Made in Abyss – S2 01 – The Light No One Else Has Found

Nearly years after had Dawn of the Deep Soul and nearly five years after the season one finaleAbyss is a-back. Rather than pick right up with Riko, Reg, and Nanachi as they continue their dive, we get a fresh perspective from a new character, Vueko, who in the first damn minute of the episode is being horribly abused by the man who took her in.

At least she’s recounting her past; in the present she’s one of the “Three Mages”, bearer of the Star Compass, and currently very seasick aboard a ship in a fleet led by the bug-eating eccentric Wazukyan. They’re part of a Ganja, a suicide team of exiles and misfits united in their desire to find the Golden City, which we know to be on the Sixth Layer of the Abyss.

In addition to having immediate sympathy for what Vueko has gone through, and relief that she’s now being treated well and even relied on (the little scene where her comrade Belaf calls her “lovely” in every way that matters is sweet as hell), my feelings were also of dread, because this is Made in Abyss. Vueko and her team are most assuredly doomed, and were likely doomed long before Riko’s time.

Still, Vueko is doing what she wants to be doing, and eventually her team comes upon an island with an entrance to the Abyss (the same island on which the city where Riko lived was eventually built), a tribe of suspicious but ultimately non-hostile natives, and one little girl who is banished by said tribe and serves as their guide.

She and Vueko soon become tied at the hip (not literally…yet) as the group makes their way into the Abyss and descend the first, second, third, fourth, and fifth layers, to the very eyeball-shaped elevator Riko & Co. enter at the end of the movie.

Just as Vueko makes a leap of faith through the elevator’s gooey doorway, it’s Riko who emerges from the other end, followed by Reg and Nanachi. The message is clear: many have passed through that green goo throughout the ages, but once you’re on that elevator going down, you’re never going back up.

Adding a little levity to what had so far been an quietly awe-filled but also rather dour outing is the fact the elevator ride down is so long that Riko can’t hold it in any longer. Not just No. 1 either, but No. 2. So she goes, and because it’s so quiet (no Kevin Penkin elevator music) Reg and Nanachi hear it all.

But no matter, shortly after Riko’s done her business, the darkness of the ocean around them is soon broken by a golden light. They alight from the elevator on the Sixth Layer, in the Capital of the Unreturned. It’s a terrifyingly gorgeous sight, and a sight very few human beings have seen (and remained human).

Will our friends encounter Vueko & Co. somewhere in this gnarly, chaotic, beautiful capital? Or…more likely, their bones? Is there a chance Riko’s mother could still be down here somewhere, most likely even further below? Many wonders and horrors await, all of them most likely to be expertly presented. The Promised Neverland and Shield Hero showed how not do do a second season; I’m confident Abyss can deliver the goods.

Love After World Domination – 07 – The Reaper of Oyafuko-dori

Green Gelato, AKA Todoroki Daigo, is regarded as the unflappable psychological rock of Gelato 5. But when he delivers a home-cooked meal to Fudou and sees he is writing an exchange diary for his girlfriend and hears her full name—Magahara Desumi—he suddenly goes into convulsions and collapses. When he comes to he tells Fudou why: Desumi was the monster he created.

So begins a tale of regret and trauma, as Daigo recounts how he regarded himself as the top karate student in the prefecture (both of them were Hataka natives). Then a pint-sized, seven-year-old Desumi showed up one day, his sensei assigned him, a middle schooler, to look after her…and she nearly killed him with one punch.

Each time she nearly one-shotted him, he refused to do anything but save face and look cool, which of course only made Desumi more enthusiastic about training. Within days, she’d defeated Daigo’s master, who closed the dojo and became a hermit. But Daigo kept training her, even as it seemed likely to shorten his life considerably. No doubt he simply couldn’t turn his back on such a talented (yet cute and innocent) fighter.

His face-saving delusions that she always bought aside, Desumi didn’t so much surpass Daigo as was always superior. She developed a reputation as “The Reaper of Oyafuko-dori” as a middle-schooler, eviscerating all challengers and developing the thick lonely, bored shell which Fudou would eventually help her break out of.

Daigo’s parents divorced and he had to move to Tokyo, he met her one last time on the riverbank, and despite going all out, was put on his back easily. Now that Young Desumi is back in his life, Daigo feels he must put his trauma aside and do his duty as Gelato 5’s recruiter by bringing Desumi into the fold. Of course, he’s still oblivious to the fact she’s already a Gekko executive.

 

Fudou can’t help but admit that having Desumi as Black Gelato would mean spending a lot more time together, so he arranges a meeting with her and Daigo. After some reminiscing, Daigo gets down to brass tacks and offers her a job with Gelato 5. Like Fudou, it’s an enticing offer, but she thinks about her family and comrades and respectfully declines.

She’s happy where she is and is worried if she was any happier she’d open herself up to karmic retribution. But seeing this older, gentler, somehow cuter Desumi flirt with Fudou like an ordinary girlfriend gives Daigo the completely wrong impression that she’s gone soft, and calls her out to a riverback to fight once again.

He sets the stake of their duel: if she wins, he’ll give up on recruiting her. If he wins, she’ll join Gelato 5 and end her relationship with Fudou, mentioning to her for the first time that Gelato forbids workplace relationships. While Desumi would have likely beaten Daigo (even in his Gelato suit, which his survival instinct activates without thinking), she gets super-fired up about winning when her relationship with Fudou is on the line.

Just as in the past when she’d very nearly killed him, Daigo plays it cool, saying he couldn’t go all out against his beloved pupil after so long, and grudgingly accepts defeat, with some final words of warning: whatever she ends up doing with her immense power, don’t go over to the dark side of Gekko. Whoops…

After parting ways with Daigo, Fudou and Desumi agree that they’ve gotten a bit too loose and comfortable being a public couple, and vow to take steps to being more careful. This includes Fudou pulling her off him should she take him by the arm in public, though that might prove both emotionally and physically impossible.

