Disclosure: Actually posted January 5, 2014, originally scheduled for November 30, 2013 as that month's special "Free/Low-Cost Anime Pick"/anime review hybrid, hence the date.
Review: A Certain Scientific Railgun / S
Alt. Titles: To Aru Kagaku no Railgun / S, Toaru Kagaku no Railgun / S
Official Sites: Japanese [Railgun] [Railgun S], English
Additional Links: ANN Entries [Railgun] [Railgun S], MAL Entries [Railgun] [Railgun S]
Video: Hulu (Japanese w/ English Subtitles, English Dubbed), FUNimation.com
A Certain Scientific Railgun
When jumping into a new series or franchise, it can be difficult to get into it if you are starting off with a sequel or a work later down the line. The same can be true for spinoffs, due to the fact that if a title tries to separate itself from the original or tries to establish its own path, it may still make references or nods to it that may go over the viewer's head (and God-forbid a character from the original shows up with no explanation of who they are or what significance they have…). It is in the midst this where A Certain Scientific Railgun's greatest strength may lie.
The aforementioned is a spinoff series of the popular A Certain Scientific Index, and it focuses on the story of popular supporting character Mikoto Mikasa and her friends. I had little-to-no prior knowledge of Index beyond mentions of it and a few pictures, but the premise of Railgun and the display of Mikoto's nominal electric powers in trailers piqued my interest enough give it a shot, regardless. The series is set in the highly-advanced Academy City, where over 18 million students live and study (and are studied), fostering great minds and those with great esper powers, among whom Mikoto (who is rated at "Rank 5") is #3 among them all. Her and her teleporting roommate/best friend/lustful fanatic Kuroko (a Rank 3) befriend two fellow middle-schoolers from a lower-ranked school, Kazari Uiharu (a Rank 1 and Kuroko's colleague in the student peacekeeping group Judgement) and Ruiko Saten (a powerless Rank 0). As the four girls get entangled in the various on-goings in the giant metropolis, they soon find themselves entrenched in something deeper as previously-powerless students suddenly begin to exhibit powers of their own…
Despite my lack of knowledge of the central franchise, I had no problems getting right into Railgun. The series possesses many positives, but its accessibility is perhaps its best--and most important--one. Save for cameos by Index's two main leads, the story is primarily a self-contained one. It may have to do with it apparently being set before and during the beginning of Index, but Railgun presents itself from the outset like it is its own show, with no attachment to another. Characters are given fresh introductions, the plot and storylines are kept within their own realm, and references to something "beyond" the scope of the series are nil (or at least, they flew over my head, which is good for the uninitiated). Even said cameo by Index's Toma works well within Railgun's story and is kept limited enough to avoid any sense of dissonance (the other cameo, by its titular character, doesn't fare as well, but is kept short-and-sweet enough to feel inconsequential). While a spinoff should not necessarily be beholden to being welcoming to new viewers, it is of good fortune to see Railgun focus on being itself.
It is a bountiful fortune at that, because there is little a barrier to separate viewers from enjoying an excellent show like A Certain Scientific Railgun. The characters play a substantial role in its success, featuring a very likable core of protagonists and side characters and backed by solid acting all around. There very few soft spots, and Rina Satou does a fine job as the tomboy (with a secret love for cute things) Mikoto. However, if there is any one shining star, that would be Satomi Arai, who absolutely chews the scenery as the caring, but deviant, Kuroko. Arai has a very distinctive, almost old-fashioned or upper-class, quality to her voice and a natural and unique sense of comic timing and delivery, to boot. Combine that with Kuroko's outlandish levels of lusting towards and attempts of intimacy with Mikoto, and Arai milks her performance to the last hilarious drop. At the same time, it does not overshadow the other performances, and she both knows when to turn it off and how to apply a more serious or gentle tone.
