Boku dake ga Inai Machi – 07

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As expected, shortly after Satoru is arrested he’s able to activate another revival (there wasn’t much he could have done in a jail cell), but despite knowing it was going to happen an infectious wave of relief still washed over me, just as it washed over Satoru upon realizing he was back in the museum with a very alive Kayo. This time he thinks out loud and means it, and starts responding to Kayo’s “Are you stupids” with “Yeah!”

This time Satoru is doing away with all pretense and restraint. If he’s suddenly acting strangely for a kid of his age to people around him, so be it. No matter what the consequences are for him, he won’t let Kayo die again…and he’s operating under the assumption this is his last revival, having already been given an unheard-of third chance.

As such, the relief soon washes away, replaced with the weight and suspense of everything he must accomplish in the next couple of days; a weight that never lets up.

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For a moment at school, I thought he was in trouble again, because I still can’t bring myself to fully trust Kenya, but again I was all but proven wrong for suspecting him of anything but the noblest of intentions. He’s simply a good enough friend to know when Satoru has completely changed.

When he asks Satoru “Who are you?”, Satoru gets to think out loud on purpose again: “A superhero.” He hopes to become one, anyway, but as far as Kenya’s concerned, he already is one, even if he doesn’t have the results yet.

I loved how Satoru’s plight is filtered through the prism of two kids talking about friends and heroes. It doesn’t feel like material that should be over the kids’ heads because we know Kenya isn’t your typical 10/11-year old, and Satoru is an adult.

Another tense scene was with Satoru at Yuuki’s place, where he probes Yuuki in preparation to give him an alibi, so that whatever happens, his life won’t be ruined by the events to come. What’s striking, and highly disturbing in its ambiguity, is Yuuki’s initial reaction to hearing that Kayo is in Satoru’s group of friends now.

This was the first time since siding with Satoru on Yuuki that I thought both of us might be being overly naive, and that Yuuki’s odd interest in Kayo could have been something going on for a while now.

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Regardless, Satoru takes Yuuki’s secondary reaction – one of joy – to mean he’s still good, so he proceeds to duck out on his birthday party to toss a rock through Yuuki’s dad’s window so that the cops will come, securing Yuuki’s alibi.

After that, Satoru spots Kayo’s mom, and seriously considers pushing her down a flight of steps to her death, but he’s stopped by Kenya, who has been following him. Kenya agreed to help him out, and he realizes he may have to get his hands dirty, but killing Kayo’s mom will only create new problems, and Satoru was too close to the situation to see that.

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From there, Satoru starts walking Kayo to her house as before, but this time, in another magical little back-and-forth, he announces his intent to “abduct” her, and she consents to let him. Satoru takes her to an abandoned bus hideout with a heater and blankets.

I understand the plan: simply keep Kayo out of the equation altogether; away from those who might kill her. But unless someone is with Kayo the entire time, it also looks like the perfect place to kill her where no one would notice. What makes it a great hideout also makes it a great grave.

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The first time she’s left alone, however, that doesn’t happen, allowing me to lower my guard just a little. She’s knitting away when Satoru calls on her, and they have a hot meal and fall asleep huddled together (something they’re embarrassed about upon being woken up by Kenya in the morning…they are kids, after all.)

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It worked for a day…but so did Satoru’s first plan. And that crushing weight I was talking about didn’t go away just because Satoru brought not just Kenya but Hiromi into the hideout. Kayo makes a neat little adjustment Satoru hadn’t though of: that she was the one who instigated all of this, thus absolving everyone involved of blame whatever may happen.

Rather than pick Satoru’s Joker, she takes an Ace to match her last card. She wins here, but the foreboding at this point is almost unbearable. I couldn’t help but wonder why the guy smirking under the umbrella in the present was so emotionally invested in Satoru’s downfall, or Yuuki’s bizarre reaction, or the ominous scenes of Yashiro noticing Kayo gone in class, then making a phone call in the faculty lounge.

It’s also just the seventh of twelve episodes, so it’s clearly not all smooth sailing form here. Sure enough, when an adult with a backpack pays a visit to the bus, not knocking the way Satoru would or saying a word, but just entering, Kayo under her blanket already looks like a body under a shroud, and the bus a cold, dark tomb.

Once again, the show mercilessly cuts to credits just before confirming that Kayo has in fact been lost to us once more. That leaves us simmering with a tiny shard of irrational hope for another week, knowing we know that hope is irrational, but not being able to let it go.

In reality, all I can realistically hope is that Satoru can engage revival and try again. Because if I put my heart aside and use my head, this isn’t going to go well for Kayo.

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Boku dake ga Inai Machi – 03

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We bear witness to some truly dark, viscerally awful events in this episode from which my heart is still hurting, but also glimmers of brightness, joy, and hope, even as a vice seems to close around an unwitting Satoru. He may be 29 in a 10-year-old’s body, but there’s still so much he doesn’t know about Kayo’s disappearance, those glimmers can’t quite cut through the gloom of his predicament, especially considering this could be it; his last chance.

He will have to do his absolute best in order to save Kayo, something he does not do when he intentionally slows and lets his athletically-superior classmate beat him in a skating race, repeating the same mistake he made the first time he lived in this time. Everyone who worships the other kid just assumes it was a close race, but had Satoru won, they would have accused him of cheating, so he took the easy way out.

This, after promising to Kayo (doing her best to cheer for him, in her way), that he’d do his best. Afterwards, when he asks what Kayo’s birthday is, she accuses him of lying to her…which he did. And Satoru must think at this time: if he repeated the skiing mistake, what else would he repeat that would doom Kayo a second time? The variables are seemingly endless.

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However, the possibilities do thankfully narrow considerably for Satoru. Kayo’s body wasn’t discovered until Spring, but she hadn’t turned 11 when she disappeared. He’s determined the day she disappears is between March 1st and her birthday, and learns her birthday is the same as his: March 2. He has eleven days to save her. Will it be enough?

