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Ushio and Tora (2015-2016)

Ushio believes his life is much like any other Japanese teenager- apart from the fact that he lives at a historic temple. One day though, he discovers that an ancient demon has been imprisoned in the shrine for hundreds of years, pinned by a powerful weapon called the Beast Spear. When that attracts the attention of other malevolent spirits, Ushio is forced to free the demon to help him defeat them. And so begins an uneasy alliance as Ushio and the demon (who he names Tora, Japanese for Tiger) form an unlikely demon-busting team.

Ushio and Tora is a 39 episode anime series produced by MAPPA, which originally aired between July 2016 and June the next year. It was adapted from the (as yet untranslated) manga by Kazuhiro Fujita, which originally ran between 1990 and 1996. It was previously adapted as a 10 episode OAV (Original Animation Video) series in the early 1990s.

One of the most appealing aspects of Ushio and Tora is the relationship between the two central characters. Wielding the Beast Spear gives Ushio special powers (and magical hair extensions) but it also is the only thing that is keeping Tora from turning Ushio into lunch. This definitely puts an original spin on the classical buddy-movie trope of mismatched partners forced to work together. Of course, it's not too much of a spoiler to say that the original dynamic does begin to change as they fight alongside each other time and time again. Still- it doesn't change that much, and their constant bickering proves to be one of the most entertaining parts of the series throughout. It also gets a lot of mileage out of "fish out of water" hijinks as Tora tries to adjust to the modern (human) world.

The other stand-out aspect here is the supernatural creatures who form such a major part of the series. It leans heavily on Japanese folklore relating to Yokai (mythical Japanese creatures including demons, ghosts and other such supernatural beasties).Ushio and Tora encounter and fight a stream of yokai that provide an impressive variety of spooky tales.  Mainly taken directly from the traditional mythology- sometimes with an added twist- there's a fantastic array of yokai here. Students of Japanese folklore and horror fans alike will find plenty of stuff to get their teeth stuck into. The anime does an impressive job at making some of them genuinely creepy, too.

The series initially relies heavily on a "monster of the week" format, with each episode bringing another encounter. These episodes are highly entertaining and leave the audience wondering what creepy creature they will encounter next.

It seems though that the series (and likely the original manga) decided that the audience would tire of this small-scale storytelling, and expands into some major arcs. The stories get more expansive, but as they do it also loses a little something in the process. By the time our heroes are fighting yokai who are threatening the fate of the entire world, it becomes just another world-in-peril plot. The giant battles that make up the climax begin to feel indistinguishable from standard shonen fare. It actually proves much more compelling when the stakes are lower but more personal, when the stories relate more to Ushio himself and his loved ones. The big battles do make for some impressive visuals, though.

It's not that common for a modern anime to be adapted from an older manga.- and in many ways, the series feels like a throwback. The character designs are pretty faithful to the manga original and are definitely distinct from most contemporary Japanese animation. However, spectacular sequences with hordes of yokai filling the skies are just some of the examples of digital animation that wouldn't have been possible at the time the original animated series was made.

The old-school feel goes beyond the visuals with the whole production feeling a little like an old Madhouse/ Yoshiaki Kawajiri production. It even goes down to Sentai Filmwork's dub, whose swear-laden dialogue feels a bit like it's from an older time too.

Ushio and Tora are not exactly the deepest and most well realised of characters but you still feel as if you get to know them throughout the series. Other characters- human and yokai- have more mixed fortunes. The female characters get a particularly raw deal, existing mainly to be damsel in distress-type figures, and/or to adore Ushio. They get to play a more crucial part later on (one more original story even sees them all team up together) and eventually form friendships of their own beyond their connection to Ushio.

Complaints aside, Ushio and Tora makes for an entertaining time, especially if you're a fan of yokai- or Japanese horror in general. It's a genre that has fallen somewhat out of favour in anime more recently, so it makes a refreshing change in amongst all the slice-of-life, rom-com and fantasy series that makes up much of the current anime landscape.

If you're in the mood for something full of action but with a slightly spooky twist (perfect for this time of year).. then this series could be just what the doctor ordered.

FROM Animatsu/
Manga UK*/
Sentai Filmworks
39 Episodes

IN A NUTSHELL: An unlikely team make for a fun, action-packed and often impressively creepy slice of animated entertainment.

*Review copy provided by Manga UK