Title: Ushio and Tora
Episodes: 1-39 (complete, seasons 1 and 2)
Ushio is a normal student who discounts his priest father’s stories about the legendary Beast Spear (and monster it’s trapping) that their temple supposedly protects. At least, until he stumbles across the monster while cleaning out a storeroom. Ushio ends up releasing it to help him fight the myriad of tiny demons now assaulting himself and his friends. He calls the tiger-like demon Tora, and it’s a rocky relationship from the start—Tora’s cautious of the Beast Spear but determined to eat Ushio. And if he can’t eat Ushio, he’ll haunt him. Ushio, for his part, now has the Beast Spear, which grants him incredible power but is chipping away his humanity.
I remembered reading an enthusiastic recommendation for this when I was looking for something to binge-watch over New Year’s Eve, so I gave it a shot, and was instantly hooked. 39 episodes and less than a week later, it’s now one of my top anime series as well. I ordered the anime the first night, and I still have the manga to read, which promises quite a lot that couldn’t make it into the anime. Unfortunately the manga doesn’t have an official English release or I’d be collecting that too.
Ushio and Tora is a modern remake of a rather old series that ran from 1990-1996. This gives it a unique aesthetic (and sometimes, like with certain demons who look like a bunch of heavy metal band rejects, it can be unintentionally hysterical). The animation is generally good, though towards the end it suffers a bit more from still frames because the final battle is pretty epic in scope. I’m not overly fond of the first opening song, but the music during the show worked well.
What makes the show so fascinating to me is the characters. Ushio is almost the definition of average. He’s got very average looks (no special hair color or wild design that calls him out as the protagonist, at least before the Beast Spear). He might have some talent for sports (and getting into fights), but his passion is art, despite a rather low amount of artistic talent. But he’s got enormous emotional range, and most unusually for a guy, he’s not ashamed to cry. Which he does, often. He empathizes with people (and youkai), stands up for what’s right, defends the weak, and often puts himself in considerable danger if someone else is in need. And once the Beast Spear comes into his hand, he gains slitted eyes, claws, huge hair, and a massive power boost. (Also, the Beast Spear seems to have something against shirts. Ushio may start wearing layers but as soon as he picks up the spear the shirt is usually toast.)
Tora is his polar opposite. Strong, vicious, bestial, prideful, and most of all selfish, Tora despises the heroic impulses that drive Ushio. He’s quick to pick a fight with anyone that offends him. But he’s also very childlike in personality—the modern world fascinates him (his reaction to television, cars, and bus rides left me in stitches). And that childishness in the end makes him really easy for those who know what he’s like to manipulate him (Mayuko does it with kindness, and Ushio has a variety of ways to bait Tora into helping him out). Tora was my favorite part of the show, but he wouldn’t work nearly so well without Ushio drawing such a sharp contrast.
On the love interest side, Asako is the childhood friend who won’t admit to anyone she likes Ushio (he returns the sentiment). Mayuko, though, also has a crush on Ushio—and in a radical departure from modern storytelling trends, admits that because she loves both Ushio and her friend Asako, she’s willing to move on so they can be happy together. AND SHE DOES. And this does NOT take vast numbers of episodes of her internal agony, but comes up quickly and is stated as a matter of fact. Mayuko won my respect with that. I also like how both of them have their own ways to be strong, whether that’s Asako’s refusal to give into fear despite the hopelessness of her situation or Mayuko’s steady faith.
It’s also really neat to see how Ushio’s kindness changes the people around him, and how that has unexpected dividends. And how as long as he has people who support him, he can’t fail—but when he feels utterly alone, no amount of his own strength is enough.
Another area that struck me is how integrated everything is. Ushio and Tora end up getting filmed fighting a giant monster IN THE SECOND EPISODE. And he KEEPS making the news, along with the other youkai-caused disastrous events. He’s only a “secret” hero because his looks change so drastically using the spear that even his own friends have a hard time recognizing him. He’s not jumping into a hidden war, but a very public one. The real enemy threatens humans and youkai alike—and BOTH GROUPS are needed to stop it. Every time I thought the show was going to rag hard on something (like the scientist episodes) it turns around and points out that this, too, can have a purpose. Most of the things that started out looking extremely cliche turned out to have something more running through it.
And the show is gut-bustingly funny. Tora wins pretty much every scene he’s involved in. Whether it’s his wide-eyed enthusiasm about watching himself on the news or his rage at someone else wanting to eat the human he picked out for his own lunch, he’s going to throw himself into things wholeheartedly. His vicious streak also makes him great at trolling enemies.
Equally, the story has tons of pathos. Ushio gets his heart broken again and again by the various things he’s going through. And he’s dealing with a lot of people in emotional crises themselves. It’s not just a story that knows how to deliver great action and funny lines, but one that’s honest enough about pain and joy and all the rest to go deeper.
All in all, this is one of the rare few shows I’d highly recommend to pretty much anyone. It packs so much in that even 39 episodes feels far too short. If you’ve missed out on this one so far, definitely give it a try. It’s currently streaming at Crunchyroll.