He learns, by the way, by checking the ledger of his teacher, Yashiro Gaku, one of the first people other than Kayo’s mother whom I suspected of being responsible for Kayo’s disappearance. This is due to Satoru’s observation that he’s a sharp, observant guy, but also because the camera lingers on him suspiciously.

Satoru learns more about Yuuki (whom he’d also save from Death Row if he stops the kidnappings), both good and bad. Turns out he wasn’t just some unemployed kid; he worked early hours at his dad’s bento store. He also has porn, which embarasses the 10-year-old in Satoru (who seems to take over a little more while he’s hanging out with Yuuki). But having a porn stash is normal; it certainly doesn’t make Yuuki a bad person, and it’s far from evidence he’s a murderer.

But Satoru, and I, for that matter, simply was not ready for the horror of discovering a skimpily-clad Kayo laying in a shed, exposed to the elements, covered with marks from a truly vicious beating from her nightmare of a mother.

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Forget 10-year-olds; this is hard for anyone of any age with any morals to witness and allow to stand. And yet, Satoru’s body betrays him. Were he 29, he could scoop Kayo away right there and then, take her to the police and tell them what he found. But he’s a puny little kid, and the mother tosses him aside like a ragdoll. Satoru can’t do anything right now, and it sickens him.

Back “home”, Kayo’s mom proceeds to shove Kayo’s head in icy water so the swelling of the wounds will go down in time for school. There’s both desperation and cold, evil calculation in the mother’s methods; perhaps she went further than she usually does with Kayo. The “man” watching TV in the living room, rather than act like an actual man and stop this, warns Kayo’s mother to save some ice for his booze. Truly disgusting people. Kayo is in hell.

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And yet, the marks and swelling is all covered up (as much as can be, anyway) the next day. Kayo is late, but she comes to school. Most of her classmates don’t notice the marks because they’re not really looking at her. But Satoru’s gaze goes straight to the welt on her neck.

When lunch money is misplaced, one girl, Misato, immediately accuses Kayo, because she’s “poor and hungry” all the time. Kayo’s mom may be a dispicable brute and a coward, but Misato is like a larval version, attacking with caustic words that spread across the class.

Satoru isn’t having it. He shuts Misato, making her cry (oh, boo-freakin’-who–brat!), but also restores Kayo’s faith in him. Satoru was able to do something (unlike before with her mom) and he did it, without worrying about how it would cause trouble for him.

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Satoru later speaks to Yashiro-sensei, who shares his concern for Kayo’s well-being, and may now have the evidence needed to have her removed from the danger by social services. During their talk, Old Satoru thinks out loud with his 10-year-old voice, talking beyond his years, but Yashiro doesn’t seem to think anything of it, instead agreeing that up to this point social services have been incompetent.

Also, Kayo’s mom is ruthlessly meticulous when it comes to hiding the abuse and not being around when they come to inspect the home). This is one of those glimmers of hope, but not knowing if Yashiro is hiding his true colors, they’re just that; glimmers. Besides, even if Yashiro is a saint, he won’t act to save Kayo as fast as Satoru knows she has to be saved.

Made up after he defended her in class (her memory about Misato’s stupid mechanical pencil was great, as well as underlying how terribly petty kids can be), Satoru invites Kayo to join him in the mountains to see a “Christmas tree”, after she also mentioned how she once went to Misato’s house for a Christmas party and saw a great big and beautiful one; obviously, there are no holidays in Kayo’s home; only blood and despair.

Satoru lets her forget about her everyday hell for just a little while, and when a pair of red foxes circle them numerous times, it almost seemed like part of the universe was placing some kind of protection on them. As for the real icicle-decorated tree, it’s not technically a real Christmas tree (leading Kayo to use her catchphrase “are you stupid?”), the grand sight of it does produce her first big smile of the show; a rare moment of pure joy that’s wonderful to behold. Kayo really needed this, and so did I.

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Unfortunately, there’s another part of the universe that has it in for Kayo and Satoru, as it’s all but confirmed that Yashiro may be up to no good, as the final shot of the episode features a camera looking through a murky window at Yashiro with his back turned to us, backed by a foreboding musical stab.

But it might be worse than I thought: Kenya is also there, with his black turtleneck; his eyes covered in shadow, and what looks like a smirk on his face. Old Satoru did say Kenya acted beyond his years. Could he and the similarly sharp, observant Yashiro be behind the kidnappings, and like Kayo’s mother, escaped justice in the original timeline? I know, I’m assuming the worst, but the episode isn’t making it easy not to.

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Boku dake ga Inai Machi – 02

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Well, it didn’t take long for the season’s top pick to pull away from the field: Erased is the best new anime we’re watching at RABUJOI, and it isn’t really close. This week it raises the bar once more, throwing us along with Satoru back to 1988. The setting is perfectly retro, from the stoically practical structures to the efficient boxy cars.

Satoru is, naturally, quite disoriented by this latest (and by far furthest) revival, as anyone would bee if their 29-year-old consciousness suddenly found itself in the body of their 10-year-old self. The early camerawork, detached and dream-like, does a great job visualizing that disorientation.

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But once he realizes what being where and when he is means, he races home, where his mother finds him dozing on the floor, waiting for her to come home from work. I’ll admit, I was not prepared for the emotional punch of seeing Sachiko again, nor Satoru’s reaction to seeing her again. Tears fell from my eyes as they fell from his. That’s when you know you’re locked in a story.

He’s right; his mom will look pretty much the same as she does here 18 years later, and that’s some good-ass genes. But the emotional similarity ends there. The feeling of simply living with his mom in that cramped little apartment, smelling her cook dinner, and eating as a loving familial unit; he remembers it all, but now he sees it in a new light.

He now experiences this stuff through the eyes of a 29-year-old who, from his perspective, saw his mother lying dead in a pool of her own blood onl hours ago, not the 10-year-old boy she sees. As such, his good manners and loving, grateful attitude throw his mom off.

