The Faraway Paladin episode 9

Ethelbald

Rating: 3.5 (of 5)

Apparently, I have been doing it wrong all these years in fantasy RPGs. The correct way to bring down a wyvern is not to use arrows or a sword or attack spells; it’s to wrestle it to the ground and break its neck bare-handed.

Granted, that’s not a feat that a typical fantasy RPG paladin can even pull off, even if I have seen something like this done once. (Many years ago, I participated in a game where a high-level fighter managed to successfully grapple a red dragon thanks to magical buffs and an insanely customized skill set.) That William does not seem to appreciate how awed everyone else is by him being able to pull off this feat is rather amusing, but basking in the limelight was clearly not his style in his previous life and that has not changed here. Or is part of it that he just does not realize how extraordinary his abilities are? Yes, this is a common feature of isekai power fantasies, but it feels less eye-rolling here. Also, seeing Will team up with Menel to take the wyvern down was a real treat.

Up to that point, the episode was mostly just about William’s first encounter with large-scale civilization and the appreciation that he quickly develops for it as he goes around with Robin, Tonio, and Menel. That further entrenches his motivation for stepping up to defend the civilization he cherishes against the wyvern (not that he probably needed any additional motivation), but it also allows the series to showcase how deeply entrenched magic is in supporting day-to-day life in more developed areas, whether it be the magical streetlights or the magical baths/saunas. The use of a test to determine is someone is a charlatan or has a legitimate divine Blessing is an entirely reasonable practice in a setting where divine power is real, though I did find it very interesting that the stuffy head priest took William’s words as proof of his legitimacy; perhaps the way William said it is a callback to old knowledge that an untrained person would not have?

The other interesting aspect is William’s meeting with Ethelbald, the leader of Southmark. This was fully expected based on his name being brought up last episode and his presence in the opener, but it was still interesting to watch how Menel automatically positioned himself like Will’s escort upon seeing Ethelbald being with soldiers doing the same. I always appreciate in series when effective leaders are shown being quick-witted and cagey, and the production does a good job with that here. Ethelbald has every reason to be wary of someone of Will’s talents appearing on the scene and whether Will’s very real modesty is disingenuous, so the probing seemed fitting. The real question here is whether Will fully appreciates the implication of what he proposed to Ethelbald: a leader could easily take that request as an aspiration to make the fringe lands a veritable fiefdom. In that vein, Ethelbald’s statement at the end of the episode comes off more as another probe – to see how Will reacts – rather than an actual threat. (Especially since it may not be within his capability to kill Will anyway.) I suspect that Will will understand that, but will Menel as well?

The one thing which bother me a bit about this episode is the scaling of Robin in some perspective shots. They are making her look like she is well less than 3 feet tall – IOW, short even by widely-accepted halfling standards. Otherwise this was another solid, if unspectacular, episode.

Sword Art Online Progressive: Aria of a Starless Night

Rating:  4.5

In 2012, the anime series Sword Art Online debuted. Despite nitpicking about its shaky logical foundations, the compelling dual gimmicks of its premise – players  trapped in a VR MMO game, actions taken there have real-life life-or-death consequences – won out and turned the series into an immediate smash hit. That began one of the most enduringly popular franchises of the 2010s, despite the flawed nature of the source novel: it had big story gaps, was too much of a raw power fantasy for some tastes, and regularly violated its setting’s own rules for purpose of dramatic license. The anime series improved the story gap problem by including side stories from a second novel which greatly filled out the initial Aincrad arc, but even then, the story was not as robust as it could be. Writer Reki Kawahara recognized that, and so produced the Sword Art Online Progressive novelseries, a revision from the very beginning specifically designed to flesh the story out a lot more. This movie adapts the entirety of the first Progressive novel while also revising and updating the story even further. The result is a triumph which thoroughly satisfied this franchise fan, even if I didn’t feel that everything it tried completely worked.

The original Aincrad arc was told mostly from the point of view of Kirito, which too often resulted in Asuna’s potential strength as a character getting downplayed. Though advertised as a veritable co-lead, she rarely got to show what she could do without Kirito at her side; in fact, she appeared in only maybe one scene in the entire Aincrad arc where Kirito was not also present, and she was not even the focus character in that scene. (Both Silica and Lizbeth got more feature solo treatment than she did, and they only appeared briefly outside of their feature episodes.) The first Progressive novel partially remedies this by telling some scenes from Asuna’s viewpoint, but the movie takes that a step further by making Asuna the nearly exclusive viewpoint character. This is a wonderful development for dedicated Asuna fans like me, and she once again proves how well she can hold her own in the spotlight.

