Youkai! Anime is full of these traditional Japanese legends! From creatures like the nine-tailed kitsune to kappa to bakeneko to yuuki onna, so many of these mythical creatures have appeared in many different anime in as many different forms and roles. Often we don’t even realize they’re youkai! And that’s what makes it fun! Whether you’re a youkai enthusiast or a complete outsider to the world of Eastern mythology, not always knowing you’re in the presence of a youkai is all part of the legend!

Nurarihyon no Mago, Nurarihyon’s Grandson, or better known in English as Nura: Rise of the Yokai Clan, is a fun showcase of many of these different legendary creatures gathered together in one show. It makes for some interesting characters and storylines. I liked this show. I know it wasn’t super popular when it came out back in 2010-2011, and I can understand that, but I thought it was entertaining and had some notable good qualities. On many levels, this anime was truly a tale of two seasons. So if you’re looking for some light fantasy with decent artwork to pass the time with, this one can’t hurt. You might learn something about youkai along the way!

Characters

Rating: 6

You’re going to hear me say (can you hear me now?) a lot of times during this review that this show was a lot different from S1 to S2. The characters are no exception. While all of the main characters from S1 appear in S2, most of them change significantly or aren’t featured in the same way. Sometimes I think this was a positive. We get to see characters like Kubinashi (floating head string user) and Kejourou (pretty courtesan lady) showcase their power in S2, whereas in S1 they mostly were around just for short interjections into the dialogue and the obvious humor associated with a permanently detached head (think Zombie Land Saga). But the negatives of these shifts are more noticeable. I loved the Sanba Garasu tengu youkai from S1 and their shadowy operations. I liked Karasu Tengu too, their somwhat tsundere but intensely loyal father. But these characters practically disappeared in S2.

But the most notable example is Rikuo’s change from S1 to S2. On the positive side, we see less of the stereotypical, diminutive male MC type (twelve years old or not), and I’m very grateful for that. Human Rikuo is kind of ordinary and doesn’t do much for the series, in my opinion. Youkai Rikuo is a boss. He’s cool, calm, equal to every circumstance, and massively handsome (twelve years old or not). But then comes the big negative. Since human Rikuo accounted for the diminutive male MC tropes in S1, his scarcity in S2 meant a lot of Rikuo’s shortcomings end up projected onto youkai Rikuo. That was really disappointing. The guy from S1 was heart-stoppingly kakkoii, sitting immovably among the sakura or standing before his latent horde of monsters with his mighty sword laid cooly over his shoulder. The guy from S2 maintains this character at times, but then at other times he has the tiny pupil stare of fear, or he’s getting kicked around by people you’d think he’d beat up and down given what we saw in S1. He takes on the “I’m not strong enough so I have to scream louder in battle” male MC trope that human Rikuo exhibited in S1. So while I was glad to see more of the mysterious youkai Rikuo in S2, I wasn’t happy about this change in how they treated his character.

Speaking of Rikuo, what about that hair! We’ve all seen some interesting male hairstyles over our years of watching anime. Hair that stays put no matter what exertion or substance it’s subjected to, and that shouldn’t stay in that position in the first place! Jojo is the poster child for this of course. But Nurarihyon takes this to such a new place it’s almost funny at times. No matter what angle you see Rikuo from, we always see the full length of his hair stretching out from his head just above horizontal. In other words, his hair is always placed perpendicular to our view. If he’s facing us, his hair stretches to the side. If he’s sideways to us, his hair stretches backward. You notice this right away in S1 and it never goes away. I kind of like it. He is a youkai after all, and their physical attributes are definitely unusual. The unnatural stiffness of the hair could readily be attributed to the traditional shape of the Nurarihyon head, often described as a gourd shape, something we see on the rather bald original Nurarihyon grandfather here in this show. But the compass-always-points north thing can’t be explained by this, as Nurarihyon’s head doesn’t turn in the same manner as the hair does on Rikuo. But whatever, it’s weird and noticeable, and I think it’s fun!

A good picture of both forms of Rikuo. Hair doesn’t work that way.

Another big change from S1 to S2 was the amount of screen time for Rikuo’s school buddies. That moron Kiyotsugu and his incessant search for youkai leads this group of schoolboys and girls into no end of troubles. And he never sees any youkai for all his efforts and all the trouble he puts everyone else through, not counting Rikuo of course. All of these characters are kind of interesting—Maki and Torii are pretty even if they are top-tier pushovers, and Shima’s overt attraction to Tsurara is kind of sweet and funny, and even Kana Inenaga has some good points despite sort of being stereotypical and weak—but they weren’t going to take the show anywhere if they were featured so prominently again in S2. I was glad when they mostly disappeared in S2. Though poor Kana went from love interest to dialogue-less tagalong. She was neglected in both seasons, amount of screen time notwithstanding.

