We’re coming to the close now. With 2016 ending on America electing its first Russia-approved candidate, it’s a little hard for anime to really shock me, and so I’m perfectly fine with embracing stability in my Japanese cartoons. The fall’s highlights all seem to be ending strong at this point – Euphonium has risen from a weak middle arc to some stunning Asuka-focused material, Flip Flappers is actually making a coherent transition into its more straightforward endgame, and Yuri on Ice is finally giving Victor the focus he needs. And if strong new episodes aren’t enough for you, I also made posts I’m happy with for fans at either end of the pool: a next step recommendation list for new fans, and a dive into Studio Pablo’s background work for regulars. But these posts are for celebrating the week’s anime, so let’s get right back to that and RUN THIS WEEK DOWN!
Sound! Euphonium tied off Asuka’s narrative this week, in an episode that was equal parts subtle character turns and cathartic confrontations. Mamiko felt truly important and well-integrated for possibly the first time, her major scene with Kumiko offering both closure and necessary context for Kumiko’s final showdown with Asuka. And that showdown was a stunner. Asuka’s always held the better part of her cynical thoughts to herself, but being pressed by Kumiko forced her to lash out, offering a defensive indictment of not just the band’s general positive mentality, but also Kumiko’s own growth over these past seasons. Watching Asuka and Kumiko’s relationship grow has turned out to be one of the great joys of this season – they’re both complicated and compelling characters, and their scenes are a fascinating negotiation of their naturally prickly personalities and awkward mutual respect. I don’t know how Reina’s final material will live up to this arc, but I’m certainly not sad it’s got a high bar to live up to.
Girlish Number returned to its roots this episode, focusing on both Chitose and Kuzu-P, of all people. That turned out to be a reasonably graceful piece of mirroring, as both this episode’s leads were struggling with the same thing – the sinking, helpless sense that their career is spiraling out of control. Chitose coming to terms with those feelings was set up nicely by the arrival of the girl inspired by her, who was just so friendly and earnest you couldn’t really blame her for stealing Chitose’s life. And Kuzu-P’s circling of the drain turned out to be weirdly effective as well, facilitated by a combination of his traditional goofy farce (ah yes, Kuzu’s natural enemy, Kotomine Kirei) and dead-serious career anxiety. I hadn’t figured this show would even attempt to turn Kuzu into a person, but by tethering everything worth caring about in him to very universal fears, the show may manage it yet.
Yuri on Ice’s latest episode both leaned into its strengths and at least partially resolved one of my main complaints with the show. While Yuri’s fears and feelings have been pretty obvious so far, if a little cyclical, Victor has generally felt like a cipher, a magical Russian fairy who swept into Yuri’s life for no obvious reason. As it turns out, he sort of was that, at least from Yuri’s perspective, but this Victor-centered episode concluded by revealing that Victor had fallen for Yuri long ago. This reveal put a great deal of Victor’s past behavior in context, which both made me more invested in Victor’s character and also kind of annoyed at the show’s structure. Placing Victor’s backstory here at the end is basically like how Fate/Zero waited until its last arc to reveal Kiritsugu’s motivation – yeah, that explains who he is, but we spent most of the show without that information, and thus with no reason to invest in his actions while he was making them. A show like Madoka can get away with a character-flipping twist because that character’s initial nature still makes dramatic sense – Yuri on Ice needed Victor’s motivation for its beats to land, but we’re only given that motivation in retrospect.
Still, Yuri on Ice has always been a show that rides on the immediate fun of its material, and this episode was definitely a fun one. The show’s ensemble approach paid off significantly here, as time away from the rink allowed all the show’s secondary relationships to get some time in the sun. Yuri on Ice’s best moments lean into its big happy family – that offhand shot of Yurio proudly feeding his coaches, or the goofy dinner party where Victor showed off his new ring. And I was certainly happy to get an episode with lots of Victor’s internal voice, which humanized him through tone and texture even before the reveal at the end. I may have a lot of grumbly complaints about this show in terms of overarching narrative and execution, but it’s still a lot of fun to watch.
March comes in like a lion had a bit of a weaker episode this week, as Rei’s opponent Mr. Matsunaga at times leaned into the show’s most questionable instincts. But even if the comedy was iffy, the dramatic core of Matsunaga’s role was well-chosen and effectively articulated. More than finding answers to his impossible life questions, Rei needed to learn that everyone else is also asking those same questions, and being presented with a shogi pro at the end of his career still mired in that debate was a very convenient lesson. I also appreciated the new approach this episode took to Rei’s actual match – “am I being mindgamed or is my opponent just really bad” is a classic scenario of competitive games, and Rei was perfectly suited to play the role. Even March’s more uneven episodes still offer plenty to enjoy.
Flip Flappers finally revealed some of its core mysteries this week, offering a fairly clear explanation of Mimi, Yayaka, and even Cocona’s family tree. I was basically terrified going into this episode that the answers would be “plot plot plot” – that is, the resolution to the show’s meaningless scifi narrative would take precedence over the thematic congruity of the choices made. So far, those fears have been more or less unfounded, as revealing that Mimi is actually Cocona’s mother gracefully ties things together in a narrative sense without ruining them in a thematic one. Salt is actually a character now, and Cocona’s fear of rejection is substantiated without throwing Papika’s legitimate concern for her under the bus. So far, everything is building towards a finale that actually does this wonderful show’s best ideas justice.
On top of that, this episode was also just another celebration of Flip Flappers’ ridiculously smart visual storytelling. From the way Mimi acted as a “more perfect mirror” of Papika, to the ultimate significance of Mimi’s dream appearances mirroring this classic optical illusion, to the gleeful cribbing of classic shots from Evangelion, Flip Flappers is more in control of its visual intent than almost any other show. It really does sting that the show isn’t selling well, because I’d love to see more original productions by this fantastic director.
Finally, the fight began in earnest in this week’s Hayato is Unbreakable, as Hayato worked his damnedest to ensure two burly teenage dudes with literal superpowers didn’t fuck up his perfectly orchestrated battle against a genius serial killer. It is seriously just ridiculous how good of a JoJo Hayato is – not only did he already fight Kira to a standstill that was only broken by Kira randomly developing a new power, not only would his first scheme to outright kill Kira have worked if not for stupid luck, but that scheme was actually backed up by another simultaneous scheme that managed to save the JoJos and alert them to Kira’s identity without setting off Bites the Dust. Having Josuke and Okuyasu arrive really only hammered in just how competent Hayato is, as their combination of powers ended up doing less work together than Hayato managed by himself. Diamond is Unbreakable may be ending, but I’m glad we’re getting to appreciate the true Standless Defender of Morioh before it makes its goodbyes.