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Saki_pro1

This is a story from a long time ago.

The story of a girl, mahjong, and one more girl. 

Word has been out already that Ritz and Aguri liked working together enough to start another Saki-related project following the completion of Saki Achiga-hen, but so far we could only speculate on what the new serialization would contain.

Now the cat’s out of the bag – starting from 25th September, the Ritz x Aguri combo will start serializing a new story following the previous mahjong generation, most of whom we know as active pros appearing in the main story.

I am so looking forward to this. Already we have some new information regarding the power balance in the old Saki world, with Ms. Taciturn-pro showing up in a Shindouji uniform. Other things to look forward to:

  • The Legend-Grandmaster-Hayarin-Taciturn square-off featured above – one match to determine the strength tiers of half the known pros
  • Kokaji Sukoya during her ascent – the more we learned about her, the less we understood. Will the past bring us answers?
  • Harue during her prime – what are the limits of the perfect analysis-type player against ability users?
  • The ‘beloved by the tiles’ phenomenon – was it in full swing ten years ago, or is it something unique to the current generation?
  • Middle school Kouko fangirling over her future sweetheart. Harue’s yuru-yuri clubroom past. Come on, it’s Saki.
  • Hints regarding the master plot of the series – is somebody trying to fish out the supernatural players? If so, for what purpose?

Can’t wait till September!

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The Saki universe has two types of mahjong matches: individual and team matches. What we get to see in the anime is mostly the latter. But to be honest, most Saki teams are pretty crappy at doing this “team” thing. Shows like Chihayafuru make it clear that a team battle is something completely different from a set of individual battles, but the tag team matches in Saki often boil down to just that – a series of individual matches with a joint score. Which is not to say that the concept of a team is completely meaningless in the Saki universe. Let’s take a look at how major players in the series took advantage of team tactics (or failed to).

 

Kiyosumi

The good:

  • placing Yuuki as vanguard and thus relieving her from the duty of thinking tactically about point differences (acknowledging and eliminating an individual’s weakness)
  • Hisa concealing Nodoka and Saki’s ability level by having them go last in the team order, making it unnecessary for them to play seriously (or at all) before facing the strongest teams in the regionals
  • Hisa helping develop the skills of all her other teammates

The bad:

  • extreme differences in playing styles and approach to mahjong make it impossible for team members to give each other tactical advice, to the point that Nodoka outright refuses to listen to crucial bits of advice from her team captain

Kazekoshi

Kazekoshi:

The good:

  • positioning matched to work against crucial opponents (vs Inoue Jun); learning from experience 
  • ace in the opening position lets the other team members play a calm, better game
  • team captain offers tactical advice during match breaks

The bad:

  • nobody but the captain ever does anything for the team – with around 80 members, there is nobody in the mahjong club to watch and analyze matches of rival teams in time for it to matter
  • weaker members are completely unable to see the difference in ability between themselves and their opponents, failing to turn to a defensive style when necessary

Tsuruga:

The good:

  • clear awareness of team members’ respective ability levels lets the first three players play a honest “survival-style” mahjong
  • positioning may cause opponents to let their guards down, making them easy pickings for the best players waiting at the end

The bad:

  • the fact that they have to give up three matches to begin with is pretty sad

Ryuumonbuchi:

The good:

  • reliable ace in vanguard position sets the flow of the game in the team’s favor
  • Koromo’s taishou position lets her play at night, at the peak of her ability

The bad:

  • team members put personal issues over victory on a regular basis, Touka to show off, Koromo… for plenty of reasons

Achiga:

The good:

  • Kuro in vanguard position acts like the usual ace against ordinary teams, and as damage control against monsters that outrank her (hands scored against her will be less expensive than average without dora)
  • mentally tough taishou doesn’t let a chance for victory slip by for emotional reasons
  • the coach is one of the most perceptive people in the Sakiverse, providing her team with crucial intel, as well as supporting them through training and other ways

The bad:

  • damage control is all fine and dandy, but it is somewhat questionable if pitting Kuro against top tier opponents all the time is really the best use of her potential 

Senriyama

Senriyama:

The good:

  • as always, a vanguard ace is always a good idea, especially with Toki, who is the most powerful defensive player we have seen to date while being “only” very good on the offense, and therefore more suited to preventing the team form going into minus points rather than gaining back those points as a taishou
  • team members actually adjust their playing style to the point totals in terms of offense/defense, playing cautiously when in the lead (why this is a rarity is beyond me)
  • the team analyzes data of their opponents before a match (sorry Kazekoshi) and adjusts their tactics accordingly

The bad:

  • the coach sets somewhat questionable goals before the team members, pressuring them into making risky decisions (insistence on first place)

Shiraitodai:

The good:

  • reliable ace in vanguard position, backup ace in taishou position (perfect for any team which can afford it)
  • willingness to study their opponents and pick the most “convenient” opponents to leave in-game, if possible
  • team members show the initiative to study the team’s weaknesses and the playing styles of other teams in order to offer suggestions or countermeasures

The bad:

  • the third and fourth player should just kill themselves… or practice playing mahjong without relying completely on their abilities

Shindouji_ani

Considering the above points, the only team that acts like an actual team throughout the entire match is Senriyama. No wonder that they are ranked #2 in the country despite mostly lacking “supernatural firepower”.

But I did leave one team for last – Shindouji.

You see, a team like Senriyama has three ace-level players and their fourth can hold her own easy enough, so they can easily adjust their strategy by evenly shifting the pressure (the necessary points) between several players, not forcing anyone to bite more than they can chew. This also means that there is no need for complicated tactical decisions beforehand or precise role assignments.

Shindouji, on the other hand, only has two players who can comfortably take on monsters, so they are more like Kazekoshi in terms of combined ability level (okay, maybe slightly better). However, this is a team with an idea.

I mentioned above that putting your best players in vanguard and taishou positions is likely the best formation. That is exactly what most strong schools in Sakiverse do. The Shindouji team was made to destroy that formation.

Schools using that formation have weaker players in positions 2-3-4, and the last player (taishou) is their last resort in case something goes wrong. What happens when a school like that goes against Shindouji?

They get a fair share of points by throwing their ace at the sacrificial pawn Hanada. That said, we are talking about somebody who stopped Miyanaga Teru twice, once without the help of supernatural powers (I cannot even imagine what happened in that match). Whatever they get, it won’t last for long. Yoshiko comes next, and her sense of when to go for high point hands and when to go flushing everything down with silent trash hands is great. It might seem like her achievements during the match presented in the anime are not that great, but this is an unprecedented 15.000+ victory of a normal mahjong player over an elite ability user like Sumire. Lieutenant Ezaki might pull through or not (everything depends on the politics), but either way, club president Mairu is hot on her heels. Now comes the scary part. Mairu preying on the weaker vice captains should at best be enough to repair the damage done to Hanada. But the power difference is superimposed doubled on the taishou (captain) match, through Mairu and Himeko’s promised victories (reservation –> key). This is where Shindouji completely breaks the balance where pouring more strength into one battle should result in worse results in another. The more uneven the Mairu matchup is, the easier the next round becomes for Himeko. The taishou match, supposed to be a battle of equals, may very well turn into a slaughter in Shindouji’s favor.

It is indeed beautiful how each member contributes to the team strategy, be it Subara’s sacrificial pawn resolution or Yoshiko’s playing style adjustments against Sumire. But who set all this up remains a mystery. Shindouji’s coach has yet to make a proper appearance, while individual members were not informed about the precise reasoning behind their positioning (Subara was supposed not to know about the reasons behind her selection, Ezaki did not realize why the club president goes fourth etc.) Will we learn more about this team at a later date, or will it remain a mystery forever? Only time will tell. 

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The 13th episode of Saki Achiga introduced us to two new abilities: Sumire’s [Sharpshooter] skill, which aligns her waits with a chosen victim’s predicted discards, and Takami’s [Harvest time], which lets her draw a hand composed of all her initial discards throughout the match in the very last dealing of the game.

