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The Dragon Ball series, broadly speaking, illustrates the interrelations among the individuals whose actions are dictated by the lust for power. And this desire for power manifests itself in the quest for the Dragon Balls, which are said to grant wishes of anyone who has collected all seven of them. The Dragon Ball series, then, is a process of power struggle narrated from the viewpoint of Son Goku and his journey into the achievement of absolute power. In a sense, everyone fends for himself and everyone collects the Dragon Balls for his own gain. This is why Goku is suspicious of Bruma when they first meet. Bruma reasons well when she decides to keep Goku close to her as her bodyguard, while intending to steal his Dragon Ball. In this way, a seed has been planted for a potential conflict in the future, and an ally has become at the same time an enemy. This scheme is also seen in Dragon Ball Z, where Goku is defeated by Raditz and forms a coalition with his nemesis, Piccolo. It is a beneficial agreement for both of them, for Goku needs Piccolo’s help in order to save his son, Gohan, from Raditz, while Piccolo needs Raditz to be gone in order to defeat Goku with his own hand. In the similar manner, the seed for trouble unfolds itself naturally in both Dragon Ball and Dragon Ball Z, involving those who aim to achieve the absolute power. What is unique to Goku, though, is that he wants power not for his own sake but for someone else. This may seem rather surprising and inaccurate, since all Goku cares for is to be strong simply because he wants to be strong. But if we look at how he fights and how he gets stronger each time, we can see that he is always fighting for someone else. It was his desire to help others for their sake that got him involved with the Red Ribbon Army in Dragon Ball. In the battle against Raditz, he chose to sacrifice himself over defeating his nemesis, Piccolo. The reason why he was able to become a Super Saiyan too was out of anger of Kurilin’s death. This is strikingly different from any other characters when they become stronger, as is most obvious from the battle against Frieza. Frieza’s strength comes from the humiliation he suffers, while Goku’s strength comes from the love for his friends. As we may remember, this is the truth about Goku’s strength as Vegeta also finally recognizes at the very end of the battle against Buu. The Dragon Ball series, then, is not simply an anime about selfish individuals fight against each other, but it is about what a powerful caring individual should do to protect the others when surrounded by the selfish individuals. It is a story of ethics in power politics of everyday life. The Dragon Ball series, through metaphoric means, teaches us how to maintain the good in us when confronted with the evil. In a way, the conclusion is contained in the beginning: once you have learned how to use power for someone else, you have achieved the absolute power that no one can take away from you. Goku may be said to have possessed from the beginning ‘the seed of this enlightenment’, and to that extent, he may have been the strongest of all from the very moment he decided to help Bruma in Mt. Paozu.

*This is just the beginning of what is to come – a project I have always wanted to write. For those of you interested in reading further, you may occasionally come back to check on my earlier post “A Philosophical Interpretation of Dragon Ball Z” for the moment (which is itself incomplete as of yet) to get a better sense of where I am going with this. https://isseicreekphilosophy.wordpress.com/2014/09/18/a-philosophical-interpretation-of-dragon-ball-z/ But eventually, my aim is to a comprehensive treatise on the philosophy of Dragon Ball series, and this is where it starts.

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*Work in progress (feedbacks welcome)

Introduction

Dragon Ball Z has attracted so many people around the world, and it could rightly be described as one of the anime that represents the Japanese popular culture in the 90’s when anime began to be an iconic feature of Japan as promoting its unique national identity. In this sense, Dragon Ball Z, along with the other iconic anime such as Black Jack and Astro Boy by Osamu Tezuka, or Draemon by Fujio F. Fujiko, may be heralded as the Japanese anime par excellence. But why do we love it so much? What is it that captures the passion and mesmerizes the hearts of the young people? It cannot simply be because of its often-criticized long-winded fighting scenes. In fact, Dragon Ball series are notoriously famous for their episodes-long battles that never seem to end. So, why is it that still succeeds to keep enchanting us in the way that never gets old? This essay is an attempt to explain the philosophical themes behind Dragon Ball Z, as I believe all art forms that are loved timelessly have deeper meanings to them. Sometimes, those meanings are not intended by the producers of the anime, and perhaps we often give them our own meanings to them in understanding the art for its receptive nature. In what follows, I will elucidate the possible philosophical meanings behind each series and attempt to explain that the Dragon Ball series in fact have various intellectual framework as substratum. And finally, I will argue that the Dragon Ball series keep captivating our mind because they are grounded in the serious philosophical argument about human nature.

