If there’s one thing I love, it’s shonen anime. I love the crazy action sequences, the battles won by sheer willpower, characters who are totally OP because it’s more boss that way, awkward teen crushes, true character growth from either 1) obnoxious, rude, unpopular kid or 2) well-liked and intelligent but emotionally distant kid to brave and powerful kickass warrior who will save the world with the power of believing in himself and his friends. Technically, this stuff is written for/marketed to teenage boys (hence the title shonen), but I don’t care. I love it. From Sword Art Online to Naruto Shippuden, from Rurouni Kenshin to Attack on Titan, most of my favorite anime all fall into the shonen category.
What originally drew me to the genre was the sincerity in the storytelling. There was no cynicism or sarcasm in the storyline or in the character growth, though the characters themselves might occasionally be cynical or sarcastic. I started watching a lot of anime during a particularly lonely period in my life, and the constant message that friendship is important and gives you strength was comforting. I watch a lot of other stuff besides shonen anime, but the shonen stuff holds a very dear place in my heart. That being said, if you watch enough of it, you start to see the patterns. A good shonen anime lets you forget that a lot of these stories do follow a specific type of construction, but a bad shonen anime leaves you feeling like you’re wasting your time with this new story and are better off rewatching Naruto totally destroy Pain after the destruction of Konoha. Basically, if you watch enough shonen, it’s very easy to get bored.
When I started watching Nabari No Ou, I thought it was going to be a typical shonen anime. I was so convinced that it was going to adhere to all of the stereotypes that, even though Hulu Plus had been recommending it to me for a while, I decided I wasn’t going to watch it. But then a few days ago, I decided to give the first episode a try. By the third episode, I knew I was in for something completely different from what I expected, and by the fifth episode, I had fallen unabashedly in love with this series. Why? What makes it so different? Well, my friends, the short answer is this: Nabari No Ou is the most beautifully emo thing I’ve ever seen. ***SPOILERS BELOW*** (but really, this show originally ran in 2008 and the manga goes in a different direction, so I don’t care if I spoil things)
Pay attention to the lyrics of the opening:
Nabari No Ou came out in 2008 and ran for 26 episodes. Hulu describes the show thusly: In the shadows of this modern world, ninjas fight for control of an ancient technique which holds untold strength. This coveted power dwells within apathetic Miharu, a fact the guy really couldn’t care less about – until the clashing rival clans bring their battle to him. Now Miharu struggles to understand the mystery buried in his soul, and must choose a side if he hopes to survive.
This description initially put me off. When I read it, I thought, “Oh, it’s going to be some kind of modernized Naruto? Sounds boring.” Based on that plot description, I figured the villains would be easily read as villains and one side would clearly be right while the other would be wrong, and Miharu would get over his “couldn’t care less” in order to save the world with his scary ninja powers, and he would probably get the girl. Because guaranteed there’s going to be a girl who has more skills and experience than him, but he’s going to outclass her after one day of training to show how special he is. OP heroes are the best heroes, after all.
About the only thing I got right in that guess was that a girl, Raimei, did show up in the second episode who had more skills and experience than Miharu.
The key to understanding Miharu is accepting his apathy as more than just a general disinterest in the things around him. At the start of the series, Miharu has one goal in life, and that’s to be as unconnected to other people as possible. He’s quiet and withdrawn, emotionally vacant, manipulative, and weak. He’s deeply depressed, uncomfortable in crowds, and feels truly undeserving of any special attention, let alone love or friendship. Even after Miharu finds out that he has the Shinrabansho sealed inside of him, thus the power to literally rewrite history, save or take lives on a whim, change the make up of the earth itself, Miharu doesn’t care. Miharu is the kind of kid who would let himself get swallowed by a lion if the lion asked politely. He never becomes physically strong, never outclasses Raimei or the other members of Team Banten (or anybody, really). He understands clearly that even those who are protecting him are protecting the Shinrabansho first. In his mind, they don’t truly care about him and are only using him to get their own desires. Raimei even early on that the only reason she came to meet Miharu was because she knew that the Kairoshu (painted as the villains initially) would be coming after him, and she’s seeking revenge against her brother, who is a Kairoshu member.
