Takt Op. Destiny – 02 – Cancrizans

This week Takt takes a look back earlier in the year 2047, when Takt, Cosette and Anna shared an idyllic middle class nuclear family home in Anytown, USA. There’s a human-D2 truce in effect and music is mostly banned, but Takt only lives to play his grand piano in the garage. Cosette, who has a lot more personality in this flashback, does her best to keep his lair clean, resulting in the two getting into bickerfests that Anna tries to stamp out.

Not too different from their dynamic in the first episode that takes place some months later…but again, the big difference here is past Cosette being a delightfully bright and cheerful person. It’s not clearly explained what brought Takt into their home, but you can tell beyond the bickering that Cosette deeply cares about Takt and wants to share his talent with others. We also learn that she can play too…the same time Takt learns, and seems both annoyed and intrigued.

Cosette ends up booking Takt for the Symphonia’s traveling music festival, a rare joyful respite from the totally music-less norm. How this is even possible—a huge military buildup around the town?—is not made clear. All that’s clear is that Cosette is absolutely certain Takt will show up, even when he’s late and she has to play in order to stall for time. When he does arrive and hits those four famous Beethoven notes to interrupt her, she beams with the power of a thousand happy suns!

After Takt ditches the classical for some early modern jams that wouldn’t be out of place in a speakeasy, he invites Cosette to join him for four-hands, wowing the crowd with their talent (and piquing the interest of the Grand Maestro, Sagan). Before, Takt could only imagine in his head playing before a rapt audience and then basking in their applause upon reaching the coda. Now that it’s actually happening thanks to Cosette, he can’t hide his elation.

Just when Takt and Cosette are at their highest point, it all goes to shit when a D2 fires right on their position, destroying the piano and causing a huge explosion. The episode expertly lulled me into a toe-tapping false sense of security as we watched Take and Cosette play and blush and beam. Don’t get me wrong, I knew something would happen, I just didn’t know how, where, or when. The direction exploited that to the hilt.

When the smoke clears, Takt, one of his arms and hands mangled, is lying on the charred ground bleeding. Cosette is on top of him, in even worse shape (it could be she tried to shield Takt). Cosette ends up dying in his arms, but he refuses to accept that, and demans she wake back up. With this, her mysterious pendant suddenly shines and she rises Castle in the Sky-like out of a gobsmacked Takt’s arms.

Some kind of spirit emerges from the rock, decides to claim Takt’s injured arm by ripping it off, then merges with Cosette to become the titular Destiny. While he outfit is a damn sight more expressive, much of the Cosette Take and Anna knew—and loved—is lost. And that’s how Cosette became a Musicart and Takt her conductor: when tragedy struck. The next time we’re back in the present it will be tinged with melancholy, now that we know who Cosette was, and is no more.

Rating: 4/5 Stars

Tokyo Revengers – 14 – Kisaki Tetta Day

This week is essentially one long drawn out ceremony to announce the new third division captain of Toman: Kisaki Tetta, the one guy Takemichi can’t allow to gain too much power if he wants to save Hinata, Akkun, and Draken—not to mention himself from a disappointing dead-end life.

Unfortunately, most of this ceremony is extremely dull and slow-moving, and intercut with slow pans of still images of the dark, muddy background. There’s no insight into who Kisaki is or why he’s so intent on killing Hina. Honestly, I was glad Takemichi decided to cold-cock the guy; at least it made things a little interesting.

There’s all kinds of bizarre choices made this week, starting with Takemichi, who is still somehow not a member of Toman, being invited to a captain-naming ceremony at all, or how there was no build-up to Mikey’s choice, which Draken clearly isn’t happy about. Even Mikey admits Kisaki is “bad news” but acts like he has no choice but to bring him aboard.

Even more awkward is the sudden inclusion of first division captain Baji Keisuke in this episode. He’s apparently someone so important to Mikey that he makes Takemichi a Toman member under Mitsuya with the mission of bringing Baji back into the fold after he threatened to join Valhalla.

Takemichi agrees to bring Baji back, in exchange for Mikey firing Kisaki. If Takemichi fails, Mikey promises to kill him. Considering Takemichi’s showing this week—mostly sweating, panting, and panicking—I can’t say I’m optimistic about his success. And yet, he’s such an ineffectual fuck-up I somehow can’t help but want him to succeed.

