The Summer 2015 Anime Preview Guide
Ushio & Tora
How would you rate episode 1 of
Ushio & Tora ?
Community score: 3.9
Ushio is your average middle school kid – he likes to draw, he has a schoolyard crush, and he lives at a shrine with a mysterious secret. That secret is revealed when his grandfather goes on vacation and leaves Ushio to his own devices, and it's about 10 seconds before he discovers Tora, a man-eating demon beast thing with enormous 90's orange hair, is being held captive in the Shrine's basement by a powerful demon-slaying spear. Tora begs for his freedom, promising Ushio he won't hurt him – which is, of course, a ruse, as Ushio finds out when he starts seeing all the demonic beasties that Tora's presence has attracted over 500 years. He pulls the legendary spear out of Tora, who immediately attacks – which is, of course, thwarted by the fact that the spear transforms Ushio into the avatar of the superpowered samurai who put Tora in his place the first time around. The two form an uneasy partnership to rid the world of the demons Tora's imprisonment has wrought.
My first experience – hell, probably most folks’ first and only experience – with the yokai action comedy Ushio & Tora was being underwhelmed by it back in the bad ol’ days, when ADV Films released the original 10-episode OVA series two at a time on VHS. The show never really grabbed me back then – it was a pretty bog-standard shonen action thing with two unlikable leads, and a design sensibility so 90s it hurts (acid wash and spiky hair, anyone?) All of the comedy (and I mean all of the comedy) is of the distinctly stale 90s variety, which means just about every “joke” involves someone overreacting to something and doing a wild take. Ushio eats a lot, too – remember when “this character eats a lot” was considered a finished joke?
I wasn't particularly surprised that they didn't update anything for this fresh, Studio MAPPA-driven remake except the animation, but it mostly just drove home the fact that the original Ushio & Tora was never really my bag to begin with. The show looks nice – there's real novelty in seeing these almost heinously 90s character designs animated in glossy widescreen – but unless you find overreaction hilarious or your thirst for “banal Jump kid fights yokai” storylines hasn't been quenched in a while (this genre has been all but dead for years now) this throwback may not have much of anything to offer you.
If we're remaking stuff from the 90s now, I have a long list of shows I'd love to see faithfully resurrected with shinier animation. Ushio & Tora was never anywhere near that list, though.
Based on a manga that ran from 1990 to 1996, Ushio and Tora is good old-fashioned shounen fun. The story follows middle school student Ushio, who is totally sick of his priest dad harping on some legendary spear thing that Ushio's never even seen. When Dad goes on a trip, Ushio accidentally discovers why he's never laid eyes on the spear: it's in a secret(ish) cellar under the storehouse and is currently holding a massive demon pinned to the wall. Being a sensible lad, he decides to leave spear and demon right where they are and just go to school. Later, of course, the demon's aura draws lesser monsters to threaten Ushio's friends Nakamura and Inoue, so he's forced to let the beast loose, resulting in a strange partnership that neither ever saw coming.
There's such a sense of fun to this first episode that it's hard not to get caught up in the story, even as we can recognize the outdated character designs and well-tread plot points. There's a very Zenki air about the show (although thus far Tora is a much less annoying demon than Zenki), but a few character design points aside, it has adapted well to modern animation techniques; the scenes of Ushio's hair growing and later reducing back to his normal length are really nicely done, fluid and strangely fascinating. The translucent demons look a little too much like plastic, but otherwise the show looks good, with a few very nice fight scenes mixed in among the more cliché moments of Nakamura kicking Ushio in the face for either real or imagined infractions. (Can you tell she likes him?) Tora's an interesting combination of human and tiger in his design, but probably the best done aspect of him is the sort of squishy sound his mouth makes every time he grins, like he's almost drooling at the prospects of both freedom and a meal of tasty human.
Tora's actually a bit more interesting as a character than Ushio right now, devious and honestly unable to understand why Ushio would care about people other than himself. He's also just a tad bit too honest, which is an amusing trait in a demon, gleefully telling Ushio that he'll eat him once the spear is removed. Ushio, for his part, looks like he can't quite believe that Tora would say that, which is also entertaining.
That's probably the best word for this episode: entertaining. Ushio may be the typical shounen protagonist with a special power he doesn't know about, he and his crush may be at constant loggerheads, and we may be able to predict pretty much where the story is headed, but none of that really matters because the story is just having fun being told. The major flaw (apart from the fact that its dated appearance and standard storyline may be a turn off for some viewers) is that Ushio's nose really looks like someone glued it onto his face after carving it out of wood, something that I found consistently distracting. All of that aside, this is a fun episode with a lot of potential. If you just want an old-fashioned supernatural shounen adventure, Ushio and Tora looks like it will fit the bill.
