Reviewby Carlo Santos, Sep 20th 2005
Shadow Star Narutaru
The mystery of the "Dragon's Children" deepens when Shiina's pilot dad encounters a doll-like angel whose idea of "Let's play" is firing an M-61 cannon at him in midair. Although he survives, he's badly injured, and when Shiina makes a hospital visit, she bumps into a strange boy who seems to know about what happened. Later on, Shiina and her friend Akira follow him around town and discover his unusual hobby of making large, lifelike dolls. However, the ultimate shock comes a few days later when Akira is kidnapped. If Shiina and her mystical, starfish-like pet Hoshimaru don't respond quickly, Akira could become the next victim for a group of sinister teenagers who know all too well how to use those strange creatures ... the Dragon's Children.
With Episodes 5-7 of Shadow Star Narutaru, the initial nagging feeling of "Something's not quite right here" shifts to "Okay, what the hell is going on?!" It's not that the story is incomprehensible or pointless, but you get the feeling that it would make sense if someone would just explain everything. No such luck, however. Although Shiina's circumstances have become increasingly risky, and the capabilities of the mystical creatures are now out in the open, this show still has plenty to hide. Are they aliens? Ancient life-forms? Spiritual beings? And how is it that only children can control them? For every answer that this series provides, it only opens up more questions.
Although Shadow Star starts out like a more mysterious version of Pokemon, it now becomes clear that darker forces are at work. The magical animal concept is just one of the many genre elements that join together to form a strange and unsettling mix. It's not about kids playing with magical pets anymore—they're seriously trying to kill each other here. Even as action and crisis levels escalate, however, there's still that sense of mystery in the deliberate pacing. Everyday life does not go ignored, and when Shiina and Akira look like they're just hanging around town, the starfish-like creatures Hoshimaru and Ensof are still nearby, hinting at the bizarre secret world that's closing in on the girls. Viewers who were patient enough with the first volume will continue to be hooked, clinging to the fragments of information that build up this story.
Among the many mysteries in the series are the young characters and their respective pets. Shiina is the most outgoing one in the cast, but as her friends and family fall victim to mysterious circumstances, her optimism and determination start to wear away. Quiet Akira is already full of conflict and self-destructive angst, and when she's unexpectedly kidnapped, it's just about time for her to snap. Her rash behavior in Episode 7 is an inevitable consequence, but it's surprising in that she does it of her own free will. Even the high-schoolers who have turned this into a deadly game show their weaknesses, and Shiina's barely entered the battle when the last episode on the disc ends. How's that for a cliffhanger?
The visual style of this anime may look odd at first to those who aren't familiar with manga-ka Mohiro Kitoh's character designs. Rather than "normalize" the characters for a mainstream audience, the animators stick close to Kitoh's lanky anatomy and plain yet unusual faces. This adherence to Kitoh's artwork also comes out in the creature designs, some of which resemble the unearthly Dolem statues in RahXephon, but less bombastic. Even the mundane town backgrounds lend something to the setting, as they contrast strongly against the bizarre events of the story. The animation quality, however, turns out to be a struggle between the staff and the budget. Despite some exciting camera angles like Shiina and Hoshimaru in flight, a lot of the motion is abbreviated into choppy sequences and poorly timed action. This series is more than just a generic kiddie adventure fantasy, so it's a shame that it's animated like one.
The subdued music score is a fitting accompaniment to the show's meticulous pacing. Although it can be sprightly at times, the background music relies more and more on dissonance as Shiina's world becomes increasingly chaotic. Sometimes even a single nervous note, jarring enough to catch the ear, can set the mood for an entire scene. Meanwhile, the cheerful opening song (and equally lively animation sequence) is one of the most misleading in any show. The melancholy ending captures the overall mood better, but few can forget the sharp contrast between the opener and everything that follows.
The English dub on this disc varies wildly in quality, with voices that don't always suit the uneasy mood of the series. Renee Gloger captures Akira's personality perfectly with her restrained, whispery voice, and the script has moments where it follows the direct translation exactly, but the rest of the cast turns this carefully plotted mystery into a Saturday morning cartoon. Kelly Ray's Shiina is too bright and energetic even by the character's standards (although she's in better control of her acting than on the first disc), and the sinister high-schoolers don't sound villainous enough. The timing of spoken phrases is another problem, as the actors' attempts to sync mouth movements result in odd, Shatnerian pauses like "It's like ... being held ... by my mother."
CPM is generous with extras on this DVD, providing an art gallery (okay, so it's just screencaps), a brief storyboard sequence for animation aficionados, a character gallery, and trailers for all the Shadow Star releases up to Vol. 3. Previews for other DVDs and manga follow the final episode on the disc, but are also accessible from the extras menu.
By now it's clear that Shadow Star is going beyond its magical animal beginnings and developing into a full melting pot of science fiction, mystery and horror. With the military involved and death an imminent threat, Shiina's days of casual fun with Hoshimaru are over, and the secrets of these creatures are slowly coming to light. If this were a card game, it would be at the point where you get to look at your hand, but you're not sure what the dealer has yet. Sound like a good proposition? If that's the case, then pick up the series and watch the plot unfold. Wherever it's headed, it sure will be intriguing to find out.
Overall (dub) : C+
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : A-
Animation : C
Art : B+
Music : B+
+ The plot thickens, but there's still more beneath the surface, it seems.
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