Reviewby Theron Martin,
BD+DVD - The Complete First Season
Hiyori Iki is a pretty normal high school girl beyond the fact that she is a closet fan of mixed martial arts. She also seems to be a little more perceptive than the norm, as she actually notices and remembers a seeming young man wearing a jersey. After being involved in an accident pushing said young man out of the path of a bus, Hiyori discovers that the “young man” actually claims to be Yato, a now-obscure god. She also discovers that she is now a half-Phantom (“phantom” is Funimation's interpretation of the word “ayakashi”), which means that she can all-too-easily leave her physical body and assume a spiritual version of herself which sports a tail. There are also full Phantoms about which come from the Far Shore (i.e., the afterlife) to stir up trouble, and one of Yato's most frequent jobs, aside from granting mundane wishes, is dealing with them. While waiting for Yato to solve the problem of her out-of-body experiences, Hiyori soon finds herself caught up in the affairs of a god who is struggling to establish himself in the modern era, a boy who becomes his Regalia (i.e., a formerly human spirit which can assume the form of a god's weapon), and various long-time associates of Yato's, both friend and foe alike.
The title of this 2014 adaptation of a shonen manga literally translates as “Stray God,” which is a fitting description for its male protagonist and central character. (That “nora” means “stray” also becomes important in reference to another character who first appears in episode 4.) That Yato is a god (even if a down-and-out one) puts a different spin on what otherwise initially looks and feels like a fairly typical story about an exorcist-like character dealing with troublesome spirit-creatures. The exorcist-type character being male and the half-supernatural character being female in this case also provides a flipped-gender contrast to Beyond the Boundary, a series which aired just one season earlier and covered some of the same ground. Whether that series or this one does a better job with the concept is pretty much a toss-up.
In this case the basic concept is built around a premise that has been around for decades in fantasy literature: that gods depend on the acknowledgement and veneration of mortals to maintain their very existences. Hence being forgotten equates to just fading away for a god. That reality drives the dreams that Yato has, as popularity literally equates to living the high life for him, and serves as one of the foundation elements of his backstory; gods desperate enough to maintain themselves will grant any wish, no matter how bloody, and from that gods of calamity arise. This principle underlies the motives of the final antagonist as well.
Regretfully the series does not explore that aspect in more detail, as it spends more time emphasizing the spiritual structure of this setting. In particular it focuses on the relationship between a god and his/her Regalia (Funimation's interpretation for “shinki”), which lies at the core of much of what happens through the first three-fourths of the series. In some respects the god/Regalia relationship is similar to the Meister/Weapon relationship in Soul Eater, including the weapon's ability to act independently of its master (for instance, Regalia are the ones who can set mystical Boundaries which Phantoms cannot cross), but the two franchises are fundamentally different. Weapons become what they are via genetic heritage, while Regalia are drafted from the lingering spirits of the dead. Hence Regalia do not have an existence outside of their roles and are normally attuned to their user so tightly that immoral thoughts and actions by the Regalia can have painful consequences for the associated god. Establishing a god-Regalia bond involves the god imprinting a tattoo of a name on the Regalia's body, which is what the god invokes to call the Regalia into its alternate form. Thus a Regalia which bears multiple name tattoos, which is called a Nora, is effectively equivalent to a whore. The setting also implies that Phantoms are about the equivalent to demons in Christian mythology, in the sense that they are the ones who whisper in the ears of the distressed and provoke them into bad actions. The way they commonly proclaim that gods “smell nice” has both an amusing and creepy implication for Hiyori, who in half-Phantom form can actually identify gods by their pleasant smell and even sniff out particular ones, much like a dog could.
Most of the first nine episodes concern Hiyori getting involved in Yato's activities and the troublesome relationship which forms between him and his new Regalia draftee Yukine. Mixed in with that is the appearance of Bishamon, a war god (a statuesque blond woman in this case) with a long-standing – but also possibly unwarranted – grudge against Yato, and the one among her multiple Regalia who feels differently about the matter. Those events come to a climax in episode 9, which leaves the remaining three episodes to deal with a second arc about a god who knew Yato back when he was more warlike and longs to see him that way again. Despite the stakes in play, their ultimate final episode throw-down seems anticlimactic compared to the resolution in episode 9, thus giving the sense of the second arc being short-changed by comparison. The drama aspect of the series is also at its best in the build-up to and execution of episode 9, leaving what comes after only as a shadow by comparison.
