This is going to end up being largely below the fold and even then, in blackout, because there’s just too much here that is spoiler-ish. For those with no prior exposure to this series, it is a 26 episode horror/teen angst show that aired in Japain in 2005, and is currently being released in the US on DVD. The 5th DVD will be out in May.
I can’t do a rundown of the major character without turning this into a full write-up, which I just don’t have time to do tonight. (OK, I suck, I’m playing too much WOW, but come on, those Alliance bastards deserve to die!) So I’m just going to cover the gist, and play off of some comments by Steven in our recent exchange of letters, and in his posts.
Earth is being preyed upon by beings from another dimension, called the “Crimson World.” From there, “Denizens” and their assistants “Rinne” cross over, freeze a piece of reality (the Japanese word used for this is “fuzetsu”), and devour humans — not their bodies, but their very existence. If a person is eaten in this fashion, it is as if they never existed. Everyone forgets them, and all evidence that they existed is erased. It’s terribly disruptive to reality, and has the potential to destroy our world. Some entities, called “kings” or “Lords” (although they rule nothing like a kingdom) oppose this, and cross over to our reality, partner with a human, who becomes known as a “Flame Haze,” and try to kill the Denizens. Whenever they can, they replace the destroyed existences with “Torches.” These are a simulacrum which burns out after a while; it serves to buffer the shock of the person’s destroyed existence and lessens the strain on reality. Some torches are special, and have powers or magical items, seemingly at random. They’re known as Mystes.
This show unexpectedly mixes two genres that seem to be oil and water: horror, and teen angst. I think it would have been a far better show if they’d stuck with only the horror, but on the other hand, it might have simply faded into the pack as “just another horror show.” Shana (a Flame Haze) and Yuiji (a Mystes) are both high-school age, and they’re caught in a very terrible sort of war, as Steven puts it “one in which it’s a victory when only a hundred people are destroyed and replaced by torches.” Shana chose it, but Yuiji was dragged into it, only to find out he had already been a victim, without knowing it.
Everything else starts getting into spoilers, so below the fold it goes… don’t go there if you don’t want some major plot developments to be given away, and some deep speculation. The worst stuff is also blacked out.
This series has a lot of angst to it, starting around episode 9. It fades for a bit as the horror takes over again, but around episode 17, it just starts wallowing in it, and I don’t think the series ever really recovers fully. The core of the angst is the main love pentacon (well, square) consisting of:
- Yuuiji and Shana, who ought to be a pair, but she can’t commit even as she becomes emotionally dependent on him,
- Kazumi, as the high-school girl who wants Yuuiji,
- Ikke, as the high-school guy who wants Kazumi
There’s a secondary love square involving Marjorie Daw, two other high-school guys, and another girl, but it’s not nearly as important, so I’m going to skip it.
Normally, the angst-causer is one or both of the two principal parties, who if they’d just decide what they want to do, would cause everything else to fall into place. What this series does with the angst is unique (to me, anyway, since I don’t normally watch that kind of show): we see why that person (Shana) can’t make up her mind. In this case, it’s because Shana is an emotional cripple. (Excuse me, “she’s emotionally challenged.” Bah.)
The fault lies squarely with Alastor and Wilhelmina, the pair that raised her. They crippled her because they were themselves scarred by the loss of the prior “Shana,” (Note: I mean Alastor’s prior partner, whom I call “Old Shana.” She actually had a different name, but we never hear it.) Actually, in Alastor’s case, I think he’s just a fucking retard when it comes to human emotions. He knows of them but he doesn’t understand them at all. (Chigusa, Yuuiji’s mom, spanks him soundly in their one conversation on the matter. Marcosius is light-years beyond him, easily manipulating Marjorie Daw on several occasions.)
Added blackout here: Worse, in Wilhelmina’s case, she and that Shana were in love with the same Denizen, Merhiem. Yes, a Denizen, whom they had to fight and defeat in a major battle that involved a lot of casualties. He was apparently an honorable foe, because he and Old Shana had made a deal: the winner of the battle could do whatever they wished with the loser. On one hand, that seems like an insane deal, but given the stakes, it’s obvious that the loser would be utterly within the winner’s power anyway; otherwise they’d keep fighting until the end. So it might have been a frivolous side bet — but it was one that Merheim honored after he lost. He had to give up eating humans, and help find/train the next partner for Alastor. Wilhelmina had also agreed to do this; it was going to be necessary because Old Shana was about to make a kamikaze attack on an unspecified foe to finish the battle. Alastor would survive; she wouldn’t. Basically, she would “release” Alastor; something like nuking an area. After she leaves to go die, Wilhelmina tries to approach Merhim, but he rejects her with his dying breath, and becomes an undead lich — we also meet him as “Shiro,” the skeleton that teaches combat to the new Shana.
