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Saturday, October 31, 2015

Shadow Star Narutaru: 'Cause I'm One Step Closer to the Edge, and I'm About to Break

Let's see, taking aside the recent B-Side detour, I reviewed two anime that featured music composed by Susumu Ueda, and now it's time for the annual Halloween post... So let's just get another anime Ueda composed for out of the way, especially since I think it fits the general theme of the holiday well enough. First & foremost, though, let me introduce someone who understands how to take something magical, something for little kids, and turn it inside out so that we can see all of the nasty guts housed within.

Mohiro Kitoh technically debuted as a manga artist back in 1987, but didn't see a real professional debut until 1996 with a seinen manga called The Wings of Vendemiaire in Afternoon magazine. It lasted only two volumes & was a series of stories about living puppets called Vendemiaire which try to help people that they encounter, & sometimes it's not pretty; it you're curious, you can probably find it online, but that's up to you. Following that, though, is the manga that truly put Kitoh on the map, Mukuronaru Hoshi, Tamataru Ko/A Decaying Star, A Pearlish Child. Known better under its shortened title, Narutaru (the "Shadow Star" title was created for non-Asian markets), the manga ran from 1998-2003 in Afternoon & featured Kitoh taking a successful concept & giving it a twist. Seeing the success of products like Tamagotchi, Digimon (the original 1997 digital pet toy), Monster Rancher, & Pokemon, Kitoh asked a simple question for Narutaru: What if these creatures existed in the real world, a world where children aren't ideal & perfect, but instead are just as potentially horrible as adults? As the manga was wrapping up in 2003, a late-night TV anime adaptation of the first half of the story ran on Kids Station (which does run non-children programming on late-night, oddly enough) & was animated by Planet (The Galaxy Railways, Moetan). Fitting for a holiday that's based on darker elements, let's examine how the anime does at answering Kitoh's question.

Shiina Tamai is a twelve-year old girl who has a generally cheery demeanor, even though her parents are separated & her mother rarely sees her. During her yearly visit to the island that her grandparents live on, Shiina tries swimming to a ancient gate stranded in the water in an inlet. She makes it there, though completely tired from the current, and goes underwater for a look. She sees a star-shaped creature before passing out from exhaustion & suddenly appearing at the local medical center. That night she visits the beach & comes across the creature, which silently expresses its wish to be with her. Shiina decides to take the creature, which she names Hoshimaru, home with her, not knowing the truth behind her new little buddy. Shiina will now slowly learn about the mysterious "Dragon's Children", the various children that associate with them, & the dark (& deadly) mission of those very kids.

In traditional "mon shows", as they're sometimes called, the children that receive monster allies are relatively normal youngins who usually have a noble goal, i.e. becoming the "best there ever was", saving/protecting the world, or some sort of personal goal (usually resulting in an antagonist). Regardless, the commonality between the likes of Ash Ketchum, Tai Yagami, or Genki Sakura is that they all are idealistic role models who have encouraging personalities, and any personal issues they have are ones that can be resolved & improved upon. In Narutaru, however, there's one main commonality for any child that has a Dragon's Child as a partner: Every single one of them has some sort of psychological issue to him/her, whether it's self-inflicted or brought upon them by outside forces. For example, Shiina's friend Akira, who's partner Ensof looks somewhat like Hoshimaru, is an ostracized girl who often considers suicide in order to relieve herself of the pain, especially since she's linked to Ensof to the point that she feels what he feels. Then, in the last three episodes, there's Hiroko, a girl who has problems with bullies (both in school & at home) & is willing to do anything to stop them; outward destruction compared to Akira's self-destruction. Then what about Shiina, who's usually so chipper & upbeat? She's likely the most messed up of them all, but is normally able to hide her problems deep within her psyche. The problems these children have are aspects of their very existence, and cannot be "fixed", and that is exactly why the Dragon's Children have chosen them. Shiina, in comparison, doesn't have a psychic link with Hoshimaru like the other kids, and it relates well to how she hides her flaws behind her chirpy demeanor; there's a reason why Shiina often wears a shirt with the kanji for "sheep" on it, after all.

In terms of antagonists, though, there is a quartet of high schoolers who have made it their goal to use their Dragon's Children as tools to help force a new world regime, one made up of pain & survival of the fittest. Whether it's Satomi Ozawa's holier-than-thou attitude, Bungo Takano's concept of knowing best, Tomonori Komori's sadistic tendencies, or Naozumi Sudo's apathetic view towards valuing life in general, all four want nothing more than to feel like they are supposed to lead humanity towards a new era; an existence which is simplified to being a survivor, nothing more. Remember, these are kids who aren't even old enough to drive, though that doesn't stop Sudo, yet they already feel like they know all, even taking on the military in an especially memorable couple of episodes. They look at killing people as nothing more than something to look forward to, even if it's via their monsters that are doing so miles upon miles away.

