Bonsai, Old And New

Bonsai Old And New

These are just a couple of the many bonsai on display during the Cherry Blossom Festival. Amazing how something so tiny could be so beautiful…Large version available here.

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San Francisco Cherry Blossom Festival 2015

Hey, folks. If you’re into Japanese culture, festivals, or botany, chances are you’ve heard of the Hanami, more commonly known in the West as the annual Cherry Blossom Festival. Most associate it with the events in Washington DC or Macon, but San Francisco’s tradition has been going strong for almost five decades. I happened to be in the Bay Area this year – my travel months usually fall between April and May – so I decided to go for the first time. The festival lasted two weekends in a row, but that wasn’t enough time to do everything; I settled for going each Saturday and seeing what I could. The results were mixed, but it was an awesome experience overall.

WEEKEND 1

I hadn’t been to Japantown in a couple of years, so I’d forgotten how much of a walk it took to get up there. It’s certainly BART-able; I’m in decent shape, so the 1.5 mile trek (most of it uphill) was a nice warmup. The official website even recommends that you take the bus, but I wanted to save money and get some exercise in. However, it’s understandable why everyone just takes public transit; if you’re going to Japantown from the Financial District on foot, you have to go through the city’s dreaded Tenderloin. You’ll never see such a sudden and drastic change in atmosphere. Just a few blocks from the flashy lights and trendy stores of Union Square, there are boarded-up windows, seedy bars, crime, prostitution, and more homeless than you’ll see anywhere else in the city. Most depictions of San Francisco conveniently overlook this area. Pretty sure those red double-decker tour buses never drive on Turk Street, lest those high-paying visitors see something horrifying and tell their friends. I love wandering the city in my spare time, but I typically make a beeline onto Geary and call it a day. However, the Tenderloin is redeemed by its incredible art; it’s so easy to stumble across a gorgeous mural and varied architecture.

Japantown was another story entirely. I was used to seeing the place on weekday afternoons; a peaceful, quiet district that happened to house every geeky anime and video game thing I could want. But this time, the square surrounding the Peace Pagoda was crammed full of people. I don’t like crowds; they feel suffocating and draining to me. There were hundreds of people sitting in rows of chairs, or standing at the nearby railings, all eagerly anticipating the drum performance by the iconic Taiko Dojo. I couldn’t find a good place to see the show, so I decided to wander. What struck me wasn’t just the amount of people, but how many of them were cosplayers. I’ve never been to Comic Con or any major geek convention, let alone seen these dedicated and creative fans in person. For example, I immediately bumped into this familiar fellow:

That’s aside from Junior from RWBY, No-Face from Spirited Away, Mega Man, a mini Gundam, Ryuko Matoi from Kill la Kill, a couple Harry Potters, and at least three Soras (one even had a metal keyblade!)  from Kingdom Hearts. Not to mention all the people in their gothic and sweet lolita outfits; I think that fashion style rocks, and I wish I were confident/pretty enough to pull off the look. Or any cosplaying for that matter; I actually considered going as Vincent Volaju, but the weather was too warm for a trench coat. I also didn’t to come off as one of those creepy guys that stalks and takes pictures of these coplayers at conventions, so I kept my photography to objects and performances. It was probably to my detriment, though; I was surrounded by literally thousands of other geeks, but I didn’t actually talk with anyone. I thought I’d gotten a handle on this whole introversion thing. Sigh. There’s always next year…

I spent most of the time exploring some old haunts at the indoor Japantown Center.  If you’re a local and don’t like buying your anime/gaming memorabilia online, chances are you’ll find your products here here. Japantown Collectibles has a decent selection of models (though Ying’s Hobbies in Chinatown has a vastly superior Gundam selection), as well as several Play Arts Kai and other statues. Japan Video & Media is essentially a one-stop shop for anime DVDs, as well as decent variety of plushies, posters, and other memorabilia. That also apparently includes body pillows (?!) printed with famous characters; I’m pretty sure I’ve mentioned having a childhood crush on Sailor Mars, but nowhere near the point of cuddling up to a picture of her! There’s also the Kinokuniya Bookstore, which has an absolutely massive selection of Japanese texts, both translated or otherwise. The lower floor is dedicated to manga and gaming; while the average Barnes & Noble stocks a shelf or two of manga at most, this was practically an entire store’s worth of comics! Their art book selection is impressive as well. I was sorely tempted to pick up UDON’s Street Fighter and Bayonetta works, but I kept my temptation in check. These places are a wonderland for collectors and hardcore fans…but they don’t come cheap. Anime products released stateside – DVDs in particular – suffer from serious price gouging. After making a mental wishlist, I left the stores without regret.