Unlike Sumire’s ability, which is quite complex and requires the reader/viewer to make some additional assumptions about its mechanics, Takami’s ability is quite easy to replicate in real life. So how strong is it exactly? I played a few times Takami-style, giving myself 11 chances to collect discards (the same as in the Achiga match).

takami1

First attempt. With a near-guaranteed shousangen (two dragon triples and a dragon pair), and plenty of options leading to a honitsu (one color and honors), this hand should usually result in a haneman hand (12,000 points, or dealer 18,000). A daisangen yakuman (three dragon triplets) is entirely feasible under normal circumstances, but more risky.

takami2

Ugh. Trying to go for wind pairs/triplets left the hand crippled. The daisangen tiles are the same as above, but the odds of going out on this at all are very bad…

takami3

Lesson learned. The third attempt is just asking for a daisangen, with quick runs on the side.

takami4

See above, the fourth attempt can result in daisangen tenpai as fast as during the first go around. Terrifying.

To sum up, Takami’s ability:

  • might sometimes result in a slow hand if the discards are not chosen carefully (but Takami probably has plenty of experience with her own ability)
  • does reliably provide at least a shousangen hand almost every time, with other bonuses possible on the side
  • makes the probability of a daisangen hand ridiculously high

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But! (there is always a but, isn’t there?)

The make-or-break of this ability is whether your opponents know how it works. Attempt four above, which is an almost guaranteed yakuman under normal circumstances, becomes very tricky if your opponents know exactly what you have in hand. Though admittedly, going out with the hand still requires much less luck than drawing into a daisangen on your own…

There’s basically no way to see through this ability on your first try, though. Takami’s discards are almost perfectly natural even as she aims for the eventual daisangen (dropping a dragon tile before discarding non-yaku winds is slightly unusual, but not outrageous), and the contents of her final hand remain unknown to other players as per standard mahjong rules. On average, Takami has to call once to complete her daisangen triplets, but a single call on dragon tiles is something so common that nobody will think about it twice. People will grow wary after a second call, and you can’t really expect a dragon tile to come out after that, but in Takami’s case, that’s all too late.

So the main factor holding Takami back is that she cannot hide her play style and people actually check and analyze her play records, leading to Senriyama and Achiga both realizing the truth behind her ability long before the match. Shindouji does not seem to have this intel, which makes Takami’s life much, much easier in this case.

But as for anti-Takami tactics, I am with the Sera-camp in getting as many points as possible during dealer hands, regardless of the consequences in the final hand. Sure, it is hard to avoid paying up 8.000/16.000 points when Takami starts with 11+ tiles of her choice, but getting that many points or more during two dealer turns solves the problem quite nicely. And even if Takami gets in a win, it might be a ron off another player, not necessarily a tsumo.

Saying that it is fine to let your opponent win a yakuman hand sounds kind of irresponsible, but Takami apparently does not have the basic mahjong skills to make her opponents regret this approach. Usually, a yakuman win in the last hand is enough for a reversal even in quite dire circumstances, but Takami has been losing points left and right throughout the whole match. There is nothing in her ability that could make it difficult for her to take a defensive, cheap and silent hand approach outside her dealer turns (where she wants to call a lot and win quickly if cheaply), so her huge point loss is entirely the result of the difference in ability between her and Sera/Ako.

So Takami’s ability is first-rate, but her poor mahjong skills and the fact that this is an officially sanctioned tournament make it impossible for her to bring out its full potential. That sounds like a good summation of Takami’s threat level… unless she is the final dealer. The final dealer gets to repeat the last hand as many times as they can keep going out… and the very thought is terrifying. Under the right circumstances, Takami might be one of the very few people in the Sakiverse who could give Teru a run for her money in a direct matchup. But first, Takami would have to survive until the last hand…

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Some of you expected me to go gaga over episode 12 of Achiga, and I won’t disappoint. I don’t think a single post is enough to cover all the points of note, so I’ll start things off with the main character.

Onjouji Toki. It goes without saying that she has been overdoing things, taking crazy risks and turning a tile-matching game into a life-or-death ordeal. What I haven’t touched upon in previous posts is that everything she’s done in the Teru match is utter nonsense in terms of helping out her team win the match. Two teams advance to the finals, and there’s basically no way for Toki not to place second if she just bails all teh time. The other players get ronned from time to time, Toki doesn’t. The abysmal probability of her losing second place despite that disappeared when she won the first hand of the match and when Shindouji and Achiga ate one ron each, proving Teru was not aiming to knock out the no.2 seed Senriyama specifically.

The reason Toki’s actions were suicidal, in more ways than one, was because her fight was never about point totals to begin with.

