A review copy was provided by FUNimation Entertainment
Among Funimation’s newest releases, A Certain Scientific Railgun (To Aru Kagaku no Railgun in Japanese), stands to provide fans of A Certain Magical Index some extra story in the fictitious Academy City. Released only on DVD and available online to Funimation subscribers, Railgun is a 24 episode series that attempts to tell the story of Misaka Mikoto, a high-ranked “Esper” (series jargon for individuals with psychic powers) as she attends school in Academy City, a highly advanced metropolis designated specifically for Esper students.
With a premise like that, one would expect Railgun to offer a thrilling story, spiced up with exciting powers, perhaps on a similar level to the likes of Fullmetal Alchemist, Harry Potter, Avatar the Last Airbender, or other stories centered around worlds with interesting rules and guidelines concerning the existence of magic (or whatever these narratives care to call it). Unfortunately, Railgun never reaches a similar plane, pulled back by a lack of focus, reliance on tired tropes, and unanswered questions regarding the logic behind the society it inhabits. But notable strengths do manage to hold its narrative tarp upright even when pulled by a gravity measured by its flaws.
At its core, Railgun is a societal study, an exploration of unbalanced access to power. Each of the characters in the ensemble struggle with the fact that their psychic abilities are, to notable degrees, distributed unequally. While Misaka’s control over the forces of electricity and magnetic waves places her among the very best of their kind, the others vary from telepathy to slight temperature management to no discernable power at all (designated a rank 0).
The story in Railgun is separated into distinct and separate arcs that rarely, if ever, communicate with each other, with a link between the second and fourth serving as a noted exception. This is, without a doubt, one of the series’ most glaring weaknesses. There’s no central overarching plot, no consistent threat to the characters, and no central journey that Misaka, or anyone else ever has to embark on.
An unfortunate majority of the space between arcs is dedicated to faffing about, putting the characters in exploitative situations to allow for the arbitrary swimsuit and maid outfit episodes. Other episodes focus on peanut gallery characters, ones with faint connections to the main cast and thus revolving around plots with little to no intriguing conflict. These are common storytelling issues in this medium, and so I don’t criticize with a tone of surprise. Just disappointment, rather, that the storytelling failed to find a unique ambition.
Individually, the separate story arcs were crafted with inconsistent quality. I actually found the plot ending the first season involving the level 0 girl, Ruika Saten, indulging in a means to improve her power level quite intriguing, and it provided for was, perhaps, the most exciting battle found in the show. Unfortunately, a far lesser arc follows, involving a gang of jealous ability-less thugs and an ex-leader who tries a little too hard to be Spike from Cowboy Bebop. At this point, serious, daunting questions began to pile up regarding the logic behind the world this anime displays.
While I can usually look past the regular tendency in anime to focus squarely on how whatever made-up rules they may employ affect the characters (read the manga, Ikigami for a stellar example of that done right), I can only do so when the story is compelling enough to make me forget any questions of logic I may have. There’s simply too much downtime in Railgun, so much so that my mind wandered and I started to wonder why the series doesn’t seem to mention what, exactly, all these people are working towards.
I mean, serious resources were clearly dedicated to building this city to train Espers, but why? Are they going to be used in some military? Are there specific roles in this world that Esper adults are meant to fill? Why would a gang of jealous students with no abilities even exist in a city that only allows psychic students to live in it and study? If Saten has no power, why was she ever accepted? Why, when dealing with a huge group of super powered teens raging with hormones and emotions, would anyone in any authority deem it necessary to constrict them to competitive, arbitrary ranks that separate people by power (which, I might add, seems to be a subjective qualitative measurement). And why, ohhhhhh why, if humanity has developed the technology to not only recreate environments in a virtual room but also create goddamn food out of computer data, are these people wasting it to do swimsuit photo shoots.
But even if these questions were answered, the show still wouldn’t reach the potential it had, because all told, having these psychic power only minimally affects the cast. In an effective exploration of power, like the aforementioned Fullmetal Alchemist, the power is the central object of the exploration. Having access to alchemy with all of the benefits and ramifications makes the show compelling, and it would be a whole hell of a lot less if Ed and Al spend most of their time hanging out at school and cooking curry together and only occasionally going out to solve problems that last four episodes max.
