Fire Force – 04 – Infernal, Know Thyself

Many scenes of this week’s episode (and indeed previous ones) reminded me of the work of Akiyuki Shinbo, whose work in turn reminds me of live action directors Kubrick and Anderson. Sure enough, Fire Force’s director Yase Yuki is a SHAFT vet, having worked on Monogatari, Madoka, Nisekoi, even Koufuku Graffiti. That means there’s a generous amount of artistry to each shot, even if said shots aren’t really doing that much for the narrative.

The three balloon-holding mascots against an azure sky is one example; the scene of Company 5 Captain Princess Hibana and her man-throne is another, the latter evoking religious iconography that is reflected in the brief scene of Iris in a stained glass-filled chapel, looking at the burned photo of what we gather to have been her family. It’s just a really pretty, stylish show, but if you’ve been watching you knew that already.

Despite the flashy visuals, the episode starts out pretty harmlessly, with Maki dispatching Shinra and Arthur to help get a dog—later revealed to be one of the firefighter mascots—out of a tree. He was “hooray”-ed up there by college kids. With a firefighter (distinct from the fire soldiers) named Miyamoto on trial for a string of murders, the profession is not as respected as it once was.

However, just after Miyamoto is declared not guilty (by reason of insanity) he spontaneously combusts and becomes an Infernal, and not just any Infernal, but one that is self-aware and can talk (and also reminds me a of a hollow from Bleach).

Company 8 deploys to deal with the threat (though Maki leaves out the part about her sending the boys to get a mascot out of a tree, so Hinawa thinks they’re on unauthorized leave. Meanwhile, Princess Hibana moblizes her Company 5 in hopes of grabbing a rare specimen for Infernal research.

Thanks to Shinra’s rocket feet, he and Arthur get there first, and make quite an acrobatic entrance, with the force of Shinra’s kick knocking Miyamoto back the exact same distance Arthur flies before arresting his momentum and showing Miyamoto the back of his fist.

Mika and the rest of the 8th arrives, but her Sputter Comet attack is immediately neutralized. Even so, Miyamoto puts up his hands and surrenders—another Infernal first—before making a quick getaway. Only Shinra is fast enough to chase him. Oubi understands the difficulty of sending off a self-aware entity, but Hinawa tells Shinra not to listen to anything it says.

The ensuing fight between Shinra and Miyamoto!Infernal involves the former kicking a Peugeot 405 at him, showing the guy he means business. Again Miyamoto pleads for the mercy of a nun’s prayer before being sent off. Shinra forgets what Hinawa told him and listens to the Infernal, which immediately double-crosses him by trying to attack.

That’s when Princess Hibana and the 5th arrive and start throwing their weight around. Shirna says this is his job, but Hibana outranks him and her company outnumbers the 8th. Shinra manages to resist having to lick the imperious Hibana’s shoes, and uses his rocket feet to free himself from three of her “5th’s Angels”

The standoff continues when the rest of the 8th catches up to Shinra, and Hibana looks down on her fellow captain Oubi for having no pyrokinetic powers—not to mention low breeding. Ultimately, it is Oubi who caves, deciding letting a better-equipped company use Miyamoto in their research to learn more about human combustion is for the best.

Before the two rival companies go their separate ways, Oubi promises Hibana that the flame of the 8th won’t go out so easily. Kinda sounds like a challenge the princess would be all too happy to accept. In the meantime, she’s got a new specimen for her research department to mess with.

Fire Force – 03 – Hero or Devil

Enen no Shouboutai took a week off out of respect for the victims of the Kyoto Animation fire. There was probably never going to be an ideal way to return to regularly scheduled programming, but it felt particularly awkward to frontload the first episode back with repeated accidental gropings of poor hastily-introduced Kotatsu Tamaki, the show’s new resident Revealing Outfit Girl. I could forgive the empty fanservice if the episode had better points to focus on…but sadly, it didn’t.

What this disjointed episode did have was a whole lot of plot and table-setting. The Rookie Fire Soldier Games begin with all the fanfare of a quaint high school sports festival, but the episode abandons the games almost as quickly as it introduces them, by taking a sharp right onto the tired “Evil Clownlike Villain” road, introducing “Joker,” a name I think we can all agree is not the most imaginative.

When Shinra enters the building, Joker is assaulting two fire soldiers. He also threatens to kill Shinra, but also offers him the chance to join him, becoming a “devil” instead of a “hero.” This doesn’t fly too great for Shinra, partly due to his lifelong dream to become a hero (not a devil) and partly because the Joker assaulted two of his comrades. The two duel (Shinra’s no match for Joker), Arthur and Tamaki pitch in a bit (neither are they) and Joker fills the building with highly explosive ash.

Shinra grabs Arthur, Tamaki and the two injured soldiers and flies out of a hole in the roof. Tamaki’s captain praises Shinra, but doesn’t offer any more info on the circumstances of the fire twelve years ago. Joker hoped to lure Shinra to his side by sharing “the truth,” including the claim his brother, just one year old when he died, is actually still alive.

Some lengthy still shots filled with exposition from Captain Oubi later (seriously; the last five minutes are barely animated), we now learn the 8th Company has a mandate to investigate the other seven as part of an effort to uncover the truth of spontaneous human combustion, the explanation for which may already be known. Whatever their mission, Shinra wishes to remain on the hero’s path. We’ll see how hard Joker makes that.

Fire Force – 02 – About All Any of Them Can Do

With the Rookie Fire Soldier Games coming up, Captain Oubi has high hopes for young Shinra. But he’s not the only rookie assigned to Company 8. That’s right, it’s the Rival/Friend His Own Age Who Is More Like Him Than Not, Arthur Boyle, the self-proclaimed “Knight King.”

