I have never reacted to an anime quite the way I reacted to modern fantasy Noragami: I either loved it or hated it with never a feeling in between.
Noragami is a modern Japanese fantasy with roots in the Shinto religion. There are two layers to the world of Noragami: the layer that we all live in, and the spirit layer that exists in the same place at the same time, invisible to normal humans. The spirit world is full of gods, ghosts, and monsters and has a society built mostly around gaining more followers in the human world.
Yato, one of the protagonists, is one such god. So poor and long forgotten that he doesn't have a single shrine, he advertises on bathroom walls and will do any “job” for humans for five yen (around five cents). However, alone, he can do very little and thus needs a weapon to channel his power.
The weapons of the spirit world are the actual spirits of deceased humans and thus Yato finds the wandering spirit of a young boy, Yukine, to be his sword. The final main lead of the story is our audience proxy, Hiryori, who, after an accident, finds her soul slipping out of her body when she least expects it and hires Yato to fix the problem.
The three of them make up an interesting trio that is bolstered by the varied and entertaining supporting cast. These include a god who is so popular he outsources his shrines; Yato's former weapon who can't stand his lifestyle; and the sweet and fun-loving goddess of poverty who brings financial ruin to all those around her.
It is thanks to this well-realized cast that this is an anime that can do action and comedy equally well.
The opening arc of the series is mostly driven by the character development of Yukine. While he was once human, he no longer remembers his past life. But despite that, his jealousy of the living grows the longer he remains dead. He sees living people his own age with a family, friends, and a future; but all Yukine has to look forward to is the homeless lifestyle of Yato. And despite the (sometimes counterproductive) efforts of Yato and Hiyori to help him find his way, Yukine still begins the short fall from spirit to monster.
Yukine is an interesting character. He is a boy stuck in eternal puberty, never able to grow up. He will never truly live a full life. It is unfair, but he has to come to terms with the fact that the universe doesn't owe him anything—that his misfortune doesn't make it alright for him to do illegal and/or destructive things. He has to accept the hard truths of the world and repent for his sins.
But while his situation is far worse than what most of us face, it's a lesson that everyone can identify with. Bad things happen to us all and you need to learn to deal with them in the right way and move on.
But Yukine isn't the only character struggling to let go of the past and make a new future for himself. Yato is also in the midst of a similar journey. Though, while Yukine's struggle is to let go of the past, Yato's is the exact opposite. He wants to move on but is continually haunted by his actions from over a century before.
The way he lives his life is one of atonement and commitment to the archaic rules of his society. He will work towards his dream but will only do so five yen at a time (as five-yen prayer offerings are the traditional offering to gods). It doesn't matter to him that this is an outdated custom in light of inflation; all that's important to him is that it’s the “right” way to do things.
While the more prosperous gods tend to look down on Yato for his five-yen foolishness, they also fear him—as do the gods that he calls friends. One god actively hunts him, seeking revenge for Yato's past misdeeds. Another god and his spirit weapon, on the other hand, hope to bring him back to his former, violent glory for their own sakes.
Thus, Yato's arc is one of a person who is desperately trying to become a new and better person, but who also realizes that past actions can never be undone. It's heartbreaking, but this is another hard truth we all have to face at one point or another in our lives.
The characters in Noragami are excellently realized and fun to watch—except for the fact that Hiyori seems to have two completely different personalities depending on the situation. This is best seen in her treatment of Yato in the first arc of the show—and it makes her a character that I came to loathe.
Constantly, Hiyori mocks Yato for being a slacker, both to his face and behind his back. Yet we see this is not true as he will take literally any job for five yen. Moreover, she knows this and even exploits it by demanding he fix her spirit-leaving-her-body problem even after he says he doesn't know how. She rides him about his lifestyle and supposed laziness in nearly every scene the two share.
If she was ribbing him for his terrible advertising technique (read: graffiti on bathroom stalls), that would be one thing. But she condemns him for not working hard enough—which, as she obviously knows better from personal experience, makes her seem either uncannily stupid or simply sadistic.
Moreover, she constantly causes Yato crippling physical pain by trying to seduce Yukine. She is told repeatedly that Yukine's impure thoughts will literally hurt Yato, yet she ignores this to satiate her sexual lust. This, combined with her vocal disdain for Yato's way of life, makes her out to be a selfish, judgmental, and arrogant individual.
Yet, everything else we see of her in the anime makes her out to be the exact opposite; she is literally so kind that she gets hit by a car to save a random stranger. Thus, for her to act in these contradictory ways, she (a) is evil and usually manages to hide it, (b) has multiple personality disorder, or (c) is simply poorly written.
Thankfully, the whole nonsensically judgmental side of her personality disappears after the end of the first major arc and she becomes a thoroughly likeable and consistent character.
[Skip this section to avoid spoilers.]
The extra OVA episode—which, in story sequence, follows the end of the series—that was released with the manga and not aired on TV is both the funniest and most fun episode of the show. Its plot follows Hiyori's first day of high school—on which Yato possesses her body, making her do any number of outrageous/awesome things.
In the OVA story, the other gods are somewhat upset as possession is only supposed to be done to a devout follower (like a priestess) in order to accomplish a vital task like spreading a message directly from the god. And while the other gods see it as Yato just messing around/abusing his power, if you think about it, he is using possession for its intended purpose and in the proper way. After all, Hiyori is his priestess—whether she knows it or not.
At the end of the series, Hiyori gives Yato a five-yen offering to promise that they will always be together and he accepts. In other words, she makes an eternal pact with a god—which is exactly what a priestess would do. And when Yato possesses her, he uses her body to give out business cards with his number on it—i.e., spreads the word of god in an attempt to gain more followers.
When put in this light, Hiyori and Yato's relationship gains a whole other level to be exploited comically and dramatically.
The first eight episodes of Noragami were a pendulum of love and hate for me. I loved the world, the conflict, and the characters. But Hiyori's inconsistent character plagued me. Yet, once her character developed beyond this issue for the final four episodes and OVA, I enjoyed the series immensely and consistently. It you are looking for a fun adventure with a colorful and memorable cast of characters in an engrossing modern-day fantasy setting, Noragami is well worth a watch.
Noragami aired on Tokyo MX in Japan. It is available for free and with English subtitles in the US at Funimation.
Kotaku East is your slice of Asian internet culture, bringing you the latest talking points from Japan, Korea, China and beyond. Tune in every morning from 4am to 8am.