「イバラミチ 1」 (Ibara Michi 1)
“Thorny Path 1”
Structurally speaking, this episode was the closest we’ve ever gotten to the jive of the very entertaining OVAs – that I’d still recommend for a watch- not just because this was the most frenetic, action-loaded episode since the premiere. While I thoroughly enjoyed the episode, make no mistake, I still find the current story overly simplistic, no thanks to the juvenile assortment of villains: an “evil old man” setting traps and monsters loose on the city to blackmail Hime into giving up her mayorship, the gullible and cowardly Morino being an obvious pawn in the old man’s plan, and the emotionless super-powered aide Eiji who is enforcing their schemes. Thankfully this arc seems like it’s going to be a short one, and I can only hope this is going to be a one-off.
Weak as the story may be, I should also at least give Yozakura Quartet credit for also pushing the overall series out of its fantasy slice-of-life niche and into the more enticing waters I’ve been expecting to see: the threat that the characters are facing are allowing for some of the more interesting developments to come out of Yozakura Quartet’s woodworks, what with the major(?) reveal of Hime being a Youkai. Funnily enough, I expressed worry at the messy structure of this particular story – especially concerning this so-called plot twist- in the previous episode, but I didn’t expect my complaint to get completely overturned on me. Hime’s backstory was genuinely interesting, and addressed a fair amount of the inconsistencies that was buggering me. A memory wipe could easily been seen as something of a cop-out of an explanation, but given what we’ve seen of the Human-Youkai divide, her decision to pose as a human through is made pretty convincing given the naïve honesty of the girl; no doubt she truly believed that her decision would have helped along the harmony of the town. The little detour about the origins of her iconic scarf also lends a good deal of personable sincerity to her backstory, especially when we later get to see how frayed the scarf had become in the years since Hime received it from Akina. By discarding everyone’s memories of her scar, and of Akina’s gift, Hime had shunned from relying on others in her duties, until this moment where she was rendered helpless.
After that, everything else about the episode was enough for me to forget complaints momentarily, because it played so wonderfully to the strengths I’ve been repeatedly stating. Episodes like this really do affirm that the heart of Yozakura Quartet is with its fun character interactions, the offbeat vibe of the show, and the consistently strong cinematic direction. The show doesn’t get more enjoyable than when it is serving these up in spades, especially when it boasts its finesse at balancing the tension with its brand of playfulness. With this episode showing Hana no Uta at its most intensely dramatic yet, it also allows for the offbeat tone of the show to shines; despite the “seriousness” of the ongoings, the show constantly takes humorous jabs at the characters and the situation, such as with Hime predictably stumbling her final attack, or the completely irreverent arrival of Juri-san to take the injured Hime away, while the befuddled gang watched on and Kyousuke solely nodded away. After Hime gets taken out of the action, the rest of the gang steps up to the plate in great form; Kotoha’s group makes a panicked escape from the monster while Akina and Kyousuke confront Eiji. Between the constantly switching sequences, the dialogue and interactions between them never drops its entertaining beat. This is in no small part also due to the consistently great cinematography; Ryochimo and Tatsunoko are constantly pumping out riveting action sequences after another, and the visuals continues to be equally expressive as it is playful.
Considering all this, I’m willing to give Yozakura Quartet a pass on its story until this arc is over; it has shown that it can still be hugely entertaining, and it is also taking promising steps to push its story in a more interesting directions, what with the developments we saw here. At least for now, Hana no Uta seemed to have kept my pressing complaints at bay.
「イバラミチ 2」 (Ibara Michi 2)
“Thorny Path 2”
I honestly don’t think I can elucidate on this episode much, not that the episode gives me much reason to, so this seems like it’s going to be a pretty short post. Like a lot of Yozakura Quartet, what you see is what you get, something I’ve pretty much said in every episode retrospective since the start. I think I’ve already given plenty of credit to how Yozakura Quartet can be so unabashed about its completely blasé narrative, yet remain entertaining to just take in what the show throws at you; certainly not as pleasingly indulgent as Kill la Kill ever gets, but these past two episodes have shown just how much Yozakura Quartet falls in a similar, albeit lighter vein of irreverence.
It’s often exhilarating, no doubt, and the utterly offbeat path it runs on still provides plenty of laughs, which this episode sort of pulls out all the stops on: at one moment early on, what’s suppose to be a serious affirmation of loyalty to Hime turns into a hilarious moment of self-doubt for Kyousuke as he flashes back to the childish behaviour of Hime, while Akina echos in the background to “remember the good bits”. Later, in what’s probably my favourite moment of the episode, Hime makes her grand return to the fight to the hilariously juxtaposed fanfare of the tsun~tsun~dere~ song. This incredulous moment promptly gets punctuated with Hime splatting onto the pavement thanks to her persisting injuries. As we see here, Yozakura Quartet never gets very sharp with its humor; it’s very oddball, often slapstick (to great effect thanks to Ryochimo’s cinematography) and sometimes retro-esque in vibe, with all the good-natured ribbing and random bouts of comedic moments in what’s suppose to be a severe moment in the story. Think Ken Akamatsu’s Negima with far less fanservice jokes…even though Yozakura Quartet is still with its fair share of pantyshots (Another very retro element of the show).
And really, you just go along with all of Yozakura Quartet’s conjurations, no questions necessarily asked. Kotoha summoning a massive cannon artillery to get at the unreachable Tokyo Tower nest? Grumpy Ji-san actually hiding the secret to Hime’s ultimate power – the true dragon lance drawn from the earth’s power – that was conviniently forgotten about thanks to the memory loss? Sure, bring whatever and everything you can to this supernatural power fight, because there doesn’t seem to be any kind of rule to its narrative; just like how the Jii-san brings out the crane at one moment and blows up his own home in the next, Yozakura Quartet just seems to shine in the moment-to-moment of its story.
But there’s not much on the characters; a bit of a shame, since I really enjoyed what they did with Hime in the previous episode. We get a small segment in the middle of how Hime and Kyousuke met, and with it comes an inkling on why he remains loyal to her as an aide, but it’s so minimal – and to be honest, oddly placed – it doesn’t amount to anything much.
Not that I really expected anything more from this current plotline; more than anyone else, this really was Hime’s character defining plotline, and our first real chance to see the dynamics of the team in proper action. I expected this arc to end with this episode, but it seems we’re going to be getting at least a bit more out of this story. To be honest, the current arc might not have been particularly impressive in its story, but as long as they bring back the level of visual fidelity and energy of this episode, I don’t think I’ll particularly care (for now).