The Duke of Death and His Maid – 08 – Beauty and the Grouch

This week’s first segment introduces us to Bocchan’s younger brother Walter, and…he’s a lot. First and foremost, he’s a bit of an arrogant prick, already measuring the drapes for his ascension to head of the family. He’s also got a complex about being called the secondborn son…even though that’s what he is. His goofy antics and physical comedy aside, Walter is not a good guy. At least Viola visits her big brother and treats him like a person!

While her official stance is neutral, I imagine Viola prefers Bocchan to Walter, and hopes he’ll break the curse. During her latest visit, she meets Caph, initially assumes she’s a burglar (not a bad instinct!) and attempts to tackle her, only to bounce off her bust. Then she sits on Caph and ties her up by the fire, which is the scene Rob walks in on, much to Viola’s dismay.

While Viola is charming, cute and fun to watch, the real meat of the episode comes in the final extended segment, during which both Bocchan and Alice play a game of chess during a snowy winter night and reminisce about a similar night years ago, when Alice was appointed Bocchan’s maid. Bocchan was in a much darker, more nihilistic emotional place then, and his first instincts were to dismiss Alice and suspect she’s laughing at him on the inside.

This is because, no doubt due in part to the trauma of suffering the witch’s curse, he doesn’t remember Alice. He certainly isn’t aware of just how momentous him taking her hand and helping her off the ground meant to her at that difficult time in her life. That’s right: the kid who now kills anything he touches once essentially saved Alice’s life…with his touch.

No matter how many insults Bocchan flings Alice’s way or derides her mere presence, or tells her he flat out hates her, Alice does not bend, at least not in front of him; we see a rare moment of her vulnerability after he leaves his room and sighs. When he gives her an ultimatum of cleaning his rock starred-up room in three days or she’s fired, she does it in one night, even though she cuts up her fingers picking up shards of glass.

When Bocchan sees Alice isn’t leaving, he decides to leave instead, trudging out into a winter storm until he’s lost and freezing. It’s then that he decides it would be better to just die than continue living the joke of a life he’s endured thus far, unable to touch or be touched.

But it’s while lying in the snow that he finally remembers who Alice was. That’s when Alice arrives to help him up the way he helped her up years ago. The only difference is there’s an umbrella between their hands this time. Alice fell for Bocchan that day, and never stopped falling for him since.

The Witch told Bocchan “No one shall love you, and you shall love no one. You will live a life of misery.” But that’s no longer true once the two come in from the cold and warm themselves by the fire. Alice does love and care for Bocchan, then and always, and Bocchan soon comes to love her right back as the misery in his life gives way to that love and the joy it brings.

Could it be that ever since that snowy night, the witch’s curse has been broken all this time, except that he can only touch Alice? If Bocchan can touch Alice, could it be long before he can safely touch Viola, or Rob, or Caph and Zain, or Walter…or even his mother? Maybe it will all come down to loving and being loved. We shall see in the final third of Duke of Death and His Maid

Rating: 4/5 Stars

The Duke of Death and His Maid – 07 – Suspension Bridge Effect

Not about to be discouraged by Daleth’s insistence they give up, Alice spends much of the episode trying to find alternative methods of lifting Bocchan’s curse. She begins by procuring a second-hand witch’s cauldron complete with a book containing recipes for curse-lifting brews. Unfortunately it’s unsuccessful, but it as worth a try.

In the next segment, Alice finds some odd sheet music from a composer named MacFarlane (not Seth) who wrote the music in white ink on black paper because it looked cool, which also makes it hard to read. That said, it’s believed if you play his piece perfectly it can lift a curse, so Bocchan does just that, powering through both the distracting ghost of MacFarlane and Alice’s usual flirting. Turns out the curse that is lifted is…the curse of MacFarlane’s ghost.

When Bocchan accidentally breaks a flowerpot, he runs and hides from the wrath of Rob, and Alice tags along. While he started out the segment wanting to create the “suspension bridge effect” in her by scaring her and causing her heart to race, the fact of the matter is there’s no need to scare her. Alice’s heart is always racing when Bocchan is around, racing all the faster the closer in proximity they are. She’s long since established she’s not scared of dying, she just loves the guy.

The final sequence, which takes place after the credits, involves Bocchan and Alice sharing an Alice in Wonderland-themed dream in which they must secure the White Rabbit in order to exact a wish from Alice (the book version).

Their mission is derailed by the fact they can touch one another in the dream, with Bocchan waking up just before committing to kissing his Alice. The book Alice is mad for them totally slacking off, but Bocchan is content to fall back asleep, hoping to pick up his dream with Alice where he left off.

The Duke of Death and His Maid – 06 – Knight in a Top Hat

By introducing the overgrown conservatory this week the show finally acknowledges that it’s hella hard to maintain a vast mansion with just two servants, one of whom has a bad back! But should Bocchan never lift his curse and his younger brother becomes the head of the family, he always has a lucrative future in landscaping, as his curse becomes an effective brush-clearing blessing.

After losing himself a bit in the satisfaction of clearing away all the excess greenery, Bocchan checks in on Alice to find her admiring some purple flowers. Rather than wither them, he manages to dry them and make a charming garland headpiece for Alice, who promises to treasure it along with the rose he gave her. If you can’t touch the one you love, at least make yourself useful!

One night, Bocchan can’t sleep and hears Alice call out. He inadvertently catches her naked, and she puts on a towel reports that a black cat has run off with her dressing gown. Bocchan gallantly offers to track down the cat and retrieve the gown, but Alice accompanies him. I mean, I know Bocchan wasn’t going to accidentally murder the cat, but there’s still that edge to his interactions, especially with animals that move unpredictably.