Dragon Ball Z was created by Akira Toriyama, who is also known as the author of Dr. Slump Arare and character designers of the famous RPG game, Dragon Quest. Dragon Ball tells a longer story revolving around the boy named Goku and the mysterious balls that are said to grant any wishes to whomever finds and collects seven of them dispersed in the world, known as the dragon balls. The story of Dragon Ball is divided into three parts, of which the first is Dragon Ball, telling the story of Goku from his earliest years up to his adolescent years. Dragon Ball Z is a story of Goku’s adulthood, concluding with Dragon Ball GT, in which Goku becomes a child again due to a malevolent wish by his longstanding enemy.

In the North America, Dragon Ball Z is subdivided into several sagas, each of which are called, Vegeta Saga, Freeza Saga, Android Saga, Cell Saga and Boo Saga, respectively. Here, I will first discuss about the first two sagas, followed by the second two sagas, ending with Boo Saga. This division is not without reason, for I believe each segment of the series is thematically different. For instance, Vegeta and Freeza Sagas are about power, while the Android and Cell Sagas describe more of the philosophy of science. In what follows, I will argue that each segment presents itself as representing the philosophy of Akira Toriyama. Further, I venture to divide these segments according to their themes, to which I might ascribe Political Philosophy to the first two sagas, Philosophy of Science to the second two sagas and Ethics to the last saga.

 

Book I: Vegeta & Freeza Sagas as Political Realism


I: Stars incline but do not necessiate

 

Dragon Ball Z begins with the new introduction of Goku’s son, Gohan. The entire Dragon Ball Z story essentially derives from one incident in the very first episode, when Gohan gets kidnapped by Raditz, one of the four Saiyans left in the whole universe. It turns out that Raditz is Goku’s only brother, and he has come from the outer space all the way to the earth to urge Goku into helping him conquer the universe by force. Such a plan would involve destroying the earth itself and eliminating Goku’s friends along the way. When Goku refused to cooperate, Raditz took Gohan as a hostage so Goku would have no choice but listen to him. A long story short, Goku teams up with his nemesis, Piccolo, to defeat Raditz in order to save his friends and family and the earth.

Now, what is important here is to realize that the seed has already been planted, and everything that happens afterward is naturally contained in the initial offense done by Raditz. It was indeed not Goku’s intent to get involved with any of the events that ensued. However, one may arguably say that the power hungry Saiyan would never have been satisfied with the status quo, hence his involvement was inevitable, although unsolicited. In this sense, Goku’s succeeding journey is termed as soft-deterministic. I think Leibniz’ soft-determinism is very much in accordance with this, for the journey was inclined to happen while not being necessitated to occur. So what seemed like a simplistic catalyst in the anime was in fact dictated by the necessary conditions embedded in the characters themselves. This also explains rather flawlessly with consistency how each event follows one after another. In this way, it was inevitable as much as natural for Goku and Piccolo to have teamed up against Raditz, Vegeta and Nappa came to the earth in order to defeat Goku, and Goku’s eventual triumph over Vegeta, leaving Vegeta in bitter defeat.

Here it is worth while to scrutinize a little more about the situations, for everything that happened in this Vegeta saga is a precondition for what was to happen in the Freeza saga. In order to support my argument that every event in these two sagas happened naturally, one event following after another without any structural jamming, as it were, let me use some historical examples to illustrate how convincing the story development of Dragon Ball Z really is. As I have argued, Gohan’s initial kidnap instigated the successive events that would last for years onwards. Here, the first episode contains everything that was to happen, just as Leibniz’s dictum that ‘predicate is contained in the subject’, so the succeeding events are merely unfolding of the events that have occurred previously. This flow must be naturally determined, i.e. soft-determinism, in order to have a cogent effect.[1] So once again, what seemed rather innocuous kidnapping of Gohan contained in itself Goku’s revenge against Raditz and how Raditz treated Gohan and everyone else naturally increased Goku’s dislike towards Raditz. Of course, the Saiyans qua Saiyans do not care about the feelings of the others, as also seen when Vegeta killed his companion, Nappa. It is ingrained in the philosophy of the Saiyans that they only care about satisfying their own curiosities for fighting and replenishing their hunger for power. Indeed, the Saiyan philosophy is no other than the philosophy of political realism, and as such, it only thinks of itself and its survival. It is essentially self-interested, and always revolves around the self-preservation and nothing more. Let me call this the Primitive Saiyan Philosophy, for Goku’s philosophy is fundamentally different, as we will see. While the Primitive Saiyan Philosophy is individualistic and singularistic in its view (i.e. it does not accept any other idea but its own; there is only one truth, which is its own, etc…), Goku’s Philosophy is pluralistic. Here is contained the seed for empathy and therefore leaves room for ethics. In this way, Vegeta and Goku can be contracted as representing political realism and liberalism.