Maki and Iris are enjoying the nice day on the roof when the two prepare to go at it, but Lt. Hinawa puts an end to both Maki’s idle fire manipulation (technically against regs, but he’s a stickler) and the attempted duel. Instead, he rearranges the fight so Shinra and Arthur have to go up against their senpai Maki.

While both third-gens are unconcerned about taking on a second-gen, Maki’s military training, experience, wonderful muscles, and most important, her ability to manipulate the flames of others means both guys end up taking quick losses.

Maki may be a little self conscious about her “ogre gorilla” alter-persona, but there’s no doubting her toughness despite not being the latest generation of pyrokineticist. If Shinra’s a devil and Arthur a knight, she’s a witch—and a very accomplished one, at that.

Taken down a few pegs, Shinra and Arthur shift their battle to see who can eat the ramen Oubi treated them to faster…which is not the point of eating delish ramen. There’s also a mention of how much gear a non-user like the captain has to wear (and Hinawa has to maintain) for the job, while Arthur’s Excalibur and Shinra’ feet and Type 7 ax are sufficient for them. Speaking of which, the alarm sounds and the now five-person Company 8 answers the call.

The scene is eerily quiet but the Infernal is inside, the father of a girl who already lost her mother to “infernalization,” and dreads being next as a matter of genes (though it could just be a coincidence). When Shinra and Arthur take out their weapons in public, they are scolded by Oubi. The Infernal they’re about to fight was a human, with family. It’s not a glorious battle, but a solemn funeral. If the rookies think otherwise, they can leave the 8.

Oubi is proven right when they enter the house and find the girl’s infernalized father just sitting quietly at the table, the shrine of his wife nearby. Shinra wonders why they should attack an Infernal that isn’t doing anything, but Arthur corrects him: the person sitting there is in tremendous pain, and they must put him out of his misery.

As Iris says the prayer, all it takes is a single quick strike form behind with Arthur’s plasma sword to send the father to rest. A quick and dignified end, but no consolation for his daughter as she never saw it.

Before they went in, a cloud of flames above the house formed into a smirk, and after they defeat the Infernal, the house inexplicably comes tumbling down; fortunately Oubi is tough and isn’t injured, but he and Hinawa immediately suspect a third party that’s messing with their duties. Indeed there is someone outside among the crowd, who leaves smoke letters in the sky reading “Joker.” Huh.

Meanwhile, Oubi completes his duties by doing what he can to comfort the surviving daughter in her time of greatest despair. He posits that because his parents protected her so thoroughly from the flames, she’ll be safe form now on, even if they’re gone. The fire soldiers didn’t fight a battle this week; the Infernals did, for the sake of their daughter, and they won, because she’s still alive.

Neither Shinra nor Arthur can sleep that night (obviously they were assigned the same bunk bed), realizing that the academy could not prepare them for the most terrifying part of being a fire soldier: getting accustomed to what they do. But as much as they snipe and sneer at nip at each other, they’ve perhaps started to realize that they’d rather have one another by their side than not, to help deal with those solemn times.

Fire Force – 01 – (First Impressions) – Exorcising Fire Demons

The premise of Fire Force is as bizarre as it is frightening: in its timeline, the “Solar Era”, spontaneous human combustion is not only a great hazard to Tokyo, but the beings that emerge from the flames, “Infernals,” are demons who must be defeated in order to put the souls of the victims at rest.

That’s the job of Special Fire Force Company 8, of which young newcomer and third-generation pyrokineticist Kusakabe Shinra is its newest member. He just happens to be a witness to the latest emergence of an Infernal, which Company 8 is dispatched to the train station to tackle.

In this way, Shinra gets a first-row view of how the Fire Force gets things done, and it’s as much a battle with a demon as it is a religous ritual; there’s even a sister, Iris, on staff to deliver the proper prayers at the proper time. While Shinra doesn’t participate in the battle, which is another success for Company 8, his quick thinking (and literally flaming feet) manage to rescue Iris from suffering a freak accident at the hands of a falling lamp.

From there, Shinra is taken back to Co.8’s HQ, a somewhat run-down but still very cool-looking cathedral (all of the architecture and mechanical design is very quirky and cool-looking, for that matter). He already met Iris by sweeping her off her feet like a princess, but soon meets Captain Oubi, Lt. Hinawa, and the first-class fire soldier Oze Maki.

Still, while his job is ostensibly to purify fire demons, Shinra clearly has some demons of his own, something he largely gives away every time he gets nervous and his mouth tightens up into a sinister-looking crooked grin. Those demons revolve around some kind of tragedy in his past where he was blamed for his mother and little brother’s death and subsequently ostracized by most other adults in his family and among their friends.

He doesn’t have time to contemplate how he’ll wrestle with those demons for long; the alarm sounds and within minutes he’s prepped and deployed with the rest of the company aboard the armored firetruck “Matchbox” to a factory fire caused by the manager’s wife combusting.

Another firsthand look at a scene of fire and destruction triggers his worst memories of the end of his mom, brother, and home, as he insists within his thoughts that someone else was present who was the primary culprit; it wasn’t a matter of his powers going out of control but someone causing them to.

We’ll see how that pans out, but his Captain and Maki work to keep him in the here and now, focused on the not inconsiderable task before them: the Infernal is one tough cookie.

Ultimately Shinra has to put aside the fact he couldn’t keep his promise to protect his family like a hero, but he decides to make a new promise never to let that happen again, and to protect anyone else affected by the Infernals. He delivers a devastating kick to the core of the Infernal, dispersing it, and Iris says the prayer. Mission Complete.

