Ao-chan Can’t Study! – 05 – Be Kind to Virgins

Now, I’m not quite sure where Ao is when she passes out in the bath, leading to Takumi rescuing her and taking her home. After all, the love hotel didn’t accept high schoolers, which is why Miyabi fails to bed Takumi. Ao can’t believe Takumi hasn’t slept with scores of girls, prompting him to finally confess his virginity.

The announcement has a profound effect on Ao, as she now sees him in a totally new light. Far from fearing him as another normie man, she resolves to be nice to him since he’s a virgin, and even assumes she knows more about eroticism than him simply due to her father’s line of work.

Ao sees Takumi as so little a threat all of a sudden, she agrees to go to a restaurant to study English with him. When she later asks if he really wants her to be his first love, she ends up rhetorically and literally backed against a wall. Her whole facade of superiority collapses and she’s forced to flee in tears.

That’s when she spots Miyabi in a restaurant skulking and attaches herself to her, just like she used to when they were little kids, Ao got teased, and Miyabi was always there for her. Miyabi may have it in her head that they’re rivals now, but when push comes to groin-kick, Ao still considers her a friend.

BokuBen – 04 – Pudding x Squared

This week’s BokuBen is split relatively cleanly into three parts; one for each of the three tutees. First up is Fumino, who one day after a bath notices to her horror that she’s put on weight.

The next day at school it’s clear why that’s so—there’s no shortage of snacks in between meals from Uruka (who doesn’t put on weight no matter how much she eats) and udon from Rizu (for whom everything goes to her bust). Fumino resolves to not participate in the gorging, going on a diet.

When Yuiga mentions her lack of focus due to her fighting temptation, Fumino reveals the reason why, and even invites him to feel her stomach in order to confirm that it’s in danger of becoming a muffin top. But despite this invitation to perform what feels like a perverted act, Yuiga doesn’t believe whatever weight she perceives to have put on is of any consequence.

Her weight ends up returning to a level she can live with, with the abundant late-night snacks being a necessity for her as her brain requires a good deal of energy to operate when she’s studying.

The next segment focuses on Rizu, who learns she has a rival in math in science in the person of Sekijo Sawako. The perennial second-place finisher in math and science exams suspects Rizu is only getting into the humanities because she’s fallen in love with Yuiga, and intends to stay close to Rizu in order to confirm this.

That means joining Yuiga and Rizu at her family udon restaurant. Sawako attempts to flirt with Yuiga in an effort to get a reaction from Rizu, to no avail; nothing will keep her from her studying focus, while Yuiga gets the idea that he’s suddenly popular now.

The two make so much ruckus that Rizu kicks them out, but Sawako finally gets some evidence when she sees how Rizu reacts to Yuiga patting her on the head for a mock exam well done; it’s a reaction Rizu cannot hide.

This results in Sawako continuing to keep an eye on Rizu and Yuiga until she’s convinced that the humanities are the right path for her number one “rival.” Yuiga, meanwhile, tells Sawako that if she wants to be friends with Rizu, she should just be upfront and ask.

Finally, we have our #BestGirl, Uruka. Her situation this week is the simplest of all: in a morning fit of absent-mindedness, she forgot to put on a bra. This makes her super self-conscious, especially when she has to play basketball against Yuiga in gym class.

Her bashfulness totally throws her off her game, and Yuiga capitalizes without blinking an eye, stealing the ball right out of her hands and taking his team to a commanding 16-2 first-half lead. Her demeanor on the court is so unusual, he asks her if there’s anything wrong, to which she responds “we’re enemies right now!” but she twists his concern into a confession of love, motivating her to forget about her boobs and up her game.

Unfortunately, upping her game cooresponds with Yuiga’s inflated sense of athletic prowess, as he’s determined to block her shot, leading to the two coming together in the chestal area. In the ensuing chaos the clock runs out and Yuiga’s team wins, while Yuiga himself, having felt Uruka, remarks that she “felt like his sister,” who sometimes neglects to wear bras.

It’s probably the last thing Uruka wanted to hear in her already fragile state, while Yuiga’s sister makes him pay for bringing up the fact she’s wearing a bra. So then: while there was no marked progress this week on the three tutees’ efforts to excel in areas in which they are not strong, these were nevertheless three satisfying vignettes that enriched our understanding of the characters.

Ao-chan Can’t Study! – 04 – A New Challenger Approaches

After waking from a recurring dream where a younger Ao is teased by her peers for the origin of her name (which is messed up enough) things only get worse for Ao, as her father presents her with a gaudy envelope left by a young woman. Inside is a photo of the girl in bed with Takumi.

Ao doesn’t understand why he’s chasing her if he already has a woman…unless he wants a threesome (he doesn’t). But his soccer senpai says Takumi attended to a mixer and claims he “went home” with one of the girls there. The “confirmation” leaves Ao a wreck…though her father didn’t help by painting the girl as resembling one of his “insatiable beauty” characters.

