The World’s Finest Assassin – 09 – First Job

Lugh may be busy planning his first official assassination job, but his mom Esri is thinking bigger-picture. For instance, she’s excited by the fact that he’s “growing up” as dutifully reported to her by Tarte, and also has some fine young noble ladies lined up, one of whom she hopes he’ll marry and giver her grandchildren before she’s too old.

This is historically typical aristocratic mom stuff, but it’s also clear this isn’t just duty for Esri. There’s no one she loves more in this world than her son Lugh, and she only wants happiness for him. If that means not marrying a noblewoman and having a family with Tarte, so be it. She becomes a granny either way.

While Esri is looking forward to Lugh’s future as a Zaddy, Lugh and Tarte pay a visit to Pisear, the second-largest merchant town after Milteu and also the prime market for Count Azba Venkaur’s drugs. They both detect that the innocent girl selling gooseberry jam in a dark alley is actually being forced to sell the drug-laced jam to pay for drugs for her addicted mom.

Lugh and Tarte beat up the low-level thugs controlling the girl, and Lugh uses magic to lift the girl’s mom’s physical dependence, but he knows he can only do so much without dealing with the root cause of this drug problem: the Count bringing in the drugs to begin with.

While Lugh and Tarte took a street-level view of how bad things were, Maha used her not inconsiderable intelligence resources on Venkaur’s operation. Then she accompanies Lugh-as-Illig Balor as the directors of Orna, which just so happens to be the Count’s wife Bridgette’s favorite brand. On the wagon ride to the Venkaur estate, Maha asks Lugh if he’s made any “progress” with Tarte.

A month on her own has made Maha even more confident and direct, and she makes it clear to Lugh that she and Tarte don’t see Lugh as just a brother, friend, or young master any more, and it’s time for him to look at them in a different way. Maha, for one, is biding her time until she becomes utterly indispensable to Lugh, at which point she’ll be on equal footing to negotiate an arrangement. Call it the “To Big to Fail” strategy.

They arrive to find Countess Bridgette to be an exceedingly warm and lovely woman for someone of such high station, and Lugh gets to shake the hand of his target, Count Azba. As the evening rolls on and he charms his mostly female guests of the Orna-branded party, Lugh catches glimpses of both Azba and Bridgette. He really gets to know the people whose lives he’s going to ruin.

Azba is a bad guy who sells drugs that destroy people and families and the very social fabric atop which he stands. He doesn’t deserve the pure love of his wife Bridgette, but he has it anyway. Lugh doesn’t want to hurt Bridgette, who never hurt him and knows nothing of her husband’s dealings. But he has a job to do for the betterment of the kingdom.

Mind you, he doesn’t do it because it’s his job. He’s no longer the finely-honed but ultimately will-less tool he was in his past life. He chooses who to kill, and after seeing what his crimes do to people, he’s chosen Azba as his first target. Moments after taking the shot and ending his life from several hundred meters away, Lugh’s magnifying vision lingers on the balcony until he sees a heartbroken Bridgette run out, grab Azba’s lifeless body, staining her face (covered in Orba-brand cosmetics) and her fancy clothes with the blood of the man she loved most in the world.

And Lugh feels something, after having never felt anything after assassinating in his old life. A distinct and strong pang of pain. He hastens to clarify he won’t regret this first kill, but he won’t forget it either. When he one day looks deep into the eyes of his sons and daughters—whoever their mother may be—a part of him will always see the blood-stained face of the poor Countess Bridgette Venkaur.

The World’s Finest Assassin – 08 – The Only Way to Live

Last week aptly documented Lugh’s happy and successful life as Illig Balor with his right-hand women Tarte and Maha. Now two years have passed. While before Maha was powerless to save her friends from criminals, here she keeps an eye out for them when they’re out late and dispatches their would-be muggers with ease.

Lugh has learned that given a chance (and adequate resources), Maha has not only become someone who can protect herself and her friends, but thrive as a merchant. We learn that the shop purchased as the HQ of his now booming cosmetic brand was the first shop Maha’s father opened when he was a merchant. Both Maha and her friends are eternally grateful for Illig’s help giving them their new happy and successful lives.

But for Illig, this life is now over and it’s time to return home and to being Lugh Tuatha Dé. He leaves his thriving business in Maha’s capable hands, while Maha asks that if her Prince can spare a day a month for Dia, surely he can come see her sometime as well. Maha and Tarte also leave on warm, happy, and mutually respecting terms. They don’t see themselves as rivals for Lugh’s heart, because in their view there’s plenty of that heart to go around.

On the wagon ride home they run into some wolf monsters, which Tarteuses the skills Lugh taught her to easily defeat without Lugh having to lift a finger. Once they reach Tuatha Dé lands and he sees the new soybean fields, he gets out of the wagon to receive a warm welcome—and a big basket of produce—from his adoring people.

Unlike Maha and Tarte, they may not know there’s a lot of calculation in his behavior, but even if they did, like Maha and Tarte it’s his actions, not the motivations behind them, that would likely matter most to them.

Has the assassin from our world who is now Tuatha Dé become more sentimental now that he’s been in this world for fourteen years? It’s hard to say, but if he has, it hasn’t softened his edge one bit. When his father reveals that one of the most important reasons for sending him to be a Balor was to give his son the choice he no longer has: to walk away from the thankless life of an assassin anyone in the kingdom could betray and abandon at any time.

