave her and takes her on a tour of the modern, impressive facilities, the little kid in Kukuru immediately resurfaces. (This still, by the way, is my new desktop wallpaper, the previous one being the sky after the typhoon).

But she gradually learns that kid has no place at Tingaara. Here, not even Umi-yan can keep ice pops in the feed freezer. Gama Gama was loosy-goosy, and a lot of outsiders like Suwa and Chiyu (who is magnificently smug throughout this episode) believe that had a lot to do with its failure. Tingaara is a strict, by-the-book, professional enterprise, perhaps wound a bit too tightly.

Even so, after dinner at the restaurant where Udon is now working and training, Kai reminds her that Fuuka dove into the world she knew nothing about when she started working at Gama Gama. He himself didn’t originally really want to work there, but did so because he wanted to help her, and eventually came to like it. He thinks if she tries something new and sticks with it, she might have a change of heart.

Reinvigorated by his words, Kukuru goes back to work with her head held high, doing the work that’s in front of her. It seems like preparations are ready for a behind-the-scenes tour Suwa assigned to her, but as he puts it in a very public dressing-down in the office, she really only did the work she knew how to do. He suggests she cease relying on experience working at a failed aquarium and nicknames her Plankton…smaller than small fry.

After getting chewed out and again having her commitment and seriousness questioned by Chiyu, Kukuru leaves the aquarium exhausted and discouraged, declining Karin’s dinner offer and instead sitting on the beach alone. She starts to cry, not knowing how much more of life at Tingaara she can take.

Then, out of nowhere, Fuuka arrives, precisely when Kukuru needed her the absolute most. While they were still together in last week’s episode, the way Aquatope totally turned Kukuru’s life on it’s head and everything she endured made it feel like months had passed…which indeed they did! All of that also makes their reunion that much more heartwarming.

Kukuru has had a rough couple of days, but there’s a reason Tingaara’s director assigned her the role he did. Hopefully seeing Fuuka will remind Kukuru of how rough she was on her in her first days at Gama Gama, and how Fuuka didn’t give up, and ended up thriving.

Tingaara may seem like a cold, cruel, nasty, grown-up place—or at least most of the humans who aren’t Kukuru’s circle make it feel that way—but that doesn’t mean it will stay that way. Kukuru may struggle and fail a lot more before she finds the right wavelength in which to thrive, but I’m excited to watch her find it!

The aquatope on white sand – 12 – Everything becomes the ocean

It’s the last day of Gama Gama, and admission is free. The place is packed with people, which has Kukuru asking why they didn’t come earlier. But even so, she understands that Gama Gama has gotten too old to properly care for its sea life. The logic doesn’t make the last day any less melancholy, but there’s a hint of hope, as Kukuru is offered a job at Tingaara when she’s done school.

Once the last visitors head home and the doors close for the last time, the staff plus Karin and Udon-chan have a little party celebrating 48 glorious years. When everyone learns Kukuru has a job at Tingaara if she wants it, and that Umi-yan and Kuuya are also taking jobs there, a tipsy Karin urges Kukuru to go for it. But Kukuru just isn’t sure, and that’s understandable: the offer came on the day she believes her dream to have ended.

Gramps makes a very awesome and tearjerking speech, and then Kukuru and Fuuka spend some time on the moonlit beach. After the emotional roller coaster of the typhoon, they’ve fully made up. In fact, Kukuru believes it’s now her turn to support Fuuka’s dream, by urging her to take the lead actress job in Tokyo. Fuuka books a flight there for tomorrow.

The next day, Gama Gama is “hollowed out”, as all of the sea creatures are placed in portable tanks bound for either Tingaara or other aquariums that requested them. Kukuru is shook by just how lonely it is with the lights on and the tanks empty…until she goes into the room where all the visitors left notes on the wall.

It’s a room full of warm gratitude, and Kukuru can’t help but smile and feel grateful for everyone who came to Gama Gama and were changed forever. Then, while walking past one of the empty tanks, Kukuru experiences another illusion, once again involving someone who looks like her sister, who gives her a loving pat on the head as if to say “you’ll be alright.”

Back home, during Kukuru and Fuuka’s last meal together for some time, Kukuru mentions the illusion she experienced, believing she’d met her “doppelganger”. This is when Gran finally decides to tell Kukuru something they were going to tell her when she grew up.

As she’s already been an aquarium director for a summer and then lost that aquarium, Gran decides she’s grown up enough. Kukuru had a twin sister…but only Kukuru was born.

