OWLS is a group of content creators who promote acceptance of all individuals regardless of race, nationality, gender, sexual orientation, religion, and disability. We emphasize the importance of respect, kindness, and tolerance to every human being. Every month we discuss real-world topics through online tours, sharing personal experiences and analyzing pop culture, literature, and other forms of media.
Excited to (finally) get my second OWLS post up and running – we’re looking at ‘Folklore’ and the Supernatural for August – thanks again to the team for the opportunity to jump in 🙂
Witch Hunter Robin (2002)
Witch Hunter Robin was released right around a ‘heyday’ for live-action Supernatural television. In the late ‘90s, shows like Sabrina,Charmed, Buffy, Angel and the X-Files were reigning kings here (doubtless in the US too) and I think traces of those shows are clear in this series.
On the other hand, in anime, the Supernatural sub-genre has probably been more consistently popular, independent of US trends, but Witch Hunter Robin has plenty of European mythology and ‘US crime show’ mixed into its Japanese setting. You could argue, perhaps that it’s a bit like another Sunrise anime, Cowboy Bebop, in that respect (only).
And there are definitely a few production aspects that lock Witch Hunter Robin into that time-period too, but while one of them is a mark against the show, I’m considering most of them as drawcards, rather than issues 😀
Okay, so here’s a tiny note on the premise: the series follows young witch-hunter Robin of Italy, as she adjusts to the STN-J, a sophisticated and powerful organisation tasked with capturing rogue witches… and innocent people who have yet to manifest their powers.
Now, since I tend to think of myself as maybe slightly favouring Concept over Execution, I really enjoyed the PKD ‘pre-crime’ aspect to Witch Hunter Robin. And while what happens to witches and ‘seeds’ in the series is sadly similar to what authoritarian governments continue to do to minorities, I’d have loved a bit more critique of that system… still, it’s hardly glossed over.*
Visually, the anime makes me think of a slightly grimier noir. It’s an aesthetic that I could maybe argue that Grunge helped popularise, and which extended into the 2000s… or perhaps I’m reading too much into that, and it’s more apt to consider it as something director Murase Shukou likes to use?
In any event, if you enjoyed that and certain other things about his works (like Ergo Proxy, Gangsta and even Genocidal Organ) well, they also appear to varying extents here in Witch Hunter Robin. Especially I think, a fondness for shadow, of dark coats, mysteries and ‘slow’ pacing.
So, I just alluded to the pacing, and in terms of the ‘main’ storyline – you will have to wait a bit for it to really kick-in. There’s a fair establishing phase where ‘monster of the week’ plots provide the action and world-building, and only small hints of the big picture, interspersed with quieter moments for Robin and other characters.
The series does build up to something big, but depending on your general familiarity with science-fiction and supernatural tropes, I think you’d see most of those things coming. But I was hooked on the characters and the tensions between them so that was no problem for me.
Most folks in the team have their secrets and even some of the minor characters too, and so there’s definitely time spent there, which I liked. In fact, my favourite episode or moment was probably the one focusing on ‘Master’, the cafe owner – and if I think about it now, he probably makes a bigger impact than a few of the leads.
So, as I sometimes do – I’m switching to dot points in a hopeless token gesture toward brevity:
Unpacking and dealing with some of the issues and discoveries Robin and her partners faced did seem compressed toward the end, and so I can see that as a flaw, even if it didn’t bother me too much personally.
Robin herself is kinda morose, though she’s not without spark. But her (maybe) obvious depression is sort of echoed elsewhere in the series, and so I definitely consider it a feature rather than a bug.
It’s interesting how little in the way of dialogue Robin has in some episodes, you have to read into a lot from her expressions, which are also repressed.
While this isn’t a typical action anime, I noticed that the animation for those scenes at times didn’t always feel fluid compared to other shows.
CGI. Above any other issue here, I suspect a modern audience might have trouble with this one. It definitely adds to the general grimy and downbeat tone of the series, though most of it has aged quite poorly. Just two years later, things would be looking better in say, Ghost in the Shell: Innocence, but neither anime resembles a new series with a high budget. Maybe it’s part of the charm for me, but it’s fascinating to note this would have been cutting edge in 2002. How fast technology moves, right?
The aspects around witchcraft, folklore and lineage was something I would have liked more of, and maybe that could have happened with a second season… but on the other hand, I like where Witch Hunter Robin ended too.
Character design stood out for me, as did costuming – even Robin’s courier moments. Mostly, I suspect I enjoyed all the ‘coats’ – not just your classic dark trench for the STN-J, but Robin’s more complex outfit or Nagira’s white fur, which really catches the eye.
Nagira himself quickly became a fav too, especially when Amon seems to occupy the role of ‘jerk’ for a little too long.
The opening song was pretty ace, very much of the era, and within the series itself I liked the sombre piano to Robin’s theme. While I mostly remember that piece, there’s also Flame which is plenty dramatic.
And finally, it’s recommendation time!
You’ll see that I’ve rated it the series a ‘5’ but that’s me – if you’re not me, which is pretty likely, then you might not enjoy this as much as I did.
Especially if you have trouble with old CGI or pacing that’s more Mystery than Action, or if you are drawn to more upbeat lead characters. However, if you like other works of Murase Shukou, noir-influenced supernatural shows, leads who are not precisely ‘open books’, then this might just appeal.