Outside, Shinra and the rest of the Fire Force gets its due congratulations, thanks, and adulation of the assembled crowd of citizens, not just for stopping the blaze but saving the soul of the manager’s wife. And for the first time since before his mother died, Shinra finally smiles a genuine smile, not the forced smirk with which he is so often cursed at the wrong times.

Fire Force, in a couple words, is pretty damn good. Stylish, fast-paced, and uncomplicated in its presentation of its protagonist, his motivations and goals, and the introduction of his new family and life among Company 8, which is definitely not your typical fire department. It’s a fun and imaginative setting that still feels grounded in reality and modern life.

The vaunted David Production studio provides a feast for the eyes, blending the reds and oranges of the flames with the ever-glowing blue of the fire soldiers as well as the eerie green aurora above Tokyo’s skies. The orchestral score also delivers the appropriate sense of occasion, peril, and excitement, particularly during the boss fight. I’m looking forward to this one.

SSSS.Gridman – 01 (First Impressions) – Old Computers are Terrifying…and Awesome

SSSS Gridman follows a familiar formula of “average kid awakens as mecha pilot and fights monsters” and elevates it with a movie-quality production that doesn’t skimp on naturalistic sights, sounds and pacing to immerse you into its once-but-no-longer-mundane world.

The simple beginning of Hibiki Yuuta waking up in Takarada Rikka’s house, recipient of an act of kindness. He hears a voice from an old, cobbled-together computer in Rikka’s family junk store, but only he can see and hear the robot on the screen introducing himself as Gridman.

Similarly, only he can see the immense kaiju looming in the otherwise ordinary Tokyo dusk. Heck, it looks almost like a cloud cell. At first things are kept at a normal level: perhaps Yuuta just hit his head, has temporary memory loss with some audiovisual hallucinations. It’s why Rikka makes sure he gets home safe and someone picks him up in the morning.

That someone is his friend Utsumi Shou, who recommends they carry on like everything’s normal. Yuuta gets a “special hot dog” from the class idol Shinjou Akane, but Shou thinks it’s more out of pity than kindness.

The school scene is full of naturalistic sounds and leisurely pacing that emulates real life. The voice actors all use a casual conversational style that makes the scenes feel lived in.

He wants to see what Yuuta saw, so the boys return to Rikka’s mom’s store. Neither of Yuuta’s new friends can see or hear Gridman on the screen, but they do hear and feel the tremors in the ground when a kaiju finally shows up and starts wreaking havoc on the city.

And boy, is there a lot of havoc. Vehicles are flung about like toys, energy balls are shot from the kaiju’s mouth that level whatever buildings it doesn’t flatten with its lumbering gait—including Yuuta’s school. In the tradition of Power Rangers, the big boss is slightly unsettling looking…yet also a bit cute.

It isn’t until Yuuta is transported into the computer to have a quick confab with Gridman that Rikka and Shou can see the robot on the monitor. Outside, the full-size Gridman materializes and starts going at it with the kaiju, but just as Shinji’s first go in Unit 01 didn’t go so swimmingly, Yuuta quickly gets put on his ass by his opponent.

Wanting to help in some way, Rikka decides to try typing encouragement to Yuuta on the computer, exhibiting her skill for speed-typing. It gets through to Yuuta, who stands up, dusts himself off, and then goes at the monster with a full head of steam, culminating in ripping its head and neck off and finishing it off with a good old-fashioned Grid Beam.

Once the battle is over Yuuta materializes back in Rikka’s place, victorious, but Gridman warns him this is only the beginning; there will be far more to his mission. Shou can’t believe what he just saw but is really pumped up; Rikka is more reserved and kind of freaking out as her mind tries to process it all. So Yuuta and Shou head home.

The next morning everything is back to normal…too normal, as their school was definitely destroyed last night, but when they arrive, it’s been fully restored with neither a scratch nor a dead kaiju head rotting in the yard. There’s also another “chosen pilot” on the opposite side of the fight being encouraged by a robot different from Gridman.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not here to tell you SSSS.Gridman is some marvel of original, compelling stroytelling. It basically steals everything it is form other sources, some of them many would rather re-watch than see in bastardized form.

But I will say simply that I was greatly entertained, fully engaged, and came to like the lead characters whose broad strokes were given texture by their seiyus. And if every episode comes close to being as much of a feast for the eyes and ears as this one, then I’m excited to watch more. It’s nothing fancy, fancily executed.

Tenrou: Sirius the Jaeger – 04 – Brains, Trains, and Automobiles

Kershner sends an envoy to cut the Hyakko Party off from Alma Company’s funding, but Hyakko’s leader doesn’t like that, and kills the messenger. Williard takes the measure of the Alma company, a front that looks on the surface like any respectable downtown business office. While on the lift he’s gently prodded for info by Major Iba, but doesn’t give away much.

Iba is spotted by his old academy mentor and new chief of weapons development, Maj. Gen. Kakizaki, who is glad he got Iba into intelligence, considering how much his student already knows. Willard convenes with his subordinates in V Shipping and determines that the vampires and Hyakko had a falling out, but the vamps must’ve managed to collect all the “parts” they needed.

Both Major Iba and Willard know where to go next: Shizuoka, where a weapons “exercise” will be taking place. A restless Yuliy volunteers to take the trip, but Dorothea accompanies him to keep him in check and on mission. After having a formal Japanese meal with Minister Naoe and Ryouko, she learns of their trip and decides to tail Yuliy, too intrigued to heed his warning for her to keep her distance.

Meanwhile in Shizuoka, Gen. Kakizaki witnesses in horror as the Frankenstein-type monster the Alma Company commissioned eliminates an entire battalion of soldiers with grim efficiency. As Yuliy, Dorothea, and Ryouko board the Shizuoka-bound train, the Hyakko Party raids Alma Co.’s headquarters and slaughters everyone in the office, believing them to be vampires even though they’re only humans.