I understand Gran not wanting to keep Kukuru in the dark any longer, but the timing couldn’t be worse when it comes to Kukuru and Fuuka having to say goodbye so soon. At the airport, Kukuru tries to put on a brave face, as she feels she owes it to Fuuka, who supported her dream for so long.

Airport goodbyes always get me, and Aquatope really nails it, from the awkwardly formal handshake to watching from Kukuru’s POV until Fuuka disappears into the terminal.

But that is not goodbye, because before she boards her plane, Fuuka thinks about how she only cried when she was alone after her dream ended. She thinks about how Kukuru must be crying alone right then, and decides she can’t board the plane; not now. She runs dramatically through the airport, calls Kukuru and asks where she is, and meets her out on a patio where she is, indeed crying alone.

The bottom line is, making sure Kukuru didn’t have to cry alone was far more important to Fuuka than a movie role in Tokyo. She had to be in the position where she had to choose to learn that the job wasn’t really a new dream. You could say she’s torpedoing her career simply because Kukuru’s gran got talkative about things past at the worst possible time.

Still, Fuuka simply couldn’t let the person who helped her find strength and happiness after losing everything cry by herself. After sharing some big ol’ sobby hugs like two close friends should (seriously, WTF was with that handshake earlier guys!) Kukuru decides she’ll work at Tingaara after all.

The aquarium and its fragile micro-ecosystems taught Kukuru over the years that life can be difficult, and being alive isn’t a given. It was basically a coin toss that Kukuru got to live and her sister didn’t, so she now feels doubly motivated to make those who love her proud; that includes Fuuka.

Fuuka ends up on a plane back home to Iwate as planned, but as she settles into the cozy night flight she reads the poem Gramps read during his farewell speech, about how everything eventually becomes the ocean, which is probably why whenever someone peers into “the ocean within”, they find peace. Kukuru joins in, and they finish the poem in one voice, telling each other see you tomorrow.

It’s a bold and gorgeous way to end the first half of Aquatope, and I couldn’t be more excited to see what new innovative ways the show will cause me to bawl my eyes out when the second half comes around.

The aquatope on white sand – 08 – Attack of the xanthid crab

Thanks to tireless work on the phones from Karin, Gama Gama finally gets to go on the road. Specifically, they’re bringing a little bit of the aquarium to Nanjo General Clinic’s pediatric ward. The ward’s kabourophobic director, Dr. Kinjou, has only one non-negotiable condition: no crabs.

So as chance should have it, one of the Gama Gama’s Xanthid crabs stows away in one of the traveling aquarium’s tank, and is discovered by Fuuka, who is left alone to set things up the common room when Kukuru, Karin, and Umi-yam are busy with other matters. Predictably, one of Fuuka’s fingers gets snapped and the crab is free to roam the hospital.

Meanwhile, Kukuru presents Dr. Kinjou with some stuffed sea life for the kids and goes off on a tangent about eels, and the doctor ends up making a comment about how nice it is they’re keeping busy before Gama Gama closes.

Karin later tells Kukuru that due to her job with the Tourism Association, she hears things, like that the new aquarium being built at the civic center will sap Gama Gama of what little tourist traffic it enjoys, spelling its doom. Kukuru doesn’t want to hear it, a skulks away to the roof.

She’s eventually joined by Umi-yan, who primarily came to the clinic to visit his young friend Airi, who was a regular visitor to Gama Gama before her hospitalization. Airi gives Umi-yan and sea life the cold shoulder.

She’s drawn back into the world beneath the waves when the xanthid crab climbs Dr. Kinjou and threatens to snap at her neck! Airi, the only one close enough to help the paralyzed-with-fear Kinjou, reaches out and carefully grabs the crab, marveling at how it’s alive.

Newly charmed by the sea, Airi joins the other kids in the common room, and the crab is safely stowed in a bucket for the return trip. Airi finally gets to interact with the theraputic doctorfish Umi-yan promised, and a huge smile returns to her face. Like the other kids, the aquarium is a welcome distraction from their health issues.

Dr. Kinjou initially seems ready to lodge formal complaints left and right, but lets the crab incident slide out of appreciation for the sparkly eyes and smiles the traveling aquarium gave the kids.

On the elevator ride down to the exit, Karin confesses that it was once her dream to be an aquarium attendant like Kukuru, but had to choose more stable employment due to her family situation.