In summarizing the events in Vegeta Saga, it is Raditz’s independent action that led to Goku’s anger, which led to the bitter defeat of Vegeta in the end. The similarity with the whole sequence of the Great Wars in the 20th century is rather striking, for just as the Austrian prince was killed (an individual, rather politically personal event, which developed into the series of events), which triggered the allied countries to jump into the quarrel, Gohan’s kidnap triggered Piccolo’s reluctant cooperation with Goku in fighting the common enemy. It was, however political, a personal event that happened at the Kame-House in the middle of nowhere that stirred up all the subsequent events. Further, if I may be allowed to reason parallel to the specific historical event of the World Wars, Vegeta’s bitter defeat is likened to Germany’s bitter defeat at the end of the World War I. Vegeta, then, is the embodiment of the philosophy of Adolf Hitler. It is important to note here that Vegeta himself does not represent the historical Hitler, but I emphasize here that I am talking about the abstract ideology that Vegeta adhered to, and likening it to the abstract ideology of Adolf Hitler. In other words, I am not identifying Vegeta as Hitler, but rather, I am identifying the philosophy of Vegeta as the philosophy of Hitler. So it is not a matter of important who actually held such a philosophy, as long as we are clear that it is the philosophy and ideology itself that I am talking about. So, the readers will see sometimes my talking about the philosophy of Vegeta as exercised by another character, Piccolo or Krillin, for instance. I ask the readers not to equate the idea one adheres to with the characters themselves.

For in order to talk about how power behaves, one needs not to attribute players who exercise that power to any specific solid individuals. I am merely using some historical figures in order to illustrate, visualize and somewhat more easily accessible to our imagination. Also, the World Wars are the perfect examples in which each player fought for power and survival. Therefore, I cannot find any other examples that are fairly recent enough that everyone knows about that illustrates the power struggle as clear as as the two World Wars.

Having clarified my intention, let me continue. It makes sense that Vegeta and Nappa came to the earth, then, for the Primitive Saiyan philosophy is self-interested and its interest is acquisition of power and exercising destruction, but why did they have to travel such far away in order just to fight and destroy? It took them 6 months to go to the earth, when in fact they could have exercised their power and enjoyed destruction in their nearby planets? To defeat Goku, who was the only other Saiyan left in the universe? Plausibly, but not enough to drag them out of the edge of the universe to the earth. Here, again, it is their self-interest that piqued their curiosity. Desire for the dragon balls moved them away from where they were, for in order for them not only to survive but also to acquire the absolute power, the use of dragon balls was a necessity for them.

Before moving on further with the plot analysis, it is necessary to briefly go into the historical Hitler since I will be largely drawing upon him as well as the other major events during World War II.

[1] Soft-determinism in this sense differs from hard-determinism in that the former is a natural occurrence, an unfolding events given that the characters have all these qualities, while the latter type of determinism does not care about what qualities each character may have. Hard-determinism is indifferent to external influences, whereas soft-determinism is dictated by the natural phenomena. It is in this sense Leibniz argued that, in soft-determinism, you would not be doing anything contradictory to your character had you done something that you did not in fact do. This is because what you did at a particular moment in life is always a dictation of the natural phenomena occurring not just in you but also around you.

