Shadow Star Narutaru Vol. 1

Strange shows don't bother me much. You see a fair share of them when reviewing a lot of anime, and I tend to like shows that are just a bit off the norm. Most anime fans in America do, I suppose; although there are plenty "slice-of-life" stories out there, anime is characterized by the fantastic and slightly odd. But I'm not quite sure what to make yet of Shadow Star Narutaru after seeing its first four episodes (thanks to US Manga Corps). The show itself is strangely affecting and not just a little disturbing, and I'm very interested in seeing where it is going. But the opening and closing pieces don't seem to flow with it at all, making it appear to be a program for young kids. But get through the first couple episodes, and this show starts turning really dark...making it very interesting to me, but just the opposite of what the OP/ED makes us expect. Is it schizophrenic? Perhaps, but I think despite the confusing nature of the presentation, there's a good show underneath.

Shiina is an 11-year-old girl who still has a sense of wonder. Off on a trip to her grandparents' home during the summer, she takes on an old friend in a swimming competition. Far out into the sea, she reaches her goal, only to find a bizarre, starfish-like creature. She rescues it -- or does it rescue her? -- and makes this strangely cute thing (now named Hoshimaru) her pet. After a strange vision of a dragon, she returns home to life with her dad, who's making it as a single parent. She tries to make a friend of Akira, a new girl in her martial arts class who seems painfully shy. Though Akira starts to warm up to Shiina, things get funny when Akira discovers Hoshimaru. It turns out that she's found her own similar creature, which she's named Enof. All's well and good with their relationship until a young man starts following them. He too is in possession of what they learn are called "dragon's children" -- but his dragon child is not a cuddly living toy but a dangerous menace. As the four episodes unfold, we start growing aware of a disturbing vision of children around Japan who are somehow linked with these creatures...but where one finds dragons, one finds fire, and it becomes clear that things are just going to get more disturbing from here.

I can't recommend Shadow Star Narutaru based on its animation, which frankly is cut-rate. There's very little movement and a ridiculous amount of obvious digital panning. The character designs are not the standard, but they actually fit the players here. These kids do look like middle schoolers. They just aren't cute, which isn't a bad thing. Overall, the production value is very low, which makes my enjoyment of the show all the more surprising.

The first four episodes of Shadow Star get things moving pretty slowly, but the show is not boring. It has a thorough sense of character development, and good characters take time to build. But who are these strange kids? Certainly, they are among the most unique and disconcerting I've seen in an anime. They are like the middle schoolers I remember as a kid -- uncertain of themselves, discouraged, argumentative, and potentially violent. We don't like the truth of it, but being a gangly pre-teen sucks, and Shadow Star knows it. Sure, our lead Shiina seems self possessed, but she's flunking all her classes but gym and home economics. Akira is not just a timid little thing, she's a "cutter" with some obvious psychological problems. And their stalker? He's a real menace. In the fourth episode, more characters show up briefly, and from what we see of them, they've all got their own issues. This isn't a Full House convention, I can tell you that. But it is precisely that these characters are all flawed which makes them so interesting. We don't have a ton of plot at this point. There are a lot of unanswered questions that perhaps they should have answered already. But I'm impressed enough that I want to keep watching to find out where this potential disaster is headed.

But who should be watching this thing? Do middle schoolers need reinforcement that people their own age are often creeps and jerks, or have dark disturbing thoughts? Or is it helpful to know that they aren't alone? I can't make that call for certain. What I can say, though, is that the opening of the show is frustrating in comparison. The song that kicks it off is actually quite good in its own right, but its tone is about as far away from the show as you can get. But the opening animation reinforces the song, filled with cutesy versions of the characters in a crayola wonderworld that misrepresents what Shadow Star Narutaru is all about. The ending credits are better in that they aren't so completely unlike the show, but the song (though also a decent tune) is misplaced. One could watch the opening animation and think the show is for kids, far different from the 16+ rating that US Manga Corps lists. And for those of us well over the age requirements, the shifts in tone are not insignificant.

But all things considered, the first volume of Shadow Star Narutaru is really quite good. Drop the OP/ED pieces with your DVD player's chapter skip (which I started doing by the second episode), and the show takes on a better perspective. I'm really looking forward to watching the second disc and seeing where the show is headed. I can't say that it looks great or has all its parts together, but the core of the show has me engrossed.

Shadow Star Narutaru Vol. 1 -- violence, disturbing images and concepts involving middle school children -- B+