Miharu’s character attributes don’t change all that much until he starts to spend more time with Yoite. Yoite, a Kairoshu member who uses a forbidden ninjustu that comes with the cost of eating away at the caster’s life force, secretly approaches Miharu without either the Kairoshu or Team Banten knowing and begs Miharu to grant his wish with the power of the Shinrabansho. His request is to be completely erased from existence, because the world would be better if he had never been born.
This interaction completely changes the dynamic of the show from typical shonen action story where the boy must become a hero to something much more complex, and potentially devastating. After Yoite threatens to kill the members of Team Banten, Miharu agrees to find a way to control the Shinrabansho in order to grant Yoite his wish.
So, while Banten/Fuma are working together to collect five forbidden ninjutsu techniques from across the country in order to permanently seal the Shinrabansho and the Kairoshu are collecting the same five techniques in order to steal the Shinrabansho and use it to gain power, Yoite and Miharu begin scheming to take the techniques for themselves to create a guidebook for Miharu to use the Shinrabansho himself.
And this is what they are like:
Yoite, it turns out, is just as depressed and lonesome as Miharu. Neither values their own existence, and both find it painful when someone is kind to them. Miharu, subconsciously at first, recognizes himself in Yoite. He recognizes the anguish and anxiety that they both suffer from. Both constantly blame themselves for things that were beyond their control, for the pain inflicted upon them by others, for the ways in which they are being used by more powerful ninjas. Miharu makes it his goal to be able to grant Yoite’s request, even as he realizes that the last thing he would ever want is for Yoite to disappear. He sees Yoite as another Miharu, and in that connection, Miharu is able to find compassion and learn how to care about another human being. Eventually Miharu leaves Banten and joins the Kairoshu because Yoite is sick, and the only way for Miharu to help Yoite is for the two to be together.
Here’s a scene that made me cry:
Yoite, for his part, stays troubled for much longer than Miharu, wishing to disappear until nearly the final act. However, like Miharu, Yoite learns how to care for another person and how to connect with others along the way. In every interaction that they have with other ninjas, Yoite makes it his top priority to protect Miharu, who still has relatively no ninja skills of his own apart from the tempestuous Shinrabansho. He willingly sacrifices not just his life force through his forbidden art, but also his physical safety. At one point, they end up trapped underground with some enemies and friends, and Yoite is gravely injured protecting Miharu. Because of this, Miharu is able to awaken the Shinrabansho and save Yoite’s life. Later, when they find out that Yoite may have less than a month to live, Yoite panics and Miharu is the one who is able to calm him down. The two go on the run together to find an alternate way to activate the Shinrabansho and suddenly find themselves the targets of the Kairoshu’s most lethal assassins. Through all of this, Yoite constantly puts Miharu’s safety above his own and Miharu does everything in his power to protect Yoite.
In the end, after the exciting and scary final confrontation with all of the opposing forces, Yoite makes himself scarce while Miharu spends five days unconscious in the hospital. When Miharu wakes up, he’s desperate to find Yoite before it’s too late and he dies. Miharu’s other comrades hunt down a lead and give the information to Miharu, who leaves the hospital early in order to find his friend. Miharu finds him in a church and tells him that he finally thinks he can control the Shinrabansho enough to erase him, and if that is what Yoite truly desires, then he’ll do it. But he wants Yoite to know that he has no desire to erase him because to Miharu, Yoite has become a precious friend. In fact, Miharu wants to use the Shinrabansho to heal Yoite’s body instead so that the two can be friends for a long time. Yoite decides that he no longer wants to be erased, that he wouldn’t want to rob his few friends of their memories of him, but that to erase the damage he’d done to himself through the forbidden art would be unfair. He decides to keep living, sick as he is, but finally knowing what it means to have a friend.
Time for a heart to heart, boys.
There’s so much more that I want to say about this show and how brilliant it is, but this will go on for another three thousand words if I do. Ultimately, this show has little to do with Miharu gaining strength and power in order to stop the bad guys. This show is about two depressed teenagers helping each other find peace and acceptance. It’s beautiful and emotional and touching, while also maintaining its humor and action throughout. In a world of OP teen heroes and fanservicey sidekicks, Nabari No Ou was a well-worth-it delight and you should watch the heck out of it. Bring your tissues, though, because you’re going to need them to deal with these emo kids.