Perfectly Capturing a Bygone Era
While Witch Hunter Robin never appeared in the North American programming block, Toonami, it’s a show that perfectly captures the revival of the block in 2012. Having aired shows like Cowboy Bebop, Ghost in the Shell Stand Alone Complex, and others it feels like this would have been right at home. A slow burn show that attempts to provoke your thoughts while delivering moments of explosive action. Yet in spite of this, I can see why Witch Hunter Robin never quite reached these same heights.
A Brief History Lesson
If you ever wanted to know what the anime viewing experience was like for folks before streaming took off here in the US, then I would highly suggest looking at the Toonami programming block. This was a late night set on the Cartoon Network channel that featured adult oriented cartoons, and of course, anime. Having undergone several “eras” in terms of the type of content, each looked vastly different than the last.
The block started as far back as 1997, known as the “Moltar Era”, and didn’t even have anime. However, the focus was on action-oriented programming meant to pull kids in during the weekdays in the afternoon. It wasn’t anything like would it would become in 1999.
Enter T.O.M., this marks the true first “era” of the Toonami block. The day block still ran as normal but with it brought an edgier late night counterpart known as “Midnight Run” that ran, unsurprisingly, at midnight on “Saturday” for 5 hours. It featured what many would envision as classics such as Dragon Ball Z, Sailor Moon, and even more obscure titles like Interstellar 555 (a music video and sort of film that was made to showcase Daft Punk’s Discovery album).
While this occurred a narrative began to form, leading to the “death” of T.O.M. in the year 2000. This marked the start of the second era and yet another shift in the programming block. A morning kids block was played with (Toonami Rising Son) during this time, undergoing several changes in order to avoid internal competition with sister networks. However, this isn’t really all that important to our discussion, I mostly found that interesting.
What we do care about is the odd shift away from variety in the late night block. Instead, Tonnami put most of its eggs into the proverbial mech basket. Something that wouldn’t even occur until 2003 with the launch of what was known as “Gaint Robot Week”. The lineup was rather impressive featuring Neon Genesis Evangelion, Gigantor, Robotech, Martian Successor Nadesico, and Dai-Guard.
Suddenly, Toonami became quite different after this. While the third era began while still in the year 2003, it wasn’t until 2004 that the program would see a dramatic shift in Spring 2004. Doing away with the day time portion of the block, now only remained the late night weekend slot (though I should clarify, a day time block did still exist but it was re-branded and made to be separate from this). Well, I say “late night” but the block actually began considerably earlier, depending on where you lived, even as early as 4PM.
Alongside this change also came with it another shift. There was now a mix of Western programming alongside the anime. It’s around here that the block really did some experimental stuff, but ultimately, would lead to it to what it would become today.
Finally, we reach the end of T.O.M. with era 4 in 2007-2008 (officially shutdown entirely in 2009). After 11 years and introducing a LOT of people here in the West to anime, the block vanished. For myself, and several other younger anime watchers (though I’m not that young anymore), this was the end of the anime journey. Those cool “cartoons” that you could occasionally see glimpses of vanished. Or so we thought.
Suddenly in 2012, what Toonami became, Adult Swim, did something unexpected as an “April Fool’s prank”, it brought the block back. There was explosive interest as folks campaigned for the network to officially resurrect the block, and in just a few short days, they did exactly that.
This is the time that Witch Hunter Robin captures perfectly, when Toonami was coming back into focus. The late 90’s to early 2000’s anime were what they started out with, but they had that contemplative tone, following more adult stories, and more methodical plots. It’s difficult to explain, but if you were around during this time I’m sure you’d agree.
Eventually the block would morph and change to the present (2020, for those of you from the future) to a more shonen centered lineup, but even still, this was an important gateway for many anime fans, and still is even to this day.
So why the history lesson here? Couldn’t I have just said that it reminded me of this time and been done with it? Sure, but the context of just how well Witch Hunter Robin reminded me of this time is critical to understanding my critique of the series. This informed a lot of my views regarding the series, particularly in how it differed.
