Apologies to anyone confused about the title, as of this writing I am still alive. Today we follow the story of a hard working god who dreams of having the most followers on Wordpre er.. at his shrine. But really, if you haven’t hit the follow button yet what are you waiting for?
Title: Noragami / Noragami Aragoto
Original airing: Jan 5, 2014 to Mar 23, 2014 / Oct 3, 2015 to Dec 26, 2015
Duration: 24 min per episode
Genres: Action, Adventure, Shounen, Supernatural
Source: Noragami manga by Adachitoka
Where I watched: Funimation (English sub and dub available)
Brief Synopsis and First Impressions
In times of need, if you look in the right place, you just may see a strange telephone number scrawled in red. If you call this number, you will hear a young man introduce himself as the Yato God.
Yato is a minor deity and a self-proclaimed “Delivery God,” who dreams of having millions of worshippers. Without a single shrine dedicated to his name, however, his goals are far from being realized. He spends his days doing odd jobs for five yen apiece, until his weapon partner becomes fed up with her useless master and deserts him.
Just as things seem to be looking grim for the god, his fortune changes when a middle school girl, Hiyori Iki, supposedly saves Yato from a car accident, taking the hit for him. Remarkably, she survives, but the event has caused her soul to become loose and hence able to leave her body. Hiyori demands that Yato return her to normal, but upon learning that he needs a new partner to do so, reluctantly agrees to help him find one. And with Hiyori’s help, Yato’s luck may finally be turning around.
I had actually discovered this series near the beginning of the year, way back before I thought to do any sort of anime challenge. At that time I had only watched two episodes, and my general impressions were rather good. The series had nice animation, seemed funny, and hinted at an interesting backstory. Given that I was trying to get my wife more into anime at the time, I shelved it with the plan to pick it up again when she was more receptive to watching. Then Netflix pulled it off their lineup. Whoops.
Thankfully my eyes were later opened to the wonderful streaming services of Funimation -which had licensed the title. Wanting to watch the series this year after the near miss, I put it in my first “what should I watch” poll where it took second place (behind Psycho Pass). I figured I had more than enough reasons to watch it this time, so I
forced asked my wife to offer me 50-75 minutes of her day for about two weeks so we could get through it. The result, as I will try to explain in this review, was better than I expected in many ways but not entirely so.
The entire story of Noragami is based on two ideas that are deeply rooted in Japanese mythology. The first being that phantoms are the manifestation of negative thoughts and emotions (a theme loosely explored in a series I reviewed earlier this year – Myriad Colors Phantom World). The second is that gods exist to battle these phantoms and otherwise keep humanity safe, while granting their wishes. The gods in this series are derived from the entire pantheon of Japanese deities, including Shinto and Bhuddist/Hindu adoptions. The vast majority of importance is placed upon the Seven Lucky Gods, who are widely worshipped during festivals and religious observances in the real world to this day.
These gods and goddesses are given humanized characteristics for the purpose of this series as they play both main and supporting roles, giving them unique and interesting personalities. In the attempt to make them act even more like humans, they are even shown to live according to some sort of social structure, with well known gods like the Lucky Seven near the top and lesser known deities at the bottom. This is where the god Yato comes into the picture.
Yato is a virtual unknown, to both humans and gods, which puts him in a precarious position. In the world of Noragami, a god’s prestige and their very existence relies upon worship from humans. More revered gods enjoy power and luxury thanks to their ‘celebrity’ status, including possessing strong regalia. Regalia are former human souls who are granted a posthumous name by a god to become their weapons. Gods like the Lucky Seven have many powerful regalia while gods like Yato only manage to keep one at any time and have to scrape the bottom of the barrel for worshippers just to survive.
Charging only 5 yen for any job, a bargain compared to his competition, Yato’s plan is to save up enough money to build himself a large shrine and attract more followers than any other god. His problem? He’s not making money very fast and has recently lost his regalia, severely hampering his ability to fight phantoms. His problems are further exacerbated when a girl named Hiyori begins following him around. She saves him from being hit by an oncoming bus, but has her soul knocked out of her body in the ensuing accident. Ever since, it has been slipping in and out of her body almost uncontrollably. Holding Yato responsible, Hiyori demands that he help her before tending to other jobs, but Yato doesn’t really know how to do that. Thankfully his phantom fighting issues are relieved when he comes across a young soul that he renames Yukine to forge into a new regalia.
The bond between a regalia and a god is more than that between a weapon and its master. Gods are responsible for their regalia in all respects, and become blighted when their regalia think or act impurely. Stricter gods will subject their regalia to harsh ablutions when they step out of line. Some will even banish them. Yato’s reluctance to correct his regalia in such circumstances sets him apart in the relationship he has with them, but creates a risk to his very existence. Much of the first season revolves around the difficult adjustment that Yukine must make in accepting his posthumous life, challenging Yato and their companion Hiyori to guide him. The bond they form through their (mis)adventures create a sort of family that mirrors the way human wishes and willpower ‘create’ gods; seemingly out of thin air.
