If I could name a handful of series that I came into with initial, yet extremely low expectations, and come out enjoying in the aftermath, Night Head Genesis would be one of them. Based on a 1992 live action Japanese series called Night Head, this animated adaptation walks familiar territory to developing stories that featured psychologically bending situations with an episodic format. I was reminded of series in the progression of Paranoia Agent, Boogiepop Phantom, even a touch of Mokke, in how it deals with children coming of age with unique abilities, when I watched this series.
Night Head Genesis will likely appeal to the mystery/science fiction/psychological viewer who likes progressive story arcs which ultimately lead into a greater expansion, but note it takes its time building to that point with some notable flaws. The premise revolves around a pair of siblings, Naoya and Naoto, born with supernatural abilties. Naoya has an ability to read people's minds when someone comes in physical contact with him, while Naoto hones telekinetic abilities that often activate at hostile situations. After being sent away from their home as children, the brothers are taken to a laboratory where they hone their skills until 15 years later, when they manage to escape from the facility. From that point forward, the brothers undertake a journey to find their past as well as their future.
The premise is rather familiar - I was reminded of the CW TV series Supernatural with both the premise and aim of the show, as the brothers journey on their own to find their parents, battle dangerous foes that threaten humanity, and ultimately play a part in a larger scheme that could topple their world as they know it. The execution wavers between excellent story arcs and lacking significant appeal in others. It's not the type of series you can marathon in one set sitting, but rather in progressively noted context to really pull from what it measures.
The story takes place in a series of three arcs, each with a specific focus, and while I won't delve into what each arc explores for spoilerish reasons, I can say the way they structured each arc was very effective in coming to know the characters and the larger story at hand. The problem, mostly, was the lack of investiment and further development in some of the characters, mixed with some rather intriguing, yet underdeveloped villiains.
I loved the first 9 or so episodes, the action sequences and the interactions between the characters in the building format was quite intriguing, and the series builds momentum until it hits closer to the end of the first arc, where the lack of development and intrigue takes a downturn. The series picks back up and hits the ground running between the second and third arcs of the series, where some major twists come into play and while by series end, not all of the loose ties are quite resolved, the ending does resolve quite nicely, not too farfetched or predictable in progression, but still leaving more to be desired.
Another thing a viewer might note is that there is a considerably large amount of dark humor to be had, so it may be hard for some viewers to really appreciate it. Think about the execution of dark humor contained in Vampire Princess Miyu - same deal, though notably not as episodic. Example, one episode has a villain who goes off on a very trippy tangent that might make a casual viewer note "What the heck are they thinking?", but that villain's "rap", for lack of a better term, is esentially part of the dark humor this series has to sport.
I really enjoyed this series for what it had to offer, and while I wouldn't say it's as strong in execution or characterization as some of its peer supernatural series, I think it's worth the investment to see what it has to offer.
Animation in this series does well for its respective time, I think the coloring and the character designs suit both the dark mood and tonality the series seeks to measure, and I did come from this series thinking about how it tied in with its live action adaptation, because it feels like one. I could compare it to watching something like One Missed Call or the live action version of Boogiepop Phantom.
It also reminds me a bit of the character designs I saw from another recent series I watched: Human Crossing (or Human Scramble). Very clear cut imaging, but its noted that the series lacks animation fluidity, so some of the character movements may seem a bit stiff.
I would say that Night Head Genesis has a very strong, eerie soundtrack. The instrumental tracks are gorgeous in this series, in a way that might be similar to composers Kenji Kawaii (Vampire Princess Miyu, Higurashi no Naku Koro Ni, Ghost in the Shell movie) and Kuniaki Haishima (Monster). It fits the vibe of the series rather smoothly in most points, though it retains an elder quality that I wonder might have some similar undertakings from the original LA series. The OP themes is well orchestrated, and of the few vocal performances this series has, the second ending appealed to me the most, as Aya Kamiki delivers a lush, pop-rock song to accompany its sequence. The first ending didn't appeal to me, but some who like regular male vocal J-pop probably wouldn't mind it.
Voice acting quality varies a bit, but does well within its respective range. You can tell there are certain voice actors who struggle when the series commences (Naoya's VA can overdo his role a bit, it's a little grating to hear his calls for his brother towards the beginning) but it evens out as the series continues. To be quite honest, I think the VAs worked well within the respective range of their characters, particularly noting the scope and mood of the story.
Night Head Genesis probably would have been a much stronger series in my eyes if the characters had more alluring qualities. I think the development and progression of this series is solid, but Naoya and Naoto aren't the easiest characters to come into. Once you do (or if) the series takes on another level of appreciation from there on out.
Naoto and Naoya are two noted contrasts: the elder brother quiet, seething and hostile at times, while the younger brother is far more sensitive (which makes sense considering his ability to read thoughts, intentions, and delve into the pasts of the people he comes in contact with, so I don't think of this as a bad thing, others may.)
The main characters eventually grow into themselves, but what I had a problem with were the seemingly lack of flesh in the antagonists. Some of them seemed like they could have been great characters, but the series really would have benefited more from this to make the psychological underpinnings of the series a lot stronger.
One of the main, yet subtly prominent at first, characters from this series, Shoko, is very well noted in her role, and she, alongside the brothers, was probably the other of the main protagonists I could follow well.