There exists a nice variety of characters, most of them affable, and even the primary antagonists have particular quirks to them that can make them a kick to watch. None of them may not break the mold in terms of personalities, and the antagonists and "final boss" are somewhat underwhelming, but are not to great detriment. Director Tatsuyuki Nagai may not have any action directorial credentials beyond Railgun and 2007's mecha anime iDOLM@ster Xenoglossia, with most of his resume bereft of such series (he's better known for a few little dramas, such as anohana: The Flower We Saw That Day, Toradora!, and Honey & Clover II), but one would be hard-pressed to believe that given how thrilling and well-choreographed the battle sequences are. They are a real showcase of J.C.Staff's and the staff's talents and effort on the title, given the high level of animation, consistency, special effects, and camera work, which make for some impressive visages of Mikoto's titular weapon, as well as the attacks of others.
Action aside, that attention to quality and consistency permeates throughout the entire series, standing as another one of its best attributes. Visuals go a long way in the presentation of a show like A Certain Scientific Railgun and the effort here aids in enhancing the story's quality and overall feel of the series. For example, in spite of an overarching storyline, the series is more episodic and character-centric, and while the stature of these individual tales are good, the strong animation supplements them with a more "mainline" feel. You won't find a great deal of shortcuts or characters drawn off-model present (as some series may be compelled to do with standalone arcs or episodes).
Nagai's experience as a showrunner on top-rated, dramatic shows is evident when Railgun ventures beyond the action and comedy as more serious matters take place. Instead of being jarring or ill-fitting with all of the fun, it fits naturally within the setting, given the central conflict and the shadowy underpinnings of Academy City. The personal relationships and dilemmas that lie in the show, giving it a reasonable amount of heft, are lucky to have the staff it has behind it, as the series could have fallen flat on its face in convolution and mediocrity, making a mess of itself and spoiling good concepts and characters. Rather, it is a title that is more than able at juggling comedy (from breezy, light fanservice-y type, to aggressive, Kuroko-style slapstick), elements of slice-of-life, drama (plot- or character-driven), kinetic action sequences, and science-fiction (with a few twists) with a seamless, near-flawless ease, overriding whatever negligible flaws it may possess (though some of Kuroko's antics are sure to not fly with everyone). It may be easy to overlook how fully-realized Raligun is across all fronts by how smooth it is as a cohesive whole (without looking "too perfect" or sterile). It is a feat that is even more apparent when watching its follow-up…
A Certain Scientific Railgun S
Debuting three-and-a-half years after its predecessor, 2013's A Certain Scientific Railgun S (a clever title once you watch it) achieves another benchmark for the (sub-)franchise: being able to pick right up from the 2009 series as if no time had pass between productions (though the sequel looks a tad higher-budgeted, which is saying something). It also makes the achievement of not being too hard to watch if you hadn't seen the first Railgun (though one may not gather the full gist or impact of what transpires). However, be forewarned that it is much darker, as well, as Mikoto discovers the ramifications of a decision she made when she was younger when she comes face-to-face with a girl who looks exactly like her…
As such, Railgun S manages to do the impossible: make the likable bunch feel out-of-place--if not unwelcome--when shifting from the dire and life-and-death, to their easygoing, everyday lives for a quick check-in. Their appearances are often too brief to spoil the mood and pace, and primarily exist to keep the story grounded. However, it is amazing both how much and how well the story manages to shift priorities and tone all managing to stay true to itself. Opposing Mikoto is a motley team of like-aged, top-level espers, who are a big step up from what was offered in the previous season on all fronts. They supply the series of those movie-like episodes filled with cat-and-mouse suspense and are led by Shizuri Mizuno--a girl ranked just below Mikoto, biting at the bit to show her and everyone else who's best. Her deadly laser-like powers are a sight to behold in action, but the biggest danger is none other than the #1 ranked esper in Academy City--Accelerator. He is a central figure in the conflict that Mikoto becomes embroiled in, but his nigh-unsurpable level of ability, expertise, and psychopathic nature gives him the rare aura of someone who truly seems unstoppable, which poses a serious dilemma for #3.