So not only is Wilhelmina forced into semi-retirement by her promise to find and train a replacement for her friend, she has to spend every day alongside the shade of the man she loves. She later admits that being with him is one of the reasons she did it. It had to feel like stabbing a raw emotional wound every day; small wonder she acts chilly and emotionally withdrawn. The search took hundreds of years; it’s the middle ages when Old Shana dies; it’s the modern day when new Shana becomes a Flame Haze. It’s obvious that Wilhelmina does love and care for the new Shana; it’s also obvious that she’s kept her distance the entire time — whether because it still hurts or she’s just afraid that it will hurt, I don’t know. If Shana had been an adult, it wouldn’t have been a problem, but instead it was huge, because she and Alastor raised Shana from an infant. (Annoying point that gets ignored: What the hell did they call Shana while bringing her up? She doesn’t get that name until after meeting Yuuiji.)
Mr. All-Wise Alastor not only permitted Wilhelmina to blow it, he was no better, because he didn’t understand human emotions. Small wonder Shana had doubts about the stories she was being told about Denizens, and was emotionally crippled; if your only company when you were growing up was a detached maid, a disembodied flame, and a silent skeleton, how would you learn anything about what makes people tick, even yourself? But it also made her emotionally dependent on Wilhelmina, the only other human in the “castle” where she was being raised.
From one standpoint, we may have misjudged what this series is about. I know I keep coming back to this, but once again, Wabi Sabi’s post discussing western and eastern approaches to animÃ© comes into play. We see it as a story about two people in the war, and expect the war to make sense. The writer may be seeing this as about two people’s emotions in that war, and is far more concerned that the feelings make sense. And if you look at Shakugan no Shana as being about Shana’s emotional development, then the show seems more rewarding. She may not end the show as a “fully self-actualized young woman” or whatever the trendy gobbledygook is these days, but she ends the series with a much firmer grip on what’s important to her, and has even managed to acknowledge to Yuuiji that she cares about him greatly. Somewhat. (sigh).
This next part is a major plot spoiler, and will go into the blackout. If I’m disappointed about anything, it’s that Shana and Yuuiji didn’t kiss at the climax of the show, especially when it was plain that they ought to, in story terms. But if they did that, it would have “broken” the love square and the writers wanted to preserve that angst-maker for the second series. That was, by a hair, the top “Get my beatstick, because I’m going to hurt some writers!” moment. Number three on the list of such was the reason why it was the right moment, and what happened next. They were both about to die in their own suicide effort, and they knew it — only Yuuji has to have another attack of the stupids to “know” it because it should be obvious to him he would survive for a well-established reason. As for Shana, the writers toss in a retroactive amendment to a well-established rule — and it’s one that plays hell with Steven’s theory of “emotion leads to magical power.” Shana is still largely emotionally repressed; unless we assume that the repression added strength (which is directly opposite the usual trope) then she should have been weaker than her predecessor and unable to survive releasing Alastor. Instead, she does live through it — although Alastor points out that it’s a gamble and is not certain she could do it again.
It wasn’t until I realized that Wilhelmina had ended up on the pointy end of her own love triangle, and that it influenced her upbringing of Shana that I was willing to believe the run-up to that final arc. I almost bailed on the series after Wilhelmina showed back up. She considers Yuuiji a huge liability, and Chigusa a very bad influence. (Go Chigusa! She spanks another Crimson Lord!) Wilhelmina gets Shana away from these corrupting influences and starts leaning hard on her to kill Yuuiji — after all, he’s not a real person, he’s just a Torch. A Mystes, but a Torch all the same. The Reiji Maigo he carries will randomize and end up somewhere else, forcing the Balle Masque to start all over again. (It will also force them to start over again, something that seems to escape Wilhemina. But the chances of anyone actually finding it seem to be small, so perhaps she’s willing to risk that.)
Yuuiji had already agreed to flee the city with her to avoid the Ball Masque. Shana would rather follow that plan. Wilhelmina is adamant. Alastor is so-so. Shana is upset, and doesn’t know what to do. Alastor is wishy-washy. Wilhelmina is pissed. Shana is lost. Alastor is still wishy-washy. Wilhelmina is angry at Shana’s sentimentalism. Shana cracks. Wilhelmina leaves to kill Yuuiji.
She meets him in a park, and is surprised when he is able to channel his power of existence to fight back against her. Yuuijs’ outmatched, but before she can kill him, Shana changes her mind, shows up and stops Wilhelmina. Of course she has to explain it in terms that Wilhelmina will accept, and in doing so, hurts Yuuiji — cue the angst, please.