The girl in question turns out to be Takaoka Miyabi, one of Ao’s classmates in grade school who knew her raunchy name origin. Miyabi makes it plain to Ao: shit or get off the pot. Correction: just get off the pot; she wants Miyabi and she detests women who string men along, like she thinks Ao is doing

Of course, Ao isn’t doing that: her delaying is the result of her struggling with feelings she’s never felt, doesn’t understand, and which have been warped by her unorthodox upbringing. When Takumi calls her to assure her nothing happened at the mixer, Ao has already made up a narrative of what happened—and what’s happening—in her head.

So she tells Takumi not to talk to her at school anymore. He doesn’t, and avoids her, which neither of them like, and Miyabi swoops in and snags a date with him.

Everything would seem to be going to plan for Miyabi, who is, ironically using the very “manual” written by Ao’s dad, under a female pseudonym, that he also offered to his daughter. There’s just one problem: Takumi has no romantic interest in her, is concerned with Ao, and she can tell.

Fate itself seems to favor Ao when she and Takumi end up together in a haunted house—though it’s so dark they don’t realize who each other are until simulated lightning strikes reveal it. But their fight continues, as Ao insists Takumi find Miyabi and continue on his date.

Later that night, Miyabi is determined to take Takumi to a hotel and get a real picture with him; the one she sent Ao was simply photoshopped. Her impressive ‘shopping skills aside, she can probably no doubt sense Takumi’s distraction from Ao…and so asks what he’s going to do about her.

Takumi doesn’t know because he’s not sure whether Ao likes him or not, but the way he describes her flaws as things he’s not bothered by makes it clear he’s not over her yet. So Miyabi tells him Ao doesn’t like her, and is merely being “cocky” making him wait for her answer. But she assures him that her emotions and intentions are clear.

Quite the stirring soap opera hot pot we have simmering here! I must say I wasn’t expecting such a cliffhanger, or for a half-length episode to be packed with so much story. What will young Takumi do…take the easier route with a willing Miyabi, or try to make up with Ao and, in doing so, provide a means for them to gain more insight into each other’s feelings?

Hanebado! – 08 – Her Own Kind of Badminton

Ishizawa Nozomi, who was chosen over Nagisa for an elite school spot by her coach, is really only interested in winning and thus validating the trust her coach placed in her. Ayano, who has gradually abandoned all pretense of sportsmanship or empathy and has now become, essentially, a badminton murderbot, is also only interested in winning.

Both dispatch their opponents with ease and look down upon them as wasting their time. Yet I couldn’t help but feel like this episode was merely buildup for, even filler before the more substantial match involving Ayano. To be frank, I just don’t really care about Nozomi’s situation, while we’ve already dealt with Nagisa’s issues.

Ayano is on the shelf for the remainder of this episode; another spectator in the Nagisa-Nozomi showdown, and boy does she lay on the aloof bitchiness thick. I was hoping someone—say Elena—would kick her in the bum (either physically or verbally) but Ayano isn’t interested in discussing her conduct unbecoming.

As long as she wins, she doesn’t want to hear from anyone about anything…but is more than willing to giver her own running negative commentary about Nagisa’s chances against Nozomi, which she believes to be slim. Nozomi’s coach believes a strategy of making Nagisa run and change direction will blow out her knees.

And so in this match, we have a coach who is not only a constant verbal presence during play (which is hella annoying) but so obsessed with analytics and oppo research that he sees Nozomi as little more than an avatar or tool with which to execute his badminton.

The problem is, Nozomi is still a child, and trying to find out who she is, not just as a player but as a person. The coach’s constant browbeating is constantly undermining that growth, and the effects are just as serious as the fatigue on Nagisa’s knees.

After losing the first set, Nozomi stands up to her coach for the first time and basically tells him to butt out; she’s going to try things her way. To his credit, the coach is accepting of her choice and almost seems proud to be cast aside in this way, realizing he pushed her too far. So at least he’s not a complete two-dimensional jerk.

Nozomi proceeds to win the second set, but loses the third, giving Nagisa the victory, a spot in the Nationals and in the final match versus Ayano. But more importantly, she played the rest of that match for herself, not her coach, and despite losing, had a ton of fun, reminding her why she plays in the first place.

As for Ayano, she concedes she was wrong and that Nagisa is better than she thought…but likely doesn’t see Nagisa as even the slightest threat in the finals. We’ll see if her insufferable arrogance backfires next week, or if her precipitous abandonment of humanity will continue to proceed apace.

Considering both Connie and her mother could be in attendance, the timing for some kind of downfall for Ayano couldn’t possibly be worse!