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Satoru also realizes that now he’s back in a time before Hinazuki Kayo was murdered, he can act to try to avoid that tragedy. But first things first; he has to introduce himself and become friends with her. His mates misinterpret his attention to and desire to speak with her as a crush, and manage to arrange a meeting, which goes…okay.

Satoru figures out she looks to be a bit of a handful (“this brat is a pain in the ass” was a brilliantly timed line from his inner voice), but Kayo quickly sees a bit of herself in him, specifically that they’re both “performing” to the world around them. Now, for a minute, I thought she might be aware his 29-year-old self is in there, or even be a 29-year-old herself inside.

But neither has to turn out to be true, because the fact remains: they have a connection. It’s one they might have had if Satoru had approached her the first time around. Now he has the benefit of foresight and hindsight.

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Kenya, the wisest-beyond-his-years member of Satoru’s group of friends, seems to know what his mate’s interest in Kayo is, and instructs him to read her essay in the class composition collection, a short, simple, utterly heartbreaking tale entitled “The Town Without Me” (or “The Town Where Only I am Missing”), which also happens to be the title of the show.

Had he read the essay 18 years ago, he may not have seen it for the obvious, top-of-her-lungs cry for help that it is; it’s also chillingly prophetic. But he’s not really 10, he’s 29, and now that he has a pretty good idea of Kayo’s situation, he can’t simply stand by and let her be erased a second time. Moreover, he believes saving Kayo will sufficiently alter the future to save his mother, not to mention his framing in the murder.

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So he tells his mom he’s going to have a party in the apartment with five of his friends. She only knows of his four friends, and immediately assumes the fifth is his girlfriend. But one step at a time. Satoru walks to the park where Kayo is reliably hanging out, not wanting to go home to her physically abusive mother (a harsh contrast with Sachiko).

There, Satoru tells her the truth: he does perform around others, pretending to like everybody so some of them will like him in return. She can relate, and elaborates on his thoughts by telling him she often wishes that one day, she won’t have to pretend; that the interactions will be genuine.

29-year-old Satoru can see what’s going on here: as he’s trying to hide his social awkwardness with forced affableness, she’s trying to hide her churning emotions by presenting a stoic, uncaring facade. The problem as he sees it is, a 10-year-old just isn’t strong enough to bear that burden.

Kayo needs a friend; someone who will be there to raise her spirits and restore hope that things will get better; that her suffering won’t be permanent; that she needn’t disappear from town, or from the world. Satoru wants to be that friend, and judging from their discussion and tender meeting of cold, ungloved hands, she’s open to such an arrangement.

I desperately want Satoru to suceed.

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Boku dake ga Inai Machi – 01 (First Impressions)

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Yikes, Hannah did not like Active Raid one bit; no she did not! I, on the other hand, seem to have stumbled on what could be one of the season’s top shows. It’s certainly the best so far after one episode. And it did it with a highly realistic and immersive setting; a gloomy atmosphere full of regret over things not done or unsaid; and a young man unable to progress in life, still haunted by hazy memories and mysteries of the past. Moreover, it didn’t pull its punches.

Oh yeah, and said young man, 29-year-old struggling mangaka/pizza delivery boy Fujinuma Satoru, has a power. No, he can’t defeat villains with one punch, but he does periodically, involuntarily go back a couple of minutes in time when something bad happens around him, enabling him to take action to prevent disaster.

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The reveal of that ability is the first of many jolts this episode gave me, and it’s an ability expertly demonstrated when he stops a truck from hitting a little boy in the crosswalk. Saving the boy gets him injured, and while he’s out, he remembers one of those hazy memories: a haunting image of a little girl in a red coat standing alone in the snowy night. This realm – near the “heart of his mind”, is a place he has always feared, and both his creative calling and social life are suffering as a result.

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That doesn’t mean good things don’t happen to Satoru. His selfless, heroic actions were witnessed by a cute high school girl (and his pizza joint co-worker) Katagiri Airi, who stays by his bedside, now seeing him in a new light. But Satoru doesn’t see anything more coming of such an auspicious encounter; after all, they’re not the same generation, and a lot of her “Gen-Y” sayings and doings are strange and frightening to him.

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Speaking of generations, his mother Sachiko, 52 but looking 32 (he calls her an ageless “yokai” more than once) crashes at his house for a while when he’s discharged from the hospital. This puts Satoru in yet another light, not as the intriguing senpai with the secret heroic life, but the darling son whose mother is worried about him.

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Both his mom’s presence and news of abductions on the television bring more memories to the surface, to when Satoru was a little kid and used to play with a local guy he nicknamed “Yuuki.” Something seems a little off about how Yuuki looks and talks, and sure enough, after two kids from Satoru’s class are abducted, Yuuki is arrested as the culprit and sent to prison for kidnapping and murder.

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When Sachiko and Airi cross paths, the former invites the latter to Satoru’s for dinner, and Satoru starts to suspect his mom is looking for a wife for him, taking Airi’s words about him being “a friend she respects” as a mere polite formality, and that she has no further interest in him. But I imagined, like Sachiko did, that Airi was more interested in Satoru than he thought, considering she bothered to spend so much time with him as late.

Later, as Satoru looks further into the crimes Yuuki was accused of, Sachiko gets suspicious of a person she sees out in the city, knowing the serial abduction and murder case isn’t actually closed yet. She’s always regretted withholding info from Satoru, and making him forget as much as he could about the dark events that transpired in the fifth grade.

Because Satoru knows Yuuki didn’t abduct or kill anyone. It was someone else. Further, that scene of the girl in red – Hinazuki Kayo – was the last time Satoru saw her before she disappeared. He’s blamed himself for not asking her if he could walk her home ever since.