With Alice donning Bocchan’s coat so she won’t catch a chill (and absolutely loving the opportunity to smell his scent), the two eventually find the cat, and discover the gown is not in recoverable shape. Since the cat took it to make a warm nest for her litter of kittens, neither Alice nor Bocchan feel that bad about letting the gown go. As Alice demonstrated earlier in the episode, she has a pretty extensive wardrobe.

After these two cute little “home” segments during which Alice and Bocchan putter around the mansion, we get to the meat of the episode: the long-awaited Witches’ Sabbath. Caph and Zain arrive, repurpose a mirror in a storeroom into a portal to the meeting spot, and give Bocchan and Alice robes that will mask their scent so the witches won’t, ya know, murder them or feed them to their carnivorous plant.

As soon as they arrive, Bocchan is on edge; while there are some witches with human form (and who are dressed like they’re ready for the club/beach/beach club) there are many more witches who appear to Bocchan to be nothing but monsters. While the sheltered Bocchan shouldn’t be judging books by their covers, since he’s been judged by his curse for most of his life I suppose it’s easy for the pot to call the kettle black.

The witches’ leader, Daleth, runs the Sabbath like high school homeroom, with the stand-and-bow, roll call, and mundane announcements. It’s actually pretty funny how laid back it all this, especially considering how wound-up Bocchan got; he intended to bring along a suitcase full of weapons, but Caph burned it to ash.

Alice actually already crossed paths with the skull-masked Daleth when she and Bocchan went on their little town date, and Daleth recognizes her too, seeing right past her and Bocchan’s frankly half-assed disguises. She also happens to know—and hate the fucking guts of—the witch who gave Bocchan his curse. The bad news? That witch is dead, and even Daleth has no idea how to lift the curse.

She recommends Bocchan give up now rather than later for his sake. When he protests, she deems the conversation over, then covers her withdrawal by burning away Bocchan’s robe. With his human stench exposed, the witches chase him en masse.

When the club/beach chicks sic their carnivorous plant on Alice, Bocchan need only touch one of the tendrils to kil the whole damn thing. Still, Alice does not understate the fact that Bocchan risked his life to save hers, doubtless causing her love for him to only grow.

Bocchan, Alice, Caph, and Zain make it back to their mirror portal, which closes before any of the witches can press their pursuit. After a short stint in a most magical and whimsical land, they’re back in the relative normalcy of Bocchan’s huge mansion. Bocchan isn’t about to let himself be discouraged by Daleth’s words, and continuing to believe there is a way to break the curse is crucial to breaking it.

As for Caph and Zain, he thanks them profusely for all of their help. Caph again explains that seeing him go all out inspired her to take a chance with a human, and she didn’t regret it. She assures him that the next time she and Zain return to his mansion, it will be as friends, not merely magical facilitators. As for the curse, well…who’s to say it’ll take a witch to break it?

The aquatope on white sand – 03 – First penguin

“Time not important. Only life important.”—Mondoshawan Caretaker, The Fifth Element

Before waking up for another busy day juggling school and thre directorship, Kukuru dreams of when her parents took her to the Gama Gama and she got to name her first penguin, Choko. He’s still with the aquarium fifteen years later, and was the first one in line when Fuuka’s doomed feeding session. Fortunately, she’s a lot better at feeding Choko here.

Besides being a surpassingly good boy, Choko, like the aquarium, is one of the ways Kukuru connects to her folks, who passed away not long after the aquarium visit in her dream. Fuuka learns this from Kukuru’s childhood friend Kai, who genuinely respects how hard Kukuru is working and wants to help in any way he can. Like Choko, Kai is also a good boy.

When Kukuru notices sores on Choko’s legs, she uses her authority as summer director to summon the vet Takeshita (Hanazawa Kana), who is on maternity leave and very pregnant, but also happy to stop by and examine the penguins.

But then, while at the aquarium, her water breaks. Kukuru initially panics, but when Kuuya addresses her by her position as acting director she slaps her cheeks, gets a grip, and makes Takeshita comfortable until a car (Karin’s) can arrive to take her to the maternity home.

While Kukuru and Fuuka are tending to her, Takeshita has a dream, not that dissimilar from the one Fuuka had that led her to want to get a job there. After Kukuru repeats what Takeshita once told her—that Gama Gama is a place where all life is protected, both aquatic and human—the aquarium seems to envelop the vet in its tranquil, watery bosom.

She sees the deity Kujimunaa playing with the image of her about-to-be-born son, who then swims down to hug her and tell her she’s about to meet him. It’s just such a moving, beautiful, and heart-swelling scene; one that demonstrates the true power behind what Kukuru is desperately trying to protect.

In this regard, Kukuru is like Choko: the “First Penguin” to dive into uncertain waters and have a positive effect on those around them. Those who either love the aquarium, or Kukuru, or both can’t help but want to give their all in trying to help Kukuru rescue Gama Gama.

And when Kuuya points out that the penguin keychain that catches Fuuka’s eye in the gift shop was made by Kukuru, she buys one for herself. After the two visit Takeshita and her healthy baby boy, Kukuru notices Fuuka has one of her keychains, it cheers her up after the bittersweet visit when the presence of a new mother in Takeshita reminded Kukuru that hers is gone.

Kukuru’s visit to Takeshita was also instructive, as she learned more about the “maternity handbooks” she found. They’re given to expectant mothers, meaning the ones Kukuru found were her mother’s. One bore her name, but the other was blank. I’m still not sure where this thread is going, as Kukuru confirms she’s never been pregnant, but the theme of maternity is certainly a rare and intriguing one for a slice of life anime.

