Last week I made a number of suppositions about why Roroa appeared before Kazuya and offered to become his wife and why he would probably accept the offer. This episode proved virtually all of those suppositions to be correct, even the ones about how Roroa still planned to continue her mercantile practices as a (sub-)Queen, just behind the scenes. Even though I have not read the novels or seen spoilers concerning Roroa, though, I cannot take any credit for prescience here. This series has always unfolded in a very methodical way, so none of those reasoning by Roroa were hard to predict.
If there’s even a slight surprise to Roroa’s actions, it’s that she seems more enthusiastically lovely-dovey with Kazuya than expected. This is the one place where the scenario feels like a pure nod to standard harem anime tropes: she is the Aggressive Newcomer, the one who shakes up the staid status quo of the existing love interests by coming on hard rather than just passively waiting for the protagonist. No, she has no chance of supplanting Liscia as #1, and she is clear that she is not interested in that, but that gives a prod to Liscia in particular to get more motivated about actually pushing Kazuya to fulfill the part of his kingly duties that he has been neglecting so far. (Apparently they did not ultimately have sex in the previous bed scene.) I also do find it slightly amusing that the one place where Kazuya defers to anyone else on decision-making – on choosing whether or not to take on additional wives – is the one place where he probably shouldn’t. Sure, it could be called considerate to Liscia, but it also forces Liscia into the role of Harem Manager. (Actually, the first wife managing the others isn’t at all an uncommon arrangement in polygamist households in other cultures.) Kazuya is just lucky that Liscia is so practical-minded about it.
The conversation with Roroa goes on too long, but that’s par for the course for this series. The extra length does at least bring up a future potential problem spot: the Orthodox Papal State. This group has been mentioned before, and the discussion about how they would take advantage of the collapse of Amidonia – and how they could continue to be a thorn in Kazuya’s side even with the annexation of Amidonia being recognized – is interesting. That almost offsets how awkward the static positioning of Liscia is throughout that whole scene.
Most of the rest of the episode is more talking, this time the long-awaited magical Zoom call between Kazuya and Empress Maria (via Gemstone broadcast). The annexation of Amidonia into Elfrieden to create a new state – the Kingdom of Friedonia – certainly necessitated this, since it does, on the surface, seem to fly in the face of both the treaty and all of the earlier diplomatic efforts by Jeanne. However, Kazuya correctly points out the flaw in the treaty: a situation like this, where the people push for a new political situation despite the treaty. Kazuya is clearly using the Cold War between the capitalist Western countries and the communist Eastern countries during the mid-to-late 1900s to illustrate his point, and I believe he may be referring to Yugoslavia, and how it fell apart in the 1990s, as the problem case which illustrates his point about Amidonia exercising self-determinism.
Sadly, the episode falls back on more typical harem hijinks at the end; the series seems unable or unwilling to fully step away from this, even though the story does not need it. Stunts like this are the main reason why I am not giving this series higher grades, even though I like what it is doing otherwise. (Well, that, and the shaky artistic quality control in several scenes.) And yeah, Kazuya, best not keep Liscia at arm’s reach for too long, even though your reasons for doing so are somewhat understandable. If you’re accepting the role fully now, every part of the role needs to be accepted.
Last episode, I surmised that bringing up the pilfered dragon bones was going to set up an arc where the dragon shown in the opener comes into play. The issuance of a diplomatic message to the Star Dragon Mountain Range about the bones (apparently originally unearthed during a construction project) still suggests that this is going to happen eventually, but a more immediate matter arises: predictably, things are not going well in Amidonia.
Granted, Kazuya did warn Julius, but he and Hakuya clearly expected (as the audience did) that Julius wasn’t going to listen. Not only that, but Julius fell for every trap that Kazuya left behind: namely, pissing off the populace by destroying works projects and ending freedoms that the populace had begun to appreciate, all for thin reasons. That leads the people to rebel. The whole things comes across as playing out a little too fast and perfectly, however, something which both Kazuya and Hakuya also notice. In a meta sense, the former could be explained by a condensed timeline; there’s a sense that events in this episode are playing out over the course of several months. However, I am also expecting a revelation next episode that Roroa had a hand in helping things along. She previously mentioned making a big gamble, and taking advantage of Julius’s ill-thought-out actions – with the ultimate goal of getting him deposed – certainly seems to be part of it.