Yuliy suddenly smells blood, and when the train stops, he switches to the one going in the opposite direction, as Dorothea—and a Ryouko determined to have lunch with them—both follow him. Major Iba also transfers from one train to the other, believing Kakizaki to be aboard. Kershner and his Dr. Frankenstein-y mad scientist subordinate are also aboard, along with the monster.

Finally, when Dorothea goes off to count passengers, Yuliy ends up encountering his brother Mikhail once more. Practically everybody is on this damn train! That means there’s sure to be some fireworks in short order; woe betide Ryouko or any other civilian caught in the fray.

Tenrou: Sirius the Jaeger – 03 – Just Live

As Ryouko’s classmates mistake her frustrated sigh for a lovesick one (though her blushing suggests they’re on to something), Yuliy’s unexpected encounter with his now-vampirized brother Mikhail brings all of his memories of him roaring back, starting with the good times when the two would hunt in the wintry forests of their home—which I imagine to be somewhere in eastern Russia; possibly Sakhalin.

After a good meal with the villagers, the elder laments that the Sirius Arc is no more, but a confident young Yuliy vows to protect it, only for his big speech, like his first kill, to be foiled by a sneeze (he’s sensitive to cold). That’s where the good times end; Yuliy wakes up in the night to find vampires raiding the village. Their mother is killed, but not before making both her sons promise to run away and live. Only one brother can obey; Mikhail sacrifices himself to Yuliy can slip away.

In the present, while reminiscing on all this, Yuliy’s fellow Jaegers try in vain to cheer him up, but the fact is, now that he knows his brother is alive, he can feel his resolve to kill all vampires wavering, as he still loves Mikhail and doesn’t want to kill him, even if he’s a vampire now. His frustration bubbles over when he remembers summoning the power of Sirius to save himself from a pursuing vampire, just when a determined Ryouko tries to confront him.

She isn’t scared of him—or at least talks a good game; we see her trembling slightly—but Yuliy doesn’t want any new friends, because it will mean more people he can lose or who might suffer because of their association with him or their proximity to his powers (Ryouko likely is willing to befriending him, and in any case it’s her choice to make).

Dr. Willard was the one who found him half-dead in the cold, and offered water so he won’t die, Yuliy says if it means he can see his mother and brother again, he wants to die. Willard’s words that follow—fine, die, if that’s what you think your loved ones want—have guided Yuliy ever since.

He may still not know how he should keep living; only that he knows it’s what his family would want, so he can’t give up. But with Kershner, Mikhail by his side, preparing to field some kind of Frankenstein’s Monster, just living—and keeping those around him alive—is only going to get tougher.

Tenrou: Sirius the Jaeger – 02 – Above the Skies

After two days of healing, Yuliy wakes up in the home of Dr. Harada, and makes fast friends with his daughter Saki. However, the nature of the doctor’s work doesn’t just keep him away from Saki, it also makes him a target for the elitist-killing Hyakko Gang…as well as the vampires. Both Willard of the Jaegers and Major Iba with the military separately attempt to connect the dots.

As Phillip keeps an eye on Yuliy as he finished healing up, Ryouko insists on paying Yuliy a visit. Clearly she was more intrigued than insulted by Yuliy’s aloofness and remark about rotting roots. Yuliy seems to be a bit of a green thumb, as he helps Saki set up some tomato plants—once believed to be poisonous due to their color.

As the doctor has worked day and night on his project—an artificial heart for Saki, who must have the same condition that claimed her mother’s life—his assistant sells out to the vamps, specifically a “re-built” Agatha who know has a sword for a leg.

That night Agatha puts that new leg sword to work attacking Dr. Harada’s home, and neither Yuliy and Phillip can protect him and Saki in the ensuing fray. The doc is bitten and becomes Agatha’s thrall, and Phillip stuggles to keep Saki safe while Yuliy and Agatha take their fight outside.

While not as action-packed as the opening episode, I appreciated how more time was used fleshing out characters, and the action we do get is of high enough quality to make up for its late appearance in this ep, whether its the close-quarters of the inside fight or the more free-flowing combat outside—not far from where Ryouko has just arrived at the house.

Agatha doesn’t quit deriding Yuliy’s very existence as a filthy “Sirius”, suggesting like in much of the rest of vampire-themed media, vamps consider werewolves a lower rung of creature…at best. 

Filth or not, Yuliy is able to turn the tables of Aggy, shattering her leg blad and running her through with his segmented staff, the blade of which also goes straight through Dr. Harada’s throat just as he’s about to kill Saki, who instead is simply horribly traumatized as both her dad and Agatha crumble to dust.

As if that wasn’t enough, there’s an explosion on the other side of the house—probably the Hyakko Gang—and one more challenger who faces off against Yuliy on the rooftop. Yuliy calls this fellow brother, so he’s another Sirius (this is backed up in the new ED); but it’s clear they’re no longer on the same side.

As with other genres in which the eclectic P.A. Works has dabbled, the studio has delivered another solid and competently-produced entry that may not deliver much in the way of originality, but does check a lot of boxes I appreciate, from the vampire milieu to noir, mystery, history, and steampunk, with multiple factions, all with their own agendas.

That said, I’m still not finding Yuliy himself particularly compelling as a lead; the arrival of his brother could either raise or lower that opinion.

