Reviewby Carl Kimlinger,
Shakugan no Shana Season Two
BD+DVD - Part 1 [Limited Edition]
Life returns to normal for Yuji, the once-dead keeper of the immortal treasure The Midnight Lost Child. Normal means training with Shana, his Flame Haze partner, going to school with Yoshida, the girl who pines for him, and battling the occasional magical psychopath from another dimension. He manages to live a pretty mundane life for all that, enjoying and suffering through the kinds of things that kids his age usually do: one-sided crushes, sleepovers, trips with friends, new girls in class. But that ends when the original owner of The Midnight Lost Child returns for her treasure, bringing to a head the long-germinating plans that Ball Masque has for the treasure that keeps Yuji alive.
There are two sides to Shana, a romance-focused personal side and an action-focused supernatural side. In the first season they were, if not inextricably intertwined, at least mutually supportive—each giving the other weight it might not have otherwise had. This season they're more like a chain-gang victim and his ball. The supernatural action is always looking to fly, but is constantly being dragged down by the romantic goop it's chained to.
Nowhere is the drag more obvious than in this season's first quarter. There are some throwaway Denizens and future plot points tossed in, but mostly it's one big lump of love triangles and romantic rivals and trembling first stirrings of love and it is horrible. Shana is cut off from her cool side and given nothing to do but be the tsundere stereotype that she is. Nothing of interest happens to the supporting cast, who just cycle through their few signature emotions and issues. Konoe, the obligatory new girl brought in to upset the established love triangle, is nothing more than a plot device to push Shana and Yoshida into the throes of “first jealousy.” Yoshida confirms once and for all that she is that most awful of female stereotypes, the girl who exists only to love the hero. She has no life, no purpose, no ambitions or desires beyond being with Yuji and, one assumes, spending her life barefoot and pregnant in his kitchen.
At its best Shana plays smartly with genre convention, not becoming anything new, but never quite doing what you expect either. Its school drama on the other hand is, at least here, convention without manipulation. No twists, no surprises; just tired tropes being tired and tropey. Which perhaps wouldn't be so bad if the scenes of rivals bonding didn't ring so hollow or the happy, smiling, frolicking-at-the-theme-park character bits weren't so stilted and false. Nothing about any of the friendships, antagonisms, or romantic yearnings of any of these young men and women feels real or true. Instead their formulaic emptiness only draws attention to the fact that the participants are genre constructs themselves: designed, not to resonate with our own lives, but with the fake lives we've witnessed in countless anime. You can respect what the show is trying to do—namely establish an emotional connection to characters who will soon be risking their lives—but it does it so badly. Instead of being seduced by Yuji and his pals, we're just bored. Or annoyed. Or pained. None of which is good.
That Shana II manages to pull itself back together starting around episode seven or so isn't a function of its romantic drama improving. It remains pretty much terrible right through. Rather it's a simple function of action squeezing the romance out of the show. Some other things factor in—the increasing focus on characters we actually like, like Margery Daw and cuddly couple Tanaka and Oga; the non-romance drama of Sato and Tanaka's parting paths—but ultimately it comes down to a simple equation: more action equals less teen romance. Which in turn equals a better show.
That's partly because the romance is bad, but also because the action is pretty darned good. Spectacular, exciting, occasionally inventive and often with an emotional sting hidden somewhere within, it's everything that the show's character-building everyday adventures aren't. The series dabbles in supernatural action in its early run, but the balance doesn't tip in its favor until Margery Daw's flashback in episode seven. From there on the everyday interludes get shorter, and the stretches of violent supernatural intrigue longer. Longtime mysteries return, new clues are excavated. We get a look at Wilhelmina's shrouded past, a backstory that satisfactorily explains the credulity-stretching convenience of the Midnight Lost Child, and a good reason for Margery's push-pull attitude towards Tanaka and Sato. Ball Masque's plans come into focus, and Silver—Margery's arch-nemesis—finally comes out of the woodwork. And he's damn scary.
