Ushio & Tora
by Lauren Orsini,
How would you rate episode 1 of
Ushio & Tora ?
How would you rate episode 2 of
Ushio & Tora ?
How would you rate episode 3 of
Ushio & Tora ?
For the anime fan bemoaning the “good old days,” Ushio & Tora is a must-watch. It's a shounen action show straight out of a '90s time capsule. With origins as an OVA in 1993, this show has been revived for 2015 without losing any of its charm.
Meet Ushio, the show's hot-blooded hero and ordinary middle-school student. While Dad is on vacation, Ushio has to clean out the family's Buddhist temple. He stumbles into the cellar, where a demon he dubs Tora has been pinned to the wall for 500 years by the legendary Beast Spear. Tora and Ushio's first interaction sets the tone for their reluctant partnership—Tora plans to “haunt” Ushio until he gets a chance to snack on him; Ushio bops him on the head with the spear like he's a misbehaving kitty. Their relationship reminds me of the one between the yokai Madara and Natsume in Natsume's Book of Friends. Madara insists that he's defending Natsume so “I can be the one to eat him, not you!” Tora says something similar. But as Ushio walks around with Tora perched on his shoulders like an overgrown parrot, we see the beginnings of an unlikely friendship begin to form between the two.
The show's mood rocks effortlessly between life-or-death serious to bust-a-gut comedy to give it a tone that has often been imitated but never duplicated in the years that have followed. It's the characters—which retain their '90s exaggerated facial expressions and unpolished pre-moe design aesthetic—who make these sudden reversions possible. You can see it when Tora switches from bloodthirsty to suddenly obsequious like a cornered cat, and when Ushio goes from quietly defiant to flustered and blushing (usually when faced with his equally stubborn love interest, Nakamura). Likewise, the plot spans from the lighter side—when we learn that preternaturally athletic Ushio is in the art club where he scratches out offensively talentless drawings—to potentially deadly situations in which evil spirits threaten Ushio, his school, and his friends.
Ushio & Tora is a stunning example of the “three episode test” in action, as it doesn't reach its full potential until you reach that point. To modern eyes, Ushio & Tora can seem like it's been done before. It wasn't as cliche when it came out in 1993, but today its initial premise is a dime-a-dozen shounen plot. In order to stand out from the crowd, it needs to be executed extremely well—and each coming episode confirms this. Episodes two and three each center on a baddie who is threatening Ushio's classmates.
The dark/light mood swapping begins in earnest in episode two. The center of the episode gets pretty grim as Ushio's friends, Inoue and Nakamura, get imprisoned by an evil spirit. What makes it seem so serious is that the rest of their universe is affected by the event, with newscasters on the scene and police searching for the girls. Of course, nobody can see the spiritual barrier except Ushio and Tora. I love how the episode begins and ends with Tora's innocuous fascination with the TV (having been pinned in the basement for centuries, he's never seen one). Seeing himself on the newscast, he's filled with kittenish delight.
Episode three brings some much-needed emotional depth to the show. Ushio becomes even more likable when he's babbling about his favorite artist. It just so happens that the late artist's daughter, a Leiji Matsumoto heroine lookalike, goes to Ushio's school and is having trouble with her possessive demon daddy. Of course, Tora knows what's going on but plays his cards close to his chest, the better to cause more suffering for Ushio. He even cackles and slaps his knee with glee while a third-year beats up Ushio. Still, it's Ushio who is slowly breaking Tora. When Ushio is about to die, Tora asks him to “beg for help.” Ushio remains silent, never breaking eye-contact as the artist demon pulls him into the painting. It's a powerful scene and it's not surprising to see that Tora is swayed. As a bonus, the one-shot characters like Reiko and her protector Masaki, are unexpectedly deep, both owning gentle motives behind their jarring demeanors.
Overall, this is a charming revival of an older show that combines a classic look with modern depth and pacing. I'm not expecting this show to deconstruct the shounen genre, but instead to just show us its roots. Ushio & Tora brings a '90s spirit to the summer lineup, making it essential viewing both for curmudgeons and new fans alike.
Ushio & Tora is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.
Lauren writes about anime and journalism at Otaku Journalist.
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