Peeks into Asuna’s background (which come in the later Mother’s Rosario arc) showed that Asuna was a girl who seemed perfect on the outside but was not in the slightest in control of her life. In fact, trying out her brother’s NerveGear was one of the rare impulsive acts she made entirely of her own will. Sadly, the fateful irony of that is not explored here, but even in SAO she still starts out being led around, protected, and coached by a friend from school. The movie shows how it took a combination of a betrayal by that friend and initial encounters with Kirito for her to find her inner strength – first to die on her own terms and, later, to stand and fight for survival. In the TV series, Asuna dazzled visually when her cloak comes off during the battle against Illfang, but in this version of the scene she dazzles just as much with her commanding presence and spirit, in addition to playing a bigger role in the battle. That she would eventually become the subleader of Aincrad’s leading guild and a driving force behind the effort to clear the game is far more credible after seeing her here. Perhaps most importantly, this also shows that her decision to stick with Kirito even after he declared himself a “beater” (a major change from both the original novel and TV series) is in character for her without any “protagonist gets the girl” contrivances, as she is finally deciding something for herself. This and other scenes here (some from the second episode of the TV series, some not) also lay a much firmer and more convincing foundation for her later romance with Kirito.

The biggest addition is the introduction of Rit, a girl in Aincrad who was Asuna’s classmate, chief academic rival, and closet friend in the real world. (“Closet” in the sense that the two conspicuously only hung around together when Asuna’s other classmates were not around.) In the novel and manga versions, Asuna learned about the game through diligent study after holing up in a room for a few days after Kayaba’s announcement, but here Rit serves that purpose. Rit is both a gamer in general – something which distances her from other girls – and an SAO beta tester specifically, and I did appreciate the beta tester aspect being more than just window dressing. The story does not necessarily need her, and at times tries too hard to force her into established scenes, but she is used effectively, including offering some yuri baiting (many signs point to her being interested in Asuna) and getting some of the most difficult emotional scenes as she must deal with the circumstances that eventually split her from Asuna. Kirito, on the other hand, is relegated to a major supporting role, but seeing him from an outside view is interesting, especially the way he acts towards Asuna during their first meeting. Many other important characters get at least brief cameos, including Argo and one other whose name escapes me but who will be important later in the Progressive adaptations.

The technical merits certainly show off the advance of nearly a decade and a movie-level budget, with recreated scenes looking distinctly sharper this time around; the battle against Illfang in particular shines anew, but the depiction of sword skills in action also looks crisper. Base animation quality in general is also much stronger, and the scenery is as sharp as ever. The musical score leans heavily on themes from the TV series, with a few new additions and a solid closer by LiSa. Only a subtitled version was available at this time; I will update this entry when a dubbed version becomes available.

While established fans will probably get more out of this movie, Aria on a Starless Night is a reasonable entry point to the franchise, as it does start the story from the very beginning. For established fans, it makes an excellent complement to the first two episodes of the first series, and one that I look forward to watching again in dubbed form.

The Faraway Paladin episode 8

Robina “Bee” Goodfellow

Rating: 3.5

As Will has begun his journey, his knowledge of the world has steadily expanded. With the meeting of additional traveling companions, it jumps forward in leaps and bounds. In a meta sense, this is the most important development in this episode, though if you were to ask Will, another discovery is far more valuable to him.

But first, the two characters most prominently featured in the opener who have not appeared yet make their introductions. Robina Goodfellow – aka “Bee” – is a shining ball of raw energy who embodies the very essence of what a halfing bard should be in an RPG-grounded fantasy tale. Her enthusiasm is infectious, and she will be a welcome regular addition to a cast that is otherwise much more mild-mannered. Tonio, on the other hand, represents a more stable maturity as a merchant. The slickness with which he takes advantage of Bee’s performances to do business shows a synergy between the two, and his more worldly ways and knowledge will be an invaluable resource to Will. One does not normally think as a merchant as part of an adventuring party, but he fits here just fine.

The details Menel and Tonio provide are not anything excitingly different for fantasy literature, but they do expand on what has already been established. Southmark is the southernmost of the continents known in this world, and it was entirely abandoned by humans during the demonic invasion of two centuries past. After many decades, humanity has finally begun reestablishing itself, with the fertile grasslands on the continent’s northern side being the foothold and the port of Whitesails (a fitting name for a port!) being the hub. Worship of Gracefeel was once prominent on the continent, but now it barely hangs on; Will’s supposition that Gracefeel intends for him to correct that is probably accurate. For Will, though, the way Bee’s song reveals some of the past exploits of Gus, Mary, and Blood, is probably more valuable, as it is a reaffirmation that their heroism is remembered.

