Every now and then, a fairly talented anime studio picks up a project that's beneath their ability. Such is the case with Tokyo Underground, where Studio
Pierrot tries their best to make something interesting out of the overdone magical-powers-and-lots-of-fights formula. It's a valiant effort, but the result is an anime where the strong visuals can only take the clichéd storyline so far. There's no doubt that supernaturally talented young heroes and repeated battles are popular, but if it's originality you're looking for, this show isn't the one.
If there's one thing you can count on in the anime world, it's that somewhere, some schoolkid has just unlocked his or her mastery of a natural element (earth, air, fire, water, or whatever else people can come up with). Tokyo Underground tries its best to extend its metaphysics to the "whatever else" level, with the powers of gravity and lightning being introduced early on, but it doesn't change the fact that this is a whole lot like Flame of Recca with some of the powers switched around. Protecting the helpless girl who has the most important power? Yeah, this show's got that. Getting into your first serious fight with the enemy and discovering your own hidden power right then? Hey, that's in this anime too! There might be more plot and conspiracy once Rumina and company venture into the Underground (how could they not?), but be prepared to sit through lots of overly dramatic fights and power-ups to get there.
The cast of characters also follows the shounen formula very closely, with Rumina being the energetic teenager that stars in every young boys' action anime. Ruri is, of course, cute but spineless, and Ginnosuke plays an amusing sycophant, but it's Chelsea who drives much of the character interaction with her quick retorts and quicker fists (which usually land on guys trying to make a move on Ruri). Tokyo Underground tries to rise above other shounen series with its well-timed sense of humor, but it's the kind of slapstick and exaggeration that only works as long as you're willing to laugh at silly things. When things get dramatic the show descends back into cliché—booming declarations and overwrought speeches that give opponents all the time in the world to strike back at the speaker—which they never do.
Tokyo Underground's strong point is its visual style, which shows no fear in trying out new approaches to heighten the action. The techniques of manga come into play, as onscreen panels zoom in on characters' faces while an action scene takes place at the same time. The "TV static" background effect, although it's used a bit much, also helps to draw attention to a certain character's action or dialogue. The fight scenes are also well-planned, with badly timed pauses kept to a minimum and varied camera angles lending excitement to the big action moments. Sadly, the character designs aren't quite as daring—they're stuck firmly in the realm of wide eyes and spiky multicolored hair—but Studio Pierrot presents them with a high degree of polish, keeping the characters proportional and consistently drawn. This also holds true for the look of the show in general, with sharp lines and colors that will please the eye. The studio's biggest weakness is the run-of-the-mill CGI used for elemental attacks: although Rumina's wind-summoning looks kind of cool, they might want to think twice about other things like the gravity and water effects, which just aren't convincing.
Like the story, Tokyo Underground's music score is a study in how to be perfectly average. Every fight is backed by rousing orchestral music (or some generic form of rock), every ominous moment is accompanied by dissonant chords, and comedy always goes hand in hand with some goofy melody. Although it's not painful to listen to, it's music that's just completely predictable, right down to the energetic opening theme and the sweet ballad that closes each episode.
Although Geneon usually teams up with Bang Zoom! Entertainment to produce some enjoyable dubs, on this release they go with Interpacific Productions' casting, and the result is far from perfect. In English, Rumina sounds like every young male protagonist to come out of an action show, even though his tone of voice in Japanese suggests a more mature approach than your average shounen hero. Meanwhile, Chelsea and Ruri sound like very typical girls, but the real problem with the dub is that everyone delivers their lines so mechanically. There's a lack of flow between lines and phrases, and the English script also tends to wander from the subtitle translation for no good reason. The DVD itself comes with the usual variety of extras: textless and original Japanese openings, character profiles, and previews, but nothing really special.
In the ever-growing anime realm of young heroes setting out on epic adventures, Tokyo Underground is going to have to settle for being in the middle of the pack. The idea of an underground civilization is intriguing, but it's been done before; the idea of having elemental powers is fun, but it's also been done before. Studio Pierrot tries to bring some new ideas for visual storytelling to the screen, but it's not enough to save a very ordinary storyline. There's something kind of cool about seeing a guy beat up people with nothing but wind and a wooden sword, but beyond that, there's not a whole lot about Tokyo Underground that makes it a must-see series. At best, it's a try-it-out series, best suited to fans of straight-up shounen.