Lugh’s answer is a firm no, for the simple reason that he isn’t a Balor, or a merchant: he’s an assassin and a Tuatha Dé. Honor and duty to the kingdom mean nothing to him, but the happiness of the people he cares about means everything. Also, he mentions that he’s in love with Dia, and can’t marry her if he abandons his noble station to be a merchant. It’s another calculated move, but one that doesn’t preclude that he is in love with Dia, and simply calling it something more pragmatic.

Rating: 4/5 Stars

The World’s Finest Assassin – 07 – You Gotta Moisturize

“You know, I’ve tried all sorts of moisturizers. I even went fragrance-free for a whole year. Now my sister, she uses some kind of uh… uh… uh… uh… aloe vera with a little sunscreen in it, and ideally, we should all wear gloves when going to bed, but I found out that that creates a kind of an interference with my… “social agenda”, you know what I mean.”—Frank Catton, Ocean’s Eleven

“It’s all going according to plan”—‘Illig’ thinks this as he lay in bed flanked by the undyingly loyal Tarte and Maha. He says the loss of their parents makes them seek human warmth, and their infatuation with him has made them his “pawns”—he continues to insist in his head that there’s a distance between artifice of his precious Plan and the reality as the girls see it: that is and has been kind and generous enough to demand that their loyalty and love.

After Illig heals his father’s legitimate son with his Tuathe Dé skills, his father agrees to adopt Maha as Illig’s sister, and also agrees that no matter when this charade ends, Illig or Lugh will always have a home to go back to in Milteu—a smart backup plan Just in Case.

As far as the merchant world goes, Illig takes to it like a fish to water and intends to make a huge first splash, converting one of his father’s failed liquor stores in the city into a cosmetics and confectionary shop focused on women. Knowing brand trumps quality in this competitive industry, he has an ace up his sleeve: there are no moisturizers in this world.

Not only does Illig impress his father, but his mother too, though she’ll still always hate him as a symbol of her husband’s impropriety. I’m sure Illig appreciates her directness. Six months pass, and Illig and Tarte watch the women and the money pour into the store. Illig further galvanizes Maha’s loyalty and love by making her the store manager, who hires her friends.

Maha and her friends are now living the dream they dreamt while living on the streets before being captured. Maha couldn’t be more content, and we learn Illig has also trained her in the skills of assassination. Such are her and Tarte’s depth of devotion to their master and brother, they’ll happily brutally torture a corporate spy in the night. Illig didn’t even have to be there.

This week is the wackiest Goddess interlude yet—in which she’s rap-dueling with The World’s Greatest MC, only to learn that 30 years later he’s done nothing because all he does is insult people. But while they provide a measure of comic relief, they also show us that of all the Worlds Best ___’s the Goddess has brought to a new world, Illig seems to be faring the best.

We also learn that once a month Illig travels to hang out with Dia, who is essentially his big sister. They collaborate on new spells and catch up. Just one day a month must be lonely (that bittersweet loneliness has been beautifully expressed in the Dia-centric ED), but even if Illig cynically thinks he’s just keeping another pawn loyal to him, there’s clearly more going on than that.

While Illig’s constant assurance to himself everything is going according to plan make me nervous for some kind of unanticipated setback, the first instance is pretty low-key: his body has arrived at puberty, and after a mana-intensive day at Dia’s, he sleeps soundly between Tarte and Maha…and wakes up to learn his body has had its first wet dream.

Tarte and Maha immediately assure him that in the future they will be able to “take care” of this new development without issue or delay, and Illig, who didn’t seem like much of a ladies man in his past life, is understandably flustered. While this first crack in his plan is mostly silly, the fact he now has less than five years to defeat the hero provides potential for many more. So much remains unknown of the hero, from their gender to the possibility of fulfilling his mission without killing them.

Rating: 4/5 Stars

The World’s Finest Assassin – 06 – The Merchant’s Daughter

Warning: This episode deals with some upsetting and potentially triggering themes, including rape and sexual assault, physical, mental, emotional, verbal, and sexual abuse, child abuse/pedophilia, and self-injurious behavior. 

Our cold open features Lugh and Tarte donning their new threads as they prepare to live their new lives as Illig Balor and his servant. But after the credits, we pivot to the much-anticipated story of third member of Lugh’s assassination team from the first episode: Maha. Herself the daughter of merchants but now an orphan on the streets, she and five other girls survive by giving sightseeing tours to travelers.

They’re close to making enough money for better clothes, and one day Maha dreams of them making enough to buy a house in which to live together. But one stormy day that dream is stamped out when all six girls are captured by men hired to round up kids for his lord’s “orphanage.” I knew shit was going to get bad, but had no idea how bad.

Ironically, Maha and the others get what they were dreaming of: a roof under their heads, food to cook and eat together at a table. But it happens to come at the price of their own freedom. They are essentially slaves, doing whatever is asked of them and being beaten when their captors feel like it. It gradually wears their once enterprising spirits down into the dirt.

Then the captors start getting rapey, pimping the girls out one by one to those with the coin to purchase them for the night. The oldest of them, Ifa, is the first to go through this, and Maha is forced to bathe, dress, and apply makeup to her, essentially making her the involuntary preparer of the lamb to the slaughter.

The sequence of this preparation is plenty disheartening, but then the episode’s absolutely brutal transitions have Ifa being doused three times in a row, succinctly indicating how many times she’s endured hell; the light in her eyes fading more each time.

For anyone still thinking it wouldn’t simply get worse from there, the episode is ready to change your minds in a hurry. At first Ifa is the only one sent away, until one day one of the other girls asks why they never get to go.

Then they go, one by one, each being subjected to the same pre-hell ritual of washing and dressing up as Ifa was. One of Maha’s friends decides the only way to protect herself from further torment is to cut up her face with a sickle; Maha is too late to stop her. It doesn’t matter; her torment doesn’t end.