Instead, I focused on the artist’s alley. It wasn’t huge; there were a dozen booths spread out near the shopping center’s main staircase. These folks know their clientele; everyone was selling some kind of print, pin, or bead sprite depicting characters from popular series. Stuff from Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda, Metroid, Pokemon, Dragon Ball Z, Metal Gear Solid, Sailor Moon, Persona 4, Batman, Guardians of the Galaxy…the characters go on and on and on. I looked at each table three times before settling on a signed print of this Okami work by Wenqing Yan, famously known as yuumei on DeviantArt. I’ve been a fan of her work for years, but I never thought I’d ever see her in person. On the way out, I stopped by Katachi and bought a nice, sturdy machete. I’d been meaning to replace my old one for months, so I didn’t want to pass on the opportunity. The 25” blade was too large to fit in my backpack – the hilt was stick out of the back – but thankfully no one on BART noticed.

I spent the rest of the afternoon exploring the booths outdoors. There were plenty of other local artists (The Bamboo Whisperer is still my favorite!) but I focused on the food. There was a small – but quite successful – vendor selling freshly cooked Japanese cuisine. It was a selection of edamame, takoyaki, and karaage. I’m not a foodie by any means, but their karaage was easily the most delicious thing I’ve had this year. I’m actually tempted to look up some recipes. The most popular food seller, however, was the Hello Kitty Cafe Truck. Seriously, that’s a real thing. They were selling a small assortment of boxed desserts, including donuts, mini cakes and, macarons, as well as bottled lemonade and t-shirts. The line for this smorgasbord of sugary adorableness stretched down – and through – most of the street. There were at least a couple hundred people in front of me; after 20 minutes and only a few feet, I gave up. I managed to score a free box of Pocky from another truck, so it wasn’t a total loss.

After enjoying a performance by the Nihon Buyo Kiyonomoto and picking up some commemorative stamps for my grandmother, I made the mistake of leaving early. I did not want to walk back to BART at night. Also, I somehow missed the post that showed the full schedule of events; I didn’t know that I was missing out on kendama and ikebana demonstrations, the cosplay chess tournament, and tea ceremonies. After realizing my mistake later on, I was determined to return and see more.

WEEKEND 2

Armed with a schedule and a map, I returned to Japantown on the 18th. I stopped long enough to watch another Taiko Drum performance, but kept walking. I skipped all the stores I’d visited previously – though I did pick up two boxes of Harajuku Mochi Chocolates at Nippon-Ya – and made a beeline for the Bonsai and Suiseki Exhibit at Issei Memorial Hall. There were at least a couple dozen entries from the Marin Bonsai Club, the Yamato Bonsai Kai, and a few other groups. I did at least five laps around that room, taking as many shots of those amazing plants as I could. Growing a bonsai requires patience and dedication, so I was stunned by the 60-year old Chinese Elm on display. The exhibit deserved far more attention; I’m glad to be one of the relative few to enjoy it.

Afterwards, I headed upstairs just in time to catch the Iaido demonstration by the Nishi Kaigen Iaido Dojo. I’ve played enough video games to recognize the martial art on sight, but it’s so much cooler in person. An average person might be able to awkwardly swing a sword, but these practitioners were unbelievably smooth and precise. It was going well until one of the performers tore his foot on a staple in the stage’s carpet. I was standing off to the side, so I got a glimpse of the bloody injury before the man was carted off by the EMTs. In order to save face, the remaining iaidoka had the audience push the chairs back, then continued the show in front of the stage. They were followed by the Azama Honryu Seifu Ishisenkai USA and Kinuko Mototake Dance Academy, a troupe that specializes in traditional dances from Okinawa. Their performances were slow and relaxing – an older fellow sitting next to me kept falling asleep – but quite elegant. I’ll have a few more videos for them up soon. On the way out, I stopped by the Washi Ningyo table at the back. There were several detailed paper dolls (including a miniature taru mikoshi!) on display. The owner invited me to an upcoming workshop, but I haven’t decided to go yet.

On the way out of the building, I stumbled across a shodo (aka Japanese calligraphy) demonstration. I’ve never studied it, so it was fascinating to watch this group of elderly folk make beautiful art from just ink and paper. The placement of the characters, the shading, the coordination involved…it was so good. And to think, this is initially taught as a mandatory elementary school subject. Do we even teach cursive to American grade-schoolers anymore?! Once the show was over, the calligraphers gave out personalized trinkets to the kids. I sheepishly asked for my name on a fan, which is now proudly displayed on my desk. Coincidentally, I came across another shodo desk when I went back through Osaka Way. Not only did they give me a second personalized fan, but a mini wall scroll with “Knowledge” painted on it. I also stopped by Forest Books; it doesn’t have Kinokuniya’s huge selection, but focuses more on Asian culture, history, and politics. Definitely worth visiting if you’re looking for more obscure texts.

With the day winding down, I had one more objective: the Hello Kitty Cafe Truck. This was my last chance to pick up some desserts for my relatives, and I didn’t want to come back empty-handed. The line wasn’t so bad this time; about 20 minutes later, I walked away with a box of donuts, five macarons, and a cute little tote bag. Yes, I truly earned the swagging rights. I also stumbled across the real mikoshi on my way out; unlike the doll version, this one was decked up out intricate patterns and golden trimmings. A few kimono-clad women were offering people some free sake, but they ran out by the time I walked over. I don’t drink – sparkling cider is the strongest beverage I’ve tried – but it would’ve been an interesting experience. On my way out of the Peace Plaza, I stopped to watch the UC Berkeley Yosakoi Group perform their dances. Such a strong, awesome show was the perfect way to finish my day.

