Shadow Star Narutaru Vol. 4
Well, it's over. The strangest, most demented show ever supposed to appeal to the middle school set has come to completion. And was the trip worth it? Hmm. I'm not sure I can really answer that for a variety of reasons. There are two things quite certain about Shadow Star Narutaru's ending. One is that several of the plotlines are left totally hanging out in the wind with nothing even close to a resolution. The other is that by the time the intense fourth volume ends, it may not matter, as it is easily the best of the lot. Although the story arc in the final three episodes is essentially a new tangent rather than a continuation of old plotlines (some of which sorely needed to be continued), the series shifts position just enough through the climax to put a new perspective on the whole program. I'm frustrated and exhilarated and disturbed all that the same time. (Please be aware that, since we're to the final disc in the series, there may be some possible spoilers of previous volumes. Reader beware.)
The fourth volume takes us into the world of Kaizuka Hiroko. Shiina's friend from school, Hiroko seems like a pretty well adjusted girl. The problem is, she has bully problems. A gang of sixth grade girls with Aki Yasuhito as their leader torments her, and this isn't just your workaday rough stuff but abject humiliation and cruelty. As an honor student, they threaten to punish her whenever she gets a grade above the low standard they set. What makes it worse is that Hiroko's father thinks it's her friendship with Shiina that's causing the problem. Though Hiroko has a high tolerance, her breaking point is about to be reached...and how Shiina deals with the consequences may affect the core of who she is.
Although there's little new to say on the production side of things, I will say that (for old time's sake) I watched the title sequence at the beginning of episode 13, and though it is still a juvenile intro for a very unsettling show, it finally makes sense. I think the creators must have had the entire show scripted from the beginning -- not always the case in television shows, certainly -- since all the major characters and (to some extent) events happen in the credits. If nothing else, they knew what stories from the manga they were going to follow.
And that presents the ultimate problem with the final volume of Shadow Star Narutaru. It's certain that the manga provided lots of material for the show's writer to try to condense...and that scriptwriter, Chiaki J. Konaka, is no slouch, having composed shows as diverse as Serial Experiments Lain and Parasite Dolls, not to mention The Big O or Hellsing. Frankly, there are too many divergent plotlines in these thirteen episodes. The show just isn't tight. Too many characters make appearances and play important roles only for their plotlines to wind up disappearing. If you want to know what happened to the militaristic kids trying to start a new world order, too bad...they're out of the picture. Same with the killer friend Shiina met in episode 10...gone, gone, gone. My chief frustration is that the show never makes its purpose clear. After coming into this volume with hopes of resolution, I was disappointed.
However, the final story arc is the best one in the entire series. It flows like a 75-minute movie, and it finally makes a real character out of Shiina. Up until this point, Shiina was involved as the one character you could always trust to do the right thing. Without spoiling anything, Shiina finds herself in a Catch-22 where there is no easy right thing. It brings the show back full circle into the story of her progression from child to young adult.
This volume also shows that the horrific can be portrayed with subtlety and tact. Let there be no doubt: this is by far the most unnerving disc yet in the series, and the cruelties on display are nothing short of psychopathic. They also veer into the realm of the sexual. But we are not shown tons of blood and gore or any nudity. Perhaps it is more shocking because the audience is compelled to create their own visuals, which is far worse than showing them on screen. Despite some of its cute elements, this show is for high school teens and up. That isn't to say that I don't believe all of these events would happen at a middle school; I just don't want anybody getting any ideas. That said, Narutaru shows that in gruesome and potentially offensive moments, pulling the camera back is very effective. "Edgy" is in the mind.
In many ways, having seen the whole of Shadow Star Narutaru, it reminds me of Please Save My Earth. Both feature compelling stories that ultimately run far beyond their animated conclusions. I admit that I am interested in finding "Shadow Star," the manga on which the show was based, to see just where the plotlines lead and conjoin. With its poor animation, I doubt any more of Shadow Star Narutaru will be made, which is too bad...with 26 episodes, this show could have been a whopper.
As it is, if you can get past the disillusionment that comes from a show that leaves major plot threads dangling and focus on the story of Shiina's coming of age, Shadow Star Narutaru is a decent, freaky entertainment. I've given lesser ratings to shows with similar problems, but the program is told well. It should be considered a good second-tier anime.
Shadow Star Narutaru (complete show) -- B