Shounen has a long history in the manga industry—or hell, in just about the entire entertainment industry, mostly in marketing. Catering to young boys is guaranteed to be the big money-maker whether it’s because of the robots, the fight scenes with whatever superpower they wield, the really cool designs for all sorts of outfits the heroes put on, the fact young male characters are off saving the world, it just pushes all the right buttons.
Regardless of any saturation that may have happened over the years, it’s one of, if not the most successful demographics (which may mostly be because of its periphery demographic), and many influential manga and anime come from here. It’s also one of the more clichéd, although when they all share common ancestors/contributors, it’s bound to happen.
So what makes “Ushio and Tora” stand out in that regard (besides that it probably really isn’t as marketable for toys/spin-offs as other shounen series)? It wasn’t published in Shounen Jump alongside the more popular titles, it was instead serialized in Shounen Sunday alongside “Ranma ½”, “Magic Kaito” (where “Detective Conan” would later be spun-off from), and “Ghost Sweeper Mikami”, where it ran from 1990 to 1996, won the Shogakukan Manga Award in 1991, and was compiled into 33 volumes.
It was a good run for being up against other popular shounen of the time such as “Dragon Ball”, “Yu Yu Hakusho”, and “Rurouni Kenshin”. And yet, outside of the 1992 OVA that was licensed by ADV, it remained an obscure series (at least in the West thanks to no localization of the manga—although it got a mention in Helen McCarthy’s “500 Manga Heroes & Villains”) until 2015 when MAPPA announced an animated adaptation.
So how DOES it stand out? And how is it that it remained in such obscurity despite all that? Why does it sound like I’m complaining when I’m glad it was able to find its way out here after so long?
Hell if I know why, I’d just lose interest in finding out like how Tora got bored of the bus within five minutes.
Ushio Aotsuki is a bit of a punk, typical of most brash teenagers his age. His father, Shigure, currently runs as head priest of the Aotsuki Shrine, and yet he’s hardly ever around, which has resulted in a large rift between father and son. Ushio doesn’t like nor believe in the old stories of yōkai (demons) and bakemono (monsters), and especially not about the legendary Beast Spear a samurai pinned a 2000-year-old demon within the basement of the temple.
While airing out the warehouse, he accidentally falls through a sealed door and encounters the very demon indeed pinned to the wall by the Beast Spear. They don’t get along at first sight, with the tiger demon claiming to be the most feared in all of Japan and desiring to eat him, and Ushio inflicting humorous bodily harm to him before storming off with a huff.
However, he inadvertently put his best friends, Asako Nakamura and Mayuko Inoue, in danger when swarms of fish and insect monsters arrive, and he begins a pact with the demon to be rid of them, using the Beast Spear to kill them and keep the thunder beast he named Tora in line.
What started off as an unpleasant encounter, however, slowly unveiled secrets about the whereabouts of his mother (whom he believed was dead) and the connections with the local demons and monsters all with a common single fear, all while the titular duo develop bonds with others and each other on their journey as the Beast Spear steadily consumes Ushio’s soul.
Indeed, the recipe for your typical shounen manga is here, anywhere from “the young (idiot/determined) hero must save the world” to “the power of friendship overcomes all”, which isn’t completely a bad thing. The first… arc, I guess if you want to call it that, is basically the introduction and allows the reader to get comfortable with the characters as they learn to interact with each other and encounter the monster/demon-of-the-week and other characters.
Not long after that, Ushio and Tora go on a journey across Japan to Hokkaido to learn more about his mother, still encountering demons to defeat or befriend but under much harsher circumstances. Then the secrets of the Beast Spear begin to unfold, and things take a turn for the dark (although it never loses its humor).
To go into more detail would mean spoiler territory, but let’s just say the Beast Spear does crazy things to humans, and its origin story takes the plot in a whole different direction than previously believed.
The manga is split into (side)stories which at first don’t seem to be connected with each other, but they all have their own beginning and end. Supposedly, the reader can pick and choose which ones to read as long as it doesn’t affect the plot or the characters’ characterizations (which, honestly, Ushio doesn’t have much of, and Tora really starts getting his in the second half of the manga).