Fruits Basket – 54 – Coming Home

After a cryptic cold open in which Akito shows Kureno a black box presumably containing her father’s remains, we shift to Yuki asking Hatsuharu about Rin. Haru doesn’t know any of the details, but was unaware Rin had become close with Tooru, and gleams with pride. He tells Yuki to thank Tooru, and “if it all goes wrong”, to comfort her.

Kisa and Hiro, who are both taller now, head to Hiro’s house so Kisa can meet lil’ Hinata. Hiro admits that whenever he sees Hinata, he thinks of how stupid he is to always be wrapped up in his vanity and fear. He wants to be a brother who can protect her. That’s why even when he bumps into Haru to ruin the mood, Hiro is intent on apologizing to Kisa, since it was his fault Akito hit her.

He tells Haru that Akito pushed Rin off the balcony, but Akito and Rin both told him to keep his mouth shut. He also knows Rin is trying to break the Zodiac curse, which is why she left Haru—to shield him from whatever consequences she’d face. And as Haru tells these truths to lighten his heart, Kureno spots a maid delivering food to the Cat’s cottage, demands the key, and discovers a starving Rin imprisoned there.

The lovely, innocent exchange between Hiro and Kisa is a preemptive balm for the harsh events that follow in this episode. This is an episode full of beautiful and terrible moments. As soon as he takes his leave of Hiro and Kisa, Haru becomes Dark Haru, and storms right into Akito’s rooms to confront him*—decorum be damned.

*While we, Kureno, Shigure, and Tooru know the truth about Akito’s biological sex, Haru is one of the Zodiac members still in the dark, hence the male pronouns I use for Akito when interacting with Haru.

We’re reminded how scary Hatsuharu can be when he’s pissed off, and he has every right to be, especially when Akito denies he pushed Rin off the balcony and pretends not to know where she is now. Haru is about to get violent with him when Kureno comes in and tells Haru that Rin is in the hospital under Hatori’s care.

Then Kureno scolds Akito for doing something so monstrously cruel. He may have vowed to remain by her side forever, but he didn’t say anything about standing by and letting her pull this kind of shit. For all the shading we’ve gotten into Akito’s own background and trauma, she continues to sabotage any chance of sympathy by being so goddamn villainous.

When Akito’s demeanor changes and he tries to play the victim of Kureno’s betrayal, Haru violently grabs him, but Akito is ready with the gaslighting, saying it’s Haru’s fault Rin is suffering; he dug her grave when he decided to fall in love with her, knowing full well how Akito would react.

Akito tries to turn Haru’s love for Rin against him, into a defect that rendered him worthless when he felt Rin needed him most. And it works—at least at first, as Haru punches the wall instead of Akito, and warns him not to say anything else lest he kill him and then himself.

As he storms off, Kureno urges him never to return there, but instead to go to the hospital to see Rin, who surely wants to see him more than anything. While she was malnourished and barely conscious when Kureno found her, Rin’s first word was “Haru.” Upon hearing that, the rope representing the curse binding Haru with Akito begins to fray.

Rin, meanwhile, ends up escaping from her hospital room, as is her habit, lamenting that she has “no home to go to” anymore. She wanders the streets barefoot and frail, remembering how she ended up in the cat prison in the first place. While sneaking around the Souma compound, Rin was caught by Ren, who agreed to tell her the secret to breaking the curse if she retrieved a “treasure” from Akito’s room: the box Akito called “father.”

Rin is caught red-handed by Akito, her hair is roughly snipped off, and she’s thrown into the Cat’s cottage to rot. As for Ren? She never knew the cure to the curse, and was only using Rin, whom she always dispised. Last week didn’t show us a short-haired Rin; it was Akito with those scissors. Akito warns Rin to go into exile or Haru will lose his eyesight. Rin decides to stay in the prison and waste away, deeming herself “no good” for failing to find the secret to Haru’s happiness—i.e. the cure for the curse.

In her delirious state Rin believes she’s still imprisoned, and wishes that if she’s going to die, that at least her final dream will be of her beloved Haru, spoiling her with his kindness. She gets her wish, except that it’s not a dream: he finally found her collapsed on the sidewalk. Haru was always Rin’s true home—and vice versa—so when she “returns” from her long journey, it’s only appropriate that he say “Welcome Home.” He needs her to come home to him, or it’ll be too lonely to bear.

He scoops her up (she can’t weigh more than 90 pounds). She protests, saying she can walk on her own, but he refuses to let her go, not when he came so close to losing her! When he saw her on the ground years ago, he did nothing, but now he’s older, and wiser, and stronger, and loves her so much more, so no matter how many times she needs to be carried, it would never be a burden for him.

As two random elementary school kids gawk at the powerful, adorable romantic scene unfolding before them, Rin says “I’m home”, and she and Haru embrace tightly as one, her long journey finally at an end. Thank God. Not Akito though…a better god!

RABUJOI WORLD HERITAGE LIST

SSSS.Dynazenon – 04 – Dyna Dizzy Fever Day

Wrested from her previously stagnant state by her new Dyna-duties and co-pilot comrades, Yume commences her investigation into her sister Kano in earnest. She meets with a member of the chorus club during Dyna-training, and Yomogi is distracted because he’s developed a little thing for her.

His boss Inamoto teases him about it, while that same Inamoto reaches out to Koyomi for dinner. Yume and Mei lie on the Karaoke couches cheek to cheek, posed like stylish Monogatari characters but simply living their ordinary lives and basking in their deep friendship. I like how we see parts of Yume with Mei we see nowhere else. But Mei can tell Yume has changed, and wants to know what caused it.

