Astra Lost in Space – 01 (First Impressions) – The Final Frontier: Getting Along

ALiS immediately sets the mood and grabs our attention by throwing us into the inky nothingness of space to float with poor Aries Spring (Minase Inori). She has no idea how she got there, but is understandably terrified, until she spots someone approaching her with an open hand.

Now that we know how bad things are going to get for Aries, the narrative rewinds back to the day Aries sets of for the five-day “Planet Camp.” Shortly after arriving at the spaceport, her bag is stolen, but the very fit and valorous Hoshijuma Kanata gets it back…only to be arrested by cop-bots.

No matter, Aries and Kanata eventually join their six fellow high school students (plus one little sister with an alter-ego in the form of a hand puppet) at the gate and before you know it, they’re on a 9-hour FTL journey to Planet McPa.

The meetup at the gate and the trip paint the characters in broad strokes, but the bottom line is they’re all very different personalities—pretty typical for a Lerche show. Within a couple minutes of setting foot on McPa, those clashing personalities are immediately tested by a weird floating orb, which I’ll just call a singularity. One by one, it sucks up the students who can’t outrun it.

After a very trippy visual sequence, everyone finds themselves floating in space, near a planet that doesn’t quite look like McPa. You couldn’t ask for a more nightmarish scenario, especially considering these are just kids with zero experience in space. Fortunately, there’s a spaceship in orbit, just within the range of their thruster suits.

They head to the ship, open the thankfully unlocked hatch, and climb aboard. There’s a grand sense of adventure afoot, and the music really helps to sell it. That’s when they realize there are only eight of them—poor Aries is still out there, drifting further and further away.

With insufficient fuel for a two-way trip in their suits, Kanata decides to use a tether to reach Aries, and we return to the end of the cold open, with Kanata reaching out to take Aries’ hand…only his rope is just too short. Disaster! Whatever to do? Kanata decides to go for broke and detach himself from the tether so he can grab an eternally grateful Aries.

But while they’re safe for the moment, there’s another problem: on the way back Kanata runs out of fuel, but his trajectory is five degrees off, meaning he and Aries will fly right past the ship. It’s time for the others, putting aside their initial differences to create a human chain outside of the airlock that snags Aries and Kanata and pulls them aboard.

That’s when they learn of several more problems—there are always more problems in space than in…not space, after all. They’re 5,012 light years, or more than three months, away from home, with only enough water for 20 days and only enough food for three.

With the aid of Zack Walker, he of the 200 IQ and spaceship license, he manages to calculate a route that will enable them to resupply at planets within twenty days of one another…but there’s only one possible route. Even so, the fact that there’s a remotely feasible plan bolsters everyone’s spirits.

With hope in their hearts (and probably very little food in their stomachs) Kanata is chosen as their captain, and they all take their places as the ship’s FTL activates, and they head off, through hardships, to the stars, on a very simple mission: Get Home Safe.

The last act seems to blow by extremely fast as solutions present themselves almost too easily, and while many members of the cast showed different sides, the jury is still out on others, but over all this was a strong start to a good old-fashioned space adventure. No convoluted factional conflicts or supernatural chosen ones…just nine kids probably in over their heads, but who have no choice but to grow up and do the best they can.

Gakkou Gurashi! – 05

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There’s no getting around it: these past two episodes, as fantastic as they were, had their peril somewhat dampened by the fact this is all happening in the past, and we know everyone will survive these events. They actually wouldn’t have made a bad first two episodes to GG!, but considering the shock the actual first episode delivered by delaying the story we get here (and feigning normalcy), I was more than willing to suspend my belief and dive into a good zombie mall episode. And it’s a good one.

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This episode is less about its inevitable destination (Yuuri, Kurumi and Yuki meeting Taroumaru and Miki) and more about the journey it takes to get there. The mall is dark and eerily silent, but Rii-san tells Yuki it’s because there’s a concert in session and they have to be quiet. Malls are usually so noisy with crowds and muzak, so in addition to visual impact of the trashed mall, there’s an aural impact from the white noise so unusual in such a place. And despite knowing she’ll be okay, watching Kurumi dart through the darker stores with her flashlight really does a good job isolating her in a hostile, threatening place that isn’t secure.

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I also liked how the girls spend a bit of time simply shopping like high school girls do, because that’s what they are. If they don’t want to be defined as simply survivors, they have to do more than just survive, but have fun when they can. Of course, that fun is cut short by a sound and their new ward Taroumaru’s yipping, indicating someone is near.