Calling the series a drama punctuated by occasional bursts of action would be a misnomer, however, as it also very definitely has a substantial and sometimes very effective humor component. Although Yato gets his fair share of the comedy action, the exemplars are Hiyori's reactions to certain things and the behavior of Kofuku, a pink-haired woman who dresses and mostly behaves like a teenager and uses the guise of a Goddess of Fortune to conceal what she really is. At times the humor can get outright silly, and at one point it even strays into absurdity; nearly half of episode 4 involves a conversation Yato has with a suicidal jumper while they are falling from the top of a tall apartment building, with Yukine and Hiyori regularly commenting about how improbably long the fall seems to be taking. Director Kotaro Tamura, who makes his debut in the big chair with this franchise, shows a fair amount of skill balancing the comedic and more serious elements so that one does not get in the way of the other.
The most striking aspects of the visual effort by Bones are the eyes of most of the core cast members, an effect which comes out most prominently in the opener and is definitely enhanced by Blu-Ray-caliber color saturation. The pastel colors used often stand out vividly against the surrounding color scheme, which also occasionally uses some tinting schemes to great effect. Amongst character designs, Hiyori's stands out for the way her long brown hair is (usually) unbound and the adorable way she looks when she falls asleep (which happens every time her half-Phantom form emerges), while Bishamon cuts a striking figure whether wearing halter top or military-styled suit. Phantoms, contrarily, have fluorescent-colored cartoonish looks which make them look as wholly unnatural as they are supposed to be. Animation is generally well-executed, and while there are some occasional losses of detail in long-range shots, it is not as big a problem here as in other series. Fan service, while definitely present, is only used sporadically.
Though it uses some regular instrumentation and occasionally infuses numbers with vocals, the soundtrack relies most heavily on techno-infused pieces and electronic sounds, with reliable but unspectacular results. Much more impressive is opener “Goya no Machiawase” by Japanese alternative rock band Hello Sleepwalkers, who hopefully will do more anime work in the future. The rock song zings and the visuals backing it, with their creative use of camera angles and striking use of color, are the sharpest-looking aspect of the whole series. Closer “Heart Realize” is not quite on the same level but still a solid song with its own interesting visuals.
The English dub makes wise casting choices across the board and draws out some great performances. Jason Liebrecht brings a different vocal quality to the role of Yato but handles it just fine, as does Bryn Apprill as Hiyori, and Alexis Tipton in particular shines as Kofuku. The most impressive performance, though, is Micah Solusod as Yukine – an interesting but probably predictable casting choice, given that the role he is best-known for also transforms between weapon and human forms (i.e., Soul Eater). Here he uses a pitch towards the higher end of his range, and while he may not seem unusually impressive in the role at first, wait until his most difficult parts come up later in the series, especially episode 9. The English script takes fewer liberties, but this one is not exactly a slang-fest, either.
Funimation's regular edition release includes both pairs of Blu-Ray and DVD disks in the same case, which comes in a slipcover. The bulk of the Extras are three English commentaries: a video one for episode 4 which features the voice actors for Yato, Hiyori, and Yukine with ADR director (and voice of Rabo) Mike McFarland and audio ones for episodes 6 and 9 featuring differing mixes of voice actors. Also included are clean opener and closer and a collection of series trailers. Conspicuously absent are two OVA episodes which were originally released with manga volumes in Japan and are set after the events of the series.
Overall, when Noragami is good, it is very good, but it tapers off too much at the end and rushes its last arc. It also leaves all kinds of questions unanswered (perhaps most conspicuously, exactly why Bishamon has it out for Yato or why Hazuki respects him despite his master's ire) and all kinds of world-building aspects unelaborated-upon at the end. Thankfully a much-needed sequel is due in the Fall 2015 season, which will hopefully fill in a lot of the gaps.
Overall (dub) : B+
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B
Animation : B
Art : B+
Music : B
+ Opener, balances comedy and serious elements well, some striking visuals, episode 9.
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