The other part of the gamble, as I somewhat suspected, was seeking to become Kazuya’s wife. Though obviously a play to the growing harem nature of the series, it also makes sense for her in a lot of ways. She has been impressed by Kazuya’s sensibility and the way he improved life in Van during the previous occupation, and so probably trusts Kazuya more than her brother to look after the people of Amidonia at this point. Elfrieden policies also doubtlessly look more favorable to her mercantile interests, too, and she may not have much interest in running the country herself anyway; she strikes me more as the kind of person content to do her own thing within a stable environment rather than rule. She is probably also gambling that becoming one of Kazuya’s wives would be a boon for him as well; since some of the nobles in Amidonia are loyal to her, marrying Kazuya would firm up his support during annexation. In other words, conceit about her own beauty aside, she has thought this out, and in a meta sense, the story has done a fair job of justifying her move towards being a harem member.
(As a side note, Kazuya sniffing out her trick with hiding in the bolts of wool is a reference to a stunt pulled by Cleopatra to enable her to meet and seduce Julius Caesar during his visit to Egypt in 48 A.D. The amusing irony here is that Roroa is unwittingly fully playing into that storyline, sans the nudity of the original.)
On other fronts, I am glad to see the Amidonian finance guy get acknowledged for his talents, since he seems like the most upstanding of the Amidonian officials. Carla ending up as a chambermaid is no surprise, and is the sadistic head maid becoming a trope? Or has it always been one and I just haven’t noticed? Her matter-of-fact diatribe about cleaning up after Kazuya and Liscia having sex did provide the episode’s best comedy moment. I rather doubt that we’ve seen the last of Genia’s dragon mock-up, either. Overall, the story feels like it’s moving along a little too smoothly at this point, which kinda leave me hoping for some future bumps in the road. This is almost becoming an unconventional type of power fantasy.
Note: This commentary, which was inspired by the recent release of novel 13 in English, is designed to be accessible to those who have seen the entirety of the anime series and/or read the first five novels but are not familiar with the novel content beyond that. It deals with the structure of the story beyond that point but will not contain spoilers on specific details or revelations.
The So I’m a Spider, So What? franchise is one of the most unusual light novel franchises out there in terms of its overall structure. Splitting roughly evenly between two primary viewpoints for the entirety of its first five novels/24 anime episodes is hardly unusual for a title which uses dual protagonists, but having those two viewpoints set at substantially different points in the timeline – and then actively obfuscating that fact by preying on reader expectations for how these stories normally play out – is. (Yes, one major-name anime movie from the past few years does use this as a pivotal plot twist, but it is still rarely-used in anime.) This results in the story seeming to approach an endgame climax at the end of the fifth novel/end of the anime, but because of the skewed time frames, readers/viewers only really see one viewpoint on how the human (aka Shun) side of the story got there. That leaves a huge time gap during which Kumoko (aka the spider) has apparently been working with Demon Lord Ariel to set up the very showdown at the elf village that Shun and crew find themselves embroiled in at the end of the anime series. We know from the last chapters of the novel/last episode of the anime that Kumoko took Ariel’s offer in part out of self-preservation, but there had to be more to it than that for her to end up as Ariel’s right-hand woman, right? And how did the Arachne Kumoko become the future White?
Novels 6-12 cover this in what could be considered the longest flashback you’ll ever see. The breakdown is roughly as follows:
Novels 6-8: A couple of years pass as Ariel’s party (including Kumoko, Sophia, and Merazophis) travel towards the demon realm, where Ariel will take up her new position. Along the way they encounter Kyouya (aka the oni Wrath) and other key players in the world (i.e., Potimas and the pontiff of the Word of God religion) and Kumoko’s transformation into the form that White has in the human timeline takes place. Ms. Oka also appears in Kumoko’s timeline for the first time during this run.
Novel 9: Ariel’s party finally gets to the demon realm and takes over. The recruitment of Wrath also gets wrapped up and White discovers the true identity of D, which turns out to be a story foundation-shattering twist.
Novel 10: While Ariel gets the demon realm moving towards an eventual war with humans and cleans out rebellious elements, White establishes her ultimate purpose. Future adventurers Asaka and Kunihiko (the duo who joined the elf village shortly before the arrival of Shun’s team) make their first appearance, the source of the Word of God is finally revealed, and the reason why Ms. Oka is literally the last person in the world White would seek to harm comes out. By the end of this novel, roughly five years have now passed since the spider side of novel 5.
