25 Apr 2016
Rinka is an ordinary high-school girl living an ordinary life in urban Tokyo until something quite extraordinary happens to her. While cycling home one day she spots a strange sight in the sky - a penguin. A flying penguin, cruising through the sky as happy and carefree as any other bird. Baffled and intrigued by this impossible creature Rinka bikes after it and chases it to a site in the city where the new sights stop being strange and start being outright astonishing - this penguin has arrived at a massive skyborne shoal of glowing, ghostly fish, spiralling through the air as an ethereal ocean.
It's a weird and incomprehensible but eerily beautiful sight, and Rinka finds herself getting up close to it when one of the fish dives down and into her body, passing through it as if it wasn't even there... and soon the same happens to Rinka herself, because when she wakes up the next morning she discovers that she's acquired a superpower. She now has the ability to phase through solid objects and cross any barrier as if it didn't exist. Teenage bodies go through a lot of changes but this is ridiculous! As Rinka struggles to assimilate what's happened to her, the whole of Tokyo is a hubbub of gossip and rumour about crime sprees from perpetrators who've been able to break through any barrier and overwhelm any security with ease - Rinka wasn't the only person in the city to be visited by these strange flying fish and others have been bestowed with special abilities by them too. Thus in a dramatic stroke a new class of people start to arise in Tokyo, people demonstrating extra-sensory perception and powers, "ESP" - espers. As fantastic as the espers are, the phenomenon that has created them is all too human... the ghostly fish have been released by figures with desires to overturn the world and Tokyo, unable to deal with these bizarre new factors, is lurching between haven and havoc. Rinka has found herself plunged into a wild adventure that could determine the fate of the human race itself. That might seem a tall order for a girl whose can't breathe fire or throw lightning bolts and really just never has to worry about forgetting her keys again, but with a sense of justice inculcated in her by her ex-police father and the support of good friends - along with a nightstick with some guts behind it - Rinka will rise to the occasion and become the superheroine that Tokyo both needs and deserves.
Tokyo ESP is a 2014 anime adaptation of the manga by Hajime Segawa. It's the title he moved onto after finishing The Spiritual Beast Ga-Rei (never released in English but available in German from Tokyopop), which had a 2008 animated prequel series Ga-Rei-Zero. The link between the two is visible in the first episode of the Tokyo ESP anime, which begins in medias res as the espers launch their revolution (rewinding back to the start of Rinka's story in a subsequent episode), and is presented in a way that may need some explanation to viewers who are newcomers to Segawa's work. The first episode, rather than introducing our heroine spends a lot of time lingering on Ga-Rei's sisterly demon-slayers Yomi and Kagura as they share some Pocky, along with the members of Paranormal Disaster Countermeasures Division 4... the hapless operatives who were so memorably hacked to pieces in the infamous bait-and-switch opening episode of Ga-Rei-Zero, but who have returned here alive and well. These cameos are clearly intended as shout-out fanservice for readers of Hajime Segawa's previous manga but unfortunately, speaking as someone who actually was a big fan of Ga-Rei-Zero back in the day, I found their reappearance to be off-putting more than anything else. It's a sad case of missing the point of the older anime completely. Amusingly though despite all the trouble they went to in order to bring these characters back to life, you can watch them get slaughtered all over again in the Ga-Rei-Zero trailer that plays when you boot up the second disc of the Blu-Ray set.
Cameos aside, Tokyo ESP does look great - the cityscapes of the metropolis are highly detailed and they definitely merit a Blu-ray edition, particularly with the particle effects of the snowy Christmas at the beginning to the golden horizon of the ghost-fish and other light-sprites of esper powers. As an action anime there are a number of fight scenes which are also handled very well - there's a good variety of esper powers which are used in interesting ways by friend and foe alike, and while episodes nine and ten have a clear slump - evil espers attack Rinka's school and there's an abrupt reversion to panning across still frames with motion-lines at the edge to sugest panic - for the most part the show's duels run quite slickly with a good deal of athletic and energetic combat with complex moves and active movement. Rinka herself is a real trooper - she gets the seven shades of shinola kicked out of her multiple times but even bruised and bloodied you can't keep her down, and you can appreciate her skill developing through both training and fighting as the series progresses. However the stakes of some fights are impaired by how quickly the characters recover - Rinka is literally strangled to death at one point but she's "revived" at the hospital with nary a spot of brain damage; her ally Kyotaro gets impaled through the hand with a sword and physically rips it out to escape the pin, but just spending one episode with a bandage on is enough to recover from such a grievous, crippling injury. It seems inconsistent though - while some characters fast-heal others like Kobushi have to spend half the series recovering from a wound, which I suppose is a handy way of taking her out of the story when there's nothing for her to do.
