voice cast: Mitsuki Saiga, Rie Kugimira, Daisuke Namikawa, Brina Palencia, and Joel McDonald
director: Kunihisa Sugishima
325 minutes (15) 2009
widescreen ratio 1.78:1
Manga DVD Region 2
[released 5 September]
review by Sarah Ash
Apathetic – that’s the word most people use to describe Miharu Rokujou (Rie Kugimira/ Brina Palencia). The 14-year-old has learned to get by in life by avoiding any kind of involvement with anyone or anything. But he is also the bearer of the Shinra Banshou, a secret jutsu so powerful that all the five ninja clans in present-day Japan are ready to stop at nothing to lay their hands on it. For whoever wields the Shinra Banshou will become ruler of the Nabari world, and be granted unimaginable power – and although that power is graven inside Miharu’s body, he is not yet able to access or control it. The key, it seems, lies within the secret forbidden jutsu scrolls kept hidden in each of the five ninja villages – and so the hunt begins to find them.
However, Tobari (Daisuke Namikawa/ Eric Vale), Miharu’s teacher and protector, wants to seal the Shinra Banshou so it can never be used. Furious with Tobari for concealing the truth about his past from him, Miharu flees to a rival ninja clan, the Kairoshu, to be with another teenager cursed with a secret jutsu: Yoite (Mitsuki Saiga/ Joel McDonald) who, in wielding the lethal Kira technique to kill the Kairoshu’s enemies, has used up his own life force, and is slowly but surely dying. These two misfits form an unlikely alliance when Yoite asks Miharu if he can use the Shinra Bansho to erase his presence when he dies. Once enemies, the two become inseparable as they try to escape the increasingly violent attempts of the other clans to seize Miharu’s power for themselves.
Unfortunately for Miharu and Yoite, politician Tojuro Hattori (Jouji Nakata/ Kent Williams) the leader of the Kairoshu, is a man with a mission in life: he plans to use the Shinra Banshou to change the world and is ruthless enough to stop at nothing to gain control of it.
Part two begins at Alya Academy (the Kouga stronghold), where Miharu and the other young shinobi have been lured, believing that they are to take part in a forum about the state of the Nabari world. It’s a trap, and soon Miharu, Yoite, and the other rivals from Banten and Kairoshu are forced to co-operate to fight for their lives – or be sacrificed as part of the Daya, a forbidden healing art. Terrified for Yoite’s safety, and pushed beyond his limits, the desperate Miharu manages to draw forth the Shinra Banshou from within his body. But now, his cover is blown, and all Tobari’s efforts to protect him seem to have failed, as the Shinra Banshou has a will of his own…
The other young shinobi protecting Miharu have troubled pasts of their own; white-haired classmate Kouchi’s secret is revealed at last in these episodes, and the estranged brother and sister samurai, Raikou and Raimei, are granted a chance of reconciliation. But just as Hattori makes his move against Miharu, Tobari disappears, enemies become unexpected allies, and betrayals and assassinations abound.
Nabari no Ou presents an intriguing scenario of a contemporary Japan in which ninja clans still vie with each other for supremacy, jealously guarding their ancient secret jutsu, whilst unashamedly using modern weaponry and technology to further their ends. Mangaka Yuhki Kamatani is said to be a great fan of Masashi Kishimoto’s Naruto, but in Nabari, rather than creating a slavish homage to the best-known ninja series today, she has devised a tense and exciting drama, complicated by betrayals and bitter rivalries, that is very much her own creation. And even though the theme at the heart of the story is woven around the imminent death of a 16-year-old, the narrative is enlightened by little touches of wry humour (poor Tobari suffers from a form of travel sickness that is exploited to comic effect; Miharu wickedly uses a plaintively cute expression to wheedle what he wants from people, and Raimei has a tendency to end up trailing the wrong person).
I’ve been a little surprised to see that one or two other reviewers have found the conclusion to this series to be disappointing. At the time the anime was being developed, the manga was still ongoing (a frequent occurrence, as happened, for example with the first Fullmetal Alchemist anime) so the team had to make certain creative decisions to round off the series in a satisfactory way. I found the last episodes both gripping and affecting as well, because I had come to care for the characters (something that never happened with High School Of The Dead, which I reviewed at the same time).
The relationship between Miharu and Yoite is touchingly portrayed (and in spite of the merry quips by the voice actors on the #25 commentary about ‘gay ninjas,’ there’s nothing overtly BL in the narrative, to reassure those who can be squeamish about such things and disappoint other viewers who were hoping for more). My only quibble would be with the ‘I’m going to change the world for the better’ motivation that drives Hattori which, even when we’ve been given a glimpse of the traumatic events in his past that have convinced him he must act for the best interests of mankind, still seems over-simplistic.
Nabari no Ou looks wonderful; the character designs by Kazunori Iwakura are faithful to mangaka Yuhki Kamatani’s distinctive originals and the evocation of rural and urban Japan in which they live are beautifully rendered in delicate washes of watercolour and pen strokes. In fact, this is the studio and the team that brought Yun Kouga’s Loveless to anime life so effectively back in 2005. Another bonus is the score which comes from Michiru Oshida, probably best known for her menacing and atmospheric orchestral soundtrack for Fullmetal Alchemist.
At the risk of offending the purists, I have to admit that I prefer the fluid Funimation script and US voice actors to the originals, even though there are many strong seiyuu in the Japanese cast. I found Brina Palencia much more convincing as apathetic Miharu than Rie Kugimira, who sounded a tad too young for 14. Joel McDonald gives a moving performance as the tormented Yoite, capturing the young man’s conflicted emotions. Colleen Clinkenbeard is also impressive as Yae Oda, the leader of Togakushi village.
Part two (episodes 14-26) probably isn’t the best place to start watching Nabari no Ou; to fully enjoy this ninja tale with a modern twist, I advise treating yourself to the whole series and starting at the beginning. A commentary (to episode 25) featuring Brina Palencia and Joel McDonald discussing their characters, and text-less songs make up the disc extras.