Witch Hunter Robin by Shukou Murase (Review)
My introduction to Witch Hunter Robin came in a completely roundabout way. I stumbled across a Japanese trailer while actually looking info on another title. Despite being less than 30 seconds long, the short glimpse I got of the artwork and animation was enough to instantly hook me. Thanks to EBay, I was able to acquire a couple of VCDs that contained the entire series, and promptly launched into a witch-hunting binge. Now that I’ve finished, I want more.
In Witch Hunter Robin, the term “witch” doesn’t really refer to magic practitioners or people who sell their souls to the devil in exchange for power. Rather, it refers to people with superhuman abilities, be it telekinesis, the ability to control the elements, read people’s minds, etc.
In order to prevent these individuals from harming the rest of humanity, a shadowy organization called “Solomon” tracks down and destroys witches. However, Solomon’s Japanese branch, STN-J, operates differently. Rather than kill witches, STN-J captures them using a mysterious substance called “orbo” in order to study their mysterious abilities. When the series begins, STN-J is awaiting the arrival of a new hunter to take the place of one who was killed in a mission. The new hunter turns out to be Robin, an enigmatic young girl clad in a black Victorian gown. Strangely, Robin has a power of her own, the ability to control fire, a fact that troubles her new comrades.
The series starts off quite slowly, with the first 9 episodes or so following an “X-Files”-esque format. STN-J is called in to investigate a bizarre crime or occurrence, one that frustrates the police’s attempts to solve. In the course of their research, they discover yet another witch whose abilities have grown out of control. And like an “X-Files” episode, there’s never an obvious answer as several plot twists and revelations take place before the end credits.
Despite starting off somewhat slowly, Witch Hunter Robin does a fine job of pulling you in during those initial episodes. They take their time establishing the various characters, from young Robin to stoic Amon (STN-J’s chief hunter), as well as the relationships and working methods of STN-J. Even supporting characters get fleshed out, such as Harry, the owner of a cafe that STN-J’s members frequent, and Michael, STN-J’s young hacker and computer expert.
As I’ve said before, the term “witch” doesn’t necessarily refer to those who practice the black arts, and you’ll find nary a broom or black cat anywhere in the series. Overall, the series’ appropriation of witchcraft lore strikes me as very similar to Evangelion’s use of Judeo-Christian and kabbalistic imagery. While various witch-related terms and symbols do appear, it’s questionable how authentic they are. Rather, it’s a safe bet that the writers took quite a few creative liberties with any of the “lore” that is used so as to add a mysterious, exotic element to the show.
It’s rare to come across writing this excellent in any format, and especially in anime. But then again, Aya Yoshinaga was also responsible for Crest Of The Stars, another anime with a complex, detailed storyline. From the start, Witch Hunter Robin does not pander to its audience, and it’s obvious that the writers put a lot of time and effort into each episode’s plot. But when the storyline does move slowly, that just gives you all the more time to absorb the series’ stunning style and aesthetics, courtesy of the people behind Cowboy Bebop and Gasaraki.
Early on, Witch Hunter Robin establishes a stark, moody style. A wintry chill seems to pervade nearly every episode. The colors are washed out to the point of being mere shades of grey, and the scenery always seem to be locked in the late stages of autumn. The constant presence of crows and their infernal cawing in the early episodes starts off the series with a palpable anxiety. Meanwhile, Taku Iwasaki’s music, which consists largely of ambient textures, subtle beats, and haunting piano melodies, adds to the melancholy.
Set against this rather dreary backdrop are Kumiko Takahashi’s beautiful character designs. They’re more realistic than what is normally associated with anime and keep in step with the series’ somber artwork. Robin and Amon are especially impressive, their goth-tinged wardrobe perfectly complementing their cool demeanors. Robin holds the viewer’s attention for another reason; her reddish-blond hair and green eyes are two of the most colorful things in the series.
After the 9th or 10th episode, the series really begins in earnest. The mysteries surrounding STN-J and Solomon begin to get more pronounced, with each subsequent revelation revealing another layer of mystery. Meanwhile, Robin begins to confront the nature of her powers as the real reason for her assignment to STN-J is revealed. Meanwhile, her abilities are growing stronger and she begins to realize that the very thing that allows her to hunt witches may soon turn her into one of the hunted.
Just as Robin makes a startling discovery concerning witches and their origins, the series throws a huge plot twist that comes completely out of left field. Things are left in the air for several episodes, and a few more mysteries come to light. New characters are introduced, and nearly every character’s motivations are revealed to be quite different than what they originally seemed.
It’s sort of hard to really talk about Witch Hunter Robin in any real detail, especially the latter episodes, without divulging some serious spoilers. But that’s not really what I want to do. What I want to do is convince you that Witch Hunter Robin is a stylish anime that is also surprisingly adult (not in that way, mind you), moreso than you might expect. Witch Hunter Robin is, without a doubt, one series that hardcore anime fans, those who prize great storytelling and animation above simple fan service, will appreciate. Indeed, after finishing Witch Hunter Robin, I watched a Zone Of The Enders episode and I couldn’t believe how juvenile and amateurish it felt, from the animation to the storyline.
If I do have one complaint, it’s that Witch Hunter Robin seems too intent on remaining aloof throughout its run, to the point that the viewer might feel somewhat bombarded by all of the revelations that take place in the last few episodes. While this insistence on remaining mysterious does make the series interesting, it can also make it frustrating at times. When the final episode was over, I felt somewhat unsatisfied. I found myself suppressing the urge to scour the Web for news of a sequel or OVA, anything that might give me a little more. It’s a thoroughly engrossing series, one that I can only hope is expanded on in the future.
Witch Hunter Robin recently concluded its run on Japanese television. Hopefully, a distributor will snap it up soon and give it the promotion it deserves outside of Japan. To do so would be a real service to anime fans all over.