The Rising of the Shield Hero S2 – 03 – Turtle Soup

The time for talk has passed—this episode is all action. The Spirit Tortoise—that is, the somewhat janky CGI Spirit Tortoise—must be stopped, and with an alliance of nations at his back, Naofumi is never going to have a better chance to do it. I have to respect an episode that is devoted to one thing and one thing only: covering the battle from start to (apparent) finish.

That said…deary me…Shield Hero is to be commended for its ambition. The execution, however, is very much a mixed bag. Often times animation is dispensed with in favor of panning stills or, in the case of the masses of soldiers and the tortoise, the aforementioned janky CGI. There’s quite a bit of suspension of disbelief in viewing this grab bag of battle visuals.

But if the animation can’t cash all the checks the composition writes, Kevin Penkin sells the hell out of what we get. I can’t stress enough just how important the quality of the soundtrack contributes to a sense of gravitas and awe. That, and seeing Naofumi not only recognized but celebrated by the marching troops is something of a revelation. He’s come a long way, baby.

While things get a little hairy due to the Spirit Tortoise firing a flurry of deadly purple thorns that decimate the allied forces, those forces are still able to stop its advance by taking out one of its legs. The mage corps then pierce the skin of the tortoise’s neck, allowing Raphtalia and Filo to go in there and deliver a devastating combined strike that beheads the beast, which was the whole objective of the operation.

Throughout the battle, Ost selflessly (and awesomely) offers her not inconsiderable magical powers to assist in both offense and defense. But she’s also something of a canary in a coal mine; everyone expected her to disappear when they beheaded the Spirit Tortoise, since she’s it’s familiar and all. But even after the head has been detached, Ost lingers on. While I’m glad she’s not dead, the fact she isn’t means the Tortoise isn’t either. Thus the threat endures.

Rating: 4/5 Stars

The Rising of the Shield Hero S2 – 02 – Do It, Then Think Later

Remember when the latest season of TenSura started with a bunch of long, boring meetings? Well, in the first half or so of this episode Shield Hero takes the same tack, putting Naofumi and Queen Mirellia in a room full of crotchety generals bickering over who should take command or lead the forces against the rampaging Spirit Tortoise. It’s all…a bit dry?

It seems more fun outside as Filo and Rishia are joined by Elrasla, noted tough old broad, and Eclair, whose dignity and decency I admire even as I rack my brain trying to figure out who voices her (I’m sure ANN will list it eventually). They’re basically at the kids table on standby while the brass talks things out.

That brass is soon joined by the same woman voiced by Hanazawa Kana who asked Naofumi to please kill her last week before suddenly disappearing. We learn her name is Ost Hourai, and while everyone knows her as the concubine of the now-deceased king of the Tortoise Kingdom, reveals that she’s actually one of the Tortoise’s familiars in human form.

She was created to seduce her way to the highest levels of human political power, and then use that power to get them to start wars. The Spirit Tortoise, ya see, uses human souls to stop the Waves. But someone has gone and unsealed the Tortoise itself, and its resulting rampage is not by choice.

Ost is there to help in any way she can, but rather hilariously, none of the advice she offers is anything anyone in the room doesn’t already know. I love how offbeat and quirky she is, it really spices up the otherwise dull meeting scenes (as does the Kevin Penkin score, as always). Also nice is Raphtalia meeting Naofumi on a moonlit bridge that night, telling him if the other generals will follow a good plan, they just need to come up with one.

Naofumi thinks he has one, and will utilize the unique qualities of the various allied kingdoms to pull it off. Manpower, siege machines, mages, and explosives, there’s a wealth of resources with which he will stop, pin down, and eventually behead the Spirit Tortoise. Everyone pitches in, even Rishia and Ost pulling Tortoise research duty at the library.

One night while Naofumi’s suddenly much bigger party is gathereda round a fire, Ecliar mentions that she brought some new weapons and gear from Elhart in Melromarc, including a new sword for Raph, a new gauntlet for Filo…and a stat-boosting Filo mascot suit for Rishia, which is pretty adorable.

It’s while she’s in that bird suit that Ost picks up on Rishia being in love with the Bow Hero, and encourages her to “get intimate as soon as possible” and not overthink things. Honestly I can’t imagine what Rishia sees in that stuck-up prick, but hey, you can’t choose who ya love!

