Archive for January, 2011

And so quirky wunder-kind (and director) Wes Anderson turns his off-beat gaze on a classic children’s book. After nailing a peculiar brand of masculine angst in Rushmore (1998), the director spent a good deal of the following decade exploring those same adolescent pangs in greater detail with the masterful The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) and the whimsically imaginative The Darjeeling Limited (2007). You’d be forgiven, then, for wondering what such an eccentric auteur would have in mind for the classic novel Fantastic Mr. Fox by Road Dahl (author of Matilda, The Witches, James and the Giant Peach, et al.)

In fact, what’s presented is decisively Andersonian.  Not that he’s alone here, as his co-writer for Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004) Noah Baumbach (check him out for the excellent The Squid and the Whale (2005) and the recent Greenberg) returned to help author the script and adapt Dahl’s work. The two make a convincing pair, layering the existential themes of old over a beautiful stop-motion gloss.

A deceptively simple story by nature, we follow one Mr. Fox, his wife, and their attempts to find a suitable home for their son and newly adopted nephew Kristofferson. The film begins following Mr. Fox’s earlier exploits as a chicken thief, something which a dangerous escape and a quick jump two years forward implies was his last. The urge to pull a final heist and regain some of his old glory motivates him from his job as a columnist and back into action. The plan goes well initially, but a second and grander heist raises the ire of three very deadly farmers.  Forced underground and facing impending death, Mr. Fox and company finally band together to fight back against the farmers and reclaim a sense of community.

What’s perhaps reassuring and disheartening here is how remarkably close Anderson and Baumbach have played things to home. Meryl Streep’s proficient turn as Mrs. Fox, for instance, feels like a stand-in for the free-wheeling matriarchs Anjelica Huston has played in Anderson’s previous themes. Jason Schwartzman gives a low-key (owing partially to the often concise wording of the script) performance which channels many of the masculine dynamics he probed in Rushmore. It’s that kind of hyper-adolescent self-awareness, for instance when Ash decries his love-interest as “disloyal” for paying attention to his cousin Kristofferson (voiced here by Anderson’s brother, Eric) that gives the film both an emotional anchor, and sets us on familiar ground as viewers.

It’s the sort of sibling bickering we might be more than used to by now in lieu of recent “fucked-up family” films (Rachel Getting Married, Margot at the Wedding, Away We Go), let alone Anderson’s own films, and yet seeing these issues “acted” out by an age-appropriate protagonist gives them fresh perspective. Ash’s desire to be a sports-star, the cape he constantly wears, his need to tag along with his father, each detail of his character working towards that adolescent complex which makes up the central theme of the film.

“I’m a wild animal”, Mr. Fox (voiced with impeccable charm, and occasional ferocity by George Clooney)  growls to his wife as things get grim, they’re combatting the eternal struggle between boy and man. And while Mr. Fox is cut from the same cloth as Steve Zissou or Royal Tenenbaum… he’s not quite as cantankerous, jaded, or sideways. Perhaps it’s a matter of viewing a middle-aged protagonist versus those in the twilight of their years, although both are ultimately misguided, there’s a vitality to Fox’s actions that seems truly at odds with the more grizzled fathers Anderson has drawn in the past.

Drawn, perhaps, being a more appropriate term than ever for the film. No two ways about it, it’s absolutely gorgeous. And while some touches will remain familiar, title cards, chapter headings, some will appear entirely new. Sadly, a bit of that freshness wears when a certain gimmick is used to avoid offensive language (it’s a PG film, you’ll remember) or to self-consciously poke fun at the nature of using stop-motion… they’re often overused. There’s a real sense of joy and craftsmanship to the film – clearly it’s strongest point – but it falters both in an inability to to convincingly break away from the Anderson-Baumbach mold, and that when they do it’s often just for short breaths of air.

Still, none of this can diminish the overall sense of wonder presented by the film. Hardly a children’s film, it stands like Where the Wild Things Are and Up as something of a film for adults. Don’t let this detract you from taking a child to see it – the beautiful autumnal reds and amusing animalistic touches will surely delight them. However, don’t expect them (or even yourself) to understand everything the first time around. There’s a lot to be said for the bravado Mr. Fox puts on, and the curious relationship he develops with his son. The plight of a mother whose husband wants to run off and play boy, and the fact that she too has given up a life. The son grappling with the likeness of his father and attempting, as the film so frequently admonishes, to just be himself. Visually speaking, the scenes are so jam-paceked with eye-catching detail you’re sure to benefit from the occasional stop-and-view to really let those pictures set in. The tree, costumes, and aspects of the farmhouses are beautifully decorated, and the labor of love is apparent.

