A few weeks ago this column covered a series called A Certain Magical Index (No. 124), which mixtures elements of fantasy, action and religion. One of notable aspects about this anime that was brought up was that this is one of the few anime to have produced an equally successful spin-off. As it is out this week, now seems a good time to look at it.
A Certain Scientific Railgun has many similarities to its predecessor: they are both set in the same place: Academy City, a place full of schools and which is dedicating itself to improving the human mind and creating espers. Both anime are the same length in terms of the number of series, both of which had the same number of episodes. However, Railgun features science fiction and science fact rather than fantasy and religion. It is also more comedic, and some might argue even better than the original series.
The main difference is the lead characters. While Index focuses on the exploits of hopeless student Kamijo Toma, a student with no esper powers at all except that his right hand can stop any incoming attack, the main character in Railgun is a rival of his. Misaka Mikoto is a “Level 5” esper, one of the most powerful in Academy City. Her mental abilities allow her to control electricity. Her most famous skill is the ability to flick coins, which due to her electrical control become super-fast bullets. Thus she earned the nickname of “Railgun”.
The series also focuses on Misaka’s closest friends. One is her roommate Shirai Kuroko. She is a member of “Judgement”, the organisation which controls the peace in Academy City. She too is an esper, a Level 4 esper with the ability to teleport. However, when not protecting the city, Shirai’s main ambition is trying to make Mikoto fall in love with her. These exploits nearly always tend to backfire horribly for Shirai and just make Misaka angrier. Also with them is another employee of Judgement: a computer expert named Uiharu Kazari, instantly recognisable by the flower crown she always wears; and Uiharu’s best friend Saten Ruiko, a girl who is a Level 0 esper with no skills at all and is desperate to improve her abilities.
While many of the episodes are stand-alone stories, there are some longer-narrative tales. Most of these come from Saten’s obsession with urban legends. She learns about a device called “Level Upper”, which supposedly boosts the esper skill of anyone who uses it. Saten is desperate to get hold of it, even if this happens to be illegal to do so. Another legend concerns a woman who supposedly gets undressed in public for no logical reason. Misaka meets this woman, Kiyama Harumi, who turns out to have a certain connection with the mysterious Level Upper, which soon spreads across Academy City, affecting those listening to it in horrible ways, but perhaps not as horrible as certain earlier experiments that Harumi carried out years before.
Personally speaking, from what I have seen of both anime, I would consider myself to be one of those people who think the Railgun spin-off is better than the Index original. Do not misunderstand me: there are problems with Railgun. The soundtrack is rather dull. Both the plot and certain characters are at times badly written. For example as the character that is revealed to be the main villain who comes across as a bit too much of the typical insane-cartoony villain. There are also bits of the plot where you think: “Well, that’s convenient.” For example, one story features a huge monster let loose in a mostly deserted area, but the monster just happens to march over to a nuclear reaction which just happens to be there. Well, that’s convenient.
However, the positives outweigh the negatives. The best bit about Railgun is the humour in it, which comes from the central characters. There are recurring elements such as Misaka having an obsession with rather cute things which she finds embarrassing to admit to because of her professional image. The funniest character though is Shirai, with her repeated attempts to pull Misaka. She is a rather perverted character. One sequence sees Uiharu and Saten going through Shirai’s vast collection of underwear, ranging from fancy lingerie to all-body fishnets, all of which Shirai gives detailed excuses for. Another scene sees Shirai trying to spike Misaka’s drink with an aphrodisiac, only for Shirai to drink it herself. The comedy is wide-ranging. There is slapstick, and some pretty broad sexual humour, but then it is also balanced by sequences which reference classic films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey and Casablanca.
You do not need to watch Index in order to enjoy Railgun. Both can be watched separately without spoiling the other. If you prefer to go for one over the other then it is OK. If you are only going to pick one series to see however, Railgun is probably the more enjoyable of the two.
The first series of A Certain Scientific Railgun is released on DVD and Blu-Ray by Animatsu.