It is the 21st century in modern day Japan and some things never change. The ancient shinobi villages of Banten, Fuuma, Iga and Togakushi are still active and wage a secret war in the “Nabari” world. Ninja anime are a staple of both the shonen genre and the medium as a whole, often playing it safe within a historical or fantastical setting.
Nabari steps up to the plate and attempts to portray a ninja conflict set in our modern timeline with complex character interaction. Does it succeed in giving us a fresh look at the genre? Read on to find out.
Firstly, the unfortunate thing with Nabari is that while the soft and modern approach to the ninja aspect of the show sounds intriguing, it starts off with a whole slew of tired tropes. The high school protagonist Miharu Rokujou not only suffers from mysterious amnesia and happens to be an orphan, but he is also completely apathetic to what happens around him. A familiar archetype, but somewhat forgivable given Miharu’s innocent charm.
Moving on, it becomes known that the 14 year-old has an all-powerful secret art containing the world’s knowledge dwelling inside him. Known as the Shinra Banshou, its power is coveted by every member of the shinobi world and the possessor is recognised as the King of Nabari. Naturally, Miharu doesn’t care and wants to live a normal, if a little anti-social, life. He tries to keep this up even after he is attacked by ninjas who are beaten back by his teacher Tobari Kumohira and friend Koichi Aizawa.
A hostile group known as the Grey Wolves hound Miharu in an attempt to steal the Shinra Banshou from him and use it for their own goals. With the help of Tobari, Koichi, a self-professed samurai girl Raimei Shimizu and various village leaders, our heroes aim to remove the curse and destroy it. Both the Grey Wolves and the good guys must look for the forbidden arts of the clans to find a way to do this. Thus begins a race from both sides to do what has never been done before, separate the curse, but for different reasons.
One of the most interesting aspects is the relationship between Miharu and a similar member of the Grey Wolves, Yoite, who uses a killing technique known as the Kira (think Fist of the North Star, “you are already dead”). Yoite is an unfortunate case of an extremely powerful character marred by angst and often contradicting beliefs. While this aspect of the plot is intriguing considering Yoite wants Miharu to end his existence using the Shinra Banshou, it becomes too dominant in the second half at the expense of everything else in the series.
While the second half is undoubtedly more important, it’s also where Nabari’s is at its weakest. What precious few action scenes we had in the first half are cut down further in favour of needless exposition and supporting characters become increasingly unimportant and are content to simply standing and talking most of the time. It’s a shame because each character has their own mini plot line and and they’re often far cooler to watch than the main story.
Ironically everything seemed to work better when Miharu was emotionless as at the very least it was part his predictable, boyish charm. But when Nabari took a turn to the more deliberate, emotional storytelling it culminated in an ending that served no one. The build-up was slow, the confrontation was slow and inevitably the finale was uneventful. Sure everything wrapped up, but you’re left feeling like all you ate was air on an empty stomach.
Although Madman has just released this collection, Nabari first aired five years ago so don’t expect the crispness of more modern anime. Having said that it does manage to hold its own in this department and the experience is pleasant, almost soothing to the eyes. Some individual character design and great animation direction tops things off in a package few will complain. The only complaint I have is that it does look a bit too grey and brown and times.
The action scenes are nicely choreographed and are intense without going over-the-top. Each move that a character does is done with purpose and flair. I enjoyed the visual direction and the attention to detail of the few fight scenes more than other, more popular, ninja shows.
Nabari’s musical score was quite nice, offering some peaceful melodies and unobtrusive ambient tracks composed of strings and flutes. The opening theme is uplifting, happy rock with a chorus that can get fairly annoying after a while. It’s even worse since this opening is kept for the entire series.
The voice acting was well done in both languages, with the English dub executing a smooth transition among all the many plot nuances that may otherwise translate poorly, particularly during the second half when Nabari becomes a lot more speech-heavy.
This is a standard DVD release by Madman spread across four discs with no physical extras, but you do get textless songs, trailers as well as two episode commentaries by the cast. The latter of which gives us some welcome insight into the show’s characters.
A softer and slower take on the genre, Nabari isn’t your usual ninja show. While the story starts off on uncertain footing, it momentarily finds itself before falling into an emotional quagmire that does the rest of the show no justice.
It’s unfortunate because Nabari really isn’t that bad at all, largely thanks to a solid premise that tries to be different. A bunch of detailed and most importantly no-nonsense fight scenes, which is a rarity in these types of shows. What grabbed me were the genuinely entertaining side characters with intriguing back stories, who were often more fun to watch than the main characters. It’s just a shame that many of them are left forgotten by the end.
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