Tokyo Revengers – 13 – Crossing the Bridge

Why? Why is this show still going on? Why did Hina have to die, again, and in the most horrific, heart-demolishing way? What was Kisaki Tetta up to all this time? These were the unavoidable questions going into Revengers’ second cour, and this first episode of that cour had to do a lot of heavy lifting to convince me to stick around Takemichi’s tragic party, rather than executing a tactical Irish exit.

Rather than pass or fail, I must give Revengers…an “Incomplete”. This is purely a bridge episode, literally called “Odds and Ends”, though I appreciate that it’s a little rude to call Hina’s funeral a “loose end”. But the episode starts out by making us relive Hina’s final moments again, which I did not appreciate.

We know for a fact Takemichi isn’t going to let Hina’s death pass; not as long as he has the ability to go back and fix things. Where he and Naoto went wrong is thinking simply saving Draken would fix everything, all while pretty much forgetting about Kisaki Tetta…which was very weird.

Leaving Kisaki completely alone was never going to pay particularly positive dividends in the future, and even if we grant that Takemichi is an idiot who might well not consider Kisaki, Naoto let the joy of getting his big sis back distract him from the fact they had much bigger Toman fish to fry before they could secure a future for Hina.

Takemichi’s plan to become the leader of Toman and “bring it down” from within is an admirable one, but aside from being able to take the odd beating or stabbing we just haven’t seen the level of fighting ability, cleverness, or charisma needed to be one of the captains, let alone the boss. This isn’t something you can get by asking nicely with dog poop on your head.

Also, it’s been clear from the start that Takemichi has clear boundaries when it comes to being a gang member. But outside of murdering Kisaki Tetta (and possibly that Hanma guy too), I don’t’ see how you eliminate him as a threat. And since the days and months run parallel in the two timelines, Takemichi can’t go back any further in time to do what needs to be done.

So yeah, it was an uneven return to Tokyo Revengers, a judgment perhaps best exemplified by an extremely dull montage of Takemichi working and sitting around his still-messy apartment waiting for Naoto to call, all while extremely dramatic music is playing. This show has never been interested in showing its work, but Takemichi’s still just winging it doesn’t bode well for Hina’s future.

Tokyo Revengers – 12 – Hina We Go Again

I knew two things going into this twelfth episode of Tokyo Revengers: this wasn’t the last episode, and Hina was most likely doomed…again. I was hoping to be proven wrong, but when nearly half of the runtime is spent watching Takemichi and Naoto very gradually make their way to Hina’s place, it didn’t bode well.

It was very in character for Takemichi to reconsider seeing Hina at the last second, thinking that it would just be odd for someone she dated twelve years ago to show up one night with her little brother. Fortunately, fate smiles on our crybaby revenger, as he bumps into Hina and she recognizes him instantly.

Once his tears finally subside, their reunion is painfully awkward; so much so that Naoto prepares to ditch them to figure things out themselves—they are adults, after all. Then Takemichi clings to Naoto’s leg, and for some reason Naoto gets it in his head that taking the two out on a drive will be a better idea than keeping Hina away from any and all cars, considering how she died in the previous timeline.

No, instead, as a very obvious and extremely menacing black Hummer follows them, Naoto drives Hina and Takemichi around until he’s called away by the station, so Hina has to take over driving duties alone with Takemichi. Takemichi, meanwhile, notices she’s wearing the four-leaf clover necklace he gave her twelve years ago…yet inexplicably chalks it up to some kind of coincidence.

They park at the Tokyo waterfront, where she has a memory of being with “the one she loves”. Takemichi learns that it was he who dumped her twelve years ago. Considering how easily he almost ended up sleeping with Emma, you’d think he’d remember what a jerk his past self was. Hina, meanwhile, often said how it felt like there were two Takemichis, and the one she fell for was really his future self.

Even so, this is apparently too much for Takemichi, who runs off to the public bathroom, where he thankfully steels himself to confess to her, no matter how badly he’s afraid it will go. It will and does go bad, but not the way he expected—otherwise, he would never have left Hina alone, let alone tell her to go back to the car.

