Rarely is a show as adorable as SHAKUGAN NO SHANA so filled with dread and worry. From the first frame, this show proudly proclaims its downbeat intentions with a bit of spoken poetry recited over the image of a massive ball of interlocking gears, turning and turning as they float in an unnamed dark void...
“A heartbeat that lasts for eternity. Lives consumed in soundless balls of fire. No one can tell when the world is displaced and the flames of the Crimson Realm sweep over all.”
Heavy-handed, for sure; but SHAKUGAN NO SHANA works hard at earning its existential crisis credibility by taking a deep dive into the point of it all.
Taking place in contemporary Japan, SHAKUGAN NO SHANA is the story of a young boy and a young girl who must work together to save humanity from a group of soul-stealing monsters from another dimension. (Seriously, how does this keep happening?!) These monsters are called Denizens, and they sneak into our world from the Crimson Realm whenever they need a fix.
To do this, they cast a spell that freezes all normal humans in place, allowing them to quietly move among us and suck out our energy. When the Denizens leave, those humans who have been pillaged will be replaced by living ghosts known as Torches, doomed to slowly fade out of existence and be forgotten by even their closest loved ones.
Yuji Sakai, our young boy, has been turned to a Torch without knowing it, but he still hasn’t faded away yet. Instead, a special gift called a Treasure Tool (known in the Crimson Realm as the Midnight Lost Child) keeps his flame burning longer than a normal Torch. To make matters more complicated, Yuji is also a Mystes, one who can see the Crimson Denizens when they appear within the human realm. As you can imagine, it’s quite a shock the first time his Mystes-powers kick in and he’s face-to-face with a giant purple monster intent on devouring him.
Shana, our young girl, is a Flame Haze, which means that she has been trained as a powerful warrior and tasked with policing the visiting Denizens to make sure they don’t take so much human energy back to the Crimson Realm that things become unbalanced. She and Yuji have their dark and harrowing version of a meet-cute moment when Shana saves him from the aforementioned giant purple monster. She also uses this opportunity to break the news to him that he’s already dead - -and soon, no one will remember he ever existed.
Notice all of those capitalized words? SHAKUGAN NO SHANA has a robust and unique mythology that’s bursting with terminology you’ll need to learn and remember. Like the turning gears at the show’s opening, this universe is complicated, but designed with intention. Everything is carefully coordinated to fit into place, and the many moving parts - - like the Denizens, Flame Hazes, and Torches - - are governed by a set of rules that do not bend.
As the episodes play out, more and more rules are revealed, and the lore stretches to a level that calls to mind the front pages of a DEATH NOTE. If you like this type of obsessive world-building, you’re in the right place.
For Yuji, no amount of understanding how the universe works will stop him from trying to thwart his fate. Understandably, he’s not exactly OK with fading out of existence, nor is he the type to simply roll over and accept defeat. Shana, on the other hand, finds comfort in the mechanical nature of her existence, and is content to bury her head in the sands of personal excellence; being the best Flame Haze she can be for as long as her services are needed. The attempts of these two characters at reconciling their beliefs with one another is the most compelling aspect of SHAKUGAN NO SHANA, which raises it above similarly styled sword-wielding girl-with-a-mission moe of recent memory.
For what it’s worth, SHAKUGAN NO SHANA isn’t an entirely dreary affair. It even wanders into feel-good territory from time to time. The animation is cute and colorful, and the villains tend towards the goofy side, including an enchanted doll that looks a lot like Raggedy Ann and a loud-mouthed lunatic with an army of clockwork toy soldiers at his command.
The show isn’t short on good vs. evil brawling, of course, but it also works in a great deal of teenage slice-of-life, as Yuji works towards melting Shana’s cold warrior’s heart by introducing her to a bit of contemporary Japanese normalcy between those supernatural swordfights. While at times the show loses some inertia and falls back on old ideas - - do we really need more enchanted kisses? - - there is enough of a unique perspective here to reward those of us with the time to contemplate it.
Alexei Bochenek is a lifelong tech nerd and film buff based in Los Angeles. He writes for various online publications and edits the Los Angeles events website LALookout.com. Follow his Twitter: @alexeigb.