Vinland Saga – 06 – Engulfed by the Quarrels of Men

On November 13, 1002, King Æthelred II of orders all Danish immigrants in England killed. The Danish respond by sending troops across the sea, and the Vikings—Danish pirates—serve as the “army’s army.” Askeladd’s crew are right in the middle of this.

When English archers ambush their camp, Thorfinn gets a crash course in mass death, killing, and living with it, taking his first life and letting out a cry of vicious despair that carries through the forest, while Askeladd observes in quiet approval.

The battles with the English continue, and Thorfinn continues to kill and gets better at it, with his enemies continually underestimating him due to his size and youth. Askeladd starts using him as a scout, and he manages to kill two foes who come at him, gaining a second dagger with which he dual-wields henceforth.

While on another scouting mission he takes an arrow to the shoulder and washes up on a branch in a river in East Anglia. A kindly, God-fearing mother and her daughter take him in, clean him up, and feed him. The daughter worries (rightfully) that he’s a Dane, their enemy; but her mom doesn’t think any women or children should be bothered with the quarrels of men.

The mother even combs the fleas and lice from Thorfinn’s unruly hair, with the same comb she used to use on her son, who died of a cold two years ago. An English soldier arrives looking for a pint-sized scout, but the mother covers for Finn.

That night, while the daughter continues to argue with her mother about harboring him, Finn abruptly takes his leave, saying just one word to them in English: Run. He then sets a cottage on the beach aflame; the signal to Askeladd to make his landing.

The mother doesn’t run as Finn urged her; she comes to the beach and sees for herself the boy she nursed back to health and harbored: a rabid killing machine. When Finn spots her among the crowd, tears streaming down her cheeks, guilt momentarily washes across his face, as he remembers his own mother and older sister.

Then the mother is simply gobbled up by the charging viking horde, Finn takes a deep breath, and the guilt is replaced by cold detachment as he too gets lost in the crush, joining his fellow fighters in the latest retaliatory raid on a relatively well-off English village. The comb the mother used on him is trod upon and broken, and perhaps with it any possible chance of Thorfinn turning back from his current, blood-soaked path.

Vinland Saga – 05 – A Duel Deferred

Despite Askeladd and his crew being sure Thorfinn would eventually die of hunger, thirst, and/or exposure on the captured ship, he survives long enough for them to sail into the Humber for a brief stint in England. At first his thirst for revenge outweighs everything, but he slips on some moss and gets knocked out by a tree trunk. Defeated by his surroundings before he’s anywhere near the enemy.

He awakes in a gorgeously lit forest and finally drinks some fresh water. He’s so surprised to still be alive he even manages to smile and laugh, but that cheerful mood doesn’t last when he starts to hear screams and spots flames in the distance. Askeladd’s men have decided to spend their “resting time” doing what they apparently do best: rape, burn, and pillage.

Once things die down Finn sneaks into the village and finds the hut where Askeladd is sleeping, unprotected. Eschewing his dagger for an unwieldy longsword, he raises it in preparation to behead his father’s murderer, but stops and retreats, much to the surprise of Askeladd (who was briefly roused before going back to sleep.

In the morning, it’s confirmed why Finn stayed his hand: he’s his’ father’s son. Stabbing a sleeping man in the back isn’t his style; he wants a proper duel with Askeladd. Unfortunately Finn is absolutely no match for Askeladd, especially when he’s letting his sword swing him. He gets a brutal kick to the gut, but that’s all he gets.

Back in Iceland, Leif and the rest of the crew return and inform Helga and Ylva of Thors’ honorable death, and promise to not rest until they’ve found Thorfinn. Ylva, bypassing several stages of grief, flies straight to detatched acceptance and gets back to work, reacting to the news with little more than a shrug and by admitting she figured he’d get killed one of these days.

Neither Ylva’s friends nor her mother are buying what she’s selling—that she feels nothing for what has happened and merely wants to move on—and this is most powerfully illustrated when Ylva is working on a loom late into the night and Helga puts her hands on hers to stop her.

Only then, when Ylva stops—working, busying her mind, simply stops—do tears start to flow, almost despite herself, from her crystal blue eyes. Then Helga draws her into an embrace of shared grief and comfort. Will Ylva stay with her mother, perhaps the only family she has left, or join Leif on the search for her kid brother?

As we know, she still has a brother, who simply refuses to die. While Thorfinn won’t accept scraps from Askeladd’s men when they’re offered, he comes back later to eat what little meat is left and suck out the marrow. He has a chance encounter with Bjorn (collecting mushrooms), who treats him as little more than an irritant, but tells him that while his father was indeed strong, he was also naive. Finn isn’t even strong, not yet, which means he doesn’t have a chance.

Taking that to heart, Thorfinn continues training in the forest, and one night encounters a hungry wolf. Remembering Askeladd’s words about being swung by his own sword, Finn ditches the huge weapon for something much more suited to his size: the dagger Thors gave him. He then kills his first wolf, learns to throw a dagger, kills his first rabbit, feeds himself, recovers some strength.

As Askeladd and his men prepare to depart, having stayed longer than originally planned, Thorfinn confronts him one last time with yet another duel challenge. This time, he shows Askeladd a lot more, and even surprises him with the thrown dagger, but Finn is still nowhere close to being a threat.

