Index VS Railgun: Settling the Debate Once and For Allby Kim Morrissy,
Short answer: If you're watching the anime, it's Railgun.
Long answer: Oh boy, this is going to take a while. I'm reviving an over 10-year-old debate, and in order to solve the matter definitively I need to explain every angle of the argument. Time to pull up your seats.
First off, a brief explainer: A Certain Magical Index and A Certain Scientific Railgun are part of a broader media franchise that the English-speaking fans like to call "Raildex." A Certain Magical Index is the original work; the anime adaptation is based on a series of novels that started in 2004, and which now spans around 50 volumes. Meanwhile, A Certain Scientific Railgun is a spinoff manga that focuses on the popular heroine Mikoto Misaka and her escapades. The extended universe of Index is so huge that even a spinoff focusing on only one part of the setting - Academy City, the city of science and espers - feels like a fully-fledged saga in its own right.
The two titles first became prominent in the anime community when they got adapted into TV anime. Their first seasons were released in a rather close time frame - Index came out in 2008 and Railgun in 2009 - so naturally, viewers couldn't help but compare the two. Index was a huge hit at the time by all metrics, but according to Oricon data, Railgun sold over twice as many DVDs as Index did. It helps that chronologically, Railgun starts before the events of Index, making it a perfectly accessible entry point to the Raildex franchise. It's not hard to find people who swear by Railgun, but who either haven't watched Index or think very lowly of it.
Looking back, Railgun's production values were clearly superior to Index's, even back then. Railgun had the seasoned hand of anohana: The Flower We Saw That Day and Toradora! director Tatsuyuki Nagai at its helm, and this resulted in Railgun consistently having better directing and storyboarding than the serviceable but mostly unexciting Index anime adaptation. Index's one big strength was its background art and setting design, but Railgun also happens to share those strengths while having more visual flair.
What's more, Railgun had some awesome money shots. Nearly every time Misaka unleashes her signature Railgun attack, a star action animator was called on to handle it. For example, the very first episode has a cut by the legendary Nozomu Abe (even if you don't know his name, you've probably gasped at awe at his work on ufotable's Fate anime or that scene from Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba episode 19 - you know the one).
The second season Railgun S takes the action to mind-blowing heights like the clash between Misaka and Mugino animated by Hironori Tanaka. This isn't to say that Index didn't have its cool moments, but its production always had the problem of having to bite off more than it could chew, thanks to overly complicated character designs (especially on the magic side) and ambitious set pieces that were always going to work better in a novel compared to a visual medium.
The sheer gap between Railgun and Index's production values became further evident when their third seasons went to air. Index's third season is almost unanimously regarded as a disappointment, even among diehard fans, and production-wise it was an absolute disaster of shoddy character art and sterile directing. Meanwhile, despite falling far short of the highs of Railgun S, Railgun T has been a consistent delight so far, even with all the production difficulties the show has faced due to circumstances around COVID-19.
But I think the main reason why people argued that you could just get into Railgun and not bother with Index was because the two stories were completely different as far as their tone and pacing went, to the extent that you'd hardly believe that they belong to the same franchise if you just went by their anime adaptations. While the Index anime features dozens and dozens of characters and speeds through story arcs that are between 3-6 episodes long, Railgun plays the long game, focusing on smaller, more intimate interactions.
Part of these differences stem from the fact that the Railgun anime features tons of anime-original content, while Index doesn't have any. The first season was greenlit back in those days when most TV anime were two cour, even when there wasn't enough story content in the manga to actually fill out that length. As a result, the anime adds a bunch of new subplots, and even the material it adapts faithfully is stretched out longer, with slow buildups towards their climaxes.
Most of the new scenes in the anime revolve around daily life and female friendship. While the manga is more of a straightforward science fiction adventure, the anime feels like it's in the same genre - or at least adjacent to - slice of life shows like K-ON!. Given the huge success of K-ON! at the time, I think that Railgun's similarities may have played a role in its breakout success as an anime in its own right. As the franchise moved into the 2010s, Railgun tapped into the mood and trends of the time, while Index was feeling more and more like a time capsule of early and mid-00s fantasy anime, especially when it came to the needlessly complicated lore in the magic side of its worldbuilding.