Because they’re on the fourth floor and the zombies have trouble climing steps, they consider the possibility it’s another survivor, but then Kurumi calls off the search when she peeks in a previously-barricaded theater packed with zombies. The wide shots peppered with quick close-ups and those horrible zombie noises accentuate the peril.

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The girls, led by Kurumi, blast through a gauntlet of zombies and hide in what looks like the child care room, which is apropos because Yuki is listing, exhausted from all the unexplained running. She also gets a couple of square looks at the zombies, and, at this point in the timeline, she’s still seeing partial flashes of what happened in her classroom the day of the fall, including an image of a blurry Megu-nee with a bloody arm, suggesting her teacher was infected.

As they rest, Kurumi thinks about the theater full of zombies—many of them kids—and shudders to think how their lives as humans ended, and how scared and alone they must have felt, before they were infected one by one. And in another unsettling juxtaposition of cheery high school girl life and the apocalyptic scenario, Kurumi makes Rii-san pinky-swear not to hesitate to kill her if she gets infected.

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Miki, meanwhile, has been sitting in her miniaturized, stifling little world, until she hears the yips of Taroumaru and is convinced they’re not in her cabin fever-addled brain. She braves the mall beyond her shelter, and immediately gets surrounded. She’s literally ten seconds from zombie lunch when Taroumaru, followed closely by Yuki and the others, come to her rescue.

Miki’s leaving the room and getting rescue shows her that survival isn’t just something to grasp  or hoard alone in a dark, stuffy room, but a gift to enjoy to its fullest, preferably with others. Before everyone piles into the Mini, Miki asks if the others saw anyone else, but it’s left up in the air what became of Kei. With Miki leaving the mall, it will be much trickier for them to ever reunite, but I for one hope she met a better fate than those kids in the theater, or Taroumaru’s owner.

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Gakkou Gurashi! – 04

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GG! has taken on a LOST-style narrative, in which the present is constantly being informed and updated by the pasts of its characters. This week it’s Naoki Miki’s turn. While helping Yuki with a hand-drawn yearbook, Yuki asks about one of Miki’s (very good!) drawings of her in a bookstore with another girl. It’s Kei, a good friend of Miki’s from before The Fall.

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An ordinary day at the mall turns into a life-upheaving nightmare for both of them. This is handled with the show’s usual deftness, with particular care taken to lighting, background sounds, camera angles and focus. Miki and Kei manage to hide from all the zombies and gain the puppy of an elderly woman who became one. Survival supersedes processing what the fuck is going on.

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They manage to make it to a safe room, where they hole up in a room with ample food and water. But Kei almost immediately grows curious about the outside world; about what’s going on, and worries that if they stay, they’ll never be found. Miki, on the other hand, is content to stay put and wait for help to come to them. Enough times passes that Kei’s patience runs out, and even Miki’s maneuver of tenderly taking Kei’s hand isn’t enough to keep her.

Kei promises she’ll be back with help, but right there and then, she’s abandoning Miki, who is too scared to leave the mall, or even that room. Her life has shrunk into a miniature, but she’s intent on holding on to what life it is, not risking it on the unknown beyond those walls. When Kei up and leaves, it’s a gut punch, but we knew it was coming, for no other reason than Kei doesn’t exist in the present.

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Meanwhile, at this time, Yuuri and Kurumi and Yuki are off on their own, having not yet met Miki (or Toromarou; we now understand a little more about why he’s a little standoffish with Miki in the present). Yuki spontaneously comes up with the idea for a school trip, using a loophole in the club rules prohibiting leaving school grounds by saying it’s a school function. Yuuri tells her to get Megu-nee’s approval, and she gets it, but we don’t see her get it, indicating Megu-nee isn’t alive at this point either, but just a delusion of Yuki.

That fact is reinforced when Kurumi volunteers to drive Megu-nee’s car. She and Yuuri are willing to maintain the Megu-nee delusion for Yuki’s sake, and must resort to loophole of their own (Megu-nee hasn’t driven in a while, and Kurumi insists she’s better, despite later confessing she only played racing video games).

Kurumi’s journey to the faculty parking lot, through a phalanx of vicious, but thankfully slow and dumb, zombies is breathless in its presentation. I know this is a flashback, but Kurumi still felt so vulnerable out there, especially when her trusty shovel was flicked away. But she gets to Megu-nee’s MINI Cooper, fires it up, and picks up Yuuri and Yuki (Megu-nee only appears in the car once Yuki’s in there, like anthropomorphic Hobbes).

