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Thursday, January 8, 2015

Shikabane Hime Has The Wrong Protagonist, And It's Killing The Show

Spoiler alert: post contains spoilers for the first seven episodes of Shikabane Hime Aka.

After being brutally murdered along with her family, Makina Hoshimura turns into a Shikabane Hime, a living corpse contracted to the Kougon Cult, in order to exert revenge on the mysterious undead organization responsible for her death. She is assisted in this task by Keisei Tagami, her contracted priest and former friend. This series follows the story of Keisei's younger brother Ouri, a boy with an unusual attraction to death, who slowly discovers his brother's secret and gets dragged into the world of the Shikabanes.

Shikabane Hime's lead protagonist is terrible. He's boring. He's milquetoast. He's bland. He's unappealing. He is Ouri Tagami, teenage boy who literally stumbles into the world of Shikabane and has spent the series so far trailing after Makina, a gun-toting badass who has more personality in her undead wrist that Ouri does in his whole body.

The whole situation is entirely unfair. Shikabane Hime is a good series - it has a lot of very interesting ideas, the world building is interesting and has a lot of moving parts, and there's a steadily growing cast of characters that further flesh out this world and the continuing battle against the undead of Japan. But then it sticks us with Ouri as our go-to hero, the kid with no powers and no weapon in a series where everyone else can flip ninja kicks and shoot guns and perform spells.

Shikabane Hime has so much going for it, but it keeps returning to the everyday life of this boring kid and his boring thoughts. Why Ouri? Why us?

In a way, I get it. Ouji is the series' everyman. He's the average high school student, except for the fact that he spent most of his life living in a shrine with other kids and being around dead people. He is not directly involved with Shikabane until he meets Makina, and even after that, he only gets involved to help Makina out of some misguided need to protect her (even though, more often than not, Makina is the one protecting him). A lot of anime series filter the supernatural elements through the eyes of a so-called 'innocent' protag but they also have personalities. Ouji isn't one of them.

Seven episodes in, I'm not sure what Ouji is about. I know he's comfortable around dead people because of his upbringing. I know he's uncomfortable when his priest brother needles him with ecchi figurines and magazines. I know he cares about Keisei a lot, and Makina, and his friends. That's it. It's not much of a full character sketch. I should know more about him at this point, but Shikabane Hime isn't giving me much to work on.

In a way, Ouji reminds me of the main protag of a series I've recently seen: Tsukihime Lunar Legend. Shiki, like Ouji, fell into his troubles and ended up hanging out with a troubled young woman who kills people out of a sense of justice and vengeance. Unlike Ouji, though, Shiki has actual abilities - his sight and his knife make him useful in a fight, and his character actually receives some development over the course of the series.

Maybe by the end of Aka, Ouji gets his life in order and gains some sort of ability to help out Makina and Keisei hunt the rogue Shikabane. All I want right now is for Makina to take over the role of main character, since she's infinitely more interesting than Ouji and her life actually impacts the main storyline of the anime. Seriously - replace Ouji with any other character and see what happens. Or take Ouji out of the equation. Beyond Keisei, is his absence felt through the larger story? No, not really.

Yes, I realize that Keisei had kept Ouji out of the business of hunting Shikabane to keep him safe. But continuing to try and shield him from this mess is like closing the barn doors after the entire herd's gone running out. If this series doesn't get Ouji more involved in the main story beyond "accidentally stumbling into the plot of the week" every episode, they might as well shift focus completely from his POV dominating the story to a full out ensemble cast based on the various Shikabane Hime tag teams running around town.

Read the series synopsis again. Which character would you rather learn more about? I'd take a series centered around Makina any day. Ouji is a nice kid, who has a ecchi overprotective older brother and an unusual childhood, but he's not compelling enough to make me care.

Actually, you know what? Make Keisei the main character. Concentrate on his relationship with Makina, his troubles with the sect, running the shrine and taking care of the children, and occasionally breaking into his younger brother's apartment so he can place scantily clad lady figurines in his bedroom. Keisei Tagami for main protagonist! Too bad the series is already done with.

Shikabane Hime: Aka is currently available via Netflix (disc only) and Hulu as well as on the Funimation Channel.