REVIEW: ‘Shenmue: The Animation’ Season 1 Fails To Deliver On Its Epic Journey

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Shenmue Season 1 - But Why Tho

Shenmue: The Animation Season 1 is a Crunchyroll/Adult Swim exclusive action anime based on the video game Shenmue and is developed by Telecom Animation Film. Ryo Hazuki was living a quiet life in a small town in Japan until a mysterious martial arts master named Lan Di appeared and murdered his father. Now, in pursuit of Di, Ryo will leave his home to learn the truth of why his father was murdered. But there is so much Ryo needs to learn if he wishes to fulfill his goal.

The most critical thing for a story to have is an engaging main protagonist. They are the figure the audience is going to spend the most time and the ones they are expected to care the most about. The audience needs to celebrate their triumphs and empathize with their pain. Sadly, Ryo is possibly the weakest lead character I’ve ever seen in an anime. While in the broad strokes Ryo has the making of a great lead protagonist, it is his utter lack of personality that does him in. Outside of his father’s death before his eyes in the series pilot episode, little manages to evoke much emotion from the character. This utter lack of energy would be damning for the personality that is expected to carry much of the series in any medium, but for an anime lead, it’s even worse.

Anime is an art form built largely on overexpression. Everything is bigger in anime. The laughs are louder, the pain is deeper, and the power levels are over 9000. By halfway through the season I found myself frequently hoping any one of several more interesting side characters would show up to liven up the moments. All too often this was not the case. The reason why I suspect Ryo is portrayed in such a dull way leads me to what I think is the second biggest problem this series has. It is far too true to its source material.

Usually, with adaptations, the big complaint is that the adapted material strays too far from what inspired it. For Shenmue Season 1, this is exactly the opposite. The series burrows far too much of its storytelling elements from a game that came out before a solid portion of its potential audience was even alive. And as someone who clearly remembers video games from the Sega Dreamcast era, narrative structure was not their strong suit. To illustrate what I mean, here is a moment from the back half of the season.

Ryo, needing to gain entrance to a gang’s hideout, walks up to the front door and asks to be let in. The guard informs him that only members can be let in. One of Ryo’s friends, seeing the altercation, points Ryo to where he can acquire the I.D. card the gang uses to show membership. Ryo acquires the card and is allowed inside. Even though the guard recognizes Ryo, which means he knows that, even though he suddenly has a card, he is not a member. This is the kind of writing video games use for gameplay reasons, it doesn’t belong in a linear story though.

While Shenmue Season 1‘s narrative and the lead intended to carry it are both severally lacking, the show isn’t without its strengths. Several of the side characters are fairly interesting, especially once Ryo leaves his hometown and arrives in the bustling streets of Hong Kong.

I also never tired of the series’ fight sequences. The various fighters never feel like they all practice some generic form of “martial arts”. Rather, each fighter feels distinct in their choice of combat style. Some fighters are showy, utilizing lots of spins and jumps, while others are brutal and to the point. This variety allowed me to get hyped whenever a new fighter showed up, as I looked forward to seeing what the show would bring next.

Another thing that cannot be faulted about Shenmue Season 1 is its art direction. Everywhere that the show travels to feels vibrant and different. Lots of detail goes into the scenery throughout the series. From the overcrowded slums of Hong Kong to the blossom-covered lawns of temples, every space the show exists in feels lovingly crafted.

So, while Shenmue Season 1 isn’t a total loss, it struggles far more than it succeeds. Without a properly flowing narrative or a lead that can carry the show, the series finds itself much like a poorly baked cake. The frosting might look and taste great, but the core of the experience is a disaster.

Shenmue Season 1 is streaming now on Crunchyroll and Adult Swim.


Shenmue: The Animation Season 1
  • 5/10
    Rating - 5/10
5/10

TL;DR

So, while Shenmue Season 1 isn’t a total loss, it struggles far more than it succeeds. Without a properly flowing narrative or a lead that can carry the show, the series finds itself much like a poorly baked cake. The frosting might look and taste great, but the core of the experience is a disaster.