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After a little bit of sliding around the schoolyard and hitting a couple of zombies for good measure, the car bursts out of the front gates, and all of a sudden the saturation of the episode intensifies, as if we were watching a visual manifestation of freedom itself. A quiet, gorgeous, haunting piece of music plays as the Mini drives through the desolate, ruined city, made beautiful by the vivid colors of the setting sun. It feels like a movie. If only it was only that, and they could walk out of the theater into a world where they didn’t have to fight every day for survival.

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That piece of music playing turns out to be on the Discman Kei left Miki before she left Miki. It wakes Miki up in that same room she’s been holed up in, and the contrast between her self-imposed captivity and the freedom being experience by the others isn’t lost on me. Nor is the open transom that indicates Toroumaru escaped, leaving Miki alone, though the dog may well be the one who unites her with the others.

The song plays through the credits, accompanied by black-and-white imagery from the episode. So lovely, mellow, soulful, and sad. This show just keeps getting better.

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Oregairu 2 – 03

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This was a pretty dark and depressing episode, one I thought I’d respect more than outright like, due to its necessity: it’s always darkest before the dawn. But I ended up liking it anyway. Having created a rift with Yukino and Yui, Hikky ends up further exploring his predicament through other women from both past, present, and future: apropos for Oregairu’s own Scrooge.

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Is it just me, or does he look way further away than when he and the girls were on better terms? Just as he refused to tell his concerned sister anything, that everything is normal, after downing an extra-bitter can of Georgia Extra Mountain Blend Black coffee, he walks back into the club after school like nothing’s the matter. But something is the matter, and nobody’s buying his feigned apathy anymore.

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Fortune seems to favor Hikky and his desire to slip back into normalcy when Shizuka brings them their latest client, Isshiki Iroha, who has been nominated to run unopposed in the student council president, but wants to lose. Only Isshiki is the kind of girl who juggles guys and makes enemies of the girls. He immediately tears down her kind in his mind, believing he knows everything he needs to about her without actually knowing her.

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Interestingly, but not surprisingly, it’s Yukino who is unable to keep things professional. When Hikky suggests another superficial easy-way-out plan (something involving a sacrificial campaign speech that will erode Isshiki’s cred), Yukino rejects it, and makes this about more than just Isshiki’s job.

Yukino walked away quickly after Hikky’s false confession to Hina with good reason: she can’t be around Hikky too long right now without losing her cool. That just speaks to how much she cares about him, but also to the depth of their impasse. Yukino isn’t just disappointed in Hikky; she’s wondering if she ever really knew him.

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Shizuka seems to understand, especially when put on the spot to reveal the current “standings”, as the three agreed a while back that the winner could order the loser around however they want. Yukino probably hoped she could order Hikky to stop his nonsense, but Shizuka points out not only that it’s a dead heat depending on the measure, but that Hikky, Yukino, and Yui are all but impossible to evaluate independently, as they depend so much on each others’ contributions.

Even in its darkest hour when the service club threatens to tear itself apart, Shizuka makes sure to point out that the club really has worked, and no matter what evil stares Hikky gets or gives, the work he’s done has proven to her he’s a good person. He just needs to come to terms with that himself.

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After Yukino again tells him off for his hypocrisy over the superficial confession, Hikky retreats from the clubroom entirely. He looks over superficial flicks to take his mind off things, but eventually finds shelter in a “Master Donut”, peddler of sweet-looking but ultimately superficial confections, that if not consumed in moderation, can also be detrimental to one’s health.

There, he finds Haruno, who like Komachi lends an open ear but doesn’t get much, while she tells him Yukino may hate her family, but she doesn’t want them to hate her, so she goes through motions like mailing them gifts from her school trip.

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Hikky also encounters Orimoto Kaori, a girl he liked in middle school who rejected him. Like Haruno, Orimoto acts like a with-it grown-up, recalling those days with fondness before happily saying none of that middle school stuff mattered because it was ages ago. Yet it’s as clear as yesterday in Hikky’s mind. Orimoto scarred him, and helped turn him on the path of avoiding contact out of fear of rejection. What’s even more biting is that she’s clearly moved on, having no idea how much torment she caused Hikky back then. Hikky’s quick assessment of her is one-sided and unfair to Orimoto, but it fits his self-destructive narrative of being beyond “this kind of girl.”