While a bit stronger than last week owing to Ost’s weirdness (and Eclair’s profound uprightness), this was still a table-setting episode packed with exposition and information leading up to the trip to the Tortoise-beheading fireworks factory…and is thus scored accordingly.

The Rising of the Shield Hero S2 – 01 – The Tortoise and the Hero

lot has happened in the real world since the last Shield Hero aired in late July 2019. It actually feels like much more than three years ago…more like thirty! And that’s even taking into account we saw Naofumi, Raphtalia and Filo in Isekai Quartet, the last episode of which aired just when shit was starting to go down in 2020.

Anywho, this episode marks a relatively understated, workmanlike return to the world of Shield Hero, with Naofumi settling in as lord of Lurolona Village, where the old and young, strong and weak alike train for the next Wave of Catastrophe, including his newest party member, Rishia, who rather comically must wear a penguin mascot suit to up her stats.

The relative peace of the status quo is rocked by the sudden arrival of a flock of monstrous bats. Raphtalia and Filo make quick work of them, but Naofumi’s HUD identifies them as “Spirit Tortoise Familiars.” Also, the next Wave countdown has cirously…stopped.

Naofumi and the other Cardinal Heroes are summoned to Melromarc where Queen Mirelia explains what’s happening: the Spirit Tortoise has revived and is starting to wreak havoc on the kingdom that bears its name. However, the other three heroes aren’t interested in assisting. After the meeting Rishia beseeches her former boss Itsuki, who tells her she’s not strong enough to fight for him.

After Naofumi gets Rishia a new sword at the weaponsmith’s, Raphtalia suggests they head to the slave merchant to make Rishia one of Naofumi’s slaves so that she can be stronger than Itsuki’s party members. Naofumi bristles at the idea, as he believes only Raph would volunteer to be a slave.

However, Rishia wants to become stronger, and she’s willing to be tattooed on her decolletage and endure the pain of forming a contract in order to do it. Rishia may be convinced she’s a failure, but if Naofumi and his party can offer her a chance at redemption and to prove herself to Itsuki and her former colleagues, she’s game.

With that, Naofumi’s party loads up the Filo-drawn wagon and journey to the Spirit Tortoise Kingdom to meet this latest non-Wave-related threat. While stopping to camp for the night, Filo reveals her ahoge serves as an antenna for direct communication with her queen, Fitoria.

She tells Fitoria they’re headed for the kingdom, and Fitoria responds that Naofumi will now face the choice she spoke of before: do something about the Spirit Tortoise, but also learn to get along with the other three heroes, or she’ll personally kill them all. Yes Rishia…even Itsuki!

They arrive at the capital of the kingdom as it is already under siege by massive swarms of bat monsters in the air, primate-like beasts on the ground, and scores of refugees running for their lives. They hear rumors that three of the four heroes were already killed going up against the Tortoise.

Filo’s two-way connection with Fitoria pays off again when the queen confirms that none of the three are actually dead; they were just rumors, thus calming Rishia down. Filo and Raphtalia then get to work eliminating the baddies while Rishia leads the people back to the safety of the capital’s walls.

Naofumi ends up using one of his many abilities to lure a huge host of enemies in his direction, then uses Dark Curse Burning to eliminate them all in one fell swoop, though not without bearing a physical cost he can’t hide from the trusty Raphtalia. In the aftermath of the battle, a mysterious, slightly pious-looking woman flat-out asks him to “please kill” her. To quote Rishia … Kweeeeh?

Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba – 07 – Taking the Plunge

Nezuko emerges from her box to viciously attack the tripartite demons, but when Tanjirou tells her to cease her attack, she dutifully returns to his side. He has her protect Kazumi and the young woman he rescued while he dives into the soupy bog where the demons dwell and devour.

While the demons are confident of their aquatic home-field advantage, the because Tanjirou trained in the thin air of the mountains and his attacks are water-based, he has no trouble executing a devastating whirlpool attack that chops the two demons into rustic chunks.

He returns to the surface just in time to stop the third and final demon from further harming Nezuko, who’d already received a nasty slash to the forehead. Before dispatching him, Tanjirou asks about Kibutsuji Muzan, but the demon start to smell strongly of fear—a fear so intense he literally can’t say anything about Kibutsuji.

