Modern day adaptations of very 90’s material have become increasingly popular over the past few years of anime. Ever since the release of the new Hunter x Hunter adaptation in 2011, more and more of these shows have been popping up. Parasyte is one of the major examples, which I personally found to be a disappointing mess. I’ve had a really hard time pinpointing what made that show fall apart at the end of its run. I mean on a lot of levels the show was fundamentally the same as it was at the beginning. Sometimes I wondered if they didn’t do enough to modernize the material, or maybe the modernization was the problem itself. Well, apparently Studio MAPPA heard my idiotic questions, and they decided to take their own stab at the topic by producing a show based off another critically successful 90’s shonen manga, Ushio and Tora. So, how does this attempt fare overall?
Well, I can at least say they didn’t try to modernize the material. From moment one this thing is overbearingly 90’s. Look at those hair metal character designs! Bask in the glory of our outdated high school uniforms! If you’re looking for something retro, Ushio and Tora certainly has you covered. However, retro isn’t really an indicator of quality; so I’m just going to stop beating around the bush and say it: I like Ushio and Tora. As far as charming shonen action shows are concerned this is some pretty prime stuff.
And I think part of that charm comes from its 90’s-esque flavor. Not necessarily intentionally mind you, but that strange disparate element really helps this show stand out. Whereas most modern day action shows would concern themselves with pretty self insert boys and harem side characters, Ushio and Tora basks in its strange monster fights and cheesy character chemistry. I mean yes, the tropes here are blatant, albeit dated, but that doesn’t stop a lot of Ushio and Tora from feeling like a breath of fresh air.
I mean, just look at those character and creature designs. In a modern age defined by sleek digital animation and up and coming webgen techniques (Not all the time mind you, I mean look at Attack on Titan’s gritty violence or even some of the crazier sakuga scenes in One Punch Man), it’s interesting to see a show who’s beauty lies in its gross out factor. Every monster drips with disturbing details and sketchy line work, looking equally terrifying and stunning. Getting sucked into this world of crazy monsters is somehow both horrifying and a whole lot of fun. Never before has blood, goo, and other viscera been so important to a show’s aesthetic appeal.
Of course it also helps that newcomer Studio Voln does a generally nice job with the actual animation. Yep, despite the fact that Studio MAPPA’s name is plastered all over this project, they have yet to animate a single episode of this show. Weird I know, but Voln does perfectly fine on their own two feet. While the actual fluidity of certain cuts and episodes can be janky, for the most part it matches the design front pretty well. Action scenes are nice and fast, and with the help of veteran director Satoshi Nishimura (Trigun, Hajime no Ippo) the show moves along at a decent clip and features some pretty nice sound design. The soundtrack isn’t groundbreaking by any means, but it’s effective in whatever scene it’s in, and it really fits the 90’s metal look to a tee.
Adding further to all these positives is the previously mentioned goofy character chemistry. Simply put, Ushio and Tora are a great fighting pair. Their banter is consistently entertaining, not to mention enhanced by their cartoony facial animations (Seriously this show has some of the best anime faces I’ve seen in a long time), ultimately creating a bickering dynamic duo that’s fun rather than tiring. It probably also helps that they both care for each other, to the point where Tora admits that he considers Ushio an awesome guy by the end of the series. Combine this with a surprisingly solid crew of side characters, and you’ve got yourself a solid base for a show. Every fight has a sense of meaning and urgency for the cast, and their were very few moments where I felt like an episode could be cut.
That being said, that still doesn’t stop the first half from feeling like filler. Don’t get me wrong, most of the plot threads set up there are paid off by the end of the show, but that doesn’t stop most of those episodes from becoming a bit trite. A majority of them follow a very typical monster of the week structure, not to mention Ushio’s ever growing harem of diverse women! Still, it’s not like those episodes are poorly made, far from it, but they become even flimsier when you compare them to the second half, which really ups the ante when it comes to major plot and character development. Not only does the second half infinitely expand upon the conflict vaguely hinted at in episode 7, but it reveals new and interesting characters such as Kirio and, well, Hakumen no Mono.
Oh, Hakumen no Mono… Where do I even begin with you? Okay, well I guess to start off I should probably say that Hakumen no Mono is one of the best designed main villains I’ve seen for a shonen series (Excluding Hunter x Hunter). And it’s not because he’s incredibly complex, but just because every aesthetic and story element really comes together to make him just seem like the biggest, scariest pile of garbage to ever exist. I mean his motivations are pretty underwritten, but damn if the show doesn’t make him feel like a threat! He battled with yokai for hundreds of years, and when he was finally forced to retreat he embedded himself into the foundation of Japan, meaning if the yokai finish him off he’ll bring Japan down with him. Also those eyes! In a show filled with amazing creature designs, Hakumen no Mono truly takes the cake. What an intimidating final boss!
So yeah, Ushio and Tora is a lot of fun. I will admit that I’m not the biggest fan of this genre, but in the end I was won over by the show’s steady execution and compelling aesthetic. I’m not sure if I’m going to end up covering season two for the site (I’m more interested in writing about other things to be honest), but I think if you like this kind of show then there’s really no excuse for you not to watch it. The pacing of the first half may be a little slow, and it may take a while for the plot to really get rolling, but that that doesn’t stop Ushio and Tora from being a cool, 90’s-tastic spectacle for shonen lovers and fans of yokai-like creatures alike.