Irina: The Vampire Cosmonaut – 07 – Borscht or Bust

The day of launch has arrived, and Irina dons her proper Zirnitran uniform, but meets one-on-one with the Chief, who has survived countless small heart attacks to get to this point. Due to the risk of the UK monitoring her transmissions once in orbit, Irina is told to read the script of a cooking show to communicate her condition. If everything’s A-OK, she’ll read about borscht. If not, a cheeseburger.

In hindsight, Lev’s arrest was a naked attempt to build up tension and drama before the launch, as his detainment doesn’t even last through the launch. He is freed by Natalia, who discovered that Franz sabotaged the centrifuge in order to kill Irina, thus ending the Chief’s career. Lev is not only freed but gets to be one of the last people Irina sees before her flight to the heavens.

Since this is the first time they’ve attempted this with a person, there’s no guarantee this will be a two-way trip…except for the fact this is just the seventh episode and the titular character is exceedingly unlikely to perish here and now. That doesn’t mean I didn’t feel a combined feeling of awe and dread—the same thing I’ve felt before watching any real-world spaceflight.

Everything goes according to plan at first, but other than a brief shot of Irina on video that soon fizzles out, the entire flight is from the perspective of Lev and the team in the control room. Lev’s crippling sense of helplessness is palpable when they lose contact, and for a few moments, he feels like perhaps Irina really is gone…and really feels that loss.

Thankfully, once communication is restored, Irina recites the recipe for borscht, delighting Lev the flight team down on earth and adding some welcome whimsy to what had been a strictly by-the-book launch procedure, as she rattles off the cooking instructions as her capsule dances above Earth’s night side. She even manages to get her feelings through to Lev by reciting her own recipe: for the odd Zirnitran drink he loves.

While the political officers in the control room really want to blow her up, both when she goes off script and when there’s a chance the capsule could land outside Zirnitran borders. But they don’t blow it up. That said, it’s a mad dash to the remote wintry landscape where the capsule landed, and Lev leads the way on his motorcycle.

While he’s thrown from that cycle when he hits an ice sheet, he only suffers a skinned knee, and gets right back in the saddle in search of Irina and her parachute. He finds it, which…is pretty lucky! But that’s fine; just as this show knows we don’t want Irina to die, it also knows we want to see the pair cuddle under the parachute in mutual relief and affection for each other.

The world may never know who Irina was or the feat she achieved, but it doesn’t matter: she knows, and the human lad knows too. That’s more than enough for both of them.

Rating: 4/5 Stars

Irina: The Vampire Cosmonaut – 05 – Free Falling

A military bigwig arrives to inspect the training facility, and to also tell the two dozen or so candidates that only six of them will make the cosmonaut cut. When one of those candidates screws up their parachuting drill, Lev is suddenly back on the active roster. He might end up in space after all.

Meanwhile, Irina is in the anechoic chamber, which she basically treats like her coffin, only larger and most likely quieter. While in there, she’s left alone with her awful memories of when her village was massacred and her parents torched. At one point she softly calls Lev’s name, and can’t help but grab his sleeve when he finally comes in to release her from her solitude.

Irina probably figures she can’t hide the fact that she doesn’t hate Lev’s guts, so she comes right out and says she considers him the only human who isn’t bad. I’m not sure what that pink-haired researcher did to her! All joking aside, we get another great skydiving scene with Irina ending up in the unenviable situation of having to stare at Lev to keep her head up, even if it means being unable to hide her blushing.

When the two are up in the air they can forget about all the awfulness that surrounds them, but they come back down to earth literally and figuratively when they witness an aborted space capsule flight and the corpse of one of the experiment dogs. Those horrible flashbacks come roaring back, putting Irina in a state of shock.

Lev’s superior picks them up, and tells him that no one was supposed to see that. Back in the command room, the mission commander battles both his ailing heart and the political reality of having to self-destruct Irina’s capsule should she land in another country. You can tell he’s way more in this for the science and discovery, not the patriotism.

Rating: 4/5 Stars

SAKUGAN – 03 – THAT LITTLE VOICE

Memenpu takes to the untamed Labyrinth like a fish to water, locking Gagumber out of the controls so she can try her hand at salvaging crystals to exchange for money. But while following the routes of the map jewel and taking some more perilous shortcuts pays off, her natural talents, intellect, and guile, if untempered by experience, could quickly spell the end of her.