Speaking of monsters, the Dragon's Children are themselves an interesting bunch. Aside from Hoshimaru & Ensof, none of them look alike in any way, with one looking like an armless "angel" (Hainuwele) & another like a skeletal flower (Amapora), for example. It's especially interesting to see that, instead of using special attacks or magical powers, though Amapora does have one, the Children utilize more practical means of combat. Hoshimaru uses his own body, and is powerful enough to swing around helicopter rotor blades like nothing, while Haniuwele & Amapora outright use guns. Yes, this title's equivalent of cute monster buddies wield pistols &, in the case of Hainuwele, vulcan cannons & rocket launchers! It most definitely shows that these aren't your usual monster partners, and that the children behind them really do mean business.

I don't know whether this is silly or awesome, but I love it.

All that being said, there is a flaw with the Narutaru anime, and that is the fact that content is removed. Having never read the manga I can only go off of hearsay, but I do know that this anime adaptation is actually looked down upon by fans of the original material due to the fact that, in order to reach the half-way point of the story, a number of scenes were skipped over. I can't name exact moments, obviously, but there are numerous moments that do feel like that, especially once you reach the second half. The first half, to its credit, does a good job at introducing the characters, their personal flaws, & eventually actual conflict of some sort, but after the skirmish with the military ends in episode 8, the show seems to meander somewhat. Episode 9 is still related to what came before for the most part, but episode 10 takes a complete detour. In it, Shiina meets a girl named Jun Ezumi, who rides around on a broomstick-shapted monster, and get involved in a triangle between her & her old friends she went to elementary school with. While the story itself is very well done, and the end does have it relate to the overall mysticism of the Dragon's Children, it still has absolutely nothing to do with the rest of the anime.I'm sure that stuff that happened in episode 9, like what exactly happened to a girl who has a crush on Bungo, was only partially adapted due to violent content while a one-shot story that has nothing to do with the anime's focus was properly adapted.

The last three episodes deal with Hiroko, essentially making yet another divergence from what the first half built up. I'm not putting these last episodes down, because they are intensely chilling & the absolute highlight of the entire show, but it really feels like the production wanted to hit this moment as a stopping point, but in the process skipped over stuff that actually relates stronger to what came before these last four episodes. It's an unfortunate smear on an otherwise very good show. Instead of feeling like a single narrative, it feels like one long, unfinished story, followed by two shorter, only somewhat related stories. Individually taken, all are great, but when taken together it feels disconnected.

The Narutaru anime marks the first & only time Toshiaki Iino directed an entire anime. Generally a key animator & animation director, Iino actually helped keep the show looking good. Though there are plenty of moments where the animation obviously showcases it's cheaper aspects, this was made in 2003, there are also plenty of nice looking moments, and episode 10 in particular looks especially nice, with a completely different animation style at points. In charge of adapting the manga for script was Chiaki J. Konaka, who generally is known for working on shows with darker elements like Serial Experiments Lain & even Digimon Tamers. As mentioned previously, when the anime has a strong general focus on story the writing works very well, but those last four episodes, though strong on their own, just kind of derail the show in terms of telling a strong overall story. The removals seem to be due to violent & gruesome content, and the anime even utilizes an odd indicator of obscuring the video for violence. Considering how the manga is mostly known for its harsh material, and apparently gets even more insane in the second half, this was likely just a show that couldn't really be done on TV, even via late-night; Iino himself questioned the idea of adapting the manga, calling it "extreme". Finally, the character designs by Masahiko Ohta & Takashi Hashimoto, neither of which are normally used in this position, do stay true to Mohiro Kitoh's iconic style, which is great. Unlike most people who draw children in anime or manga, Kitoh's kids all look super lanky & even tall for their young-teen ages. It kind of helps lend even more of an uneasy style to everything, and is sometimes just as much of an important piece of Kitoh's work than anything, so it's nice that the anime maintains that look.

Susumu Ueda's soundtrack for this show is subdued but extremely strong. Ueda utilized a lot of variation here, each of which matches the mood that's being established. There are chipper & upbeat tunes for the happier scenes, dark & brooding themes for when the show takes a turn for the worse, and even ephemeral compositions for when everything becomes more mysterious. It really is a tricky soundtrack to describe but it is a very fitting sound for the show in general, & I think it's Ueda's second-best anime work (even taking aside my personal love for the show, I do think Ueda's work on Ring ni Kakero 1 is his overall best). Then there are the opening & ending themes, which take completely opposite tonal shifts from each other. The OP, "Nichiyoubi no Taiyou" by The Neutral, is a complete lie, utilizing a super-happy sound to make it seem like a children's show, complete with crayon-drawn, cut-out animation made to look like what a child would draw. It's not just fittingly disparate from the show's actual themes, but it's one of my favorite anime OPs of all time. The ED, "Kairo" by biniou, is a slower, more dramatic theme that does fit the general direction the series goes on, but is simply a great song on its own. Overall, Narutaru shines brightly in terms of music.