Hanebado! – 07 – The Power and Price of Hard Work

The best and most thrilling episode of Hanebado! yet, in which Ayano and Kaoruko have their fated rematch, comes with a surprise: Ayano’s mom is nowhere to be seen; none of Ayano’s teammates mention her again; and there’s no indication she watched the Kaoruko rematch. Where’d she go? We never find out. But she’s there, and she’ll surely be back.

Her total absence reflects the new attitude towards her mother Ayano wishes to adopt: that she doesn’t have a mother, or at least not one whose opinions matter to her anymore. Ayano looks initially rattled by Kaoruko’s gift of a hankie for the tears/snot when she loses, but her pained look morphs into a wry girn.

Ayano isn’t scared of Kaoruko anymore; at least not on the surface. Her inner thoughts/feelings are off limits to Ayano’s teammates, Kaoruko, and we the audience, but it could well be she’s just as calm, cool, and committed to obliterating her opponent inside as out.

Yu loses her match, making Ayano, Nagisa and Sora the only three players left standing in the prelims. But frankly I just wasn’t that interested in the little subplots of the other characters. This was about a suddenly supremely confident Ayano and a Kaoruko humming with arrogance: an Unstoppable Force vs. an Unmovable Object.

Despite the distractions, the match lives up to the hype and then some. It’s the most high stakes match we’ve been able to watch, and the animation team pulls out all the stops, utilizing all manner of angles, zooms, pans, sweeps, etc. as well as a 3-D “floating camera” that soars from one end of the court to t’other. It really got the adrenaline pumping.

But even more important: for once, Ayano, supposedly one of the most talented players in the show, isn’t embarrassed or overwhelmed, physically or psychologically. She is in complete command of the match, and demonstrates virtual telepathy when it comes to diagnosing Kaoruko’s game plan and sabotaging it at every turn with unexpected counters.

This is where Kaoruko’s tireless hard work, ultra-granular attention to detail, and the ruthless drive to defeat Ayano at all costs actually work against her. She prepared so intricately carefully for an opponent based on what she thought she knew of them up and down, leaving no time to consider how Ayano’s skills would have improved or evolved parallel to her own.

Ayano is no stranger to hard work either, after all. She employs it here, and her grit on the court is reinforced by her conscious effort to block all of those negative and unpleasant thoughts that plagued her for so long. Free of the need for validation from her mother, she’s a player possessed.

She’s also in rare form on the trash talking front. Kaoruko talked a big game, but Ayano’s retorts are strategically toned and timed for maximum damage. Long story short: Ayano is all that’s in Kaoruko’s head. Winning is al that’s in Ayano’s head.

The final 21-16, 21-17 score in Ayano’s favor doesn’t do justice to the level of dominance she displayed against Kaoruko in 90% of the match. The defeat is devastating, and not just because she gave her entire team the middle finger prior to the match, so confident was she that she’d “mop the floor” with Ayano.

Ayano broke a fantasy that Kaoruko kept playing in her head as she worked so hard: that she could beat the first player her own age to beat her, without cheating by giving her a cold. She thought she was psychologically stronger. Her only loyal, sympathetic teammate helps her stretch post-match, both of them cry, for Ayano crushed those fantasies, then offered Kaoruko her hankie back.

Ayano, for her part, calls Kaoruko’s effort “pathetic”, which rubs Elena the wrong way. Ayano’s cold response is simply that on that court, winning is the only thing that matters (Sorry, Riko, Yu and Sora!). Another way to say that is that if you don’t win, then nothing matters. So yeah, Ayano may be playing her best badminton, but she’s gone to a dark, lonely place to do it.

Next up is Nagisa vs. Nozomi, but you know what? However it turns out, I can’t see how it won’t feel like a bit of a letdown after Ayano vs. Kaoruko. Both players are lower down on the character significance list. What could mitigate that is if we finally get the Ayano-Ayano’s mom reunion we’ve been waiting for all season. Who knows, maybe she did watch the match; the episode just never cut to her…

Hanebado! – 06 – Not Just One More Match

Prelims are upon us this week, and it’s Izumi Riko’s turn to be angsty. It’s her last year and last prelims, and she wants to win. The only problem is, her first opponent is her childhood friend Nozomi, who also happens to be one of last year’s final four. Riko is not confident she can hang with the likes of Nozomi, and even though Nagisa tries her best to fire her up, Riko ends up frustrated and the two part ways for the evening on a bad note.

The day of the matches arrives, and Riko and Nozomi are cordial but cool, as imminent opponents must be. The team rocks their slick new one-piece uniforms, and Riko’s four cute siblings are in attendance, but she still manages to stink up the joint in the first half of the first set overwhelmed by her own lack of confidence as well as Nozomi’s unbeatable aura.

When the interval comes, Riko knows she has to do something…so she goes over the shots of the match so far, analyzes them, and finds that Nozomi is avoiding her backhand. Riko goes on the offensive and gets a point or two before Nozomi re-adjusts. It’s a beautifully-animated, fast-paced story told through the smooth, graceful, yet powerful motions of the players; a chess match of adjustments and counter-adjustments.