While Tanjirou was able to defeat the demon and save one of the women, that woman wasn’t Kazumi’s fiancée. Tanjirou tries to comfort him by saying he must keep living despite life’s devastating blows. Kazumi lashes out in anger—how could a boy know what he’s feeling? But Tanjirou gently takes Kazumi’s hands in his and smiles a gentle smile, and Kazumi realizes Tanjirou knows all too well, and his hands aren’t those of a boy.

A Demon Slayer is always in high demand, so within moments of completing his first official assignment, his crow arrives with his second. He and Nezuko travel to Asakusa, Tokyo, and he is immediately overwhelmed by the densely packed humanity and the lights that make it as bright as midday.

Since this is the Taisho period, electricity is commonplace in the capital and there’s a vibrant streetcar network; we don’t see any cars buzzing around, but only because they’re still pretty rare. The huge city looks and sounds fantastic, and seems to pulsate with a modern energy Tanjirou has never before encountered.

Tanjirou is only one slurp into some therapeutic udon when he detects a scent that quickens his pulse and has him leaving the sleeping Nezuko at the stand. He dives into the crush of Tokyoites, following the very same evil scent that was present when his family was murdered, and it leads him to a fair-skinned man in a western black suit, a white hat, and reddish eyes.

This is it: this is Kibutsuji Muzan, the progenitor of all demons whom Tanjirou has been seeking. It’s almost too tidy that he’d locate someone so reluctant to be found he threatened other demons not to talk about him, but then again maybe he simply doesn’t consider Tanjirou a threat and would just as soon dispatch him.

As for Tanjirou, before he can unsheathe his sword, Kibutsuji makes a quarter-turn to reveal he’s holding a young human girl, his daughter. Soon, his wife appears, wondering who the boy in the checked coat is. To the mother and daughter, Kibutsuji is their husband and daddy. To Tanjirou, they’re his hostages. But that’s only the beginning: Kibutsuji quickly slashes a passing man without his wife or daughter noticing.

That man instantly transforms into a demon and bites his wife, starting a panic in the chaos of which Kibutsuji will no doubt slip away while Tanjirou tries to clean up the mess. Perhaps this was just a matter of Kibutsuji’s guard being down, in which case he won’t be so careless next time.

Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba – 06 – Live and Direct

Tanjirou’s got his special Demon Slayer Corps uniform (most of which he covers with his signature aqua checkered coat), his black sword (the properties of which are mysterious), and a new lightweight cedar box in which to carry Nezuko.

In other words, he’s ready to set off on his first official assignment: rid a town of a demon that is abducting young women. While making his way to the town, the vistas along Tanjirou’s travels are beautifully rendered with parallax scrolling, in which the foreground moves faster than the background, just like real life.

Once in the town, one of the larger settlements we’ve seen in the show thus far, it doesn’t take long for Tanjirou to locate Kazumi, whose fiancée Satoko is among the vanished women. Tanjirou puts his nose to work, eventually detecting a demon who can hide in floors and walls.

When the sun goes down, Tanjirou manages to pluck a recently-abducted girl from the demon’s clutches, but he soon learns there isn’t just one or two but three such demons, all with different personalities. The more gluttonous of the three shows off his collection of hairpins from those women he’s devoured…among them Satoko.

Tanjirou becomes enraged by the idea these demons are destroying families just like they destroyed his, but because he has to protect Kauzmi and the girl, he can’t stray far from them and thus can’t swing his sword freely enough to cut very deeply. It’s a valuable lesson: depending on the circumstances, he can’t always go all-out.

When the three demons surround Tanjirou and one attacks from behind, they get a little surprise: Nezuko pops out of her box, wide awake and ready for battle. We also learn that Urokodaki performed hypnosis on her while she was asleep, so that she’d regard all humans as her family and only demons as the enemy.

Needless to say this is incredibly useful, but Tanjirou’s true goal is to change her back into a human, not simply make her harmless to them. According to Urokodaki, the only one who might be able to help him with that is the progenitor of all demons, Kibutsuji Muzan. Something tells me no other demon will be in a hurry to volunteer Muzan-san’s whereabouts.

Rating: 4/5 Stars

Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba – 05 – All Ore Nothing

Seemingly telegraphing the fact that Tanjirou isn’t going to face any demons more powerful than the one he beheaded last week, DS lingers on the aftermath of the Hand Demon’s life and demise. He started out as a little kid who just wanted to hold his big brother’s hand, but one day he became a demon, and that was pretty much that.

