WARNING: SPOILERS BELOW
Shounen anime is a genre that is usually famous for two things: going on forever and going nowhere. And I'm a bit of a lapsed anime nerd, not having much patience for something that doesn't offer me anything new. Plus I have a short attention span.
But I'm also something of a fan of macabre imagery, meaning, slap a devil or a skeleton on something and I'm prone to give it more than just a passing glance. And I'm also a fan of being able to watch full seasons of television shows in HD quality on my 42" at no cost beyond my monthly Netflix charge. So, good on Soul Eater, it managed to fit these two bills. I became aware of the series some time before Halloween this year and watched an episode here or there, thinking it was a pretty typical shounen show. But later the proceedings would take a turn for the dark, and Soul Eater would, at least for me, become an anime that turns the shounen genre on its head while still managing to be a self-aware tribute to some of its more conventional elements. By this point, I was hooked.
The basic premise of Soul Eater centers around the Death Weapon Meister Academy, where meisters and their living weapons (who spend most of their time in human form but transmutate into weapons during battle) train to serve Lord Death himself in the eternal struggle for balance between humanity and them there forces of eeeeeeeevil. Every weapon and meister team is trying to collect 100 souls in order for the weapon to attain the rank of Death Scythe, an elite weapon of Lord Death. In the first few episodes, which set up the principle characters, the big baddies we see are based on figures from history or myth, like Al Capone and Jack the Ripper. But though this conceit seems like it's going to be a template for the show to center around a catch-em-all monster of the week grinding quest, it quickly takes a back seat to the main plot once the primary villains are introduced.
The show primarily focuses on three weapon/meister teams. Maka and Soul are the first that we're introduced to. Maka is hardworking and earnest, taking the whole weapon meistering thing very seriously. She can also be something of a "baka *physical assault*" type anime chick, and is prone to get irritated or jealous when Soul is misbehaving. Soul, honestly is pretty boring, except for a few internal crisis bits that we get later on. He's the arrogant prick slacker type protagonist who doesn't seem to have any real goal outside of kicking ass.
Then there's Blackstar, an assassin who somehow manages to miss the entire concept of "silent." He's obsessed with his own image and being he center of attention, and he'll stand in a prominent spot and make grandiose proclamations before leaping into action, giving away any element of surprise he may have in battle. With the ridiculous design and all the boasting and generally non-ninja like behavior, I think Blackstar is supposed to be some kind of parody of the Naruto series. Oh, and there's Tsubaki, a character so bland that I almost forgot she existed when I was outlining this review! Despite being more competant early on than most of the characters, she prettymuch acts as a doormat for Blackstar's shit. She does at least get a backstory and development arc dedicated to her near the beginning, because I guess they had to make her seem not like a total waste of space.
Last is Death the Kid, son of Lord Death, and his sister guns, Liz and Patty. Kid is the taciturn badass in a dapper suit type who prettymuch no-sells everything that's thrown at him in the introductory episodes. He's also obsessed with perfection and symmetry, and can easily be reduced to a sniveling little bitch if at any point he believes that he's less than perfect. You can imagine about how long it takes for this routine to get old. Liz is the eldest Thompson sister, who generally acts jaded and unfazed by most things (except ghosts, a character flaw to which I can relate). Patty may very well be mentally retarded.
The dynamic of all these teenage characters in a special school initally sounds like a pretty lighthearted premise. It's the kind of excuse to cram a bunch of characters that seemingly have nothing in common into one setting with a bunch of commanding officers and mentor figures, and give them a common goal to strive for. The special school or quasi-military unit framework is probably utilized in anime about as much as the quest framework, that is, a party of characters traveling from town to town and righting various wrongs. But the school framework that Soul Eater uses works in its favor by grounding the principle characters and giving each one ample opportunity, at least in theory, to stand out. I think quest/road trip type shows tend to focus mainly on one or two characters, and since the push toward the goal at the end of the road takes precedence in the story, most character development is done by way of flashbacks. Plus you have to take time to develop the sob story for whatever troubles are plaguing every town they visit. In Soul Eater, an overarching plot becomes readily apparent early on, but since there's not really a big X on a map driving the narrative for the most part, character development is given room to breathe. Our heroes' adventures are introduced on a mission-based template from arc to arc, but at the same time the running narrative stays prominent enough that the show never feels episodic.