Regardless, they are still being watched and photographed in the shadows by someone I assumed at first to be Misaki, but might actually be a heretofore unseen character. Looks like Fudou and Desumi are in store for more drama and adversity…

Vanitas no Carte – 24 (Fin) – Je l’ai choisi pour me tuer.

Last week’s cliffhanger is promptly resolved, as Vanitas ends up on top of Noé, but just can’t quite kill him. His blade remains an inch from Noé’s throat, which may as well be a mile, for it is a distance Vanitas simply cannot move, despite having just hypnotized himself to kill all vampires.

Because Noé won’t drink Vanitas’ blood and Vanitas won’t kill Noé, Misha decides to use his book to zombify more random Parisians, but things go pear-shaped when the book seemingly overloads and starts to devour Misha himself. He’s like the kid who stole his dad’s car, and ends up putting it in a ditch.

The clear unsung hero of this whole ordeal is Dominique, whose strongest side is able to overcome Misha’s control over her weakest side. The one thing she’d never do is hurt Noé, which means she can’t let herself die, since that would hurt him deeply. With color returned to her life, Domi flashes her gorgeous ice magic powers and neutralizes the zombified people and is even able to briefly restrain Misha.

Vanitas draws nearer when Misha calls for his big brother, but it’s just a trick to lower Vanitas’ guard. Fortunately, Noé is faster than Misha, blocking his killing strike, breaking his prosthetic blade and slashing his face, sending the boy into a tantrum. That’s when daddy comes…or rather granddaddy.

Of course, this gramps isn’t Misha or Vanitas’ gramps, but Domi and Louis’—the former Marquid de Sade, AKA The Shapeless One, AKA the Comte de Saint Germain (who is, of course, a real dude from history…and also, judging from the eyes, might be Murr?!). He’s the one who saved Misha’s life and gave him both a metal arm and the idea he could bring his father back. He’s apparently not done with him, as he takes Misha away through a tear in reality.

After that, the opening theme plays as an insert, and Noé awakens in bed to a cheerful Amelia informing him everybody’s safe and sound, and Vanitas is, of course, perched up on the roof. Noé goes up to meet him, and the two are soon joined by Misha and his metal dog. Vanitas says he, not Misha, was responsible for Luna’s death, and it was a mercy killing, for Luna was about to go completely out of control.

When Misha reaches a hand out to once again ask Vanitas to join him in trying to bring Luna back, Vanitas declines. He doesn’t care if using the books is slowly changing them into “something not human”; if he’s going to be killed, he chooses Noé to be the one to do it.

Misha makes sure to tell the two that Domi didn’t kill anyone—Domi is kind, and Misha likes kind people and thus doesn’t want her unjustly punished for her actions at the fair. Then he bounds off on his metal dog, leaving Vanitas, Noé, and the morning sun peaking through the Parisian clouds.

Vanitas is eager to investigate what Saint Germain is up to, but other than that it’s business as usual, with him continuing to serve as a doctor curing vampires of their curses. But while he’d performed these duties for years without anyone by his side (save those dhampirs from whom he’s kept a certain distance), now he has Noé, Jeanne, Domi, and others willing to help him help others…and keep him alive.

While it didn’t hit quite as hard for me as the conclusion of the previous Chloé d’Apchier arc, this was still a strong finale that helped Vanitas take a step out of his dark past and into a more hopeful future, while galvanizing his bonds with those who wish to share in that future. And there seems to be plenty of potential story material for a third season if Bones so desires.

Rating: 4/5 Stars

Vanitas no Carte – 23 – La Liberté de la Solitude

We’re into Unstoppable Force vs. Unmovable Object territory, with seemingly no good outcome that can emerge from Vanitas and Noé fighting. If Vanitas gets through Noé and harms Misha, Domi will jump to her death. But Vanitas doesn’t care. Neither Noé nor Misha have the whole story, and Vanitas is resolved to keep it that way—Noé and Domi’s lives are expendable to him.

This enrages Noé, but it doesn’t take long to figure out that Vanitas is intentionally provoking him to throw him off and force him to use too much of his strength. After all, he can’t get Vanitas’ memories from his blood if Vanitas is dead. The last thing Noé wants is to kill Vanitas, but he can’t lose Domi, either. It’s just a shitty situation all around…Thanks OMisha!

Vanitas’ little brother also tells Noé that Vanitas has hypnotized himself for one purpose: killing anyone who tries to suck his blood. Whatever genuine feelings of friendship or love for anyone or anything have been temporarily taken out of the equation, which combined with his considerable Chasseur skills (not to mention the freaking Book of Vanitas) make him extremely dangerous.

Unfortunately, it also saps his agency. This isn’t the Vanitas we know doing and saying these things: he’s basically in Fail-Safe Mode; his will and ego replaced by a rigid set of directives. He did to himself what Misha did to Domi, but Inner Domi throws a little wrench in Misha’s machinations by jumping without him telling her to, in hopes taking herself out of the equation will keep Noé from getting hurt.

Physical harm aside, nothing would hurt Noé more than losing her, but fortunately she’s unable to follow through on her suicide attempt, as Jeanne arrives and snatches her out of the air. She isn’t quite sure what’s going on, but her orders from Luca are to keep Domi safe, and she’s going to do that. Even if Misha is able to nullify her main weapon and Domi is still under his spell, Jeanne’s intervention allows Noé to focus on Vanitas.

Vanitas may go on about how Noé knows nothing about him, and that might’ve been true when they first met, but Noé is confident he’s been with Vanitas long enough to know what kind of person he is. For instance, he knows Vanitas considers solitude to be freedom, which is why he vows never to set Vanitas free.

That seems to break the hypnotic hold Vanitas placed on himself, but the episode ends abruptly without revealing the result of their fall. I understand having to save something for the finale, but it felt less like a cliffhanger and more like the episode just…stopped. That said, the second half should be something.