One day, Maha overhears her captors talking about her being next, despite her having only just turned twelve. Having witnessed the aftermath of what all the other girls went thorough, Maha rushes to the barn, and is ready to cut her face when she’s stopped by a familiar figure, at least to us: “Illig Balor”.

Illig has come to purchase one of the girls—not for a night, but for good. He chooses Maha, and gives her captor more than enough gold. Even so, the captor asks for and is granted three days, during which he intends to pimp Maha out to make some extra money on top of what Illig paid, then rape her himself.

At first, on her way to one of those clients, Maha is trying to put on a brave face; she’ll only have to endure three days of hell, and then she’ll be in heaven with her “prince”. Then her captor has his hands all over her, and she can’t do it. She uses her mana to escape the wagon, but is quickly caught by the captor’s henchman, who also uses mana.

The henchman seems intent on being the first to rape her, but he is incapacitated by Illig, who tells the captor he saw Maha calling for help with her eyes when he bought her. When the captor and his ilk try to take Illig out, Illig has no trouble at all taking them out.

Meanwhile, Tarte sets up a honey trap to get the pervert Viscount arrested, and the hellish orphanage is shut down. The girl who scarred her face even gets it healed by Illig. Maha then joins Illig, her “Prince’s” party, and all’s well that ends well, tempered of course by all of the other mental and physical scars the girls still carry.

Maha had by far the most intense and fucked-up backstory of the trio. Lugh came from another world where he was the finest assassin; Tarte suffered and endured, but for a briefer time. Maha saw and went through some shit.

I left the episode exhausted by the horrors Maha and her friends endured, but also happy relieved they’re now free and safe. The two-plus years that passed in this episode were the crucible in which a future Maha—an assassin Maha—was first forged.

Rating: 4/5 Stars

The World’s Finest Assassin – 05 – Making a Name, then Taking a New One

When Lugh goes into town with Tarte by his side, he’s practically mobbed by townsfolk eager to give him free stuff as thanks for all the kind assistance he’s given them. Whether it’s developing a fertilizer for the grocer’s onions, replenished a water supply, or mended the leg of a cow, he demonstrates every day that being a noble is more about power and strength, but winning hearts. And he’s not shy about one of those heart’s being Tarte’s.

One night Cian summons his son to the dark room where he usually examines his growth. Instead, he does so in another manner, by asking Lugh “how Tarte is.” After reporting how in two years Tarte has become the equal of any member of the branch families, he also assuages his pops’ suspicion that Tarte was a spy meant to steal Tuatha Dé techniques.

Lugh admits it was incredibly fortuitous for him to just happen to run into someone like Tarte, but he can’t very well say the Goddess drew him to her she’s too busy watching the other hundreds of “finest” fighters not doing as well as Lugh.

Cian eventually invites Lugh to a special training center where they go up against each other. Lugh is impressed by his dad’s ability to mask his true movements and intents with traps and feints, but at the end of the day Lugh is faster, stronger, and if I’m guessing right, possesses at least a decade more experience in assassination that Cian, and wins the day. Huis dad couldn’t be prouder.

From there, we get a glorious montage of Lugh accompanying his father on jobs, which begs the question, just how many people need assassinating in this kingdom that Cian is so damn busy? That said, I’m willing to table that question since it’s fun watching the two slink around, Lugh dying his hair black so he doesn’t stand out, and just offing dudes in all manner of ways.

Cian and Esri hold a grand banquet to celebrate the next step in their son’s progression: moving on his own to Milteu to pose as the son of a wealthy and powerful merchant, the better to gain access to the fortresses of nobles in need of killin’. It seems like an awfully public party with lots of opportunities for agents of those nobles to infiltrate. Then again, it might just be Tuatha Dé and its branch families who are invited.

One branch son who is not ready to accept Lugh as the future main family head is Ronah…until literally moments later when his throat is nicked and his arm broken with ease by Lugh, proving on the spot who the “stronger” person is.

But to the show’s credit, Ronah isn’t just cast aside as an upstart punk who got taught a lesson by the protagonist. Instead, he accepts his loss and is determined to improve. Lugh encourages this, and even offers to make Ronah his subordinate and knight, gifting him a superlight sword of his own design. Ronah is all for it, and wishes Lugh well on his next journey.

While Lugh is “leaving the nest” and his parents, Tarte naturally tags along…who would dress him? Apparently Esri taught Tarte…something that she’d rather not elaborate on when they’re about to depart. But once in the wagon on the way to Milteu, Lugh reminds Tarte that he’s not Lugh anymore, and won’t be for two years. He’ll be Illig Balor, son of the head of the Balor Trading Company.

Rating: 4/5 Stars

The World’s Finest Assassin – 04 – Nice to Be Needed

Ansatsu Kizoku is by no means the best-looking or most original anime of the Fall, but it just might have the best structure, or rather most interesting structure to its narrative. I love the way it darts and weaves back and forth through time. Macro-wise, we’ve already seen Tarte in action, but this is the episode that truly introduces her as a character, not merely an ass-kicking machine.

We begin with Tarte in pretty much the most dire situation someone can be in. Winter is coming, so the family decided to cast her out so there’d be enough food (it’s implied their lord overtaxes, which caused families to make impossible choices). Starving and running out of strength, she’s set upon by a pack of wolves.

Here’s what immediately made Tarte interesting: she smiles moments before her death. She neither fears nor blames the hungry wolves; hell, she respects them. If this is how she goes, at least she’ll be put to good use keeping other living things alive. When her family abandoned her, she felt she had lost all reason to exist. Then our friend Lugh arrives, and uses the wolves to practice his killing skills while Tarte watches.

