SSSS.Dynazenon – 10 – Moblie Suit Yourself

After the group ended last week in the very highest of spirits, enjoying their own little summer fireworks festival, this week everyone seems a bit board. When it’s mentioned there haven’t been any kaiju in a while, that’s basically the…ahem…Trigger for one to appear. And this kaiju is unlike any that have come before.

Not content to fight a battle with mere, matter or energy this handsome, hulking mecha-beast’s unique ability is to blip people and objects out of time and space. Shizumu celebrates its arrival by saying he’s been waiting for this particular kind of kaiju; one that will “free them all”.

First Mujina vanishes in the blink of an eye, leaving only a motionless shadow. Then it’s Yume, who was right beside Yomogi. She ends up in the back seat of her car, younger and smaller, and her sister Kano alive and well. As Yume focuses on her sister, a tiny Dyna Wing flies behind her and eventually comes apart.

The kaiju trudges through the city, blipping out entire buildings, and its here where Dynazenon, already a proven virtuoso in the field of sound design, really takes it up a level. There’s just something so terrifying and yet also oddly calming about how it goes about its business in dead silence. Like the characters, it feels like dread is lurking just around the corner, and you wont hear it when it’s finally upon you.

Yomogi and Koyomi are on an elevator to a rooftop, but only Yomogi makes it to the top, as Koyomi is absorbed into his memory of finding the cash with Inamoto-san. Yomogi, discouraged, leaps into the kaiju’s mouth before the building beneath him vanishes. Anti is transported back to when he was in Akane’s world, and Akane even makes a cameo at the restaurant where Anti pigs out.

Even Gauma isn’t immune to the Kaiju’s insidious attack, being transported back over five thousand years to the time he wore the same uniform as the Eugenicists, and they were all buds, and he met the Princess, his affection for whom led to him betraying his comrades.

Yomogi ends up in the memory when his mother first brought up her new boyfriend/husband-to-be, but unlike the others Yomogi isn’t that interested in this illusion. He regrets not telling his mom he didn’t want to meet the guy, but he doesn’t try to re-live anything, because he’s primarily concerned with saving Yume and the others.

It’s foremost in his brain that it’s All Up To Him. And as his Dyna Soldier isn’t broken, he grasps it and manages to shatter the memory, ending up in a void somewhere within the kaiju’s body. There, he can see through the various mirrors, windows, and displays in the memories of the others, including Yume, but is unable to attract her attention.

Meanwhile, the buildings and people still existing in the city are dwindling fast as the kaiju continues its relentless march, but both Chise and Second are protected from being blipped by—you guessed it—the trusty Goldburn. But they’re unable to do anything in that shield; only hope someone can undo the kaiju’s undoing.

Despite being in their respective past younger selves, Yume, Koyomi, and Gauma are still aware on some level that their situations are chances to right wrongs they’ll later regret. Koyomi doesn’t run from Inamoto, and takes her on a joyride to the beach with the cash. Yume tries to stop Kano from leaving for the flood gate, but isn’t able to follow through.

As Chise starts to seriously worry, Second assures her whether the others can return is “entirely up to them.” That may be true, but it’s mostly up to Yomogi, who after literally throwing himself at a solid wall again and again says he simply Will Not Stand for Yume feeling bad—is finally able to shatter the boundary between them.

Yume instantly transforms back to her present-day age, and holds the beaten-up Yomogi when he collapses. Once again, Yomogi puts others first, exclaiming for them to stop her sister. Kano is indeed atop the flood gate, singing a lovely but also sad and lonely song. But to Yume’s relief, she’s not trying to kill herself. She has no intention of dying, and she genuinely wants Yume to come to her recital.

Yomogi leaves Yume with her sister so they can talk for a little while, confident that unlike last time Yume will come back. He then proceeds to free Koyomi, Gauma, and Anti. Koyomi learns that even back then Inamoto wasn’t serious about them running away together, and suspected the cash was fake.

Gauma faces his former friends and says he didn’t betray the others for the country that betrayed them, but for the Princess alone. Anti…well, Anti seemingly knew what was going on all along and was planning to leave of his own accord.

Getting back to Yume, she has what so many people who have lost someone under mysterious circumstances would dream of having: not a chance to bring that person back, but to learn what actually happened so she can have closure. When Kano realizes this is an older version of Yume from after her death, she regrets distancing herself from Yume due to her superior “agreeability”.

It soothes Yume’s heart to no end to know Kano didn’t take her life or invite her to her recital as some kind of cruel goodbye crystallizing their rift for all time. Instead, the reason for her being on the flood gate was all too practical and mundane: she wanted somewhere solitary to practice singing.

Before they part, Kano urges Yume to “make sure you rely on people”—something Yume mentions she’s already gotten the hang of. When Yume asks if she should stay in this world with her, Kano tells her the same thing she used to say to her all the time—”suit yourself”—but this time its  meant out of love and confidence in Yume, not apathy or resentment.

With all four Dyna Pilots plus Anti freed from their pasts, it’s time for a kaiju battle, which is quick and clean. With a full head of steam and maximum motivation and synchonization, the group blasts out of the kaiju and combine with Goldburn to become Super Dragon King Kaiser Gridknight.

When their opponent proves quick and elusive, they power up Dyna Saber and unleash a Kaiser Knight Circular, and ever-expanding purple ring that eventually catches up to the furiously darting kaiju’s teal trail, slicing it clean in two. Interestingly enough, the minimalist abstract shape seen from high above calls to mind both the neon signs of the eighties and the graphics once common on Solo cups and pickup trucks alike.

With the highest-difficulty kaiju defeated, every character comes away a changed person, no more than Yume, who celebrates having made up with Kano and learned the truth by singing on the top of the flood gate as her sister once did.

Koyomi learns he was chasing something unattainable all along, and choosing to go with Inamoto didn’t magically make them be together. Yomogi doesn’t really deal with his problems, but to be fair, he was singularly responsible for saving the others. Even if Anti freed himself, he’s not a Dyna pilot, and didn’t harbor anywhere near the intensity of emotions Yomogi harbored for Yume. That may have kept him from helping the others.

The episode ends cryptically, when after Gauma collapses due to apparent hunger, we cut back to him lying on the ground in the past after betraying the Eugenicists. I’m notot sure what to make of this, but I’m certainly intrigued. Despite this ellipsis, this episode still represents another high watermark for Dynazenon excellence.

86 – 08 – We Weren’t Ready

A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky dangerous animals and you know it.—Kay, Men In Black

The Alba are right: the Eighty Six aren’t human. They’re better than that. The humans who populate the serene Republic of San Magnolia blindly accept the government’s policy of ethnic cleansing as the cost of peace, order, and harmony. Lena, like the Eighty Six, knows there’s a wrong, but isn’t prepared to do more wrong to right it.

It’s why when Lena discovers the orders basically sentencing what’s left of Spearhead to their almost certain deaths, she wants to rescind them. Annette pulls her out of the records room for some tea and biscuits, but when Lena once again says it’s wrong not to try to do anything, all of the simmering resentment within Annette finally comes to a caustic boil.