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          Sora no Woto (ソラノヲト) is an animation released in 2010 in Japan. The story is set in an indefinite future, revolving around the five girls’ experiences in a military station located in the small town of Seize. During the course of living as military force at Time-Telling Fortress, each of them undergoes various life experiences that force them to choose what they believe is most important to them. What is distinct about this show is that it takes place in a future where it has undergone a significant discontinuity with the past civilizations, mainly due to continuous warfare. This distinctly ‘new’ future presents us with a unique picture of who we are as human beings. As you can see from the several episodes in the show, it seems that there has not been a complete discontinuity, as is usually the case with similarly situated stories found in movies and other shows. What would the future look like when we only have a disconnected understanding of the world from the past? Would we still act in the similar way or would we lose many traces of what we take to be a human quality, thus proving the socio-philosophical theory that almost all our actions are mere results and consequences of particular circumstances shaped by the society of the era that has given a meaning to itself? In this theory, it would be ridiculous even to talk about what is a human-like action or emotion, since it discounts the possibility of there being any standard ways how humans are to behave. As you have probably guessed it, this show tries to reveal some of the fundamental features of human-ness by creating a world where knowledge is primeval and culture is confused. Only when we see what we would be like in such a world, can we understand the meaning of its proposed thesis: “Someone has told us that the world is ending, but we are living quite happily – at this 1121st Platoon called, Time-Telling Fortress.”[1]

The story is centered around the new trumpeter in the military, a 15-year-old girl named Kanata Sorami. She volunteered to join the Helvetian army believing that she would learn how to play the trumpet for free. This misunderstanding was due to her childhood memory that she saw a beautiful lady in military uniform who played the trumpet so elegantly that her music dissipated the rainy clouds in the sky, as if the sound of the sky itself were to resonate with her performance, bringing back light into the field. Later in the episodes, it is revealed that this lady was Princess Iliya, the Queen of Helvetia. Ever since this experience, Kanata has been fixiated on learning to better her trumpet. So when she was assigned to the 1121st Platoon at Time-Telling Fortress, she knew almost nothing about what her tasks would be in a military. The country of Helvetia, although still under the influence of warfare, had signed a truce for the last six months that the war had not been actively pursued at the moment when Kanata is stationed. All this contributes to the sense in which people in town are generally relaxed, in hopes that the war would soon end. As such, the other members of the 1121st Platoon too are quite laid back, partly because of the truce, and partly because their station is located at the border between their country and the uninhabited area which they call No Man’s Land.

The jobs of the members externally are to observe the safety of the town people as well as informing them of any development on the war. Internally, however, they must always ready to be deployed into the field and receive and manage orders from their superior. This environment situate them as the lowest ranking officers who serve as the police force in the town while they themselves have no authority to make any unorthodox decisions on their own. In other words, they represent ordinary people whose duty is to keep order both in body and soul while busying themselves with mundane errands. Indeed, Kanata and others are usually occupied with non-military related duties, such as going to shopping (for parts that are used to enforce the only tank they own that is broken, but also for food and things used in cultural events, etc.), doing laundry, and taking a hike (to keep them fit). Here, in this circumstance, they are military by name only, and they resemble just as much as non-militia who spend their daily life in order to survive. In addition, the group captain, Felicia, is opposed to hierarchical system in the military that none of the five characters are referred to as superior or subordinates, again, except in name only. This dislike of hierarchy probably results from her past experience in combat, where everyone but her survived. She suffered the loss of her close friends and wondered why they had to die. She was visited by a ghost, a soldier from the past, who told her life is but meaningless series of events that eventually come to no fruition. “What good,” the soldier asks her, “does it do to keep living?” As the ghost suggested, it was probably easier for her to die there. But there, she shows the determination that only the living has – the will to live. This is unique to the living creatures, and the dead has no attachment to life. But her decision was not to live to hate, but to love. She made a conscious decision to live happily, even in the world full of misery. This is evident especially in the episode where she tells us that “there is in fact no meaning whatsoever in the world, that’s why we can make one and give it a meaning.”[2]

