THIS REVIEW WILL COVER THE FIRST TWO EPISODES OF SHENMUE THE ANIMATION. IF YOU DO NOT WISH TO BE SPOILED PLEASE CLOSE OUT OF THIS ARTICLE NOW. YOU’VE BEEN WARNED.
The wait is almost over with Shenmue the Animation (Shenmue) set to join Toonami on Feb. 5. It’s been a while since Adult Swim announced co-production back in September 2020, but the journey of Ryo Hazuki will finally grace the Toonami viewing audience. And Toonami Faithful gained the privilege to get an advance screening of the series to help give viewers all the information they’ll need. I, for one, am excited to watch a new experience of Yu Suzuki’s masterstroke story. I’ve been outspoken on the Toonami Faithful Podcast for my love for the Shenmue franchise, and as someone who played the original game in high school, I have a somewhat unique perspective towards it. I know all the ins and outs, and while I never completed the sequel game, I did clock a lot of hours in it! So I hope you’ll allow me to be your guide and voice on Shenmue the Animation, and I cannot wait to share my thoughts and critiques as the series plays out.
It begins with the iconic theme (from the game) and Shenhua’s speech, overlaid on a scene that takes place much later in the series. It does my heart good to see the classic loading screens from Shenmue used as scene transitions. Jason DeMarco mentioned that this would be their interpretation of the classic game on Twitter. Seeing the callback here eases me into having a more positive reaction so far. It’s here we are introduced to our central character Ryo Hazuki, star pupil of the Hazuki dojo, by his fellow student Fukuhara (nicknamed Fuku-San), and by the housekeeper Ine-San. During this introduction, Ryo rushes to compete in a special match, and Ine-san promises him a special meal upon his return. We are further introduced to Yamagishi-San and Ryo’s father and sensei, Iwao Hazuki, who oddly says ‘it is not enough’ to Ryo as a point of advice but encourages him to push harder. Ryo can’t make heads or tails of this advice (and who can blame him, it’s pretty vague) but returns to focusing on the match ahead of him.
It is heartwarming for this old Shenmue fan to see Iwao in more detail than he is given in the games. I appreciate more time to have him fleshed out, but this already gives me hope for how the series will be overall. Having more time to spend with characters you don’t see as much is an excellent way for any series to get those who know the property to stay, and it’s a strategy that I enjoy.
Ryo performs admirably in a high school championship, competing at a high level. Interestingly, the framing of this event is reminiscent of how sports anime typically are present. Viewers see a clear indication of Ryo’s skill level (due to single-handedly creating a favorable reputation for his school and how much he wins), but also showing us how out of place he feels at his school. You see this type of dominance in high school sports for top-level recruits. Their craft feels effortless, and it can cause a lack of awareness about the prowess of others. It’s not something I realized while playing Shenmue, so this presentation in the anime was an exciting choice. It’s a significant build-up because something will change our lead’s outlook. However, not all seems to be sunny for Ryo as he declines to celebrate with his teammates.
It’s here we reach the video game starting point when we see the Hazuki dojo is in shambles with its sign torn down and the doors wide open, with a suspicious limo parked out front. Fuku-San is tossed out, as if on queue, with Ryo rushing over to find out what’s going on at the dojo. Ryo’s father stares down an incredibly imposing man, who we later learn to be Lan-Di. Ryo tries to help but is stopped by some suits, which shouldn’t be lost on the audience. The fact they can hold back Ryo, who has been unstoppable in combat, speaks volumes about the grim situation. Iwao was battling evenly with Lan-Di, but it wasn’t until Ryo’s involvement that the tides favored Lan-Di. And then, Lan-Di demands a mirror be handed over, why Lan-Di wants this mirror is left ambiguous for now. Due to Ryo being captured, Iwao complies with the demands but is thanked by being murdered by Lan-Di after Lan-Di accuses him of being a murderer. Ryo rushes to his father’s dying side, where Iwao imparts his final words apologizing for not being able to be there for him anymore and imploring to keep his friends and loved ones close. Like in the game, I loved how Shenmue the Animation nailed the dark atmosphere. The death of Iwao is the catalyst for the franchise, and being able to hit the emotional moments was vital. Despite knowing what was going to happen, the palpable dread hit just like it did when I was first experiencing this moment. I love it. And I’ve always been very touched by the last words of Ryo’s father. Iwao could have easily spurred his son on to avenge him, sending him on a violent path that could end up destroying his son. Instead, he worries about the welfare of Ryo, even as he lies dying.
