Shana: Volume 1 (DVD)
Tsundere is a Japanese character archetype that describes a conceit, a spiky, combative personality that later on turns out to being modest and loving. It can also describe a personality that is good-willed, but its attitude and actions often contradict its nature. Tsundere is a combination of the two words tsuntsun, and deredere. Tsuntsun is defined as "aloof, morose, pointed", and deredere is defined as "exhausted, lovestruck". (Shamelessly filched from Wikipedia).
I began with that definition as if you are reading up on Shakugan no Shana with a view to a purchase, you may come across that term once or twice. Tsundere also marked my return to the anime fold a few years back, when I first got Love Hina for review. Naru Narusegawa is the epitome of tsundere, expressing her feelings for love-interest Keitaro by frequent application of the uppercut. It's an anime character stereotype that has made quite an impression on me, and it's one that I look out for with every new series I review. It also looks a little like 'thundery', which seems appropriate, and it also sounds a lot like a Panjabi word that means beautiful, which was briefly a pet name that my dad had for my mum, before she verbally whip-lashed him into desisting. Before we venture into just how much therapy I need, on with the review.
Shana is the titular tsundere character, and the show is about what happens when she enters the life of average schoolboy Yuji Sakai. We're into the realm of the supernatural with this show, and as with many such anime, there is a whole new lexicon and vocabulary to learn to understand the rules of this particular world. Shana is a Flame Haze, whose purpose is to fight the Denizens of the Crimson World and the Rinne they send to do their bidding, and stop them eating the lives of the people in the real world, who remain blissfully unaware. She isn't always successful, which is where the Torches come in. The balance of the world would be destroyed if people suddenly started vanishing, so Shana creates Torches to take the places of the dead, short lived replacements who eventually vanish from the world, along with any memory of their or the original's existence. When Yuji walks into the wrong place at the wrong time and dies, it's the start of a really bad day for him.
The first four episodes of Shana are presented on this MVM disc.
1. The End to Everything, the One Beginning
Yuji Sakai is an average student, going through the typical high school problems in his first week of school. At least he isn't alone in his discomfort, as he has his best friend Ike to fall back on. He also manages to hit it off with the cute girl sat next to him in class. It seems like destiny when he meets Hirai again after class at a record store downtown. But fortune is never that kind, and it's actually Ike that Hirai is interested in. Then when they step outside everything changes. The world stops, time freezes, and everything turns crimson. For some reason, Yuji is the only one who is aware of it, and can still move. But he can't move fast enough when two demonic figures attack, and people start vanishing in flames. Suddenly a flame haired girl appears, with burning red eyes, wielding a formidable sword, and a devastating battle ensues, in the course of which Yuji is practically sliced in half. When the demons are vanquished, the girl restores the damage inflicted on the town, and somehow recreates the people that had vanished, although Yuji can see that they are different, with a blue flame at their hearts. Yuji's a little panicked about his own state, but she tells him to stop wittering, as he obviously isn't bleeding. In fact, he's already dead.
2. The Lit Flame
Everyone who vanished died, but the world can't absorb such an alteration in reality. Which is why the Flame Hazes, of which the girl is one, create Torches to take their places. Torches are temporary lives that take the place of those lost to the Denizens of the Crimson World, and they remain alive as long as the blue flame at their heart remains alight. When it sputters out, they vanish, along with any memory of their existences. Yuji is now a Torch, in fact a special kind of Torch known as a Mystes, with a secret treasure hidden within that attracts to him Rinne that wish to possess it. The girl is sticking around to pick off the demons that attack Yuji as long as his flame keeps burning. Yuji's got another problem, as Hirai was one of the people that vanished to be replaced by a Torch, only her doppelganger's flame is already fading, and she soon will vanish from the world. Yuji takes it on himself to save her.
3. The Torch and the Flame Haze
Yuji's taken to calling the girl Shana, naming her after her sword. It makes it more convenient as Flame Hazes typically don't have names. Shana is finding the behaviour of this particular Torch unfathomable, and Yuji's actions and reactions are affecting her in an odd way, especially as she is normally indifferent to the impermanent recreations. It's especially telling when Shana starts going to Yuji's school to keep an eye on him. Yuji is surprised when Ike remembers Hirai, but the reason becomes clear when he learns that Shana has taken Hirai's place, and everyone else sees her as Hirai. He has a go at her for her cold-bloodedness, which instantly puts him on the school map, although for all the wrong reasons. That's nothing compared to the change that has apparently come over Hirai, who has gone from a shy likeable girl, to the sort of student that makes grown teachers cry. Then a Rinne attacks in broad daylight, and as Ike lies mortally wounded, Yuji has a decision to make.
4. The Confused Flame Haze
Yuji should be dead, well, dead again, but for some reason his flame came back to life, and even recharged. Shana's guide, and Lord of the Crimson Realm Alastor opines that it must have something to do with the fact that Yuji is a Mystes, and the treasure contained within him must stop him from fading away like other Torches. It makes him an even bigger target for Rinne and the Denizens. With Shana sat atop Yuji's roof to maintain her vigilance, it starts to rain. So Yuji being the gentleman invites her in. He didn't mean into his room. And for Shana, sleeping in the same room as something as insignificant as a Torch suddenly got a whole lot more complicated. Meanwhile, another Flame Haze is in town, and having two Flame Hazes in close proximity is not a good idea.
