Region: 2 - UK
Volume: 1 of 2
Length: 322 minutes
English 5.1 Surround
Japanese 2.0 Stereo
In the shadows of this modern world, ninjas fight for control of an ancient technique which holds untold strength. This coveted power dwells within apathetic Miharu, a fact the guy really couldn't care less about - until the clashing rival clans bring their battle to him.
Now Miharu struggles to understand the mystery buried in his soul, and must choose a side if he hopes to survive. But when conflict is waged in secret, and lethal ninjas hide in plain sight, friend and foe prove difficult to tell apart.
The first thing I noticed about Nabari no Ou, was that the characters looking tired and/or sad. Maybe this is not a good thing. I'd heard nothing about this series and asked to review this on impulse. I can't say whether I'm happy or not that I did.
So, trying not to give too much away, 14 year old Miharu Rokujou learns that he has the hijutsu (hidden technique) of the Shinrabanshou, literally the book of wisdom. The book resides within him as a separate entity, with the power to do whatever the host wants. At present, it seems to be restricted to growing vines from the ground or raining death on its enemies. But according to literature, it can allow the owner of the body it resides in, the power to do anything. Quite what this means, is anyone's guess. The suggestiveness thrown around about the power leads me to believe that Miharu could ask for a good snow cone, change the price of Big Macs, cause Wall Street to burst into song or, ya know, trigger an apocalypse. Too bad the only people who know about this are the Nabari, the ancient profession of Shinobi, or ninja. The Nabari, in their various clans, want the Shinrabanshou for their own purposes. Either they are indifferent to the Shinrabanshou or they want to destroy it (The Banten and Fuuma clans) or to control it and rule the world (the Kairoshu clan). For the start of the series, Miharu is helped and protected by the Banten clan led by Tobari Durandal Kumohira and aided by Kouichi Aizawa. Later, things are revealed to Miharu that cause him to break with the Banten but that's getting dangerously close to spoiler zone alert.
I do like some of what I see in Nabari no Ou. The characters are quite good. I do like Miharu, as he isn't as apathetic at first glance. He can manipulate people whenever he displays a cute demeanour but really he just wants a normal life. Unlike most anime awesome-power-thurst-upon-them characters, Miharu really does understand the position he's in. And the scary little girl voice in his head wants him to do whatever pops into his head. A little girl voice that makes psychics scream in terror. And the people around him all want are ok people, just that they have their own selfish, human reasons for hanging out with him. Kouichi, wants to destroy the Shinrabanshou but not at the cost of Miharu's life which will happen if it's forcibly removed from his body. Tobari doesn't want the Shinrabanshou to ever be released even after witnessing, first hand, what Miharu's power looks like unleashed. Raimai, a member of the Fuma clan, initially wanted to watch over the Shinrabanshou and strike it down if it threatened the world but after meeting and making friends with Miharu, she decides to observe him only and not force him to do anything he didn't want to do.
All of the characters seem to think that they are doing everything for the right reasons. The Banten only want to seal the Shinrabanshou away for good so nobody has to make any more awful decisions. The Kairoshu want Miharu because they want to change the world for the better, or so they say. They all want something from Miharu. But as they move around each other, someone will eventually snap. And as anyone involved in a massacre will tell you, everything was going fine till someone opened fire.
But some of the characters don't make me feel so zippy. Yoite, the crazy psycho hired gun of the Kairoshu who can shot mind beams out of his fingers and kill people with them, feels more like a guy who just needs a great big hug than an evil killer. Also his voice in both languages is barely above a whisper so maybe I could right in my diagnosis. Yukimi sounds like a cold guy who happily kills people who get in his way until you realise he's a writer in the real world. Oh, did I forget to tell you that the Shinobi all have cover lives in the real world? Tobari is a teacher, Miharu, Kouichi and Raimei all are students and Yoite is really a guy who needs a big hug. Every time I think someone could be a cool character they have a terrible cover story. Also, in this first volume, the Kairoshu are made out to be the bad guys and after watching them slaughter a whole village of Fuuma shinobi you really think that but then the Fuuma are shown to be as manipulative as the Kairoshu. Everything people do in this show is thrown into sharp relief with what they say. Yukimi near the end of the first batch of episodes says that he wants to keep bloodshed down to a minimum as not to attract attention, has a heartfelt conversation with his Shinobi partner Yoite but before that happily cuts down half a Fuuma village of Shinobi! Why couldn't you be caring or at least have a heart when your buddy was turning somebody to jelly because you asked him to do that!? It's like the original author had finished the artwork for the manga this thing is based on, but left the dialogue bubbles till 4:00am only to be phoned and told the finished manuscript had to be submitted by 6:00am that same day! OK, let's give everyone opposite dialogue! Brilliant!
