Poorly plotted, dimly animated, horribly dubbed, and ultimately giving of a feeling of pointlessness, the first half of the debut season of "A Certain Magical Index" contains all the elements of anime that turned me off the genre for years. Based on the light novel of the same name, "A Certain Magical Index" throws viewers abruptly into a hodgepodge of a world that operates on modern conventions, archaic imagery, fantastic technology, and good old fashioned occultism, often simultaneously, but lacking any real cohesiveness to the stylistic choices...at least not in time to possibly alienate viewers from investing further time into the series. The audience surrogate is Toma Kamijo, whose life as an somewhat awkward high school student gets thrown into disarray upon meeting Index, a nun whose brain, is used as a storage device (remember "Johnny Mnemonic?!") for over a hundred-thousands works belonging to Index Librorum Prohibitorum, which those familiar with the Catholic Church translates to the List of Prohibited Books, a 1559 "banned" books list enacted on the authority of Pope Paul IV. Cue some magic powers, melodramatic face-offs, and plot twists (minor and major) aplenty, and you have yourself a anime series; a very, average anime series.
"A Certain Magical Index" is plagued by a problem that tends to rear its ugly head in the sci-fi genre in general: spectacle overload. The premiere episode throws too much too fast at viewers and although it makes up for things in the second episode, to an extent, the general pace of the series is fast, to a major fault. At only 25-minutes or so per episode, there is a lot of exposition to take place and frankly, not a heck of a lot of room for exposition and the series suffers for it. It wasn't until the halfway point that I was able to keep track of characters apart from Toma and Index, and the others I struggled to keep track of, were far from interesting, merely serving roles as plot devices and genre clichés; mysterious magicians, secret agents/assassins/etc, and a healthy dose of historically connected characters in spirit and name (Alistair Crowley's inclusion is very much a series high point and reason to at least see where the series takes you) alike, they're all here. It's just a shame that our hero, who is able to negate all these fantastic powers we see and hear of, is so bland and boring (and don't even get me started at scenes of him creepily catching glimpses up skirts; it's such a tired stereotype for the genre, if I hadn't had to finish the series for review, I might have checked out on principle alone).
If iffy writing and structure weren't enough (also worth noting, the dub is irritating to the ears and while the track aurally is more accomplished, the original language and subs do elevate the quality of the series, just a tiny bit), the animation and art direction of the show is severely lacking. The character design is fairly standard, falling on the realm of exaggerated and "whimsical" as opposed to gritty and realistic. The light tone of the animation and color choices (they are subdued, but definitely not from one spectrum), keeps the show from falling too inside it's own attempts at being everything at once and largely serves to give some breathing room when the somewhat darker elements of the show arise. That said, the animation itself is very limited; character motion is generally fluid but limited in scope and in some cases lacks enough dynamic to make the sometimes meandering take its only rest, but in all the wrong places.
I'm hesitant to completely write off "A Certain Magical Index" because, to be fair, it's one half of a season. I've never been entirely fond of the way anime is sometimes distributed in such fashion, as even some of the best shows have slow and/or rocky starts. Starz' "Spartacus" springs to mind; what ended as a fantastic display of compelling excesses, started off with a few cringe worthy episodes and had I only had access to a fourth or third of that initial season, I'm not quite sure I'd have stuck on board for the ride. The very same tiring pace and lack of cohesion though, is compelling enough to see that I give the latter half of this initial season a try. The creators of "A Certain Magical Index" may have their share of rough patches as a whole, but could never be blamed for a lack of ambition and that ambition makes this series a minor curiosity.
The 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer sports a very subdued color palette that is accentuated further by a very soft level of detail. Compression artifacts virtually non-existent and technical hiccups sometimes evident in animated transfers don't rear their head.
The Dolby Digital English 5.1 dub has a generally strong feel to the overall mix (music can be overpowering and grating), with dialogue issues relegated solely to the quality of the dub itself. Surrounds are used to moderate effect, but overall things don't feel shortchanged by the lighter usage. The Japanese stereo track is far more evenly balanced, but lacks the extra "oomph" provided by the dub. English subtitles are included.
Commentaries on a few selected episodes on the first disc, as well as textless opening and closing songs and a trailer gallery makes up the entirety of the bonus features department.
Generally average and mediocre in every category, "A Certain Magical Index" is the exact style of anime series that made me avoid the genre for years. While this release is technically competent (despite bland visuals and a cloying dub), viewers may be taking a gamble on this half-season; if the second season comes together more soundly, "A Certain Magical Index" may end up worth of a minor recommendation, rather than a cautious glance. Rent It.