Reviewby Theron Martin,
DVD 1: The Torch Bearer
Yuji Sakai's first days at high school were entirely normal, and he was perfectly content with things remaining that way. He was there with a good friend and sitting by Hirai, a cute girl, so everything was cool. His world is soon shattered, though, when he finds himself caught in the midst of an interdimensional battle between Denizens of the Crimson World, who send out agents named Rinne to consume the existence of people in Yuji's world, and a Flame Haze, who opposes them. Somewhere in the midst of the battle Yuji winds up dead but doesn't realize it, as he seems to be continuing like normal. The flame-haired and flame-eyed female Flame Haze, who Yuji takes to naming Shana (after her sword's name), explains that he and many of the other people at the scene who seem to be fine are actually just Torches, remnants of the original temporarily maintained to lessen the chaos caused by their sudden removal from existence. Eventually the Torches fade away and all traces of the individual vanish. But Yuji, as it turns out, is a special kind called a Mystes, which means that he has a valuable Treasure within him, one sure to be highly sought-after by the Denizen and Rinne, so Shana sticks near Yuji to keep an eye on him. Ultimately this means joining him at school as well.
Sometimes the elements of a series come together just right or wrong for viewers to be able to tell from the first couple of minutes whether or not they're going to be watching a quality series. Shana is an example of a series that comes out right. It's evident before the first opener arrives that this one is a step above the normal magically-oriented high school fare, and by the end of the slam-bang first episode most viewers are likely to be hooked. So strongly and effectively does that first episode present the show's concept that a viewer is almost compelled to immediately watch the next episode just to see what becomes of the situation established for the male lead. How is he going to deal with finding out that he's not only already dead, but ultimately he'll completely fade from existence, leaving nothing behind?
The full impact of this situation hits in episode 2 as Yuji pesters Shana for a more complete explanation of the situation and must deal with the reality of one of his classmates being a fading Torch. After such an active first episode, the entire second episode is used only to explore the ramifications of the whole Torch situation and what it means for a Torch to just fade away. Making such a dramatic transition so early in the series is a bold move, but it beautifully brings home the crucial central conceits of the story and gives the feel that, just maybe, this series actually is going to have some substance to it.
With the third and fourth episodes the series takes on a slightly lighter tone in some scenes as it shows signs that it may be headed in a more conventional direction. Shana is quite the cutie, after all, and not being human means she's outside of normal standards of behavior for high school girls, so it's only natural that she'd be exploited for typical gags involving spending the night in the same room as Yuji or inserting herself into his class at school. The opener also supports this assumption, as it makes the series out to be more of a romantic action-comedy than it currently is. What is decidedly not typical, however, is the priceless way Shana acts in class or her blunt and acerbic personality. Also sure to liven things up for future volumes is the arrival of a second Flame Haze named Margery Daw (what a name!), who is guided by a rather wild talking book named Stupid-Marco (whereas Shana is guided/advised by a talking pendant).
The digitally-rendered character designs use a sharp look to enhance a very classic and typical anime style, one which makes the eyes extra-big and prominent but de-emphasizes bust sizes on its high school girls. Shana's use of a trenchcoat early on gives her more of a distinctive bad-girl appearance, as do the faintly flaming highlights when she goes into battle mode. Though she later appears stripped down, the actual fan service present is minimal. Most other human (or human-looking) designs are eye-pleasing but not standouts. The Rinne appearing in the first episode are a bit more inventive but not greatly so. Background art is quite good and well-integrated, and the use of a red haze in battle scenes enhances the flame theme of the heroine. Animation is also generally good, although the battle scenes use a lot of shortcuts. Digital effects are used to varying degrees of success, with simple things such as steam off coffee looking very obvious while the cinders-off-the-hair effect of Shana in battle mode is more impressive.
The musical score varies widely between orchestrated numbers enhanced by choral backing and purely synthesized numbers, with some piano-based pieces thrown in for good measure. It's a somewhat eclectic sound but is used very effectively. The synth-pop opener is a solid, enthusiastic (if not entirely original-sounding) number, while the series regularly does a superb job of segueing into its even better dance-beat synth-heavy closer; you might not realize how significant this is until you compare it to a series which doesn't do it well, like, say, Haré+Guu.
Ocean Group's English dub is populated by many Inuyasha second-stringers, most notably Paul “Naraku” Dobson (as Alastor) and Janyse “Kagura” Daud as Margery Daw. As with other recent efforts, though, Ocean Group uses an independent casting agency to come up with a broader mix of talent. Kristian Ayre does a fine job as Yuji, but the key performance, and the real reason to give the dub a try, is Tabitha St. Germain (probably best-known as the English voice for Fllay in Mobile Suit Gundam Seed) in the title role. Her interpretation of Shana brings through the character's callous bluntness in a way much more conducive to the English language, making it one of the more interesting vocal performances of the year. Even Shana's trademark “Shut Up! Shut Up! Shut Up!” is done well. Overall, casting is reasonably accurate and there are no miscues in performances. The dub script isn't the tightest, but sounds smooth and doesn't stray too far.
Extras on the first volume are limited, including only a clean opener and a Production Gallery in addition to the expected company previews. The cover art looks like something for a video game.
While it's too early to tell where the series is ultimately headed, Shakugan no Shana is certainly off to a strong start. It may end up degenerating into something else, but right now it packs a good amount of depth and development in amongst its battle scenes and arcane content. Lacking the hype seen some other new series, this one might fly under your anime radar, but shouldn't.
Overall (dub) : A-
Overall (sub) : A-
Story : A-
Animation : B
Art : B+
Music : A-
+ Great opening episode, more depth than normal.
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