Spy x Family – 02 – Put a (Grenade) Ring on It

The world Loid and Anya live in is extremely paranoid and treacherous, with people fucking each other over as easily as breathing. Kind, innocent souls like Yor risk getting reported simply for being single, since its believed such spinsterism threatens the nation’s birth rate. So when one of her bitchy co-workers invites her to a party, she’d better have a man on her arm.

It speaks to how dark and unpleasant this world is that even otherwise decent people like Loid and Yor are spies and assasins, respectively. Yor in particular really sells the “Thorn Princess” persona with an absolutely killer costume. Indeed, Yor’s penchant for wearing elegant headbands, along with Hayami Saori’s soft, warm voice, instantly endear me to her.

Obviously, these two kids simply have to meet; their interests and departure from the norms of shitty society align too perfectly. It’s just a matter of when, and sure enough, it’s at a clothier. Loid needs to buy fancier clothes for Anya, while Yor needs her only nice dress, torn during her killings, repaired for the party.

Loid is struck by how easily Yor sneaks up on him and how she can feel his gaze, while Anya uses her mind-reading to clear Yor’s misunderstanding about Loid being married, thus facilitating an arrangement between the two. Loid will attend the party as Yor’s boyfriend, while Yor will attend the meeting at Eden as Anya’s mom.

Unfortunately, the party is on Saturday night, the same night Loid is ordered to steal art from some smugglers. He tries to fit both obligations in, which is a recipe for disaster, and while he’s able to take out 38 thugs without too much trouble, a 39th and 40th ram him with their car. Meanwhile, Yor has to endure the party all alone, exposing her to her co-worker’s scorn and mockery.

When Loid shows up at the last minute and accidentally introduces himself as Yor’s husband, he’s bloodstained from a “violent episode” from a patient, saying he’s a psychiatrist. Camilla is so pissed that Yor has such a hot partner that she tries to toss piping hot gratin on Yor, only for Yor’s catlike reflexes to kick in and not only avoid getting burned, but saves the food.

When Camilla brings up rumors about Yor going to the hotel rooms of gentlemen for “massages”, Loid simply says it’s splendid for someone to endure such trials and sacrifice for the sake of someone they love—in Yor’s case, her little brother Yuri. He may not know she’s an assassin, but she knows she’s better people than trash like Camilla and her ilk.

After taking their leave from those preening assholes, Loid ends up getting Yor tangled up in the leftovers of his art-stealing mission, as the smugglers try to kill them both. When Loid is nearly stabbed by one thug leaping down from a fire escape, Yor saves his damn life and impresses the hell out of him by kicking the baddie into the next zip code.

Reveling not only in how well they “work” together but that this Loid fellow clearly understands what it means to not be “normal” (i.e., what everyone else is and expects them to be), she ends up asking for the very thing Loid needs: marriage to a woman to seal Anya’s admission.

It truly is a mutually beneficial partnership, and it’s commemorated in the most spy/assassin-y way imaginable: the diamond ring Loid nicked fell through a hole in his pocket, so he uses the ring of a grenade on her finger instead. And just like that, we’ve got ourselves a Spy Family.

Spy x Family – 01 (First Impressions) – Toupees are a No-Go

The master spy Twilight never wanted a family. He’d sworn such emotional connections off when he decided to become a master spy. Connections would only slow him down or compromise him. But now his latest mission is to gather intel on a man who only attends school related social functions. So he crafts the name Loid Forger, gets an apartment, all-too-easily adopts a 4-to-6-year-old  girl named Anya, and begins to craft the illusion that he is a father.

As you’d expect, someone who’d sworn family off does not make the best dad out of the box, and he’s clearly thrown off by Anya’s chaotic behavior, so he raids the library for parenting books. But at the end of the day, he’s like every other new parent out there: on his own, and needing to stay on his toes. He’s now responsible for a life other than his own.