The most disappointing aspect of the episode is how limited the animation is. Bee is shown with her mouth moving as she performs but not her hands, which makes for an incongruous impression. The episode also gives the feel that the story is being hurried along at this stage, with us being told rather than shown much about how Bee and Tonio operate as the quartet passes through numerous villages on their way to Whitesails. (Really, I’d be curious to see what novel readers might say about this.) Still, at least the story is moving along after a week off, and some juicy potential story hooks have been set up. I am interested to see what will happen when Will makes it to the major port next week.

86 episode 19

Rating: 3.5

After watching this episode completely twice, I cannot help but wonder if it might have looked a bit different if the series had not run into production issues big enough to necessitate two off weeks out of the previous three. It makes more animation conservation moves than normal, plays atypically vague on its shot selection, and has occasional scenes that are outright incomprehensible; the platform drop scene at the 1:10 mark especially sticks out as a weak point. The episode is also suspiciously dodgy on ever giving viewers a good, full look at either the real or fake Morpho; yes, it is so huge that it would not fully fit into a camera shot except at distance, but the only real sense we get of its overall shape is from a very brief computer display from the viewpoint of the Morpho’s controller. I have seen speculation that the animation of the Morpho was the primary sticking point in the delays, but that seems unlikely to have been the whole problem.

At least the episode does return the series to its full-on action component, and the animation of the Reingleifs seems as crisp as ever. Even so, the staging of the action scenes feels more limited. Earlier battle scenes were much more dynamic in their choreography, with the ones here more commonly using representative actions than full-out action stunts. The only scene that fully impressed was the overhead shot of the Morpho firing, which allowed viewers for the first time to see a real-time display of the firing and impact sequences in action. Good use of the musical score to promote tension, and effective use of the chatter of the Black Sheep, help keep the tension level up, but this episode will not be remembered as one of the series’ action high points.

The episode does better on other points, as various scenes throw out all kinds of background tidbits. Kiriya’s memories of Frederica show how her memories of her time with Kiriya, and the affection between them, was not a one-sided interpretation. His comment about how the headless skeleton with shovel insignia used by Shin is specifically a “Nouzen family crest,” rather than just the crest he copied from his brother, is also an interesting bit; that the Nouzen family lived next door to Annette suggested that they were a family of some status, and this confirms that its origins in the Empire must have been of very high status. The exchanges between No Face and Kiriya also reveal that Shin has been identified as a person of interest by the Legion, to the point of being given the code name Baleygr (an alternate name for Odin, which is fitting for one who is regarded as all-seeing when it comes to the Legion), and that the Legion specifically wants him – or, probably more specifically, his brain – intact. On other fronts, the conversation between Grethe and Willem fleshes both out a little more and reveal that the “spider-woman” comment another officer made towards Grethe back in episode 12 was not an idle one.

Contrarily, Ernst’s statements to those assembled in the command center have less impact. His assertion that humanity is not worth saving if it will not maintain certain standards is becoming repetitive at this point, with the only slightly new twist here being the “you elected me, so you have to deal with what you chose” comment thrown in. His statement there does at least affirm that he has no intentions on backing down on that assertion even when things look bleak. The scene where the 86 discover that Frederica has tagged along by hiding in Fido plays out more naturally and confirms that she did, indeed, accompany the 86s even if they were not aware of it. (Really, who expected her to remain behind?) Shin’s tendency to lose himself in battle – as reinforced here by the switches back-and-forth between his profile and Kiriya’s – makes her worry over the 86s having a death wish, and her desire to use herself as a hostage to ensure their safe return, completely understandable, and it’s not like everyone else from the Federacy doesn’t have that same impression about them. The series is fully beating into the ground the point about how no one properly understands the mentality of the 86s, but it is, at least, being consistent about it.

That repetitiveness also, in a way, brings up just how impactful Lena’s minimal presence in this cour is on the story. When I originally read novels 2 and 3, I felt that her greatly reduced role was the story’s weakest point, and unfortunately the anime adaptation has not been able to overcome that flaw. Frederica is a fine character on her own, but she is not a sufficient replacement because she does not provide enough of a different world and situational view, and that lack of screen time forces the story to focus exclusively on the 86s. That is, I feel, a big factor in the story overly dwelling on the point about how no one except the 86s wants to see them in battle.

Despite my criticisms here, this isn’t actually a bad episode; it still looks good overall and does a lot of things at least acceptably well. The series has just set such a high quality standard that any episode which is not a home run (and this one certainly isn’t) looks bad by comparison.

