Shenmue The Animation Ep #1 ‘Thunderclap’ recap and review

NOTE: This is a recap/review of the Japanese audio & English subtitled version of the episode, viewed via Crunchyroll. It is currently not possible to view the English dub where I am, in the UK.

SPOILER WARNING: This review assumes you are a fan familiar with the source material, and that you have seen the episode in full.

It is fair to say that the announcement in 2020 of a Shenmue anime series was rather unexpected – more so than the third game in the series becoming a reality, even! But here we are now with the first of 13 episodes aired, after months of anticipation and speculation from the fanbase – it is fair to say the initial trailers were scrutinised with a fine tooth-comb, and already we could see that the series would either expand upon or even entirely change things about the plot. After excitedly viewing the first episode today, my main surprise was just how much was packed in already, and also how much the story has been adjusted/shuffled around in order to better fit the medium of a television series. After all, a video game is a markedly different experience, and I think the writers quickly realised that watching Ryo wander round Yokosuka and bluntly interrogating people about ‘the day the snow turned to rain’ would not exactly make for engaging viewing. But we’ll come to that…

Interestingly, the episode and the series as a whole, actually starts with a glimpse of the final scene of Shenmue II – i.e. Ryo and Shenhua in the Stone Pit in Guilin, marvelling at the giant replicas of the Dragon and Phoenix mirrors, while Shenhua (in voice over) recites the famous poem so often heard in the series (incidentally this appears to be yet another slightly different translation of it, which I’m sure Switch over at the Phantom River Stone blog will analyse and compare to the previous ones!). It is an intriguing choice to show us this little flashforward, and perhaps a logical one as it emphasises the importance of Shenhua early on in proceedings. After all, in Shenmue I she is only seen in the game’s introduction sequence (an optional one you’ll only see if you don’t skip to the title screen, at that!), and then in a handful of dream sequences after that. Her prominence on the game’s front cover along with Ryo and Lan Di is therefore somewhat misleading. Of course, any fan who has played all three games will know that she is an extremely important character as the story unfolds, but I can see why this would need to be emphasised a lot more to viewers of the anime who may not be familiar with the source material. The glimpses of her later in the episode also serve as intrigue for viewers to wonder who this girl is and how she and Ryo end up meeting. While I was initially thrown by this unexpected choice to start the series on, I can see why it was done and how it makes sense.

We then flash back to November 1986 in Yokosuka, Japan. However, we are not thrown straight into Ryo returning home to witness his father’s murder, as we do in the games. As we were shown in recent trailers, we instead see the events immediately before this, where Ryo participates in a karate tournament representing his school. We even get to see his peaceful homelife before the cataclysmic event, with Ine-san and Fuku-san cheerfully encouraging Ryo as he sets off out for the tournament. We even get an unexpected appearance from Yamagishi-san, who is visiting Iwao (presumably this is to set up him later teaching Ryo the ‘Double Blow’ move, as seen in trailers). Iwao, meanwhile is very much in-character from what we know of him via flashbacks in the games, bluntly telling Ryo that his skills are ‘still not enough’ and that he is still lacking, and should keep this in mind. Ryo just kind of laughs this off and says that he can never make sense of his father’s advice. While only brief, I think it is a nice touch to actually see an interaction between these two before Iwao’s untimely demise, and actually give some indication of what their relationship is like. The game (arguably somewhat clumsily) only fills in these details via optional flashback scenes, so it being fleshed out a bit more here is appreciated.

We then get a quick cut to Bailu Village in Guilin, where Shenhua’s love of animals is established. She then points to the sun peeking through the clouds in the eastern sky. While debatably not adding too much to the episode, I get the feeling that we will frequently transition to what she is up to in the episodes before Ryo eventually meets her, again giving her character some much needed context and build-up, which is only a good thing in my opinion.

At the karate tournament, predictably Ryo is seen easily besting his final opponent. Interestingly, he wins with only one hit, and actually points out that no one has ever managed to land a punch on him in a match before. This is certainly ironic, as he will shortly meet his match in Lan Di, who neither he or his father is able to land a single hit on. The suggestion here is that Ryo’s confidence is very misplaced, as he has yet to meet a competent opponent of any actual worth, which is likely what Iwao was implying with his stern advice. Of course, his growth as a martial artist while gaining some much needed humility will be seen as the series goes on…

Indeed, Ryo is still seen very much in-character when he politely refuses his fellow students’ offer to go out for a meal to celebrate the victory, insisting he needs to go home for training with his father. However, the anime clearly still wishes to set up and establish more of the characters and setting we will get to know before this, with us cutting to fan-favourite character Tom Johnson of Tom’s Hot Dog truck, cheerfully serving his customers while grooving to the beats on his stereo. (in a nice example of attention to detail, the truck looks exactly the same as it does in the game, right down to the menu!) Of course, Ryo predictably turns down his offer of a hot dog as he passes by. As the snow begins to fall, we then see a familiar scene from later in the game that has been moved to the prologue (in fact this is also done in Shenmue The Movie), which serves to introduce the character of Nozomi Harasaki. She is seen stepping in to stop the local bullies, Enoki and Nagashima, from intimidating a young boy. (in an amusing change from the source material, Enoki is upset by the boy knocking his ice cream to the floor, rather than being hit by a toy airplane). Again, Ryo’s interference sees him beating them easily, again stressing the point there are not many worthy opponents in his sleepy hometown of Yokosuka. Nozomi’s admiration of him is also quickly apparent. There is already a lot of set-up and character introductions going on here, much unlike the game which throws us in straight at the point of Iwao’s murder, as previously mentioned. The glimpse of Ryo’s life before his world was turned upside down and set out on his quest for revenge is very much welcome and I’m glad the writers chose to structure the first episode this way.