*[Bit of a spoiler perhaps] Nagira, who appears as the Yakuza lawyer, and who operates essentially as a criminal, is the one advocating for and protecting ‘seeds’ in Witch Hunter Robin.
And in an all too common reflection upon real life – you have a large corporation with government-level surveillance and a militant arm, which is obsessed with order and control, and thus ‘becomes’ the true villain.
And while Robin at first works for them, and maybe believes in their mandate, she eventually comes to rail against it all, with Nagira’s help.
Here’s a few examples of where the CGI reveals its age:
And now a few extra shots because I wanted to add them, basically 😀
Tokyo Babylon (Tokyo Babylon: A Save Tokyo City Story) 1992-1994
Hello! Today I’m hosting a collaboration with Curtis from Iridium Eye Reviews – our second, actually! We first reviewed Satoshi Kon’s Tokyo Godfathersand today we’re going into the supernatural and the occult with CLAMP’s Tokyo Babylon, which can be seen as a bit of a prequel to X but still stands alone.
Thanks again to Curtis for watching this with me and also for jumping around from topic to topic in the write up, as I seem to do 😀
Ashley: Curtis, I wanted to start perhaps in an odd place, with genre or even tone – and see where you thought the OVA landed? I found this note on wiki (wish I could get to the source actually):
Producer Yumiko Masujima remembers how difficult it was to recreate the manga’s atmosphere in the OVAs.
And I thought the episodes were highly atmospheric, strikingly so, but part of me feels that the comedic moments didn’t quite fit with the occult/supernatural, darker tone of the rest of each story. Of course, I’m not a fan of any single tone or mood being ‘unending’ in a work, I love variety, but I don’t know if the sillier moments brought levity or actually undercut the mood.
Curtis: I would’ve never guessed that about the Tokyo Babylon OVA. While I haven’t read the manga, I do think the mysterious atmosphere does show up quite frequently. You even have the darker color palettes going on with the character outfits and the backgrounds. Certainly lots of black and red coloration on so many things. The mix of Gothic and occultic aspects did work more often than not in the visual presentation.
I thought the sillier moments in the first episode seemed out of place like the random jokes, brief comedic facial expressions, or the scene where Seishiro tells Hokuto to go on a diet just seemed off to me. That was a tonal clash with the murders here. They do dial it back in the second episode, but there were also some random moments like Hokuto dressing up in a pink cat girl outfit and briefly meowing. I don’t need to see some prototype Tokyo Mew Mew stuff in Tokyo Babylon, please.
A: Yep, I haven’t read the manga either but I’m certainly curious. Especially to try to learn more about that tonal imbalance. I thought that Hokuto was meant to be a fashion designer, and maybe that helps explain the distinctive outfits for her and her brother, and given the production period I can see a lot of Michael Jackson in Subaru’s first episode outfit. In fact, the costuming really stood out for me – that distinctive CLAMP look with the huge, square shoulders etc
C: Of course. Not to get too ahead of myself, I can see why this particular OVA would be an attempt to get some readership for that CLAMP work. I wonder if those same readers stuck around for X when it came out later.
Okay, I can see that making sense with Hokuto. I didn’t even think about Michael Jackson with Subaru’s outfit in the first episode. Wow, I can’t un-see that. I wouldn’t be surprised if “Thriller” popped on if he was walking around. How appropriate since he does deal with the supernatural. Haha!
Those are typical of some of CLAMP’s darker works from what I’ve noticed such as xxxHolic, the aforementioned X, or some of their manga series such as Legal Drug to name a few.
A: Me too! And I don’t really remember seeing Subaru in X but I’ll have to rewatch it now 🙂
What struck you as a highlight or a strength across the episodes?
C: The atmosphere was certainly a strength. The second episode felt moreconsistent with the more serious tone. Since it’s Madhouse, they certainly deliver in the animation department. Sure, it’s not as impressive as a lot of their later works and has aged some, but it holds up as far as some of their early 90s projects are concerned. There were some creative elements in the fight scenes such as those bird spells, the dog spirit in the first episode, or Hokuto creating a magic circle on the ground with only using lipstick.
I thought a lot of the voice acting was good in the Japanese version. I was surprised to find out that Subaru was voiced by Kappei Yamaguchi of all people whom I didn’t recognize. He’s known for playing far more energetic characters such as Usopp from One Piece, Inu-Yasha, or Monta from Eyeshield 21 to name a few. The delivery of him being timid and overly polite to a fault was certainly against type compared to Yamaguchi’s other characters. Okay, there is a bit of a hilarious in hindsight aspect when you consider Subaru isn’t the only detective to be voiced by him with Shinichi “Jimmy” Kudo from Cased Closed/Detective Conan as well as L from Death Note. Most of the other characters had voices that worked for them even though I found Hokuto to be a bit shrill for my liking even if it made sense for her having comic relief moments. One of my favorite voice actors Takehito Koyasu shows up as Seishiro. Granted, he talked in a bit of a higher register than most characters he typically plays, but he had the right mix of having a deadpan sense of humor, being very calm, but also a sense of creepiness about him (the flashback at the beginning of the 2nd episode being a major example).