Annette isn’t merely “pretending” to be a bad person; she’s fully embraced the role, heart and soul. She doesn’t need an excuse to do nothing; her inaction has already caused the death of her former neighbor and friend (who it’s pretty clear from the suspenders was none other than Nouzen Shinei) while her research is built upon the deaths of hundreds if not thousands of Eighty Six.

Like the vast majority of people would in such a situation, Annette chose not to fight a force that could not be beaten, but to join them. Even though her father committed suicide after the suffering he caused developing the Para-Raid, Annette carried on his work. She might’ve scared herself when she first called her friend a “filthy colored” like her classmates did, but that fear soon dissipated into acceptance.

After everything she’s been through and done in the name of not being able to do anything else, Annette doesn’t want to hear one more idealistic word out of Lena’s mouth. After all, the Para-Raid that enables Lena to speak to Shin and the other members of Spearhead was the product of involuntary human experimentation and state-sanctioned suffering. So is her comfy bed, her crisp uniform, her tasty coffee and sweets. It’s all tainted by evil.

Annette tells Lena she hates her and never wants to see her again. I mean, we already new full well Annette wouldn’t join any potential crusade against injustice Lena might concoct, but this really twists the knife, as Lena doesn’t even have a pretend friend in the capital in which to confide.

When she confronts her uncle before the statue of San Magnolia, he tells her the orders sending Spearhead to their deaths cant be recinded because it is the will of the republic that evry Eighty Six not only die, but be forgotten and erased from having ever existed. The only way San Magnolia will avoid becoming a pariah state after the war is if the atrocities they committed against the Eighty Six never come to light.

When Lena begs her uncle to remember the spirit of Saint Magnolia, he tells her their republic was never anything other than a country full of fools and villains who executed Magnolia for their wealth and greed. She says that’s just his despair talking, but he doesn’t consider his despair any different from her hope.

If Lena werent already having one of the worst days of her life, Shin also bids her farewell, fully accepting his suicide mission. Lena deduces he’s going after his brother, but Shin doens’t want her to hear his last words. Instead, he warns her that once the Shepherd is destroyed, the Legion is temporarily thrown into chaos, .

He urges her to head for the Eastern border, where she won’t hear the Legion’s voices and go mad. He and the others will buy her some time. With that, he signs off, for what seems like the last time. Now all Lena has is her tears.

With Lena left very much at rock bottom, we return to Spearhead, now only five strong: Kurena, Anju, Theo, Raiden, and Shin. They clean up their barracks, polish up their Juggernauts, have a final meal, and then set off on their deep recon mission with their heads held high.

As we’ve learned, they’re not just doing this because the alternative is summary execution. They’re doing it for their fallen comrades, and because just because they were always called pigs doesn’t mean they’ll become them. There’s a biting sense of inescapable dread and crushing unfairness to their scenes. More than anything, they feel like five kids who shouldn’t have to be anywhere near a battlefield.

Post-credits, we get one more taste of despair in the absence of anything else, in the form of the complete flashback of Shourei choking Shinei. He had been barely keeping it together before that point, crushed by his powerlessness to do anything about the loss of his parents. In a moment of weakness, he let himself blame Shinei for everything, and nearly killing him until someone pulls them apart.

A roboticized, Legionized Shourei narrates this final scene, lamenting that he couldn’t protect Shinei before. But this time, as Shin and his four companions approach him and his Legion unit, Shourei says he’ll protect his brother forever. All he has to do is come to him…which is what he’s doing.

All I can say to any of this is damn…this is some good shit, but it is also incredibly heavy and upsetting. I can only hope that we’ll get some glimmer of light at some point before the end…but that’s hardly a sure thing.

Rating: 4/5 Stars

86 – 07 – Nobody Comes Back

86’s structure returns to more of a mix of the processors’ and Lena’s perspectives rather than being split evenly, starting with the unit launching fireworks on the anniversary of the Republic’s Great Revolution. Some are playing with sparklers, Anju is finally crying, and Kurena watches Shin off by himself talking to Lena.

Lena is the one who sent them the “special ammunition”, emptying her wallet to bribe the quartermaster. It’s a small gesture, but she can do it, so she does, and it also highlights her increasing disillusionment with the shallow material world she lives in. If it can soothe the hearts of those soldiers for just a few moments, it’s worth all the money she has.

The superb juxtaposition of the fantasy world she inhabits with the realities of how it’s maintained continues as Lena walks alone in a bustling plaza. Celebrating Alba citizens are stuffing their faces with fine food and wine and couples are whispering sweet nothings, and little kids are crying about something as little as tripping and falling (something Lena herself does in front of subordinates earlier, so nervous she was about the fireworks).

All the while, Lena is on her Para-RAID, listening to Kuren describe in unsparing detail all of the horrors processor see every day.  Compared to watching their friends lose limbs, get their faces shredded, their bodies burned, their guts ripped open, and screaming in pain as they die, the voices of the long dead are nothing.

Because Lena is a kind and virtuous person, she never stops requesting reinforcements from the surrounding units, even “overstepping herself” in the eyes of her Uncle Jerome to complain directly to him about the lack of progress in her request. He assures her “the resupply and Processor replacement plans for the Eastern Theater are a settled matter.”

She takes that to mean resupply reinforcements are on their way to Spearhead, and Jerome pointedly doesn’t dispel that misconception. Despite what she takes as good news, she obeys the letter of her uncle’s order to attend the Revolution gala in an “appropriate dress”—which for Lena, can only be mourning black.

When the time she usually contacts Shin passes, he ends up calling her, which may just be a first, and she’s clearly thankful to be called away from the boring festivities. She heads out into the courtyard to watch the city’s fireworks display, marred by light pollution, almost letting slip that she wishes she could watch the fireworks she sent with Shin, modifying her hope that all of them can watch them together when the war is over.

Lena knows Shin once watched fireworks with his brother, and Shin is happy Lena remembered her brother when he was still his brother, something he can’t do anymore. Shin also reports Anju was finally able to cry, making the fireworks a unique opportunity for 86 to have a memorial gun salute. When asked if she’ll remember them all, Lena says she will, but before that, she won’t let anyone else die.

Rewinding a bit to the morning Shin received the delivery of fireworks, Anju and Kurena, the last two girls left in Spearhead, discuss whether they should “tell” Lena a secret they still carry, now that it’s clear she’s a good person. Anju warns that Shin and Raiden probably aren’t telling her because she’s a good person they don’t want to hurt more than they need to.

We also learn Anju has words scarred into her back, and while she grew her hair out to hide them, Daiya thought she did it because her hair was so pretty. Now that it’s just her and Kurena, and Daiya is gone, she sees no reason to hide it anymore. As for Kurena, she knows when they die “their Reaper” Shin will make sure they’re properly sent off. What she fears most is when he’s the only one of them left…who will carry his heart?

