This post is the seventh of my 12 essays for the 2016 edition of 12 Days of Anime, a joint project between many anibloggers. For more info about the project, check out appropriant’s introductory post here, and check out the full blog spreadsheet here if you’re interested in the work of everyone participating!
Spoilers for the Level Upper arc of A Certain Scientific Railgun (Season 1 Episodes 1-12)
The concept of supernatural powers is one that fascinates us. In western culture, Marvel movies have dominated the summer blockbusters for years, drawing on decades of comic book mythos; fantasy novels are widespread in many circles and it’s impossible to ignore the ways the Harry Potter has enchanted people both young and old. I can’t claim to be an expert on similar media in Eastern cultures, but if the recent success of My Hero Academia is any indication, our excitement for unnatural, heroic abilities isn’t limited by the cultures we grew up in.
And key among this is the thought of how cool it’d be if we were the superheroes. I mean, who hasn’t dreamed of being able to fly, run fast, or speak with animals or spirits at some point in their lives? It’s something that ties into many different internal desires: wanting to be someone special, helping to make the world a better place, or simply for the convenience it would provide us in our daily lives. I personally find myself drawn to media that allows me to imagine these fantastical worlds and immerse myself in the logic of their powers and talents. It is something that allows me to dream beyond the ordinary and into worlds that are simply a joy to imagine.
One of these worlds I’ve spent time dreaming of is the metropolis of Academy City from A Certain Scientific Railgun (and of course A Certain Magical Index as well). Here, students from around the world gather for the chance to gain an esper power of their own, from telekinesis and water manipulation to mind control and teleportation. The limits Railgun imposes on each power mean that very few esper powers are individually overpowered, and make imagining your own power to fit the system rules a challenging but satisfying task.
But not everyone who lives in Academy City gets the benefits of life with esper powers. Around 60% of the student population are Level 0 (on a scale up to 5), meaning they have no powers, no supernatural strength, and as many in Academy City believe, no ability to stand up for themselves or for others. Much of the conflict in Railgun is derived from the struggle of scientists and Level 0s to either make up the gap between them and higher-level espers, or to bring espers down to their level. We watch as those who seek to level the playing field are beaten many times by those gifted or hard-working enough to achieve high levels of power – but what if we question whether it’s even necessary for low-level espers to increase their power in the first place?
Enter Level 1 Kazari Uiharu and Level 0 Ruiko Saten. Friends of Level 5 Electromaster Mikoto Misaka (Railgun) and Level 4 Teleporter Kuroko Shirai, Uiharu and Saten act as our viewpoint into life in Academy City with no powers or abilities. Aside from the high-tech city around them and the espers they call friends, their lives are a lot like yours and mine – completely standard and ordinary. There are times where they may wish for prominent abilities of their own, most notably Saten as she feels drawn to the Level Upper, but for the most part they find themselves content in their everyday lives. Railgun doesn’t just use these characters as windows into the lives of the ordinary in acadamy city, though – Uiharu and Saten are the clearest examples that esper level is only one measure of a person’s true strength. In dangerous, delicate situations, both have multiple moments where they are the ones relied on and the ones stepping out as heroes.
In her role as technical backup, Uiharu proves herself more than useful for Judgment’s 177th branch on multiple occasions. Her skill with technical research and hacking allow her to guide Shirai in combat and are crucial to many, many successful Judgment missions. But Uiharu shines the most in her compassion for those around her in life, including moments such as her emotional call to Saten in the moments before Saten falls into a Level Upper-induced coma, and standing up for Level 0s and the well-being of the Level Upper users while held hostage by Dr. Kiyama. And though her esper power as a Level 1 isn’t much, it perfectly compliments this compassion: through the ability to keep anything at a constant temperature, Uiharu can always provide a warm food or drink and an ear to listen for anyone in need of emotional support.
Beyond being a (presumably) highly skilled baseball player, Saten takes on a more active, vocal role compared to Uiharu. Though she goes through a period in the Level Upper arc where she feels discontent with her status as a Level 0, she learns quickly to not judge anyone based on level or appearance, and lives this out in her cheerful interactions with many others and in her conviction towards doing what’s right. That conviction is the key to Saten’s bravery: in crucial, dangerous moments, Saten doesn’t hesitate to do what she sees as the right thing, despite the incredible danger she often puts herself in as a powerless Level 0.
It is telling that both Uiharu and Saten take part in the climactic fights that end both seasons of Railgun. They both join up with many superpowered heroes in the final fights against forces that would tear the city apart, taking critical roles in ensuring that the day is saved once more. Out of the many characters we meet in Academy City, most find their strength in their powers, in a number that determines how potent of an esper they are. But Uiharu and Saten stand apart as two ordinary people that have learned that their greatest strength is in who they are, and in what they are able to do with the gifts innate within themselves. Uiharu’s compassion, Saten’s bravery, and their shared commitment to stand up for others doesn’t go unnoticed – Misaka, Erii, and many others note how precious those gifts truly are. For a show with a setting that would’ve allowed for abundantly rampant powers and fights, A Certain Scientific Railgun stands at its best when Uiharu and Saten are involved – for the normalcy they provide, and for the humanity that empowers them to be heroines and equals alongside Misaka and Shirai.