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The limited edition cover of the first DVD com...

A Japanese DVD cover (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A Certain Scientific Railgun achieves excellence in its first half when it exploits the dramatic potential of its world building and characters. Alas, most of the rest of the time A Certain Scientific Railgun degrades into adolescent, pandering, fan service (expletive deleted).

NB: Railgun is a spin-off from A Certain Magical Index (which I haven’t seen).

The World

Railgun is set in a world where psionic powers have been scientifically proven. In Japan a huge Academy City has been set up to develop these powers and advance technology. The powers are ranked from Level 0 (nothing) up to Level 5.

Academy City has a population of 23 million, and only seven of these espers [1] are Level 5s.

The development of the espers also seems to be quite recent, so a much higher proportion of the population are students up to high school age. The social status attached to esper ranking is reflected in a section of the city being reserved for elite private schools that only accept higher level students.

In short this is an aristocracy in the making. When I described the set up to a friend, she compared it to Anne McCaffrey’s Talents series, but it actually reminds me more of the nastier status-bound elements of Julian May’s Galactic Milieu / Saga of the Exiles series.

Fortunately the story does not neglect the nastier elements. The major arc of the first 12 episodes is born from these and leaves the viewer wondering just how much more is to come [2].

The Characters

Mikoto Mikasa is one of those seven Level 5 espers I mentioned above, and her electrical powers make her the eponymous railgun. Mikasa and Kuroko Shirai (a Level 4 Teleporter) attend one of the elite schools.

Shirai is a member of Judgement [3], and works with the Level 1 (talent undisclosed) Kazari Uiharu. Uiharu’s best friend is the Level 0 Ruiko Saten, and the anime quickly brings these four together as a circle of friends.

The key here is that Saten has no powers in a city where your status is defined by your powers, and that Mikasa often doesn’t realise how much leeway she gets from being a Level 5.

There is one sequence where careless words from Mikasa drive Saten into making a horrible mistake, and the payoff when Mikasa realises it is extremely well handled.

When they connect to the world building, the main characters of Railgun are excellent. They interact in ways that are enlightening, that lead to growth and change.

I won’t detail the supporting cast, but there is a lot of depth there as well, particularly in the “villain” of the first half of the series [4].

The Awful

Unfortunately not all of the character interactions are connected to the world. All too many are simply adolescent pandering if not outright harassment. Naturally there’s plenty of fan service stuffed in there as well.

This is so bad in the first couple of episodes that I nearly bounced off the series. If I had been buying this one disc at a time, I would have [5].

Later on what made this so awful, and so annoying, was just how unnecessary it was.

There would be entire episodes that focussed on telling solid, character driven, stories that didn’t have any of the crap. These proved that Railgun simply doesn’t need to pander like this to be a series worth watching.

Then the first half story arc resolves in a satisfying way only for elements to be included in the wrap up.


Oh, and it looks like the first episode in the next half will be a swimsuit episode.

Double sigh.

The Interim Verdict

A Certain Scientific Railgun shines when it settles down to telling a story, but doesn’t do so consistently enough to be a great series.

At the halfway point Railgun is just far enough above average for me to continue, but I’m likely to be posting several exasperated tweets as I do.

[1] “Esper” is the in-universe term so I’ll be using it despite it looking awkward.

[2] That first arc isn’t entirely resolved, and I assume that the second half will tackle it in more detail.

[3] Judgement is a sort of informal police / talent enforcement organisation that employs students as agents. The more professional / serious outfit are known as Antiskill.

[4] It’s… complicated.

[5] It wasn’t quite as bad as episode 4 of Chobits (which I still haven’t seen in full), but it was getting there.