On his way out of the bathroom he bumps into someone he recognizes is the present-day Hanma, who promised Valhalla would ensure Toman never had any peace. He’s confused why Takemichi “isn’t in the car.” Uh-oh…

Turns out Akkun is behind the wheel of the Hummer that tailed them, and he drives right into the back of Naoto’s car with Hina—and only Hina—inside. A bloodied, tearful Akkun says he’s sorry, but he couldn’t go against Kisaki—any more than his alternate present-day self could. He even repeats a lot of the same lines he said, further torturing Takemichi.

He’s able to get the door of the burning car off, but Hina can’t get out; the front of the car has crushed her legs. Takemichi hugs her and says he’s always loved her, which makes her happier than he can imagine, but shortly after that she pushes him out of the car, which then explodes.

It’s extremely shitty to find Takemichi back at square one, with the added tragedy of having to witness Hina’s horrific demise this time. It’s also extremely annoying and lame that Hina once again has to suffer and die so our protagonist can grow (…again). While he managed to avoid one possible route that would lead to Hina’s death, now he knows there are others, and it will take at least another trip back to eliminate them.

Had Kiseki or Hanma known that Naoto is the one who enables Takemichi to travel back in time—or that he’s even able to do that—they would probably have made sure Naoto was in the car too. But the fact they carried out the plan without Takemichi in the car means they too left a loose end hanging, and that loose end is bent on exacting revenge by becoming the damn leader of Toman.

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

Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba – 01 (First Impressions) – A Spark in the Gloom

When the immensely popular and critically acclaimed ufotable series Demon Slayer aired between April and September of 2019…I missed out. Being highly susceptible to FOMO, when it first appeared on my Netflix home screen, I decided to dive in, buoyed by going back and catching up on the currently airing Jujutsu Kaisen.

With the first episode in the bag, I can confidently say that this is right up my alley, and I really should have cracked it open back in Spring 19. In my defence, back then I was busy watching the excellent Dororo reboot, Part 2 of Attack on Titan’s third season, and the second cour of the promising Rising of the Shield Hero, so I wasn’t just twiddling my thumbs.

That said, I’m glad I went back to check this out. While the number of characters and storylines are sure to balloon before long, I loved how simple it starts out: a boy carrying a wounded girl through a bleak wintry forest. I can’t stress that “bleak” part enough—once Kamado Tanjirou returns home to find his entire family slaughtered but one sister, I couldn’t help feel like we were entering Grave of the Fireflies territory.

I won’t spoil Grave for those who haven’t seen it; suffice it to say it’s by far the darkest and bleakest Ghibli film and one of the saddest films ever, and things don’t end well for its pair of siblings. Demon Slayer differs in that while Tanjirou and Nezuko suffer horrendous tragedy, the opening episode ends with a spark of hope that breaks through the unyielding cold.

Granted, that hope is a spark and only a spark, made possible by a titular demon slayer named Tomioka Giyuu staying his hand when it comes time to execute Nezuko. Did I mention demon blood got into her wounds, thus transforming her into a demon? Well, that’s the sitch, because it wasn’t enough that Tenjirou lose his mother and other siblings.

While this could easily have descended into tragedy porn, there’s a sense that things can’t get any worse, and that it’s always darkest before the dawn (though Tenjirou is warned to keep Nezuko out of direct sunlight). That fact is reflected in the stunningly gorgeous wintry mountain landscape, which at least started out bright and cheerful before the clouds amassed.

Tomioka admits he shares part of the blame for Tenjirou’s plight; if he’d arrived a few hours earlier he could have stopped the demons before they attacked. But he didn’t get where he is today by dwelling on the past. What keeps him from killing Nezuko is that despite most likely starving for human flesh, rather than eat her knocked-out brother, she shields him from Tomioka. Instead he places some kind of pacifier in her mouth that seems to calm her (and give her a very cute surprised expression).

So the story so far is simple and familiar: kid loses almost everything, and seeks to find and kill (or…slay) the demons responsible, and save his sister. Naturally, he’ll need to become stronger to do that, and Tomioka tells him to head to Mt. Sagiri to find a man named Urokodaki Sakonji.

ufotable, renowned for its action sequences, wows with the landscapes first, but is no slouch when it comes to the showdown with Tomioka and the Kamado siblings. The action is beautiful and precise, but not overly flashy or show-offy. Tomioka is so quick it’s as if he can teleport. Tenjirou is a lot more clumsy in his movements, as befits his desperate mood, while the demonic Nezuko is both beast-like and balletic in her strikes, leaps and lunges.

