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"Tokyo Majin" Complete Series: Strong Start, Weak Finish

The highest technique is to have no techniqueI am a dyed-in-the-wool New York Knicks fan, even though I don’t follow the team religiously, and this means that I have had to get used to the team’s singular talent for blowing a lead. In recent years, you could depend on them to take a 20-point lead at the half and blow it by the end of the 4th quarter. It drives me crazy, and yet my affection for them remains unabated.

The same brain chemistry that allows me to continue being a Knicks fan despite their obvious flaws might explain why I still retain much love for Tokyo Majin, now available in a complete series set from FUNimation. The first season of 14 episodes, titled “The Dark Arts Chapter,” was one of my favorite recent anime discoveries: a fast, fun, well-done series that made up for relatively low aspirations with excellent execution, a memorable cast of characters, and a pleasing sense of strangeness. I was relieved to discover that FUNimation was rescuing the title from ADV just so I could see season 2. Unfortunately, the series’ second half turns out to be somewhat disappointing. Admittedly, this may be due to heightened expectations, but season 2 (“The Martial Fist Chapter”) ultimately topples under its own weight.

The first season of Tokyo Majin introduced five teenaged superheroes from Magami High School: the cool, quiet Tatsuma Hiyu; the cocky, arrogant Kyouichi Horaiji; the massive Yuuya Daigo; the sweet Aoi Misato; and the edgy, hostile Komaki Sakurai. These five teens are imbued with the powers of the Dragon Stream to do battle with magical, mystical threads. In the 14 episodes that make up “The Dark Arts Chapter,” that threat is led by the sinister Tendo Kozonu, a fright in clown-like makeup with a grudge generations old that threatens to engulf Tokyo in walking corpses. Right before the climactic battle at the end of “The Dark Arts Chapter,” where the five teens of Magami High team up with other Dragon Stream-powered teen heroes, the true puppetmaster behind Tendo Kozonu made a brief appearance, setting the stage for the next season of 12 episodes.

I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.The second season is split into three sub-chapters. In “The Martial Fist Chapter,” a dozen devastatingly effective warriors called the Martial Fist are taking out Dragon Stream heroes one by one, with their next targets being the teens of Magami High. Two members of the Martial Fist seem to be funhouse reflections of Tatsuma and Kyouichi, with fighting skills equal or better than their counterparts. This plot ultimately reveals the true puppetmaster to be Yagyu Munetaka, who manipulated the unwitting Martial Fist to decimate his foes as groundwork for his larger schemes. The second sub-chapter, “The Stars of Fate,” begins with a particularly toxic evil that strikes the Magami teens close to home, and leads up to Munetaka’s surprisingly devastating first strike. It’s up to the heroes of Magami High, the Martial Fist, and all the allies they can find to band together to take on Munetaka. The final two episodes of the series are an odd pair of flashbacks, boiling down to an extended origin story and some high school hijinks, both mixed with a little commentary on the final episodes of the season but not enough to make much of it clearer.

As I’ve said before, 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 interesting and exciting ways. The style and the action sequences are some of the best things about Tokyo Majin. The series does equally well in both intimate, one-on-one duels, and giant, massive battles of tremendous cosmic powers (neither of which, unfortunately, seem to become good screenshots). In the second season, the former are generally more effective than the latter, with the duels between Tatsuma and Kyouichi and their doppelgangers in the Martial Fist having a particularly brutal beauty in their expression. Admittedly, the show will win no awards for originality, as the series happily recycles tried-and-true superhero story tropes like a new hero needing to go through the “Let’s You and Him Fight” misunderstanding before the inevitable team-up, or a good application of Heroic Spirit to push our heroes to victory over a seemingly superior foe. However, the series also packs a wallop by not shying away from having the magical battles spill over into the non-magical world with very real consequences. A massive change to the real world status quo late in season 2 feels like the kind of event that will be magically undone by the end of the season, with few, if any, realizing what actually happened. Thus, it comes as a bit of a surprise that this giant reset button is never pushed, allowing us to see some of the ramifications of the battle in the larger world and how it affects the series leads. In fact, this end-state of the world is interesting enough that it is rather irritating when the last two episodes of the show are almost entirely inconsequential flashback stories rather than further explorations of the new situation.

Water can flow or it can crash. Be water my friend.The show also establishes the character traits of its quintet of heroes very quickly, making them highly likeable and distinct individuals. The character design ensures we can grasp the essence of each character just by looking at them, and that essence is reinforced by dialogue and sensibilities in both the Japanese and English soundtracks. The show pulls the same trick on a number of other supporting characters as well. As an example, it’s easy to tell the nearly identical sisters/shrine maidens apart by their carriage and body language, and like many others in the supporting cast, they quickly become favorites even though they get extremely little screen time.