When she watches Kukuru rush headlong towards her dream, Karin can’t help but feel a little envious. This makes me wonder if there’s a potential future where Karin makes her dream come true at a revitalized Gama Gama. But with news of a shiny new rival aquarium and a new face who has come to train at Gama Gama for that aquarium, Kukuru faces a very uphill climb.

It’s here where I must admit I found this to be the weakest episode of Aquatope yet, even though I still enjoyed it. Some of its strongest moments felt like variations on very similar, stronger moments from past episodes. It wavered between a Karin-centric episode, keeping the pressure on Kukuru, and Umi-yan being the nicest big guy in the world.

Most importantly, it had precious little Kukuru-Fuuka interaction. Whether you see their relationship as sisterly or romantic, it’s the beating heart of this show, and without it the episode felt underweight and hollow—like a crab you caught that’s too small to eat.

The aquatope on white sand – 07 – Going halfsies

In the first week of August Gama Gama Aquarium is on pace for a goal of 2,000 visitors thanks to the touch pools and shaved ice. But that first week took everything the staff had, plus Udon-chan working for free (and the shaved ice stall still lost money). Kukuru’s gramps orders the youngins to take a day off and spend some time neither working nor thinking about work.

This would, at first glance, seem like the perfect time to show everyone off in their swimsuits, but Aquatope is regionally accurate in the locals of Okinawa not being all that big on swimsuits. Indeed, only Fuuka wears one —the same one in which she had a photo shoot in Tokyo. This makes her very self-conscious, but Kukuru tells her not to worry about it. After all, she does look ridiculously cute.

The ladies meet up with Kai and Kuuya, who have set up a barbecue by the beach, though a little too close to the aquarium than they’d like, considering the goal is to forget about work. We meet Kai’s little sister Maho, who is super polite and formal and takes an instant liking to Fuuka, while hating Kukuru’s (fish) guts.

While I enjoyed Maho’s precocious rivalry with Kukuru, her voice sounded a little bit too much like the other, older women. This was definitely a case where an Ogura Yui or Kuno Misaki would have been a better choice. In any case, only children Kukuru and Udon-chan lament having not had siblings to liven things up.

Ultimately, the pull of Gama Gama proves too strong for Kukuru, who decides to peek in and see how things are going in her absence. She finds Yuuya had the same idea, and overhears him talking with her Gramps about what happens after Gama; namely the very capable and knowledgeable Yuuya taking a job at another aquarium.

The article in the paper is one thing, but hearing her own grandfather talk about the end of Gama Gama like it’s a foregone conclusion when she’s doing everything she possibly can to stave off closure, is understandably (fish) gutting.

In the episode’s finest scene, Kukuru is off on her own on the breakwater when Fuuka finds her. Kukuru breaks down in Fuuka’s lap, saying she’s not sure if she’s “going to be okay.” But without a moment’s hesitation, Fuuka embraces Kukuru and assures her that no matter what happens, she’ll be there with her.

Just when Kukuru was lamenting not having a sibling (and it being heavily implied in flashbacks that she could have had one), Fuuka plays the role of reliable big sister to a T. It’s really great to see how Fuuka has grown since moving to Okinawa, to the point she can be an emotional rock to Kukuru in her more vulnerable moments.

After some nonsense involving Maho’s would-be grade-school boyfriend Rui and Kuuya having a race on the beach, the little kids go home, the older kids break out the booze, and the kids in between wish they could have a beer or lemon highball or three to close out a day of leisure.

We also learn a lot more about Kuuya’s past as a popular and athletic high schooler (and Karin’s classmate) who was sabotaged by the queen bee after he rejected her and was taken in by Kukuru’s gramps. His story is somewhat inelegantly exposited in one go, but it’s still good to learn more about him, why he distrusts women, and how he’s a much looser, more laid back guy when he’s drunk…which tends to be the case with most people.

Speaking of loose and laid back, this is definitely the kind of episode a show can indulge in when it has two cours to work with instead of just one. Even so, this episode wasn’t completely devoid of the burdens Kukuru bears as she must go against virtually everyone’s expectations that Gama Gama is doomed. In fact, this episode hinted that it may just be doomed, and Kukuru is tilting at underwater windmills. But even if that’s so, it’ll be okay…because she’s not alone.