Tanjirou has shown that no matter how evil a demon might seem, he wishes for them to be at peace or be reborn as humans again. That empathy isn’t just the result of a kind heart: surely the only ones who know if Nezuko can be changed back are demons. Alas, the ones he asks aren’t even high-level enough to be capable of speech.

The sun rises on the final day of the Fina Selection, and it seems only four applicants survived, all kids. Oddly, we still aren’t introduced to any of them, though since they all appear in the OP and/or ED, that will happen at some point. The creepy twin girls in charge of the selection assign the survivors crows, new uniforms, and have them pick the ore from which they want their Nichirin blades to be forged.

The three other survivors consist of Silent Pretty Girl, Crazy-Haired Guy who is constantly afraid he’s going to die, and Short-Tempered Prick, who grabs one of the twins by the hair to protest not being given his sword immediately (it will take 10-15 days). Tanjirou, friend of the weak, comes between the two, putting the jerk in his place.

With his uniform acquired and the sword in the mail, Tanjirou makes the trek back to Mt. Sagiri, though it’s far slower going this time due to his exertion during the Final Selection. Even so, a newly-awake Nezuko literally breaks down the door to meet him when he finally arrives, runs to hold him wordlessly in her arms…I couldn’t help but get a little cloudy-eyed at their touching reunion.

Urokodaki believes that Nezuko is sleeping so much in order to conserve energy since she’s not eating humans. Haganezuka soon arrives to present Tanjirou with his very own Nichirin katana, which turns an apparently unlucky pitch-black when he unsheathes it (not red, as Haganezuka hoped).

Finally, the Kasugai crow the twins assigned to Tanjirou arrives and speaks the human tongue, announcing his first assignment in a town where young girls have gone missing. No rest for those who’ve just been given a really, really nice sword for free!

Rating: 4/5 Stars

Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba – 04 – Above the Wisteria Line

We learn that Tanjirou was able to defeat Sabito, i.e. cleave the giant boulder, by sensing the “thread” of his target by smell, made possible during Total Concentration. After a celebratory dinner when Urokodaki gives him the cloud-emblazoned tunic like his and a kitsune warding mask, Tanjirou bids his master and still-sleeping sister goodbye and heads to Mount Fujikasane, which is replete with gorgeous glowing wisteria blooms.

The year-long blooms aren’t just for show, as the creepy twins who administer the Final Selection explain: demons hate wisteria, and so they are trapped above the elevation where the blooms don’t grow, making the top half of the mountain a demon prison. The applicants must survive seven days in order to pass. There are many other applicants, but we don’t meet any of them, which is was an unexpected but welcome choice.

Instead of introducing potential rivals and allies, the focus remains on Tanjirou, who decides he’ll stay as far east, where the sun rises earliest, as he can, and use the daytime when the demons aren’t active to rest. He smells his first two demon opponents before he sees them, and is initially a little uneasy, but remembers his training and defeats them both with relative ease (they had been fighting each other over terf, after all).

The third demon is a different story, as it is on a level unlike anything else he’s encountered. A giant grotesque mass of sinewy, veiny hands like something straight out of Akira, Tanjirou is again taken by fear at the mere sight of it, especially as it already has a human applicant in one of his many hands, and drops him into his maw.

Urokodaki told Tanjirou that the more humans a demon has eaten the stronger they are, and when Tanjirou confronts his Hand Demon, he helpfully tells him he’s eaten over fifty “brats” in his extremely long life (dating back to the Edo period).

Not only that, but this “morphed” demon has a particular grudge against Urokodaki, who imprisoned him on Mt. Fujikasane. He’s gotten his revenge by eating no fewer than thirteen of Urokodaki’s students—including Sabito and Momoko, who it’s now confirmed interacted with Tanjirou in some kind of spiritual form.

The demon successfully throws Tanjirou off the game on which he very critically needs to stay by describing in detail how the two others were killed, and our boy ends up smacked against a tree hard, his protective mask shattering. He avoids being killed only thanks, I believe, one of his departed little brothers shouting for him to wake up…just in time to dodge the demon’s killing blow.

Not about to let himself become Urokodaki’s fourteenth dead student (with that track record I can see why he was reluctant to train anyone else), Tanjirou re-centers himself, attains Total Concentration, and uses his specialized water-based attacks (which are beautifully rendered like Ukiyo-e waves) to slash the demon’s neck, defeating him.

