Reviewby Jacob Chapman, Dec 1st 2009
Nabari no Ou
DVD - Season 1 Part 1
Shinobi, the ninjas of legend who control the elements through powerful secret techniques, still reside in modern Japan. The great clans now restrict their disputes and displays of power to their elite inner circles: the world of Nabari, and do battle in business suits rather than shozoku robes. It is said that the ninja who possesses the Shinrabansho, a secret art that controls all nature and knowledge, will become the ruler of Nabari and have the power to end their violent conflicts. This all-powerful enigma was unwittingly sealed inside a young boy, Miharu, who is unrelated to the ninjas of Nabari, and completely apathetic to their war to control him. Now Miharu's teacher and friends of the Banten and Fuma clans must strive to protect him from the vicious Kairoshu who threaten to rip the Shinrabansho out of him through fatal force. It's just too bad Miharu doesn't care whose side he's on...
Right up front, Nabari no Ou wears its biggest running gag on its sleeve; it's right there in the opening theme song. The pop-rock opener's chorus ends with a repeated engrish shout: “I don't care! I don't care!”, which is, of course, the protagonist's greatest defining trait and the main source of the show's humor as well. Scrawny Miharu wields infinite depths of knowledge and power and he doesn't give a flip. Subtle as a flying brick indeed, but in Nabari's case, not at all a harbinger of bad things to come.
The series' premise is handled surprisingly well. Ninja warfare and superpowers locked inside angsty high schoolers are common tropes to any anime fan, so the talents behind Nabari have twisted both in positive directions. These ninjas are very modern folks. They gripe about their jobs, take public transit, and when it's time to fight, they'll start performing jutsu (or they might just pull out a pistol and drop their targets with less fear of tarnishing their designer polos.) In addition, Miharu's extreme apathy to world-shattering supernatural conflict may be a lame running gag, but his character is anything but one-note. He refuses to fight or take a side not because he's a dopey teenager, on the contrary, he's a very intelligent whippersnapper…one with major trust issues. Capricious, snarky, and detached from even the closest of his comrades, he's a bizarre hero, but given the manipulative pushiness of all the clans around him, it's easy to empathize - or at least understand where he's coming from. His reason for not fighting is far simpler. With zero martial arts experience and no muscles on his scrawny frame, he really couldn't be expected to, Shinrabansho or no. All told, the fight scenes are still highly glossy, and there are bizarre chants and shapeshifting aplenty, but the added element of Miharu's apathy to all the flashy ninja theatrics makes the show uniquely engaging…unless you came looking for a traditional high-energy action show. In that case, you'll be disappointed.
Just like its dour young protagonist, Nabari no Ou doesn't care at all about blood, guts, or glory. For every explosive ninja clash in an episode, there are two episodes' worth of terse conversations about Miharu's fate, sensei Tobari's fears, or antiheroic Yoite's volatility. Thankfully, in the midst of all this heavy dialogue, the eclectic cast throws in a sprinkling of goofy humor. Miharu has a mischievous tendency to doublespeak; he's fond of backhanded compliments and odd bouts of flirting that leave his compatriots flustered while he smiles sweetly, sprouting devilish wings and a tail. Still, the series remains far more focused on character relationships than fighting, particularly Miharu's dangerous relationship with Yoite, a ninja being used by the Kairoshu for his lethal talents even as it drains away his life and sanity. They find a commonality of helplessness and mistrust between them and attempt to break from the clans' control to pursue their own goals, each using the other and unable to decide if they are impassioned enemies or secretly close friends. This only puts them in greater danger with outside clans, but neither Miharu's sensei Tobari nor Yoite's caretaker Yukimi are in any position to help their impetuous companions, and instead agonize over alienating the two further.
Frankly, Nabari no Ou is better for its focus on the relationship dynamic between Miharu and Yoite. Many additional subplots about extraneous characters are less successful, making the series putter around when a good fight or plot development would be more welcome. The relationships waver and shift enough to hold your interest and the show never becomes unbearably boring, but it does drag now and again, which is painful because there's a lot of potential here; there should be no need for a tired, predictable “vengeful relative" episode... but there's one of those anyway.
One place the series never falters is in its crisp and appealing artwork. Character designs are conventional, but solid and distinctive from one another. All the pretty lads and ladies in nice apparel aside, the real star of Nabari's visuals is the background art, done entirely in muted watercolors. The storybook quality of the illustrations is filled with sharp diagonal lines that add a sinister touch to the faded scenes and turn a rainstorm in the opening flashback to a shower of needles. Other effects like heat distortion and foggy rain are pulled off beautifully. The musical score by Ooshima Michiru is less noticeable; it isn't nearly as effective as her score for Fullmetal Alchemist, but it's functional nonetheless.
On that note, Rie Kugimiya, (seiyuu for Alphonse Elric), provides the Japanese voice for Miharu, and strikes an exceptional balance between the aforementioned blistering apathy and a vulnerable undertone of bitterness. Outside of her performance, however, the Japanese track does not support the series' subdued tone quite as well as the dub. Funimation's adaptation is actually more liberal than usual, but it helps far more than it hurts. Tedious exchanges of expositional dialogue have been replaced with more relaxed and genuine exchanges at every turn. No information is lost, and the dub's improved naturalism is welcome in a series with so much conversation, but the scripts are significantly different between versions.
In addition to the writing enhancements, Joel MacDonald's rendition of Yoite is a drastic improvement over the original. The character could easily be written off as an “emo kid,” (and is literally called this in the dub,) and the Japanese rendition does nothing to offset this stereotype with a hushed, angsty performance. However, MacDonald adds a crucial element to his Yoite: pain and decrepitness. Yoite is not an “emo kid,” he's a dying boy, and the dub gets this across extremely well, as MacDonald's voice fractures with emotion the more reserved Japanese never quite achieves and adds an urgency to Yoite's rare emotional outbursts, as if he could fall over dead at the end of every sentence. It isn't the world's greatest dub by any means, but it is a slight improvement over the Japanese version. Both tracks are perfectly listenable, however.
Extras include the regular bevy of trailers, the clean OP and ED, and one horribly pointless English voice actor commentary. Sadly, even fans who enjoy commentaries would find this one just plain embarrassing as the commentators can't come up with anything to discuss and rely on the director's cued questions…which they read aloud verbatim and then find themselves unable to answer. It really does not reflect well on the industry to produce extras as vapid as these; hopefully, future commentaries will be executed with just a little more forethought.
Nabari no Ou is a breed apart from standard ninja fare, but how rewarding it is will all depend on what lens you view it through. With such emphasis on character relationships and attachment to the contemporary world, it might be more effective as a slice-of-life series…but it isn't one at all, and that's the problem. It's a fantasy series with less action than you'd anticipate from a world full of ninjas, and for all its novelties, sometimes it (and little apathetic Miharu) could stand to lighten up.
Overall (dub) : B
Overall (sub) : B-
Story : B-
Animation : B+
Art : A-
Music : B
+ Attractive art, some fun fight scenes, intriguing and well-developed relationships
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