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"Shadow Star Narutaru Vol.1 & 2" - Because Nobody Thinks of the Children

“We’ll build a thousand year empire. I’ll be king and you’ll be queen. For starters, let’s begin by killing 500 million people. This world has become too complex. Society should be simpler. No electricity. No plumbing. Return man to the Stone Age. I’m even thinking of a selection system. Doctors, accountants, any people of culture will be killed on sight. We could kill people as they graduate from college too. And from there, make them go through a physical endurance test, like making them march without food or water. What you have left is a healthy society.” – Tomonori Komori

On a surface level, Shadow Star Narutaru seems similar to Pokemon or Zatch Bell – elementary/jr.high-age kids end up with powerful companions that they battle each other with. In fact, like Zatch Bell, Narutaru even brings the battle to the trainer – they are in just as much peril as their partners (in the case of Narutaru, the creatures in question are called “Dragon’s Children” because they really are the children of dragons). However, the kind of peril they are in is life and death. There is no “beat up but still alive.” People end up dead, and violently so at that.

Sure, it starts off sweetly enough. 6th-grader Shiina Tamai goes to visit her grandparents, and after nearly drowning when showing off how far she can swim to an old friend, she’s saved by a Dragon’s Child who she names “Hoshimaru.” Hoshimaru decides to stick with Shiina, going back with her to the city where she lives with her father. Later at Kendo class, she meets another girl, Akira Sakura, with a Dragon’s Child. Let’s just say Akira’s got a few issues and leave it at that (like cutting herself among other suicidal tendencies). Things get worse when Tomonori Komori, a Dragon’s Child owner who is particularly in sync with his Dragon’s Child, decides to make an attempt on Shiina’s life while expounding upon his genocidal fantasies to Akira (got to love the telekinetic link between a Dragon’s Child and its owner). Shiina barely dodges death at Tomonori’s hands thank to Hoshimaru. However, it’s not a perfect resolution for Shiina and Akira either because Hoshimaru stopped the attack on Shiina’s life by killing Tomonori (not that Shiina wanted it to turn out that way, but she’s not synced with her Dragon’s Child like everyone else with a Dragon’s Child in the show). The last episode of Disc 1 finishes with Shiina’s birthday. It’d be a happier event, had Shiina not decided to binge eat at her birthday dinner, resulting in her throwing up. Granted, Shiina only did it because her mom called her too skinny earlier in the day. To think, Shiina’s the relatively balanced and well-adjusted character in the show.

Granted, the second disc only ups the ante. A group of teenagers are basically causing some serious disturbances via their Dragon’s Children, such as downing private jet-fighters and starting trouble with the military. Naturally, Shiina and Akira are caught in the middle of this for more than a few reasons (Shiina’s mom is part of a secret government organization studying the Dragons; her father is a jet pilot). Meanwhile, the media finally recognizes that Tomonori Komori is missing, freaking out Akira and Shiina pretty nicely since they effectively killed him. Akira goes to Komori’s apartment since she saw it on the news to look for clues about Komori’s character. She ends up running into one the teenagers that have decided to try to start the aforementioned trouble (they are friends of Komori), resulting in a pretty good car chase as the cops decide to tail Akira and her new found friend. It culminates in the previously mentioned military vs. Dragon’s Children battle, but it ends on a cliffhanger. Will Shiina and Akira survive the crossfire, or will they fall along side of the military soldiers?

Story-wise, Narutaru is nothing if not genuinely shocking. Plenty of series and works try to come off as controversial or raw, but Narutaru manages to actually be provocative and sickeningly unnerving. The various bleak elements that pervade the various characters’ warped ethics and philosophy manage to just get under the viewer’s skin. The philosophical monologues and dialogues, such as the one at the beginning, end up a particularly effective means of revealing and expanding upon these unsettling character traits when visuals don’t carry the point across. At points, the tone and direction of the story even manages to sit somewhere between Sartre, David Lynch and Stanley Kubrick, all with a monster battle coating. In a sense, through contrast alone, it’s intriguingly disorienting.

Granted, the adaptation from manga to screen was handled by the notoriously strange Chiaki Konaka (writer on Serial Experiments: Lain, Big O and Texhnolyze among other series), but here his abilities to communicate disturbed philosophical diatribes are amplified by the cutesy, seemingly commercial basis they are attached to. To put it another way, Pokemon via Lain some how makes the impact much more unsettling than just Lain. Seeing Ash Ketchum with an abandonment complex asking existentialist questions like “why are we born?” is some how vastly more crushing that a character more obviously designed for that role.

Visually, Narutaru‘s not up to the same caliber as the story. Clearly done on a shoe-string budget, it’s definitely got some issues when it comes to tweening and compositing. Certain scenes are particularly plagued with tacky digital panning and layering. On the other hand, those visual short-comings only accentuate the atmosphere in some ways, giving Narutaru even more of a Saturday Morning cartoon vibe. Also, because it’s consistently weak, it’s easy to adjust the visual problems, so unless you’re an animator or a particularly picky fan, you might not notice it or will at least get used it within a few episodes.

The DVDs themselves are unquestionably great. Not only do they have good audio and visual encoding with the usual amenities like trailers, but they also have character sketches, galleries, character art, storyboards and even Japanese voice actor interviews. The only nit-pick is that the dub isn’t great, but it’s some of the better work I’ve heard out of NYC, and again, having the NYC VA pool, a group of actors that often does VA work on kids anime like Yu-Gi-Oh and Pokemon, further captures that Saturday Morning cartoon feel. In those aspects, it’s one of the better DVD releases on the anime market.

All in all, Shadow Star Narutaru is a series with a decidedly narrow appeal. It’s dark, some what explicit and definitely deceptive in its execution vs. the basic premise. It’s certainly not for children, and you almost need some level of philosophical understanding just to keep it from being totally unsettling and unnerving. In fact, without being gory, it’s somehow much scarier than a lot of horror films I’ve seen. However, Narutaru certainly has its own agenda and direction, and it’s very deliberate about delivering that perspective in an eerily cute but grotesque package. I’m not sure if I can call it good, but I can call it unique and driven, and that’s a pretty good basis right there. I’ll take unnerving and unique over soothing but generic at the very least.

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