All in all, Demon Slayer is off to a stirring, enticing start, front-loading the tragedy but also presenting its hero with a chance to claw back from the brink and salvage what remains of his shattered life. I’m glad Tenjirou isn’t left all alone, and while Nezuko is a demon, and that sucks, there seems to be enough of her left that she’s not an immediate threat to him. As their quest begins, so does my quest to cover it. Better a bit late than never, eh?

Hortensia Saga – 02 – The Girl Who Cried Werewolf

While Alfred is on monster patrol with Maurice, Marius is helping carry flowers for Nonnoria, who visits the Albert family grave to pay her respects to those who took her in when she was orphaned. Marius looks back four years ago to the dreadful night she lost everything she had, when Maurice told her she’d have to cut her hair and live under an assumed identity “until the time came” to reclaim her kingdom.

When talk of Magonia (complete with flying cities and fantastical beasts) comes up—specifically, a shapeshifting  monster that dwells in the nearby Tron Cavern—young Conny desperately wants to see and prove his skeptical big sis wrong. The next day, just after Alfred, Marius, and Maurice head to the cavern to investigate, Conny’s mom arrives at the Albert’s door. Sure enough, the little scamp went off on his own.

Even though help is on the way, Tron is a veritable labyrinth, so Nonnoria fills her knapsack with a ridiculous amount of supplies and heads out without a second thought with Qoo (basically a Moogle), showing what she’s truly made of even though she’s otherwise a complete space cadet. She finds Conny before the others, but they’re still lost, and then get chased by goblins.

Nonnoria huddles against the cavern wall with Conny and Qoo, hoping Alfred will make it in time to save them just as he saved her before from a wolf. He does, with Marius and Maurice close behind. Then they notice a blue light that leads them to a moonlit spring. There, the beast makes its appearance, in a form identical to the werewolf that killed both of their fathers.

Ever since hearing the Tron monster could take the form of a wolf, Marius has been uneasy, but once she sees it, she freezes in terror, as if being transported four years into the past to the night she could do nothing but watch in horror as her life was taken away.

As Alfred fights the werewolf, Marius retreats, slips, and falls into the spring, and she relives more memories of the night Maurice whisked her out of the capital to the Albert Dominion. Maurice is aided by an even grizzlier Sir Balthazar, who warns him the Pope may be in cahoots with Camelia to install Prince Charlot as a puppet king.

While Princess Mariel wants to stay and protect her little brother, the fact is neither she nor her remaining allies are strong enough to stop the coup that has unfolded. The only thing for it is to disappear until the time is right. When she arrives at Albert’s lands, she finds kinship in Alfred’s grief for his lost father. When she comes to in the cavern, Alfred has fished her out of the spring.

It turns out the “werewolf” was only an impostor, as the cavern monster takes the form of the thing you hate most. Alfred assumes he provided the werewolf template, and Marius isn’t able to tell him her father was killed by the same monster at nearly the same time.

They head home, Conny is reunited with his family, and Alfred scolds Nonnoria and Qoo for racing into danger. Marius’ last memory is of cutting her hair with a dagger, which not only marked a profound turning of a page in her life, but in the present represents her willingness to turn the page from those horrible memories and re-fix her gaze on the more important present and future.

I once again enjoyed this episode, which was absolutely fine, if not particularly original. In fact, I liked it a bit more than the premiere, which to its credit had more narrative lifting to do out of the gate. Conny requiring rescue was hilariously telegraphed from a country mile away, but Nonnoria going into Battle Maid Mode was unexpected, and I came away actually liking her in spite of her deeply annoying voice and extra-ness. If nothing else, she can really spin a knife.

As for the romance angle, Alfred had no idea he was carrying a girl on piggyback. Who knows when he’ll learn the truth, but I hope it’s sooner rather than later in the 12-episode run—and not because he walks in on her or something. If there’s anyone in the world she could trust to tell, it’s him.

Hortensia Saga – 01 (First Impressions) – A Glimmer of Hope in an Age of Turmoil

What have we here….an un-ironic, non-isekai, no-nonsense Euro-style medieval fantasy epic? Welcome to Hortensia Saga, which plunges us right into the thick of an attempted coup…what odd timing

One of the king’s loyalist retainers transforms into a giant werewolf and kills him right before his daughter’s eyes, and then goes on to kill one of his baddest-ass knights, Fernando Ober (or Albert, depending on the subs).

