Noragami is an odd show that’s hard to classify because it tries to do many different things. The best way to describe it is something of a “get to know the gods” show with bits of action, comedy, and character drama. Overall fun to watch, this anime shines, albeit unevenly. Certain themes are really quite strong, but easily get lost in the frivolity. Noragami leaves the impression that it was fun, but prevented itself from being truly great.
While this anime does shine in certain things it does, it lacks a uniform strength. Let’s start by looking at what it tries to be – an anime with some action, character drama, world-specific drama, comedy, and a teensy bit of romance, wrapped up in a folklore-based setting. Watching through both seasons, it becomes clear that the anime struggled to find a unique voice, running through various kinds of genres before settling on one. Make no mistake, there are some really strong themes here, it’s just that the anime focused on the weaker ones, when it kept its focus at all. In particular, the anime kept trying to stay in the action genre, but without the necessary building blocks. The world wasn’t really ever set up to be the kind of world that supported regular blade-clashing and ability-slinging. Rather, it was set up as a world of complex interactions and relationships between different actors. Without the proper setting in place, of course the action will be somewhat bland. What’s worse, by trying to force the action into the wrong world, it ended up draining from the highlights of the anime – the character drama and the treatment of the Japanese gods.
The character drama is the real star here, although it wasn’t uniform. You can count exactly 3 really strong character moments, fairly evenly spaced throughout. Actually, they’re so memorable, you can classify them as unique character arcs – the Yukine arc, the Bishamonten arc, and the Ebisu arc. It’s important to think about it in this way, because it highlights 3 strong, sharp peaks in the anime with the rest being valleys that bridge them.
Now, I wasn’t going to be quite as hard on the anime’s failings here, except for the fact that I saw the OVAs. In the three OVAs, they showed what the anime could have been and, perhaps, should, have been to bridge the gap between character dramas. In the OVAs, they mix up the comedy to do a couple things. First, they use it to strengthen the oddities and quirks present in the many gods, making them seem apart from “mere” humans. Second, they use the comedy to reinforce the relationships between Yato and crew and solidify the idea that he doesn’t deserve the people around him, but done in a charming sort of way. The combination of the two ends up adding to the world and developing characters at the same time, the polar opposite of what happened in the series proper.
Overall, the characters are pretty plain and shallow, yet endearing. There are even some really excellent character moments. However, being endearing and having some good moments does not a character rating make. This is another example of how the anime shows that it has the potential for greatness without actually making it happen. One of the problems here is something we see much more commonly in weaker shows. The characters are established to an everyday “baseline” where you get occasional peaks in some sort of character development or progress, followed by a reversion back to the baseline. Essentially, they’re the same as they were before. The one exception in the main cast is Yukine, who does have some solid development, which, unfortunately, ends up highlighting the static nature of everyone else.
For an anime that ends up being about a tangled web of relationships, they don’t focus on those relationships much. Rather, you get little bits and hints of things that are really quite intriguing, especially how the gods relate to each other. Again, it’s the OVAs that actually go into those areas and flesh them out. It brings out the relationships into sharp contrast, which also highlights the subtleties of the characters. For example, extremely true to his character, you have Yato doing something to Bishamon that’s clearly intended to be (and was) highly offensive, yet utterly innocent. You have wild, crazy, and silly things that are purely relational in nature, yet confined to the world of the gods, apart from humans. Interestingly, those relationships were the anime’s unique voice, it’s just that they didn’t give it the proper attention.
World: Very Good.
The world is hard to rate here because its strength varies depending on what’s going on. As it supports the character relationships, it’s Excellent. However, as it supports the action, it’s Not Very Good. Since Noragami ends up being more towards the relationships, it keeps it at Very Good.
So what about the world doesn’t support the action? Action anime have specific sets of rules that govern the action. Sure, you may have magic or some guy that hits people with swords, but they establish limitations pretty quickly. There are a limited set of things that characters can do, and other things they can’t. In Noragami, since the subject matter is the gods, they were either unwilling or unable to put meaningful limitations on the characters. For example, why in the world does the named god of war have any such trouble with a nameless god? The result is limitations of convenience that pop up without warning to bring a spike in the dramatic tension. Of course, those limitations are forgotten once it loses its place as a dramatic crutch. Without the proper guideposts, the world ends up being rather formless, shaped into whatever it needs to be at the moment instead of having its own life.
So why does the world support the relationships? The same things that were negatives above are positives here. These guys are gods. They don’t have to play by normal rules and do so in their own unique ways. There’s never the sense that they can’t do things, only that they don’t want to. This sets broad ranges of play for characters to react off of each other – almost like a large sandbox-type setting. You have a broad set of characters based in folklore and mythology, brought to life,as it were, in silly and crazy ways.
Without a third season, the anime’s plot has a very unfinished feel, just like the first season did, standing alone (as I watched it when it first came out). That said, the plot comes in two flavors. The character flavor essentially selected one character do go in depth, with some solid steps and overall trajectory. The second flavor, everything else, was, well, whatever. Things just sort of happened without any real buildup or logical flow. The action plots were the worst in this regard, falling back on writer’s convenience time and time again. As an aside, the comedy “plots” were fairly solidly self-contained and had a good internal structure.
Storytelling: Very Good.
The storytelling is all about those great moments. Aside from the three really powerful character moments, they had some really great stuff. The standout would be the development of the Nora. They did a spectacular job of making them have a very dirty or repulsive feel, without making the characters themselves repulsive in a visual or traditional sense. Rather, it was the atmosphere they created involving these characters, which relied on other character’s thoughts, feelings, and reactions to the Nora. Again, we have a highlight of subtlety, delicacy, and attention to detail that the anime shows it was capable of.
One final note here, the comedy ends up being extremely strong in the OVAs.
The material was presented with a solid enough way that the anime was never really boring. You had the three main peaks with relatively slow buildups to get there, but other than that, nothing else to remark upon.