Shana gets a nice 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer. The image is clear and sharp, and the transfer is impressive, showing just a few of the typical NTSC-PAL telltales. There is the slight judder during pans that is evident, but that's it. The character designs are simple but memorable, and the animation is vibrant and effective, blending CG and traditional 2D animation with what has come to be typical anime style.
You have a choice of DD 2.0 English and Japanese, with optional translated subtitles and signs. It's a surprise to see an action show forgoing the chance to show off its surround goodness, but the stereo tracks are effective enough with discrete placement of effects. The English dub is Ok if you like that sort of thing, although I didn't find it to be the best dub in the world. The opening theme is a toe-tapper, but the Eurobeat end theme is going to take some getting used to.
Just the basics I'm afraid, a simple menu and jacket picture, the textless opening, and trailers for FLCL and Black Lagoon. We've had a long run of anime discs with decent extra features of late, and slipping back in time to the days of barebones releases is a little dispiriting.
Six months ago, I was lamenting the demise of Geneon in the US, a major distributor of anime that suddenly had to shut up shop, leaving several series in limbo and eliciting much wailing and gnashing of teeth from many a fan. I also worried what that meant for MVM, whose catalogue was certainly Geneon heavy. I guess the effects are yet to filter across the ocean, as after a long period of Gonzo weighted releases, Geneon are back in MVM's release schedule and in a big way. Despite Geneon's stateside demise, there are still plenty of stray licences floating around. MVM have already begun releasing Black Lagoon, and have recently confirmed a release date for the Second Barrage, which should have Americans importing from the UK for a change. Later this summer we'll be getting two licences rescued from the rubble of Geneon, Gravitation and Spaceship Operators, bringing some added diversity into MVM's release schedule. But for middle of the road anime with a twist, you can't go far wrong with Shakugan no Shana. It's a show that has proved to be exceedingly popular in Japan, running to two full series thus far, a feature film and OVA releases. The one snag that I can foresee is that prior to Geneon's demise, it had only managed to licence the first series and the OVA. Still, no need to borrow trouble.
Shana is a somewhat typical supernatural fantasy action show, ploughing a parallel furrow to shows like Bleach and Yu Yu Hakusho, although with its own distinct take on the genre, along with a couple of key differences. But getting a new fantasy show is like getting a new RPG. Watching the show you can pick up the story's lexicon and rules pretty easily. There's a whole new vocabulary to describe things, in this case Flame Hazes and Torches, Rinne and Denizens, the Crimson and the Real World, along with a whole new way for things and people to relate to each other. But when you're writing about it, you wind up wishing that you had the rulebook to hand. Spooknobabble aside, what sets Shana apart from its ilk is the tone of the show. Expecting the relationship mayhem that goes with a show where a slightly wimpy teen male encounters a girl with a mean right hook, I was surprised by the lack of comedy and farce, and even more surprised by the somewhat sombre feel. I guess it's unsurprising where the main character dies in the first episode, and death plays a major part in the storyline, but the show has a morose overbearing moodiness that is at odds with the relationship antics that do occur.
That's the other thing, most such supernatural shows are focussed on the spooks and spectres and watching our heroes triumph against them. Not so here, where the relationship between Shana and Yuji takes centre stage. For Shana Torches are a thing, echoes of a real person whose sole purpose is to fade away. Even when they become aware of their nature, all they can do is become self-absorbed in their own imminent mortality. Yet Yuji is different. We see how the typical Torch behaves in Hirai, who as a Torch sees her personality fade even quicker than she does, and whose final moments of existence are listless and uninvolved. So when Yuji remains lively, energetic and determined to stay alive, it shocks Shana out of her complacency. She also isn't expecting Yuji to interact with her, and is utterly nonplussed when he actually names her. All of a sudden, a Torch is behaving like a person, more importantly treating her like a person, and everything changes because of it. It's the same for Yuji, who suddenly encounters this girl who callously pronounces him dead, and whose sole purpose in life is to hunt and destroy Denizens of the Crimson World. Through his own unexplained longevity as a Torch, she has to stay with him longer than she expects, and his behaviour, his humanity and compassion begin to rub off on her. He's used to seeing her as a heartless being, but when for a moment she shows some signs of solicitousness, it knocks him for a loop.
It's early days as yet, and as such the show is busy writing its own vocabulary, and trying to figure out what goes where is half the fun of watching the show develop. Flame Hazes are apparently paired with Lords of the Crimson World, and Shana's guide Alastor lives in a locket around her neck. It makes for an interesting character dynamic as the two look on the world from an outside perspective. In the final episode we meet another Flame Haze, apparently called Margery Daw, whose sarcastic and loudmouthed guide inhabits a satchel. Her initial meeting with Shana is abrasive to say the least, and it looks like she will be more of a problem than the Rinne that they are supposed to hunt. Other interesting characters include Shana's Denizen target Friagne, who has an unsavoury relationship with a Rinne doll of his own creation named Marianne, who constantly plagues Yuji trying to take the treasure he holds within. For such a long running show, it's early days as yet, and the pieces are really just starting to fall into place. Shakugan no Shana could just turn out to be another middle of the road, populist anime, but there's enough to it that offers the promise of something different, fresh and original. It's certainly a show to keep an eye on.