Tenrou: Sirius the Jaeger – 01 (First Impressions) – The Roots are Beginning to Rot

What season would be complete without a vampire-hunting anime? Tenrou: Sirius the Jaeger (TSJ) aims to scratch that itch, and does a reasonable job establishing its 1930s Tokyo setting and the conflict between vampires and the crack team of “Jaegers” who hunt them hither and thither. It also begins with a bang, as a swanky party that turns bloody when the vampires turn on their dancing partners is crashed by the Jaegers, who dust every vamp there but fail to score any big-league players.

Fast-forward—or rewind? Not sure about the timeline here—the Jaegers arrive in Tokyo at the behest of the Baron Naoe, Minister of Home Affairs. There’s a serial killer in the city—an escaped felon—and he wants the Jaegers to take care of it. The team’s aloof, inscrutable ace Yuliy meets the baron’s daughter, but his only remark on her beloved garden is that everything is getting too much water and fertilizer; the roots are starting to rot (he’s got a very good nose, like a dog).

From the look of it, Tokyo itself could be seen as getting too much water and fertilizer. It’s grown large and fat, and is ripe for attacks from the true enemy, vampires using the felon to throw the cops off their trail. Yuliy’s nose knows, however, and he quickly finds the she-vamp responsible for a patrolman’s murder: Agatha, who we saw was an adviser to Kershner, a big shot among vamps.

A thrilling chase on foot and by old-fashioned car ensues, ending with Yuliy unleashing his special powers to duel Agatha on a bridge, but one of her allies shoots him in mid-air, ending the pursuit. Obviously, Yuliy will be fine, and the hunt is far from over. TSJ’s opening salvo went hard on action and exposition, but was very thin on characterization. The Jaegers are a stylish group, but learning more about their origins and motivations will have to come later.

Devils Line – 01 – Back to the Well…of BLOOD (First Impressions)

“AND I’m a vampire…what a week!”

From Blood and Shiki to Dance in the Vampire Bund, Rosario + Vampire, Seraph of the End, and Help! My Little Sister is a Vampire!, there is no shortage of vampire anime out there, old and new, good and bad.

There’s so much, you might not have realized that I simply made up that last one, though for all I know it might actually exist (and Tasukete! Watashi no Imouto wa Kyuuketsuki! can be readily pared down to Tawamokyu!). 

The point is, we know all about vampires in anime. So any time a new one comes around, I ask two pretty standard questions:

#1: Does this add anything notably new to the table?
#2: If not, what makes it worth watching?

In the case of Devils Line, the answer to Question #1 is a firm “no.” Sure, the vamps’ chompers are a bit over-sized (not a great look!) and there’s an emphasis on vamps as crazed blood-and-sex addicts, but we’ve got a standard “pure maiden gets drawn into the dark side” story, which hearkens back to Lucy Westenra.

As to Question #2, I actually found a lot to like in the first 19/20ths of the episode (more on the final 20th later). First, the setting is realistic and grounded rather than surreal or baroque, and there’s a familiar Tokyo Nighttime atmosphere that pervades the episode and draws you in. I took note of the way characters were back-lit from various light sources.

In keeping with the much-like-real-life setting, the vamps, while ostensibly the “bad guys”, are also given a good degree of nuance and humanization. It’s not an accident that the blood-soaked cold open depicts a vamp tearing people apart…but not being all that happy about it! (no doubt because his fangs are so comically huge).

Finally, while it’s ultimately a red herring, the chase scene does good and efficient double duty, introducing us to the special division and their procedures for dealing with vamps in this world (a bad-ass cop lady fights on a higher footing than the vamp, probably because she too is a vamp) while also giving us a nifty Vamp-Speed chase and moonlit brawl.

So what didn’t work so well? Pretty much what the ED portends will be the entire premise of the show going forward: a Vampire Romance. College(?) student Taira Tsukasa goes with the flow, while sometimes looking off to the side like she needs new friends (or possibly very very old ones, amirite?!) but one thing I like about her is that she’s comfortable not having a boyfriend.

It doesn’t help when one of her two close friends confessed to her at school, she had to reject him, and he’s been basically tolerating the fact they’re “just friends” ever since…for now. Turns out Mr. Unrequited Love was the vampire she needed to watch her back for, and it’s to the kid’s credit that my disgust turned to pity once the Shadowy Subway Guy came between him and Tsukasa.

Subway Guy is a special division officer named Anzai, who suspected Tsukasa’s friend would soon crack from the pressure of having to hold in his vampiric nature, but concedes the kid’s desire not to hurt her was genuine…it’s just that Vamps can’t be trusted. When they see someone’s blood, they’re off to the sexy races.

And to the list of Vamps that can’t be trusted, go ahead and add Anzai in there, because once he notices Tsukasa’s scratched face, he starts French-kissing her. This burst explosion of passion might not have come out of nowhere, but it still felt sudden and oddly staged.  It looked less like the pure Tsukasa suddenly yearning and embracing a man’s touch, and more like he just jumped her.

So yes, this show has some good things going for it, but some big questions moving forward about whether and how the whole vampire romance thing will work. That she’s ostensibly dealing with a vamp who has his shit mostly under control (and is working for the “good guys” i.e. public safety) works to Anzai’s advantage, but I want to see more agency from Tsukasa, not for her to keep going with the (blood)flow.

 

Inuyashiki – 10

Turns out the woman, father, and baby we met last week weren’t the ones in the plane that crashed. Hiro has taken control of dozens, many of which find targets on the ground below, but Ichirou is finally able to take action,  commandeering and soft-landing ten planes in the bay – including the one with the woman, father and baby.

But Hiro has already caused much carnage, and hundreds if not thousands of casualties. And perhaps more pressing to Ichirou, Mari calls him to say she’s trapped atop city hall in the observation deck, where there’s a fire raging and where oxygen is running out.

