A Certain Scientific Railgun: in defense of competent mediocrity

I really enjoyed A Certain Scientific Railgun but have trouble explaining why. The series did not captivate me; I meandered through its 24 episodes over the course of a full three months. I did not identify with any of the characters or find the plots particularly engaging. The science fiction elements did not offer any substantial commentary on the present or a plausible future. Thematically, it never drifted far from the bland anime “ganbatte!” ethos about virtuous friendship overcoming all obstacles.

But somehow, I don’t mean any of those observations as criticisms. To the contrary, I think that this lack of ambition deserves praise. If Railgun lacks original ideas or plots or characters or well, original anything, it makes up for its blandness with excellent execution. Though I cannot identify a single individual feature as more than “good,” the whole package excels at “competent mediocrity” like a pre-cooked microwave macaroni meal that somehow manages to taste great after a long, tiresome day.

My thinking regarding Railgun proceeds something like this:

Do you like the cheese? Not really, it’s alright.

Do you like the macaroni? Not really, it’s alright.

Do you like the seasoning? Not really, it’s alright.

Do you like the pre-cooked microwave macaroni meal? Yes, give me more!

Railgun does not have a terribly exciting cast. The four main girls make two pairs: the blue-uniformed Uiharu and Saten from a standard middle school and the brown-uniformed Kuroko and Misaka from a snobby private school. Uiharu is a quiet and nice girl with many flowers in her hair. Saten is a loud and nice girl with one flower in her hair. Misaka is a proud tomboy with a strong sense of justice and long pants. Kuroko is a proud lady with a strong sense of justice and panties.

Each girl falls into a loose anime archetype. Misaka is a snappy tsundere, Kuroko is a pampered himedere, Uiharu is a shy dandere (I hate these words), and Saten is just average in every way. However, in Railgun, these archetypes work more like flavors of the same character. All of the girls in the main cast share unrelenting positivity and and friendliness. They all feel incensed at injustice. They all have well-worn comic relief beats. Kuroko finds Misaka’s panties (emphasis on pants). Misaka gets blustered. Saten flips Uiharu’s skirt. Uiharu gets flustered. Despite the teasing, they all put their friends first, though they each have one plot-induced stumble like Kuroko and Uiharu’s conflict over their Judgment partnership or Saten’s flirtation with the Level-Upper (Say “lebaa appaa” ten times fast).

Railgun makes up for the bland characters with excellent, distinct plot roles. Misaka is the titular railgun, an absolute brute-kinetic-force powerhouse that can overcome any conventional threat with a supercharged coin. Kuroko has finesse with her teleportation ability, making her an ideal field investigator for the show’s many mysteries. Uiharu is a computer genius that performs best in a data gathering and transmission role to support Misaka and Kuroko while also possessing the scientific knowledge to solve the mysteries. Saten has no power, but she does have a wide social network and the street-smarts to offer unexpected leads and solutions.

In various combinations, the cast has tremendous flexibility and excellent chemistry. The Saten-Uiharu friendship pair helps to temper Kuroko’s excessive infatuation with Misaka. For her part, Kuroko succeeds at keeping the whole party on the “lawful” side of lawful good, especially when Saten experiments with the Level Upper. The down-to-earth Saten makes a great pair with Misaka, who turns out to be much more relatable than her snobby rich-girl reputation would suggest. Uiharu’s extreme compassion makes her an excellent way to draw plot-relevant side characters into the group while Saten’s friendship group of “normal” girls helps keep the plot grounded without rocketing into the stratosphere of world-ending plots like so many other action anime (hello, Magical Index…). Removing any one of the girls, even the relatively weak Uiharu or Saten, would damage the show beyond repair. Though none of them push much beyond their bland anime archetypes, the group as a whole provides a competent platform for the story to grow around.

Saten sticks out as the most interesting of the core cast (perhaps ironically) because she does not have powers and thus lacks a clear plot purpose. This allows her character to grow and change a bit more than her more static friends. In the first half, her lack of powers strikes against her self-confidence and leads her to try the Level-Upper. But as the plot progresses, Saten learns that having no psychic power does not mean that she has no power at all. The summer school episode imbued her with a double dose of the “ganbatte” ethos to exceed the already the already genki cast. Though I usually find “ganbatte” a bit annoying, Saten became a bastion of tenacious cheerfulness that I found cute. This cheerfulness defined Saten’s role in the second half as she became an important motivating force for the other girls. Finally, her no-powers plot arc had an excellent pay-off at the end, when her immunity to the Skill-out device allowed her to save her friends at the last moment. While Saten’s character never rises above her “average” role, she has excellent clarity in simplicity.

