Sword Art Online: Alicization – War of Underworld – 05 – The Eve of Reckoning

With a title like “The Night Before Battle”, it was clear there would be one more calm-before-the-storm episode before that battle took place, but in this case, it was not only earned, but welcome. After all, there a lot of reunions that need to happen before battle is joined. That starts with Alice’s protege Eldrie and her “uncle” Bercouli.

Eldrie is concerned about the dead weight that is Kirito, but Bercouli demonstrates that he’s still capable of defending himself through sheer willpower. That means he may yet come back to them, hopefully in their hour of greatest need. That’s coming soon, by the way—their forces are outnumbered more than 16-to-1.

Alice considers that perhaps Kirito can’t hear or react to her voice because she’s still suppressing her feelings, and that maybe a gesture of those feelings may finally wake him up. She comes close, but is interrupted by Tiese and Ronie, who heard Kirito was at the camp. I suppose kissing him wouldn’t have mattered; the conditions haven’t been met for him to come back yet.

The pages are beside themselves upon learning of Kirito and Eugeo’s fates, and Alice can’t help but notice they act as if they loved the boys. They rebut that assertion by saying they don’t deserve the right to say they love him, citing their traumatic experience that led the boys to break Axiom law to save them. Alice rejects their position, transforming to “peacetime” Alice Zuberg that would have been had she not been kidnapped.

Her lesson to the two is that bodies are unimportant compared to the hearts and their souls. If they feel they love someone, or that they can and should do something, they need not be ashamed to carry those feelings with pride. It’s something she learned from Kirito and Eugeo and is happy to pass on.

Alice is less enthused by Lady Fanatio carrying such feelings with pride, especially when she asks to see Kirito so she can “try various things” in an attempt to revive him. Alice betrays her own personal feelings for Kirito by barring Fanatio from seeing him. But such bickering has to wait; it’s time for the war council.

Administrator truly screwed the Human Empire in her management of their military forces. The remaining Integrity Knights must make do with what little they have and pursue a strategy of bottle-necking the enemy’s superior numbers in a narrow, barren ravine, hoping that location will also prove challenging to dark mages, who require material in order to cast their arts.

After saying what could be her final goodbyes to Kirito (leaving him in the pages’ care) and Eldrie, Alice mounts her dragon and the forces move into the ravine. The gate resolves, heralding the “Final Load Test.” The good guys are at a huge disadvantage against Miller’s massive forces.

I don’t doubt they’ll need to rely on a last-minute intervention from…someone; maybe Kirito answering the call in their greatest need, maybe Asuna, finally arrived in Underworld and ready to fight to save her fiancee. As for Alice…we just saw a lot of death flags… :(

Fruits Basket – 24 – The Rosary

When Kyou’s mother committed suicide, everyone blamed him because he was cursed with the Cat spirit; everyone but Souma Kazuma, who took him under his wing and trained him without judgment. It was Kazuma’s grandfather, after all, who carried the spirit before Kyou, so even though he himself didn’t know what it was like, he was close to someone that did, and had empathy for them both.

Now Kazuma is back, and while he doesn’t show it around the others, Kyou is elated. He assumes he’s to go back to living with his shishou and continue his training. But Kazuma is there for something else. He’s seen Kyou with Tooru, and believes it’s time to tell her the truth about what Kyou is, even if Kyou would prefer to keep running away from that truth.

Kazuma doesn’t see much point in dragging things out. After informing Tooru, he takes Kyou’s arm and removes the rosary of red and white beads that never leaves his arm. Once it’s off, his true form is revealed, and it’s a truly terrifying, monstrous form with a smell to match. Throughout the transformation, Kyou recalls how Akito reacted (how you’d expect Akito to react—with utter disgust and rejection).

He expects the same reaction from Tooru, and while she’s initially frozen in shock, and later nauseous from the sight and smell of him, she still dutifully chases after him, completely forgetting that she just got over a cold!

Assuming she’s only there to have pity on him and offer hollow comfort, both things he’s sick to death of, he tosses her aside, hoping to hurt her enough so she’ll never forgive him. This strategy fails, of course, because we’re talking about Tooru here.

Kyou is weary of Tooru’s comfort (the “lukewarm bath” in which he’d gotten too pruny) because that’s what he got from his late mother: she gave him the rosary, checked his arm dozens of times a day to make sure he was wearing it, and wouldn’t let him outside. He could never trust or accept the love she insisted she had for him because she worked so tirelessly to hide his true form, sweeping it under the rug like it didn’t exist.

Even though his mother told him all the time that she’d die for him, that wasn’t what Kyou needed, or needs. What he needs, and what Tooru ultimately provides, is not an assurance she’ll die for him, but that she’ll live life with him. She doesn’t claim to have all the answers, but she won’t look away or turn away from him, even in his true form.

Tooru fears Kyou never returning to Shigure’s house more than the reality of his true form, so she takes hold of his misshapen limb and doesn’t let go, until he transforms back into human form, and then into his cute Zodiac cat form, and they return to the house together triumphant and to Kazuma’s relief.

In this regard, Tooru has emerged as his new proverbial rosary; one that doesn’t hide what he is but accepts it and is committed to living with him anyway. And however dark the future gets, he’s able to move past his dark past because she’ll be right there facing that future beside him.