At the end of the day, though, Railgun is a spinoff of the Index novels, and the stories are both written by the same author, Kazuma Kamachi. The novels can be all over the place when it comes to the mood and tone - some volumes are incredibly dark and gory, while others are full of goofy fun - and as a result, pretty much anything can feel like it fits in with the universe, as far as a novel reader is concerned. This is one of the main reasons why novel readers don't tend to be so caught up in the "Index vs Railgun" debate - there's an implicit understanding that the two stories are part of a bigger whole, so there's really no point in arguing to watch one instead of the other.
If you ask a hardcore Raildex fan their opinion, the typical response you'll get is that the Railgun anime is a better adaptation than the Index anime, but ideally you should be reading the novels to get the full context for everything. The further you progress in Railgun, the more plot points from the later novels worm their way in. For example, why is Kuroko in a wheelchair in Railgun T? Why does Misaki seem to know Touma, but he doesn't seem to know her? The various shady groups working in Academy City's underbelly, like the quirky four-girl squad Item, also have an expanded role in the novels. It's not at the point where you'll be completely lost if you don't read the novels, but they will certainly deepen your appreciation of how the plot of Railgun fits into the overall scheme of things.
There's another reason to read the light novels - they're simply great reads. Almost every volume offers a unique adventure with plenty of twists and turns. The fascinating blend of mythology, occult, and science fiction concepts means that you'll never quite know what kind of crazy worldbuilding ideas Kamachi will throw at you next. If you just stick to Railgun, you'll never leave Academy City, and you'll never get to see the science vs magic clashes that drive the larger conflicts in the Raildex world.
There are certain problems with getting into the light novels today, though. For one thing, as I alluded to earlier, the material is quite dated, especially when it comes to the early novels. Index was first written during a time when light novels were expected to tell self-contained narratives in each volume, which can be frustrating for a reader playing catchup. The descriptions and explanations can be extremely repetitive (why is it that literally every time Kanzaki's name is mentioned, Kamachi has to point out that she is a saint, of which there are less than 20 in the world?), and there's a tendency to introduce grand and epic conflicts that get resolved anticlimactically within a matter of pages. The later volumes start building on a continuous narrative, resulting in some satisfying payoff, but there's no denying that those early volumes can be a slog.
Volumes 12 and 13 are when the novels really start to pick up steam.
There are also problems around translation. For many years, the novels didn't have an official translation, and it's a bit much to ask anyone but a diehard fan to read fan translations. Although the first 22 volumes are now available courtesy of Yen Press, there's no word yet whether the sequel series "New Testament" will get released, and the translation itself is one of the rougher ones among Yen Press's offerings. Even if you're able to stomach the occasionally awkward and amateurish prose, the discrepancies in the terminology translations between the anime, manga, and novels can be rather annoying to navigate.
Mind you, I don't have a problem with some of the things about Index that other people tend to complain about. For example, I like Touma as a protagonist and even wrote an article on this website about why he's Good, Actually. But it saddens me that I can't easily recommend the Index novels to everyone, despite loving them to bits.
Still, here's what I think: the Raildex as a whole is filled with frustrating and potentially off-putting elements. Even if the Railgun anime may be the most accessible entry point to the series for casual fans, its early episodes feature multiple scenes of Kuroko sexually harassing Misaka and generally making a nuisance of herself. It may be intended as light-hearted fanservice, but it can easily rub viewers the wrong way. There's also no guarantee you're going to like the slow pacing and those long stretches where nothing much happens.
At least we can all agree that Index's third season sucks, especially compared to Railgun T. So my personal recommendation is to watch the Railgun anime, and if you do find the story and setting fascinating, I do recommend that you check out the Index novels. The more you read, the more you'll see the connections between the different characters and factions. And eventually, you'll reach the point where the "Index vs Railgun" argument will seem meaningless, because both stories enrich the other. Gigguk was pretty right when he described the appeal of the series as like an anime cinematic universe. So yeah, that's my final answer to this 10-year-old debate.
Just don't start with the A Certain Scientific Accelerator anime/manga, or the A Certain Scientific Railgun: Astral Buddy manga. Those spinoffs need context from their parent series in order to understand their premises. The same thing goes for the Virtual-On video game and the A Certain Scientific Dark Matter manga, but those are only in Japanese anyway. I'd recommend the Imaginary Fest mobile game as a way of digesting the story of Index in an interactive form, but there's no English translation at the moment.
I've shared my answer, so now it's time to put this question to the readers. What's your favorite part of the Raildex franchise?
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