The late Fernando’s brother Maurice Bauldelaire (Hi, Tsuda Kenjirou!) arrives at the Ober estate to tell his nephew Alfred the news that his father is dead, making Alfred the new Lord of Ober.

Maurice also rescued the adorable Princess Mariel, who cut her hair short and poses as a young lad named Marius whom Alfred takes under his wing as his squire. That’s fine with Mariel, who wants to become stronger so she can protect those she cares about.

Marius and Lord Alfred were brought together by shared tragedy and grief and become fast friends. If Alfred is aware Marius is actually a princess in disguise, he never mentions it, even after four years pass and she becomes his trusty squire. That’s a helluva time jump, and I kinda wish a little more time was spent on developing their friendship, but alas, this saga has a lot of ground to cover.

In those four years both were trained by Maurice and feel ready for their first real battle against the forces of Camelia (the retainers who betrayed the Hortensian crown). It doesn’t go particularly great, as their allies were pre-slaughtered and both youngins have to be saved by Maurice, but the two had each other’s backs, didn’t give up, and escaped with their lives, so call it a learning experience.

Marius is sufficiently injured that she doesn’t wake up for days, but when she does, Ober’s maid Nonnoria (Ueda Reina, pushing a bit too hard) is there to welcome her back to the land of the awake.

Marius joins a discouraged Alfred at his family grave where they met four years ago, Alfred declares his resolve to become much stronger, and Marius declares she’ll become stronger right beside him. The one thing they can’t do is give up hope. Little does Al know his squire is a girl and the heir to the kingdom he serves!

I was ready to pass on Hortensia when its opening sequence involved a hefty helping of lazy CGI extras, and featured characters who weren’t that much better designed or animated. If you’re going to go as arrow-straight with your milieu as this, you’d better bring it with the execution.

What actually kept me watching was the voice acting of Horie Yui and Hosoya Yoshimasa, two seiyuu I admire but haven’t seen in a lot of leading roles of late. Their work elevates a classic but bland premise, a rushed narrative, and merely serviceable production values. I’m putting this in my “maybe” pile for this season.

Great Pretender – 20 – One Mistake and You’re Gone

The fake princess job turns out to be the last job, but not in the way Dorothy’s crew had hoped. Of course, at first things unfold exactly as planned: a few doctored pictures are sufficient to convince Liu to part with $10 million for the Ethiopian princess.

Chen accompanies Kim and Oz to Osaka to abduct her while she’s being driven home from college classes. Laurent visits Dorothy, who is sleeping soundly in her tawdry cell despite the rats and foreign insects. They share a kiss before they part for the night. It turns out to be their last kiss.

The next morning, the worst thing that can happen to con artists dealing princesses-in-exile happens: pure dumb coincidence. There’s a prominent story in the paper about an Ethiopean princess-in-exile—the real one. Dorothy ends up on a boat anchored offshore.

Laurent is helpless to save Dorothy, but Dorothy doesn’t sweat matters, sticking to her code till the end by repeating “make a mistake and you’re gone.” Liu’s men go after Kim, who is apparently killed in a car chase, while Oz gives up the location of the cash in hopes of currying favor with Liu.

All Laurent can do is interpret between Liu and Dorothy…until Dorothy tells Liu to go fuck himself in his native tongue. He has an underling shoot her, and she falls overboard. The bullet just happens to break the chain holding her good luck ring, which lands on the deck at Laurent’s feet.

In the aftermath, Laurent can’t hide his pain, and envisions stabbing Liu right there in the middle of their game. He lies to Liu about his mother in France falling ill, and Liu gives him leave to visit her. The moment he’s in the air, however, he regrets not killing Liu.

Back at Paris HQ, Laurent goes down a spiral of guilt and grief when Dorothy doesn’t magically reappear. Despite watching her get shot and fall off the boat, he still held a small hope it was an expertly faked death, but while Kim did manage to pull that off, Dorothy did not.

In her last moments, she knew the time had finally come when she made a mistake, and that was it; she just wished it hadn’t been their very last job. Laurent hears a pot breaking outside and rushes out to the patio. For a moment he spots Dorothy, alive and well…but it’s just one of the cats from the end credits.