One trap that the show's framework seems like a prime setup for is getting bogged down by romantic hijinks among the kids, but Soul Eater refreshingly avoids this. Most weapon/meister teams are composed of opposite genders, and the bickering between them can sometimes resemble a nagging girlfriend/inattentive boyfriend dynamic (no offense to any nagging girlfriends or inattentive boyfriends out there), but it's not like they're all snogging in the Gryffindor breakroom. Rather, the relationship between weapon and meister has to be one of absolute trust, or else they won't stand a chance in a real combat situation. There were a couple of moments were I was afraid it would come to some blushing confession (there are a couple of minor moments where this kind of thing is played for laughs), but I'm glad the show recognizes that there are more important things to worry about than making the shippers fan-rage.
But despite all the slice-of-life comedy, awkward classroom moments, and shootin' some b-ball outside of the school, Soul Eater can get kind of dark. Quite naturally for a show so steeped in death, there's much at stake should the kids fail. People get killed pretty regularly, not knocked out or sent to HFIL, killed killed. Although, stupidly enough, there are a lot of apparent deaths later on in the show that really turn out to be YOU SHALL NOT HAVE BEEN MORTALLY WOUNDED IN VAIN scenarios. Still, it takes a deadly serious tone in the stakes between our heroes and the evil dicks they're fighting against.
Also, despite not really being a gore show, Soul Eater can get pretty graphic sometimes. Sure, they show blood a lot, mostly for comedic things like nosebleeds and baka chops (is there a canonized term for this?), but we also see a demon get his head separated from his lower jaw, or a mousy little witch-thing get completely eviscerated in silhouette. There are also some illusionary scenes during the mid-series climax that a couple of characters are treated to that are especially disturbing. Of course, imagining having your skin ripped off and eaten sounds like a bad day to me, too.
So with all this promise of fast-paced action and morbid visual style, the show would have to excel in the production department, right? Animation-wise, Soul Eater looks pretty fuckin' good. It runs the range of hyper-detailed, fluid battles to minimalistic, 2 frames of animation comedic bits, but it's almost never boring to look at. Character designs run the full gamut too. Lord Death looks like a jagged black rip in a sheet of paper with a comically-stylized skull mask and ridiculously oversized hands (always quick with a karate chop at that). Professor Stein (as in, Franken Stein) wears a labcoat and a patchwork outfit reminiscient of Frankenstein's patchwork monster. Oh, and he has a giant bolt going through his skull. Then there's Excalibur, a thing which defies all comprehension. He looks like a cross between Mr. Peanut and one of those drinking bird things that Homer used to run the nuclear power plant in that episode where he got fat in order to get work-from-home disability status. Excalibur speaks in an overly bombastic voice ("Fools!") and regales anyone unfortunate enough to be within earshot with tales of his personal greatness and ridiculously esoteric provisions by which one must abide if he or she desires to become his weapon meister.
Our main weapons and meisters have pretty typical trendy shounen designs. Well, except for Maka, who spends most of her screentime in a basic schoolgirl outfit with an oversized clawhammer topcoat and white cotton gloves. Title character Soul is depicted with red eyes and sharklike teeth, like some kind of design attempt to make him seem dangerous and cool, and for much of the show wears a baseball jacket and a dumb headband. So aesthetically, it can be something of a mixed bag. The backgrounds generally look pretty good, with architecture bordering on the expressionistic, and the ever-present constantly laughing sun or evily smirking moon overseeing the landscape.