So far Demon Slayer has been incredibly efficient, getting its protagonist from losing his family to meeting his master to training to reaching the final test that will make him a demon hunter. And yet even though I’m semi-binging, none of it has felt rushed in the least. Events pass as slowly or quickly as I’ve felt they should. Finally, this episode featured the most dazzling combat to date. As expected, ufotable knows what they’re doing.

Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba – 03 – Like a Rock

This week is a very workmanlike training episode, what amounts to a lengthy montage in between scenes of Tanjirou writing journal entries to Nezuko describing all of the things Urokodaki teaches him over a year. That includes how to stand, land, hold a sword, breathe, hold your breath and more. All the while, Nezuko sleeps, and Tanjirou worries about her.

Tanjirou soaks it all up like a sponge in order for his master to clear him for the Final Selection that will determine if he can become a member of the Demon Slayer Corps. Once Urokodaki tells him there is nothing else to teach him, he offers him a final test: slice a giant boulder in the woods clean in half.

The varying environments (forest, mountains, waterfall) break up the repetition that is both a bug and feature of most training episodes, and despite how fast time passes you can really feel how hard Tanjirou is working and struggling, and how frustrated he is when he’s suddenly left on his own to accomplish the seemingly impossible.

For another six months Tanjirou tries and fails to slice the boulder, until he’s approached by a boy in a kitsune mask named Sabito and a cute girl named Mokomo. Sabito offers tough love and clichéd motivational patter as he wails on Tanjirou. In between their sparring sessions, Mokomo teaches Tanjirou how to properly achieve Total Concentration, which allows humans to fight on par with demons.

After six months of that, Tanjirou is ready to face Sabito, who wields a metal sword for the first time after using only wood before. Tanjirou uses Total Concentration, her and Sabito rush at each other, and his strike hits Sabito first, cracking his mask in two. With that, the orphans trained by Orokodaki smile and disappear, and all of a sudden Tanjirou is standing before the boulder, which is sliced in two.

As I said, this episode has some cool moments but gets the job done in a pretty matter-of-fact manner. I’ve seen training regimens last only half an episode or less, while I’ve also seen them last entire arcs or cours. In the case of Demon Slayer, Tanjirou’s training takes an episode an change, which seems about right. On to the Final Selection…and hopefully Nezuko wakes up soon.

Rating: 4/5 Stars

Great Pretender – 23 (Fin) – How the Sausage is Made

In its penultimate episode Great Pretender pulled the wool over our eyes as well as those of con artists’ hapless targets. The finale opens with Liu, Chen, Suzaku, Ishigami, and a couple henchmen adjusting to their new reality: stranded on a deserted island with water and emergency rations.

There’s an absurd surrealism to seeing Liu, typically perched in his gaudy Shanghai tower, sitting on the beach looking defeated, or Suzaku lighting up a smoke in her ruined red throne, no longer surrounded by her lacquered and gilded office. They were well and truly conned like they’ve never been conned before.

The question is, how? After that quick check-in, we rewind back to the morning of the job. Before waking up, Makoto dreams of the time she gave her mom a wizard figurine, and she hoped it meant she’d see Seiji soon. Abby visits Makoto unannounced, urging him to hurry up and forgive himself, noting she was saved by doing the same.

From there, we follow Makoto as he clandestinely puts a sleeping drug in coffee he serves to Suzaku and Ishigami, while Laurent drugs the champagne he serves to Liu and Chen. This way, the targets are asleep while they are transported to the island where they’ll eventually be marooned.

We learn that while only Eddie Cassano is involved in this game as a favor to Laurent (they’re apparently on good terms now), the similarly reformed James Coleman and Sam Ibrahim also tagged along. Another character from a previous arc who plays a role is Shougo, who provides the air transport to the island.

On that island, Oz has led the construction down to the minute detail of a replica of Suzaku’s Tokyo HQ office. He had Makoto order the real thing re-painted recently so that the smell of fresh paint could be explained, while Suzaku herself is too woozy from her “nap” that she shrugs off the presence of cat sculptures Cynthia included because she thought they were cute, but weren’t in the real office.

The gun battle from which Liu, Chen, Suzaki and Ishigami escape was really just the “police” and Cassano’s “henchmen” firing their guns into the air, making enough noise to cover their escape down the elevator. As for Makoto’s “slashing?” The sword was real, but Oz only cut deep enough to break the blood bag inside Makoto’s jacket.

