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!
The Great Protagonist Switch.
At the beginning of the story Yuuji is the protagonist. Shana doesn’t even show up until late in the first episode. Gradually the focus shifts more and more to Shana. By the third season Shana is the protagonist and Yuuji is offstage much of the time.
Ultimately it’s Shana’s story, but I can make a good case that it was really Shana’s story all along. (After all the words of the first ED of the first season are addressed to her and most of the other OP and ED songs speak from her point of view.)
But it wouldn’t have worked for Shana to be the protagonist at the start of the story. She was just too cold, inhuman, immature and generally unsympathetic. Even with her limited role there were many viewers who just couldn’t stand her.
The key to the story is that Shana realizes that it’s not enough to be a supernatural avenger, that she needs to get in touch with her human side. The first two seasons are filled with her attempts, often painfully clumsy, to become more human. By the third season she is ready to put to use what she has learned and take her place as the heroine.
Why It Looks Like a Shounen Anime
At one level this is the ultimate shounen battle anime. It even devotes the final cour to an all-out War of the Gods (always an interesting thing to watch if you can do so from a safe distance.) But that’s not the heart of the story.
Why It’s Really a Shoujo Story at Heart
I would consider this a seinen series if Yuuji had to experience enough personal growth to be worthy of Shana. But Yuuji doesn’t experience that much personal growth. In the course of the story he becomes vastly more powerful but he’s basically the same sort of person at the end that he was at the beginning. (Intelligent, ridiculously ethical, a bit clueless.)
Instead it is Shana who has to grow to be worthy of Yuuji. She has to be able to love him unconditionally while remaining true to herself, which in the third season means that she has to be able to love him while fighting him. To finally win him she has to be defeated by him and then defeat him. (I know, I know, but I never claimed that the shoujo world-view makes sense.)
Creation vs. Destruction
So we have a God of Destruction with a female avatar (Shana) and a God of Creation with a male avatar (Yuuji). Well if you remember anything from Far Eastern Religions 101, these probably represent Yin and Yang. Which means neither one can be allowed to triumph. The important thing about Yin and Yang is that they have to be kept in balance to avoid disaster.
Calling Alastor the “God of Destruction” may sound pretty scary, but keep in mind that he is basically a purifying flame. As long as you have no impurity in your soul, or at least are as pure-hearted as Shana and Yuuji, you have little to fear from him. (Still not reassured? Oh well…)
On the other hand the God of Creation is really dangerous. He wants to create whatever his followers desire, with no concern for what harm it may do.
The Averted Tragedy
The Serpent of the Festival, with his ability to look into people’s hearts, makes short work of any Flame Haze who took on that burden for shallow reasons, such as a desire for revenge or a sense of duty. If Shana had never met Yuuji she would eventually still have had to face the Serpent and she probably wouldn’t have lasted long. Probably she would have died a quick and miserable death without even being able to go out in the blaze of glory that she envisioned.
Even if she somehow survived she would not have been able to rally the surviving Flame Hazes or enlist the Four Gods of Earth to her cause. That’s what I mean when I say that Shana’s personal growth is the key to the whole story.
Did Yuuji Plan the Whole Thing?
The Serpent of the Festival calls Yuuji the “human who uses even gods for his goals.” Certainly Yuuji did have a plan to start with, but it didn’t work out as he intended. There were several people scheming to take advantage of the opportunity offered by the Serpent, but Johan was the most far-sighted.
Really it was Johan’s scheme that made the ultimate happy ending possible. To some extent even Yuuji was Johan’s puppet.
Urusai! Urusai! Urusai!
Remember how Shana used to shout that constantly during the first season, whenever she heard something that she wasn’t able to deal with emotionally? The catchphrase was a sign of her immaturity. As time went on she used it less and less. By the third season there was only one thing that she wasn’t willing to hear.
The Saddest Moment
I was delighted to have Khamsin back as a major character. I found him the most likable character of the first season: the oldest Flame Haze, brave and powerful but also wise and kind. His death at the end was dramatically effective but heart-wrenching. Like Moses he got to glimpse the Promised Land but not enter it.
The Weakest and Strongest Feature of the Third Season
A number of the light novels were left out of the anime entirely. This sometimes creates a sense of discontinuity. Secondary characters pop up with no introduction. Shana has some new magical items and we don’t know where she got them. We see what Lamies was trying to achieve but we don’t really know what it means.
On the whole I think this is more a feature than a bug. The anime series takes up 3 seasons of 2 cours each. That’s approaching the limit of what even dedicated fans may be expected to sit through without it starting to seem like a chore.
To fully explain every minor detail by giving us a 6-episode arc for each of the novels would probably have doubled the length of the series. That would just have been too much. Here, as is often the case, less is more.