Yuji Sakai is just an ordinary boy starting out at a new high school - Except, of course, that we should all know by now that any protagonist who happens to be a student at a Japanese high school is going to have a life that is anything but ordinary. Even by those standards however, Sakai has it rough, as after school one afternoon he finds himself plunged into a terrifying situation, as his world collides with the Crimson World. On the bright side of this encounter, he is saved from what appears to be certain doom by a flame haired girl with a handy line in swordsmanship, but on the down side this same girl then tells him that he's already dead, and is in fact merely a 'Torch' - A replacement for a human that has been devoured by a Rinne similar to that which he has just encountered in the Crimson World, which will fade away to be forgotten by all and sundry.
So begins what could hardly be called the most cheerful of opening episodes which introduces us to the world of Shakugan no Shana, or 'Shana of the Burning Eyes' if English titles are your thing. Like many recent anime series, it is in fact an adaptation of a series of Japanese light novels, which has since found fame as a manga, video games and, naturally, this anime.
After a first episode that throws both a fair amount of action and plenty of information to take in at you thick and fast, Sakai then goes on to see the life (and death) of a torch with his own eyes, before the Flame Haze that saved him, Shana, takes the place of the torch he saw disappear to protect him from the forces in a Crimson World that what him for the treasure he contains as a torch. Indeed, the last two episodes on this first volume of the series on DVD keeps up the action quota, but otherwise changes the pace of the show into more of a 'fish out of water' story, as Shana fails to fit in with high school life.
I have to be honest here - From this first volume on DVD, I don't know what to make of Shakugan no Shana. Visually, it doesn't look too bad at all (indeed, Shana at her Flame Haze best looks great, and some of the CGI used in the action sequences fit in well), but scratch that surface and you seem to be left with some rather bog-standard characters. Sakai is your typical protagonist who wants to make the world a better place with no interest in his own welfare, while Shana is a moody and feisty girl who refuses to acknowledge her deeper feelings towards anything or anyone - You couldn't put together a much more clichéd pairing of main characters if you tried. Similarly, the shows villains so far are also stereotypically either deranged or otherwise imperfect in some way, with nothing in the way of redeeming features as of yet.
While a huge amount of information is dumped into the opening episode, this is done so with an overly frequent use of voice-over, a rather lazy approach to story-telling which slips into subsequent episodes occasionally too. Some of the deeper aspects of the revelation that Sakai is nothing more than a shell which is burning itself out are skimmed over somewhat too - While his will against such a horrifying revelation is clearly a cornerstone of his personality, his almost half-hearted thoughts about his future don't really bring across the gravity of such a situation as they might have done.
Although I've just put forth a whole raft of negatives, it must be said that I didn't hate the opening episodes of this series either. There is certainly some potential to keep things interesting, the quota of action to plot development is just about right to keep my interest, and Sakai and Shana's relationship is beginning to develop nicely, which could well serve to bring the show on in a far more positive fashion. Thus, I'm not going to write Shakugan no Shana off just yet - Instead, I shall take the tried and trusted technique of the cowardly reviewer, and sit on the fence for now. These first four episodes certainly haven't convinced me that the series is a must-watch, but by the same token neither is it a show to avoid at all costs.