The usage of magic seemed to be grounded. The mix of Japanese paranormal elements was certainly fascinating as it’s infused with more Western magic. There were creative usages with the spirits, scrying, and the concept of post-cognition was quite unique. I did like a bit of the symbolism with the Sumeragi twins. Both of them are named after stars with Subaru being a reference to the star cluster of Pleiades (Notice how the car company of the same name has stars in their logo?). The symbolism of that part of the universe comes from a dual meaning in Greek words for sailing as well as a flock of doves. That’s brilliant because he uses white birds in some of his attacks and one can argue that he tries to sail through paranormal seas to make sense of anything when not many can. Hokuto’s name is the Japanese term for the North Star. Despite how wacky she can be, she is able to help encourage her twin brother and navigate him towards the right direction if he feels down or too hard on himself. That was a brilliant correlation with the twin siblings’ interactions with one another.
A: Agree on all of this, yeah – I really liked that detail with the lipstick too, it gave her a bit of extra dimension too, beyond shrill comic relief.
There was also some really dramatic (and effective) direction during the confrontation at the end of the first episode – and this big kinda ‘hero shot’ of Seishirō that I loved. In fact, reading up a little about his role in the manga/having now seen a key scene in episode two as well, it seems a touch menacing just as much as it suggests ‘avenging’ too.
I guess it all feeds into that atmosphere we’ve talked about – all those reds and black, and those stills in the opening to episode two seemed to be composed so well. And I missed the naming and mythology, awesome – love the idea of ‘guiding’ and with the twins’ relationship it seems spot on.
Related perhaps, the Tokyo Tower/Babylon and folly of the villain in episode one made me wonder about the production time, right around an economy burst in Japan, and so it seems fitting then to have a developer as the bad guy. And maybe I shouldn’t be surprised when that sort of thing repeats in modern times, both in fiction and real life.
C: Nice! I was worried that she would be just some filler character that’s just thereto take space, but it was great seeing her actually do something to aid others. Although to be fair, this is CLAMP being an all-female manga group, so I know they would never make Hokuto some useless character and they have a good track record with a lot of their heroines.
Definitely. Seishiro certainly had his big hero moments in both episodes. He certainly seems to be the most capable of the trio while also being the most dangerous which he lampshades when he fights against these criminals. I looked up a little bit about the character in the manga and in X, and it really gives another dynamic of why he does things as there are some ulterior motives.
No problem. It was something I wondered. I thought about the Subaru logo when seeing his name even though he’s not the only anime character with that name I’ve seen before (.Hack//Sign, anyone?). I heard of the name Hokuto because of Street Fighter EX, but I also realized afterwards that the anime Fist of the North Star’s Japanese name is “Hokuto no Ken”, so that made some sense with the star imagery with both twins.
That’s right. Several Asian countries did face a recession in the 90s, so that was fridge brilliance on the creators’ part. Given the current global economic situation, this makes the undertones even more resonating in hindsight especially since in America, the unemployment rate is equivalent to the Great Depression.
A: It’s like being hit from all sides right now, huh?
Anime can feel… maybe a touch frivolous at times, but on the other hand – I’ve really needed the distraction (maybe like most folks) over the last few months.
I’ll try to clumsily segue back toward where we’ve touched on the villain(s) of the OVA, which actually leads me to Seishiro again. I know we’ve already chatted about the flashback scene where he appears to be kinda grooming or at least starting off a pattern of manipulation with Subaru, but given the two episodes only reveal hints of this, I’m left feeling like I won’t get much of a resolution there. Obviously, I think you can still enjoy this OVA without taking the funnel into the manga, but that unfinished thread makes me wish more episodes were produced.
It’s a bit unfair of me perhaps to call that a ‘fault’, but I thought I’d ask what flaws or issues you found with Tokyo Babylon?
C: Yeah. History can really re-contextualize so many things in numerous arts. I’ve certainly noted how this happens in my other reviews with some things being better, different, or worse in hindsight.
I can definitely see that point. While I haven’t watched as much anime as I have recently, I did need to have some kind of escapism in between work and trying to stay informed of the current state of this world (COVID-19, the racial climate, US politics being an election year, etc.). Trust me, I really needed something like that lest I become irritable or paranoid. Okay, moving on…
That is certainly an issue with Seishiro since he has all of these subtle dynamics. Without getting any more context from the manga and/or X, I would have no idea why he has those kinds of interactions with Subaru. The unfinished aspect of the anime would be the biggest flaw and I’ve certainly noticed it with other OVAs of the 90s and 00s that felt like glorified trailers for the manga series they’re based on (Fight!! Spirit of the Sword, Angel Densetsu, and even the Battle Angel anime come to mind). Going back to Seishiro, I thought he had a habit of Tuxedo Masking the situation if that makes sense. Actually, it might be even more excessive than Mamoru’s/Darien’s alter-ego because he makes the final attack while Subaru is licking his wounds. This undercuts the main character and he should have at least made that coup de grace in at least one of the episodes. That was such bizarre characterization that did the medium no favors.
Besides the unfinished nature of the OVA or how Seishiro was portrayed, I had some issues with some of the audio and certain characters. I was not a fan of that insert song that was also the ending theme in episode one. It sounded like a really cheesy visual kei ballad that went nowhere and was chock-full of random English lyrics even by anime standards. I couldn’t take the schmaltzy nature of that song. While the main trio certainly have their own clearly-defined personalities, I had some trouble getting into some of the supporting characters. The detective felt generic to me even if he did have purpose in the plot. The villain in the second episode was way too shallow. Murdering people over a seat on a subway? That is one of the most petty things I’ve ever seen a villain do and it just made him way more cartoonish even if he was threatening.