Little does he know that his secret about being a spy isn’t a secret, nor are any of his thoughts. That’s because Anya is an esper, able to effortlessly read his mind and those of anyone else she chooses. This is the result of shadowy human experimentation project from which she fled and has been in and out of foster families and orphanages ever since.

Anya’s built-in struggles with family stability create instant pathos and sympathy for her, on top of her being someone you want Loid to protect at all costs. That said, she really makes it harder than it needs to be by messing with Loid’s spy stuff while he’s out, and ends up getting kidnapped by the same people Loid worked with in his previous mission (I love their leader’s insistence politicians can pretend they’re not bald).

Loid is jumped by several thugs, but while it looks like he’s had his head stove in by a pipe, when he’s brought before the thugs’ boss, he’s not the man with the sack on his head; he switched himself out somewhere along the way. He rescues Anya in disguise and tells her to run to the nearest police station, as he’s decided his mission is to dangerous to involve a little girl. But after he deals with the boss, Anya is still there waiting for him, and makes it clear she wants to remain a family.

Loid relents, and then helps Anya study for the entrance exam needed to be accepted to the academy where his target’s kid also goes, thus giving him the access he needs. It’s a good thing he helped her memorize the answers, too, because none of the minds of the kids around her know them! When Loid finds her number on the board of accepted students, he can’t contain his genuine joy, and is suddenly hit by all the built-up exhaustion of the last few days.

He manages to get home and passes out on the couch. Anya gets the mail (telling the mailman “her mother doesn’t exist”) then sees Loid asleep and vulnerable, and decides to curl up under his arm, finally with a home and parent to her name after so much heartbreak and pain. When Loid wakes up to read the mail that arrived, he learns that having a daughter won’t be enough: he’ll need a wife in order to pass the second admission test. How hard could it be?

Spy x Family is a taut, brisk, and thoroughly charming and heartwarming story of a spy’s ice cold heart gradually melting in the presence of the world’s cutest telepathic orphan. Will he really abandon her like all those others once his mission is complete, or will the fake family he’s building (and will soon complete with a fake wife) convince him he can have “conventional happiness”?

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

Golden Kamuy – 28 – Big Top, Big Turd

There’s no shortage of deep, dark, horrible stuff in Golden Kamuy (see: last week), but what keeps the audience from descending into despair is its well-integrated, irreverent, and sometimes gross comedy. Yet the comedy almost always serves and propels the more serious and dramatic central story, rather than simply serving as isolated points of relief.

Take Kiroranke introducing Asirpa to a opokay, a fanged deer that was her father’s first kill. He has her smell the musk glad, giving us another wonderful Asirpa Face (Ogata’s face, funnily enough, barely changes upon smelling it). Kiroranke tells the tale of how he and Wilk not just hunted this deer, but were called musk deer due to their wandering.

Our sense of smell is most closely tied to memory, so Asirpa remembers the beaded hohchiri her dad gave her to wear until her first kill (which is typically only for boys). This is how Kiroranke hopes to uncover the mysteries Wilk left in his daughter’s head: by continuing to familiarize her with the man her dad was, and that above all she can trust him, her father’s friend.

Comedy returns to the fore in a big way this week as Team Sugimoto ends up in Toyohara, the cultural capital of Karafuto, and fall victim to a circus acrobat who snatches bags in his spare time. Despite the kid’s speed and agility, Koito is up to the task of chasing him down with the Japanese equivalent of parkour.

When the circus’ ringleader Yamada hears the boy was thieving again, he whips out his sword and appears to cut his face, only for there to be no cut, only blood. Turns out the sword is part of Yamada’s show-stopping fake harakiri act, which was so good in Russia that he was declared dead in the newspapers.

This gives Sugimoto a fresh idea for reuniting with Asirpa: by performing his “Immortal Sugimoto” act in the circus, he’ll be putting himself out there in front of a huge crowd as well as the local media, meaning there’s no way Asirpa will miss him.

