Those Snow White Notes – 07 – All Together Now

When Setsu leaves his tenement house bound for the Matsugorou Cup in Asakusa, Sakura has a special lunch prepared for him, even though he says there’s no need. Of course, need’s got nothing to do with it; Sakura simply wanted to make him a lunch, so she did, period. As she and her dad see him off, Setsu notes how Sakura is more of a mom than Umeko.

When the team arrives at the Cup venue in Asakusa (a throwback Tokyo district best known for its giant lantern), they’re all a bit caught off guard by how goshdarn EXTRA it is, which comes as no surprise to Setsu, since it’s a reflection of his extra mom. And yet, Yui presents the team with special competition outfits that give each of them way too accurate Super Sentai colors!

As expected, Yui’s online friend Maimai is Tanuma Mai, who demands to be placed in the Individual competition when she belatedly learns Setsu is in it. She’s got it in her head that it matters whether her dad acknowledges her, and that the only way to do that is to beat Setsu. But the officials don’t budge, and her mother Sayuri scolds her for being so gauche.

Then Umeko catches wind of Mai’s attempt to use her second-place finish in a past competition to muscle her way in…but Mai’s mother isn’t about to let the strutting peacock like Umeko bash her daughter, so the two moms engage in some ultra-fuckin’-high-class trash talk while Mai gets the fuck out of the way.

Yet, when you analyze the content of their discourse—Umeko mocking Sayuri was a fool and a naïf to marry the man she did, while Sayuri accuses Umeko of drinking the blood of the young—it ultimately comes off pretty trashy! I absolutely loved it.

Setsu goes off on his own for a while, and revels in the sound of so many shamisens in one place. Wakana may later accuse Umeko of “torturing” Setsu, but it doesn’t seem like that’s the case. Setsu is, as Brian Cox often hums in McDonald’s commercials, lovin’ it, even if some of the musicians are a little sharp with their B’s.

To his surprise, someone else tells them this and they retune their shamisens correctly. This lad, Tanuma Souichi, then approaches Setsu with eyes unclouded by hate. Instead, Souichi is elated to meet someone who speaks with the same Aomori dialect, and believes that automatically makes them friends…even if Setsu isn’t quick to agree.

Meanwhile, Yui finally encounters Mai, who happens to be in a sour mood after getting caught between two tiger moms. I love how they recognize one another by matching each other’s auras to their avatars. Poor Shuri is afraid she’ll have to try to break up a fight, only for Mai and Yui to join hands in giddy friendship.

The Cup finally gets underway with an opulent opening reminiscent of the 2004 Athens Olympics opening ceremony, with Umeko mimicking the role of Björk, who wore the whole world as a gown. From there, the Groups start to perform before the judges. Some are traditional, others are trying to grab attention with rock chords or an idol aesthetic.

As this is going on, Setsu’s teammates grow increasingly weary of his absence, and when he finally arrives, he pooh-poohs any thought of practicing before their performance. This once again draws the ire of Kaito, who assumes Setsu is looking down on them (him), doesn’t want to play with them…but he’s wrong. Setsu headbutts him, cowing him in the process, saying he “knows his own quirks”.

After some gimmicky units that put Umeko in a foul mood (leading her to go “powder her nose”…which I’m guessing means do some coke), a group from Osaka comes along that puts everyone on notice.  Led by the mild-mannered Takaomi Kaji, whom women love and men want to be, the six-man ensemble practices perfect posture, form, and near-hypnotic synchronization, summoning a crisp cool wind that courses through the venue. Even Umeko is impressed.

Wakana apologizes to Setsu’s teammates on his behalf, assuring them that if you were to ask who his little brother is playing for, it’s for all of them, and if you asked why he was doing it, it’s because he wants to win, and win with them. It’s just that hearing a sound of Kaji’s group’s caliber “maxed out” his emotions, making it hard to do normal human interaction.

Now he simply has to find a way to channel that energy into his performance, not leave his team in the dust, and save enough in the tank for the Individual competition … his first ever. No pressure!

Rating: 4/5 Stars

Hanebado! – 13 (Fin) – The Other Side of the Net

Hanebado! seemed to take a bit of a nosedive in critical reception as it progressed, with most of the criticism centering on writing perceived as poor and character reactions and attitudes that were too often over-the-top or unrealistic.

Frankly, neither of these things ever bothered me, because the primary draw for me was always watching two players slap the shit out of a birdie (or shuttlecock, if you’re not into the whole brevity thing). Ayano and Nagisa close out their match, and the show, doing just that.

As such, the animation of the match and of the character’s reactions grows ever more dramatic and stylized throughout the roller coaster of an episode. Ayano crawls all the way back, and Nagisa and her knee seem poised to crumble before the might of her opponent’s honed talent.

Coach Tachibana looks ready to pounce at any moment should Nagisa desire to end the match to possibly preserve her career; to lose to live to fight another day. But she doesn’t give up, nor does she let her knee stop her from hanging in there against Ayano.

After several end-of-match deuces (ties), it gets to the point that even Ayano’s body starts to give out. Indeed, when Nagisa’s winning point is scored, securing the narrowest of victories, Ayano’s racket flies right out of her hand and hits one of the net posts.

Once Nagisa realizes she’s won, she bursts into tears right there on the court, while an exhausted Ayano is helped off by her senpais, and takes that opportunity to thank them for supporting her, something that catches them off guard, since she was such an unapologetic bitch to them not too long ago!