Compounding Yomogi’s sudden heartsickness is a steadily developing cold, as well as one of the Eugenicists—the pretty boy Shizumu—enrolled in their class as an “exchange student” and is give the seat right behind Yume. However, like Juuga, he’s not looking for a fight; rather trying to get a read on Gauma’s new co-pilots. Gauma attacks Shizumu on school campus, which gets him fired from his job.

The next day, Cardcaptor Sakura Yomogi’s fever worsens and his mom deems him unfit for school. When he doesn’t show for training, Gauma sends Yume to check on him, unwittingly bestowing upon Yomogi a great gift: having the girl he likes visit him when he’s sick. A warm, cozy, earnest little scene between Yomogi and Yume follows, in which Yomogi realizes he doesn’t know Yume that well at all, but wants to.

Meanwhile, the sole female Eugenicist Mujina takes command of a new Kaiju with a very Kaiju-power: it can change objects from three to two dimensions, rendering them inert in the three-dimensional world. I like to think there’s a little symbolic parallel between that ability and Yomogi’s skin-deep understanding of Yume, but there’s a more pressing matter: Dynazenon can’t combine without Soldier.

Yume takes Yomogi’s Soldier toy and joins Gauma and Koyomi in battle. Unbeknownst to Koyomi, Chise stowed away his Striker, and when Yume arrives she volunteers to pilot Soldier. All the while the ill Yomogi looks left out and lonely, especially knowing Yume will be meeting with another chorus club member…this time a guy.

Chise’s avid video game skills serve her well at first, but she’s soon overwhelmed as she just doesn’t have the same rapport with Soldier as Yomogi, who calls Yume to get a progress report. Things aren’t good, so Yume has to fly back to Yomogi and pick him up, fever and all. Even if he feels like shit physically, he’s gotta feel good she came back for him.

Yomogi, all coughs, sniffles, and sneezes, joins the others and they combine into Dragon Dynazenon to soften the kaiju up, then upgrades to Super Dragon Dyna Rex for the coup-de-grace. It’s another loss for the Eugenicists, but other than Onija none of them are that miffed about it, probably because they gained more info on Dynazenon.

Chise apologizes to Yomogi and promises to train to become a better backup Soldier pilot, which Yomogi says isn’t necessary. I’d honestly wondered why Chise alone didn’t have a Dyna-toy to pilot, and I’m still not quite sure she’s not hiding something big. But while it’s fun to theorize on what twists are yet to come, it’s honestly just as good to watch Yomogi and Yume’s delicate dance as it unfolds onscreen.

While Yume is giving him a ride home in Wing, Yomogi asks if he can come with her when she meets the chorus guy. Notably she doesn’t respond by asking why he’d want to, but says “sure” first, then asks “but why”. Yomogi says it’s because we wants to know more about her, but unfortunately she sneezes just as he’s saying it, and he’s too bashful to repeat it.

Sure enough, Yume is absent for the next Dyna-training session, as she’s caught Yomogi’s cold, and we’re treated to a parting sight of her curled up under thick covers, her face surrounded by all manner of stuffed animals. As crazy and otherworldly as the Dyna/Kaiju battles get, SSSS always returns to the familiar and relatable realism of the characters and the lived-in places they inhabit. It continues to be an irresistible combination, impeccably produced by Trigger.

Rating: 4/5 Stars

SSSS.Dynazenon – 03 – Helping People In Need

Onija, the fiery member of the Eugenicists, gets into a yelling match with Gauma, calling him a traitor and ready to kill him. The only problem, as the level-headed Juuga (a calm Kamiya Hiroshi) points out, is they have no kaiju with which to fight Dynazenon, so they’d better just split for now. But it’s clear there’s bad blood between them, and Gauma’s human co-pilots want to know what led to the rift.

In the meantime, Yomogi attempts to practice in his Dyna Soldier, and then he and Yume actually hang out during school. Specifically, they go to the chorus club advisor asking about her sister Kano, who she tells Yomogi died five years ago, just before the first recital she ever invited her to.

Yume and her sister didn’t speak much. Koyomi then runs into a classmate from middle school he once watched breaking school windows; now she’s married…and Yomogi’s boss, who gives him her contact info. Little by little, we’re being presented with bits and pieces of the Dyna-pilots’ pasts. Do their connections to each other predate their current collab?

Perhaps most mysterious is what is up with Gauma and the Eugenicists. Juuga takes the step of meeting with Yomogi after school—not to threaten, like his hotheaded comrade, but to answer what questions he can. Yomogi learns that Gauma was someone Juuga and the others looked up to 5,000 years ago, but at some point Gauma betrayed them and they all died.

Now they’ve revived…for some reason. As for how and why Gauma betrayed his kohais, he’s tight-lipped as the co-pilots visit him under the bridge, eating tiny river crabs. The next day, a new kaiju appears, and Onija uses the Vulcan Salute to activate it.

When the Dyna-pilots learn of the new kaiju sighting, they all answer the call, but remain frustrated with Gauma’s silence. When it’s clear they won’t be able to defeat Onija’s explosive-lobbing kaiju without combining, they insist he give them something so they can trust him enough to combine.

Gauma gives in, telling them he wants to meet someone, and believes he was given the power to operate Dynazenon so that he could find that person in this era. When he affirms that this “someone” is a woman, everyone understands, and are sufficiently satisfied that the combination can proceed.

The combined Dynazenon grabs the kaiju and launches it into space, where its explosion attacks won’t work in a vacuum (while proving that this world has significant differences from Akane’s “world” in Gridman). Dynazenon launches all its weapons, which apparently work just fine in space. The kaiju is blasted to pieces, one of which gets through the atmosphere and knocks Onija off his electrical pylon. But while it sure looked like he was killed, he’s actually fine.

