Now that I’ve done a once-over of the present season, here’s the plan. I’m going to talk about some shows that I have seen which (a) I think would be of interest to SFF fans, and (b) are not well known outside the anime community. Part of the stated purpose of this column is to be a sort of missionary from Animeland to SFFland, and my observation has been that many of the shows that people who live in Animeland consider required viewing are essentially unknown in the wider SFF world. So, if you’re already an anime fan, some of these are pretty old news, but take it from me that a lot of people still haven’t heard of them.
I’m also not going in any particular order, nor necessarily starting with the Best Shows Ever. (Really, that just provokes arguments.) I’m just going to talk about some shows I think SFF types might find interesting to watch, and try to explain the reasons and explore the flaws.
There will probably be some information in these columns that might be considered “spoilers” in the very strictest sense, but I’ll do my best not to ruin any big surprises, reveals, or endings. In the event that I absolutely can’t avoid it, I’ll slap a warning on the top of the column.
On to the shows!
I find this pair of shows interesting for a variety of reasons, but as an author it’s a fascinating demonstration of effective and ineffective storytelling. Index and Railgun were produced by the same company, and are set in the same world with some of the same characters, but Railgun is good and Index is not.
To Aru Majutsu no Index (awkwardly but accurately translated as “A Certain Magical Index”) is based on a 22-volume light novel series set in the world of Academy City. The complete backstory isn’t made clear in the show, but we’re sometime in the future and a big city has been established full of schools to train young people who have “esper” powers. (Essentially comic-book hero powers.) Not everyone has powers, but a substantial fraction of the student population does; they range from nearly useless Level 1s to super-powered Level 5s. The city is run by shadowy forces pursuing a sinister project related to the next stage in human evolution, as shadowy forces almost always seem to be doing. Our hero, Touma, is an everyday schlub who is apparently a powerless Level 0, but in fact possess the incredibly rare ability to negate other people’s powers by touching them with his right hand. (For more on why this is lame, see below.)
You would think this would be a complicated enough setting, but no. At the beginning of Index we learn that magic is also real, and that there’s a worldwide network of magicians run by the Roman Catholic Church. They have a giant collection of banned magical books, which they have compiled together in the form of a cute little girl (of course) named Index. She runs off, and Touma finds her, and then various magicians try to grab her, etc.
As a show, Index had a lot of problems from the beginning. The setting is way overblown, with tons of stuff crammed into the world design because it looks cool, and not a lot of thought given to whether or not it makes sense. Touma makes for a pretty dull protagonist — his character is the generic “nice guy who stands by his friends”, and his power means his contests with the various enemies all take the same form: they try to use their powers on him, he negates them, they try increasingly complicated uses to get around him, and finally he manages to punch them. (Touma would be utterly helpless against anybody who couldn’t be defeated by punches. Or, say, a mundane martial artist. For that matter any villain with the sense to purchase a handgun could just shoot him.) Index, who somewhat surprisingly is not the love interest but more like a kind of pet, is alternately maudlin and intensely annoying, and sometimes provides awkward deus ex machinas by whipping out fantastic magical powers. (She can use the powers of the books she contains, but only when it would be convenient for the plot.)
The structure and plot are also incompetent, sometimes baffling so. If my memory serves me correctly, and it almost certainly does not, Touma goes from pretending to have amnesia to actually losing his memories but pretending not to, and then maybe back again? Long stretches of nothing happening lead to short bursts of resolving everything really hurriedly, and the villain’s plots are mostly nonsense.
“So,” you might reasonably ask, “why are we even talking about this?” It’s not like bad shows about kids with superpowers are thin on the ground. But somewhere in Index there were a few good ideas and some interesting side characters, and (remarkably!) someone was given a chance to run with them.
To Aru Kagaku no Railgun (“A Certain Scientific Railgun”) also takes place in Academy City, but stars Misaka Mikoto, Touma’s kinda-sorta love interest from Index. (“kinda-sorta” in the sense that this is obviously her role in the story, but it takes them forever to actually get around to that point. During Railgun they’re still at the “we hate each other but not really” stage.) Misaka is a Level 5, one of the most powerful espers in the city, with the ability to control electromagnetic fields to accomplish a variety of tricks that are almost certainly not scientifically accurate.
Railgun jettisons roughly half of the world design from Index — they take place in the same continuity, but no mention is made of the magicians and whatnot. That leaves a giant city full of superheroes, which is honestly setting enough, and more importantly they take the opportunity to actually think about how that world works. One plotline revolves around the resentments of some of the less powerful kids and their attempts to increase their abilities artificially; in several, the Powers That Be are frustrated by randomness of esper emergence and attempt to develop a more controllable solution. It’s nothing ground-breaking, plot-wise, but it engages the world rather than ignoring it.
The characters are also a lot more interesting. There’s an unspoken rule in a lot of anime that the actual protagonist has to be as bland as possible, to be an audience surrogate, while the side characters are allowed to have personalities. Since Railgun’s characters were all originally side characters, they’re all reasonably interesting. Misaka, by virtue of her powers, is at the very top of the city’s social scale, and the show actually goes into some of the ramifications when she discovers she has privileges her less elite friends lack. The basic team includes a couple of lower-powered espers and some un-powered people, and we see the ramifications of that as well, in their relationships and personalities. (Imagine a study group with, say, Superman, Spider-man, Hawkeye, and some random civilian.) The main squad is all female, too, and because she’s destined to end up with Touma, Misaka doesn’t have to suffer through having a love interest of her own. (And they manage to not lard up the show with fanservice and cheesecake shots.)
Unlike Touma, Misaka is confident and proactive. Where he basically waits around for bad guys to turn up and try to kill him, most of the Railgun plotlines involve Misaka and her friends investigating some plot they could easily have left alone. Her best friend, Kuroko, originally seemed like almost a gag character — the gag being that she’s obsessed with Misaka and keeps trying to get into her pants — but the show does a good job of developing her as it goes along, showing us that this silly act is an act that covers a more complicated personality.
The fights are more interesting, because Misaka and her friends have a lot more they can do, and because the bad guy’s powers get to make of a showing. A lot of it follows the standard anime fight template of having to figure out someone’s “trick” before they kill you with it, but it’s a good implantation of the classic formula. There’s also a moral dimension that a lot of anime fighting lacks — not just that the main characters don’t wantonly murder people, but that they have to try not to. Plenty of shows have all the random mooks and villains just turn out to be okay after getting thrown through buildings or whatever, but here the heroes have to deliberately hold back if they don’t want to kill. (Kuroko is a teleporter, who fights humans using a variety of tricks; when she faces robots, she demonstrates that she’s perfectly capable of teleporting sharp objects into them.)
Railgun is far from a perfect show. It gets cutesy or saccharine in places, and it maintains a vestigial connection to Index that surfaces whenever they do a crossover plot. (This is particularly annoying because most of the crossovers come from the Index side, which means that the plots are resolved by Touma punching things while Misaka turns into an idiot.) Kuroko’s obsession with Misaka, played for laughs, is borderline creepy if you haven’t seen that act a million times in other shows. Some of the plots are, to say the least, well-trodden ground.
Still, they took the mess inherited from Index — a middling-to-bad boy’s action show — and turned it into a show about an all-girl superhero team, with a coherent world design, good characters, and action that captures the ineffable fun of super-powered battles. I happily watched four seasons worth (50 episodes or so) and would tune in for more. You may find it worth a look! (You can pretty much skip Index — maybe look up a plot summary online during Railgun season 2, but otherwise you’ll be fine without it.)
Next time — a selection from my personal all-time Best Anime Ever list!