Two days after the fireworks and Lena’s vow not to let anyone else to die, Spearhead attacks the forward base knowing full well it’s a trap, and are then assaulted by a new ultra-long range Legion artillery cannon. Within seconds, four more soldiers are killed. Hopefully they died instantly, because Shin obeys Lena’s retreat order, knowing if they stay they could be wiped out entirely.

When they manage to shake off their Legion pursuers, Lena launches into a diatribe about reinforcements and how it simply “doesn’t make sense” that a unit as important as Spearhead hasn’t received any in all the time she’s been their Handler. That’s when Shin asks the others if it’s okay to “tell her”, and they all agree. She’s earned enough trust to learn yet another horrible truth.

Shin, Raiden, Theo, Anju, and Kurena all take turns telling Lena that nothing she does will change a single thing, ever. They’re going to get wiped out, because they’re supposed to get wiped out. The “replacements” Jerome told her about are the Processors that come after them, but they won’t come until every last one of them is dead. Nobody ever leaves the 86th District. The five-years thing is a lie…of course it is.

The higher-ups are able to determine which Eighty-Six are smart by how long they survive, and place them in increasingly dangerous positions until finally they arrive at the Spearhead. They’re not in an elite squad because they’re the best at fighting the Legion. They’re there to be killed off so no strong strategic or tactical Eighty-Six minds will ever be able to lead a rebellion against the Alba.

Now that she knows replacements won’t come until all of them are dead, Lena doesn’t want to believe it, but she believes them anyway. When she asks why they don’t simply run, or let the Legion through, it’s for many reasons. First, to honor those lost before them. Second: just as not all 86 are good, not all Alba are scum.

An Alba woman raised Raiden. Shin was raised by an Alba priest who refused to give up his land and was sent to the camps. Theo’s captain was an Alba. They knew some of the good Alba, while Kurena and Anju knew the very worst. They mention how Kaie was abused by other 86 for her skin color, while many of them have Alba blood.

Raiden says just because some of the Alba are scum who treat them like scum, doing the same doesn’t make them better. Even if they have no choice but to face the gallows, they can at least choose how they’ll climb up there. So they’ll keep surviving as long as they can. With increasingly advanced Legion—controlled by Shin’s brother’s brain—slowly advancing, that may not be long at all.

Now that Lena knows all of these things, simple gestures of kindness or little acts of resistance against her apathetic, hedonistic society probably won’t suffice anymore. All her hopes were riding on reinforcements that she now knows aren’t coming. And if Shin and the others are right, slaughtering their best frontline shoulders will eventually lead to the Legion invading the Alba districts.

So really, Lena can see the gallows in the distance as well. The difference is, she may still be do something other than merely decide how to climb up to them. With the help from what’s left of Spearhead, there’s a slight chance she can change all their fates.

86 – 06 – Just a Question of When

Now that the ghostly, ghastly sci-fi horror elements of 86 have been introduced, we look back to worse times when Shin found the headless  corpse of his brother in a once-grand bombed-out city (shades of Osgilliath) four years ago.

Then we look back to better times four months ago, when the ranks of Spearhead were a lot larger and livelier. Anju and Daiya began a kind of tender courtship while Shin lets it all soak in, perhaps knowing full well that it isn’t a matter of if things will go to shit, but when, and for whom.

In the present day it’s a hot July day, and everyone is baking in their metal coffins. They engage in a battle in which they are at a distinct disadvantage without mortar support, which the Republic hasn’t and won’t ever provide. The lighter mood caused by reminiscing about four months ago is shattered when Rikka gets into trouble and Daiya tries to rescue her.

Rikka’s mech is wrecked, and a Legion mech approaches her, she shoots herself in the head, her final words hoping Shin will “take care of things” from there. Daiya is surrounded by horrifying suicide bomber bots, and his last word is Anju who must quickly get over the shock of his loss and continue the battle.

Later, Shin ensures for Daiya what Rikka ensured with her self-inflicted headshot: that neither of them will join the ranks of the undead Legion. He gives Lena the opportunity to shut off the Para-Raid, but she considers it her duty to hear the shot being fired.

Down another two soldiers, Spearhead now has only sixteen soldiers left, and those lost will not be replaced before the next battle. Both the grieving Anju and the others try to hide how much this sucks with protective smiles and cheerfulness. Shin collects two more metal shards to remember Daiya and Rikka, then recalls how his brother hasn’t forgiven him for getting him and their parents killed. His search for his brother’s head continues.

Unlike past episodes that better mixed up Lena and Shin’s experiences, we’re back to one section being all Spearhead and the other being all Lena. It’s Lena’s birthday when Daiya and Rikka die, and Annette makes her a cake and gives her a present. She also casually talks about how 86 are dissected like lab animals if there’s a problem with the Para-Raid, while of  course Republic soldiers are treated far more humanely.

There’s been a tension building for some time between these two between idle chatter about Annette’s suitors and cake ingredients. It doesn’t seem the thoroughly jaded and complacent Annette will ever come around to Lena’s increased empathy for the 86.

Lena’s isolation is further reinforced in her briefing with her uncle. She suggests the Republic deploy the mortars in order to protect the lives of the 86. He responds by again warning her not to “side with the 86”, and that under no circumstances would Republic soldiers ore resources be spent to aid them. As Handler she’s merely responsible for making sure they follow their orders.

But Lena has obviously started to do far more than that. Unlike her uncle and Annette, whom I’m sure believe are “doing all they can”, her threshold for what “what she can” entails continues to expand. She has a corkboard with hand-drawn sketches of the remaining Spearhead soldiers on her desk, while by the window is a crystal case containing those who have been lost.

After signing off with everyone else, Lena is kept on the line by Shin, who voices concern for her because sounds on edge. He suggests she eat some sweets and use the evening to take a break from all these troubles. To Lena, he sounds just like his brother, who gave her chocolate when things were bad. She remarks on how important she regards her memories of him, while also letting slip how important she considers her time talking with with Shin.

When she realizes how that sounds, she turns red as a beet, a color that intensifies when she unwraps the fortune chocolate to reveal a heart. Of course, as she’s an Alba and a Republic Handler while he’s an 86 Processor and it’s a very bad idea to fall in love with him, I won’t go so far as to say nothing good can come of it.

One day, he’ll be the only member of Spearhead left, and then he’ll die. But Shinei Nouzen still won’t die alone, and he won’t be forgotten. It’s not nearly enough, but we can be assured, when that time comes, Lena will do everything she possibly can, even if it makes her a pariah in her world. There’s no going back.

86 – 05 – Ghosts In the Machines

This week we learn the details of how Shin’s brother saved Lena’s life when the helicopter she and her father were on crashed. Despite having everything taken from him by the Alba, Shourei was still a proud soldier of the Republic, and saving Lena—and giving her chocolate to eat—was his solemn duty.