“Kaiju defy common sense,” says Gauma. They make the impossible possible. All the pilots need to confirm this is the fact they’re floating in space. But to Yume, it means something more. If the person Gauma wants to meet revived, maybe her sister can be revived too?

Rating: 4/5 Stars

SSSS.Dynazenon – 02 – What Are We Now?

The first of many wonderful decisions made in this exquisitely directed and impeccably detailed second episode is that we catch a second look at the end of last week’s kaiju battle from Yomogi’s POV. It’s great to see this confused ordinary kid simply along for the ride as Dynazenon leaps, flies, and takes its opponent down.

After that, the dino-mecha vanishes, or rather reverts to its resting form of four toys distributed among the three new co-pilots by Gauma. When Yomogi says he didn’t even do anything, Gauma says it’s possibly Dynazenon recognized his innate aptitude.

Then immediately goes back to what he was doing before the attack: castigating Yume for standing Yomogi up, leading Yomogi to ask for calm. Gauma goes on to say a group called the Kaiju Eugenicists controlled the kaiju, and they’ll be back, so the group has to train. Everyone agrees to meet up tomorrow…even Yume.

The next day at school and in Koyomi’s room, everything seemingly reverts back to normal, except for the compression of classes due to the kaiju attack. Yomogi’s friends want him to hang, but he has work. Chise points out to Koyomi that if he’s a robot co-pilot then that means he’s technically employed.

After school Yume gets a piggyback ride from her best friend Mei on a grassy hill near the flood gate. We’ve never seen her so outwardly joyful, laughing until she’s out of breath before heading to training session, this time keeping her word. Mei, a photog, notices this sudden change in Yume’s attitude and snaps some gorgeous candid shots of her as she parts.

Yomogi, who’d classically be the one most “into” this new kaiju-punching mecha scenario, has to work instead, missing the first training session. When his manager what happened on his date, he says “way too much” happened, though none of it “erotically”. He then goes home for a soak and is shocked when Gauma comes in to join him in a far-too-cramped tub.

There’s a lovely juxtaposition between Yomogi and Gauma’s bath and Yume’s. Yomogi was thinking about what having “aptitude” for Dynazenon means, while Yume is thinking about apologizing to Yomogi. Her parents are arguing on the other side of Yume’s bathroom door, one instance of many of Dynazenon’s elite sound design.

From the tinny sound of voices on radio or TV, voices muffled through walls, far away, close up, outside and on the train, we hear voices in Dynazenon just like we do in real life. Also adding to the immersive realism are the extremely lived-in interiors. Like Gauma, we feel like an honored guest in the cozy, realistically cluttered home Yomogi shares with his mom and aging granny.

It’s also clear from this scene why Yomogi is working so much he’s missing all of Gauma’s training sessions: with no siblings or father, now that he’s old enough to work he wants to help support his family as much as he can. As odd as Gauma is, he still seems to get this, and isn’t hard on Yomogi’s choice to skip training for work.

But as we’re introduced to four suspicious figures near a wrecked station, he won’t be able to ignore his Dyna-duties for long. Yume tracks him down and decides to give him a one-on-one lesson on how to access his Dyna-vehicle. She starts by accessing hers: the aerial Dyna Wing, and he accesses Dyna Soldier. Then she merges with him, giving his robot the ability to fly and giving her robot arms and legs with which to fight.

The two combine quickly and without any fanfare, but it still feels like an intimate act, and it was foreshadowed by Yume piggyback riding on Mei’s back. Now she’s piggybacking on Yomogi, and their maiden flight together results in a very sweet and simple conciliatory talk from 40,000 feet travelling at mach 0.8.

Yume is sorry, and Yomogi isn’t mad. Yomogi asked “What are we now?”, referring to their combined Wing/Soldier form. But you could just as easily answer that “what they are now” … is friends. They were able to bridge the distance between them and start fresh…all thanks to robots.

In a very slick transition, their combined “Dyna Wing Soldier” flies behind a building as the camera pans down, and once we’re at ground level we see Yume and Yomogi walking together. They visit the collateral damage the kaiju battle caused, which distresses Yomogi, but Yume assures him it would have been far worse had they not fought and defeated the kaiju. In light of the mess they made, Yomogi wonders if they should hand off their Dyna duties to someone else—perhaps someone older or more experience.

Yume’s response is instructive: If you always go by the book, there are things you can’t protect. On the train home, Yume opens up to him about how her sister died, in an accident, at the flood gate where she spends so much time. It’s another momentous moment presented with sublime mundaneness. Kudos again to the sound design, as you can hear her voice bouncing off the metal walls of the train.

Just like that, smash cut to the kaiju of the week – initially so unassuming, taking up a tiny portion of the frame as it lurks under an overpass. Then Yuuga, one of the four too-cool-for-school “Bad Guy” kaiju users in marching band uniforms (a Trigger trademark) is chosen by the others to take command, and the kaiju grows to immense size.

The psychedelic kaiju starts leveling city blocks when Dynazenon arrives, just as Yuuga & Co. predicted. Only as expected, this second kaiju is a lot trickier than the first. One can’t just punch it, because it can freakin’ teleport. Yuuga uses this ability to great effect by kicking the shit out of the comparatively sluggish Dynazenon while dodging all it’s counterattacks.

Gauma decides to audible “Disperse!”, and the four Dyna parts split, giving their opponent four targets. The only problem is, without any training Yomogi has no idea how to move his Soldier Dyna on its own, and as he wrestles with the controls his sitting duck Dyna’s arms flail around comically. If that wasn’t enough, his manager calls him from work, a fun instance of his normal life interrupting his new kaiju-bustin’ one.

