Reviewby Theron Martin,
BD+DVD - Season 1 Part 1 [Limited Edition]
In a setting where onmyo magic is a well-recognized reality and is used to combat spirit disasters, Harutora is a pretty ordinary guy. Despite being from a branch of the notorious Tsuchimikado family, he has no magical talents and few good study skills, so he's perfectly content to let the main branch family's prodigy, Natsume, be heir to the family leadership. He'd rather hang with best buds Touji and Hokuto instead, despite the latter's nagging that he aim to become an onmyo mage himself. That all changes when Natsume returns home from Tokyo for the summer and Suzuka Dairenji, the youngest of the 12 Divine Generals (the top class of onmyo mages), shows up to cause trouble. Before all is said and done, Harutora has fulfilled a childhood promise to become Natsume's familiar, and he and Touji join her at Onmyo Prep Academy, where Natsume must pretend to be a guy to maintain a family tradition. She (he) also attracts a lot of the wrong kind of attention because people think she's the reincarnation of Yakou Tsuchimikado, a powerful onmyo mage revered practically as a god despite having caused a lot of trouble in the past. Despite being academically challenged and his belief that he is cursed by bad luck, Harutora does have a couple of valuable things in his favor: the ability to readily make friends and allies and Kon, his spirit fox defense familiar. Both prove utterly invaluable when crises arise.
When Tokyo Ravens debuted in the Fall 2013 TV season, its adaptation of the eponymous light novel series failed to impress me with its first episode, and that does not change much on a repeat view. Indeed, the first episode is arguably the weakest part of the series' first half, and the entirety of the first three episodes (which form the foundation arc for the larger story) improves on that only a little. Surprisingly, though, the series does gradually start to become better, especially after it moves to the Omnyo Academy and its character dynamics gradually start to gain traction. By the end of episode 12 it is a much more involving, satisfying, and intricately-plotted series than it originally looked like it would be.
The artistry is not in any significant way responsible for that, however. Although the background art is usually good, most of the character designs are ordinary to the point of being nondescript; the exceptions are Kon and most of the Divine Generals, although Suzuka (in her initial appearances) visually comes across like a teenage prostitute and some of the other Generals have a more stereotypical “bad-ass cool” look. Despite sometimes being very elaborate, CG-animated familiars fail to impress much, and the use and integration of CG elements elsewhere is very hit-or-miss. When elements do hit, though, they hit hard, such as in one beautiful scene where Harutora first becomes able to perceive the spirit world. The animation is unexceptional otherwise, save for a particularly detailed rendition of a cat. Fan service is minimal (one early scene where Suzuka lewdly licks a chocolate-covered banana is much more an aberration than a pattern-setter) and the violence does not get particularly graphic.
What does salvage the story from mediocrity is some better-than-expected writing. The transition to Onmyo Academy dramatically broadens the scope of the story, allowing a dense layering of scheming and plot threads to quickly develop; in fact, just about every named adult who appears in the series has some big secret and/or scheme going on. Keeping track of who is aligned with who can be challenging, especially when some characters seem to be working at cross-purposes with themselves. The characterizations also get a little more involved, too, especially concerning Toji and his relationship to Harutora. The more serious focus does not prevent the series from occasionally having some fun, such as in one more light-hearted episode where the normally-invisible Kon temporarily has trouble maintaining her invisibility (which winds up causing a whole bunch of trouble at Onmyo Prep) or a couple of other cases where Suzuka uses her past association with Harutora to tremendously embarrass him through implied meanings. However, that never detracts from the overall more serious focus or from the story generally maintaining a smoothly-progressing pace.
A particularly strong musical score also helps. Techno-beat opener “X-encounter” is an upbeat number which pairs with skillfully-used visual to evoke a sense of youthful energy and attitude, while the more melodic closer “Kimi ga Emu Yuugure” is a good song in own right which is pair with images of real-life scenes highlighted in dramatic reds. In between the episodes sometimes use more synthesized sounds but rely more heavily on dramatic symphonic orchestration. It powers the action scenes and hits notes perfectly for other intense and/or creepy moments.
Funimation's English dub for the series is one of their best of the past year or two. All of the roles are very well-cast, the script is sharp without straying, and the voice actors, with few exceptions, completely own the roles. The key performance, and also the most impressive one, is Clifford Chapin's rendition of Harutora; this marks his second straight stellar effort (he also shined at the male lead in Unbreakable Machine-Doll) and could earn him end-of-year honors, as his performance perfectly brings to life Harutora's character and attitude. Ian Sinclair is a commendable complement as Touji, while on the female side Jad Saxton and Monica Rial are both great as Suzuka and Kon, respectively.
On-disk Extras include clean opener and closer, two (very informative) undubbed short segments where Kon explains various facets of the setting, English audio commentaries for episodes 5 and 12, and a video commentary for episode 7, which is essentially just an audio commentary put on camera; if you ever wanted to see what Colleen Clinkenbeard (the ADR director for the first half), Monica Rial, Clifford Chapin, and Ian Sinclair look like in real life, this is your opportunity. That has easily the most interesting discussion of the commentary lot, too; it certainly doesn't hurt that Monica is in one of her giggly moods. All four disks – two DVD and two Blu-Ray – come in the same case, with the Limited Edition version also coming in an artbox which leaves room for the second set.
Tokyo Ravens was clearly designed with a full two cours in mind, which is good because the end of this set shows little sense of urgency. Its last episode instead takes a more leisurely approach which simultaneously shows the kinds of skills that students actually practice in the field at Onmyo Prep, develops the character dynamics amongst the major cast further, has Harutora finally realize an important fact that he has not pinned down ever since the first story arc, and throws out hooks for the direction of the second half. The lack of need to put in some kind of cliffhanger break should insure a good, steady flow into the second half, but the series has already shown that it has the stuff to stand at least a little apart from other magical school shows out there.
Overall (dub) : B
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B
Animation : B-
Art : C+
Music : A-
+ Excellent English dub, writing improves, strong musical score.
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