The other three soldiers also join the circus temporarily, as they are all united in the goal of finding Asirpa. Koito is an instant hit with Yamada and the girls for his considerable and effortless acrobatic feats. When asked what circus he came up in, he proudly proclaims “The 7th Division of the Imperial Army!”

Tsukishima and Tanigaki, who lack any acrobatic talent, are shunted off to join the dancing girls who perform between acts. Tanigaki reveals how sensitive he is to harsh criticism by the stern battleaxe of a choreographer, but is comforted by one of the older girls, Beniko, who cheers him on as she contemplates her final performance before the circus cuts her loose.

Then Sugimoto is taught the harakiri act by Yamada, who not only reveals what a good showman he is, but how damn big his nipples are! In truth, the sword has a grove containing red dye, and the water splashed on the body to “purify” it is really the liquid the dye turns red upon contact, leading the audience from afar to believe real cuts were made.

The day of the big show arrives, and the soldiers must before to a packed house, only with their natural or acquired artistic skills, not their fists. Koito performs almost perfectly until he finds a photo of his beloved Tsurumi on the tightrope.

Later, Tsukishima confesses he put it there worried Koito’s performance would overshadow Sugimoto’s, and thus their objective to find Asirpa. But Koito’s resulting improvisation ends up bringing the house down anyway. As for Tanigaki, he turns in a performance he can be proud of, and is finally acknowledged by the tough choreographer.

All that remains is the big closer: the Immortal Sugimoto Harakiri Show. His assistant Cikapasi (whom we learned received a hohchiri from Enonoka that he won’t be removing anytime soon) douses him with water in the right places, but Sugimoto soon learns that the sword he has is real—Koito switched out the fake as revenge for trying to sabotage him (before Tsukishima claimed responsibility).

Sugimoto shows he has a bit of a gift for showmanship by drawing the sword close and pulling it back with a chuckle, allowing the audience to let out the collective breath they were holding in. But this only works a couple times; they want to see blood. So after cutting his wrist, he cuts his leg, and prepares to cut his chest in a place where it will bleed a lot but not damage anything vital.

Right then, he’s bailed out from having to cut himself when one of a trio of suspicious Russians pulls a gun on him. He slices the assassin’s hand off then slashes him across the mid-section. He then takes out the other two, all to the rapturous delight of the crowd, who of course think this is all fake.

It’s delcious irony that just as Tsukishima’s attempt to sabotage Koito’s act made his act much better, the same happens when Koito tries to sabotage Sugimoto’s. More than that, if Sugimoto hadn’t had a real sword, he could have been in real trouble against those three Russians.

After the show, which was an undisputed hit, ringleader Yamada reveals that the Russians were likely hired to assassinate him, as he was an Imperial Army spy embedded in Russia before the war and provided intelligence to Japan.

Yamada’s intelligence bonafides also make him an ideal source of intel for their search for Kiroranke and Asirpa, as the newspaper only had two sentences mentioning Sugimoto. Yamada tells them about Alexandrovskaya Prison, where a large group of “eastern minorities” were recently transferred there for plotting a resistance.

As the four soldiers prepare to head further north to the prison, Sugimoto holds out hope Asirpa’s beautiful blue eyes will read those two sentences about him in the Toyohara paper, and learn that he is still indeed alive. Instead, in another irreverent comedy aside, we see that Asirpa is actually, in that moment, looking at poop she mistakes for that of big game, when it is actually the recent leavings of one Shiraishi Yoshitake.

Maybe it’s just as well she’s staring at a turd…what if the paper had erroneously reported Sugimoto’s death? In any case, the ED sequence in which both Sugimoto and Asirpa see the same snowflake glide by gives me hope that one of these days he’s going to finally catch up to her, and with some amazing new stories to tell.