This absolutely did not work for me the first time through, and I almost stopped watching it right there. It was the #2 reason I wanted to grab the beatstick after it was all said and done. I couldn’t believe Shana had agreed to let Wilhelmina have her way. I stuck it out, and for some reason, later rewatched the series. I finally caught the above interplay between Shiro/Merhiem, Wilhelmina, Alastor, and the original Shana on the second viewing. It was then I realized how badly they’d botched bringing up Shana. She’s the perfectly focused Flame Haze; without emotion or any reason to fight but her own sense of duty, she’s been protecting humanity and reality against the Denizens. She’s never thought of her own desires and wants, and was still emotionally dependent on Wilhelmina. Ironically, Wilhelmina was giving her awful advice, based on the bitter ending to her own love story.
I still don’t like angst, but I thought the writers did this remarkably well, and with even more remarkable subtlety. A glance here, a word there, an omission that only becomes obvious on the way to the refrigerator. If Shana does progress further in the second series, it’s all going to be because of the influence of Yuuiji and his amazing mother, Chigusa. Now she is something else entirely. The single parent household is such an animÃ© trope, I didn’t pay it any mind at first, but the more of the series I watched, the more convinced I became that there is something highly unusual about that woman. Some of the evidence involves specific plot points (some of which are in episodes not yet released in R1), and overall, it’s a huge meta-snerk (if my speculation is true) so into the blackout it goes.
Whatever Chigusa is, she is not a normal human. There is absolutely zero hard evidence of that given, but I seriously believe she is not the “ordinary housewife” that the narrator calls her. This woman is way the hell too much on the ball. She verbally faces down both Wilhelmina and Alastor, never gets flustered at the apparent weirdness, and doesn’t ask Shana the one obvious question you’d expect of any mother in this situation: “Why are you giving my son combat lessons?” She doesn’t even ask what Shana’s qualifications to teach are; she just takes it in stride, and uses the time that Shana openly spends at her house to teach her in turn — and not just cooking; the discussion of what a kiss meant was one of those things.
Steven accused Chigusa of “going stupid” and not noticing that Shana was spending every night in her son’s room. I agree that she’d be talking about condoms, if she felt it was necessary — but I think that she knows Shana is there, and that there’s no need for such a discussion. But the thing that cinches it to me is the one peculiar omission throughout the series:
We never see Chigusa in a fuzetsu. Ever. There are two times when we absolutely should have, for dramatic purposes. Once when the Ball Masque cover the whole city with a fuzetsu, and once when Wilhelmina came to kill him. I mean, if you’re wanting horror, the first is an intensely personal “reason to fight/what I have at risk” case. The second is even more macabre: the prospect of Yuuiji being slain right in front of his frozen mother — and after the fuzetsu unlocked, she wouldn’t even remember he existed. Instead, Yuuiji is in the park for a very contrived reason. The writers had to get him out of the house, and it wouldn’t have made sense for Wilhelmina to wait until the next day to kill him at school.
And I think that was necessary; if we had seen her in the fuzetsu, we’d have seen it not affecting her in the slightest. I am convinced she’s a Crimson Lord herself, or something else entirely. (If she is a Lord, she’s got the ability to mask her power, because none of the four Flame Hazes or the Denizens ever notice her in the city.) And that makes me ask the one question that got papered over at the beginning of the series: Just when did Yuuiji become a Torch, and how did the Reiji Maigo end up in him? Was he born a Mystes? Note t he odd origin of Tenmoku Ikko, the Mystes that carried Shana’s sword originally.
Let me throw another crazy question out: Why did Rammie take such an interest in Yuuji when they met? I mean aside from the obvious that Yuuiji was a torch that could sense him, a Denizen — which, given that he was being hunted at the time, should have led him to take immediate evasive action. He also seemed to know exactly what artifact was in Yuuiji. How? Everyone else had to reach “into” Yuuiji to discover that. Rammie didn’t.
Is Steven right about Rammie’s “big spell,” only Chigusa and Rammie are plotting it together? Is the huge store of energy that Rammie’s amassing actually going to be used to cast an “unrestricted method” to sunder the two realities, and Yuuiji’s real purpose is to be the continuing power source to maintain it? I don’t know. The only thing I’m positive of is that Chigusa isn’t a normal housewife. Everything after that is castles built in the air.
Since I don’t read Japanese, and I don’t think the manga has been imported, I can’t say if any of that speculation is true or not, assuming the writer has gotten that far. For now, I’m going to sign off and get back to my preparations to kill those Alliance scum. Gank me will you?
Update: theres a lot more that I thought was good or at least interesting and unique about the story. Things they did that I just didn’t expect, but I’ll still be typing this tomorrow if I try to include it all. Maybe later. I just wish they’d turned the angst-o-stat down about ten degrees and worked on the logic a bit more.
Update: Well, Steven pointed me to this spoiler-laden Wikipedia article which also draws on the novels. Seems a few things got left out, and my theories are pretty flawed.