Fall ’21 Weekend 9: Recaps and an Overlooked Gem

The 9th weekend of the season features an unusual coincidence: both of the series I was episode-reviewing are resorting to recap episodes, and in both cases production issues can be presumed to be the cause. (However, this was not a sudden change in either cases, as the “Special Edition” nature of this week’s episode was announced last week in both cases.) For 86, this is counting as episode 18.5 and focuses exclusively on recapping the second cour episodes, with the only new content being some narration by Frederica. For The Faraway Paladin, this is counting as episode 7.5 and covers the entire series to this point, though with only light treatment of the first three episodes. In this case, some narration by Will is the only new content. Of the two, 86‘s recap is by far the smoother one, with the one for The Faraway Paladin feeling like it was thrown together at the last minute; that the one for 86 was a planned recap that just got moved forward a couple of weeks may have something to do with that.

In short, neither adds anything of consequence to their respective series, so they are both eminently skippable. If you’re going to watch one of them, though, watch the one for 86.

Now for this week’s special highlight. Next week will probably be the Cowboy Bebop live-action series, as I feel a need to make a partial rebuttal to Steve Jones’ drubbing of it on ANN, but I don’t intend to make comment until I have finished it. (I am halfway through it as I write this.)

Overlooked Gem: Taisho Otome Fairy Tale episodes 1-8

With no significant pedigree, art and animation quality which do it no favors, no thrilling hook, little lead-in advertisement, and only tepid first-episode reviews, this adaptation of a shonen manga faced an uphill battle to get much attention. Indeed, it did not qualify for episode reviews on Anime News Network despite a respectable community score. (Series rated lower than Taisho Otome‘s 3.6 score get picked up every season.) However, certain qualities in its first episode caught my attention, and by the end of episode 2 I was committed to watching it out. This is a far better and more emotionally involved series than I was expecting, which makes it easily my biggest surprise title of the season and maybe second only to Idoly Pride as my most pleasant surprise of the year.

In the series, which is set in early 1920s Japan (aka the Taisho Era), protagonist Tamahiko is a scion of the prestigious Shima family, one noteworthy to many both for producing unusually tall family members and for behaviors that common folk find vile. However, an auto accident which killed his mother and rendered his right hand useless has left him on the outs with his father, who sends him to seclusion in a countryside home and has him treated as if dead. Tamahiko was already a bit of an outsider because of his family and introverted personality, and his injury and lack of compassion from his father left him so depressed and without purpose that he wanted to just wither away and die. But one great obstruction to that intent enters his life: Yuzuki, a short, initially 14-year-old girl whom his father “purchased” (in the sense of buying out her family’s debt) to be Tamahiko’s current caretaker and future bride. (15 is marriage age for girls at this point in time.) Yuzuki is firmly committed to making the best of a potentially very bad situation, but in Tamahiko she finds a young man far kinder than his family’s reputation suggested and far more in need of the kind of nurturing care that is in her nature than she could have anticipated.

In other words, this is a story about a young man’s struggle with clinical depression and the girl who gradually helps pull him out of it. One of the best aspects of the storytelling is that Tamahiko does not experience a sudden turn-around due to Yuzuki’s attention; his steps to climbing out of the pit of despair that he has sunken into are small ones, and he suffers frequent relapses of doubt, moments where he wonders if someone as pathetic as him can be worthy of a fine girl like Yuzuki. He sees everything he does as worthless, and has difficulty appreciating that some of the small things he does do genuinely make Yuzuki happy. Through interacting with Yuzuki (and to an extent others), he starts to understand that the way he is now is unacceptable; he has to be better, for Yuzuki’s sake if not for his own. By the end of this run of episodes, that has led to him letting himself get roped into tutoring local kids (which he turns out to be quite good at – one crippled hand does not affect one’s ability to teach, after all) and even seeking to return to school.

The weak point of the character development is that nearly all of the story is from Tamahiko’s perspective, so Yuzuki’s potential depths as a character are not explored anywhere near as much. Outside of the early parts of the story, where flashbacks showed that she was always the nurturing type and was apprehensive about this arrangement even as she tries to remain positive, we barely see her inner thoughts at all. Early on she makes a worrisome comment about finding a way to fall in love with Tamahiko, but her actions suggest that she has found true happiness in being needed by Tamahiko (whether he admits it or not). Does that make the two codependent? Maybe, though this doesn’t feel like the intent. It’s also possible that the original writer did not think her character through that much and she is merely meant to be a standard yamato nadeshiko type, an impression reinforced by the episode prologue used at the front of several episodes. However, given the emotional resonance of the series, that seems too shallow an interpretation to purely be the case.

