Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, Apr 3rd 2013
Shakugan no Shana
BD/DVD - Season 3 Parts 1 + 2
On the snowy night when he's to make his final decision between diminutive warrior Shana and gentle beauty Yoshida, Yuji Sakai disappears. Everyone not privy to his secret life forgets him and his existence is wiped from the world. But Shana knows. Yuji isn't completely gone. What she doesn't know is that he's become one with the power sealed inside the Midnight Lost Child, an ancient god known as the Snake of the Festival. Now the leader of Ball Masque, God-Yuji wants to resume his ages-old plan to change the very nature of the world. A plan violently opposed by every Flame Haze in the human realm. Including Shana.
Unlike the first two, the third and final season of Sha>na tells only one story. It spins its warring-lovers premise into a sprawling, epic-scale battle—complete with meddling gods, millennia-long schemes, and two vast armies of sworn enemies forever clamoring for the others' destruction—that consumes its entire run. It is in many ways a more interesting series for it, losing some of its worst tendencies as it jettisons its usual plot structure for something altogether bigger and more fraught with possibility. But it also loses its scrappy emotional kick and overextends itself, straining as it tries to tie off its many plot threads. In the end it feels less like an overachieving B series and more like an underachieving A series. Which is perhaps just as entertaining, but definitely a bit less charming.
The usual Sha>na plot is a focused thing: maybe tied to bigger schemes or the larger world, but always kept within Misaki City, working with a few regular characters and one or perhaps two antagonists. A threat arises, maybe some new emotions with it, and Sha>na and Yuji work to deal with both. This season cracks the show's world wide open, dumping Sha>na and Yuji into a roiling mess of grand battles fought by an expansive new cast across all the planet. It radically recasts its leads: from partners learning to rely on one another to reluctant enemies caught Montague and Capulet style on opposite sides of a generations-long dispute. It's a season broad in sweep and rich in changes, standing steadfastly behind the alterations it makes to its characters and their world.
Which sounds like a good thing. And in a good many ways, it is. After the stagnation of the second season, it's nice to see season three move boldly and stick with it. The explosion of new characters adds much-needed color and variety, each bringing their own issues and relationships to the table—putting a human face (so to speak) on Bal Masque and the Flame Haze organization, and at the same time giving both a more concrete shape. In the meantime the show erases its longstanding love triangle and abandons its draggy schoolyard drama. The focus shifts to the ebb and flow and the strategy and counter-strategy of complex, multi-part battles, often to the exclusion even of Sha>na and Yuji's relationship.
More important, though, is the retrofitting of Yuji. After his fusion with the Snake of the Festival, Yuji changes—very much for the better. Gone is the enforced nice-guy perfection, the insecurity, the wishy-washiness. God-Yuji is confident to the point of arrogance, driven and sometimes cruel. He's as smart as normal Yuji, with a similar aptitude for strategy and a similar ineptitude with emotion, but more forceful. It's hard to know just how much of God-Yuji is Yuji; which of his actions and words and thoughts are his and which are the god's or some combination of thereof. He's cold and scary and inscrutable and just generally a lot more interesting than normal Yuji.
And with a new Yuji comes a new relationship with Sha>na, this one a lot more complicated. They spend most of the season apart (thankfully; together they tend to be either cloying or irritatingly clumsy), separated by violent adherence to their chosen paths. Their most tender moments come when Yuji kidnaps Sha>na. Most often they communicate with their swords. Strangely their romance feels stronger and healthier than before. For the first time it feels like a meeting of equals; a portrait of two people who can love each other and want what's best for each other, even if it means opposing each other.
That relationship comes at a cost though; specifically to the plot. Maintaining their antagonistic romance past the revelation of Yuji's really quite sensible plan requires the writers to dream up a lethally flimsy excuse for Sha>na to continue opposing him. (It has to do with the possibly-negative effects of Yuji's plan thousands of years in the future.) The entire final battle, from planning to execution to wrap-up, with all the death and destruction entailed, is born of that same flimsy excuse. When the aim of Sha>na's final plan comes to light—it's actually rather a clever little plot twist—things start to make more sense, but by then the damage is done. The series' final third feels thin and poorly justified, and you can't help but notice the equally thin contrivances used to bring Pheles, Yoshida and Lamis into the finale or what a load of magical gobbledygook the whole thing is.
Maybe it's because of the sprawl, maybe because of the focus on full-scale wars (not intense personal duels), or perhaps simply because Sha>na and Yuji have grown up, but this season never hits the emotional heights previous seasons did. That's not to say it isn't periodically powerful, sometimes in surprising ways. Sha>na's kidnapping leads to a bedroom encounter that puts a big, scary crack in God-Yuji's emotional armor, and the bloody end of the first major battle packs a pretty good wallop. But the sharp emotional edge, the hard spike of feeling, the sucker punch from nowhere… they're not there. Its pleasures are the gentle pleasures of expectations fulfilled, not the bracing shock of expectations ruptured.
Give Takashi Watanabe his due: he's consistent. If you've made it through seasons one and two, you know what you're getting stylistically. Same atmosphere (effectively spooky, especially when the action moves to Bal Masque's eerie headquarters), same backgrounds (nondescript except when magic turns it otherwise), same designs (cute and bit thin but otherwise pretty standard), same music (quite good when working the solo piano, downright excellent when shooting for creepy, variable when flexing its action muscle), and same action direction (sharp, but with a fondness for standard anime shortcuts). The increased scale allows for some pretty impressive warfare, rife with spectacular magic and CG armies and crowned with the occasional fortress of floating organic machinery. The new characters owe a great deal of their appeal to their well-defined individual styles (of dress, of movement, and of fighting), and the Snake of the Festival's CG body is about the coolest thing in the show to date.
Funimation's dub takes a decided step down this season. Not in writing, which is solid and faithful for the most part. Not in casting, which is the same for the recurring characters and perfectly acceptable for the newcomers. But the acting… that's not so steady. The cast is even less convincing on the big emotions than before, occasionally verging on downright flat. The larger proportion of action helps some, as the acting tends to be less variable when violent (particularly Cherami Leigh's), but that's balanced out by the loss of Satoshi Hino's careful gradations of Yuji-ness as God-Yuji and by the painfully miscast Greg Ayres, whose youthful delivery makes Sato's already implausible relationship with Margery downright creepy and weird.
Extras: Two of the customary Sha>na-tan parody episodes (extra-long this time, roughly 9 minutes each) and four commentaries, two for each set, each featuring ADR director Jerry Jewell and one other person (ADR engineer Alyssa Galindo for episode four, actors Josh Grelle for episode seven and Scott Freeman for episode fourteen, and Leigh for episode 24).
The question going into any season whose sub-title is “Final” is, how final is it? Pretty final. It has to force some things, contrive some others, and ends up pretty messy and thinly written in the process, but Sha>na III does manage to tie everything up before putting the franchise to rest. And with a sweet little romantic bow on top, to boot. Chances are that the end of the middle half will leave a stronger impression than the actual end, but you're still likely to leave properly satisfied.
Overall (dub) : C+
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B
Animation : B
Art : B+
Music : B+
+ Wider in scope, bigger in scale, and better in execution; Yuji is much improved, as is his relationship with Shana; lots of interesting new characters.
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