Shadowskin Anime Review
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A young man with no memory of his own past finds himself suddenly under assault by the military. Though unclear whether it is a blessing or a curse, this "Patient X" is in possession of a powerful suit of armor, but there is more to it than just a simple weapon. Meanwhile, Nathaniel Cage, who has motives of his own in tracking down Patient X, seeks out the help of Erica Sugiyama, but even her knowledge of this project only scratches the surface of what is really going on.
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Shadowskin is an OAV series (really, the first episode of one) by Terrence Walker's Studio ArtFX, the same independent behind Understanding Chaos. It distinguishes itself with dark cyberpunk style and a professional-looking polish, but is also impressive in its success at making 3D animation look almost indistinguishable from cel art. The visuals are slick and the plot, though only an introduction, is also capable of carrying the production. So far it looks to be a reasonably interesting sci-fi story with an added overtone of mythology, giving just enough concrete information to get a good grasp of what is going on while still leaving enough details out to keep plenty of mystery in the air. Its only weaknesses are somewhat nonstandard character designs and flat acting, though neither caused major harm.
Considering that Shadowskin is an independent production, I'd consider it a rousing success, and even left to stand entirely on its own merits it's at least average, with the potential to be more as the story develops.
Full ReviewSwitch to Quick Review
Shadowskin is an OAV series (currently only one episode long) by indie anime creator Terrence Walker's Studio ArtFX, the same independent behind Understanding Chaos. It shares the same dark cyberpunk style and professional-looking production values as that short, but unlike its predecessor it's also a full-length episode of what could have been a continuing series. I'd say that of the independent anime productions I've seen to date, Shadowskin most successfully delivers on the potential of its concept.
It's hard to make any meaningful statements about the story, since the first episode only establishes the groundwork, but it looks to be a reasonably interesting sci-fi tale with an added overtone of mythology. I can say that it succeeds at solidly establishing the characters, and the hit-the-ground-running way the story is introduced got me interested.
In particular, I liked that the introduction of the plot gives enough concrete information to get a good grasp of what's going on while still leaving enough details out to keep plenty of mystery in the air. It also doesn't feel like it's actively trying to keep the viewer in the dark--more like some of the important pieces of information just haven't come up yet.
This is thankfully a case where the story comfortably carries the production, but the visual end is no slouch, either. The style is essentially identical to Understanding Chaos, so I'm repeating a lot from my review of that title, but basically Shadowskin uses 3D computer models to produce animation that looks almost indistinguishable from hand-drawn art. The dark visual style and relatively realistic character designs have a look similar to movies like Jin Roh or Ghost in the Shell, and although the fluidity of animation, style, level of detail, and sense of lived-in grime isn't on par with those high-budget productions, it's still a good-looking OAV. My only real complaint is that the backgrounds are a little on the bland side, although there is one reasonably creative abstract setting and a couple of very brief but slick-looking action sequences to make up for that.
Due to a combination of good design, some hand touch-up, and a very good cel shader, the 3D characters look both hand-drawn and quite good, but there are a couple of minor side effects. The only significant one is that the character animation is just a bit stiff, but that's not a big deal. My only other nitpick is that a couple of angles make the characters' faces look just a bit odd (not surprising, since the anime style was never designed for three dimensions). I'm not particularly fond of some of the character designs, but that's a matter of personal taste, not a failure of the medium or the production.
An interesting side note is that, despite being rendered from models, the animation isn't high frame rate at all--about modest-budget OAV level--and the mouth movements are standard open-and-close anime style. This might have been due to budget constraints (less render time), but it also has the arguably positive effect of making the production look that much more like cel art.
The voice acting is, unfortunately, rather flat all around, but at least the casting is good enough to offer a variety of natural-sounding voices. Our apparent hero, voiced by creator Terrence Walker, is probably the most natural of the lot. The music (also by Terrence Walker) isn't particularly remarkable either, but the slow, generally sad-sounding synthesizer pieces compliment the story effectively and unobtrusively.
In all, Shadowskin, as of the first episode, lays a reasonably solid foundation for a sci-fi yarn. There are a couple of decent little action scenes, plenty of information to begin piecing a story together from, and enough mystery and allusions to keep me interested in where it will go. Considering that it's a one-man independent production, I'd consider it a rousing success, and even left to stand entirely on its own merits it's at least average, with the potential to be more as the story develops.
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Though Understanding Chaos is only a short film, it is not surprisingly very similar to Shadowskin in style and feel. D7 Peacemaker is also worth mentioning as an independent production with a similar cyberpunk setting, although the style is entirely different. In a more traditional vein, Dark Warrior, the Guyver series, and Cybernetics Guardian all have vaguely similar stories, though all of them are of dubious quality. Jin Roh and Ghost in the Shell have a similar visual style, and are much more impressive.
Notes and Trivia
The second feature produced by Studio ArtFX, and the first "real" story. Due to a change in personal direction, the series was never continued, although the creator has continued to develop techniques and has made a business of training videos for 3D animators, as well as some non-animated comics using the same technology. The Studio ArtFX website is interesting--while a lot of it is geared toward selling training videos now, there are free bits and some blog commentary of interest to those working on animation of their own.
Shadowskin was apparently licensed by Tokyopop at one point, though I'm not aware of any releases to come of this.
The DVD also includes three detailed interviews (more like tutorials, really) on the production process. These videos, though perhaps not quite as extensive as what is included with Understanding Chaos, are still a very thorough step-by-step walkthrough of the tools and techniques employed to create the visuals, and will be quite interesting to anybody interested in making something like this themselves, or just what goes into making one happen.
US DVD Review
The DVD is a basic but solid production. The anamorphic widescreen video (nice touch) is very sharp and clean, and the 2-channel audio, though it is perhaps a bit weak in terms of punch, is reasonably crisp. The disc includes a nice-looking animated menu with a chapter index, plus trailers for Studio ArtFX's current works (this, Understanding Chaos, and the yet-unfinished A.M.P.), plus the three interviews on the production process.
Rated 13-up by the studio, which seems reasonable.
Violence: 1 - There are a couple of serious action scenes, but nobody dies yet.
Nudity: 1 - The only female character has an extended scene in relatively revealing nightclothes.
Sex/Mature Themes: 0 - Nothing.
Language: 2 - Some strong language.
Staff & Cast
Erica Sugiyama: Diane Allen
Unit One Scout: PJ Foley
Colonel Louis East: Michael Lightner
Nathaniel Cage: Jim May
Controller: Kevin "Q" Quattro
X/Shadowevil: Terrence Walker
Unit One Leader: Todd Widup
Writer/Director/Music: Terrence Walker