Tools of the Imagination

Tools of the Imagination — Night Raid 1931

Night Raid 1931
directed by Jun Matsumoto, written by Satoshi Kadokura and Taro Hakase, released 2010, available on Crunchyroll

James Bond meets the X-Men

Anime loves itself some World War II.  With a very idealized and cherry-picked view of the war, there’s a long list of anime series based off of or inspired by World War II (Hetalia, Strike Witches, Space Cruiser Yamato, etc).
And anime loves itself some Meiji Restoration, that fun period where the Samurai period evolved into the modern world.  Rurouni Kenshin is probably the poster child of series and movies set during this time, but it’s the tip of the ice berg.
The thing is, there’s a thirty year period in there – nestled in between the Meiji Restoration & World War I and World War II – where a lot of really crazy stuff happened.  And as for the eastern half of the world, a lot of that really crazy stuff was connected to Japan.  And yet, there aren’t too many anime that deal with that time period.  Well, Night Raid 1931 aims to change that.

Set in Shanghai during 1931, Night Raid 1931 follows a team of modestly superpowered spies working for the Japanese government who controlled a good portion of China during this time.  They uncover a radical plot to end colonialism in the east and the majority of the show follows the unfolding of said plot.  There are a lot of the typical betrayals and doublecrosses that occur in noir fiction, all wrapped up in an anime bow.



Story – 3 out of 5
If you know anything about history, you probably know that Japan wasn’t the best caretaker of China during the first decades of the century.  In the early episodes, it looks like the show might address these very issues and pull back the curtain on Japan’s stewardship of China, but there are only a few token references to some of the horrors the Chinese faced under Japanese rule.


Later episodes become wrapped up in an increasingly complex plot to extort the western colonial powers into releasing their hold on eastern countries.  This plot involves the construction and detonation of a nuclear bomb, but does so in a manner that seems to radically counter most historical timelines of the bomb’s development.

In fact, that’s a major problem for the story.  It begins with some real efforts to remain grounded in historical fact, but as the plot progresses, it begins to veer radically.  This isn’t a problem necessarily, but the increasingly fictionalized (and implausible) plot points may not jive with viewers who enjoyed the earlier episodes.

Art – 4 out of 5
While not truly amazing, the art is definitely better than average.  It strikes a comfortable balance between anime and realism.  A notable characteristic is the distinctiveness of different Asian ethnicities.  Many anime shows are lucky to distinguish between Asian and White, much less the subtly of different Asian ethnic groups but in Night Raid, Chinese and Japanese are subtly distinctive.  This helps to add to the visual wealth of crowd scenes and helps establish a sense of the cosmopolitan nature of Shanghai (versus the Chinese-dense rural countryside or the Japanese-intensive military camps).

Animation – 3 out of 5
Much like the art, the animation if good but unremarkably so.  Scenery has a tendency to be a little flat and uninspired, but the action sequences move nicely.  The added benefit of realistic action sequences helps to ground the show and adds some real intensity when guns get pulled.

Characters – 3 out of 5
The characters in the show are all extremely predictable and rote.  You’ve got the hotheaded second-in-command; the stoic steeped-in-classic-Japanese-military-ways leader who is slightly older; the younger woman who is kept apart from the action; the big and gruff goon who is inexplicably loyal to the younger woman.  The main bad guy has ties to just about every member of the group which is discovered very slowly through the course of the show.  There’s a token adorable younger character who makes more than a few appearances.  Nothing out of the ordinary but it all works and is done quite well.

Acting – 4 out of 5
The acting would be unremarkably good except for one novelty of the different languages.  Because the show is anime (and thus has a Japanese cast), much of the dialogue is in Japanese.  However, the show takes place in Shanghai (a Chinese city), so many episodes feature more than a few characters talking in Chinese.  And the actors actually do!  Not being fluent in Chinese, I can’t attest to how well they speak it, but there’s no denying how cool it is to hear the voice actor switching languages.

On top of Chinese, several European languages are spoken (German and French at least, though I think Russian appears a couple of times).  English does too and it’s fun to hear the Japanese voice actors talking in English (because some of them clearly understand English and some of them clearly don’t).  In a lot of ways, the multi-language element alone makes the show worth watching, if just how neat it is to hear.

Overall – 3 out of 5
Night Raid 1931 is a really solid anime show.  It’s worst traits are only just so-so and it’s got a lot of really neat elements that elevate the show as a whole.  It’s not great and has more potential than is realized, but it’s a fun show that’s worth checking out.

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