This being largely a fighting anime, the animation in the combat parts could be what makes or breaks it, and I'm happy to say that when it's in full motion, Soul Eater looks pretty sweet. The animation detail and fluidity is at its finest when combat is going on, with every action having a proper sense of speed, gravity, and impact. The backgrounds don't take so much of hit that it calls attention to their relative simplicity when dealing with fast action. No cardboard cutouts on speed lines here! Character's facial features tend to be at their most expressive here too. Watching the OP
ought to give you a good enough idea of the range of detail that the show runs through when animating any given situation. While it doesn't maintain the high quality of the combat scenes throughout, when it's good, it's really good. Fortunately not an example of a show where the intro looks better than the actual episodes.
Sonically, the show didn't leave as big of an impression. Aside from that hyperkinetic opening song that you just heard (you did watch the video, right?), and the punk song from the first ED, which has some great bits of original animation of the gang in action, the soundtrack doesn't really stand out. The second ED is a girly pop song (BOIIIS AND GARLSU!) with a loop of Maka wearing a ridiculous outfit and walking for a while, after which she breaks into a jog. It's like she's a character you're creating in PSO! There's some J-hiphop used in some of the slice-of-life or comedic parts which also shows up in the episode title cards (but fortunately not all of them), and this stupid banjo music with plinky electronic drum machine noises. The score used for suspenseful or battle segments doesn't really call attention to itself, it's usually EPIC STRINGS or industrial-techno sounding stuff. The second OP and final two EDs are pretty generic as well, although the second OP, Paper Moon, kind of grew on me after hearing it about two dozen times.
Though all this high production value seems to be in service of a pretty episodic show if you just judge from the first three episodes, Soul Eater quickly weaves a narrative that, while maybe not the most original, certainly spends the time and the effort to develop the overall plot and do what it does, as a shounen show, pretty well. Things really get underway when we're introduced to the main villian of the first half, Medusa, a witch who plays outside of the rules of her own order and treats friend and foe alike as part of her experiments.
This bitch is evil and I love her for it. There is nothing sympathetic or redeeming about her at all
. It's pretty refreshing to have a villain who isn't a complete pussy without being a generic scenery-chewing megalomaniac. Everything she does in her early appearances builds her up to let you know just how bad news she is. The way in which she's introduced to the show is probably one of the most brilliant villain entrances I've seen in a long time. Anyone who's watched it and isn't just spoiler[REDACTED]ging through this review, sight unseen, knows what I'm talking about. You think she's just some generic shadowy figure pulling strings from the background at first and then BAM, she shows you just how much of a threat she is, and for her it's as casual as checking the mail or taking a dump. The only real problem I have with Medusa is her penchant for internal monologue, but that's a recurring problem with everyone throughout the series, that or overly explaining the situation when I'm thinking "just shoot him already." Even in the heat of battle, characters will often pause to soliloquize on their strategies. It's a bit of a shame, since the show does a decent enough job showing
us how much of a threat Medusa is from the beginning, that we don't really need to hear her repeating her master plan every other episode. Still, she's a great villian that you just love to hate.
Crona is Medusa's main lackey, a weapon meister who houses his weapon, Ragnarok, inside his own body. He appears as a frail and girly-looking kid with chronic depression and an annoying catchphrase (and I just don't know how to deal with it!) but he's the first "shit just got real" threat that the heroes encounter. Ragnarok is a sword with a creepy mouth that can produce a debilitating scream. Its human form, if you can call it that, looks like a rubber S&M gimp stand that rises out of Crona's back. When his madness takes over, this kid is gonesville. He actually kind of reminds me of Zappa from Guilty Gear. Crona and Ragnarok are so overpowered in their introductory appearance that Maka and Soul stand no chance in a fair fight, and only through the intervention of one of the DWMA's teachers do they make it out alive.