Rating: 4/5 Stars

The aquatope on white sand – 06 – Sweet memories

When Kukuru finds an article in the morning paper about Gama Gama closing after 48 years of operation, it’s got to be disheartening. It’s one thing to manage the day-to-day operations of an aquarium, but to also be responsible for bringing it back from the brink? There are times it feels like Kukuru is putting way too much on her slim shoulders.

Still, one thing she doesn’t have to worry about is losing her new sister-from-another-mother Fuuka thanks to her resolving things with her mom last week, so we can move on to what I imagine will be the main thrust of the remaining half of the first cour: Saving Gama Gama.

When contemplating promotions that will increase traffic and buzz, Kukuru and Fuuka settle on cool sweets to fight the heat. They enlist Teruya Tsukimi AKA Udon-chan, who admits that her culinary upbringing by her mom Meisa (who hates sweet stuff despite being so sweet herself) is lacking in the sweets department…but Tsukimi also likes a challenge!

It’s also clear that Tsukimi feels a little stifled in a family diner that she doesn’t run, so while Kukuru and Fuuka feel like they’re asking to much with little in return, Tsukimi is eager for an outlet for her culinary creativity. She starts research immediately by taking Kukuru and Fuuka out to one of the best local ice cream spots.

It’s here where, when Kukuru picks plain but reliable vanilla and Fuuka is a little more adventurous with chocolate pineapple, Tsukimi has a triple-scoop cone piled high with all kinds of strange flavors that somehow mesh well. It’s those “infinite possibilities” with cooking that really get her juices flowing. The ice cream stop is also an opportunity for the three girls to just be three high school girls, joking around, laughing, and enjoying the beautiful summer day.

When Fuuka spots a sign pointing people to the ice cream joint’s insta page, she suggests Kukuru take a look at heightening Gama Gama’s social media presence. It’s at this point we see how old-fashioned Kukuru is when it comes to this kind of stuff; the aquarium might well have been saved years ago had it jumped on the SM bandwagon earlier.

Gama Gama is a treasure trove of content that millions of users are eager to consume and share. And not just the sea creatures, but the human creatures who keep the place running. While the episode interestingly avoids the possible side effects of Fuuka ending up on the aquarium’s Instagram, the fact is Kai and Kuuya aren’t unattractive, and when you’re in as deep trouble as Gama Gama, you use what you’ve got!

When Tsukimi, Kukuru and Fuuka reach out to Karin for an ice cream stall to borrow, she bursts their bubble by stating the difficulty and cost of obtaining the permits to serve food outside, particularly dairy. In an anime continuum full of school festival food stalls, I loved the realism Aquatope infuses into this situation.

Even without dairy, Tsukimi is determined to figure something out. She proposes shaved ice instead of ice cream, the permits for which are much easier to score. As she sits in the corner table of the diner doing research and figuring out flavors, her mom tells her she’s looking a little too serious, and her output as a result is not up to Tsukimi’s usually high standard.

That’s when Tsukimi decides to close the shop for the night, break out the colored pencils and markers, and start having fun. Only through fun can creativity happen, after all. When Kukuru and Fuuka arrive wondering why the diner isn’t open, she sits them down and enlists their help: they’ve got cups to draw on!

The next day, while Tsukimi is setting up out front with help from Kai and Kuuya and Fuuka is once again attending the touch pools, Kukuru is doing her rounds and encounters an old man with whom she’s very familiar. He visits Gama Gama once a year, every year without fail. She approaches him and thanks him for his patronage, and he brings up the newspaper article about the aquarium closing.

This man’s is a sad story about how he lost his older brother (in the war). He vowed to honor that brother by starting a business and becoming successful, but he failed. That’s when he came to the aquarium when it was new, where—and he has trouble explaining it, because it’s so hard to explain—he met his brother again. However it happened, it got him back on his feet, and he succeeded in building a new business.

It’s at that point I expected the old man to whip out his checkbook and ask Kukuru “So how much do you need to keep Gama Gama afloat?”…but of course this isn’t a show about easy or painless answers. Indeed, I was already on the verge of tears when I heard the man’s tale. What a fool I was to think that would be the most goddamn tearjerking moment of the episode.

Kukuru gazes into the tanks, and suddenly the schools of fish part to reveal her departed mother and father. At the same time, the old man sees his older brother, who used to carry him on his back, turning back and smiling before heading to the sea that would likely claim his life. Kukuru tearfully embraces her parents, and then spots a third person, who I’m guessing is her departed sister.