Night Head Genesis is one of those series that carries the potential to become great but yet somehow ends up mediocre. The story focuses on the two brothers, Naoto and Naoya, who were born with psychic powers and were thus locked away from society for 15 years until they finally managed to escape. The first half which focuses on Naoto and Naoya trying to recover their lost past is thus quite engaging and interesting, and it helps the viewers to understand the characters better. However, from this point onward, Night Head Genesis rapidly takes a turn towards the worse and steadily progresses from being midly interesting and quite engaging to downright bad.
The main problem with Night Head Genesis' story is that it not cohesive enough. The story could roughly be split up in three parts and none of these parts really have any impact on each other, nor do they help to resolve the plot in a way that feels satisfying. They just somehow seem to be randomly glued together because all three feature Naoto and Naoya, giving the impression that the show had some great ideas but somehow ran out halfway through. Further, the little good there is with the main plot, primarily the first half focusing on Naoto's and Naoya's lost past and how the two brothers have this profound power to always reveal the worst within people, is completely thrown away at some point. It really made me wonder why it was there at all. Maybe I am just a highly disturbed person, but I often thoroughly enjoy watching people more demented than I on the big screen and here Night Head Genesis was far from an exception, as it turns out that basically all characters who involve themselves with Naoto and Naoya, with or without psychic powers, are in fact way worse off than they are. In this sense Night Head Genesis comes off a bit like Dexter, revealing how it is only through the eyes of the demented it is possible to realize the true dementia of the world itself. While not every story told is engaging, there is certainly entertainment value to be found here if you enjoy such storytelling.
However, as mentioned, when the main plot, if it can even be called as such, is revealed, this storytelling is slowly moved more and more into the background. The main plot deals with the organization called Ark and the Ark plot had the potential to be great as well if all the strings had been properly pulled together. Unfortunately, they weren't. The way the Ark arc is resolved still leaves much left to be desired. The final two episodes we are left with in turn seem to mock the viewer further by giving us a small story arc that seems to be horribly misplaced because it doesn't explain nor add anything else of the show. Suffice to say, these two episodes can easily be skipped and it won't harm the viewer at all, as the last two episodes seem to rather be some random afterthoughts thrown together than a well thoughtout addition to the other two arcs. I had honestly much rather seen those two episodes devoted to flesh out the Ark arc.
A huge redeeming character of the series was thus the animation. While not incredible and especially the way psychic powers were displayed felt somewhat cheesy and too shounen-ish for such a series that attempted to at least try to deal with somewhat tough themes, Night Head Genesis is still generally pleasing to look at and the blending of CGI is done in such a way it is barely noticable and enhances the show beautifully. The world itself is detailed and believable and most of the characters seem to have received some thought into their designs, although the static clothing (really, shorts during winter on a 2-3 year old kid?) started to put me off at the end. This is not an issue that only Night Head Genesis suffers from though, but rather most anime and manga in general. For some reason it seems hard for mangaka and anime art designers alike to conceive the main characters in different types of clothing. I also felt that the characters, especially Naoto and Naoya, were sometimes inconsistently drawn, but these complaints are still minor flaws.
An aspect that felt more like hit and miss was the sound. While I think the voice actors did a fine job and especially Naoto and Naoya became better over time, the series' main theme was definitely overused within the actual series. As much as I enjoy the piece for being able create such a mysterious and brooding mood which I think fits the series perfectly, it becomes quite tiresome to listen to over time. Maybe this became more apparent to me because I marathon-watched Night Head Genesis, but the background music could have used much more variation. I do not think it is good to notice background music unless you do because you enjoy it, and I noticed the background music a lot while watching Night Head Genesis. Unfortunately not because I thoroughly enjoyed all the pieces that were used.
This leaves me with the main gripe I had with Night Head Genesis, and ultimately my biggest letdown as well - the characters. As I initially thought the relationship between Naoto and Naoya was interesting, their lack of character development really ruined the potential of the series. While they do receive some, this some is so miniscule it is more or less non-existent. Another aspect with Night Head Genesis was that it liked to introduce the viewers with a huge cast, but because the cast is so huge many characters were often left completely undeveloped. If the cast had been reduced, particularly on the villain-side, I think Night Head Genesis had been much easier to like. It is obvious the villains Naoto and Naoya engage are flawed. However, the villains that in fact do seem to play major roles later are not really fleshed out at all, this also becomes one of the series' greatest flaws for a show that tries to be character-driven. I was also sorely disappointed with Naoto in particular, who kept falling for, literarily, the same mind game for over 10 episodes straight more or less, where some simple character development could easily have solved the beef and made this particular feature of Naoto so much less annoying. Further, the little development Naoya received was taken away from him right away, which is unfair, because Naoya was the more interesting out of the two brothers due to his abilities. He simply deserved that development so bad.
In summary, Night Head Genesis has the heart in the right place and when it really works the series is truly engaging and interesting to watch, such as with the "Doll House" episode. However, when it does not, it falls on the mark of mediocre at best, often feeling uninspiring and boring. For being a show that tried to handle serious themes and general human suffering, it simply did not deliver. It more importantly lacked the story to carry it, and I keep thinking how just a little sprinkle of drama would've worked wonders. Some questions that at least kept nagging me while I was watching were never raised either, such as the human need to feel loved and to love, to engage in a relationship and experience both emotional and physical intimacy (particularly in relation to Naoya) were never explored. My general impression was that both Naoto and Naoya were supposed to be good-looking and the show implies this as well in one particular episode, yet this never seems to occur to neither of the two brothers despite that they are well beyond their teens. All in all, there were still many aspects left unexplored that could've made the series that deep anime that just hit spot on. Now however, all that I'm left with is mostly a sour disappointed that Night Head Genesis had the potential to be that good, but never really delivered.