Middle-school student Ushio Aotsuki is the stubborn son of an eccentric temple priest and lives life without a care in the world, ignoring his Dad’s ramblings about creatures known as yokai. However, when cleaning up the temple in his Dad’s absence, Ushio happens upon a menacing yokai in the basement, impaled by the fabled Beast Spear. The beast in question is Naga Tobimaru, nicknamed Tora for his tiger-like appearance, and infamous for his destructive power. When the temple comes under attack by malicious yokai, Ushio has no choice but to free Tora to save his home, with the spear being the only insurance if he gets out of hand. This chance encounter between the duo is only the beginning of their journey into the depths of the spiritual realm, as they quickly find out about a great threat that looms on the horizon that could wipe out human and yokai alike.
In recent years, the action shounen genre has seen something of a renaissance. Arguably starting with Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood in 2009, we’ve seen a plethora of fantastic adaptations such as JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, Seven Deadly Sins, Hunter x Hunter, My Hero Academia, Attack on Titan and One Punch Man, shows with high budget animation from talented studios and multiple seasons with breaks in-between, eliminating the need for filler completely, as opposed to the low quality animation, pointless filler and endless episode counts synonymous with shounen of yore. Amongst this new wave comes Ushio and Tora, an adaptation of the 90s manga from author Kazuhiro Fujita that, whilst not quite as good as some of those others, is still a solid action romp.
Unlike the majority of its ilk, Ushio and Tora can’t really be separated into traditional arcs, instead adopting the monster-of-the-week format for about half its run, before sticking to a single continuous story until the finale, a split which is of great benefit to the series. The first, more episodic part contains a variety of different, self-contained stories that, whilst seemingly insignificant at first, establish and really flesh out the yokai. Rather than being portrayed as being all evil monsters, the yokai have their own society similar to the humans, which is developed to great effect, showing the ways the yokai interact and coexist, and even having their own mythology. As well as laying the foundations of the lore, the initial episodes are also anchored by some of the best fight sequences I’ve seen in a shounen anime, courtesy of a collaboration between Studio MAPPA (Yuri on Ice, Punch Line, Rage of Bahamut) and Studio VOLN. These sequences are exuberant and, like the series as a whole, contain some superb animation. If I have one complaint, it’d be that Ushio’s move set is somewhat limited, and even though the action scenes are high quality, a little extra variety wouldn’t have gone amiss.
As great as the first half is, Ushio and Tora really hits its stride once the series switches to a serialised format. Not only are the stakes far higher, making the show far more gripping than before, it’s where all the world-building that was set up earlier is put to good use, as you feel a sense of genuine investment in not just the characters, but the universe of Ushio and Tora itself, so when the Big Bad eventually rears their head, it makes you root for the heroes even harder. If there is one complaint I’d make in regards to the latter portion of Ushio and Tora, it would be in its final confrontation between the titular heroes and the show’s main antagonist. Without spoiling too much, this villain has more in common with a kaiju than a human, and I think this makes the final battle generally less satisfying. If you think of all the great shounen battles, such as Roy Mustang vs. Envy in Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood or Jotaro vs. DIO in JoJo’s Bizarre Adventures: Stardust Crusaders or Netero vs. Meruem from Hunter x Hunter, they are one-on-one confrontations on a fairly level playing field in terms of the size, stature and power of the participants. This is something Ushio and Tora lacks in its final fight, not only having both the humans and yokai attacking en masse, making it seem like a group effort in defeating the monster rather than it being purely by the strength of our protagonists, but the creature is also several times bigger than either Ushio or Tora. Perhaps this is just personal preference, but I definitely would have preferred the final fight to be handled in the same vein as those battles I mentioned than what we actually get.
For, as good as both the action and the world of Ushio and Tora are, the biggest draw to the show is its characters. The reluctant partnership between the spear-wielding Ushio and the fearsome yokai Tora is a unique one, or at least within the shounen genre anyway, and their dynamic makes for the most entertaining element of the show. The relationship between the two also develops throughout the series, as we see them slowly but surely start to develop a legitimate friendship, despite their rocky beginnings. The individuals themselves also see development, although in this regard, Tora comes out way better than Ushio in my opinion. Whilst he appears to be somewhat of a villain at first, being crude, vulgar and threatening towards Ushio, Tora softens up over the course of the show, causing the audience in turn to soften on him too, eventually becoming quite loveable. This is definitely helped by some pretty funny comedic bits in which we seem Tora come to terms with modern society after being locked away for 500 years, as well as his interactions with one of Ushio’s friends Mayuko. On the other hand you have Ushio, whom I found to be a little bit too bland. To give the anime the benefit of the doubt, the manga that it’s based on was written in the 90s, so the source material actually pre-dates a fair number of the anime’s peers, however, that still doesn’t make Ushio compelling. For the most part, he’s a relatively plain yet virtuous and selfless hero, and he just fails to stand out amongst the crowd of other shounen protagonists. To the series’ credit, there are attempts to make him interesting, such as when he displays self-doubt upon his first encounter with the primary antagonist, but his personal issues seem to get resolved almost as quickly as they’re introduced, and there’s a distinct lack of a long term arc for him.
As well as the main duo, Ushio and Tora also features a fair number of secondary characters too, although they’re a bit of a mixed bag. Aside from Asuko, Ushio’s childhood friend and love interest, and the aforementioned Mayuko, no one else really gets enough screen time for the audience to get any kind of attachment to them. Although this is justified for the slightly less interesting ones, there are certainly characters I’d have loved to have seen pop up more, such as Hyou, a man seeking revenge on a malicious yokai who killed his wife and young child, and perhaps the biggest waste of potential in the whole show. His story is set up in the opening episodes, then he disappears until late in the game, where his story is resolved in two episodes, which just makes it feel pretty rushed, even if the conclusion is still satisfying. The Big Bad, although built up incredibly well, is also a little bit disappointing in terms of his characterisation, with his only goal being to destroy everything for flimsy reasons.
Animatsu’s release of Ushio and Tora contains both Japanese and English dub audio, and continuing the trend of better than usual dubs from Sentai, the English track is actually great, which I can only assume is due to the lacklustre director Kyle Jones’ absence, instead having the dub be directed by John Swasey. Of course the standout performances come courtesy of the two leads, David Matranga as Ushio (My Hero Academia, Clannad, Gosick), and Brett Weaver as Tora, the sole returning dub cast member from the 90s OVA adaptation of the manga, who both do a fantastic job in their respective roles. There is also a solid supporting cast, full of well known voice talent such as Luci Christian (Azumanga Daioh, Black Bullet, My Hero Academia), Tiffany Grant (Neon Genesis Evangelion, School-Live, Little Busters) and Brittney Karbowski (Fairy Tail, Little Busters, Soul Eater). The soundtrack for Ushio and Tora is provided by Eishi Segawa, and is serves its purpose well, even if it isn’t very memorable, which is in great contrast to the two OPs. “Mazeru na Kiken” and “Shuukawari no Kiseki no Shinwa”, both by the band Kinniku Shoujo Tai. Much like the anime itself, they are full of energy and really get you pumped up as any good shounen show’s OP should.
Whilst I don’t think it’s quite up to par with some other recent shounen titles, Ushio and Tora is still a brilliantly fun time with some spectacular animation that fans of shounen anime are bound to adore.