Pulling back and observing the anime medium as an amalgamous whole, you can be forgiven for seeing certain… underwhelming trends in storytelling and character writing. Amidst this fog of depravity and sameness, a certain number of provocative, progressive, and genuinely groundbreaking works do reach the surface to breath. Sadly, A Certain Scientific Railgun S is no such series. With cheap presentation, sheer asinine world rules, and a wildly inconsistent tone, Railgun S feels like an aggressive waste of time. Considering that this series seems to exist only to perpetuate a franchise which is in itself only a spinoff, it’s hardly surprising that Railgun S missteps almost constantly. What’s surprising is how inherently flawed much of its consistent problems are.
Part 1 and 2 were provided by FUNimation Entertainment
As I wrote in my review of the first season, the biggest weakness in Railgun is its world, which continues to raise serious questions regarding its validity. Railgun still manages to avoid explaining the source of Academy City’s endless wealth, the logical purpose of training a massive number of students with often deadly psychic powers, or even whether or not its an entity to be trusted. The entire first half of this season seems to imply that Academy City has diabolical forces controlling it in the shadows, yet the characters seem unwilling to either expose these forces or even distrust the city once their involvement ends.
Stepping back though, let’s examine the central plot of this meandering pile of threads, if we can. As with the first season, it takes several episodes of filler to slowly grasp onto a firm plot line. Mikoto Misaka slowly begins to lose herself to fury as she discovers a hidden plot involving the mass slaughter of clones of herself.
By the middle of the season, we’re embroiled in action, espionage, and bloody (albeit inconsequential) death. While this sounds like an exciting ride, know that character motivation is often weak and there’s little to attach emotion to. Misaka’s clones are monotone and lack personality of any kind, and while some of their interactions with other characters can be entertaining, their plight is hardly compelling enough for an audience to care.
When its revealed that they were created by a legion of scientists in futuristic labs just to be killed by a strong Level 5 Esper in order to grow to Level 6, no one cares to explain how this is actually possible or why it’s important to anyone except the Esper himself. The level system just feels too arbitrary and meaningless, as Railgun S, just as with Railgun, never manages to explain what the parameters of leveling is or how we are to judge someone’s level based on ability. It’s ultimately just a cheap way of explaining someone’s strength without any subtlety or substance.
But what of the presentation? Objectively there are detailed backgrounds and active battle animation, yes. But passable is the only descriptive word that belongs here. While nothing comes off as broken or misshapen, the designs, music, animation, and colors feel bland. Basic pastels and forgettable tracks feel more like arbitrary choices than thoughtful artistic direction. Voice work is a strength in the Japanese language track, as the seiyuu do perform their lines emotively when necessary. For this release, the English dub is weaker, but not substantially. Some characters’ voices still don’t feel like natural fits and certain word choices are still awkward (why is Kuroko still calling Misaka “sissy”? Ew). But both tracks serve adequately with usual Funimation levels of quality.
By the time the credits rolled on the final episode, however, Railgun S showed itself to be a padded mess. The episodes centered on plot were unsatisfying and confusing, and far too many other episodes were about nothing at all. Just girls hanging out and talking about how nice it is to be friends. I imagine many fans watch series like this specifically for that kind of interaction, and no amount of plot dissection will convince them otherwise, but even on that level this seems sure to disappoint. No characters are fleshed out or made interested and there are far too many girls being introduced constantly (I imagine to fill every possible trope). Of course, Railgun has always had the problem of stuffing too many factions with silly names like ITEM and STUDY into the mix, and every single character of every single faction is two-dimensional and flimsy.
While characters lack in complex personalities and satisfying arcs, however, they overflow with overly-complicated abilities that take eons to explain with excruciating exposition. Long monologues about how X power will use Y element to create Z reaction rips the flow from what could be visually stimulating fights, and often these explanations ironically serve to expose how weak the rules in this universe are.
To say that Railgun S is a bad series is an understatement. Railgun S is an affront to storytelling on a scale I haven’t seen in some time. This isn’t an instance where the absence of strong characters or a rich world should label it as “middling” or “forgettable.” No, Railgun S is an active failure, making so many wrong choices and filling its gaps with every contrivance it could, making it a bloated reminder of anime’s tendency to place character design and trope variety above meaning and substance.
Every empty-eyed, giggly stump was drawn up and animated for someone to buy figures of. So many man hours, so many resources spent to deliver this dribble to fans (which I assume do exist) who have been sold a daft ploy. So sorry, friends, there is nothing truly likable here, just the illusion of plot and the lie of personality with placeholder events to excuse its empty existence in the world. I’m sure this isn’t the last of Railgun we’ll see, but even if it is, we must be wary of series like it.
A Certain Scientific Railgun S is the snake oil salesman of the Anime realm, eager to sell us sugar water disguised as entertainment with attractive designs. Don’t let him fool you, for underneath his shadowed cowl lurks an evil that drains the artistic quality of everything it finances. Railgun S just isn’t worth your time or money, and in a world bursting at its seams with quality entertainment, you won’t be for the worse for giving it its deserved skip.
–Action is animated well, when everyone finally shuts up.
–Voicework is performed well.
–Bland characters in a most unbelievable universe.
–Too much exposition kills pacing and raises even more questions.
–A waste of time, money, and sanity.