Electromagnetism is a funny thing. It can attract and repel with equal power depending on how you use it. A Certain Scientific Railgun is a companion piece to A Certain Magical Index, centering on Mikoto “Zapper” Misaka, who is blessed/cursed with an incredible amount of electromagnetic power as one of the only 5th level espers in Academy City. She faces many of the same problems as standard middle school students, like boys, rivals, and homework. Then there’s that whole “being an esper” thing at one of Academy City’s most noted schools, Tokiwadai Academy. Apparently it’s not all it’s cracked up to be, with all the crazy people in town coming after the students and all the ties Mikoto has to various underground organizations in Academy City (all of which invariably have nefarious plans). There’s also her massively annoying roommate, Kuroko Shirai, to deal with. All in all, it makes for one eventful life.
It sounds like Misaka is the main character of A Certain Scientific Railgun, but that’s not really true. She shares the spotlight with two recent transfers to Academy City: Ruiko Saten and (to a much lesser extent) Saten’s hetero lifemate Kazari Uiharu. Saten is a level zero esper, barely blessed with any ability at all, but apparently it’s enough to get into the city at least. As it happens, Saten’s lack of ability becomes the fulcrum for a lot of the show’s plot, as she gets tangled up with the “Level Upper,” which can raise one’s esper level. Of course, there’s always a price. Saten gets herself mixed up with increasingly unstable forces that may or may not have something to do with Harumi Kiyama (a scientist with a bad habit of taking off her clothes at inopportune moments). Saten also gets into trouble with Judgment, the student enforcement division of Academy City’s various police, military and paramilitary organizations. Honestly, for a city of learning, Academy City resembles an armed camp for weapons development a lot more. A lot of things lead one to think Academy City is more of a giant fraud than a city of learning and advancement: things keep exploding at random in the city for the first part of the show, the surprisingly large number of underground groups dedicated to destroying pieces of Academy City, and the city’s overlord’s seems to insist on treating the population as more of a petri dish than students. Further complicating things for both Saten and Misaka are that their “seconds,” Kyoko and Uriharu, are both part of Judgement and the associated heavy weapons division, Anti-Skill. Makes it a little hard to keep friends when your friends are also in charge of investigating things you’re involved with and/or want to be a part of.
The show divides into 2 halves, the second half building off of the first, although the first half does some really interesting things with the “villain” angle while the second half goes for something way more conventional. There’s also not always a whole lot of plot to some episodes, so your enjoyment factor will vary quite a bit with your liking of the episode’s spotlight character. Personally, I found the episodes that centered on Saten were the most enjoyable and anything involving Kuroko was the equivalent of nails on a chalkboard. Given that the same Japanese actress for Kuroko also voiced the lead in Familiar of Zero, it’s not surprising. I doubt it’s much of a surprise to say that Misaka’s “railgun” ability is generally called upon to finish off most of the big fights.
You may notice that I’m not talking about Misaka as much as you’d think, given that she’s the ostensible main character of the show, but this is really more of an ensemble piece that a singular character piece. Some of the secondary characters get a considerable amount of screen and plot time, like Anti-Skill’s resident screw up Tsuzuri Tesso and head of Judgement Mii Konori. There’s also a bikini episode and an episode set partially in a bath house. Why? Well, given the…err…proportions of some of the characters it makes sense for a certain point of view, but it’s certainly not good at generating drama or character development. A couple of the Index characters pop in and out, most notably Toma Kamijo in an extended cameo that only really makes sense if you’ve seen Index. It’s not that Misaka herself is an uninteresting character, but it seems like the writers and producers didn’t have many other ideas for her beyond squeeing over things with frogs on them or blowing something up.
Quality-wise, the discs look and sound pretty good in both English and Japanese, so take you pick of whatever you’re comfortable with. For some reason, there are still some freeze-up issues at various points. Seems to be an issue with a lot of FUNimation releases. Extras consist of some trailers, a few other promo materials, and a few cast commentary tracks where, as is usual, the cast spends more time cracking jokes about the recording process than talking about the show.
As a companion piece to A Certain Magical Index, A Certain Scientific Railgun suffers from a lot of same problems, but it does have a much more linear and somewhat less preposterous plot. Taken as a whole, it feels like a missed opportunity to make something more than, “yeah, that was fun”. Take that for what you will, and watch yourself around metal objects when Zapper is nearby.