As I walked back down Geary and onto BART, I thought about what I’d seen over the last two Saturdays. The Cherry Blossom Festival is an interesting blend of both old and new; the younger folks enjoying their modern forms of art, while still appreciating the traditions of their predecessors. With all the manga, anime, and games permeating Japanese pop culture, it’s so easy to overlook how they were influenced and inspired by the creativity of the older generations. Not everyone cares about the humanities, but judging by the turnout, they’re won’t be forgotten any time soon. Hopefully next year’s festivities will be even better!

Oh, and one last thing. In a bit of irony, I didn’t see any cherry blossoms at the festival. Due to the stormy weather we had a couple of weeks back, all of the usually gorgeous trees were completely bare. There were more cherry blossoms in my front yard, for crying out loud! There’s always next year…

The Bamboo Whisperer

The Bamboo Whisperer

I came across the Bamboo Whisperer’s tent during the Cherry Blossom Festival in San Francisco this weekend. These are just a few of the decorations that were on display. Each symbol translates to something different in Japanese. Large version available here.

Diamonds, Pearls and Atomic Bomb Stones

The Professor from Periodic Videos checks out C.V. Raman’s fascinating mineral collection.

Stunning Photos From An Art Funhouse The Size Of Three Islands

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This gallery contains 2 photos.

Originally posted on ideas.ted.com:
On three tiny islands in central Japan, stunning natural beauty lives side by side with some of the world’s best contemporary art and architecture. In the book Insular Insight, photographer Iwan Baan takes us…

Sailor Moon Crystal Episode 3: Rei – Sailor Mars

Episode 3 begins with a familiar scene: Jadeite, our first recurring bad guy, being chewed about for his failures. Queen Beryl has let him lead the last two schemes to find the Legendary Silver Crystal, and both ended abysmally. Judging by her tone – and the ominous way she slams her magic staff into the ground – Beryl doesn’t tolerate stupidity. A shadowy figure appears behind Jadeite, explaining how the monsters in the previous episodes were weak because they were made from clay. The camera pans up to reveal Nephrite, another king of the Dark Kingdom. Of all the villains thus far, he’s benefited the most from the 2014 redesign; his long, curly hair looks much better with modern animation. He offers to take over operations and find the Crystal himself. Another figure appears in the background, pointing out that the Sailor Guardians will just get in the way again. Another pan up reveals Zoisite, whose long ponytail and androgynous design make all the other male characters look utterly macho. Though there’s still no sign of Kunzite (the last of the Four Kings), I wonder if the series will retain the relationship between him and Zoisite. For now, the three villains are implied to be competing for Beryl’s favor. When asked about the exact nature of the Legendary Silver Crystal, she explains that it grants its bearer enough power to take over the universe. Instead of focusing on finding it, Beryl tasks the group with killing the Sailor Guardians first. Good, she knows her priorities. Looking to save face, Jadeite vows to get the job done at any cost.

Meanwhile, a young woman peers into a small fire. You can’t see her entire face yet; just a bit of purple hair and the flames reflected in her eyes. Kneeling with her hands clasped in meditation, she muses that something outrageous is coming. As the camera retreats away from her, it’s revealed that she’s inside a shrine of some kind. Unlike the cold, bluish tint of the villains’ castle, this place is cast in the natural glow of the fire. It feels warm and inviting, if a little lonely. Whoever this mysterious lady is, she’s not affiliated with the bad guys. Of course, the opening theme immediately spoils it with its animations of Sailor Mars, whose huge purple eyes and red fire motif are unmistakable. After the scene changes, we’re given a brief exchange between her and a little girl. The new character is named Rei, and she works as a miko at the shrine. The child waves goodbye and heads for the Sendaizakaue bus stop nearby. As the bus appears, it’s accompanied by some voiceover gossip. Supposedly, whoever takes the Demon 6:00 PM Bus at Sendaizakaue will disappear without a trace. I’ve had my share of bad public transit, but a bus that vanishes into another dimension is pretty crazy. If people know that particular vehicle is evil, then why hasn’t anyone tried to find out more about it? Why don’t they track its route? Interrogate the driver? Aren’t there any witnesses? What about camera footage? Smart phones? Anything?

Usagi doesn’t seem to be taking the rumor seriously. Or her duties as Sailor Moon, for that matter. She’s perfectly content to nap the day away until Luna coaxes her into meeting Ami at the arcade. It’s not very productive; she spends the entire time playing video games instead of planning and talking strategy. Ami and Luna are left to the technical details and stand nearby a Sailor V poster for blatant foreshadowing purposes. Ami is still adjusting to the idea of being a superhero, but at least she has the presence of mind to ask Luna for advice. Rather than coming up with a concrete plan, Luna just spouts the same explanation she gave Usagi: protect the princess and find the Legendary Silver Crystal. Once again, she doesn’t go into any of the details of how exactly that’s supposed to work. You’d think Ami would press her for more information, but it’s sacrificed for the sake of pacing. At least Usagi’s gaming skills have improved; she’s won a pair of watches that will probably have some kind of special power or ability later on. Ami has to leave for another cram school session – hopefully one that doesn’t involve demonic brainwashing – and Usagi decides to tag along.