When the enemy kaiju accelerates its destructo-beams and buildings start to crumble, Yomogi spots a bus full of innocent people in harm’s way, and realizes that whether he’s confident in his abilities or not, he wants to protect them. Yume suggests they do what they did before and piggyback into Dyna Soldier, and with Yume’s added agility is able to destroy the fragile wings the kaiju was using to teleport.

After that, he and Yume launch the kaiju high into the sky, where Gauma is able to finish it off with his Dyna Launcher Burst Missile. Team Dynazenon is now 2-for-2, with Dyna-teamwork making the Dyna-dream work. As they exit their robots and bask in their latest victory, Yomogi asks if Yume was close to her sister. She says they didn’t get along well, but admits that now she’s not so sure anymore.

Just as their regular lives are portrayed so simply and realistically with both sights and sounds, there’s a similar realism to the feelings Yume and Yomogi expressed here. There’s nothing over-the-top or melodramatic about their exchanges. Instead, they’re becoming closer little by little, at their own pace.

Unfortunately the pace of battles is likely to heat up, as the enemy kaiju users Gauma identifies as the “Kaiju Eugenicists” are steaming over their latest defeat. Our ragtag gang of good-hearted souls want to keep protecting what they can, they’ll need to step up their Dyna-battle game, ’cause these drum majors look serious, and the gloves are coming off.

Kemono Jihen – 06 – Raiding the Pantry

As he tries to hide from the stunned kononba sister, the fear grips Shiki. He recalls little from his earlier life except that he lived happily with his mom, and at some point he didn’t. But when Kanabe contacts him, having easily taken care of one of the other sisters, and offers him words of encouragement, Shiki snaps out of it and gets to work.

When the kononba uses her super-sensitive detection ability, Shiki ensures she senses him everywhere, as he’s distributed his spider webbing and sweat all over the hallway. Essentially blinded by her own heightened perception, the sister ends up getting stuck in the webs, and Shiki delivers a satisfying kick to the face.

Kabane and Akira reunite with Shiki, and the sister Kabane captured is also restrained in his webs. That’s when the lead sister appears, and offers to let the kids go if they forget all this. When Kabane refuses (he has a job to do) she sucks the brains and organs out of her two sisters without a second thought and attacks him.

Proving too strong for him to overpower, Kabane’s mind races; if he can’t beat this monster, Shiki and Akira will surely be killed. He doesn’t want that. Mihai offers a bit of free advice, which is nice considering he got the kids in this mess to begin with: Kabane is only using his human strength; to defeat the monster he’ll have to summon instinctual power from his other half, which he accesses via his heart.

It works, and he tears the sister’s arms off, just as Inugami frees himself from Mihai’s room. He orders the kids to retreat and let Inari take care of the rest. Sure enough, Inari’s shiny new attendant Nobimaru arrives to do just that.

Nobimaru, another kitsune (technically a bake-gitsune) burns the three kononba sisters so there is no evidence of monsters for humans could discover. Kabane doesn’t like the idea of pretending the foes never existed, but doesn’t protest enough to stop Nobimaru (if he even could; for all we know he’s much stronger than Kon).

Nobimaru lets Kabane in on a couple of secrets: first, Inari hasn’t given up on stealing his lifestone, so he needs to watch himself. Especially if he ends up sufficiently manipulated (say, one of his friends is put in danger) to willingly offer it to Inaru, Inugami won’t interfere. He has to not only hold on to it tight, but not get tricked. His other secret? He really doesn’t like Inari. That’s interesting, because Kon basically regarded her as a deity.

Back at the agency, Mihai half-apologizes for his role in putting the ids in danger, but qualifies it by making the point that they won’t get stronger if Inugami only gives them easy missions. Even Akira agrees with that point, as he learned that he can’t make ice without water. He should keep some on him at all times, like Avatar’s Kitara. That night, Kabane compares the heartbeats of a sleeping Shiki and Akira and is glad they’re alive.

The next day Shiki is fine, but Kabane is still watching him like a mother hen. Then it dawn on Kabane: he completely forgot about poor Kon. He rushes back to the part, and Kon falls ungracefully out of the tree to greet him. Kabane doesn’t mince words even when he should, telling Kon that other things came up and he simply forgot about her. And after she’d caught a pair of koi for them to eat together…POOR KON!

Kabane is sure to continue his friendship with Kon, even though Nobimaru says from afar that it’s not wise. As for Shiki, his ordeal at Bugbite has psychologically prepared him to hear what he wasn’t ready to hear before: what became of his family.

Rating: 4/5 Stars

Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba – 13 – Poetry in Motion

It was the previous episode combined with this one that I first started to notice Demon Slayer starting to develop some pacing issues. Yes, Kyogai’s (the name of the tsuzumi demon) ability to spin and change the rooms of the mansion Inception-style and launch fatal slashes is pretty cool…at first.

Then it simply goes on too long. Kyogai drums, Tanjirou is thrown around and gets frustrated, rinse, repeat. This episode tries to break up the repetition with a trip back to Kyogai’s past when he was still a human, and attempts to explain why he went bad: his editor/publisher thought the stories he wrote stunk. The anguish of failure curdled into hatred and Mr. Literary Critic was Kyogai’s first victim.

When psyching himself up doesn’t work, Tanjirou uses his nose and realizes that he needs to whip out a Water Breathing Form to get this guy, but first he asks him his name. There’s a lingering question of how much of Kyogai’s humanity is left, because he clearly reacts to Tanjirou not trampling on his pages as a sign the kid acknowledges his writing.