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In any case, Sachiko never gets the chance to come clean with her son, as a mysterious assailant in a black suit enters the apartment and suddenly stabs her in the back, killing her. Now this was a huge jolt. Holy shit. Here, I had settled into this nice, warm, pleasant atmosphere with Satoru and his lovely mother and Airi and it’s all taken away with one plunge of a knife. Damn…

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The killer passes Satoru in the hall as he returns home from the bookstore, and only moments after discovering his mother inside his apartment, the neighbor sees him with blood on his hands and calls the cops. Things threaten to spiral out of control fast as Satoru—like Yuuki, AKA Shiratori Jun—looks poised to be framed. And my heart is pumping.

Just then, another blue butterfly appears – a sign another “revival” or time jump is about to occur, and all of a sudden Satoru isn’t dealing with cops in the city anymore. He’s back in Hokkaido, in the snow, and he’s gone back a little more than a couple minutes, because it’s 1988.

No doubt, Kayo is still alive, and he has a chance to do things differently. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is one hell of an enticing way to end your first episode!

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Sword Art Online II – 24 (Fin)

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SAO completed the Sleeping Knights’ mission and resolved Asuna’s family problems to my satisfaction, leaving one episode to do, well, whatever it wanted as a curtain call. Preston seemed pretty miffed that she watched so much Chaika only to get a rudely rushed finale, but I knew that wasn’t going to be the case here.

The episode opens with a barbecue at Asuna and Kirito’s cabin; an opportunity for her new friends to meet her old friends. A montage follows, showing how they go on to fight more battles and go on missions as a united super-party, along with Asuna hanging out with her friends in the real world.

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But this isn’t just a goodbye to SAO, it’s a goodbye for Yuuki as well, who takes a turn for the worst. There’s nothing out of left field about this, though Asuna is still distraught that so soon after meeting Yuuki the universe means to rip her away.

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The Yuuki of the real world is too weak to talk, so Asuna grabs an Amusphere and meets her where they first met, on the isle with the great tree. Seeing the hale, healthy, and alert Yuuki there is a sight for sore eyes, but we know it won’t last long. This is her last full dive, and this time when she logs out, she won’t be waking up.

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There’s not much to say about Yuuki’s sendoff, except that it was pretty much perfectly done. Yes, it got pretty mushy there (even my roommate, who was watching SAO for the first time, teared up a little bit) but the emotions that let loose here were earned a long time ago. Asuna summons not only the other Sleeping Knights to say goodbye to Yuuki properly, but hundreds if not thousands of fellow players gather to pray for her safe journey to the hereafter, a fitting farewell to the finest swordsperson in the game.

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Yuuki could not have imagined a better way to go either; surrounded by friends and admirees alike; closing her eyes for the last time in the arms of someone she’s come to love like a sister. At her memorial service in the real world, those same masses from the game come to pay their respects, and Asuna is surprised to be able to meet Siune (An Si-eun), who took a turn for the better when her leukemia went into full remission not long after saying goodbye to Yuuki.

She also reports that at least one other Sleeping Knight seems to be on the mend as well. These aren’t taken as miracles endowed upon them by the departed Yuuki, but her love and strength, as well as Asuna’s, obviously helped their spirits and mindsets. And it’s understood that not all of the Knights will get better.

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Asuna also learns that Kirito knows Kurahashi too, and Kurahashi tells them that the original designs that led to the creation of the medical full-dive technology that’s now in development (and vastly helped by Yuuki’s cooperation in her last days) were created by none other than the late Kayaba Akihito AKA Heathcliff, the creator of SAO; an interesting (if sudden and oddly-timed) callback.

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We close with Asuna and Kirito enjoying a picnic with Sugu, Shino, Klein and the others in a park in Shinjuku. Yui is on Asuna’s shoulder, with eyes and ears to the real world, and probably more in the near future. Kirito and Asuna reiterate their desire to never leave each others’ sides, and as long as she keeps her grades up, she’ll be able to honor that desire. So Kirito…where’s the ring?

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Sword Art Online II – 23

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With the Sleeping Knight’s final victory sealed and her friendship with Yuuki forged and galvanized, Asuna still has a battle to fight; one that will define the rest of her life. And yet, here she is, setting her own problems aside and working feverishly with Kirito to help Yuuki ‘come to school’ via a remote-controlled A/V interface. It cannot be said enough: Asuna is The Best.

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It occurs to me that this like the first time in the whole two-season run of the anime (that I can remember anyway) where we sit down with Asuna’s class and just go through the normal school motions, without any other distractions (the virtual Yuuki on Asuna’s shoulder excepted). That, and the almost eerie, dreamlike way the classroom is lit, along with the enthusiasm of the class itself, gives this ordinarily mundane scene so much more weight and significance.

We’re seeing things, like Yuuki, for the first time. The cut to Yuuki in the school uniform as she gives a tremendously moving reading of “The Truck” — a story that starts with somebody looking from afar at something and wishing they could be there — so beautiful. I’m not surprised the class is enthralled by the reading, and Asuna, who can hear Yuuki’s experiences and feelings beyond the words of the book, even gets teary-eyed, as did I.

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Beautiful, contemplative, and tremendously moving — all are great adjectives to describe this episode, which I think is SAO’s best ever, despite not having one sword in it and only spending a small portion of its time in the virtual world. The first half of the episode is all about Asuna showing Yuuki both the world as it is that she’d never seen, and her life that was, in her hometown and abandoned family home.

Their entire walk, like the school scene, is filmed and lit extra-beautifully so as to underscore what a special occasion it is for Yuuki. Asuna (and Kirito) literally gave her the ability to exist in the real world again, if only in a limited way. Asuna doesn’t know it, but she’s about to be rewarded for her immense kindness.

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Yuuki talks about her mother, and how being here and now finally allows her to understand what her mother meant when she said: “God does not give us more suffering than we can bear”. She thought at first it was only another recited bible verse, but realized that her mother was surrounding and infusing those words with her own feelings and experience, as Yuuki herself did with her class reading.

