My Review of Noragami

If you’ve ever been unemployed, you’ve got some idea of what Yato is going through. Nobody respects him, nobody believes in him, and nobody wants to hire him. On top of all that, the one person he has by his side in life has just left him, citing his constant failures on both personal and professional levels as her grounds for doing so. Now that he’s all alone and struggling to scrape by, he’ll have to set aside his dignity and take every single job that comes his way, whether he’s qualified to complete them or not… We’ve all been there at some point, but where Yato’s experiences differ from ours is that for each job, he can only accept about five hundred yen in payment… Because he’s an aspiring Japanese God.

Just when it seems like he’d be forever alone on his journey, his life takes a sudden turn with the introduction of two people he may have just been fated to meet… Hiyori, a high school girl who somehow obtains the powers of astral projection when she attempts to save Yato’s life, and Yukine, the resurrected spirit of a long-dead teenage boy. Their lives quickly become intertwined as the sins of his past start to take notice and haunt him once more. Can these three kindred spirits get along with each other long enough to help Yato realize his ambitions in the spiritual hierarchy, or will simply surviving turn out to be a tough enough challenge on it’s own?

Noragami was animated by the once famous Studio Bones, and while it’s not their best looking work, it’s probably their best looking recent work. There is a budget disparity, because this is Bones and there’s always a budget disparity, but it’s relatively well managed. While there is a good chunk of action throughout the story, it’s also a very dialogue heavy series full of character-banter and exposition. The budget gets cut during these scenes, which is generally the ideal way to go about it unnoticed. In exchange for this, the action scenes have a great flow to them, the comedic scenes can use just enough movement to give them the energy they need, and guys, the spirits that Yato and his friends have to fight are just resplendent.

The character designs are simple and a little on the generic side, utilizing templates that you’ve no doubt seen in many modern anime. They do their job well enough, but the only thing that sets them apart from the norm are a few unique touches that were added to their outfits and the attractive design of their eyes. That’s not to say they’re bland looking in any way, but there isn’t much visual flare to any of them. The backgrounds and environments are highly detailed and richly colored, but in keeping to form with the character designs, this is nothing you haven’t seen before. The exception to this is in their highly expressive faces, which are versatile enough on their own to distract you from the few times that a key frame lingers on screen for a few seconds too long.

The music, on the other hand, is a lot more original and inspired. I didn’t notice it for the most part… Not because it wasn’t there, but because it was doing it’s job well… But the few tracks I did notice were the kind that I’d have no problem playing in my car, thanks to the diverse compositions of Taku Iwasaki. Most of the show’s more noticeable tunes are blends of rock and traditional Japanese music with contemporary styles like drum and base and techno, creating a unique sound that helps to elevate the series beyond the general aimlessness of it’s story. Blood pumping music makes for good action, and a good beat is essential for making it work. The beat on most of these tracks tracks is so good that you may catch yourself nodding your head and tapping your foot in time with it.

Even outside of the opening and closing, there’s a surprising amount of vocal work in the background music. There’s rapping in these songs… Yes, it surprised me too, not just by how good it sounds but the fact that it’s there at all. Straight up rapping, and if that’s not unusual enough, there are also a lot of instances… Especially in the tune Noratan… That use vocals as if a person were shouting random sounds into a megaphone rather than singing them, and it all comes together really well. This is a series that blends classic Japanese mythology with modern styles and attitudes, and while it’s nowhere near the first anime to do this, it is the only one I can think of that used an equally anachronistic music style, and it fits the series perfectly. The opening, Goya no Machiawase by Hello Sleepwalkers, is a little more standard than the rest of the soundtrack, but it’s still on the high end of the scale. It’s a soundtrack that shines with effort and inspiration over-all, and it sounds just as good whether out of context or in context.

The recently released English dub was a Funimation endeavor, and with the Japanese being such a solid blend of comedy and drama, they had quite a bit to live up to… But Funimation has proven themselves before, and with Bonny Clinkenbeard behind the wheel, they prove it once again. Brynn Appril plays the lead role of Hiyori, the quirky high-schooler who gets caught up in this whole mess, and boy does her voice get a work-out. Between having to scream whenever her character over-reacts to something(which is a thing that happens a lot) and lecturing her new friend over his behavior, or just singing to herself over her new-found powers, she never recites a single line without amping up the emotion behind it. She’s the cornerstone of the chemistry that these three possess, and Brynn does a great job upholding it.

Then again, so do her costars, Jason Leibricht and Micah Solusod. Their performances are just as animated as hers, if not moreso during their stronger moments. As the down-on-his luck Yato, Liebricht really does sound like a guy holding onto hope and trying to enjoy his life despite the huge weight hanging over him, and the dark past that he’s supposedly put behind him. Micah Solusad goes on more of a journey than the other two, following the spirit Yukine as he tries to make do with his situation, although never shying away from openly criticizing the boss he’s been saddled with. He keeps it together, but it’s clearly a struggle, and… As they say… Something’s gotta give, and when it does, he breaks through as the star of this dub. Alexis Tipton as Kofuku is… Alexis Tipton. Which is a good thing.

