By its pilot: Night Raid 1931

Night Raid 1931: Shanghai noir
Year: 2010
Director: Matsumoto Jun
Seiyū: Namikawa Daisuke (as Iha Kazura); Yoshino Hiroyuki (Miyoshi Aoi)

Initial research:
> This caught my eye on the Right Stuf holiday sale and I almost bought it on the description alone, but decided to actually look up a few things first. Lo and behold, I see a familiar icon under the header image on ANN. “Holy shit it’s on crunchyroll.” Instead of spending money, let’s make this curiosity productive.
> The protagonists I know from little else; Hakuōki strikes again (Yoshino played possibly my least favorite of all the characters in that thing). I did notice Katsu Anri below the fold because earlier I was looking up Nile Dok on the SnK wiki for, ahem . . . reasons. Just, don’t worry about it. And MOM DON’T YOU DARE GO TO THAT WIKI.

Summary: A guy with a gun is sneaking around in the fog at night when he hears violin. Really shitty violin. Aoi is playing atop a building, taunting said guy with gun. Aoi has been tracking him because gun guy is in with Liu, “the local warlord”, who is suspected to be involved with the kidnapping of one Kaburagi, a Japanese businessman. When gun guy asks if Aoi is with the Japanese army—which is a pretty dumb question because, just a guess, suits with pink button-ups are not standard military garb—his answer is, “eh, more or less”. Gun guy fires at point-blank range, but the bullets just fall to the ground, and Aoi dangles him over the edge of a building.

Cut to a little historical exposition: Shanghai, “The Devil’s City”, “city of spies”, etc etc. After gunshots sound from elsewhere, two very gentlemanly dudes and a chick begin tailing a suspicious vehicle; Natsume (who has impossibly good eyesight) believes it may contain Kaburagi and two captors. When it stops, Yukina (the chick) strolls right on up, because that’s not suspicious, and it promptly explodes.

Ms. Fanservice Yukina

Ms. Fanservice Yukina

While Aoi blows past on his old-timey motorbike, Kazura dives into the river after a boat containing dubious activities. As Chinese Electric Batman Kazura beats down on one of the bad guys, Aoi appears on a bridge and honks for Kazura’s attention, before driving off the bridge (i.e. into the river) for enough momentum to catch up with the boat. Thanks to his superpower, Aoi dodges more bullets, knocking out the second of three men with a pipe (the goddamn motorbike took care of the first), while Kazura deals with the last sans weapons or superpowers. Kaburagi is not among them.

Kazura, kicking ass

The team later regroups with Sakurai, their boss man and possible Ghibli villain. Yukina has been using telepathy to squeeze information out of the three decoys, discovering a hideout of Liu’s forces and likely also Kaburagi’s location. Sakurai lets them in on an interesting development. Liu (who opposes the ruling Nationalist Party in China) had been demanding the Japanese army surrender its weapons to them; now they just want money. And they’re not asking for money from the Kaburagi Conglomerate (sounds moneyed, no?), but from the Japanese government. Hmm. . . .

Their infiltration plan starts with Natsume scoping out the complex from across the river and shooting glow-in-the-dark goop at the roof of a building. The guys with the most skill points in melee (Aoi and Kazura) will parachute in under cover of night; Natsume’s eagle eyes will monitor the situation while Yukina gets in everyone’s heads to communicate what Natsume sees. A short conversation between Aoi and Kazura on the plane before they drop in reiterates Kazura’s general unwillingness to use his power, whatever it is, unless absolutely necessary. (Aoi thinks this kinda sucks.)

Upon landing, the infiltrators are suddenly wearing uniforms that match Liu’s men, walking around speaking (obviously stilted) Chinese because just act natural, guys. They casually carry a covered food tray up to Kaburagi’s room, where Aoi immediately accuses him of making a deal to provide Liu with weapons. There’s not much the old man can argue with, but the team’s objective stands. They knock out Kaburagi and proceed to carry him right past the guards, claiming he collapsed and they’re taking him to a medic.

An alarm sounds soon after, and as they’re chased Aoi activates his forcefield powers, redirecting bullets away and blasting guys’ feet when they get too close to Kaburagi. They manage to take cover in an unoccupied building just as Aoi runs “out of time”—his powers only work for a short time each session. But an explosion levels their only exit; the Nationalist Party has arrived and is bombing the crap out of the complex. It’s finally time for Kazura to use his power. Yukina hops out of her perch to drive up to the riverbank, headlights clearly visible across the way; Kazura needs to be able to see his destination. Using explosions as waypoints, he teleports them to safety. (Aoi thinks this is the fucking greatest.)

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Safe in the city again, Aoi speaks with Sakurai, correctly guessing it was he who had clued the Nationalists in on the location of Liu’s forces; “it’s easier to attack from both sides”. He asks if everyone who saw them use their powers will be killed. Sakurai equivocates but it seems like yeah, probably most of them will. Aoi protests but Sakurai diplomatically shuts him up. Their powers are a government secret, and by golly it’s going to stay that way.