Ichirou could probably save Mari and the others in City Hall in two shakes of a lamb’s tail, but there’s a problem: Hiro has found him. In their first encounter, he bolted as soon as Ichirou got up from Hiro’s bang; here, he wants answers, and isn’t satisfied with the ones he gets.

Hiro is upset that he’s the villain, while the old man is the hero, and so lashes out like a child would, first by grappling with Ichirou, then by bang-bang-banging him mercilessly. Finally, Ichirou counters with a bang of his own, but Hiro is only momentarily stunned.

As previewed in the show’s OP, a no-hold-barred battle between Hiro and Ichirou, nobody wins or loses except the city crumbling around and below them. When they’ve finally beaten and blasted each other unconscious, their “fail-safe”/”autopilot” systems kick in.

It’s here where it’s indicated that for all of the carnage and mayhem Hiro has caused, Ichirou’s system may be the superior of the two, and not necessarily due to any mechanical differences. Rather, because the original human that was copied by the mysterious aliens was older and more experienced.

This enables Autopilot Ichirou to destroy the hapless $100 billion space station in orbit and use the falling debris as cover for a sneak attack. He essentially scalps and literally “dis-arms” Hiro, and both fall back to earth with a crash and a splash.

At this point, I didn’t have very high hopes for Mari’s survival, and indeed she looks to have succumbed to smoke inhalation and asphyxia by the time Ichirou finally arrives. We watch him quickly descend into a new sub-level of despair as Mari’s life flashes before his eyes, but after much perseverance he manages to revive her.

Mari reacts to learning her father came when she needed him most with a big hug and a lot of tears. There’s no time fo Ichirou to explain or try to hide what he is; he must save the rest of the sightseers atop the building, including Nao, and after sending Mari home, he’s all over the city, saving as many as he can as those around him call him “god”.

Meanwhile, Hiro’s in a bad way, but he’s obviously not dead. Two good Samaritans encounter find him in an alley, and when he manages to mutter “water”, they give him some juice from the nearby vending machine, unwittingly helping a potential country-destroyer get back in the game.

I hope Ichirou realizes it isn’t ovr between him and Hiro, and that he isn’t so caught up in helping strangers that he neglects his family’s safety.

Kimi no Na wa. (Your Name.)

Simply diving into a review immediately after watching a film as devastatingly gorgeous and emotionally affecting as Kimi no Na wa is probably not a great idea, but this is an anime review blog, so here goes.

Kimi no Na wa isn’t just a charming body-swap rom-com, or a time-travelling odyssey, or a disaster prevention caper, or a tale of impossibly cruel temporal and physical distance between two soul mates, or a reflection on the fragility and impermanence of everything from memories to cities, or a tissue-depleting tearjerker.

It’s all of those things and more. And it’s also one of, if not the best, movies I’ve ever seen, anime or otherwise.

After a cryptic prologue, Kimi no Na wa starts out modestly: Miyamizu Mitsuha, Shinto shrine maiden and daughter of a mayor, has grown restless in her small town world, so one night, shouts out tot he night that she wants to be reborn as a boy in Tokyo.

This, mind you, happens after an odd incident in which Mitsuha essentially lost a day, during which all her family and friends say she was acting very strange and non-Mitsuha-y…like a different person.

That’s because she was. She and a boy from Tokyo, Tachibana Taki, randomly swap bodies every so often when they’re dreaming. As such, they end up in the middle of their couldn’t-be-any-different lives; the only similarity being that both of them yearn for more.

Despite just meeting these characters, watching Mitsuha and Taki stumble through each other’s lives is immensely fun. And because this is a Shinkai film, that enjoyment is augmented by the master director’s preternatural visual sumptuousness and realism. Every frame of Mitsuha’s town and the grand vastness of Tokyo is so full of detail I found myself wanting to linger in all of them.

As the body-swapping continues, the two decide to lay down “ground rules” when in one another’s bodies—albeit rules both either bend or break with impunity—and make intricate reports in one another’s phone diaries detailing their activities during the swaps.

Interestingly, Mitsuha makes more progress with Taki’s restaurant co-worker crush Okudera than Taki (she like’s Taki’s “feminine side”), while the more assertive Taki proves more popular with boys and girls when Taki’s in her body.

Taki happens to be in Mitsuha’s body when her grandmother and sister Yotsuha make the long, epic trek from their home to the resting place of the “body” of their Shinto shrine’s god, an otherworldly place in more ways than one, to make an offering of kuchikamisake (sake made from saliva-fermented rice).

While the three admire the sunset, Mitsuha’s granny takes a good look at her and asks if he, Taki, is dreaming. Just then he wakes up back in his own body to learn Mitsuha has arranged a date with him and Okudera—one she genuinely wanted to attend.

Okudera seems to notice the change in Taki from the one Mitsuha inhabited; she can tell his mind is elsewhere, and even presumes he’s come to like someone else. Taki tries to call that someone else on his phone, but he gets an automated message.

Then, just like that, the body-swapping stops.

After having cut her hair, her red ribbon gone, Mitsuha attends the Autumn Festival with her friends Sayaka and Teshi. They’re treated to a glorious display in the night sky, as the comet Tiamat makes its once-every-1,200-years visit.

Taki decides if he can’t visit Mitsuha’s world in his dreams anymore, he’ll simply have to visit Mitsuha. Only problem is, he doesn’t know exactly what village she lives in. Okudera and one of his high school friends, who are worried about him, decide to tag along on his wild goose chase.

After a day of fruitless searching, Taki’s about to throw in the towel, when one of the proprietors of a restaurant notices his detailed sketch of Mitsuha’s town, recognizing it instantly as Itomori. Itomori…a town made famous when it was utterly destroyed three years ago by a meteor created from a fragment of the comet that fell to earth.