There was also an unintentionally funny scene where he tells Mirei to run as he gives her a ten count before he chases her. Really? You’re going to rip off Shere Khan from The Jungle Book (yes, the Disney version)? The only thing that would’ve made this even more egregious would be if he told her that she’s “trying his patience” in the middle of said countdown. In addition to those things, this OVA felt like a case-of-the-week format, but never follows through because of the two episodes. Looks like I’ll have to watch the live-action sequel, read the manga, and watch X TV to find out everything that happens in that part of CLAMP’s universe.
A: Yes, great point about the villain from episode two – it felt incredibly flat, or at least a lapse in the characterization maybe, because the seat motivation spoke of zero rationality, like they were going for supremely ‘out of control’, but otherwise, there was time taken to show that he was quite functional.
To pivot back to something I really liked – Satoru Miyatake, who collected and catalogued stone and the attached memories, from building sites was fascinating. I really liked that idea and wished it could have been expanded somehow. It really fired my imagination though he was really just kinda plonked down into the storyline there in a way!
C: Thanks, Ashley. That episode’s villain felt like some generic and shallow “evil for evil’s sake” caricature. Killing people over a seat has to be one of the most superficial villain motivations I’ve ever seen. As much as the Joker can be chaotic (the severity of such depending on which iteration being shown), even some of his reasons go beyond “because he’s evil and/or insane”. Come to think of it, he did seem functional albeit extremely violent which hurts the narrative even more.
That was a great idea and I definitely agree with Satoru Miyatake. It gave a new dynamic that I’ve never seen before with the concept of scrying which really works in an occult detective context. That’s a superpower you don’t see too often even in a psychic or supernatural context. This could’ve been explored much more like finding out a character’s personality or past by what they own or that power being used to solve more crimes.
A: I love to see more of that too – actually, I’m re-watching The Vision of Escaflowne at the moment and the Tarot stuff gives me a slightly similar vibe. I miss that sort of thing in supernatural storytelling too!
So, I feel like I’m going to end up ‘shooting for the middle’ here with my rating – and say that I think 3 out of 5 stars suits how I feel about it. Worth a look but not essential for me, despite how much I enjoyed it for the most part.
C: Nice. It’s such a unique power and it would’ve been so perfect for Tokyo Babylon. Escaflowne is definitely one series I would like to see again. I still think it’s crazy how this got played on Fox Kids briefly alongside Digimon, Power Rangers, and X-Men reruns back in the day.
Using your rating system, I would give Tokyo Babylon a 2.5 stars. There were some good things in that anime which I don’t deny, but I thought it was average as a whole. I could see CLAMP fans digging this more than me especially if they know things about the manga, X, and/or Tsubasa: Reservoir Chronicle. Thank you so much for collaborating with me on another anime review!
Welcome to my 6th ‘Abandoned’ post and of course, my usual disclaimer that I might come back to these one day!
Ga-Rei: Zero (2008)
During my slump the other month (when I was having a lot of trouble finishing things) I started and abandoned various anime and Ga-Rei: Zero was one of them.
I’ve seen (or attempted) a fair few shows in the supernatural genre of late and this one had a few interesting things that I hadn’t seen heaps of times before, and visually I certainly had no complaints… but it made a classic storytelling ‘error’ as I see it.
I understand that the style of error I’m eventually going to mention is usually played as a twist but it had a secondary effect for me, which was to make me stop watching.
Basically, between episode 1 and episode 2, Ga-Rei: Zero changes the cast of characters completely. Suddenly, I had to meet a whole heap of new folks and do the work of finding reasons to care about them – and instead, I just didn’t and ended up moving on to a different show.
Maybe if I wasn’t in a slump I might have kept going… but I didn’t have the energy to watch (basically) two versions of Episode 1 back to back.
2. Ghost in the Shell: SAC 2045(2020)
Gave this a shot the other day but I couldn’t get on board with the visual style. Cool to hear original cast members back for the voices however 🙂
Ultimately, I didn’t see enough to have much of a response re: storyline or anything else about this series, and I could probably come back to this one day, just to see more and give myself a chance to form a real opinion. For now, it’s pushed down a bit on my list.
3. El Cazador de la Bruja (2009)
The ‘girls with guns’ sub-category is one of my favourites and the setting was great so I think I’ll give this a shot again one day for sure, but since I tried El Cazador during my slump, I wasn’t able to finish the first episode.
It felt like it was taking a bit too long to kick off and in a way, that’s probably not true, but again, mid-slump I was only able to finish things that immediately and deeply hooked me from the opening few minutes.
Okay, here’s a challenge for me – can I review a series in four paragraphs only? Let’s see.
Demons, Angels, Gods and Humans clash (and sometimes work together) in this supernatural fantasy, one that’s based on a card battling game from Cygames. You can expect a lot of modern, flashy animation (which is not a bad thing) and a memorable cast of characters too, along with a well-paced story. At the end, I was definitely left curious about the follow-up series, so I went away from Rage of Bahamut invested in the characters for sure.
