Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, May 10th 2007
Shakugan no Shana
The city festival is getting underway, and the students at Yuji's school seem to all view it as a chance to straighten out their romantic woes. Yoshida seizes the chance to invite Yuji to the festival with the goal of confessing her feelings, Oga makes a clumsy attempt at inviting Tanaka and Sato, and Shana takes Yuji's mom's advice and dresses up in a yukata hoping to surprise him. However, Yoshida has come into contact with yet another Flame Haze, one tasked with "tuning" the town back to its natural state, and has become aware of, and capable of seeing, Torches. It all comes to a head during the festival as the various romances clash and long-hidden personal secrets are revealed to all amidst an assault precipitated by Masque Ball, an organization of powerful Denizens who have become aware of the location of the Midnight Lost Child and are in pursuit. And then Wirhelmina comes to town.
Shana is a textbook example of how to do genre entertainment right. Nothing in its basic structure suggests that it is anything except standard monster-whacking action, and yet it always manages to exceed expectations.
Part of it is the expert deployment of its various elements, part of it is the cast that is never as simple or stock as they first appear, and much of it is its excellent timing and relentless pacing. Any good genre entertainment is a delicate balancing act, keeping the expectations of audience members intact while consistently subverting or betraying them, an act that Shana has seemingly mastered. That everyone will collide with their prospective significant other at the most inopportune moment at the festival is a given, as is the inevitable Denizen attack, but the timing of those encounters isn't, and neither is the sobering aftermath. It's never certain just who will be hurt most deeply and how, until the damage is already done, and the Denizen attack doesn't lead exactly where one thinks it will.
The blend of high-school romance and supernatural action is also savvily calculated, with the drama lending emotional resonance to the action, and the action moving at an unforgiving pace that keeps things from getting schmaltzy or weepy. The unpredictable mix of the two keeps viewers on their toes, action scenes aren't immune to ugly little personal revelations, and even the most intense personal exchange is susceptible to a savage Denizen attack. The plot moves quickly enough that new developments prevent characters from wallowing in self-pity or basking in happiness long enough to raise audience ire, but not so quickly that the emotional costs of each person's actions don't have time to register. Just when you think that the characters are going to muddle about, unintentionally hurting one another, Wirhelmina comes along and the plot takes an entirely new trajectory.
As with the story structures, the characters are cast from standard molds that are undercut by unexpected elements. Shana seems a standard cute-girl mascot-character, complete with catchphrase ("Shut up, shut up, shut up!") and cute quirk (melon bread), but she's fuelled by potent blend of ruthless devotion to duty and utter naiveté. This volume makes the double-edged nature of her naiveté obvious, when her lack of worldly smarts begins to cut both those around her, and herself. It's a mixture that makes for an immensely sympathetic lead. Yoshida surprises by getting involved with the Flame Hazes, revealing the bullheaded iron will that underlies her soft exterior, and is subsequently promoted from disposable romantic rival to primary cast member. Even Margery has a few solid scenes with her subordinates. Yuji, on the other hand, displays a stoneheaded idiocy regarding Shana's feelings and motivations that makes it impossible not to feel some smug satisfaction at this volume's cliffhanger ending.
In terms of purely technical execution, Shana continues to be far above average. It isn't flawless—some action scenes feature common shortcuts that detract from their overall impact, and Shana's flame wings are a tad cheesy—but the budget is intelligently allocated. Shana's Flame Haze transformation, with her flowing red hair, blazing eyes and aura of sparks and flame, is still the visual highlight, but other details—the Denizen's silly mecha, a confrontation with a propeller-laden zeppelin, the spinning bands of the Unrestricted Systems, and the evocative background art—all show equal care, even if their effects are less obvious.
Composer Kô Ôtani turns in probably his best work since Haibane Renmei, opting for powerful, haunting, wordless vocals for the "impact" scenes, and appropriately subdued piano solos for the introspective scenes. Director Takashi Watanabe (is this really the same guy who did the atrocious Ikki Tousen?) knows to use the score sparingly enough that the repeated themes never get overbearing or boring. Both the opener and closer are vigorous, quality songs by well-known artists (Kotoko and Yoko Ishida respectively), but neither quite measures up to the superb original closer by Yoko Takahashi (of Evangelion fame).
There isn't much to say about the dub that the previous volume reviews haven't said better, but it bears noting that the dub retains honorifics where appropriate, and that Wirhelmina wisely works her "indeed" speech affectation into her sentence structure rather than tacking it onto the end.
Other than the old standbys (production art, and a textless version of the second opening) the only extra is the usual "Naze Nani Shana" explanatory video extra (two installments this time around).
Shana leaves its penultimate volume on a high note, having taken each and every character and changing the dynamics of their interactions. The issue of the Midnight Lost Child is coming to a head, and like the calculatedly unpredictable entertainment that it has always been, it makes waiting for the last volume tough.
Overall (dub) : B+
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : A-
Animation : B+
Art : B+
Music : B+
+ Finely-tuned genre entertainment that always turns left just when you think it's going to turn right.
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