As they wait for the bus, Ami mentions a beautiful girl she occasionally sees on the commute. Usagi notes that they’re boarding what’s supposedly the Demon Bus, but forgets about it as soon as she sees Rei. When I watched the original anime as a kid, Rei was always my favorite Sailor. Not because she was brash and prone to anger, but because she was intelligent, powerful, badass, mysterious…and utterly gorgeous. Not going to lie, she was the first fictional crush I ever had. It was something about her confidence, and the way she seemed aloof and different from the others. Whatever it was, Usagi certainly agrees; she spends the rest of the ride blushing and ogling at Rei, complete with huge hearts in her eyes. It’s a little creepy and hilarious at the same time. Rei just stares back until she gets a vision of Silver Millennium – apparently the links between the girls aren’t just limited to touch – and gets off at her stop. Usagi quickly follows her in a bout of pure infatuation and eventually comes across the shrine.

Inside, Rei is clearly aware that something’s up. She can feel a demonic presence coming her way, and resolves to protect the shrine from evil. There’s an ominous shot of Phobos and Deimos, the two crows she keeps nearby, attacking the intruder. What’s interesting about the monologue is that the visions accompanying it are presented through a magenta filter; I’m not sure if it’s supposed to represent Rei’s thoughts, or a manifestation of her powers. She opens the doors armed with an ofuda (a small scroll with the power to ward off evil) and defiantly slaps it down…across Usagi’s face. Not quite the demon you’re looking for, young lady. After an apology and a formal introduction, we’re given a bit of insight into Rei’s situation. Not only does she seem more in tune with her surroundings – she notes how Phobos and Deimos normally leave humans alone, thus hinting at Usagi’s secret – but that she has full-blown psychic powers. Of course, that means people think she’s some kind of freak and try to avoid her. A few women stop by and tell her that the little girl from earlier vanished on the Demon Bus, then leave in fear of her. Rei is clearly hurt by this (those quivering eyes from Episode 2 are back), but doesn’t say anything. It’s just like Frozen, but with fire instead of ice, and Shintoism instead of musicals! Rei elaborates a little more on the Demon Bus rumor, referring to it as being “spirited away.” That’s probably something the translators threw in as a nod to the Miyazaki film, but it’s still appreciated.

The next day, our heroines hear more about the Demon Bus. Several people have gone missing over the past week. While Usagi gives Ami the spare watch from the arcade, Luna muses over Rei. Mysterious powers, a noble face, and a shrine maiden? She might be the princess they’re looking for! Wait, what? Luna doesn’t know what the princess she’s seeking looks like? How does she even know what she’s supposed to be doing? Does she have repressed memories or something? Usagi decides to visit Rei again and boards the bus. She and Luna discuss how Ami has to go to cram school, and how the girls’ watches are actually communication devices. This again makes me wonder why Luna hides their special tech inside arcade machines. Why doesn’t she just give the girls equipment instead of making them play a video game? Before this can be addressed, Luna panics and pretends she’s a normal animal. Mamoru is sitting right next to them (finally wearing something besides a tux), and has obviously heard their conversation. He doesn’t call the cat out for talking again, which is surprising. I’d have many questions if I were in his position. I like how Mamoru lampshades how often they run into each other; he must be sick of Usagi’s antics by now. At least he takes the time to introduce himself, complete with his private high school ID card. He was a college student in the first anime, but this version is only in his second year. Usagi tries to make conversation by talking about the Demon Bus, but becomes flustered and fails miserably.

Back at the shrine, a mother and her friends are still looking for her missing daughter. They beg Rei to use her powers to locate the kid, but she’s nowhere near as psychically strong as they think. Judging by what we see of her later, she’s severely underestimating herself. However, she advises the crowd to consult the police, which is actually the practical thing to do. The bus is a physical object; you’d think the authorities would’ve stopped it by now. The people turn on her in disapproval, and even accuse her of being the culprit. Usagi shows up and defends her, and Rei orders them to leave. There a few angsty moments in which she admits to having powers, and how people shun her. It’s pretty heartbreaking; imagine having to grow up with everyone thinking you’re monster. Unlike Frozen’s Elsa, Rei didn’t have the luxury of being a princess. She’s just a normal girl driven to isolation. Usagi offers to help her find the missing child, but is rebuked. Rei heads back inside and meditates just long enough to get a vision of Jadeite attacking Usagi. She dashes out of the shrine, only to be cut off by the Demon Bus. The doors open to reveal Jadeite behind the wheel, who promptly hypnotizes and kidnaps her.

Wow, stuff just got real.