Rating: 4/5 Stars

Vinland Saga – 21 – It Will Never Be Enough

It’s pretty amazing that Askeladd, who only a couple episodes ago was about to be assassinated by his own mutinying men, now finds himself taking a prominent role in maneuvering Prince Canute to the throne of the most powerful kingdom in Europe. Then again, it’s par for the course: Askeladd isn’t a mere pirate, he’s a tremendous diplomat, charmer, and spinner of yarns, all to aid his own interests.

Askeladd knows he’s sending his prince into a veritable hornets nest from which he may never come out…unless he plays his cards right. Sweyn wants Canute out of the picture, but he’s not reckless or bloodthirsty. He must match the king’s wits with his own. When Canute is shot in the chest by a sniper with a crossbow, the person actually shot was merely a slave woman serving as his body double.

Thorfinn goes after the sniper, and ends up in the arms of one Leif Erikson, a man he had probably not thought about in some time. Leif spots Askeladd first, and surely feels he owes Thors a heavy debt for saving them years ago. Leif remembers the cheerful boy on Iceland, and expects that he’s ready to leave the battlefield and go home; that he’s had enough of battle. He sure looks it, after all.

Of course, that’s not the case. Thorfinn betrays a moment or two of surprise upon seeing his old uncle again, but any talk of going home or seeing his mother and sister again, and he immediately puts his shell back up. It hasn’t been enough, and it never will be until Askeladd breathes his last, having been pierced through the heart with the blade of Thors, wielded by his son.

It’s entirely expected for Finn to act this way, but it hardly means he’s gone for good; he’s still so young after all. Just that he has his priorities. If he even considers himself the same person as the boy who has a mother and sister in Iceland, which is itself in doubt, returning comes home is entirely dependant on getting his father the revenge he believes he’s due.

That’s despite him knowing full well his father would have preferred he stop fighting and return home to family years ago, and not even bother with Askeladd.

That night, Askeladd visits an irreparably-wounded Bjorn, who arranges for his boss to fight and kill him tomorrow. Then Askeladd holds council with Canute, Thorkell, and Gunnar, and we learn just how much he’s thought through this York situation. He hired the assassin to attack the double, in hopes of making a big public show for the people of York that King Sweyn was playing dirty.

Indeed, we see rumors of varying degrees of accuracy spread across the city. Askeladd’s elite gut even sniffs out Gunnar’s treachery, and in Gunnar’s presence not only said only what he wanted Sweyn himself to eventually hear (that they’re not interested in a short-term battle, but in buying time), but has Finn follow Gunnar and his spy all the way to Sweyn’s house.

Canute doesn’t like how a woman had to give her life for a charade, but he can’t really complain when it’s put him in a far better position, increasing his available options while limiting those of his father.

The next day, Thorfinn asks Askeladd for yet another duel, and Askeladd once again accepts, with Canute and Thorkell acting as witnesses. But first, Askeladd has “a previous engagement” with Bjorn, who arrives and draws his sword for his last fight.

Before he dies, Bjorn tells his leader how much he looked up to him, but also pitied him for the loneliness he must experience. He paints Askeladd as someone who has risen to his present station (and indeed still breathes and stands, albeit with one so-so-leg) by rejecting everything and anyone.

Still, all Bjorn wanted to be his friend, and before delivering the blow that kills him, Askeladd grants him that wish before he passes. He allows him to hear those words, then turns Thorfinn, who may well succeed him as the next Askeladd. Scoring victories and glory left and right, but with nary a friend, family member, or lover to share it with.

Shoukoku no Altair – 04

Mahmut’s first posting as a newly-demoted Binbashi is his home village of Tughril, rebuilt since its destruction twelve years ago in the last war. Mahmut still carries emotional scars and has nightmares of that night, but he’ll no doubt have to overcome or refocus those fears if he wants another shot at Pasha.

Using the Pyramis crystal at the water shrine, we and Mahmut quickly find ourselves deep in the intricate spy world of Turkyie. Barbaros, an old man who once carried the flag for Halil Pasha, now kulak of the village, serves as go-between between Mahmut and Zaganos’ spy in the area.