Riko still loses, but she makes Nozomi work for her win, going against her opponent’s strict coache’s insistence she conserve her stamina. It was just another match for Nozomi; a stepping stone to the next round. But for Riko, it was the match; the only match left in her high school career. And as her coach directed, she had fun out there.

Whither Ayano? Well, for most of the episode she seems to be putting up a strong front of Everything’s Okay, and may even believe she’s past worrying about her mother or Connie. But these prelims are uniquely equipped to not let Ayano escape her troubles so easily. Not only is she facing Serigaya Kaoruko in the next round, but her mother will be in attendance to watch their rematch. That should be interesting…

Hanebado! – 05 – The Discarded Daughter

Ayano lived her childhood absolutely idolizing her mother and soaking up every bit of badminton know-how she could. Other than Elena, there was virtually no one else in her life she cared about. In other words, her mom was her family…until she took off, and Ayano has felt alone ever since (sorry, Elena).

Or, at least she had felt alone. Now that she’s been welcomed and embraced by her team, she feels like she can keep playing with their support. Riko offers as much at the end of their first game which they lost to Connie, 21-12. Kentarou resets the defense so Ayano has the run of the back 2/3rds of the court for the second game.

By throwing her out of the frying pan and into the fire, Ayano eventually picks up her game, returning shots that she’d previously let drop. Her sly persistence starts to frustrate Connie, who in turn steps up her game, and all of a sudden their respective teammates are treated to one hell of a grudge match, with neither Ayano nor Connie believing defeat to be an option.

Connie draws from her own childhood, which looks as lonely as Ayano’s post-mom time, while Ayano gets all Sadako-y like she did when she beat Nagisa in the nationals. The two competitors are so focused on each other, Connie ends up getting a cramp in her leg, and her partner leaps in to score the winning point, catching Ayano and Connie alike off guard and leading them to declare the result of the match corrupted.

Both go off skulking, only to be picked back up by the very people she felt were unnecessary (in Connie’s case) or the people whom she felt she’d let down (in Ayano’s). Sora, who’d been pretty quiet up to this point, confesses that she hated Ayano for seeming not to care despite being so talented, but has revised her feelings about her after seeing how far she went in that match. The two girls end up spending the evening having fun with their teammates.

The next morning when both teams are set to return home, Ayano confronts Connie, who tells her what I (and probably everyone else watching) had suspected last week: Connie is the girl Ayano’s mother replaced her with as daughter. Connie’s goal is to prove to her “mama” that she’s the better player by beating Ayano.

As I mentioned last week, one would assume the question of “who is best” had already long been settled by the fact Ayano’s mother f-ing abandoned her biological daughter for Connie. I guess Connie just isn’t satisfied with her mom’s decision, but wants to be sure she’s better than Ayano. As for Ayano, on the bus ride home she breaks out her crazy face once more, declaring that she “doesn’t need” her mother any more.

While that’s a depressing sentiment, somewhat creepily delivered, I can hardly blame her for wanting to give up on the person who gave up on her. But I still feel there’s a reconciliation story brewing here. Simply stating she’s done seeking her mom’s approval doesn’t magically make it so…right?

Hanebado! – 04 – A New Challenger Approaches

After her playground epiphany, Ayano joins the badminton club, and before she knows it she’s on a bus with the rest of the club to a summer practice facility. While on the ride, the classically alone Ayano has her hair tended to by Yu, resulting in a photo and a warm feeling of belonging; of finally not being alone, but part of something bigger: a team.

But wouldn’t you know it, the facility is already occupied by another badminton team, and not just any team, but the “FreGirls” of Frederica, one of the country’s top teams. One of their players wanted very much to play Ayano’s school. Ayano heads out to a konbini to buy water, but ends up lost thanks to Nagisa’s kiddy, nigh worthless map.

While lost, she meets a foreigner who’s also lost: a blonde from Denmark who offers her a lolly when they make progress with the map.

Things are going swimmingly until the foreigner learns the identity of the cute little girl she’s walked with. The moment she hears the name “Hanesaki” she freezes and drops her change, then accuses Ayano of playing mind games with her by “pretending to be friendly.”

The next they meet, the tall blonde, Connie C, is one half of Ayano and Riko’s doubles opponents, and promises to show her how “meaningless” Ayano’s “team” is. She warns her partner not to interfere and let her play alone. Clearly, what she really wants is a one-on-one match against Ayano.

When her partner does interfere, Connie quits in a huff, letting the other girl struggle alone in a two-on-one match until she basically taps out. Connie doesn’t believe in teams, after all; she’s a team of one, and gets what she wants. As for why her captain and coach do nothing to stop her selfish behavior, who knows?