Demonstrating he has at least some heart and empathy for the kid’s plight, Askeladd refuses to kill him, and instead makes a promise: if Finn becomes stronger and distinguishes himself in battle, he will honor the duel at a later date. The implication is, he must first join Askeladd’s crew. Knowing that as much as he might want to avenge his father, he’s still too young and weak, Finn agrees, and a truce is struck.

Vinland Saga – 04 – The Warrior Without a Sword

Even Askeladd’s biggest, toughest warrior Bjorn, tripping balls on “berserker mushrooms,” can’t make Thors so much as draw his sword. He defeats an entire boatfull of Askeladd’s men with his bare hands, then smells him out as the leader and challenges him to a duel.

Askeladd shows why he commands such a large group of unruly pirates—he’s really good in a swordfight, relying on speed, surprise, and trickery to get the upper hand. When Thors starts wearing down Askeladd’s sword at the cost of his own, Askeladd takes the bait, swinging wide and paying for it.

If Askeladd were an honorable warrior like Thors, he would have accepted defeat. But things aren’t that simple. Thors is outraged that the rules are being broken, but Askeladd has clearly made a life out of doing just that—not to mention Thors also broke the rules by deserting in the first place.

Now, while it’s been great hanging out with the Troll of Jom and seeing the awesome things he can do, we’ve known pretty much since the start that he wasn’t going to last long, and sure enough, as Thorfinn watches helplessly, he’s run through with a good number of arrows from above.

In the end, Thors was as much a victim of his own pacifist ideals, and the expectation everyone he dealt with would follow the warrior’s code to the letter, than those arrows or any cheating on Askeladd’s part. Men like Askeladd almost always outlast men like Thors because they understand that rules don’t mean a damn thing if you’re dead.

In Thors’ case, he’s also incredibly lucky that Askeladd decides to honor Thors’ duel victory by withdrawing and sparing the rest of Thors’ crew. But his one final miscalculation was that Thorfinn would go quietly back to Iceland after watching his father cheated and killed before his eyes.

Thors’ death now sets up Thorfinn’s quest for vengeance, as he stows away the villagers’ ship Askeladd’s crew took as a prize and basically stares the man down, promising he’ll kill him. Askeladd is unimpressed, and tells his men to leave him to starve. If he manages to survive, he could be useful down the road. After all, his whole crew saw the fire in the kid’s eyes.

I won’t lie; it was tough to blast through three fantastic episodes of Vinland Saga in the first week, then wait three weeks for the fourth, especially when we knew full well Thors was doomed and his son is going to join Askeladd’s crew. It would have been better if this introductory arc had been completed before the long hiatus, but alas. Still, while telegraphed, Thors’ death was still well-executed. Now we move on to the next phase.

Dororo – 24 (Fin) – Proof of Existence, Proof of Humanity

In the end, the brothers Hyakkimaru and Tahoumaru only had to endure one last thing: the missteps of their parents. When Hyakkimaru was born, Daigo decided to sacrifice him to the demons. Nui would have Tahoumaru later, but she never stopped loving her firstborn, and that ate at her second in its own way. Even Mutsu and Hyougou couldn’t replace the love of a mother that he always lacked.

As they continue their swordfight in the castle, Tahoumaru goes on about how the likes of Hyakkimaru doesn’t belong within the walls, and that unlike the post where Mutsu and Hyougou marked their heights over the years, there’s nothing there to prove his existence. This is ironic, as the castle itself is burning and crumbling around them, and all of that physical proof Tahoumaru values so along with it.

But even though Tahoumaru still has his human eyes, Hyakkimaru can still see the void in his brother’s heart; the same sense of lacking something as himself. They are no different, and despite their crazed fighting and bizarre modifications, they are both humans who have simply forgotten themselves, lashing out to fill those voids.

As Nui and Jukai enter the castle to try to stop the fighting, Hyakkimaru ends things on his own, not by killing Tahoumaru, but by sparing him. The demon eyes in his head still burn even after Tahoumaru accepts defeat, but he rips them out and offers them to their rightful owner. Hyakkimaru’s false eyes are ejected and his human eyes restored.

As a mass of demonic crystal surges with anger, the castle starts to come down, but both Nui and Jukai arrive in time to save him from being crushed by burning debris. He plunges his swords into the crystal mass, apparently exorcising the residual evil energy, but that also completes the destruction of the temple literally kept up by the power of those now-forsaken demons.

Jukai, Nui and Tahoumaru do not escape, but perish in the flames, while Dororo finds Hyakkimaru and the two climb up the well Nui used to gain access. Hyakkimaru sees Dororo with his own eyes for the first time and calls him—calls her—pretty, which really throws Dororo off. Biwamaru, who helped get them out of the well, stands with the two as they watch Daigo’s castle and surrounding lands burn in a purifying fire.

Once the flames recede and the smoke clears, Dororo is back in the village of survivors and invalids led by a few able-bodied individuals, including those he suggested start to live life without depending on samurai, using money instead of swords to maintain that life.

When they ask where that money will come from, Dororo says he’s got it covered. Dororo has decided, then, what to do with that fortune: use it to realize a community that runs itself, without fealty to some stern-faced lord.

As for the lord, Daigo is not quite ready to give up his quest to restore his lands to prosperity, no matter how many people, including Hyakkimaru again, he has to sacrifice to the demons in a new pact. That is, until Hyakkimaru takes a sword and instead of plunging it into Daigo’s back, pierces his helmet instead.