Lena had seen and heard from her father how her people had done horrible things to the 86, so when Shourei’s stomach grumbled, she split the chocolate with him. It’s just that by the end of this episode, I wonder if it wouldn’t have been easier for Lena if that approaching Legion had killed her, though even then, it wasn’t a sure thing she’d remain dead.

The morning after reliving the most traumatic experience of her life, Lena is once again approached by Annette, who once again has a tasty dessert for her to try, and shifts the talk to party dresses for the upcoming Revolution Festival. Even Annette’s “memorial” to all her past suitors on the wall remind Lena of the actual memorial she just visited, as well as Shin’s undertaker role.

Even Shin tells Lena to go have fun; she’s not expected to spend all her time with Handler duties. As she talks to Shin, she encounters two other soldiers flirting on the stairs and gets a little flustered herself, but any thoughts of kicking back and partying are dashed when Shin announces out of the blue that the Legion are coming—despite there not being any warnings on Lena’s end.

Shin also makes the unprecedented request that Lena switch off her Para-Raid for the coming battle, as there are a lot of “Black Sheep” approaching. Lena resolutely refuses to disconnect, and Shin makes it clear that he warned her. As Shin and the others engage, Lena starts to hear strange voices among the static: the sounds of peoples’ last moments…including Kaie’s “I don’t want to die.”

The voices keep repeating and echoing in Lena’s head, and immediately it becomes clear why so many other Handlers went mad; even in her bedroom with the Para-Raid deactivated, merely reaching for it causes all the voices to rush back into her head. But while no previous Handler ever called back after hearing the voices, Lena still calls Shin back. She had to; she needs answers to what the hell just happened.

Shin is happy to provide the answers, but they’re all horrific downers. He can always engage the Legion before Lena even gets an alert because he can always hear the voices of ghosts of those who have died, but are still there.

Despite the Republic’s official stance that the war will end in two years when the Legion’s AI will shut down, Shin knows better: the Legion have been taking the brains of fallen 86 and copying them to replace the function of the AI due to shut down, thus extending their operating time—and thus the war—indefinitely.

This means the Republic, whose Alba citizens are so keen to hold swanky parties and get drunk and bang, believe they have the war in the bag when in reality, their defeat is almost assured. Not only will the Legion not shut down, but they’ve been building up their numbers, all while the 86 have dwindled to a smattering of children. Soon, Shin says, all of them will be dead.

When that happens, will the Alba fight in their place? Shin doesn’t think it likely. Even if they did, they’d be outmatched, since some of the brains recovered by the Legion were undamaged enough to create “Shepherds”—ghost commanders who make their Legion units significantly more powerful and adaptive.

Lena says if all that is the case, they simply need to wipe out the Legion before the 86 are wiped out, and before Shin’s service time expires. She wants the two of them to win and survive. But as Shin reveals a huge scar around his neck and recalls his brother choking him and saying “It’s your fault!”, it doesn’t seem Shin is interested in surviving. It’s also looking like his brother’s brain is one of those Shepherds.

Lena’s struggle to bring justice and dignity to the 86 seemed quaint and woefully insufficient before we learned the Republic are actually massive underdogs in this war, which won’t end when they expect it. With all this new information, it almost seems like Lena attending that party with Annette and getting blackout drunk would be equally as productive as anything else she could do.

Maybe that’s why Annette warned Lena not to get too close to the 86: because she too knows the truth (or a measure of it), and that there’s nothing left for them to do but enjoy life while the living’s good.

86 – 04 – Your Names.

After Theo lays into Lena for her hypocrisy, Raiden asks that she cut the connection for now. While Theo went too far, no one is in the mood for another “friendly chat” with her. Theo ends up regretting his rant for “tainting” Kaie’s death, making him no different from the white pigs.

After Anju, Kurena and Rekka grab Theo and mend his jacket button, he heads to the hangar to ask Shin what the “Fox commander” would have said to the Handler, a white pig who thinks she’s a saint for getting all buddy-buddy with them. As he secures a scrap of Kaie’s Juggernaut, Shin simply says the commander wouldn’t have said that.

While Theo’s comrades help him to process his grief and rage, all Lena’s “best friend” Annette has for her is pudding and platitudes. I’m not here to say Annette is a coward or a monster—it’s not that simple—but she is an unapologetic cog in a monstrous machine, believes there’s “nothing she can do” to change that, and strongly suggests Lena give up on the 86, and join her at the lab.

It also seems like her patience with Lena’s idealism is wearing thin. Even if she’s not a true believer and sees the injustice in their world, she resents Lena’s continued insistence the worlds can and should be bridged. “There’s pudding here, and not there” is as chillingly banal a defense of slavery ethnic cleansing as I’ve ever heard.

Not satisfied to eat away her pain, the evening light from the windows of HQ  calls to Lena’s mind a memory of riding with her father in a helicopter over the 86 concentration camps. She doesn’t remember much of what happened afterwards, but we can see the chopper was shot down and he tried to protect her from an attacking Legion mecha.

Lena tells her uncle about that memory, and how it allowed her to hold the ideals that the Republic threw away (as she says this, we see the statue of the gorgeous Wagnerian Valkyrie representing those ideals, while the fountain below is fouled with empty bottles and trash. 86’s visuals are rarely subtle, but they are damned effective!

Her uncle dispenses with the pudding analogies and tells Lena straight up that her father was a kind man and a good father, but at the end of the day he was doing nothing more than watching and talking about making it a better place. All he ended up achieving was getting himself killed and planting a potentially equally fatal seed of idealism in Lena. Her uncle probably wishes his niece wasn’t so intent on making those ideals real, as her father was, because the whole point of ideals are that they are unattainable, and trying to achieve the impossible is “foolish and cowardly.”

Still, she refuses to step down as Spearhead’s Handler. Her talks with Annette and her uncle leave her as frustrated as ever, and as she overhears another propaganda report on the public monitor, she hears Theo’s truer words over the reporter’s, reaches a breaking point, and initializes synchronization with Undertaker.

Lena runs to the War Casualties Cemetery, where not a single one of the 86 who have fallen has a grave. She begins by apologizing to Undertaker, then asking if she can learn the names of the members of Spearhead. Shin assures her that what Theo said wasn’t what they all thought, and they realize she didn’t create this world and can’t fix it on her own, so she doesn’t have to blame herself for “not doing the impossible”.

He continues by asserting that callsigns are used and Processor files locked so that Handlers won’t get too attached to them, or become overwhelmed by all the inevitable loss. But Lena doesn’t care; she doesn’t want to be a coward anymore. She asks again for their names, and writes them down as Shin gives them to her.

Then she hears him carving into the scrap of metal for Kaie, and he explains his duty of ensuring those who have been lost are remembered through the ritual, which is partly how he got the name “Undertaker”. He tells her Kaie was the 561st person for whom he’s carved a name, meaning he’s faced each and every one of the people who died beside him. Lena laments having never faced the deaths that occurred under her watch—only felt vaguely bad about them.

