Tokyo Ravens Anime Review: A Fresh Take on Japanese Magic

tokyo-raven

Tokyo Ravens is the anime adaptation of the similarly named light-novel series and one of my favorite modern anime for a number of reasons. First off, it’s an Urban Fantasy that explores different takes on Japanese magic. Second off, it has one of my all-time favorite characters. Third, the plot does actually go beyond the generic boundaries of good and evil…eventually.

The anime originally aired in the Fall of 2013 for 24 episodes, whereupon it ended without an announcement for a second season. Over the course of watching it, I ended up enjoying it quite a bit and I hope that my review can shed some light on just why I like it. On that note, let’s get into the details, shall we?

Story Premise

The premise of the story is that it follows the adventures of a Japanese teenager named Harutora Tsuchimikado and his friends as they attend a prestigious academy for aspiring magic practitioners called onmyojins, who practice a form of Japanese magic woven together over the years called Imperial-Style  Onmyodo. However, there is a faction that seeks to reawaken the pioneer of this magical practice, one of the greatest Japanese magicians in history and a member of the Tsuchimikado clan itself, Yakou Tsuchimikado, who it is rumored to have been reincarnated within Harutora’s childhood friend and cousin, Natsume Tsuchimikado. To protect her he must hone his skills as both her familiar and a fellow magic practitioner.

The show is decidedly shounen, so there’s a bit of a formula going into it. You have a main protagonist who can’t pick up a clue that a girl is crushing on him, badass teachers, a slight harem, a best bro who honestly makes for a more interesting character than the main character for the most part, some ecchi and filler that honestly weakens the story, and an antagonist that borders insane… at first.

Once Episode 14 rolls around, things get really good. There’s an epic magic duel between the strongest villain in the series, Douman Ashiya, and Harutora’s teacher, Jin Ohtomo. It’s like the duel between Voldemort and Dumbledore in the Harry Potter movie, where strategies are layered over one another until a victor is decided. Raw magical strength is countered through tactics and exploiting weaknesses until we reach the climax, where the resulting display of true magic completely enthralls Harutora and the audience alike.

From that battle onwards the enemy becomes clearer, gaining depth beyond cultists and psychopaths and monsters-of-the-week. It takes on a political weight about how limited magical practices are and the effort to expand it results in so much pain and suffering, leading to the death of an important character. By the end of the anime, the status quo has changed completely.

It’s the kind of ending that leaves you wanting to explore this new change, but it cuts you off because the anime stems from a light-novel series that’s currently in the ongoing and they’ve still not pulled out a sequel. Words can’t describe how frustrating this is, but what we have is what we have.

Setting

As mentioned above, the setting of the story takes place in Japan after an alternate WWII where the Japanese forces enlisted the help of Yakou Tsuchimikado to weaponize onmyodo to create things like armored shikigami to act as living tanks and mixed together other Asian magic systems to create what would be known as Imperial Style magic. However, a ritual gone wrong ultimately cost Japan their chance of victory and left it plagued by “Spiritual Disasters” that create spirits and demons and the like that wreak havoc unless purified. In the present, onmyodo has been simplified to a great extent and those who can both see spiritual energy and utilize it can choose to become onmyojin to help deal with spiritual disasters.

So we have here a setting where various practices and aspects of Japanese magic has been made central to both the plot and world itself. We see shikigami being used to scout out locations and subdue oppositions, kotodama being used to scatter foes, dragon spirits that can exorcise evil, oni that possess humans and grant them incredible strength, and the extensive use of Ofuda talismans. They’ve even worked in how the cycle of creation and destruction are utilized in combat, resulting in tactical battles between experts in their fields.

Characters

The characters of the story are what you’d expect of a Shounen series for the most part. That isn’t to say they’re bland, since they usually have interesting backstories to add into the mix. Especially the ones who have cheated death and become immortals or reincarnated. However, a lot of the female characters are hamstrung when they start becoming enamored with our main protagonist, which is a problem.

Harutora Tsuchimikado: Our main protagonist. He’s a country boy whose father is basically a magic doctor and he originally had no ability to see spirits or magic, so he had no ambition to become a magic-user until the call comes knocking at his door, kicks in his teeth, and one of his childhood friends is seemingly killed protecting him. Then he becomes Natusme’s shikigami and tries to protect her. He’s nothing spectacular, but the moment he gets a taste of true magic he becomes addicted and by the end he’s like a different person with ambitions of his own.

Kon: Harutora’s shikigami, a fox-girl who has a small body and carries an even smaller sword, she’s absolutely loyal to him but acts like a small child at times and leads to some rather less than pleasant exposure scenes. I honestly wasn’t that much of a fan of her until the second-half of the season kicked in and the secrets came out, along with a much needed boost in maturity.