Fast-forward to the immediate aftermath of the successful completion of the job, the con artists party on what turns out to be Cassano’s boat. Makoto feels good about getting one over on Laurent (as well as following Abby’s advice to forgive himself), while Laurent tosses Dorothy’s ring into the ocean, satisfied she was properly avenged.

In the epilogue, Oz visits his wife’s grave, and we learn she knew what happened to him all along, but never told Makoto. Oz dedicates himself to finding homes for all of the rescued refugees, though Cynthia takes one of the older ones under her wing, giving him the choice of what to do with his life.

Abby reaches the top of a rock in Nevada’s Red Rock Canyon and sends a bird-flipping selfie to Makoto; I really liked how their relationship progressed, how they remain in touch even though they’ve parted ways as con artists. Laurent, meanwhile, is still in the game, and picks the newly inaugurated U.S. President as his next target. Four Seasons, anyone?

Finally, in a feel-good surprise ending, it’s revealed Dorothy is still alive after all, having apparently washed up in Taiwan with amnesia (she could be faking it, but then why did she never reunite with Laurent?). One of her adoptive parents presents her with a ring he found in the stomach of a fish—her old good luck ring, which Laurent tossed into the sea.

And that about does it. What a ride this was! Every arc of Great Pretender had its strong points and a distinct atmosphere owing to their varying settings and types of cons. It’s a show that seemingly got better and better, and this longer final arc brought everything together quite nicely, with its usual stylish cheekiness. I’d highly recommend GP, especially as a gateway show for entering the world of anime.

Great Pretender – 22 – PRETENCEPTION

The preparations for the 100-billion-yen swindle are complete; all that’s left is to execute. Everyone on the team who isn’t Laurent or Makoto are wise to assume that one of them—if not both of them—are going to pull something unexpected that could throw the whole job in to chaos. Laurent has his vendetta against Liu, while Makoto may have found a new mom in Suzaku.

The thing we the audience need to watch out for is what twists the episode is going to throw our way, and the clues that precede those twists. Those don’t just include Chekhov’s Poison Ring and Chair Sword, but the very tight framing as everyone travels to the meeting…or the fact the hallway smells like fresh paint.

As these things tend to go, the meeting, while initially extremely tense, goes quite well. Suzaku doesn’t shake Liu’s hand, her survivalist instincts sensing the ring, while Liu seems to sense the concealed sword. Unfortunately, those instincts don’t serve either of them when they both realize something must have been lost in translation, because they’ve both brought 100 billion with them…

That’s when the fake SWAT unit bursts in—Laurent and Makoto’s co-conspirators in disguise—and confiscate both the check and the briefcase of cash (or stock certificates, it would seem). Suzaku and Liu are at the mercy of their interpreters who have suddenly clammed up. Suzaku smells something rotten: the timing of the police arriving is too perfect.

It would seem our crew have the baddies right where they want them, but then Laurent seemingly takes his revenge by sticking Liu with the poison ring. Liu panics, but notably does not die; either he was simply freaked out about being pricked or it contained some other drug that made him wig out.

When “Officer” Kudou tries to arrest Suzaku, Makoto whips out the sword and stops him, and orders the check and briefcase returned to the desk. Then an entirely new group of guys with automatic weapons (real ones, in their case) bust in, led by none other than American gangster Eddie Cassano.

Makoto apparently made a side deal with Cassano, with the sole purpose of finally getting one over on Laurent. He rants about everyone working together to avenge Dorothy while his mom rots in her grave, then points the sword at his dad and starts to stab him with it. Laurent tries to stop him, urging Edamame to stop “screwing up.”

Then something else unexpected happens, that shouldn’t have been unexpected: after Laurent disarms Makoto with a kick, Oz grabs the sword out of mid-air and slashes his son across the chest, creating a fountain of blood that makes Suzaku freak out. Did she just witness the demise of her beloved new surrogate son? Hard to tell; we’ve already been taught by the show not to accept any “death” at face value.

And all this is before things get truly weird. After Makoto is slashed, Cassano’s men open fire. Ishigami gets Suzaku the heck out of there, while Chen grabs Liu (who is okay after all). They wait in the hall for an elevator that never comes, and there’s curiously no cell reception. Then the sounds of the shootout abruptly end, and they carefully peek back inside the meeting room.

