Maybe Japanese culture remembers how close the supernatural world is to our own, as opposed to our jaded, cynical, “there’s-no-such-thing-as-ghosts” Western mindset. Or maybe they just understand, from firsthand experience, that science does not solve everything. Or maybe they just love ghost stories. Either way, you can hardly turn over a metaphorical rock without finding an anime that has ghosts, gods, demons, spirits, psychics, etc. Still, out of all of them, this one stands as a particular Halloween-appropriate title, what with the witches, the reapers, the souls, the Grim Reaper himself, and the struggle against a virulent madness.
Soul Eater is an action-based anime following the students and teachers at the DWMA (that’s the Death Weapon Meister Academy) as they fight the forces of evil, typically witches and some monsters, to protect the world from an infection of fear and madness. It’s pretty good, for the most part, and it’s easy to see why it’s popular. It has wacky, endearing characters, hilarious jokes, excellent action, enthralling drama, and a gripping plot which does not hesitate to delve into dark, horrifying subject matter.
(and the fan service)
As far as the characters go, each of them is interesting and unique in their own way, but the interaction between them is what really sells it. They work together in partnerships and teams, so it was crucial to not only craft each individual but each partnership properly. They needed to make sense, and in terms the audience could easily see and understand, while entertaining us.
Maka Albarn, for instance, is a bookish girl but also a fierce fighter, caring and capable, and not one to tolerate nonsense. Her partner is a boy named Soul, who loves to be cool and confident, and is determined to get stronger and fulfill his duty to Maka, to protect her. They’re fairly normal-ish for this show, and usually strike an easy balance with each other.
Black Star, by contrast, is is a highly unorthodox “assassin,” by which I mean he is a brash loudmouth who is nothing short of obsessed with his own greatness, so much so that he flubs up nearly every assassination he attempts, but he is still a skilled, powerful fighter. His partner is Tsubaki, a girl who is noticeably older than him, is more quiet, considerate, tolerant, and adaptable, not to be confused with weakness and submission.
Then there’s the son of Lord Death himself, Death the Kid, who is among the strongest and most intelligent souls in the series, but is permanently fixated, to ridiculous, hilarious proportions, on his admiration for absolute visual symmetry. Thus, he has two partners, the Thompson Sisters, Patty and Lizzie, one being a ditz who laughs at everything, and the other being more serious and down-to-earth, grounding the antics of the other two, though she can freak out easily enough when faced with something scary or gross.
Each partnership is strong and manages to balance itself out into something mostly functional, if also distinct in the crowd. As these three sets find themselves working together often, they become bound as comrades as well as friends, even if there is friction between them every so often. They’re the A-Team among the students at the DWMA, three skilled meisters and their weapons.
…wait, what was that? Three “meisters” and their what? Weapons?
When I first started watching Soul Eater, I was a little confused at first. The basic premise of the show, apparently, is that there are monsters which devour human souls, and to combat these, we have the DWMA, which trains reapers to protect humanity. These reapers come as “meisters,” armed with mystical abilities which are enhanced by living weapons. While many other stories feature weapons which are “alive” in some way, I can’t think of many where it’s so literal that the weapon is actually a person who transforms into one.
Soul is a scythe, Patty and Lizzie are matching pistols, and Tsubaki can become a variety of weapons as needed.
It’s interesting, but kind of disturbing to think about for too long. I mean, these are actual, literal, living people being used like inanimate objects, instruments of killing, taking an unending series of blows for their meister. These are weapons that bleed and feel pain and scream. There’s just something unsettling about that.
And then there’s how Maka is the daughter of a weapon and his meister. Which not only makes their treatment all the more disquieting, but… ok, there are some topics which cannot be discussed with any degree of tact, so, moving on. To a completely different subject.
Speaking about the humor of Soul Eater, I spent a lot of time laughing. For dealing with such dark material as trauma and horror, the show can inspire a lot of laughter. That was entirely due to the characters, with their zany mannerisms, coming together to craft hilarious scenes between them. I especially enjoyed how it upsets and makes fun of the usual tropes, like making the assassin a loudmouth, or making the Grim Reaper ridiculous and funny.
