Shadow Star Narutaru Anime Review
骸なる星珠たる子 - なるたる
Mukuro Naru Hoshi Tama Taru Ko - Narutaru
The Corpse of a Star, Children Who Are Jewels - Narutaru
US Release By
13 25-minute episodes
2003-07-07 - 2003-09-29
Shiina Tamai is a relatively average junior high student; full of energy, quick to make friends, and athletic, she lives happily with her divorced father, a military test pilot. Things change for her when she finds a strange, star-shaped creature while visiting relatives, which she adopts and names Hoshimaru.
Hoshimaru is a "dragon's child"--a powerful creature of unknown origin and purpose that forms a link with the mind of a human who controls it and eventually shapes itself to the taste of its owner.
When Shiina befriends a fragile older girl named Akira, she learns that Hoshimaru is not unique. More frighteningly, she learns that others who have found dragon's children have dark plans for their newfound power, and their existence has not gone unnoticed by the government.
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What starts out looking fun--cute kids in control of mysterious little superpowered critters--quickly turns into a viscerally brutal series as the cast of abused or homicidal characters are systematically ripped to shreds mentally, if not physically. Its worst enemy is its own lack of budget, evidenced by a maddeningly glacial pace for no reason but to fill time, near-static visuals, and the fact that the single season only takes the story to the halfway point, leaving it completely unfinished at the end unless you read the manga. Instead, the series wraps up in a side story of Carrie for the Pokemon generation that is so disturbing it is difficult to watch, yet hard to take your eyes off of.
Bleak, incisive social commentary about children for adults, uncommonly brutal early-teen psychodrama, or maybe nihilistic philosophical allegory--whatever Narutaru is, it isn't fun by any measure. But, even as hamstrung as it is by budget-induced slow pacing and a maddeningly half-finished story it's an affecting series for those inclined to subject themselves to it.
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Pokemon meets Evangelion. That's not the best analogy for Shadow Star Narutaru, but it captures the flavor--cute kids in control of little critters being systematically ripped to shreds mentally, if not physically, by an author who apparently has serious issues. What starts out looking fun quickly turns into a viscerally brutal series, and I'm left entirely uncertain what to make of it. Bleak social commentary about children for adults, uncommonly cruel early-teen psychodrama, or maybe nihilistic philosophical allegory. It's not a fun series, and it's totally unsatisfying from a storytelling standpoint, but it's hard to forget.
Don't let the immature-looking character art, young cast, and initially cute creatures fool you--Narutaru is unflinchingly violent both physically and emotionally, and it does not shy away from the adult proclivities of its precocious teenage cast.
Fans of Mohiro Kitoh's manga know exactly what to expect--it's a completely faithful adaptation both in terms of art and content. It also stops at the end of the first story arc, which is to say it just plain stops halfway through the story. A dramatic stopping point, yes, but nowhere near finished, and frustrating to put it mildly.
Narutaru opens with what may be the most inappropriate intro in anime history. The colorful, chipper montage set to a lively, upbeat song looks like a perfect fit, except it's somewhat akin to opening a Shakespearean tragedy with a Disney number. Whoever made the call to do it that way was either a demented genius or should never be allowed near an opening again. Susumu Ueda's background music is much more appropriate: atonal, atmospheric, and slightly alien, though it doesn't fill as much space as it needs to.
Unfortunately, the music needs to fill space because Narutaru has absolutely no budget to speak of. The beginning is particularly slow, and while it does its darnedest to use dramatic tension to draw things out, it still seems to take about twice as long to get through an episode as it should, with the only apparent reason being a lack of money to animate any more. It uses what little budget it has on a couple of action scenes, but that doesn't make up for static characters, bland backgrounds, and glacial pacing.
Putting those major gripes aside, Narutaru is an undeniably powerful series. The premise is relatively simple: There are mysterious creatures who occasionally form a bond with human children. There is absolutely no clue as to what--or why--they are; all we know is that they seem to have no personality of their own, form a direct mental link with the person who controls them, and have a number of inexplicable powers.