The Japanese cast has a good number of performances, really selling how flawed & messed up the kids are. Leading everyone is Asami Sanada (Sawako in K-On!, Muze in Tales of Xillia) as Shiina, who does an excellent job keeping the girl on the border between positive & outright broken. Interestingly enough, Hoshimaru has an actual voice actress in the form of Satsuki Yukino (Kaname in Full Metal Panic!, Yoruichi in Bleach), even though the most we ever hear is a rare sound out of the creature; Yukino barely does anything in her role. Akira is voiced by Mamiko Noto (Kotomi in Clannad, Oichi in Sengoku Basara), who delivers a very well done performance for someone who's already been broken & is simply waiting for her moment to make the next move. After these are seiyuu of varying importance, including the likes of Hisayoshi Suganuma (Bungo), Kaori Tanaka (Ozawa), Nobuo Tobita (Shiina's father, Shunji), & Sakura Nogawa (Hiroko). One actor who does an outstanding job with so little, however, is Akira Ishida, who only gets one episode as Komori but delivers an absolutely episode-stealing performance. It sucks that he's only in that one episode, plus a flashback to some of these scenes later on, because Ishida hit it out of the park.

Narutaru was one of the last shows released by Central Park Media, with single DVDs released in 2005 & a boxset in 2006, and I believe it's the most recent anime the company ever put out. Sadly, that fact may be a big reason for the major flaw of the dub: It sounds pretty awkward. To be exact, I'm not talking about the cast itself, which I'll get to in a moment, but rather the literal audio quality. Some voices come out sounding fine, but others sound like they were recorded via a phone line (which, to be fair, some voice actors have done, but with better results), and the last DVD's audio quality sounds pretty muted & nigh-unlistenable. This may be due to the ADR studio being Audioworks Producers Group, which only did anime for CPM, but it does make the dub rough to listen to. Sad, too, because it's not an outright terrible dub, though it does take a few episodes to find its stride.

Shiina is voiced by Kelly Ray (Yuri Otani in Aline Nine, Shania in Shadow Hearts: From the New World), who starts off rough due to her trying to maintain the high-pitch voice that Sanada delivered, but after the first DVD she finds her "voice" (no better way to put it) & gets much better. Akira is voiced by Renee Gloger, who fits the character much better right away & stays generally solid. Probably one of the best performances, actually, is from Josh Mosby (Akio in Revolutionary Girl Utena) as Shunji Tamai, and Lisa Ortiz (Deedlit in Record of Lodoss War) does a good job with her one-episode role as Jun Ezumi. The only really major flaws in the dub come from some of the cast sounding a little too old for their characters' ages, and some awkward pausing due to lip flaps. It's nowhere near one of CPM's worst dubs, though the audio quality issue hurts it more than the actors do. The best extra, though, is on the last DVD, which features a director's commentary for the last three episodes. Interestingly enough, too, the commentary was produced by CPM, which never happens normally.

CPM's DVD cover, compared to what Japan got. Yeah, that pose would never fly here.

Shadow Star Narutaru inhabits an odd area when it comes to how to exactly judge it. Even having never read the original manga, it's easy to see that it's flawed as an adaptation. The violence is censored, relying on silhouettes & cutaways for the harshest moments, & it's pretty obvious that segments of the story have been removed, resulting in plot points & even characters that are showcased but never resulting in anything within these 13 episodes. See those other characters, Tsurumaru & Noroi, on the DVD covers? I didn't bring them up because they don't amount to anything of major importance here, even though they obviously are important to the overall story. That being said, however, what is used in the anime is still very well done, with a truly dark & psychological story that completely tears apart what people generally think of when they hear the term "mon show". In fact, I'd argue that the last CPM DVD (Volume 4), which has the entire Hiroko story, is possibly worth watching on its own if one wants a truly eerie & uncomfortable horror story. While I'm sure it pales in comparison to the manga, I think the Narutaru anime is a good introduction for those who are curious about Mohiro Kitoh's original comic. Sadly, Dark Horse's release of the manga only got as far as what the anime covers, and since the company's people obviously didn't know what the manga turns into when they licensed it, the last volume or so was censored heavily over here. Still, what is there via the anime is truly effective, and should not be missed by those unfamiliar with the series.

I highly doubt that the Narutaru manga will ever see a second attempt of a release over here, but I certainly wouldn't mind seeing the anime get rescued. Anyway, now that I've entered the messed up world of Mohiro Kitoh, I might as well continue on... And since November is Mecha Month, once again, I have the perfect anime to watch next. In fact, it's doubly fitting, considering what I covered on the previous two Mecha Months.

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