Despite basically watching her best friend Lynda die, Memenpu doesn’t seem to be showing the Labyrinth the proper respect. She insists She’s Got This, and while Gagumber is initially willing to indulge her, when increasingly strong, mysterious earthquakes rend the aptly named base camp “Troll’s Palm”, playing it safe and getting some rest are the order of the day.

As a former elite Marker, Gagumber is someone Memenpu should really be listening to and trying to emulate, as the fact he’s still there annoying her is proof he knows what it takes to survive in the Labyrinth, a place whose beauty can lull you into a dangerous false sense of security or comfort. Memenpu literally leaps down a freshly-created crevice and lands on her inflatable goat doll in a dark frozen cavern.

She should be scared, all alone down there with no backup and no idea what lurks in the shadows. When those whats start lurking, shining their many red eyes at her, and then chasing her, Memenpu probably wishes she’d gotten a little more rest so she could run a little faster. The swarm of horseshoe crab-like creatures don’t care how smart she is, or how badly she wants to reach the “Dream Place.” They just want dinner.

It’s in Memenpu’s most dire hour of need, holed up in a cargo container the creatures are slowly but surely smashing into, that she finally calls out for her dad to rescue her. Thankfully, he does, even if it strains credulity a bit that he was able to find her in the nick of time. Suffice it to say, Memenpu needs Gagumber here in the Labyrinth, even if she didn’t in Pinyin.

At the same time, Gagumber needs Memenpu too, at least if they’re going to reach their destination, they’re going to have to take the occasional calculated risks or unorthodox routes. Their latest one ends with them parachute-dropping before Jolly Jolly Base Camp, where a debonair mad sips tea, nibbles cookies, follows up his earnest praise for the father-daughter pair with what sounds like a threat…

Rating: 4/5 Stars

Irina: The Vampire Cosmonaut – 03 – Freedom, Not Fear

After a scene involving the pudgy, scheming old men who run Zirnitra from the capital, Sangrad (some who want to kill Irina as soon as the mission is over, some who want to wait and see), we see Lev get his first R&R since taking on the job of Irina’s handler. His former candidate comrades are a mix of curious, pitying, and superior.

It’s clear that due to his time with Irina, he’s no longer one of them…and that might not be the worst thing. As for “things”, it’s clear Anya doesn’t consider Irina one, but a fellow person. As a scientist, she knows the best way to overcome fear of something is to understand it better. She understands vampires to an extent she doesn’t fear them in the least. On the contrary; she adores “Irinyan”.

Lev ends up applying this axiom to Irina’s acrophobia, by exposing her to the most extreme heights so she can eventually realize how goddamn awesome it is when you’re flying and thus overcome her fear. Their moonlight flight is a series highlight in terms of visual panache; it really draws you in, like the great Miyazaki adventure in the sky.

Lev’s experiment on his “test subject” works like a charm, as Irina’s fears are replaced by wonder and a thirst for freedom unquenchable by even the fizziest lemon seltzer available. But the flight doesn’t just change Irina. It continues a gradual but inevitable change in Lev, from a soldier carrying out his duty of handling a test subject, to a young lad developing feelings for Irina Luminesk as if she were an ordinary human woman.

Lev isn’t training Irina in order to achieve the mission anymore; he’s training her so the government won’t dispose of her for not measuring up. Fortunately Irina excels at pretty much everything they throw at her, and once she’s over her acrophobia, flight and parachuting (another bravura sequence) is no exception. One of Lev’s colleagues warns him not to develop feelings for Irina, but it’s clearly already way too late for that!

Rating: 4/5 Stars

Irina: The Vampire Cosmonaut – 02 – Lemon Seltzer

This week is entirely devoted to the beginning of Irina’s training to become the first human(esque) Cosmonaut in space. Lev is right beside her all the way, enduring the same trials, so it’s no surprise he fails to see her only as an object and a test subject and not…a person like him.

After Lev narrowly outruns Irina on the track drills, she tries to regain her pride by outlasting him in in a 90-degree (Celsius!) steam bath. The senior researcher is a real racist piece of shit who insists on binding and muzzling her when it’s Lev’s turn to bake, then strapping her into the centrifuge so tight the chafing makes her bleed then subjecting her to too many Gs too fast.

