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"Tokyo Majin" Part 1 Boxed Set: Teenage Magic Monster Killers

(top to bottom) Komaki, Yuuya, Kyouichi, Aoi, and TatsumaThe idea of high school teenagers becoming superheroes to save the world isn’t exactly new. Spider-Man, the X-Men, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer have mined this territory for years, and even characters like the Scooby Doo gang and Kim Possible have used it for laughs along with the action. The parallels between struggling through that awkward stage of life and struggling against the forces of evil are irresistible, and the fumbling to find and define yourself lines up perfectly with the fumblings of nascent superheroes finding and defining their powers and abilities. It shouldn’t be too surprising that some of the more successful anime exports use the same idea, starting with Battle of the Planets and running through Voltron and Naruto. Now, 2007’s Tokyo Majin reaps an action-packed crop from this same fertile ground. The series was originally licensed for import by ADV Films, and is now getting a re-release from FUNimation in a 2-disc set of 14 episodes subtitled “The Dark Arts Chapter.”

Tokyo Majin is a terrific show if what you want is to watch a bunch of creatively designed monsters and demons getting their otherworldly asses kicked in creative ways by a bunch of teenage superheroes. Action junkies will be in heaven with this series, which presents some of the most beautiful exhibitions of mayhem committed to animation. People are turning up dead all over Tokyo, murdered in bizarre ways by monsters and zombies. Standing against this supernatural threat is a group of three boys and two girls from Magami High School: the cool, unflappable Tatsuma Hiyuu; the flippant, arrogant Kyouichi Horaiji; the massive wrestling captain Yuuya Daigo; the sweet but steely class president Aoi Misato; and the hot-tempered archery captain Komaki Sakurai. The five are granted magical powers to become champions and protectors of Tokyo and take the fight to the enemy. That enemy is soon revealed as Tendo Kozunu, a fright in clown-like makeup whose leer is tinged with an effete affectation in Japanese and a more overtly sinister rasp in English. The murders are all part of a grudge generations old that threatens to engulf Tokyo in walking corpses unless the teens are able to stop it in time.

Why do you keep calling me 'Heath?'Tokyo Majin is not a show that believes in long explanations. It doesn’t take much time before the show flings us (and its quintet of heroes) into a big confrontation with a weird spider demon, with the minimal context needed to make sense of things delivered on the fly. It isn’t until the second episode that the show backs up just enough to show Tatsuma’s first day at Magami High as a mysterious exchange student, and the subsequent chain of events that lead to the five tapping into the magical Dragon Stream to gain their supernatural powers. The remaining episodes of the series are split into story arcs of two to three episodes, centering on some new horror for the kids to fight or (occasionally) introducing a new ally. The arcs all nudge the bigger narrative forward in subtle ways, building up to the big 4-episode finale and one-episode epilogue.

The series takes “show, don’t tell” very seriously, keeping the exposition and explanation at the absolute minimum required to keep the story moving, which allows the on-screen action to speak for itself. This is not a criticism in any way, since Tokyo Majin‘s resolute refusal to explain much of anything is one of the best things about it. There are clearly rules to the more mystical, supernatural elements of Tokyo Majin, but those rules are deliberately left hazy and right at the edge of our peripheral vision. This keeps the mystery in the mysterious, and contributes greatly to the series’ mood and setting. Even when we do get an explanation for something, it’s usually not terribly illuminating and often isn’t much more than an expedient plot device. Other series would ensure we knew why Tendo Kozunu seeks ten mystic devices hidden throughout Tokyo, and explain in exhaustive detail what all ten devices do. Tokyo Majin would rather leave them as magical MacGuffins to make room for another insane action scene. In fact, Tokyo Majin may even take its refusal to explain things a bit too far, since it constantly piles mysteries on top of mysteries, but leaves many of them completely unused by the end of this boxed set. However, rather than being frustrating, these unanswered questions seem to be setting up even bigger events in the second half of the season. In fact, one of the great joys of the series is rewatching it to see which puzzling events will make more sense on a second viewing.

I dig the body language in this shotThis expert use of “show, don’t tell” extends to defining the characters as well. While each of the five students may seem a bit stereotypical at first, they soon become highly likable and distinctive individuals. They’re all wonderfully designed, ensuring that we grasp the essence of their characters just by looking at them. In addition, the writing melds beautifully with body language and vocal inflections to sharply define each character’s personality. As the lead hero and heroine of the team, Tatsuma and Aoi could easily be flat, boring, stereotypical goody-two-shoes characters, and it seems that Aoi isn’t really meant to escape from that description. However, both of them are given depth and weight by the extremes around them. Tatsuma’s calm, quiet stillness is a marked contrast to Kyouichi’s brash, macho swagger. The two quickly become the kind of fast friends that get along specifically because they have almost nothing in common. Tatsuma’s silence is also the kind for which the phrase “Still waters run deep” was coined, and this season only scratches the surface of his intriguing past. Similarly, Aoi’s sweetness contrasts strongly with the tart, sharp-tongued Komaki, whose first reaction to nearly anyone or anything is bristling, hair-trigger hostility—even Yuuya’s sweet but clumsy attempts to act on his obvious and seemingly unrequited crush on her. However, like many of the characters, Komaki turns out to be trying to keep a little secret of her own, and this secret ends up making her a far more fascinating and interesting character. To reveal much more would ruin the surprise, but once her actions at the end of episode 5 make it fairly plain, many of her earlier actions suddenly reveal hidden meanings.

Boot to the ... uh....head?Those who bought the three older ADV volumes are in for a bit of bad news. FUNimation has released the first half of Tokyo Majin in a 2-disc thinpak set with 7 episodes per disc. Unfortunately, this means that anybody who bought the 3 ADV releases are stuck with buying the entire box again to get the fourteenth episode that concludes this chapter. It’s better than not getting Tokyo Majin at all, of course, but it’s still a bit of an expensive pill to swallow. The FUNimation DVDs are essentially ADV’s high-quality initial release in a much smaller package, carrying over the sharp anamorphic widescreen image and Japanese and English soundtracks in 5.1 Dolby Digitial. Both soundtracks are excellent, and Tokyo Majin may be another in the very small list of anime that may actually be more enjoyable in English than it is in the original Japanese. Like the initial releases, the set has no special features other than clean opening and closing credits sequences and trailers.

Tokyo Majin seems like an unjustly under-recognized title. If you missed out on it before, you’re getting a second chance to make up for lost time. Tokyo Majin Part One: The Dark Arts Chapter is a cocktail that’s equal parts action and supernatural horror mystery, with just a twist of the bizarre and a drop of humor, all blended perfectly. If there’s a downside, it’s only that it’s a long way to March 2009 and the release of the second half of the season.

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