Noragami gets off to a great start. It introduces us to a very interesting universe and a strong premise revolving around the ambitious but heavily flawed Yato, and his two friends who are just likable as he is, and through them, we get to explore the intricacies of this spiritual society existing just out of reach of normal human acknowledgement. There’s a lot of potential in these early episodes, and I’ve seen a lot of people say that it sort of drops the ball after that point. In a way, I’m inclined to agree, as once everything’s laid out on the table, well, Noragami does lose start to show some cracks.

First of all, it kind of can’t be ignored… This series is based heavily on Japanese mythology, and it makes the mistake of assuming the viewer is familiar with that kind of material. A lot of the details of it’s universe are mentioned without any explanation or build-up, and while those in the know will be able to understand the context of those details enough to not question how it works, most American viewers will likely treat each piece of it with a raised eyebrow and, at best, an “if you say so…” kind of response.

See, in order to do his job, Yato needs the aid of a shinki, or… In the dub… A Regalia. He takes the spirit of Yukine as his regalia, and can turn him into a weapon whenever necessary (See Soul Eater for more on this concept). For those of us who don’t regularly study Japanese mythology, we’ll hear something like “A God will start to deteriorate if their regalia misbehaves, and their deterioration can be caught by other Gods like a flesh eating bacteria,” and we’d respond to this with a blank stare. It fits together about as well as saying that ‘once the human population reaches one million, the moon will blow us up.’ Yeah, we’re along for the ride, but it kind of wrecks the immersion of the experience.

A lot of the details are explained to us through Hiyori… Which I’m sad to say is her main job in the series… But it rarely ever goes any deeper than just “This is how this works, don’t worry about the logic of it.” You could say it’s my fault for not being worldly enough to get it, but I’ve always been a strong believer in accessibility. You shouldn’t have to study to understand what’s going on in a story. That’s not to say an anime with rich cultural subtext shouldn’t inspire people to seek out more information about said culture, but you should still be mindful of those who haven’t or even won’t. I’ve criticized much better shows than this one for their accessibility issues, and I won’t be giving any quarter over it today.

Following the halfway point, the series loses it’s sense of direction, as well as any interest it may have had in Yato’s pursuit of higher godhood. Concepts brought up during the first half are dropped entirely, enemies from his past reappear in the story out of nowhere… Like, seriously, one of them just happens to show up because one of Hiyori’s friends prays to him offhand at a shrine… And the stakes drop rapidly to the point that the only thing Yato’s really fighting for is the one thing that works the best in the series; His friendship with Hiyori and Yukine.

And speaking of Hiyori, she’s kind of a pitiful main character. My plot summary focused mainly on Yato because he’s a lot more interesting than she is, and she doesn’t really become important to the plot until episode 10. She’s likable, and she gets a few laughs in the early episodes, but she’s never really given an identity beyond that point, other than being the glue of their friendship. While the idea of her leaving her body behind whenever she goes spirity comes off as funny at first, they do so little with it, and the fact that her lifeless body has been sitting out in public for extended periods of time is just swept under the rug. She leaves her body outside in the rain for over a full episode, and when she gets it back, she doesn’t have a cold or anything.

While I can understand people saying that the first half was a lot stronger than the second half, I would like to respectfully disagree. I took issue with this series as early as the third episode, and found myself hating it throughout the fourth episode, and my feeling has a lot to do with it’s attitude towards depression and suicide. See, in the world of Noragami, people don’t decide to commit suicide on their own… A malicious spirit attaches itself to people who are experiencing negative emotions and pushes them towards expressing it through extreme methods.

Now, an immediate defense for this might be “Isn’t that how the witches in Madoka Magika work?” Well, no. The witches in Madoka Magika use suicide as a weapon, but they attack indiscriminately against anybody in the area. They’re not the sole cause of suicide, they just utilize it. In Noragami, Yato states twice in episode three alone that if a soul wants to kill itself, then it’s being possessed. Unless this is a translation error… Which I doubt… Noragami openly blames suicide(And murder, and even bullying) on spiritual possession.

On the one hand, you could say that possession is a metaphor for depression, that an undeniable force is taking control of you and urging you towards things you don’t want to do. And yeah, that metaphor kind of adds up, save for two serious problems. First of all, it’s a situation that can conveniently be solved by simply killing or exorcising the offending demon. This throws the metaphor argument directly under the bus, as even if you’re able to stop a depressed person from killing themselves, depression is not that easy to cure. It’s a complicated illness with countless possible catalysts, and to imply that they can all be erased by getting rid of that pesky negative feeling is just insulting. This isn’t a metaphor… It’s a Strawman.

In fiction, a Strawman is a person or entity to whom you attribute negative feelings or behaviors in order to dehumanize them and ultimately defeat them. It’s the equivalent of getting over an ex by placing your desire for them in a stuffed animal and tearing it to pieces. A good example of this is Gatchaman Crowds, a series that’s become infamous for using an evil villain as a Strawman for bullying and online harassment. Japanese culture has a lot of Strawmen in it… “Break the gate, bad feelings be gone” and stuff like that… But when you’re dealing with serious issues, they deserve to be taken seriously.

