Ushio & Tora Anime Review
Ushio to Tora
Ushio and Tora
US Release By
10 25-minute episodes + one SD episode
1992-09-11 - 1993-08-01 (SD Theater 1993-10-01)
What's In It
- Plucky Spear-Wielders
- Electrifying Tiger Monsters
- Blood n Gore
- Questionable Fatherly Advice
- Chinese Magician Sealers
- Super-Deformed Eye-catches
- A Barber's Worst Nightmare
- Violence: 3 (significant)
- Nudity: 1 (mild)
- Sex: 1 (mild)
- Language: 2 (moderate)
500 years ago, a demon terrorized the innocent peasants of Japan. The people were in dire need of assistance until one day a samurai with the legendary Beast Spear challenged the monster. They fought for four days and four nights. On the fifth day, the stranger pinned the demon to a boulder with the Beast Spear, trapping but not killing him. Knowing this was the best he could do, the samurai became a monk and built a temple over the monster, thus sealing it.
Ushio Aotsuki is the decedent of that monk... and he couldn't care less. He just doesn't believe the story. But on one fateful day while cleaning the storage room of his family's temple, Ushio finds the infamous monster himself! The built-up anger and hatred of the demon is released, attracting monsters from all around. In a desperate attempt to solve the problem, he frees the demon to employ his help. However, 500 years of captivity tends to make one a tiny bit disgruntled. Without missing a beat he attacks Ushio, only to discover the reawakened power of the Beast Spear merging with Ushio's body. Fearing the Beast Spear, he agrees to help Ushio but promises himself that he will eat the boy one day. Our hero promises himself he will kill the demon, whom he names Tora. Thus, the ultimate buddy series has begun!
Quick ReviewSwitch to Full Review
Somewhere between hack-and-slash action and a buddy comedy with a twist of anime wackiness, Ushio & Tora is a hard series to pin down. Though the plot is predictable and has some rough spots, the Japanese mythological tie-ins and character development keep it interesting, and the cast hold it all together--a mix of appealingly down-to-earth types and humorous supporting characters. The manga's character designs do not initially translate well to animation but thankfully the look of the show steadily improves in every episode. The Japanese cast settle into their roles nicely but the same can't be said of the dub, which outside of Tora is a disappointment.
In all, Ushio & Tora has a unique blend of violent action, drama and comedy. You'll have to accept a few hokey plot elements, but as long as you don't mind bloody anime that has some intelligence, then Ushio & Tora is worth a chance.
Full ReviewSwitch to Quick Review
Ushio & Tora is kind of hard to pin down. It's downright bloody and gory at times, so fans of violent anime will likely get something out of it. However, the series incorporates a fair amount of humor, so those who lean towards comedic anime may find themselves enjoying how funny and surprisingly clever U&T can be. As someone who falls in the overlapping area, I feel the show has a lot more to offer than its weak North American marketing suggests.
What I like best about Ushio & Tora is that it continually improves itself. At the onset, the show doesn't look terribly impressive. Though true to the manga, the distinctive character designs don't translate well to animation initially, with Ushio in particular looking a bit crude in the first episode. While a little cheaply-animated overall, there are tangible improvements in each subsequent episode; the animation gets cleaner, character movements become smoother and more consistently modeled, and each battle the duo enter (or have with each other) is better than the last. While Ushio looks a little odd at first, Tora's design is unique and interesting from the get-go, and the animators have him move with purpose to convey how intelligent yet feral and dangerous he can be. Tora's face is arguably more expressive than the human characters, which helps convey the antagonistic dynamic he shares with Ushio.