Mind you, Lugh doesn’t arrive to save her until after we get an extended scene of him at the harvest market, watching the townsfolk prepare for the winter by preserving and rationing. There’s even a brief little aside of comic relief when the Goddess checks in on another person like Lugh who isn’t faring so well. It’s when Lugh goes hunting so his family will have meat in the winter that he comes across Tarte.

Tarte happens to be backing a huge amount of mana—more than he’s seen in anyone in town—and the grizzled assassin in him knows it can’t be a coincidence; the Goddess must have sent her to him. The thing is, that seemingly throwaway gag of her watching The World’s Finest Special Ops Guy become a NEET over four decades proves she’s not always watching Lugh and making things happen. Sometimes…things just happen, like meeting Tarte.

Lugh’s initial interactions with Tarte are seemingly kind, if somewhat emotionally distant and logical. It’s only after he’s struck a deal for her to bind herself to him mind body and soul that he reveals he manipulated this font of mana into someone who would never betray him; someone who owes their existence to him and so exists only for him.

Two years pass, and Lugh has been training Tarte into the fellow assassin he’ll need to take on the Hero. He hasn’t told her why he’s training her, nor is she curious. When he performs the same examination of Tarte that his father performed on him, it’s super clinical, medical…professional. Lugh may have the body of a twelve-year-old, but he’s no Lewd Rudy.

When I think about how Lugh interacted with Tarte with such precision calculation, I remember what his father said: they are people, not tools. A tool would not have been able to get Tarte to trust him or devote herself to him so easily, but Lugh has been raised to be empathetic and curious, and so is a much better judge of character than your stock killing machine.

The same can be said of Tarte. Takada Yuki does such a fine job initially voicing the starving Tarte and then imbuing her voice with more strength and confidence once two years pass. Tarte may be really really good with a spear (collapsible or otherwise), but she’s also a good person…or as she once said of Lugh, a good person “as far as I’m concerned”.

How we treat others matters. Tarte witnessed Lugh slaughter the wolves with the deftness of a surgeon, and hears how he’s killed people and will go on killing people as part of his duties. But he’s still a good person to her, because he and he alone saved her when he didn’t have to.

Now that both Dia and Tarte have been properly introduced (and are both exceedingly charming, rootable characters to complement Lugh’s aloofness) I imagine the cool beauty Maha’s story is next up. I’m looking forward to more taut, confidently structured storytelling.

The World’s Finest Assassin – 03 – Wonderful First Time

Lugh’s very first magic lesson with his new mentor Dia goes awry when Dia, unaware of just how much goddamn mana her student possesses, tells him to put as much as he can in one of her family’s Materia-like Fahr Stones. He does so, and it quickly turns into a magical bomb that shatters every window in the Tuatha De mansion. Even so, his parents aren’t angry, they’re proud and excited.

If this were the soul of Rudeus Greyrat, not an old grizzled assassin in Lugh’s body, there might be ample potential for pervy unpleasantness (especially considering Lugh is seven and Dia ten). Fortunately, there’s none of that; even when Dia decides to sleep with Lugh, it’s no big deal. When she teaches him mana conversion for his “first time”, it’s oddly intimate, but ultimately pure.

Another common pitfall for a dynamic like this is to assume that in addition to the young callow student being attracted to his pretty older teacher, the two always have to be bickering or competing. Instead, Lugh and Dia collaborate equally, with Dia bringing her knowledge of the spells of this world to the table and Lugh applying his ability to synthesize his own spells. Together, the two literally make gold out of thin air.

Two weeks pass, and Dia is feeling sad about having to leave, as there’s nothing more she can teach him. So in addition to gifting her with an impossibly sharp beta titanium knife, Lugh earnestly promises her that if she even needs him, he’ll go to where she is without fail. Two weeks may not seem like a long time, but lest we forget, they’re probably share a father, and kids always bond faster than adults.

With the pure, charming innocence of Dia departed for her home, Lugh’s dad admits that despite only being seven, Lugh is ready to learn more about the family business. To whit: Lugh takes him to a prison full of death row inmates from around the kingdom who are there for the purposes of experimentation in the service of further honing their assassination skills.

When Lugh asks why his parents didn’t simply raise him to be an unfeeling killing machine, Cian’s answer is both profound and obvious: because while they are assassins (and damned good ones), they’re people, not tools. In contrast to his previous life, Lugh must use his own humanity in addition to knives and guns to optimize his assassination skills.

The final three minutes turn the chipper magical training nature of the epiode to that point on its head, as Cian orders Lugh to make his first kill. The convict is seemingly scared out of her mind and tearfully begs Lugh not to kill her, but Lugh doesn’t shrink from his duty, lopping off a hand with his own titanium blade and telling her she’ll die a relatively peaceful death.

This draws out the true criminal, who is not scared of dying and curses Lugh to be sent to a hell full of demons. To this, Lugh responds that that might be a nice change of pace next time he dies. This is dark, good stuff. Its consistent, sincere, and serious tone (matching our protagonist’s demeanor without his adult voice intruding upon his new world) more than makes up for its merely adequate visuals.

Rating: 4/5 Stars

The World’s Finest Assassin – 02 – New World, Same Calling

This episode does away with both OP and ED to shove in as much material as possible about this new world and how our antihero will be living it. He agrees to the goddess’s proposal to kill the Hero before he goes insane and destroys the world, then picks out his five skills and elemental affinities. It’s honestly a bit pedestrian, as this lengthy first act of preparation can’t hide the fact it’s primarily exposition.