This goes into a major problem I have with the show: it can't make up its mind what it wants to be. It has comedy and slapstick but then we'll watch as someone is torn apart from the inside out. The main character's little inner girl voice could destroy the whole world but he just wants to make Okonomiyaki. The lead villian (Hattori, the leader of the Kairoshu) has no problems sending his people into battle, getting killed or maimed but god, if he isn't a real people person in his Shinobi team meetings! Tobari is a nice guy from Ireland (!) but he can't get in any vehicles and can't kill anyone. Maybe I missed it, but I don't think he ever killed anyone in the episodes I watched. He's a ninja, he's supposed to kill people! It's in his job description! When the show has some good things to say like what happens when Samurai family members fall out, the swordplay is impressive. But then we'll be treated to mindless things like whether or not Miharu is telling his friends and possible protectors the truth of what he plans to do with his power all because he feels a kinship with a member of the Kairoshu! They are ninja! How the hell does he keep it a secret from them!? The Fuuma clan leader, Kotarou, comes across as a letch and a dunderhead but shows that he can control the outside forces around him to his clans advantage. But after revealing this side to him, the show continues to show him as an airhead! You can't bring a character back from that kind of side to their personality, it's pointless. I know that shows like Evangelion thrived on that kind of duality but as the show wore on, they made the tee-hee, ha-ha moments less and less. But here, it's all go on both cylinders. This is not something that can be sustained. I'm informed that the manga seriously deviates from the anime at a critical point. If so, I may have been wrong in my previous assertion about the author being the cause of the weird on-the-fence attitude everyone on the cast has. Or I could be right.
The art and character designs are great. The cast look thin and wispy. Some of them actually look like they could have a real Japanese body size thing going on. And the backgrounds are cool with them looking like pastels. Nothing moves in the background and while you can argue that it could be a money saving exercise not having the backgrounds move, it gives an effect of being in a storybook. Also, the show has some cheap looking recycled shots but they are not that distracting. Music is good with the opening track "Crawl" by Veltbunch being a very good, solid J-Pop track. The ending "Hikari" by Elisa is passable and seems to reflect the Woe Is Me angle the show runners want to exploit.
The voice cast in both languages did a good job. Standout performances in Japanese are Rie Kugimiya as Miharu and Daisuke Namikawa as Tobari. Both actors give good range and they go from happy to sad with ease. Ryotaro Okiayu is too happy as Kotarou but it works. In all, the Japanese cast are good but I can't figure out why they signed up for this. It's a show that asks for seriousness randomly and twee for the remainder. As to the English cast Brina Palencia wins the award for most sounds like a young Marge Simpson's mother as Miharu. She has a good range herself but that voice sounds beyond bored. Joel McDonald is a field mouse of a voice as Yoite and just once I would've liked Funimation to say "Don't do the same as the Japanese voice actor, give Yoite a Schwarzenegger voice!". I'm only going to say this once: I love Greg Ayres. If nothing else you can say he's got a unique voice. But if I have to heard him play a slightly wimpy or effeminate character one more time, I swear I'll throw the disc the voice comes on out of a window. If you can't figure it out, I hate the English version of Gau. Also it was nice to hear some of my favourite ADV alumni, Luci Christian and MonicaRial on a voice cast line up together.
I really should like this show more. I survived all of the Edward Elric short jokes that Full Metal Alchemist threw at me. I've been from one end of a Mamoru Oshii existential shrink session to another and still feel fine. I got through Rio Rainbow Gate with a smile. Why the hell doesn't this show have anything, anything for me? I wish I could tell you. As it is, it's an incomplete show, hoping that it'll figure itself out before the end of the show. But things are not looking good for it at this point. If I had to boil it down, I like this series, I would watch it on official YouTube or Crunchyroll streams but I wouldn't like to own it. Good animation, interesting characters, a good Japanese/English voice cast and a good enough concept couldn't overcome a confusing morality on all sides, an inability to decide what the format of the show should be and finally the capital crime of having a ninja show with two episodes in a row in which nobody important died.
I can only summarise with a line from the Matrix:
Sorry kid. You got the gift, but it looks like you're waiting for something.