Witches exist in modern Japan. Some conceal their powers, others are simply unaware of them until they manifest, often with dire consequences for innocent bystanders. An international organization known as Solomon are dedicated to eliminating this threat to humanity. However, their Japanese subsidiary, the STNJ, adopt a more humanitarian approach. Their stylish agents investigate and immobilize targets using bullets containing a liquid called “Orbo”, capable of neutralizing witches’ powers. Thereafter these witches are imprisoned inside a hi-tech holding facility known as “The Factory.”
Some witches are so powerful they can only be taken down by another of their kind, which is why the hunter organizations have taken to employing so-called “craft-users.” Fifteen year old Robin (voiced by Akeno Watanabe) is one such witch, wielding awesome pyrokinetic powers. Japanese born but raised in an Italian convent, the awkward, introverted teenager joins the STNJ squad led by brooding, taciturn Amuro (Takuma Takewaka), who seems initially none-too-impressed with the rookie. Alongside fun-loving slacker girl Yurika Dojima (Kyoko Hikami), computer expert Michael Lee (Hiro Yuuki), eager rookie Haruto Sakaki (Jun Fukuyama), and sensible telepath Miho Karasuma (Kaho Kouda), Witch Hunter Robin battles witches ranging from the murderous to the misguided.
Celebrated character designer Shukou Murase, whose stylish work graced the likes of Street Fighter II: The Movie (1994), Gasaraki (1997) and the underrated Argento Soma (2000), made his directorial debut with Witch Hunter Robin, which came towards the tail-end of the post-millennial wave of anime that took a more subdued and cerebral approach to supernatural horror. Anime such as Sci-Fi Harry (2000) and the superb Boogiepop Phantom (2000) traded outlandish splatter scenes for understated menace, but it was Robin that truly struck a chord with western fans and made a style icon out of its fetching, goth lolita heroine. At the time critics routinely likened the serial to Buffy-meets-The X-Files, but though Robin gradually asserts herself over time, she is not sassy like Buffy but quiet and introspective, while the muted tone with its emphasis on psychological terror has more in common with J-horror psychic schoolgirl films like the Misa Kuroi series, e.g. Eko Eko Azarak: Wizard of Darkness (1995), the muddled Isola: Multiple Personality Girl (2000) and Shusuke Kaneko’s accomplished Pyrokinesis (2000). This genre dates as far back as The Aimed School (1981) by Japan’s most celebrated live action fantasy auteur Nobuhiko Obayashi, though there was also the influential manga Mai the Psychic Girl which at one stage was set to be a Tsui Hark movie musical (?!) produced by Francis Ford Coppola and starring Winona Ryder.
Murase delivers an intriguing science fiction take on witchcraft as it is the presence of a specific gene that denotes burgeoning craft-users. Essentially a cop show with witches, early episodes seem somewhat one-dimensional but weave a compelling air of ambiguity given the craft-users behave more like confused animals and are occassionally sympathetic, while Robin questions the ethics of STNJ’s capture-and-study operation. Witches could easily stand in for an oppressed racial or sexual minority. The story grows increasingly complex, deepening the characters beyond the initial archetypes and weaving some steadily potent drama that makes demands of the audience well above the average anime. Like a lot of anime made in that quiet period between the post-Evangelion boom and the renaissance that began in the mid-Noughties, the minimalist, computer-coloured visuals have not dated as well as those lush hand-painted classics from the golden age. Some of the set-pieces do suffer and Kumiko Takahashi’s pallid, willowy chara designs are an acquired taste, but low-budget ingenuity, typically evocative art direction and the overall character-driven approach combine to make this a triumph.