Asuna tells Yuuki about own problems with her mother, and Yuuki gives her the advice she needs, borne out of the experience Asuna made possible for her, and burnished by the fact that every day Yuuki lives—be it in the real or virtual world—is to be treasured, and not wasted hiding one’s true feelings, or running away.

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Again, look how dark the room Asuna’s mother Kyouko is sitting in when she comes to her that night. They have been talking at each other rather than actually communicating, and the darkness represents their present impasse. Yet SAO II is smart and I daresay bold considering its past problems with bad guys to not portray Kyouko as just another unreasonable, irredeemable villain to be defeated and shamed.

There is hope for Asuna to connect with her mother; she just needs to figure out how to get her feelings to reach her, and how to reach her mom’s feelings as well. It’s clear to her that that can’t be done in the real world, face-to-face. Instead, she brings her mother a headset and begs her to join her in the virtual world so she can say what she has to say properly.

The office is dark, but it is also warm. There’s still hope and love in there somewhere.

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Kyouko, always driving the hard bargain, grudgingly agrees, but only for five minutes, and Asuna must first understand that she won’t be changing her mind about her having to transfer. She also demands Asuna fill out the necessary paperwork as soon as her five minutes are up.

The scene when Asuna logs in and finds Kyouko in her cabin, checking out the Sylph sub-account avatar Asuna assigned to her, is just so funny and charming, particularly when she and Asuna get in a little mini-spat about each others’ weights, which is such a mom-daughter thing to do…especially if both are lookers, which they are.

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The cabin is oddly cool in color and lighting, but like the school, the change gives what had been a routine locale for Asuna and Kirito’s crew much more of a sense of occasion and ‘special-ness’, because her mom is there for the first time. When she opens the window and the cold hush of the snowy forest fills the speakers, things get even more immersive.

Then we learn another reason why the cabin has so much sentimental value to Asuna, beyond her time there with Kirito and the others: it’s not at all unlike the real world cabin where Asuna’s grandparents – Kyouko’s parents – used to live. And one Obon when Asuna was there with them alone, and they told her how much their daughter Kyouko was a treasure to them, rising so fast and touching so many lives as a result of working so tirelessly to become great.

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Here, in that cabin, Asuna can tell her mother that while there’s nothing particularly wrong with putting the betterment of oneself above all else, it can’t be her way of life. She wants to support others, protect them, and improve their lives, while improving her own in the process. I’m not putting it nearly as eloquently or beautifully as Asuna, obviously, but it was a phenomenal exchange, perhaps one of the best in the show’s run.

T_T *Sniffle*…oh gosh, it’s so dusty in here. Does anyone have any Kleenex?

Heck, even Asuna’s mom tears up…a lot. While in the real world she can stifle her tears with her ‘armor’; here she can’t, and they come flowing out from the power of Asuna’s words. Her mom’s response to this: “What an inconvenient world”, is just such a perfect thing her character would say under such circumstances. Just one of so many great lines in this episode.

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The next morning, to Asuna’s relief, the dining room is full of light; her words and feelings reached her mother, no matter how stiff and stern she looks sitting there. She lauds her daughter’s desire to help and support others, but insists she do what is necessary to become strong enough to do that stuff, which means studying her fanny off, keeping her grades up, and getting into university.

If she can do those things, it’s fine for her to stay in the school she wants. It’s a transaction, a comrpomise; but it’s one arranged after the two parties had properly communicated, not one foisted upon the other, and so it’s one Asuna can live with.

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Aww, just look how goshdarn happy Asuna is. And she deserves it. She didn’t trick her mother or plunge a sword through her heart; she merely found a way to get what she needed to say through to her. That way was the virtual world, but in this case its trappings were that of Asuna’s memories and emotions, and not a wholly artificial fantasy world. SAO wasn’t just a game because lives were at stake; here Asuna uses ALO to fight for her life in a very different way, but it’s just as vital. And it’s all thanks to Yuuki’s moving, motivating words.

It’s a far better resolution to her conflict with her mother than I could have possibly hoped for. The writing really has soared in the Rosario Arc, as has the emotional resonance. This episode didn’t have a single sword fight or magic spell or crotch shot. Instead, it kept its characters shining even in the midst of considerable plot movements; and it moved me to tears more than once (though I’m told I’m a bit of a crybaby). For those reasons and far more, it is SAO’s best episode and masterpiece.

10_bravRABUJOI World Heritage List

Sword Art Online II – 22

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Asuna is troubled and confused after Yuuki suddenly disappeared and didn’t come back, and Siune doesn’t make things better by meeting with her and not answering any questions before quickly logging out herself. She did assure Asuna that it wasn’t because of anything she did…just that this has to be goodbye.

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While it would have continued her own dependence and time spent using a device her mother has threatened to take away if it makes her late one more time, Asuna was still excited at the possibility of continuing her friendship with the Sleeping Knights, even after they disbanded. But all the while she thought she was opening a book, they recruited her with the intent of closing a book, at the time and in at way of their choosing.

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Thanks to Kirito’s involvement with full-dive tech, he finds out where Asuna may be able to find Yuuki. Again, Kirito plays a small but crucial role, not only being a shoulder to lean into, but the source of the information that could give Asuna the answers she desires so badly. But unlike the previous episodes, where there was a battle to be fought and victory was achieved, those answers show Asuna that Yuuki can’t win the real-world battle she’s fighting.

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Now I finally understand why Kirito thought there was something “long-term full divey” about Zekken/Yuuki. Reinforcing the idea that you truly know someone by fighting them, he saw the same tendencies he himself has in VR combat as a result of his two years there fighting for his life. The real Konno Yuuki has been in full dive continuously for three years, because in the real world she’s bedridden in a hospital clean room, suffering from incurable, drug-resistant AIDS.