After Kukuru steadfastly invites the old man to “come back next year”, as there’s no way she’ll let Gama Gama close, I paused the episode briefly to blow my nose and dry my eyes enough to continue watching. Seeing that old man see his brother as she saw her lost family, reminded her that she’s not the only one for whom this place is precious, special, and irreplaceable.

From there, things get more lighthearted and fun, as Tsukimi’s shaved ice stand is up and running, and it’s revealed what she and the others were up to last night. Rather than just sell the same old familiar flavors, Tsukimi makes use of her own creativity and the unique aquarium setting to create little shaved ice masterpieces that resemble creatures at Gama Gama.

The little kids are wowed. Their parents are wowed. Older kids request a frogfish flavor and Tsukimi happily obliges. The entire enterprise catches momentum on Instagram. Tsukimi’s diligence, preparation, and artistry not only provided a much needed promotional shot in the arm for Gama Gama, but reminded her that she wants to fulfill her own dream to open her own eatery where she can do crazy fun stuff like this all she likes.

When she and the others celebrate at the diner, her mom surprises her by ordering the mango pork belly her daughter invented. And even if it’s still far too sweet for her taste, and she’s convinced Tsukimi won’t be able to run her own place, she still eats it. I’ve no doubt that beneath the criticism she’s truly proud of her daughter, and looking forward to watching her achieve her own precious dream. What a beautiful, fun, tearjerking, colorful, sweet episode. This show is too damn good.

GODDAMN TEARJERKER™ CERTIFIED

The aquatope on white sand – 05 – We only have august

Fuuka’s mom arrives, but she’s not a bitch, nor a force of nature. If anything, she’s apologetic towards Kukuru’s gramps for making him board a stranger for so long, and ashamed by how long she didn’t know where her child was. Despite her stern look that served as last week’s cliffhanger, she is someone whose position you can totally understand and respect. there’s no “bad guy” here.

That being said, Fuuka’s mom’s initial position is quite clear-cut: Fuuka is to come home to Iwate with her at once. Fuuka isn’t ready, so Kukuru and Kai aid her escape. Her mom could turn the corner at any moment, so they have to act fast—so fast, there’s no time for a proper goodbye between two friends who have only just begun to know each other.

Fuuka replicates the long, hot, sweaty walk she made upon first arriving there, making her wonder if she’s ended up right where she started. The major difference is, a friendly stranger in Karin saved her the first time; this time, she seeks refuge at Udon-chan’s family diner. Udon serves her up a quick and tasty lunch, along with this excellent nugget. When you’re busy, you don’t have time to think about things that don’t matter

Also, Udon’s mom is the fortune teller who told Fuuka she’d make a fated encounter. But that can be said not just of Kukuru, but the Gama Gama Aquarium, as well as the first creature she connected with: the shy little coral blinny. Udon’s mom offers to drive Fuuka to a free room in Haha, but when she remembers the blinny wasn’t looking so swell last time she saw it, she suddenly asks Udon’s mom to turn around and head back.

Unfortunately, Fuuka is too late, and Kukuru admits that when you’re dealing with living things every day, eventually you’re going to have to deal with death. As soon as she first remembered the little guy while in the car, I was just as emotionally invested in the poor doomed blinny as Fuuka was, resulting in this episode’s Goddamn Tearjerker status.

Fuuka’s mom happens to come into the back room just as her daughter is cleaning out the blinny’s tank, looking both pained and diligent. Kukuru steps up to the plate to tell Fuuka’s mom how much Fuuka means to her and the aquarium, but Fuuka stops her, and tells her mother directly that she wants to stay. Having been charmed by this place and its warm and generous people and seeing that Fuuka is serious, her mom agrees…but only until the school year starts in September.

Fuuka’s mom spends the night, lamenting at dinner to Kukuru’s grandparents how between Fuuka going off to be an idol and now, she’s barely been able to be a mother. Udon’s mom says letting a child go when they’re old enough is part of a parent’s job, while Kukuru’s grandparents assure her that everything will work out…even as the shrine of their daughter, Kukuru’s mother, sits in the corner.

Fuuka and her mom end up having a nice mother-daughter moment later that night as they sleep in adjacent futons, with her mom admitting she looked pretty good in those red boots. So the immediate threat of Fuuka and Kukuru being separated has passed, but they only have one month to achieve Kukuru’s dream (not to mention be together). I wonder if the remaining nineteen episodes will cover only that August, or the months of separation that follow.

GODDAMN TEARJERKER™ CERTIFIED

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