April 17, 2024

A certain anime franchise

As I mention in my review of Little Witch Academia, the philosophical and legal dilemmas at the center of Captain America: Civil War and the Incredibles are more often than not settled issues in manga and anime. The existence of superpowered individuals is widely known and they work within a regulatory framework.

One-Punch Man is another recent example. When it comes to consistent world building across an entire franchise, I've taken a particular liking to the three anime series based on the light novels by Kazuma Kamachi.

Sharing many of the same characters and storylines, A Certain Magical Index, A Certain Scientific Railgun, and A Certain Scientific Accelerator take place in Academy City. Imagine if every major high school, university, research institute, and corporate lab in the country had extension campuses within the same prefectural boundaries.

This being Japan, students are tested and ranked from zero (no superpowers) to six (out of this world). Following a normal distribution, there are a lot of zeroes and ones, and only seven Fives. Even the Fives are ranked, with Accelerator at the top. The ranks are logarithmic, so similarly ranked espers can still be orders of magnitude apart in their powers.

Espers are seen as "scientific," as distinguished from skills derived from magic. When Index Librorum Prohibitorum (her name derived from the 103,000 forbidden magical books she's memorized) shows up in Academy City with a bunch of sorcerers and miniskirted Catholic nuns in her wake, her presence throws Toma Kamijo's life into turmoil.

Incidentally, the Index Librorum Prohibitorum was an actual list of publications deemed "heretical or contrary to morality." It was revised and updated until 1966, though it contained thousands of volumes, not hundreds of thousands.

As the title makes clear, more than the rest of the franchise, A Certain Magical Index switches back and forth between magical and religious forces or scientific and superpower forces as main drivers of the conflicts. The result is an interesting mix of fantasy and hard science fiction.

Railgun and Accelerator belong almost entirely to the latter genre while half or more of Index could share the same world as The Ancient Magus Bride.

In the second and third seasons of Index, it's the English Reformation redux as the Anglicans and Puritans go to war with the Catholic Church. I get a real kick out of the tossed salad of Western and Eastern religious tropes that show up so often in manga and anime, like Jesus and Buddha sharing a Tokyo apartment in Saint Young Men.

Toma Kamijo, the protagonist in A Certain Magical Index, is actually a negative infinity in the esper superpower rankings. With his right hand, he can negate both magic and esper skills. He seems to be the only one who can do this, which means that all the espers milling about in Academy City create a unique law enforcement problem.

Working alongside the regular police are two additional organizations. "Judgment" is run by the students, who basically form patrol units of glorified hall monitors. Though when the hall monitors have superpowers, they tend to stray outside their jurisdictional boundaries. "Anti-Skill" is comprised of heavily-armed SWAT teams.

But when high-level espers go off the rails, even Anti-Skill can find themselves out of their depth. Then only another Five (or Toma Kamijo) can hope to match them. Kuroko Shirai (a level Four teleporter) is a member of Judgment. She's also roommates with Mikoto Misaka, a level Five, so Mikoto often ends up getting drawn into the fray.

Mikoto has a skill set similar to Magneto in X-Men. Her preferred technique is to propel a coin through a self-generated electric field to hypersonic speeds, hence her "Railgun" moniker.

Despite the proliferation of so many superpowered individuals in Academy City, there is, refreshingly, no one ring to rule them all, no big bad, no supervillain. Accelerator certainly has the potential to step into the role, though his reasoning is that if he really could become the biggest big bad in the world, everybody would leave him alone.

There are, to be sure, a whole bunch of little bads, espers renting out their skills to government and private sector and black market organizations. But they usually play supporting roles to the actual villains. If there is a consistently distinct and identifiable antagonist, it is the academic establishment itself and the accompanying state bureaucracy.

The underlying motivations for these actors come down to ordinary human failings like arrogance, envy, and greed, though A Certain Scientific Accelerator starts out as Magnum Force and turns into the sixth season opening arc of Buffy, where the Scooby Gang resurrects Buffy (with near apocalyptic results in this case).

The crazies aside, they don't perceive themselves as bad people doing bad things. They're too busy filling out grant proposals and delivering papers at conferences to worry about the moral implications of their experiments. Surrounded by so many fascinating labs rats, who can blame them for the odd ethical lapse? Scientific progress justifies all!