Brief mention must be made of an amusing cameo by Owen Wilson (detailing a hilarious ball-game), Bill Murray as Fox’s amusing sidekick, and Willem Dafoe as a spaghetti-western rat. The movie does, from what I could gather, share quite a few spaghetti-western conventions, and hearing a certain piece of vocal music reminded me strangely of my experience watching The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Finally, Pulp frontman Jarvis Cocker’s turn as an amateur folk-musician is far too erudite for children (and most adults), but appropriately quirky to satisfy the Seu-Jorge quota established in Life Aquatic. Warts and all, there’s a beautiful movie to be seen here, but not quite children’s book and not quite adult fare it’s what Anderson does best – a paean to to that wonderfully awful middle-stage of life and the years beyond.

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There’s an old bit of stand-up by (I think) Dave Chapelle where he’s talking about how in an ideal world you (as a free person) get room and board in prison, but as soon as it got rough (read – rape/beating) you could exclaim “I’m innocent!” and the guards would save you.

There’s precious little of that in Avi Steinberg’s observation of prison, Running the Books. Set in a Boston prison where Steinberg works as a librarian, the story follows the young Harvard graduate as he learns the ropes of running a prison-library. Stemming from
Steinberg’s initial attempt to gain dental insurance (and and leave a dead-end job writing obituaries), the story grows to chart his dysfunctional and revelatory relationship with prison life.

As a child of Orthodox Jews (and a curiously spiritual non-believer) a portion of the story is necessarily the product of the author’s childhood. Yet, in many respects it’s Steinberg’s self-deprecating humor, his hyper-intellwectual self-debasement which provides our initial anchor to him. Prison-Break this is not. We are presented with a detailed examination of the minutiae of prison life as opposed to more traditional “larger-than life” prison spectacles.

After a brisk intorduction to some of the characters and a lengthy (though equally interesting) examination of what drove the author to follow up on the classified ad when he spys it, we’re treated to the amusing sequence in which Steinberg is drug-tested. Cutting off all of his hair in the dim hope what’s left will not be marijuana-laced… he gets the job.

What follows is an amusing introduction to a brave new world of prison culture. A world quite foreign to Steinberg, and I’d wager to the majority of his readers. Having graduated from Harvard and studied on the West Bank, the man is far removed from the pimps and hustlers he lauds as great potential librarians in the early passages of the book. As the readers settle into everyday life in the prison, we are continually introduced to vivid and memorable characters (Avi’s Jeopardy-champion buddy Yoni and veteran librarian, Amato) keep the pages flowing. The book is a solid and respectable four-hundred pages but as most good non-fiction usually does, it flies.

Steinberg also runs a creative-writing workshop, and midway through the novel this provides a great gateway into the characters. Pimps, salesman, those trying to do right and those willfully doing wrong, all are presented at turns affectionately and with extreme wariness. One of the great features of the book is reading their writing, the published manuscripts of some of their letters and poems are harrowing and fantastic at teasing out some of the deeper themes of the book.

And really, Running the Books tackles some important issues. Jewish culture is explored throughout, providing amusing details early on and a few stunning commentary sequences. In one memorable vignette regarding street-life we learn of the abusive relationship between a mother and son, and how the hurt of the relationship ingrained some of the behaviors that would manifest as misogyny years down the road. Another inmate takes the opposite route, enlisting Steinberg to help him achieve his goal of running a “gangsta cooking-show”. It’s tough stuff, yet often inspiring. Still, these are complex relationships that blend the often (and unfortunately) under-acknowledged relationship between those in and out of prison. By telling these stories, examining this world, Steinberg is channeling the outcry of a nation into a tiny book-jacket.

A book about books is always a precarious concept. In some ways, a book about a prison library (and librarian) isn’t really about books at all. But it’s fascinating to see the way he weaves them in and out of his connections with other characters, with other locations. A small sub-set of the book is dedicated to Plath and Hawthorne, examining their relationships with the Boston penitentiary. The occasions we do have to leave the library and explore the prison, or Boston, often add their own personal touches to the settings.