Days pass as Ryo broods over his helplessness due to the loss of his father. However, when the sun sets and he returns home, Ryo notices the dojo door is open. Realizing what happened the last time the doors were left ajar, he heads in to investigate, only to be assaulted by a man named Chai. Some might remember seeing him in the background during a short scene after Iwao’s murder where Lan-Di told his suits to find a second mirror that apparently exists (which will be a bit confusing for those who haven’t played the games for now). Realizing the connection, Ryo immediately fights back. And if you’ve played the games, you’ll probably feel as disjointed as I did. This scene comes considerably later, but I didn’t mind it happening now, and it should help those who haven’t experienced the video game learn about each side’s motivations. Chai continues to demand the mirror be brought to him as he easily handles Ryo at the beginning stages, even mocking our hero for not being able to take him down. Hearing Chai’s taunts of Ryo not being strong enough allows Ryo to recall a training session with Iwao learning the importance of reading an opponent’s movements to win a fight. Ryo never had to worry about that much since he typically dominated any fight he’s been in so far. You’d think the phrase “it is never enough” might be a central theme for Ryo as he rediscovers what makes a capable fighter. It isn’t just brute strength, considering it failed him to help save his father. After his realization, Ryo bests Chai, who flees when two figures arrive in Fuku-San and Ine-San. Fuku-San is ready to have the authorities called when Ryo stops them, as he has questions as to why his father was murdered. Ryo also states a desire to prove his father was who he thought he was – not a murderer as Lan-Di had accused him of being. Seeing the resolve, Ine-San offers Ryo a letter that was addressed to his father that arrived shortly after his death, to be a starting point for his investigation–giving fans something to look forward to in the next episode.
As far as introductions go, this first episode is terrific for veterans and newbies alike. It gave more context than the game did, giving attention to the small character moments while keeping the emotional resonance going when needed. The fact I could feel the same tension and dread from the dojo scene as I did twenty-two years ago is a testament to that alone. And what helped was that the music matches the style of the game and fits the mood perfectly. I couldn’t be happier with what I saw, the crisp animation, and the fight choreography (essential for a kung-fu action drama such as Shenmue).
So could the second episode keep the good times rolling? After all, many viewers will need to find out where the sailors hang out! Thankfully, the iconic line mentioned earlier is used (albeit changed to dock workers). Earlier in the first episode, while Ryo was ruminating on his father’s death, he learned that the name Lan-Di has something to do with the Chinese underworld and that they operate out of the ports to avoid customs. Following a few sequences of investigations, Ryo is told to find a man named Charlie, who would know about underworld dealing. And while Ryo would be unsuccessful, it’s moments like this that capture the world of the Shenmue games.
And while Ryo wasn’t able to find Charlie, his attempt didn’t go unnoticed as Charlie’s gang rushed over to Ryo, thinking he was trying to muscle in on their turf for a rival gang, The Chens. Through a series of conflicts, Ryo eventually is able to confront Charlie directly and loses his cool when the letter addressed to Ryo’s father is briefly taken leading to a final battle. Once bested, and Ryo fervently denies working for the Chens, Charlie quickly becomes less hostile to Ryo and mentions that not much is known about Lan-Di other than that he is now known as one of the most dangerous people in the underworld. Learning this, Ryo declares again to clear his father’s name and settle the score with Lan-Di. Yamagishi-San, who watched everything unfold at a safe distance, is moved by Ryo’s determination and resolves to meet him at a nearby park.
Ryo’s path takes him to Yamagishi-San, who greets him warmly and reveals that he was once a fellow martial arts student alongside Iwao. Yamagishi San gives this sweet recollection because he saw Ryo’s passion and wants to help him move on from his loss. To this end, he also offers to help further Ryo’s martial arts studies, which again plays onto the words “it is never enough” since he will be training to become more capable than before. Yamagishi San also reveals his knowledge of Ryo’s dealings by telling him that the owner of a pottery store in the shopping district can read his letter. Now Ryo has the lead he desperately needed, as fans will have to wait till the third episode on how this encounter goes.
As much as I loved the first episode, the second impressed me even more. The use of the investigations in this episode is heavily reminiscent of the experience of playing Shenmue. The use of secondary characters like Nozomi Harasaki was done excellently to feel like you are involved in the world. I’d even go so far as to say Yamagishi-San is considerably more memorable here than he was in the game, given the extra context given, which is something I hope Adult Swim continues. Since this series will differ from the source material, I hope that the changes enhance what die-hards such as myself already know. Can it capture newer fans to check out the game? Or even enjoy the anime by itself; the sky’s the limit, and adding more context in places that were glossed over is something I’ll always champion.
However, we need to discuss the elephant in the room about Shenmue the Animation going with a different cast from the video games. While many of the main characters sounded excellent for their roles, particularly Austin Tindle as Ryo, Cat Thomas as Nozomi, and Greg Ayres as Chai, I did feel the bit characters were a bit stilted or not as impactful. That could be a homage to how the game sounded, but I’d think it’d been better to make the side characters campier. I wouldn’t say it’s a huge issue either, more nitpicking on my end, and thankfully no lines have been drawn between cast members, which warms my heart. Still, I hope that this aspect improves for myself and others who might have noticed this as well.
Still, one couldn’t ask for a better start to the Shenmue series, as many of the elements that made the game popular are front and center. And the action in the series should be something that Toonami fans welcome! I am excited to see what comes next and hope that this series can create more fans in a franchise I love!
Laserkid is an editorial writer for Toonamifaithful.com. Feel free to follow Laserkid on Twitter @laserkidprime, and listen to him on the Demon Slayer Podcast and The Dumb Weebs Podcast.
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