I don’t say this often – in fact this may very well be the first time I’ve said it – but that episode was Hunter X Hunter caliber shounen. That may be the highest praise I could give Ushio to Tora, but it’s richly earned. This ep was pretty darn magnificent in every respect – overflowing with the “wow” factor that sets the truly great ones apart from the merely superb. And UshiTora is riding a wave of brilliance that’s pretty much locked it into a place on the 2016 Top 10 list, unless that turns out to be the best year anime since at least 2012.
It’s tempting to see Ushio and Tora as anime’s spiritual successor to Hunter X Hunter, but of course this series is actually much older – I think it could even be said (along with Parasyte) to have been a heavy influence on Togashi for H x H. I even see a lot of Gon in Ushio, and vice-versa – something of the same cheerful martial spirit mixed with foolhardy obstinance and stubbornness. This is not a Madhouse series, but MAPPA was born from Madhouse DNA, and many if not most of the key players in this series are veterans of H x H. And like that series, UshiTora makes use of a seemingly endless string of legendary seiyuu – like Monkey D. Luffy herself Tanaka Mayumi as Tokisaka – to give voice to the characters.
In truth I hardly know where to begin heaping praise on this episode, because in spite of being an absolutely crucial fulcrum in the narrative it nailed pretty much everything. The animation, the acting, the pacing – all spot on. And you’re just not going to see exposition done much better than this. The weight of expectations for explanations was heavy here – anime-only viewers have been waiting for this moment since the first days of the series. And not only the premise itself but the way it was exposited was stunning.
I have to praise a couple of the seiyuu specifically. Little-known Hatakana Tasuku has been superb all along as Ushio, but we saw incredible work from Mamoru Miyano here as Giryou. We’re so used to seeing him in his comfort zone and he does it so well that we tend to forget he can play against type with the best of them. His work as the tortured soul who would turn himself into a demon to thrust at Hakumen no Mono’s heart was flawless. And whoever is playing Hakumen no Mono – MAPPA still isn’t telling us – is kicking it big-time. I mean, wow – this is one scary and malevolent performance, whoever she is. It would have been easy to play the character in loud, snarling fashion, but the quiet malevolence in the portrayal elevates the character exponentially as a terrifying force of evil.
As for the story itself, I can only refer to the explanation for how things ended up the way they are and the way it was presented “elegant”. The notion of a beast entwined amongst the pillars holding up Japan is elemental to Shinto belief – the oldest and most important shrine in Kanto is dedicated to the Kami who keeps the beast (in this case, a giant catfish) subdued. In a nation with 20% of the world’s earthquakes it’s hardly surprising that this kind of myth holds so much tractions, and it makes perfect sense as the explanation for the seemingly inexplicable behavior of the female members of Ushio’s family line.
As for the people involved, this story is really one unrelenting tragedy (and I don’t exclude Ushio from that). What Jie Mei and Giryou went through was truly heartbreaking – both of them sacrificing themselves in horrific if totally different ways – but so was observing Ushio as he watches it happen. This boy has so much empathy it’s scary – he feels others’ pain as deeply as if it were he himself were the one being physically and emotionally brutalized. And now he’s surely caught up in it – Jie Mei tells him to “live his life cheerfully”, but he no longer has the option to live his life for its own sake. As his mother and family did, he has to set aside his own concerns and take up the spear so that all of their sacrifices aren’t in vain – even Tora tells him as much.
But of course, it’s not as though Ushio needs to be told, and it’s not as though he’s going to complain about it – and that’s what makes him such a winning and sympathetic protagonist. And it’s not hard to see where Ushio gets it from – Jie Mei threw herself into a forge, and Giryou forged himself into a the shaft of a demonic weapon. His grandmother and mother took their places deep under the sea and took the fall for “protecting” Hakumen no Mono even as they were protecting Japan, though his mother did get a two-year reprieve to conceive and birth Ushio (did Jie Mei somehow guard Hakumen herself during that time, I wonder?). It’s a family with a legacy of tragedy and sacrifice, and almost no one knows the debt they owe to it – and that, as much as anything, makes this such a moving and powerful story.