Genre: action, spies, historical, supernatural
Notable tropes: Conspicuous CG, Dressing as the Enemy, Fanservice, Government Agency of Fiction, Gratuitous Foreign Language, The Handler.

The review part: The art is muted and dark; the backgrounds and settings are realistically gritty, while the character designs are still very clearly anime-istic, bordering on bishounen on some. I still felt no visual dissonance. From the characters and their bearing to the settings and the atmosphere, it all had a sense of sophistication and sincerity.

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The presentation is humbly cinematic, chock-full of tatami shots, stark profiles, and off-balance framing that’s as intriguing as it is charming. There is a point where Aoi is speaking while his face is partially blocked by another character’s head; as the camera tracks toward him, nearly revealing his face, he leans forward, obscuring him again. Another shot shows Yukina from only the chin up, the top half of the screen filled with a background of latticework. And during the discussion between Aoi and Sakurai, it cuts to a “camera” in the background, muffling their lines accordingly. It’s little things like this that make the story feel more real, like it would exist whether or not it has an audience.

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Music is used somewhat sparingly—and to high effect. Its lack of presence often builds more tension than tense music would. Many scenes, including the opening sequence, are silent but for delicate foley work. But what music there is, it’s fantastic. An early exposition scene is overlaid with music featuring traditional Chinese instruments that are evocative of place and time and almost nostalgic. (The downside: it’s synthetic. A real bummer since many of the other orchestral pieces are on real acoustic instruments. Any one of those violinists probably could have picked up an erhu and faked enough proficiency to record a single theme, but hell, what do I know.) A car chase features orchestral scoring in middle tones, heightening unease and diminishing melodrama in the same way the off-kilter visual style does. And later action sequences feature rock-inspired, electronic, and/or jazzy Kanno Yoko-esque tunes that, like the overall tone and focus on superpowered espionage, continue to call to mind Darker than Black.

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The voice acting is as subdued as the art and music. The actors aren’t performing as much as having discussions that sound personal and natural. (The exception: several forced bouts of laughter from Yoshino, who is otherwise impressive.) As people the characters seem to get along fine, but they’re not that familiar and are just getting used to each other’s quirks. Aoi prods Kazura multiple times about using his power, and Kazura pushes back, scolding Aoi for relying on his own too much, especially given its limits. After realizing that seeing these powers will probably get plenty of innocents exterminated, Kazura’s stance makes a lot more sense. Natsume and Yukina, however, may be closer than the rest. He calls her ojousama, a very very formal way of addressing a young lady, indicating that he respects her highly, and possibly even defers to her as a servant.

For the most part the script doesn’t hit you over the head with storytelling, instead allowing the characters to speak intimately with each other; as a viewer you can piece it together if you so choose. The show doesn’t care. When Yukina uses the car’s headlights to give Kazura—jesus, I almost wrote Katsura, too much fucking Gintama lately . . . when Yukina gives Kazura a destination to aim for whilst teleporting, we realize that this is what Aoi was doing on the bridge when they were chasing Kaburagi’s decoys. Though honestly, I wouldn’t have caught that if I’d only watched it once. He doesn’t quite stand around long enough for the audience to wonder what he’s waiting for, so it’s not a hanging thread if you don’t connect the dots. But it’s a nice detail if you do.

(Aaand on like my tenth viewing I finally noticed that his power is why the car explosion leaves Yukina unharmed. She even alludes to it, how much was I not paying attention to have missed this? HE CAN CONTAIN FIRE YOU GUYS.)

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There are a lot of non-Japanese lines (indicated by angle brackets), so the creators seem to be going for authenticity here, rather than just pretending that everyone can understand each other easily. Still . . . they really oughtn’t be speaking Mandarin. (I know it is Mandarin because I enlisted the help of the dude roommate, who studied Mandarin through college.) As I understand it, Mandarin is the lingua franca across China today, but it didn’t rise to that status until after the People’s Republic of China was formed in 1949. People in Shanghai today typically speak Shanghainese (go figure), and that would have been even more true in 1931. So . . . yeah. The linguistic anthropologist in me is intrigued as to why they made this choice. Maybe only Mandarin speakers were available to the production team. Maybe there aren’t many Shanghainese speakers immigrating to Japan and are thus just unavailable as a whole. Maybe the Japanese just prefer the sound of Mandarin. These are all things. It could just be me nitpicking, but it was too curious to let go.

Cheese factor: Absent. Except perhaps for some eyeroll-inducing fanservice shots.
Reminds me of: Darker than Black, as its spiritual prequel. Baccano! possibly, but I saw one episode like five years ago so that’s entirely speculative.

Overall: [5]. The fact that it’s so few episodes (thirteen and a few OVAs) is a huge factor, but I’m positive I’ll finish this one. There’s a lot to learn here; the cinematography is too gorgeous and the writing is too subtle not to continue, if even your only interest is scholarly (not to say historical). Full disclosure, I did end up purchasing it. Shut up—it was a really good sale.

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