Fast forward a few years. Laurent meets Cynthia when she tries to scam him. Ozaki, who intentionally got himself arrested and put in jail for his mafia activities, is now out of jail, and we see how close he comes to bumping into his son when he visits the hospital. Laurent meets Abby right after she’s beaten up three would-be rapists. And, of course, Makoto approaches Laurent with his wallet con, which brings us back to the beginning.

I imagine those first episodes (and indeed first arcs) where his background remains so opaque would have quite a different vibe to them, now that we’ve learned so much more him. Building the team he has in the present was an effort to create a con job that would make Dorothy proud and honor her unwavering adherence to their noble thieves’ code.

And now we know why $10 million is a plenty large score this time. It was never about the money—It was about the people they were taking it from.

Golden Kamuy – 33 – A Wolf in Vladivostok

As Kiroranke and Sofia exchange correspondence, smuggled in and out of the prison with a little help from master of disguise Shiraishi, Asirpa, Kiroranke, Shiraishi, and Ogata stay in a village of the Nivkh, Karafuto’s most populous ethnic minority. Kiroranke maintains that Sofia could have crucial information about Wilk and the code for the gold.

Because he claims the gold will benefit all minorities including the Ainu, Asirpa is willing to go along with his plans. We also learn that Sugimoto’s team has reached the reindeer farmers who previously hosted Asirpa’s team. They’re still a ways behind, but Sugimoto is looking forward to reuniting with her at Ako Prison.

That’s pretty much all for present-day events, as Kiroranke spends much of the rest of the episode telling a story about—among other things—how he, Wilk, and Sofia learned Japanese from a man named Hasegawa Kouichi, who ran a photography studio in Vladivostok. Kouichi has a happy life with his wife Fina and infant daughter Olga.

Before the three revolutionaries arrive at his doorstep wanting to learn Japanese, Kouichi spots a lone wolf on the outskirts of town—an ill omen, if you will. Still, Kouichi welcomes the three and they learn quickly, with Wilk learning the quickest while Sofia seems least motivated to learn. Sofia is also immediately smitten with little Olga. Kouichi even likens the three to the Three Great Nobles of the Restoration who successfully modernized Japan.

It isn’t long until Kouichi learns that his three visitors from the far west were responsible for assassinating the emperor. Assuming the Russian secret police will descend upon his studio soon, he tells Fina to take Olga and go far away to await word from him, insisting she not return under any circumstances.

As it turns out, the police aren’t there for the revolutionaries; they’re there for Kouichi, a Japanese spy using the studio as a front. Sofia, Wilk, and Kiroranke break out the guns and do their thing; none of the police can be allowed to escape. Kouichi makes things a little easier in the ensuing siege by revealing he keeps a machine gun hidden amongst his photography equipment.

As the three take out the police, Sofia fires a shot into a tree, and I half-expected it to be that lone wolf Kouichi spotted earlier, which he encountered a second time while Wilk was teaching him about traps. Instead, it’s Fina, who did come back for Kouichi. A bullet hit both her and Olga, killing the child and leaving the mother in bad shape.

Sofia is beside herself with grief and regret, but there’s little time for either; she and her compatriots must flee before attracting more attention. When they reach the seasonal ice floes that allow passage from Russia to Karafuto—the same ones Kiroranke will use in the present to help Sofia & the other inmates reach their allies on the mainland—Sofia declares she won’t be going with Wilk, whom she loves, or Kiroranke, deciding to stay in Russia to stoke the fires of revolution.

We then return to Kouichi holding his dying wife, and the moment he tells her the truth: his real name is Tsurumi Tokushirou. That’s right, that Tsurumi, with the busted skull. It truly is a small world. Now we know the connection between him and the revolutionaries, and it’s another horribly tragic story, this time centered on one of the series’ main players.

Lt. Tsurumi seemed to accept his wife and daughter’s death as an accident, but he’s quite a different man since his head injury. This added history will color all future interactions (if any) between Tsurumi, Kiroranke, and Sofia. Kiroranke also writes to Sofia that Wilk has died, and though the woman has become hard-as-steel in the years since she last saw him, she still can’t help but weep from the news.

