Reviewby Carlo Santos, May 28th 2007
Shakugan no Shana
Yuji Sakai's high school life is turned inside out when he discovers an alternate world beyond his own. Creatures from this world known as "Crimson Denizens" are able to infiltrate the real world, suck the souls out of humans, and replace them with false substitutes known as "torches." The only reason Yuji knows this is because a fierce little redheaded girl has just saved him from being taken away by Crimson Denizens. What he didn't know is that he's already a torch—which means he's essentially dead! Yet inside him lies a spiritual power that the redheaded girl, named Shana, has sworn to protect. If this means going to school together and even sharing the same bedroom, well, it's going to be an uneasy existence (or non-existence?) for Yuji.
And now that that's out of the way, let's judge it more fairly.
Even taking into account the different publisher, the different target audience, and the different spiritual concepts behind this story, it still bears comparison with many other big-name supernatural action series. Take your average high school boy, have otherworldly monsters attack him out of the blue, send in a girl to fend off the menace and explain to him how this all works, and finally, give the boy a special power that allows him to exist between the worlds of the living and the dead. Sound familiar? Still, the manga incarnation of Shana has its own distinctive quirks as well, from the sparse artwork to its complex alternate world. Can it do enough to set itself apart, or is it doomed to lurk in the shadows of other genre clones?
Unfortunately, the series starts digging a hole for itself right from the prologue. This dense explanation about the world of the Crimson Denizens, which probably went down more easily in the original novel, is a metaphysical mess that makes less sense than Paul's rambling letters from the back end of the Bible. Even when Shana shows up and starts beating up monsters (always a good thing), the battle is still loaded with jargon words like "Mistes" and "Flame Haze." Perhaps this is supposed to be some kind of lure, trying to get people interested in this mysterious world, but it sounds more like a confusing world than anything else. A second enemy attack midway through the book has much the same effect—people are after Yuji, and it's all explosive and exciting and stuff, but they're still talking about things that no one understands.
Although the fantasy-world aspect of the series is helplessly up in the clouds, the down-to-earth side is off to a better start. Yuji and Shana's high school days are tinged with a playful irreverence, and the two of them make a surprisingly good comedy duo—Yuji with his constant panic over Shana's presence in his life; Shana with her simple-minded bliss over a bun of melon bread. Even Yuji's pals have some wisecracks to spare when they seem him hanging out with Shana. We also get a serious look into their personalities when Yuji and Shana have a long chat at home over the value of life and death, although it quickly degrades back into goofball comedy with an undressing scene (no surprise there). While this is all quite pleasant and amusing, it adds up to a story that doesn't really stand out so far—it's still just some guy discovering a special power, and a bad-tempered girl trying to explain that power to him.
Where Shana does set itself apart is in the simple, streamlined art, with its emphasis on sharp lines. It lends itself naturally to the action scenes, where just a few thin penstrokes can imply a flurry of motion. Screentones and other grayscale effects also set the atmosphere when Shana puts her spiritual powers into action. The battles don't always flow smoothly from panel to panel—point of view changes too quickly, some details are hard to see—but artist Ayato Sasakura seems willing to learn as he goes along. The character designs also rely on simplicity, with varying results—Yuji looks too much like the stock Japanese teenage boy that shows up in everything, yet Shana definitely has a cuteness all her own, right down to the scowling tsundere eyes (character designer Noizi Ito also illustrated the Haruhi Suzumiya novels, so Shana's character clearly plays to his strengths). In the end, though, each of the characters can easily be told apart, which is what really matters.
The translated dialogue is about average for an action series, with its good points (lighthearted banter during school and home scenes) being balanced out by the bad points (anything involving discussion of the Crimson world). The characters don't seem to have particularly unique voices, though—could this be an effect of their personalities being filtered from the original novel? Meanwhile, sound effects are handled according to Viz's "taking the long way" methodology, where Japanese characters are completely edited out and replaced. The re-touchers seem to have gotten a little too edit-happy, with English letters sometimes scattering all over the page—but if that's what it takes to express the nature of a sound, all right then. While the back of this volume does feature some thank-yous from the creators, it doesn't have anything else in the way of bonus material, so it's a bit of a letdown in that respect.
Perhaps the one good thing about Shakugan no Shana's nondescript, predictably ordinary first volume is that it has a wide-open opportunity to get better. Or it might get people to move laterally and compare it against the novel and the anime. This mysterious world of soul-eating Crimson Denizens might be an interesting one—if it weren't so hard to explain. And Yuji's heroic journey might have some exciting turns after all—if the start weren't so blatantly similar to other tales of supernatural self-discovery. Well, whatever happens, we'll always have Yuji and Shana's sharp-tongued banter—and Shana's amusing penchant for melon bread.
Overall : C
Story : C-
Art : B
+ A simple, streamlined sense of character design and slick action scenes.
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