Our grizzled assassin is then transported to the womb of Esri Tuatha Dé, born, named Lugh by his father Cian, and declared the heir to the Tuatha Dé legacy…which just happens to be assassination. Seven years pass in this second act, which is just as well, as scenes of Lugh as a baby and toddler were going to be tedious. We see scenes of Lugh’s family of three’s happy life, including an extremely detailed explanation the nutritional benefits of rabbit stew.

We then get a look into the family’s seedy underbelly. Turns out that the public face of the Tuatha Dé clan is not of assassination, but medicine—they control both life and death, keeping the royals healthy while eliminating their enemies in the shadows. Lugh’s father doesn’t just teach him combat, but chemistry. He also performs ocular surgery that gives him Mystic Eyes, allowing him to see great distances clearly as well as visualize the mana emanating from every soul.

Lugh, no stranger to the field in which he is straining, only a stranger to the particular methods of this new world, impresses his parents to the point they hire someone to teach him how to wield magic far earlier than most children would. His instructor is someone we met last week: Dia, from a prominent family of mages. She may be tiny, but she’s no child, and one of the strongest five mages in the land. In other words, a perfect tutor for Lugh’s continued development.

Zombieland Saga: Revenge – 09 – The Legend Continues

As those who share Kiichi’s views grow in number, he still finds time for tea with Yuugiri, who whips up a medicine for his ailing grandfather. Kiichi and Itou pose with Yuugiri for a photograph, which for me meant that somewhere in the present day there’s a very old black-and-white photo of the Legendary Courtesan out there—assuming it survived the war.

However, those who have joined Kiichi don’t necessarily want a new Saga for all; they want their old Saga back, and as many of them are veterans of the war lost eight years ago, they’re willing to take up arms and spill blood to do it, which is far beyond the peaceful return of Saga of which the idealistic Kiichi dreams.

Itou, in between ripping down Kiichi’s flyers and passing messengers disguised as vagrants, gives his friend one final warning to give up his crusade now that it is poised to become a violent one beyond his control. But Kiichi isn’t quite ready to give up on Saga, either for himself or the comrades he’s gathered.

Unfortunately, those comrades armed themselves and planned an armed rebellion behind Kiichi’s back. On the snowy night when they spring into action, Itou meets them in a quiet street…and cuts them all down on orders from the government.

By the time Kiichi catches up to his comrades, Itou has already slaughtered them all. It turns out he was watching out for spies all along, and while he knew Kiichi didn’t mean for things to turn out this way, he’s crossed a line he can’t un-cross, and now it’s Itou’s duty to kill him.

Yuugiri doesn’t let him, whipping a katana out of her shamisen to meet his, saving Kiichi’s life. When the local police approach with whistles blaring, Itou flees one way while Yuugiri and Kiichi go another. All the while, Kiichi’s gramps is having some kind of attack and collapses before he can reach the medicine.

After losing the fuzz, Kiichi starts to sob and whine, and Yuugiri slaps him, telling him he’s come this far for Saga’s sake and can’t give up now. As we saw in a previous scene, she’s already written to some of her many powerful friends who have sworn to protect Kiichi until things cool down. Kiichi doesn’t want to leave the Saga he loves, but he listens to the legendary savior whom he loves.

By the time Itou finds a casually smoking Yuugiri, Kiichi is long gone. Yuugiri forewarns that she was trained by someone called the “Sheathed Kichiemon”, whom Itou knows as “The Demon of Hibiya,” and thus knows he can’t go easy on her. In the ensuing one-slash duel, Yuugiri bests Itou, killing him, but is shocked that he let himself be killed.

No doubt if Itou failed to kill Kiichi, he was as good as dead anyway; he simply let Yuugiri take care of him for him. And with the snow ceasing and the clouds opening up to reveal a majestic full moon, Yuugiri accepts her fate. The next morning, Gramps wakes up and finds a letter from Yuugiri amongst the medicine.

In it, she says by the time he reads it she’ll likely be dead; beheaded by the military in a unilateral execution for killing Itou, a government official. Interspersed with her beautifully lit and solemn execution scene, she tells Gramps that if he’s truly “Saga” (as in, the human embodiment of Saga) as claimed, he’ll guide the new Saga Kiichi creates.

The following spring, May 1883, Saga re-gains independence from Nagasaki thanks to a peaceful appeal from supporters in the prefecture, and by August, unilateral execution was banned, and just nine days after that, Kiichi’s dream officially came true, as the first Saga prefectural assembly is held. Yuugiri’s death, and that of Kiichi’s comrades, weren’t in vain.

With that, we find ourselves back in the present, as Yuugiri takes center stage in a bopping swing-style concert, resplendent in period-inspired garb as her fellow idols support her. This particular concert hits different now that we’ve seen everything Yuugiri’s been through to come to this part of her (after)life.

In a very cheeky epilogue, she has some very nice whiskey in a very classy bar tended by a man who looks and sounds like a younger version of Kiichi’s gramps. He is aware that Yuugiri was alive in the Meiji era, and the black-and-white photo of her with Kiichi and Itou is behind the bar, so this guy must really be the immortal Saga.

Not only did this two-parter give the legendary Yuugiri the epic backstory he deserved, in which she was revealed a hero, martyr, and unsung founding mother to the new Saga—it also expands the mythos of the show by introducing an undying character who has been on the margins of this whole story all along, and may well be behind the necromancy that brought Yuugiri and the other idols back. In any case, I’m eager to see where this goes!

Crow and Irina talk episode 9 here!

Zombieland Saga: Revenge – 08 – The Celestial Maiden

Note: This episode was originally accidentally labeled episode 7. It is episode 8.