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In the tournament one year ago, Eguchi Sera did not face Miyanaga Teru. But she ended up with a no less painful role. After all, “by the time it was their turn, the match was as good as over.” How did Sera feel, tens of thousands of points behind her opponents and unable to do a thing about it? The powerlessness she felt back then was like what Ikeda Kana experienced in her fight against Amae Koromo – forced to go for high-scoring hands against opponents who could not possibly play into those hands – a merciless quicksand dragging her ever deeper into despair. The existence called ‘Miyanaga Teru’ made everything meaningless – her effort, her determination, her dreams. And when Ryuuka tells Toki of Sera’s sadness, it is because that is easier than talking about her own memories and pain. After all, she went through the same.

Losing happens. They both knew this. They could get over it. There was just one problem. This.

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Osaka is huge. It is 2,871,680 people kind of huge. Those thousands of lights support the students attending Senriyama. The several hundred students take pride in their mahjong club. The several dozen mahjong club members come along for the Nationals to cheer on their regular team. The five member team based its schedule around supporting Onjouji Toki.

Tell those people that Miyanaga Teru is an absolute power and that second place is good enough. Tell them that it wasn’t worth trying. Tell them it wasn’t worth pulling out all the stops.

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Toki risked a lot. But as the champion draws the tile that will cost her 16 000 points, we see her look up. Miyanaga Teru and Onjouji Toki lock gazes – the first time during the match that the champion is forced to look somebody straight in the eyes, acknowledge them. Like Kokaji-pro right now, Teru will remember this match even after ten years have passed. She might not remember Toki’s name, and that’s fine.

Senriyama did it.

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Subara (a.k.a Hanada Kirame)

Exam time over, back to mahjong girls.

 

Saki 11 had more of Teru going wild, Subara’s ‘sacrificial pawn’ one-liner that had many Japanese fans swoon and Toki realizing that yes, the nationals make you do crazy things.

 

It also had Toki and Subara stopping Teru’s East 4 dealer turn.

 

How the two team up and give it their all for a common goal is nothing short of beautiful. First of all, Subara proves herself the best prepared for her match against Teru. Sitting as the next player after the champion, Subara decides to pon her way to victory. Of course, it’s not like she just got a hand full of pairs to begin with and went with the flow – she had to aim for pairs and triplets to begin with, throwing away her sequences. Why pons? Calling a lot makes both her hand and the general flow of the game easier to read for both Toki and Kuro, which is not without meaning. But more importantly, each time Subara calls pon, Miyanaga Teru loses an opportunity to draw a tile. If Subara pons on Toki’s discard, the order ‘resets’ back to Subara’s turn and Toki gets an extra draw. If Subara pons on Kuro’s discard, both Toki and Kuro get an extra draw. If you count in the discards Subara salvaged for her own hand, she gave team Teru Busters ten tiles of advantage while the champion was just sitting there, unable to do a thing. With four more draws to her hand, Toki is finally able to outrun Teru to a tsumo – this is what Toki refers to when saying that Subara ‘allowed her to win.’ And Subara knew this is what she has to do from the very beginning – as she says, she has no choice now that she’s South to Teru’s East. It’s not something you can do with every hand, not even something guaranteed to prove effective every time, but it was a tactic that a powerless human came up with against one of the most powerful probability manipulators of the Saki universe, and it worked. My respect, Subara sempai.

Of course, the reason the tactic worked so beautifully this time around was because Toki was out there being awesome, too. Playing into Subara’s pons while advancing her own hand could be compared to tightrope walking while juggling burning sticks, a feat so fiendishly difficult it seems simply impossible for an ordinary person to accomplish. Then again, Toki is not even close to being ‘ordinary’. Two turns ahead – the power that brought the Senriyama Ace to the brink of exhaustion ideally giver her pon / not pon information on eight different tiles ahead of time – that’s almost a fourth of the entire tile set! And all the while, Toki gets exclusive info about the tiles that will and won’t come on her draws, further accelerating her own hand. With the double boost provided by Subara’s tactics and her own ability, it is no wonder Toki was able to break through the stream of Teru’s endless strikes.

