“You’re dead, you just don’t know it yet!!” was what initially grabbed my attention in 2006, when Geneon released the first Shakugan no Shana disc in North America. That tagline, which remains one of the sweetest I’ve seen attached to an anime since, and the plot concept it alludes to made me impulse-buy the first disc and indulge in the first episode. The show’s existential bent, no matter how blunt or intermittently employed, seemed novel at the time and fostered my first arc binge. My sappy love story addiction, however, made me sit down for the rest of the season (not to mention two seasons thereafter).
If you’re unfamiliar with the series, it revolves around the experiences of a previously normal boy, Yuji Sakai, who dies one day. Instead of a funeral and life continuing on only for others, life (or rather the experiences thereof) continues for Yuji … at least for a little while. He’s fated to fade away — gradually unacknowledged by everyone around him (even those with the closest of ties) until his consciousness and temporary physical vessel vanish. That is Yuji would vanish if not for something, a mystical artifact, buried deep within him that keeps restoring his life essence every twenty-four hours. Helping him understand his state and station is the Flame-Haired Burning-Eyed Hunter and her necklace-borne cohort from the Crimson World, Alastor. This flame haze, a human contracted with a demon (Crimson Denizen), is tasked with maintaining the Earth’s balance by softening the blow of life essence-hungry Denizens of the Crimson World.
The final episode of the final season of Shana was simulcast a little over three years ago (March 12, 2012) by FUNimation, and animation production by J.C. Staff remained consistent over the course of all three seasons. Actually, I found myself surprised at how well some of the CGI and digital effects, from the glowing ember-like red of Shana’s hair to the circling rings of unrestricted methods (spells), were implemented and flawlessly integrated. I was likewise shocked at the detail and palette of certain shots throughout the 24-episode run. While certain character designs and the eyes-through-hair effect might be a tad dated, I don’t think they are totally uncommon now or would serve as anything close to a deterrent for those just watching the title for the first time. I did notice that there was a definite decline in quality in the later episodes; characters go off-model more often, and still pans are used sequentially with almost mind-numbing repetition.
Regarding audio, there are a couple of things that come to mind a decade later. First: the translation/localization is perhaps showing its age. I don’t know how much the original ADR crew was trying to relay differing accents, but the degree of “gonna,” “wanna,” “hafta,” etc. was getting on my nerves. (Since this isn’t the 10-year anniversary of the dub, I can’t talk to whether or not the infamous Southern accent was thrown in in place of certain dialects, but I do not recall that being the case.) The second audio revelation is that the music (Ko Otani)/incidental scoring, even though it has to be all over the place to match the tone of some unfortunately abrupt scene changes, manages to work. Perhaps this speaks to director Takashi Watanabe’s experience as music producer on multiple series (including Kino’s Journey). Either way, the depth of arrangements and diversity of instruments lent a good deal more to this series than I noticed when I initially watched it.
Playing to the A/V club’s obsessions is only good for moments at best; the real draw to Shakugan no Shana is, of course, the story … which is actually a lot of stories. This series has a large cast, and there are back stories given as well as hinted at as well as the daily lives of each character to consider. Then there’s the small matter of how each of them intermingle with and change each other. Being a light novel adaptation, however, we’re not talking overly complex characters. Motivations among the main characters are mostly as simple as those of the targeted demographic: growing up and moving forward — for duty, for family, for love. The crux of the show is its exploration of what someone is vs. who they are. In regard to that, Shana is smart before it’s insipid, good before it gets bad, and accelerates before it drags (only to go through repetitive cycles of each). Intersecting relationship and action plots lead to some serious pacing issues but ultimately come together so well that it’s hard not to give the rough patches a pass. (Just sit back and enjoy the cheese.) I’d like to think it tries to do a little more than your average LN adaptation; there’s a ferociousness in-between lines of dialog and instilled in certain characters that’s distinguishable from most current LN fare. Though, to be fair, it could have easily just been an exception among its own peers as well.
Unlike other series I’ve written about for this column, Shakugan no Shana feels like something I should have outgrown. Even though I still enjoy watching these kids discover their own paths and fall in love while doing so, my sympathies now lean more towards the disenchanted (ironically) Margery Daw and even Yuji’s mother. The series does a really good job of making its young cast learn and evolve by confronting their situations, but my feet are a little too big to jam inside those shoes. Now it’s just fun to watch the action, toast with Margery, and grin while watching the kids struggle along their paths to growing up.
(If you never ventured beyond the first season, let me tell you that you’re missing out. Check out my feature on all three seasons in Otaku USA .)