This is it, the much-anticipated backstory episode(s) for the oldest (by more than a century), wisest, and most elegant and domestically capable members of Franchouchou. One and a half seasons seems like far too long without Yuugiri being the focus, but good things come to those who wait.

The clock turns all the way back to 1881 (Meiji 14), when the proud proprietor and madam are meeting with the Legendary Courtesan Yuugiri at the very height of her powers. Such is her beauty and talents of entertainment, she literally priced herself out of her market!

Her richest and most devout patron showed his gratitude for her services by setting her up with her own household in Saga. I imagine he intended to live with her, but he died of an illness, and a year later, Yuugiri arrives in Saga completely alone and knowing no one. She spends her days giving the local girls dance lessons, and her evenings staring wistfully at the gorgeous Saga sunsets.

Ay, but there’s the rub: the region she moved to was once known as Saga (and will be again in the present day), but in 1882, the Meiji government considered it a nuisance prefecture, and after losing a regional war to Meiji, Saga was split up between Mizuma and Nagasaki, effectively erasing it from the map.

Local boy Momozaki Kiichi is determined to “Bring Saga Back”, making him the spiritual (if not biological!) descendant of Tatsumi Koutarou (he’s even voiced by Miyano Mamoru) . He tries to pass out flyers urging others to join his cause to create a new beginning for Saga, but he’s stopped often by the local cop, and just as often bailed out by his more jaded friend Itou.

One day, Yuugiri’s students urge her to leave her stately roost and view the cherry blossoms. She purchases a windmill, and the wind—and possibly fate—blow it out of her hands, landing at Kiichi’s feet. Kiichi is understandably bowled over by her beauty and politeness.

They’re almost both bowled over by a rickshaw, but when he leaps to push her out of harm’s way, she deftly dodges the ride on her own, and in the opposite direction, while he lands in a muddy bog. To his continued shock and shame, she soils her yukata to dry his face. We get another gorgeous shot of Yuugiri staring at the sunset, but because the red pinwheel is there, it feels significantly less lonely than the first shot.

The woman aboard that rickshaw looks just like Tae, just like many extras in the background resemble characters from the present day. It’s an fun artistic choice that reminds me of Farscape’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again” and Star Trek: DS9’s “Far Beyond the Stars”—two episodes that placed the casts in totally different roles.

Kiichi learns who he met from Itou, who is more up to speed with gossip in the prefecture formerly known as Saga. It’s rumored Yuugiri was so good, it almost brought down the Meiji court. Kiichi comes calling at Yuugiri’s house to offer a humble comb as thanks for her help; it’s then he learns he’s the first person to actually visit her other than her dance students.

Itou says that Yuugiri and Kiichi are “from different worlds” and thus hopelessly incompatable, but Kiichi rejects that cynicism and begins to build a friendship with Yuugiri, which isn’t hard because she’s incredibly nice and he’s her only adult visitor.

And then, one day, Yuugiri is in the kitchen when she feels what she charitably describes “a fresh presence” that turns out to be Itou. From this point on, and really before that too, something seemed off and sinister about this guy. That he perfectly blocks Yuugiri’s chopstick strike doesn’t dispel that notion!

The aura around Itou is so menacing, in fact, that I half believed he drugged Kiichi in order to be alone with Yuugiri. Instead, he has her put down the shamisen, offers her a drink (she graciously declines), and the two talk about Kiichi. As Yuugiri learned from Kiichi while visiting him at his “gramps”,  he was taken in by an old man after he was orphaned in the Saga war.

While Itou thinks Kiichi’s wild dreams and guileless optimism will lead to heartbreak and despair, Yuugiri admires the lad’s capacity for dreams. For all of Yuugiri’s comfort and luxury, in this era she remains the proverbial bird in a cage, idolized by all and avoided by all. Yet Kiichi, with his wild dreams, visits her and talks to her like they’re equals, and Kiichi-han’s Saga is a Saga where she truly can be free.

Before taking his leave for the night, Itou insists Japan is still too “twisted” and “barbaric” a nation for Kiichi’s dreams to ever come to fruition. Yet the next morning, a hot one, two strapping young lads approach Kiichi with his flyers in hand, interested in a new Saga themselves.

That glimmer of hope Kiichi has finally found some like-minded folks is all but snuffed out when Itou tosses a scrap of paper to an beggar who moves a lot faster and with far more purpose than you’d expect. This elicits a host of suspicions in me, from Itou plotting something horrible for Yuugiri (perhaps on orders from the Meiji court), to those two lads interested in Kiichi’s cause actually being hired muscle waiting for their chance to silence Kiichi, possibly for good.

And then there’s the overarching pall hanging over this look back: it is a look back. We know Yuugiri is already dead. I feel we just may have experience the happy half of the Legendary Courtesan’s saga. One way or another, the second half will end in tragedy as Itou predicted (and could well be an architect in that tragedy), and more than a century will pass before Yuugiri is revived by Koutarou and actually gets to see the New Saga Kiichi-han dreamed about.

Rating: 4/5 Stars

Read Irina and Crow’s discussion of episode 8 here!

Jaku-Chara Tomozaki-kun – 12 (Fin) – Her Skills, His Goals

After the big blow-up with Hinami, Tomozaki backslides hard into old habits and then some, as he’s even playing Tackfam with a bored look on his face that “really isn’t him.” He also failed to notice that he’d left poor Fuuka hanging by not looking at his phone for two days.

