Anime Review: Shakugan no Shana

Yuji Sakai is an ordinary high school student until one day he witnesses a monster attacking the city. Shortly after, he is saved by a girl who calls herself a Flame Haze. Yuji finds out that he was killed that day, and his continued existence is only an artifice. Yuji is a Torch, a stand-in for someone who once existed, but will soon vanish. However, inside him lies a treasure of great power, which attracts the attention of the Denizens of the Crimson World. The Flame Haze, named Shana, decides to stay by Yuji and face the incoming Denizens.

Plot

I set my expectations too high for this series. After a promising second episode, I expected Shakugan no Shana to take some risks. I thought it would stand out, given the nature of its premise. What the series did, though, was play it safe. If there was ever a paragon of taking a great setup, and then utterly neutering it by playing it safe, look only to Fullmetal Alchemist. You can draw a lot of parallels between that series and Shakugan no Shana. I suppose it’s a bit unrealistic to expect a TV-friendly anime to be too intellectual. You have to get that second season in, after all (and they did!). But is it too much these days to ask that writers have some spine?

The central premise to Shakugan no Shana is that your existence has power, in the literal sense. It’s a resource that can be harvested by fiendish individuals, called Denizens, who use it to shape their reality to their own selfish whims. Of course, this causes chaos in our material world, and it’s the duty of the Flame Haze to maintain order. They call it keeping the balance between the ordinary world and the crimson world, although what this “balance” is or how it’s achieved is never really explained. The interplay between the ethereal Crimson World and the physical world determines the pacing of the story. However it also tends to divide the series into two equally frustrating modes.

As an action anime about Flame Hazes battling Denizens, Shakugan no Shana lacks a certain flavor. Later on the fighting becomes more competent, but there’s a sort of genericity that hangs over the earlier action scenes. You can probably distill the action genre down to two schools of thought. One is to find something conceptually exciting to infuse into the action. In this school, the act of fighting, or conflict, is important in itself. The other school is to help tell a story through conflict. This way, the consequences are the focus rather than the conflict. You’re made to understand and care about the stakes and the outcome. Shakugan no Shana is not particularly adept at doing either – well that’s not fair. I should say it’s just adequate at both. And I promise this is not me being a snob; the action feels sterile and uninspired for the most part. Toward the middle, you begin to see more of what’s at stake. You care more about the characters who put themselves in harm’s way. But again, the writers just play it safe. There are enough last minute cure-alls that whatever sense of danger there used to be is replaced by the expectation that everything will work out.

The other half of Shana is about high school life, an entity perched so high on mount cliche that I literally predicted every trite rock that tumbled down. Love triangle: check. Secret crushes: check. Inability to express feelings directly: check. Improbably oblivious mother figure: check. Girls in so much emotional distress that they can’t run without tripping: check. This is easily the clumsiest part of the series, and it was downright embarrassing to watch. This is the where the play-it-safeness is most obvious. The implications of Yukari Hirai’s existence being wiped out are brushed aside. Yuji (and some of his classmates) so casually accept the information he’s given about the Crimson World that it nearly trivializes the whole conflict.

Shakugan no Shana teases a lot of interesting ideas, but does not explore any of them in depth. The existential dilemma of Yuji should have been front and center, but it’s solved too conveniently. Shana’s function as a Flame Haze raises some moral questions as well, using up the existence power of others to repair damage done to the real world. But this too is brushed aside quickly. Instead, the series is self-absorbed, obsessed with its own mythology and esoteric workings. What is the background behind this conflict between Denizens and Flame Hazes? Why did Shana’s training have to end the way it did? There’s a lot of story to tell, but it doesn’t bother to relay some of that story to the audience. Perhaps the most irritating thing is the repitition of things we can infer ourselves – what torches are, what the duty of the Flame Haze is, etc. Of these irritations, what stuck with me was in the very last battle, where Yuji literally waits until everything falls apart before saying to himself “I must do something.” Gee, ya think?