Prison culture, from homosexuality to “kites” (passed notes in prison), to the various uses of a library book, paint an interesting depiction of prison culture. The incredible number of characters, uniquely painted as life usually does, keeps things moving. From convicts of both genders to some rather nasty prison guards (Steinberg doesn’t paint them in flattering light individually, but attributes a variety of very human qualities to them as a working body) and the occasional higher-up give us an idea of bureaucracy, something the prisoners are amusingly aware of.

As a television aficionado, two immediate connections come to mind. One is the large role the library played in later seasons of prison drama Oz and the tiny coda it served in The Wire. Beginning with the latter, it serves an interesting role in the life of one D’angelo Barksdale. Not only is it utilized as a place for him to communicate with uncle Avon (the prison as a meeting spot and general hang-zone is a common motif in both stories),  he actually works as a book-stacker. One of my favorite scenes in the second season is just the sort of thing Steinberg provides, in a harrowing scene for D’angelo’s development, he discusses his take on The Great Gatsby and how it relates to the gangster lifestyle. Oz actually managed to make the library something of a character. The plotting, violence, and even romance develop as inmates rifle through stories. Featured in season six, the angling of inmates to gain legal representation for themselves, the attempts of prison librarian Stella Coffe, and the romance between inmate Bob Rebadow and Coffe, all find hints and connections in Steinberg’s engrossing story.

Running the Books is long, insightful, and ultimately worthwhile. A compelling read, it makes the case for something I believe whole-heartedly in – the life of the convict. Rather than arguing in favor or against, I’ll simply argue for. We need to invest further in understanding the lives and losses of those we imprison (particularly as that number increases). Steinberg’s book does just that, forcing us to consider the nature of our own freedom and the unsettling similarities between our lives and the ones of those in shackles. An engrossing character study, a fascinating overview of the prison system, a dark look into out own, often gruesome, past and present. Leave the iron bars behind andstep into the prison library – the hottest spot you’ve yet to visit. – A. R.

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I don’t know how many of you are familiar with Akira Toriyama’s first manga work Dr. Slump, but the magic of that particular tale was that Toriyama hadn’t created anything yet. He drew to draw, and every panel leapt off the page with excitement and energy. He would later carry that same creativity into his other work Dragon Ball, but the magic of that first creation, and the joy of drawing he expressed within it, would denote it as a fantastically creative piece of fiction. 

A lot of that same ingenuity and genuine desire to create is expressed in the original Final Fantasy. We’re all familiar with the tale of how Sakaguchi and co., realizing their company would go under, made the game they truly desired to play. They took a risk, and captured the hearts of an entirely new audience by pushing the boundaries of their genre. This same sense of creativity and boundary-breaking would carry on, and in fact embody many of the games over the following decade.

And so it occurs to me (as it must have to so many of you) that perhaps what is missing in the video game industry is that vital spark, that urgency and necessity to create that is born of of a real message for the audience. The games that truly captured my imagination were games that had a central idea to express to the audience, something ultimately to say.

I’m reminded, for instance of Chrono Trigger. A game that to me, seemed to nearly explode with creativity. There, the creators expressed a strong element of the will to survive, the power of friendship. There were stories of redemption and opportunities to make up for past mistakes. Truly inspiring, the game suggested that we as players had the power to enact immeasurable influence on our world.

I’m reminded of Vagrant Story, where the idea of minimalist story-teling was artfully combined with extensive attention to the dungeon-crawler. How Matsuno was unafraid to explore the darker aspects of story, and to disregard more casual-gamer friendly techniques in the search for a truly immersive experience.

I can’t help but come back to Earthbound. A game so indelibly laced with humor and fun. Where the designers couldn’t help but poke fun at themselves, American culture, and even the nature of the RPG itself. The more-serious than thou games of today could take a note from their terrific sense of self-parody. I still love how down to Earth (pun DEFINITELY intended) the game is, and that it made something so fantastic and sublime out of the joys of adventuring in childhood.

