This was a pretty big week on Ushio & Tora – the kind of week that can often lead to a letdown. Payoffs after long built-up events have a way of disappointing, and expectations a way of becoming a curse. When you allow the audience to conjure up their own version of a big moment in their mind’s eye, the actual moment has an awful lot to live up to.
Fortunately, UshiTora is a series that really doesn’t do letdowns. It’s quite a luxury to be adapting a manga that’s already complete, of course, but the manga still has to have the goods to deliver and the anime has to have to chops to close the sale. Considering how much has been changed from the source material it’s remarkable how spot-on the pacing in this show is. I think the wait for the full-on reveal of Hakumen no Mono was just long enough – the buildup was immense, and any more would have felt like we were being strung along.
It looked for a long time this week as if we were going to be strung along for one more episode at least. The first 15 minutes of the episode were relatively low-key, dedicated to some long-overdue and deftly-handled exposition. That came mostly courtesy of Tokisaka, a bakemono quite literally beside himself. It’s he who’s waiting for Ushio and Tora inside the cave – at a strange temple hidden deep in its interior, in fact. He tells boy and youkai of a great battle that took place 850 years earlier, when humans and demons joined forces to battle Hakumen no Mono and subdued him.
But kill him they did not – in fact they could not – and a woman named Yuki swore that she and her descendants would keep watch over the remaining section of Hakumen no Mono’s body while her allies searched for the beast spear that was needed to finish him off. This is more or less in-line with what we’ve heard before, though I don’t think the perception among the Japanese youkai that Ushio’s family is actually protecting Hakumen no Mono has been explained yet.
Mind you, Tokisaka is not done explaining things yet, and he takes Ushio and Tora for a spin even deeper into the past – 2200 years in fact, to ancient China – to continue the story first-hand. The first big moment here comes when they meet Jie Mei, who at Ushio’s age looks exactly like Mayuko. Now things begin to come into much clearer focus, as this is the time of Hakumen no Mono’s initial rise to infamy. The terrified emperor has commanded the swordsmiths of the kingdom to create a magic blade that can kill Hakumen no Mono. Among them is Jie Mei’s father, though it’s her elder brother Giryou (Miyano Mamoru – the parade of Hunter X Hunter alumnus continues) who actually knows a method that might work. Here we get another crucial story element explained, the importance of a woman’s hair in taming the Beast Spear – as well as the source of Giryou’s perpetual ill temper.
Again, all is proceeding at quite a measured pace, fascinating as all this is – but that’s when all hell breaks loose. Tora has been on-edge from the moment he and Ushio arrived, and there’s a good reason for it – Hakumen no Mono is stealthily lurking inside the castle, amusing himself by driving the emperor mad. And when he decides to unleash his power, boy – does he unleash it. It’s a truly terrifying display and it does justice to all the hype the character has accrued in nineteen episodes. Hakumen no Mono manifests itself from inside the bodies of the emperor’s concubines, and explodes forth in a spray of gore to wreak havoc inside the palace. He messily destroys everyone in his path, including Jie Mei and Giryou’s parents, leaving an outraged Ushio to charge at him despire Tora’s warnings (Tora has actually fought this guy before, of course).
It’s easy to believe that Ushio – who’s as brave and reckless as they come – would freeze in terror at being so close to Hakumen no Mono, seeing the look in its eye. This is not like any monster we’ve met before, that’s clear. It’s an ayakashi that will still be eliciting terror more than two millennia later. And interestingly, MAPPA has decided not to tell us who’s playing Hakumen no Mono for some reason. Whoever she (and I’m pretty sure it’s a she) is, she’s doing one hell of a job – this is not a campy, over-the-top performance but one that’s restrained and measured – and Hakumen no Mono is all the more sinister and terrifying as a result. Ushio to Tora is making a habit of acing the big moments, and this one was definitely one of the biggest.