"Are you ready for another beating?!"—Elle Ragu
Two warriors face one another on a precipice. Gau Ban is finally ready to face off against his master, the enigmatic Scarface. But before they can fight, Scarface muses about Gau Ban's first battles ten years earlier…
In an arena in Kuruda, Kingdom of Warriors (only warriors ever seem to get kingdoms in these movies—why is there never a "kingdom of mailmen" or "empire of delicatessen workers?"), fighters gather for competition. After a nasty battle with the demon beast Barselk, Elle Ragu, 59th Sevalle and master of the Shadow Skill, settles down for a quiet afternoon with her adopted brother Gau Ban. A seemingly gentle soul, Gau Ban "doesn't laugh or cry." But when an evil, cackling villain attacks with the help of the undead Barselk, Gau Ban must tap his secret powers and prove he is a true warrior.
There are a few basic rules to what might be dubbed "fighting anime." You need a collection of superpowered, overmusculed examples of hypermasculinity—even if a few appear to be biologically female. All of them must have a fetish for spurting blood. Plot is unimportant, so long as it presents a bare excuse to throw together brutish, sneering monsters who can keep sprouting limbs (to replace any hacked off during the fight), a few cackling villains (only villains are allowed to smile during fights, except the knowing grin the hero gives when he wipes blood off his face and prepares to use his dreaded secret attack), and a brooding hero out to avenge some slight to his honor or his family from years ago. Battles escalate from scene to scene in testosterone-fueled gore. Even the women get in on the action, though ultimately they are never a match for the men. There must be a mysterious stranger who shows up to dispense advice and help out in the occasional fight, but we know that the hero will have to fight the stranger at the show's climax. And the youngest and smallest of the heroes always turns out to be the one with the greatest untapped potential, the one who is destined to be the "greatest fighter on earth." The battles themselves violate more laws of physics than the character's hairstyles, and usually climax in some glowing bursts of energy and enough blood to fill a resort hotel swimming pool.
Shadow Skill slavishly follows the rules of the fighting anime genre as if it expects a test later. The first part of this DVD, entitled "Shadow Skill: The Movie," consists of three vaguely connected episodes of what might be mistaken for a TV series, if television would ever air something this bloody. Each runs about 25 minutes. In the first, Gau Ban and Elle fight the demon beast Barselk and the lightning-wielding Goa X. Gau learns to talk, and the narrator announces that this is the beginning of their adventures.
In the second segment, Elle, Gau, and Faury—a pretty friend of Elle's from the first episode who turns out here to be a powerful sorceress—are out traveling for no explainable reason (weren't they fighting in a tournament in the previous episode?), when they meet up with a female ranger named Kyou. She fights with razor-sharp rings and is out to defeat the "King of the Moon," a demonic centaur, to avenge her grandfather's death. Imagine a "Dungeons and Dragons" game with kung fu and arterial spray. In the third segment, Faury and Elle fight each other over a misunderstanding about whether Elle killed Faury's father years ago. I cannot really make any better sense of it either.
And that may be the major problem with Shadow Skill. This is one of those films that seems to drift from your mind even as you watch it. I have seen this three times now—once at a con in it original Japanese, once on cable dubbed into English, and now here on DVD—and it slips further and further from my mind the more I try to think about it.
Maybe it is the production design: freakishly disproportionate anatomy that contorts in bizarre directions, making the battles hard to follow. Maybe it is the dubbing: acting that sounds like an old-school Shaw Brothers movie left out in the sun until it turns rancid. Maybe it is the mismatched collection of clichés: fighting anime plus fantasy plus characters that seem to change motive and personality at the drop of a hat to suit the plot. Perhaps some of the story's incoherence can be blamed on the fact that this seems to be a collection of pieces from a manga series, redone as disconnected adventures for video release. Presumably the fans of the manga would know all the missing continuity and see this film as a kind of "greatest hits" collection. Although if these aimless stories are the greatest hits, I shudder to think what got left out.