Usagi happens to see the bus pass by, and notices an unconscious Rei slumped near one of the windows. It looks like the bus is going to drive straight into a wall, but it’s actually rolling into another dimension. There are some interesting visuals, particularly how the fabric of reality seems to twist and bend around the vehicle. However, no one else seems to be around to witness it. How is that possible? They’re in the middle of a city, near a large intersection, within sight lines of several buildings. How has someone not noticed this?! Usagi rushes forward to save Rei, using her transformation to change into…a flight attendant? Why? If you’re trying to run after a speeding bus, the last thing you want to wear is a tight skirt and heels! She’s even toting a rolling suitcase! Amazingly, she jumps and clings onto the back of the bus. She drops Luna, but Tuxedo Mask makes a timely catch. Before they can catch up, Usagi vanishes along with the bus. Uh oh, looks like Sailor Moon might have to save the day solo this time. Good thing she had that communicator handy! So much for her learning to do things herself. While she’s busy panicking, Luna and Ami are tracking her location on a laptop. Apparently, there’s an app for tracking magical girl energy signatures. Neat. A throwaway line reveals that the girls have the power to teleport, which is convenient for storytelling logistics. Can you imagine having to run through a city in those costumes?

Meanwhile, Jadeite has a mildly disturbing moment in which he’s looking over Rei’s unconscious body and admiring her natural beauty. Before he can go into full-on creeper mode, Moon and Mercury show up and challenge him. After introducing himself, he wastes no time in kicking them around. Unlike his summoned monsters, Jadeite knows how to fight. He knocks Moon down first, probably wary of the power of her boomerang. When hit with Mercury’s mist, he simply freezes and dissipates it. He briefly taunts them before unleashing dual freeze rays on them. This attack is probably the closest anyone has come to killing the Sailors thus far. Unfortunately, Jadeite succumbs to the idiocy that plagues most villains: he spends so much time talking trash that he forgets about his hostage. Rei wakes up and recognizes Usagi, and the latter tries to cover her civilian identity. It’s a completely ridiculous gesture (Luna looks especially embarrassed), and Usagi finally admits she isn’t a normal person. I get that the exchange was to help Rei realize that there are others like her and that she shouldn’t be ashamed of her powers, but they’re bantering while the girls are being frozen to death. Rei grapples with Jadeite, who tries to freeze her arm off. There’s an awesome exchange:

“Don’t you dare, ordinary human.”

“I’m not! I’ve got powers, too! I won’t let you hurt them anymore!”

So awesome. She’s got such a determined game face the entire time. And at the end of that quote, she busts through the ice and activates her Mars powers. Luna tosses her another pen (Rei gets to bypass the arcade games, apparently) and instructs her how to trigger the transformation. Of the sequences seen thus far, Sailor Mars has the most noticeable improvement. In the original, she was surrounded by flashy red rings that kind of resembled fire. In this version, she takes the phrase “wreathed in flames” literally. Her body is wrapped in a surprisingly realistic inferno as her uniform takes shape. While the CGI still hasn’t won me over in terms of the character models and faces, it works well with the lighting and layering of the flames. She assumes a battle stance and gets her own catchphrase, but is still shocked at the change. Jadeite tries to get the upper hand while she’s distracted, but she’s completely immune to his ice. Sailor Moon uses the tiara boomerang to restrain him (apparently it can change size as well as kill monsters), while Mars winds up for a finishing blow. She pulls out another ofuda, but this one is supercharged with spiritual energy and fire. Jadeite calls her a rascal – seriously, that was the subtitle – before vanishing into the flames. In the manga, Jadeite was roasted to death. This time, it’s unclear if he died or teleported to safety.

It doesn’t matter either way. Evil was defeated, the kid and the other Demon Bus victims are safe, and now there are three Sailor Guardians. Hooray! Usagi and Ami welcome her wholeheartedly, and we actually get to see Rei smile for the first time in the entire episode. Now she has awesome powers, and she doesn’t have to be alone anymore. Anyone that’s felt different or ostracized for not being “normal” will probably relate to her happiness. Of course, now she has to fight demonic beings and maybe save the world, but hey, nothing’s perfect. The girls head off into the night, with the unspoken promise of more friendship and danger ahead. Meanwhile, a high-profile group has landed at the airport. The entourage is under heavy guard with what appears to be Secret Service agents. In the middle of the crowd, an elderly man carries a plush jewelry box. What’s the secret? Is it the Legendary Silver Crystal? We’ll find out next time!

Sailor Moon Crystal Episode 2: Ami – Sailor Mercury

Episode 2 opens with Class 2-5 at Juban Middle School. The entire room is filled with students, and each of them is gaping in wonder at the chalkboard. Every available inch of the board is covered in what appears to be Precalculus. It’s too blurry to see if all the equations are correct, but given who’s writing it out, I’m willing to believe it. It’s a short, silent girl with blue hair. She comes up to teacher’s desk to receive her graded test. The subtitles read, “Ami Mizuno, perfect.”

The scene changes to outside the school. Ami is slightly hunched over a book, twirling a pen as she works. We don’t see her face yet; she’s absorbed in her studies. Two male classmates saunter by as they leave soccer practice, gossiping obnoxiously about our newest main character. The pen stops mid-twirl the second Ami hears her name. The boys mention how she’s always studying, and that she’s rumored to have an IQ of 300. Since the highest measured IQ in real life is supposedly in the low 200s (a quick Google search offers no definitive answer), I’m taking that story with a grain of salt.

