Supernatural fantasy with a traditional Japanese twist, Tokyo Ravens is an anime series that promises magic, mystery, romance, comedy, and forgotten promises itself. This parallel Tokyo is dominated by spirits that onmyo (the way of yin/yang) mages must dispel with talismans and weirdly enough, a range of mech-like or fox girl familiars. Tokyo Ravens has a bag of tricks and throws both action and school life antics at you in this oddly compelling world.
A review copy was provided by FUNimation Entertainment.
Harutora seems like your average, reluctant protagonist – born as a famed Tsuchimikado, but under a branch family and left without any spirit seer powers, he fully embraced his “no-talent” title to live out a relaxing life. Well, one look at the cover images can tell you that doesn’t pan out. The story quickly turns from cute, festival fun with his token two best friends to coming face to face with a crazed girl bent on reviving the dead.
I have to pause there to say, nothing in Tokyo Ravens is as it appears. Or rather, it is everything it appears all at once?
Tokyo Ravens really is a mix of genres in sort of the most hard to describe way. As you watch it, it flip flops just as quickly from school life-harem, to action, to the underdog story back to mystery and romance. There were so many times I groaned through very cliche, “god another friendship moment”, to being delighted by the surprise reveal of deeper plot intricacies. Which is why, tread carefully in terms of plot summaries, because it does not follow a very linear path of storytelling.
The main or most obvious plot appears to be the school life and romance portion. “Baka Tora” Harutora gets shoved into the limelight to finally try and live up to his legacy as a member of the Tsuchimikado family.
What that says is right off the bat, a “women in refrigerators” moment gives him the nerves to finally reconnect with his cousin, the genius heir and nadeshiko Natsume. In swearing to be her familiar, a position not unlike a knight that has many different magical iterations, Harutora gets some magical powers.
When I mean “some” magical powers, I really mean he mostly can see spirits and gets to wave around magical objects. The prevalence of magical creatures and spirit disasters in and around Japan, and the ample TV coverage and jobs devoted to eradicating them, really makes one wonder how many unlucky folks actually can’t see the obvious orcs, mechanical spiders, and amorphous ghosts that keep terrorizing their cities.
After Harutora symbolically signs his life away, moves to a prestigious Tokyo prep school with his wise-and-perceptive best guy friend, the school arc begins and sort of permanently settles in. Harutora finds out his new liege and female cousin must crossdress at all times to keep pretenses that the heir is a boy by tradition (except for, apparently, impulse visits to the countryside).
Let’s just throw genderbender to the genre list, made even more confusing by the fact that Natsume’s long purple ponytail, pink ribbon, slender figure and soft voice could not pass off as anything but a girl. Seriously, she doesn’t even lower her voice or do anything except put on a boy’s uniform (and, you find out later, have a spell cast over her to trick even the most powerful of mages, but does not stop people from physically seeing her as a girl).
That aside, Tokyo Ravens quickly is engulfed in a storyline with slow-burning harem tendencies and mismatched pacing. If not for the pacing and all-too-convenient conclusions to each arc, I would be all for the promising lore of magical clans. Instead, the anime delves into keeping the main characters fairly weak and useless until a plot point comes up, or their dashing teachers and other talented agents help out.
Those secondary characters hint at a sub-layer to the more straightforward world the surface story presents, and what background you do get keeps you intrigued at the real mysteries. For example, the useless-looking teacher with a peg-leg, Jin Ohtomo, actually becomes one of the most skilled and flashy fighters in the anime. If the episodes didn’t contain so much filler, the actual deeper story lines would have more time to develop.
Natsume is Very Important to this world as the heir, but with a lot left unexplained, the situation doesn’t feel as urgent as it should and most of the burden of work is left to cool side characters. And really, Harutora, the main lead does end up doing a fair share in between being a terrible student and managing his loli-bait fox girl familiar. All in all, the characters are decently likable and eventually get their time to shine in the far off episodes.
As FUNimation’s first season DVD package is episodes 1-12, you’ll have to wait until season 1 part 2 before the action really picks up and decides to deliver plot. What you have to decide is if it’s worth getting through the first 12, or skipping around a bit as you won’t miss much (non-spoiler related: the second half is actually really cool and has some touching scenes, the kind of action you were promised in the first episode).
Also deal-breaker: Ravens not explained…then still not explained. Just kidding. Sort of.
By way of art and animation, the anime really helps you endure the slower episodes. The art is put-together and mimics a popular manga style, where the blush lines actually do appear on faces. You never see a bad screen cap throughout the series, including the seamless battle animation. The mech-like familiars are rendered similar to 3D models, but don’t stand out in a bad way or appear too unnatural. I can’t say I remember any of the music, only that it fit the mood as a backdrop.
One aspect that the dub does well is actually give the anime a modern flavor for Western audiences. Although the writing isn’t beholden to a true translation, I felt that the voice acting for Touji, the best friend, fit a chill guy friend. He provides a level of calm to the scenes that could have been potentially unnatural or embarrassing.
While it is a different experience from the original, it does a good job of keeping the intended atmosphere that is hard to translate through a cultural context. Then there’s moments where the writers had fun. A choice phrase from the dub: “Breast-osaurus Rex.”
All in all, did I enjoy this anime? Yes, but not without a great deal of eye-rolling and feet-tapping. You may not fall in love with the characters, but they are charming in their own way. If you can hold out, after episode 12 is the real deal. But if you wanted a school romance with some magic and mystery in the background to spice things up, then Tokyo Ravens is probably one of the better ways to kill time.
-Great though somewhat unexpected blend of animation.
-Plot and world has potential.
-The secondary characters, such as the teacher, are actually really interesting if they had more background.
-School life and fluff are cute, if that’s what you are looking for.
-Appropriate voice dubbing and writing.
-Pacing and plot goes a bit all over for the first half of the season.
-Very obvious mysteries are ignored, while more interesting ones left unexplored.
-Romance is often overwrought with cliches, while the more touching moments aren’t developed.