A pivotal arc in Pt. 2 gives us some flashbacks of Crona's upbringing, wherein Medusa would emotionally torture Crona by locking him in a dark room with no company other than the abusive Ragnarok because he refused to kill a cute little dragon monster. There's a great moment where she's about to let him out on the condition that he kills "the little one" this time, and when he refuses, the frame stays on an extreme closeup of Medusa unmoving for a good amount of time. Then she locks him back in the dark room without a shred of remorse. The pacing in this scene is great, since it fools you into thinking that Medusa may have some small sliver of humanity within her, but, hell no. Back in the closet with you.
Medusa's main opposition within the DWMA, and the only person early on who seems to have her pegged from the beginning, is Stein. The two play some pretty entertaining and tension-filled cat-and-mouse games, wherein Stein will make some seemingly innocuous comments without really letting on how much he actually knows, displaying some brazen pokerface tactics in his mind games with Medusa and giving the viewer the impression that he's always one step ahead of his opponent. Stein is easily my favorite supporting character for the first half of the show. He's introduced as a slightly unhinged antagonist, but it turns out he was only opposing the heroes at the behest of Lord Death as part of a "special lesson," after which he becomes a professor at the DWMA. You're never quite sure about him either. Most of the time he's a goofball, but he becomes a total badass in battle and plays a solid mentor role when Medusa's big plan finally becomes apparent to the heroes. Still, I was half expecting him to perform a heel turn before this point, but it's all the more satisfying when he takes the lead and formulates a plan to bring that muppet-looking bitch down. You really get the feeling that his goofiness is just an act, and that he's generally got things figured out and manages to outfox anyone he locks horns with. He's a character who keeps you guessing in his early appearances and it's awesome, even if we're only treated to this dynamic for a relatively short amount of screentime.
Medusa's appearance in the story also serves as the inciting action for much of Maka and Soul's character development. Their team dynamic really starts to flesh out when Soul gets mortally wounded by Ragnarok. He becomes tainted with the demon sword's black blood, and begins to have an inner struggle with his own desire for power, which manifests itself in the form of a little devil in a suit that plays mind games with Soul not unlike those between Farscape's Crichton and the neural clone of Scorpius. While Soul insists that he can seek power while still retaining his will, the demon eggs him on nefariously. I usually don't go for the "tortured badass trying to overcome a random dark power" archetype (Black Costume Spider-Man, Ryu, a thousand other boring anime characters), but the cat and mouse games within Soul's subconscious build it up enough that you feel a real sense of suspense on whether or not he's going to give in to instant gratification, especially in a world where it seems like it's the only way to survive.
Meanwhile, Maka blames herself for Soul's wounds during all of this and begins to doubt her worth as a meister. Her desire to get stronger in order to keep up with Soul, rather than work together in order to become stronger as a team, drives a rift between the two that ramps up the tension in the battle for Soul's, er, soul. Tension that is naturally exacerbated by, dun dun dun! Medusa. When Maka and Soul finally decide to give in to the demon's temptations and use the power of madness to fight Crona, it's a really nailbiting turn of events. I was out loud going "NO DON'T!" at this development.
But then we get to see crazy Maka beat the tar out of Crona, and it is awesome. You get a real feeling of "oh they fucked up now!" but at the same time I was so giddy at how onesided and fun to watch this battle was. But now we've got a situation where mysterious dark power
has the upper hand on the character it inhabits and, when that happens, I fear that the story will have no way out of it without some external plot device. Turns out though, Maka was using the madness to better understand Crona's suffering and try to reach out to him via his subconscious, after which Soul manages to bring Maka back to sanity and the demon's influence is kept at bay for the meantime. And Maka reaching out to Crona is so sweet that I barfed rainbows and lemonade and cotton candy.