Rating: 4/5 Stars

Vanitas no Carte – 22 – Période Bleue

And so we descend into the heretofore untold story of Vanitas, AKA Number 69. He’d already been one of Dr. Moreau’s child experiments/torture victims when poor little Misha arrived. But rather than keep his head down and endure Misha’s screams, he volunteered to undergo the procedure in Misha’s place. Moreau, the quintessential mad scientist, is moved by his gesture.

So is Misha, who is pretty well-adjusted for someone who had already endured untold sexual assaults by his mother’s wealthier clients. Despite his aloof demeanor, Vanitas becomes a reluctant protective big brother to Misha. In a first act full of darkness and unspeakable cruelty and evil, it was nice to see these two children could find a moment’s warm relief under their dingy blanket.

I’ve long not been a fan of Moreau for always looking like the extra-stylized/simplified/cartoony version that other characters sometimes slip into for moments of levity. But after watching him this week do the things he does with a smile, it absolutely adds to the terror surrounding the character. He is an unhinged Mad Hatter with a Cheshire Cat grin. To his eyes, this grim, brutal world is a magical paradise of innovation.

I also felt a deep pressure in my stomach watching the “ordinary” human researchers doing Moreau’s bidding without emotion. You get the feeling they’re not under any duress (i.e. Moreau keeping their families hostage) but simply doing their jobs and following orders like good proto-Nazis. Moreau is outwardly mad, but they must be too to be able to do what they do to Vanitas and Misha.

Fortunately, they receive swift justice when Moreau’s procedure to convert the boys into “quasi-members” of the Blue Moon Clan so he can open the two Books of Vanitas. The resulting explosions kill everyone and leave Moreau crippled, and the mysterious black-skinned, white-haired vampire who claims responsibility for the chaos is primed to leave…until Misha begs them to take them with them…and when given the choice, Vanitas agrees to go with them too.

When the mysterious person introduces themselves as the Vampire of the Blue Moon, Vanitas’ chasseur training kicks in, asking them what they’re doing. They simply reply that they are helping them, since they asked for help. All of the exhaustion and the stress of the procedure catches up to Vanitas, and he passes out.

He comes to in a comfy bed of one of the vampire’s human acquaintances. When Vanitas asks how that’s possible, the vamp makes it clear that the more occult-aligned folks have always preferred consorting with vampires than the church. When the vamp asks Vanitas why he was calling out for his mother, he tells the story of what happened to his parents.

He was the bastard child of a successful doctor who abandoned his old family for his mother, a performer at some kind of traveling show. He says his mother died giving birth to him, and when vampires attacked, his father died protecting him. When the church and then Moreau took him in, he learned that humans were far more terrifying monsters than the vampires he’d spent his life loathing.

More importantly to understanding Vanitas’ character through all that tragedy and pain is the fact that he never tried to escape Moreau’s clutches for the same reason he tried to protect Misha: because he didn’t want someone else to experience that pain and trauma in his place. He is, as the vampire says, “a truly kind child”.

And yet even in the present Vanitas believes he’s no one who should be loved. In this act, we see the vampire who will later be known as Luna, Vanitas, and Misha becoming a family. We learn that Vanitas soon surpassed cooking and cleaning skills, while they made sure Vanitas and Misha got both an education and the opportunity to be boys and have fun.

But Luna knew that it couldn’t last like this for long, as both Vanitas and Misha would one day succumb to the strains against the natural world caused by Moreau’s experiments on them. So they offered their adoptive sons a choice: die as humans when the time comes (which could be in days or years), or become official members of the Blue Moon Clan when Luna turns them.

We know that Vanitas chose to live his remaining days as a vampire, even if it meant dying tomorrow. This, despite saying humans are the ultimate monsters. It’s as if he knows he could only right the wrongs of humanity by remaining a human as he began his crusade of healing curse-bearers, thus bearing his own self-imposed curse, a product of his deep-seated kindness.

As for Misha…whether he is still human or not isn’t as important as what he’s after, and how he’s willing to hurt Vanitas to get it. Misha’s already done far more than Vanitas would typically forgive, sharing memories of their past with Noé. Noe and Vanitas’ relationship has been irrevocably altered. How will Vanitas respond to these actions by his long-lost kid brother?

Vanitas no Carte – 21 – Jetez un Coup d’oeil sous la Peau

This week segues nicely from the parting reveal of Domi as the culprit in the latest vampire attacks to the heartbreakingly tragic past events involving her, Louis, and Noé, this time from her perspective. In the aftermath of the bloodbath that claimed both Mina and Louis, Domi weeps at Noé’s bedside, blaming herself for involving Noé in trying to save Mina. Her sister Veronica lives up to the family name, pretending she never had a brother, and revealing that Domi and Louis were twins.

Veronica further twists the blade by saying the twin chosen to live was made on a whim, and thus wonders whether the right (i.e. more useful) twin was spared. Noé comes to and mistakes Domi for Louis, inadvertently compounding her belief that everyone would’ve preferred if she had died instead of Louis. She cut off all her hair and started dressing like Louis, trying to be what everyone wanted. Seeing her in this sorry state, Noé vowed to protect her at all costs from the darkness of their past.

Unfortunately, that past has re-surfaced thanks to the cheerful and mysterious white-haired lad, who introduces himself as Mikhail when Domi is out searching for Jeanne (presumably while Jeanne and the others were in Gévaudan, though I may not be right about that). Mikhail seems uniquely suited to bring out the pain in others, and uses it to take control of Domi.

Noé receives a note from Mikhail and arrives at the grounds of this world’s 1889 Exposition Universelle after dark, and finds Mikhail in front of a carousel and Domi standing atop a Ferris Wheel—two machines invented to imbue their riders with fun and joy. A third machine: a metal dog automaton, guards Mikhail, and he whips out his version of Vanitas’ book. Mikhail says if anyone harms him, Domi will jump, and introduces himself as Vanitas’ little brother, AKA Number 71.