Wandering Witch: The Journey of Elaina – 09 – Estelles;Gate

Last week’s doll-and-face fetish episode, and the grape-stomping maiden episode before it, made for some particularly goofy Journeys of Elaina, making me wonder when and if show would get dark again. Sure enough, this episode arrives with an “Explicit Content” warning, opens on a starving, broke Elaina, and no OP! What the heck are we in for? At the time, I had no idea.

Elaina finds a flyer promising good pay for “ultra-short-term” work, and encounters a fellow Witch, Estelle. Through meeting her, Elaina is pleased to learn that while Estelle became an apprentice when she was younger, it took her longer than Elaina to become a full-fledged Witch. Wand-measuring aside, Estelle is offering a giant sack of gold coins for the job.

What is the job? Well, first, a sad story: Back while Estelle was training abroad, her dear childhood friend Selena’s parents were murdered in a robbery. Selena’s uncle took her in, and proceeded to abuse her. Selena eventually snapped, murdering her uncle, and then several others. It ultimately fell to Estelle to apprehend Selena…and execute her.

Estelle seeks to use magic to go back in time so she can save Selena’s parents and prevent the chain of events that lead to her having to kill her own best friend. Time-traveling requires more magic than any one witch has, so Estelle has been gradually draining her blood to augment the spell.

The other problem is that once they’re actually in the past, Estelle will be drained of all magic, which is why she needs Elaina. By wearing matching magical rings, Elaina will be able to share her magic with Estelle. This job is not without its risks and inconveniences—hence the generous payday.

Elaina, confident and cocksure as always, proudly proclaims herself to be a traveler, and so the next logical step in her journey is to travel through time and see how things used to be in the past. So she slips on the ring, Estelle activates the spell, and off they go.

The witches safely arrive ten years into the past, but only have one hour to do what needs to be done before being sent back to the present. Estelle makes it clear that the timeline in which she executes Selena has happened and can’t un-happen; changing events will create a tangent, but that’s enough for her, as long as there is a timeline in which Selena gets to live on.

Their broom-flight to Selena’s house is interrupted when Estelle spots young Selena walking down the street, and can resist giving her a big hug, no matter how much it weirds the girl out. Elaina notes that Estelle got quie the cold reaction from Selena, but Estelle insists that deep down Selena is very kind.

Estelle proceeds to get Selena’s parents out of the house under the guise that she’s Selena’s half-sister and has business with them. Elaina stakes out the house, waiting for the robber to arrive, but it dawns on her that the murder of the parents was too grisly for a mere robbery. Then her magic-sharing ring glows and shoots a red beam in Estelle’s direction: she’s engaged in battle.

When Elaina arrives, she finds a horrifying sight: Selena has viciously attacked Estelle, and has blood on her mouth just like her photo in the future papers. It turns out Selena’s parents abused her long before her uncle had the chance, twisting her into homicidal mania, even sadism. It doesn’t matter whether Estelle was her best friend or she and Elaina are trying to “help”—Selena is already beyond helping.

While the blood and gore on display in this scene is indeed explicit, I for one am glad we didn’t have to witness the abuse Selena suffered at the hands of her parents, and the warning was meant for the violence. And there is a lot of it—the most in the series’ run for sure.

When Selena prepares to attack Elaina, Estelle gets up and stops her in her tracks. Having worked so hard and sacrificed her own blood to try to save Selena, she is overcome by heartbreak and despair, and there’s nothing left but to kill Selena again before she can kill Elaina or anyone else.

Elaina tries to stop this by removing the ring, but Estelle simply sacrifices her memories of Selena in order to summon enough magic to explode her head off. The hour is up and the two witches return to the present. Sure enough, Estelle doesn’t remember Selena, and barely remembers Elaina. She’s a ruined husk of a witch, and Elaina is so upset by the experience she runs out of Estelles house, pointedly leaving the bag of gold behind.

That, and Elaina’s subsequent breakdown on the bench in front of the clock tower, shows that the effects of this particular journey will (or at least should) last beyond just this episode. Elaina weeps uncontrollably, her confident façade utterly shattered. She no longer thinks of herself as a special or exemplary; only an “ordinary” traveler and witch, inexperienced and unable to do anything.

She’s being a bit hard on herself, as who the heck could have handled that situation better? It was largely out of her hands. The best thing to do would have been to refuse the job, but she really needed money and was intrigued by the prospect of a different kind of traveling. The episode fades to black and the credits roll without images. Black Friday, indeed.