Novel 11: This novel shifts the focus to Julius (aka Shun’s older brother) and shows how he grew into the role of Hero. It is also used to bridge the remaining time gap between novel 10 and the events of the human side in the first two novels, up to the point where the Human-Demon War starts, and is interspersed with shenanigans that Sophia gets into at school.
Novel 12: This describes the human-demon war in detail (including greater descriptions of how each venue played out), climaxing with a detailed description of how Julius and most of his party meet their ends. It offers the least in terms of new revelations.
That brings the story to novel 13, which details the spider-side version of events that take place during the human side of novels 3, 4, and the first part of 5 (roughly the end of episode 9 through episode 20 in the anime). If the previous couple of novels were relatively short on major revelations, this one is packed with them. Included amongst them are the truth behind why Hugo was assisted in forcing Shun’s kingdom into revolt, which characters involved in that were and were not acting of their own free will, and how the whole plan orchestrated by Ariel’s team almost got disrupted by the unexpected actions of some participants in the events. The truth behind how the Hero’s ability works within the system – and why that’s such a potential problem even beyond getting in the Demon Lord’s way – also finally gets explained. The big bombshell is the real identity of one of the prominent human-side characters, and how that revelation shakes up even further the understanding of what was happening on the human side. The novel also clarifies a horde of other small details, too, including Shun’s encounter with the Nightmare Vestiges and how that was even odder from the spider perspective than it seemed from the human perspective.
In other words, this novel thoroughly reinforces that writer Okina Baba probably had the whole story planned out from the beginning. Nearly every little thing which may have seemed odd or inconsistent about the story early on was actually a clue to the truths behind the events, and the machinations at work ran far deeper than could have been imagined without the context provided by novels 8-10 and 13. In the process, the story also finishes laying out the particulars of how and why the game mechanics system in this setting works; parts of this have been touched upon in previous novels, but this one essentially summarizes all of that.
The novel also delves more into the questionable morality of both the system as a whole and what everyone is doing, though less in the sense of characters deeply contemplating morality and more in the sense of characters taking actions that they think are right and necessary and leaving it to the readers to determine if the actions are morally justified or not. Granted, that the greater plots at work here do not fall under conventional moral standards has been a matter in play for some time now, as some actions which seem reprehensible nonetheless have greater purpose. However, not all that transpires is so ambiguous in its evilness, and the way that White sometimes deflects on this shows that she is at least partly aware of that. She is, in a very real sense, as much the villain of the story as its heroine by this point.
Of course, White being White, not everything goes perfectly according to plan, and the 13th volume, like the others, is often funniest when something deviates. She may be a pretty ruthless person by this point, but she has lost absolutely none of the character which made her such an enjoyable character early on.
Novel 13 ends with the implication that the spider-side timeline will finally converge with the human side of the last few chapters of novel 5 (i.e., the last few anime episodes) at some point during the next novel. While all of this backfill has had its moments, and certainly has been enlightening, I am eager to see where the story goes next.
I had wondered where the series would go next after wrapping things up so neatly last episode, and the answer was not what I expected: introduce a “mad scientist” character who looks like a little girl walking around in an adult-sized lab coat. (You never actually see her hands because they’re always far up in her sleeves.) While I understand where the series is going with this, this new development is not one of the series’ finer moments.
I say that partly because it feels like this trope of a highly-advanced technological remnant being the basis of a dungeon has been used too much lately; we saw something very similar in last season’s Banished From the Hero’s Party, for instance. Of course, this is also a common fantasy trope which goes back decades (and not just in anime), but this application of it is one of the least interesting I have seen. And is it even necessary for what the story is doing at this point? Nearly everything which transpires here could be explained without resorting to ancient high-tech, so this seems pointless and needless unless this has some connection to the Big Picture of the setting.
That griping aside, the storytelling does at least set some other threads in motion. It establishes that the kingdom of Elfrieden may have an utterly invaluable power source in vast quantities beneath its surface, one which is currently poorly-regarded because only its negative aspect is considered and its potential as a power source is not understood. It does, in fact, have so much potential in Kazuya’s eyes that it could make his kingdom a target if it were to be widely-known-about. It also makes its discoverer, Genia Maxwell, an utterly invaluable person in Kazuya’s eyes, on a level of importance with Tomoe, so he wastes no time in using Liscia’s advice to secure her loyalty by arranging for her to marry Ludwin (hence the title of the episode – “Strike While the Iron is Hot”). Yes, Kazuya’s motives are absolutely manipulative and underhanded, but things like this have been common practice for leaders throughout time, so there’s nothing out of line by it. And at least consulting with Liscia on it gave her something to to this episode rather than just stand around. (Really, I’m trying to remember the last time in an anime that a character was so omnipresent while doing so little as she has.)