Tying the three series together is the kind of underground experiment that the Cigarette Smoking Man from The X-Files would love. It involves the manufacture of 20,000 Railgun clones that have been specifically designed to raise Accelerator's powers to the mythical Level Six through the brute-force use of real-time Darwinian selection.

The fate of the clones draws Mikoto into a no-win conflict with Accelerator, the most powerful level Five in Academy City. When we first meet him, Accelerator is a bona fide sociopath. But not beyond salvation. The terrible things we see him doing were not his idea. But he is the reason the Railgun clones were created.

Mikoto's low point comes when she realizes that fighting the establishment using the "Hulk smash!" approach simply results in one Pyrrhic victory after the next. Wreck a laboratory and they'll build another. The only way to stop these Doctor Frankensteins to make them question the validity of the experiments themselves.

This is when Toma steps in to settle things with a good old-fashioned fist fight, he being the only person who can literally reduce every superhero to his level.

Toma takes so much damage getting close enough to deliver the beat-downs that he's got his own hospital room reserved for him. Luckily for him, he can count the Frog-Faced Doctor as an ally. Also known as Heaven Canceller, the Frog-Faced Doctor can reattach limbs and bring practically anybody back to life as long as they're not stone-cold dead.

Along the way, Toma likely sets some sort of cinematic record for getting into brawls with women. As Arnold Schwarzenegger's Harry Tasker says in True Lies, "Yeah, but they were all bad." Academy City is an equal opportunity employer on both sides of the equation and thus home to some of the more interesting female villains in the genre.

Though as they all eventually discover, defeating someone in physical or supernatural combat doesn't change them unless what gets them up in the morning changes as well. It doesn't help that when you're the top dog, somebody is always trying to take you down a notch.

Accelerator's attempts to resolve his own moral quandaries eventually restores a portion of his humanity when choses to defend the final Misaka clone (known as "Last Order") from yet another mad scientist. Though doing so doesn't make him nice. He's like Spike in Buffy after he gets his soul back.

The substance of the conflict is told from the POV of Toma Kamijo in Index, Mikoto Misaka in Railgun, and then with Accelerator as the main character. The result is often great superhero storytelling without any spandex or the world ending every other week.

One ongoing flaw in Railgun is an odd scripting quirk that frontloads each of the narrative arcs with all the comic relief at once. Granted, this approach quickly dispenses with most of the dumb stuff, after which the narratives turn increasingly dark, at times descending from science fiction into outright horror.

The fan service in Index that gets tossed in at random intervals is no less juvenile, though pretty typical of shonen-oriented content. Accelerator is mostly free of slapstick. I guess Accelerator getting stuck with the chirpy Last Order and her third-person self-references was considered punishment enough.

All of the Misaka clones do this, something to do with their programming. It does help to tell who is a clone and who isn't.

The first five series follow a fairly cohesive narrative, interspersed with standalone arcs. Index begins with Toma meeting Index and explains her relationship to the Church of England. Starting with episode ten, we get an abridged version of the Mikoto Misaka clone arc that is significantly expanded upon in the first season of Railgun.

The first season of Index concludes with a segue to the Accelerator series and then adds a short arc that brings the Anglicans back into the story. Season two returns to the religious wars heating up between Academy City and the Catholic Church and the renegade Amakusa sect.

The Index story arcs at this point can get pretty scattershot. In season two, the best Index episodes are those that feature Accelerator. I think Railgun has better overall consistency in terms of the plotting and writing.

1. A Certain Magical Index (1)
2. A Certain Scientific Railgun (1)
3. A Certain Scientific Railgun (2)
4. A Certain Scientific Accelerator (1 season)
5. A Certain Magical Index (2)
6. The Miracle Of Endymion
7. A Certain Magical Index (3)
8. A Certain Scientific Railgun (3)

The timeline plays out in approximately the above order. Except for Accelerator, the series have two-cour seasons so we're talking about a ton of content. The core of the franchise can be condensed to series 1 – 4. Crunchyroll places The Miracle Of Endymion between seasons two and three in the Index series.

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