Girls with fire in their eyes

Pity poor Yuji Sakai. The high school student is just minding his own business when his surroundings turn all weird. Time stops. Everyone around him is frozen then burst into blue flames which is being consumed by a giant baby doll.

When this reject from a toy factory tries to go after Yuji, it is soon dispatched by a girl with flaming hair and red fiery eyes. And yeah, her sword is fiery too. When the girl finally spots our hero, she tells him something that turns his world upside down.

Yuji is already dead. He’s just a “torch”, a temporary replacement put in this world that will soon flicker out and be forgotten by everyone. As proof, he carries a small blue flame in his chest. When that goes out, so does he. She is dismissive of him.

The girl is a “Flame Haze” and has a contract with Alastor, one of the Lords of the Crimson Realm. The jargon of the show, “Shakugan No Shana”, sometimes gets in the way of things. To put it simply, think of Shana and other Flame Hazes as police and Alastor and the other Lords as their bosses. They’re the good guys. The bad guys are called “Denizens” and their sidekicks/servants are dubbed “Rinne”.

Shana’s job is to maintain the balance of this world which means she’ll kick the butt of Denizens who are killing people to steal their “powers of existence”. The Denizens prey on humans which to them are akin to walking batteries. So if a Denizen gets a bunch of “powers of existence”, he or she can use this mass of power to fuel whatever evil plan they hatched. Muwahahaha. You get the point.

Yuji resigns himself to fading out of existence and doesn’t blubber about it. He is even nice to the girl he later christens Shana after her sword. He also doesn’t blow her cover when she takes over the identity of a classmate who turned out to be a torch like him.

But how can you have a show where the hero is already dead and about to go bye bye in the first episode? Calm down. This is the world of anime where everything is possible from having blue hair to never gaining weight even if you eat like a pig.

Our hero is no ordinary torch. He turns out to be a “Mystes”, a special torch that carries a treasure inside him. And he carries what every Denizen would give their right eye and a limb for. Inside Yuji is the “Reiji Maigo” or “Midnight Lost Child” which restarts his blue flame at midnight. So he could technically live forever since the Reiji Maigo keeps recharging him at midnight.

A minor quibble I have about “Shakugan No Shana” is how the main characters look like they’re kids. They’re supposed to be high school students for Pete’s sake.

Shana, who was raised for battle by another Flame Haze, is blunt, rude sometimes and not that sociable. She is a terror to the teachers and a tough taskmaster to Yuji. She also doesn’t understand (but we do) that she is falling in love with him. It’s an emotion alien to her.

But she’s not the only one who likes Yuji. Another classmate, Kazumi Yoshida, is crushing madly on our hero but is too shy to confess. Yuji is kind and doesn’t turn down her invitations which annoys Shana to no end. Yoshida was useful in one episode but she primarily exists so Shana could have a rival. I could do without her presence in the show, to be honest. She bogs down the action so we could have angst and a teenage love triangle.

“Shakugan No Shana” is uber popular in Japan. It began as a series of light novels then became a manga and an anime show. A movie which retells the first season is supposed to be out this year. And a second season of the anime has been confirmed this fall. There’s a horrible OVA (original video animation) that I saw months ago and was more about the love interaction between Yuji’s other classmates. It was set during the class’ trip to a hot springs which is cliche in anime and a poor excuse to have the female characters show skin. Gag. Don’t bother with this OVA which came out last year.

The first season has been licensed in America and readily available on DVDs.

Of fighting teens and would-be rulers of Heaven

The conventions of shonen or boy’s anime require that the hero improve his skills as the show goes on. This entails beating up challengers who later become pals or rivals. The conversation in these shows usually features such gems as, “I’ll never forgive you!” and “I’ll avenge my master.” Expect simple or even crude-looking character designs and a color palette straight out of primary school.

Since this is not shoujo drama, you won’t see teary-eyed girls sobbing out, “Why?” to the hero. If there is a love interest, she would either be too shy to confess her love to the lead character or be too bossy and tough that she routinely smacks him upside the head. Aaah young love.

“Law of Ueki” is a show that never strays from these conventions. The current ruler of the Heavens or Celestial World has decided that his successor is whoever wins a certain competition. But here’s the catch. The candidates for ruler won’t be duking it out. That honor falls to their representatives, junior high school students they selected and given one power or talent.

The candidates cannot interfere in the fights between their representatives or they will be disqualified from the running and sent to hell.

Our unlikely hero is a green-haired 13-year-old named Kosuke Ueki who acts simple but has a good heart. His teacher, Kobayashi, is actually one of the ruler candidates. He picks Ueki as his rep and gives the boy the power to turn trash into trees. As with most shonen shows, this master and pupil relationship is an important one for the hero.

The trick to enjoying “Law of Ueki” is not to think too much about the plot or take it seriously. Just keep in mind the rules of the contest. Reps who get knocked out lose their power and are gone from the competition. Winners earn a skill after each successful bout. In Ueki’s case, it’s usually some useless skill. Any rep who goes after someone without power loses a talent or skill. In our teen’s case, he lost his ability to run fast and his math skills since he meted out justice to scummy people who abused those weaker than them. Cue the heroic music.

Ueki is not really human but the offspring of a Celestial Being who wanted a leg up on the competition. But this being’s plan backfired since he wasn’t picked to be a candidate for ruler of the Celestial World. Ueki gets adopted by a human family and raised to be a good kid. This background means Ueki can actually power up and have certain weapons only accessible to Celestial Beings. As he progresses in skills, he learns to wield these weapons. Obviously, a level two Celestial doesn’t have the arsenal of a level eight Celestial. There are 10 levels.

Along the way, Ueki befriends other reps and ruler candidates as well as learns more rules. But since this is an action show, there’s lots of fighting going on.

What gets old fast is the characters announcing their power every time they use it. For instance, one girl has the ability to turn beads into bombs so when she tosses the beads at her opponents, she has to yell out, “The power to turn beads into bombs!” Why do we have to know each and every time she does this? Last time I checked, I don’t suffer from short term memory loss.

And whoever drew the characters must have dropped out of art class. With few exceptions, they all looked like they got beaten with the ugly stick as babies.

Anime tidbits on the run…

OK I admit I’ve been a tad bit tardy in updating this blog. Life and work have been getting in the way of my anime watching and yapping about anime-related subjects lately. Sorry. My online boss is probably going to bean me soon with my old copy of “Oh My Goddess” which I sneakily gave away to a friend and somehow he palmed it off on her. Muwahahaha. I detest that lame show for reasons too numerous to list.
I enjoy reading Zac Bertschy’s column, “Answerman” for Anime News Network because he is funny and sometimes has an acerbic take on the anime business and its fandom. Just today I learned a new term from him. Seems those people who hang around the manga section of bookstores reading for hours and blocking other people’s access are called “manga cows.” They graze there all day. Get it?

Was wandering around Fry’s Electronics in Industry last weekend in search of bargain compact discs when I saw that the first volume of “Shonen Onmyouji” and “Mushi-shi” are out. I liked these shows when I saw the fansubs so I am definitely saving moolah to buy the licensed copies. I reviewed “Shonen” on Dec. 21, 2006 while I talked about how much I liked “Mushi-shi” on Jan. 29, 2007.

I included images of the offiicial DVD covers for both. These shows are worth a look. “Shonen” is entertaining enough for a boy’s action anime with a dash of romantic interest for the girls. “Mushi-shi” is a keeper. It’s in a class by itself – an unusual anime that doesn’t fit the traditional anime genres and comes with its own mythos.