But in all honesty, there’s many good stories told throughout that range from bringing out many squees and/or laughter (personal favorites being “Fools Gather at a Party” and “Ushio Casts Aside the Beast Spear”) to squeezing your heart and threatening to pull it out of the ribcage to be devoured by that story’s monster—if it so desires (“Chaotic Wind”, “The Mist Comes”, “The Time-Reversing Bakemono”, “The Snow Does Not Vanish at Dawn”, “The Day I Swung the Swing”).
Sometimes (…actually, more often than not), it’s a combination of the above. Really, the soft-hearted are going to crumple easily, and the hard-hearted are going to be chipped away bit by bit as the manga builds to a satisfying and, quite frankly, cool climax. The heartless are just not going to care and will miss the entire point of the manga, in which case, this is clearly not for them and that’s such a damn shame.
There’s a reason the series has been described as “’Calvin and Hobbes’ on acid”. I don’t know where the acid part came from, although “Calvin and Hobbes goes demon-hunting” must not have sounded as catchy—but it’s not wrong. The title characters have similar qualities in terms of their friendship with one-another, except it’s Hobbes haunting Calvin for the sole desire of eating him and slapstick ensues because of his idiocy (Tora sticks his foot in his mouth a lot).
For two very different personalities constantly clashing, Ushio and Tora have a strong bond and respect for one-another which shows in their fighting (other demons, but they snip and take swings at each other just as much).
And indeed, most of the interactions revolve around their relationship, for while they CAN stand on their own (Tora especially, and he gets moments of his own where he encounters the quirks of the modern world), they’re incomplete without the other. Insert Sting’s “My Funny Friend and Me” here.
The supporting cast is large and while not necessarily well-rounded, they’re strong and help to nicely fill in the gaps Ushio and Tora couldn’t completely fill on their own.
Asako and Mayuko bring femininity and slice-of-life to the story, and develop and even explore their own bonds with the titular characters, with the hot-blooded Asako always being there for Ushio, and the sweet Mayuko bringing out Tora’s “dere” side more readily. (Yes, Tora is a tsundere, and it is amazing.) Shigure has a stronger role than what is initially believed in being set up as an “abusive” parent, and it becomes clear over time he truly cares for his son’s well-being.
Hyou is an exorcist who arrived to Japan to get revenge on the demon who ate his wife and daughter, and is one of the first allies Ushio meets even before he starts his journey. Other human allies include Reiko Hanyuu, Yuu Hiyama, Saya Takatori (the girls Ushio practically saved from themselves), the Beast Spear’s successors such as Hinowa Sekimori and Nagare Akiba, and the tragic Kirio Inasa.
On the flip side of the coin are the demons they fight or befriend. The Kamaitachi siblings, Raishin and Kagari, are one of the first to show character development as they’re introduced to the story coming up to Ushio and requesting he kill their brother whom went on a killing spree.
They’re unique in that they mainly remain in human form throughout the story, a result of having to learn to live among the humans. The other demons such as Izuna, the Osa of the West and East, and Hitotsuki are at first repulsed by or not willing to accept Tora and Ushio working together, but by sharing a common goal/fear, they come around eventually, if only temporarily.
Most of the time, though, it’s out of respect for Tora (or Nagatobimaru as they know him best as), as he is the strongest demon around—not that they don’t point out how odd it is for him to form an alliance with a human boy.
There are smaller antagonists, but the big bad is Hakumen no Mono, the White-Faced One, the ancient nine-tailed fox sealed away at the bottom of the sea. Once the name is dropped, it maintains a constant presence throughout the rest of the manga.
This is for a good reason, as Hakumen no Mono is most feared by all other demons, with a battle hundreds of years prior to the story that nearly caused the destruction of Japan and other countries such as China until it was weakened enough to hide away, where it was then immediately sealed—but not willingly for either side.