Since I missed this show at the time of release, I did a bit of reading and apparently some folks were down on Naoyuki Onda’s character designs but for me that was a highlight – here they seem ‘off the wall’ for a fantasy setting, especially Favaro’s afro. The rest of the visuals are great, the settings and the creatures all memorable for me, evocative of what they represented with what felt like welcome modern touches – I’m thinking of the angels especially here.
I suspect at times folks might question a few character choices that suggest inconsistency but for me I was more thrown by a certain reveal that explained a sharp twist in one character. She started off kinda mysterious before transforming into tediously immature… but that was only a few times and it definitely makes sense considering the storyline.
In terms of audience, Rage of Bahamut is not so light-hearted as another Cygames/MAPPA collaboration (Granblue Fantasy). The tone here is at times closer to ‘Lupin’ only with more bounty-hunting, blood and demons too. If you’ve played the game you’d probably enjoy what seems like a proper fleshing out of the characters and if you like the genre, give this a look if it’s still streaming somewhere.
*I’m not counting this note as a paragraph – but since my discs for this series are not playing nice, I’ve had to source the images from online.
Special 7… seemed to sneak in right around the end of last year and I only stumbled across it earlier this month – I wonder if what I imagine was a lack of fanfare came from the time of year, or the fact that the show didn’t ‘take off’?
In any event, I thought I’d give Special 7… a shot because it promised detectives and the supernatural, and after I started, the pacing was nice and brisk.
It’s not a show with a giant budget however, so if you take a look I think you’ll probably be following along due to the main plot rather than other aspects. For me, it was the ‘troubled detective with a past’ trope that had me watching as much as anything else, that and the never-fully-fulfilled promise of bold supernatural elements. (Ichinose was also interesting in that he wasn’t a typically-athletic tough guy either).
The supernatural wasn’t absent either, but on the other hand, having elves, dwarves, vampires and dragons co-existing in a city sounded like it’d be perhaps a little closer to the chaos of Blood Battlefront Blockade. Instead, it felt more like regular crime show – although I think the CSI/Criminal Minds-feel here was also perhaps a little light.
Ultimately, it was probably mostly the character backstory of a select few team members that kept me watching, and the occasional flash of humour. Not a stunning fantasy show, but if you like crime too, there might be enough here for you.
It’s hard for me to accurately describe why I found it so – probably because of the contradictions within.
On one hand Un-Go feels like an uneven detective series and on the other it feels like an uneven philosophical text… and on the other hand it’s aesthetically pleasing, even stylish at times. On the fourth hand that I apparently have, it’s one of those shows that appears not quite able to add up to more than the sum of its influences, yet manages to become compelling.
Now, maybe I’m in a bit of a minority here with Un-Go but by the end I was ready for more cases and more of the interplay between detective Shinjuurou and his ‘boss’ Inga. The series is short (eleven episodes), with one double-episode length OVA as a prequel. I’d like to come back to that OVA actually, but for now I’ll mention that there is an overarching story that I preferred to some of the episodic parts.
While some cases felt rushed into single episodes, once Un-Go passed beyond that establishing phase the multi-part mysteries let the storytelling breathe a little, especially the final half dozen. In addition to what I consider an uneven start I feel like the pacing encourages the viewer to gloss over some plot holes or uneven character beats but the mysteries of the setting, the cases themselves and most of all, the exact nature of the contract between Shinjuuro and Inga were the main draws for me.
Un-Go is pretty good at drip-feeding it’s secrets too, and that’s another aspect that kept me watching – as did the oddness of Inga, who is basically a mix between Ed from Cowboy Bebop and Harley Quinn but it kinda worked. The anime takes on some big topics (albeit too briefly) around autonomy, privacy, war and finding purpose, and is far more adult in nature than say, Full Metal Alchemist. How’s that for a segue? I mention FMA because Un-Go is helmed by Seiji Mizushima and features Shō Aikawa in the writing chair.
However, I hope I haven’t misled anyone into thinking I believe FMA shies away from difficult themes, but its tone is a fairly different to Un-Go. And related to the question of tone – if you’ve seen this series and notice a reasonably pessimistic streak running throughout, then it might come from what is (to some extent) the source material.
Ango Sakaguchi was a post-war writer who seems to have been understandably struck by strong disillusionment, and one of his works Meiji Kaika Ango Torimono-chō, is the base for Un-Go’s lead, Shinjuuro who can appear to have lost hope at times. (But I think that’s about all that’s used from the source, since among other differences, the novel is set in the Meiji era and the anime is futuristic/alternate Japan.)
Finally now, I’m returning to the prequel I mentioned earlier.
The prequel is the most compelling of all the episodes in the series and perhaps even has slightly higher production values too, if that sorta thing matters to you. It also adds a bit of clarity to some of the Buddhist hints throughout.
But more important for me, was that Inga Chapter offered a lot of answers. Earlier I mentioned how I thought the show did a great job of maintaining my curiosity and it was pretty high by the time I saw the prequel. However, there’s a bit of debate out there as to when you should watch it – either before you begin the series or after episode eleven. On my DVD the OVA is on the final disc and so that’s how I saw it, and I liked that approach because it was enjoyable to finally get some back story for the lead characters and solve a few mysteries that had been hinted at since that tiny glimpse at the beginning of episode one.