Tokyo Majin has two unusual habits that set it apart from other similar anime series. The first is that it seems to be deliberately trying to keep exposition and explanations to a bare minimum. The show flings us (and its quintet of heroes) straight into a big confrontation with a weird spider demon in the first episode, with the minimal context needed to make sense of things delivered on the fly. Doing so presents magic and the supernatural as truly wild and dangerous forces under tenuous human control at best, ready to wreak massive havoc at the slightest misstep. More practically, it also helps to make room for more action scenes. 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, leaving them almost completely unused by the end of the series. There are a number of questions raised which the show resolutely refuses to answer at first, as well as characters that seem to have no reason for being in the cast at all, but one of the great joys of the series is rewatching it to see which puzzling events will make more sense on a second viewing and what seeming throwaway incidents turn out to be foreshadowing.

There is no opponent. Because the word 'I' does not exist.The second unusual habit of Tokyo Majin is articulated explicitly by Aoi at the end of the “Martial Fist Chapter,” but is on display throughout the series in the way it treats its antagonists. The series as a whole, and Aoi and Tatsuma in particular, resolutely refuse to accept evil as a one-way, dead-end state and firmly reject using lethal force as a tool against it, even in the face of the truly monstrous. The series puts its money where its mouth is, demonstrating on multiple occasions that nobody is completely beyond redemption, and repeatedly turns the Magami High teens’ enemies into allies. In fact, the show even uses its leads to teach this lesson, revealing a thuggish, destructive past of juvenile delinquency for Yuuya that ultimately brings him into conflict with an equally destructive and only marginally better Kyouichi. The lengths to which the show’s characters are willing to forgive and work for the redemption of the seemingly irredeemable may strike some as unrealistic or even foolish, but one has to give credit to the show’s crew for sticking with a viewpoint that is quite alien to most action cartoons.

However, while these two tendencies make the show distinctive, they also turn out to be its downfall. Gearing up for the final confrontation with Yagyu Munetaka involves packing about two dozen characters into a helicopter, with another six or seven left behind to look worried and provide moral support. This is a nutshell expression of the biggest problem with the second season of Tokyo Majin: it continues to pile on plot elements as fast as it can, but doesn’t spend anywhere near as much time developing them. The majority of the new cast members introduced in the second season also don’t get truly interesting things to do, making most of them little more than crowd filler. By the end, the series’ “show, don’t tell” attitude combined with an explosion of characters and plot elements leave us confused, bewildered, and ultimately disconnected from the happenings on-screen. In the first season, Tendo Kozunu was a persistent, malevolent presence, pulling hidden strings and taking just enough direct action to easily convince us that he was a serious threat. In contrast, Yagyu Munetaka is vague and poorly defined for the majority of season 2, so when he suddenly develops massive powers of ass-kickery in the final episodes of the season, the effect is to make the heroes look weak rather than to make Munetaka look strong. It doesn’t help that the ultimate conclusion to this battle is maddeningly inconclusive, as is the coda that follows. People make cryptic statements and we see strange images, but there isn’t much meaning or emotional connection to them because we have no idea what any of it means.

Any technique, however worthy and desirable, becomes a disease when the mind is obsessed with it.This madcap piling on of plot twists also means that some of the more interesting hints and threads of the first season are buried or forgotten. The biggest loser of the five leads is probably Komaki, whose hair-trigger hostility in season 1 is greatly reduced in season 2. The first season also constructed a surprisingly believable love triangle between Komaki, Yuuya, and Aoi (although it’s probably not what you would expect), and Komaki’s complete inability to hide her massive crush seems surprisingly real and illuminates some of her wilder outbursts beautifully. Sadly, this entire plot gets dropped almost entirely in favor of more magical mysteries when a touch more human drama might have been a better choice. Similarly, several of the persistent secondary characters get explanatory plot threads, such as the ditzy blonde teacher Maria and her strange science teacher colleague (both of whom have names that hide them in plain sight). However, most of these explanations feel hurried and are nowhere near as satisfying as the mysteries that were begging for resolution.

The Complete Series set for Tokyo Majin repackages the 4 DVDs of the original season set into one wide-width Amaray case, with episode listings printed on the inside of the DVD insert. The anamorphic widescreen transfer is beautiful, especially since the fight staging exploits the wider frame so well. Note also that the slightly washed out color palette is an aesthetic choice rather than evidence of a poor transfer. The soundtrack is in 5.1 Dolby Digital with equally good English and Japanese versions, although turning on subtitles regardless of the spoken language often makes it easier to catch the many Japanese names and bizarre concepts being flung around by the series end. There are no extras other than clean opening and closing credits, although we only get the original opening sequence and not the newer one introduced in “The Stars of Fate Chapter,” which is a shame because the newer opening is a lot less sonically assaulting than the original.

The teens of Magami High and their friends proved enormously appealing in the first season of their show, and the emotional connection built up with them is one of the things that makes it easier to sit through the disappointing second season. The 20-point lead that “The Dark Arts Chapter” built up at the half ends up almost completely gone by the end of “The Martial Fist Chapter,” and if there is a win there, it’s eked out by the skin of their teeth. However, like my beloved but bewildering New York Knicks, I still have a soft spot for Tokyo Majin, despite its obvious flaws by the end.

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