Where did this show even come from? Ushio and Tora is based on a manga that ended in 1996, far, far outside the range of any immediate commercial relevance. Last year saw the emergence of the Parasyte anime, equally time-removed and also enabled by the always-reliable Mad House, but with that show, the commercial reasoning was clear - some live-action movies were coming out, so clearly an anime was just the thing to promote that additional property. Here, the numbers just don't add up. Why Ushio and Tora? Why now?
Anyway, none of that has anything to do with the show proper. The actual content of Ushio and Tora does indeed reflect its age; its story concerns the hot-blooded teen Ushio Aotsuki, who discovers his family shrine houses the temperamental demon Tora, held in place beneath his family's shed by the powerful Beast Spear. Ushio is initially hesitant to release Tora, which is understandable, given that Tora first promises to kill Ushio and then all other humans. But when Tora's aura summons all manner of other demons to terrorize Ushio's friends, he is forced to release the beast, drawing on the Beast Spear's power and teaming up with Tora in order to drive back the demon invasion. Together, they form an uneasy alliance, each ready to betray the other as soon opportunity allows.
Ushio and Tora really does feel like an old-school production. From the premise to the character designs to the storytelling, “early '90s” is written all over this one, which in this day and age actually gives it a pretty unique flavor. Ushio feels more confident and full of bluster than your average protagonist, and the animation-rich production arms him with all manner of fun gestures and cool poses. Tora seems like a product of latter-day hair metal character design (hair = power seems kinda big here), but his general menacing design is nicely undercut by the show's constant divergence into silly bickering between the two leads. Parasyte's rapid descent from beautifully animated action into deeply inconsistent drama leaves me hesitant to trust the strong animation and unique style of this premier, but as a standalone work, the execution here is definitely solid. The story isn't terribly engaging so far, and hot-blooded shounen generally isn't my thing (unless we're talking a standout like JoJo's Bizarre Adventure), but this is definitely a competent execution of a style of action show that has very much gone out of style. I'm not tempted to continue Ushio and Tora, but a time capsule always has a certain appeal.
Review: To be clear here, I am rating this one on a relative scale, as it offers everything that one could possibly ask for from a shonen action series: bold, brash characters; a simple, wide-open premise; plenty of dynamic, supernatural action; comedic moments; flashy animation; and even a couple of cute potential love interests, too. Most importantly, it gets the spirit of shonen action series exactly right. Sure, you may roll your eyes at how things progress, but it's still a fun view.
Ushio & Tora is the second anime adaptation of the original early-to-mid-90s manga by Kazuhiro Fujita, who's had anime adaptations of a couple of his other works, too (namely, Bakegyamon and Puppet Princess). The first was a 10 episode 1992-93 OVA series which has previously been released in the States on both VHS and DVD, but this will apparently be a much more comprehensive adaptation, as 39 episodes have already been scheduled.
In a premise quite similar in some respects to Inuyasha (which began its manga serialization around the time this one ended, and so could have theoretically taken inspiration from it), Ushio is a middle schooler who is being raised at a 500 year old temple rich in tradition, much to his annoyance, as his father is constantly lecturing him about it. While airing out the temple's old storehouse, he discovers that one story his father had told is true: there really is a demon pinned to a wall by a spear in a hidden cellar of the storehouse, and he's been there for 500 years ever since he was pinned by the Beast Spear. He's not about to listen to the demon's demands to let him loose until he discovers that the demonic aura he accidentally released by opening the cellar is attracting all sorts of lesser demons, and they are threatening two girls he's friendly with at school who have come to the temple on an errand. With the demon's promise to do anything he asks, Ushio pulls out the spear. The demon doesn't cooperate until Ushio shows that he can draw on the spear's power to cow him, at which point the demon, whom Ushio names Tora, becomes a reluctant ally.
So yeah, nothing at all complicated here, but who says shonen action shows have to be complicated in order to work? Tora's design is spectacular, and seeing how the girls fit into this (one who is openly crushing on him and one who is going more of a tsundere route) could be interesting, too. Veteran seiyuu Rikiya Koyama really hamming it up as Tora certainly doesn't hurt, either. All-in-all, this is lowbrow entertainment, but it's still a blast.
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