Haruno brings Hayama into the mix so Orimoto’s friend can meet him, but Hayama is really there to tell Hikky how Haruno only ever kills people she likes (like Hikky) with too much attention or crushes those she doesn’t like, without much middle ground. We shouldn’t be surprised then, that when Hikky spots her, she’s all alone in that donut shop.

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Yui the mediator gets Hikky back in the club, to at least listen as they discuss what to do about Isshiki’s election, but this latest attempt to reconstruct normalcy from the shattered shards of last week goes nowhere. Yukino admonishes him again for avoiding the real problem and taking reckless easy ways out, both with Hina and here. As long as Hikky remains stubbornly taciturn and haplessly defending methods even he isn’t sure are right, there will be no rapprochement.

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As Isshiki Iroha thanks Hikky for his help in her subtly manipulative “boy-juggler” way (as Hikky sees it, anyway), her performance no doubt calls to mind the easy, friendly, slightly flirty way Orimoto Kaori gave her email to him years ago. Hikky didn’t think about whether it was just out of courtesy or pity; he merely started to gnaw at the bone he was thrown, not realizing it was all he’d get from his crush.

But Yukino and Yui aren’t Isshiki, and they aren’t Orimoto. They represent Hikky’s only hope of moving beyond the romantic traumas of his past. I just hope he realizes that before their rift grows too wide. They both seem to be waiting for him, but no one’s patience is unlimited.

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Oregairu 2 – 02

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Jokes about Hikky’s non-classmates dreaming about him playing Uno…this show has range

If Nagato Yuki-chan is my go-to Feel Good show this Spring, Oregairu 2 is the place where more sophisticated, less comfortable feelings bubble and brew. But that means its the far more realistic and ultimately rewarding of the two shows, because rarely are things in real life as simple as finding your confidence, as they are for Nagato Yuki.

The characters of Oregairu—and I’m not just talking about the core trio, because the show puts great care into everyone—aren’t so lucky; it’s a constant balance of little lies and little fronts to protect the happiness that they have, even if the inevitable compromises erode their self-respect.

There are no easy answers or solutions…only complicated ones that can be given a sheen of simplicity with rationalization. And romance ain’t got nothin’ to do with rationalization!

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Great variety of reactions here

True to its title and its penchant for not taking the easy or well-tread routes of its genre, Oregairu 2’s second episode embraces the complexity of the situation. Tobe’s desire to get closer to Hina is clear cut, yet threatens the delicate high school equilibrium many are invested in, while Hina’s request is revealed as a means of gently heading off Tobe’s designs.

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You’re not REALLY reading that, are you?

It’s clear Hina is not going to go out with Tobe, or anyone else, as Miura says when she confronts Hikky about his meddling. Hina’s turned every confession her way down, and Tobe’s not the kind of guy who’s going to end that streak, period. That means the Service Club’s goal must shift to minimizing the damage to the circle of friends Tobe and Hina inhabit.

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There’s a knowing look in those eyes.

Hikky doesn’t have much that’s “tasty” for Hina in his progress report on the camaraderie of the guys, but the school trip isn’t over and there’s still opportunities to get her what she wants, which is the same thing Miura and Hayama want—for boats not to be rocked. Hina leaves it in Hikky’s capable hands.

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Hikky should probably file this reaction for future encounters

The club scouts out the a bamboo grove similar to the one Tamayo and Kato walked down in Saekano 00, and both Yui and Yukino agree it’s a good place for a confession. They’re talking about Tobe confessing to Hina, sure, but they’re also talking in general terms.

Both in the haunted house and while hanging out sharing food or simply spending time in that gorgeous, romantic grove, Yui and Yukino seem pretty happy and content themselves, because they’re in a place with Hikky where they can still imagine possibilities, despite the underlying problem of liking the same guy.

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Speaking of gorgeous, this episode is certainly that in terms of settings and backgrounds. The episode is replete with ideal spots in an non-ideal world. So it’s appropriate that Hayama and Hikky confer on the Tobe/Hina situation in a place that wouldn’t be a bad spot at all for a confession.

When Hikky calls the entente Hayama and Miura and Hina all seem to want as superficial and dishonest, Hayama asks him what he would do, and in his head Hikky isn’t honest with himself:

How I think or feel means nothing whatsoever, and it’s pointless to think about.

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He denies his own stewing thoughts and feelings and tacitly agrees to do something that will keep everything the same, but that way lies only further frustration and despair, by speaking and acting in ways that don’t respect the feelings of others. Yukino and Yui put their faith in Hikky, and just before a nervous-as-all-get-out Tobe is able to blurt out his confession, Hikky steps in an confesses to Hina in his place.

