Reviewby Theron Martin, Aug 15th 2011
Night Raid 1931
Blu-Ray Complete Collection
The time is 1931 and the place is Shanghai. Four super-powered Japanese – Aoi, a telekinetic who integrates his ability into his fighting style; Kazura, a former Imperial Army aspirant and current line-of-sight teleporter; Yukina, a telepath who also has talents in psychometry; and Natsume, a clairvoyant who is also a servant for Yukina's family – have assembled under the auspices of the Sakurai Agency, a secretive spy organization set up to support Japanese interests in the region. Although the quartet undertakes several individual missions, including breaking up a ring that turns prospective young actresses into sex slaves, rescuing important hostages, and stopping a terrorist bombing scheme, one of the Agency's main ongoing objectives is to thwart the activities of Isao Takachiho, a rogue Imperial Army officer who also happens to be Yukina's older brother. Isao's own powers, recruitment of super-powered subordinates, and steady gathering of resources towards some great scheme make him a legitimate threat even though he claims to be operating in Japan's best interests, but the efforts to stop him are complicated severely by the Manchurian Incident and subsequent seizure of Manchuria by Japan. Isao's plans become even more personal when the foursome discovers that some of Isao's objectives seem to line up with the personal beliefs of one of them and the Prophetess, a key covert figure in both Isao's scheme and Japanese government over the centuries, is actually a former love interest of another.
Night Raid 1931 is the second title in the Anime no Chikara collaboration between TV Tokyo and Aniplex, which aimed to create anime series that are not based on any previous material. (Sound of the Sky was the first such title and Occult Academy followed it.) The concept here is straightforward: a period piece about super-powered spies operating in a time and place rife with potential intrigue and conflict. In execution, though, this is one of the most ambitious anime series since 2007's Flag, as it also delves deeply and unflinchingly into a period of history that many Japanese would doubtless rather forget: the period before World War II where Japan was exerting its might on the Asian continent and where its future totalitarian elements were gradually gaining traction.
Although the first few episodes are, indeed, set in Shanghai in 1931 and involve fairly typical spy shenanigans, the series sets aside its main cast and devotes an entire mid-run episode to detailing the circumstances leading up to the Manchurian Incident (aka Mukden Incident), an infamous event in 1931 where the Kwantung Army (a Japanese army organized in Manchuria to protect Japan's railway rights through the region) used a faked railway bombing as an excuse to militarily seize control of Manchuria – and it did this without the approval of the Imperial Army's High Command, as that episode makes clear. That shifts the rest of the action in the series to Manchuria in 1932, where spy activities continue while, on the surface, the puppet state of Manchukuo is established with the last Chinese emperor as its figurehead. An epilogue episode at the end of the series also has some Sakurai Agency members getting involved with events leading up to the February 26 Incident in 1936, an event which involved an attempted coup by members of four military regiments in the Tokyo area. Along the way the series shows snippets involving the heavy-handed way that the Japanese treated the Chinese, looks at how girls and young women from desperately poor families were sold off to help their families, touches upon the scourge of opium dens, and suggests that Japanese elements may have influenced China's internal conflicts during the time period. The occasional narration makes sure that viewers understand what is going on, too. In short, it is as unflattering a portrayal of Japan as one is likely to see in an anime series, and the creative staff at A-1 Pictures deserves credit for not pulling their punches on any of it.
That and the spy elements are the main strengths of the series. The story shines brightest when it focuses on the members of the team combining their powers to accomplish a particularly difficult task (such as the rescue of the kidnapped industrialist in episode 1) or simply performing more mundane spy-related tasks, such as infiltrating a military guard detail or collecting information to implicate a criminal. Far less successful are its sporadic attempts at humor, as the series takes itself so seriously that it usually fails miserably on such occasions; one episode which essentially comes down to two characters chasing down a cat which has run off with a bag containing important film is a good example of this. Others include the recurring comic relief character Feng Lan, an enterprising Chinese girl who comes off as an annoying (and possibly insulting) caricature, and Aoi's terrible violin playing. Perhaps the biggest jaw-dropper on this front – but also the one comic relief moment which kinda works – is the Prophetess's demonstration in one episode that she has not quite mastered the techniques for being properly mysterious.
