Kyōkai no Rinne
Episodes 1-2

by Lauren Orsini,

Where we go when we die is one of life's great mysteries. It could be somewhere horrible or just plain nothingness. Or it could be something like a Japanese festival where the dead eat snacks, ride boats shaped like animals, and generally have a good time. Kyōkai no Rinne embraces the latter for a squishy and comforting, but decidedly bland, beginning.

Rumiko Takahashi's latest series follows the plot paved by Ranma ½ and Inuyasha—a stranger comes to town, and that stranger is a cute boy with a secret. He's Rinne Rokudo, a redhead penny pincher who can't be seen by regular people when he's wearing a mystic haori, or kimono jacket. His eventual love interest is Mamiya Sakura, a heroine who is particularly down-to-earth considering that she's been able to see spirits since childhood and doesn't know why. In episode two, a new character is introduced—Rinne's cheerful shinigami grandmother, Tamako. We feel like we know these characters well already, because we've seen versions of them in Takahashi's other work, but also because each one can be distilled down to a single state of mind—Rinne is stingy, Tamako is obsessed with youth, and Sakura is unperturbed.

The most promising thing here is the premise. Like Natsume's Book of Friends, Bleach, and Kekkaishi, Kyōkai no Rinne is a story about how deeply interlinked our world is with the next one. In all of these shows, the living and the dead exist side by side, though only a select few realize it. The rinne no wa, the red wheel that gives the show its title, is a physical manifestation of the Buddhist belief of the cycle of reincarnation. Under Takahashi's experienced eye, this idea is sure to pick up some new life. Already, it inspires some of the backgrounds, especially in the afterlife, depicting scenes that you might see on screen paintings. Even the patterned backgrounds that appear behind characters for emphasis on joke delivery feature designs that you might see on a kimono.

There's a lot of potential for a mythology this old and storied, but so far, the plot has remained light and fluffy. Rinne's liminal existence allows him to reveal and conceal himself from humanity at will, but he uses this talent to trick students into leaving snacks for him as “offerings” in a weatherbox behind the school. (I had never seen a weatherbox before this show, but apparently, it's a pretty common way to track meteorological readings for science class.) Meanwhile, Sakura's ability is more of a nuisance for her than a supernatural power, since it doesn't offer any advantage to her.

Episode two reveals the reason behind Sakura's ability and the start of some serious world-building that encompasses far more than the high school. Through swirling pockets in space, Rinne is able to travel between this world and the afterlife—frequently bringing Sakura with him. What they find is a lively festival where a big pink bunny isn't out of place at all. He may be cute, but Sakura soon learns she can't trust anyone in the afterlife. That bunny is a damashigami, which anime academic Charles Dunbar asserts is a Buddhist allusion to the dangers of distraction. Life is a grand deception, and the damashigami short-shifts the process, indulging his own irresponsibility by leading oblivious humans to an early death. I hope the story continues to put an emphasis on Buddhist teachings because it makes Kyōkai no Rinne 100% more interesting if I can learn new things while I watch it.

Even as she approaches death, we never worry that Sakura is in danger. Even when dealing with heavy themes and centuries-old religion, the story never raises the stakes. So far, this is not a show to take risks, and I hope that changes after the world-building is established, and the main characters are all introduced. Right now, I'm hoping for a little more substance. The jokes that were funny in episode one—which rely on Sakura's deadpan delivery and the narrator's Billy Mays persona—persist in episode two without escalation. Kyōkai no Rinne has sold me on its premise, but it still needs to prove that it can handle its execution.

Rating: B

Kyōkai no Rinne is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.

Lauren writes about anime and journalism at Otaku Journalist.

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