Reviewby Carlo Santos, Aug 5th 2008
Rin Tsuchimi never thought that being surrounded by so many cute girls would end up like this. A supernatural illness has befallen the young demon Primula, and now she lies comatose in the depths of the underworld. Rin wants to be at Primula's side, but Nerine, princess of the demon race, is afraid to allow him there—for there is a tragedy in Nerine's past that could happen all over again if Rin jumps into the fray. And even if Rin is able to save Primula and work things out with Nerine, there is still the issue of Sia, princess of the gods, whose affection for Rin takes a dark turn when she comes face to face with her other self...
If you were waiting for that mind-blowing moment where Shuffle! turns the corner ... then wait no longer! Following on the heels of "Something Happens To Primula" (not the actual title) in Episode 12, the events of Episodes 13-16 reveal a definite change in tone, far removed from the lightweight schoolyard romance of earlier episodes. The way this doom and gloom plays out, though, you might find yourself wishing that the series hadn't turned the corner. As viewers are about to find out, just because an anime becomes sadder doesn't mean it becomes deeper, and the only difference between happy-go-lucky Shuffle! and serious Shuffle! is that instead of empty-headed frolicking, we get empty-headed wailing and weeping. Maybe Rin and friends should have stayed in comedy-land after all.
The first episode on the disc drops the ball right from the start, with its awkward pacing and poorly timed scene transitions. After the dramatic highs and lows of just one episode ago, it should've been easy to carry that emotional momentum, but instead we get everyone whining "Why couldn't I do anything to help Primula" for 20 minutes. Of course, this probably would have been more convincing if the series had done anything to make us care about Primula as a character; most will probably only remember as "the little one." After another forgettable character finally slaps some sense into this pity party, Rin spends the next episode actually deciding to do something about the situation, only to be interrupted by Nerine's tragic flashback. To be fair, this episode deserves some credit for having actual content—Nerine's personal history and the full truth behind Primula's origins—but when all is said and done, it basically takes two episodes for a guy to decide to visit a sick person. If it were possible to animate anything more drawn-out and boring than that, it would probably be a cartoon explanation of Japanese tax law or something.
Only in Episode 15 does this story arc go from "mind-numbing" to "decent"; the shift to serious mode is fully realized as Rin enters the Demon World and fantasy themes come into play. Even in a fantasy setting, the series takes the path of least originality: here's a damsel in distress, now go save her with the power of love, which will involve a lot of lightning effects and pseudo-spiritual mumbo-jumbo. Compared to the utter blandness of the previous episodes, though, this is downright interesting. Nerine's saga reaches full circle in this episode as well, showing good story coherence (if nothing else) and a definite end of an arc. We can only hope that Sia's arc, which begins in the final episode on the disc, offers a more engaging emotional ride; it's hard to say yet, though, when two-thirds of the episode involves generic school-life filler (as if there wasn't enough already).
Not surprisingly, a more subdued color palette hangs over these episodes; the pastel-bright scenery from earlier in the series gives way to moody sunsets and twilights, abstract flashback sequences, and most notably in Episode 15, a full-bodied fantasy vision of the Demon World. In fact, it seems that more effort went into the background work than the character designs and animation, which typically consist of Rin or his girls standing around, wearing one of three possible expressions (happy, sad, or ambivalent). Animation gets even sloppier with secondary characters—just look at one of the school scenes where a girl talking to Nerine has a bad case of simplified facial features and an asymmetrical head. Of course, being as dialogue-driven and slow-paced as it is, there aren't many places for animators to show off, and yet the one golden opportunity—the battle for Primula's life—is wasted on run-of-the-mill special effects blasting.
Like the visuals, the soundtrack takes a darker turn as well, and sometimes the music can be so evocative that it conveys the scene better than the story and characters do. There's a lot of piano and strings to be found here, along with ballad tracks in general; however, lite-pop instrumentals still have a way of sneaking themselves into just about any segment of the story. And speaking of lite-pop, the theme songs are still as generic as they ever were—they haven't gotten more annoying upon repeat listening, but they haven't gotten any more interesting, either.
If it weren't bad enough that the events of these episodes feel forced and unconvincing, the stilted voice acting pretty much confirms it ... in both languages. The English cast desperately tries to inject emotion into each scene—Rin's impassioned cries, Nerine's bitter recollections—but ultimately it's a losing battle, because you can't act out emotional depth when there isn't any in the first place. Similarly, the Japanese track is nothing more than a dial-a-bishoujo audio feed (how much helium would you like today?) as the girls spout out tired old lines about life and love and pain and lots of other boring things. Thus the language of choice becomes a matter of picking one's poison: the dub is written in more natural English, and even squeezes out a couple of gag lines, while subtitles offer a more accurate translation of the script. Oh, and don't bother asking about other features on the disc, unless you're really excited about textless credit sequences for the fourth time in a row and yet another small-ish pinup poster in the DVD case.
It's true that the midpoint of Shuffle! delivers some surprising changes: it gets serious, it gets tragic, it gets deeper into certain characters' back stories—in fact, it does just about everything except "it gets better." At first, it may seem pretty promising to think that Rin will literally have to go through hell to save Primula—but viewers will find themselves going through a hell of their own, as poor pacing and trite displays of emotion ruin any possible enjoyment of these episodes. Well, there's always the striking backgrounds and occasionally heartfelt music to look forward to, but that's not nearly enough to compensate. Clearly, these "dark and serious" episodes suffer the same problems as the light and comedic ones: pretty on the outside, but empty on the inside.
Overall (dub) : D+
Overall (sub) : D+
Story : D
Animation : C-
Art : C+
Music : C+
+ Serious story arc offers a change from lighthearted, episodic content. Some good background art and music.
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