If Dr. Asshole’s goal was to dehumanize Irina, it had the opposite effect, not just with Lev but with Anya as well. Seeing a vampire bleed the exact same blood, like running beside one or enduring intense heat, intense gravity, or intense…space food is only making Lev think of her more as just a human with pointy teeth and no sense of taste.

It’s with this in mind and a spirit of playfulness that Lev takes Irina to the parachute training site in the middle of the night. When she shows signs of acrophobia but won’t admit she’s scared, she gives her a little push, and she ends up on an awkward, harrowing ride to the bottom. But I’m sure the same exact thing happened to Lev his very first time, just as I’m sure it would’ve happened with me!

The kicker is when Lev treats Irina to a new sensation: carbonated water. Because she despises everything Lev represents, she won’t explicitly admit she really loves the stuff, especially with lemon, but whether she likes it or not shes warming to him just as he’s learning that vampires are just humans with a few differences that are, at the end of the day, not enough to engender the prejudice and oppression Irina and her kind suffer.

We learn from the boss that Lev was chosen specifically because he was liable to treat Irina like a person. It remains to be seen if Lev, like Lena in 86, will try to rebel against Irina’s oppressors for her sake.

Great Pretender – 10 – Throwing Off Gravity’s Chains

When Abby asks Luis about his role in the bombings that killed her folks, he’s really in the mood to come away from the conversation with his life intact, so he says what he thinks will provoke her into killing him the fastest: “taking a dump” on Baghdad was doing his duty, and he couldn’t give two shits about whoever died because of it.

That does the trick; both he and were fully ready to let things end bloody. Then Makoto tackles Abby before she can do the dead. It’s his first step in, well, I can’t call it a “con” per se, but it’s definitely a scheme to create a different kind of end: One that could mean redemption for both tortured souls.

Taking advice from Cynthia, Makoto doesn’t pry into what happened with Abby and Luis, but is simply there for her as she looks out onto the city, wrestling with her grief, rage and helplessness, assuring her she’s not the only one suffering. Interestingly, he already had a bit of an effect on Abby when she spots a capsule toy dispenser and decides to buy one as a fortune good luck charm.

Abby thinks Makoto is full of shit, but she also doesn’t know what else to do. Fortunately, the figurine she acquires has special significance to her situation: historical “bad guy” Akechi Mitsuhide, who betrayed his lord like Brutus did to Caesar—presumably because they didn’t share the same values.

As Isabelle shares with Makoto (with Abby listening close by), Luis suffered PTSD after his tour of duty, and took up stunt piloting in order to satisfy his need to continue putting his miserable life on the line, a pattern virtually identical to the similarly-scarred Abby’s.

When they grudgingly meet with Makoto as a go-between, Luis points out that he and Abby won’t agree on much as long as they’re still alive, as if their beating hearts are anomalies in the universe that must be snuffed out in order to restore balance.

But again, Makoto thinks he has an equitable solution which will break both parties out of their respective funks. It starts with putting Luis back in the cockpit, in Abby’s place. When she pulled a knife on him he stood up from his wheelchair, leading Makoto to deduce that his physical injuries weren’t sufficient to keep him out of a plane. Instead, he needed an emotional reason to get back in: a chance to settle a score with his protege Clark.

When he’s back in the cockpit, it’s as if a switch is flipped. Having calmed down from their earlier scuffle, Luis brings Abby in close before he takes off, and says something she had no idea how much she needed to hear. It was only two words—I’m sorry—but they mean everything, because he means them.

Laurent put Makoto in Clark’s hanger so he could sabotage the engine when the time came to pit Abby against Clark, but he doesn’t sabotage it. In order for this race between Clark and Luis to matter, it has to be real, and make no mistake: Clark prefers it that way just as much as Luis having taken no pleasure in his role in the fixed results.

What results is the best race sequence the show has yet delivered. Photoshoppy color banding aside, the dogfighting planes against the vivid Singapore skyline have never looked better, and there’s a nice bittersweet symmetry to their air ballet being set to the same music as Abby’s last recital years ago.

In the end, Clark manages to eke out a win over his master, who after all hadn’t been in a cockpit in years. Still, it was close and thrilling. We know who wins because the color of the fireworks matches the victor’s plane color. Sam may have bet everything on Clark, but since Laurent arranged for a special doctored video feed and installed color-changing cellophane on the casino’s windows, Sam believes that Abby won, and that he lost everything…

Of course, he does lose—just not due to betting on the wrong pilot! In this regard, Laurent & Co. relied on quite a bit of luck in their win, as the winner of a no-holds-barred race between Clark and Luis was not altogether known. By the time Sam realizes he was swindled, Laurent, Kim and Kudou have already fled with the cash to a yacht.

