Shana: Volume 2 (DVD)
In the search for the different, the unique and the original, it's easy to neglect the middle of the road. After all populist entertainment is so for a reason. People like the familiar, the comfortable, and when writers and creators work within the boundaries of an established format, the challenges can be just as inspiring, and the rewards can be extremely lucrative. Get it right and you have the next big mass market hit, get it wrong and you are cancelled within weeks. Shakugan no Shana exists within that comfort zone when it comes to anime. It takes a supernatural action storyline, sets it in the milieu of the high school, and then adds a hefty portion of relationship angst. You'll have seen all these ideas in anime before, but here's the trick, not put together in quite this way. Volume 1 of Shana turned out to be clichéd and hackneyed, and a breath of fresh air at the same time. My confusion drove me towards this second volume with alacrity.
Shakugan no Shana tells the story of high school student Yuji Sakai, and what happens when Shana enters his life. 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 place 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.
Previously, as Yuji got used to his new existence as a Torch and realised that he was in fact a Mystes, a special kind of Torch that didn't fade like the others, the plans of Friagne continued to unfold. Friagne is looking to bring eternal life to his beloved creation Marianne, while Shana tries to stop him. At the same time a Corpse Collector comes into town, dining on fading Torches, and following him is another Flame Haze named Margery Daw. Having two Flame Hazes in close proximity is a lethal combination, and Margery's first meeting with Shana is unpleasant to say the least.
The next four episodes of Shana are presented on this MVM disc.
5. Respective Thoughts
Yuji finds Shana bruised and battered in his front yard, but when he offers his help she angrily bats his hand away. Losing to Margery Daw has made her tetchy, and she's looking for someone to blame. Meanwhile Lamies the Corpse Collector is in town soaking up all the flickering torches about to fade completely. Margery Daw is supposed to be hunting him, but she doesn't know her way around the city. She needs guides, and she picks on two of Yuji's classmates who happen to skipping class, Tanaka and Sato. Friagne's plans are in jeopardy though, his scheme to endow his doll Marianne with life depends on the torches in the city, and with Lamies destroying them, he'll have to accelerate his plans. Shana's behaviour is confusing Yuji, but fortunately there is more amenable interaction with Yoshida at school. Yoshida has finally sucked up the courage to ask Yuji out to an art exhibition, and with a little nudge from best friend Ike, the two of them are soon on a date. Conflicted, Shana watches the couple. Alastor's observation makes sense. If Yuji is affecting her performance as a Flame Haze, she'll just have to get rid of him. She may be too late though, as the Corpse Collector is also visiting the exhibition, and Yuji is a big juicy torch.
6. Complication, Activation, Confrontation
Friagne's plan of City Devouring has been activated, and soon everyone and everything that Yuji holds dear will be destroyed. He's been given warning though, and he races to find Shana to warn her in turn. Shana isn't keen on listening; she's finally resolved to get rid of the pesky torch when Friagne challenges her. Friagne knows that the Flame Hazes can disrupt his plan, so he's intent on keeping Shana busy while the city is devoured. Yuji's faith is in Shana, as a torch he believes that he can't do anything to help matters, but when he sees Shana weakening under Friagne's attacks, he realises that he must do something. Then something odd occurs, when he helps Shana, she finds that her abilities increase in strength.
7. The Two Flame Hazes
There is still a Denizen in town, Lamies the Corpse Collector, although he has always been one to avoid affecting the human world, indeed he was of significant help during Shana's confrontation with Friagne. But for Margery Daw there are no innocent Denizens, and it's a difference of opinion that will have the two flame hazes on a collision course once again. Yuji has realised that he can help Shana, and he asks her to train him in combat. It's a painful experience, but Shana realises that she works better with Yuji at her side. Margery has her new friends Tanaka and Sato hard at work tracking Lamies down, determined as she is to eliminate yet another Denizen.
8. The Beautiful Goblet
She locates Lamies, but there is something amiss. He's moving around faster than is possible for a Denizen. While she tries to unravel the mystery, it gives Shana and Yuji enough time to get there first, and defend him. Battle commences, and it looks like an identical rematch of Shana and Margery's first confrontation. But Margery is unaware of Shana's new confidence. She also has no idea what attacking Lamies will do to the city. When it looks like she is about to be thwarted, Margery's guide Marco loses control, and the Seal between the Crimson and the Real World is threatened.