There’s no doubting Ami’s intelligence, though. There are plenty of visual cues in her design; those huge glasses, small frame, stiff posture, and the presence of a book are stereotypical enough to get the message across. There’s also her blue hair, which is such an overused trope that it’s easy to take for granted. Not only is it a reference to Ami’s latent powers – water is blue, after all – but her personality as well. Unlike temperamental redheads or energetic blondes, blue-haired characters are typically shy and introverted. Having cooler, calmer personalities allowed them to do more thinking and introspection. Characters like Ami (and Evangelion’s Rei Ayanami, among others) popularized the concept, though it certainly isn’t limited to anime. Take a closer look at Violet Parr in The Incredibles sometime. Or Spock, for that matter. The idea is much more common than you might think.

Ami demonstrates one more quality: loneliness. It’s not fun being the shy, smart one; people think you’re being arrogant and standoffish, but you’re just not used to social interaction. It kills self-confidence and drives you into further isolation. Everyone feels like that at some point, regardless of personality. The guys notice that she’s heard their gossip and leave, because an apology would require more maturity than they can muster. The damage is done, of course; the pained, bitter expression on Ami’s face sums it up perfectly. I’m still not a fan of the new series’ doll-like eye designs, but the animators manage to capture her sadness surprisingly well. Ami is on the verge of tearing up, but she never quite makes it that far. She regains her stoic façade long enough to observe Usagi and her posse chatting nearby.

After the opening theme, the scene shifts to a familiar castle in a snowstorm. Jadeite, the monster-summoning baddie from the first episode, is being chewed out for not getting the Legendary Silver Crystal. We’re finally given a good look at Queen Beryl, the main villain of the first arc. Her eyes are shrouded, but her pale skin gives her an almost corpse-like pallor. Her muscular arms, full lips, and mass of red hair suggest otherwise, though. But it’s her open hand that draws the most attention. The fingers are long and graceful, each topped by what looks like a razor-sharp nail. It could easily be mistaken for a claw, and that’s the point; Queen Beryl’s beauty hides something far more unnatural and dangerous. Or it could be an animation error, as the hand looks too large in proportion to the rest of her body. Either way, Jadeite doesn’t waste time with excuses. He states that he’s of the Four Kings of the Dark Kingdom, which is a double-whammy of foreshadowing and danger. Not only will there be more evil on the way, but the number four is associated with death in several Asian cultures. Jadeite summons another monster and tells it to find the Crystal. He does this despite knowing the existence of Sailor Moon, a bumbling heroine who killed his last creation single-handedly. You’d think he’d do the dirty work himself after that kind of embarrassment, but anime logic dictates otherwise.

Back at the Tsukino household, Usagi drops face-first onto her bed. She’s weary after a long school day. You’ve got to wonder what Luna is thinking; this whiny, pouty girl is destined to be a superhero? As far as we know, she hasn’t spent any time as Sailor Moon since the showdown in the previous episode. Judging by her reaction, she clearly has no interest in fighting again. Instead of lecturing Usagi about laziness and responsibility – she’d probably just tune it out – Luna gives a little exposition. The Evil (and that’s capitalized in the subtitles, without the Dark Kingdom specifically named) are “spirits that are not supposed to exist in this world.” It doesn’t really provide any insight into their nature or how and why they’re suddenly showing up in Tokyo. What exactly are they trying to accomplish? Are they supposed to be aliens? Creatures from another dimension? Can they be reasoned with? What are their weaknesses? Do they have to be killed? Even YuYu Hakusho explained this stuff better. Luna just tells her to find allies and save their princess. In a bout of not-so subtle foreshadowing, Usagi assumes Tuxedo Mask and Sailor V are on her side.

Luna has a better idea, though. As our heroine slumbers, the cat handles the real legwork. Apparently, she can open up some kind of pocket dimension that contains a staircase and a magical computer. You’ve got to wonder about a computer designed for cat paws; how does Luna get any work done on that thing? Also, is this how she’s able to find other Sailor Scouts? In the first episode, she states that the moon-shaped mark on her forehead is what helps her search. Does that mean the mark lets her access this pocket dimension? Or does she use both? Also, the data displayed includes name, photo, birthdate, astrological sign, age, and blood type. That’s really specific; if Luna knows all this, shouldn’t she be able to find where these people live and just wait for them to come home? And if she knows that information, then why does she explain things to Usagi in such a vague and roundabout way? It would be much easier to say, “Hey, there’s a girl nearby that we need to recruit. Her name is Ami. She’s at your school, and she looks like this. She always eats lunch alone, so meeting her in private shouldn’t be hard.”

