Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Tokyo Ravens

Came across an article recently about the fall of Japan's Dragon Magazine from a trend-setting training camp for classics to a trend-following generic fiction magazine. I won't try to contest the main point, because I don't really know much about Japanese publishing, but I generally come out against what I see as nostalgic chauvinism in anime, which Mr. Cowan (who's giving up social media for Lent, so I guess this will be a spread-out conversation) uses to shore up that point.

Basically, if I may, he brings up a list of absolute legends - Slayers, Patlabor - incubated in Dragon Magazine, and then a list of duds that have gone nowhere that they're currently running. My contention is on the process of legend creation, and how much bearing that has on the quality of the original work. In particular, he mentions Oda Nobuna no Yabou and Tokyo Ravens, which I absolutely loved.

I firmly believe that both of these could have been legends if they had had Slayers resources poured into them. Oda Nobuna, while somewhat leaden and cliche-bound in print, was adapted by the fiery Kumazawa Yuuji and Madhouse Studios into a high-energy stampede through a color-bursting Sengoku period with enough manly men, cliffhangers, death-defying heroics, and real conversations about the morality of changing history to put it up there with the greats Cowan mentioned, if it hadn't been intended as a thirteen-episode light novel advertisement. And Tokyo Ravens, well, that's the sort of story that's so great even when it's not being great that I can't help but gush about it, so I will.

It's an urban fantasy, no masquerade. Japanese yin-yang shamans or onmyouji are part of society and have their own school and government agency. The worldbuilding is pretty thorough, they even mention shamans fighting in WWII (unfortunately they don't go much deeper), and modern tech is integrated with their spirit magic. At some point after the war a sorcerer named Yakou screwed up a forbidden immortality ritual and I guess blasted a lot of Tokyo? It wasn't clear. Anyway he's got a cult of personality built up for him after his death, I don't know if they're an Aum reference but they're subversive terrorists.

The main character's a country boy named Harutora, reasonably confident, who's from a branch of the same magic family that produced Yakou but doesn't have any power himself. He gets caught up in a fiasco when a member of the Numbered Council Of Cool People You Will Inevitably Meet When The Story Takes Off comes to town to try to pull off Yakou's ritual, and ends up adopted as a familiar by his long-lost cousin Natsume, which gives him magic somehow? He's using hers at this point? Anyway it feels consistent.

Consistent enough.

So he goes off to magic school with Natsume and his cool, edgy, headband-wearing best friend Toji, in a big modern building in Tokyo, and from there it's hijinks, with a slowly building long-term plot gradually mixed in. We get a drill-haired aristocrat girl and an effeminate glasses boy with the team, and someone mails Harutora a foxgirl familiar of his own, and they have magical adventures that they often solve with the exact thing they learned earlier in the episode.


Around this point I realized I was watching Harry Potter. The characters aren't 1:1 matches, sure, but the atmosphere is spot on. Magic school, powerful teachers solving problems way above the students' challenge rating, cult trying to revive a dead sorcerer, magic being used for fun zany things, big dynamic cast of teenagers, and this delightful sense of exploration, it's all there.

So Harutora and friends go through two big arcs in twenty-six seasons, which gives enough room to have pure hijinks episodes now and then. All of the side characters in Harutora's group and quite a few outside it get development, sometimes major, and sometimes have major effects on the plot - the coolest fight in the series, a magician's duel with a wily old coot from the aforementioned Numbered Council who can enchant with his words, doesn't involve the main cast at all, and has the effect of bringing those characters closer to us rather than make us wonder who these new people are.

The characters are related to anime archetypes, but built up from there, and that's even played with when we get a second drill-haired aristocrat girl crowding the drill-haired aristocrat girl slot.

And it ends with a twist so great I really want to spoil it right here for the patricians who like things better knowing the ending first, but I won't. Seriously, it works so well on its own and as a riff on Harry Potter, which I wish had had something as rad as this.

Of course the story continues in light novel form after that, but it's never going to be Slayers with two hundred eps and five movies (I don't know, it had a lot) but that's not because the source material sucks, it's because the suits won't put the money into it. This is really great stuff. Sense of wonder, big ideas, fun, it's all here. There's no lack of real romance (was there even any of that in Slayers? Ravens has an absolutely heartwarming romantic twist at about the 80% mark) or strong male characters here.

The production values... really aren't that good, unless you're capable of retaining immersion with jarring CG popping up whenever there's an action scene. The character designs are a little noodly. I don't especially remember the soundtrack. The voice actors were fine. The story makes up for any flaws in production.

The worst part, the sinking feeling I couldn't shake while watching, is that Tokyo Ravens missed the boom of dubbed anime on TV the nostalgia people remember so fondly, and so I don't have anyone to talk about it with. Give it a chance though.


  1. Looks interesting. Too bad that only fan translations of the LNs exist...

    1. While they're not the worst, they're pretty bad. It's too bad, we get a lot of focus on side characters doing cool urban fantasy cop stuff from what I've read.