Lena then asks for Shin to broadcast her to everyone in the unit so she can apologize to them for not treating them as humans and not even realizing it. She learns from Theo that the previous Laughing Fox was an Alba like her. He was one of them, but as long as she’s inside the walls, they’ll never accept her as one of theirs. Raiden adds that while they’re sorry for thinking she was a “wannabie saint” and “hypocrite pig”, he still doesn’t think she’s cut out to be a Handler.

In a private chat with Shin later, Lena gets his name: Shinei Nouzen, and asks him if he knew a Shourei Nouzen, AKA Dullahan. Shin’s memories of Shourei (with his face scratched out) flood his head, leading him to crack an exceedingly rare smile as he tells her he was his brother.

Throughout all of this, we see the past structure of the series begin to break down, with far more cuts back and forth between Lena and Shin’s worlds. Now that she knows the real names of her unit, she’s rejected the cold complicity of her so-called best friend and jaded uncle.

They told her to extricate herself from this mess, but she decided to dive in deeper, and the more frequent cuts between the worlds is a sign of that fresh devotion to living a more honest life and not giving up on the ideals everyone else has. This episode lacked any battle action and was essentially a simple sequence of discussions.

Despite that, I was never once bored by the visuals that accompanied those talks, which more often than not were arresting both in the reality of the images presented and the interplay between them and the subject matter. I said last week Lena would have to do more to reconcile her ideals and actions, and she took the first steps here. A hard road lies ahead, but as her father’s daughter she’s determined to walk it. She’s had enough of pudding.

86 – 03 – The Bitter Truth

The third episode of Eighty Six begins ominously, with Lena apologizing for the loss of Kirschblüte, and another pilot looking ready to explode into a tirade. But before we hear that we’re sent back to happier times, with the female members of Spearhead bathing and having fun in the river

In a scenario typical of high school camping trip, three lads try to catch a glimpse of “heaven on earth”,  only the women they’re peeping on happen to be ready to switch from laughing and playing to having their weapons drawn and trained on them in no time.

During the bathing scene we learn that Kurena likes Shin, and is also jealous and angry that Shin is always talking with Handler One. When she storms off in the middle of a group chat with Lena, Daiya chases her down, and when she says she hates her and wants Shin to “break” her like the others, Daiya asks her if that’s really what she wants Shin to think she truly believes.

Kurena comes back to join the rest of the group, who are describing a recent meteor shower to Lena, who doesn’t get to see the stars due to the lights of the city. Kirschblüte, AKA Kaie, admits to Lena that she doesn’t believe all Alba are bad, just as not all Eighty Six are good. She just has one question for Lena.

Before we hear what Kaie’s question is, we go back a bit to before the conversation, this time in Lena’s world as she searches for maps to help her unit. While Spearhead are all gathered in the common room of their dingy makeshift barracks, Lena is all alone at her desk in her immaculate and ornate bedchamber. Even so, it feels like she’s remotely enjoying their company, reacting and laughing along with them.

That’s when Kaie asks: Why do you care about us so much? Lena answers: she was saved on the battlefield by a Processor, who told her they were members of the Republic, born and raised. For him it was an honor to serve that Republic. Since then, she’s made a point to live up to the example set by his words. Kaie first calls her an idealist virgin, then assures her she’s not a bad person, which is why she believes Lena isn’t cut out to be a Handler. She warns her not to get too involved with them.

Still, Lena has her code of honor, and she continues to follow it, making immediate use of the maps she found to aid Shin and Spearhead during their next engagement. Then it becomes clear we’re about to arrive at the foreboding moment in the cold open, as Kirschblüte ends up immobilized by an unexpected bog, where she becomes easy prey to a Legion unit.

Kaie’s last words are No. I don’t want to die, but what’s so haunting is how she says them. I’d describe her tone as…miffed? Frustrated, not panicked. It’s a harrowing, claustrophobic moment, and it’s heartwrenching to watch Lena squirm in her seat, forced to watch the inevitable unfold via sterile, abstract graphics on a glowing monitor, powerless to stop it.

The mission ends in success, but the loss of Kirschblüte hangs heavily on Lena’s conscience. But Theo, the pissed-off kid who unloads on her, doesn’t have time for her act. Not when he just lost his comrade. He makes it clear to her that not a single one of them has time to deal with her hypocrisy, sending them out to fight and die against their will from her warm safe place. Lena’s face contorts with reactions to his words, which are, by the way, absolutely correct.

Lena is a hypocrite. At the end of the day, she wears the uniform of a nation that treats the Eighty Six as inhuman chattel. Just because she’s nice to them doesn’t change that. Her empathy and good intentions aren’t enough to bridge the gap between them.

If she truly wants to live up to the ideals of the Processor who saved her, Major Vladilena Mirizé will have to reject them, because they were false. She can either let Theo’s harsh words break her, or she can hear them, accept them, and start to do more—much more—to fight against the intolerable injustice.

Rating: 4/5 Stars

86 – 02 – The Two Decisions

Aldrecht, Spearhead’s Juggernaut engineer and mechanic, scolds Shin once again for being so reckless with a piece of equipment for which there are no spare parts…except those from the Juggernauts of fallen soldiers. But relying on such parts isn’t a problem for someone with the callsign Undertaker, who has an entire chest full of names of the dead under his command.

In this 86th district where Shin and his comrades are stuck having to fight for an uncaring republic and oblivious public, the skies are blue and bright, and the grass and trees as green and lush as the other 85 districts of Magnolia, but all that matters is fighting the next battle and coming out of it in one piece.

No doubt used to taking the initiative due to incompetent or disinterested Handlers, Shin deploys Spearhead well before Lena gives the initial order to sortie, and establishes a different kill zone different from the one she chose. Lena trusts an elite processor’s instincts, and the battle commences as a cloud of tiny radar-jamming machines darken the sky.

They provide cover to a host of menacing, gleaming chrome Legion machines, a stark contrast to the rusty, old-fashioned, and very manned—Republic Juggernauts. Honestly I wouldn’t be surprised if there are people inside the Legion machines too, but I don’t think 86 is going in that particular direction.

Instead we get a bad-ass battle sequence scored by the Sawano Hiroyuki, whose reliably epic orchestral bombast calls to mind both greats like Attack on Titan and not-so-greats like Aldnoah.Zero. I’m on record as being down with anything for which this guy does the music; he always elevates it.

That said, the battle is more than awesome music. Despite being outnumbered, outgunned, and outteched, Shin and Spearhead prove to be a formidable match for the contingent of unfeeling autonomous machines. The battle is won without any casualties.

86 establishes its structural template of spending one half with Lena and half with Shin, only the reverse of the first episode. Lena’s half follows Shin’s, and we see how calm, quiet, and sterile her experience of the battle is compared to Shin and the other soldiers.

It’s also nice to see her exchange with Shin repeated so we can catch her facial expressions; particularly her reaction to her data transmission snafu she made. By not cutting back and forth between the two in real time, the distance between their experiences is amplified. Pressing the point that Lena’s experience is all theory and Shin’s is all practical, Lena pays a visit to a lecture hall at the academy.

