Saturday, March 27, 2010

Nabari no Ou

When I saw the first episode of this anime, I automatically had a couple of preconceived notions about it. "Oh ninjas, in a contemporary setting. That's been done before, I think. So basically Naruto but better." However, by the end of the series, I found that this conclusions was absitively posolutely 100% wrong, and that made me happy. The only thing that would posibly connect it to Naruto would be that it is about ninjas. (Which is totally okay, ninjas are awesome.) Aside from that, you could hardly find a more different representation.

Nabari no Ou first aired in Japan in 2008, and was produced by J.C. Staff, based on a manga of the same title by Yuhki Kamatani. Literally translated as "The King of Nabari" or a rough equivilant, the title surprisingly does not have as much to do with the plot as one might think. The title invokes the suggestion that maybe the main character or a related character is going to become a king or ruler of some sort. But it's more about a kid who has that career path as an option and the question of if he even takes that option at all. The main character, Rokujou Miharu is a high school student who suddenly finds that he physically contains this strange supernatural object called the shinrabanshou, or the hijustsu in situations where saying long names is too tedious or time sensitive. It's a kind of self-aware store-of-ultimate-knowledge type deal, and is so powerful that, if misused, it could cause terrible misfortune, or as Thobari-sensei, one of the other characters points out, it could just melt your brain. It also makes you look like you're from the Matrix when used, because every time someone activates it they end up covered in moving lines of kanji. However, the rightful owner could use it to gain control of Nabari, that is to say, the underworld of ninjas, samurai, and clans that somehow manages to coexist with the contemporary world. Unfortunately, one of the ninja clans is after Miharu because they want to extract the Shinrabanshou from him, which could be fatal.

Miharu is not initially alone in his struggle, as in the first episode he is virtually dragged into this realization by Kouichi, one of his schoolmates, and Thobari-sensei, who is the school's English teacher. In the world of Nabari, Kouichi and Thobari-sensei are both ninjas from the Banten ninja clan. Thobari-sensei even pledges his life to defend Miharu until he becomes the ruler of Nabari and the fighting among the clans stops. In the beginning the group plans to find the secret teachings of all the other ninja clans, thinking that their combined knowledge will help to pull this off. They are also joined by Raimei, another student in the contemporary world, and a Samurai in Nabari, who also swears herself to Miharu's aid.

Now, one would think that with such strong calls to action, it would be hard to say no, but from the outset, that is exactly what Miharu does. I have to say, this is one of the stubbornest refusals of the call I have ever seen. Probably not the stubbornest, but it's close. It mainly has to do with his character traits, and one of his primary traits is a huge sense of apathy. In fact, for the majority of the first couple of episodes, he does not seem to care about anything and remains focused on keeping his own life as normal as possible. Kouichi and Thobari sensei want him to train; Miharu doesn't seem to care. Raimei wants to drag him off to meet the leader of another clan; Miharu doesn't seem to care. In fact, in the first episode alone he uses almost every trick in the book to show he doesn't care, from using his diminutive frame to put out a front of weakness, to teasing the others sarcastically.

Then Yoite enters the picture. He is a user of the Kairoushuu's secret art, who is clearly capable of  taking out the whole crew with what is apparently the finger of death. He just points at you and apparently what ever part gets hit with his energy just starts destroying itself. Not very pretty to be sure, and at first this fellow seems like just another adversary, but his introduction becomes a game changer that has drastic repercussions on the rest of the plot. After totally mopping the floor with everybody,
Yoite returns later and threatens to use his powers to kill everyone in the Banten group if Miharu doesn't do what he wants, adding the extra caveat that if he does die before Miharu can do so (as he is in poor health because his powers drain his life force), then they will die with him because they now each contain some of his chi. And what does Yoite want exactly? He wants Miharu to use the Shinrabanshou to erase him from existence, as in he wishes he was never born. Miharu decides to try to give him what he wants because as apathetic as he is, he really doesn't want people to die for him and Yoite promises to help him accomplish his goals up to the point where Miharu can uphold his end of the ultimatum.

The rest of the series is taken up with their relationship as they go from being allies to outright friends (a blatant case of Stockholm syndrome if there ever was one) in an effort to deal with the desires of both sides. This eventually leads them to change the situation again when Miharu actually leaves the group we're calling the protagonists to JOIN the Kairoushuu, thinking that's the fastest way to get to the other scrolls. I never expected that in a million years. I don't want to totally spoil the ending for you, but it's interesting because you don't really know for sure what the Kairoshuu are trying to do until right up to the end even though they tell you point blank, and when you do, it's almost too late, kind of like with Obama and his health care bill.

 One thing I especially liked about this anime was the complexity of the cast. Each character had some kind of quirk or secret that made them interesting. Raimei is a Samurai though she is a bit scatterbrained. Kouichi seemed innocent but he has a really dark side that I never expected. (My first guess was that he was a vampire when I saw it, but I'll let you find out for yourself what it is.) Thobari sensei has a terrible fear of any automated vehicles, but don't write him off for that. He also has some very deep dark secrets related to Banten's secret scroll and Miharu himself that only get revealed near the end, so keep on your toes. Miharu also is full of interesting qualities, like his acid wit and diminuative stature which he uses to his advantage to no end. His sense of apathy is also hilarious especially when paired against the rest of the main cast. Even Yoite is an engaging and actually kind of sympathetic character once you know him (once again, Stockholm syndrome).

If the main cast wasn't enough for you, the supporting cast provides another entire tier of characters with interesting backgrounds and secrets, I could spend an entire article just writing about them, and that's including the antagonists. Kind of like certain segments of Bleach, or like Gundam Seed, this series incorporates the convention of being able to see both sides of a conflict and have both sides sporting sympathetic characters. Many of the characters who are in the Kairoushuu are actually somewhat normal people (considering the context) who just happen to agree with what they think are their leader's ideals and furthermore many of them have pretty interesting reasons why they are there in the first place. If he didn't do that dark-leader-in-the-shadows schtick, you wouldn't be entirely sure that the leader of the Kairoushuu was even a bad guy before the end, which adds further to this series' complexity.
As awesome as it is, that might be one of the few issues I have with this series. There is so much going on in the show at a time that you just don't know where to look, and most viewers might feel a little overloaded. Granted there is only so much room in the space of 26 episodes and I think they did a pretty good job of making it self-contained, but it is still a lot to keep track of. I'm not sure the intro and first outro are particularly memorable if you watch a lot of anime, but the second outro is kind of nice, even if the visuals of Yoite and Miharu holding hands is a little weird (then again, this IS anime we're talking about.) Some of the scenes early in the series, when the time is set in spring, are really pretty, as many of then are sporting cherry blossoms.

So there you have it. Nabari no Ou is an anime that I would gladly recommend if you like ninjas, but don't care for the rinse-and-repeat of a Naruto or DBZ type formula. It's complex and engaging and definitely worth watching if you have some spare time.

The images utilized in this review are all from Nabari no Ou