Medusa's big goal, leading up to the show's halfway mark, is to use black blood to revive the kishin Asura, a former member of Lord Death's elite guard who ate his own weapon partner and started harvesting human souls, now imprisoned beneath Death City. In the climactic finale arc to this half, Stein, along with Death Scythe and father of Maka, Spirit, manage to kill Medusa, but the students fail to stop her lackeys from reviving Asura. After a battle with Lord Death, the kishin escapes and begins spreading his madness throughout the world. And then he isn't seen again until about the last quarter of the show.
Soul Eater really takes a shift in focus at this point. After a couple of setup episodes, the new villians are introduced with the resurrection of the witch Arachne and her Arachnophobia organization. Their MO is to collect a bunch of magical devices created by the wizard Eibon and use them to amplify and direct the kishin's madness wavelength and bring the world to its knees. Pretty simple supervillian stuff. The DWMA is also collecting magical devices for their own ill-explained purposes, and this is where the show kind of starts to bog down.
I think the first major problem with the second half is the lack of good supporting characters. All that tension of whether Stein was crazy or not is basically thrown out the window when they admit "yeah, he's basically crazy and the kishin's madness is making it worse." He later disappears from the main plot for a huge spell and when he does finally get his demons sorted out, the resolution is too pat and he goes back to doing nothing for the rest of the series.
In the meantime, all we've got in the way of supporting characters is Sid, the zombie Professor who, while having the potential to fill the mentor shoes that Stein started to display before the midpoint climax, sadly gets relegated to running gruntwork missions for Lord Death. His weapon partner, Nygus, is boring as hell, saying little and doing less. According to the internet, her bandages are supposed to reflect an Egyptian mummy aesthete, while I always assumed she was a burn victim or something. Sid plays a pretty big role in Lord Death's roundup of magical devices, but I would have liked to have seen a little bit bigger role in the questioning of the motivation for this operation. Meanwhile we're introduced to all these other weapon/meister student teams and new Death Scythes that I don't give a shit about! In fact, I just learned that one of them, Kim, has the full name Kim Diehl. You mean like Kim Deal from the Pixies? LOL! STILL DON'T GIVE A FUCK! Oh yeah, Sid's full name is Sid Barett. So, take from that what you will.
Things on the villians' side aren't much better. For all the buildup as a huge threat that Arachnophobia gets, the show never quite delivers where they're concerned. It doesn't help that Arachne herself gets no development whatsoever. In the end, the real big bad is Asura, who unfortunately has to take a back seat to all this Arachnophobia buildup until the very end. Also, Medusa resurrects as a loli, which you think would make her more awesome, but for all the nefarious shit she does after this point, she never quite lives up to the mark she set in Part 2. I would have liked to see her other two lackeys, the witch Eruka and the werewolf Free, actually do something with the inordinate amount of screentime they're alotted in this half. It would have been nice to see more tension between Medusa and Eruka, since Eruka was basically coereced into following Medusa's schemes in the first place, but this thread was sadly dropped early on, and she becomes little more than a generic underling.
So essentially we end up relying on our three main weapon/meister teams to carry the show, which they manage to do nicely enough, for the most part. Maka and Soul still carry on their dynamic of trying to get stronger, Blackstar has this internal conflict that I forgot existed until the end with the evil ways of his ninja clan and his own desire to be NUMBA ONE THE BEST. Probably more interesting at this point is Kid, who begins to doubt his father's intentions and question the DWMA's missions to collect magical devices. He fears the uncertainty of what these macguffins are capable of and doesn't trust that his father is doing the right thing, but his suspicions are largely ignored by Maka and the others. The plot never really quite delivers on the delicious tension that this theme had potential for, but I think Kid develops enough as a dramatic character by this point that his emotional arc kind of makes up for it in the end.