Connie takes over, effortlessly turning a 10-3 deficit into an 11-10 lead with mammoth vertical leaps and a smash that even the guys doubt they could return. Neither Ayano or Izumi can do anything. It’s Serigaya Kaoruko all over again.

Only…it’s actually worse than Kaoruko. “Connie C” Is Connie Christensen, a Danish prodigy who has already won the world championship in her age group. In every physical measure pertinent to badminton, she’s Ayano’s superior, and wants to make it clear she’s superior in every other aspect of the game as well. Tachibana knows her, and doubts Ayano will be able to hang.

Connie is also the blonde girl in the magazine article in which Ayano learned her mother had basically replaced her as daughter, which makes this even more fucked up. Connie even ties back her hair the same way as Ayano’s mother, adding insult to injury.

Apparently not satisfied with everything she’s already taken from Ayano, Connie now seems to want to crush Ayano’s spirit, such that even being in a fun high school team won’t give her joy or relief. That said, she relied on an awful lot of coincidences to end up in the match. Among them:

  • She knew Ayano had joined the badminton club, even when Ayano herself wasn’t sure until very recently;
  • Her school’s team ended up at the same facility as Ayano’s club;
  • Ayano ended up going out for water, and ended up meeting Connie first;
  • They ended up playing against each other.

Coincidences aside, one has to wonder what Connie’s true motive is, and why she is so intent on psychologically crippling a stranger. I mean, isn’t the fact that Ayano’s mom abandoned Ayano for Connie enough proof for Connie that’s she’s better? Did she really travel all the way to Japan just to beat someone who had already ‘lost” to her? Apparently! And that makes Connie a garbage person…until further notice.

Hanebado! – 03 – For the Sheer Love of Badminton

Overshadowed last week by Nagisa’s slump was the fact that Ayano still didn’t really want to play badminton. The exact reason why was not explicitly laid out until now, and it paints both her reluctance to join the bad club and Elena’s adamant insistence she join anyway. By getting to the roots of the two girls’ motivations, the episode succeeds in strengthening both characters and elevating the show’s drama.

We start with a series of flashbacks from Elena’s perspective, always on the sidelines watching Ayano with a combination of awe and pride, but also loneliness, and even envy. Mostly though, since they were wee girls Elena has always known how much Ayano loves badminton, and so simply couldn’t allow her to reject it. It wasn’t just about wasting talent, but denying herself that which both of them know she loves.

Of course, we’ve known that love is tainted by the huge expectations others put upon her, and the unwanted attention she gets from other badminton lovers for her body and her skills. Elena watches the others fawning over Ayano, gets bored, and goes to the movies with Noriko…where she’s also bored.

Afterwards, Noriko goes off on a date with Saionji, leaving Elena alone. She spots Nagisa on her run, but doesn’t call out. It’s Nagisa, on her run back, who spots Elena, who explains she wanted to see how Ayano would do on her own. Nagisa asks Elena why Ayano quit badminton, because she’s since fallen far from the “perfect” player who crushed her at the junior nationals. Elena promises to get to the bottom of it.

The next day, Ayano’s personal slump is compounded by the sudden arrival of her former self-appointed rival, Serigaya Kaoruko. After nearly falling for the cool Tachibana, Kaoruko challenges a very lethargic Ayano to a set, and totally embarrasses her.

This is another beautifully-animated badminton game, and it’s thrilling to see Kaoruko so easily confound, befuddle, and decimate Ayano, who had been impressing her teammates with her skills thus far. Kaoruko is disappointed, and vows that Ayano will never beat her. Considering Ayano is lying on the floor drenched in sweat, it’s hard to argue with that assessment.

Ayano rushes out, and when Elena catches up to her, she says she’s quitting badminton after all; Elena can stay if she wants, but she won’t. In that moment I couldn’t help but feel bad for Elena, who had stuck with Ayano all this time only for her efforts to be impulsively discarded after just one frustrating set. It felt like Ayano was taking Elena for granted.

The next day, Ayano doesn’t come to school or practice. Tachibana and Nagisa visit her house where her stately, adorable grandparents take care of her; there, they learn that Ayano’s mother was Shindo Uchika, the greatest badminton player of her generation and winner of ten straight national titles.

Both Elena and I considered the pressure of following in the footsteps of an almost impossibly elite parent ample motive for feeling like one’s own badminton career is pointless…but Ayano’s situation turns out to be far more fucked up. Elena may know more about Ayano than anyone, but even she didn’t understand the depths of Ayano’s pain.

She also didn’t know who Kaoruko was. When the two were scheduled to have a match, Kaoruko caught a cold, so she tied Ayano up and gave her her cold so they could play “on even terms.” Kaoruko ended up beating Ayano by a hair, and Ayano passed out on the court.