Mikhail is here for one thing: Vanitas’ memories. He used Domi as bait to bring Noé to him, and will now use Noé to drink Vanitas’ blood and thereby gain those memories, including learning why Vanitas killed “father that day”. That Vanitas killed his dad comes as a shock to Noé; Mikhail can tell and concludes that even after all this time Noé must not know a damn thing about Vanitas. That’s hard to argue: it could be everything Noé knows is simply what Vanitas wants him to know.

Mikhail remedies that by pulling his shirt down (revealing the same spreading blue  malady that affects Vanitas) and offering his own blood for Noé to drink, making it a demand when Noé hesitates. When Jeanne learns Domi hasn’t been seen in three days she rushes to find her, but by then Noé’s fangs are already in Mikhail.

We flash back to Mikhail’s past, when she was in custody after her mother, a prostitute was found dead. Mikhail’s mom presented him as a girl and offered him to her best customers. He runs into a badly-wounded but still chipper Roland, who tells Mikhail he has a new home from this day. Roland is called away by Olivier, and Mikhail is suddenly grabbed and chloroformed.

When he comes to, he finds himself before the Marquiss Machina, and a boy he calls “Number 69″—a young Vanitas. Thus begins Noé’s long-awaited journey into his best friend’s murky past…but will they still be friends when Noé returns from that god-forsaken place? I see now why last week was so pleasant and lighthearted—it was a momentary breather the torrent of sadistic dread dished out in spades by this episode…and it’s only the beginning.

Tokyo 24th Ward – 04 – There is Nobody Else

Last week’s tornado disaster was ambitious, but awkwardly executed and punctuated as it was by the introduction of Carneades, (AKA Goofy Anime Clown Villain #5,000,406), I didn’t feel the weight of those twelve deaths until here, when RGB are attending Kaba-sensei’s memorial service.

Shuuta blames their inability to properly work together to create a future whre no one got hurt, and now doubts his ability to be a hero to anyone, and thinks this is something to be left to someone else. Ran points out that there is no one else receiving calls from “Asumin”. They’re it. They can’t get discouraged—too many more lives are at stake.

Three months pass with neither a call from Asumi nor a message from Carneades, but there is an uptick in the distribution and use of a mysterious Drug rather unimaginatively called “Drug D”. This coincides with an impending deal with a foreign casino magnate (not Trump) to re-develop the 24th Ward’s near-lawless Shantytown.

While Kouki investigates from one side of the law with SARG, Ran, a Shantytown native, and his crew takes action from the other side, locating and neutralizing users and searching for the source of the drugs. It’s likely Ran & Co. suspect the drugs are being brought in specifically to facilitate the redevelopment venture at the cost of Shantytown’s culture and identity.

While Kouki and Ran are busy with the Drug D case, Shuuta stays on the sidelines baking bread, until one day at closing time Mari spots Kozue wandering off on her own and tells Shuuta to go after her. It’s here were we finally see how Kozue is doing, having lost her dad just when she was starting to get over Asumi’s death.

Kozue is standoffish with Shuu even as she calls him Shuu-ni-chan, even threatening to scream or report him as a stalker if he doesn’t buzz off. She also says he shouldn’t have saved her, which is just heartbreaking. But Shuu stays with her, because a big brother from another mother can’t let a young girl walk the mean streets of Shantytown all alone.

There’s every indication that Kozue is up to no good or, dealing with her pain by seeking dangerous situations due to her lack of regard for her safety illustrated by her comment Shuuta. But it turns out she’s on an errand of love, braving Shantytown to locate the latest tag from DoRed depicting a rocket powered “Kaba”, or hippo. Celebrating these tags is helping her work through her grief.

While Kozue and Shuuta are separated, she soon encounters Kunai, nominally part of DoRed, though someone Ran notes hasn’t shown up in a while. Kunai tells Kozue that Red from DoRed painted it, but he can’t divulge Red’s true identity any more than the people of Oz can know the real Wizard. Kunai also beleives there to be only two paths for those born in the Shantytown…a life of criminality, or a life of art like the one Red leads.

After Shuuta encounters Kouki apprehending a Drug D dealer, he bumps into Kouki, who sets his mind at rest by locating Kozue with his friend Kunai, then enlisting him to film him paint his latest Kaba tag. While he works, Ran reinforces Shuuta’s misgivings about turning the Shantytown into another surveillance district.

Kouki is all on board with such a transformation for the greater public good, but I’m glad Shuuta has another friend in Ran who can argue for the other side of the debate, which is that there are some fish who can only live in murky waters. The government and business interests are just looking for another way to tread upon the poor and disadvantaged by taking what little they have. There is certainly ugliness in Shantytown, but also beauty.

After Ran splits, Shuuta lingers by the new tag for a while, and eventually Kozue comes to him by seeking out said new tag. Her attitude towards him has softened now that she’s seen not one but two beautiful artistic tributes to her dad, and shows him the photos she’s taken of all the tags so far, though she wonders why Red is painting these when he knows the government will erase them by painting over them.

Shuuta counters that the art won’t be erased, because he’ll remember it, and the one who made it. Just like a loved one dying, a part of them will always remain in one’s memory and heart. She tells Kozue not to say things like she should have died in her dad’s place, and Kozue smiles and asks Shuuta to keep protecting her. He’s her hero, after all.

That would have been a lovely way to end the episode, but 24-ku demonstrates narrative efficiency by using the final few minutes to set up next week’s Trolly Dilemma. Carneade’s sigil appears in the skies over the ward and he hacks everyone’s TVs and phones, and shortly thereafter, RGB’s phones ring with “Asumi” on the other line. They were expecting her.

This time, it’s the cruise ship owned by the casino magnate that is the setting of the dilemma. A terrorist has rigged it with bombs. She offers two futures: kill the terrorist and save the ship and all the people aboard, or let the terrorist go and let everyone die? Shuuta and Kouki don’t understand…it doesn’t seem like that hard of a choice. But it is for Ran, because the terrorist they see in the vision—the one he’ll have to kill—is his friend and wayward ally: Kunai.