Though I am sure the creators did not intend it, I almost see Saten as a self-referential character metaphor for Railgun itself. The show excels at little in particular. But as a well-rounded whole, it excels nonetheless. Railgun’s cast is simple and that’s okay. The relentless cheerfulness of the four main girls makes them wonderfully approachable. Railgun is not subtle about this: the ending song literally coos “Dear my friend.” Is this bland? Probably. But is it bad? I don’t think so. After a long and lonely day in a Japanese workplace, I often felt that I could share in the cast’s friendships, if only just a little. To extend the comfort food metaphor, Railgun’s cast offers a rich sweetness. As archetypical as they were, the characters made me want to return for the next episode in spite of the equally bland narrative.

In its plots, Railgun never offers much memorable. The main story arcs broadly focus on a standard mystery to “rescue the children” (who happen to be orphans, how sad!). Though the plot itself does not offer much interesting on its own terms, as a genre piece it is expertly crafted. Instead of having distinct arcs like so many anime, the plots in Railgun roll into each other with solid momentum: the Level-Upper problem leads to the AIM Burst, which prompts the psychic stirrings that cause the Poltergeist earthquakes in the final act. Side stories, like the Skillout gang investigation, have solid grounding in previous arcs while also re-appearing at important moments in later arcs. Even the filler episodes successfully tie up loose ends in old arcs or establish new character relationships that become useful later on.

Railgun is predictable enough to offer a number of satisfying “Ah ha! I knew it” moments. But it also has enough twists to make me think “Oh, I did not see that coming.” For example, Misaka’s violin solo was wonderfully unexpected for the character and made for an excellent tender break from the main mystery. Railgun strikes a fair balance. It is neither so predictable that it becomes boring nor so twisted to become incomprehensible. The mysteries are competent, with plenty of clues to lead the viewer to a graceful solution. Though the resolutions often seem obvious, I think this actually works in Railgun’s favor. The show never feels contrived like a mystery story that reveals a secret evil twin in the final accusation scene. The strong foreshadowing might make some of the mysteries feel facile (I’m looking at you pink powersuit villain), but at the same time, it is immensely satisfying when details from early episodes prove decisive in later arcs.

Railgun especially excels in filler. “Filler” has a bit of a derogatory connotation, often referring to attempts to stretch a story to fit the airtime with unnecessary side stories. But filler could also have a more generous interpretation: it “fills out” the story with solid world or character building. Good filler makes the world or characters feel “full” just like a nice pan of macaroni, to return to the comfort food metaphor.

The dorm festival stands out in this regard for its solid examination of Misaka. Before the filler, Misaka had mostly worked as a stubborn, tomboyish archetype. Given her status as an overpowered Level 5, she rarely showed any anxiety or vulnerability. All obstacles crumbled under the overwhelming force of her railgun. But when she took the stage to play a violin solo in front of a crowd of strangers, she suddenly seemed vulnerable and human. This quiet filler plot offered an opportunity to break her character archetype in a way that the high-action main arcs could not.

Most of Railgun’s filler focuses on side characters. For example, the photoshoot does well to establish Misaka’s frenemy Kongou and the summer school episodes offers a chance to catch up with old minor villains. The dorm curfew episode humanizes the comic-relief dorm advisor character and provides a nice bridge into the overarching goal to find the orphans in the second half.

The arcade episode is the best of the side-character filler. It examines a throw-away Anti-Skill grunt, shown previously clumsily spraying her machine gun at the AIM Burst monster. The scene begged the question “how did this ditz end up on an elite SWAT force?” The filler episode offers answers: we learn a little about her day-to-day life on the force, her workplace mentor, and her arcade fighting game hobby. This all pays off in the final arc, when we see her engaging a new enemy with just a little more confidence. Railgun could have made her a faceless mook like the rest of her colleagues. But by giving her a little extra screen time, the show completed a satisfying mini-arc that made me grin a bit.