Without giving much away, Hakumen no Mono has to be the scariest, creepiest, most manipulative bastard I’ve seen in manga in quite some time, and it was glorious watching it play out. It gives Freeza and even Emperor Palatine a run for their money.
Kazuhiro Fujita knew how to switch between serious and comical in the art with precise timing. Serious involves shadows and hard lines with attention to detail in the action scenes and poses (even with quiet moments, there’s a lot of beautiful panels).
This alone is why the manga can’t be entirely skimmed through, as the fights get more epic as the cast grows. Comical moments have no shadows and hard lines (if at all) and detail is simplified and characters made chibified with wackier poses.
Tora in particular has some of the most facial expressions of the cast (with Ushio and Shigure tying for a close second) whether it’s serious or comical, particularly with the eyes changing shape based on his attitude in that panel.
It’s the most unique aspect of the series next to the designs of the monsters, which may have taken some liberties in how they were originally portrayed in Japanese folklore (although I think a few might’ve been made up or a combination of other monsters? Like I couldn’t find anything about the Fusuma from “The Guys Are Up in the Sky”, so I’m not sure about that one).
The art-style develops as time goes on, with the most noticeable change being around volume 15 especially with Ushio, and Tora loses his ears for longer periods of time (probably, but there’s a reason they don’t exist in the 2015 anime).
By definition, if it was like any other shounen series, I shouldn’t have enjoyed this that much. Yes, there’s clichés (although “Ushio and Tora” may have set the standard for most of it when it comes to the supernatural), the main character Ushio is your typical shounen hero and thus doesn’t really grow much as a character, there’s running gags that are kind of predictable in timing, the pacing’s a little weird at times and given it’s 33 volumes it does tend to slow to a crawl—it’s shounen. What else were you expecting?
But it’s full of heart. It’s fun, adventurous, surprisingly emotional and thematic, and doesn’t try to be anything it’s not. There was love and care put into the series, everything intricately woven together to connect all of the 313 chapters into creating a tapestry. It had an end goal in mind from the start, and it delivered.
I can give credit for planting the first tiny seed in my heart when I was sixteen to the “500 Manga Heroes & Villains” book for briefly talking about it in the chapter on teams, even though the picture of the first manga volume confused me as to what exactly I was looking at. Tora’s design, however (despite thinking he was some kind of wild jungle man who would turn into a beast, going against what the description said otherwise), stuck with me since, so when the anime was announced in 2015, I recognized him on the poster, and then noticed there was an OVA.
I watched it first, and somehow I liked it while being disappointed it just stopped. When the new anime was then released, it was refreshing despite being nothing new. And slowly but surely, as the weeks went on and it reached and continued where the OVA had left off, I fell in love.
As I couldn’t wait any longer for the anime to finish, I went ahead to read the manga, and I’m very glad I did. There was a lot I was missing out on, things made even more sense (I’m not belittling the anime, though, it’s done a very nice job), and the characters just popped because there were more moments for them to just be themselves.
I could smile and giggle when the characters did something silly or stupid, be driven to tears out of sympathy by their actions as things just don’t always go well for them despite their good intentions, be horrified by the violent outbursts and the consequences that came from it, be excited for the next story and where it might take me from there.
It took me some time to find the words to express my appreciation for “Ushio and Tora”, and while I don’t think it’s exactly how I wanted to word it (kind of rare for me to be a little speechless on something I like, actually), I hope its positivity was enough to get it across.
This was a special find, one where I’m very happy I gave it a chance while still sad that it finished. Or heck, just sad in general that the manga has never come out here, because it totally needs more love. But, unfortunately, it’s probably destined to be overshadowed by the more popular shounen titles. It’s fine, though. These kinds of stories tend to get overlooked when they’re not being actively searched for, which makes it all the more rewarding and special for those who do pick it up.
Just saying, though, if the popularity polls are truly anything to go by, Tora haunts more folks than just Ushio. He grows on you that much, if it couldn’t be gleaned from how much I mentioned him the entire time.
Hope you enjoyed it !
See you in my next post…
As always, Stay awesome, Keep Smiling…