Shakugan no Shana Season II–Anime DVD/BD Review

3 Stars
Juliet and Romeo
Way back during the Age of the Dinosaurs when I first decided to try writing an anime review I chose the original Geneon DVD release of the first season of Shakugan no Shana. These days, with streaming video typically available on the day of the original broadcast, I don’t watch too many anime DVDs. However I recently got hold of BD set for the second season of Shana and decided to write an old-fashioned review of it.
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Shakugan no Shana Final Ends

It probably says something about the general weakness of the Winter 2012 anime season that the show I found myself looking forward to most was the tail end of a series that started back in 2005.

As I said earlier, I was looking forward to the final season with a certain amount of trepidation. The series as a whole has been a mixed bag: sometimes awesome and sometimes merely annoying. The final season might turn out to be great or it could be awful.

In fact the final season turned out to be much better than I had feared, indeed better than I had hoped. It is tightly focused with no filler episodes or unnecessary side stories. The main human characters have become much more mature, no longer displaying the sometimes annoying traits of the first two seasons.

The ending raises my opinion of the entire series. Certainly it’s not on the same level as Penguindrum, but its energy, imagination and poetry make Shana one of the best anime series of the last 10 years.

Unfortunately the third season is not intended to stand by itself. To appreciate it you really need to sit through the first two seasons, putting up with the slow spots. (You can safely skip the OVAs and should definitely skip the lamentable movie.)

Some disorganized thoughts and observations are below the fold. Warning: major spoilers!
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Shakugan no Shana Final–Midseason Comments

So far I’ve been pretty pleased with the third season. It doesn’t suffer from the second season’s weak opening. I’ve seen complaints that they skipped over some of the light novels, but for the most part I haven’t felt that I was missing much. The only point where I was taken aback was when Shana produced a new tool called the Eye of Judgement with no explanation of where or how she acquired it. (On the other hand, those who haven’t seen the first two seasons of the anime will be totally lost. That’s the breaks I guess.)

However in watching the third season I have come to understand something that seemed “off” about this series from the beginning, and which may partly explain why some people love it and some people hate it. This is really, in essence, a shoujo story. Sure it looks and feels like a shounen series. (Technically I think the light novels are seinen, but that’s close enough.) It even has shounen-style fan service, though it’s presented rather ironically. But the fundamental structure is more like a shoujo story.

For one thing, it was obvious even in the first season that this story is mainly about Shana, the challenges she has faced and her personal growth. Yuuji is the viewpoint character in the first two seasons (he has spent much of the third season offscreen) but his role is basically that of a typical shoujo boyfriend: on one hand impossibly idealized, but also often frustrating or even scary.

Let’s consider the basic plot of the story so far, and you can decide whether is sounds shounen or shoujo. (Major spoilers follow.)
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Shakugan no Shana III Final–Anime First Impressions

Shakugan no Shana III Final is obviously yet another sequel. Given the title, this one had better wrap up the story or the fans will be awfully annoyed.

I’ve watched this story faithfully from the beginning but I’ve been anticipating this sequel with a mixture of hope and fear. While I think on the whole it’s a darn good story, J.C. Staff’s handling of it has been rather uneven. Let’s look at the record:

  • The first season. A powerful opening, an intriguing fantasy world and strong character development throughout.
  • The onsen OVA. A total waste of time.
  • The movie. A pernicious waste of time.
  • The second season. A weak opening. Indeed the entire first cour was weak. However it redeemed itself with a powerful and effective second half.
  • The “S” OVA. Four episodes: a funny filler episode, an inane and unfunny filler episode, and a two-part prequel that was OK but didn’t really add anything to the story.

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Yumekui Merry Ends

Yumekui Merry isn’t a terrible anime series. It’s nicely drawn; the main characters are reasonably likable; and there is a suitably exciting conclusion. Still this isn’t what I would call first rate.

I’ve been trying to figure out exactly what it is that I find unsatisfactory about this series, and I can’t help comparing it to Shakugan no Shana. Both series come from the same studio and have a similar look and similar music. Both begin with a young male protagonist meeting a magical girl. Both have a rather dark premise and over-the-top supernatural characters.

The big difference is that the first season of SnS devotes at least half its episodes to developing the character of Shana and filling in her background story. I’m thinking mainly of the three story arcs in the middle which don’t do much to advance the plot, but which allow us to see why Shana acts the way she does, and show her starting to question who she is and how she relates to other humans.
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Shakugan no Shana S OVA 1

The OVA turns out to be better than I had feared. It’s a lightweight filler story (which is true of just about every OVA released for a television series, except for those that are total-ripoff clip shows.) However it is entertaining and perhaps gives us some insight into the characters. Fans of the TV show will probably like it. People who hate the show…have probably stopped reading by now, so we won’t worry about them.

The story apparently takes place in the interval between the first and second seasons of the TV series. Show ▼

Yuuji and Shana are rooting around in Friagne’s storeroom. Of course fooling around with unknown hougu is inherently dangerous; a mishap occurs and hilarity ensues. Everything works out all right in the end. Nothing really important happens but there are some nice scenes.