The helmet is a powerful symbol of Daigo’s status as something other than a mere human, so its destruction is a symbol of Hyakkimaru’s hope his father will live on as a human, something he too plans on doing. In the end, Daigo laments ever making the pact, as he now realizes he might have achieved prosperity simply by raising Hyakkimaru and letting him succeed him.

Bittersweetly, it’s not Happily Ever After for the duo of Dororo and Hyakkimaru. The two go their separate ways; Dororo to lead a new community in keeping with the legacy of her rebellious parents, and Hyakkimaru to learn how to walk the path of humanity after a lifetime of survival-and-revenge mode. With his new eyes, heart, and purpose in life, he has truly been reborn, and until he finds his way, it’s not safe for Dororo to be beside him.

However, the ending suggests that one day the two are reunited, as the young “boy” Dororo runs across a pier with a hopeful smile, he transforms into Dororo the older and more beautiful woman. At the end of the pier is a slightly older-looking Hyakkimaru, in all his human glory, welcoming her with a warm smile. It’s a shame a passing look is all we get, rather than an after-credits scene of the two conversing—but then again, perhaps their reunion is meant more symbolically, as something to which they both aspire.

In any case, both souls, once having lost and suffered so much, seem to be in a much better place, and have stepped out of the darkness and doubt and embraced their respective selves. While I wish we’d seen more of Dororo-as-a-leader, considering where we started, this was a logical and satisfying enough place to end.

The Rising of the Shield Hero – 06 – Threads for Filo: A Sidequest

This week, Naofumi needs to solve a problem. It’s a problem that may be minor in the grand scheme of things (compared to defeating the next Waves or repairing his rep), but any game-like isekai scenario worth its salt is going to have sidequests, and this is one of them. Filo needs clothes that won’t tear to shreds whenever she transforms from human to giant bird form.

The Armorer doesn’t have magical clothing, so Naofumi goes to a dressmaker. The Dressmaker needs magic thread, so Naofumi goes to the Mage. The Mage needs a gemstone for Filo to spin magic thread, and gemstones are rare and hard to come by. They’re also expensive, so as the Mage searches for one, Naofumi strikes out with Raph and Filo to make some money.

After helping a man race home to deliver a healing potion for his mother, Naofumi learns he can make a nice buck ferrying people to various locations, like Lyft, and can charge more if the clients are in dire need.

Take a wealthy and connected accessory seller: when a rival trader directs a group of bandits to mug him, Naofumi (or more precisely, Raph and Filo) make quick work of them.

It’s a nice reminder that in addition to Raph, who is no pushover, Filo is not only a good carriage-puller but fierce in battle as well, with powerful wind-based magic at her disposal.

When Naofumi spares the bandits’ lives, but only if they pay for those lives with everything they have, the trader takes a shine to him, lauding his entrepreneurial spirit. As payment for being saved, he offers Naofumi all of his knowledge and connections, including how to use mana to imbue gems, and connecting him to all of his fellow traders.

Finally, he gives Naofumi a deed that he shows to a mining foreman, who grants him permission to search for the veins of gemstone. Those veins are located in a particularly dangerous part of the mine swarming with monsters, so Naofumi goes in ready to rumble, along with the party of Raph the swordswoman, Filo the filolial, and the Mage. (Part of the mine looks just like Petra in Jordan).

After overcoming monsters who use illusory magic to make the party members think their allies are saying the last things they want to hear (Naofumi doesn’t need Filo; Raph only got close to Naofumi to kill him; Filo wants to eat Naofumi), they finally discover the vein, but it’s being guarded by a boss: a compact chimaera called a nue.

As Kevin Penkin’s awesome battle music plays, Raph and Filo rush headlong at the beast, but Raph ends up knocked down. The Mage offers support with fire-based magic, and the party regroups. Naofumi exploits the nua’s sensitive hearing by having Filo screech into his newly-acquired bat-shield. The mage fires more fire at the nue, then Raph rushes in and impales it. Filo delivers the coup de grace with a brutal kick to the skull.

The nue thus defeated, Naofumi retrieves the gemstone they came for, and back in town, Filo uses it to spin magic thread from her mana. They then deliver the thread to the Dressmaker, who spares no energy or passion crafting the cutest possible number for Filo: a frilly white dress with blue accents that crucially won’t be torn to shreds when she transforms.

It was great to see Naofumi & Co. face a problem and solve it in a logical yet interesting step-by-step process. It was also nice to take a step back from Naofumi’s ongoing feud with Motoyasu and Malty. And like any good sidequest, in addition to achieving the main objective, Naofumi gained a lot of new knowledge and experience points, making him that much more prepared for when the next Wave appears.

Dororo – 06 – Not Everyone Can Get It All Back

Anyone who thought things were going to work out with Mio and her group of orphans has not been paying attention: Dororo is about people losing more than they can bear and trying to press on, but not everyone gets to survive. Some, like Mio and the kids, become another loss for our protagonists, who are cursed with the luck of survival, and with bearing witness to those who aren’t so lucky.

Dororo may have stumbled upon what Mio is up to all night, but Take is still blissfully unaware, and Dororo keeps it that way. Take, like Mio, dreams of the day they have the money to plant a rice paddy that will be green in spring and golden in the autumn. It’s what keeps them going, and it no doubt prompts Dororo to wonder what keeps him going.