Still, the combat element of the show as it revolves around the main characters at this point tends to get mired in the old shounen trope of MY SUPER ULTIMATE TECHNIQUE. See, weapons and meisters are able to work together based on the nebulous concept of soul resonance, which is about as loosely defined and plot-convenient as it sounds. Anyway, at one point Stein decides the kids should start working on resonating as a team, something that the Maka/Blackstar/Kid team never quite becomes adept at. However, in a time-critical battle against an opponent they can't beat, Soul comes up with a plan to channel the group's resonance through some black blood fuckery as visualized by subconscious piano playing. It makes the team exponentially more effective in battle, but it now runs the risk of all of them being caught up in black blood madness, instead of just Soul and Maka.
I'm glad they decided to pick up on this thread as a continuation of Soul's inner turmoil, one because it makes Soul a little less boring, but also because I thought the way the little demon guy basically gets brushed aside after Maka's big battle with Crona was kind of no-selling the severity of tampering with black blood. Even as Soul and the gang start using its power more and more in battle, you're never quite sure of how badly it's going to bite them in the ass later. Rest assured that it does at the most inconvenient time, however. Like, about as inconvenient as the kids battling Asura alone and the demon choosing that moment to take over Soul, leaving Blackstar and Kid to hold him off while Maka attempts to rescue her partner. I thought this was a pretty good payoff for that plot thread, and its resolution and the climactic battle in the finale undermine the TRUE ULTIMATE POWER trope that I feared would drag the show down in the end. Sure, the "friendship conquers all" message is a little hokey, but at least it's a resolution focused on the characters, instead of power levels and crass merchandising. But you know you want to buy Ultimate Final Maka with Motherfucker Hunter Scythe Attachment! Or Enchanted Sword Mode Blackstar, now with Eye of the Jew!
Other than some of my storyline nitpicks, the main recurring flaw I have with Soul Eater is that it just doesn't know when to put a sock in the comic relief. Even when it's taking a turn for the serious, it always throws in some inappropriate sweatdrop moment that most of the time I can just do without. Numerous times Kid's obsession with perfection screws him up in the middle of a fight. Now, nevermind how I feel about this gag in the first place, it's stupid wasted tension. We know the script isn't going to allow anything bad to happen to him because of something so ridiculous. It doesn't even really manifest itself as a really damaging flaw either, like if he were demanding too much from Liz and Patty that drove a rift between their relationship. It's always played for laughs. Anything Blackstar does is an eye-roller. Anything Excalibur does, however, is awesome.
Then there's Maka's father, Spirit, who is almost entirely a joke character. Maka is icy cold toward him due to his womanizing, which caused his marriage to Maka's mother to end in divorce. His entire character consists of his bumbling efforts to reconnect with his daughter vs. his pussy-chasing antics. Which is fine, up to a point. But in one episode he wants to get her a present as a reward for acing an exam, so he instructs that stupid fucking useless shapeshifting catgirl organism Blair to buy a book for Maka and deliver it to her along with a card he wrote. Blair, being stupid and useless and fucking, spends the money on herself, and then tries to gift the naughty underwear she bought to Maka as Spirit's present. What I thought was going to be a touching attempt to bridge a rift between father and daughter turned out to be a goddamn stupid fuckshit juvenile pantsu joke in a long lineage of a recurring gag that I got tired of about the third episode in which Spirit was afforded screentime.
Still, if you like that sort of thing, then Soul Eater delivers on both the drama and the wackiness. I'm not saying that I wanted the whole show to be a Gloomy Gus, just that I thought it could have reigned in the yukks every now and then. Overall it's a pretty solid show. I'd imagine a few self-described shounen haters could find something to like about it, since it seems to be parodying shounen tropes as much as it embraces them. It's a shame some of the principal characters get shoved to the background in order to make way for a plot thread (GET IT LIKE SPIDERS SPIN THREADS BECAUSE ARACHNOPHOBIA HERP DE DURR) that never quite delivers, and I would have liked to learn a little bit more about the order of witches that Medusa betrays, but I think the ending wraps most things up pretty nicely. I guess there's always the manga if you find yourself rabidly wanting more, but I'm cool with I WANNA BE in the end.