Maybe my annoyance at Shadow Skill is due to its lousy transfer to DVD. The print throughout "Shadow Skill: The Movie" is blurry and soft, seemingly overexposed. While the 5.1 audio mix is adequate, it is certainly marred by the awful English dubbing. But even listening to this in Japanese (again, Manga Video only offers the original track in 2.0) does not improve one's enjoyment any. There is still the visual mess to contend with.
After "Shadow Skill: The Movie," if you survive it, you can enjoy its sequel: "Shadow Skill: Epilogue." Does anyone at Manga Video know what the word "epilogue" means? An epilogue comes after the story, not as the story proper. The title here implies that this is supposed to be a short chapter that wraps up the leftover plot threads—none of which were actually resolved in the original movie. And to give you proof that nobody even at Manga Video can make any sense of this story (much less ordinary customers like you and me), they originally sold "Epilogue" on VHS as Part I of this story, with "Shadow Skill: The Movie" as the sequel! "Epilogue" jumps to a later part of the continuity, but never fills in the gaps. In fact, it introduces whole new angles to the storyline (not that any of them make much sense). And at 50 minutes, it is nearly as long as the feature itself.
In a deserted coliseum, Scarface watches Gau and Elle fight each other. We have to assume that this comes way before the previous "prologue" in "Shadow Skill: The Movie," since the final fight between Gau and Scarface is still years away. But no matter. Anyway, Scarface has a flashback (he needs to see a doctor about this problem—it seems to happen a lot) about what led to this fight. Gau and Elle return home to visit the graves of Gau's parents, a traditional pilgrimage they make every year (or at least, the four years we are told since Elle adopted Gau). They leave behind Faury, Kyou, and some character we have never seen before who has apparently joined the group during the aforementioned missing continuity. Everyone is more brightly colored now, and the art design is simplified to make the characters seem friendlier. This is because the "Epilogue" is really a couple of episodes of the Shadow Skill television series strung together (yes, there was a television series, but do not ask me where its continuity fits with the direct-to-video episodes that make up "Shadow Skill: The Movie"). But the aftertaste from the first movie still sours whatever is happening on screen here. The print transfer is not quite as blurry, but that does not help the blurriness of the story or the characters.
Anyway, Elle and Gau visit the graves, where, for no particular reason, Elle challenges Gau to a final battle to see who is stronger. Their sparring is interrupted by the usual ugly, cackling villains. The fighting is more inventive than in "Shadow Skill: The Movie," but only on a technical level, since these characters are too thinly developed to care about.
Scarface shows up to train Gau for his fight with Elle. Gau is apprehensive: he only fights because he has to, and his heart really is not in this battle. So Scarface teaches Gau the philosophy of the fighting anime: "Killing is a rebellion against God, but a battle…Gau, I believe that we can get closer to God through battle." Yes, this is the central aesthetic of the fighting anime. All justifications aside—justice, revenge, power—warriors in fighting anime just find pounding each other to a bloody pulp a religious sacrament. Indeed, even though Gau gets the crap kicked out of him by Elle in the battle that follows, he learns to love the pain and embrace the joy of battle. And they all live happily ever after.
Or at least until they all have to fight again, probably about ten minutes after the closing credits.
Yeah, that is pretty much it. I could talk about the trailer (obviously made for a direct-to-video release) or the photo gallery of seemingly random stills from the film or the character bios (which are identical to the ones on the insert), but there does not seem to be much point. Shadow Skill admits that its real purpose is to preach to the converted. If you like repetitive bloody pounding, you might get a kick at least out of "Shadow Skill: Epilogue," if not the completely incomprehensible "Shadow Skill: The Movie." But the poor technical quality of this DVD will only pass muster for the most undemanding, the audience who has already pounded their heads until they can no longer discern a decent or entertaining fighting anime (and there are a few) from this mess.
All those associated with this production on both sides of the Pacific are sentenced to juvenile detention, where they might learn some self-discipline, some technical skills, and the meaning of the word "epilogue." This court is adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Manga Video
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