The grim reality that Taki and Mitsuha’s worlds were not in the same timeline is a horrendous gut punch, as is the bleak scenery of the site of the former town. Every lovingly-depicted detail of the town, and all of its unique culture, were blasted into oblivion.

Taki is incredulous (and freaked out), checking his phone for Mitsuha’s reports, but they disappear one by one, like the details of a dream slipping away from one’s memory. Later, Taki checks the register of 500 people who lost their lives in the disaster, and the punches only grow deeper: among the lost are Teshi, Sayaka…and Miyamizu Mitsuha.

After the initial levity of the body-swapping, this realization was a bitter pill to swallow, but would ultimately elevate the film to something far more epic and profound, especially when Taki doesn’t give up trying to somehow go back to the past, get back into Mitsuha’s body, and prevent all those people from getting killed, including her.

The thing that reminds him is the braided cord ribbon around his wrist, given to him at some point in the past by someone he doesn’t remember. He returns to the site where the offering was made to the shrine’s god, drinks the sake made by Mitsuha, stumbles and falls on his back, and sees a depiction of a meteor shower drawn on the cave ceiling.

I haven’t provided stills of the sequence that follows, but suffice it to say it looked and felt different from anything we’d seen and heard prior in the film, and evoked emotion on the same level as the famous flashback in Pixar’s Up. If you can stay dry-eyed during this sequence, good for you; consider a career being a Vulcan.

Taki then wakes up, miraculously back in Mitsuha’s body, and sets to work. The same hustle we saw in Taki’s restaurant job is put to a far more important end: preventing a horrific disaster. The town itself may be doomed—there’s no stopping that comet—but the people don’t have to be.

Convincing anyone that “we’re all going to die unless” is a tall order, but Taki doesn’t waver, formulating a plan with Teshi and Sayaka, and even trying (in vain) to convince Mitsuha’s father, the mayor, to evacuate.

While the stakes couldn’t be higher and the potential devastation still clear in the mind, it’s good to see some fun return. Sayaka’s “we have to save the town” to the shopkeep is a keeper.

Meanwhile, Mitsuha wakes up in the cave in Taki’s body, and is horrified by the results of the meteor strike. She recalls her quick day trip to Tokyo, when she encountered Taki on a subway train, but he didn’t remember her, because it would be three more years before their first swap.

Even so, he can’t help but ask her her name, and she gives it to him, as well as something to remember her by later: her hair ribbon, which he would keep around his wrist from that point on.

Both Taki-as-Mitsuha and Mitsuha-as-Taki finally meet face-to-face, in their proper bodies, thanks to the mysterious power of kataware-doki or twilight. It’s a gloriously-staged, momentous, and hugely gratifying moment…

…But it’s all too brief. Taki is able to write on Mitsuha’s hand, but she only gets one stoke on his when twilight ends, and Taki finds himself back in his body, in his time, still staring down that awful crater where Itomori used to be. And again, like a dream, the more moments pass, the harder it gets for him to remember her.

Back on the night of the Autumn Festival, Mitsuha, back in her time and body, takes over Taki’s evacuation plan. Teshi blows up a power substation with contractor explosives and hacks the town-wide broadcast system, and Sayaka sounds the evacuation. The townsfolk are mostly confused, however, and before long Sayaka is apprehended by authorities, who tell everyone to stay where they are, and Teshi is nabbed by his dad.

With her team out of commission, it’s all up to Mitsuha, who races to her father to make a final plea. On the way, she gets tripped up and takes a nasty spill. In the same timeline, a three-years-younger Taki, her ribbon around his wrist, watches the impossibly gorgeous display in the Tokyo sky as the comet breaks up. Mitsuha looks at her hand and finds that Taki didn’t write his name: he wrote “I love you.”

The meteor falls and unleashes a vast swath of destruction across the landscape, not sparing the horrors of seeing Itomori wiped off the face of the earth—another gut punch. Game Over, too, it would seem. After spending a cold lonely night up atop the former site of the town, he returns to Tokyo and moves on with his life, gradually forgetting all about Mitsuha, but still feeling for all the world like he should be remembering something, that he should be looking for someplace or someone.

Bit by bit, those unknowns start to appear before him; a grown Sayaka and Teshi in a Starbucks; a  passing woman with a red ribbon in her hair that makes him pause, just as his walking by makes her pause. But alas, it’s another missed connection; another classic Shinkai move: they may be on the same bridge in Shinjuku, but the distance between them in time and memory remains formidable.

Mitsuha goes job-hunting, enduring one failed interview after another, getting negative feedback about his suit from everyone, including Okudera, now married and hopeful Taki will one day find happiness.

While giving his spiel about why he wants to be an architect, he waxes poetic about building landscapes that leave heartwarming memories, since you’ll never know when such a landscape will suddenly not be there.

A sequence of Winter scenes of Tokyo flash by, and in light of what happened to Itomori quite by chance, that sequence makes a powerful and solemn statement: this is Tokyo, it is massive and complex and full of structures and people and culture found nowhere else in the world, but it is not permanent.

Nothing built by men can stand against the forces of nature and the heavens. All we can do is live among, appreciate, and preseve our works while we can. We’re only human, after all.

And yet, for all that harsh celestial certainty, there is one other thing that isn’t permanent in this film: Taki and Mitsuha’s separation. Eventually, the two find each other through the windows of separate trains, and race to a spot where they experience that odd feeling of knowing each other, while also being reasonably certain they’re strangers.

Taki almost walks away, but turns back and asks if they’ve met before. Mitsuha feels the exact same way, and as tears fill their eyes, they ask for each others names. Hey, what do you know, a happy ending that feels earned! And a meteor doesn’t fall on Tokyo, which is a huge bonus.

