A Certain Magical Index
Academy City is a city in Japan composed almost entirely of students and populated largely by espers, those who manipulate scientific principles at their own will. High-school student Touma Kamijo is considered to be a "Level 0" esper (i.e. having little-to-nothing in the way of powers), but he does have one secret: his right hand possesses the "Imagine Breaker," which can negate any power whatsoever.
One day, a strange girl who calls herself "Index" and who dresses in strange sacramental robes appears, literally hanging over his dorm's windowsill, claiming to be on the run from a mysterious "magical" organization, "Necessarius," in spite of the fact that "magic" in itself is considered to be something of a myth. True to her name, Index can memorize and store any piece of information at will; the two soon find themselves pursued by agents from the organization who aim to erase her memories.
Let me start this review by saying that the title of this series is, really, a bit misleading: the titular character isn't exactly the protagonist, nor is she much of an active player in the story. A more accurate title might be Kamijo Touma's Right Fist of Deus ex Machina, but perhaps Popeye and Monkey D. Luffy threatened a lawsuit out of fear that our resident bland protagonist and his God-hand would steal their thunder. Regardless, Touma's a rather boring and ineffective lead, and his always using said "mysterious power" in his right hand is about as interesting as Sailor Moon's defeating each and every one of her adversaries by hurling her tiara at them, but without the joy of that show's side characters or Luna's snarky sense of humor. This is just one of several problems I have with A Certain Magical Index, which ultimately falls flat by failing to connect its disparate arcs together in any meaningful way.
Now, Touma's blandness is made a little more bearable by the fact that the camera, luckily, is not always focused on him. A Certain Magical Index has a large cast, and the advantage of this is that if one strongly dislikes one of the characters then there's little risk of the show lingering on him or her for too long. On the other hand, it also doesn't leave much room for character development, and it's ultimately something of a low-risk, low-benefit situation in that while the various archetypes are bound to please a given subset of the viewers, there's also little depth to any of them. The relationship between Touma and Index, a socially inept nun-in-training with nowhere to go besides the former's apartment, is like a staler and shallower version of that between the main pair in the same studio's Toradora: after an initial arc centered around Index's hidden magical capabilities, she doesn't do much besides get into mild mischief (i.e. bringing a cat back into the dorms against the rules) and pout.
It's hard to really talk about everyone else in the show without this turning into a list, given the size of the cast (you can see this if you watch any of the OP or ED sequences), but luckily, some of the other players feel less like of a waste of space than do Index and Touma. Once the pair of "retrievers" who've come to take Index, Kanzaki and Magnus, cease to be antagonistic to our main pair and become something closer to co-protagonists, their respective big-sibling relationships with Touma in subsequent arcs are more enjoyable to watch than his squabbling with Index, even if their two personalities don't amount to much besides variations on the "misunderstood delinquent" trope. Meanwhile, the show's resident tsundere, Misaka Mikoto, was popular enough to get her own light novel series and anime (the supposedly better A Certain Scientific Railgun), but I never really warmed to her while watching this show; she's unquestionably intelligent, but in her one-dimensional sourness she's a poorly-written character, and a stupid one-off in which she blackmails Touma into pretending to be her boyfriend didn't exactly improve my opinion of her. The villains aside (and I'll get to them in a minute), the rest of the characters are basically either toadies, sidekicks, or comic relief characters, and let's just say that if you think you have them figured out at first glance, you're probably correct.
