It won’t be appearing in this year’s LiA Top 10 list (thanks to split-cour status) but I can safely say this – Ushio to Tora will certainly be making an appearance in next year’s unless one of two things happen. It’d either have to be the best anime year I can remember (which is pretty damn unlikely) or the third cour would have to see a huge drop-off in quality (which seems only marginally less far-fetched). This series has been damn good for almost its entire first two cours, and that’s no small feat.
I think it’s very illustrative the way Madhouse and its child studio MAPPA have brilliantly handled the two shounen series which have just ended (for now). One Punch Man is a thoroughly modern shounen, ironic and sharply dependent on ant-climax and social commentary. Ushio and Tora could hardly be more traditional – it’s practically proto-shounen, full of boyish martial spirit, GAR and as clear-cut a good vs. evil dynamic as you could ever want. Both are brilliant in their own way, and these studios are too – each is full of very smart and talented people that treated these series in ways that were entirely appropriate to their nature.
If one were to get especially conjectural one might even go far as to to say that OPM and UshiTora provide neat bookends around Madhouse’s shounen masterpiece, Hunter X Hunter. Ushio to Tora clearly influenced it and Wanpanman was clearly influenced by it, and I think Togashi very distinctly provides a bridge between the two works and the eras they represent. That being the case it’s only fitting that the family tree for all three shows is solidly Madhouse.
That brings us to this week’s episode, which brings the first “season” to a close. And it does so in splendid fashion, ably fulfilling the duty of the pivot episode of any split-cour show – it provides a sense of closure while setting the table for what’s to come. One hears many complaints from manga readers about the pacing of this adaptation, never more so than with this arc, but while I’m sure they’re valid I frankly just don’t care. From the perspective of an anime viewer I think the pacing of this series has been exemplary, which is no doubt partly thanks to the fact that mangaka Fujita Kazuhiro was intimately involved in the planning process (which is in turn thanks to the good judgement of MAPPA. If you have a complaint, take it up with him.
Redemption is a pretty big theme of this HAMMR story. Obviously Ushio does’t need to be redeemed, and Tora was already well on his way to his own redemption, but the trio of scientists in charge of this nonsense got off to a pretty awful start last week. And it didn’t help matters that as Ushio and Tora were risking their lives doing battle with the Hakumen avatar, they prepared to turn tail and escape to the surface as poison gas leaked into the facility, leaving not just Ushio and Tora but all their injured colleagues to die.
Helena Markov (Tsuga Yuko) actually gets a pretty decent backstory after all that villainous behavior. Her story of a lost son and the frustration losing him instilled in her as a doctor is a good one, but the most important part of Helena’s experience is the way she frames the main battle in this story for what it is – a struggle for decency and compassion to try and triumph over cruelty and cowardice. The MacGuffin of her observation is the “Metamorphose” effect she describes, the key to harnessing the power to defeat Hakumen no Mono, but that’s symbolic if ever anything was. In truth, Hakumen wins if humans and youkai struggle amongst themselves and with each other, but might just lose if they set aside their differences and if those of great strength are willing to sacrifice themselves for the greater good.
Certainly, “Alpha” Ushio and “Beta” Tora are the key to all this, though I obviously hope they don’t have to sacrifice themselves. Tora’s big moment in this episode comes not during the battle with Hakumen, but afterwards – when Ushio and Asako succumb to the poison gas it would be easy enough to flee on his own from the lab that’s about to be blown up to destroy the regenerating Hakumen, leaving the two of them (and Bal-chan, whom Ushio has managed to cut free) to die along with Helena. But of course that’s not the Tora we’ve come to know, and his status as one of the good guys is as firmly established as it could be by now. He even admits to Baldanders that as humans go, Ushio is “not bad”.
As things draw to a close, we’re left with a last bit of the humor that Ushio to Tora does so well in Ushio’s reaction to Tora’s Asako doll being caught up in the explosion. And a reminder that for all that Ushio is the man on whom the world’s fate probably depends, he’s still a child – and on some level, all he and his friends want to do is live out their childhood days in carefree fashion. That will never happen of course, and if we needed to be reminded we close on Hakumen no Mono’s seething presence waiting at the bottom of the sea to make sure we don’t forget. There’s a lot to look forward to in the final cour next spring, and I fully expect it to deliver the goods with all the brilliance that the first two have and cement Ushio to Tora as one of the best series of the last two years.