(As a quick aside, the air date of the prequel was actually during the series itself, which is interesting.)
It’s clearly too late for me to watch Un-Go any other way ‘for the first time’ now, but if you’ve decided to hunt this show down then I guess consider what kind of viewer you reckon you are.
If you don’t mind having secrets held back for a long time, so as to build anticipation, then watch the prequel last.
If you suspect you might be a bit annoyed by a series that takes its time to return to the main concern, or if you like being one step ahead of the main characters and catching all the little hints they sometimes miss, then maybe watch the prequel first.
Okay, another ridiculously long review! Next time, I’ll aim for a shorter write up 😀
This is a fast-paced action OVA based on the 1971 manga.
It’s also the second of three adaptations of the source material, with a longer series in 1973 and a thirteen episode release in 2001. Here however, the OVA compresses the storyline pretty hard, rushing through events across four episodes.
Like a lot of early J.C Staff productions the budgets weren’t high compared to the current climate, and so you’ll see lot of repeated shots (especially in the final episode), pans across stills and other cost cutting techniques but it is interesting to see a show hold on to the 1970s aesthetic. It was also nice to see the really hard lines used for some of the freeze frames.
I also found it fun that a range of psychic abilities were the main aspect to the hero and villains’ powers and the action sequences, as it’s an area of speculative fiction that’s fallen well out of fashion I think. Again, due to the focus on battles and at first, some intrigue, BabelII isn’t one to watch if you’re seeking a lot of character development – though Juju does get a chance to evolve.
Elsewhere, I’d have loved some more variety when it came to the sound design because woah, the electricity/psychic-force sounds quickly grew abrasive for me. I think if you’re a fan of 1990s OVAs or more so Mitsuteru Yokoyama (Tetsujin 28-go, Giant Robo) then maybe take a look if you’re curious. If you’re after a more measured adaptation then I think the 1973 series would be the way to go.
Ushio and Tora (Ushio to Tora) – Part Three: Visual Comparison
I don’t have a particular plan or structure for this post – it’ll mostly just be me pointing out what I think are interesting differences in art styles and approaches between the two series.
Not every scene is an exact one-to-one comparison either, though more than a few are. There are a couple of instances where I’ve found a panel or two from the manga as well, just to illustrate a point. At times, I might broaden the rambling a little but I’ll mostly try and keep it focused on the comparison.
(And a final note – I’m obviously not an artist so I won’t always know or use the proper vocab).
Actually, here’s the real final note – this has turned into a crazy-long post!
Here’s a quick comparison of one moment in the scene where Ushio meets Tora: the first thing I noticed was the shot choice – the OVA goes with a side profile but the 2015 series introduced a slight angle, probably to give the Spear more prominence in the frame. As fans will know, ‘Tora’ is named so by Ushio due to his tiger-like appearance but I think in the OVA he’s a little more dog-like in the face? I like the blue of his eyes matching the cellar’s light. Both scenes go with darkness but the extra detail of blue blood appearing purple in the dim light is a nice touch in the new series.
As I mentioned in the reviews, Ushio and Tora plays to its demographic. That means, as with most YA/shonen fiction, the parents kinda need to be absent to let the adventure begin. In a lot of shonen featuring martial arts, there’s a pretty stern approach to discipline – and both OVA and 2015 play that aspect pretty similarly though 2015 is usually more dynamic with is composition.
The storyline difference in the way the scenes play out is how Ushio’s ability to transform and use the Beast Spear is hidden from his friends – the OVA builds up differently, whereas the 2015 has the girls barricade themselves quickly but I think what’s similar is interesting. Obviously, the designs are really close but basically ‘cleaner’. Mayuko’s eyes have become almost grey rather than kinda golden brown from the OVA. The poses are different enough but also evoke the same character shorthand – Asako looks like the hot-head and Mayuko is obviously more happy-go-lucky.
… I think this is going to be a longer post than I first thought 😀
So, I’m going to jump around between episodes now (as the above all came from episode 1) and perhaps close with some things that aren’t directly comparable but are still something I wanted to highlight anyway.
Here there’s a flashback from the creepy Nukekubi episode, which in the OVA is a fair bit more violent than the 2015 series, actually. But let’s get focused back on the visuals – I liked the costume match between the two but the low angle shot from the OVA is a little more dramatic, I think. The blood-tinted flashback in the new anime is really effective too, that and what seems to be a film grain effect.
Above, the Nukekubi have an interesting shot that is essentially mirrored, and both versions of the series have them appear in similar ways but I prefer the OVA simply because it has the nice bonus of appearing to ‘melt’ into view.
Below, a quick comparison of a scene near the end of the episode where Tora discovers the joy of hamburgers – I was a little disappointed that in 2015 we don’t get to see him take a bite but the OVA uses a heavily stylised look, almost a ‘pencil strokes’ visible moment. In both, there’s still those ‘comedy-eyes’ visible thought 🙂
Again the OVA presents the scene in a more stylised look that’s almost Impressionistic but here I really enjoyed the inverse symmetry between the characters. In one, Ushio has his back to the audience and in the other, Hyou is facing away. I also thought it was interesting that both artists framed the shot in similar ways – OVA with shadowy plants and in 2015 with the shadows of plants.