Speaking of, we then shift to the part of the episode that is the beginning of Shenmue as we know it. The mood has immediately shifted, with the sky darkening and Ryo perturbed by the black car and the broken Dojo sign. The sequence that follows of both Iwao and Ryo being easily beaten by Lan Di is animated beautifully, with the impact of each hit feeling downright brutal. You may have also noticed that up to this point that Ryo was not wearing the iconic plaster below his eye – in the anime’s version of events we get an explanation of why he later wears this, with Lan Di wounding him with a vicious strike to the face. This feels like a welcome change just to hit home how strong and unforgiving Lan Di is. The starkness and brutality of it all is felt in the whole scene really, with Ryo shouting ‘You bastard!’ before recklessly charging in to attempt to hit Lan Di before receiving that fateful blow – far more impactful than the somewhat cheesy and cartoony line of ‘Why you…!’ as heard in the game, I’m sure you’ll agree! Unlike the game there is also visible blood as well, helping to show just how brutal this Chinese stranger is. Lan Di himself also has a little more dialogue here, bluntly stating to Ryo that he is not ready to fight him, knocking him down several pegs after winning his school tournament and dealing with the local bullies. What follows then is very faithful to the game, with Iwao relenting and revealing where the Dragon mirror is, and Lan Di asking if he remembers Zhao Sunming, the man Iwao supposedly killed. (interestingly though, Iwao then says ‘You must be…’ rather than the more disbelieving ‘It can’t be…you!’ as heard in the game). After the snow then changes to rain and Iwao dies in Ryo’s arms however, the events that follow are very much different from what we know of the game.

Firstly, Lan Di is seen sitting in the black car, now at the harbour, commanding one of his black suited henchman to find the other mirror – in the game we don’t learn about the existence of another mirror until much later. We then see none other than Chai skulking on a rooftop nearby, again appearing much earlier than the source material. He of course makes it his mission to find the other mirror for Lan Di. Following this we cut to some days later, where we actually see the police visiting the Hazuki residence! In the game this is just kind of glossed over, with many players probably understandably asking why the police don’t get involved in Iwao’s murder – the only reference to them comes if the player tries to call their number on the telephone, with Ryo dismissively setting down the receiver and saying there’s no point in involving them. The anime therefore makes a point of being a bit more realistic and pragmatic about this, showing the police being handed over documents and details about people associated with Iwao by Ine-san. Ryo meanwhile wistfully looks at a picture of his younger self training with his father, now wearing the iconic plaster. After the police leave, he questions what they can even do to help. While he stresses his desire to find out who Lan Di is and if his father really killed someone, he doesn’t seem committed to the idea of getting revenge just yet (which was decided almost immediately in the game). One somewhat unfortunate omission from the game is the nightmare about Lan Di that Ryo has after the murder, which seemed a defining moment for Ryo to set out on his quest, but perhaps something like this will come later.

Having just lost both of my parents very recently, I found the next few scenes incredibly moving, and an emotional portrayal of what grieving for a loved one is, something perhaps lacking from the game itself. Even Nozomi looking sad and downcast while at school thinking of Ryo is a heartfelt moment. We then see Ryo sitting on a bench in Sakuragaoka Park, quietly watching a father playing with his son on the swing set, making him remember the time he spent with his own father as a child. I had a similar reaction myself on the day that my father died – when I was waiting for the train to go and see and comfort my mother (who unfortunately later decided she couldn’t cope without him), I saw a father and son embrace after presumably not seeing each other for a while, and felt a pang of longing and envy, realising just how unfair the world can be sometime. I apologise for the tangent, as I realise this is a personal reaction to this scene, but it’s a touching moment I was not expecting to see in the episode and resonated with me deeply.

The idea of loss and grief is further explored when Ryo encounters Nozomi by chance while walking through town – where we see the all too common reaction from those around someone who have just lost a loved one, where they are not quite sure what to say or how to act. Nozomi even points this out herself, and says that she is here if Ryo needs him (again, something i find myself frequently hearing from people as of late). She offers him lunch from Ryo’s hot dog truck, and then follows a moment that I, and I suspect many fans were not prepared for – Ryo actually laughs! This episode in general does a lot to humanise Ryo, showing that he is not just a humourless robot who is fixated on revenge. The anime already carries a lot of emotional heft that while unexpected, is very much welcome.