Read Crow’s review of episode 9 here!

Wandering Witch: The Journey of Elaina – 04 – The Princess and the Cook

Elaina begins a love story—complete with ornate storybook illustrations—though aside from her love for her parents, it’s not something she knows a lot about. That makes the next stop on her journey potentially quite edifying. At first, a grand city looks to be in ruins, smoldering and covered in snow and ash.

The palace is the last building standing, and within she finds the last person in the city, Princess Mirarosé—a princess without subjects who looks exactly like her painting, as if it were painted that day. Curiously, aside from her name, Mirarosé isn’t sure about much of anything, as she’s suffering from amnesia.

Elaina joins the princess for a cup of tea (without mentioning the front door she broke), and Mirarosé shows her a letter she found that provides some but not all answers. There is a monster, Javalier, who appears at sundown to wreak destruction upon the city and eat its subjects. Elaina gets a first-hand look at the monster in action.

As a magical barrier prevents Javalier from attacking, Mirarosé and Elaina are safe. But the letter beseeches her to go out and slay Javalier with all due haste, as it will never stop chasing her or cease its reign of destruction until it is no more. Mirarosé, who has recently learned she is a witch, resolves to take it out.

Elaina basically says “Good luck with that!” but will be watching from a safe distance and nothing more. Mirarosé respects and even appreciates her plain, almost curt honesty: it is true Elaina stands to gain nothing from risking her life to help.

That said, Elaina does avail herself of a guest room for the night—complete with a soft fluffy bed that gives her no shortage of pure joy—as well as a sumptuous (and lovingly animated) breakfast of bacon, eggs, and fresh-baked bread. While they eat, the princess tells Elaina how she can feel the hatred in the author of the letter, and is starting to feel the same way.

As thanks for Mirarosé’s hospitality, Elaina agrees to help her prepare for the battle, if not help her fight it. We watch Elaina’s considerable magical talents on display as she charms an army of doors, buckets, and stuffed animals (of dead kids no less) to dig a massive hole in the city’s central square. Elaina offers to make dinner for Mirarosé when she’s done, and kindly asks her not to die.

When the sun falls, Elaina can’t help but leave the safety of the palace to help in case Mirarosé needs it. Even though she’s only spent a day with the princess, she doesn’t want her to die, and so will do what is necessary (without putting herself in danger) to prevent that from happening. I appreciate Elaina’s change of heart while maintaining her pragmatism.

At this point the episode certainly seems to be setting Mirarosé up for a glorious but inevitable death. Of course, I should have expected Elaina would have something more interesting in mind for the climax, which follows one hell of a beautifully choreographed and animated battle between Mirarosé and the raging Javalier.

She isn’t just a witch, she’s a hella powerful witch, employing wind, fire, ice, lightning attacks as well as red plasma beams and summoning thousands of swords like Gilgamesh. And by the time she beheads the trapped, exposed, and wounded Javalier, she’s recovered her memories, which brings us back to the cold open story of the Princess and the Cook.

When Mirarosé’s father found out she was carrying the child of the lower-class cook, he ordered the cook’s torture and execution…as Mirarosé watched. In response, she cursed her father, transforming him into a monster that would destory his city and eat his subjects—while still being fully aware he was their king. She wanted him to feel the same helplessness she felt when she lost the thing she loved most.

After cursing her dad (who presumably killed the queen during one of his nightly rampages), Mirarosé wiped her memories but left a letter for her future self to discover. The rest of the story, we know: Mirarosé succeeded in every aspect of her plan, fully avenging her lover—who taught her how to bake—and her child, the fate of whom is only implied.

When Elaina takes her leave, she watches as Mirarosé lays out breakfast for her long-departed lover and speaks with him as if he were there. It would seem the combination of her trauma and subsequent trials, and the crushing loneliness of her present situation have conspired to drive her mad. And yet she seems content, and at times even giddy.

As for the departing Elaina, well…her expression is worth a thousand words. In the cold open, she asked “Why do they call it ‘fall’ in love?”, which sounds like love is a trap, which is kind of is…it’s just that ideally falling in love won’t result in your lover’s summary torture and execution. And hopefully, should she ever fall in love, Elaina will fare better than poor Princess Mirarosé.