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"Shadow Star Narutaru" Vol. 4: Kids Have Issues, But DVD Has Extras

A catchy alt-pop opening song that’s somewhere between the Spin Doctors, old school No Doubt and Blues Traveler. Cute, simple opening animation that looks like it was probably done with markers and crayons. Adorable monsters that make Pikachu appear pathetic. Cripplingly cute characters, calling to mind Kodocha and Ojamajo Doremi.

It’s a total bait and switch.

Shadow Star Narutaru started out with a girl, Shiina Tamai, befriending an cute, weird creature from a race of “dragon’s children.” She named hers Hoshimaru (Japanese for “round star”). Soon after she met other people with similar creatures, like Akira Sakura, a timid girl with suicidal tendencies, and Tomonori Komori, who tried to kill Shiina with his dragon’s child because he was a genocidal psycho. Shiina wasn’t not without issues either; her parents live apart, and so she decided she never wants to marry or have kids.

Apparantly the dragon’s children seek out children and teens like Akira and Tomonori – kids with really serious problems. The result, whether you’re trying to be reasonably pure of heart like Shiina or psychotically violent like Tomonori, seems to be death. In episode 4, Hoshimaru killed Tomonori on instinct to save Shiina, much to Shiina’s dismay. Things have spiraled downward from there, culminating in volume 4.

In episode 11, Shiina’s friend Hiroko is bullied by some girls because of her good grades, but her parents are unsympathetic: they are only concerned with Hiroko getting into a good private middle school. Meanwhile, Akira is more anemic than ever, collapsing during PE. A boy, Ishida, takes her to the school’s infirmary and confesses his love to her, but he bolts when she says she wants to consummate right away. Ultimately, both girls end up at Shiina’s house, downtrodden and looking for advice. Thus starts episode 12 with a final peaceful moment: a happy group of friends enjoying a home cooked meal.

It doesn’t last. The bullies get to Hiroko, violating her with a test-tube in the hopes of permanently demoralizing her. Since she can’t talk it out with her parents, her damaged psyche unleashes a new dragon’s child. Meanwhile, Akira’s father only exacerbates Akira’s insecurities by berating her when she returns from Shiina’s house. The remainder of the disc is revenge and bloodlust. Can Shiina save Hiroko from herself, or will Hoshimaru yet again have to follow through where Shiina can’t and stop Hiroko permanently? How will Akira ultimately resolve her family problems? Well, let’s just say it isn’t a happy ending.

Adapted by Chiaki Konaka, best known for his work on Serial Experiments Lain, Big O 2 and Digimon Tamers, Shadow Star Narutaru‘s script reflects his notoriously strange view of reality. The atheistic existentialism that made his prior work ostentatious yet eloquent is in full effect in here. The series is loaded with Konaka-isms: internal monologues on one’s role in the universe, tons of metaphors that quietly hint at character flaws, and various conspiracies and red herrings that dazzle and confuse the viewer. From a writing perspective, it’s intelligent and artful. On the other hand, it’s also overwhelmingly sadistic and lacks closure (the series only adapted the first half of the manga). The savagery inflicted on these children, though sometimes shrouded, is hard to swallow.

But at least it’s well-made. The concise direction, backed by appropriate storyboarding, blends nicely with the script to enhance each scene. The musical score and sound-effects also help realize Konaka’s intentions. The OST uses cute music to accent the sweet scenes, only to increase the contrast in the darker moments through dissonant, macabre synths and strings, and even glitch electronica. Unfortunately, the animation is OK at best, and it’s occasionally distractingly weak. Though the actual animation is respectable, the panning and trucking are often painfully digital, and sometimes characters end up very off-model.

Some of the objectionable content in Shadow Star Narutaru lacks the moral or philosophical subtext to make it redeemable. I’d say the violence is incongruent with the rest of the direction and writing, except I know it’s in the original manga, and it’s more coarsely delineated there. Though the silhouetted gore and cutaways give it a bit of a Hitchcockian flair, the brutality ultimately lacks focus and meaning.

That said, Central Park Media did an excellent job with the DVD, which contains more than enough extras to excuse the series’ four-disc release. It’s loaded with great extras including a very informative and US-exclusive commentary with the Japanese director, Japanese voice actor interviews, a storyboard excerpt, a character design gallery, a screencap gallery, all 4 US trailers and the usual trailers for other shows. Actually, even their trailer section puts everyone else’s to shame as they include trailers for not only the majority of their anime properties, but for manga properties as well.

The video and audio are cleanly and crisply encoded, so all those extras didn’t come at any sacrifice. Dialogue, effects and music are well-balanced and nicely mastered, though the dub is uninspired compared to the Japanese performance, an unfortunate par for the course for the New York studios. On the whole, I think the rest of the industry (I’m looking your way, Geneon) should take a page out of CPM’s book on this – more extras are always a good thing, especially when it comes to shows as out there as Narutaru.

Shadow Star Narutaru deserves credit for having some genuine guts: it dares to parse issues like preteen/teen suicide, sexuality and despotism. However, it gets too close to romanticizing these things on the way. It may be more authentic, but that doesn’t make it any easier to stomach — just watching it kind of makes you want to die. A half-finished show that can leave me that jarred almost makes me wish me for a sequel, if it weren’t for the nightmares I’m sure it would spawn.

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