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The reveal of the rail-thin Yuuki surrounded by machinery, as well as the tragic story of how she ended up there, is desperately sad and tough to watch, yet also calls to mind the kind of reveal a mad scientist-type villain would pull to show Asuna he means business. Refreshingly, that isn’t the case here; Dr. Kurahashi is a good man and this is simply the future of medicine, though it’s more than a little strange and frightening to contemporary eyes.

On the other hand, considering Yuuki’s irreversible condition, being able to escape the body that failed her to new virtual worlds is a tremendous gift, and that’s how Yuuki sees it and how she saw her time with Yuuki on the Sleeping Knights’ final mission.

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Throughout Kurahashi’s discussion with Asuna, Yuuki is listening, but once she sees Asuna only wants to see and talk to her again, she invites her to dive into ALO to meet her. There, she explains that the Sleeping Knights are all hospice patients (hence the ‘sleeping’) with terminal illnesses. They decided as a group that the next time two of them were told they didn’t have long to live, they’d disband.

Thanks to Asuna, they were able to do so on their terms, and even leave their mark on the memorial wall. They wanted Asuna to forget them to spare her the pain of knowing the sad truth of the Knights, but Asuna isn’t that kind of person, and Yuuki knows that now.

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It was great enough that SAO finally got around to using my favorite character, and give her something important and exciting to do. It’s even better that they gave Asuna something she couldn’t do, no matter how strong she became: save Yuuki’s life. It also puts into perspective just how trivial her own problems with her mother and her life direction really are. After all, she haslife ahead of her, period. That alone makes her blessed.

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But while Asuna can’t save Yuuki’s life, she asks her what else she wants to do before it ends. When Yuuki says she simply would like to go to school, suddenly Asuna has something she can do for her, for the same reason she was able to find and speak with Yuuki at all this week. Kirito. His research on trying to give Yui a real-world experience could be used to let Yuuki experience school.

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Sword Art Online II – 21

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Much to my relief, this doesn’t turn into The Kirito Show just because he showed up at the end of last week’s episode. Heck, he’s not even the only guy who shows up; Klein does too. They’re only there to let Asuna and the Sleeping Knights focus on defeating the twenty people blocking the boss room. And that’s it.

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Kirito estimates he can give them three minutes; the Knights only need two ( I counted). After those two minutes of awesome, blistering battle, punctuated by a powerful charge by the Berserk Healer herself, the way is open for the boss, and Kirito stays behind, giving Asuna the victory sign.

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Facing the montrous two-headed boss for the second time, Asuna notices a special guard stance he takes whenever a gem between his two necks is hit. Asuna focuses on that gem and tells Yuuki to target it, which she does by using one of her male comrades as a step stool. In the heat of the battle, Yuuki slips up and calls Asuna ‘Sis’. That’s no surprise to me, but Asuna finds it odd.

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She shrugs it off when the boss is defeated and the Knights revel in their victory, rubbing it in the faces of the dastardly rival guild. Kirito is nowhere to be found, I guess he split after those three minutes. But as has been the case with him this entire arc, we’re just fine with him being a cameo.

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Kirito doesn’t even crash the Sleeping Knight’s party, which Asuna hosts, even though it’s held in his house. Classy move on his part, as the party is for the Knights, after all. During the party, Asuna asks if she can join them, but Yuuki seems oddly put off by the request. Sinue seems to want to say something, but never manages to. Changing the subject, Asuna suggests they check out their names on the Soldier’s Memorial.

There, Yuuki again slips up and calls Asuna ‘Sis’, but this time realizes it, and promptly and tearfully logs out. Throughout the boss battle and celebrations that followed, the idea that Asuna’s mom would pull the plug on her again was always in the corner of my mind, lending an extra layer of tension to the whole episode.

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Yet, in the end, it’s Yuuki, who has been sold as Asuna’s secret sister (or half-sister), who disappears from the game, without so much as an explanation. Why doesn’t she want Asuna learn the truth? How did Asuna play so long without getting yanked? Will they ever meet in the real world? All questions I’m hoping will be further explored in the next episode, forebodingly called “Journey’s End.”

Until then, I continue to revel in this Asuna-centric, and really Women-centric arc, really turning around what had been a lackluster SAO II Fall cour simply by treating its female characters as more than just Kirito’s suitors.

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Sword Art Online II – 20

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Asuna’s takeover of SAO II continues this week, much to my approval. When Zekken Yuuki whisks her off, I was partially expecting something more sinister than a guild of friends wanting to make memories before they have to split ways in the Spring, but it still worked incredibly well, because, Asuna was the anchor.

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Yuuki was dueling people in search of a seventh member to join the six of the Sleeping Knights – the smallest party allowed to fight a boss, and she chose Asuna to be that seventh. It’s while hanging with them that she realizes “Hey, this isn’t Aincrad anymore. My life isn’t literally at risk; I can let my hair down, go all out, and have fun!” It’s a liberating feeling.

I like the idea of this Asuna-for-hire. With her skills, exp, and rep, she can basically get work wherever and whenever she wants in ALOIt’s a similar situation in the real world in that she has the ability to be and be with whoever she wants…only in the real world, others are calling the shots for her.

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That point is made clear with the subtlety of a sledgehammer when, still beaming after meeting her new friends and agreeing to fight with them, her mom literally pulls the plug, because Asuna is hella late for dinner. It’s telling that its hard for Mom to wake her up gently, almost as if Asuna’s subconscious self doesn’t want to leave.

Pulling the plug is the only way to pull her out. Her mom is annoyed, but she’s also concerned about Asuna’s priorities, and her continued reliance on a device that stole two valuable years of her life. Still disoriented from being pulled out so roughly, “This isn’t like the NerveGear,” is all Asuna can muster. That distinction means nothing to Mom, but a multitude to us, knowing what she went through. What Mom can’t grasp is that for two years, Aincrad was her daughter’s reality.

