It's too easy, and potentially misleading, to say the opposite of something great is something awful. The real enemy of the great is the aggressively middle-of-the-road, the thing that's "okay" but rarely much more than that, and which encourages other things to be only okay as an easy way out from ever having to shoot high. Tokyo Ravens is so middle-of-the-road it risks being roadkill. It takes ancient Japan's strain of mysticism and magic, drops it into the modern world, and then almost immediately flees with it into the comfortable arms of a dumb high-school-hijinks story. I don't mind a dumb story that knows it's dumb; I mind a story that flirts with smarts and chooses to be dumb instead, because it's an easier sell.
It's frustrating, because I imagine the audience for this thing — audiences, plural, and on both sides of the Pacific, no less — wouldn't be thrown by something that has fun with Japan's concepts of the spiritual and supernatural. Shōnen Onmyoji* wasn't a distinguished show apart from its use of mysticism as a plot element, but at least it tried to remain reasonably faithful to its core concept and its Heian-era milieu, and it didn't back off into easy high-school comedy territory. I know, I know: that's the way you appeal to the demographic, in the same way that you can't have an American tentpole movie without explosions. But just because I understand why something comes together as it does, doesn't mean I'm automatically obliged to make excuses for it.
"Yer a wizard, Harutora!"
The show's premise isn't a bad one: shamans and spiritualists, practitioners of the onmyōdo arts, protect Japan both from supernatural attack and the abuse of their own powers by the unscrupulous. Rangy teenager Harutora Tsuchimikado was born into a bloodline that's yielded up more than a few onmyōji, but since he's a descendant of a branch family, he has no power of his own. No biggie; he's more interested in hanging out with his friend Tōji and his maybe-girlfriend Hokuto, and doing his best not to let his lousy luck get the better of him. ("Stupid-tora" is his nickname.)
Then along comes Harutora's childhood friend Natsume, to whom he made a vow all those years ago to become her protector. She's now neck-deep in the business of living up to the family tradition, so the two of them are likely to go their separate ways. Then along comes Suzuka, a Lolita-goth magic-user gone rogue who has plans to resurrect her dead brother, and doesn't care how forbidden a variety of magic she has to use to pull it off. Harutora and Natsume are drawn into the thick of it, and after a spectacular battle where Natsume unleashes a few family heirlooms (including a dragon), Harutora pledges himself to Natsume as her familiar. The two of them are sent off together to the most prestigious onnmyōdo academy in the country so that they might both raise their game.
So far, so good — although everything I have described fits more or less into the first two episodes of the series. The instant they get to school, the show nosedives, trading up everything that was interesting for a far more ho-hum storyline and set of conflicts. Or rather, it keeps many of the same conflicts as before, but now they're wrapped up — maybe smothered would be a better word — in a high-school story that doesn't really give them room to be involving. All that was inventive and, let's face it, fun about the original idea is either jettisoned outright, pushed far into the background, or made into a running gag, as the show gets wrapped up in the more mundane business of being a high-school dramedy.
Consider this example. Harutora himself gets a familiar, a fox spirit named Kon, a character drawn from that fine, long-standing tradition in anime of irritating and overzealous comic relief. Strike one. Her first scene ends with her pants down around her ankles for reasons too idiotic to go into here. Strikes two, three, and possibly four. When Harutora owns up to her about the fact that he's a familiar himself, I thought the show would further explore how the power relationships would work between Harutora, Kon, and Natsume, but instead we get either relatively unadventurous mechanical plot stuff (why is Kon suddenly stuck in fox form?) or pratfalls. Strikes five and six. And so it goes.
Opportunities missed and misfired
You're probably muttering to yourself right now about how much I missed the point; who expects a show like this to aim high and shoot far in the first place? But that's the problem: the first couple of episodes, and here and there throughout, there's enough hints that the people behind it didn't have to compromise as they did. In fact, it feels more like there was an uneasy compromise between the more interesting parts of the show and the less interesting ones, and it wasn't clear what might end up on which side of the line. Tōji, Harutora's buddy, has a subplot involving his half-ogre nature, intriguing because it touches on some bigger themes of identity and self-control. But it's not surrounded by a show that leverages it to good effect, and so it ends up become one good thing in a barrel of bad ones. The seeds are there, but they're not in the kind of soil that supports their growth.
I shouldn't sound as if I resent all high-school stories. Toradora comes to mind as a nice example of how to do it well, and in fact blind-sided me as to how well it pulled off such a trick. My objection comes from taking a story that stands fine on its own merits and dunking it into the deep end of the high-school pool, because that narrows the range of possibilities available instead of expanding them. Action that previously had free reign gets shoehorned into a predictable set of developments and sequences: the struggle for power within the school's hierarchy of students and faculty; the school-retreat episode; the bath-hijinks interlude; and so on. In theory, this kind of narrowing should work like the formal constraints of, say, a reggae or blues record, where being forced to work within a narrow genre actually stimulates creativity and innovation. But in practice, such innovation only takes place when the right hands are at work, and when there are no penalties for also pushing the envelope. Put someone like Taiyo Matsumoto on a high-school-story type of job and you get a masterwork like Blue Spring*. The rest of the time, it's garbage in, garbage out.
The shame of it is that there's some good stuff in Tokyo Ravens, but it's all at the micro level and not at the macro. All the ingenuity on display for how magic works in the modern-day world is fun to watch, especially when Suzuka commands familiars reminiscent of steampunk mecha. (The battle sequences, few of them as there are, are dazzling to watch.) And the way Suzuka's subplot initially plays out — again, over the course of those first couple of episodes — is done remarkably well, and ends with a genuine sense of tragedy. Too bad the show squanders all of that, not by bringing Suzuka back later on (that in itself isn't the issue) but rather by reintroducing her in a way that revolves mostly around getting yuks out of the audience. She knows that Natsume is attending school disguised as a boy, you see — it's complicated — and she uses that to blackmail Harutora and Natsume into doing her spoiled-brat bidding.
I know it is generally bad form to turn thumbs-down on a show only halfway through, and one of the limitations of the review style I've adopted for this site is that it biases me towards reviews that are written looking back over the shoulder, so to speak, with the whole of the work already behind me. What I see so far of Tokyo Ravens, though, doesn't bode well for whether it'll shake off its school-daze flavor and become more ambitious. Do forgive me, though, if I don't stick around to find out.