The most interesting element of Railgun is, to the great misfortune of its overall quality, a wasted opportunity to truly delve into how such great power affects Misaka’s inner psychology and place in society. We get that everyone adores her for her power. We get that some envy her and other seek to abuse her for gain. Now lets actually look inside her and see what she feels, because in reality being able to seriously bend the bounds of science would do really interesting things to a young person.
Now, before you start to think that this review is entirely negative, I should remind you that I mentioned strengths, and there are, indeed, some of those. The art direction and animation is above average, for the most part, with both seasons ending with considerable flash and bang. Not every episode is given a full spectrum of visual variety and gloss, but those that were given budgetary attention shine.
Furthermore, the characters are admittedly quite likable, with Kazari Uiharu giving audiences a warm, delightful innocence to contrast Kuroko Shirai’s more manipulative, wormy perversions. All in all, the characters do manage to express a good deal of creative individuality to make the central group feel dynamic and legitimately fun to watch and follow. If you tend to watch anime strictly for character interaction and personality, then you’ll likely be a fan of this one, as it does that particularly well.
Sound design is also of notable quality, with the powers consistently given adequate booms and pops to match their visual scale. The voice acting is quite a treat, but only with the Japanese voices, which manage to go to far greater emotional extremes than their English counterparts. In addition, some of the translations aren’t too great, and this is definitely one of the more annoying dubs I’ve had the displeasure to sit through (“sissy” is a poor choice for “onee-sama”). I think the greatest downgrade in character between the two audio tracks has to belong to Shirai (voiced by Alison Viktorin in the English dub), who sounds a little too proper and stoic for her constant scheming and ogling. This is captured much better by Satomi Arai, who puts on a nasally, shrewd voice that deliciously accompanies the character’s constant lowbrow shenanigans.
The peanut gallery voices also suffer some atrocious voice acting, and there are more than a few side characters whose English voice actors just didn’t put in a day’s effort. A few do manage to save the show a bit, like Saten and oddly enough the previously mentioned Spike look-a-like, but they’re too few and few between to warrant watching this show in anything other than the original Japanese voices, even without the English track’s high quality surround sound audio. Trust me, I was enjoying the series as a whole much, much more when in the intended format.
Speaking more in terms of the Funimation release itself, I have to say I’m becoming a fan of their new thick package strategy. Yes, it’s a little manipulative to separate these series into two halves and only provide the box with the first (basically guaranteeing that anyone with an ounce of the collector’s bug will buy the second half even if the first half wasn’t to their liking), and the two halves do end up being fairly pricey, around the $80 mark when you include either shipping or tax, or both, the thick cardboard box makes for a stylish addition to any collection.
These new boxes definitely remind me of the old days when anime used to come in similar packaging, like with Evangelion or Jinki: Extend. But there’s a premium attached to it, and some may have preferred if Funimation had stuck with the thin pack and paper box platform that used to dominate their lineup. They were much cheaper that way, and would occasionally manage to fit a whole series in one.
All in all, this is… an average offering. A number of glaring issues plague what could have a remarkable anime, but a few strengths do manage to keep it going throughout the 24 episodes. If you want something to supplement an interest in the world created for A Certain Magical Index, you’ll surely enjoy seeing more, especially considering the cameos characters from that series are given in this. And even for those of you unfamiliar with that piece of multimedia, there are legitimately enjoyable moments and characters to be found. It’s just a little inconsistent, and definitely fails to be quite as compelling as it set out to be.
–Japanese voice acting is of quality, and serve the character better than their English counterparts.
–Characters are likable, and if you enjoy character study, this isn’t a bad option.
–Some seriously well animated segments precent the show’s style from ever getting old.
–Major questions of logic concerning the world never really get answered.
–No constant central plot results in several episodes that are little more than time-wasting tangents.
–Never reaches the potential a setting and magic system like this allows for.
Studio: J.C. Staff
Director: Tatsuyuki Nagai
Writer: Seishi Minakami
Music: Maiko Iuchi
Original creator: Kazuma Kamachi (manga)
Original run: January 3, 2009 — March 20, 2010