Tsurara Oikawa is the latest in the line of yuuki onna youkai to follow the Nura Clan. I’m not super familiar with this particular youkai, so I’m not very certain if she has a lot of the traditional traits the yuuki onna is said to have. They portray her as “schoolgirlish” and very young, despite being some hundreds of years old. Like many of the characters, she’s uncharacteristically weak and impotent at times. I could probably count on two hands the number of times she uses her powerful freeze ability. Inexplicably she’ll do nothing at times, conveniently allowing someone to jump in and save her instead. I don’t really get this inconsistency in her power, and it is a little frustrating with her character. Oh, but Yui Horie does her voice! Definitely one of my favorite VAs all time, everybody wanted her back in the 2000-2010, where she played notable roles in Monogatari, Golden Time, Toradora!, and Fruits Basket (2001). She’s always great.

Tsurara’s human form often doesn’t look like she’ll be taking over the top spot in class anytime soon.

A couple other female characters stand out to me. Awashima is one of the Tono youkai, an amanojaku type (look it up) who changes appearance significantly between day and night, similarly to Rikuo. However, her change is from a male to a female! And I say significantly for that reason only. The face is mostly the same from day to night, but not everything else! The face is comely on both, but the female Awashima will stop your heart when she goes into battle mode. 

Then you have Hagoromo-Gitsune as we see her in modern day Kyoto. She’s not just heart-stopping, she is time-stopping! Black, black, and more black! She shines like the moon in the black night sky! No I’m not just talking about her nude scenes. I was already fully absorbed in her character by the time her clothes just suddenly went on vacation. And as boss as Rikuo looks at the head of his horde, this powerful girl standing at the front of her troops is a sight to see. She’s gorgeous, and I regret very much the fate she came to. That was the only sad moment in this tale for me.  Her VA was another popular seiyuu back in the early 2000s, Mamiko Noto. InuYasha (Rin), Monster (Nina Fortner), Elfen Lied (Yuka), A Certain Magical Index (Aisa Himegami), and Akame ga Kill! (Sheele) are just a few of the titles she’s covered over the years. She does a magnificent job with the powerful voice of Hagoromo-Gitsune in this series.

So there’s some really memorable characters and then everybody else. This is another of those shows where there’s tons of characters. And while we learn a decent amount about each character regardless—they do a decent job with this acutally—it’s still difficult to focus fully on a particular character. Even Rikuo is overshadowed as the main character at times, sometimes by his grandfather, the original Nurarihyon and de facto commander of the Hyakki Yakou following his son’s death. Chikao Ohtsuka does a really good job as an old man character by the way. He passed away not long after this series concluded in fact, at the age of 85. So he was quite old while playing Nurarihyon, which is unusual. But I stray. Sometimes the onmyouji Yura Keikain becomes very prominent as well. But even if they’re not overshadowing the main character, there’s so many characters that get extensive screen time that it can be a little confusing. One thing that helps with this is that each character gets sufficient development. Either they’re based on a traditional youkai or they get enough involvement in the story that we mostly can keep up with all of them. And of course they have some distinctiveness individually. Most youkai don’t share a lot of characteristics.

So lots of individually memorable characters, but no great characters. And often where there was great potential, a little bit gets lost between seasons. So I enjoyed these characters and wish I could see more of them (Hagoromo-Gitsune!) but there’s nothing super special about any of them. They’re above average overall, I think is the best way to put it, but no more.

Artwork

Rating: 6

In the first season, I think Studio Deen wanted to push the budget a bit. The drawings and action weren’t exceptional, but there were some moments where I felt like they were using some newer animation techniques. All of that went bye-bye in S2. I can’t quite describe what I was perceiving in S1, as I know little about the details of animation, I just know it wasn’t there in S2.

The drawing and animation are ordinary otherwise. The action sequences are hard to follow visually, and there aren’t any particular wow-moments. The style of the drawings are not unique. This was a pretty common style in the early 2000s, with lots of strands of hair on the females’ foreheads and extensive flowing locks for the guys. Eyes are a little narrower than most anime, on both guys and girls (girls’ eyes are always wider as we all know). Tsurara has really round eyes, making her stand out a little from everyone else. Human Rikuo’s eyes are too big for some reason, maybe just to draw contrast with youkai Rikuo’s piercing narrow eyes.

I make it all sound bad. It’s not. I like this style a lot. And I think it’s quite beautiful in this show. It’s just that it’s typical, not different. But as I’ve said many times, typical doesn’t have to mean bad. This artwork is a great example of how ordinary styling can be really effective. It’s very pleasing to watch without wowing you with beauty.

