Here is a series where, initially, the artistic style was the primary attraction. Witch Hunter Robin is intensively gothic. The tone, often somber and grave, is established right from the opening; even the lead, at 15, exhibits little of the ebullience common in anime girls of high school age, and has a maturity that lends itself well to tackling supernatural crime. A 2002 anime original of 26 episodes, it’s rather original for an anime, but the pacing and plot reminded me of some cartoons where dark, somewhat jaded musings on human good and evil also feature. 15-year-old Robin Sena is a new transfer, not to a school, but from the Italian to the Japanese branch of Solomon, an anti-witchcraft organization also known by its Japanese initials STN-J. Welcomed and soon integrated into a cozy and productive office environment, she gets right to work as a hard-boiled supernatural crime fighter. In fact (as the opening makes pretty clear) she may even have a thing for tall, pale, and gaunt STN-J veteran Amon, so watch out for some romantic undertones. Witchcraft in this world is a congenital condition, as common in males as in females, and the awakening of a witch’s powers often leads to moral transgression, crime, and other dangerous and unhinged behaviors. It is up to Solomon agents, who themselves possess witch abilities but keep them under control, to identify, locate, and neutralize these threats. Robin possesses uncommonly strong abilities, having the power to ignite and control flame, and is adept at navigating dangerous situations. Yet she keeps her head even in life-threatening encounters. Reared by the Catholic Church whose exorcists work alongside Solomon, she has a strong sense of mission that helps maintain her mental poise. In short, she’s a model witch hunter. While elsewhere in the anime world Aggretsuko is only the latest program to capitalize on dispiriting, dysfunctional work culture, here office life is friendly without being unfocused, and personality quirks just add to the color of life, so there is nothing to stop Robin from fitting right in as the local office clears each witch-of-the-week.
Later complications blur the ethical picture. When one of the missions takes Robin to a high-rise slum, she encounters a supernaturally long-lived witch, who laments her hunting of her own kind, recalling the horrors innocent witches have lived through from olden times, and that she herself knew in the Salem witch trials. This, by the way, is a powerful testament to the power of American narratives in anime. Tens of thousands across Europe were executed on conviction for witchcraft in the early modern period; yet, following the prominent place of the brief panic that led to tens of deaths in American historiography, that is the referent here. The multi-centenarian‘s indignation also belies what we’ve already seen in Witch Hunter Robin: a witch usually garners STN-J‘s attention only after already becoming a hazard to the public.
More interesting is a line of intrigue into some questionable activities among Solomon’s higher-ups. In the bad old days, witches were usually killed; now, a projectile gun using a neutralizing liquid, Orbo, makes live capture easier. However, as the manufacturer of Orbo, a higher-level branch of Solomon known as the Factory, continues its research, it becomes apparent they’re hiding something, and when Robin gets too close, she herself is targeted—with Orbo rounds of a discontinued make. At one point, she shelters with a friend of a friend, in one of my favorite spots in the series: another office, even smaller and cozier, run by a pachinko-loving, womanizing boss who looks full Mouri Kogoro on the outside, but really cares; Robin crashes in a minimalist/brutalist room, an inventive detail in the anime perfect for her personality. The second half of the series recalls Misato’s cautious sleuthing into NERV and SEELE in Neon Genesis Evangelion.
Witch Hunter Robin received high praise from some, both for originality and style. I, too, liked it very much, and am impressed the anime portrays its feature teen girl so differently than the usual, and resisted the urge to make a hell of the workplace. But as I already touched on, plots questioning the evil of witchcraft are a global entertainment staple, so it is more a well-executed iteration than an original. The understated action and shadowy, urban setting echoed, for me at least, those Western superhero team cartoons, aimed at older boys and adolescents, that long aired in the afternoon hours on children’s channels. Here of course there are original characters, rather than a cast of heroes and villains returning for the nth decade, but there’s the same hardboiled look at good, evil, and gray areas that is an established way to mark a show as for a more mature audience. It’s hard for me to explain; you’ll have to see if this exemplary-yet-subdued gothic supernatural crime anime brings back (and improves on) the same memories for you.