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 I'm still trying to get used to the Eurobeat end theme.
Just the basics I'm afraid, a simple menu and jacket picture, the textless closing, and trailers for Love Hina and Witchblade.
With the first volume, I made the observation that Shana was a show where the supernatural action took a back seat to the emotional aspects of Yuji and Shana's relationship. Not so in this volume, which is pretty much all action from the get go. That isn't to say that the emotional aspects are neglected however. In fact I was surprised as to how jam-packed this second volume was with narrative and character development, along with several bouts of action eye-candy. Shana really finds its tone and pace in these episodes, and with the opening volume used in establishing the rather convoluted premise and introducing the characters, the episodes here really build on that, and I found this volume to be a more enjoyable experience.
At the start of this volume though, we're still setting out the ground rules for Shana and Yuji's relationship. With Shana having been defeated by Margery Daw at the end of the previous volume, she's obviously peeved, and looking for someone to blame. The warm-hearted friendship that was developing between her and Yuji is an obvious target. By giving her a name, and treating her as human, he must have been weakening her, and Shana reacts by pushing Yuji away. It doesn't help and Shana remains out of sorts, especially when she sees Yuji spending time with Yoshida. Alastor thinks that Yuji is debilitating Shana, and advises her to extinguish the torch and be done with it. Fortunately for Yuji, Friagne interrupts by launching his plan to destroy the city. Fighting against Friagne, Shana realises that she is stronger with Yuji at her side, which firmly sets up the dynamic for the rest of the show.
Surprisingly Friagne's arc concludes in the first two episodes. With his megalomaniacal bad guy status, and his elaborate plans, he had all the hallmarks of a series villain. Admittedly his fascination with his doll Marianne was just the wrong side of creepy, but otherwise he seemed to be a character that had legs. As it turns out, he's a little short-changed in his final two episodes, and as much focus as his evil plan deserves, more was given to Margery Daw and Lamies. A rather more interesting development is that Yuji isn't the only member of his class privy to the secrets of the Crimson World. Margery needs a guide to the city, so she picks two likely looking delinquents from a back alley. They turn out to be Tanaka and Sato, the two toughest kids in Yuji's class. Although they remain unaware of each other, they do wind up working to cross purposes, and while Yuji and Shana's relationship provides the emotional core to the show, it is balanced by Tanaka and Sato's interaction with Margery, although Tanaka's fascination with the older woman seems to be in no way returned. It's a more comic, uncomplicated interaction, as Margery is just using the two teens and their infatuation is more humorous. It will be interesting to see what happens when the penny drops and Sato and Tanaka find out that Yuji is a torch.
Once Yuji and Shana realise that they work better together than apart, then we move onto the next arc of the show, which is delving deeper into Margery's character, and her particular hatred of Denizens. She's been seeking revenge against a nameless 'silver flame' Denizen, one who caused her torment in the past that set her on the path of a Flame Haze. It's a blind hatred that sees her with the perfect partner in Marco, with the two liable to go berserk at the sight of an enemy. It's the relatively harmless Lamies that sparks this on this occasion, but his destruction would have dire consequences for the city. He's a Denizen that has been quietly collecting torches that are on the verge of flickering out, gathering energy for some un-stated purpose. At this point there is so much energy that if unleashed without control, it would be disastrous. Lamies turns out to be a kindly old man who takes an interest in Yuji and Shana, and helps them in their fight against Friagne. Afterwards when Margery is after him they return the favour. He's acquainted with Alastor, and also drops some tantalising hints about Yuji.
The thing about Shana is that it is remarkably dense. There are so many story threads, and so many character arcs that it's astounding that it all gets packed into neat little twenty-minute chunks. But Shana is a fairly middle of the road anime. In another world, it would be the sort of show that gets stretched into 300 episode runs like Naruto or Bleach. But imagine if you cut all the filler and flashbacks, pointless diversions and endless exposition out of those larger series. Imagine if you found the emotional core of the story and concentrated on that. Imagine if instead of widely spacing apart major plot developments, you tried to squeeze as many as possible into an episode. That's what Shana is. It's a distilled, neat shot of all that is good about the long running shows, with all that's bad taken out. And it's tremendous fun at that. But it does play to the masses. A sign of that is the preview for episode 9. We have a swimsuit episode coming up at the start of volume 3. Shana is your basic fun action anime, with good characterisations. If you want to travel the middle of the road, you may as well do it in a good-looking car…