I said a couple of days ago that Gangsta was the best new series of the season, but the thing is, Ushio to Tora is so flawlessly executed that it’s hard to make the case against it. In a sense, one could almost look at this as a comparison of seinen vs. shounen, even at the risk of coming off a bit snobbish. Gangsta is a quintessential seinen adaptation from a great seinen studio that would have seemed at home airing 20 years ago; UshiTora is a quintessential shounen adaptation from a team of shounen legends that would have seemed at home airing 20 years ago.
Each of these shows epitomizes what’s best about their demographic. Maybe the additional subtlety and layering of the one elevates it above the other – as I mentioned while reviewing Hunter X Hunter (many of whose staff and cast work on Ushio and Tora) that was really a seinen dressed in shounen attire, the best of both worlds, effectively unique in offering the depth and poetry of a great seinen while deconstructing shounen tropes and traditions. But against any but that ridiculously high standard, Ushio and Tora stands as a great shounen, and this as an unassailable shounen adaptation.
The thing about UshiTora is, it’s just so damn much fun. This is the summer show that leaves me wanting the next episode to begin as soon as the current one ends, because its energy is so infectious and it’s so beautifully executed. And we’re really just scratching the surface here, with the plot barely starting to unravel and a laundry list of great seiyuu poised to join the series in coming weeks (including Hisoka, Gon, Chrollo and Knov among others) and the relationships only now beginning to take shape.
An important one of those begins to form with this week’s story, which starts like a classic episode of Doctor Who (or maybe the cult sci-fi film hit Five Million Years to Earth). A road crew is digging up a giant rock called the “Keystone“, much to the dismay of a local Ojii-san, who warns them they’re messing with things meant to be undisturbed. Turns out the Keystone is a remnant of an incident in the Meiji Era, when a local shaman named Hizaki Mikado (Orikasa Fumiko) sealed a group of youkai called the Hitouban (a Chinese demon that’s effectively a giant floating head) that had been terrorizing the local populace. Released, the Hitouban munch on the road crew and then head off in search of revenge against their jailer, Hizaki Mikado (not realzing of course that as a weak human, she’d be long dead).
Another classic setup just like last week, no question about it – and again, it’s the brilliant execution that makes this episode a gem. I really love the interplay between Ushio and Tora here – the former accuses the latter of the crime, and we see that Tora does have a certain honor to him (he’s willing to eat humans, but doesn’t care to be called a liar). The furious Tora then heads off to the city to build his strength by dining on the locals, only to be mystified and dismayed by the trappings of the modern world like cars, glass, wristwatches and perfume (“Why are there so many people?!” indeed). This is really funny stuff, with a great performance put in by Koyama Rikiya.
The hook here is that Hizaki Mikado looks just like Mayuko, who may or may not be her reincarnation. But before the Hitouban stumble across her in town, Tora does – and he’s smitten by the fact that she’s a deliciously natural girl who disdains makeup and jewelry. This is a fortunate circumstance for Mayuko, despite his stated intentions to dine on her – is Tora merely protecting his lunch from rival youkai who’d eat it first? Is Nyanko-sensei? Well, who knows – but whatever the reason, Tora does battle with the Hitouban (who include Menthuthuyoupi himself, Tachiki Fumihiko), and with a little assist from Ushio the youkai are destroyed and Tora has to settle for a fast food burger for lunch.
It’s hard to do justice to all that in words – I think you had to be there. It may sound like pretty standard shounen, but the commitment and sincerity here is so infectious that it makes Ushio & Tora mighty hard to resist. I like the developing character relationships very much, and it’s nice to see Mayuko becoming more involved – I think she’s an extremely likeable girl, and I sense that she and Tora are going to share a certain bond that grows from the events of this episode. It’s all just grist for the mill, more reasons why I can’t wait for the next episode to start. And any series that can leave you with that feeling is in pretty good shape.