Kicking. Punching. Magic. What more could you want, except any kind of structure?
Not all anime is intended as a movie, as a great number of episodic shows are made to fill Japanese TV schedules. Sometimes for an English release distributors will take these and try to cobble together a feature length show or two, with varying degrees of success. Unfortunately, Hiroshi Negishis' Shadow Skill populates the lower end of the success spectrum.
The film opens atop a windswept mountain, with Gau Ban, who turns out to be one of the principle characters facing a mysterious cloaked warrior known as Scarface, unfortunately not voiced by Al Pacino. Clearly they are about to have a bit of a rumble, however the film then jumps back four years and never returns to this, which I found to be irritating.
We are introduced Ella Ragu, a fearsome warrior and master of the Shadow Skill taking on a demon beast Barsalf in a tournament, and destroying it. She has adopted the orphaned Gau, who up till now has not spoken a word to her since the death of his parents. The main strand of this film charts the relationship between Gau and Elle as Elle tries to teach the secrets of the Shadow Skills her brother. Gau is captured by Koa Icks, who would be Elle's opponent in the next round of the tournament, who has the effective but unoriginal plan of using him as leverage to force Elle to submit to annihilation from the newly raised from the dead Barsalf. At this point, Gau awakens his shadow skills and manages to break free of Icks' capture spell and destroy the demon. After the battle, Gau now considers himself to have achieved a comparable level of skill as his sister and can now call himself a true brother to Elle, and can now open up his heart to her and speak to her and everything. Awww.
This would be the start of Gau's voyages over the country to learn to be a true warrior. We skip forward a little to see a squad of demon hunters being destroyed by a powerful demon, the King of the Moon. The only survivor is Kyou, who swears vengeance. She enlists the help of Gau, Elle and their magician companion Faury. Inexplicably they attack the demon during a full moon, when the know him to be most powerful. Their shadow skills may be strong, but their mental skills are somewhat lacking. Still, being the heroes and all, they win. Kyou then joins them on their travels.
The next segment shows us a little of the history between Elle and Faury, as Faury initially tracked down Elle to destroy her for allegedly killing Faury's master. This is a timely exposition as Faury's training partner under their old master, Rui, shows up to open old wounds and provoke a duel to the death between Elle and Faury. In a revelation that will shock nobody, Elle turned out not to have killed Faury's master, and Gau disposes of Rui. Elle and Faury patch up their differences and we're back where we started.
This ends what is entitled as "The Movie", however it goes directly into "The Epilogue", which is about as long again as what may be considered the main feature. Gau and Elle leave their companions, who have inexplicably (as far as this movie is concerned) been joined by a young fighter, Quo who plays no real part in the story. They journey to Gaus parents grave, on the way being attacked by what would appear to be a werewolf. He is easily dealt with by Gau, however a later mugging from a band of these wolfmen after a vicious sparring bout between Elle and Gau leaves them almost killed, however Scarface shows up to save them. He appears throughout the film, mainly to provide random plot expositions and also to watch over the progress of Gau, but this is the only point when he actually gets involved in fisticuffs. In order to force Gau to improve his skills to the next level, Elle orders the still injured Gau to fight her in an ancient ruin. During the fight, Gau manages to discover the missing elements in his combat techniques, which seems to be the strange notion that fighting can bring you closer to God. Evidence against, see Tyson, Mike.
And that's pretty much the end of it. There's not a lot of plot to chew on here, mainly due to it being three or four shows joined together. The characters do develop somewhat, but as it is over a strange timeframe it is not terribly effective. Some characters appear for a scene and then are never referred to again, although I would assume they are of more use in the series. The impression given is that this is the basis for understanding the characters and their actions for the rest of the series, but as a self-contained film it really doesn't work at all. There is nothing to particularly join the episodes together.
This kind of anime where fighting is the only focus of the movie will obviously live or die by the quality of the animation of these scenes, and it lives. It's all quite well done, lots of fluid motion when required and some nice interaction with the backgrounds (read, smacking into the backgrounds). It has been done better, but there's nothing to be ashamed of here. It's not Pokemon.
The music is reasonably dramatic where required, the sound effects are slightly disappointing, being kind of muted which does not sit too well with the over-the-top action of the fights. Special mention goes to the English dub, which is utterly appalling, rendering the whole experience laughable. The voice actors on many occasions seem to have mistaken 'emotion' for 'constipation'. The Japanese language version is certainly recommended over this, although the voice of Kyou in this version is gratingly screechy in places.
Shadow Skill achieves its goals, it just hasn't aimed terribly high. I haven't seen any of the series, and it hasn't particularly inspired me to see any more of it. (If your interest has been piqued, a good place to look into the world of Shadow Skill is ShadowSkill.co.uk) It doesn't suffer from being chopped down as much as say, Neon Genesis Evangelon - Death and Rebirth, which is next to incomprehensible if you haven't seen the full series, but doesn't fare as well as Escaflowne which makes a reasonable movie version despite having some haphazard characterisation as a result.
If you want an action oriented anime, I'd probably recommend Ninja Scroll or even Street Fighter II - The Animated Movie over this. Oh, and if you haven't seen Princess Mononoke yet you really ought to before even considering this.
Were I in the business of passing quantifiable judgements, I'd award this 2/5 TippyMarks.
DVD notes - The transfer is reasonable. We have a choice of English language in 5.1 or 2.0, both of which are atrocious as mentioned, although the 5.1 mix does sound impressive otherwise though. The Japanese language is only available in 2.0.
In terms of extras, it's a bit light. Very short character bios, a 'photo gallery' that is mainly just shots from the DVD, the trailer and a bunch of adverts for other Manga merchandise. Yay. Adverts.
Mathonwy Reeves/Akio Matsuoka (Gau)