 

And yet, this victory was not what Toki really wanted. Sorry Shindouji, I couldn’t see your last tile. And what does Subara do in response? She flips her last remaining tile face down. It doesn’t matter. That was marvelous.

 

Now, hiding a losing hand before shuffling for the next hand is nothing uncommon. It’s often considered bad manners to brag about your would-be winning hands, and there’s usually little reason to give your opponent more info about your playing style than necessary. But just as discard do, this simple action can have deeper significance in Saki. Kajiki Yumi wordlessly hides her one-away from tempai kokushi musou hand that could have been the key to her victory over Saki and Koromo. Nearly winning doesn’t count. Hisa flips her tiles face down before Saki can draw her winning tile in their Individuals match, already knowing what’s to come and admitting defeat. That’s as far as I go.

Subara doesn’t know exactly how Toki’s ability works, but she understands enough – ‘Sorry, I couldn’t see your last tile.’ Onjouji Toki wanted to play into Subara’s hand, but couldn’t. Was one of the tiles in my winning hand the one Shindouji needed to go out? That’s the question lurking in Toki’s mind as she claims victory. Not her victory, their victory, even if the heartless point totals say something else. But Hanada Kirame understands. She flips her last tile down and buries the answer to the question in darkness until the match is all over and they go their separate ways. It doesn’t matter. That was marvelous.

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Today, we’ll be delving somewhat deeper into episode 8 of Saki, Achiga-hen. As opposed to last time, we’ll have to make do with relatively few pictures of cute girls playing mahjong in this post. Instead, there’ll be plenty of mahjong tiles involved (not much of an equivalent exchange, is it?)

Today’s question is: “What was so surprising in Yumi’s play against the Matsumi sisters, and how was it an effective strategy?”

Pictured above is the hand Yumi completed in her match against the Matsumi sisters. That particular hand ended with a small but elegant ron for Kajiki, scoring 1300 points from Matsumi Kuro. Now, if you’re a mahjong amateur like me, you might get the mistaken impression that Yumi was intentionally gunning for Kuro and that changing her wait to something that the younger Matsumi sister was likely to discard was all part of the plan… but that’s not exactly the case.

First, let’s start with Yumi’s hand, pictured both below and above. The third five-bamboo tile is Yumi’s draw for the current go-around and the dora tile for the round is the two-bamboo tile (as indicated by the one-bamboo tile in the picture above).

Yumi’s hand, while nothing to write home about, at least meets the conditions for the no terminals and honors yaku, so she can go out on it without declaring riichi, which Yumi decides to do by keeping silent (so-called damaten ). In real-life mahjong, keeping silent here would also be a smart choice, as Yumi’s hand has the potential to become stronger without making significant changes to it. Drawing an additional four-bamboo, for example, gives her the two identical sequences yaku, and there’s always the two-bamboo dora tile fitting nicely into one of her sequences.

But first things first, Yumi has to decide which tile to discard at the end of her turn. And obviously, she’ll discard the eight-bamboo to get the hand pictured below, right?

This setup allows Yumi to go out on three tile types total: the 2,5 and 6 of bamboo. It also allows her to switch her wait in case she draws the four-bamboo and wants to try for the two identical sequences yaku mentioned above. Everything is just perfect.

Except, Yumi doesn’t seem to agree. She discards the six-bamboo instead, leaving herself waiting for only one tile, the seven-bamboo. (see above)

Points to consider:

Was Yumi too distracted with Momo to play Mahjong properly?

How did Yumi adapt to playing against Matsumi Yuu?

How did Yumi adapt to playing against Matsumi Kuro?

Yuu’s hand

Starting with Matsumi Yuu, we know that her ability significantly increases the probability of her drawing warm tiles and, as a result, reduces the probability of her opponents drawing warm tiles. The disruptive effect of the ability is weaker than the pull effect, as the same deviation is divided between three players, but it is by no means insignificant. Additionally, Yuu appears to have two stages to her ability that she can trigger at will: the focused and powerful one where she draws in mostly the character and red dragon tiles, and a more widespread one drawing in all kinds of warm tiles. Data for her ‘stage one’ stands out significantly, and it is possible she uses it more often than the second one, unless cornered and in need of a defensive solution.

