I'm not a big anime fan. I'm cool with feature films by the likes of Hayao Miyazaki and the like, but too many high-school-era doses of American anime fans claiming that anything coming from Japan was blessed by some sort of Midas touch sort of soured me on shows. Still, it's always good to shake things up, and the summary I read of "Night Raid 1931" made it sound like a traditional spy show, so I gave it a shot. The result? Not as traditional as I might've hoped, but not so bad, either.
Set (obviously) in the 1930s, the show follows four spies trying to stop corruption, all of whom are blessed with extraordinary powers. Yukina (Yoshiko Ikuta/Brittney Karbowski) and her servant Natsume (Takanori Hoshino/David Wald) can read others' thoughts. Natsume seems to know a little about fighting with a staff, using a rifle for sniping, and has X-ray vision. Aoi (Hiroyuki Yoshino/Greg Ayres) has telekinetic powers, allowing him to move or stop objects with his mind. The most powerful of the four, however, is Kazura (Daisuke Namikawa/John Gremillion), who has plenty of hand-to-hand skills as well as a limited ability to teleport to anywhere within his line of sight, which he conserves for moments of serious distress. The four's orders come down from Sakurai (Ryūsuke Ōbayashi/John Kaiser), from whom their agency gets its name.
At first, the group serves as a fairly generalized defense team against corruption and coersion against the government, but slowly they find themselves chasing down a single enemy: Isao Takahiho (Hiroaki Hirata/Andrew Love). He has the same powers as Yukina, likely because the two are brother and sister. Isao and a missing group of Manchurian soldiers have concocted a plan that will force all of Asia to unite involving a couple of scientists and fear as a method of control, all while the tumultuous takeover of Manchuria as Japanese territory and the potential for a war to break out over it hangs in the background.
The early episodes of the show are at once the most interesting and the least focused. Episode 0, "The Shipboard Shoot's Conclusion," is...well, terrible, failing to emphasize any of the characters (who are all present) beyond Yukina and Natsume, and a story that seems heavy on everything other than character development or excitement. Although the other four episodes on the first disc are significantly better, fleshing out each member's personality (specfically the dynamic between Aoi and Kazura) and scoring much higher marks for action and comedy, they feel unfocused and totally set apart from the episodes on Disc 2 and 3, which almost solely focus on Isao and his backwards schemes for peace. Even accounting for the way the show is trying to build to its central story, the groundwork doesn't have much emphasis or weight as groundwork, and it isn't until the show is over that one realizes what the show was trying to do.
Then again, once the show gets there, Isao is kind of an underwhelming villain given how much time he spends off screen, and although I wouldn't want to reveal too much, the show's emphasis on the true history of China and Asia during the 1930s puts a partial damper on the show as a "fun" diversion. The audience knows that World War II is right around the corner, and some of the things that Isao is predicting are actually going to come true. I am reminded of Judge Doom's dastardly plan in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, but that had the benefit of being a joke. Frankly, the show might've been more entertaining as a series of individual cases taken on by the team with the overall arc as more of a backdrop until the last few episodes, which would take some of the burden off of Isao and history while still allowing for the same amount of character interaction between the four members, which is the show's strongest suit.
As far as the show's production goes, the animation is decent, even if the particular style of character design is one of those "stock" styles (I don't know what to call it, but it's not "Dragon Ball Z" and it's not "Pokemon"). It gets most of its visual mileage out of the period setting, which mostly informs the location and dress of the characters. Over the course of the series' 14 episodes and two OVAs, I sampled both the English and Japanese dialogue tracks, and both seemed well-done (none of the American voices struck me as too affected or goofy). All in all, nothing about "Night Raid 1931" convinced me I needed to be watching more anime, but it's also not a demerit against the form.
The episodes in the set are broken down as follows:
Disc 1: "The Shipboard Shoot's Conclusion", "The Rescue", "Rondo of Retrospection", "Shadows Fall on the Big Four", "Cameras, Dumplings & Stray Cats"
Disc 2: "Negative of Summer", "An Ominous Night", "The Prophecy"*, "The Incident", "Demon of the Opium Den"**, "In the Country of Frozen Earth",
Disc 3: "The New Capital", "East is East", "Hunt in the Dark", "Night Raid", "At Least a Fragment of Hope", "Panther Atop the Snow"**
*recap episode (located in "Special Features") **OVA
I don't know that the front-cover art for "Night Raid 1931" really conveys anything about the show. It's kind of a generic-looking assortment of anime characters in vaguely actiony poses. Thankfully, the back cover gets halfway there with box copy akin to the hilariously metaphor-heavy "next episode" bumpers I love so much. The 3-disc package comes in a standard-width non-ECO Amaray case with a double sided flap tray and no insert.
The Video and Audio
Upon close inspection, this 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is a little bit fuzzy, thanks to the constant use of "soft-focus," but overall, colors are bright, lines are strong and free of stair-stepping, and I didn't notice any egregious interlacing/motion blur. Similarly, both the Dolby Digital 2.0 Japanese and English tracks are clear, with a decent spread of music and sound effects across all speakers and a reasonable level of immersion (a stylized, anime immersion, that is). Two subtitle tracks are provided, one to accompany the English dub and one to accompany the original Japanese. I didn't detect any errors in either track. Pairing the English audio with the subs for Japanese dialogue also indicates the subs are also not "dubtitles."
Aside from the recap episode "The Prophecy" (which is a true recap, without any new content), the OVAs (which are DVD exclusives) and clean opening and closing animations (:), there's no extra content here, but I think the OVAs will probably please fans. A hilariously bad promo for the Anime Network plays before the main menu on Disc 1, which also houses trailers for Sentai's "Needless", "Demon King Daimao", "High School of the Dead", "Ghost Hound", "Samurai Girls", and "Golgo 13".
I don't regret having watched "Night Raid 1931", but if I hadn't, I wouldn't regret that either. The show is hard to classify: fans of both espionage and Chinese history might find the inclusion of supernatural abilities problematic, and there's not much here to set the show apart from other shows about teams with special powers. That said, I found the show reasonably entertaining, and I suppose have no idea what anime fans look for in a show, so I'll peg this one as a rental.
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