And at least all of this scheming does at least lead to what may be the overall point of the episode: providing a hook to bring dragons into the picture. The second season opener prominently shows Kazuya and Liscia riding around on a flying dragon, so the latter coming into the picture at some point was a given. Bringing Genia in also allows an avenue to introduce other science-themed characters shown in the opener, but leave me wondering where the Native American-themed characters are going to fit in. Guess we’ll see about the dragon part, at least, over the next few episodes.
With this episode, the series ties up the final bit of loose ends from the Elfreiden revolt, while also making official that Kazuya has a harem.
But before we get to the latter, let’s look at the final clean-up effort, as that had some minor surprises of its own. Last episode ended with the implication that there were still discontent elements among the nobles of Elfreiden who were still plotting against Kazuya. Not a problem; Kazuya and Hakuya seemed to be well aware of them, which spurred Kazuya to classic Machiavellian tactics. While the episode tried to class this part up by couching Kazuya’s approach here with direct quotes from The Prince as framing devices, the resolution of killing off the other nobles comes off as a bit to simple, sudden, and perhaps even bloodthirsty, though Kazuya did make clear last episode that even purges of nobles was considered necessary even if it wasn’t desirable. Even so, using the trial of Duke Vargas and his daughter to draw them out was a slick move, and yeah, who really thought Duke Carmine was actually dead? (Okay, I’ll admit, for a bit there between episodes I thought the series might actually have the balls to do it.) In retrospect, having him officially dead but serving as the king’s secret enforcer does seem like a fitting resolution.
I am also glad that a way was found to salvage a role (if a greatly diminished one) for Duke Vargas, since even though he was fully guilty of participating in the revolt, he was suckered into it. That Carla was going to be spared was expected. Within the context of the setting, her being stripped of status and becoming a slave to the Royal Family (and thus under the direct authority of Kazuya and Liscia, who wouldn’t mistreat her) may have been the best possible scenario. Since Kazuya wants to keep her close for the special task he’s assigned her (and he’s right that neither Liscia nor Aisha could probably strike him down if needed), and to keep her accessible to Liscia, she’ll probably be impressed into service as a maid.
Finally, there’s the harem part. Something like this was going to be coming at some point, and Kazuya could not remain standoffish about this forever. In Liscia’s case, the series has done enough to establish that she has genuinely grown to feel that way about Kazuya, and while it may be stretching a little more in the case of Aisha, it’s not out of character for her, either. While the way it plays out still carries a whiff of standard harem hijinks, the motivations of Liscia and Aisha for doing it at this particular moment also seem sincere, and that prevents the bed scene from being eye-rollingly tawdry. This has never been a series prone to fan service, so the scene remains visually tame for what’s going on. This isn’t at all a surprise, and fits with the tenor of the series so far, but is still slightly disappointing.
So what plot threads are left to work with here? I am a bit curious about what scheme Roroa has in mind here, but otherwise the series is at a transition point. What direction will it go in next?
While I probably won’t make this a regular feature with this series’ reviews, I thought I’d add in a few observations since this is getting posted so late.
The Genius Prince’s Guide to Raising a Nation Out of Debt – This one makes a nice complement to Realist Hero rather than competition, as it approaches the “reform the kingdom from the top down” attitude from an entirely different, non-isekai angle. Wein is a delight and his relationship with Ninym is special.
Life With an Ordinary Guy Who Reincarnated Into a Total Fantasy Knockout – Speaking of series that are lots of fun, this one has proven to be a blast so far, even though it’s far from being one of the season’s top series on technical merits. In fact, it’s probably my most-anticipated non-Sunday title each week. Yes, a lot of it may be stupid, but the production shows a keen sense of comic timing and the writing is adept at milking meta humor. I recommend checking this one out if the name chased you off at first.
In the Land of Leadale – It’s a straight-up power fantasy with just enough of a humor aspect to it not to feel entirely stale. I am concerned that it’s missing opportunities to explore the circumstances of its setting more.
Attack on Titan – It’s not often that I can say that watching each episode of a series is an experience. 86 came pretty close to that during its run last year, but the recent episodes of Attack on Titan have achieved that at least as well as any other series I can think of. James Beckett’s review of episode 20 is one of his best, and I don’t feel that I can add any more insight to what transpires than he does. This is potent stuff.