The relationship between the two main characters is portrayed quite well and does a respectable job anchoring the series. My favorite aspect of the writing is how it grows the unspoken mutual respect that forms between the two leads throughout the 10 episodes. One would not expect a 14-year-old kid and a centuries-old monster to have much in common, but each proves he has a lot to teach and learn from the other, however begrudgingly. Ushio's kind heart and desire to help people befuddles Tora, especially when Ushio asks for help instead of commanding it, or genuinely thanks him for saving his friends. I also enjoy U&T's sense of humor, particularly the way the two leads are always at each other's throat. Even a simple gag such as Ushio clocking Tora over the head remains funny throughout. The best jokes tend to come at Tora's expense, especially when he ventures into the city for the first time and experiences one helluva culture shock.
My least favorite aspect of the writing involves how supporting and incidental characters react to witnessing or being involved in supernatural events. Ushio's childhood friends Asako and Mayuko pass off their first encounter with fish and bug monsters as a dream. Although Mayuko eventually wises up to what's happening, Asako continues to interpret further encounters as dreams. When you get kidnapped by a demon you unknowingly freed as a child or swallowed up by a gargantuan sea serpent, it's time to get a clue. Some of the monsters Ushio has to fight wreak havoc in the middle of the streets, but at best people guess that they must be filming a movie.
There are other instances of laziness in the script as well. Ushio never has to explain to his father why he freed Tora, because the man is never around. His father mentions in the first episode that he's leaving for a week, but there is no way the series takes place over just seven days. Tora clearly states that he will kill Ushio the second he lets the Beast Spear get away from him, but before long Ushio walks around defenseless in Tora's presence, and he does nothing. Other examples include Ushio all but looking right at the camera lens while delivering an environmental message or winning a desperate fight through deus ex machina. None of these flaws are terribly unusual for a show like this, but they are too noticeable to ignore.
The series is made up of standalone episodes and, later, two-part storylines, with each story focusing on a very different antagonist. Ushio and Tora fight against a variety of yokai, including a demon that inhabits rotating objects and five disembodied heads seeking revenge. Some of the monsters appear to be original creations while others, such as the Kamaitachi siblings, are based on actual Japanese mythology. Not every opponent Ushio and Tora face are truly evil. In some cases the monster in question needs to be stopped dead, but in other episodes the antagonists are sympathetic characters. I thought it was interesting how Ushio tries to relate to those characters and what's happening with normal human experiences instead of drawing from some overly complicated and tragic past.
There are several key moments during the standalone stories that help advance Ushio and Tora's character development, and there are enough references to past events to make the series feel like a continuous story. I particularly enjoyed how the strengths of both characters are used. Sometimes Tora is more effective at fighting and killing the enemy, while other times he needs to rely on Ushio (much to his chagrin). Ushio and Tora's relationship is not the only one that gets developed, either. While Asako is oblivious, both she and Mayuko become more interesting and engaging characters. I found myself liking the idea of Ushio getting closer to Asako, though not as much as Asako's father, who all but encourages the two to hit the sack. Although the anime doesn't have a definitive ending, the slicker animation, richer music and heightened drama in the last two episodes provide something of a finale to the series.
The Japanese dialogue features decent dramatic and amusing comedic acting, and the voice cast end up settling into their roles nicely after a couple episodes. Nozomu Sasaki is a little overblown as Ushio at times, but he's generally likable and plays off Chikao Ohtsuka's Tora well. Both Asako and Mayuko rise to the task when their characters are put in the spotlight, and Daisuke Gori is entertaining as Asako's dirty-minded father. There are a variety of cameos from prolific older voice actors as the various episodic characters: the late Kaneto Shiozawa, a grieving, angry Norio Wakamoto, and an impassioned Kazuki Yao, to name a few. Getting back to Tora, his arrogant and nasty personality is well represented through his distinctive voice. Ohtsuka's performance is also subtle when it comes to representing Tora wrestling with his old life and the more human feelings he starts to develop.
