Judge Joel Pearce never passes up an opportunity to reference The Neverending Story.
First impressions can be misleading…
That statement sums everything up nicely in this case. At first glance, it's easy to assume that Shadow Star Narutaru is a kid's show. It stars preteen girls with cute alien friends. A closer look at the cover reveals that one of the preteen girls is carrying a punch dagger, which seems incongruous—but hey, this is anime we're talking about.
The first episode begins innocuously. Shiina, a precocious but well meaning 12-year-old, arrives at her grandparent's cottage for a week of vacation. She spends a few days with her grandparents, realizing that this is one of the last years she will have time to visit. When she tries to swim too far into the sea, she almost drowns, but she is rescued by a cute little star-creature that she names Hoshimaru. The series is innocent and touching to this point, even quaint.
Then things quickly start to change.
It turns out that Hoshimaru is one of many mystical creatures. Most of them bond psychically with children, using that connection to increase the power of both beings. Shiina meets another girl named Akira, who is also connected with one of these creatures. She is frightened of the power that it comes with, and wishes she could be rid of the thing for good. Shiina's warmth and friendliness wins her over, and the two of them are forced into a dangerous and mysterious adventure.
By the end of this first volume, its clear that Shadow Star Narutaru is heading towards war. These small creatures and the children who are connected to them want to turn society upside down, using the power of the dragons that live in the sea. Other groups are aware of the existence of these dragons, and want to use them for their own purposes. It is unclear how Hoshimaru and Shiina fit into this battle. She has welcomed him into her life so quickly, but has no idea whether or not he is good or evil. Only time will tell.
Shadow Star Narutaru is fresh, exciting, and fun amidst a glut of mystical friend anime series. It is set apart by its willingness to dig into the issues that affect people in their early teens. Shiina is on the verge of growing up, reflecting on her childhood and looking ahead to her years in high school. Swimming out to the rock is a rite of passage for her, a chance to prove herself in the last summer that she will spend with her grandparents. This is the first time she's been able to make it out so far, but she isn't strong enough yet to make it back safely. This is the irony of that in-between age: She's young enough to remember her childhood dreams, but she isn't old enough to make those dreams a reality. Now, as she is thrust into this mystical conflict, she is going to need to grow up faster than most children do.
Akira is an interesting character too, and their willingness to toss a suicidal teenager into the mix is gutsy. Her cautious nature and fear of the creature she has bonded with is a perfect contrast to Shiina's mindless embrace of Hoshimaru. For her, the potential power that she now wields is a great burden. If Shiina is having a difficult time growing up fast enough, then Akira has already grown up too quickly, forgotten the wish we all have to be able to fly. Both of these characters are dealing with questions of death. Shiina faces the presence of death for the first time during her accident, and Akira is faced with the desire to no longer exist. As the plot advances, both characters are forced to deal with death on a more concrete level.
The connection between the children and the creatures is creative. They are more than simply animal companions; the creatures change appearance, fitting the personality of the children who own them. None of this has been explained; there are no inconsistencies yet, and the nature of this connection is still coming into focus. Mysteries and questions abound, but I don't feel completely in the dark.
The animation in Shadow Star Narutaru is mixed. Many of the backdrops and characters are simple, but they are also consistent and full of personality. Hoshimaru, though very cute, has the same expression most of the time. There is subtlety, though, because his expression appears to shift depending on what's happening around him. CGI has been used, but it's rare enough that it blends in perfectly. This lack of detail could also be because of the transfer, which isn't up to par with recent series from Geneon and Bandai. Many compression errors show up, including noticeable haloing and some unintentional grain, especially in darker scenes. The reds bleed. The transfer has none of the jagged lines or motion that appears in some anime, though.
I was more impressed with the sound transfer. Viewers will be happy with either the original Japanese track or the English dub. The dub translation is surprisingly close to the subtitle translation, one of the most faithful I have ever heard. The Japanese track is still preferable, though, because the voices match the characters better.
There are a few extras on the disc, including character art, storyboards, and badly captured screens passed off as a photo gallery. Central Park Media has also included the original Japanese trailers and two American trailers.
To reiterate, Shadow Star Narutaru is not something you should buy for your Pokemon loving eight year old. Mature teenagers and adventurous adults are sure to find it unusually rich, especially for the mystical companion genre. This series reminds us what it feels like to be young and dream, whether those dreams are innocent or dark. Like Miyazaki's work and The Neverending Story, Shadow Star Narutaru lets us vicariously revisit that youthfulness. While the transfer is a little disappointing, it shouldn't keep you from renting or picking up the first volume of the series.
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