Guess it’s because of how HOT it got down there.

Yes some of the girls are exceptions to this. This is what made the artwork stand out for me. In S1, you have Kejourou. She’s a bit fanservicey, but she’s the only character who even stands out for beauty. But even there, she’s just attractive, in the way a courtesan type is supposed to be. In S2, she and the other handful of ladies I mentioned really get our attention visually. Kejourou herself gets a little more action and screen time, and her visage seems prettier. She relies less on her fanservice aspects to appear beautiful. There’s not much fanservice in this series actually, but at that rate there’s as much male fanservice as female, with Rikuo and his father and (young) grandfather getting a decent showing of skin and muscle throughout both seasons. But I stray. S2 introduces Awashima and Hagoromo-Gitsune, aforementioned, and the beauty meter explodes. For this aspect to have been mostly absent from S1, and to appear so shiningly bright in S2, it was remarkable. I’m not one to say that an anime’s beauty is entirely dependent on the beauty of its female characters. There are many aspects that can make an anime’s artwork beautiful. But in this series, it’s the sudden appearance of these rather beautiful characters that cause this artwork to stand out as beautiful in my mind.

Like a lot of things in this anime, I feel like the artwork was neglected a little. I think this story tried to rely very heavily on youkai traditions and storyline, allowing the art to just kind of be along for the ride. And I can understand that in a character- or story-driven anime. But it will be apparent visually to the discerning viewer. Hence I can’t get too excited about the artwork here overall.

Story

Rating: 5

So in S1 one thing happens and in S2 something completely different happens. I did warn you all that I’d say that a bazillion times in this review.

S1 is all about Rikuo coming to terms with his mixed youkai-human blood, and how he deals with these differences and the expectation that he become the next leader of the Nura Clan. As mentioned, his failings are embodied in his human character, while the youkai form is cool and powerful. When S2 rolls around, the story shifts. Rikuo has more or less assumed the title of third heir to the clan, and the clan becomes involved in countering the plots of Hagoromo-Gitsune and the Kyoto youkai. Rikuo’s human form mostly disappears and therefore his shortcomings appear in his youkai form now as well. While the shift in story is understandable and works well enough, this massive change in how Rikuo’s character engages with the story is frustrating. Why couldn’t he just continue as the cool youkai guy and still receive training and learn new techniques? I don’t know why this was handled in this way.

Technique is something that often takes on a life of its own in action anime. Weapons or weapon arts or fighting styles often evolve over the course of series to become insane versions of what they were originally. We’ve seen this many times in anime, so I won’t even recount examples, as we could all point to many just as you read through this. But we see that once again here. And I’m never a fan of this. It takes away from the original displays of strength. Here, in S1 Rikuo has his unique sword and his latent ability that shows up when youkai Rikuo comes out. That’s plenty enough to overcome his enemies in the first season. Suddenly in S2 the enemies are leagues stronger, and he won’t be a match for them unless he undergoes new kinds of training and learns about techniques that for some reason his own teachers in the Nura Clan neglected to teach him. Specifically this revolves around the “releasing of fear,” in so many words. And over 24 episodes of S2, this evolves from a simple manifestation of “fear” as an aura (think Hunter x Hunter) to the “equipping” of another youkai’s manifestation of “fear” upon one’s own manifestation of “fear.” It gets so silly that it becomes mildly sexual at one point, with Tsurara becoming embarrassed by the idea that Rikuo had “equipped” someone else’s “fear” before hers. At that point you know this thing had taken on a life of its own and the authors had lost control of it. That’s always disappointing.

Rikuo’s friends new and old.

The use of “fear” and its manifestation is not a bad idea. The existence and power of youkai, and much of the supernatural in Japanese lore, are based on people’s awareness of them. We’ve all heard the notion of “gods” disappearing if no one is left to remember them. Youkai are similar in tradition, their existence fueled by the awe or “fear” they inspire in people. Hence their traditionally grotesque forms. Nurarihyon is said to enter people’s homes and eat stuff uninvited, then vanish from sight, as a good example. People’s uncertainty and resulting fear give strength to youkai, both as legends and “in reality.” So utilizing fear as a power source for the youkai in this show is based in this traditional lore. But the super powerful manifestations of this “fear” is what loses me. It simply allows the story to add ever stronger opponents, thus creating a need for ever strengthening protagonists. And it gets out of control.