That spy turns out to be Suleyman Kara Kanat, who along with Mahmut are the last survivors of the previous Tughril village. Like Mahmut, he cursed himself for not being in the position to save his village, but for a different reason: while Mahmut was just a wee kid of five, Suleyman was off eating, drinking and cavorting in far-off Florence.

Consumed by despair and self-hatred and pity, Suleyman ended up raised up by one Zaganos Pasha, who would later visit him the first day of his promotion and offer him a job in his new spy network, one to rival the splendid information system that was the real power of Florence. Given purpose and a goal again, Suleyman gladly entered Zaganos’ service.

Meanwhile, after a scene of Minister Louis drawing up some dastardly scheme, his Rod Orm assassins arrive in the village and attempt to knock off Barbaros, who turns out to be as spry as Yoda and gives them a fight.

Mahmut and Suleyman join the fight, but Mahmut makes a couple of potentially fatal mistakes when he underestimates the assassins’ ability to adapt to his tactics and use some of them against him, as well as misjudge their weaponry.

After a literal cold shower (to get the eagle-luring blood off his clothes), he puts his trust in Suleyman and Barbaros, and the three re-confront the female assassin and run her out of town, destroying her mask in the process.

When called upon, Altair can execute action competently, albeit at a slower pace than most shows in the genre muster. That said, it’s good to see Mahmut’s usual tricks countered, suggesting a worthy foe. This is all a valuable learning experience for the next stop on his spy-world itinerary: Phoenicia.

Shoukoku no Altair – 03

We left Tintin Mahmut in dire straits last week, but still with an ace in the hole: his trusty eagle Snowy Iskender. As Zaganos, outnumbered 10-1, considers using poison to pull out a victory, the female Imperial officer stopping Shahra from cutting any more tent ropes, and Mahmut straight getting his ass kicked by the male officer, it’s all up to the bird.

I must say, this show’s clever (if sometimes credulity-straining) use of Iskender and the eagles to lend Mahmut a hand in times of great need add a sheen of destiny to his story, as if nature itself would prefer he succeed in his endeavors.

Or rather birds, plural: scores of them descend on the hostage tent and pull it away; conveniently dropping it on top of the Imperial soldiers standing by for orders to burn it. Instead, they are the ones who burn, in a nice bit of irony.

Iskender him(her?)self comes to Mahmut’s aid against the big guy, who after all has only one eye and thus has a depth perception shortfall that results in a rather creative death: Mahmut and the eagle work together to wrap a chain around the guy’s face and throat, and Mahmut snaps his neck.

Thus Mahmut’s would-be tormentor is dunzo, and so is the Imperial plot to take Hisar. Ibrahim Vali opens the gates to Zaganos and his forces, and Mahmut makes the call to release all of the Araba, despite their rebellion. For that, and for all their roles in the brief Hisar rebellion, Mahmut, Ibrahim, and Zaganos are all brought before the Divan of the other 11 Pashas to testify and be judged.

To Ibrahim and Mahmut’s shock and delight, the former is not executed, but restored as Vali of Hisar. Zaganos is reinstated as Pasha. But Mahmut, as I figured considering the outcome of the other two verdicts, isn’t so lucky. He is stripped of his rank of Pasha, and demoted to Binbashi under Halil Pasha. He couldn’t have ended up under a nicer commander, but it’s still a huge step backwards for Mahmut, for whom duty is life.

Having tasted the sweet top only makes the demotion all the more bitter, but Mahmut does not contest or even disagree with the Divan’s judgment. There were always risks Mahmut exposed himself to by becoming the youngest Pasha, and that included letting emotional detachments make him forget that the role of Pasha is far more than going off alone to save one’s friend.

It’s just as bitter to think that by accomplishing so many great and noble deeds in Hisar, thwarting those who threatened peace while saving thousands of innocent people, in this case, was the wrong move, at least in his position. Being a Pasha must mean being more detached, more aloof from personal concerns, while far more attuned to the greater needs of the state as a whole.