Any weakness in Yuzuki’s development is made up by other characters entering into the story. The first is Tamahiko’s younger sister Tamako, a ferociously intelligent and devious young woman, who initially looks a like a standard troublemaker character but shows that she had her own problems fitting in. She, too, finds herself on a satisfyingly stronger trajectory as her experiences with Tamahiko and Yuzuki give her new purpose. Next up is the thief Ryo, who presents herself as a classic extroverted troublemaker character but is also shown having much more on her plate than she lets on; the story doesn’t dwell on her troubles but clearly shows that her situation is not as smooth as she lets on, either. At the end of this run of episodes, the last of the characters featured in the opener – the singer Kotori and her twin brother Hakaru – get introduced. Hakaru befriending Tamahiko as a fellow new transfer student makes it clear how he fits in, but what role Kotori will play is less clear.

While the series has plenty of comedic elements to it, the extent of its weightier side casts the series more as a true dramedy. Common people are all too willing to see the Shima family as villains, and that is something which Tamahiko and Tamako must both bear; the most complicated part of this is that the scorn is justified in general even as it is not entirely deserved in this specific case. Tamahiko’s condition and the growing love between Tamahiko and Yuzuki are also not jokes, even if the tentativeness of the two in addressing their feelings is typical anime-cutesy. Most importantly, the series can regularly hit substantial emotional beats, thanks in part to delicate use of a musical score grounded in traditional Japanese instrumentation. The series also extensively uses the song known in Japan as “Merciful” or (in its Japanese lyrics version, which seems to be used here) “World of Stars” and in Christian countries as “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.”

The other weak point of the series is, sadly, its visuals. The artistic effort is not entirely without merit; it excels in its fabulous yukata and kimono designs, does fine with period detail, and shows capable use of color and lighting in shifting the tone of various scenes. (Tamahiko’s greatest inner turmoil tends to happen in darker spaces, for instance.) However, the lackluster artistic and animation quality overall could be a major barrier to enjoying the series. Even the character designs leave something to be desired in places, especially the way Tamahiko’s eyes are drawn, and quality control slips frequently.

Despite that, the series does enough else right that it can be plenty engaging enough if given a chance. It gets a solid recommendation from me.

Thoughts on Other Series That I Am Following:

Banished From the Hero’s Party episode 8 – Still liking this series a lot, but the last couple of episodes have been rough around the edges. The plot twist at the end of the episode is a potentially loaded one.

Selection Project episodes 8-9 – Yep, as expected, they carried through on the gimmick borrowed from Idoly Pride earlier this year, and wth characters in the same hair color, relationship, and personality configurations, too. (And no, I don’t mean the one about the ghost.) How the emotions involved in it play out is handled pretty well, and in a way markedly different from how Idoly Pride used it, to the point that it would be fine drama if it was fresh. However, it cannot fully escape the eye-rolling “been there, done that” feel of this being the second time this year that this particular major gimmick has been a major story point in an idol show.

The Faraway Paladin episode 7

Rating: 4 (of 5)

Given the way last episode ended, the expectation was that this episode would be more action-intensive. Indeed, we do get that – sort of. While this episode does have a few decent scenes of Will (later with Menel’s support) wiping out lower-level demons, the length and staging of those fights reminds us once again that this is more of a pure fantasy series than a true action series. Neither the fight choreography nor the animation impresses much; the only interest factor here is how Will integrates his magic use into his fighting style as a type of battlefield control, something that traditional fantasy paladins aren’t known for. He is almost more of a classic fantasy fighter/mage (or what might now be called a bladesinger in D&D circles) than a true paladin in that regard.

Fortunately, the series has other factors carrying it, and that is where the appeal of this episode lies as well. As I suspected from last episode, this episode clearly pushes Will towards finding a new relationship with Menel to replace the one he had with Blood, Mary, and Gus, but a different kind: a true friend who can stand as an equal rather than a parental (or grandparental) figure. They also complement each other well in both personality and fighting style, in more or less the same way that typically plays out in tabletop fantasy RPG battles but without a clunky game mechanics feel to it. Menel establishes himself better as character, too; he’s had a difficult background, as the scion of a capricious elven mother and unknown human father who eventually fled the elven village he was raised in because the differences between him and pureblood elves made him stick out too much. He found a home and appreciation in the other human village that he didn’t find among the elves, so his dedication to protecting and trying to save it is only natural.