Presumably Yuuji and Shana were looking for something to use against the Balle Masque, which is a nice touch. The second season manages to give the impression that the heroes just waited passively for the inevitable attack, without making any preparations. This story suggests that they did look for possible countermeasures, but failed to come up with anything effective.

Though the story seems to wrap itself up neatly, AniDB says that this is just the first part of a 4-episode OVA series to be released between now and next August.

New Shakugan no Shana Series

Apparently they are working on a third SnS series. (Probably for 2010. Unless they have been working on it for quite a while in secret, they can’t possibly have it ready for Fall 2009.)

I’m looking forward to this with more trepidation that anticipation. Consider what J.C. Staff has done so far with the franchise:

  • The first TV series was quite good in my opinion. (Some disagree).
  • Then there was a very lame OVA, which added a pointless onsen episode to the story.
  • Which was followed by a movie which was almost as lame. It just rehashed the beginning of the TV series, adding nothing of importance, but playing a nasty trick on anyone who might be intrigued enough by the movie to go watch the TV series. The movie was told in a way that would spoil the ending of the TV series for anyone who hadn’t already seen it.
  • Then there was the second TV series which was a mixed bag. The beginning was very weak and rather annoying, but in my opinion the series redeemed itself at the end.

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2008: The Anime Year in Review

Once again it’s time to look back on the past year and pontificate on what was noteworthy in the world of anime. This is not intended as any sort of definitive list. I’ve only sampled a small part of what was available, and of course my interests are idiosyncratic and may not match yours. Also I am excluding any series that began in the Fall of 2008 and is continuing in 2009. These will be eligible for consideration next year.

Outstanding Anime Series of 2008

No Winner. I’m sorry. I just didn’t see anything this year that I would award 5 stars to.

Noteworthy Anime Series of 2008

On the other hand, there were a number of solid, entertaining series that I considered time well spent.

Bamboo Blade. This tale of the misadventures of a high school kendo club was consistently funny and charming.

Clannad. Surprisingly the latest collaboration from the people who brought us Kanon (2006) and Air (TV) turned out to be a funny and upbeat comedy, though with a rather sad backstory. (This statement applies only to the original series. Watch the sequel at your own risk.)

Hakaba Kitarou. A stylish adaptation of the classic horror comic from the 1960s. Not to be confused with Ge Ge Ge no Kitarou, a long-running series that featured more child-friendly versions of the same characters.

Hatenkou Yuugi. Spooky variant on the magical girl genre, with a delightful heroine.

Itazura na Kiss. I could almost imagine this romantic comedy playing on American television–in the 1950s, perhaps starring a younger version of Lucille Ball. The hapless heroine suffers every imaginable humiliation, but always manages to bounce back by the end of the episode.

Kure-nai. Dark, noirish thrillier, lit up by the wonderful character of Murasaki.

Shakugan no Shana Second. This sequel is strictly for fans of the original series, and perhaps not for all of them. It gets off to a very weak start, especially compared to the powerful opening of the first series. Things don’t really start to turn around until about half way through, after which it builds to a suitably resounding climax.

Shugo Chara! A classic magical girl series that is extremely cute and very funny. It’s also very long and noticeably padded in places. It would probably be better if edited down a bit.

Telepathy Girl Ran. I would classify this not so much a magical girl story as a child detective story. “And I would have gotten away with it too, if it wasn’t for those darned kids!” (The comparison is unfair since the writing is about 10 times better, but I couldn’t resist.)

xxxHOLIC Kei. A rare bird–a sequel that’s every bit as good as the original.

Disappointing Anime Series of 2008

I’m going to skip this category. I had a whole bunch of snarky comments saved up, but they mostly boil down to two principles:

  1. Most sequels aren’t as good as the originals.
  2. Anything adapted from a series of light novels will have a strong start to introduce the characters and premise, but then will probably wander around without ever going anywhere.

Interesting, But Not To My Taste

ef–a tale of melodies. This is not just a sequel to ef–a tale of memories; the two form an integrated whole and should probably be viewed together. Once again the artwork is stunning and the stories are compelling, and it addresses some of my objections to the original series. Unfortunately the explanations are often implausible and some of the answers to the questions raised by the first series are answers that you might be happier not knowing. Frankly, watching this is like being kicked repeatedly in the gut.

Ga-Rei Zero. “I’ve got a great idea! Let’s introduce the heroes, then kill them off at the end of the first episode! It’ll be like a Gainax ending, only at the beginning!”

Kaiba. An innovative anime with a strong European flavor. I really wanted to like this one. Innovation is always praiseworthy and I want to see it succeed. Unfortunately I found that I just did not care what happened to any of these characters.

Kannagi. This series has nice animation and some nice moments, and raises interesting questions about the implications of Shinto religious teachings. However ultimately it’s mostly just routine, uninspired harem comedy shtick.

Kuroshitsuji. “I’ve got a great idea! To show our mastery of dark humor, let’s start the series with an episode featuring cannibalism! The good guys will EAT the bad guy! That’ll get their attention!”

Shigofumi. Dark, beautifully drawn, a searing indictment of Japanese society. This has justly been compared to Kino’s Journey, but you have to imagine what that show would be like with a Kino who acted cold and heartless, and a Hermes who was really irritating.