While still in bed recovering, her mother turned her back on her, ignored the calls of her daughter, walked out the door…and never came back. Ayano kept playing and kept winning, transforming herself into a badminton WMD, hoping that if she won enough, her mom would come back.

Not only did her mother never come back, but Ayano had to learn from an article in Badminton Magazine at the konbini that her mother had taken on another student in a faraway land and trained her to be her successor. Earlier I wondered whether perhaps there was a good reason her mom had to go, but no, she was just a garbage mother and human being.

Elena ponders the shocking new information Ayano has given her on her walk home, but one image over all others continues to be prominent in her mind: that of a tiny her watching a tiny Ayano playing badminton with her mom and loving every minute of it.

Elena considers it her duty as Ayano’s friend to help her get that feeling back—a feeling independent of pressure and  betrayal. To do so, she elicits the help of Nagisa. Elena and Ayano meet at their usual meeting spot atop the red playground octopus. Elena tells Ayano she needs to go back to school, and Nagisa makes her appearance.

Then Elena tells Ayano something she didn’t know before: How then, and now, she felt/feels “left out” when she watches Ayano play. Elena always thought she doesn’t have anything she can devote herself to, but she does. Ayano loves and devotes herself to badminton, and Elena loves and devotes herself to Ayano. Even if she feels lonely, or left out, or envious at times, it’s all worth it to see Ayano have so much fun.

With that, Nagisa draws a makeshift court in the sand, and the two have a match. It’s a bit of a mess of a match, with the wind wreaking havoc on the shuttlecock…but it doesn’t matter. Ayano is able to drop the baggage surrounding the sport she loves and simply enjoy playing it again.

The rest of the club is contacted and they join in the fun. And the next day, Elena and Ayano turn in their forms indicating their intention to join the Badminton Club. Ayano was dealt a terrible hand in moms, but in turn was dealt a great hand in BFsF.

Steins;Gate 0 – 11 – WWIII Averted…For Now

The shadowy guy whom Maho hired to analyze Makise’s laptop turns out to be…Daru, working out of the back room of a cosplay store. He still needs three days to complete his work, but after telling her the whole story about the time machine and the horrors the secrets within the computer may unleash, Rintarou manages to convince Maho to destroy it.

Before they can, the “wrong hands” in which it would be so dangerous arrive in force. Daru has an escape route worked out, but they’re still cornered in a dark alley and Maho is nabbed and has a knife placed against her throat. That they were able to find Daru’s hideout so soon, or were watching listening for just the right time to move in, is disconcerting, to say the least.

However, they must not have been listening in, because after some negotiations they’re willing to let Maho, and Daru walk away unharmed in exchange for the laptop. Rintarou briefly switches places with Maho as their hostage, but then another masked group arrives and opens fire, making sure the laptop is destroyed.

It’s doubtless a harrowing ordeal for Maho; she may have been held up along with the others at the lab, but no shots were fired. Here, had Rintarou not pushed her flat to the ground, she might’ve died. Back at the lab, she’s so out of it she doesn’t notice she’s clutching one remaining shard from the laptop in her hand so tightly it’s drawing blood.

Rintarou takes Maho to Feyris’ to clean up, but the trauma from the shootout has a more pronounced effect than she thought, and after all that tension, every muscle in her body goes limp, making her practically a helpless doll. And just as Rintarou once walked in on Kurisu, he ends up facing Maho just as her towel falls off. The universe is keen to make him suffer, but also to make him accidentally see his love interests in the nude.

That night, Maho asks Rintarou to stay by her bedside a little longer, and he happily obliges. Returning to her Mozart-Salieri narrative, after hearing from Rintarou about the possibility she might “disgrace the dead” by unlocking Kurisu’s laptop’s secrets, Maho admits to herself that it wasn’t just a matter of honoring her friend’s legacy, but trying to subconsciously exorcise the frustration she felt.

Not just frustration over not being able to achieve the things Kurisu did, mind you, but frustration over the mere fact she’s so concerned about her as a rival; Mozart, she says, never wasted a moment concerned with Salieri; he only made great music (and drank and gambled…it’s all in the movie).

Rintarou disputes the similarities between the two pairs of gifted people from vastly different times. He’s convinced that Maho loved Kurisu and would never disgrace her. It’s why she agreed to break the laptop, it’s why she shed tears and apologized, and it’s why she clutched the fragment so tightly.

It’s such a quiet, tender scene filled with mutual respect and affection, with Mamoru Miyano wonderfully modulating Rintarou’s voice to a caring hush, matching the vulnerability of Yahagi Sayuri’s Maho. Very nice work here.

After Rintarou and Maho’s lovely night together, she and Leskinen head back to America, but not before inviting him to Viktor Chrondria University whenever he can make it. So it’s not goodbye, merely see ya later for the couple. That probably makes both Leskinen and Amakurisu happy; Ama also fully intends to see and hear from Rintarou again, expressing Kurisu’s tsundere mode.