It’s a big picture position, and Mahmut simply wasn’t ready yet. But he’s learned his lesson, and is eager to see more places, meet more people, and be reinstated as Pasha as quickly as possible…but not so quickly that he doesn’t do it properly.

Judging from the scheming of both Minister Louis and Lelederik, and the fact Louis is aware of Zaganos’ spy network (which Z gave Mahmut the means to contact) and is taking them out one by one, Mahmut can’t get back in the Pasha’s seat soon enough.

Owari no Seraph: Nagoya Kessen-hen – 01 (First Impressions)

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“It’s no longer clear who’s on your side and who’s not.”

That line by Shinoa reflects the main theme of this new episode of Owari no Seraph, and possibly of the season to come. On the battlefield, it was humans vs. vampires. Off it, all bets are off. Shinoa is worried Guren is using Yu for some dark purpose; Guren is worried about Yu switching sides when the Hiiragis summon him for an interview; the powerful Hiiragis, who essentially run the human resistance against vampiredom, have clearly been spooked by recent events, and suspect spies are in their midst.

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Meanwhile, Yu has pretty much fully recovered form his battle wounds, Shinoa is her usual, artificially bubbly and chipper self around him, always deflecting more serious matters…until it comes to the Hiiragis. She warns Yu that they’re scary. Guren makes an appeal to Yu’s loyalty to his family, which now consists of his unit. Mitsu warns Yu that they’re terrifying. 

But Mitsu also laments that she was promoted despite not doing anything of note on the battlefield. The New Yu who was born last season comes out here, expressing his support for her promotion rather than mocking her family connections. A lot of this show revolves around things the protagonist has little or no idea of, and the fact both Shinoa and Mitsu come from big families escaped him all this time, and in any case wouldn’t have affected their status as his family.

Still, even if she’s half-joking in deadpan, it’s a little unsettling for Shinoa to accuse Mitsu of ratting Yu out in exchange for that promotion.

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When Yu arrives at the Hiiragi “interview”, he first has to dispose of a captive vampire, then cross swords with both Hiiragi Kureto and Hiiragi Shinya. Kureto in particular isn’t all that pleased with Yu flaunting his ignorance, both of who Kureto is, and how much he still has to learn about Cursed Gear.

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But the trio of Hiiragi’s in that office aren’t half as scary as the ones who enter a dark room with a one-way mirror, revealing Shiho and Yoichi, bound and beaten. Kureto is convinced Yu is a vampire spy, and if he can’t convince him otherwise, he’s going to kill the two them. It’s a taut, tense scene, one in which the classic shonen hero is put on trial by the bureaucracy that has been in the shadows all along.

Yu doesn’t say anything particularly convincing, but the answers he does give help Kureto figure out for himself that Yu was rescued by Guren for a purpose, which must have something to do with the fact Yu was a human experimentation subject for the Hyakuya vampires. Yu dismisses all this as some bullshit feud between Kureto and Guren.

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When Yu finally emerges with Shiho and Yoichi to a relieved Mitsu and Shinoa, the camera pans around to reveal Guren is there too, only far away. The distance signified to me the lack of trust everyone in the unit has for him right now. But he admits he rescued Yu because he had value, and he says all the other right things to keep Yu on his side, for now.

As for Mika, who it seems will always be on Yu’s side if he has any say in the matter, is dealing with blood withdrawal, but refuses a human child Ferid offers as food to arrest his aging. This scene seemed to me a way to again portray Ferid as an awful guy, while the possibility exists he’s working with Guren—perhaps the very vampire spy the Hiiragis are looking for—against the vampire leadership.

The Hiiragis are Guren and Ferid’s enemy. Tepes is Guren and Ferid’s enemy. So are they operating in an “enemy of my enemy is my friend” mode? Whatever the case may be, Yu, Shinoa & Co. will clearly need to watch their backs vigilantly this season, and not just against vampires.