It does make me wonder whether the MAPPA team at least watched the original before storyboarding, so as to put such little references within, or whether one studio simply went closer to the manga’s blocking? I should check, actually – because I suspect this is at least somewhat true, since other scenes are often replicas of panels from the source.
In this case I know the 2015 plays this moment (and the entire scene) far closer to the manga but I have a soft spot for the depth of field in the OVA, the blue on blue, the classic ‘half-shadow’ face so you know the character could be a bit morally ‘grey’. Also, his jacket looks better here 😀 The light in the new U&T is great too but it doesn’t have the same menacing, low-angle shot from the POV of the ‘street trash’ that Hyou is hunting.
Now, I’ve been a bit selective here in what I choose to lift from each sequence and both are great, though I tend to prefer the OVA’s work for the most part. The 2015 sequence is subtler (which can be a real plus for sure) and darker in terms of the lighting, no doubt to fit in to the overall and previously established flashback-aesthetic but the OVA really spotlights his anguish with the stark red, white and black palette.
Let’s lighten things up a touch – here the two scenes are pretty similar but in terms of character, I noticed the 2015 version had Ushio come to the realisation that he was being a fool while looking ‘off-screen’ to nothing but in the OVA he’s looking after Asako. Obviously, both scenes used romanticised colour and lighting but while the OVA features a bold gradient, the detail and lighting effects in the 2015 show are softer and offer more depth. You can also see again that while the new series keeps the hatching, it’s reduced.
So, apparently Tora gets bored and hungry enough to just bite the face off a shark in one of the ‘beach’ episodes? 😀 However, the 2015 series doesn’t have him get snacky before he encounters the monster of the week but again, the modern lighting techniques really sells the idea of a nice sunny day at the beach.
(Maybe this monster of a post should have been two? Oh well, I feel like I can’t stop now!)
The first four shots I use here are a little misleading because they suggest disunity via colour – the OVA will appear more unified at first glance but it’s not so pronounced in 2015. But the OVA does show that clash in detail common to older works, where the extra detail of something (the sea creature Ayakashi here) gives it the look of a static background piece, especially when compared to Tora and Umizatō. Later in the episode, there’s another ‘flipped’ moment and I like the way we’re told via the visuals, by the ‘muting’ of other holiday makers, that only Ushio can hear/see Umizatō.
The same episode also had some other interesting changes, this time in fight choreography. When Asako gets stuck in to some bullies it’s far more dynamic in terms of camera, cutting between close-ups, tilts and wider shots. Obviously I’m focusing a little ‘micro-level’ when I say the colour balance is great with the lifesaver. In the OVA it’s a bolder orange to contast with the paler background, whereas it becomes paler orange to contrast with the blue sky but also to pop against her swimsuit and his shirt in the recent adaptation.
Near the end of the OVA’s run is where Ushio and Tora meet the Kamaitachi Siblings. Their character design is tweaked among the most I think, especially Kagari – who in the 1990s has the ‘big hair/tiny mouth’ thing going on. A key scene near the end of the Kamaitachi arc is very similar but the hatching has actually increased in the 2015 version:
That’s about it for the actual comparison part, hope there was some interesting bits in there, despite the long post (which hasn’t ended either!).
The next two sections are mostly just an appreciation of the character design and visual style of the villain, after a quick detour to check in with Hyou from the manga. I nearly screen-capped this fight as the final panel appears in 2015 but not 1992.
Here’s a few images, all but one from the 2015 Ushio and Tora, of the many disturbing faces of villain Hakumen – the effect of utter, utter unhinged weariness is achieved so well by the cross hatching and disproportionate eye and teeth, or the mass concentration of lines elsewhere. Enjoy – if you can!
(If you got through this post, congratulations – I am impressed you were able to put up with me for so long, but also thanks, since these last few posts took me three days :D)
Let’s jump forward 23 years (to what is now nearly 5 years ago actually) and land in 2015 for the proper adaptation of Ushio and Tora.
And I say ‘proper’ not due to any perceived importance placed on the notion of fidelity to source material, but because this adaptation is a complete story. There’s a beginning with increasingly mysterious set ups offered to the audience, a middle with a few dire moments where the hero seems defeated and also an ending, where plot threads are brought to a conclusion.
Ushio and Tora in 2015 is also far prettier and the action sequences more satisfying, benefiting greatly from modern animation techniques and palettes (though I do have a soft spot for the more muted colours often found in the 1990s). The 2015 version also dials up the ante when it comes to pacing, humour and vastly expands the scope of the saga that’s being told.
What it does maintain from the past is what I guess you’d call an ‘old school’ feel to not only the story beats and characters but also the visual style – you’ll doubtless notice that the hatching is often retained, which I thought was really interesting.
While at first the story focuses on getting to know characters within the framework of the ‘monster of the week’ it quickly expands the scope and the episodes begin to reveal arcs. As with the 1992 OVA, the strengths are the classic things that won’t convince folks who aren’t fans of shonen – action and humour.
But again, the interplay between Tora and Ushio as they gradually become friends is why you keep watching, I reckon. A lot of the humour is also derived from their relationship, which is very ‘buddy-cop’ in many ways, with Tora being the grumpy one.
