There have been a few instances now where Ushio & Tora has flat-out nailed it – delivered an episode of old-school shounen as close to perfect as it’s realistically possible to make. It hasn’t been every week of course, and with a semi-episodic narrative like this some variation is inevitable. But all in all the series has been admirably consistent, a first-class production in every sense of the word. MAPPA is a studio that really seems to have found its stride, and we’re awfully lucky to have they and Madhouse thriving at the same time – it’s like having our cake and eating it too.
For all the talk of consistency though, these standout episodes are where UshiTora really stakes out its place as one of 2015’s elite shows. This is the sort of material that seems perfectly suited to anime – tales of the old Japan clashing with the new, full of atmosphere, suspense and youthful martial spirit. It’s so effortless and such a joy to see – a staff and studio confident and assured at their jobs, a first-rate cast, a coherent and compelling story about interesting characters. Yeah, this stuff was written 25 years ago but it still gives one hope for what anime remains capable of in this creatively challenged era.
This week’s fable concerns one of Japan’s most revered and well-known Ayakashi tales, the Zashiki Warashi. To call this legend archetypal is an understatement – there’s a reason we see it popping up over and over in manga and anime. Very few mythical beings in Shinto are as simultaneously cute and creepy as the Zashiki Warashi, and this one is no exception. Omamori-sama (Kayano Ai) has been the household Kami of the Takatori family for centuries, bringing them wealth and power – though they’ve had to make her a prisoner to ensure her cooperation.
Ushio and Tora are continuing their wanderings through the north of Japan, and while soaking in a hot spring to heal their wounds from the Kamiatachi encounter, they overhear a lovely voice in song. It belongs to Taketori Saya (Nanri Yuuka), the white-haired young woman tasked with consoling the spirit of the household. Saya too is a virtual prisoner, sickly and treated shabbily be her father Takee (Ishizuka Unshou) and grandmother. She flees when the embarrassed Ushio catches a glimpse of her, but they cross paths again the next day, when Ushio saves the girl after she faints into the path of an onrushing car. Unable to avoid getting involved, Ushio carries Saya home, where he quickly grasps the essence of what the situation is.
Here’s the thing – Ushio may be loud, crude and not especially book-smart, but he’s no fool. He’s perceptive, straightforward, fearless and noble of heart – in short, he’s just about the perfect hero for this sort of series. And he makes a perfect knight-errant come to town to be Saya’s – and Omamori’s – champion. There’s not a lot of subtlety to what’s going on here – Saya’s father and grandmother are exploiting both Saya and Omamori-sama for their own greedy ends – but the story is so elemental that it’s hard not to feel stirred by it. Even Tora seems to be – I think it’s very telling that Omamori-sama’s comment about Nagatobimaru’s actions was “I expected you to be far more cruel than this.” Tora has definitely changed, and it’s Ushio that’s changed him.
It should be pointed out that this is the second week in a row that Ushio and Tora has turned to one of the finest seiyuu of all-time for a supporting role, following up Miki Shnichirou with the almost-peerless Ishizuka-san. Kayano Ai is no slouch either, one of the best of her generation, and Nanri-san (more known as a singer than seiyuu, and apropos of nothing a stunningly beautiful woman) does a fine turn here as Saya. The background music for this episode is also exceptionally good, matching the shifting moods of the narrative perfectly. Again – it’s pure class, start to finish, and kudos to MAPPA for a job well done.
There are signs here that we’re about to circle back to the main story again, as the priests of Shigure’s sect – under the orders of their previously glimpsed-in-shadow leader Oyakume-sama (Satou Ai) – have decided to abandon their attempts to eliminate Ushio and Tora and acknowledge the former as a potential wielder of the Beast Spear. She states the matter quite simply – it’s up to the spear to choose its wielder, not a bunch of fallible human servants – but I wonder if we aren’t going to see a schism in the order over this. In any event, it’s clear that Ushio is swept up in something far larger than he could imagine as he is now, and that his quest to find out more about his mother is intricately connected to it.