As a spinoff of A Certain Magical Index, A Certain Scientific Railgun follows the daily life of Mikoto Misaka in Academy City. Being a self contained environment for the study and advancement of espers, life in Academy City is rarely mundane. The excitement picks up as a string of crimes breaks out, all involving espers abusing their powers for whatever reason. Being the roommate of a Judgment member, Mikoto gets drawn into their investigations and peacekeeping activities.
When I first started watching Railgun (which was before I ever saw its parent work, A Certain Scientific Index), I thought it would be another one of those fantasy-based school life shows. It’s a genre you see all the time, with hundreds of examples, yet they all seem to blend into one so it’s hard to name specific titles. Think Fate/Stay Night or Shakugan no Shana – just another show with superpowers and maybe a tsundere to round things out. By the time I reached the end of the first story arc, I realized that I was catastrophically wrong.
A Certain Scientific Railgun does indeed use the blueprints of such superpower-based shows. But what it does with those floor plans is fresh and exciting. I admire its approach to establishing Academy City as a credible setting, complete with its own rules of law, governmental bodies, and even a culture of sorts. It feels like a place you can go to, which functions under a consistent set of rules. The same goes for the concept of esper powers; they are analyzed, measured, and categorized according to scientific principles. In this world, there’s nothing supernatural about esper powers. By treating the fundamentals of the story in this way, the series avoids overusing them as spectacles. The details about how esper powers work, the exact machinations of Academy City’s various organizations, all of these things are there, but hidden away. That way, the show can get on with the business of telling a story.
The story that Railgun tells is very good indeed. The backbone of it is the idea that the individual, no matter how empowered, will inevitably need to rely on others. This theme, the strength of friendship, is present in every episode from beginning to end. Many other plot elements branch off from that central idea. You can see an undercurrent of class struggle which becomes prevalent in the “Skill-out” arc, which analyzes the injustices visited upon those without powers by those who have them. Railgun also tackles the age-old debate about whether the ends justify the means, and even gives a little consideration to ethics in science. All of these ideas may sound somewhat like the train of thought of a high school student who just started literature class, but the way Railgun presents them is its greatest strength.
For a work of such thematic variety, Railgun never takes itself too seriously. The world does not hang in the balance depending on Mikoto’s decisions, there are no global conspiracies or any such nonsense that tend to strain your suspension of disbelief. The show avoids beating its ideas into the viewers’ heads, dispensing with any pretense of self-importance. It seeks only to present a story, and the deeper ideas flow naturally from it. I like the logic of the plot. I like how story arcs flow together, and how there isn’t much true filler. I like that story elements are set up without you realizing it, and how the central issues from the very beginning of the series carry through to the end. Most of all, I like that Railgun is about more than just the superpowers and the fighting. It has a soul, animated by a cast of characters that feels real, and a setting that is fantastical but also somehow real.
Though the series never really dragged for me, there were a few times when the story started to meander a little too much. As I mentioned, the show has a tendency of setting up story elements without you realizing it. It’s cool and rewarding when you see the payoff, but the lead up to it can get awkward. Only one episode comes to mind that is truly irrelevant, but the second half does contain a string of episodes featuring side characters doing mundane tasks only partially related to the ending story arc. Your mileage will vary on those. Railgun is at its best when it’s in a definite story arc, as those parts exemplify efficient pacing.
Railgun‘s story takes what makes its world fantastical and unbelievable, and hides it by showing us what would make it real. Similarly, it sports a cast of characters that have amazing powers, but hides that away to show us what makes them human. All the stuff you hear about esper powers and how they work is still there, but it’s used purposefully. The focus is on the friendship between the four main characters.