There, Suzaku spots a lever located where the windows were, and when she pulls it, the entire room begins to descend like one big elevator. Once it reaches the bottom, two large metal doors open on their own to reveal…the sea. The entire multi-story building was just an artifice, and soon crumbles into a pile of debris. The camera pulls back to reveal Suzaku and Liu’s crews are stranded on a small remote island.

W, T, and—I can’t stress this enough—F? This is the weirdest, wackiest development yet. Was Makoto’s ranting just an act, and his death faked via a fake sword and blood pack in his suit? Where did he, and Laurent, and Cassano, and Cynhia, and Abby, and everyone else who was in that room go? And why bring back Eddie at all?

Those are only a couple of the several dozen questions I have; I’m just glad the particulars of the job-within-the-job weren’t explained before it was pulled off. I’m sure the final episode will at least partially explain what the hell just happened and how, but one thing I’m confident of is that the job was a success for our con artists.

Great Pretender – 21 – Language Barrier

After learning how his last princess-trafficking job went south and cost Laurent the love of his life, we return to Cynthia’s island, probably not long after Makoto returned to Japan. There, Laurent informs Kim, Cynthia and Abby of the next job—perhaps their most dangerous yet—and introduces them to Oz the Wizard.

Naturally, no one elects to back out, and we watch what unfolds after Cynthia, Abby, and Oz are shot off Suzaku’s boat. All three were wearing bulletproof vests with squibs, and were retrieved from the sea by Kim apparently a diving expert even in her old age.

Why not simply tell Makoto about the whole plan? Easy; because he’s Makoto. They all know him from their previous jobs. The less he knows, the less chance of him accidentally messing up the job. And even then, he can be unpredictable.

Laurent heads to Shanghai to reunite with his old boss, Liu. Liu is happy his old Mahjongg opponent is back, while Chen believes the fortune teller was spot-on about an interpreter falling into their lap after the loss of Oz. Oz, meanwhile, visits Makoto, alive and well, and tries to explain that he abandoned him and his mom for their own safety. Makoto isn’t convinced.

While alone in his hotel room, Laurent is fiddling with Dorothy’s good luck ring when he’s suddenly visited by her ghost. This is the one job in which Laurent has the most personal stakes. Its success determines whether Dorothy is properly avenged. It’s akin to Worf & Co. trying to get Jadzia Dax into Sto-vo-Kor.

Makoto plays his role well, and as was the case with his father, the role he’s playing and the person truly he is have started to blur. Makoto seems to harbor legitimate affection for Suzaku, and as a son who lost her mother connecting with a mother who lost her son, there’s good reason for that.

The logic and legitimacy of their bond makes the con that much more convincing, but ultimately the entire job leans on the inability of Suzaku and Ishigami to understand Chinese, and the inability of Liu and Chen to understand Japanese.

In their remote video meeting, Makoto and Laurent are the interpreters, and they invent a fictional dialogue their bosses can only assume is an accurate interpretation of their adversaries’ words. As such, both bosses believe the other is about to pay them ¥100 billion in cash.

This is right on the edge of what either side can afford (especially Suzaku’s side), and if Laurent’s crew ends up handling that ¥200 billion, it won’t just be their biggest score ever and a worthy victory for Dorothy’s memory, but ruin both Suzaku and Liu’s organizations.

What definitely seems to not be part of Laurent’s plan is the fact that both Liu and Suzaku intend to murder each other when they meet in person. Ishigami had a sword concealed in Suzaku’s chair, while Chen has a ring that can inject poison into whomever’s hand is shaken.

Laurent probably included the potential for treachery on both sides in his calculations, considering both Suzaku and Liu have no qualms about selling kids (As Sloan once said to Dr. Bashir: “These are not nice people we’re dealing with here.”). If everyone plays their roles as expected, the job will succeed where it failed last time.

But will Makoto play the proper role? At the onsen in Japan where the rest of the crew is lying low, Abby worries he’ll go off-script as he has in the past—only this time it might cost him his life. One key question is whether Makoto is merely pretending to care about Suzaku or has come to truly care about her? She did gift him an adorable kitty tie (continuing this arc’s synergy with the end credits), after all.