Although I'm glad Brett Weaver finally got the chance to fully voice Tora,1 and I enjoyed his take on the character, I was pretty disappointed with the dub overall. The production feels very unpolished; the pronunciation of Japanese names and terms is especially bad. The script is noticeably weak and awkward, resulting in cadences that are all over the place. Randy Sparks sounds like he wants to have fun as Ushio, and he has his moments during scenes with Tora, but for some reason his character is given the weakest dialog in an already weak script. More often than not he sounds like he's really struggling. The supporting and episodic characters are not strong either. For example, Asako sounds too old and Ed Paez does not effectively carry Hyou's inner pain and torment. The dub starts sounding a little better in episodes 9 and 10, but by then it's too little too late. Getting back to Tora again, Weaver really chews on his character's lines and does a good job representing how sinister Tora can be. Not to mention he's funny; the dub is actually worth listening to during the fifth episode when Tora ventures into the city alone.
Shiro Sagisu's mostly-synthesized score is actually memorable. There is a certain "sharp" quality to the compositions that fits the animation style really well, and the last two episodes incorporate some good orchestral scores. The first opening, Brave Fighter, is a little broad and cheesy, but decent, as is the first ending theme. The second opening, titled The Beast Spear, is more effective in instilling a feeling of excitement before each episode. However, I found myself bored with the slow-moving second ending song.
Ushio & Tora is not perfect, but overall I think it's a bit of an overlooked gem. The stories are entertaining, with interesting bad guys and likable supporting characters. Even better, instead of variable or even declining animation quality, U&T keeps looking a little better with every episode. However, at the end of the day it's the engaging characterization of its two leads that make this series appealing. If you're one of the many fans who have written Ushio & Tora off over the years, I strongly suggest giving it a chance if you like action comedies and don't mind seeing some bloody violence. You might be surprised!
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Aesthetically this series is reminiscent of 3×3 Eyes, which has its share of bloody monster fighting, and if you like Japanese mythology in anime, give the less-violent Blue Seed a look. Devilman might also work for older bloody demon action. The beginnings of this series and the original Tenchi Muyo OVAs have some similarities, but the shows soon take separate paths. For a much more innocent take on a story of a boy and his electrified animal companion, try the incredibly long-running Pokemon.
Notes and Trivia
This anime is based on some early chapters of Kazuhiro Fujita's manga of the same name. The manga ran from 1990-1996, spanning a total of 33 volumes. Though mostly made of standalone stories, the story arcs become longer towards the end. One ongoing story involves Ushio searching for his mother, whom he thought had passed away.
Ushio & Tora won the shounen category of the Shogakukan Manga Award in 1992, which is a major award for manga in Japan and has been awarded to serialized manga since 1955.
Though usually presented as bonus material these days, the Comically Deformed Theatre (Ushio to Tora - Komikaru Deforume Gekijou / うしおととら コミカル・デフォルメ劇場) was released two months after the 10th episode and in Japan was sold as a regular tape just like the previous episodes.
The Comically Deformed Theatre is essentially an expanded version of the humorous eye-catches seen during the regular episodes. The half-hour episode is made up of three parts and for what it is, it's basically perfect. The first story involves Ushio trusting a seemingly benign monster, the second story is about Tora taking care of a kitten and the audio for the third story is done in silent movie style, complete with title slates for dialog. There are all kinds of clever little touches, such as the goofy way Ushio's hair grows when he merges with the spear, or how the eye-catches feature cool looking animations done in the show's regular style as a reversal of the super deformed eye-catches seen during the normal episodes. The CD Theatre knows just how to poke fun at the series, especially the hilarious and spot-on parody of the first opening animation and the cute story-ending credit themes.
The dub recorded for the ADV DVD is not the first time ADV attempted to dub Ushio & Tora. The company released the first two episodes dubbed on VHS a couple years after the subtitled version, but presumably due to low sales the dub was dropped. Years later a full dub production was greenlit for the DVD and the first two episodes were completely redubbed. The original VHS dub is quite rare but I have it, and that dub is also problematic. Randy Sparks sounds less awkward as Ushio, I liked Jessica Calvello a little more as Asako, and Weaver is still good as Tora. There are some really bad voices for supporting characters, however, especially Asako's father, and I vaguely remember some odd Western cultural references in the script that didn't really fit.
