Two eps in a row without Onoda, apart from a cameo and the omake this week? It’s a stretch, especially given that we’ve only got three more episodes left until the hiatus, but this whole inter-high arc is taking on a very Hunter X Hunter quality of late. Abandon the MC right after his most dramatic moment – why not? If your supporting cast is good enough it can work – and while the Yowapeda supporting cast isn’t on a par with “Chimer Ant” it’s still pretty darn good. Midousuji isn’t my favorite among that group but this was probably his most interesting episode to date.
The drama is playing out at many points along the course here, though perhaps the most inherently dramatic story – that of Onoda’s heroic quest to drag Tadokoro back to the field (whoops, there goes another rubber tree plant…) is seen only in passing (and not on the left). At long last Naruko and Makishima have caught up to Kinjou and Imaizumi, meaning Sohoku at least is a band of four now – though they’re still short-handed against Kyoto Fushimi and Hakogaku as well as new foe Kumamoto Daiichi, who passed with a full squadron of six. And we find out later that the reason the two Sohoku trailers have caught up is because Imaizumi temporarily abandoned the race, forcing Kinjou to pull up and talk him into riding again.
Talk about a study in contrasts, that’s Imaizumi and Kinjou here. Imaizumi is seriously jeopardizing the team with his immaturity, not for the first time during the event either – I know he’s a first-year, but look at the way Onoda and Naruko have comported themselves for comparison. But Kinjou is the model of moderation here, maybe too much so – but it seems that he did manage to get Imaizumi’s head out of his own ass and back into the race (though he merely trails the other three Sohoku riders and looks sorry for himself). And when Naruko simply can’t pull anymore and Imaizumi refuses to answer the bell, the ace steps up to take a turn pulling the team himself – definitely the right move under the circumstances, with Kyofushi and Hakogaku pulling farther ahead. When the Kumamoto captain brings the news that Onoda has indeed brought Tadokoro back to the pack, Kinjou decides there’s enough reason to hope that it makes sense to try and salvage the day.
There is a downside for Hakogaku and Kyofushi in letting their sprinters contest the checkpoint – their own trains are down to five members, and that might it a tad easier for the chase teams to stay close. There’s a bit of interplay between Midousuji wannabe Mizuta-kun and the Hakogaku third-years, but the camera mostly focuses on the two in front – and it’s an interesting mental and physical duel between Shinkai and Midousuji. Superficially they could hardly be more opposite, but we’ll see by the end of the episode that they share more in common than Shinkai would probably like to admit.
Midousuji is indeed pretty close to the supervillain threshold at this stage, and as such he’s always got another surprise up his sleeve (or under his shorts). The first of them is that his panic attack has been a ruse – “Oscar material” indeed, as Shinkai calls it (and that’s a literal translation) – he’s been playing possum, and he certainly had Shinkai fooled. But that’s just the beginning – at this point Midousuji pulls the same stunt he pulled on Imaizumi, more or less, and plays head games with his rival. This time he pulls a rabbit out of his hat – it turns out he does indeed research his opponents thoroughly. Not only does he know all about the bunny tragedy that stalled Shinkai’s career, but he knows (and now so do we) that as a result of the rabbicide Shinkai has a block about passing on the left. He certainly plays hardball, this one.
This is obviously pretty scummy behavior, but Midousuji is here to be the bad guy, not a subtle and complex character (and that’s not a strength of the writing, in truth). But he has become a rather fascinating freakshow, and his skeeviness does have a sort of Platonic ideal to it. Faced with this challenge Shinkai wavers, hesitates, falls back – but eventually he unleashes the “Oni of Hakone“, the straight-line demon that he was before his setback, and he’s almost as freaky as Midousuji in that mode. I actually think this is Midousuji’s strongest moment in the series, because after Shinkai blows by him – on the left – he realizes his plan has failed and he’s going to have to rely on his talent. And it’s easy to forget, he has a ton of that – he’s really, really fast. Rather than caving he responds in kind to Shinkai’s transformation (the restraining bands around his quads were a nice touch) and unleashes his own massive burst of speed. This is what we haven’t seen from Midousuji yet – a straight-up battle of strength and will, and it can only do the character good.
Once that checkpoint is settled (I’m not sure who I expect to win, but I’m leaning Shinkai) those two will undoubtedly fall back and wait for their teams, and that will turn the attention to Sohoku’s daunting challenge of trying to stay in touch with the leaders with a fragmented team, and do so without bleeding themselves (and Kinjou) dry on the second day. We have three more eps left, and presumably the season break will come at the end of the second day. Also, this is definitely one of those weeks where the omake is a must-watch, for it provides evidence that the disease is indeed spreading..