At Casa de Daigo, Tahomaru urges his father to let him fight in the army. His head is full of steam and dreams of making his parents proud, but both father and mother forbid his demand, because they know all too well how easy it is to lose your life, no matter how good at martial arts one may be.

Tahomaru takes out his frustrations on his mother, who he’s suspected for some time loves and cares about something more than him. He knows he was childish to guilt trip her, but he’s continually vexed by the mystery of who or what dominates his parents’ thoughts. If he and Hyakkimaru ever meet, it’s not going to be cordial.

Dororo and Mio have to watch Hyakkimaru like a hawk from going back to fight the antlion demon while his leg wound is healing. Mio is eager to hear the voice Hyakkimaru gained , but he only wants to hear her song, which she says she sings to forget the pain. She lives with the pain of both everything she’s lost and what she must deal with nightly.

She worries her soul looks “filthy” to Hyakkimaru, but we can see through his eyes and it’s not; she’s being far too harsh on herself. Dororo also admits after his initial reaction that Mio is only doing what she must to survive. He tells her his mother never did what she did, and she died for it.

But unlike Hyakkimaru and Dororo, Mio doesn’t get to survive anyway, despite going to such lengths. Daigo’s soldiers catch her working on both sides of the conflict, which was always a risk too great no matter the reward, and they punish her by killing her, slaughtering the orphans, and burning their temple shelter.

Worse still, Hyakkimaru’s need to finish his fight with the demon draws him away at the worst possible time. He successfully defeats the demon, and the leg it took from him last week is fully restored. But it wasn’t worth it. I will miss Mio terribly; Mizuki Nana really brought warmth and empathy to her role, but she was just too good for this world.

When Hyakkimaru takes out his hatred for the soldiers and anger at himself for not being there when it mattered, it is a terrifying sight to behold, and almost verbatim what Biwamaru had feared: that the beast that emerged from the cave would be a monster. He doesn’t just quickly, cleanly kill the murderous wretches, he evicerates them, ignoring their pleas for mercy.

Dororo manages to stop him from killing the last man, who escapes and will probably report Hyakkimaru to Daigo, officially ending his time in the shadows and putting him squarely in his father’s sights. That may end up being a very bad idea, but Dororo had to stop him from killing everyone, lest the darkness consume him. He shows Hyakkimaru the bag of rice seed Mio finally got for her services.

She was on the cusp of achieving her dreams and those of the orphans, but their idealized future was never going to be safe in this harsh brutal land of warring factions, whether Hyakkimaru stayed to protect them or not. He couldn’t be a hero to Mio and the kids. All he can do is accept his luck, keep surviving, keep fighting the demons both outside and within, with Dororo making sure to serve as a conscientious check when his aniki’s pain threatens to explode.

The Rising of the Shield Hero – 05 – Lute Grand Prix

We haven’t yet seen Queen Melromarc, as she’s currently in another castle, but it’s clear she’s staying on top of things, as evidenced by the detailed report given by one of her ninja (for lack of a better word).  That report also confirms that Malty has been putting her father up to some actions of which the Queen is not a fan. Say, continuing to treat the Shield Hero like garbage based on Malty’s false accusations of rape.

The King tries to cheat Naofumi out of his 500 silver-piece Wave reward (only an eighth of the Spear Hero’s take) by charging him for removing Raphtalia’s slave crest. Once again Amaki and Kawasumi come to Naofumi’s defense—or at least the side of justice and fairness. Thanks to their protests, Naofumi gets his 500 pieces and, at Raph’s urging, peaces out.

Their first errand upon leaving the palace is for Raphtalia to get a tattoo have her slave crest re-activated, at her request, as a symbol of his faith in her. One would think if he had faith he wouldn’t need a real crest, but Raphtalia is insistent. Naofumi also buys a gatcha-style lottery egg, from which either a filolial (chocobo) chick hatches.

Naofumi also learns that some of the merchants in the capital had connections to Lute Village, and even if they’re still on the fence with him as a person, they can’t deny he saved their loved ones. Their personal honor demands they reward him, whether it’s with a book on advanced medicines (which he can’t yet read) or a magical grimoire (which the mage warns will be tough to learn).

The filolial chick, whom Naofumi somewhat unimaginatively names “Filo”, eats ravenously and quickly grows to full size within two days, enabling him to ride her. They travel to Lute Village, and not soon thereafter Malty and Motoyasu also arrive.

Malty is clearly in control here as she reads a royal decree that anyone who enters or exits the village will have to pay an exorbitant amount (equal to 100 nights at the inn, food included). Naofumi is there to make a stink about it, but Malty wants her tax, and Motoyasu isn’t about to deny her.

Who does swoop in to deny her, however, are her mother’s ninja. They deliver a scroll to Malty that pisses her off when she reads it, and takes it out on Naofumi by challenging him to a race: her Motoyasu’s dragon vs. Naofumi’s filolial.

Motoyasu mocks Filo right up until Filo kicks his balls halfway to the next kingdom. Filo looks supremely confident she can beat the dragon, so all that remains is to what extent Malty will try to hamper that victory by cheating.