Despite Rinka's injuries she cleans up well as one of a number of busty thick-thighed girls in low-cut leggy outfits who are quite easy on the eyes, but although designs have plenty of sex appeal proper knicker-flashing fan service itself is actually fairly light - while early manifestations of Rinka's power result in her "noclipping" through her clothes as well as the floor she has Barbie anatomy so it's not all that titillating. The character designs are also the hooks on which to hang multiple movie references scattered across the series. Rinka's dad is quite obviously Hugh Jackman's Wolverine (there's even a scene where he holds extendable batons between his fingers like claws) while the camp bartender at his local is Steven Seagal; the Ghostbusters rock up to birdnap the magical penguin while Murasaki's yakuza father is Gerard Butler as King Leonidas and Murasaki herself at one point gets kitted out in Bruce Lee's renowned yellow Game of Death jumpsuit, complete with nunchaku. Indiana Jones also gets referenced. These do raise a chuckle when you see them but they're just visual references and there's no more depth to them than that, and they're really not frequent enough to make a worthwhile drinking game out of spotting them - if they were planning to do this sort of thing it would have been better to go all-in and throw in references at every possible point.
The appearance of these realistic caricatures alongside more traditional big-eyes-and-small-mouths anime-style designs though is indicative of a serious problem that Tokyo ESP has - this is a show with severe multiple personality disorder. The opening sequence of this show is a bright, happy-go-lucky bounce through golden sunflower fields as colourful ribbons stream through the air while the ending sequence is rusty wrist-slashing thrash metal; Rinka's ally Kyotaro dresses up like a superhero to foil colourful heists before flashing back to him getting gunned down in a foreign civil war; rather ridiculously the villains levitate a container ship over the city and prop it up against the Tokyo Tower like an umbrella stand, but crush dozens of people to paste in the rubble beneath it; a cartoon penguin and a dojo sensei who never gets out of his zip-up panda suit are squawking about while soldiers are having their arms sliced off with arterial spray; while bombs are exploding all over Tokyo, Kyotaro is arguing with a talking pelican; a rotund dwarf of a banana republic dictator waddles in straight out of a Tropico video game and then guns down dozens of civilians in a bloody machine-gun massacre. These constant mood swings leave you in such a spin that it makes you dizzy, and while it's not a problem for the atmosphere of a show to shift over time as the stakes are raised, this is sprung on you multiple times in a single episode, even early on in the series when we're still in the fun-adventure mode before the reveal of the villains' plan at the mid-point. Speaking of Indiana Jones, the Ark of the Covenant shows up... but its presence is so laughably low-key that this momentous artefact is hard to take seriously, which sadly reduces the scale of the drama.
Along with that, the final confrontation is also utterly and inexcusably appalling. it's ended abruptly by a literal deus ex machina from two godly beings... I mean I assume so, they're all glowy at least, although that's all I've got to go on as these interlopers are not even slightly referenced in any of the preceding episodes. This pair then summon a monster - before the screen cuts to black and returns for a quickie denouement a week later, skipping what happened and ignoring it entirely! This is somewhat mitigated in that the original Tokyo ESP manga is being published in English from Vertical Inc. so unlike English readers who never got to see the resolution to Ga-Rei-Zero you can read on to see what happened next in Tokyo ESP, but while I can accept the anime's open ending as an adaptation of an ongoing story, the choked-off climax is nothing short of a slap in the face and an insultingly inept, zero-effort way to finish off the arc of the anime.
The above really left a sour taste in my mouth but nonetheless I have to be fair and defend Tokyo ESP from a separate complaint that's been levied at it. A number of other reviews for Tokyo ESP elsewhere in the media have disparaged the anime as an X-Men rip-off - even the dub cast themselves make the comparison in the commentary tracks - but Rinka's dad's hairdo aside this is really quite unreasonable. Yes, the villain wants his new homo superior to overthrow the weak and helpless normals and rule the world - which was Magneto's motivation in X-Men but it was also Khan's from Star Trek, it's not the newest storyline in the pop-culture canon. The essence of the superpowers wielded by the characters is also fundamentally different - here characters can lose their powers to return to ordinary humanity, and the villains are using a special artefact to grant esper abilities to various established evildoers and ne'er-do-wells specifically to build an army, so whereas in X-Men the opposition to the mutants is unreasoned racist prejudice in Tokyo ESP the espers are a real and dangerous threat and so the opposition to them is more understandable and their problem a little more nuanced. Handily it also goes some way to providing an excuse for why some of the evil espers want to kill for nothing other than the sheer moustache-twirling bastardy of it - in other shows it'd be lazy writing but in Tokyo ESP the scenario ingeniously lets them get away with it as they were deliberately sought out as the edgiest psychopaths in the city.
Tokyo ESP is a mixed bag. As an action anime it acquits itself well with multiple well-drawn fight scenes and it looks good doing it in both the background art and the foreground animation. The story is weaker and for all its clumsy lurches into tragedy it lacks the poignancy that made its companion Ga-Rei-Zero so memorable, but for some undemanding action entertainment it's worth looking up.