The tangible consequences of a regalia’s actions aren’t the only ones that the series explores. Yato’s struggle to keep followers caused him to take on dubious and violent work in the past (during Japan’s more chaotic eras), leading to his status as a ‘god of calamity.’ Though most gods don’t have a strong knowledge of him, it is revealed that one god, Bishamon, has come to hate him with a fiery passion due to his past actions. Their rivalry is present in the first series, though not fully explained, but really comes into focus in Aragoto. The arc that deals with Bishamon, and the challenge she faces in confronting her violent history with Yato, is perhaps the most well executed of the series. Further exploring the themes of family and responsibility, this arc drives home the point of the gods’ vulnerabilities.
Whereas Noragami tells the story of Yato and how his small number of friends helps him overcome his loneliness and take steps toward a better life, Aragoto brings a lot more of the series’ lore into focus and features the other gods more heavily. Noragami left so many questions about Yato and the nature of the gods unanswered. Despite having a completed arc, it feels unfinished. Aragoto takes care of a lot of the loose threads, but also opens up more questions about Yato’s dark past. The story has Yato’s friends take a less pronounced role while it explores Bishamon and the other gods. A troubling increase in phantom occurrences spurs the forces of heaven to find the cause, but also has the god of luck, Ebisu, working behind the scenes. As if reaching further than the episode count would permit, Aragoto weaves a complex and involved arc but leaves the more mysterious parts of Yato’s history open ended.
With the majority of characters in Noragami being gods or other supernatural beings, with only one main human character, you might be tempted to dismiss these divine beings as unrelatable, but that is not the case. Regalia, at the very least, are former humans who have been given a posthumous existence as a god’s weapon. The gods themselves take on personalities in the same vein as Greek/Roman characters in ancient myth, though adjusted for modern speech and behaviors, allowing them to take on a depth they wouldn’t otherwise possess.
The character that receives the far greatest portion of screentime and development is none other than the delivery god Yato. Guaranteeing that he can take on any job, big or small, he desperately seeks out work in hopes of getting more worshippers and the all important 5 yen payment which will eventually buy him the shrine of his dreams. His happy personality makes him entertaining to watch in most cases, though his comical stupidity is played a little too forcibly at times. His most interesting facet, however, is just how complex he really is. Without the luxury of having centuries of worship to sustain him, Yato has done many things in his long life that he isn’t proud of. Despite this, there is an ever present cheerfulness to his optimistic attitude. His efforts to hide away his dark feelings behind a smile never comes across as disingenuous though, and makes his moments of seriousness in difficult situations all the more striking. Yato is a character keenly aware of the pain he has suffered, and has brought upon others, but strives to live the best way he can.
His generosity is seen most clearly in his treatment toward his regalia, Yukine. Coming across the small, young soul in the form of a snowflake during the middle of a fight, he is able to transform his spirit into a blade he names Sekki. Yukine’s struggle to understand life after death, resulting in anger and disrespect towards his ‘useless master,’ is a constant thorn in Yato’s side. But while Yato has little to offer him in terms of reknown or even shelter, his patience and dedication to his partner is very similar to a new parent toward their adopted child. The relationship is tenuous at first, and trust must be slowly built, but becomes rooted in a love that isn’t easily dismissed.
But if Yukine is the labor of love that Yato diligently works toward, Hiyori Iki is the project he procrastinates on. She relentlessly sticks to Yato’s side in an attempt to find a way to return her body back to normal, but the dependence in their relationship is more two sided than initially apparent. As a human unfamiliar with the world of gods and spirits, her inclusion in the story serves as a vehicle for the equally unfamiliar viewer’s experience. Being a female teenager also allows her to add a lot of charm into the dialog and various interactions with Yato and Yukine, balancing out their otherwise straightforward and direct way of handling things.
Aside from this, however, Hiyori’s characterization faces several problems that don’t seem to get better. Her introduction at the beginning of the series is abrupt, with her one unique trait being that she can see and hear Yato when most others can’t. Her ‘stranger in a strange land’ archetype lands her in trouble often, leading her to become a bit of a damsel in distress despite her best efforts. With the plot mainly centering around her involvement with Yato, viewers learn next to nothing about her own life aside from a few interactions with her friends. Along with this her role as the viewer’s window to the world overlaps with Yukine’s character, who also needs things explained to him often, and makes her further participation in the story seem less than essential.
