Shakugan no Shana

Genre: Action, Romance, Supernatural
Length: 24 episodes + film
Score: Excellent

Sakai Yuuji, a high school student who expected his normal life to last forever, is dead. On his way home, the world suddenly froze, people were engulfed by blue flames and a monster resembling a large doll swallowed them. Just as the monster prepared to consume Yuuji, a sword-wielding girl in a black cloak with flaming red eyes and hair that burns like embers saved him. The girl called herself a ‘Flame Haze’ who hunts the ‘Guze no Tomogara’, creatures from another world. As Yuuji noticed a blue flame in his chest, she called him a ‘Torch’, a temporary replacement, saying that the real Yuuji’s existence had already ended.

Not being the defeatist sort of chap, Yuuji adjusts to the whole “you’re dead, get over it” thing quite well, and discovers a little more about his condition: he’s a unique ‘torch’ in that his health bar recharges automatically each night at midnight. This is good in that he doesn’t disappear, but it has the unfortunate effect that his power is in demand amongst the Tomogara. And so begins Yuuji and Shana’s fight for survival.

Lots of people have been talking about this series, which isn’t always a good sign (lots of people talk about Evangelion and Naruto, too), but I’m delighted to say my initial scepticism was utterly unfounded. This is a really fine series with some deep, well-developed characters who struggle with their responsibilities versus their wishes over the course of the series. Shana’s conscience is particularly powerful as she juggles her responsibilities as a Flame Haze with the “normal life” she has with Yuuji (school, friends, etc.) – the “normal life” her dedication to training over the years has always denied her. It comes across very well – in some respects she’s incredibly mature, and in others, she’s like a 10-year-old.

I found myself drawing comparisons between this series and Crest of the Stars – particularly the strength of the main male/female characters’ bond and how it adapts over time. In truth, the relationship between Yuuji and Shana never feels as “realistic” as that between Jinto and Lafiel – but in hindsight I think the comparsion’s a little unfair – Shana and Yuuji are much younger characters, emotionally. What it does is to reinforce the utter brilliance that was Crest of the Stars – if you haven’t seen it, for goodness’ sake, why not?

Marcus adds:

Genre: Action, Romance
Length: 2 seasons
Score: Excellent
Rating: 12 for complex themes (and PG for fanservice)

Shounen action series are an overpopulated genre, and so are high school romances, so what does Shana do to set itself apart and earn the ‘excellent’ ranking from both me and Minotaur?

The first is that Yuji doesn’t have some advantage over normal people. Quite the opposite, his introduction to the supernatural world is to be told that his life is over, that he is in fact not himself – he’s a “Torch”, a makeshift replacement for the real, dead Yuji. Furthermore, he’s fated before too long to disappear, to fade out of history and be forgotten. Initially, Shana doesn’t even treat him like a person – he’s an object, an impediment, and she treats him as such. The way Yuji copes with this situation is indicative of the strength of his character.

Shana starts from a position of strength, both physically and emotionally – as a “Flame Haze” or fighter, she’s the one who knows how this world works and has the power to act within it. However, her position is also servile: she’s dedicated to her duty. What Yuji does is to upset the balance by showing that he can be more than his position would dictate.

The various monstrous enemies don’t simply kill people; they instead remove all trace of that person having ever existed, erasing them from history. Their friends, family and the outside world simply forget they were ever there. To lessen the disturbance of this act on the world, Flame Hazes create Torches, replacement people whose existence fades away gradually – one day they simply fade away. The injustice of this is what Yuji is faced with and has to overcome.

The enemy themselves, “Denizens of the Crimson Realm”, are visitors from another dimension. Their existence is juxtaposed to that of our own reality (making this effectively a time-travel story, though it doesn’t explicitly say so). Space and physical laws mean little to them, making them effectively gods. They are old, and have mostly met each other aeons ago. Each is in our dimension for reasons of its own. Flame Hazes are people who have paired up with one of the nicer Denizens in order to fight the more destructive ones.

Most such stories stay within nice, clearly defined bounds of safety. Shakugan no Shana steps beyond those boundaries, making it at times disturbing and unsettling but giving meaning to the characters’ choices. It’s shounen done right.

Shakugan no Shanatan
Genre: Comedy
Length: Chibi
Score: Odd

Those of you who’ve seen Lodoss or Adventures of The Mini Goddess have met something like this before: the long-running, serious story is accompanied by a baffling mini comedy version. In this case, Shanatan is a chibi version of Shana – so chibi that she’s only about two inches high, she sits on Yuji’s head, talks with an affected speech impediment, and spends most of her life eating melonpan. The episodes are similarly miniscule – even the “movie” is six minutes long.

What makes this one weird is that it doesn’t ignore the serious bits – parts of the comedy reference the darker and more disturbing parts of the story. It makes for an amusing and slightly unsettling mix. It’s also full of series in-jokes, as well as references to Japanese folklore that I had to google.

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