And how about FFIV? Or FFVI? One set the paradigm for the RPG, the other pushed it to the very limits of storytelling in the SNES era. What’s remarkable about these games is the sense of intent, the number of radical changes FFIV set forth in terms of storytelling and scope (we went to the freakin’ moon!) and the other threw those rules out the window all over again (no main hero? Restart the world? We’re tackling racism, here? ) without fear.

These were games with things to say. FFT wanted to push storytelling forward by channeling Marlowe and Shakespeare, FFVII plumbed psychological depths, FFIX angled for the nostalgia of old. The games that stuck with us were the ones with a mind-set. The characters we love (the tragedy of Terra, the psychosis of Cloud, guilt of Vincent and Frog, redemption of Magus and Cecil, charm of Harle and Jeff). Everything was defined, and whether it made or not (Xenogears comes to mind) the ambition had accuracy, and a real sense of ambition.

This isn’t a nostalgia-fest (at least I don’t want it to be), I’ve seen great stuff here. Demon’s Souls combined that Vagrant Story style gameplay with an interesting little tale. The Persona games have proven to have that same sense of ambition (what if we combined the everyday with the fantastic?) and succeeded brilliantly. Deus Ex gave me a game with inventive gameplay and a gripping, challenging storyline.

So tell me, remind me what it was we loved so much. Is it that sense of rule-breaking? Am I right that these old games had a real sense of purpose, something so visibly missing in so many modern RPGs (FFXIII and FFXIV take note, Dragon Quest games ported ad-nauseom). Is it something totally different? Am I just off my rocker?

Let’s talk about what we loved. Let’s figure out what’s missing.

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The King’s Speech – 2010

I haven’t done anything in the way of reviewing media besides comic books at this point, but I also thought that the impression that this is some sort of manga-phile blog was quite inaccurate.

In that vein, I thought I’d offer some of my thoughts and impressions on a film I saw just yesterday – “The King’s Speech”. It’s just a little ditty… and writing a review can in many regards be a terrifying process. These writings may turn into a a little radio-broadcast eventually (I work at a radio station at college), but either way I just wanted to practice expressing a new form of criticism, and to have the bare-bones ready if the opportunity should come up.

When we hear the term “period piece” there’s often a certain part of us that’s reviled by the idea of antiquated garb and powdered wigs, quirky accents and overblown historical figures. Such was my fear in tackling “The King’s Speech”, a story straight out of the mock-historical novels my mother reads fastidiously. You can imagine my surprise, then, when Tom Hooper’s “The King’s Speech” yielded something both far more affecting, and far more relevant.

The film stars Colin Firth, fresh off the success of 2009’s “A Single Man”, as the stuttering George VI of WWII fame.  A Royal Navy-man, he’s expected to live in the shadow of his
charming brother Edward (played as a convincing mix of charm and crass by Guy Pearce), who is destined for the throne of England. However in his capacity as Duke of York,
George must attend certain public speaking engagements. As the opening scene illustrates, this is a monumental challenge. The rest of the film chronicles George’s relationship with a peculiar speech therapist, Lionel Logue. George’s mounting responsibility, and certain vague details in Logue’s past, make for the crux of the narrative.

What shocks is the stirring sentimentality of the film. In one scene, a stammering Firth attempts to tell a bedtime story to his daughters, cracks, hiccups and all. An overwrought Shakespearean performance by Lionel Logue proves a disquieting footnote of deferred dreams. There’s no getting around it – the film is slow. But intentional, rather than ponderous. The median age in my theatre was roughly 70,  thus “The King’s Speech” catered to an audience more than ready to do away with modern conventions of explosions, effects, and studio magic. Instead, the patient audience member was rewarded with a rich tapestry of historical significance, moving personal struggle, and finely crafted period drama.

American audiences will recognize a few faces, and delight in most performances. Timothy Spall (you might recognize him as Peter Pettigrew in the “Harry Potter” series) turns in a cursory, and amusingly paunchy, appearance as Winston Churchill (he’s no Albert Finney or Brendan Gleason, who won a BAFTA and an Emmy, respectively, for 2002’s “The Gathering Storm” and 2009’s “Into the Storm” HBO productions, but hey, it’s not Churchill’s story.) Likewise, Helena Bonham Carter channels a charming upper-class persona far from her turn as Mrs. Lovett in 2007’s “Sweeney Todd”. Her portrayal of the stalwart Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon is suitably restrained, and a brief moment where she remarks on the loveliness of George’s stutter cements any doubt the audience might have of why the two are together.