And all the while the plot visits ever more frightening villains upon Yuji: the powerful Pheles, whose obsession with her mortal lover drove her to create the Midnight Lost Child; Sabrac, an indestructible assassin; and, ultimately, Hecate and Sydonay and a gargantuan monstrosity of their making. In battle Yuji ceases to be a kindhearted, blockheaded dullard and slips nicely into the role of shonen action hero. He may not be able to figure out that Shana doth protest too much or that Yoshida is acting odd because she doesn't like the way Konoe gloms onto him, but he can sniff out elaborate traps and set up clever countermeasures easy as pie. His fights often have a satisfying element of strategy.
As the season proceeds, as Yuji grows stronger and the stakes ratchet higher, the show starts to resemble its old self once again: scrappy, involving, often a crucial sliver better than you think it's going to be. The climax of the cultural festival is a convergence of personal and supernatural catastrophes that recalls the wrenching end of season one's town festival, its repercussions ringing through the rest of the season and darned near making us feel for Yuji again. The effect on Oga and Tanaka is particularly nice.
The action-dominated parts of the show aren't perfect of course. Margery's flashback hinges on the death of a character who we couldn't possibly care less about and Ball Masque's grand stratagem has to incorporate so many unrelated plot points—Konoe's true nature, Silver, the Midnight Lost Child, a half-dozen other cryptic moves—that it makes little sense if you think too hard. But even so, they're infinitely superior to the rest of the show.
They even look better. Where Yuji's everyday life is kind of drab and dull, drawing unwanted attention to the generic look of his town and the uninspired use and off-balance proportions of the otherwise attractive designs, when the Denizens show up the series develops a distinctive and highly effective atmosphere: all evil shadows, glowing magic, and menacing red light. The animation grows more fluid—as when Shana dashes to Yuji's rescue in the penultimate episode—or, barring that, the editing gets sharper. The series' visual imagination kicks in, delivering a showdown atop an enormous, levitating scoop of the city and, in the only set-piece to rival that, an evil god whose gargantuan body is a living maze of squirming metal beams. There's also plenty of lovingly detailed destruction as well as oodles of expert fights full of impressive explosions and ferocious close-quarters combat (assembled to maximally obscure its essential lack of motion). Heck, even the score tightens up, leaving behind intrusive treacle in favor of action thunder and haunting musical atmospherics .
Funimation recasts the dub for this season, resulting in a dub that has more in common with recent Funimation dubs than Geneon's original. It's a reasonable sort of dub, with a middle-of-the-road script and a mostly respectful approach to interpreting the original Japanese—a few questionable alterations aside. It isn't a terribly enthusiastic dub, and some of the roles are kind of stiff, but it isn't bad either. Cherami Leigh wisely forgoes competing with Rie Kugimiya for fetishistic cuteness and instead establishes a more natural, and naturally badass, Shana. Barry Yandell's mad Dantalion is manic without being the hideous annoyance that his Japanese counterpart was, and most everyone else is accurately cast and conservatively acted, meaning there's little change from Japanese to English. With the exception, that is, of mild-voiced Greg Ayres, who is conspicuously miscast as the manly Sato. Sato's scenes, especially with Margery, have a different tenor in English because of him.
Funimation gathers a nice collection of extras for these two sets. There are the usual episode commentaries, one for each set, as well as the usual clean OP and EDs and trailers. But there are also the educational “Naze Nani Shana” shorts, which amount to about forty minutes of (sometimes redundant) explanations of aspects of Shana's world. And, of course, there are the Shana-tan shorts: humorous takes on the show starring a tiny, uber-moe version of Shana. Three of them, in fact. They're funny enough if self-reference, parodies, and meaningless over-moe-doses are your thing. You kind of wish that they wouldn't keep calling attention to the show's shortcomings by comparing it to shows that are better (A Certain Magical Index), much better (Toradora) or just more enjoyable (Hayate the Combat Butler) than it. In fact, that's a pretty good list of alternatives.
Overall (dub) : C+
Overall (sub) : B-
Story : C+
Animation : C+
Art : B
Music : B
+ Second half studded with spectacular action set-pieces; mixes emotional developments and supernatural intrigue well so long as romance isn't involved.
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