The religious side of things is, again, a strength, though not flawlessly-presented this time. The two very different scenarios with the undead – the ghoulish girl who had been burned and the matronly ghost – both felt a little awkward, with the former case evoking some of the tragic air it was aiming for and yet not entirely hitting the horror effect it needed – while the matronly ghost seemed a little too casually self-aware of her situation. Even so, they provide good scenes for Menel, brings up the point that people ignoring/rejecting the gods isn’t universal, and gives Will a chance to show off his piety without force-feeding it to anyone. By the end of the episode, Menel asking Will for the blessing of Gracefeel seems only natural; even the most cynical anti-religious soul could probably not watch this without wishing that such gentle use of grace was real.

The flaws in this episode keep me from giving it a higher rating, but on the whole, this series is still going in a strongly appreciable direction. Sadly, it seems that the production is running into issues, as 11/27’s episode is going to be a “Special Edition.” Hence it’ll be two weeks this time to see more.

86 episode 18

Ernst, announcing the offensive against Morpho

Rating: 4.5

Throughout its run, 86 has occasionally stretched its narrative a bit to end episodes on certain dramatic beats. For the most part, the series has successfully pulled that off because of the skillful way that it has staged these scenes and the seamless addition of new content. In the case of this episode, however, the stretching is more obvious. Nothing new was added – in fact, this episode plays as purely to the source material as any part of the story has so far – but I cannot shake the impression that this all could have been handle a little more succinctly.

Even so, the content is still effective, and the star performer this time around may be President Ernst. He has sometimes given the impression of disguising some agenda behind his platitudes, light-spirited delivery, and minor bouts of goofiness, but he has also shown an earnestness in his dealings with the 86s which doesn’t seem in line with darker motives. This episode firms up the truth of the matter: there is actually nothing disingenuous about Ernst’s motives, just his intensity. When he drops his politician’s voice and smile (as he does at the 1:15 mark in the episode), the smoldering passion behind his convictions come through powerfully; kudos to voice actor Yuya Uchida (Henrickson in The Seven Deadly Sins titles) for this and other strong moments throughout the episode. Even those around him seem to forget that you don’t successfully lead a nation out of a revolution and through a major transformation of government – and remain popular in the process – without powerful convictions and a core of steel. He mentioned back in episode 12 that a nation which cannot take in a bunch of refugee children doesn’t deserve to exist, which makes his words in the later scene – where he states that he will destroy this country if the 86s must die to protect it – all the more impactful. He will lead a nation based on human decency, or there will be no nation at all. The motivational speech he gives to the troops on the verge of the offensive also speaks to his pride and convictions as well.

Grethe also gets some star points here. She may seem a bit too chipper for the role she plays, but maybe she’s just following Ernst’s leads. There’s a strength and conviction underlying her cheery exterior as well, and if her motives for doing so are not exactly pure, who cares? She certainly doesn’t think it matters. Fredericka also gets another pass, another opportunity to show off her intriguing mix of maturity and natural childishness, with her last impassioned attempt to dissuade Shin from going to battle. She certainly does not pull any punches in her desperate rant, and unlike with everyone else who tries to insist that the 86s shouldn’t fight, her comments bypass the pride of the 86s and strike home because she has seen first-hand what battling for little but your pride can lead to. With Grethe and Ernst, she rounds out the trio of Federacy representatives who all care about the 86s in part because of people that they have lost in the past, but their concern is no less real.

All of this, of course, is the prelude to the grand offensive to take out the existential threat of the Morpho. Once again the 86s are going on a mission from which they’re not expected to return, but this time circumstances are different. Their direct commander is the one personally taking them to their destination, the whole of the Federacy wants to see them come back, and both the Federacy and other countries are fighting alongside them. Some may see the 86s as monsters for how finely-attuned they are to combat, but they’re still recognized as part of the cooperative effort. All of those are things they didn’t have before. That and the support of the series’ strongest musical number make the launching of the offensive into an impressive affair.

As for technical aspects. I continue to like the small gestures by Shin – the twitch of an eye when one of Frederica’s rants hits home, for instance – which betray emotional reactions. The launch sequence also looked impressive. However, the character art once again seemed shaky at times, and that is an ongoing concern. Does it have anything to do with why the series is having its second off episode (this time a “Special Edition”) in just three weeks next week? Much of the rest of the series is going to be action-intensive, so hopefully that will be enough to keep the series up to its lofty standards.