Demon Slayer – Entertainment District Arc episode 10: The first 10 minutes or so may have been a bit slow, but after that – hot damn. This is an episode that people will point back to for years to come for both its visuals and action content. Can’t wait to see how things play out in next week’s double-length finale.
These are not the only series I’m following this season, so more thoughts next week.
Note: To see episode-by-episode commentary that I did as the series was airing, go here. This review offers more of an overview instead.
Any adult who has ever played tabletop and/or electronic fantasy RPGs has probably wondered at some point where the sex is in the setting. After all, a diverse array of sentient races also makes for a diverse array of sexual possibilities! This Winter 2020 series, which adapts a manga, goes all-out to answer that question. The result is a light-hearted, surprisingly entertaining series so notorious for its explicit content that Funimation dropped the stream of it after only three episodes. (Only Australian streaming service Anime Lab continued with it, albeit in censored form.) Now it is finally available in the U.S. in fully-uncensored form, and it is an absolute delight to revisit.
The premise used here assumes that a fantasy world with numerous different sentient species peacefully intermingling would also have a vibrant and diverse legal prostitution scene, especially when the government’s ruling party (currently composed of orcs) includes fornication as a right in its platform. The series then further postulates that this reality, combined with the presence of magic, would result both in racially-themed brothels and some other creative takes on the concept, such as a golem brothel where you can essentially custom-design your own girl or even a temporary-sex-change brothel. Since succubi are a real thing in this setting, all prostitutes are generically known as “succu-girls” (under the idea that most sentients in the setting have at least traces of succubus blood in their ancestry if one goes back far enough), and of course magic helps prevent diseases and unwanted pregnancies.
The story – such as it is – follows human adventurer Stunk and his elf partner Zel, who are frequently joined by the angel Crim (who is stuck in the mortal realm for a while due to a damaged halo) and a fourth member who rotates primarily among a halfling, a beastman, and a lamia. Stunk and Zel get into an argument one night about which type of succu-girl is best and why (Stunk tends to favor appearances, while Zel favors mana quality), so they decided to start writing reviews of the brothels they had visited to formally compare opinions. When they discover that they can make extra money that way, Stunk and Zel make a goal of going around sampling all the different brothel possibilities and writing about their experiences, much to the dismay of Meidri, the bird maiden waitress at their local watering hole, who worries that they are corrupting Crim (who is earning his keep by also waiting tables there).
Each of the twelve episodes features the group’s experiences visiting either one or two brothels. The episodes are not entirely standalone, as characters and circumstances in earlier episodes can pop up in later ones; a brothel recommendation pass that the guys get in episode 2 does not end up getting used until episode 12, for instance. However, any sense of overarching plot is incidental. In fact, the lack of a plot even becomes a gag at one point, as an off-handed reference is made about how Stunk and Zel just happen to save the world from destruction while out recouping their funds from a drinking binge at a brothel which features alcohol fairies. This is not a story with any antagonist, either; a vampire lord that the group encounters (naturally!) winds up going to an undead brothel with the gang, and the Demon Lord – who looks like a 13-year-old girl but is around 10 feet tall – is just campaigning in an election and trying to raise the image of demons, who are notoriously regarded as one of the least-marriageable races. (Exactly what the problem is here is revealed in the last episode, and the reasons behind it are rather amusing.)
Nope, this series is all about the sex, and it is very up-front about it; hell, the first line of the opener song is “I love being a horny bastard!” Expect plenty of nudity, orgasmic moaning, intense sexual situations, and all manner of fetishes, including some you’re probably best off not thinking about much; arguably the most outrageous episode features sexualized egg-laying, including commentary on which races really get into it (including buying the unfertilized eggs at auction), though the scene where one character tries to figure out how to fuck a literal animated skeleton is also an eyebrow-raiser. On a couple of occasions, the series even self-censors, but even then. the production team makes jokes out of it; maybe the single funniest moment in the entire series is a sexual sequence where a mayonnaise jar represents the experiences of one of the characters, and it is arguably far more lewd that way. (I believe someone has made a T-shirt of “Angel Mayo,” and I really, really want it.