And once the race starts, boy does she ever cheat. Her soldiers cast magical spells that benefit Motoyasu and his slow-ass dragon three times, and Flio still manages to win by a beak. I gotta say, I’m quickly growing weary of Malty’s shtick: all she needs is a mustache to twirl.

Thankfully, Malty is taken down a peg or two this week, both when the other two heroes help Naofumi, and when the Queen’s ninja confirm that she and her men cheated. Her comeback is that “We’ll leave for now, but this isn’t over!” Groan. Naofumi needs better antagonists, or for the existing ones to find a new tune.

As for Filo, she balloons in size right after the race. Rather than have rumors spread of taking Lute’s rebuilding funds, Naofumi accepts an old wagon as a reward—a wagon that Raphtalia has trouble riding in without getting motion sickness. They rest beside a tree for the night, but when morning comes it brings with it a surprise: Filo has transformed into a human—a loli, no less—who is, predictably, hungry. And then there were three.

Dororo – 05 – A Beautiful Soul in an Ugly World

Hyakkimaru may have his hearing back, but at least initially it’s more of a curse than a blessing. Even in an eerily quiet forest he’s assaulted by what he perceives as an intolerable din of creature sounds, not to mention Dororo’s voice. Determining that something has to be done until he gets used to hearing, Dororo wraps his ears in several layers of fabric to lesson the suffering.

When a bird monster suddenly attacks, it’s clear that Hyakkimaru’s newfound hearing is also messing with his ability to fight. He gets a few licks in, but the bird gives as good as it gets, seriously injuring Hyakkimaru. It it isn’t for Biwamaru showing up to finish it off, it probably would have been curtains for Hyakkimaru and Dororo.

Biwamaru fixes him up as best he can, but Hyakkimaru will need medicine to recover properly. He’s also being very stubborn about accepting the fact he can now hear. Biwa compares him to a beast holed up in its cave; he’ll have to come out sooner or later. The boys have run into Biwamaru because the old priest has had to turn around after entering lands in which a war is currently being fought between the Sakai clan and the ally it betrayed.

In the morning, Hyakkimaru hears a sound he’s never heard before: a woman singing a sweet and gentle song. He follows the song and finds its owner, a beautiful young woman, washing her kimono in the river. While some might find the sight of Hyakkimaru frightening, she is concerned…especially when he nearly passes out in her arms.

The songstress, who goes by Mio, invites the three to the ruins of a village where she cares for a group of small war oprhans, most of whom are missing limbs like Hyakkimaru. Dororo meets a lad near his own age in Takebo, who serves as Mio’s second-in-command of the little ‘uns. Takebo also insists Mio get her sleep, as she works all through the night and needs to have her energy. Dororo doesn’t ask Takebo to elaborate.

Meanwhile, Lord Kagematsu’s wife Nuinokata impresses upon her husband the seriousness of recent unfortunate events that have befallen them, from landslides to drought to the betrayal of the Sakai clan. Tahoumaru overhears, and probably thinks he can do something to ease his father’s troubles. Of course, we know that as long as Hyakkimaru keeps killing the demons who stole pieces of him, the demons will continue to seek reparations from Daigo.

As Biwamaru searches for a safe path along which to continue, Mio goes to work when the sun sets. When she returns in the morning, her kimono slightly askwer, Hyakkimaru is waiting for her. She gets the feeling he can not only see her, but see deeper than most; Dororo tells her she’s right; he can see souls.

In both her selfless actions, charity towards both the orphans and her new guests, and the beauty of the song she sings, Hyakkimaru is now able to ascertain with both sight and sound that Mio is a particularly good soul. He signs that wants to hear her song again, and she obliges.

Seemingly invigorated by the song, Hyakkimaru wastes no time heading off when Biwamaru informs them all that there’s a safe area to which to relocate, provided they can defeat the tough demon that dwells there. But with his wounds still held together with hope and still dealing with his new sense of hearing, Hyakkimaru loses a step. He defeats the demon, but loses his one real leg below the knee. Defeating this demon unlocks his voice, and he uses it to cry out in what must be excruciating pain, while Biwamaru looks at him like he’s already got one foot in the grave.

Later that night, while following Mio to town where she hopes to do business with both sides of the conflict to fund her little group’s relocation, Dororo loses track of her. When he finally finds her, it’s due in part because she’s singing, but the reason she’s singing gives Dororo pause: she’s singing while being raped by three soldiers.

Once again Dororo takes a cold hard look at the casual brutality and injustice of feudal Japan. It takes a particularly dim view of lords and the samurai they wield as tools of terror and death. In this time and place wars can pop up at the drop of an obi, leaving children without their parents or even their very limbs. They are only able to survive because poor Mio sells her body every night.

I would hope that Hyakkimaru, Dororo, and Biwamaru could do something to help them, but with Hyakkimaru’s new horrifying injury, it’s hard to believe he’ll be doing anything anytime soon.

The Rising of the Shield Hero – 04 – A Companion in Hell

At a royal gala celebrating the defeat of the latest Wave of Catastrophe, there might as well be a black cloud hanging over Naofumi. He doesn’t want to be there any more than anyone there wants him to be there. Raphalia tries to cheer him by offering him food, but when the Spear Hero…[checks MAL] Kitamura Motoyasu sees her, he challenges Naofumi to a duel on te spot.

