Review

by Theron Martin,

Tokyo ESP

Blu-Ray

Synopsis:
Tokyo ESP Blu-ray
Aside from being trained in martial arts by her ex-policeman father, Rinka was your ordinary high school girl until the day the she saw strange, glowing fish in the air and one of them flew into her. She soon discovers that she has awakened as an esper with the power to pass through non-organic objects. Because her hair turns white when her powers are active, she comes to be referred to as White Girl by the public when she uses her powers to help out in crises. Along the way she gradually wins over some fellow espers as allies, most particularly Kyotaro, a teleporter she once saved from being attacked by hooligans and who is now inspiring her with his commitment towards justice. Some espers they encounter definitely don't have such noble intentions, most especially the group led by the Professor, a former friend of Kyotaro's parents who has taken to hating humanity and believing that espers should rule. With the government also starting to see espers as a dire threat (and the Professor giving them ample ammunition for such a cause), it's a tough time to be an esper.
Review:

I originally did partial episode reviews for this 12 episode manga adaptation when it first aired back during the Summer 2014 TV season, but I have long wanted to go back and take a more summative view of the series after letting it set for a while. Since I missed the series' original physical release, Funimation's recent Blu Ray-only rerelease of the series under the company's Essentials tag gave me the excuse I needed. However, the experience has not much changed my views on the series. Watching the series all at once only highlights both the strengths and weaknesses of the series commented on during the episode reviews – or, perhaps more precisely, it highlights the ambitions that the series had for the story it wanted to tell and the pitfalls that bogged it down in achieving that goal.

At its heart, the story has two main ambitions: to tell the heroic journey of budding superhero Rinka and to set it in the context of the xenophobia which can overtake a populace when it is exposed to a potentially disruptive new population. In the latter sense the story so closely apes events and structures seen in Marvel Comics' mutant titles that original manga-ka Hajime Segawa would have a tough time refuting any claim that he was inspired by Uncanny X-Men and/or related titles. While it does not have a Professor X-like figure, the Professor present here is essentially a stand-in for Magneto, down even to being moved to hate humans and believe in his own kind's supremacy after experiencing the former at their very worst. It also has many other elements that will be familiar to any longtime X-Men fan, including the imbalanced notion of fighting to protect people that hate and fear you, open persecution in an almost concentration camp-like style, and factionalism within the esper community which mostly splits along ideological lines.

The story varies on how successful it is at promoting and developing the ideological split and xenophobia, but on the whole it doesn't muddy the moral waters enough. On the plus side, it does make the point that many of those who join the Professor's ranks come from very broken backgrounds, and thus may have some semi-legitimate reason for wanting to strike back at humanity. The series also suggests that some who go on destructive rampages have just become intoxicated by their powers, which is wholly believable. Likewise, a strong negative reaction to a whole class of people based on the actions of a few bad representatives is also, unfortunately, wholly believable.

The problem is that there is very little nuance to any of this. One initial foe of Rinka and Kyotaro flips to the “good guy” side simply because she falls head over heels for the beefiest good guy, and Minami, Rinka's most direct antagonist, is slightly conflicted mostly because she doesn't want adopted brother/possible love interest Kyotaro to get killed, but that is about the extent of any wavering. Otherwise the good guys are resolutely wholesome and the bad guys are resolutely selfish and/or evil. Little attention is also given to any conflicts within the general public over the views on the espers; the government shifts very abruptly to the “bag and tag” attitude despite some of them having proven themselves to be heroic. (Why the government didn't at least attempt to foster allied espers is a baffling omission, especially when ordinary police officers and rescue workers recognize the value of working with them.) As a result, the series accomplish little in the way of true depth or gravitas.

The storytelling does much better with its portrayal of Rinka's (and to a lesser extent Kyotaro's) heroic journey, to the point of almost compensating for deficiencies elsewhere. Rinka is nether one of the more powerful nor one of the smarter of espers and has to initially get pulled into the hero role by Kyotaro – who, ironically, was inspired towards his morality by an earlier encounter with Rinka. However, she becomes the de facto leader of the good guys because she possesses possibly the single most important trait for a hero: she will take action of her own volition when others will not or cannot, and in so doing she becomes an inspirational force. Along the way she is nearly killed, harshly beaten on other occasions, imprisoned, forced to decide between moral actions and her own desires, and even loses her powers for a while – in other words, an ultimate hero's challenge. She isn't some mindlessly optimistic shonen action hero, so these events do take a toll on her and she struggles through crises of faith, but that's also what makes her more believably human and what makes her finding her strength to stand up all the more satisfying. Kyotaro, by comparison, is more the pure idealist. If Rinka represents the story's spirit then he is its heart.

Other characters in the story are less compelling, with some of the Professor's subordinates being given no personality at all. Minami has some potential but ultimately comes across as an emotionally distant badass with a major possessive streak towards Kyotaro, while the Professor is defined by pretending to be cultured when he isn't ordering death and mayhem; the writing definitely wanted to turn him into a sophisticated villain, but that doesn't quite gel. The supporting heroes get more definition, from a boy whose mother is an anti-esper politician to a girl who is trying to break away from being a yakuza boss's daughter to a martial arts trainer who perpetually wears a panda suit to a thief who, in easily the series' most amusing development, winds up bewitched by Rinka's buff father. (Also watch for an esper of more novel and surprising nature who first appears late in the series.) Each of them represents a classic hero trait: the reformed villain, the elderly trainer, and so forth, and each does a passable job in those roles.

