Reviewby Theron Martin, Jan 3rd 2012
Shakugan no Shana III (Final)
episodes 1-12 streaming
On Christmas Eve night both Shana and Kazumi waited for Yuji in a test of his primary affection, but he never showed. Far worse, he seems to have disappeared without a trace from Misaki City; in fact, only those directly involved in Flame Haze affairs seem to remember him at all. The only evidence that he didn't flicker out of existence like typical Torches do is that the love letters sent to him by Shana and Kazumi were specifically returned to them. Yuji does eventually turn up again, but in the most unexpected of ways: as the new leader of the Crimson Denizen organization Bal Masqué and apparently willingly body-sharing with the essence of a God of the Crimson World called Snake of the Festival, who seeks his original body, which was imprisoned millenia ago in an extraplanar pocket by Flame Hazes. (Freeing him was Bal Masqué's grand scheme all along.) While Yuji/Snake takes Shana captive with the intent of making her his companion and the Trinity put their final plan to recover their god's body into motion, Flame Hazes and Denizens alike marshal their forces for an all-out war.
The Shakugan no Shana franchise is one of the rarest and most curious stories in American anime licensing: a case where the first and last installments in the franchise are legally available in the U.S. but the middle installments (the second TV series and its mostly side story-related OVA follow-up) are not. That's a massive problem for a story that is told serially across the franchise's three main series. This third TV series is not even remotely close to being a stand-alone effort, as its beginning is a direct continuation from the end of the second season and it quickly explains the mysterious ending of the second series, which vexed fans mightily in the intervening 3½ years. It also builds on numerous other developments established in the second series, so simply skipping the second series and going straight from the first to the third is not an option, either. Thus, making sense of the third series via watching only content licensed and available in the U.S. is impossible. Given that, one has to wonder why Funimation, who owns the license to the first series and is simulcast streaming the third series as part of its partnership with Niconico, has never gotten around to licensing and releasing (or at least streaming) the second series. Why did Funimation pick up this one and not its predecessor? And why number the first episode of this series as episode #49 when they don't have episodes 25-48?
Availability issues aside, the first half of what is supposed to be the franchise's finale corrects some of the old flaws and, to an extent, gives fans what they want. The single biggest problem with the second series was that it got so bogged down in the school slice-of-life aspect of the story that it did not spend enough time dealing directly with Flame Haze matters. No such problem here, as the story immediately takes Yuji out of the protagonists' side, thus reducing the Yuji/Shana/Kazumi love triangle to just a pile of wistfulness. That opens up plenty of room for concentrated plot development and action, and both aspects easily expand to fill that vacuum. An expansive cast of new Flame Hazes, each with their own distinctive personality and Crimson Lord, steps up into the gap, as do a plethora of new Denizens. And what else could such a hefty concentration of new characters do but plan for and then execute a veritable war? All of the familiar faces get in heavily on the action, as does just about everyone (excepting Pheles) who made a guest appearance in the earlier series and survived - and that may include a couple of unexpected reappearances. Relationships that step even partly beyond those aware of Flame Hazes largely get ignored, and Kazumi has little to do but fret and encourage Shana (but that's not a big loss, since she was always more of a distraction than integrally involved anyway), but certain relationships within the Flame Haze circle advance substantially; two characters even have sex. We also finally get to see what Bal Masque has really been up to all along, and the scope of their scheme will not disappoint.
For all that the story has become more vigorous, though, it is playing a dangerous game with how it handles Yuji. Since the very beginning of the franchise he has been as much the central character as Shana is. Without him around as he was, Shana cannot be one of the defining tsundere princesses and the Flame Haze shenanigans lose one of their most important grounding elements. The way he becomes a villain is a very convoluted path, but the writing emphasizes that this is not just a case of him being controlled or influenced by some outside evil force; it instead claims that Yuji has decided for himself that this is his best course of action, and this heavy-handed approach strains credibility to the breaking point given the personality established for him so far. As the opening scenes of the series show, the intent is clearly to force a direct head-to-head between Shana and Yuji and try to play up the “lovers who must fight each other in earnest” angle, but if that is where the series ultimately wants to go then the second half will have to be more convincing that Yuji has the justifiable temperament to stand in opposition to Shana.
J.C. Staff and director Takashi Watanabe are back once again on the production end, and as they have shown in previous installments, they know how to stage flashy, thrilling battle sequences. Character design and artistic standards generally remain consistent with what was seen in the previous two TV series; the quality drops off a little in the massed battle scenes towards the end of this run, but all new characters have the same feel as previously-introduced characters. The one major change is Yuji's powered-up form, which looks startlingly different from his human form; think of Yuji as a samurai warrior from ages past with long, flowing hair. The animation struggles with the pitched battles, often resorting to stills, but shines in one-on-one affairs. CG effects used in spell circles and flame effects are as impressive as ever.
New opener “Light My Fire” by KOTOKO is a hard rock number which gets each episode off to a sizzling start, while the more techno-themed closer “I'll Believe,” which in typical Shana fashion usually starts before the story content ends, brings each episode to a strong finish. In between the musical score has the same kind of techno flavor that the scores for the previous two series did, with many major themes just being slight variations on what has been used before. They are generally used effectively. The Japanese dub returns all of the original cast, with Hitomi Nabatame particularly shining as Marjery Daw, and adds depth in new roles with prolific seiyuu like the deep-voiced Sho Hayami (Trigun's Wolfwood, Macross Max Jenius, amongst many others) in a key role as Snake of the Festival.
The first half of the series ends like it's building up to the imminent final showdown, leaving one to wonder how the series will fill the remaining twelve episodes. Right now the action components are working well enough to carry the series despite stumbles like the above-stated concerns about Yuji or Shana effectively being out of action for four episodes (although the way she comes back into action is quite satisfyingly dramatic), but the writing is standing on some shaky ground. Even so, this final series is a thrill ride that established fans will not want to miss.
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B-
Animation : B
Art : B
Music : B+
+ Lots of new Flame Hazes, plenty of action, return to story emphasis.
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