Lena explicitly asked to address the future Handlers, and she starts by debunking many of the lies their professor was spouting. To her, the 86 are in fact human, even if they don’t have silver hair and blue eyes—the Alba clearly being an analogue to the “superior” Aryan race espoused by the Nazis.

Lena is confident her uncle will bail her out of any potential punishment for speaking the truth, but more troubling is that none of the youths seems to share her concerns, while Annette would clearly prefer her friend keep her head down. Lena is spitting in the wind.

She returns to her room and engages in enthusiastic conversation with Shin, and later his entire unit. Many of them still aren’t quite sure what to make of this Handler with a conscience, only that despite being the same age she seems hopelessly young and naïve.

Judging from some of their downcast expressions, it’s almost rubbing salt in the wound that she’s being so nice to them, considering she’s working for the system forcing them to fight and die while denying their status as human beings.

Still…Lena is nice, and kind, and wants to understand and help in any way she can. Just as her nation made the two decisions to create 85 districts for the Alba and one for the 86, she made two decisions as well: first, to be Spearhead’s Handler, and second, to treat them like human beings. She even hopes Shin reaches his combat term limit so he can regain his citizenship and get to do something or go somewhere fun.

I don’t know if Shin smirks because what she said genuinely raised his spirits, or if it’s a grim scoff, as if to say “would you listen to this kid?” All I know is he’s already more interesting than Inaho, and any dialogue with a Handler with ideals and morals must be a pleasant surprise in a world where most surprises aren’t.

Vlad Love – 12 (Fin) – Interview with Vampire Girl A

The Vlad Love finale begins with one of its typical pop culture tangents, this time with Maki talking about the 1994 film Interview With the Vampire, which not only affirmed her inherent fujoshi nature and that of countless other young women, but was about the sorrow and suffering of vampires, so often the baddies (Other contemporary works working with its themes include the anime Shiki and the Jim Jarmusch film Only Lovers Left Alive.)

Maki wants to interview her own, real-life vampire, but when she goes to Mitsugu with the idea, even promising to protect Mai’s identity, Mitsugu demurs, not wanting Maki to make waves in her “happy little life” with Mai. Maki wonders out loud if Mitsugu’s true issue is she’s scared of what she might learn about Mai. Grudingly, Mitsugu agrees to let Maki ask Mai, and Mai is excited to be interviewed.

The problem is, Maki’s non-confrontational interviewing style means she doesn’t get much from Mai, other than her insistence that she was raised not to be picky about blood and would never insist on her preference (the blood of aggressive men)—at least not until they (meaning vampires) “win the war”. During a dinner break, Chihiro-sensei drugs Mai and intends to use hypnotherapy to bring her memories to the surface.

It’s a dastardly, profoundly unethical choice, but we’re talking about Chihiro, who’s had no qualms throughout this series about drugging (and slapping!) her students and stealing the blood of all her past lovers. The truth is, Mitsugu probably is scared of learning more about Mai’s past, but she allows Chihiro and Maki to press on.

Chihiro puts Mai into a semi-conscious trance and we learn how she, her father and birth mother were driven from their home when they were attacked by humans. Mai recalls an entire world consumed by flame. They eventually arrive in a fine house in a different part of Europe, but they’re tracked down once more, and this time her mother is murdered.

Mitsugu doesn’t want to continue, but again Chihiro hits her with the fear card, and the next session begins. Mai and her father arrive in America, and settle in a plantation in the south not unlike the one in Gone with the Wind —AKA “that long-ass movie”. Her father soon introduces her to her first friend: Caroline Irene, or Carreen, and the two soon become as close as sisters.

Then one day her father announces the true reason he brought Carreen into Mai’s life: not merely for companionship, but a live human on which to practice her vampirism. Up to that point, Mai had lived off of her father’s blood, but vampires, like raptors, must learn to hunt their own prey. Hidaka Rina pulls out all the stops with the entranced Mai’s narration throughout this episode—it’s truly some of her best work.

When Mai refused to use Carreen in this way, her father punished her with fasting. Mai suffered unspeakable suffering as a result, until her hunger led her to Carreen’s room, and she ended that hunger, killing her friend in the process. The pain and shock of these resurfaced memories cause Mai to scream out, startling Mitsugu, Chihiro, and Maki, and the “interview” ends there.

The images of Mai’s memories throughout the hypnotherapy sessions are some of the most gorgeous Vlad Love has yet presented, and are given that much more weight by the fact there’s a distinct reason for showing them other than they look cool. The images, in turn, are enhanced by Kawai Kenji’s haunting score. One cannot dismiss the fact that Chihiro extracted Mai’s memories without her consent, but because she did what Mitsugu could not, Mitsugu has gained a deeper understanding of her dear friend.

Now that she has, does Mitsugu run from that knowledge? Of course not. Later that night, as Mai cheerfully leads the others in calisthenics, Maki says she won’t be using the footage she shot after all, while Mitsugu assures Chihiro that she doesn’t have to worry about Mai, because she’s not alone anymore. She has her, and her blood brothers and sisters.

Chihiro sternly tells Mitsugu that one day Mai may drink her blood, and she’d better be prepared. Mitsugu, no stranger to blood, promises she will be. The beaming smile Mai wears at the end while clutching Mitsugu’s arm is something Mitsugu will do anything and everything to protect, and she’s not alone in that commitment either.

I must say, I didn’t expect Vlad Love to get so serious and dramatic on us, but as with typically comedic show like SKET Dance, by doing so it churned out its best outing. Some of the early eps were a bit too heavy on indulgence and audience-winking and too light on substance, but that wasn’t an issue here, with gags taking a backseat to Mitsugu and Mai’s happy little life together, complementing the drama rather than drowning it out.

May their happy little life continue as long as Mitsugu lives, and then, someday before Mitsugu gets too old, perhaps Mai will turn her into a vampire so it can continue beyond that!

Wonder Egg Priority – 11 – Deviled

Rika helps enough Egg Girls to free Chiaki, only for her to pass through her hands and vanish right after resurrecting. Rika then meets Dot, who like Hyphen is beholden to Frill. She brutally murders Mannen and destroys Rika’s weapon, causing her to cower in abject horror.

One night (or rather when the underground Wonder Egg compound is in night mode) Ai stops by Acca and Ura-Acca’s house. She finds an office filled with clippings of teenage suicides, as well as what looks like a family portrait: the two Accas in the human form, a woman…and a child whose face is concealed by black marker.

Ura-Acca, who had been waiting for Ai, proceeds to tell her a long and sorrowful tale of hubris and tragedy—to help her better understand her and the other girls’ true roles in their not-so-little game of Wonder Egg.

Some years ago when they had human form, Acca and Ura-Acca shared a living space and cloistered research facility. Constantly under surveillance, they decided to create something all their own together, “just for fun”. That something was an artificial girl of 14 who named herself Frill.