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Depriving her of ALO, especially right now when she’d finding herself again, is to deprive her of the means to heal the psychological wounds of the NerveGear, and transition to the mindset mentioned above, that it is just a game, not life and death. Coming to grips with that and making that her new normal is a large step in re-establishing the real world as her primary reality.

Even if her mom was in the mood to listen, Asuna lacks the means to properly explain why she needs this; their experience gap is just too wide. And if Asuna’s late for dinner again, Mom is taking the machine away, period. Asuna is trapped again, and runs out of the house. Looking at her missed calls, a snowflake settles on Kirito, the boy her mother won’t let her have.

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But Asuna, to her credit, doesn’t call Kirito. The next day, she dives into ALO, meets with Yuuki and the Sleeping Knights, and go over the gameplan: they’ll hit the labyrinth and look in on the boss, and if the conditions are right, they’ll have a go at him too. She’d never betray it to her new friends, but Asuna may benefit from a quick mission here, as she’s not sure when that plug will be pulled at any time.

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The strong and balanced Sleeping Knights end up impressing Asuna with how quickly they carve through the labyrinth, but her skills come in handy early when she detects scouts from a rival guild spying on them behind shrouds of invisibility. Interestingly, though the boss makes a badass entrance, we don’t see the fight at all, but they end up losing badly.

That feels like a cheat until Asuna takes the group aside and warns them that their battle was watched by the rival scouts’ lizard familiar, which explains why their last two boss losses resulted in that boss being defeated quickly soon after. The Sleeping Knights are so into the fights, they never noticed they were doing all the heavy lifting revealing the weaknesses to their rivals. Pretty dastardly, isn’t it?

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Asuna, again taking charge, cheers the group by saying it’s not too late to avoid a third theft of their rightful glory: if they hit the dungeon and defeat the boss before the rival guild can mobilize, they’ll their names carved on the memorial wall after all.

When they return to the boss, the partially-amassed rival guild blocks their way and won’t budge. From Yuuki’s perspective, there’s only one thing for it: fighting them. She walks up to the biggest, toughest member of their guild and takes him out in three blinks of an eye. It’s a nice reminder of just how tough this girl is.

In the process, Yuuki tells Asuna “some things can only be understood through fighting”,  and suddenly Asuna thinks of her protracted battle with her mother in the real world. Because words are the only weapon she can use out there, her Mom will never truly understand her.

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That’s not to mean she and her mom need to go have at it in the dojo, of course, but it does explain their impasse. Also, there are other kinds of fighting. I’m also mindful of the fact that Asuna’s mom is out there and doesn’t understand her, but someone who is probably her sister (she’s not called Yuuki for nothing) is in here, and does.

Yuuki’s words galvanize Asuna, such that even when the rival guild’s reinforcements arrive and prepare a pincer attack, and they’re outnumbered dozens to one, Asuna is not fearful. She puts her wand away, draws her sword, and gets ready to rumble. This is where she wants to be, right here and now: fighting beside her new friends. Even if they lose this battle — and they’re probably going to lose this battle — they’ll dust themselves off, come back, and win next time.

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Really the only thing that would make this better for her is if she were having this battle with people closer to her, like, say…this guy. Oh, hey, there he is, right on cue, hiding among the ranks of the charging rival guild members, Yui perched on his shoulder.

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Don’t be mistaken: Kirito isn’t here to rescue the Damsel in Distress and fight so she doesn’t have to…not this time. This time he’s here simply to even the very uneven odds in her present battle. He’ll take on one part of the rival host, while she and the Sleeping Knights can push through the other and fight the boss.

Because of the distinction in how he’s he’s utilized here, I’m not miffed in the least by his presence. It’s a good use for Kirito at a good time. Just being there reminds Asuna that she isn’t alone, those she loves have her back, and her own battles aren’t over and lost yet, either in here or out in the world.

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Sword Art Online II – 19

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It took until just five episodes left in the damn show, but SAO II finally delivered something I’ve been yearning for since the second season was announced: an episode with Asuna as the focus, doing things. While part of me is content we got an episode like this at all, I’m pleased to report that it was a damned fine episode in its own right.

By now we’re well aware of the inner turmoil Kirito, Asuna, and the others carry with them, even though only Kirito has gotten that much screen time to explore it (as well as Sinon, whose turmoil came from the real world, not the game). What we haven’t seen is much of Asuna’s struggles with that turmoil, and just how cold and uncaring her family is to her situation.

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Asuna leaves her very cold bedroom to the huge, stodgy dining room where her mother scolds her for not being five minutes early for dinner. The dinner starts off relatively innocuous until Asuna realizes her mother is using this opportunity to tell her she plans to marry her to a countryside banker and move her to a better school so she can start college early.

This dynamic works because while Asuna’s mom is basically the villain here, she’s decidedly not evil, only cold and pragmatic: she didn’t come from money, but married into it, and she’s determined to make sure Asuna avails herself of the opportunities she’s been given in life.

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And that’s all well and good…if ignoring the fact that Asuna “one of those children who spent two years killing each other.” Her mom’s phrasing seems to be designed to underplay just how traumatizing the experience is, and shrug it off as an unfortunate inconvenience, but she can’t just wave away the emotional scars, nor the bond she formed with Kirito. Her mom’s checked into him as well (again, devaluing him by calling him a child), and forbids her to choose him as her mate.

When Asuna questions her judgment after subjecting her to the criminal Sugou as her first betrothed, her mom dismisses that as her father’s choice, not hers. Asuna is forced to retreat, but not before tossing that dig about her mom being ashamed of being from poorer parents.

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Asuna doesn’t want the path that’s been laid out for her; it’s a path laid out by parents who may on some level care about her happiness, but are forcing their own definition of happiness upon her, “for her own good.” It’s pretty tough love, and unlike Kirito, whose family situation is just peachy (aside from his sister briefly being in love with him), it’s made diving into ALO a kind of emergency release for Asuna. With the weight of the world and her parents’ expectations bearing down on her, ALO is where she has strength and agency.