Before Tanjirou decapitates Kyogai, he also praises Kyogai’s Demon Art Form as pretty incredible, which it is, even if it’s a bit one-note. In fact, had Tanjirou not been suffering broken bones from his last battle, it feels like their stalemate would have gone on indefinitely. Instead, as Kyogai’s head slowly dissolves, he takes comfort that the opponent who defeated him finally recognized his dual passions of writing and drums.

When Tanjirou emerges from the house with two of the three kids, he finds Zenitsu shielding Nezuko’s box with his body as the boar-headed guy absolutely wails on him. It marks the second-straight episode where my opinion of the orange scaredy-cat has improved, as Zenitsu remembers Tanjirou saying the box’s contents are “more important than my life”, and protects them accordingly without hesitation, trusting in his new friend.

Zenitsu can hear things few people can, in the same way Tanjirou smells things others can’t. He could hear there was a demon in the box from the start, but could also hear such “kind” sounds emanating from Tanjirou, he felt he could trust him to explain what was in it if he asked.

Unfortunately, the scene of Tanjirou emerging from the house to find Zenitsu being beaten is repeated for no apparent reason, other than perhaps to pad out the run time. We watch Tanjirou react, then jump back to a few minutes ago when Zenitsu and the third kid ended up outside, then boar-man appears, then we watch Tanjirou react again. Finally, when Tanjirou decides to stop boar-man’s assault, his charge is almost comically drawn out, as that action ends up taking us to the credits.

Considering the promo art, OP and ED make it quite clear the boar-man will become a member of the “gang”, it seems odd to keep up the charade that he’s a “bad guy” for yet another episode. Had Kyogai’s backstory/demise and the scene with the two siblings throwing things at Tanjirou been tightened up a bit, there could have been more time at the end for Tanjirou to engage with the boar-man. Just some odd, clunky choices.

Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba – 01 (First Impressions) – A Spark in the Gloom

When the immensely popular and critically acclaimed ufotable series Demon Slayer aired between April and September of 2019…I missed out. Being highly susceptible to FOMO, when it first appeared on my Netflix home screen, I decided to dive in, buoyed by going back and catching up on the currently airing Jujutsu Kaisen.

With the first episode in the bag, I can confidently say that this is right up my alley, and I really should have cracked it open back in Spring 19. In my defence, back then I was busy watching the excellent Dororo reboot, Part 2 of Attack on Titan’s third season, and the second cour of the promising Rising of the Shield Hero, so I wasn’t just twiddling my thumbs.

That said, I’m glad I went back to check this out. While the number of characters and storylines are sure to balloon before long, I loved how simple it starts out: a boy carrying a wounded girl through a bleak wintry forest. I can’t stress that “bleak” part enough—once Kamado Tanjirou returns home to find his entire family slaughtered but one sister, I couldn’t help feel like we were entering Grave of the Fireflies territory.

I won’t spoil Grave for those who haven’t seen it; suffice it to say it’s by far the darkest and bleakest Ghibli film and one of the saddest films ever, and things don’t end well for its pair of siblings. Demon Slayer differs in that while Tanjirou and Nezuko suffer horrendous tragedy, the opening episode ends with a spark of hope that breaks through the unyielding cold.

Granted, that hope is a spark and only a spark, made possible by a titular demon slayer named Tomioka Giyuu staying his hand when it comes time to execute Nezuko. Did I mention demon blood got into her wounds, thus transforming her into a demon? Well, that’s the sitch, because it wasn’t enough that Tenjirou lose his mother and other siblings.

While this could easily have descended into tragedy porn, there’s a sense that things can’t get any worse, and that it’s always darkest before the dawn (though Tenjirou is warned to keep Nezuko out of direct sunlight). That fact is reflected in the stunningly gorgeous wintry mountain landscape, which at least started out bright and cheerful before the clouds amassed.

Tomioka admits he shares part of the blame for Tenjirou’s plight; if he’d arrived a few hours earlier he could have stopped the demons before they attacked. But he didn’t get where he is today by dwelling on the past. What keeps him from killing Nezuko is that despite most likely starving for human flesh, rather than eat her knocked-out brother, she shields him from Tomioka. Instead he places some kind of pacifier in her mouth that seems to calm her (and give her a very cute surprised expression).

So the story so far is simple and familiar: kid loses almost everything, and seeks to find and kill (or…slay) the demons responsible, and save his sister. Naturally, he’ll need to become stronger to do that, and Tomioka tells him to head to Mt. Sagiri to find a man named Urokodaki Sakonji.

ufotable, renowned for its action sequences, wows with the landscapes first, but is no slouch when it comes to the showdown with Tomioka and the Kamado siblings. The action is beautiful and precise, but not overly flashy or show-offy. Tomioka is so quick it’s as if he can teleport. Tenjirou is a lot more clumsy in his movements, as befits his desperate mood, while the demonic Nezuko is both beast-like and balletic in her strikes, leaps and lunges.

All in all, Demon Slayer is off to a stirring, enticing start, front-loading the tragedy but also presenting its hero with a chance to claw back from the brink and salvage what remains of his shattered life. I’m glad Tenjirou isn’t left all alone, and while Nezuko is a demon, and that sucks, there seems to be enough of her left that she’s not an immediate threat to him. As their quest begins, so does my quest to cover it. Better a bit late than never, eh?

Hortensia Saga – 02 – The Girl Who Cried Werewolf

While Alfred is on monster patrol with Maurice, Marius is helping carry flowers for Nonnoria, who visits the Albert family grave to pay her respects to those who took her in when she was orphaned. Marius looks back four years ago to the dreadful night she lost everything she had, when Maurice told her she’d have to cut her hair and live under an assumed identity “until the time came” to reclaim her kingdom.