The relationship between Logue and George, however, is really the heart of the story. Watching Geoffrey Rush channel the good-natured and amiable Logue as he chases after dreams of Shakespearean royalty paint a fascinating contrast to the timid monarch which Firth initially embodies. The two are, naturally, foils – but watching them work through George’s stutter is amusing and heartening. Logue is the patient puppeteer, pushing George both to confront his family and his own indecision as a leader. What transpires as the two grow together is rocky, but ultimately rewarding. Minute visual details, the wispy London smog, a small model plane, the tremendously evocative office in which Logue operates, all add wondrous ambience.

Although the “based on a true story” boom seems to have swept the movie industry, there’s more than just a canny re-writing of history, here. “The King’s Speech” details a tragically under-documented era of our not-so-distant past, and excels with a mix of strong attention to detail and austere sentimentality. The real demand for your ten dollars, however, is the magic of Rush and Firth in their arresting friendship, the masculine dynamic of which is too scarcely probed in cinema today, and rarely by such talented men. With two films under his belt, the real question is… what will Firth do next? -A.R.

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Seems I just can’t stay away from these…

The seventh chapter of Lone Wolf and Cub begins rather auspiciously. Eight women, each naked and equipped with a knife, prepare a sort of circular dance. They are tattooed with numbers, corresponding to their position in the dance. The final movement made, the leader of the women announces the name of their technique – the eight gates of deceit.

We shift to s scene of Itto and Daigoro approaching a narrow suspension bridge through the mist. Recognizing that his baby-cart would upset the balance of the bridge he suits Daigoro up in a wicker-basket and instructs him to hold on tight. They tread the bridge carefully before finally coming to a sign displaying “Kurobe Han Mountain Gate” – the following panning frames displaying a town in ruin. Itto ponders whether a peasant revolt caused all of the destruction, but the scattered farm weapons and scratting dog reveal no immediate answers.

As the father and son approach the Kurobe castle, two young women appear to intercept them. The more dominant of the two announces that she is representing the castle elder. We learn that there was a peasant revolt the night before Itto’s arrival, and that the elder of the sixteen Kurobe han villages (who Itto was hired to kill) lead the revolt and was killed. The bodies have been disposed of, and the woman offers 250 ryo – half of Itto’s customary fee.

As he prepares to receive the money, he notes her bloodlust and is attacked as he receives the coins. They fall everywhere, and as the two fly past one another she is killed. Itto quickly moves further into the town, wondering why the castle guard has not appeared yet.

Inside the next gate, Itto sees three women (one disguised as an older woman). In a flash, he is able to dispatch all three. Moving on, he encounters two women  with sickles and is able to use them against one another to emerge victorious. Now with six of the eight gates overcome, one of the women mentions the technique to Itto and predicts his doom. Two final gates remain, and they take on increased tension knowing that their sisters are dead. Itto quickly kills one, and the shock of finding a baby on his back buys him the time to kill the final gate.

Everything seems quite solved, however as the Ogami travel around a second bridge Itto loses his footing and nearly falls into a chasm. Ide Nanshu, master of military affairs for Kurobe han appears and prepares to kill the father and son – not, however, before Itto uses the hidden blade within the pole from his baby-cart to eliminate Nanshu. Having defeated the elderly man (and the ninth gate) Itto manages a one-liner regarding the nature of preparation.

At thirty pages, there’s a bit more time to flesh out a story this time around.  500 ryo is established as the traditional amount for Itto (although this will vary occasionally). I love the camaraderie between Itto and Daigoro – that the father can say to his son “hang on tight” and Daigoro responds so in-tune. The nature of these eight warrior-women is fascinating, and a very interesting counter-point to the bed-ridden Shinobu of the last story. These women are, in fact, an even stronger version of the young female yakuza in the fourth chapter. These are women vying to be men, the other half of the coin in regards to the savvy mistress of the second tale who uses sex and beauty instead of swordplay.

Artistically, we again see the heavy grays Kojima will apply in so many of the stories. These lead into some nice scenes, such as the panel where the coins fly virtually everywhere (an arresting panel where Daigoro catches one) and the warrior woman and Itto duel. There’s a great, almost bare-bones panel when Itto fights three women at once, and the clash that ensues in one set of crossed-swords. There’s some great kinetic artwork as Itto nears the end of his fight, and a gorgeous panel (reminiscent of the more detailed artwork done by Osamu Tezuka) when the father and son nearly fall to their death.

