So, if you read last week's blog post, I won't have to remind you how happy I am to see the series returning to the subject of Dusk Taker. Carrying on the strong declarations of the previous episode, we see Haru putting his plan into action - namely recruiting Niko, the Red King 'Scarlet Rain', to train him and Taku in using Incarnate abilities. Her reintroduction is reminiscent of her introductory episode: she reappears a chipper elementary schooler under an umbrella, practically squeaking as she answers Haru's call for help.
The relationship between Haru and Taku is still bubbling over from last episode. The dynamic seems to have shifted more in favour of Haru as the stable one, with Takumu becoming a lot more sensitive to - well, everything. For instance, the bus scene shows Taku is taking a lot of Haru's depression on his own shoulders. When Haru confesses to the circumstances of the 'video camera' incident - being tricked into entering the girls' shower room by Nomi's virus - Taku feels responsible for the current situation. After all, the virus came through his emails. His sense of resposibility is understandable; his reaction in this scene, however, seems exaggerated. His request for Haru to punch him seems a little out of place in the Accel universe. Couple this with his passionate gestures, and Taku is seeming less and less like the ace figure that he was at the beginning. He comes off as effeminate, especially when he clasps Haru's hand, and without the accompanying dialogue it looks like propositioning. Just ask the female onlookers in the scene.
Anyways, homoerotic subtext aside, we move from that scene to the coffee shop where Niko is waiting. There are echoes of Niko's previous introduction as the aggressive switch is flipped. Hearing the trash-talking voice after a few minutes of her saccharine voice is strangely reassuring. Her cutesy 'normal' voice sounds a fake by comparison - although that's probably intentional on the part of the studio, highlighting Niko's inability to connect with people.
Niko is able to secure a wi-fi proof room in the back of the cafe, thanks to her connections with the 'maid' who runs the shop, and our protagonists use an unlimited burst to begin further Incarnate training. The details of the Incarnate system itself are mostly the same as in Sky Raker's tutorial a few episodes back - an technique using visualisation to break the normal boundaries of the game. However, a few important limitations are mentioned. We are referred back to the plot point that an avatar is a weaponised version of a Linker's weakness; Niko confirms that unless a Linker can overcome a weakness completely, certain skills are forever out of their grasp. For Niko, her conflict with people getting close to her means she cannot use Incarnate to improve her strength or armour. This weakness prevents growth, and is the subject of Taku's training.
After being so vague about his avatar origins, we're finally shown the reason behind his weakness. Like Haru, Taku was bullied by his seniors, and was often stabbed with practice swords at his kendo club. This led to Cyan Pile's creation: an armoured fighter with a long range weapon that stabs others. Now, to succeed at his Incarnate training, Taku must learn to get closer to his opponents and overcome his trauma.
After an absence of the psychological aspect of Accel World, it's good to see that this element is reemerging, even at this late point in the series. Although it is ostensibly a 'battle series', I felt that linking character growth and trauma into the plot gives the story a unique identity. In order to win, a Linker must become a better person - or at least, more true to themselves. I'm glad to see that this aspect is resurfacing here.
So while Taku spars with Niko, Haru goes to find more information about Dusk Taker, and find out how Nomi is able to issue stealth challenges. Or rather, Haru gets dragged around for the rest of the episode by the maid character. She's identified as Blood Leopard, and like a wild cat carrying its young, Leopard carries Haru around by the scruff of his neck for most of the episode. She's an emotionless figure - as calm on the motorbike journey as she is in a net cafe. Haru and Leopard dive into a neutral ground in Akihabara, to investigate a gambling arena based around Brain Burst. It doesn't take long for them to find out about an unusual challenger, who will never show up on the register. This challenger is called Rust Jigsaw...
...and the episode ends.
Episode 20 left me gushing, so I had been prepared for the possibility that 21 would be less impressive. In some ways, it underperforms - it's nice to meet Blood Leopard, but her emotionless state leaves her character indistinct. That might be alright in her second or third appearance, but introductions are everything for supporting cast. Leopard is less an enigma, and more undefined window dressing. However, Niko injects some pace, comedy and plot into the proceedings. It's a well balanced episode, and it provides a segway into the next episode.
Grand Verdict Good, but not without some problems.