While this anime does have a lot in common with the kinds of shows I mentioned above, Witch Hunter Robin is a bit of an odd duck. By no means is it bad or unworthy of your time, but it certainly has issues that prevent it from achieving this more “classic” status that others of its era did.
You can cleanly divide this anime into two halves. The first being a more episodic “witch of the week” affair where Robin and company hunt dangerous beings with powers known as witches. While the second half focuses heavily on Robin’s story and a deeper conspiracy that’s been just beneath the surface in the first half.
Circling back to my Ghost in the Shell comparison, Witch Hunter Robin really does have a similar vibe going on. One thing the show focuses on extensively is the difference between good and evil, as viewers are sure to quickly see, the line between the witches and those who hunt them is thin.
You see, the hunters draw on the same powers that witches do. This does present a decent opportunity for discussion, but that’s where any comparison to other shows ends. Witch Hunter Robin is a bit too obvious about the kinds of conclusions it draws and it doesn’t explore them with nearly enough depth.
A common complaint leveled at this series is that it’s also quite boring or slow. While I don’t agree with that assessment, I was engaged throughout my watch, I can see where folks are coming from. Another key difference for this anime is that, while the cast is good and very well portrayed by their actors, you never really get to know any of them.
This is to say that Witch Hunter Robin falls into a comfortable groove where it presents an episode in its usual format, maybe vaguely suggests some things about a character or two, and then concludes. You don’t get that valuable downtime with anybody outside of maybe one episode, and again, it is a shallow experience.
I can’t help but to compare it again to shows like GitS and Bebop where I believe the difference lies. It’s a key factor that holds Witch Hunter Robin back a fair bit. Again, I feel the need to stress that the show isn’t a wreck because of this, just that it has a feeling that something is missing.
Still, there are some aspects of this series that do manage to evoke the world in some excellent ways. The runic symbols rooted in the real world, a re-framing of the Salem Witch Trials, and the portrayal of the extraordinary being hidden behind a thin veneer of ordinary is fantastic. It really sells the concepts, especially when the church gets involved.
Another thing I absolutely have to praise about the show is the “next episode previews”, which aren’t actually previews at all. Instead they are these cryptic poems that express an idea or theme for what’s about to come. It’s the only time I feel the anime manages to really nail the intellectual side of things while being unique at the same time.
Of course, the sound and animation is excellent for Witch Hunter Robin. I don’t have a single complaint there. Most of the show is moody, even in the more brightly lit scenes, evoking a sense of tension and mystery at the same time. Not quite noir, but something adjacent to it at least.
Ultimately the end result of all this is a show that captures the spirit of a particular kind of show, but somehow manages to miss the mark in the places it really counts. I want to say that Witch Hunter Robin should have been a classic hit right alongside its contemporaries, though I just can’t. The things that cause this show to standout are unfortunately negative, and that brings the show down to a level that makes it more difficult to universally recommend.
If you are looking for something that is unique, but don’t mind the more shallow approach, then this will be for you. Additionally, if witchcraft is a topic that interests you even remotely, I’d say this is a must as it is easily the most attractive element of the series. However, this acts as a double-edged sword as I’m sure it will turn just as many away.
No trailer this time, but enjoy the OP as I think it captures the energy of the show
In the end I can confidently say I enjoyed my time with Witch Hunter Robin but am slightly disappointed that it could not reach the heights it was clearly aiming for. While I would have enjoyed a little more to chew on and that stated downtime, the world and atmosphere manage to carry the show into a satisfying conclusion.
A more unusual review, but I really wasn’t sure how else to communicate the feeling Witch Hunter Robin gave me while watching it. There’s just not a lot to say on the show beyond that since you’ve likely seen this story before, albeit in other flavors. Let me know what you thought of the anime in the comments.
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