Bumping the interesting meter a notch in the right direction is the ambiguous nature of these things. Although Shiina anthropomorphizes her cute (if expressionless), star-shaped Hoshimaru--which is strangely not linked to her mind--there is never the slightest indication that it has any personality or morals outside protecting Shiina and doing what she tells it to. I liked that disconnect.
Where things take a turn from "kids with superpowered critters" to "Carrie for the Pokemon generation" is in these chosen few. Whether by choice or awful luck, the kids the creatures bond with are either horribly socially maladjusted, budding genocidal dictators, abused, or all of the above. Shiina seems to be the most well-adjusted of the lot (perhaps why her mind isn't bonded to Hoshimaru, though this is never discussed), and even she has issues.
The common thread through Narutaru is the darker side of youth. Shiina, for example, lives happily with her divorced, laid-back father. Then we meet her mother, an unloving, analytical woman who in the space of a minute or two exposes Shiina's weak points and derides her youthful energy. This illustrates, without ever discussing it explicitly, how impressive it is that Shiina is as happy and functional a person as she is.
This sort of character development by implication rather than exposition is in general what the series does best: It introduces characters and peels back the layers of their personalities without exposition or analysis, usually revealing raw, debilitating emotional wounds in the process.
Taking it a step farther, it then gives them the dragon's children as a means to act out their desires. Shiina, being relatively normal, just uses Hoshimaru as a flying surfboard to enjoy herself. We eventually meet others who have done similarly innocuous things.
As a contrast to Shiina we have Akira; a little older but fragile both physically and mentally, she strains just to function in society. Her dragon's child is more of a curse; the same experiences that are fun for Shiina are traumatic for Akira, though she has much deeper problems than this.
It's interesting to note that Shiina does not play the hero here; she's far more of an active observer of tragedy, and one character goes so far as to point out that this is her role. When the villains begin to act, Shiina is largely unable to do anything more than watch the havoc they wreak, though she does try.
Those villains are a group attempting to remake the world as a "better" place. Their definition of better and their means of achieving it, however, are vicious and eliminationist. They're interesting in that, though deeply troubled, they are still relatively normal kids; how much each of them have detached their actions from reality as a murderous "game" isn't clear. Their calculating, aloof, philosophical leader, on the other hand, is methodical and thoroughly creepy.
This group, and the corresponding hints about what the dragon's children are, is where the meat of the ongoing plot comes from, and where it fails spectacularly--nothing is explained, and it isn't even superficially resolved at the end. They're also talkative and heavily philosophical, though some of the points raised--unsparing deconstruction of social norms and everyday activities--are unsettlingly incisive.
Instead of pushing the plot forward, the last few episodes focus on Akira and another "gifted" girl, who are emotionally scarred, surrounded by cruelty, and fighting against their inner demons. When one of them finally gives in, the result is horrific and truly disturbing.
It is horrifying in the literal sense--not slasher-movie scares but a visceral revulsion at things you don't want to think about. It is in part so unexpectedly disturbing because the bullying and abuse depicted are all too real; these things can and do happen. Further, you know that the atrocities these characters commit are the sort of fantasies many of us entertain; the only difference is these children have the means to act them out.
Shiina again is more observer than hero; her friends desperately need help but Shiina has no real way of realizing this. That they're likable enough that you want them to overcome their hardships, to be saved by someone, heightens the tragedy. (If the series has any message, that might be it--dig deep enough to know when someone needs help.)
This bleak story arc pulls absolutely no punches--it is difficult to watch yet so vivid it's hard to take your eyes off of. In terms of gut reaction, I cannot call it anything but a success, though I'm not entirely sure what the point of subjecting yourself to it is.
The Japanese acting is somewhat hamstrung by the halting pace--rather than filling time with talking, conversations are broken up by too much silence. The kids are appropriately cast and believable in their roles, though--harsh and intelligent while still sounding young. There is an uncommonly high amount of raw drama, from guttural screaming to more restrained emotions, which is handled acceptably, if a little lacking in force at times. The standout is, a bit surprisingly, Akira, voiced by withdrawn-character specialist Mamiko Noto. Her quiet, hesitant voice captures the fragility of the character, and her fight to get words out is the one time the slow pace of the series works.