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of all of this is that the content is vastly less seedy than it sounds like it is. That is attributable to two key characteristics, one of which is how enormously creative the series is. This is an extremely well-thought-out concept, one which even considers factors like how patrons at the gender-swap establishment are restricted to the premises until the gender-swap wears off (there’s just too much opportunity for mischief), or how a sexy archmage is using duplicates of herself to surreptitiously collect semen samples for her research while using the payments provided by customers to fund that research. Want to combine a nyotaimori establishment (where food is served on a woman’s body) with sexy fun in a fantasy setting? Have the food cooked on the naked body of a fire salamander succu-girl! The degree to which the series makes female characters who might not normally be considered sexy seem quite sexy is also quite remarkable.
The other key characteristic is how shockingly sex-positive the series is. Yes, many of the characters in the series are prostitutes, but nothing is exploitative about it. The succu-girls never give any indication that any of them are doing this unwillingly, and they are universally shown enjoying the experience. Even one brothel where the characters seem to be taking advantage of imprisoned girls is revealed to actually be a role-play-focused brothel, with the staff shown collectively deciding on what theme to use next in an after-hours scene. In fact, the only ones ever shown having unpleasant experiences are the guys, when they either get in over their heads or get in situations which do not align with their tastes. The closest the series gets to unpleasant sexual content is that the guys do harass Meidri a bit, but they always violently pay for it, too. While doing the episode reviews of the series for ANN, I head from numerous people who said that they didn’t normally like fan service series but liked this one because of that sex-positive aspect, and I understand that it was fairly popular with couples viewing for that same reason. Sure, an argument could be made that this is all glossing over the unfortunately-very-real problems with sex trafficking which still exist in the world, but this is a comedy at heart so it’s not striving for any deep social commentary.
The production effort by studio Passione offers a vividly colorful presentation, one where brothel and character designs get equally creative. One of the most frequently-recurring succu-girls is a 50-something human who may look baggy but has lost none of her verve (and occasionally hosts epilogue pieces ), while others are part-octopus, part-hyena, demonic lust machines, or any number of other wonderfully-conceived designs. The underlying attitude presented here is that the world of sex has something for everyone, no matter your kink or taste in women. One episode even has an incubus come on the scene to stir up trouble. Strong animation and music support also goes a long way towards make numerous scenes remarkably erotic, and the opener (which I think sounds like a Village People rip-off) are both fun and memorable as well.
The steelbox release is, I believe, being offered exclusively by Right Stuf under their adult Critical Mass label, and has warning notices similar to those seen on hentai titles. It is subtitled-only and includes typical on-disk extras like commercials, promos, and separated Next Episode bits, but it does also have a separate disk with the OST and a bundled artbook, which includes storyboards for the opener, episode 1, and episode 12, and a beautiful collection of background art. The most fun extra feature is a trio of short bonus manga, the most interesting of which explains why elves become succu-girls. (The logic is more sensible than you might imagine.) The one about elves could safely be read after the first episode, while the others are best read after completing most of the series.
Ultimately, this series is strictly for adults, but if you are an adult who can appreciate a healthy dose of sex in your anime content, then I highly recommend checking this title out.
Mamoru Hosoda is a director whose works I have had somewhat mixed reactions to. While I very much liked his Summer Wars, I found his Wolf Children to be too much a paean to an impossibly perfect mother. (I have never gotten around to seeing The Boy and the Beast or Mirai.) Hence I was a little apprehensive about a work which was essentially transplanting the classic Beauty and the Beast story into an online environment. After seeing it in the theater, I am pleased to say that I was concerned for nothing. Belle is not a flawless movie, but it delivers on what counts, and it will be an emotional experience for many.
Much like Summer Wars, the movie imagines a global virtual environment where all people will gather, and posits some interesting (if also, in a technical sense, fantastical) notions about it: the automatically-generated avatars are reflections of a person’s true self, for instance. Exactly how the interface works is hazy, as it doesn’t seem to use a NerveGear/Amusphere-like rig like what the SAO franchise does, but that is ultimately a picky detail which can easily be ignored for convenience’s sake. The more important point is that the environment – called U – pitches itself as a way to remake one’s self and become something different in the virtual setting. That’s a fascinating concept with a broad range of possible impacts, but the story is not interested in exploring that beyond what is necessary for the story.