Don’t think that I have a problem with the low-brow. Minami-ke is nothing more than making fun of stupid people’s hijinks, and I liked that show. I have a problem with shows that don’t deliver on their premises. Shakugan no Shana has a brilliant premise with great potential. But the director played it safe, and the end result is something I’ve seen before, with different characters and locations but the same spirit. Why? Why, when you have such a great idea, squander it on rote convention? So many other shows will do that automatically, why not take a risk and stand out? Ultimately, this is an example of anime as a business dampening the impact of anime as an artistic medium. In the real real world, business comes first, and I wish I wouldn’t be reminded of that so often.

Characters

The character writing in this series is not the greatest, but it’s also not the show’s biggest failing. Shana is given a clear, consistent characterization that goes through evident phases of development. We get to see her mature into a Flame Haze, and then regaining some of her humanity as she watches over Yuji. Of course the duty-minded protector falling for his or her charge is not a new story. And to be honest, I didn’t want it to wedge itself into the school drama segments. But at least I like the idea of Shana’s walls breaking down over the course of the show, and I also like that she has to struggle with the consequences of her feelings. The reconciliation of Shana’s duties as a Flame Haze with her feelings as a human leads to some good character writing.

Yuji starts as the transparent observer, someone almost devoid of personality who merely exists so that we have a point of reference through which the story is told. As is typical for these observers, he is improbably optimistic and caring. I found nothing about him that would warrant him carrying a series, though toward the end he is given some interesting choices to make. Is he endangering his loved ones by merely being near them? Is his relationship with Shana a burden on him? These are some tantalizing questions that Yuji struggles with, but given the story’s inability to present real solutions to its problems, these threads never go anywhere.

I found perhaps the most enjoyment in watching Margery Daw and her contractor Marcosias. Margery is a Flame Haze, but also a violent, raging boozehound who thinks nothing of taking advantage of others. Whereas the series gravitates on everyone else and their problems, Margery represents a bit of fun – perhaps even self-awareness – and is at least an acknowledgment that the show is just cheap entertainment. Other supporting characters include Kazumi Yoshida, who is paralytically in love with Yuji. She cruises through the series as you’d expect out of an amateurishly written school life drama, unable to say much other than “um” or “hello.” But in a way she is a metaphor for the struggle that Yuji is going through. Deep down he wants to know if being a Torch means losing his value as a person. You can clearly see through Yoshida that the writers think not.

Given almost equal importance are the Denizens, a colorful cast of villains who each have their idiosynchrasies. A few of them are rather one-dimensional, but many do have motivations that make them not so simplistic. Friagne, the first major villain, and later the twins Sorath and Tiriel present interesting alternative views on love that contrast with Shana’s incomplete understanding of it. Friagne’s love for his servant Marianne and Tiriel’s love for Sorath are genuine, yet Shana is initially unwilling to accept that she could be like her enemies in this respect. The final story arc involves Bal Masque, a powerful organization of Crimson Lords. Though their characters are not nearly as fleshed out as those of ealier Denizens (mostly to maintain a sense of mystery), they do serve to make the fighting and story a bit more interesting. I would have loved to see more antagonists like Friagne, who you almost feel sorry for, but that probably would not have led to the grandiose conclusion that the writers wanted.

Technical

There’s not much that’s remarkable about the overall design or aesthetic, but if I had to complain I’d say that Wilhemina’s mask getup looks utterly ridiculous. The character designs and animation are of a consistently good quality. The voice work is also good, although Shana’s “shut up shut up shut up!” will never sound natural to me. In the technical department, I mostly have to ask about the awkwardness of the translation. “Power of existence” may sound cool in Japanese but it’s a clumsy phrase in English that probably could have just been shortened to power or life energy or something. Similarly, “unrestricted method” may sound great in Japanese but is a mouthful to say and process – “spell” would have worked just as well. Other niggling translation decisions pop up now and then but otherwise the production is good.