As for the action, I enjoyed it pretty well. The animation was smooth and fluid, doing justice to the fighting style and wits of heroes and villains alike. The fights were well-crafted and made sense within this fantastic world of reapers, monsters, warriors, and witches. There were personal stakes, especially as old adversaries returned and bonds were tested, adding to the excitement as we invested in one side or the other.
Most times, the outcome depended on using one’s wits and skills with precision. Though, occasionally, it came down to some ridiculous boost in power, which can get a little campy even when we’re still loving it. There were a couple of deus ex machina moments, especially towards the end, where it felt like something advantageous was happening just because. Small flaw, but generally forgivable.
Forgivable because of the drama, the story that played out and what it meant. Skating around spoilers as much as possible, I will say that there were instances when it wasn’t really explained how something was happening, but it served the characters’ respective stories. When an enemy is redeemed from pain and darkness, for instance, by the light of a childlike love, one cares a bit less about how it’s happening.
Which brings us to the plot. It’s not perfect in every moment throughout the show – the dramatic distrust felt a bit forced, for instance – but overall it was fairly well-told and well-constructed. I don’t think it spoils too much to say that there is an ancient evil which returns, released by the first primary villain of the show, and plunges the world into chaos and madness as various factions try to take advantage of the situation to further their own agenda. That’s a fairly simple summary. There’s a number of moving parts involved, as various characters take paths that join together and diverge and come back together again, and much of it develops either the characters or the world they’re in.
On that last, there were clearly some things set up in this world that they never really got around to elaborating on, stories they somewhat alluded to but never told. I haven’t read the manga, but I could feel there were differences anyway. That might be for the best, as from what I’ve heard, the anime might be the more sensible, streamlined version of the story. As the anime begins with three prologue episodes, has several obvious fillers that don’t contribute anything beyond a few more laughs, and the character of Excalibur was especially useless considering all the attention they gave him – even Blair the cat-witch had a minimal amount of use – that may say something.
Which goes into another similar note: the fan service.
I admit, I do not entirely mind when there is something physically appealing on the screen. I do take some issue with misusing it, though. There was never really any reason for Blair or any of the other girls to be depicted either in the nude or nearly so, yet it’s done all the time. It just felt a bit overdone, like they jumped through hoops just to insert it into the show at random, and it contributed nothing while very much pushing the bounds of propriety.
There are some other off-putting things, mostly about the world-building, like the whole people-are-weapons concept.
For instance, I didn’t see that much difference between a monster eating a human soul and a human/weapon eating a monster soul (which ate human souls) or a witch soul. It’s still a soul, the remnant of something sentient, which is consumed in order to gain more power. How is the weapon who eats them any different from who they kill, besides being one step up the food chain and cannibalizing the cannibals? Heck, the first witch that was attacked by Maka and Soul, we didn’t see her do anything to warrant being killed and eaten, and she clearly didn’t hurt them too bad as they were able to keep coming back to try again. There’s even a little girl witch that, apparently, on some level, it would be considered all right to kill and eat her soul too.
That is just a bit disquieting to consider, ya know?
Speaking of: I love the witches. Their power isn’t ever really explained, but I love the idea of black magic inspired by various animals like spiders, snakes, frogs, and mice.
I also like how the conflict between madness and rationality was presented throughout the plot, even if it’s done with very little subtlety. There’s the madness of hallucination, of losing the ability to trust in what is real and what is not. But even worse is the insanity that holds itself together with loose threads of rationality, of twisted, rambling half-truths that are horrific even to contemplate much less believe in. It’s dangerous to deal with people like that, who can keep it together one moment and then fly apart the next in a shrieking, destructive rampage.
Basically, Soul Eater is a flawed, imperfect show, but one that is immensely entertaining. It’s great eye-candy (not just because of the girls), and it draws us in with the characters in order to weave a spell-binding narrative around them, one that is hilarious and horrific and heart-warming in turns. It’s just a really good, enjoyable story.
Rating: 8 stars out of 10.