The tactic of the eight gates is, we’re told, one created by Kongming (a Chinese general). This brings up, again, the fascinating question of just who Ogami Itto is and how he knows so much. Also of note is that he refers to Ide Nanshu as Nanshu-dono (a term of respect for the aristocracy), a very polite touch for this morally ambiguous killer who prays at Buddhist temples, captures instead of kills, allows strangers to nurse his child. Even the ending, which resolves on a less vague note, is more suggestive of the early work Kazuo Koike did as a writer and student of Takao Saito (Golgo 13). Rather than the traditional scene of the two fading into the distance, we listen to what amounts to a pointed line at Nanshu’s expense. It’s amusing, but at this point feels almost willfully out of place (it’s only the second story to end without Itto’s back turned towards the reader or with Itto offering dialogue).

Well, that’s all for now. Hope your new year is off to a wonderful start! – A.R.

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Happy new year, everyone! Hopefully some of us will actually stick to those resolutions…

The sixth tale, also the shortest at 23 pages, does much to encapsulate the first book as a whole. Unusually, it starts with a focus on Daigoro – with Itto nowhere to be seen. Daigoro is seated on a horse tethered to an elderly man, the boy singing the same vegetable-themed song ad-nauseom. Stopping at a Buddhist temple, the man drops Daigoro off on verbal instruction received from Itto prior to the beginning of the story.

Itto receives the boy and plucks a small scrap of paper from his hair. It reads “Death”, the father quickly burning it and departing. Checking under the baby-carriage which Daigoro arrived with, Itto finds a small box filled with the ryo we are new familiar with him earning for his assassinations.

A nun from the temple takes hold of Daigoro and we are introduced to a young woman who the nun mentions has been at the temple for two years.  We learn that Daigoro’s mother died three years ago (ostensibly) and that this young woman is very, very sick. However, she strives to do her best to hang onto life for an unnamed man who has promised to return with the Autumn rains.

In the night, we see a man approaching the temple from the woods. AFter remarking on the nature of Daigoro as a messenger, he scoffs at the idea that Shogunate ninja would return to the temple for the woman he loves. He also reveals the amount of money in the box – the traditional 500 ryo. The man reveals that his han was dissolved three years ago at the hand of the shogunate ninja, who seduced Shinobu, the daughter of the hand elder. He managed to make himself han accountant, but stole many of the han funds and escaped with the girl. They reached the temple, she fell ill, he left her behind. Itto dismisses the man, and the rain begins outside.

A lone man boats down the river and is, naturally, the shogunate ninja returning to Shinobu. Itto hugs a wall outside the room in anticipation. She dies, and as the man
notices Itto outside the two prepare in the rain. In a nearly wordless sequence the two duel, the ninja uttering Shinobu’s name with his final breath.

For such a short story, quite a bit develops in terms of recurring elements. We see Itto utilize Daigoro as a messenger, a new aspect of the cub/wolf relationship (one which the client comments on). The utilization of the Buddhist temple will recur frequently throughout the stories. There are some great moments in terms of artwork just exploring Daigoro’s adventure on his own (poking his eye through rice-paper, his head popping up excitedly to see his father). The traveling gear utilized by the client is very distinctive and rather eye-catching. Finally, the entire sequence where the man boats down the river, the detail on his furs, his tender embrace with his love, and the final sequence with Itto are all very powerful.

Other interesting notes include the fact (as previously mentioned) that the entire sequence after Shinobu dies is wordless. The man, who interestingly is never named, is clearly aware of the gravity of his situation. He’s a competent fighter, utilizing two tiny knives (they have a name I’m sure – like Cervantes in Soul Calibur) in a more ninja-like fashion. He recognizes Itto as soon as his attention is deflected from his lover, and the two fight understanding the responsibility of their duel.

A final note – Daigoro’s age and mother are addressed here. The nun states that Itto is praying for the mother of the boy who died three years ago. This gives us a rough estimate, and a little more insight into their years and genealogy.

Well, that’s all they wrote. Enjoy your new year! – A.R.

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