Sakai Yuji is just an ordinary high school student living an ordinary life, with a best friend, and a cute girl who finds him interesting. So far, so average anime right? And yes, as you might suspect, if this isn't your initiation into anime, his normal life is going to be turned upside down before we're done with him -- and by a girl, no less. Nothing new there either. Indeed, moments into the first episode Yuji gets caught in the middle of a battle between demonic creatures called Rinne, and their sworn enemies, Flame Hazes -- indeed one Flame Haze in particular, a girl with flaming eyes and hair. And -- drum roll -- his life is never going to be the same.
But it is only in well-worn story elements and tropes that we can define Shakugan no Shana as average. Because in this case, it isn't the originality, but rather the execution that makes the series worth watching.
First of all, let me state that Shakugan has one of the finest opening episodes of any anime series I have ever seen. It is artistically realized, tightly written and designed, very skillfully employs in medias res, introduces concepts only as necessary for the current action in a given scene, and it is a masterwork of the "hook."
This is a series that assumes from the outset that the viewer is anime and story literate.
Unfortunately, the promise of the first episode is not entirely realized throughout the course of the series. Christopher Vogler (in synthesizing Joseph Campbell's themes about story archetypes) wrote extensively about the "hero's journey," with such stages as "introduction of the ordinary world," "the call to adventure," "rejection of the call," etc. I won't write a dissertation on the subject, nor do a point-by-point analysis (too many spoilers would be required) but suffice it say this series is almost a study in Vogler's thesis. And that is both its strength and its weakness.
While the opening episode felt fresh and at times even surprising as it introduced plot devices, as the series progressed it at some levels came to feel more and more like "been there, done that" in the arena of story. We've done the normal kid who has something special about him, the magical girl with a supernatural helper, the "fight the boss, move on to another boss" series of battles, the love tri- and quadrangles, and frankly the whole save the world thing. At the same time, however, it is the universality that lies at the heart of the hero's quest that pulls us through Shakugan no Shana.
Upon reflection, I find myself somewhat surprised at how slowly the story actually progresses -- and yet, for me, it never felt particularly slow. Which should tell you something about the excellence of the series' execution. Even the handful of filler episodes didn't feel all that much like filler, but further story and character development.
This is not the finest series ever -- but it is worth watching.
My main problem with this series is that it ultimately feels like a giant preface for a larger story to come. Although I think it says something positive about the series that I hope this is indeed the case.
The animation is very clean. The character designs feel fairly typical -- they are classic in their lines, with an almost cutesy feel to them. The settings and backgrounds are solid, if not particularly impressive or overtly artistic. Overall, the scenery here seems to be cleanly functional, rather than attempting to raise the aesthetic bar in any sense.
The colors are vibrant, though not overly so -- with, once again no apparent attempt to use the color palette to do anything special, or for that matter thematic.
I am fond of the flaming cinder effect that surrounds Shana in battle, but that's one of the few things that really feels like it stands out visually.
Artistically, in almost every way, this series is simply solid -- but no more. Which, with very real skillful execution, still places it above the average but not in the realm of actual genius.
I enjoyed the music of Shakugan. It was better than average, but didn't so much call attention to itself as simply -- and truly -- enhance the scenes it was meant to underscore. Though none of it feels very original, it more than serves its purpose here. I particularly enjoyed the strings track called Reveil, which I consider more of a theme for the series than the actual theme. The opening and closing songs are both solid pop numbers.
Overall, the sound design is average, but the vocal performances are excellent. The contrast between all-too-normal Yuji and the often acerbic Shana works well within the context of the characters and themes explored. The supporting cast also do an excellent job of bringing life and emotion to their characters.
Comparisons could easily be made between Shakugan and Bleach --- there are similar themes, and similar characters (though some are inverted), especially in the case of Shana and Rukia (of Bleach). These are both young women who aren't human yet must nonetheless learn what it means to be human, and why that is important.
Shana is easily the most interesting and important character -- which is probably why the series is named for her. Her character arc is far and away a better story than the primary plot of heroes trying to stop demonic forces in their attempt at world conquest. We get to see enough of Shana's back story to make us care about her and her predestined fate. As she struggles to find herself and attempts to grow up into a more mature and caring self, it's hard not to cheer for her.
The second tier characters -- in which list I'd even include Yuji -- like most of the elements that make up this story and series get the job done in a dependable manner. One of the few exceptions, a character that rises somewhat above the workaday role she is given, is the Flame Haze Margery Daw. At first she seems like your average well-endowed hard-drinking fighter babe, but as we come to know her back story a bit, and as we see her struggle to find herself beneath her self-imposed callous mask, she takes on a very real depth.
This is not a particularly original series, but like some typical but solidly written fantasy novel that owes much to Tolkien, Shakugan no Shana takes the familiar and makes it worthwhile through solid execution and good, sympathetic characters with whom we enjoy spending our time. Shana's journey from hard-boiled and single-minded Flame Haze to a person with a growing realization of the need for interpersonal relationships makes her very human and ultimately, despite her hard exterior, very lovable.
If you are not looking for something new and different, but can appreciate familiar themes executed skillfully, then this is definitely a show for you.
Sakai Yuuji thought he was a normal high school student, until one fateful day when time stopped. Watching in horror, he witnesses a monster devouring the "frozen" people around him; but luckily for Yuuji, he is saved by a sword-wielding red-headed girl that calls herself a "Flame Haze". The girl informs him that he has been dead for some time now and that his current self is merely a replacement for the human that he used be while alive. He is, she says, merely a torch whose life will come to an end when the blue flame in his chest ceases to burn. After this rude awakening, Yuuji realizes that he is able to see the flames of life in other "torches"; and after discovering that a friend of his is also a torch -- and her life is burning out faster than his – he gains the courage to live out the rest of his life with meaning. Will Yuuji be able to find his place in the world before he ceases to exist?