The next morning at school, the latest tests results are up on the bulletin board. Ami, as usual, has a perfect score. Umino (yes, they haven’t forgotten him yet!) mentions that she’s attending the Crystal Seminar, a supposedly high-profile local study program. There’s also talk of her mother being a doctor, which is an early reference to Ami’s interest in earning of a medical degree. Someone makes an offhand remake about their star classmate’s lack of friends and, speak of the devil, Ami is shown standing alone at the end of the hallway. She stares at the crowd warily, but backs off. She’s barely off school grounds before she runs into Luna, who pounces from a tree and gets up close and personal. It’s a good thing Ami isn’t allergic and doesn’t scare easily. Usagi takes the opportunity (seriously, why didn’t Luna just tell her about the potential recruit?) to meet and befriend the other girl. Their hands touch for a second, and Ami gets a vision of Silver Millennium. If this were a more cynical anime, she’d probably panic, back away, and refuse to be anywhere near Usagi again.

Instead, she’s merely flustered and gets talked into playing at the arcade. We’re treated to the familiar images of the Sailor V video game, as well as Usagi’s feeble attempts at playing it. Once Ami gets behind the controls, however, it becomes apparent that academics aren’t her only forte. Her fast reactions, pattern recognition, and knack for strategy let her dominate a game she’s never played. This is a clever way to demonstrate the difference between Usagi and Ami. The former doesn’t bother with planning, and is easily distracted and overwhelmed by emotions. The latter approaches combat in terms of tactics and analytics; she understands all the tools and powers she possesses, the limitations of her foes, and the necessity of precision over raw power. For the first time, Ami cracks a smile and allows herself have fun. She plays well enough to win a special pen, prompting Usagi to shake the arcade cabinet until it spits out a second one. Because vandalism for the sake of jealousy is totally heroic. The girls become friendly enough to be on a first-name basis, but Ami realizes she’s running late for the Crystal Seminar and leaves.

The seminar is just as ominous and dehumanizing as you’d expect. Drab, gray cubicles seemingly stretch on forever. The overhead fluorescents are off, leaving only the computer screens as the only light sources. Mouse clicks and keystrokes break the deathly silence. Then there’s the instructor, whose shadowy visage and narrowed eyes mark her as the episode’s monster in disguise. She gives Ami a Crystal Disk, promising that it’ll help her achieve her doctoral ambitions. It’s worth noting that the object in question is actually a CD; along with the flat-screened desktops, this is the first direct evidence that the series is set in the current time. Ami starts the program and is hypnotized within seconds. Apparently, the monsters in this show have the same modus operandi: enchant an everyday object, gain control over people, and build an army to search for the Legendary Silver Crystal. Fair enough, but why would they need to use a special CD to spread the spell? Is the magic limited to small objects? Why not infiltrate a major ISP or social media platform and distribute it from the source? It’d certainly reach more people. If the goal is to create an army of brainwashed humans, then why bother with just the brightest students? Wouldn’t the removal of their free will hamper their judgment and supposed intellectual superiority?

It’s certainly done something to Ami. She looks fine – she’s even smiling as she uses her new pen at the library the next day – but that changes as soon as Usagi offers an afterschool ice cream outing. There’s a flashback to the evil instructor lecturing her about studying, and her eyes glaze over in a surprisingly creepy animation. She shuffles away in an obvious zombie-like stupor, leaving Usagi to wonder what happened. She notices the Crystal Disk on the desk (you’d think Ami wouldn’t be so careless regardless if she’s brainwashed), and takes it home. On the way, she notices the instructor handing out Crystal Seminar pamphlets at the train station. Ami is apparently so into the program, she’s allowed them to use her likeness for the advertisements. Rather than using the paper to learn more about the seminar, she crumples it up and throws it over her shoulder…and right into Mamoru’s face. Gee, where have we seen that before? Is this going to be a once-an-episode kind of thing? He’s still wearing his impractical tux and sunglasses, too! He’s understandably miffed about being treated like a trash can, but he’s focused on something more important: the fact that Luna can talk. Usagi grabs the cat and frantically runs away, yet Mamoru doesn’t bother chasing them. He just stands there and stares. Why? If you were confronted with a talking animal, would you just let it get away? Maybe he didn’t want to mess up his suit.

Usagi makes it home and tries to figure out what the Crystal Disk really is. She pops it into what looks like a pink Samsung laptop (hooray for more technology updates), only to find it looks like a normal study and quiz program. Unsurprisingly, Usagi knows none of the answers. Instead, she just types randomly…and it cracks the code. Seriously, she button mashes (much to Luna’s incredulity) until the hypnotic message starts playing through the speakers. What kind of evil spell is this? Who designs a brainwashing program that can be defeated through randomness and sheer stupidity? What happens when someone at the seminar gets too many questions wrong? Do they accidentally activate the message before they’re hypnotized? That’d be pretty awkward. Is the instructor banking on the students getting perfect scores to become fully entranced? Also, Usagi seems to be completely immune to its effects. Is that due to her super powers, or did she just break the program that badly? Whatever, Ami needs to be rescued.