Just as Kunai is wrong about there only being two ways for someone from the Shantytown to live, Asumi is wrong about these being the only two outcomes. With what they see as a 1-and-1 record guiding the future so far, RGB will be extra-determined to manufacture a third outcome. The question is, will Shuuta, and more importantly Kouki, respect Ran’s desire not to kill Kunai?

Rating: 4/5 Stars

Tokyo 24th Ward – 02 – Fifth Wheel

Shuuta, Ran, Kouki, Mari, and Asumi have been friends since they were little, but in a flashback to those halcyon days, we see that even then Mari was in a state of turmoil rising out of the fact that…well, she wasn’t Asumi. Asumi was the glue that kept them all together; indeed, she was the one who declared RGB was a thing. And now she’s gone.

After years of being a kind of fifth wheel, Mari suddenly found herself one of four, and the estrangement of RGB resulted. That said, she’s still close to all three, especially Shuu, who is her neighbor. Their rooms are even across from one another, so she can leap between their houses to hang out—an arrangement I’ve always longed for. But Shuu is still convinced Asumi could still be alive, shuttering a window Mari can’t leap through.

As Mari meets with each of the members of RGB currently having a post-memorial fight, we also get flashbacks centered on each member. Asumi, who established RGB, deploys them where she believes their skills are most needed—even if it’s conscripting Shuu for goalkeeper duty on the sports field. As a grade schooler Mari joked that she “just can’t win” against Asumi…and that’s seemingly borne out in both past and present.

When Mari checks in on Ran and DoRed, he shows her a mural honoring Asumi while also depicting her as a badass avenging angel, a glimpse of a possible Asumi that never was since her life was snatched away so early. This mural reminds Mari of the time Asumi had Ran paint a mural in the bathhouse. Asumi was always taking the initiative and inspiring action; Mari was always in the background smiling.

Last but not least is Asumi’s actual big brother Kouki. She’s ostensibly there to gather info on a restaurant at the big modern mall administered by Suidou’s family’s Zaibatsu, which is not only her home shopping district’s main rival for the upcoming Gourmet Festival, but also a threat to her district’s very survival. But she’s also kinda sorta there to mediate RGB’s latest  tiff.

Her meeting with Kouki coincides with a Kouki-centric flashback, in which he is utterly failing to hand out flyers for a previous GourFes. Asumi, assigned to another section and having already passed out all of her flyers, urges her brother to wear a smile and appear more friendly if he wants to pass his flyers out. Before long, all the major players in the district are out to help market the Festival. Asumi, bursting with energy and charisma, simply drew everyone towards her, like a magnet-girl.

Back in the present, while walking the dog that got her in so much trouble last week, Mari ends up overhearing a conversation between her old teacher Mr. Shirakaba and SARG officer Chikushi. She learns that Mon Jungle, her family’s restaurant Itadaki’s rival at the new mall, is run by a shady quasi-gang called Yabusame. She emerges from her hiding spot after Chikushi leaves, and Shirakaba assures her the GourFes won’t be rigged.

This leads to a flashback involving Shirakaba, whose students (RGB, Asumi, and Mari) want to keep the old elementary school they attended from being demolished. Mari may not be the nucleus of their group, but it’s clear Itadaki is the group’s base of operations.

It’s there where Mari’s creative okonomiyaki depiction of a blank chalkboard gives Asumi the idea to cover the school in graffiti and spread the word of its historical, cultural, and sentimental importance to the 24th Ward. Of course, as soon as the school and the graffiti idea came up, I thought of the cold open to the first episode and I was suddenly filled with dread.

That’s because Asumi’s idea, unwittingly sparked by Mari, ended up being the death of her. As an old building in disrepair, the school was vulnerable to fire. When that fire finally happened, Mari had Asumi by the arm, outside. All she has to do is not let go and insist they wait for the firefighters. But Asumi insists on being a hero, lets go of Mari, runs into the school to try to save others…and ends up perishing in Shuu’s arms.

The flashbacks make it feel like so long ago, and yet it was so not long ago Mari still has a video on her phone of the aftermath of the fire, admonishing her future self to never forget what happened that night. Even since then, Mari has kept striving to keep up with Asumi, trying to fulfill that role as glue and nucleus, and has found herself sorely lacking. She looks up at the night sky and tells Asumi she can’t handle RGB…not on her own.

However, Mari’s three meetings with the three members of RGB inadvertently bear fruit: they’ve all gathered at Itadaki…for her sake; to make GourFes a success. They snipe at each other a bit, but they still gathered at that same table they always gathered, even though Asumi isn’t there anymore. As different as they all are, and as deep as their wounds are, they still love Mari, and want to support her.

The strategy meeting itself isn’t all that productive as Mari manages to get the boys so stuff on okonomiyaki they get food comas, but it doesn’t matter. Mari managed to get RGB back together, through their stomachs. It’s then when Asumi appears before Mari as she’s washing dishes, offering her blessing going forward while also affirming how important Mari and Itadaki are to the circle of friends.

After one week, I was a little miffed that this show seemingly focused on three dudes. But this week Sakuragi Mari was the undisputed protagonist. Forget tough; Mari felt like Asumi was an impossible act to follow, but she ended up surprising herself, as much as this episode surprised me with its ability to plumb the depths of envy, love, longing, yearning, loss, grief, regret…and redemption. It didn’t feature a single moment of madcap superpower action. It didn’t need to.

Tokyo 24th Ward – 01 (First Impressions) – The Third Way

Aoi Shuuta, Suidou Kouki, and Akagi Ran were once-inseperable childhood friends, with Shuuta in particular training to one day become a “hero”. Then one horrible night the school burned down, and Kouki’s sister Asumi died saving the life of a classmate. When he most needed to be a hero, Shuuta was too late to save her.