One of the series' odder elements is that it has distinct cross-overs with the anime Ga-Rei: Zero, which is also connected to a manga created by Segawa. Both female leads from that series and a few others appear in episodes 1 and 11, with the girls in the former case being apparently just ordinary citizens and the emergency response team in the latter case fulfilling the same roles and coming close to meeting a similar fate. These are pure cameos, as the characters do not appear outside of those scenes and otherwise play no role in the series. In the latter case that makes for an awkward fit, as they have some of the more robust early action sequences.

The series is not short on either martial or super-powered action sequences, although they do not predominate. Power uses are effective but not overly creative, and the battle choreography, while it does put some effort into depicting martial arts moves, is mostly routine. Animation support for these scenes is not the strongest, and the series struggles mightily at times to keep on-model, while CG effects are mediocre by current standards. Character designs stand out most in the cool, short-haired beauty of Minami and the risqué costumes of two sister on opposite sides (although Rinka also has her moments),with some other designs edging into caricature. The series does not heavily use fan service but is not shy about it; aside from the aforementioned costumes, Rinka appears naked in some early scenes where she is learning about her powers and Minami is depicted with undefined nudity in the closer. Graphic violence can spike to intense levels but that is also not a regular feature.

The series' most reliable production element is unquestionably its musical score. Though not a stellar effort, it achieves impact even when the visuals are shaky, especially in its use of its core dramatic themes. Opener “Tokyo Zero Hearts” is a wholly unremarkable number, but the darker and heavier sound of closer “Silver Salvation” stands out more even without factoring in that it features Minami running around in the buff.

Funimation's rerelease comes with digital copy access instead of the DVD but otherwise seems to have the same Extras: English episode commentaries for episodes 2 and 5, series commercials, clean opener, and clean versions of both the regular closer and one alternate closer. It also includes the English dub, which shakes out mostly – but not totally – on the positive side. The weakest performance is unfortunately one of the more important ones: Jeffrey Schmidt sounds like a respectable match for the role of Professor in terms of vocal quality, but he tries to use a measured delivery for his lines in order to sound distinctive and it instead comes out being distracting. Balancing that out are very solid performances by Sarah Weidenheft and Adam Dahlberg as Rinka and Kyotaro, respectively.

The end of the series pulls an annoying trick by having the ultimate conflict not be about Rinka confronting Professor, or about ideological conflict coming to a head, but instead about the Professor confronting two other beings who appears only briefly earlier and whose existence and purpose is never explained. The denouement assures that Rinka's journey to being a hero is complete but leaves just about everything else the story was doing unresolved. This might have been fine if more animation was coming, but so far there has been no indication of additional adaptations. Ultimately the series is by no means a disaster, but it is a textbook example of what happens when the ambitions of a title exceed the production staff's ability to execute.

Grade:
Production Info:
Overall (dub) : B-
Overall (sub) : B-
Story : B-
Animation : B-
Art : B-
Music : B

+ Presents a satisfying heroic journey, story has high ambitions, some likable characters
Little depth to the story, confusing final episode, most villains are one-dimensional

Director: Shigehito Takayanagi
Series Composition: Hideyuki Kurata
Script:
Yasuko Kamo
Hideyuki Kurata
Katsuhiko Takayama
Storyboard:
Kazuhiko Ishii
Takao Kato
Shūhei Matsushita
Katsuichi Nakayama
Akira Nishimori
Tomihiko Ohkubo
Masahiro Okamura
Shigehito Takayanagi
Hidetoshi Yoshida
Koji Yoshikawa
Episode Director:
Masayuki Iimura
Kazuhiko Ishii
Fumiharu Kamanaka
Yukio Kuroda
Daisuke Nakajima
Tomihiko Ohkubo
Masahiro Okamura
Shigehito Takayanagi
Unit Director: Shigehito Takayanagi
Music: Evan Call
Original creator: Hajime Segawa
Character Design: Shintetsu Takiyama
Art Director: Ryouka Kinoshita
Chief Animation Director: Shintetsu Takiyama
Animation Director:
Ryotarou Akao
Masayuki Fujita
Natsuko Fujiwara
Kazuyuki Igai
Hisae Ikezu
Mitsuru Ishihara
Masahiko Itojima
Masaru Kato
Seiji Kishimoto
Chizuru Kobayashi
Chika Kojima
Hiroko Kuurube
Akitoshi Maeda
Hideaki Matsuoka
Minoru Morita
Takumo Norita
Taeko Oda
Haruo Ogawara
Yoko Sano
Masahiro Sekiguchi
Akio Takami
Shintetsu Takiyama
Takenori Tsukuma
Ryuji Tsuzuku
Kanako Watanabe
Shinichi Yamaoka
Jouji Yanase
Sound Director: Yota Tsuruoka
Director of Photography: Tomoyuki Nakata
Executive producer: Takeshi Yasuda
Producer: Atsushi Itou

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Tokyo ESP (TV)

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