Now, if you're having a hard time figuring out what this show is really "about" or what this all amounts to then I empathize, as I too struggled with this mightily. Just as we have a large and disparate cast of weakly-developed characters, A Certain Magical Index doesn't seem to have much of a purpose that transcends the original arcs. Indeed, there are six essentially self-contained stories, and only two of these have anything resembling a clear connection: the villain Accelerator, a top-level esper at odds with Misaka Mikoto, returns in a second arc as a less overtly antagonistic character and with the humiliation of his previous defeat having added some nuance to his previous cackling-megalomaniac personality. This stands out because in the other arcs, it often feels as if there's nothing from previous stories that has any bearing on current events and that there are no lasting consequences at the end; whether because somebody loses their memory or because the characters simply don't mention anything ever again, it's as if we're repeatedly starting from square one but without, say, The Tatami Galaxy's playing with that concept. My point is, a television series doesn't absolutely need a connecting thread to work but in this case we have six essentially standalone arcs with no real character development to make the viewer feel as if their time has been well-spent. Yes, there's closure to each individual arc but the end of this series simply feels like a convenient stopping point more than it feels like we've gotten anywhere with these characters.
I might've minded this less if the world-building in this series had been a bit less ho-hum. Academy City, the setting of A Certain Magical Index, is like some sort of school uniform-enthusiast's dream in being almost entirely populated by high school and middle school students, but, of course, essentially nobody past adolescence. Touma's teacher and a single doctor are really the only adult characters of much consequence in this show, and the latter is really just there as a convenient device to fix any and all medical problems at arc's end so that we can start from scratch; the former, let's just say, is basically the human equivalent of an Axolotl and basically a clever way to circumvent the unofficial "no over-adolescents" rule in many anime. Sure, Touma's parents make a few brief appearances, but really, Academy City and thus, A Certain Magical Index itself basically feel like a bunch of teenagers screwing around in a strange, isolated little world, except that those teenagers happen to have supernatural powers. There's a missed opportunity in that this show only glancingly explores what sort of relationship all these teenagers have with the rest of Japan, or, really, what the political situation of this place even is. Thus it's rather hard for me to take any of this seriously: this show wants this all to be in isolation, and that bothered me throughout its entire run. There is, meanwhile, strangely little said about any social implications about the various powers the characters have, or what the differences between people's power levels really entail. To put it simply, this world is just not that interesting or well-written.
And what we have, ultimately, is a show that consists of fight sequences, grandiose and self-righteous speeches courtesy of our resident cipher-protagonist, and comic relief based on the "hilariousness" of Index and Misaka Mikoto throwing temper tantrums. Does the show look nice enough? Yes, it looks fine, and the animation is consistent enough, but J.C. Staff hasn't ever been a studio I've flocked to for the visuals or animation, and it's something of a mediocre production overall. The music, especially, could've been better, though the theme songs are catchy enough. This show might please moe aficionados, and its characters regularly appear in International Saimoe League competitions online, but for the rest of us, there's just no much to see.
A Certain Magical Index isn't a total loss, but it was a bit of a tedious series for me to sit down and watch for review. Certainly, there are worse series as anime (and light novel adaptations in particular) go, but my assessing the characters as "low-risk, low-reward" also applies to the show as a whole: it's competent and, outside of a few pervy jokes, inoffensive enough, but it's a bland show at the end of the day. If you can't get enough of these fantasy-adventure light novel adaptations then by all means, check this series out, but for the rest of us there just isn't much to make A Certain Magical Index stand out.
After twenty-four episodes of this show, I just don't feel that my time has been well-spent or that I got anywhere with these characters. Sure, some of the arcs are okay and the characters aren't a complete waste, but I've seen much better. Those who aren't as sick of high-school fantasy-adventure series like this can probably add a star. — Nicoletta Christina Browne
Recommended Audience: The target is high school and older middle-school aged boys, and it shows: there are a decent number of boob jokes and a few panty shots, but nothing that makes this stand out for its raciness. The violence is, also, weirdly non-consequential: not a single character actually died while fighting, and only a few of the fights actually featured bloodshed of any kind.
Version(s) Viewed: Stream courtesy of FUNimation.com (Japanese with English Subtitles)
Review Status: Full (24/24)
A Certain Magical Index © 2008 KAZUMA KAMACHI/ASCII MEDIA WORKS/PROJECT-INDEX
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