Witch Hunter Robin is the kind of show I always feel the most ambivalent about: one which has the seeds of greatness in it, but seems arbitrarily hidebound by its style and approach. For a good deal of its running time, Robin is so low-key and so flat-affect that it’s a miracle anything happens at all. Then in the last few episodes, the tension that’s been humming beneath the surface of the show rears up all at once, and I found myself unexpectedly moved and involved. I just wish it had come sooner. This is not a bad show, but it is a frustrating one, and many people are likely to get turned off real fast if they don’t know how it works ahead of time.
Here we have a show with a great premise, a great-looking gallery of characters, and a great animation style — but which is dialed down so far that most audiences are going to breeze right past it. Once I accepted the fact that the show wasn’t going to try and punch things up artificially, it worked well, albeit on its own quiet terms. For whatever reason, the creators chose this approach, and while it would be easy for me to lambast them for doing so, I’m betting it would be more worth my while to try and interpret what they did and why.
Witch Hunter Robin takes place in a gloomy, shadow-swept Tokyo, as dank and closed-off here as it is glittery and inviting in other anime. There, as in many other places around the world, people are spontaneously appearing with supernatural powers. They have little control over their own powers, and rarely seem to do more than petty mischief, but they have been ordained as a threat. An organization called the STN (with a local branch, the STNJ), recruits hunters to find and destroy these “witches,” as they’re called. Many hunters have powers of their own, albeit nowhere nearly as strong as the witches. To that end, they are outfitted with a weapon of their own: the Orbo, a kind of chemical amulet that negates the power of witchcraft.
The STNJ recently lost a hunter, and one day a replacement arrives on the directives of HQ: Robin Sena, a fifteen-year-old woman with the prepossessing attitude of someone much older. She’s spent most of her life in seclusion due to her power, so not only is she shy and retiring, but a complete fashion casualty. (One of the more amusing bits of byplay between her and her roomie [also an STNJ member] involves her rather dismal choice of clothes.) But she’s no dummy, and she quickly becomes an indispensable member of the team. Like the others, she also doesn’t ask too many hard questions about the nature of their job — like, for instance, about the “Factory” where the captured witches are taken by men in spooky-looking isolation suits.
The most significant other member of the crew is Amon, Robin’s de facto partner. He starts off as a total cold fish (and it’s frankly frustrating to watch him be so passive for so long), but after the halfway mark his emotional detachment beings to add up and make sense in unanticipated ways. He and Robin have a peculiar relationship: his own history with witches keeps him from getting closer to her, even when he knows consciously she’s nothing like what they are trying to hunt. Or is she? Whenever she uses her own power, she gets that much stronger and more adept with it, and that instills a kind of fear in her friends that she seems ashamed of.
It’s one of the few elements of the show that really works, even if it’s handled — like everything else — in a very muted fashion. A great deal of Robin is just people sitting around and telling each other what they know, or what the audience already knows but the character doesn’t. When there are significant emotional moments, they’re reined in a great deal. Giant revelations are slipped in almost offhandedly. This approach turns a lot of people off; it’s like the show’s intentions and design are at total cross-purposes to each other. In that sense the show’s highly experimental; the problem is that not all the experiments succeed.
Over time Robin accumulates a fairly complicated plot that spans several branches of the STNJ, their parent organization, and the Factory. What’s odd is that as dense as this intrigue gets, most of the revelations that come from it have little impact — partly because the show insists on keeping so many of its cards so close to the chest. Most of the real payoff is concentrated in the last four or five episodes, and when that happened I had to wonder if the show would have benefited from being half its planned length (26 half-hour shows). Too many of the early episodes are just marking time, or are taken up with accumulations of small emotional points that remain small instead of adding up into bigger things — precisely because the show is so restrained in it approach.
Robin seems to have been explicitly inspired by shows like X-Files and Millennium, not only in terms of subject matter but pacing and deployment. Robin has a lot of the same icy, clinical-looking cinematography, the same eerie color schemes and sterile high-tech interiors. Those all work. But many other things that work naturally in live-action don’t translate as effectively to animation. When you see someone sitting perfectly still in a live-action movie, there’s almost always something moving regardless — a cheek muscles, an eyelash. In animation, someone sitting still — and there are endless shots of people just sitting or standing there in Robin — is as lifeless as a billboard. Whole episodes go by when you’re scarcely invited to do more than glance at the screen every now and then.
The final episodes of the show unleash a good deal of the pent-up emotion
that the previous episodes lacked, but are they enough?
Another problem with the show is how uncompelling the characters are, by and large. Robin and Amon, the two flagship characters for the whole thing, spend a good deal of the show’s running time completely estranged from each other. When they are together, they spend a lot of time exchanging significant glances, and little else. The rest of the cast serves as a Greek chorus for them as needed, which does help, but unfortunately at the expense of their own characterizations. They wind up assuming roles — the competent hacker, the too-cheery female friend, the persnickety manager — instead of distinct personalities.
Robin looks and sounds terrific, that's for sure; the musical score is among the best I've ever heard for any TV show, animated or not. But the reactions generated by the show are all over the map. Some people just find it boring and leave after the first few episodes, but some people are galvanized by its whole low-key approach. They’ve never seen anything like it, and they wind up being drawn to it because it’s low-key. I was frustrated by it, but not ever completely turned off, and I was interested in what would happen almost despite myself. Then in the final episodes, to their credit, they pull everything together, even if the surprises that come aren’t quite as earth-shaking as we might have wanted to believe. In the end, what we have here is a very well-made curiosity that really should have been much more than that.