Having access to about as much data as Senriyama’s lieutenant, Kajiki Yumi came to the same conclusion – the only way to build an effective hand against Matsumi Yuu is to give up on character tiles and make hands based on pin and bamboo tiles. Quickly discarding character tiles for a pin and bamboo combination, as seen in Yumi’s discards above, was a strategy also used by Senriyama’s second player to get around Yuu’s stage one ability.

Kuro’s hand

Kuro, on the other hand, is all her older sister is turned up to eleven. Her ability drastically improves her odds of drawing dora tiles and also eliminates the possibility of any other player drawing a dora tile. While the show’s presentation concentrates on the offensive aspect of the ability as it is easier to appreciate, the average hand value of people playing against Kuro is lower than usual thanks to the second part of her ability. Actually, against opponents playing in accordance with probability and common sense, like Nodoka, Kuro has reasonable odds of preventing them from completing their hands in the first place!

But this is where Yumi shines. The 2,5 and 6-bamboo tiles offer at most twelve tiles as opposed to the four tiles of the 7-bamboo wait. After removing the hand and discard tiles visible to Yumi, the ratio is 7:4. However, Yumi realizes the following three points:

  • two-bamboo is the dora tile for the current round and it is impossible for anyone but Kuro to draw it
  • the only five-bamboo tile left is the red five-bamboo, which counts as a dora and it is impossible for anyone but Kuro to draw it
  • regardless of the state of her hand, Kuro will not discard any dora tile she draws

As such:

There is no possibility whatsoever that any of the five tiles will be drawn by Yumi or discarded by any player.

The actual odds for the waits are not 7:4, as it seems, but 2:4, and the ‘obviously superior choice’ is in fact a trap that is little better than a hell wait.

Surprise!

To sum up, Yumi can’t predict that Kuro will draw the seven-bamboo, much less that she will discard it. Yumi’s brilliance lies in acknowledging the disruptive effects of the Matsumi sisters’ abilities and finding the most effective moves in the abnormal probability zone the two produce, especially when together. With time, the friends and family of the Matsumi sisters probably developed habits that let them play effectively in those irregular circumstances, but Yumi proved to our heroes that top-ranked players who face Yuu and Kuro for the first time can and will adjust their playing styles based on research alone.

…and understanding.

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There is a story out there about a group of girls achieving their dreams through mahjong. It is a story where hope and hard work open the path toward a miracle.

 

Achiga is not that story.

 

Achiga is the story of girls who refuse to blink even as their faces are battered by torrents of merciless rain. A story about the young learning how to pick up the pieces of a broken dream.

Kajiki Yumi:”And I thought to myself, how would I play against you?”

Investigating the play-styles of people whom she was unlikely to ever play with after her school’s defeat.

Fukuji Mihoko: “The most I can do for these girls is to go all out against them.”

The captain who couldn’t lead her team to victory even as she herself took first place in the individuals, now reaching her hand out to those who were to be her competition.

Arakawa Kei: “Miyanaga Teru… isn’t human.”

Second place at individuals, coming back for more even when knowing the odds.

Sagimori Arata: “You won’t ask where we went?”

Fear of betrayal, strongest in those who have already tasted the pain of disappointment.

Takakamo Shizuno: “But a second time… is too painful…”

The first time at a loss for words, torn between what she wants and what she believes to be right.

Shimizudani Ryuuka: “No, nothing’s wrong.”

A sleepless night in the awareness that she’ll be using her best friend as a shield against something she couldn’t stop herself.

Matsumi Kuro: “Leave it to me!”

Meeting with Onjouji Toki in the corridor and exchanging no greetings. What words do you offer to the person who destroyed you just a few days before?

Akado Harue: “If I could just return to that place…”

Sending her protege off to battle. But are her eyes following the students of Achiga, or are they glued to announcer Kokaji-pro, the monster that taught her true despair ten years ago?

Hanada Kirame: “Miyanaga-san gave me a good beating last time, but I’m not losing today!”

A vanguard fulfills their duty towards the team. And if that duty is to be crushed in a hopeless battle…

In other words, this bright and fluffy episode was in fact thick with fear and unease. We see those who could and those who couldn’t stand up after experiencing defeat. We follow the steps of those facing imminent destruction…

If you have ever wondered why Shizuno is the main character of this show, this episode might just hold the answer.

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