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Sword Art Online II – 21

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Much to my relief, this doesn’t turn into The Kirito Show just because he showed up at the end of last week’s episode. Heck, he’s not even the only guy who shows up; Klein does too. They’re only there to let Asuna and the Sleeping Knights focus on defeating the twenty people blocking the boss room. And that’s it.

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Kirito estimates he can give them three minutes; the Knights only need two ( I counted). After those two minutes of awesome, blistering battle, punctuated by a powerful charge by the Berserk Healer herself, the way is open for the boss, and Kirito stays behind, giving Asuna the victory sign.

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Facing the montrous two-headed boss for the second time, Asuna notices a special guard stance he takes whenever a gem between his two necks is hit. Asuna focuses on that gem and tells Yuuki to target it, which she does by using one of her male comrades as a step stool. In the heat of the battle, Yuuki slips up and calls Asuna ‘Sis’. That’s no surprise to me, but Asuna finds it odd.

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She shrugs it off when the boss is defeated and the Knights revel in their victory, rubbing it in the faces of the dastardly rival guild. Kirito is nowhere to be found, I guess he split after those three minutes. But as has been the case with him this entire arc, we’re just fine with him being a cameo.

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Kirito doesn’t even crash the Sleeping Knight’s party, which Asuna hosts, even though it’s held in his house. Classy move on his part, as the party is for the Knights, after all. During the party, Asuna asks if she can join them, but Yuuki seems oddly put off by the request. Sinue seems to want to say something, but never manages to. Changing the subject, Asuna suggests they check out their names on the Soldier’s Memorial.

There, Yuuki again slips up and calls Asuna ‘Sis’, but this time realizes it, and promptly and tearfully logs out. Throughout the boss battle and celebrations that followed, the idea that Asuna’s mom would pull the plug on her again was always in the corner of my mind, lending an extra layer of tension to the whole episode.

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Yet, in the end, it’s Yuuki, who has been sold as Asuna’s secret sister (or half-sister), who disappears from the game, without so much as an explanation. Why doesn’t she want Asuna learn the truth? How did Asuna play so long without getting yanked? Will they ever meet in the real world? All questions I’m hoping will be further explored in the next episode, forebodingly called “Journey’s End.”

Until then, I continue to revel in this Asuna-centric, and really Women-centric arc, really turning around what had been a lackluster SAO II Fall cour simply by treating its female characters as more than just Kirito’s suitors.

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Sword Art Online II – 20

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Asuna’s takeover of SAO II continues this week, much to my approval. When Zekken Yuuki whisks her off, I was partially expecting something more sinister than a guild of friends wanting to make memories before they have to split ways in the Spring, but it still worked incredibly well, because, Asuna was the anchor.

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Yuuki was dueling people in search of a seventh member to join the six of the Sleeping Knights – the smallest party allowed to fight a boss, and she chose Asuna to be that seventh. It’s while hanging with them that she realizes “Hey, this isn’t Aincrad anymore. My life isn’t literally at risk; I can let my hair down, go all out, and have fun!” It’s a liberating feeling.

I like the idea of this Asuna-for-hire. With her skills, exp, and rep, she can basically get work wherever and whenever she wants in ALOIt’s a similar situation in the real world in that she has the ability to be and be with whoever she wants…only in the real world, others are calling the shots for her.

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That point is made clear with the subtlety of a sledgehammer when, still beaming after meeting her new friends and agreeing to fight with them, her mom literally pulls the plug, because Asuna is hella late for dinner. It’s telling that its hard for Mom to wake her up gently, almost as if Asuna’s subconscious self doesn’t want to leave.

Pulling the plug is the only way to pull her out. Her mom is annoyed, but she’s also concerned about Asuna’s priorities, and her continued reliance on a device that stole two valuable years of her life. Still disoriented from being pulled out so roughly, “This isn’t like the NerveGear,” is all Asuna can muster. That distinction means nothing to Mom, but a multitude to us, knowing what she went through. What Mom can’t grasp is that for two years, Aincrad was her daughter’s reality.