Footnote 1: In old pre-2000 interviews with Brett Weaver, he consistently named Tora as one of his favorite characters and Ushio & Tora as one of his favorite shows that he worked on at the time. He always expressed interest in completing the show, and he sounds enthusiastic to finally be voicing the character across the entire series. Though this is an assumption on my part, that enthusiasm must have helped him rise above a lot of the dub's problems.
US DVD Review
Not unlike the dub, the production of this DVD set feels rushed and unpolished. The video is encoded from the same masters ADV used to produce the VHS version back in the day, so the picture has a rougher and somewhat unstable look and carries over the couple video glitches I remember from the tapes. The Japanese mix largely sounds fine except for a loud distortion in the audio during the last episode. The English mix doesn't have the distortion but the voices are mixed a little too aggressively. The extras include a series of dubbing outtakes and of course the hilarious Comically Deformed Theatre (fully bilingual, at that). The biggest problem with the set is the lack of quality assurance as there are a number of presentation problems on the second disc that are quite noticeable. I'll summarize as follows:
• On the VHS tapes there is a preview for episode 8 that is absent on the DVD but was clearly meant to be included. During the English credit scroll at the very end of episode 10 after the original ending, the English dubbed audio for that preview can be heard if you have that track selected.
• On the VHS tapes there is a preview for episode 9 that is absent on the DVD but was clearly meant to be included. During the English credit scroll at the very end of episode 8 after the original ending, the English subtitle translation and corresponding English dubbed audio for that preview can be seen and heard depending on your language selections.
• On the VHS tapes, there is a montage of the Comically Deformed eye-catches at the very end of the Comically Deformed Theatre episode that is absent on the DVD but was clearly meant to be included. The DVD cuts to the English credit scroll just after the characters say "Omake" but the audio for the eye-catch montage can be heard if you have the Japanese track selected.
ADV has it rated 15+ due to graphic violence. If you're a parent, I suggest previewing episodes 5 and/or 6 for some of the more extreme levels of blood and gore found in the show.
Violence: 3 - Ushio loses buckets of blood and a lot of people are violently killed.
Nudity: 1 - Asako and Mayuko are briefly naked, though not fully exposed, in the second episode, and later on both are seen in swimsuits.
Sex/Mature Themes: 1 - Despite the urges of Asako's father, Ushio and Asako's relationship is innocent enough.
Language: 2 - A bit more significant on the VHS, but the subtitles were revised and cleaned up a little for the DVD.
Staff & Cast
Original Japanese Cast
Ushio Aotsuki: Nozomu Sasaki
Tora: Chikao Otsuka
Asako Nakamura: Yuri Amano
Mayuko Inoue: Yumi Touma
Shigure Aotsuki: Takeshi Aono
Asako's Father: Daisuke Gori
Asako's Mother: Mami Matsui
Ishikui: Hirao Egawa
Hyou: Norio Wakamoto
Tsubara: Kaneto Shiozawa
Old Man: Reizou Nomoto
Mikado Hizaki: Wakana Yamazaki
Gamin: Yukimasa Kishino, Mika Hagimori, Wakana Yamazaki, Shinichiro Oota, Ryutarou Ohiayu
Tatsuya: Tomoko Maruo
Umizota: Joji Yanami
Juro: Kazuki Yao
Raishin: Sho Hayami
Kagari: Hiromi Tsuru
Cast for Ushio and Tora SD Theatre
Ushio Aotsuki: Nozomu Sasaki
Tora: Chikao Otsuka
Asako Nakamura: Yuri Amano
Mayuko Inoue: Yumi Touma
Akaname: Shigeru Chiba
Shigure Aotsuki: Takeshi Aono