In Sunrise’s anime s-CRY-ed, which originally aired on TV Tokyo back in 2001, the future is a chaotic time — the world is still reeling from a mysterious geological phenomenon known as “The Great Uprising” that absolutely devastates a chunk of Japan. Though life continues to find a way in the Kanagawa Prefecture, humanity’s left forever changed by the relatively recent appearance of people who develop a variety of “Alter” powers linked to the event.
While s-CRY-ed’s focus on a hot-headed protagonist rallying against a frosty rival who leads a cadre of uniformed warriors begs comparison to many series within the anime canon, its themes about people figuring out ways to survive in a world that doesn’t care about whether it’s hospitable to human life make it worth a revisit. More than that, though, s-CRY-ed’s gorgeous character designs and slick action sequences are visual delights that have more than held up in the 20 years since the series first premiered, particularly when you watch Discotek Media’s recent high-definition release that finally made its way West earlier this year.
Because a small, but significant percentage of Native Alter users gain a variety of fantastical abilities due to the event, HOLD — an extension of mainland-based government — authorizes the creation of HOLY, a specialised task force of these powered-up people meant to police the locals using their comparatively more advanced powers. Like all of the natives still living on the island that became known as the “Lost Ground” once it was torn away from the rest of Japan, 16-year-old mercenary Kazuma Torisuna (Sōichirō Hoshi; Steve Blum in the dub) lives under the strict, authoritarian rule of HOLD. And s-CRY-ed kicks off by dropping you immediately into the wildness of Kazuma’s life that, for him and the other natives, is actually quite ordinary and reflective of their lower class in society.
As Kazuma takes out a commercial aeroplane in the series premiere, it establishes that he’s only in his dangerous line of work in order to support his friend Kanami (Yuta Yukari Tamura; Carrie Daniels), a young girl whose Alter allows her to experience other people’s lives through her dreams, and the other vulnerable people living in the Lost Ground.
Before s-CRY-ed fully brings its antagonists into the picture, it first zooms in to show you just how destitute everyday life in the Lost Ground is to make clear how suffocating poverty is one of the most effective weapons HOLD wields against Native Alter users. But s-CRY-ed also spells out how and why HOLY — the Lost Ground’s answer to an excessively violent police force — is simply part of a persecuted minority who willingly agrees to enforce state-sponsored oppression of their own people. Being confronted with that truth is a big part of why HOLY members go to such great lengths to retaliate against the Native Alters who dare stand up to them.
In Kazuma and Kanami’s everyday struggles for basic things like food and shelter, you can see how the mainland has effectively resigned itself to the idea that the Lost Ground is a lost cause, full of people who deserve misfortune and the brutality HOLY inflicts upon them.
Because most people simply don’t have Alter powers to fight back with, there’s little they can do to defend against HOLY’s systematic attacks on their livelihoods, and those that do have abilities are seldom able to hold their own for very long. Most Alter users strong enough to survive (but not win) battles with HOLY end up being disappeared, brainwashed, and remade into agents of HOLD. But Kazuma’s grit and gift for thinking up inspired ways of using his powers to outsmart more powerful opponents gives him an edge that makes him a threat to the group.
In addition to his unwavering determination, Kazuma brings his fists to the multiple metaphorical gunfights HOLY members start, and he’s able to pack a punch thanks to the way his specific Alter power manifests. One of s-CRY-ed’s biggest mysteries revolves around what caused the Great Uprising, and how Alter powers actually work. One of the first ways the show clues you in to some answers is through its fight sequences; whenever Kazuma and other alter users activate their powers, the glowing auras they emit are accompanied by the dematerialization of random objects around them.
As the series goes on, you learn that part of what the Alters are doing is instinctively reshaping available matter in ways that reflect elements of their identities. The armour that encases one of Kazuma’s arms when he uses his alter makes him physically stronger, but the armour’s obvious incompleteness speaks to how he himself isn’t fully ready to be the warrior that he makes himself out to be. Kazuma’s tough, but he’s still just a teenager figuring himself out, and the same is true of his main rival, HOLY member Ryuho Ryu (Hikaru Midorikawa; Jason Spisak).
Kazuma’s Alter manifesting on his body says a lot about the way he embraces his emotions and feels comfortable forging direct personal connections. Ryuoho’s Alter — a humanoid creature with scarf-life appendages instead of arms — is linked to him mentally, and he can receive physical feedback through their bond. But Ryuho’s Alter existing completely outside of his body, and the way its fighting style prioritises ranged attacks rather than close combat both speak to Ryuho’s more antisocial, insecure tendencies.
Other Alters like Mimori Kiryu (Yuko Nagashima; Dorothy Elias-Fahn), who can transmute things into water, and Urizane (Bin Shimada; Kirk Thornton), who can grow and manipulate watermelons to teleport, have skills that initially seem much less useful for battle. But what all of the Alter users have in common is how they’re evolving in terms of understanding their individual powers, and understanding the larger system of power they all exist in together.
As the series’ first and only season builds to its finale, s-CRY-ed increasingly embraces its identity as an action spectacle full of overwrought emotion, and it’s the perfect balance to the show’s focus on heavier ideas. All together they make for a compact saga that’s hard to look away from.
s-CRY-ed is now streaming on Crunchyroll.