The supporting characters of Bishamon and her lead regalia Kazuma from the first series become much more fleshed out in the second. They contrast Yato and the inexperienced Yukine, coming off as much more composed and capable. Bishamon herself is one of the Lucky Seven, with a huge shrine and hundreds of regalia to show for it. Choosing to depict a Japanese god of war as a woman is an interesting narrative choice, but the character is powerful regardless. Noragami gets a lot of things right about the powerful female trope by making her an independently capable character, while not making her perfect either. Though inherently strong and virtuous, her stubborn thinking leads to some major turmoil. Though her dominant disposition may seem off putting, the vulnerability and compassion Bishamon shows towards her regalia gives viewers a glimpse of her softer, maternal side.
Studio Bones has a long history of well animated work including incredibly popular titles like Fullmetal Alchemist, Ouran High School Host Club, and Soul Eater, to name a few. Their commitment to attractive art styles and quality work is equally evident in Noragami, which features slightly more realistic character designs similar to the style you might find in Eureka Seven. Releasing in a favorable season (Winter 2014), Noragami’s animation style and techniques made it one of the more crisp and fluid productions during that season’s lineup (and is easily the most popular).
Bones does well with this type of series, with a good mix of action and drama. The more realistic style helps to convey emotion well during these dramatic scenes; showing off the animator’s skill by using facial expressions and other subtle features to capture a moment. The action scenes are typically packed with movement and color, remarkably not losing character detail through most of them. Fights are full of interesting powers and effects that interact with the environment, along with the characters, tearing down trees or even leaving huge craters in the ground. Phantoms and their corruptive influence are easily identified with sinister pinks and purples, looking much like sludge or infection wherever they manifest. Phantom deaths are also a sight to behold in the huge circular splitting light patterns they create (at least when Yato kills them).
The character designs are well done, and opt for a more mundane look to gods and regalia than might initially be expected. The gods in the series are often seen wearing modern fashions, with the exception of Tenjin’s traditional garb, but very few appear to be opulent or grandiose. Some of the clothing items are actually regalia in their ‘weapon’ form, as they can manifest as any sort of item (pipe, jacket, even earring). Bishamon’s revealing garb is one such regalia, with her normal fashion resembling more of a military officer look. In comparison to some of these more ‘refined’ gods, Yato’s tracksuit and tattered scarf reflect his difference in status, adding to the wonderful visual storytelling.
The only complaint I could raise against the animation is its slight reliance on stock footage. Yato’s ritual in preparing Sekki to deliver a killing blow to his opponent is a lot like a magical girl transformation sequence, in that it has a somewhat generic background, takes a little while to complete, and worst of all, is repetitive. Seeing this sometimes two or more times in a single episode becomes annoying quickly. With so much attention spend towards quality animation throughout the rest of the series though, one can certainly understand trying to save a little time and effort by reusing this sequence.
The opening themes in Noragami are rather popular, thanks to their high energy feel and catchy vocals. Hey Kids!! definitely had me singing “Flavor, Flavor, Flavor!” along with the opening of every Aragoto episode I watched. The pop singer Tia does both the endings for this series, creating a pair of sweet and mellow songs that are still quick enough in tempo to not sound too somber.
Tako Iwasaki is no stranger to iconic musical stylings, having been able to define anime like Black Butler with his distinct themes. The musical style he used in this series felt similarly unique, blending an electronic sound with more traditional sounding Japanese melodies. It is especially amped up during battle scenes, where some rap is even mixed in on occasion to match the tone of the scene or set its rapid pace. While the soundtrack doesn’t offer a great deal of variety in the first aseaon, it still comes across as very effective in those moments because of Iwasaki’s creative direction and does improve somewhat in the second season.
As with most Funimation licensed series, you might have guessed by now that I did watch a lot of this as an English dub. The main roles were all played by experienced actors that I strangely don’t see see often in Funimation titles like Jason Liebrecht (Lavi from D.Gray-man) as Yato, Micah Solusod (Soul from Soul Eater) going with a much more youthful voice in Yukine, and Elizabeth Maxwell (Major Kusanagi from Ghost in the Shell) keeping her commanding tone of voice for Bishamon. Bryn Apprill got to exert herself much more as Hiyori than she did in a series I reviewed earlier this year (Izumiko in Red Data Girl), and worked really well for the character’s range of teenage emotions. Of course, I did switch to Japanese every once in a while, if only to hear Daisuke Ono’s small part as Daikoku.
I can’t help but feel that despite its well received status that this series is somewhat underrated, if only for its well executed story lines (the ones it finishes). A lot of this has to do with Yato and how compelling his character was, and how he was used to tell the story to maximum effect. By focusing on what sets Yato apart from other gods, whether it’s his poverty, his self sacrificial attitude toward Yukine, or his over-reliance on Hiyori’s attention, viewers are able to see a very human story from the point of view of a god. I mentioned before that Yato is a complex character, but aside from some mystery that was created for a third season (that may or may never come), he isn’t difficult to understand. Viewers can become easily invested in his plights and cheer his successes.