Irina: The Vampire Cosmonaut eps 1-7

For those who don’t already know, I am a high school teacher by trade. Though I have spent 90% of my teaching career in Math (my minor), my major is actually Social Studies, with a focus in history, and I’m still quite the history buff. Hence, I usually eat up series with deep historical roots, so this adaptation of the light novel series Tsuki to Laika to Nosferatu – with its heavy grounding in the history of the early Soviet space program – was practically guaranteed to appeal to me. Indeed, it was my most-anticipated non-sequel of the season. Little that has transpired in the first seven episodes has dissuaded me from continuing to consider it a favorite, though its long-term appeal to me has ended up being at least partly for reasons other than what I originally expected.

The country names may be different, and this may be set in a world where vampires exist as a persecuted minority in Russia, but this story is, at essence, an account of the Soviet Union’s space program as it preps to launch the first human into space. (In our timeline, this happened on April 21, 1961.) Indeed, many of the time frames and details mentioned throughout the first seven episodes are  based on actual history, with numerous additional references thrown in. (The facility for training cosmonauts is named Laika, after the first dog sent into space in our world, for instance.) The main departure from real history is that the not-Soviets sought to counter a plan by the not-U.S. to send a chimpanzee into space (which actually did occur in 1961) by sending their own near-but-not-human up first: a vampire. And because the test pilot is only a vampire, she is considered a fully expendable object – to the top brass and most of the true cosmonauts, anyway. But her trainer/watcher, the disgraced cosmonaut Lev, grows to see things differently.

For all of the historical context at work, and for all of the minutiae about the kinds of training that cosmonauts undergo and the stresses the program experiences from unreasonable officials, the relationship between reserve cosmonaut Lev and vampire N44 – aka Irina – ends up being the series’ strongest aspect. Lev is too fundamentally decent a person to safety fit in a Soviet-modeled country circa 1960, and that basic human decency in both word and action is what gradually gets through to Irina. She has plenty of good reasons to hate humans and not trust what Lev is doing, and fully realizes that she may not survive the program (or could easily be disposed of afterwards), but she puts up with it all because she has her own dreams about going to space and the Moon. In Lev she finds both a kindred soul and one of the few humans who would treat her as a human, despite everything that he’s told about regarding her as a mere test subject (sometimes even in her presence). Whether it’s using her name instead of designation (she noticeably reacts when he first does this), looking out for her safety, or exposing her to things beyond her training, Lev treats her like a valued comrade. In fact, it works so well that I must wonder if the base commander didn’t have this exact outcome in mind when he assigned Lev to the task, despite what he says. Whatever the truth of that matter, feelings between the two are clearly developing by the end of episode 7.

The actual production of the series a is a little more uneven. The character designs and animation certainly make Irina appealing and even a little sexy, but they also make her a little too cute; she is adorable in a very moe way, and that doesn’t quite fit the tone of the series. The vampire specialist girl even more glaringly doesn’t fit in the setting, and the music selections are, at times, more light-hearted than seems warranted by the content. The CG used in vehicle animation also sometimes came up short, though the production does better with the rocket animations. The pacing of the series was slow but comfortable through the first six episodes but rapidly sped up for episode 7; honestly, I was surprised to see the launch come not only this early in the series, but only halfway through the episode, with Irina being brought back to Earth before the episode ended. Presumably that means the rest of the series will be the What Happens After content? Certainly there’s still a lot of story to tell, since Irina’s now in an even more precarious position than she was before.

Seeing how the series handles that transition – from building up towards the launch and an actual relationship between Irina and Lev to playing out the consequences of all of that – is plenty enough to keep me watching. While I don’t agree with all of the directorial choices here, the story and characters are plenty endearing enough.

Some Other Series I Am Following:

Mushoku Tensei ep 18 – After two strong family-related episodes about Rudeus, we get one about Roxy going home, and it’s just as strong. I believe the series did mention something early on about Roxy not being telepathic like most of her kind are, but this episode brings the full implications of that to bear, and without using a bullying angle; the other demons of her type just don’t know what to make of her. Loved the way her inability to make the telepathic connection was portrayed, as it really brought home the full impact of Roxy’s comparative disability.

The Fruit of Evolution episode 7 – Yeah, the series is stupid as hell, and the addition of the donkey Lulune only adds a new layer of stupid onto it, but it’s stupid in a fun way. You could rip the series apart critically. The series isn’t far from descending into self-parody, and I am increasingly getting the impression that it’s intentional.

Takt op.Destiny  episode 7 – So the (a?) main villain appears. Rather disappointed in this, even as I appreciate more what’s being done with Destiny in a character sense.

