After another pitch-perfect episode, I think what it boils down to for me is this: anime-wise it’s possible to do better things than Ushio & Tora is doing, but you can’t do this thing any better than it’s doing it. For straight-up old-school shounen, loud and brash and GAR in a larger-than-life way, this adaptation is spot-on. This series may not be game-changing or subversive (at least not yet) in the way the work of someone like Togashi is, but if this were the W.K.C. dog show it’d certainly win best of breed.
Due to the pacing requirements of fitting a 33-volume manga into 39 episodes (by way of reference, it took Madhouse 148 episodes to more-or-less comprehensively adapt the same number with Hunter X Hunter) some stories that end up as “monster of the week” may have been two or three week affairs if adapted literally. That’s what we have here this week with the introduction of the Ayakashi – a huge sea serpent made up of the souls of those (human and youkai) who’d died at sea. That will obviously be noticeable for manga readers, but as an anime-only viewer I have to say it’s working great for me so far. A lot happens in an episode like this one, but it doesn’t feel at all incomplete.
There were lots of good things happening here, starting with the Ayakashi itself. It’s a truly scary monster, a creature of the unquiet dead, with entire shipwrecks and will-o-the-wisp souls inside its belly and an insatiable hunger for more. It’s another youkai named Umizatou who pleads Tora for help in defeating it when Tora joins the kids for a trip to the beach to visit Asako’s family. In the process he reveals one of Tora’s true names – Nagatobimaru – though Tora disdains it as one of many that were assigned to him by humans (though of course Tora was foisted on him by a human – as far as we know…).
Another strong element of this episode is Asako getting a chance to stretch out a bit, after Mayuko has definitely had the better showcases so far (I still like her better). Asako is definitely as classic a tsundere as you’ll find, but let’s be honest – when she was written, the trope was still in its formative years. And there’s a sort of honesty to her relationship with Ushio that makes it tolerable. Better still, she shows off some genuine heart and courage this week in striking up a friendship with Tatsuya (could there be a more classic shounen name than Tatsuya?) a motherless boy who’s taken to acting out and pranks as a result of his loneliness.
Ushio’s response to Tatsuya is definitely tough love – he’s lost a mother himself, and can’t abide Tatsuya’s way of dealing with it. We find out the reason – Asako’s dad set the young Ushio straight with some tough love of his own, which casts Ushio’s reaction in a much kinder light (he’s just trying to be a dad figure as he understands it to Tatsuya himself). Asako defends Tatsuya – first from Ushio, then from a bunch of thugs who push him down and break his to phone, a gift from his mother. This is enough to close the sale for Tatsuya, who sticks to Asako like glue and insists she take him out on play on a boat.
I think it’s safe to say at this point that Ushio and Tora are an actual team now. When Tora gets in trouble against the Ayakashi (heads-up he’s no match for it) he instructs Umizatou to fetch Ushio for help (which he does in a very cool fashion). And when Asako and Tatsuya are likewise swallowed, Tora decides to save them, though he’s barely able to keep saving himself in the process (when I saw that Asako had called for help from inside the Aykashi’s stomach, I couldn’t resist checking the manga, because of course cell phones didn’t exist when this was written. Turns out the manga Tatsuya’s toy was a walkie-talkie, but I was never quite sure how the anime Asako got through, since her grandpa seems to have picked up her call on a land telephone).
This is just good stuff all the way around – the battle itself, Tatsuya’s role in it, Ushio and Asako’s deep-rooted bond, and the growing alliance he shares with Tora. And there’s a very interesting twist too, which comes when Umizatou hears Ushio’s full name and declares, aghast, that he’s the son of “that wretched woman” – who’s still alive – and that Nagatobimaru must distance himself from the boy immediately. Who is – or was – she? Was she even a human? We also learn that the Beast Spear levels-up big time once the cloth tied around its hilt is untied (which Ushio has done by necessity inside the Ayakashi’s stomach). We’ve only just begun to learn the secrets of Ushio’s family history, it seems – which leads me to believe his father is overdue to reenter the story very soon.