Unlike his father, Suzaku is there for him, and has always been upfront about who she is. Meanwhile, Oz once told his son to “always be lawful”, “contribute to the world”, and “be a respectable person” while doing none of those things. We also see him making a mysterious phone call from his moonlit apartment. So we’ll see!

Rating: 4/5 Stars

Wandering Witch: The Journey of Elaina – 06 – Truth is the Sword, Lies the Scabbard

Elaina’s next destination is an island city-state whose name has recently been changed to “Land of Truth-Tellers”. Their king has initiated a barrier around the whole of his domain in which no one can lie, either verbally or by writing. Elaina is weary of entering such a place but deems it worth the risk if it makes for a good story.

This being our ever-confident Elaina, she first tests the truth-telling effect by trying to say “I am not beautiful,” and later tries to write “I have a twisted personality”. Instead she ends up saying she is beautiful and writes that she’s pure of heart—both of which are the unvarnished truth.

Despite the seeming benefits of a society without lies, she finds the town quiet and oddly tense. She’s also approached by an unwashed young woman who asks non-verbally via a notepad if she’s the witch dispatched the United Magic Association. Again Elaina tells her the truth: she isn’t.

It’s when Elaina witnesses two young men fighting in the streets while others do nothing and watch that the problems with a lie-free society become clear: if everyone always says the truth, it’s much easier to end up in fights, which is why most people simply stay quiet. If you don’t have anything nice to say, etc.

But one witch decides to break up the lads’ fight mid-punch—Saya “the Charcoal Witch”, who is the UMA witch dispatched to the town! She’s so elated to see her beloved Elaina that her time-freezing spell dissipates and the lads punch each other square in the jaws. Elaina tries to take Saya’s extremely heavy feelings in stride.

Another effect of the truth barrier is that Saya, who is naturally quite the chatty person, will and does say everything rattling around in her mind, including all the things she wants to do with Elaina. But duty calls: she meets with the notepad woman, Eihemia the Quicksand Witch, who gives them the full situation.

When the King (with whom Eihemia was secretly infatuated) demanded she make his kingdom free of lies, she went all out to do so, locating a sword (which he’d later truthfully declare “lame”) powerful enough to serve as a vessel for the truth barrier’s magic. Unfortunately, in doing so Eihemia loses all of her magic and even her voice.

That means even though she did exactly what the king wanted, she ended up losing all the things that made her a useful member of his court, and she was banished from the palace. Had the episode wanted to go darker it could have explored what Eihemia has been forced to do to survive on the streets in a town with no lies, but it does not go there, which is probably for the best!

Her solution is clear: destroy the sword, and her magic and voice will be returned—as will the ability of the kingdom’s people to lie. Elaina and Saya get around having to write the truth by cleverly piecing together separate sentences then putting them together to gain access to the palace.

Once inside, they soon end up fighting off magical attacks from the king and his sword, one of which hits Saya square in the back and hurts like a bitch. When the king’s guards arrive, Elaina has Saya take care of them in the background while she reasons with the king.

The crux of her argument for destroying the sword: good people sometimes lie, while bad people will always find ways to bend the truth through the various loopholes in the barrier magic. To keep people from the little white lies we tell each other to get along every day will eventually be the kingdom’s undoing.

If truth is a sword, Elaina puts succinctly, lies are the scabbard that keep us from swinging that sword recklessly. Of course, scabbard in Japanese is apparently Saya, so Saya momentarily thinks Elaina called her name. Elaina then uses her broom to disarm the king and conjures a hammer to smash the sword to bits, thus lifting the curse of unchecked truth from his kingdom.

Eihemia’s voice and magic are restored, and she and the king reconcile when he agrees that some degree of lying and being lied to is necessary in any society. She returns to the court, and the king apologizes to his people. All’s well that ends well, and Saya gets paid for her trouble!

That turns out to be a good thing, since she had recently spend all of her money on matching dolphin necklaces for her and Elaina for when they crossed paths. Before heading back to UMA HQ, Saya takes her time tenderly putting the necklace on Elaina. Then the two pinky-swear to meet again someday.

This week was Elaina very nearly at its best. I for one don’t mind the darker stories like the one with the princess and dragon, but this was also great stuff; a feel-good fable-like high concept adventure that’s balanced by solid comedy. And of course, it is improved immeasurably by the return of the delightful Saya, voiced by Kurosawa Tomoyo, who brings so much effervescent vim and vigor to her characters.

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

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