In addition to having the traits that “a father would want his daughter to have”, she also had character flaws built into her heuristic programming, as “being uncontrollable is the essence of femininity.”

The Accas and Frill became a happy family of three, and moments often happened when they forgot she was an AI. At a tech symposium, the Accas met Hoshina Azusa, whom both befriended and eventually developed feelings. Azusa ended up choosing Acca over Ura-Acca. They married and she became pregnant with a girl.

If the Accas are Dr. Frankenstein, Frill soon became their “Monster”. She didn’t take Azusa’s interloping well, hinting that she hated her for basically stealing Acca away. She also wanted a friend, and wanted to make one herself; they ended up letting her make two: Dot and Hyphen. Then one night while Azusa was in the bath, Frill switched on a hair dryer and threw it into the tub, killing Azusa.

An unspeakably bereft Acca threw Frill down the steps beats, her, and locks her in a cellar. While she exhibited no remorse for the murder, she still pleaded not to be left in the dark. But while Azusa died, her infant daughter Himari survived, and ended up “saving” Acca and Ura-Acca from the utter depths of despair as a new family unit was forged.

One day, a now middle school-aged Himari has a strange conversation with “uncle” Ura-Acca, promising to marry him  when she was old enough; a consolation for her mother choosing Acca. That night, they found Himari dead in the tub. It looked like she’d slit her wrists, but there was no suicide note.

Remembering how she popped her lips the way Frill often did, Ura-Acca goes down to the cellar to find Frill is not only still active, but surrounded by surveillance technology and whatnot.

Ura-Acca accuses her of using Dot and Hyphen to kill Himari, Frill simply replies “I’m not a monster. I’m Frill,” and asks him if he wants to know how the girl who loved her “uncle” so much died. Enraged, Ura-Acca takes her away and seemingly destroys her by burning her in a fire.

Ura-Acca concludes by telling AI that the “temptation of death” will cause more girls to “die when they don’t have to” unless it’s stopped…all because of their “mistake.” Dot and Hyphen have apparently already closed Momoe’s heart with fear and caused Rika to build walls of hatred—they both appear on monitors in a set up not unlike Frill’s—but the Ura-Acca decided to at least tell Ai the truth about everything.

Nearly smashing a Wonder Egg on the ground in anger and frustration, Ai decides against it, but clearly isn’t happy with the information she’s received. Heck, we never even found out what, if anything, Sawaki-sensei told her about Koito’s death! That egg may contain the last girl Ai needs to protect to free Koito. But if Dot and Hyphen come for her, and murder her animal friend, what will Ai do then? What can she do?

This episode pulled back the curtain on the pair of mysterious mannequins who seemingly gave up their human bodies after enduring too much tragedy while within them. No one should have to suffer what they suffered. The thing is, everything happened was their fault—the brutal consequences of playing God and rejecting their creation—and involving Ai and the others only compounded their offense.

Between the hubris they exhibited in committing the monstrously irresponsible act of creating a life for fun—who became twisted by jealousy and slipped completely out of their control—and the fact that they then deceived and used four teenage girls as tools to try to fix their mistake, I still can’t summon much sympathy for them. I just hope there’s some way Ai, maybe with Neiru’s help, can save Momoe and Rika from their respective fresh hells.

Rating: 4/5 Stars

Wonder Egg Priority – 10 – Fried

The cold open is so idyllic and beautiful that’s it’s obvious it’s only Momoe’s dream, but it’s an instructive one, for it shows us Momoe as she sees herself and as she wants to be seen: a lovely girl, going on a regular date with a boy who likes her as a girl.

Momoe wakes up to the sound of the end credits of what was likely a romantic movie she was watching before nodding off, the flowery soundtrack of which accompanied her lovely dream, and then gets ready for the real thing.

This week, under questioning the Accas come clean about not only being affiliated with Plati, but having founded the Japan chapter. Neiru shows Ai and Rika what they looked like before they abandoned their physical bodies and placed their minds in mannequins.

But in an inspired interruption of what was shaping up to be an exposition-heavy Q-and-A, something more important comes up: Momoe reports that went on a date…with a boy. Reminding us that the garden where the Accas are always seated at their board isn’t outside but underground, Ai, Neiru and Rika hurry head up to meet with Momoe and engage in some Girl Talk.

Describing the boy as her “follower” (presumably on social media), he asked her out a week ago, but when she arrived for their date in a dress, he was horrified…because he thought he was asking out a boy. That’s been the story of Momoe’s adolescent existence: a round peg being hammered into a square hole by a society that refuses to see and know her the way she sees and knows herself.

She tells her crocodile friend Panic, who is of unknown gender, that it must be nice not to be judged by appearance. Panic obviously doesn’t respond with words, but by curling up in Momoe’s arm like a dog, simply being there with Momoe. No judgment, no projection…only love.

Perhaps emboldened by Momoe’s courage in putting her true self out there, Ai pays a visit to Sawaki-sensei, who confirms that he’ll be leaving school soon to pursue his career as a professional artist. He gives her a postcard for his first solo exhibition, titled “Latent Heat”, and tells her that it was a portrait he painted at school that got him noticed. Ai, of course, assumes it was a portrait of Koito. She has a statue, Sawaki has a painting.

Momoe’s next Egg Girl, Kurita Kaoru, immediately establishes himself as unlike anyone she’s ever encountered, as he isn’t a girl, but a trans boy. Kaoru instantly sees through the “Momotaro” façade, and sees a tall, cool girl—totally his type. Unlike Haruka, Kaoru isn’t a girl who loves her. Unlike her recent date, he doesn’t misgender her, and she does him the same courtesy without thinking. He even wears a jacket of light blue, pink, and white.

Momoe is more popular with the girls, who see in her the perfect man. Kaoru’s kendo club advisor—whom he once trusted and sought advice from—saw and desired him as a girl. The advisor raped Kaoru, who then became pregnant. It was as if both he and the world were denying Kaoru his true self. He took his own life, unable to live in that world.

Having heard this story and met the advisor in his grotesque Wonder Killer form, Momoe is unspeakably enraged, and prepares to stab the shit out of him. The Killer shoves her back, declaring he’ll “kill any man who makes passes at his Kaoru,” whom he’s encased in a heart-shaped glass case.

He prepares to crush Momoe, but as she summons all of her strength to lift him off of her and toss him aside, she forcefully corrects him by saying “I’m a girl!”, ripping her boyish clothes to reveal her sports bra, then launching a decisive attack on the Wonder Killer, shattering the case and catching Kaoru out of the air.

In the few moments they have after the battle is over, Kaoru covers Momoe with his jacket, thanks her and says that next time he’s reborn he’ll be the one to protect her. Momoe is flattered, but points out that not all girls want to be protected; a fair point. Kaoru then calls Momoe a lovely girl and asks if she likes younger men. Kaoru then leans in to kiss her before vanishing in a puff of smoke, turning Momoe beet red.