Getting inside the Crystal Seminar is trickier than it looks, however. Since there are armed guards at the entrance, Usagi needs a disguise. Apparently, the pen she “won” at the arcade is imbued with the power to change her appearance. Now, is it the pen itself that has the magic, or could any object be enchanted to do the same? Also, does it just change clothes, or can it alter bodily features as well? It’s not explained. Usagi decides to change herself into a doctor, even though it wouldn’t make sense to do so. When you have the ability to change into any outfit you can imagine, why would you choose something so out of place? Usagi tells the guards there’s a medical emergency in the building, and they let her go in. Wouldn’t that just raise the alarm that something bad is happening, thus alerting the rest of the security team? Also, this is supposed to be a place for people to study; she could’ve just pretended to be a newly-recruited student and walked right in. Depending on the extent of the transformation power, she could’ve posed as the evil instructor and done some reconnaissance. But hey, Usagi looks cute in the nurse’s outfit, so the fans probably won’t complain.

Meanwhile, Ami has gotten worse. Her eyes have this sickly green shade, and she doesn’t notice how much the instructor is pressuring her. When she is demanded to solve the questions faster, she can barely murmur an apology. Apparently, Ami is so intelligent that the evildoers plan to use her to conquer Japan. Though it raises the question of how effective a brainwashed strategist could be. The instructor notices Ami’s special pen, causing the poor girl to look up from the monitor and remember Usagi’s words. When the pen is flung across the room, she actually gets up from her chair to retrieve it. That’s telling of how much Ami values it; her newfound friendship and fond memories are enough to (at least partially) break the spell! Amazing what a little humanity can do. If that’s all it takes to overcome the brainwashing, the monster’s plan would’ve fallen apart before long. Ami briefly struggles to get away, and gets a well-timed assist from Luna. Usagi pretends to be a doctor and confronts the instructor, though she only succeeds in making her angry.

Knowing that the jig is up, the instructor drops the disguise and assumes her true, monstrous form. She’s not as scary as the first – there are no fangs or corpse-like flesh – but the gigantic claws and green skin tone are still intimidating. That goes double for the dozens of paper sheets she can telekinetically throw around the room. To her credit, Usagi doesn’t completely panic; she briefly hesitates to transform in Ami’s presence, and then does so anyway. Sailor Moon bravely stands up to the monster, yells at her for hurting Ami…and frantically dives for cover against the monster’s deadly paper barrage. She even tries her ultrasonic crying attack, but the enemy is immune to it for some unspecified reason. Our heroine gets hit head-on by a torrent of paper and gets pinned to a wall. The monster doesn’t waste time; she busts out her claws and goes straight for the kill, prompting Ami to finally kick the brainwashing spell and trigger her latent super powers.

The new Sailor Mercury transformation hasn’t changed much from the 1992 version. By no means is it as extravagant as Sailor Moon’s, but it has its own charm. Mercury’s power is water-based, and the sequence has a distinct skating theme. After waving her pen around and spouting CGI liquid, Mercury glides around with the grace of a figure skater. She does a quick spin, enveloping herself in water and sending a ripple through the floor. After a few lingering shots of her costume and the formation of her tiara, Sailor Mercury is ready for combat. Her phrase, “Douse yourself in water and repent” and accompanying pose are way more intimidating than Sailor Moon’s antics. Rather than attack directly, Mercury fills the room in fog to disorient the monster. I used to dislike Ami’s lack of a direct attack, but I appreciate now. Keeping enemies confused and leaving them wide open is a much smarter tactic than trying to overwhelm them with sheer power. Especially when you don’t know the extent of their capabilities. Unfortunately, Sailor Moon isn’t ready for the finishing blow; she’s still trapped against the wall, requiring Tuxedo Mask to swoop in the nick of time and carry her to safety. One Tiara Boomerang later, and the day is saved. Tuxedo Mask vanishes (thankfully without doing his silly parkour from the previous episode), and Jadeite is revealed to be observing the scene nearby.

As the sun sets over Tokyo, Usagi and Ami walk home and chat about what happened. If Jadeite were a competent villain, he’d attack them right there and then. Or at least follow them to find out their civilian identities. He should certainly know who Ami is, given how much time she spent under the evil spell. The girls probably don’t even realize they’re being watched. Instead, they talk about how the pen Ami won from the arcade turned out to be her transformation trinket. Apparently that was Luna’s plan, even though it makes no sense. Luna already knew Ami was a potential recruit; why did she go through the process of planting a magical object inside an arcade game? Does that mean whoever beats the game is Scout material? Why didn’t she just give Ami the pen in the first place? Whatever, Usagi and Ami are best friends now. They walk off into the city, happily planning their next move. In a candlelit shrine nearby, a young woman scowls into the darkness.

Gee, I wonder who that could be.

Thus ends the second episode of Sailor Moon Crystal. Though it primarily serves as Ami/Sailor Mercury’s introduction, it was done in an interesting way. Now that I’m older, I appreciate the subtle ways in which the characters are conveyed; when a show can explain so much about its cast with minimal exposition, you know they’re doing it right. Unlike Usagi, Ami is a more realistic take on the pressures of being a young, intelligent student. The subtext is rife with commentary on the high standards and expectations of the Japanese school system, though the extent of Ami’s character development is still unknown. Hopefully the next episode will keep the momentum going.