Last August this film was released, and gradually I started to hear rumblings of its quality, and of how it could very well be Shinkai’s Magnum Opus. I went in expecting a lot, and was not disappointed; if anything, I was bowled over by just how good this was.

Many millions of words have been written about Kimi no Na wa long before I finally gave it a watch, but I nevertheless submit this modest, ill-organized collection words and thoughts as a humble tribute to the greatness I’ve just witnessed. I’ll be seeing it again soon.

And if for some reason you haven’t seen it yourself…what are you doing reading this drivel? Find it and watch it at your nearest convenience. You’ll laugh; you’ll cry; you’ll pump your fist in elation.

The Garden of Words (Film Review)

Tokyo is one of the largest, busiest, most lively cities in the world, but there’s an oasis of tranquility right near its heart, and I’m not talking about the mostly off-limits Imperial Palace Grounds. I speak of Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden, once a private estate in the Edo period, and also the primary setting of Shinkai Makoto’s 2013 film The Garden of Words.

I’ll admit my review comes very late—so late, in fact, in the time between the release of the film and the day I’m writing a review of it, its co-lead Akizuki Takao would be 19 (not 15), making a potential romantic relationship with Yukino Yukari, who would be 31 (not 27) more socially acceptable. But here it is!

Akizuki loves rainy mornings. He loves them so much, he’ll skip school to visit Shinjuku Gyoen and enjoy it. One day, while preparing to sit at a sheltered bench overlooking the gardens, he encounters Yukino: a beautiful, mysterious woman in work clothes drinking beer and eating chocolate alone.

While 15, Akizuki is wiser and more mature than his years. He finds high school a major drag, and mostly stresses about a practical way to support himself doing what he loves: designing and making shoes. But when he visits the park and shares the bench with Yukino, he feels like he’s in a more mature environment, where he can sketch shoes or just shoot the breeze with her.

Their encounters also become important to Yukino, who we learn is preparing to quit her job, and is clearly in the park to escape said job and the stress/pain it causes, which was apparently bad enough that she lost her sense of taste for a time, only being able to enjoy beer and chocolate.

Not only is the hard-working Akizuki a shoemaker-in-the-making, he’s also a part-timer at a restaurant and cooks a lot at home, making him a better cook than Yukino. Thanks to the meals he shares, Yukino starts to enjoy eating again.

Wanting to help him with a woman’s shoe design, Yukino removes her shoe and lets Akizuki hold and measure her bare foot, in an intimate, even sensual scene that also happens to be practical.

That intimacy is heightened by the made-for-a-couple sheltered-bench and the gorgeous environs. But while she’ll give him her foot, Yukino never talks about herself, her life, or her struggles, no matter how much Akizuki talks about his.

Unfortunately Akizuki has to find that out when he spots Yukino, or rather Yukino-sensei, at his school—she’s a teacher there. He had no idea of that, or that she’d been taking days off because the boyfriend of a student fell for her which led to unsavory rumors about her being promiscuous and verbal and emotional abuse from her upperclassmen students.

Yukino is pained to hear all this treatment, and that she’s quitting because of it, but likely also hurt that Yukino never told him anything, or that she could even possibly have known he was a student at the school but kept him in the dark.

Whatever the case, he decides the injustice done to Yukino should have a response from someone who has come to care about her, so he confronts the upperclassmen, starts a fight, and loses. After school, they meet at the gardens, but he doesn’t tell her he fought to protect her honor.

After giving her the correct answer to her tanka poem from their first encounter, Akizuki and Yukino find themselves caught in a torrential downpour, and even when they get back under cover, they’re both soaked.

They apparently take it as a good omen, and go to Yukino’s apartment, where they change into dry clothes, and while he’s waiting for his uniform to dry, Akizuki makes Yukino a delicious meal, both noting they’re having some of the happiest moments of their lives, right there and then.

Like the sunlight, it doesn’t last, and as the sky darkens with more rainclouds, a sudden confession of love from Akizuki is countered by Yukino correcting him: “Yukino-sensei”. Akizuki hears her loud and clear: he’s a kid; she’s not, and that’s the end of it. So he changes into his still-wet clothes and storms off, just as the storm outside picks up.

Yukino doesn’t want to leave things there, so after stewing, suddenly alone in her apartment, with even Akizuki’s coffee still steaming, she does the romantic movie thing where one comes to their senses, rushes out of the house, and chases after the one they love.

When she finds him paused on a balcony, he takes back his confession and starts spewing vitriol about her intentions, but later in the rant it becomes more about why she couldn’t simply tell him, a stupid little kid, to piss off and stop bothering her. Why she never said anything to him while sharing that bench.

Yukino’s response, also classic romantic movie, is to run into his arms and sob just as the sun peeks back out from between the clouds, finally telling him why she went to that bench again and again, and how being with him helped her “learn how to walk on her own” again; how he essentially saved her.

Yukino still moves out of that apartment, back to her hometown, where she’s still a teacher. But she later writes to Akizuki, and as he reads the letter in the park where they met and spent so much time and where they taught each other how to walk, he seriously considers going to her hometown someday to see her.

The Garden of Words is gorgeous, as is expected of a Shinkai film, with its near-photorealistic exteriors, lived-in interiors, and fantastic lighting and details all around. At just 46 minutes, it runs brisk but never feels rushed, but rather feels just as long as it should be.

It also felt like a particularly intimate/personal film, though not for the reason you’d expect: I once sat at the exact same bench in Shinjuku Gyoen they sat at, unhurriedly sketching the gardens and writing about my day (though as you can see, the real one has an ashtray.) If you’re ever there I highly recommend it, just as I recommend this lush and moving little film.