Noragami didn’t set out to belittle a lot of peoples’ real life problems… I know that wasn’t it’s intention, and demonic possession isn’t the worst way to explore it. It’s been done, and it’s been done well. The problem is that this show just doesn’t show any evidence of understanding the topic it’s dealing with. For the perfect example, there’s an extensive scene in episode 4 where Yato & Friends are accidentally dialed by a man who’s jumping off of a building. Throughout what must be the longest fall in history(Seriously, you could do your taxes before hitting the ground), he tells them that he fell in love with a young woman and from then onwards, he had worse and worse luck resulting in his business failing and going bankrupt. It’s revealed that he was dating the goddess of poverty, so Yato severs his connection to said Goddess, saves him from the fall, and then… Eureka, everything’s resolved!

Except no, it’s not. They haven’t solved his financial problems, nor have they rid him of the hard times and deep shame that clearly came with it, so there’s no saying whether or not he’ll try to die again. Also, his cruel sociopath of a woman gets off easy just because she thought what she was doing to him was funny. No, I’m sorry, they haven’t undone the damage that was done to him, and I don’t believe she’s never going to target anybody ever again. And this is one of my biggest problems with Noragami… By defeating these spirits, you’re not helping anybody, you’re just putting a band-aid on a wound that’s going to reopen again, and you’re just stopping there. “I don’t care what you’re going through, or how much you’re suffering… Just as long as you don’t resort to any methods that’ll make people sad!”

Yeah, I know this has some kind of ties to Japanese beliefs, but there’s another Eastern belief that I’d like apply to this; If you save somebody’s life, you’re responsible for that life. It’s not Japanese, but it’s still relevant. Now that proverb may have many meanings, but in this case, I’d like to use it as meaning that if you step in and prevent them from committing suicide, you’ve become involved in their struggle. You have just taken away their way out, and you’d better be damn well ready to show them another way out, otherwise you’re just pushing your belief on other people to preserve your own sensibilities. In Noragami, the idea seems to be “Nope, you’re not gonna die… Good luck!” And to me, that seems just as irresponsible as not doing anything.

So, with all of these problems that I had with Noragami, is it a bad show? Nope! It’s two strongest elements, thankfully. take up the majority of the series. The first is the action, which… While poorly set up through rushed villains… Is freaking awesome, whether your brain’s turned off or on. The animation never really looks bad, but these fight scenes are where the budget shines through gloriously, and while the villains may have had writing issues, they’re all a lot of fun. They’re well designed and intimidating, and they have compelling motives that are tied to Yato’s dark past, which is a really smart way to grow him as a character… By showing him literally battling against his past sins.

And the second is the relationship between Yato and his Regalia, Yukine. Their dynamic is very effective at holding up their separate yet still intertwined arcs. Yato brought Yukine back to life in order to use him as a tool to help him get back on his feet and maybe even restore his long lost glory. He thinks of him as an object, needing to follow orders and obey his beck and call. Yukine hates this, and rebels almost immediately, acting out in ways that damage Yato. Yato has to learn how to be fair and treat his Regalia like a person, and Yukine needs to learn to accept his fate and respect the one who gave him his second chance.

It’s a very parent/child sort of dynamic, and it works really well because nether character is fully in the wrong, and they’re both acting in relatable, understandable ways. We’ve all been to that place where we resent somebody for disrespecting us and taking our generosity for granted. We’ve all been in places where we felt disgruntled over situations that were forced upon us without our consent, and yes, some dark part of us wanted to see other people suffer what we have to suffer. It’s a very well-developed conflict, and with Hiyori acting as the glue between them, we never have to wonder why Yukine doesn’t just quit the way Yato’s previous Regalia did. In fact, I’ll be perfectly honest, I liked the second half of this series more than the first half, simply because it spent so much time on these two aspects of the series that I enjoyed the most.

Noragami is available from Funimation. At the time of this writing, you can find it on Amazon in the DVD/Bluray combo pack format for just over half of the original price. You can also find it on Funimation.com and Amazon Instant Video, and the undubbed subtitled version is available on Netflix. The original manga IS available stateside from Kodansha comics USA, and from what I’ve heard, it tells a much more complete story than the series does. A second season is scheduled to air in Japan in October, and from the summaries I’ve read, it will be following the story of one of Yato’s enemies, a blonde woman with an eyepatch named Bishamonten.

Noragami is a somewhat problematic show, suffering from issues on almost every level, but the product as a whole is worth more than the sum of it’s parts. If you’re interested in Japanese mythology, then its world-building makes it out to be a decent introduction to the subject. The inconsistency of the writing kind of works in it’s favor, as it tends to give up on the things it’s doing wrong and focuses most of it’s time on the things it does right, for better or worse. Personally, I did enjoy the good parts of it enough to watch it a second or maybe even third time in the future, although I’ll probably be skipping episode four when I do so. Combining that with some solid animation and the most interesting soundtrack I’ve heard in years, I give Noragami a 6/10.

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2 comments
  1. Being unemployed can suck, but thankfully I have never had to clean bathrooms for just five yen.

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