Well, they left it in for a change – Jonah’s voice-over narration that is. This was one of his more critical internal monologues, sort of the acid test of whether the device was going to be abandoned altogether or just pared back. I’m very glad they did – especially because in a series so reluctant to offer any exposition, Jonah’s speech this week was a rare open book to the viewer. In it, he reveals a “dim realization” you may have already noted yourselves – Jonah wears a mask around Koko, not smiling to cover up his happiness. Koko wears a mask by always offering a smile to the world, covering up the darkness roiling inside her.
On the whole, this was probably the most breathtakingly perfect episode of Jormungand so far. The manga arc it covers is a great one, but the nut of it is that this is the anime’s most successful and balanced episode. It balances the focus on Team Koko’s interactions with the overarching plot, and the plot itself is probably the clearest and most riveting so far. For a change, we know exactly what’s happening – HCLI is being paid a fortune to transport ten “Outspoken Doctors for Human Rights” – ODH for short – into Area X inside Republic T, an autonomous region in the Balkans riven by constant war and ethnic cleansing. And the big dog in Area X is Dragan Nicolaevich, leader of the Balkan Dragons militia – a gang of Serbian-sponsored paramilitary that has the local professional military squarely under their thumb. And Sir Dragan is none too pleased to have a bunch of nosy, goody-goody doctors interfering in “his” republic.
It’s relatively rare in Jormungand to have a plot that straightforward, and it adds some real urgency to the events of the episode – but before that there’s the matter of Team Koko’s interplay. Honestly, I could just watch the ten of them interact all day – that’s Jormungand at its very best for me. The dialogue between them is astonishingly natural for such an extreme series. Aside from Jonah’s moment of refection this introductory phase of the ep is loaded with many additional important character moments and revelations. We see Jonah quite happily frolicking in the sea, being tossed like an Olympic hammer by the various team members (all of whom are buff as any soldiers, including Jonah – who’s alarmingly cut for a little kid), who also reveal that Valmet’s beauty isn’t unnoticed by the male members of the team (though caution is clearly the order of the day, as Renato (Konishi Katsuyuki) finds out). There’s also a nice moment when Koko swims out to look after Jonah, who’s drifted far off the beach, and tells him that the lovestruck mermaid dragging him out can’t have him – he’s “all hers” – to which Jonah roundly blushes.
It’s an odd moment, but an oddly warm one too – as Jonah’s bond with Koko is strange by any standard, much as all these bonds are. Yet there’s a real power to the ties than bind Team Koko that comes through at all times. We also get an interesting reveal – Lehm was married to Chiquita, not just once but several times, and that both were bodyguards for Koko’s father Floyd. That bombshell comes courtesy of Mao (Shinomiya Gou) the latest team member to take his turn in the spotlight. He’s a “nothing special” solider, an artilleryman from an Asian country drummed out of the service after a training accident and hired by Koko at three times his army salary. He’s the only member of Team Koko with a wife and kids, and he’s lied to them about what he does. Koko approves, because “we’re all doing the devil’s work. Only a fool would take pride in that.” Yet she also tells Mao to always be proud of teammates. It’s seemingly contradictory, much like the family relationships that exist in the team – yet one senses that Koko’s means what she says, and you can’t deny that those family relationships exist. In the end, all of this personal exposition plays into Jonah’s hands as the student outsmarts the teacher yet again, stalling his way out of a lesson until the dinner bell rings.
If it seems odd for HCLI to be transporting the ODH doctors, in the end it’s all about the money. A company doesn’t get enough money to own its own C-130 transport planes by turning down high-paying jobs, and the orders to take this one came from over Koko’s head. Team Koko has a bad track record with air-based assignments, and both Lehm and Koko have serious reservations about “walking into a gunpowder plant and lighting a cigarette.” Flying NGO’s into places where the government denies them entry is a dangerous business, and it’s easy to spot trouble on the horizon (especially as Koko won’t shut up her bragging about how there’s “no jinx”). That doesn’t stop Koko from showing Jonah the wonders of seeing the world from the nose of a C-130 – one sense’s that this is the real education she hopes to share with him, that such wonders exist everywhere in the world. And Jonah bonds with Margeurite “Maggie “ Messner, a kind-hearted doctor who heartbreakingly tells her colleague the truth of the matter – that “cute little boy soldiers” like Jonah are the reality of battlefields all over the world.
There haven’t been many occasions where I’d really felt worried for the safety of Koko and the team up to this point in the story – the absurdity of most of the situations lent them a certain feeling of safety. But because the stakes are so clear here, the players so clearly defined, fear was in the air the moment the C-130 touched down. Even as Koko’s smile never wavered after Sir Dragan showed up, obviously tipped off about the ODH presence on the plane, it was clear bad things were afoot. And when the Doctor in charge of the group, Rivière, decided to leave their hiding place to speak with Dragan personally (somehow, I knew he would) the shit really hits the fan.
This is about as gritty, tense and realistic as anime gets – making you care deeply about the characters, then putting them in harm’s way. It all felt more real than it ever has in Jormungand this week. It’s easy to see why human cargo is not Koko’s first choice, because humans will disobey instructions and behave unpredictably, where weapons will sit quietly in the hold until they’re offloaded – as long as you’re careful with them anyway. For all the smiles, all the fun and games, these are people doing an incredibly dangerous job – and the reality of that never hit home as sharply as it did this week. Taken as a whole, I think this was Jormungand’s finest hour as an anime so far, and one of the best episodes of any anime this season.