In all, Shadow Star Narutaru is a series that is nothing like what it first appears; a cute cast of young characters acting out cruel, nihilistic, outright disturbing psychodrama. Bleak, philosophical, and at times uncomfortable to watch, it is not an enjoyable series at all, but even as crippled as it is by budget-induced slow pacing and a maddeningly half-finished story,4 it's an affecting series for those inclined to subject themselves to it.
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The most obvious pick for similarly dark, brutal drama is Evangelion, particularly the more violent and weird stuff toward the end and the corresponding movies. Nazca is another, for its reserved, conflicted characters, though it's otherwise a more traditional action series. The Mermaid Forest TV series also has a bit of similarly cruel drama, though is far less cerebral and far more optimistic about the human condition. Now and Then, Here and There also bears some similarities in terms of bleak outlook on the human condition and traumatized children, though the pacing is dead opposite. There are also any number of dark, shoujo-style tragedies that take time to similarly break their characters, though few with so little sentiment and melodrama, and pretty much any do it at a more lively pace.
Notes and Trivia
Based directly on a 12-volume manga series by Mohiro Kitoh. It's available in English from Dark Horse through book 7, but as of this writing they haven't released the remainder of the series. It was also published as part of an English manga anthology from a while back, but that release also stopped partway through the second half of the story.
This single-season TV series covers roughly the first half of the story nearly scene-for-scene, though it does cut back some on the government sub-plots toward the end to focus on Shiina's friends. The manga continues and does conclusively resolve things. If you're wondering where it's all going (this is a spoiler, though not in the least bit surprising), the answer is, basically, "The apocalypse." Come to think of it, that may explain why the other half was never animated.
The title, Narutaru, means nothing by itself; it's a combination of the two conjunctions in the lengthy subtitle, meaning very roughly "become and are," though even in Japanese it doesn't sound like anything or have any meaning out of context.
The subtitle "Shadow Star" was created for the English version; the serialized manga in English used that as the title, and USM presumably used it for that reason.
As for the full subtitle, "Mukuro Naru Hoshi Tama Taru Ko," it's somewhat poetic and rather hard to interpret, even if you've read the story through to its conclusion. "Mukuro Naru Hoshi" very roughly means either "stars that become corpses" or "the corpses of stars" (and could be either singular or plural), though it may have been intended to be interpreted as "the corpse of a dragon." "Tama taru ko" literally means "children who are jewels," though the word can refer to any valuable bead-like object; it's less obvious how it's intended to be interpreted, but may have been a reference to children as precious seeds.
Speaking of titles, the episodes take their titles directly from the manga, and some of them are quite memorable. In particular, "Eyes of a Victim, Hands of an Assailant" is one of the more memorable titles I can think of, in part because of how accurately it reflects what happens.
Mohiro Kitoh, incidentally, is known for manga series that take stock story frameworks and twist them into heavily metaphysical and brutally nihilistic deconstructions. His other best-known series, Bokurano, is very much like Evangelion, except it makes that famously unforgiving series look optimistic, not to mention kind and generous to its characters, in comparison.
US DVD Review
USM's 4-disc set is a decent effort; the visuals are clean (for as little as is going on), and the sound is fine although the original material doesn't have particularly good editing or production values. There are plenty of extras, though; art galleries, storyboards, Japanese actor biographies, and an unusual treat for anime, the last disc has a director commentary track on all three episodes.
USM appropriately calls it 16-up on account of realistic violence, depictions and implications of abuse, and some frank if indirect sexual content.
Violence: 4 - Though not gory, the violence is realistic and brutal.
Nudity: 2 - Limited to a couple of completely non-erotic, though strange, scenes.
Sex/Mature Themes: 3 - Little happens onscreen, but there is discussion of frank mature nature and some strongly implied sexual activity.
Language: 2 - Some strong language in the subtitles.
Formerly available in North America on 4 bilingual DVDs from the late US Manga Corps, now out of print. At last check the complete set was available at a very reasonable price new or used from Amazon: Narutaru box set.