Though the main body of the story borrows heavily from Beauty and the Beast (and in particular the animated Disney version), this is not a romantic story at heart. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t any romantic elements to it, but the fledgling romances are entirely sidelights rather than the main focus. This is instead a story about identity and how it can be shaped by trauma. Heroine Suzu is so thoroughly shaped by the loss of her mother at an early age (and in a way that some call selfish and senseless) that she has lost her ability to sing and struggles morosely through life, until U gives her the chance to be reborn as Bell (no, that’s not a misspelling). In the virtual realm, she finds her voice, and the quality of her songs speaks to many. But there is another individual, a bestial creature who seems bruised and filled with rage, who also captures people’s attention, and Bell finds herself drawn to him, perhaps because she can sense that he is suffering as well. Hence she undertakes a quest to find out who he really is. Meanwhile, a very justice-minded individual in U plays the Gaston role by seeking to unveil the identity of the Beast, whom he sees as a troublemaker, and Bell gets dragged into his quest.
Despite some occasional distractions where Suzu must deal with the romantic entanglements of school mates, the story stays firmly focused on the way its core themes intertwine. It also mixes in some subthemes about the fickle nature of social media, but that is another element which never gets fully explored. By keeping the focus tighter, its late scenes carry more emotional impact. And if the final resolution of the Beast element seems oversimplified, well, it’s easy to forgive that in light of how much of an impression it makes.
The visual style of the movie is very reminiscent of Hosoda’s earlier works, including letting character details slide in real-life group shots. Real-life location detail is quite strong, but nothing seems overly special about the U environment beyond the eye-catching appearance of Bell. I was, frankly, much more impressed with the detail given to Suzu, and in particular how thoughtfully the movie animates her body language.
The real production star of the movie is the music. That may seem strange given how much of the film plays out without any backing music, but the wonderful insert songs just make that much of an impact. I saw this movie in English dubbed form, and dearly appreciated that all of the songs were not only translated, but also done so beautifully that they almost perfectly fit the animation of Bell singing. The translation part is particularly important in this case, as the lyrics speak more deeply to the heart of the movie than just about any other animated film that I can think of, and I have to applaud the wonderful discovery of Kylie McNeill, who both voices Suzu/Bell and sings all of the songs. Quite simply, the whole movie works in English because of her, and anyone who skips watching the movie in English in favor of the Japanese dub is missing one of the truly epic singing performances in an anime title. It’s not so much that she’s the Greatest Singer Ever (though she is clearly very talented), but rather the perfect voice and delivery for the role. See this article for more detail about how she came to be the movie’s star.
Ultimately, the flaws in the movie mostly involve ideas that the movie tosses out but never much pursues and some romantic elements that, ironically, add little to the movie. The final resolution also feels like it did not really solve the problem even though it was suitably dramatic and satisfying. Those are generally minor negative factors, however. This is a movie well worth seeing, and definitely see it in theater if you can.
Note: Since this title is coming in so much later than the rest of the Winter 2022 Preview Guide, I am making it a separate entry.
Streams: Crunchyroll on Saturdays
Rating: 4 (of 5)
The title on this one can be a little misleading, as while all of the main cast members are, indeed, salarymen, this is actually a series about badminton – or, more specifically, salarymen who are members of corporate badminton teams and play in competition against teams from other corporations, to the extent that an employee might be recruited specifically for his badminton skills. Not having this in a high school setting puts a somewhat different spin on the the first episode, though the differences only go so far; the structure still feels very much like a typical school-based sports series.
The general story beats are also familiar. A talented player who’s washed out in part due to past trauma gets another chance in a new venue, but is being very standoffish about it, while a gregarious new teammate tries to break through the protagonist’s shell. Naturally the protagonist has to be challenged to a one-on-one match and lose in order to take the chip off his shoulder and be forced to be a team player, and naturally the protagonist is stuck with his new partner much more than he’d like, both in job and badminton settings.
For all that familiar feel, however, the first episode is executed very well. The animation production effort by LIDEN FILMS shines, especially in the very detailed badminton play scenes, and makes effective use of cuts and scene transitions. Other scenes also feel natural, and I appreciated that the character designs for the guys are not just pure bishonen; Miyazumi (the blondish-haired one) is actually quite muscular, and that is certainly emphasized. On the whole, the episode achieves a good balance of lighter and more serious moments, too.
I don’t like sports anime in general, and this is clearly a series aimed at female audiences, but I still have to respect the quality at work here. This is the first title that director Aimi Yamauchi has helmed, and if this episode is an indicator of what she is capable of, then hers could be a name to keep track of down the road.
This episode is a tale of two parts: a part about death and a part about life going forward. For many reasons, it feels right to put them together in the same episode.