Screen time is split roughly evenly between Mikoto, her roommate Kuroko Shirai, Judgment member Kazari Uiharu, and their mutual friend Ruiko Saten. You’d think that Mikoto, being one of Academy City’s strongest espers, would serve as the primary source of spectacle in the series. Yet for the most part, she is played against type; often we see her as a human, fallible and flawed despite her incredible abilities. She represents the value of hard work, as it’s frequently said that even Mikoto used to be a level 1 – she worked hard her entire life to get to where she is now. This means Mikoto isn’t really the muscle of the group. In dangerous situations, there is no assumption that she’ll prevail – and that just makes the drama all the more gripping. The series also focuses on Mikoto’s growth into an adult, learning that there is more to life than what is encompassed in her world view. The moment this revelation dawns on her is bittersweet – a rare kind of character development in this genre.
Through Kuroko, we see the virtue of duty. Kuroko is a dedicated member of Judgment, an organization established to maintain public safety in Academy City. Most of the time this entails picking up garbage, finding stray pets, and things of that nature. Sometimes it means apprehending criminals, which is what Kuroko excels at. Though Kuroko’s perverted crush on Mikoto can get annoying (seemingly tacked on to please the boys), I admired her absolute devotion to doing her job. It’s an attitude that sometimes puts her at odds with her friends, introducing a bit of a moral conflict between acting logically and acting loyally. Kuroko also has moments of surprising wisdom, though they can also be played for comedic effect when juxtaposed over perverted subtext. She’s a lively character who goes deeper than her “onee-sama” fetish, and serves as a good counterbalance to Mikoto, who can get dour at times.
Uiharu is Kuroko’s partner in Judgment, and embodies loyalty. She is absolutely devoted to her friends, a quality that causes minor drama late in the show. For the most part, I see her as a sort of obligatory moe character: physically frail, quirky hidden personality, and oh so young. She is the straight girl to Kuroko’s shenanigans.
The last of the main cast is Ruiko Saten, who is sort of a mirror for Mikoto. I think her presence is an interesting one. Mikoto shows that if you work hard, you can achieve your dreams. Saten shows that some people might work hard, but they still won’t get what they want. In some ways, she represents a dose of cynicism (or perhaps reality) to ground the show’s idealism. The first story arc is in many ways about Saten’s reckoning with her level 0 status (no esper potential). She has to come to terms with her limits, and learn that there is no path laid out for her progression. Her major development comes when she realizes that she has to take responsibility for growing beyond her limits.
The supporting cast and major antagonists are equally colorful and watchable. Without spoiling too much, I have to say I love the way the main antagonist’s actions and intentions reflect the major themes of the plot. In the antagonist we see a warped version of the ideals of loyalty, hard work, and friendship that the protagonists represent. We also see the result of a lapse in scientific ethics, motivated by the inner workings of the fictional world. The only negative is that the writers do have a penchant for villainous 180s, which sometimes come too suddenly. Railgun is, for the most part, an elegant tapestry that weaves together all these threads of character and story. Little is wasted.
If there’s one thing that Railgun can’t be faulted for, it’s the sensory experience. You can thank J.C. Staff (responsible for other action-oriented shows such as R.O.D -The TV- and Ikkitousen) for the superb animation work, which extends beyond the elaborate set pieces. Even the day to day scenes in Academy City are lovingly animated, although the presence of CGI windmills, Lamborghinis, and even CGI soda cans is a little cheesy. Only a little.
The music is less notable but fits the series well. I can’t knock it for the way it’s used, particularly when fripSide’s opening and ending themes are brought in during some of the climactic events. The first ending theme, “Dear My Friends”, is grammatically suspect but I think is a fair representation of the sentimental mood of the series.
Railgun‘s voice cast is as lively as every other aspect of the show. Rina Satou (Minami-ke‘s Haruka) shows a considerable range in her performance as Mikoto. Satomi Arai impressed me the most playing Kuroko. It’s not that she is amazingly believable, but her portrayal of the character just made it fun. She can be serious when necessary, but her usual Kuroko voice excellently straddles silliness and pervertedness. One more voice actor of note is Kanae Ito, relatively new to the scene, delivering a solid performance as Ruiko Saten. More than any of the other characters, Saten is supposed to be your average Jane. All Ito had to do was sound ordinary, and she does a fine job of it.