It was expected after the cliffhangers we left on last week, but it's still astounding just how much goes down in this episode of Granbelm. It practically feels like two whole episodes, not just in amount of content but in structure: Kuon's part of the story is dealt with in the first half, and it's not until the second half that we round back to deal with Mangetsu's recently-revealed situation. If you're more interested in the latter part than the former, that could create some frustration in how it's immediately put on the back-burner, though in fairness to the story, Kuon fighting Suishou is definitely made clear as the more urgently-pressing issue.
It turns out to be a distinctly depressing deadline as well. Kuon may have her sister's spirit guiding her, and a whole host of magical mecha tricks that remain an absolute blast to watch, but she still turns out to be no match for Suishou's raw, plot-driving enigmaticness. Amidst all the other backstory and plot revelations that drive this episode, Kuon's death was still the most shocking moment for me, selling itself as a horrible point where everything goes wrong just as it seemed to be set up perfectly for our heroes. One thing that helps drive this, I believe, is how Kuon's plot covers relatively little ground thematically that wasn't already laid bare in last week's big blowout. We're fully up on Kuon's motivations and the advantage she thinks she has over Suishou, so all that's left is to root for her in taking the villain down. The only real new thrust comes from seeing how willing Kuon is to go for the actual kill against Suishou, especially in contrast to how reluctant we remember Shingetsu was to use lethal force on Anna. Which makes it a dire dose of irony that this provides Suishou the opportunity to turn the tables on Kuon.
Kuon's death works wonderfully as a tragic shock-value moment to catch the audience, but it does initially come off like a bit of an anticlimax. Given how much time was afforded to Kuon's plot, the reason for her rivalry with Suishou, and the mechanics of the plan her and her sister ended up enacting, it feels like a waste to cut all that with a tragedy and no real resolution for Kuon herself. Fortunately, the last moments of this episode make clear that the storyline definitely hasn't gone away, and at another angle, it oddly fits in with the idea of other shortchanged characters like Anna seemingly living and dying purely for pathos of the foremost main characters Shingetsu and Mangetsu, which ends up tying thematically with the latter half of this episode's more unexpected revelations. As well, the way Suishou survives Kuon's stabbing attempt just further calls into question exactly what she is, continuing as one the main driving mysteries here.
But then the question we're all really still asking halfway through the episode is what the heck is going on with Mangetsu. At first the explanation seems to be overtly, frustratingly simple: She is a magical doll, created by Magioconatus and dropped into the world and everyone's memories to serve as a companion for Shingetsu in response to her wish for a friend. It explains her proximity to the proceedings and aptitude for magic well enough, as well as the long-present elephant in the room regarding Mangetsu and Shingetsu's names being so similar. But as with Kuon's death this episode, the explanation for Mangetsu feels dropped in a bit abruptly, quickly giving way to her own immediate three-car pile-up of tragedy with her former family forgetting her as she begins to fade from the world. The ‘Why’ of her existence gets teased out even further as it has to dovetail into revelations about the Granbelm itself and how much Shingetsu has to do with it.
Everything we were told about the Granbelm before being upended isn't terribly unexpected in a series like this, though I question whether where it's all going will have that same level of overly-familiar structure, and if it will be worth it, for better or for worse. Right now what we know about the system makes it feel just a bit too much like yet-another dark Magical Girl system set up in a series like this to harvest sad emotions. We know that ‘it isn't what it seems’, but for now that just seems articulated as a vague allusion to what our heroes will have to come together to take down by the end. The more interesting implications come from Suishou appearing to imply that this was all set up not to generally exploit mages, but specifically for Shingetsu: That she's somehow already been chosen as the Princeps mage and the Granbelm exists to test her, to make sure she's ready for the role. But bolstered as it is by terrific presentation (the show has a clear love for how Suishou is directed in scenes) it's still left as just-barely articulated vagaries for now that the characters have yet to reckon with.
That's especially clear at the very end, as Mangetsu continues to lament her newly-revealed non-existence. It's relegated to just a few final minutes, with so much else occurring in this episode, but even with this new context that should change everything, it comes across less like Mangetsu's whole world coming apart and instead merely an intensifying of her previous ‘nothingness’ complex. That could be the point, of course, though it feels weird to not have her focus at all on being cut off from the people she knew as family or the friends she's already lost in battle, to turn inwards to a purely existential crisis. It reinforces the issues Mangetsu's character has always had with feeling surprisingly self-centered. But as I said, this is only the last minutes of the episode, and a surprise appearance by Kuon's sister, Shisui, of all people, indicates that more intricate elements of Mangetsu's situation could yet be explored, and that the Tsuchimikado sisters' contributions to the story are far from cut off.
Granbelm seems to be thriving on the sheer number of twists and surprises it's crammed into the last few episodes, but while they make the plot feel more intricate and keep us guessing, they also crowd each other out. The series is doing its best to make these revelations work in short bursts by also making them evocative, and the show still looks so great that it can get away with that. It alternates emotive, bombastic robot battles and moody dialogue-driven direction expertly. I'm giving it the benefit of the doubt for now, but with all these new twists coming to a head, it needs to find space to let them breathe and really explore what it means for these characters beyond their immediate emotive reactions. And it needs to give us clear explanations sooner rather than later, so we can begin to conclude what ideas this story is driving at amongst all this admittedly well-planned worldbuilding.
Granbelm is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.