Many of the youkai depicted in this show are based on traditional Japanese youkai lore. Nurarihyon is the best example, but of course you have yuuki onna and this particular form of the kitsune youkai, among others. Taking legendary creatures and putting them all together in the same production is always a fun experience. We all love our superheroes or supernatural legends individually, but put a bunch of them together and everyone gets really excited! These characters draw only mildly on the myths associated with them. I.e., Nurarihyon’s power is to vanish, much like his legends of appearing and disappearing in homes, but no legend has him as a young man making ladies swoon. Even this idea of Nurarihyon being the “supreme commander” of the youkai is a later addition to his lore, and not based in anything specific. So these youkai are only minimally drawn from their traditional legends.

As much potential as there was in all these story aspects, mostly the show dragged and continually tried to lose my attention. I had trouble getting through S1 honestly. Human Rikuo and his middle school buddies were way too prominent, and there wasn’t any driving force in the story. S2 was more interesting (my new favorite characters notwithstanding), but I initially thought it would split into two arcs. I was at episode 10 and Rikuo had already brought his horde to Kyoto. I figured that situation would resolve itself by episode 12 and we’d be on to some new adventure. Unfortunately, the conclusion of that storyline stretched out over the remaining 14 episodes, and became somewhat difficult to endure. If it wasn’t for my interest in some of the characters—if I hadn’t made it clear, Hagoromo-Gitsune and Awashima were very exciting—it would have been difficult to get through this series. Not even that the story was disinteresting. There were some secrets and twists throughout that were handled well. Just that there wasn’t much to it. It was oddly plain, is about the best I can describe it. 

Overall: 6

Stories about leaders of armies should pay some attention, visually or otherwise, to how the leader is portrayed standing before their troops. And while there are a few somewhat impressive moments like this in the show, it’s not as exciting as it could have been. Something I remember so prominently from the lesser-known series Yona of the Dawn is how Yona looks at the lead of her men. It’s very impressive, and it will stir the warrior’s heart that rests in all of us. There are many such good examples in anime. Yet this show neglects this. It kind of takes care of itself a few times as I mentioned, but no special care was given to it. We know a good bit about each character, and Rikuo’s youkai form is so impressive, it would’ve been easy to highlight these moments more effectively.

I feel like there wasn’t enough vision or perhaps effort put into this production. I know they spent big on VAs and S1 had some interesting animation moments, but it’s almost as if they simply relied on those kinds of things as selling points for this anime. As if everything else—story, artwork, character design and consistency, etc.—would just take care of itself somehow. That’s probably why I describe certain parts of this show as feeling very different from S1 to S2 and certain aspects feeling like they are out of control, taking on a life of their own instead of serving the story. If that’s due to a lack of vision or effort, I have a big problem with that. I start to think about unpleasant subjects like how production companies sometimes just churn out whatever just to make money, and I feel the death stare clouding over my countenance in my frustration with such companies. So I hope lack of vision and effort in an attempt to churn out content wasn’t the reason behind some of the negatives in this show.

The heart of the warrior in us all.

Interesting basis and a few fun characters saved this show for me. Youkai gathered together was the interesting basis, and that was sufficient to keep my attention when it waned now and then. Of course the addition of some of the characters in S2 gave me a lot of energy to continue. But overall, this show feels…I’m not sure I felt anything, and that’s the thing.

It’s not particularly exciting. The action is visually unimpressive, and the story isn’t so mysterious that it draws your attention. It’s not particularly visually attractive, though this does improve as the series progresses. It’s not particularly character-driven, despite the interesting dual-personality thing with Rikuo and the various youkai personalities we see. Yet through all this, I mostly enjoyed this show. 

So between it all, this show is just a little above average. It’s anime, and it doesn’t go into crazy land where anime goes to die, so at that rate it’s highly acceptable. But it doesn’t do anything special either. I figure this show was financially a loss. Yui Horie would’ve been expensive even back then, not to mention Jun Fukuyama (Rikuo), who had already made his splash as Lelouch in Code Geass. Oh, and Aya Hirano (Kana Ienaga), as in Lucy from Fairy Tail and Misa from Death Note, she would’ve been expensive too. I figure the probable downgrade in animation technique between S1 and S2 was probably due to a constricted budget. And by all accounts, both seasons of this anime were tepidly received by the public.

So I figure we’ve seen the last of Rikuo Nura’s Hyakki Yakou. It’s disappointing because I liked the concept of this show, but it worked out so blandly when compared to its potential that it’s likely to be remembered as a flop. Which it shouldn’t be. You can’t have a cast like this and the final product be a flop. Sure I think it could’ve been better. But it wasn’t bad. It just is what it is, and no more. And that’s okay. Perhaps this series is a candidate for a reboot, like we’ve seen lots of times with various shows over the years. I would definitely be interested in that if it happens.

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