When he immediately texts back that he’ll go with her to pick up Andi’s new book, his sister acknowledges he “must be going through some stuff”, and to hang in there. While it’s a shame she never got a name, his sister (ably voiced by Hidaka Rina) struck a fine balance between typical imouto brattiness and sincere concern and quiet support for her big bro.

For his bookstore date with Fuuka, as with the fireworks date before, Tomozaki is determined to be his “real, unvarnished self”, ditching the task-and-goal based game mechanics Hinami had thrust upon him, which did nothing for Fuuka. Still, as he looks at his re-disheveled appearance in the mirror of the cafe restroom, he can’t deny that meeting Hinami’s goals made him happy too.

In keeping with his desire to remain real and unvarnished with her always, Tomozaki tells Fuuka how he’s still a little mixed up. He reveals how he had a coach teach him how to play the game of life, but how speaking to her with canned topics felt like wearing a mask or cheating, and asks if he should continue improving his skills.

Fuuka explains that when it’s easy to talk to him, she can picture the things he says clearly, directly, and honestly in her head, like she’s reading a novel. When it’s harder to talk to him (or most other people), the images lose focus. It’s no secret that she treasures books immensely, so for him to be able to have that same ability to project imagery into her head is surely a big part of his appeal!

But it’s more than that: when they first started talking, the images were in black-and-white; a “sad and lonely world”, but which made her think they saw the world the same way. She loves novels because the images they send have always looked more beautiful and colorful than the real world as she sees it. But more lately, the images Tomozaki has sent have been full of color too.

Fuuka is glad he’s working hard to change himself, and believes that if there’s someone in his world—a “magician” that gave it those colors—than he should “treasure” that person. After all, those colors have begun to convince her that she too can still change how she sees the world.

Fuuka’s sincere and heartfelt words inspire Tomozaki to make up with the “magician” who gave his world and words color, while not conceding to her own black-and-white view of it. Just getting her to agree to talk again is a little mini-battle in and of itself, but Tomozaki is victorious and gains an audience with her, partly because he’s persistent, and partly because part of her probably wants to make up too.

After meeting, he takes her to the very storefront from where she first revealed to him that she was NO NAME and they began their elaborate master-and-apprentice dance. There, he tells her why he loves Tackfam: the way he could put aside his own weakness, pitifulness, and self-hatred and pour his soul into the game, giving it color.

Hinami helped show him ways to control the game of life so it began to shine with color too. He wants to be a controller in that game, not just the controlled. Hinami shuts him down, dismissing his “this is what I really want” talk as being “drunk on idealism” and “wallowing in sentimentality.” But…but…if he’s saying his “true desires” actually exist beyond those hollow constructs, she’ll need him to provide proof.

In a lovely inversion of their early discussion in which she explained to him the value of the game of life, Tomozaki tells her the proof consists of “many simple rules in combination, intersecting in complex ways that make them harder to grasp”. She won’t find her true desires simply by asking for proof they even exist, but by struggling to discover how she feels and making steady, honest progress.

As someone who believes true desires don’t exist, Tomozaki says she’s only been going through the motions from a player’s POV; without experiencing true, genuine fun. She may be better at playing the game of life, but he’s certain he’s got her beat when it comes to enjoying it. So just as she resolved to help him learn how to play it, he’s going to show her how to enjoy it more than she does now—and in doing so, find what it is she really wants.

Hinami won’t go on this journey with him until he’s given her something to make her rethink her belief that true desires don’t exist, and he has one: She still hasn’t managed to beat him at Tackfam…not once. That’s not due to lack of effort. It’s because his true desires have always fueled his gaming. He knows what he really wants, and she doesn’t.

In the world of Tackfam where they’re both hardcore gamers, he’s Japan’s Top Player nanashi and she’s NO NAME and winless against him. She can’t complain about his “false logic” until she can beat him first, and Tomozaki is confident that if and when she does beat him, she’ll already understand what he’s on about.

Hinami admits she’s impressed by his thoughtful argument, couched though it may be in irrationality. As such, she decides to meet him halfway: not accepting that “true desires or whatever” exist, but can’t say they definitively don’t exist either. If he wants to convince her to come down from that fence, he’s welcome to try. In the meantime, Tomozaki wishes to continue trying to conquer the game of life with her guidance.

She can keep setting goals and he’ll keep working towards them, but from now on he’ll choose which ones conflict with what he really wants. He can’t deny her skills have worked; not when they brought color his life, and by extension, Fuuka’s. But he’ll adopt a hybrid playing style going forward: balancing her goals with his desires. While celebrating their making up by ordering the same salted mackerel dinner, Hinami assigns Tomozaki his next goal: acquiring a part-time job.

Hinami ends up setting him up with a job at the same karaoke parlor where Mizusawa works, where she knows he’ll have an ally to help ease him into the sub-game of Employment. Tomozaki continues to hang out with his new circle of normies, helping (or rather not helping) Yuzu pick out an outfit for her new first date with Nakamura. He gives her sister a strap Mimimi likes, which of course his sister loves because Mimimi does. He and Mizusawa serve their friends while they’re at the parlor singing the show’s theme song.

He also keeps dating Fuuka, who is working on a new novel and excited for Tomozaki to read it and even more excited to hear his thoughts about it, since they’ll surely shine with dazzling color. And he keeps having his debriefing sessions with Hinami, only now thanks to his job it makes sense how he can afford to eat out so much!

The episode, and the series, ends with nanashi beating NO NAME yet again, Hinami stewing with frustration and immediately demanding another match, and Tomozaki gladly agreeing. This, to me, is the perfect set-up for a second season in which Tomozaki and Hinami will be both student and teacher to each other.

