When listing the significant long-running anime based on Jump comics, even fans would be forgiven for forgetting Reborn! – while it had quite a notable impact, a successful anime run of over 200 episodes and plenty of merchandising, fanart, cosplay and the other hallmarks of a success story, ultimately it’s just…quite forgettable.
Recognisably a shounen work by a female mangaka, it has that seemingly characteristically female-mangaka protagonist, reminding me of D.N.Angel and the pilot for D.Gray-Man – a hapless, innocent, very childlike young adolescent boy who is adorable by grace of being the runt of the litter, very feminine and rather whiny, but with a hidden strength that comes out when needed. If most shounen protagonists are clowns who have a hidden powerful side, there’s a definite subtype that is very often seen from female writers that is very reminiscent of the ‘uke’ in yaoi writings, perhaps at least in part explaining why this series and many like it are hits with the fujoshi crowd.
Sawada Tsunayoshi, known to his friends as Tsuna, is hopeless in school – no good at studying, no good at sports, and no good at acting on his crush on pretty classmate Kyoko. One day, a strange baby in a sharp suit who introduces himself as ‘Reborn’ enters his life, informing him that as the great great great great grandson of a prominent Italian mafia boss, he is now in line to inherit the title – and this the baby, one of Italy’s elites, is there to tutor him and to teach him what he needs to know to become a mafia boss. Since he is not very good at this, Reborn often uses a special bullet shot from the gun form of his magical chameleon to induce a state of near-death in Tsuna – who as he expires regrets the things he didn’t manage to do just before dying, then resurrects with a flame on his forehead and all clothes but his underwear being torn away through the sheer force of his ‘dying will’, and sets about rectifying the things he regrets with superhuman strength and speed.
It’s a very silly set-up and only gets sillier as more outlandish characters are introduced – the baseball nut who turns his bat into a real sword; the boy who creates supernaturally accurate rankings while objects float around him; the little Chinese girl who when flustered turns into a human bomb; the mafia assassin who kills with her ‘poison cooking’ but seems unaware of it being deadly and tries to give it to her friends; and especially the little boy with a big afro, horns and a cow-print romper suit who calls himself ‘Lambo’ and sometimes disappears into a bazooka to switch places with himself ten years into the future.
Eventually, as is pretty inevitable with these things, the silliness gives way to action and tournament-like set-ups are emphasised, with a conflict over ‘vongola rings’ marking the point that not only a series of easy-to-write one-on-ones can take place (familiar to anyone who’s seen Naruto’s chuunin exams, the latter stage of the exam in HunterxHunter, most of Fairy Tail and One Piece or the entirety of MÄR), but where things take a more serious tone and Tsuna uses his powers – no longer involving shedding clothes – to save his friends’ lives rather than lend a hand in sports or take on the role of a support teacher.
While I enjoy the light fluffiness, have fun with the daft characters and enjoy seeing the tone get more serious, the trouble is that Reborn! never really goes anywhere. It never captures the attention very much or makes you feel concern for the characters. Artland’s very simple animation looks cheap and ordinary, but the real issue with engagement comes from the writing: a lot of characters are very much defined by one quirk, usually not very interesting, and I spent much of the first 50-odd episodes wondering just what any of the fans saw in these uninteresting characters.