BEM – 02 – It’s a Nice Face

Bela, or “Annabella”, as her high school friends call her, may be a youkai, but she has a human form and dreams of one day becoming a real human. So she “practices” by going to high school, having friends and interacting with them, including teasing a young man who likes making very nice drawings of her.

But when a woman in her late twenties recognizes Bela as Mary, someone she went to high school with, the question arises: where exactly did Bela get her human face? As it happens, she got it from the corpse of Mary Russell, which is now nothing more than a skeleton when Sonia and the police find it. But who killed her?

After a very weird (and animation-wise, pretty lazy) canvassing montage, Sonia is no closer to learning the actual truth, just that different people say the opposite things about Elaine, the blue-haired woman who recognized Bela. The next day, Bela is assaulted by three guys at the mall, but who comes to her rescue but Elaine.

Elaine then proceeds to tell Bela her side of the story, in which Mary was blamed by their mutual friend (and queen bee) Dominic Vali for stealing her jewelry, then punished by being forced to undertake a test of courage in the Outside, and ends up never returning. Elaine says the piece of jewelry Bela wore when they first met, along with the one she gifts to Bela, were made by Mary, who dreamt of becoming a jewelry-maker.

The more Bela thinks on it, the more she wants to tell Elaine the truth, since she seems like a nice person. That turns out not to be the case, as she has both Bela and Dominic meet up at the cemetery where Mary died, just so a hitman she hired can kill them both.

This entire scene feels like it comes out of the blue, but more importantly, it’s just patently silly that the bad guy is some kind of “bowling greaser monster.” Both Bela’s transformation, youkai design, and the ensuing battle that ends with Bela victorious, are pretty mediocre.

The disappointment continues when Bela (who doesn’t bother to change after transforming back into a human) pays Elaine a visit, and Elaine immediately drops the nice lady act and becomes a leering villain, complete with a “covering one eye” move. When she cops to having Mary and Dominic killed, Bela loses her cool and transforms into a kind of Alien Queen-type monster, only lamer.

Bem ends up intervening before Bela kills Elaine, and also calls Sonia to arrest Elaine, the culprit in the case of Mary and Dominic’s murders. Basically, by helping the cops clear homicides and assisting them in other ways, Bem hopes to one day become human. Bela shares that dream, and despite being very aloof about it, so does Belo (he does play video games with kids “his own age,” after all).

Bela comes away glad she learned more about Mary Russell, whose face she took, and hopes to honor her memory by leaving the youkai life behind. But who knows when or if that will happen. In the meantime, while BEM is pretty solid in some areas (the jazzy score for one), it seems odd that a show heavily featuring monsters would do such a bad job visualizing said monsters and their battles.

BEM – 01 – It’s All Elemental

Across the bridge from a gleaming “Upper City” lies a “Lower City” where crime and corruption are rampant…and a water monster is preying on humans, drowning them in his aqueous body on the spot. That’s where idealistic rookie cop Sonia Summers is headed, partially for the challenge.

When she stops her Range Rover to chase down a purse-snatcher, a mysterious man in a wide-brimmed fedora saves her from getting run over before vanishing into the night. But he can’t stop her car from getting stolen.

Turns out the police are corrupt too, taking kickbacks from organized crime to look the other way. This is something Sonia “the girl scout” is extremely not okay with. Little does she know cops on the take are the least of her problems, as the serial drownings mount.

The man with the fedora (and string tie and skull cane) confronts the monster, who is growing increasingly murder-happy. It mentions that it was once human but has shed that humanity and now couldn’t be happier.

The man, the titular Bem, is also not quite human despite his appearance, and after electricuting the water monster and forcing it to flee, he meets with his two compatriots, Bela and Belo. Belo says Bela values humans too highly, while Bela says Belo values them to low.

Bem seems to be the man in the middle of a group that’s also in the middle of the struggle between monsters and humans. Bem believes (and the other two follow along) that if they save enough humans, they can become full-fledged humans.

The episode culminates in a final battle between Bem, who transforms into his true, beastial youkai form, and the water monster, who keeps resolving into a joker-like form. Sonia is there to witness, and three of her fellow cops are sliced to death in the crossfire. Once Bem defeats the monster, Sonia is so frightened of him, both in youkai and human form, that she empties her sidearm into his chest.

The bullets bounce off and he’s fine, but the message is clear: getting a human, even one as virtuous as Sonia, to trust him and his kind is not going to be easy. And yet still, he won’t stop trying, just as Sonia won’t stop turning down kickbacks. No doubt they’ll cross paths and Bem will try again to reach out (but not with his beast claws).

Bem is a sleek, elegant supernatural noir, supported by some excellent “camera”work and night lighting, a very tight soundtrack by MICHIRU and SOIL&”PIMP”SESSIONS, and character design by Range Murata (joining Cop Craft as the second show this season with his designs).

With a mysterious lady (voiced by Sakamoto Maaya) in a board room in one of those gleaming towers in Upper City apparently after Bem, it looks like monsters roaming the mean streets and befriending Sonia aren’t all he needs to worry about. Definitely worth a watch, even with another cop show in a gritty city airing this season.

P.S.: This is the second remake of the series Youkai Ningen Bem, which first aired in Fall 1968(!) and was remade for the first time in 2006. I’ve never seen either of those, so I’m coming at this with a clean slate.