Reviewby Theron Martin,
Shingu: Secret of the Stellar Wars
DVD 1: Altered Perceptions
The year is 2070. Hajime, a curious and outgoing second-year class rep at Misumaru Middle School, leads what he thinks is a quiet and ordinary life in the town of Tenmo. But, one day, two events turn all of his conceptions about the world around him upside down: the appearance of a giant white mecha fighting off an apparent alien invasion, and the arrival of Muryou Subaru, a transfer student with a predilection for old-fashioned (for the time) school dress and remarkable talents for combat and use of telekinetic power. As Hajime soon discovers, Muryou isn't the only person at Misumaru with special powers and responsibilities, either. How is it all connected to the alien Galactic Federation and the strange white giant called Shingu?
Though Shingu might technically be considered a mecha title, to regard it as (or expect it to be) primarily a mecha title would be terribly inaccurate. Shingu, the white mecha which lends the series its name, and other mecha only appear in three of the five episodes in this volume for a total of about 10 minutes, though they are referenced at other times. This volume is instead much more a light-hearted story about a boy who gradually discovers new dimensions of weirdness underlying the calm normality of his environment, while a side story thread in episodes 4 and 5 concerns an undercover Galactic Federation diplomat trying to reason with an alien spy. Mostly, though, the story focuses on Hajime, who is sometimes at the center of the action and other times just an observer, but always serves as the narrator. He even occasionally speaks directly to the camera during a scene, which in an amusing twist is actually noticed and commented on by those who happen to be around when he does it (who think he's just talking to air). The story isn't just about the weird stuff, either. A lot of normal Japanese middle school activities and character relationships go on as well, providing a distinct contrast to all the stuff about aliens and telekinetic powers.
Perhaps the biggest weakness of Shingu is a lack of creative vision on what the future looks like. Shingu's vision of a Japanese town and school in 2070 is little different than what it looks like in current day, with only a few small technical advancements (such as fold-up laptops) giving any suggestion that this is the future. Only one major cultural difference exists, but it's a big one which will be immediately apparent to any anime fan or native Japanese viewer: kids of the future don't wear school uniforms anymore, and apparently haven't worn them in decades. Because of this, Muryou really sticks out when he comes to school dressed in an “outdated” school uniform. This and the extent of student authority on some matters suggest a more progressive school system in this imagined future than the one that exists now in Japan, even though the structure, activities, and buildings look more or less the same.
More than counterbalancing the limited future vision are the story's distinctive characters and the quality of their characterizations. While some of the characters may be stereotypical, a viewer will have no trouble telling them apart or growing to like them, especially Hajime's charming younger sister Futuba or the uptight pig-tailed brunette Nayuta. Even the more disagreeable characters still have a distinct appeal. Supporting the characterizations is dialogue and character behavior which feels more natural and realistic than what is seen in most anime series dealing with kids this age. The humor also flows along smoothly as a natural consequence of the light-hearted spirit, devoid of the highlighting visuals or sound effects one normally sees used to emphasize a joke in animation. It also results from normal, everyday actions, such as Hajime and his sister having fake-punch wars or the sublimely ridiculous video game he and his sister play. (Most non-Japanese viewers will have to read the liner notes to appreciate exactly how ridiculous it is, though.)
Sadly, the excellent writing is saddled with a decidedly subpar dub. Muryou's English voice is distinctly too deep, but otherwise the English vocal casting, which uses RightStuf regulars and some laughably bad fake names (Maud Linn? Dyna Moe?), generally does a good job of matching up voice actors with appropriate roles. The vocal styles used by the voice actors are also generally good, but the timing and delivery are not. Most of the voice actors try so hard to synch up with the lip flaps that they lose the flow of their speech at times, resulting in performances that sometimes sound forced or stilted. The only major performance which consistently avoids this problem is Angora Deb's turn as Futaba, although, oddly, she doesn't entirely avoid this problem speaking in a more normal voice as Nayuta. The very loose English script is also problematic. Usually it's at least in the ballpark on meaning, and some of the differences owe to converting Japanese phraseology into equivalent English slang (such as the use of Pig Latin at one point in episode 5 where Hajime is telling Futaba to keep quiet about something), but sometimes the meaning is just different. Overall the dub isn't a disaster, but it isn't good enough that I can recommend it even for dub-favoring viewers.
Despite what it might look like from the cover art, the artistic style of Shingu is actually a bit old-fashioned. Though its use of shadows marks it as a product of digital coloring, it lacks the glossy look and sleek lines so common in contemporary anime series. This isn't necessarily a Bad Thing, as this is still a visually appealing series which features excellent background art and distinctive and pleasing, if not always original, character designs (well, except for the friend of Hajime's with the ridiculous overbite), but except for the shadowing this series looks like it could have been made in the late 80s rather than in 2001. The mecha designs are more uneven; the acorn-shaped ones are just ridiculous, while Shingu's design is much more stylish and creative. The animation isn't Madhouse's best effort but it's good enough, while the integration between foreground and background art is generally good but not flawless. Opener artistry is very ordinary and closer artistry is very absent. Despite some physical violence and threats of bodily harm, not a speck of graphic content can be found anywhere in the series, making this a safe view for anime fans of any age.
The musical scoring for Shingu is critical to setting its light-hearted tone. Musical numbers range from piano ditties to jazzy trombone-heavy horn pieces to woodwind-based melodies, even some string numbers and synthesizer work, but all of it has a light, fun-loving spirit. Dramatic scenes naturally have more dramatic music, but even in those cases it never sounds too heavy or serious. The orchestrated opening number is entirely forgettable, while the closing number is a light, pleasant, jazzy piano-dominated number, the kind of thing that would sound good as background music at a formal party.
Extras on the DVD for this volume include company previews, a production art gallery, character bios, and Original Production Notes. The bios are informative (to the point of spoilers past this volume in one case) and cover most of the major characters, but the inclusion of the production notes is pointless unless you can actually read Japanese, since they aren't translated. DVD set-up allows viewers to switch back and forth between the original Japanese and translated English credits using the Angle button on the remote, a nice encoding touch which is, to my knowledge, a first for a RightStuf production, though FUNimation has been doing it for a while now. On the downside, the English credits in the closers, which are tacked on after the Japanese credits, are still playing for a while after the music ends. The casing includes a reversible cover whose front and binder edge give the title in the original Japanese, an approach I have not seen done elsewhere which may be of particular interest to hardcore purists. The real highlight of the extras, though, is the 12-page liner note booklet, which includes extensive and highly informative production notes, a translation of Hajime's outline of character relationships from episode 2, a couple of rough comedic comic strips, and a detailed layout of a middle school of the year 2070, including floor plans! The layout and production values for this booklet are top-rate, making it one of the best such extras I've seen to date.
Shingu skews a bit towards the younger crowd, but its appealing characters, light tone, and lack of graphic content make it appropriate for viewing for any age. At this point it is hardly the deepest or most complex anime series you will ever see, but it is a fun view which turns out a bit better than you might expect at first. If you're looking for a devoted mecha title then you're looking in the wrong place, but if you're looking for a good light diversion or something you could safely show non-anime-fan friends and family, the first volume of Shingu fits the bill.
Overall (dub) : B-
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B+
Animation : B
Art : B+
Music : B+
+ Superior liner notes, good characterizations, appealing characters.
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