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Depriving her of ALO, especially right now when she’d finding herself again, is to deprive her of the means to heal the psychological wounds of the NerveGear, and transition to the mindset mentioned above, that it is just a game, not life and death. Coming to grips with that and making that her new normal is a large step in re-establishing the real world as her primary reality.

Even if her mom was in the mood to listen, Asuna lacks the means to properly explain why she needs this; their experience gap is just too wide. And if Asuna’s late for dinner again, Mom is taking the machine away, period. Asuna is trapped again, and runs out of the house. Looking at her missed calls, a snowflake settles on Kirito, the boy her mother won’t let her have.

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But Asuna, to her credit, doesn’t call Kirito. The next day, she dives into ALO, meets with Yuuki and the Sleeping Knights, and go over the gameplan: they’ll hit the labyrinth and look in on the boss, and if the conditions are right, they’ll have a go at him too. She’d never betray it to her new friends, but Asuna may benefit from a quick mission here, as she’s not sure when that plug will be pulled at any time.

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The strong and balanced Sleeping Knights end up impressing Asuna with how quickly they carve through the labyrinth, but her skills come in handy early when she detects scouts from a rival guild spying on them behind shrouds of invisibility. Interestingly, though the boss makes a badass entrance, we don’t see the fight at all, but they end up losing badly.

That feels like a cheat until Asuna takes the group aside and warns them that their battle was watched by the rival scouts’ lizard familiar, which explains why their last two boss losses resulted in that boss being defeated quickly soon after. The Sleeping Knights are so into the fights, they never noticed they were doing all the heavy lifting revealing the weaknesses to their rivals. Pretty dastardly, isn’t it?

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Asuna, again taking charge, cheers the group by saying it’s not too late to avoid a third theft of their rightful glory: if they hit the dungeon and defeat the boss before the rival guild can mobilize, they’ll their names carved on the memorial wall after all.

When they return to the boss, the partially-amassed rival guild blocks their way and won’t budge. From Yuuki’s perspective, there’s only one thing for it: fighting them. She walks up to the biggest, toughest member of their guild and takes him out in three blinks of an eye. It’s a nice reminder of just how tough this girl is.

In the process, Yuuki tells Asuna “some things can only be understood through fighting”,  and suddenly Asuna thinks of her protracted battle with her mother in the real world. Because words are the only weapon she can use out there, her Mom will never truly understand her.

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That’s not to mean she and her mom need to go have at it in the dojo, of course, but it does explain their impasse. Also, there are other kinds of fighting. I’m also mindful of the fact that Asuna’s mom is out there and doesn’t understand her, but someone who is probably her sister (she’s not called Yuuki for nothing) is in here, and does.

Yuuki’s words galvanize Asuna, such that even when the rival guild’s reinforcements arrive and prepare a pincer attack, and they’re outnumbered dozens to one, Asuna is not fearful. She puts her wand away, draws her sword, and gets ready to rumble. This is where she wants to be, right here and now: fighting beside her new friends. Even if they lose this battle — and they’re probably going to lose this battle — they’ll dust themselves off, come back, and win next time.

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Really the only thing that would make this better for her is if she were having this battle with people closer to her, like, say…this guy. Oh, hey, there he is, right on cue, hiding among the ranks of the charging rival guild members, Yui perched on his shoulder.

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Don’t be mistaken: Kirito isn’t here to rescue the Damsel in Distress and fight so she doesn’t have to…not this time. This time he’s here simply to even the very uneven odds in her present battle. He’ll take on one part of the rival host, while she and the Sleeping Knights can push through the other and fight the boss.

Because of the distinction in how he’s he’s utilized here, I’m not miffed in the least by his presence. It’s a good use for Kirito at a good time. Just being there reminds Asuna that she isn’t alone, those she loves have her back, and her own battles aren’t over and lost yet, either in here or out in the world.

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