Everything that transpires over the course Railgun S' first half (Eps. 1-16), beyond the entertainment value, also serves as a prime vehicle for developing and expanding Mikoto as a person. She is wrung through the emotional wringer and viewers see sides of her yet known, elevating her past "good, but somewhat undynamic" and into one with more facets depth, resulting in a experience that proves to be as rewarding and memorable as the fight scenes themselves. Mikoto's relationship with her friends--from the secret-keeping to the aforementioned dichotomy--serves as the narrative bridge between this and the second half (Eps. 17-24) of the series, but unfortunately, it is here where the series--after over three cours-worth of very solid storytelling--stumbles.
Though considerably less tense and more in-line with the first Railgun, this arc is not too bad in of itself, with Mikoto and her friends encountering a strange little girl who somehow knows her name, and who happens to be connected to something sinister underground. From a message standpoint, it does well in showing Mikoto that she is not alone in her crisis and her friends are there for her, but the series feels like it is straining too hard in ameliorating all of the dark content by being as chipper and upbeat as possible, primarily in the final episodes. Though the series' heart is in the right place and the power of friendship is heartwarming, the moments leading to and within the big finale are too saccharine and "perfect" for their own good. The heavy slavering of sentimentality undermines Railgun S' otherwise-good 2nd half message to the point of rendering it trite (particularly after things "got real" in the first half). The sequel also does not handle the appearance of an Index character well: an intriguing, but vaguely fleshed-out, blonde with near-complete manipulation powers who seemed poised to play a significant role later, but never appears beyond her few early scenes.
Despite the issues of its lesser half, the positives of Railgun S still manage to outweigh them. Some of those can be found there, but the bulk lies in the stronger and more substantive first half. The sequel is still a worthwhile watch as a result, and perhaps even better than the first series in how it framed and executed the story it wanted to tell and in its well-applied intensity. Because the consistency is high between the two--from staff, to plot, to quality--it made sense to review the two seasons together. "Consistency" is another of A Certain Scientific Railgun's best selling points: it is consistently animated at a high level, the direction is top-notch throughout, the screenplay, acting, and score are always dependable, and there is rarely a dull or uninteresting moment or sub-/arc. The first flows into the second very well in spite of the three-year gap--visually and content-wise--and the transition to the darker realm of Railgun S' first half is done in a natural and impactful manner.
Railgun can be likened to a perfect storm of talent, effort, potential, and execution, held together under director Tatsuyuki Nagai's guidence. Even as a spinoff, it stands on its own and is a very solid and very accessible work. Gratefully, the anime is easy to get into, and it can be as fun and fascinating to watch as it can be gripping and tense. It is no small feat for a show to combine elements of comedy, action, drama, and pathos, and cover the spectrum as competently as it does--from a "beach" episode in the first series that provides one of Railgun's relatively few modicums of fanservice (while having fun with the trope and making the outing more warming than expected) to the depths of palpable despair and breathless mayhem of Railgun S. Add together the tantalizing subjects and mysteries of the espers, Academy City, and seedy underground organizations and the way the series twists the concepts of superpowered humans and technology, and you easily have one of the best and most sound sub-/franchises around in A Certain Scientific Railgun.
P.S.: On another note, I am not too big of a fan of FUNimation's localizing of the honorifics the series, both in their subtitles and dub, rendering Kuroko's "Onee-sama" to "Sissy" or Saten-san to "Miss Saten". I surmise that may have been done with furthering its marketability, though forgoing honorifics can be good for flow or are just not vital to keep. I don't believe the localization was needed here because the honorifics carried their distinctions on their own as used in the show and were not vital enough to change. They were, though, and it's just plain awkward hearing/seeing (in subtitles) teen girls address each other in adult (or, in "sissy's" case, old-fashioned) terms, particularly in English (and it is a little odder in the subs, where the names remain in Japanese order) . It doesn't ruin the experience, per se, but it can be a nagging nuisance, at times…