Senkou no Night Raid relies on the ‘random stories in the first half, actual plot in the second’ formula, which, in my opinion, hardly ever works. The whiplash-inducing tonal shifts usually do their series a disservice, and this one is no exception.
The beginning section wastes time on inane plot points, such as the characters photographing food for seven minutes, immediately followed by an equally ridiculous scene in which the two protagonists chase a cat around the city for a while. This took up an entire episode.
The actual plot kicks in at the seventh episode, which contains a comprehensive history lesson about the political climate in Japan/Manchuria in the pre-WWII era. Western schools, at least any I’ve attended, rarely touch upon Asian history, instead focusing entirely on the European stage when discussing the events leading up to and encompassing World War II. Besides a brief detour into how awful Pearl Harbor was, they entirely ignore the role of Japan in these proceedings, robbing students of crucial knowledge.
I respect Senkou no Night Raid for being ballsy enough to address the Manchurian Incident, which remains controversial in East Asia almost eighty years later. For the uninformed, the Manchurian Incident (or Mukden Incident) is when the Japanese bombed a small section of their own railroad network in northern China, blamed that bombing on the Chinese, then used this as a pretext to invade the region. However, Senkou no Night Raid doesn't devolve into a revisionist history, or shy away from portraying the Japanese as the bad guys. I wish I could reflect my admiration for that in this score, but the hard-hitting political latter half is oodles less interesting than the fluffy Buddy-Cop-esque first half. Even though I love history, I had to take numerous lengthy hiatuses from this series, because it just wasn't interesting.
I suspect the show itself doesn't trust that it is interesting, as it adds the gimmick of giving its protagonists superpowers; these feel tacked-on and half-baked as they are rarely used.
It features the only recap (between episodes 6 and 7) that I would actually recommend to someone. Well aware that you’ve watched all the previous episodes, the recap deftly weaves the first half of the story together, as opposed to just throwing together a sloppy cut-and-paste job to stall for time. The reiteration helped me piece together all the plot threads, which is especially useful since it happens right before the brunt of the story hits.
While solid, Senkou no Night Raid’s animation could hardly be considered extraordinary. It looks no different than any of the other scores of “realistic”-looking series in the genre. Panning is occasionally choppy and the series displays a marked over-reliance on earth tones, which were unbefitting of the vibrant setting of burgeoning Shanghai, though it is fairly adept at animating bustling crowds.
Senkou no Night Raid includes a few poorly-realized scenes of its characters playing violins, a huge stumbling block to animators. Given the difficulty of animating the complex fingering of playing musical instruments, it should have just left these scenes out entirely, since they weren’t necessary to the overall narrative.
I appreciate that the series attempts to make characters speak the bevy of foreign languages that an actual international spy would be expected to know. Some shows would just imply that they must be speaking various languages (Nodame Cantabile often fell subject to this), or worse- pretend that everybody everywhere speaks Japanese. Whether or not the seiyuu can pronounce these languages is another matter entirely. Secret agent/lead character Aoi’s seiyuu is a particularly egregious offender- I could barely differentiate between his Japanese, Mandarin, and …was that Russian? Perhaps German? Some hellish synthesis of the two? I’m usually good at differentiating between languages, so the botched tongues that Senkou no Night Raid forced down my throat were distracting and destroyed the suspension of disbelief.
Series about adults instead of teenagers with varying degrees of angst are always refreshing, even when those adults aren’t very interesting, as is the case here. The show’s first half subtly but adequately builds up its characters purely to justify their actions in the second, as they are far less important than the plot.
Average in all fields but ambition, Senkou no Night Raid careens about, so desperate to find something, anything it excels at, that even my bias towards period dramas couldn’t bolster my enjoyment of this show. Huge history buffs or those so sick of the 'moe' trend that they're willing to watch anything promising "serious business" may enjoy it. Otherwise, the only way this series could benefit the anime community is if it manages to entice its audience to go out and research history on their own, since the actual events of the Manchurian Incident are far more interesting than these fictionalized ones.
Amidst the turbulent political climate following WWI and the first Sino-Japanese war, the Japanese are taking a rapidly-increasing economic and political interest in the northern Chinese region of Manchuria. Japan and its Kwangtung Army wish to take over the region from China in order to safeguard their interests from the imposing Soviet Union and the spread of communism. The members of the Sakurai Kikan, a special intelligence agency among the ranks of the Kwangtung Army, must overcome film theft, foreign espionage, the spread of Pan- Asianism, and their most testing trial of all - the Manchurian Incident.