Ushio one the other hand is a quintessential shonen hero, determined and kind, and like with most YA fiction, there’s a lot of ‘absent parent’ stuff going on at the start to give him a chance to land in hot water, though his father and mother both have significant roles to play. (Speaking of fathers, the screen time and tone of Asako’s father is pared back this one).
Due to the 39 episode count (compared to only 10 in the OVA) there’s a lot more time to get to know the secondary characters and sub-plots too, and while I really enjoyed 90% of them I think the best thing was probably being given time with the main villain – without which, an action text/heroic journey can too often fall flat.
And Hakumen no Mono is a memorable and menacing villain indeed – not in the least due to the voice acting of Megumi Hayashibara (no doubt recognisable as the voice of, among many others, Rei Ayanami, Faye Valentine and Atsuko/Paprika). Here, she delivers a rasping, unhinged performance that is miles away from the smooth tone of characters like Faye. It was a real highlight – though in terms of voice acting I occasionally heard Ushio as ‘older’ than his character, which pulled me out of the universe momentarily.
To wade a little further into the aspects that didn’t work for me I have to mention Nagare Akiba – I suspect compared to the manga, his storyline was compressed too much. This meant that his motivation for some actions seemed a little underdeveloped and then, his defining moment maybe didn’t play out so well.
Similarly, I found myself growing impatient with a ‘no-one’ remembers sub-plot because it broke momentum and bugged me a little, not in the least since it erased a whole lot of important character development but also because it felt like an unneeded way to extend the series.
However, when the show took time to step away and reveal back stories of other characters I was usually on board 100% – especially with Hyou, his was one of my favourite aspects about the series. It’s probably only topped by Tora’s history too, his flashback episodes really land at a great time and provide extra emotional impact.
So, what’s left to say?
Well, I guess I’ll try a recommendation – Ushio and Tora should be a hit with fans of shonen and/or seemingly ‘oddly paired’ heroes, along with people who dig shows that go for (and achieve) a retro-feel.
The supernatural themes are a really big part too, but at least for the first two-thirds the comedic parts are also important. I guess if you like light harem aspects then you’ll enjoy Ushio and Tora for that focus also. (And to sneak back the OVA – maybe, give it a shot if really want to compare the two).
Oh, I couldn’t leave the review without sharing this – Tora has to operate as Mayuko’s doppelganger at one point and it’s a highlight 😀
Time to review one of my favourite shonen series: Ushio and Tora! (Buckle up though – because it’s gonna be three posts worth of rambling :D)
Okay, so I’m starting here with the OVA from the 1990s and then I’ll go on to the 2015 series, which is a far more complete adaptation, and then I’ll finish with a visual comparison (since I got a little ‘screenshot happy’ last week.)
Ushio and Tora is classic shonen, fitting neatly into the Supernatural sub-category. You can see the imprints of common themes and tropes that came both before the show and after it – but the buddy cop relationship between protagonist (youngster Ushio) and the (mostly) antagonistic Tora keeps the framework interesting for me. Both series are based on Kazuhiro Fujita’s award-winning manga but the OVA didn’t get a chance to go very far, sadly.
I’ve tried (and failed) to research why – maybe the audience response at the time wasn’t there, maybe the studio only ever planned to make a few episodes in the first place? In the early 1990s Inuyasha hadn’t exploded yet, and a few of the other big supernatural shonen action series not yet started… but maybe the first Ushio and Tora just wasn’t as clean-looking as the series that followed?
My personal, utterly unfounded theory is that a failure to introduce the Big Bad soon enough might have impacted audience enjoyment because there was no large scale conflict yet… BUT, shonen and action anime often live and breathe ‘monster of the week’ formats – so I don’t know if that’s on point either.
In any event, the OVA doesn’t get a chance to show how expansive Ushio and Tora’s story is, nor that some of the characters we meet across the early episodes are definitely going to come back and have an impact on events. I feel sad that when the switch between studios/production teams happened between those last few episodes, it’s clear there was a plan to finish the saga, because the new intro foreshadowed a lot of big things that they never got to animate.
But what about the actual show?
Well, it’s the regular mix between comedy and action, with supernatural (even horror elements at times) mixed in. As I mentioned before, the tension-filled interplay and growing relationship between the two leads is the main draw, but the creatures and supporting cast are good too. Overall, the OVA is rougher than the 2015 adaptation but it’s also a bit bloodier too. For me, I felt that the humour landed a little better in the new series too (though Asako’s dad was probably funnier – if odder – here).
One thing I suppose I preferred in the OVA, was that the episodes don’t cover enough ground to reveal the harem-like aspects of the storyline, it’s almost there with the vague love-triangle between Ushio, Asako and Mayuko, but that’s probably a minor quibble. There’s still a lot to like with this series because the key stuff is in place and it’s darker visually, more rough around the edges perhaps but at times, I preferred some of the direction.
And yet I think most folks will prefer the modern show: the action scenes are bigger and better, the setting is far more developed with more characters etc, and the pacing is generally spot on – and of course, best of all, it tells a complete story. (I know it’s cruel to compare an unfinished series to a completed one but I kinda have to :D).
I also noticed that while both OVA and 2015 series have fairly similar episodes and ordering, the water-wheel demon episode is unique to the OVA – as I don’t think it appears in the manga either. It’s a fascinating episode that forces Ushio to confront his feelings about Asako and includes a cute flashback too.