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Taking a bullet for Tobe gets the job done, but neither Yukino nor Yui can accept the means Hikky used. Yukino storms off rather than allow Hikky to see how much his actions hurt her, but Yui remains and tries to explain it to Hikky, but she’s hurt too and has to walk away in tears. Considering how much both of them saw this as an ideal place for a confession, Hikky’s stunt crassly trampled on their feelings. The mission is complete, but at what cost?

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Hina, who has quickly become one heck of a supporting character. got her happy balance back, and even muses non-jokingly about Hikky being a suitable mate for her, since she sees that they’re both “messed up” people. Hina avoids romantic relationships because she values the friendships she has so much, they’re both a security blanket and a ball-and-chain. It’s pragmatic and understandable, but it’s also profoundly sad.

She hates herself for relying on the equilibrium Hikky preserved, but it’s not just her: the tapestry of little lies and fronts is something everyone in that circle contributes to, and doesn’t want to see torn…so they stay stationary. Tobe’s confession would have torn that tapestry, a tapestry he’s a part of whether he’s aware or not.

Hikky is well aware he has his own tapestry of equilibrium with Yukino and Yui, but cynically tore it to fulfill Hina’s request. The lie neither Yukino nor Yui will accept is the lie that he doesn’t care about their tapestry, and that his feelings are meaningless. Hikky knows he erred, and isn’t sure how to mend it, or even if he can.

This adds greater stakes to the impending addition of a fourth club member. But even if there were no fourth member pending, Oregairu 2 is and would remain a complex, emotional powerhouse that is balancing its comedy, romance, and drama superbly.

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Oregairu 2 – 01 (First Impressions)

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Here’s what I said about Oregairu back in June 2013: “After this season brought the three misfits together and threw challenges at them to strengthen their bonds, we’d like to see a second season in which they, now firmly established as their own little posse, face more challenges, such as the romantic tension between Hikigaya and the girls, while continuing their service work, perhaps with a fourth freshman member? But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.”

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Not the best constructed sentence, but I feel it got the point across in terms of what I was looking for if and when a second season came around. Well, here it is! And what do you know, right off the bat we those challenges start to take shape, some nicely presented romantic tension between Hikky and his two comely club-mates, and a fresh mission involving what else, bringing two people together. The only thing missing is a fourth freshman member, but hey, it’s early!

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I won’t deny I’ve been both spoiled by the crackling good dialogue of Saekano and periodically put off by the overly advanced and pretentious dialogue of Violin Girl. But I never thought I’d be so happy to hear Hikky’s snarky inner monologue again. Hikky’s less wide-eyed than Tomoya and less feckless than Kousei, yet remains unjaded enough to allow himself to be surprised now and again, particularly by the two very different girls in his life right now.

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Oregairu is also playful and efficient when it comes to weaving two service missions into one, with the backdrop of a fun school trip to Kyoto. Tobe likes Hina and wants to get closer to her, which requires them being alone. But Hina wants to strengthen the bonds between her circle of friends, which requires her to not be alone with Tobe.

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Then there’s the fact that Hina is a fujoshi who likes to imagine her male classmates in exciting, complicated relationships, which compliments Hikky’s long-standing, not  necessarily one-sided crush on the very feminine Saika, though I wouldn’t go so far as to say Hikky’s bi; it’s more of an “if only he was a girl” situation.

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As for girls, Hikky’s relationships with both Yui and Yukina remain healthy and stong, if a smidge hamstrung by said romantic tension. Hikky’s discomfort with Yui being so close and friendly and touchy with him underlines the fact he sees her as more than just a friend, and there’s still unresolved things between these two that should provide nice fodder for the season as they work together to tackle missions.

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On the other end of the spectrum, Hikky also can’t deny the appeal of Yukino, nor Yukino Hikky. When talk in the girls’ hotel room turns to her, she escapes and finds refuge in his company. Fortune also favor them this week as their teacher brings them along for some not altogether kosher reason and bribes them with dinner, leaving them to walk home together.

Considering what drew her to Hikky tonight, Yukino is weary of being seen to close with him lest more rumors spiral, but it’s clear at the same time she doesn’t particularly mind Hikky’s company one bit.

My first impression of Oregairu 2 is that I’m glad I asked for and got a second season, and I’m looking forward to watching this intriguing triangle’s dynamics develop further, especially if and when the club is graced with a new member, representing yet another personality type.

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