The way events play out from here is very interesting, as Ryo finds out information a lot more naturally than he does in the games, where he wanders the town interrogating the populace of Dobuita. For example, once Ryo and Nozomi get to Tom’s truck they find he has had to close up shop due to a black car hitting his truck a few days prior – this of course being the car Lan Di was in, as Tom confirms when he describes him and what he was wearing. The writers have already found a clever way of making events and Ryo gathering information flow more naturally, with this occurring incidentally simply from him bumping into Nozomi and actually spending time with her. I’m sure Ryo will still become colder and more distant from Nozomi in future episodes as he becomes more fixated on getting revenge, but for the moment this is a really nice little touch and I’m glad the writers took this approach.

Things then continue to move differently – and incredibly more quickly – than they do in the game. Ryo and Nozomi decide to have lunch at the Ajiichi Chinese Restaurant instead (again lovely attention to detail from the game, you can even see Tao-san busy in the kitchen in the background!) Someone there overhears Ryo mention Lan Di’s name – who is none other than the older Liu-san! He then discloses the same information he does in the game, that Lan Di is likely connected to the Chinese underworld or possibly the mafia. This does not set out Ryo on the infamous quest to find sailors just yet, but Liu does mention unsavoury types like that usually operate out of the harbour, so this plot point will clearly come up again later. We hear all this from Liu without Ryo running around questioning the local shopkeepers about Chinese people, which would obviously eat up too much time. As the series will be 13 episodes and will seemingly cover both Shenmue I and II, I did wonder just how they would handle the story of the first game in likely only 6 to 7 episodes, and this seems to give me an early indication of the answer! 

As Ryo returns home, we see him mulling over what he heard from Liu-san about the Chinese mafia. In a surprising line, he dejectedly thinks to himself that there was nothing he could do even if he did know why they would kill his father! Again, this is likely the grief talking and still weighing heavily on him. It is what follows next – an event not seen in the game at all – that seems to snap him out of this and make him more decisive about his next course of action. Noticing the door to the dojo is open, Ryo walks in to investigate – finding none other than Chai lurking in there, waiting to attack him! Their first meeting does not occur until much later in the game, and is not in the dojo, so this is again an interesting reshuffling and changing of events. Chai demands to know where the other mirror is and insists that Ryo cannot beat him in a fight, which does appear to be true at first, a brutal strike sending Ryo’s plaster falling off and the wound from Lan Di opening up again. Helpless on the ground, he then remembers his father’s gruff advice from just before his death, realising it did made sense after all. He resolves to accept when your opponent is stronger than you, and that the only way to win is to scrutinise their movements – a lesson he will do well to remember. It is only then Ryo is able to beat Chai, as the main Shenmue theme swells in the background and we hear Shenhua recite the famous poem once again. This is a very poignant moment that really gave me chills, all the more impressive when you consider it did not occur in the game! The writers have definitely succeeded in giving the climax to the first episode the weight that it needed, and to give Ryo sufficient motivation for his quest. He tells Ine-san and Fuku-san of his intentions, dissuading them from calling the police. Ine-san reluctantly accepts Ryo’s desire, and then gives him the letter addressed to his father that arrived a few days early – an event again, occurring much earlier than it does in the game. We then see brief glimpses of both Lan Di and Shenhua again (Lan Di presumably still in Japan?), cementing their importance as central characters alongside Ryo. And so the first episode ends here.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Overall I was extremely satisfied (and surprised!) by this episode – I did not expect the events of the story to be changed and shifted around quite as much, but I generally feel these changes are for the better. The anime already does a lot to set up Ryo’s character and background and his relationships with those around him right from the off, something arguably lacking from the game. These gaps are of course mostly filled in later by the game through conversations and interactions engineered by the player, but of course a television series doesn’t quite have the same luxury of this sedate pacing. It is admirable therefore what a good job the writers have done already of setting up the premise and motivation of the main character in barely 20 minutes. I did however find myself a little overwhelmed with just how much of the story has already been packed in – I was certainly not expecting Chai to be introduced already, nor for Ryo to already have Zhu Yuanda’s letter – and I wonder if perhaps it would be even more of a struggle to keep track of everything if you are a viewer who knows nothing of the games. It does though remain to be seen how well the first game’s story can be adapted in what will presumably only be 6 or 7 of the 13 episodes, so perhaps I should reserve judgement on the pacing for now. As I also mentioned there was still some breathing space for Ryo’s grief to be explored, despite how packed the episode felt.  All in all, I was very impressed by this opening episode and I am excited to see how the story is handled from here. 

Rating: 4/5

What did you think of the episode? Let me know in the comments!

Until next week, for Episode 2 – ‘Daybreak’!

Stuart/Miles

One thought on “Shenmue The Animation Ep #1 ‘Thunderclap’ recap and review

  1. Great and thoughtful analysis with your personal commentary adding a further dimension. On the point where Ryo laughs with Nozomi, I was also caught by surprise and it seemed out of character at first, given his situation. But in a way it helps to demonstrate the bond he has with his childhood friend Nozomi, showing she has the ability to make him smile even so. The anime series is off to a great start. (Thanks for the tip about the prophecy, I’ve updated the comparison post to include the extra parts!)

    Liked by 1 person

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