The action is surprisingly good and made more impactful by intelligent rationing. Misaka uses her full railgun power infrequently enough that when she flips out a coin and the techno beat starts playing, it is hard to not get excited. Kuroko has her own great visual flair with her teleporting darts. But once again, Railgun fails to deliver anything more than “competent.” Misaka and Kuroko beat up the bad guys and blow conveniently abandoned sections of Academy City then return home for some moronic comic relief involving panties.

Academy City itself is a bizarre setting that becomes a little unsettling upon examination. On the surface, it advertises itself as a technological marvel devoted exclusively to education and scientific research. However, it also seems to operate as some sort of authoritarian police state run by a council of scientists. Uiharu and Kuroko belong to Judgement, an organization that acts as a giant hall monitor for the whole city. In a weird Orwellian twist, it vaguely enforces “morality” (in practice though, that just means beating up bank robbers and kidnappers). Uiharu has no qualms tapping into the city’s CCTV network, which when combined with the fascistic dorm matrons, results in an eerie absence of privacy. The other police organization, Anti-Skill, are armed and armored like like SWAT teams but engage in basic beat-cop patrols. But the ominous name “Anti-Skill” raises more questions than it answers. Do they exist to gun down unruly espers? They never seem to shy away from excessive force, so I guess so? If Railgun was a less bland and less safe show, it might offer some interesting sci-fi ideas about a city that values science more than its citizens. But alas, Railgun takes no risks so Academy City mostly works as a fictional stand-in for Tokyo if it were governed like a Japanese high school. Whatever, fine.

Railgun has a few obvious problems. The final villain stretched plausibility when she suddenly revealed herself as a stereotyped *psychotic* psychopath, complete with the classic anime “crazy eyes” and mad cackle (bleh). The first act’s quasi-villain, Professor Kiyama, also has a stupid habit of stripping down to her underwear when she feels hot. The show plays this as cheap comedic relief, but it mostly just undermines Kiyama’s character with unnecessary sex appeal and “socially oblivious scientist” stereotyping. As mentioned before, the weird sexualization appears in the main cast with two more pointless running gags: Saten likes to lift Uiharu’s skirt in public and Kuroko often tries to glimpse Misaka’s childish panties. This sort of panty-intrusion is already unacceptable for adults. But for middle-schoolers? Oh god no, please stop. Though it is a fairly standard gag in anime, it often made me want to just turn the show off. Fortunately, the panty theft and stripping became uncommon in the second half of the series.

As far as clear criticism goes, that’s about it. If you can get past the gross sexualizaiton (which if you are watching anime at all, you probably can because it is the unfortunate standard for comedic garbage in the medium) there aren’t many other problems with the series. Just as Railgun has few elements worthy of praise, it has few elements deserving of criticism.

While writing, I was tempted to think that Railgun might have a little more depth than I originally thought. But no, not really: I used the word “bland” seven (+1) times in this review. As I keep saying, that is okay. I enjoyed Railgun as something relaxing to watch after work. Each night, I could know that I could expect friendly, heartwarming character interactions with a happy ending. I could expect competence, and that consistency is key to Railgun’s success. Not every show needs an edge like Game of Thrones. Not every show needs marvelous visual flair like Puella Magi Madoka Magicka. Not every show needs to tackle serious themes like Tatami Galaxy. Sometimes, it is okay to be mediocre.

Sometimes, that is even the best thing. During my viewing, Railgun became an odd favorite of mine (What is the opposite of instant favorite? Slow favorite?) I can’t identify a single feature that stands out as “great” but somehow the whole package felt like perfect comfort food to cheer me up. Railgun is mostly tripe, but it is well-made tripe. Turn off your brain and eat your macaroni. You might enjoy it.

4 thoughts on “A Certain Scientific Railgun: in defense of competent mediocrity

  1. I enjoyed A Certain Scientific Railgun. There are some moments that really hit the spot and a lot of small nothing moments in between that are pleasant and charming in their own way. As you said, its kind of fun just to switch off the brain and watch and enjoy.

    Like

    1. Thanks for the comment! The abundance of “small nothing moments” makes Railgun a bit hard to discuss, but whatever, the show lacks the pretense to be something more so it might as well be enjoyed for the simple thing it is.

      Liked by 1 person

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