Even though Ayano lost, she doesn’t feel like she’s going to be abandoned, nor that it’s the end of the world. Rather, both she and Nagisa realized during the match that they both love and play badminton because it’s fun; and it’s never more fun than when you’re playing such a close match against someone on or around your level.

Ayano and Nagisa might just represent the two peaks of their respective corners (talent and hard work), though it’s also clear that Nagisa has plenty of talent (otherwise she wouldn’t have beaten Ayano, period), while Ayano works plenty hard (otherwise she wouldn’t have had the stamina to almost knock Nagisa off).

Ayano also confronts her mother and states that she hated her, past-tense, because she thought she was abandoned for not having any talent. Uchika repeats her offer to bring Ayano back with her to Denmark, but Ayano wishes to remain in Japan, where she intends to keep playing and keep getting better. Uchika is impressed and moved by her daughter’s words.

As friends Riko and Nagisa share a post-victory moment of friendship, Ayano also takes the time to thank her friend Erena for always standing by her side, as well as for persuading her to get back into badminton.

When Ayano and Nagisa next meet, the latter is being told to take things easy, what with her patellar tendinitis. But Ayano immediately challenges her to a match. She quickly switches back to “Evil Ayanon”, but not out of straight-up malice; her intention to inspire Nagisa, not provoke her.

It’s also a way of acknowledging Nagisa’s skill; trash talk aside, Ayano wouldn’t play someone she believed wasn’t worth playing. And so the two arrange to practice together more and more in preparation for the inter-high tournament. After all, the person on the other side of the net is a “reflection of themselves”. Beat that, and they can beat anyone.

Hanebado! – 07 – The Power and Price of Hard Work

The best and most thrilling episode of Hanebado! yet, in which Ayano and Kaoruko have their fated rematch, comes with a surprise: Ayano’s mom is nowhere to be seen; none of Ayano’s teammates mention her again; and there’s no indication she watched the Kaoruko rematch. Where’d she go? We never find out. But she’s there, and she’ll surely be back.

Her total absence reflects the new attitude towards her mother Ayano wishes to adopt: that she doesn’t have a mother, or at least not one whose opinions matter to her anymore. Ayano looks initially rattled by Kaoruko’s gift of a hankie for the tears/snot when she loses, but her pained look morphs into a wry girn.

Ayano isn’t scared of Kaoruko anymore; at least not on the surface. Her inner thoughts/feelings are off limits to Ayano’s teammates, Kaoruko, and we the audience, but it could well be she’s just as calm, cool, and committed to obliterating her opponent inside as out.

Yu loses her match, making Ayano, Nagisa and Sora the only three players left standing in the prelims. But frankly I just wasn’t that interested in the little subplots of the other characters. This was about a suddenly supremely confident Ayano and a Kaoruko humming with arrogance: an Unstoppable Force vs. an Unmovable Object.

Despite the distractions, the match lives up to the hype and then some. It’s the most high stakes match we’ve been able to watch, and the animation team pulls out all the stops, utilizing all manner of angles, zooms, pans, sweeps, etc. as well as a 3-D “floating camera” that soars from one end of the court to t’other. It really got the adrenaline pumping.

But even more important: for once, Ayano, supposedly one of the most talented players in the show, isn’t embarrassed or overwhelmed, physically or psychologically. She is in complete command of the match, and demonstrates virtual telepathy when it comes to diagnosing Kaoruko’s game plan and sabotaging it at every turn with unexpected counters.

This is where Kaoruko’s tireless hard work, ultra-granular attention to detail, and the ruthless drive to defeat Ayano at all costs actually work against her. She prepared so intricately carefully for an opponent based on what she thought she knew of them up and down, leaving no time to consider how Ayano’s skills would have improved or evolved parallel to her own.

Ayano is no stranger to hard work either, after all. She employs it here, and her grit on the court is reinforced by her conscious effort to block all of those negative and unpleasant thoughts that plagued her for so long. Free of the need for validation from her mother, she’s a player possessed.

She’s also in rare form on the trash talking front. Kaoruko talked a big game, but Ayano’s retorts are strategically toned and timed for maximum damage. Long story short: Ayano is all that’s in Kaoruko’s head. Winning is al that’s in Ayano’s head.

The final 21-16, 21-17 score in Ayano’s favor doesn’t do justice to the level of dominance she displayed against Kaoruko in 90% of the match. The defeat is devastating, and not just because she gave her entire team the middle finger prior to the match, so confident was she that she’d “mop the floor” with Ayano.

Ayano broke a fantasy that Kaoruko kept playing in her head as she worked so hard: that she could beat the first player her own age to beat her, without cheating by giving her a cold. She thought she was psychologically stronger. Her only loyal, sympathetic teammate helps her stretch post-match, both of them cry, for Ayano crushed those fantasies, then offered Kaoruko her hankie back.

Ayano, for her part, calls Kaoruko’s effort “pathetic”, which rubs Elena the wrong way. Ayano’s cold response is simply that on that court, winning is the only thing that matters (Sorry, Riko, Yu and Sora!). Another way to say that is that if you don’t win, then nothing matters. So yeah, Ayano may be playing her best badminton, but she’s gone to a dark, lonely place to do it.

Next up is Nagisa vs. Nozomi, but you know what? However it turns out, I can’t see how it won’t feel like a bit of a letdown after Ayano vs. Kaoruko. Both players are lower down on the character significance list. What could mitigate that is if we finally get the Ayano-Ayano’s mom reunion we’ve been waiting for all season. Who knows, maybe she did watch the match; the episode just never cut to her…