The series also suffers from a bland and underdeveloped central cast, though in fairness the story and setting here are more the stars than the Sakurai Agency members. Yukina is defined almost completely by her powers, her status as a period fashion plate, and giving the men someone to protect and/or rescue when things get hairy. She is indisputably not dead weight, as her powers play instrumental support, communication, and information-gathering roles, but she shows little character beyond strong determination. Natsume, as the silent, loyal type, shows even less personality. Kazura and Aoi are a bit more developed, as the former is portrayed as a proper, orderly, and disciplined man in strong contrast to the latter's more chaotic soul, and both are given considerably more background development, but even so there is nothing particularly complex about either of them. Chief villain Isao, who has come to believe that drastic measures are necessary to insure peace (he is, essentially, a firm believer in nuclear deterrence at a time when the atom bomb is just a concept), is hardly a sterling example of dynamic personality, either, and the one recurring supporting character who does have a goodly amount of character is, as noted above, an irritant.
There is nothing bland about the series' artistry, although its quality level does vary. The character designs, which actually make some effort to display ethnic Asian features, are one of the biggest highlights. Although the Prophetess may be prettier, Yukina's petite, short-haired, double-moled look holds plenty of its own appeal, whether she is dressed in a man's suit or in a regularly-changing array of modest outfits that show Eastern or Western influences, depending on the episode; she never wears the kind of sleek, sexy dress seen in the cover and advertising art, however. Female viewers, meanwhile, get to ogle Natsume's long-haired, darker-skinned charm, Kazura's prim and proper look, or Aoi's more casual messiness. Period detail on the setting, vehicles, and clothing is superb; this is a well-researched title. At its best A-1 Pictures provides artistic and animation quality which rank among the best of recent anime TV series, including some nicely-executed action scenes, but unfortunately the artistry is not always at its best. General rendering quality drops off a notch or two in places and a blocky zone effect often seen in digitally-colored fog scenes pops up more than once, while the animation regularly relies on common shortcuts and looks a little stiff at times when using CG to animation vehicles and background pedestrians. Prurient fan service is nearly nonexistent but the graphic nature of some of the violence, frank depiction of opium use, and strong implications of underaged prostitution legitimately warrant a TV-MA rating.
Early on the musical score uses updated versions of classical Chinese erhu music to evoke the feel of an Eastern setting and mixes it with themes reminiscent of classic American spy series (especially in action sequences), with mixed results. As the overall plot takes over, the music shifts to purely suspenseful and dramatic themes which more consistently hit the mark. Opener “Promise” and closer “To The Future. . .” are both solid but unremarkable.
Sentai Filmworks has been erratic in its dub productions in 2011, but Night Raid 1931 is one of its better ones. Its major roles are well-chosen and generally well-performed, especially the little-used John Kaiser in his dead-on take on Mr. Sakurai. (His only other prominent role is Cignone in Cyberteam in Akihabara.) David Wald's interpretation of Natsume sounds too much like his interpretation of Guin in Guin Saga, but that is a minor flaw. The Japanese dub has been widely-criticized for its unsuccessful effort to voice Chinese dialogue with authentic Chinese accents and for using very thickly-accented English in certain later episodes, but Sentai entirely sidesteps the problem by simply putting everything in English and, except for Luci Christian's corny rendition of Feng Lan, making no regular effort to accent anything. The dub script generally stays close but does omit a couple of more obscure historical references that would go over the heads of most American viewers anyway. The subtitles do add in explanations of obscure references where necessary.
Sentai's release of the series includes all 13 original episodes, the DVD-only episode 0, and the OVA episodes “Devil in the Opium Den” (a mid-series side story) and “Panther in the Snow” (the epilogue episode about the February 26 Incident which is sometimes referred to as episode 14). It also has, as an Extra, “The Prophecy,” a narrated, undubbed recap episode which was apparently broadcast on Japanese TV while the actual episode 7 (the one focusing on the Manchurian Incident) was released only via online streaming. The only other Extra is a clean collection of all versions of the closer. The series gets both Blu-Ray and DVD releases, with the former presenting the episodes in full 1080p resolution and using DTS HD Master Audio 2.0 on both language tracks, which makes for a crisp-looking and good-sounding production. The DVD release, contrarily, gets regular 2.0 audio. The Blu-Ray splits its content across two disks, while the DVD version uses three, and both versions use the same cover art.
Night Raid 1931 ultimately gets a little too ambitious for its own good. It wants to be both a hard historical fiction work and a super-powered spy story, two foci which sometimes detrimentally compete with each other and, in so doing, fill up so much of the time that little is left for proper character development. None of the plot twists are particularly fresh, either, and the final disposition of one of the main characters feels unsatisfying. Still, the series looks good enough and throws out enough strong content to be well worth a look by history buffs and/or those interested in espionage stories. It is not, however, as sexy as its advertising makes it out to be.
Overall (dub) : B+
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B
Animation : B+
Art : A-
Music : B+
+ Usually looks great, very well-researched, release includes all animation produced to date.
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