Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, Sep 12th 2012
Shakugan no Shana
BD+DVD - Season 1
It sucks living in an anime series. Take Yuji Sakai. One moment he's a normal schoolkid going to school with his friends, the next he finds out that he's actually a placeholder put in place when the real Yuji died and will snuff it when the flame he can now see burning faintly in his chest runs down. Bummer. He's told this by a flame-haired, sword-wielding girl just after she lops him in half during a battle with a pair of grotesque, soul-sucking monsters. Double bummer. The girl is Shana, and Yuji will get to know her very well in the days to come as they pair up to battle the otherworldly Denizens who threaten Yuji's world.
Like its titular character, Shakugan no Shana is scrappy little fighter of a show. It has its rough edges and share of frustrations; it stumbles and makes mistakes. And yet it soldiers on, fighting back with writing that's always a little sharper than it seems, characters who're always more complicated than you'd first guess, and emotions that cut deeper than you could ever reasonably expect.
Nowhere is that fight more obvious, or more successful, than it is in the series' first six episodes. Shana clearly takes its world-building very seriously, striving mightily to create a grand mythology. The first episodes are a byzantine mess of info-dumped concepts and deliberately obtuse terminology: The Crimson World, Denizens, Flame Hazes, Torches, Rinnes, Mysteses, Destruction Attacks, Unrestricted Methods. You know Shana's world is a deep one because it has lots of unnecessarily capitalized words. And everyone has two names (three, if you count their rank along with their name and title). Be careful not to roll your eyes every time someone portentously drops a name or unexplained Important Word. You can sprain those muscles. It hurts.
From that same flurry of overworked mythology, however, Shana crafts a devilishly cruel conundrum for its main character. Yuji starts the show dead—as a Torch, the aforementioned placeholder—with the sure knowledge that he will soon fade from existence, no trace left behind: wiped from the minds of his loved ones, erased from photos, subtracted from the very fabric of reality. He will not only cease to exist; he will never have existed in the first place. Yuji's struggle with that knowledge is the heart and soul of the show's first six episodes. He befriends a fellow Torch, only to discover how inevitable his fate is. He wrestles with what his disappearance will mean to his mother, struggles to leave something, anything to mark his passing. It's a sad, beautifully constructed little situation, peppered with poignant grace notes: Yuji and fellow Torch Yukari watching the sunset as she quietly dissolves into nothingness, Yuji passing on after the climactic throwdown, knowing that he's made his mark on Shana.
The show would have been much better off had it left Yuji's story there; let him make his mark and then followed the changed Shana as she moved on to new adventures. That it doesn't is the first of its really serious missteps. Instead it uses its labyrinthine mythology—in this case the Mystes, which are special treasures squirreled away in certain Torches—to nullify Yuji's problem and let his and Shana's relationship continue. From there the series is a pretty conventional action/adventure/romance. Each new arc brings a new villain as Yuji and Shana fight their personal battles, trying to understand their feelings and each other while protecting the world from evil.
Again, though, the series fights back from the setback. And it fights back with Shana. Amidst the swimsuit episodes, proliferating love triangles, carefully contrived romantic disasters, evil schemes, and mysterious bad guys, Shana shifts slowly but inexorably from an icy killer to a conflicted, confused girl—a change that is simultaneously disappointing (what's wrong with being an icy killer?) and deeply touching. Shana is pure tsundere to be sure, but the show never loses sight of the profoundly complicated reasons for her tsundereness. She isn't in denial about her feelings for Yuji; she genuinely doesn't know what they are. Raised as a killing machine, she's incapable of understanding what the warmth and attachment growing in her mean. And when her feelings rise up—as when the school's resident good-girl takes a shine to Yuji—she lashes out the only way she knows how: with violence, be it verbal, physical, or psychological. She makes a tremendously sympathetic romantic lead: flawed, fierce, and frighteningly fragile where her newfound emotions are concerned.