Fast-forward a year, and RGB have graduated and gone their separate ways, only to reunite for the memorial held at the one-year anniversary of the fire. We learn Ran leads a guerilla multimedia group, standing in cheeky defiance of the cold order represented by Kouki’s wealthy businessman and politician father, the 24th Ward’s mayor. Shuuta…helps out at his folks’ bakery, but is otherwise listless.

When the three end up convening by chance at their mutual friend Mari’s for okonomiyaki, the three lads’ phones suddenly ring at the same time. It’s no ordinary call, traveling up into their ear canals and “hacking” their brains with the voice and image of the dearly departed Asumi, who tells them to “guide the future”, showing them two scenarios: allowing a runaway train to kill someone caught on the tracks, or switch the track and derail the train, killing 150 people. Classic Trolley Problem.

In an added instance of the universe being particularly cruel, the person who ends up caught on the tracks is Mari, who was taking her puppy to the vet when she got caught up in the crowds surrounding the ceremony celebrating the new fully-automated train. The pup got free and ran straight onto the tracks, and Mari loses her phone while pursuing it.

Suddenly realizing they feel lighter and tasks come easier to them, the team of RGB pools their skills and resources to avoid either of the futures not-Asumi presented, and instead create a third in which no one is hurt. Suidou, the politician’s son and intern for the 24th’s emergency service SARG, relies on his dad’s trusty underling Tsuzuragawa to track him down and give him a motorcycle so he can rush to his father and make sure he decides not to risk derailing the train.

Ran, the hacker of the trio, chugs a dozen energy drinks and manages to activate the train’s emergency brakes, which are designed to stop in 600 meters no matter what—an instance of the artist actually saluting government efficiency and rules. He’s helped by Kinako, a chipper member of his guerilla art/media team.

Finally, there’s Shuuta, who is simply extremely fast and strong; the muscle of the group. Whatever not-Asumi’s call did to them, it enhanced his already considerable athletic ability, enabling him to basically Spider-Mans/Neos his way to the train long before anyone else can. Kouki and Ran know this of their friend, and after they do everything they can, they leave the rest to him.

Shuuta is very nearly derailed form his mission himself when he’s suddenly dropped back in the middle of that hellish night when he was too late to save Asumi. But he shakes it off, accelerates ahead of the train, then kicks off and launches himself at Mari, plucking both her and her dog out of harms way. Before Mari even knows what the heck is going on, Shuuta runs off, asking her not to tell anyone he was there.

After this first heroic mission dropped in their hands by the mysterious not-Asumi, the three visit the real Asumi’s grave to pay their respects, only to end up in an argument that highlights how far apart they’ve become in the ensuing year. Shuuta wants to believe Asumi is still alive, but just saying that makes Asumi’s brother Kouki want to punch him. Ran, the artist who nevertheless isn’t about to believe in magic, agrees with Kouki; Asumi is gone. But then…what the heck was that call?

We return to the opening moments of the double-length episode, where something is going on involving the somehow-preserved brain or soul of Asumi … or something. The framing device with the strange, fantastical machinery appeals to me less than the prospect of watching three scarred old friends who couldn’t be more different come together to make their beloved 24th Ward a better place…and possibly solve the Asumi mystery. This was a strong start to an intriguing new winter series.

Rating: 4/5 Stars

Kageki Shoujo!! – 07 – The Curse of “Never”

Summer Break is upon Kouka’s hundredth class, but Ai’s version of giddiness over getting to spend it at Sarasa’s is somewhat tempered by how the semester ended: with Sarasa taking a major hit from Andou-sensei. As I suspected, perfect replication of other actors isn’t going to cut it if you’re going to be a Top Star in the Kouka Revue. This doesn’t mesh with what Sarasa learned about kabuki growing up, where succeeding generations of actors do their best to embody their predecessors as closely as possible.

But that’s Kabuki; and this is Kouka. Sarasa and Ai also get a little education on Andou-sensei and why he’s nicknamed “Phantom”, courtesy of the two top Kouka stars who happened to be seated in the row ahead of them! Apparently Andou was an esteemed actor with a musical troupe, most famous for his Phantom of the Opera, but due to a stage accident he had to retire, and decided to teach instead.

I’m glad he did, because as I said, as painful as it was to see Sarasa’s reaction and ensuing gloom, she was straying from the path to Lady Oscar, and needed a course correction. Fortunately, there’s plenty of family and friends waiting for Sarasa to take her mind off being “Sara-sad”, if only temporarily.

Ai insists on sitting formally for the duration of the gathering downstairs, even though she’s mostly ignored and suffering the agony needlessly (gramps told her to sit however she likes). Then Sarasa then goes to see her grandma at her grave, suggesting Ai can hang with the cat while she’s gone.

Of course, we know even when Sarasa and Ai don’t that it’s not just the cat waiting in her room, but Akiya. Ai, who is not good with people, comes off as curt with Akiya, who misinterprets it as intentional rudeness, but when Ai profusely apologizes and hides behind a wall, Akiya’s stance softens.

When asked about his “girlfriend” Sarasa, all he’ll tell Ai is that they were childhood friends since forever, and they took traditional dance classes together. Fortunately, we get to learn a lot more about both Sarasa and Akiya’s past, and Sarasa comes out even more amazing for having enduring what she had to endure.

Basically, the famous kabuki actor Kouzaburou was always very close to Sarasa, so much so that rumors floated around of her being his illegitimate daughter. Illegitimate or not, had she been a boy, she would have been the heir apparent to the venerable Shirakawa Kaou name…which Akiya is expected to assume instead. He’s far more loosely related, but he’s a boy.

It didn’t help matters for Akiya that while he liked Sarasa a lot for her strength and cheerfulness, she also happened to be a better natural talent than him when it came to Kabuki. Unfortunately, Sarasa was never sat down and told that grown women aren’t allowed to perform Kabuki.

That said, when another actor is ill, Sarasa is chosen to fill in during a performance of Sukeroku, since she memorized all the lines and movements (even back then, she was amazing). Young girls are allowed to perform, so there was no problem.