This is a striking difference from the other character, Rio, who is also a group-leader figure. Her life philosophy is more pessimistic, and again, this is due to her experience in the past, where she lost her mother as a result of unskilled church physician as well as the loss of her elder sister, who jumped into the river to save a child who was drowning. In a way, Rio represents the distrust and pessimistic aspect in those of us who want to believe in good but our past experiences dissuade us from entertaining the idea. These experiences are likely to be the reasons for her dislikes and distrust in authority, especially of religious order, as she says “she does not like hypocrites” when referring to the members of the community church.[3] But even she seems to value the feelings of others, and she well recognizes her stubbornness when she realizes no one can live by herself.[4] Her prior dislike for children (because of the loss of her sister) too are weakened and reconciled immediately after seeing people suffer.[5] This is indicative of the fact that humans are essentially empathetic to one another. Her pessimistic philosophy on life is always plagued with dilemmas in this way, and although she behaves as though she cares less about other people’s problems, she is in truth afraid that someone might go through the same misery as she has experienced. Her inner conflict, and her stronger side, is manifestly seen when she tells Kanata that “superiors exist so that the subordinates can cause troubles,” and that “it is the job and point of there being rank systems.”[6] Rio eventually comes to reconcile with her past and realizes that one needs to do what one can do with the time that is given to her. That is, as a half sister to the princess, she must continue with the legacy her sister Princess Iliya had left: achieve peace.

Both Felicia an Rio are older in age and experience (though they are both 17) than the other members who are 15 years old. It seems the external fear of warfare does not frighten them any longer, but their issues lie internally with them. Reconciliation with the reality seems to be the primary aspects seen in those characters. But fear factor is a very important, and essential, element in life. After all, this show takes place in the midst of warfare. The general view of fear is represented by Kureha, the gunner of the group. She is proud of having had her father as a war hero and her mother as an experienced military doctor. Both of her parents were lost in the war, and hence she became an orphan at an early age. Her thought and feelings towards war and enemy is thus the representative of the entire citizens in the town of Seize. She is the representative not only because she feels the strong animosity towards the enemy who has destroyed the lives of many, but also because she is in a position to participate in the cause she believes in. That is, by gunning down the enemy at the event of attack. Perhaps, this is no coincident that her character is a gunner – she expresses her aggressiveness in personality and her job. When Kanata speaks, upon discovery of the enemy soldier in Helvetian territory, that “I had imagined [the enemy] to be more like monsters with scary faces” because everyone kept saying the enemy was the source of all evil in the world and that they must win the war to keep the level of civility they possess,[7] Kureha was quick to criticize her as defending the enemy, which is to Kureha absolutely unacceptable. She was also the one to stay closely by the orders from the higher offices until the very end, when Felicia’s principle of “loving than hating” overcomes her.

Noël, the mechanic of the group, is somewhat isolated from the rest of the characters. This is naturally the case when we consider her character – she is a genius who is simply asocial. But her asociality is not to be taken as similar to Rio’s anti-social attitudes. Noël simply is not good at expressing herself, perhaps due to her love for learning rather than interacting, but most likely because of her past ‘accomplishment’ as a genius child. She was gifted with scientific knowledge and understanding that her talent was used to create biochemical weapon that can kill a large number of people instantly. Here is the paradigmatic example of exploitation – exploitation just is the exploiting of the unaware. As a result, Noël comes to suffer all her life from helping the military to create such a devastating weapon as can be used in mass-destruction. Her story is that she has been hiding in this dilapidated platoon at the edge of the world so she would not be found by war scientists who need her cooperation. This is why she broke out into tears and fear when she saw the wounded soldier from Rome whom Kanata and Kureha found. Although she had been asocial for almost all episodes until then, but we see her actively taking care of the wounded soldier with all her effort, forgetting about her usual job as a mechanic, which she loves and would never miss her duty to maintain the now restored tank, Takemikazuchi. When she hears from the soldier that in Rome, the enemy country, there is a person whom people are afraid of, known as ‘Invisible Reaper’, Noël loses herself and responds frantically, as if a mentally ill patient deprived of medication. She discovers that in the enemy country, she is known as a devil and nothing more. This drives her crazy, and she shouts mindlessly in the fortress. As a result, the war-loving commander in chief of the army who came to look for the wounded soldier finds that she is in the fortress along with the enemy. What we learn from Noël’s character is that even in persons who seem indifferent, feeling is overflowing. It is not a suppression of feeling, but seemingly misplacement of feeling. Again, here it makes sense that her task in the group is a mechanical affairs – she is seen identical as the emotionless machines, which can only move predictably, i.e. mechanically. But even when the age where the concept of machines is still rudimental and, because of that, is invincible, she realizes there is something humans have that machines can never have. The realization that machines can be used for good or for evil depending on the person who operates them was, perhaps, the first step for her to stay human and still believe in humanity. Noël asks Kanata at one point that if Kanata thinks machines that have killed countless people are scary. But Kanata responds with her honest self that “not really, because it depends on the person who uses them.”[8] It is only after then that Noël shows interests in things other than machines, as is apparent with her fascination over a pill-bug’s ability to roll into a ball when disturbed.[9]

