Released back in 2009, the first series of A Certain Scientific Railgun had the notable distinction of not only matching the high-standard set by its parent series A Certain Magical Index, but actually bettering it. By ditching many of the wordy monologues and introducing a far more likeable cast, Railgun took the best bits of Index and crafted them into a show that was smarter and slicker on almost every count. No surprises then that Railgun nabbed itself a second season in 2013, bringing back its lovable cast for more of the same top-tier action.
Picking up where season one left off, we’re quickly re-introduced to titular ‘Railgun’ Misaka, twin-tailed Kuroko, and stylish, perpetually genki gal-pals Saten and Uiharu. The cast was always one of the biggest allures for the Railgun series, and they remain as likeable as ever here. Even side characters and villains are well-developed, the show quickly fleshes out memorable personalities and ensures a general all-round ‘ensemble cast’ feel. Meaning that, while Misaka is resolutely the main character here, everyone gets their time in the spotlight.
Chief of all is the simple fact that Railgun remains a show where female characters are given real agency. While it’s hard to ignore the fact that the show’s camera remains firmly fixed at skirt level, lingering over thighs for uncomfortably long periods of time, it’s always played off against the fact that Misaka and co. actually kick butt and determine their own destinies. Nobody is telling them what to do except themselves.
It’s in this context that we follow Misaka down an increasingly dark rabbit-hole, containing twisted science and shadowy revelations, and discovering once and for all just what those bizarre ‘sister’ clones of hers are all about. When the truth comes, we’re made to feel every ounce of Misaka’s pain, and her final conflict with rival ESPer ‘Accelerator’ has real weight and emotional payoff to it (not to mention a brilliant cameo by Index main character Kamijou Touma).
There’s something about the way the series carries itself, effortlessly juggling slice of life material with slick techno-thriller hijinks, that really speaks to its inherent quality. Aided by a sharp, propulsive, soundtrack that feels every bit as crisp as the animation work, we’re left with a show that oozes ‘Quality’ from every pore. This goes right down to the slightly smug sense of self-satisfaction all the characters seem to possess - everyone of them is an ‘Elite’, breezing through life with an airy devil-may-care attitude as they boast of their abilities. Nipping from trendy cafes to high-octane battles, everything remains a fantastic romp, a power-trip lifestyle that’s the very opposite of everyday school drudgery. It should come as no surprise that the boom of ‘magical high school’ Light Novels that followed in the wake of Index and Railgun is said to have been heavily inspired by the Harry Potter series and its general feel of plummy boarding school antics.
All told, the simple truth is that Railgun is a real pleasure to watch. While so many of the magical high school imitators that followed have floundered, via a combination of weak production quality, poor pacing and bland characters, Railgun nails everything with a flourish. We talked a little about the quality of the animation before, but there really is a remarkable level of polish to the visuals - crisp lines and incredibly detailed background art lending the world and its characters a real degree of immersiveness.
If there’s anything holding Railgun back, it’s that it rarely steps outside its comfort zone. Having mastered its particular niche of school-life mixed with high-stakes action, it feels content to stick to its guns - throwing out endless variations on the same theme. The sharp pacing keeps everything flowing nicely, but the padding is there if you go looking for it. Where the first season proceeded very clearly through a number of short arcs, season two attempts to tell a longer, more inter-connected story. There are still plenty of side-stories and diversions, but in opting for a broader scope the second season arguably loses some of the snappiness that made season one so exciting.
Taken as a whole, A Certain Scientific Railgun feels like it wears its status as both trailblazer and bar-setter with pride - safe in the knowledge it has yet to be beaten when it comes to magical high school anime adaptations. The smug focus on a society defined by power-levels won’t be to everyone’s taste, but it’s easy to see why the show has become a firm favourite amongst fans. Besides, if you can persuade a friend to watch with you, why not invite them to play a drinking game where you knock one back every time Kuroko calls Misaka ‘sissy’...