She's the main reason to keep watching when poolside hijinks and cohabitation clichés hijack the series. Though not the only one. There's also Margery Daw, a busty Flame Haze with a murderous streak a mile wide and very good reasons for having it. Tanaka and Sato, the bad boys of Yuji's school, who immediately adopt Margery as their leader. Yoshida, the aforementioned good girl, whose steel spine surprises even her. Yuji's mother, whose wisdom and quiet strength know no bounds. Even Shana's pendant—the manifestation of Alastor, her Crimson World contractor—can steal a scene when the mood takes him. Many of the series' very best sequences spring from its supporting cast—Yuji's mother gently schooling Alastor in the art of parenting is a particular pleasure—and when all of their lives intersect during one traumatic night at a local festival the series reaches heights that make those of the first arc seem paltry in comparison.
It quickly descends from those heights, largely due to a final arc that resolves little and ends in a Super Spell copout, but also thanks to the one character not mentioned above: Yuji. Yuji fares okay so long as you know he's going to die, but when he doesn't, problems begin to emerge. Given his position as a romantic lead you'd expect him to be a bland nonentity, and there's a bit of that for sure, mainly in his generic design, but he's actually one of the stronger characters of his type. He's willful, determined, and possessed of both iron inner strength and an inflexible moral code. So, no, he's not exactly boring. But he isn't terribly sympathetic either. He's intolerant and given to sanctimonious outbursts, yet mostly blind to his own shortcomings. He's kind and understanding to everyone, except, for unknown reasons, the girl he loves. He's able to deduce from a dropped trinket exactly what is bothering Yoshida, yet makes no attempt to understand the turmoil brewing behind Shana's anti-Yoshida outbursts. Whenever someone threatens to kill him—which is pretty often—you kind of wish they'd follow through.
While the economical new price is welcome, Funimation's Shana re-release offers nothing that fans who have the Geneon releases don't already have. It has Geneon's old dub—a nice solid affair based around Tabitha St. Germain's excellent alternate take on Shana and featuring more or less uniformly excellent work from the actors on the periphery—and Geneon's old extras: all of the “Naze Nani Shana” explanatory shorts (good for making sense of all those Capitalized Words), the almost grotesque moe Shana parodies Shana-tan and Shana-tan Returns, and textless versions of all of the opening and closing sequences.
The one thing it offers that Geneon didn't (and really, couldn't) is a Blu-Ray version. Which is, frankly, wasted on the show. Shana was a pretty sharp-looking show by the standards of the day, but it isn't elaborate or detailed enough for the full-HD treatment to really reveal anything new. That is, other than how much the show depended on low-fidelity televisions to obscure the lack of detail in medium to long shots. In retrospect the series' animation is only sufficient to its purpose, with lots of looped movements (wind-blown clothing being the main offender), and fast cutting to make up for the basic lack of animation during its action sequences. It uses its resources cannily, putting real care into the editing, timing and choreography of the frequent battles, but its resources are obviously limited. The impact of its action has far more to do with the emotion invested in it than its execution.
The show is much better at atmosphere, particularly once the spinning magical circles of the Denizens have turned the world around them into purple, time-frozen wastelands. Character designs are generic anime all the way, but look good nonetheless, particularly diminutive Shana with her flame-flecked hair. The score is also pretty fantastic: spooky, dark, and melodic. The first ending theme, "Yowake Umare Kuru Shoujo" by the wonderful Yoko Takahashi, is brilliant by the way—one of the finest of its time.
A lackluster finish and two subsequent seasons of diminishing returns have taken some of the shine off of Shana, making its shortcomings just that much harder to ignore, but it's still a fine example of how to do genre entertainment right: with skill, with intelligence, and most of all, with heart.
Overall (dub) : B
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B+
Animation : C+
Art : B
Music : B+
+ Monster-chopping action meets angst-drenched romance in a series that is never as dumb or predictable as its genre trappings might lead you to believe; strong, sympathetic female lead.
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