The second season also stands out as one of the few sequels in an anime that improves upon the original series. Both seasons are necessary to tell the story that Noragami presents, but Aragoto places extra focus on the greater consequences of Yato’s actions. This allows for more interesting characters to come into play, more complex villains to challenge them, and features more epic struggles than his god-for-hire days provided. For all its high points, however, there are notable drawbacks to both seasons which may frustrate some viewers.
The biggest missed opportunity is Hiyori’s entire involvement in the story. The first few episodes make it seem as if the relationship between her and Yato would be more complex than the friendship it remains throughout. While it is somewhat refreshing to not see the main couple falling in love simply because one is a male and the other a female, any possible romantic feelings Hiyori carried (which are hinted at more than once) could have been used to add some gravity to her situation.
Another issue has to do with the late addition of Ebisu. While the reasons for his introduction and his place in the story is clear, the drama that the series attempts to build around him falls somewhat flat. Without revealing too much, Ebisu is well known for reincarnating much more often than other gods. His frequent deaths lead to the birth of a newer, younger version of himself each time, but the series tries to make it seem like this incarnation’s death would be somehow meaningful. While it seems like Ebisu’s life is important to Yato, viewers don’t get enough investment to feel the same way.
Summary and Recommendations
Noragami presents a story about gods and their spiritual servants in a way that makes them accessible. It draws upon many common mythical themes in Japanese religious history, but presents these topics in a fresh and compelling way. Gods are powerful in this series, but they are all too vulnerable for the same reasons they are strong.
Consequence is one of the biggest themes in this story, where the actions of humans the regalia affect gods more than the other way around. Framing gods as the caretakers of their followers makes them susceptible when those followers act out or lose faith. The challenges the gods face are made all the more relatable when the very human emotions of despair, love, and loneliness are involved.
The characters make this story what it is, primarily following the delivery god Yato and his struggle to save up money for a shrine and gain followers. Yato’s true struggles become mired in protecting his friends and being a good master to the regalia that looks up to him.
The animation in this series shows Bones comfortably in their element, pulling off a good mix of action and drama seamlessly. The show looks consistently good and even amazing sometimes, combining with the unique musical style to create an entertaining experience.
While many aspects of the show are great, it feels like there was more content than the runtime really allowed for. Some plot threads aren’t fully completed by the end, and several within the series that are just dropped or faded away in importance. There isn’t a lot that changes in the characters’ lives by the time everything is over, which takes away from the story’s impact.
Watch if you:
Enjoy mythology/religion as a theme
Want an atypical shounen action series
Love cool character designs
Don’t watch if you:
Hate inconclusive endings
Need some romance to stay interested
Are sensitive to topics like death and suicide
As an outstanding series in most every aspect, my rating is 4 out of 5 Yatos.
I mentioned in my intro that this series gave me more than I expected at first. This is because I approached it with all the classic tropes of a shounen series in mind: Plentiful fighting, flashy attacks and abilities, contained arcs with single minded villains, and enough fanservice to hold viewer attention through duller moments. While Noragami does hit all these checkboxes in some way, I can’t help but walk away with the feeling like this was one of the best shounen anime I’ve seen in recent memory. This is undoubtedly thanks to the strong character work present in some of the more visible and involved characters in the narrative. Not all of these worked out though, which is was unfortunate considering how much potential this anime had.
I mentioned earlier that Hiyori’s relationship with Yato and Yukine was underplayed. While a romantic relationship between a god and a teenage girl is a highly improbable prospect, that improbability has story potential in itself. Numerous times the series tries to build tension by straining Hiyori’s relationship to these two, and each time that tension is either brushed away or dropped. In the end her entire role seems be just extra flavor (flavor, flavor!) rather than a key ingredient. The same goes for the importance of the other gods in the story. Even discounting the possible heaven wide conspiracy that is never properly explored, the drama that the series attempts to build around the gods is decidedly weak. For example: when we are told time and again that they can reincarnate, each attempt to give meaning to the threat of death is less powerful, and the explanations to convince the viewer to the contrary are equally impotent.
I have precious little manga experience, so it should come as no surprise that I have not yet read the Noragami manga, but the structure of the anime’s narrative makes it feel as though these less polished storylines were an attempt to adapt the manga material and fill out some of the series. Trying to adapt a manga properly is difficult as one always runs the risk of trying to squeeze in too much or be blamed for not including enough. In Noragami’s case, the best character arcs were Yato, Yukine, Bishamon, and to the a lesser extent, Ebisu. If the series had trimmed the manga material down to a more clear focus on these four, perhaps I could have left this series thoroughly feeling like I had seen something incredible instead of having these nagging disappointments lurking in the back of my mind like a faint bit of phantom corruption.
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Noragami: Some unsettling implications by D
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For more from me, you can find my other reviews on my Reviews Page or click on the tags below to see posts on similar shows. As always, thank you for reading.