Rintarou is also able to convince Suzuha that they’ve avoided a potentially WWIII-starting clash between America and Russia (the two powers he suspected he and Maho were caught between), though Suzu remains skeptical that they’ve eliminated the only cause of the war, only one of them. And she’s most likely right.

One of the last scenes is of Maho’s colleague Judy Reyes aboard a flight, hiding…something in her lap. Was she one of the masked people in black? Could it be salvageable remnants of the laptop? Whatever it is, it’s clear Rintarou’s work is far from done. Meanwhile Mayushii seems to harbor some conflicting feelings about Okarin leaving for America to join Leskinen, Maho, and the digital Kurisu.

Steins;Gate 0 – 10 – Kurisu’s Salieri

Amadeus is a fantastic movie with a good old-fashioned fatal flaw in its co-protagonist: caring too much. Salieri could hear God through Mozart’s music but not in his own, and it drove the guy mad, especially since he worked and prayed so hard, while everything seemed to come all to easily and naturally to Mozart (or at least it seemed that way to him).

I like how Steins;Gate 0 references that film, and the historical figures behind it, as a kind of loose parallel for Kurisu and Hiyajou Maho. Maho doesn’t claim to have anywhere near the obsession Salieri had, but can’t deny she’s always measured her life and accomplishments against her departed kohai.

She’s also a grinder, which explains how terrible a mess she makes at Feyris’ place (though she has a bodyguard in Kiryu contributing to the mess). When Mayushii is invited over, she brings “Sergeant Clean” Nae with her along with Daru to whip the place into shape.

Maho is asked to leave the apartment so they can clean more efficiency, and that’s when she’s able to present the newly-rebooted Amakurisu to Rintarou, who for his part is ready to “move forward” and regard her as a distinct AI and not Kurisu Reborn.

After that, Feyris hosts a sleepover with Maho and Kiryuu, and Maho learns Kiryuu is writing a novel, and also believes she’s “not special in any way” and imminently replaceable. Maho tells her none of that is true; that she shouldn’t belittle herself so easily; or compare herself to others and go through life feeling inferior and…oops, that’s exactly what she’s done with Kurisu. She backs off.

That night, Maho seems to resolve herself to moving forward, just as Rintarou said he wanted to do. They go on a date by any other name to Akiba, where she geeks out both on obscure computer parts (the district’s original function) and racing games (part of its newer identity). Rintarou even wins her an @channel plushie.

The fun day takes a turn for the solemn when Maho says it’s her intention to visit the Radio Building where Kurisu died, perhaps to find some kind of closure. Rintarou accompanies her, and when Maho laments that humans can move around the axes of space, they’re prisoners of time. If only we could move through time’s axes as well, she wonders, but Rintarou, speaking from experience, tells her they still wouldn’t be able to change anything.

Maho is no dummy, and can tell there are a lot of things about Rintarou and his relationship with Kurisu he’s not telling her. Even so, she can sense he’s somehow working to protect her (and Mayushii) and seeing him struggling alone makes her want to support him in some way. To that end, she informs him she has “Kurisu’s legacy”—her notebook, likely containing all of her time machine research. She doesn’t know the login password, so she hasn’t been able to access it yet, but has reached out to a “trusted” party to analyze it.

This news makes Rintarou turn white as a sheet and adopt his “extremely freaked out” face. He calls that notebook a Pandora’s Box that should never be opened, and could well lead to World War III. Considering her lab was ransacked and she was present for an attack by people they still haven’t identified, Rintarou’s words don’t seem to sound like the ravings of a madman to Maho. They shouldn’t—he knows what he’s talking about.

Koi wa Ameagari no You ni – 11

When Haruka learns that a runner from another school fully recovered from the same injury Akira suffered to best her personal 100-meter time, and could threaten Akira’s tournament record, she redoubles her efforts to bring Akira back in the fold, even going so far as to follow her to her workplace.

Kondou sees that a girl from Akira’s school is a customer, and that can tell the conversation isn’t a pleasant one. Let’s get one thing straight: Haruka isn’t here to ask Akira what she wants or how she feels. Haruka is there to tell Akira what Haruka wants—and how sad she’ll be if she doesn’t get it.

She marches in there judging Akira’s choice to work an honest job rather than risk re-injuring herself, saying she’ll “always be waiting” for Akira to come around to wanting to run again, as if that’s the only acceptable path for her. Then she storms off without letting Akira so much as respond.

It’s frankly sickening to watch someone who purports to care about Akira only seem to be interested in what would make herself happy—not to mention shore up her track team. If their roles were reversed, I doubt Akira would treat her so awfully.

Thankfully we get a pleasant palate-cleanser in the form of Chihiro paying Kondou a surprise visit with a brand-new siphon coffee maker. Make no mistake: Chihiro isn’t there just for Kondou’s benefit, he came to ground himself with an old friend he still holds in high regard.

