In Academy City, people from all walks of life gather to develop and study esper powers – abilities that seem to defy the laws of physics but still operate on scientifically quantifiable principles. Those who are unable to use esper powers turn to magic, but magicians are strictly prohibited from entering Academy City. This balance is upset when by chance, Toma Kamijo meets the English Church’s most precious magical asset: a girl named Index. Her presence in Academy City attracts other magicians, and Toma has the unlucky duty of having to ensure that the magicians and espers don’t all end up killing each other.
I appreciate escapist fantasy, but A Certain Magical Index makes the mistake of being escapist drivel while taking itself incredibly seriously. That’s an extremely tough thing to pull off, and this particular series fails spectacularly at it.
The worst thing about Index is how it handles its fictional world. It tries desperately to establish rules and parameters, even at the expense of drama or character building: Academy City is run this way, espers can use these abilities, magicians can use others, and so on. But nothing in the story really has anything to do with these rules, both from a dramatic standpoint and a logic standpoint. Most of the exposition, you’ll realize, is needless or simply inconsistent. It almost never enhances the story, even though it’s presented in a manner which demands to be taken seriously.
If the writers are going to be so downright serious about this world they’ve created, why also strain my suspension of disbelief to the breaking point? Through its insistence of explaining the rules, and emphasizing Academy City as one developed through science, Index continually has pretensions of being realistic. Yet the action that unfolds often breaks my suspension of disbelief, causing a disconnect between what I’m told I’m seeing, and what I actually see. Academy City, for example, is shown as a carefully monitored city with a powerful law enforcement division. Yet Toma usually gets into situations involving wholesale destruction and even murder. Index is supposed to be somewhat realistic yet we have a middle schooler involved in these things. If the show could just dispense with the pretense of realism, and embrace its fantastical underpinnings, it would be much more enjoyable.
Index is also marred by structural problems. The 24 episodes are portioned into story arcs with only the loosest connections between them. Watching it was a fractured, uneven experience where characters and plot points were rapid-fired at me with little context to get me situated. The experience was pretty much like channel surfing. Even if we were to look at Index as a collection of self-contained adventures, there are still some large gaps in logic as each scenario plays out.
Looking past the structural issues, there are many elements of the fiction that I do enjoy. Academy City, its workings and residents, have plenty of potential. For now, I can only see the potential, and ultimately this is the reason why the series is so disappointing. This potential is much better realized in the spin-off, A Certain Scientific Railgun. Index could have capitalized on allegories for class struggle, the conflict between science and religion, and even smaller in scope personal dramas… but it doesn’t. It sets up the seeds for all of these themes, but fails to do anything enticing with them.
In line with the structure of the narrative, A Certain Magical Index contains a large cast of characters with none being used particularly well. Index’s presence is illustrative of the overarching problem this series has with character development. The first story arc focuses on the battle to save her, but never asks why she is worth saving. Beyond some vague compassion you might feel for her as a human being, the writers don’t do much to generate a sense of pathos. This is reflected (perhaps self-referentially, though I doubt this anime is so sophisticated) in Toma’s one-dimensional reasoning for protecting her – because it’s the right thing to do. But is it really? He never tries to understand Index’s situation, or the motives of the Church of England, staying his path despite whatever he is told about her. He never considers the consequences of the devastation and catastrophe that he takes part in. If the story is as serious, grave, and dangerous as the writing is desperately trying to make us believe, then Toma would not casually endanger his life (not to mention the lives bystanders) without examining these issues. Without pathos, Index becomes merely an excuse for Toma to get into fights. Subsequently introduced characters suffer from the same problem.
The most puzzling character development concerns Accelerator, the most powerful esper in Academy City. I’m a fan of villains-turned-heroes but with Accelerator, it makes no sense. I only mention this because it is the most egregious insult to the viewer. When we first meet Accelerator, we see that he has sadistically murdered around 10,000 people. To have him return later as a protagonist is completely absurd, as if the writers were deliberately saying “you have a short memory and limited intelligence, so here is our weak explanation as to why you should be cheering for Accelerator now.” This is a kid who has murdered more people (brutally murdered, I should add) than most Third World dictators. And yet, because of a few throwaway lines, we’re suddenly supposed to look the other way on that? Accelerator is irredeemable in my eyes, and the fact that the series completely sidesteps this point reeks of shoddy writing.
The last of the principal cast is Mikoto Misaka, who is characterized as straight up tsundere. Like so many other characters, nothing is there to break her out of that generic archetype (although A Certain Scientific Railgun thankfully paints her as a real person). Whether or not this is an artifact of the adaptation process doesn’t really matter. The overall feeling is that the writers’ reach exceeded their grasp, and the work suffered for it in the end.
Whatever the reasons are for the deficiencies in storytelling, they certainly did not affect the animation budget. Increasing automation in the animation process has led to better looking shows over the years, and Index is a great example of this. The thing is, the art direction isn’t super remarkable. But seeing the series in motion an impressive experience nonetheless. Lighting and sound are used to good effect, especially during the action scenes.