          I have been purposefully silent about Kanata’s role in the show, for there is so much to unpack. But as can be surmised by the frequent mentioning of her in the above passages, she is an optimist who lives to enjoy life. She loves to get lost because getting lost gives her an encounter with people she would otherwise not have met. She loves every bit of life. She is an eternal optimist but at the same time is only equipped with the knowledge of the world told by others. Hence, her discovery about how similar their enemy look like was an honest expression any human would give in her situation. Her influence on the other members is incalculable. She joined the army believing she could learn to play the trumpet as beautifully as the lady she once saw when she was a child, and even after she has learned to play the trumpet, her life revolves around her love of music. Even in times of war, or because of it, she believes that music is essential – it can convey feelings without the use of language. By the means of music, one can communicate with people from other countries – yes, even people from the enemy countries. That is why she is exhilarated when she hears the wounded enemy soldier plays the trumpet. The soldier plays Amazing Grace in front of her, and she is overwhelmed with joy and happiness – because that is the music the lady she saw as a child played to bring back the light into her heart. Amazing Grace was the only piece of music that she knew (because no other music pieces are left from the past civilizations), and the only music that made sense to her. It symbolized peace and universal language. Her conviction that people are essentially the same everywhere further convinces her that war is unnecessary. For how could anyone who can play such a beautiful music do harm to others? Just like Princess Iliya, Kanata thought, people essentially wished for peace and no one wanted war.

This conviction and her faith in humanity and music would in the end bring Helvetia and Rome together and enable one another to communicate their feelings through music. For ordinary people understood no language of the enemy countries, it was impossible for them to come to understanding. Indeed, the reason why countries in war prohibit enemy country’s language or culture is not only for tactics but so the ordinary people cannot ever understand them. Because once they do, they might realize that we are all the same and people in neither side are pure evil. That this is the case is nowhere evident but when Kanata plays two pieces of music in effort to stop the war. One represents ‘language’, that is, a division made by civilization, while another represents ‘music’, which is the universal and borderless language that speaks to the heart rather than to reason. First, she plays the music of the army code – a sign of cessation of battle, to which some soldiers were confused and did not know whether to advance or not. This is a likely outcome, since such music does not speak to their heart but only to their reason. Reason always aims for maximizing security, and when it receives a signal that is in disagreement with their preconceived notion of what an enemy is, they hesitate. Still, the sense of security dictates their reason that it is better to attack than be attacked – consequently, the music only had a momentous halting influence on the either side of the army. Seeing that no one listened to the warning as prescribed by military code, Kanata decides to play the music that has touched her heart: Amazing Grace. Hearing this, both sides of armies stopped to listen, partly because of confusion but also because they simply dissipated fear in their heart. As this music resounds in the sky, Rio who had left Time-Telling Fortress to persuade both countries to come to an understanding and stop fighting, came with an edict from the Roman Emperor. This resulted in ending the war between Helvetia and Rome.

            This anime, more than anything, tries to show the fundamental features as human beings living in community. It is not, however, all optimism. Even in times of sorrow, this show speaks to us, what is important is how we receive the reality. I want to end this essay with the underlining theme of this show that is spelled out in the beginning. That is, “The world is not full of happiness, nor is it filled with joy. As a matter of fact, it is rather dark and miser. But its reality depends on you. Even beautiful things, ugly things, hard times and fun times, its reality depends on you who receive them.”


[1] Kanata, “episodes 1,” in Sora no Woto, released in 2010.

[2] Felicia, “episode 7”, in Sora no Woto, released in 2010.

[3] Rio, “episode 1”, ibid.

[4] Ibid., episode 3.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Kanat, episode 11, ibid.

[8] Noël and Kanata, episode 4, ibid.

[9] Episode 9, ibid.

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