21 October 2009
Shakugan no Shana is a 24 episode-long anime based off a series of light novels and animated by the consistently reliable J.C.Staff. It's already out, licensed, dubbed, the works, and there's an animated film and a second series and a plethora of other media works to go with it. I only just got around to finishing the first series, though, so here's a late review.
Shakugan no Shana boasts a fascinating premise. Existing alongside the ordinary world is the Crimson World, whose denizens are often embroiled in battles over the power of existence, the energy that forms the basis of the world. When Denizens steal this from living people, Flame Hazes � the guardians of the balance - replace them with 'Torches', which allows those existences to fade naturally by burning out over time. When Torches burn out, as is demonstrated at the start of the series, they're forgotten, their mark on the world completely erased. A death more complete than death.
This is what occurs to Yuji Sakai in the very first episode - in an attack by a Denizen, he is killed and becomes a Torch, however it turns out (as it inevitably does) that he's a special kind of Torch known as a 'Mystes', with a treasure hidden inside possessing a special ability. Shana, a Flame Haze, decides to guard him until he burns out, so no Denizens can steal the treasure. The story develops logically from here. Most people with any familiarity with this sort of anime can probably guess everything that will happen about two episodes before it actually does, but it's a fascinating ride as the characters are forced to examine their humanity. In Yuji's case, whether he still qualifies as Yuji Sakai even when Yuji Sakai is already dead, and in Shana's case, her duties as a Flame Haze as compared to her desires as an individual.
The premise is special, the plot not so much, and the characters hover in an interesting place in-between. The majority of the cast are emotionally damaged in one way or another, and there is never any shortage of love triangles. Most of the non-Crimson World characters, while superficially interesting, never get enough drama or development to become truly unique and memorable. Shana, however, has just enough conflicts of interest and personality faults to avoid being stuffed into a stereotype. All of the Flame Hazes are interesting, in fact, even if each one is more clich� than the last. Margery Daw is a good example - the Chanter of Elegies, who starts out casting spells with poems, and then later cheesy limericks. At first glance, she's the standard raucous busty older woman with a drinking problem - and how tragic that this is common enough in anime to become a stereotype - but there's more to her than meets the eye. That's a good summary of the series, in fact - it looks very familiar on the outside, but there's an extra something underneath that makes it worth watching.
That said, Shakugan no Shana fails to fulfil its potential. The ending is appropriately epic, but chickens out of any consequences, even for the villains. It was a positively Disney Saturday morning cartoon conclusion, and not what one expects from a series that has dealt with such morbid issues throughout. Nobody expects the hero of Pokemon to stay dead for more than two minutes, but if you've spent 24 episodes setting up a tragedy, you'd better have a pretty damn good twist if you're not planning on delivering.
The music, however, is worth a serious mention. The soundtrack was composed by Ko Otani, whose other credits include Shadow of the Colossus and Eyeshield 21, and he delivers on this one almost as admirably. The animation is terribly standard in comparison, with frequently reused shots, but the series still LOOKS good, and that's all that really counts.
After all that, there really isn't much else to say about Shakugan no Shana. It's not a bad series by any means, but the fact that I found myself able to walk away from the cliffhangers, even when the next episode was available, is not a mark in its favour. For the most part it was enjoyable and well executed, but it also failed to impress. In the end, it is destined to join the grey mush of look-alikes in the back of your memory, where you'll remember Shana because her name was in the title, but the other characters will fade into obscurity. I've already forgotten the names of all the characters who WEREN'T Flame Hazes.
Overall score: 456,789 / 1,000,000. 100,000 of those points were totally for Ko Otani.