Ushio & Tora Complete Collection (Cert 15)
5 Discs Blu-ray/8 Discs DVD (Distributor: Animatsu Entertainment) Running time: 975 minutes approx.
The recently released film The Boy And The Beast tells of the unlikely bond between a young human lad and a monstrous being, but this premise isn’t entirely original. We have to go way back to 1990 and Kazuhiro Fujita’s manga Ushio & Tora for an earlier example of this curious dichotomy.
Ushio Aotsuki is a 14 year-old boy always willing to put others before himself. When his priest father Shigure goes away on a trip, Ushio is tasked with cleaning out an old storage shed, in which he finds a trap door he didn’t know existed, leading to a cellar where Ushio finds a large beast impaled to the wall by a spear.
The angry creature is a dangerous yokai, trapped by the cursed Beast Spear for 500 years to prevent further carnage against the humans. The yokai tries to persuade Ushio to free him, promising to eat if him when he does. Ushio is forced to comply when the yokai’s pent up miasma attracts other yokai to the temple and attack Ushio’s friends.
Much to his surprise, the Beast Spear reacts to Ushio transforming him into a longhaired warrior of immense power. The unexpected alliance of human boy and human hating beast – whom Ushio names Tora due to him resembling a tiger – instantly proves a successful team against the rampaging yokai.
It sounds like every other shonen fantasy show and indeed one can see the DNA of shows like Bleach, Naruto and even One Piece in a lot of Ushio & Tora’s fabric, but Fujita and series writer Toshiki Inoue aren’t about to rest on such conventional laurels. The manga was originally animated as a short OVA series in 1992-93 but this 39-episode adaptation from Studio VOLN from 2015 is the first to tackle the whole saga.
At first there is nothing exceptional about it, mainly down to the “monster of the week” formula of the opening six or seven episodes that show no desire to expand upon the enticing premise. Considering the series length, there is a sense of dread engendered that it will follow this path for the entire run but as it transpires, this is being a bit hasty.
The greatest trick is misleading us into thinking these early adventures are simply designed to eke out the comedy mileage from this odd couple union. The truth is that the people they encounter and save in these stories return later on to play a significant part in the pivotal events en route to the emotionally driven climax.
Patience therefore is the key; even if the early episodes fail to impress, the reward will come in due course. Outside of more serious and darker shows like Death Note or Code Geass, I can’t think of any shonen series that is so rich in its depth and plotting that even the smallest detail remains an intrinsic facet throughout, a testament to the inventiveness of Fujita.
With 39 episodes to play with, there is plenty of time to explore the history and bespoke mythos of the world of humans and yokai, along with in depth backstories of main and secondary characters. Ushio’s tendency to help others is both his strongest trait and weakness since he cannot avoid trouble, but why should the Beast Spear react to him? His idler father doesn’t seem to have any answers and his mother is dead.
But wait – is she really dead? After one victory, Ushio is cursed by his fallen yokai adversaries, revealing she is still alive. Ushio demands answers from his father and what follows is the beginning of a complex and intricate tapestry of magic and intrigue, the expansive history of which takes in Japanese and Chinese folklore, and Buddhist teachings that extend beyond Ushio himself.
Moving forward the adventures involve time travel, spiritual possession, brain washing, sacrifice, scientific experiments, genetic mutation and much more. The world of the yokai and the humans begin to bleed over into one another, inspired by the Ushio/Tora partnership, as a greater force of evil becomes a common enemy but not without long held prejudices and antipathies between the two sides being addressed first.
The relationship between the two central protagonists is very much the show’s anchor, developing exponentially across the whole series run. A change of heart and attitude is inevitable but one delightful aspect of Tora’s character is that he doesn’t alter overnight, maintaining his disdain towards humans and his desire to eat Ushio right up to the end.
Ushio might seem a typical shonen hero but he endures way more than most do on a physical, emotional and psychological scale. He pontificates a lot about kindness, the pain of sacrifice and the importance of friendship, and sees and experiences things a lad his age shouldn’t but his heart remains true.
In turn the support cast are also allowed to grow, giving the young females prominent roles beyond their initially suspected harem fodder duties. This all converges to provide the show with a deep vein of emotional resonance as tragedy and heartbreak rips relationships apart as much as it brings other together.
The character designs are beholden to the early 1990’s aesthetic but it’s easy to acclimatise. The blend of CGI and 2D animation is seamless, while still frames are common but not overwhelming, whilst the artwork is stunning in HD, bringing out the best of the fantasy elements and yokai creations.
I honestly can’t remember the last time I watched a fantasy series that made me feel I had been on the same emotional rollercoaster journey as the characters like Ushio & Tora did. The opening episodes deceive in setting the tone for the future but once it picks up, there is no turning back.
How this franchise remained under the radar for so long is a mystery but this release puts that right. A truly epic action adventure saga that has everything from laughs and tears to chills and thrills. An absolute gem!
English Language 2.0 Dolby TrueHD
Japanese Language 2.0 Dolby TrueHD
Disc 5 Only (Blu-ray):
Clean Opening Animation
Clean Closing Animation
Japanese Promo Videos
Rating – **** ½
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