Motoyasu doesn’t like how Naofumi is using a demi-human as his slave. Even if it’s legal in this world, he doesn’t think it’s right. Of course, he’s coming from a position of great ignorance in terms of the actual nature Naofumi and Raphtalia’s relationship. Myne eggs him on, and even when Naofumi refuses to fight Motoyasu, King Melromarc intervenes, ordering him to accept the challenge and arresting and gagging Raphtalia.

Clearly there are two sets of rules in this world: those Naofumi must follow, and no other rules. A duel between two people shouldn’t be something that can be thrust upon an unwilling participant, even by a king. But Melro straight up abuses his power, and nobody stops him, because he is king. All the while everyone, from the heroes to the assembled nobles, practically pelt Naofumi with a hail of insults and exhortations of disgust.

But if he has to fight, Naofumi is going to fight to win, something that might actually be possible since he’s leveled up and gained so many skills, including several that transform the shield into an offensive weapon. He has Motoyasu off balance until Myne interferes with a wind magic spell. The blatant cheating goes utterly unnoticed by everyone but Naofumi, but as a result he loses, and “Myne” makes sure to rub it in his face.

I put “Myne” in quotes because that’s not her real name; turns out she’s Princess Melty, the king’s daughter. Naofumi goes over in his head how he was set up every step of the way by Melty, using the power of her pops and manipulating Motoyasu into thinking Naofumi was The Worst. Even the other two heroes…[checks MAL] Kawasumi Itsuki and Amaki Ren saw that Myne interfered, making Motoyasu the loser.

But no one else will speak up about the cheating, and however ill-begotten the Spear Hero’s victory was, it was still a victory. That means Raphtalia’s slave contract with Naofumi is terminated. As she turns away to leave, Naofumi is consumed by some kind of miasma. But she doesn’t really leave; she admonishes Motoyasu for freeing her when she never actually asked to be freed, and tells him the truth: that Naofumi has only ever been kind to her, and she owes him her life.

Some time ago, in a moment of vulnerability when Raphtalia broke down, Naofumi was there to hold and comfort him. Now it’s Raphtalia’s turn to comfort him. He may think he’s in Hell, where no matter what he says or does, everything will be stacked against him, but that’s only the case if he completely disregards one very important fact: Raphtalia is his sword, and if need be she’ll follow him through Hell itself.

As she embraces Naofumi she levels up, growing into a grown woman in the process (a quirk of demi-humans and one reason they’re oppressed). The miasma is lifted, Naofumi rises, and is free to leave not with his slave, but with his ward, companion, and sword.

Motoyasu still suspects Raphtalia is somehow being brainwashed, but Ren and Itsuki don’t see how he can think that after hearing Raphtalia pour her heart out so publically. The King skulks away, either disappointed the plot didn’t work out or disappointed in his daughter (or both).

Best of all, when Raphtalia gives Naofumi a sandwich she made and he tastes it…he can finally taste it. It’s as if she broke the curse that made everything taste like nothing for him, either through a passive practical spell, or simply by being there for him when no one else was. Even if they got off to a rough start, he was there for her too. And so they’ve saved each other.

This was a standout episode that really got my blood boiling when things started again piling up against Naofumi, but things more or less worked out in the end. There was definitely some catharsis to him finally being cut some slack. I’m still not quite sure why Malty is so obsessively committed to making Naofumi’s life hell. It’s because she’s just, well, bad, that would be slightly disappointing. But what else could it be? She barely knows him.

After being so pissed off with the other heroes that I didn’t even bother to learn their names, Ren and Itsuki showed promising signs that their opinion of Naofumi was improving, or at least that they’d entertain his claims of unfair persecution. Perhaps that’s the first step towards the four heroes eventually working more closely together for a future Wave.

Dororo – 04 – Tears In Rain

Osushi is a merchant who used to be far better off, but her parents died and her brother Tanousuke went off to fight for his lord. She’s prayed for his safe return every day since…for five years. Dororo, not exactly master of tact, tells her that’s…pretty long.

But Dororo is also a master of reading people, and he can immediately tell she came from money despite her tattered clothes. Osushi’s prayers are answered, but the brother who left her to uphold his honor and loyalty is not the same man anymore.

When Hyakkimaru, standing in the rain, “listening” to the drops fall, rushes towards the red sword he sees in the distance, he and Dororo find an entire convoy of people slaughtered. The swordsman tells them his blade thirsts for blood, always.

To Hyakkimaru, it’s just another demon, even if it’s using a human as its instrument. He makes good use of his prostheses by taking having his fake leg run through then tossing it aside, separating it from the man. But when Dororo runs to retrieve the leg (as he always does) and touches the sword, he becomes its new servant.

Like the One Ring, the sword bends its holder to its own twisted will, putting Dororo in a trance when he tries to resist. Back in the village, Osushi has retrieve the sword’s original holder, who turns out to be her brother Tanousuke. While initially elated by his return, he was accompanied by so much blood and death and won’t speak to her, so she knows something’s not right.

Filling out the broad strokes of the cold open, we see Tanousuke’s lord order him to use a dull, rusty sword he’d pulled out of storage to behead a captive. But with each captive he kills, the sword, called Nihiru grows sharper…and thirstier. Eventually Tanousuke turns the blade on his lord (serves the lord right, really) and massacres the entire camp.