Kaoru turns out to be the final egg Momoe needed to protect in order to “clear the game”, and after a countdown, a curtain falls to reveal Haruka, no longer a statue. When she runs towards Momoe’s open arms, she passes right through her and fades away. Momoe says “it’s really over!”, but above her a part of the ceiling lets out a slow drip-drip-drip of water, suggesting it might not quite be over.

The Accas report that Momoe “won’t be coming anymore”, as she’s more or less cleared the game. This news compels Ai to take her leave from Rika and Neiru in order to take care of something. She comes home, bathes, pins her hair back to reveal her blue eye, and wears a dress and heels, then takes the train to the gallery where Sawaki-sensei’s exhibition is being held.

She finds the painting that launched his fledgling art career…and it’s not Koito, it’s her, heterochromia and all. Only it isn’t exactly her, and as Sawaki approaches he asks her if it resembles someone else: her mother. That’s because it’s a portrait of Ai “grown up” into a “wonderful, adult woman” like her mother; “kind, strong, and beautiful.”

Because Ai is the daughter of that woman—the woman he admits he’s in love with—he says she should have more faith in herself. Then Ai asks Sawaki something she’s wanted to ask him since Koito died: Why did she die?

We don’t get the answer, and who knows if Sawaki will be forthcoming, elusive, or abstract in his response. We also don’t know if any potential answer will satisfy Ai—for all we know, Koito took her life after being rejected by Sawaki. All we know is, like Momoe’s attempt to go on a date with a boy as a girl, she’s all the more stronger for actually asking. And Sawaki is still creepy and inscrutable as fuck.

As for Momoe, her hard-won physical and moral triumphs are all too fleeting, as the dripping water precedes the arrival of a strange entity with Haruka’s body, a Wonder Killer-like head, and a giant scythe. The Accas lament that their plans to create “warriors of Eros” to confront “Thanatos” may end up going off-course with Momoe’s recent experience of “the overwhelming fear of death.”

The Haruka-bodied entity tells Momoe she’s like to let her go out of respect for how she risked her life for friendship, but that someone named “Frill” would get mad if she found out. Unfurling her head to reveal butterfly wings, the entity proceeds to gruesomely murder Panic right before Momoe’s eyes, then takes a chunk of meat from Panic’s body, eats it, and stuffs some in Momoe’s mouth.

Back in the real world, Momoe can’t dispatch the horror of tasting Panic’s meat out of her mind, and vomits into the sink during dinner with her mom. She cowers at the foot of her bed, trembling in a blanket, unable to sleep. As expected, the Accas only ever offered a bitterly sore deal, with victory only bringing more trauma and suffering.

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.

Ikebukuro West Gate Park – 04 – Knowing the Whole Story

Last week was a half-baked and tedious exploration of the online content culture featuring an unlikable YouTuber. But that was just one episode of a show that can be about a lot of different thing. The first two episodes were decent, and this fourth happens to be the best yet. It’s also the heaviest emotionally, starting out the night of Christmas Eve with Makoto encountering an old man named Nanjou at the very spot where his son Toshi was killed five years ago.

Nanjou raised Toshi alone, and couldn’t keep him out of trouble, but considered him a fundamentally kind boy. His appeal to Makoto is simple: find out what happened to Toshi and who is responsible. As thanks in advance, he gives Makoto a ride home in his Jazz Taxi, which sounds like just about the perfect way to get a ride home on a snowy Christmas Eve night in they city.

Thanks to Takashi, Makoto learns that Toshi started a gang in Ueno called Team Apollo. As a mediator of note with powerful friends, Makoto walks through the territories of various gangs with confidence, but he’s initially regarded by Apollo as a trespasser trying to stir the shit. They refuse to tell him anything about Toshi, and when he doesn’t give up, they beat the shit out of him.

But it seems clear to Makoto that he wouldn’t get anything at all out of Apollo if he didn’t let them beat him up a little, then come right back with no hard feelings…and Toshi’s dad. Makoto’s mom assures Nanjou that Makoto gets in scraps all the time, but he’s tough and can take it, and she’s right! Makoto ends up meeting the current Apollo leader, Rintarou, who reveals that Makoto beat his girlfriend Harumi, as well as her eventual husband, Kouji.

That leads Makoto to meet with Harumi, whose son Akihiro is treated by Nanjou like his blood grandson. In truth, after suffering brutal beatings by Toshi, Harumi found comfort, safety, and eventually love in Kouji, and Akihiro is his son. She was already pregnant with Akihiro when she told Toshi she was leaving him.

Harumi’s story is familiar and sadly all-too-common: at one point she loved Toshi and he her, but he became increasingly twisted and violent towards her, yet the love was still there, mixed with fear. That’s why Harumi followed Toshi when he ran out of the house that night, only to find him dead. She felt horrible about his death, but also relieved, since it meant he could no longer hurt her, Kouji, or Akihiro.

The question remained: Who killed Toshi? It turns out the answer was right there in the opening scene when we first met Nanjou and Harumi. Makoto contacts his police friend who gives him the details of Toshi’s unsolved murder case. Turns out a young couple was on the scene, and the woman was fairly tall; only 5cm shorter than the man.

When Makoto calls his police friend, that friend is about to go on a date, and he can hear that Makoto is troubled and asks what’s wrong. Makoto ends the call soon thereafter, but his friend was right: this “case” definitely took its toll. Makoto should be with friends or family on this night, but instead he’s all alone in the cold, learning more and more about a story that can only further hurt everyone involved.

Still, he promises Harumi he won’t tell Nanjou that Akihiro isn’t his blood grandson, nor drag Toshi’s memory in the dirt. Aside from the harm it could do, it isn’t his place as an outsider. That’s why it’s gratifying that when Makoto meets with Nanjou to feed him a fake story, not only is Harumi there to tell the truth about Toshi’s violence, but so is the couple who were present for Toshi’s death.

Turns out in his rage, Toshi assaulted the husband, and when the wife shoved away him he fell awkwardly down the steps and suffered a fatal head injury. It was an accident caused in self-defense, but the couple never turned themselves in, and now the wife is with child, making things more complicated. They promise Nanjou that once their kid is born and older they’ll turn themselves in.

Nanjou doesn’t seem eager to let them do that, as it would only ruin their lives and that of their child. Instead, he turns all the blame in on himself; had he raised Toshi better, he wouldn’t have hurt Harumi, not to mention put himself in the position where the young wife pushed him to his death. He apologizes to Toshi, and Makoto, whose father is gone, can’t help but feel pride for the poor old man.

This episode got downright noir-y and hardboiled, and Makoto showed off his detective chops, much of which come down to his considerable people skills (and ability to take a beating). The setting of snowy Ikebukuro adds to the brooding atmosphere, as does Makoto’s early comment about how some spots in the city feel like they’re devoid of air—like the otherwise unexceptional spot where Toshi died.

At least now Nanjou can breathe knowing the truth of what happened and why, and if he doesn’t want to dwell on it, he can always turn up the jazz in his taxi.

Rating: 4/5 Stars