The death part concerns the greatest lingering consequence of the internal strife within Elfreiden: the fate of the lionel, Duke Carmine. That Kazuya regards him as an upstanding figure important to the country has always been clear, and Kazuya has been equally clear about not liking killing people, especially ones that still have great value to the kingdom. Purges of the kind that must be done here – indeed, of the kind that Duke Carmine was specifically trying to force – are a fact of practicality in this world, much as they were throughout the centuries in many places in our own world, but they do fly in the face of modern sensibilities in First-World countries. Indeed, Kazuya is the only one who seems to have a big problem with it, since even Liscia – whom Carmine was close to – only barely flinches on the report of his death. Perhaps because of what she’s said about her own family’s history, she was clearly fully prepared for this eventuality.
But as much as Kazuya has proven to be an innovator on other fronts, he’s completely trapped by circumstances and practicality here. Not carrying out executions is only courting trouble, and Duke Carmine clearly knows that; in fact, he was probably counting on it. He sees his own death as both a noble way for an aging warrior to go out and a way to protect the kingdom’s future even in death – and as a bonus, it conceals the truth of whatever the heck is the grander scheme in play. Based on the prison scene and other scattered comments, the vague implication here is that Liscia’s mother, the former queen, is the ultimate mastermind, but if so, the scope of this scheme must be enormous if it involves cleaning house on a kingdom level and installing a new king as a means to an end. There’s also the matter of Duke Vargas and his daughter to be settled, though I cannot imagine Carla being killed off.
For the most part, the Kazuya-Carmine scene was handled well, with both ably expressing their viewpoints even though it ultimately changed nothing. The one knock on this part is that the music a bit overenthusiastic about trying to play up the tension.
The second part involves life going forward. Roroa is still waiting for her opportunity to act, while Hakuya is chatting up Jeanne remotely, and reveals his ambitious – if also mundane – life plan. The other part is one we knew had to be coming at some point: Kazuya formally getting a harem. While there are, admittedly, practical considerations in play here, and while this is another case of culture clash for Kazuya, Liscia seems a little too comfortable with this all to be fully credible. She’s not concerned with how many other wives Kazuya eventually has, as long as she’s #1, and she welcomes both Aisha immediately and eventually Juna as other in Kazuya’s harem. This is the one part which feels like pure wish fulfillment, but hey, Kazuya has at least both proved his merits and is in a position to warrant it. I’ll roll with it, especially since it balances out the weak, entirely too vague epilogue scene.
In all, it makes for another solid but unspectacular episode.
With this episode, the final resolution of the conflict over Amidonia seems to be done – at least for now, anyway. Julius isn’t happy about it, but there was no reasonable outcome where he was going to be happy, as the negotiations between Jeanne and Kazuya completely boxed him in (as they were designed to). He at least gets his capital back, at the cost of war reparations designed to eat into his country’s military costs and ransoms for captured nobles, and that at least allows him to salvage some outward dignity even if he’s seething on the inside. Somehow I rather doubt he’ll heed Kazuya’s (literally) Machiavellian warnings, though given how disappointed the populace was to see him leave, the people of Amidonia likely won’t put up with much from him.
In doing so, the story covered its bases quite thoroughly. The geopolitical situation is fully considered, the matter of Julius’s sister (the mercantile princess we’ve seen a few times) is brought up in a context where the reason why Julius cares at all about her is explained, and even the fate of General Margarita (the woman who sang the Amidonian national anthem at the end of episode 12) is addressed. We even get a significant segment showing Jeanne reporting back to Maria, and a party later on to celebrate the role adventurers played in bringing things to this point – one where we learn that Kazuya’s major weakness is, unsurprisingly, alcohol.
I do get the feeling that the series is being a little too thorough and methodical, though. Sure, the Jeanne/Maria scene better clarifies the kind of person Maria is and brings up the matter that Kazuya may well be fulfilling prophecy on a hero even without directly confronting the Demon Lord, so I can largely excuse that scene, but it definitely feels like the story has been moving at a snail’s pace. At least the story has now cleared nearly all of its initial plot threads, so I am curious to see where it will go next. Perhaps return to Tomoe’s revelation that she can talk to the demons and the significance of that? (Kazuya did vaguely probe about this in his dealings with Jeanne in the previous two episodes, but the matter has not been explored beyond that.) As long as the next episode does better than the weak party scene it ended on, things should go fine.
Additional Note: Since hardly anything else this season is looking consistently comment-worthy after two episodes, this will likely be my only full, weekly episode review for the season. Instead, I will do one additional post per week (probably on a Tuesday or Wednesday night) which summarizes reactions to other titles and highlights the one I feel is most doing something interesting.