Needless to say, if there’s any part of Tanousuke left, that part probably laments still being alive and being used only to quench Nihiru’s thirst. But the part of him the sword twisted into its service only wants Nihiru to return to him, hence his utter ignoring of Osushi’s tearful pleas to stay with her.

Nihiru has Dororo bring the sword to Nihiru, but is intercepted by Hyakkimaru. For a moment, Dororo isn’t sure Hyakkimaru knows he’s not a foe, and attempts to dodge his strikes, but there’s no doubt who’s the superior warrior. Thankfully, Hyakkimaru merely knocks the sword out of Dororo’s hand without harming him.

Unfortunately, Tanousuke is there to pick Nihiru back up, but the sword has taken its toll on his body and mind, and he can’t quite keep up with Hyakkimaru, who kills Tanousuke and breaks Nihiru’s blade. Her brother’s imminently peaceful expression upon dying, as if he’d finally been released from an extended stay in hell, is little consolation for poor Osuhi, who is alone once more.

Nihiru, being one of the demons in the Hall of Hell with which Daigo made a deal, releases another part of Hyakkimaru upon its defeat: his real ears and sense of hearing. The first things he hears in his life are the steady falling of rain and Osushi’s weeping.

Meanwhile, back in the Hall of Hell, Daigo is now aware that someone out there is killing off the demons he made a deal with. Even if the demons haven’t double-crossed him yet (why would they uphold their end of the deal once they got his son’s parts? They’re demons), the good fortune he’s enjoyed is unlikely to last if Hyakkimaru continues knocking them off.

The Rising of the Shield Hero – 03 – The Grateful and the Ingrates

Only a week has passed after the fight in the mines, but Naofumi and Raphtalia have leveled up to a respectable degree. The armorer says as much, and all the extra discounts and freebies the demi-human gets confirms to Naofumi that this world is full of lolicons.

Still, he seems pleased that Raphtalia is less timid and is now able to stand and speak up for herself. She even negotiates to get new custom-made armor for Naofumi that he thinks makes him look like a bandit, but also doesn’t want it going to waste.

It’s a good thing they mentioned the Waves to the armorer, because he points them in the direction of the church where the Dragon Hourglass counts down the time until the next Wave, which will come in less than a day.

Unfortunately the other heroes are there, and the Spear even tries to steal Raphtalia away, but she rebuffs him. They can mock him all they want and even bring up the “rumors,” but Naofumi won’t say a single word of attack or defense. He’s long since done talking with these assholes.

Raphtalia wants to know what happened between her master and the other heroes, but Naofumi isn’t ready to tell her. Regardless, when dawn breaks and they prepare to be transported to the location of the Wave, Raphtalia formally reiterates her undying loyalty to Naofumi. She is only alive because of him, and so she’ll be his sword and never leave his side.

After transport, Naofumi gets a close look at a Wave of Catastrophe for the first time. The other heroes rush ahead, but he notices they’re leaving a nearby village unprotected from the hordes of undead soldiers and swarms of giant wasps.

So he and Raph head there, he orders Raph to evacuate the villagers while he tries to kill as many monsters as he can. It’s tough work, as there are hundreds of them and he can’t seem to get their numbers down. Luckily the bulk of them mill around beneath a watchtower that Naofumi sets ablaze and brings down on top of them.

When the royal knights arrive and firebomb the place to mop up, they don’t bother to warn Naofumi, who gets Naphtalia under his shield just in time. When she hears the knights talking shit about her master, she threatens to take their heads off, and Naofumi has to order her to stand down.

Still, despite the knights’ utter disgust of Naofumi, he protects them all the same, and in turn, some of them stay behind to help him and Naphtalia even after their commander orders them to meet up with the other heroes.

With the knights’ help, Naofumi and Naphtalia are able to fend off the remaining monsters, while the other three heroes defeat the “boss”—a chimaera, from the look of it—with their much flashier-looking attacks. All of a sudden, the skies clear and the threat has passed. And Naofumi has passed his first Wave test.

A massacre of innocents such as that which claimed Naphtalia’s parents thus averted, the raccoon girl is overwhelmed by the relief and starts to cry, but Naofumi’s heart isn’t made of stone, especially where she’s concerned, so he puts his hand on her head to comfort her.

Naphtalia may have been a slave purchased to be used a a tool, but even Naofumi has to admit she’s much more than that. By not treating her like a slave but like any other person, he’s helped bring about her transformation into a formidable warrior with the heart of a true knight.

Naofumi has also gained the gratitude of the entire village, none of whom still harbor any animosity towards their hero. There are still a lot more people to convince that he’s actually not a rapist swine, but it doesn’t really matter. He’s not here to make friends or clear his name. He’s here to save this world from the Waves, then go back home.

Fate/Extra Last Encore – 04

As they ascend to the next level, Hakuno ponders Rider’s dying question to him: Why does he want to ascend? All he can come up with is hatred, and a desire to simply ascent, but Saber, once again demonstrating her lack of modesty, does not consider his motivations relevant; he’ll surely find what he desires as they continue to “climb the ladder”, so to speak; she’ll help.

When they arrive, the setting is a lot simpler than the complex, futuristic city: a vast forest with mountains on the horizon, and a few buildings in a clearing. In one of those buildings, someone has been waiting for them; a aging Master who also desires to ascend—and believes defeating another Master will do the trick.