Natsume Tsuchimikado: Harutora’s cousin and the one who is known as being the heir to the main branch of the family, Natsume is the early ace in the show among the students and commands a dragon named Hokuto. She goes out in public as a boy, which no-one can apparently see through in a glance because of magic, and mostly tries to keep Harutora in line while dealing with people trying to kidnap her at various points of the series. She has an obvious crush on Harutora, but without wishing to spoil too much, let’s just say it runs deep.

Touji Ato: Harutora’s best bro and a far more interesting character than him in the beginning. He was a victim of a spiritual disasters that left him possessed by an oni, turning him into a living spirit who can call forth immense strength at the risk of being possessed. It’s hinted that he has a horrible past early on and we see that he and Harutora first bonded with him beating the crap out of him one day  (I’m talking blood flying here) and then Harutora returning the favor. He mostly acts as his second-in-command and watches his back.

Tenma Momoe: A classmate of Harutora’s and a rather reclusive person, his family are the ones behind the development of the standard shikigami seen in the story but he is rather unremarkable. He’s got a lot of self-esteem issues and compared to the people surrounding him, he’s hardly noticeable. Later on in the series, he learns to weaponize this and becomes much more useful in combat.

Kyouko Kurahashi: Another classmate of Harutora’s and the granddaughter of the head of the Onmyodo Academy, Kyouko starts out as a rather unappealing character. You see, she has a crush on Natsume based on the misunderstanding that she is a boy and some confused childhood memories, which leaves her naturally bitter when Harutora comes into play. While she gets over it and becomes helpful, it really does hurt her character early on.

Suzuka Dairenji: A member of the Divine Generals and the first antagonist of the series, she tries to use Natsume to resurrect her dead brother. It goes as poorly as you would expect and she ends up being saved and sealed, having her powers restrained and joining Harutora’s class while developing something of a crush on him. She’s haughty, acts far more like a seductress than the other girls, but clearly has some issues that need working out. I didn’t like her all that much either.

Jin Ohtomo: Harutora’s teacher and, if its not clear, my favorite character in the series. A former member of the Divine Generals, who are among the best magic-users in the setting, he initially seems like a relaxed and laid back teacher until the moment comes where he needs to prove he earned that rank by demonstrating not only magical prowess, but cunning, foresight, and ingenuity. This is a man who clearly has had a long history and the experience he gained from it shows.

Douman Ashiya: An ancient magic-user who acts as a sort of wild card, he’s basically the most powerful character in the series. Because he’s lived a long life, he does things either as favors or to make things interesting for himself, which is why he works for both sides at one point. He has a fascination with Jin because he managed to impress him during their duel in Episode 14 and that largely plays into his later character.

Reiji Kagami: The resident jerk and badass, Reiji is a member of the Divine Generals who pretty much seeks to prove himself superior to Harutora and Jin to the extent that he acts as an antagonist for certain parts of the story, including the climax, yet gives solid advice at times in regards to their abilities. He basically does what he wants, when he wants, and has to be brought to heel.

Animation & Sound

The art is largely standard for the most part during the slow parts of the story, nothing too offensive but nothing really standing out. When the action kicks in, there’s a notable change in how vivid the magic and special effects are.

It does, however, suffer from bad CGI at times when it comes to some of the man-made shikigami, like when the school was invaded by a bunch of spider-tanks. It may have been to indicate there was something unnatural or artificial about them, compared to the natural shikigami, but I could have done without that.

And maybe it’s because I’m not that big on sound-tracks, but nothing really stood out for me. The only theme I kind of sort-of like is the one associated with a crisis or battle, but even that’s rather generic.

Final Points

Overall, the earlier parts of the show drag it down heavily until episode 14, where things get real and the plot moves forward in spades. The premise of the anime isn’t particularly unique magic being well-known in a contemporary setting, but it does have a more reasonable and grounded feel to it than something like Mahouka. It’s a shame that it stopped where it did, but its a good watch if you’ve hit a lull in your anime-viewing schedule and want to see something of this nature.

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2 thoughts on “Tokyo Ravens Anime Review: A Fresh Take on Japanese Magic

  1. I really enjoy this anime, to point its one I’ve re-watched a couple times. That said I do think one of its main downfalls is how some aspects of it can be very convoluted and confusing, especially for those who don’t know also about Japanese magic. Even after my times rewatching it, I still don’t fully understand everything that’s going on.

    On the other hand I absolutely love Suzuka. While I respect that you aren’t fond of her, I personally like how much tragedy there is to her and how she tries to hide it all behind a false face. It gives her room to improve, room to become a better person. I also get a lot of joy out of how much of a little troll she can be. I will admit though that her first scene is a bit too…on the nose.

    Sorry if that was a tad long mate, but its not often I find someone else that’s seen this show. I enjoyed your reveille and encourage you to keep at it as a fellow anime blogger! Cheers!

    Like

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