The aquatope on white sand ep 20 – “Lost Plankton,” indeed. The end of this episode is something that has been coming all season, and this episode finally put the finishing touches on it. The warning signs were there, and at least some of the people around Kukuru caught enough of them to be concerned, but since no one was seeing the full picture (and Kukuru hardly articulated it herself), they couldn’t provide the support she needed. The production did an excellent job of setting this up; Kukuru’s expression when her boss first spoke to her about the wedding scenario sent a chill up my spine, and even he noticed something was off. The anticipation over seeing how this plays out provides the series a rare cliffhanger and easily its strongest episode of this season.

Yuki Yuna is a Hero: Great Mankai Chapter ep 8 – I have seen complaints elsewhere about the series descending into “tragedy porn,” and this episode only reinforces that impression. The series is definitely going overboard in that regard, though the developments towards the end about Yuna are interesting. I need to go back and rewatch the second half of the second season to see how this all fits.

The Faraway Paladin ep 6

NOTE: Apologies for this being late! I’ve had it done since Sunday, but just realized that I failed to post it. 😦

Rating: 4 (of 5)

With this episode the series takes on a new angle, expanding the setting as William leaves his undead family behind and explores the greater world. While I always found Will’s relationship with Mary, Blood, and Gus to be satisfying storytelling, this journey allows for a more action-oriented turn, which may quell some of the rumblings of discontent about the slow pacing.

Not that the story has suddenly gotten quicker, of course. It is still quite methodical about laying out its events, and that can be seen in nearly every scene which transpires, whether it’s the way Will uses the magic he’s been taught to protect his campsite at night or the beautifully-portrayed but also desolate environs he traverses through in the early part of his journey, prior to meeting Menel. The world-building which unfolds both in this time and as Will starts to encounter people is also very measured in its delivery and revelations; we can piece together that the population of the southern reaches of the continent was so devastated by the war 200 years ago that the region was never repopulated, to the point that Menel was not even aware that it was ever inhabited by humans. Will has to travel for what appear to be weeks (if not months!) just to get to the outermost fringes of human civilization, and those villages are populated only by the outcasts and rejects of human society. Further, attitudes shown in the Menel and the villagers’ dealings with Will suggest that the gods may not be a major part of human life anymore – or at least not for these people, anyway. They aren’t hostile to the gods; the people just seem disconnected from worship of the gods. I am curious to see if that holds true as Will progresses deeper into human civilization.

The other big feature of the episode is the introduction of a character who, based on the opener and closer, is going to be one of the long-term regulars in the party Will will eventually form: the half-elf archer/hunter Menel. He already shows signs of being a fantastic addition to the cast, as he provides a more blunt, cynical, and world-weary contrast to Will without being outlandish in behavior. In a tactical sense, he also gives Will a ranged specialist to back up Will’s role as the tank of the party and full knowledge of the woodlands; in other words, he’s the classic fantasy ranger, and rangers and paladins usually are quite complementary in their skill and combat sets. There’s a lot to like in Menel’s character design, too, as it captures the delicate, androgynous look commonly-associated with fantasy elves without feeling like a caricature. That he is a male character in a role that would commonly fall to a female character in anime and anime-related literature is also interesting and a welcome change of pace. (Really, think about how many other fantasy anime you’ve ever seen where a male elf or half-elf was a primary supporting character. I’m hard-pressed to think of one.)

The series still may not be terribly exciting, but the practical way the whole scene at the village played out, the way Will’s devotion to the gods fits smoothly into this, and the way the gods and magic continue to be portrayed all maintain a solid presentation to the series. The artistry in general is also quite pretty, though the limited ways that action scenes are portrayed concerns me a bit. We’ll see what things look like in what should be a more action-intensive episode next week.

86 Visual Commentary Special Episode

From what I understand, the production team for 86 originally planned to have a break week in December. November 13’s break wasn’t originally planned and is instead the result of production delays. This isn’t too surprising after last week’s episode; minor signs of that could be seen in episode 16, as a handful of close shots (especially of Shin) seemed less refined than normal. Hence we have a “Visual Commentary Special Episode.” So is it worth watching?

If you normally like commentary extras on DVD/Blu-Ray releases (which I expect this episode will eventually be) or want to see the seiyuu (Japanese voice actors) behind the voices, then yes. Otherwise, no.

The episode features Shoya Chiba, Misaki Kuno, and Seiichiro Yamashita, the voices for Shin, Frederica, and Raiden, respectively. They comment on clips selected from episodes 12-16 (though 16 wasn’t actually used) and provide some insight into how they played and perceived the characters. While some of it was interesting, nothing was eye-opening. They finish the episode by featuring the Reginleif models which are newly-available in Japan. The one takeaway from all of this is that, contrary to the character he plays, Chiba seems well-suited to being a talk/commentary show host.

So yeah, this is skippable.