But while performing beside her, Akiya could tell how goddamn good Sarasa was, and how goddamn unfair it was that Sarasa’s Kabuki career would reach a harsh dead end due to tradition. After the performance, he first hears the rumor that Sarasa is related to Kouzaburou, which he shares with his mom/grandma/aunt/guardian (I forget her exact relation to him).

Tossing that pebble in the pond causes all kinds of drama, including his mom* chewing out poor Sarasa at the front door, telling her for the first time she’ll “never” be able to be something—in this case, Sukeroku. As soon as Sarasa runs off crying she’s immediately ashamed and regretful, but the damage is done.

Sarasa’s gramps comes to Kouzaburou’s house and chews him out for traumatizing Sarasa, and declares that she’ll have nothing to do with him or Kabuki ever again. That said, gramps softens considerably upon seeing a scared Akiya in the hall, and asks him if he’ll continue being Sarasa’s friend. He’s only cutting her off from Kabuki, he says.

Shortly after Sarasa stopped coming to dance classes, her grandma died, and Akiya and Kaou pay their respects from a distance. When Akiya sees Sarasa’s raw eyes, he starts to cry too…and Kaou tells him to hold on to the pain…it will make him a better actor.

Fast-forward to the present, and Akiya and Sarasa remain friends despite having been kinda-sorta rivals in the past. The rivalry never happened because the institution of Kabuki never let it. I’d say it’s for the best, since I have every confidence Sarasa will be okay in Kouka, but if ever there was going to be a first woman kabuki actor, it would be her!

After giving Sarasa her present of another bizarre figurine she’s super excited about (which is also see-through, for reasons), he also invites both Sarasa and Ai to a performance of Sukeroku he’ll be in. He already got clearance from her gramps.

That night, Ai learns about Sarasa’s performance in Sukeroku when she was only six. The two girls are transported into space as Sarasa beautifully, poetically describes what it was like being on that stage, feeling the audience like heat on her skin, feeling like the stage was a different world; feeling she had transformed into someone else.

It was clearly one of the most amazing moments of her life, making it doubly tragic that she was later deprived of pursuing a future there despite how much she loved it and how good she was. Even so, hearing Sarasa’s words makes Ai want to go see Sukeroku with Sarasa all the more, if only to catch a glimpse of the stage Sarasa once stood upon.

During the performance, Ai notices Sarasa crying, and isn’t sure whether it’s due to fond memories or “something else entirely.” Uh, why not both? From there, the episode abruptly cuts to the train platform where Sarasa and Ai are heading home. Akiya gives Sarasa some words of support and assurance from his heart.

He reminds her they’ve only just started down their paths; it’s okay to lose sight of what they want sometimes; and all they can do is keep moving forward. Sarasa still wants to play Lady Oscar, and she’s going to make it happen—”nevers” be damned!

She also wants Akiya to play Sukeroku. After a firm handshake (throwing Ai off a bit, as she assumed they’d at least hug), the two part ways, both feeling better than before they’d seen each other. They may not be a lovey-dovey couple, but they’re a couple where it matters.

Kageki Shoujo!! – 04 – Opening of Borders

I was both fully expecting and looking forward to Sarasa either scaring Mr. Stalker away with her imposing stature or showing off her jujitsu moves if he persisted. Thankfully something completely unexpected and much better happens. Truly great art tends to challenge the viewer in some way, rather than giving them what they expect or predict.

That kind of narrative and thematic creativity really suffuses this, the best episode yet of Kageki Shoujo and the one that finally had me coming around hoping there’d continue to be less actual on-stage performance and more human drama. Like last week, there are some tough-to-watch moments, but also moments of great joy, goofiness, and redemption.

Mr. Gross Otaku, one of Sarasa’s many hilarious, unintentionally insulting nicknames for the guy, didn’t come to exact “revenge” on Ai; he came to apologize for being the one who ruined her career. He was a shut-in NEET who had lost hope until he first saw Naracchi on-screen, and it fascinated him how she was trying so hard never to smile.

In one unguarded moment, Naracchi does smile, and there’s video evidence, but that little smirk at the sight of her favorite mascot shattered Mr. Gross Otaku’s hermitic existence, inspiring him to get a job and make friends (naturally, other admirers of Naracchi). At the in-person event, he was so nervous about properly thanking her for helping save his life, he held on her her hands too long, leading to her making the remark that ended her idol career.

Taichi, who had been observing from a close distance in case Mr. Gross Otaku was a Mr. Total Perv, tells the guy that it wasn’t anything personal; in fact, it was likely only the straw that broke the camel’s back. Like Otaku Guy once did, Ai has given up on the world, and it led her to shut off her emotions. And yet, running away and leaving Sarasa alone invokes very strong emotions indeed, to the point Ai works up the courage to go back.

Naturally, her timing is terrible, and when she sees Sarasa doing goofy dance moves with the would-be tormentor while Taichi watches, Ai’s concern immediately curdles into something resembling hatred, and she storms off once again. The only problem is, poor Sarasa doesn’t know what she did to engender such hate!

Sarasa is persistent, and Ai finally makes a deal: she’ll tell her why she’s mad if she leaves her alone from now on. But when she does, Sarasa still doesn’t get it: if she came back out of worry for her, she should’ve been happy she was alright! As usual, Sarasa is right, but too blunt, and Ai retreats behind her curtain. Both girls seem incredibly unsatisfied where things end.

Sarasa, understandably getting a little fed up with being treated like this, declares that they’re “through”, though later confesses that might’ve been too harsh via Twitter to her friend Akiya—whose fellow Kabuki actor-in-training is tweeting more profound responses on his behalf. He tells Sarasa not to rush until they know each other, to be prepared for her feelings to be entirely one-sided, and appreciate that that’s beautiful in its own way.