When talk of Magonia (complete with flying cities and fantastical beasts) comes up—specifically, a shapeshifting  monster that dwells in the nearby Tron Cavern—young Conny desperately wants to see and prove his skeptical big sis wrong. The next day, just after Alfred, Marius, and Maurice head to the cavern to investigate, Conny’s mom arrives at the Albert’s door. Sure enough, the little scamp went off on his own.

Even though help is on the way, Tron is a veritable labyrinth, so Nonnoria fills her knapsack with a ridiculous amount of supplies and heads out without a second thought with Qoo (basically a Moogle), showing what she’s truly made of even though she’s otherwise a complete space cadet. She finds Conny before the others, but they’re still lost, and then get chased by goblins.

Nonnoria huddles against the cavern wall with Conny and Qoo, hoping Alfred will make it in time to save them just as he saved her before from a wolf. He does, with Marius and Maurice close behind. Then they notice a blue light that leads them to a moonlit spring. There, the beast makes its appearance, in a form identical to the werewolf that killed both of their fathers.

Ever since hearing the Tron monster could take the form of a wolf, Marius has been uneasy, but once she sees it, she freezes in terror, as if being transported four years into the past to the night she could do nothing but watch in horror as her life was taken away.

As Alfred fights the werewolf, Marius retreats, slips, and falls into the spring, and she relives more memories of the night Maurice whisked her out of the capital to the Albert Dominion. Maurice is aided by an even grizzlier Sir Balthazar, who warns him the Pope may be in cahoots with Camelia to install Prince Charlot as a puppet king.

While Princess Mariel wants to stay and protect her little brother, the fact is neither she nor her remaining allies are strong enough to stop the coup that has unfolded. The only thing for it is to disappear until the time is right. When she arrives at Albert’s lands, she finds kinship in Alfred’s grief for his lost father. When she comes to in the cavern, Alfred has fished her out of the spring.

It turns out the “werewolf” was only an impostor, as the cavern monster takes the form of the thing you hate most. Alfred assumes he provided the werewolf template, and Marius isn’t able to tell him her father was killed by the same monster at nearly the same time.

They head home, Conny is reunited with his family, and Alfred scolds Nonnoria and Qoo for racing into danger. Marius’ last memory is of cutting her hair with a dagger, which not only marked a profound turning of a page in her life, but in the present represents her willingness to turn the page from those horrible memories and re-fix her gaze on the more important present and future.

I once again enjoyed this episode, which was absolutely fine, if not particularly original. In fact, I liked it a bit more than the premiere, which to its credit had more narrative lifting to do out of the gate. Conny requiring rescue was hilariously telegraphed from a country mile away, but Nonnoria going into Battle Maid Mode was unexpected, and I came away actually liking her in spite of her deeply annoying voice and extra-ness. If nothing else, she can really spin a knife.

As for the romance angle, Alfred had no idea he was carrying a girl on piggyback. Who knows when he’ll learn the truth, but I hope it’s sooner rather than later in the 12-episode run—and not because he walks in on her or something. If there’s anyone in the world she could trust to tell, it’s him.

Hortensia Saga – 01 (First Impressions) – A Glimmer of Hope in an Age of Turmoil

What have we here….an un-ironic, non-isekai, no-nonsense Euro-style medieval fantasy epic? Welcome to Hortensia Saga, which plunges us right into the thick of an attempted coup…what odd timing

One of the king’s loyalist retainers transforms into a giant werewolf and kills him right before his daughter’s eyes, and then goes on to kill one of his baddest-ass knights, Fernando Ober (or Albert, depending on the subs).

The late Fernando’s brother Maurice Bauldelaire (Hi, Tsuda Kenjirou!) arrives at the Ober estate to tell his nephew Alfred the news that his father is dead, making Alfred the new Lord of Ober.

Maurice also rescued the adorable Princess Mariel, who cut her hair short and poses as a young lad named Marius whom Alfred takes under his wing as his squire. That’s fine with Mariel, who wants to become stronger so she can protect those she cares about.

Marius and Lord Alfred were brought together by shared tragedy and grief and become fast friends. If Alfred is aware Marius is actually a princess in disguise, he never mentions it, even after four years pass and she becomes his trusty squire. That’s a helluva time jump, and I kinda wish a little more time was spent on developing their friendship, but alas, this saga has a lot of ground to cover.

In those four years both were trained by Maurice and feel ready for their first real battle against the forces of Camelia (the retainers who betrayed the Hortensian crown). It doesn’t go particularly great, as their allies were pre-slaughtered and both youngins have to be saved by Maurice, but the two had each other’s backs, didn’t give up, and escaped with their lives, so call it a learning experience.

Marius is sufficiently injured that she doesn’t wake up for days, but when she does, Ober’s maid Nonnoria (Ueda Reina, pushing a bit too hard) is there to welcome her back to the land of the awake.

Marius joins a discouraged Alfred at his family grave where they met four years ago, Alfred declares his resolve to become much stronger, and Marius declares she’ll become stronger right beside him. The one thing they can’t do is give up hope. Little does Al know his squire is a girl and the heir to the kingdom he serves!

I was ready to pass on Hortensia when its opening sequence involved a hefty helping of lazy CGI extras, and featured characters who weren’t that much better designed or animated. If you’re going to go as arrow-straight with your milieu as this, you’d better bring it with the execution.

What actually kept me watching was the voice acting of Horie Yui and Hosoya Yoshimasa, two seiyuu I admire but haven’t seen in a lot of leading roles of late. Their work elevates a classic but bland premise, a rushed narrative, and merely serviceable production values. I’m putting this in my “maybe” pile for this season.