My secret is out. I have a soft spot for stories about gods intermingling with the modern-day human world. Sometimes they're just fun time-fillers (Nekogami Yaoyorozu (Everyday Tales of a Cat God)), but sometimes they're exceptional standouts (The Eccentric Family). Noragami is a notch above the first category, if not quite in the second one. It has a lot of the attributes that I associate with a "mainstream" anime — the compulsively lowbrow humor, the character roster of a certain age group — but it salts the stew with a few things that keep it from being a complete me-too product.
Who you gonna call? (Probably not Yato)
Yato, a scruffy-looking punk of a god, used to be a deity of war and mayhem, but lost his taste for bloodshed. That cost him worshippers, and power, but he's settled for a far simpler life as an odd-jobs man a la Gintama's Gintoki -- the kind of thing where he scrawls his name and phone number on bathroom walls and gets hired to find missing cats. At least his price is right: a measly five yen, the same he'd be likely to get for a tithe at his yet-to-be-constructed shrine, one he fantasizes about the same way the rest of us dream about the mansion we'd built after hitting the Powerball lottery.
Normally, Yato would be taking on more ambitious requests. With the aid of a "regalia" — a spirit that can transform into a weapon (shades of Soul Eater there) — Yato can bring the hurt to "phantoms," malicious supernatural entities that threaten human life. Then his most recent regalia, disgusted with Yato's status as a "jobless, track-suite-wearing drifter", walks off the job after three months, and with that Yato is back to doing missing-cat detail for chump change.
One day high-school girl Hiyori Iki is almost creamed by a passing bus, and Yato intervenes to save her. Well, almost: she ends up with her soul partly detached from her body, something she quickly finds can be useful when dealing with the kinds of messes Yato has to clean up. But she's adamant that this shiftless layabout take responsibility for what he's done, and get her reinstalled back in her body for keeps. Not easy, what with Yato currently regalia-less.
Hiyori does not in fact become Yato's regalia, a prediction that seemed like a shoo-in but I was pleased to have been proven wrong about. Instead, Yato finds a spirit he names Yukine, a young man whose premature death cut him off from the possibility of developing into something more than a sullen young punk. He doesn't have much in the way of respect for Yato, and so seems like a poor choice of companion, but Yato sees something in the kid: his very unruliness may be a strength, provided it doesn't wind up getting them both killed. (Damage felt by Yukine is relayed back to Yato, and too much "taint" accrued in this manner will be lethal.)
Most of the storyline for individual episodes is taken up with Yato, Yukine, and Hiyori confronting and taking down a monster-of-the-week while in the service of the Gandalf-esque deity Lord Tenjin. Other regalia-sporting deities also begin showing up, some of whom sport king-sized grudges against Yato — e.g., Bishamon, a femme-domme incarnation of the god of battle, still peeved at how Yato killed one of her regalia ages ago, and not terribly willing to let Yato just live it down. She also turns out to be the least of Yato's worries in that respect, especially as Rabō, Yato's old partner in devastation, returns to the playing (er, killing) field to pick up where both of them left off.
The real enemies are on the inside
Fans of Rurouni Kenshin ought to recognize the dynamic at work here: a spirited, upbeat main character trying to live down/atone for a villainous past, only to have said past come back for him in spades and attempt to unlock his "real" nature. It's not a groundbreaking storyline — doubly so after Kenshin did it so well across the course of its various incarnations — but it's deployed and executed well enough here that by the end, there's the sense of something being at stake. The technical side of the show is also a plus, with splashy-looking monster designs and some snazzy animation in the fight sequences.
Another point in the show's favor — and again, another nod towards the kinds of things Kenshin also mined — is how it makes the real threats to the characters internal as well as external. Yato's prior career as a slaughterer is personified by the presence of Nora, his former regalia, who manifests as a young girl and talks to him in the sort of poisonously seductive tones that one might hear from an anthropomorphized drug addiction. She offers him power; he knows too well what the cost of that power is. In the same vein is all of Yukine's ugly and unfinished emotional business, something pushed to the surface when the gang are brought in to aid a bullied student at Hiyori's school.
Lowbrow humor is something of a staple ingredient for most any mainstream anime; you scarcely get through an episode without at least a few dumb yuks. Noragami's no different: because Yato and Yukine have a high degree of spiritual connection through their bond, Yato can sense Yukine thinking dirty thoughts whenever Hiyori is around. But some of the other gags are a little smarter, such as a hilarious sequence where a suicidal office worker essentially tells Yato & Co. his life story while in the process of falling off a tall building. By the third or fourth cutaway to a flashback, the joke has reached Key & Peele levels of absurdity. (It works in big part because no one breaks the tension or comments directly on the absurdity of the situation; it's all done with straight faces.)
Whenever I see a show that's one or two cuts above the average, it's always tempting to read more into it than there actually is. Most shows are so determined to be middle-of-the-road concoctions (and some don't even succeed at being that) that it's easy to confuse straight-up competence with actual ambition. Noragami is no classic, but it's also no slouch either, and I'm curious to see if the promised second season goes beyond that.