Kondou looks at Chihiro’s success in the same way Haruka looks at Akira’s records and talent—from the outside. The book being made into a movie is a “piece of shit” in Chihiro’s mind, and the more successful he gets, the more expectations mount (much as they did for Akira before her injury), and the more “shit” he feels he has to put out.

Rather than voice any disappointment, Chihiro actually lauds Kondou for living an honest life. Unlike Akira giving up running cold turkey, Kondou has always to maintain the obsession to write, even if it’s for nobody but himself, and even if he’s too excited to do the first one-minute novel in a long time.

Chihiro isn’t asking him to quit being a manager and start selling novels…but he urges Kondou not to give up that obsession, even if it’s not as big a part of his life as it was. Granted, Chihiro and Kondou are older and more matured by life experience, but the contrast between their equitable dynamic and Haruka’s totally unfair one-sided oppression of Akira couldn’t be starker.

Chihiro and Haruka, who are still fully in the respective games their friends left, have similar messages. I’ve always seen Akira as not giving up or running away from track, but simply moving on, while Kondou gives his old habit of late-night writing another go after Chihiro’s visit.

That same night, Akira takes out her cleats, suggesting as terribly as she expressed it, Haruka was right that Akira still yearns to run. But the next day when a customer forgets a phone and she can’t get it back to them without running, she doesn’t run this time, as the camera pulls in on her recently repaired Achilles. I can’t blame her, considering what happened the last time she did.

In the restaurant office, Akira sees that Kondou hasn’t filled out her shift schedule yet with her requested increased shifts, and when he asks her if there’s “anything else she wants to do” besides work there all the time, she should do that. This angers Akira, because it’s almost as if everyone’s ganging up on her…even the man she has feelings for.

The fact of the matter is, even if it’s objectively wrong for Akira to not even consider giving running another go, it’s her goddamn RIGHT to be wrong, no one else’s. Yes, she’s young, and her emotions on this matter are all over the place.

She might not be able to easily answer the question “do you want to run?” if asked because she’s so afraid of the possibility she just can’t do it anymore. Or maybe she really truly doesn’t want to run. In either case, it’s her choice to make. Haruka may have enough confidence in her for the both of them, but at the end of the day…it ain’t her Achilles.

Keppeki Danshi! Aoyama-kun – 01 (First Impressions)

Morita-san is taciturn. Tanaka-kun is listless. Sakamoto is…Sakamoto (haven’t you heard?). And Aoyama-kun…is a clean freak. He’s also a elite young soccer talent who was selected for the national team’s under-16 squad.

But unlike Tanaka in particular, there’s not much to Aoyama beyond those dual main qualities. His constant scrubbing, and the adoration of his legions of mostly-female fans, becomes tedious pretty fast.

His soccer senpai (and advantaged rich kid) Zaizen also grows weary of Aoyama’s shtick pretty quickly. We get it; dude’s a germophobe…though even that’s arguable, since he doesn’t wear surgical masks everywhere and doesn’t seem to have much of a problem being outside.

We learn in the cold open, and it is confirmed when the team practices against a rival elite team led by the washboard abs-bearing Takechi (who is trying to poach Aoyama) that Aoyama is indeed a singular, if bizarre, soccer talent; applying his obsessive “cleanliness” with a gameplan completely devoid of physical contact, combined with sharpshooter precision on passes and shots. But look to someone else for checks and headers.

Admiring Aoyama from afar (and possibly content to keep it that way) is the very cute but also clearly fixated Gotou Moka, who would like to think she’s locked in on what Aoyama thinks and does, since they’re soulmates or something.

But ostensible side characters like Zaizen, Takechi, and even Moka herself are all more dimensional characters than Aoyama, simply because they have more to say and we see things from their perspective.

Don’t get me wrong: Studio Hibari has rolled out a very good-looking anime in Keppeki Danshi; many of Aoyama’s moves in slow motion are cinematic in their presentation. The character design is clean and crisp. Overall the production is competent. The comedy is well-timed if unexceptional so far (the abs-bearing guy is particularly lame). Colorful—if still shallow—personalities abound.

But the main problem so far is the titular character. Aoyama is little more than cleanliness and soccer ability, and he’s always observed from a distance. He has to develop as more of an actual human being if the audience is going to be expected to connect with and keep rooting for the guy.

There’s a slight but promising glimmer of that when Aoyama suddenly comes to life with five minutes to go, even getting dirty in service of winning the game because he really hates losing.

But if we don’t see more of stuff like that, and continue in the vein of “OMG look at what clean-freak thing Aoyama’s doing now!” ad nauseum, Aoyama-kun won’t just be a “Cleanliness Boy”…he’ll be a Boy I’m Not Watching.