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Yet even in the virtual world, Asuna admits she hasn’t done much and is worried the Lightning Flash Asuna of yore is gone, along with her innocence. Fighting Zekken — whom she’s surprised to find is a girl — is a way of validating whether she’s still “got it”, which in turn could give her more strength to face her problems in the real world.

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Zekken is a perfectly nice, polite young lady, but the surprise of her gender throws Asuna off at first – as does her ridiculous speed.

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Taking a step back and another deep breath, Asuna realigns her resolve, remembering why she’s there: not just to prove she’s still a power in ALO, but to blow off some steam. The difference in the two halves of the fight are like night and day; in the latter half, Asuna goes all out and is able to keep up…

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…Right up until Zekken turns it up and breaks out her overpowered, almost-cheating special skill. At this point, while Asuna’s resigned to losing, she’s not upset by her performance; it was a duel she can look back upon with satisfaction. Then, at the last second, Zekken holds back her blade and ends the fight. It turns out she wasn’t necessarily looking to win the duel either…only test her opponent. And Asuna passed.

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Before the duel, Kirito confided in Asuna that he thought something was fishy about Zekken, as if she were a “product of the full-dive environment.” I don’t understand that term any more than Asuna, but it is an unsubtle hint that there’s more to Zekken than just a duel-loving heavy user. The fact her player name is “Yuuki”, Asuna’s last name, is also telling.

Kirito’s suspicions are confirmed when Yuuki flies Asuna up into the sky to formally ask her to “please help [them],” meaning whatever Yuuki is, there’s more than one of her, and as powerful as she is, their duel impressed her enough to believe Asuna could be of help. And I’m sure that notion alone raised Asuna’s spirits considerably. This episode sure raised mine!

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Sket Dance – 56

Switch attends every Momoka concert he can, but never tells her. She spots him while she’s leaving a venue after a show, and pays the Sket-dan a visit on a day off hoping to see him, but he’s gone to Akiba to buy parts for his broken PC. While returning home, he’s bumped by a passerby and his laptop also breaks. Reduced to body language and writing out what he wants to say, he promises Yuuki he’ll get her Momoka’s autograph. Momoka lets him backstage, where he takes down a rabid fan. Momoka tells him she knows he’s been to many shows, but he ‘says’ nothing more than he’s a fan. He gets her autograph, and in exchange, she gets his sketchbook.

It’s been some time since Switch had an episode dedicated pretty much just to him, or in this case, him and Momoka. They’ve always been friends, but for whatever reason his frequenting Momoka’s shows has left her wondering if there’s anything more they could be. And in true Switch fashion, there isn’t. It would seem he’s not interested in a girlfriend – only an admiree in Momoka, or a rival in Yuuki. Romance just isn’t for him, it seems. Either that, or perhaps the same reason he won’t talk is the same reason he will never fully open up to anyone – because he blames himself for his bro’s untimely death.

Regardless, Switch and Momoka’s relationship is nice and nuanced: a mutual respect and concern for one another, bourne out of all of their past dealings, and his helping her out, not just as a member of the Sket-dan, but as a friend. It’s a credit to the show that characters can pop in and out of the Sket trio’s lives and have normal, natural encounters, not just ridiculous comic escapades (though those are often good too). And that’s not to say this episode had no comedy; Switch milked his pad-writing for all it was worth, including telling off a stalker and (perhaps unintentionally) making Momoka believe he was writing her a confession.


Rating: 3.5

 

Sket Dance – 54

When Himeko goes to have her fortune told by Yuuki, Bossun, Switch and Saaya tag along, and learn that Yuuki is selling cheap talismans for her divination mentor, the famous Minakami Himiko. They confront Minakami in person, who challenges Bossun to a fortune-reading in front of a seminar of her followers. Bossun leaves the strategy to Switch.

When the date arrives, and Minakami refutes Switch’s claims that she’s fraudulent, then correctly decribes Bossun’s past, including the realization he has a twin. However, Bossun is actually Tsubaki in disguise. The student council discovered she’d sent her men to investigate Bossun prior to the telling, and she is exposed as a fraud.

It’s an almost Scooby-Doo type episode this week, as the meddling schoolkids go up against a powerful, haughty old fortuneteller who resembles a well-fed Cruella De Vil with a butch haircut. But it isn’t just an arbitrary challenge: Switch thinks Yuuki’s taking-in of all the woman’s BS will dull her as a sparring partner, and he feels it’s his responsibility to prove to Yuuki that her mentor is no good.

Switch deftly explains how Minakami employs the Barnum effect and both cold and hot reading to make her subjects believe she’s reading their aura. Using Tsubaki was a clever twist. The resulting showdown at her seminar makes for an entertaining show, especially if I was a spectator not expecting Minakami to be so thoroughly and publically debunked. This episode also continues the idea that Saaya actually likes Bossun, but because she’s a tsundere, nothing will ever come of it.


Rating: 3.5

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This week’s a field trip, with Himeko and Bossun bumping into each other in the city, then spotting Switch on what initially looks like a date with Yuuki, the plain, pallid, Ring-like occult chick. It turns out he’s coming with her to pick out a computer, but it soon evolves into much more than that.

I really enjoyed their philosophical banter. These two are definitely intellectual rivals who are more alike than different; they’re simply dedicated to opposite ends of the human condition, namely the supernatural and the scientific. When they bump into a former classmate of hers, it’s learned that back before she was so involved with the occult, she confessed to him and got shot down because she was “scary-looking.” Switch’s cosmetic advice to her is similarly amusing.

They’re at a department store, so they avail themselves of the available services, and tarts her up. The transformation is striking, and the fact she still sounds the same and walks with the worst posture in the world is hilarious. I must say I definitely enjoyed virtually a whole episode dedicated to Switch and Yuuki; they really bring out the best in each other. The fresh setting brought back memories of Tokyo’s massive department stores that sell just about everything.


Rating: 3