Based on the manga of the same name by Shinobu Ohtakacreator of the Arabian Nights-inspired series magic and the battle-comedy Sumomomo, Momomo, East‘s first twelve episodes are both comfortably within shounen norms and just different enough to give it an edge. The story follows what we could say is the basic shounen formula: two plucky teen boys with a dream of becoming the best set out to change the world with both the power of their friendship and their amazing special skills. Along the way they’re joined by a girl who is both in need of rescue and not quite a damsel in distress; later they meet a second girl to fill the “princess” role. Various adults wander in and out with a variable degree of helpfulness.
Fortunately, Ohtaka hasn’t been playing this game for so long without knowing how to do it well, and East, despite its cookie-cutter elements, still manages to be both quite watchable and fairly entertaining. It certainly helps that the adaptation isn’t trying to rush through the story – the first cour is mainly concerned with assembling the cast and figuring out Musashi’s powers, while also building the relationship between the two boys. It ends as the story appears to be really getting started, and while that’s risky, it also means that the second cour will be able to just jump right into the action with the benefit of us already being familiar with the salient information. And the first half isn’t uninteresting by any means; it still has a clear arc to the story and all three of the main characters have some emotional depth.
Musashi, the main protagonist of the piece, is given the most time to develop. When we first meet him, he really does seem like just another brash, impetuous shounen hero, and yes, he is both of those things. But he’s also surprisingly intelligent and a genuinely nice, caring person. He was orphaned young and taken in by Kojiro’s father after his own relatives mistreated him, and both he and Kojiro learned basic human goodness from him… which is important because basic human badness is in ample display among the rest of the townsfolk. People have split off into two competing belief systems: one which worships the monstrous aliens, called oni, who descended to Earth one hundred and fifty years before the start of the story, and another which is determined to fight against them. The oni worshipers, with the monsters’ backing and power, have essentially declared those against the creatures as heretics, and as a result the fighters (calling themselves Bushi) have been ostracized in towns like the one the boys grew up in. If something goes wrong, the Bushi and their faction are blamed, and in the case of Musashi’s parents, their death from disease was seen as punishment for being nice to Kojiro’s dad. It’s not a new story, but it is one that doesn’t wear out with the telling – man’s inhumanity to man.
Kojiro has definite self-esteem issues stemming from the townsfolk’s attitude towards him and the death of his father, and while he truly does want to go with Musashi, he also feels inferior to him much of the time. This is where Musashi’s impressive emotional intelligence comes in, because he’s both aware of Kojiro’s issues and devoted to making sure that he knows his worth; he’s unstinting in his belief in his best friend’s abilities. Little moments that could easily have returned into fights are defanged quickly, and not just because the two have made a conscious decision that they won’t fight with each other if they’re going to make this work. It isn’t easy, but seeing them really try is a nice touch and makes them both more human than they might otherwise have been. Even the advent of Tsugumi, who is herself in need of an escape from an emotionally abusive situation, can’t get between them, although mostly that’s because the boys are too worried about what the other might think of their taste in/experience with women , and Tsugumi really doesn’t understand sexual or romantic relationships anyway. What all three of them do share, however, is an understanding of the sort of trauma they’ve all been through, and that does make them feel like a pretty strong team.
The main storyline for these episodes is the discovery of Musashi’s true power, and that’s interestingly enough not done primarily through battles. It still manages to introduce some truly repugnant villains and conflicting philosophies, letting us know that the Bushi aren’t a monolith in their beliefs, and the world building feels fairly natural as it feeds into the storyline. Pacing is fairly decent, although it’s worth noting that it isn’t until episode five that things really take off and that’s promptly followed by the very disjointed episode six. Information is doled out as needed, which does help to keep things from feeling overwhelming, and as an added bonus the dialogue isn’t entirely delivered in a scream, which is occasionally an issue with shounen actionseries. Character designs are definitely cleaner than in magic (although how Musashi’s pants stay up is anyone’s guess), and while the colors are mostly muted with groups of people color-coded by hair, there are some very nice visual touches with the Bodhisattva imagery used for the oni and the floating Bushi fortresses – Michiru’s special blade skill stands out as particularly striking.
East isn’t reinventing any wheels (although it does have a “mangling murder wheel”), but it is doing a good job with the staples of its genre while making its characters feel like they have a little more depth to them. It isn’t likely to win you over the genre; it is, however, a pretty good time once it gets its hooks into you.