08 November 2008
Continuing my fascination with the popcorn animes adapted from Shonen Jump manga, let's review Katekyou Hitman Reborn.
This was a series I ignored for a long time, simply because it's about mafia, and mafia stories generally tend to fall into the same sorts of traps as vampire or pop idol stories in that there's one or two really good ones and each one thereafter succumbs to gratuity and horrible cliche genre conventions, to the point where the only difference between them all is the skin they wear. However, Katekyo (the popular abbreviation) is HUGE in Japan. During my visit it was everywhere - on a level of prominence right up there with Bleach and Naruto. Regrettably, it appears that this sort of advertising works, as I decided to see what it was all about.
As mentioned, Katekyo is about the mafia - but the Italian mafia, not the Japanese yakuza like you would expect from a story set in Japan. The protagonist, Sawada Tsunayoshi, is terribly meek and not good at anything - to the point where his classmates all call him 'No-good Tsuna'. That is until a cursed infant - the Legenday Hitman Reborn - wearing black suit and toting a shape-shifting chameleon turns up and informs Tsuna that he is in fact a member of the Vongola family, one of the most powerful families in Italy. He's been chosen to succeed the 9th boss after the other candidates suffered unfortunate accidents, so he'd better start shaping up or the mafia will eat him alive. Luckily, Reborn is there to train him. I'm sure anybody who has ever read a Shonen Jump manga before can fill in the rest of the blanks.
Overall, it's a good series, but Katekyo has one enormous flaw - and that's how long it takes to get going. After the first couple of episodes where most of the principle characters are introduced, it then embarks on a good fifteen or so episodes of comedic drivel and filler. It's not bad, per se, but after a few episodes it's easy to become impatient and unless you're familiar with Shonen Jump's tendency to turn awesome a good fifteen or twenty episodes in, it's highly tempting to quit what appears to be a journey to nowhere. I-pin's and Lambo's antics become particularly repetitive and tiring after a while.
Everything changes around episode 20 when actual conflict comes into the picture, however. Straight up I will say that there's nothing terribly unique about Katekyo - it really is your typical Shonen Jump stronger-than-the-last-man series. But when it DOES start hitting the story aspect the action and suspense skyrocket. It has a largely interesting cast, too, and even some of the trite gag and fringe characters turn out to be quite fun to watch. Stupid gags that you've long grown tired of actual turn out to have real significance. You just have to be patient, and you'll be rewarded.
In fact, everything about Katekyo can fit into that statement quite well. The music for the first twenty episodes is forgettable, but turns gripping to match the story. The animation is cheap and heavily reused, and that appears to be because they were saving their money for the actual story arc. Tsuna is a frustrating protagonist initially, but slowly develops and becomes more likeable as time goes on. As good as the comedy aspects are, the darker turns of the story are more compelling.
Of course, after every interesting plot arc, it then tends to return to the usual formula of mundane situation -> hijinks -> chaos -> danger -> Tsuna gets shot -> bursts out of his clothes -> saves the day with his dying will -> rinse and repeat, which is FUN, but ultimately tiresome when you only get dribs and drabs of the real story amidst all that. It's the sort of problem that tends to plague Shonen Jump adaptations where they insert filler to wait for the manga to get ahead again, only the filler in this case was already written in. Luckily, these regressions grow shorter and less frequent as the series progresses, eventually settling on a happy medium where they work as excellent breaks in between the heavy stuff instead of being the bread and butter of the show.
It's still a difficult show to recommend to people, though. If you happen to enjoy Shonen Jump as a rule or just want some easy-to-swallow brain candy, Katekyo is worth checking out - it does add a little something to the tired mafia theme. But if you're more of an elitist fan, you can safely miss it.
Overall Rating: 518,027