The next day, Hijiri, Kouka’s Shit-Stirrer-in-Residence, confronts Sarasa with the pic she snapped of her with a guy (Mr. Gross Otaku), but Sarasa doesn’t have any time for this nonsense, as Ai is skipping classes and Taichi is worried about where she ended up. Sure enough, while staring at the sea, Ai is harassed by a couple of guys who recognized her, and one of them grabs her arm.

I have scarcely felt more fear and apprehension for a character than I did for Ai in this moment, but that was tempered by the knowledge that somehow in short order, Ai would be rescued. I just didn’t know it would happen by Sarasa calling Mr. Gross Otaku, who predicted Ai would go to the ocean to calm down (as she once stated in an interview) then run a social media search and locate her .

From there, all Mr. Gross Otaku has to do is buy a little time by haplessly trying to attack Ai’s harassers. He fails, faceplants, and gets a bloody nose, but still wins, as Taichi and Sarasa arrive and the latter screams for the police, who come running. There are no words for Sarasa’s transformation above as she voices satisfaction for scaring off the jerks.

What’s even more heartwarming about this entire scene that lets me forgive its many contrivances—as well as the entire premise of using stalking methods to save the target of stalkers—is that at this point, Sarasa is sticking to her guns when she said they were “through.” Yet even if she’s uncertain Ai will ever want to be her friend, she rescued her anyway, because it was the right thing to do.

When Sarasa explains to Ai how they found her and the role Mr. Gross Otaku —real name Kitaouji Mikiya—played, it’s Ai’s turn to do something completely unexpected: offer her handkerchief for Mikiya’s bloody nose. During the hand-off she drops the cloth on the ground, but it wasn’t intentional or meant as a slight.

As Ai says with tears welling up in her eyes, “this is the best I can do right now.” But Mikiya, being uncharacteristically cool, tells her to dry her eyes; all he and her other fans wanted was to see those rare and amazing moments when Naracchi genuinely smiled. Because that meant their idol was happy. He promises to return to see her perform on the Kouka stage.

Ai and Sarasa take the long walk back to their dorms, where they’ll face consequences for the incidents that transpired. While they walk, Ai opens up to Sarasa, asking her what she should do about something she wants to forget but can’t (though not going into detail). All Sarasa can tell her is to keep having good memories that will eventually cause the bad to fade from prominence.

Notably, Ai can’t see Sarasa’s face when she says this, but it sounds like a new invitation to make some of those memories with her, if she’ll have her. At this point, it’s safe to say the cat-and-mouse game between these two girls will continue, but they’ve definitely already made one of those memories Sarasa speaks of, and I’m looking forward to them making more.

As for poor, Yamada Ayako, who is now purging regularly and barely has the energy to sing, all I have to say is that every one of her upperclassmen and every adult on the faculty are totally failing her, and I’m terribly worried about how bad things will get until someone helps her. It shouldn’t have to fall to someone like Sarasa and/or Ai, but if it does I won’t complain. I just want Ayako to be happy and healthy!

Kageki Shoujo!! – 03 – Toughing it Out

Ai is aloof, standoffish and antisocial, and makes it crystal clear even to a lunkhead like Sarasa that she doesn’t want to be friends with her or anyone else, despite the fact they live and learn together. Sarasa is flummoxed by this declaration, but before they properly discuss it, Ai is whisked off by her big sister, Hijiri.

This week Kageki Shoujo! takes a long, hard, and sometimes downright distressing look back at how and why Narata Ai became the way she is. She always lied about being a perfect loving daughter to her glamorous actress mother, but the lying became harder as she grew older and more beautiful.

I can’t imagine the torment of men both young and old ogling you left and right, and What a cutie being akin to Hello for her, but that’s what Ai endured. When her mother shacked up with one of those older men, that constant public torment became private. She’d always been creeped out by Seiji, but then one day he was alone wither her and kissed her with his tongue.

After such a horrific assault, Ai no longer felt safe anywhere or with anyone…except her uncle, Taichi. And thank God for Taichi, because he was at least able to give her a measure of peace and security by installing a lock on her door and giving her a key to his place should she need to run away. But before he did that, she had already been assaulted, vomited, cut her hair, and tore apart her big teddy.

Considering her interactions with men who weren’t her uncle up to the point she became an idol, it’s not surprising that one day she’d say or do something to break the façade she’d created. Now that very scruffy dude whom she called a creep at a fan event has stalked her all the way to her school. Again, Ai is fortunate Taichi isn’t far, and she runs headlong into his arms. He’s the brother and dad, the family she never had.

Taichi will always be there for his niece, but he knows she can’t go on with no friends of any gender. Kouka is a chance for her to form new bonds with peers, and Sarasa, as bombastic and annoying as she is, really is a good person who would make a great friend. Sarasa is ready to accept Ai’s rejection, but Taichi insists she keep trying with Ai.

Sarasa does so, by escorting Ai home, which leads to the scene I was hoping for: the gigantic Sarasa spreading that massive wingspan to form an impenetrable shield for Ai against the smelly stalker.

Never mind if he’s not there to “get back” at Ai like she fears, but just wanted to return her bookbag and talk to her. The fact is he had absolutely ZERO right to meet with or speak to her after following her there.

Ai may have been rude to him at the fan event, but being rude isn’t a crime, and he doesn’t get to play the victim after committing the actual crime of stalking. While it wasn’t always easy to watch, I’m glad we gained new insight into Ai’s twisted childhood and coming of age, which only makes someone like Sarasa seem more, not less, suitable to be her friend.

My only gripe is that we’ve still gotten very little actual musical theatre education in, with the exception of a brief tap class in which the teacher berated the objectively scrawny Yamada a “fattie” and all but ordered her to give up food. Fuckin’ yikes! I also wish the stalker situation had been fully resolved, instead of us being left hanging.

Even Sarasa looked a little uncomfortable confronting the guy, and no single high school girl, no matter how big or small, should have to go up against someone like that alone. I just hope that as we learned a lot about Ai, Ai also learned more about Sarasa, and how she’s someone she can lean on in times of strife.

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