While a 2-episode OVA will ship with the Blu-ray, no second season has been announced. But I for one would love to return to the vibrant, complex characters, smart, precise dialogue, and adorable dates of Bottom-tier Character Tomozaki, an unexpected breath of fresh air in a sea of high school rom-coms.

The Hidden Dungeon Only I Can Enter – 02 – Coasting Along in Easy Mode

Noir was accepted to Hero Academy, but the 300,000-rel tuition is too-steep for his baronet father, so he has to come up with the cash by himself. At no point did I doubt he’d be able to do so by the end of the episode. Olivia suggests he becomes an adventurer, so he registers with Odin, which just happens to be Olivia’s guild.

The receptionist Lola is skeptical of Noir’s claims, even going so far as to say she’ll lift her skirt up if he’s proven right by the Discerning Tome. Of course he’s proven right, and Lola is a woman of her word…but what a weird wager! It’s almost as if she knows she’s in an ecchi harem show.

Someone who’s known all along what kind of show this is is Emma, who soon joins Noir out in the field. He successfully catches a bunch of rainbow caterpillars to the tune of 250,000 rel, and his success seems to turn Lola on, resulting in a standoff between her and Emma. Are there, like, no other men?

Noir and Emma head back out into the field to defeat a giant evil rabbit to earn the remaining 50,000 rel he needs for tuition. Since this battle takes up the most time and seems the most hazardous, you’d think the rabbit quest would be worth 250,000 and the grasshopper quest 50,000. I guess it’s best just not to think…at all.

When Emma’s attacks prove ineffective, Noir decides to the skills Olivia gave him to increase her attributes, but Noir doesn’t feel like coughing up 700 LP, so he buffs her weapon adeptness instead to the tune of 500 LP. He gets more than enough LP to cover the magic with a slobbery ear-nibbling session with Emma. Her moans end up luring the rabbit to them, and she defeats it as easily as everything has fallen into Noir’s lap so far.

He gets the 300,000 rel he needs, he gets another hug from Lola and Emma (who make up after a rough start) and thanks to a skill he created that lets him store the dead rabbit in a trans-dimensional space, he ingratiates himself with the entire guild by offering it for a feast. When pressed for a speech, he thinks of how none of this would be possible without Olivia…only to not so much as mention her to the guild of which she was a member.

Looks like the easy times and make-out sessions are only going to continue from here. As I said last week, those looking for serious conflict, adversity, or any kind of surprises are barking up the wrong tree. This week I can add “receptionists unwilling to arbitrarily debase themselves” and “thrilling battle animation” to the growing list of stuff not in this anime.

The Hidden Dungeon Only I Can Enter – 01 (First Impressions) – Born on Third

As a “mere” baronet, Noir Starga may be at the bottom of the noble caste pyramid of his nation. His family isn’t fuck-you rich, all the higher classes look down on them, and he has to get an actual job to support himself. But while his librarian job is stolen by a higher-ranking baron the day he’s supposed to start, life seems awfully sweet for Noir!

For one thing, he has two living parents, despite being a character in a fantasy anime! He also has a cute brocon imouto in Alice and a smokin’ hot childhood friend in Emma Brightness (excellent name), whom I’m just going to pretend is the non-masochistic sister of KonoSuba’s Darkness. Noir and Emma were going to be co-workers, but she still has a solution for the migraines he suffers: swappin’ spit!

So far we’ve got a kid with a loving fam, a future wife, and oh yeah, that Great Sage skill tells him everything about the world, including the unexplained. Again, pretty sweet life. When making out with Emma cures his headaches, Noir’s free to use it to locate a hidden dungeon just 10 klicks from town. There, he hears Horie Yui’s voice and follows it to the buxom adventurer Olivia Servant.

Olivia has been chained up for two centuries, and is just happy to talk to another person. Rather than let her considerable skills go to waste, she copies and bestows them upon Noir. They are Get Creative (conjure any skill), Bestow (give any skill to anyone) and Editor (modify any skill). The only catch: the skills use a ton of Life Points (LP), gained by, well, living: essentially enjoying money, food, and sex.

Noir tries out his new OP skills in the dungeon, but the LP expenditure tires him out. He learns lying in Alice’s lap restores a bit of LP, while embracing a more daringly-dressed Emma the next day restores a lot. When she complains of shoulder pain from her rather prodigious bust, he uses Editor to temporarily shrink it; she has him undo the change immediately.

Armed with so many useful skills and numerous ready sources of LP, Noir changes course and decides to take the Hero Academy entrance exam. The exam begins with the admitees splitting off into parties of three, and members of the higher castes mock Noir for even speaking to them, but thankfully Emma joins him, as she only got a job at the library to be with him. The haughty vicountess Lenore completes the triad.

They split up looking for valuable monster loot, and Noir heads to the hidden dungeon where he encounters a Level 99 Grim Reaper. Despite only being Level 23, Noir has enough LP to Create the Heavy skill and Bestow it on the Reaper to slow it down, then creates a giant stone bullet and shoots it at the Reaper, defeating it.

The Reaper skull ends up giving Team Lenore the edge, and then some: they scored 128,000 points when the next two teams only managed 11,550 and 5,890. Noir was misled by the fact Olivia is a master of the OP skills she gave him, to the point even a Level 99 Boss is a mere scrub.

If you’re looking for complex characters, conflicts, or drama, you will find none in The Hidden Dungeon Only I Can Enter. If you’re looking for a competently-rendered non-isekai renaissance-y setting packed with cute characters, JRPG rules, understated ecchi, and basically a lot of the hero getting his way without much effort at all (as befits his noble station), you’ve come to the right place!

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