To that end, he fires shots with his sniper rifle from his perch in the clock tower, and Saber and Hakuno have to flee into the forest.

There, Hakuno makes sure to thank Saber for keeping him alive to that point, and Saber tells him to essentially not forget to stop and smell the roses—to enjoy what is beautiful, whether it’s the forest, some flowers, or her own purty face.

That face is threatened once more, not by the Master, but by his Servant, Archer, who drops a poison cloud on Saber and Hakuno and stays invisible, shooting invisible arrows, one of which pierces Saber’s shoulder.

Hakuno must expend a command seal so Saber can raze all of the forest around them with fire (she IS Nero after all, isn’t she), but that’s just what Archer wants: a clear shot.

Archer’s arrows don’t find their target, however, because they’re destroyed by a surprise ally to Saber and Hakuno, the Servant-less Master Rani VIII. She takes them to her home, where she explains she is the last “rebel” Master fighting against the sniper, and has been waiting for someone like Hakuno to come along, with a Servant, to arrive on this level.

She concedes that for all of its inherent stagnation, SERAPH may well be an “ideal heaven”, but that’s irrelevant, because it’s on the brink of destruction. When Hakuno sleeps, he dreams of the man in the white coat he met lower down, making him to wonder if he’s trying to ascend to a place he had already descended from.

After all, not only does his thus-far-inexplicable drive to ascend simply “feels like the right thing to do”, but he’s completely clueless about the actual year; he thinks it’s still the 21st Century, but Rani informs him it’s actually 3020. Worse, the humans living in SERAPH will soon be all that’s left of their race; if SERAPH goes, humans go extinct.

It would seem Rani has far grander designs for Hakuno than he himself could ever have envisioned—that will determine not just the course of humanity, but its very existence in the universe. Perhaps, then, Hakuno finally has a reason to ascend…other than hatred.

I was a little confused about what happened to Rin after seeing her in the bath with Saber. It seemed a bit convenient they’d be shorthanded when Archer attacked them. I guess she had other matters to attend to this week?

Fate/Extra Last Encore – 03

Shinji’s attempt to destroy Hakuno and Saber fails when Toosaka Rin shows up, hacks Shinji’s systems, and lends Hakuno and Saber a ride out of the tower on her flying motorcycle—all good stuff. We don’t learn anything more about Hakuno’s “Dead Face”, only that it drew Rin to their location.

Rin takes them to a run-down but still very stylish safe house, and explains why she interceded on their behalf: while she is only a former Master, she is the only one in the city (other than Hakuno) to have not fully surrendered to the stagnation of Mayor Matou’s grand plan.

She’s a resistance of one, and now that Hakuno, a fully-active Master, and his Servant Saber have appeared, that resistance grows to three. The only means of reaching the upper level is to defeat the “king” of the one they’re on: Shinji—who also happens to be an active Master. Hakuno and Saber met his Servant in the bar.

The morning of their assault on Central Tower, Hakuno glimpses Saber resplendent on the rooftop’s morning light, surrounded by birds. This show is nothing if not pretty and sometimes drop-dead gorgeous in its staging of people and places.

Rin assists in Hakuno and Saber’s infiltration of the tower, which necessitates her remaining behind to fight Shinji’s Berserkers, leaving the other two free to ride the elevators to the non-projection Shinji’s location.

Once they reach that location—which appears in the form of a standard Japanese school rooftop, Shinji recalls the victory that got him to where he is today. In light of that victory, he is game for a duel against Hakuno and Saber.

With that, massive walls begin to rise above the cityscape, great hatches open, and the entire level is quickly flooded with water, turning the city into an ocean. I love how intricately rendered this city has been the last two episodes, only for the show to completely destroy it here.

The reason for the transformation is that Shinji’s Servant Rider has a naval theme: she is Francis(ca?) Drake, and leads an armada of flying sailing ships to face Saber and her…saber.

Rider’s Noble Phantasm is the “Golden Wild Hunt” / Temesoro el Draque, and Saber is seemingly overwhelmed and sinks into the deluge, too low on mana to mount a counterattack.

That is, until Hakuno dives to her location on the “sea floor” and transfer his plentiful stores of mana through a kiss, which I don’t believe I’ve seen before in a Fate series.

It works a treat, and Saber rises out of the water and rams Rider’s flagship with a ship of her own, revealing her Noble Phantasm one of her skills is “Imperial Privilege”, which enables her to copy her opponent’s ability. Rider and Saber face off in a decisive dual, but Rider’s flintlocks appear to jam at a crucial moment, while Saber’s sword does not miss Rider.

Shinji gets to have an uncharacteristically noble end when he decides to ascend with his Servant rather than break his contract at the last moment to continue living.

And that’s pretty much Mission Accomplished for Hakuno and Saber. With Shinji gone, the level is restored to its true state: that of a vast, eerie, deserted ruin. That majestic city was only ever an illusion in which cowards could stagnate for all time. While that state wasn’t ideal, there is still a measure of sadness in what was lost…even if I won’t miss Shinji, as usual.

With that, a lift descends for Hakuno and Saber, which will bear them to the next level up. Rin, who obviously did not drown in the deluge, trails right behind them on her flying motorcycle. What visual wonders, challenges, Masters and Servants await them on the second level? I can’t wait to find out.