In a way, just as Clark was able to learn through Luis how to be a better pilot (and let’s be honest, he’s definitely the more honorable of the two brothers), by watching Luis essentially regain his desire to live up in the sky serves a similar experience for Abby.

If that old fart can put the past behind him and take back his life, maybe she can to. His genuine apology also goes a long way towards her ultimately forgiving the guy, since that’s the first step in her moving on to whatever’s next.

When Abby and Makoto visit the abandoned casino, they are trapped and shot at by Sam and his men. Thankfully, Abby is still in her flight suit, so Makoto embraces her and leaps out the window to “give dying together a go”. The chute works and they land safely in the water for Laurent to fish them out.

It’s without doubt the scariest thing Makoto has ever done, and his face says as such, but damn it all if it’s not worth it to finally see Abigail Jones’ genuine, radiant smile! That makes for one hell of a strong ending to the Singapore Sky arc.

Violet Evergarden – 11

As a civil war rages in the frigid north, Claudia decides to decline a doll request from a soldier in the war zone; it’s just too dangerous. However, Violet overhears him, snatches up the request when no one’s looking, and takes a ship to the war-torn country. After all, there’s no place too dangerous for Violet.

When no ground route can be taken, Violet suggests they drop her into the camp via airplane; the pilot likes her moxie and goes along with it, possibly seeing the iron resolve in her eyes. When she says there’s nowhere she won’t go for her clients, she means it, damnit.

Looking outside my window, I don’t see a scene all that different from the snow-covered woods of the camp outskirts…at least in terms of looks. Thankfully, I don’t have snipers lurking in the distance trying to pick me off, which is the case with the unit Aiden is in. Everyone is killed but him and a younger colleague. Aiden tries to carry him with him, but it slows him down, and he’s shot too.

Not long after the enemy arrives to finish the job, Violet’s plane appears in the air and she leaps out and soars through the sky like a missle before pulling her chute and landing. She takes out a number of the enemy troops with ease until their leader trains his gun on her.

This leader knows who she is (and what she was), and so orders his men to retreat, leaving Violet with Aiden, who is most likely a goner. After so many jobs in the lands where there is peace, this is the first time she merges her past and present worlds.

When he wakes up in a cabin, Aiden tells Violet he can’t hold out long, and would like her to write his letters immediately. With neither a typewriter nor writing pad on hand, Violet simply uses her hands to air-type the worlds Aiden is saying, which she says she’ll memorize; another heretofore unknown talent.

At first Aiden only asks her to write a letter thanking his parents and hoping that if they ever reincarnate and marry again, he would love to be their son again. Then he drops a photo of his sweetheart Maria, and Violet asks if he wants her to write her a letter as well.

When Aiden went off to war, it was before he and Maria—childhood friends—had truly started acting like a couple. He never even got to kiss her, and when he closes his eyes in these, his final hours, Maria is foremost in the imagery, smiling in the fields of their home. He tells her how happy he was she confessed, and his desire to be by her side.

Then, as Aiden starts to fade, he asks Violet to her to put her hands on his, he tells Maria he loves her, and as he kisses Maria in his mind, for the first and last time, Violet kisses him on the forehead before promising the letters will be delivered.

There are no more dealings with the war-mongering extremists, and Violet is safely taken out of the zone, but before returning home, she visits Aiden’s family to deliver the letters and his bloody kerchief in person. When she sees the anguish and grief well up in Aiden’s parents and Maria, Violet cannot hold back her own anguish, and turns to leave before she makes an undue scene. But Aiden’s mother stops her and gives her a hug.

Thinking she caused so much pain by delivering the news of Aiden’s death, Violet is taken aback when they thank her for bringing him back to them. So many other families will never know what happened to their sons, brothers, fathers who went off and never returned.

But Aiden’s family not only knows, and have closure, but they were able to read the feelings in his heart in his last moments, and know he wasn’t alone…all thanks to Violet.

No other Auto Memoir Doll could have done what she did to fulfill Aiden’s request. She suffered a horrible past as a fearless weapon, but at least in this mission, those skills served a good cause. She should take solace in that.

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