“A sound soul dwells within a sound mind, and a sound body.” It sounds like the mantra of some Zen teaching, but it’s the opening lines of an anime that takes you for a thrilling fantasy ride. My final review for the year is a one-of-a-kind anime series.
Title: Soul Eater
Original airing: Apr 7, 2008 to Mar 30, 2009
Duration: 24 min/ep
Genres: Action, Adventure, Comedy, Fantasy, Shounen, Supernatural
Source: Soul Eater manga by by Atsushi Ōkubo
Where I watched: Blu-ray disc
Brief Synopsis and First Impressions
Death City is home to the famous Shibusen, a technical academy headed by the Shinigami–Lord Death himself. Its mission: to raise “Death Scythes” for the Shinigami to wield against the many evils of their fantastical world. These Death Scythes, however, are not made from physical weapons; rather, they are born from human hybrids who have the ability to transform their bodies into Demon Weapons, and only after they have consumed the souls of 99 evil beings and one witch’s soul.
Soul Eater Evans, a Demon Scythe who only seems to care about what’s cool, aims to become a Death Scythe with the help of his straight-laced wielder, or meister, Maka Albarn. The contrasting duo work and study alongside the hot headed Black☆Star and his caring weapon Tsubaki, as well as the Shinigami’s own son, Death the Kid, an obsessive-compulsive dual wielder of twin pistols Patty and Liz.
Read that premise and tell me what’s not to love about the idea of students and their weaponized friends helping each other fight evil. The show certainly sounds a little childish, but as we have seen a couple times in my reviews this year, so long as a series can commit to itself strongly enough, the end result can be great.
Soul Eater was one of those super popular series that I somehow missed until now. This was mostly because I lost touch with anime around the time this came out (how else can I explain missing Code Geass?), but also there were so many other super popular shows my resurgent inner otaku demanded I catch up on. Still, when I happened across the complete series on blu-ray for a good price, I thought “why not?” and picked it up. Starting with some casual viewing, it quickly turned into a binge that I knew I wanted to cap off my 2016 challenge with. I suppose I really should have aimed to do this one for Halloween, but New Year’s Eve works just as well, right?
Soul Eater is based around the idea that the personified aspect of Death protects the world from evil. His greatest tools in this task are a powerful assortment of weapons, known as Death Scythes, and the members of Shibusen academy (Death Weapon Meister Academy, DWMA, in English localizations) whom he trains. Meisters and their Weapon partners are matched up to hunt these spirits, with the goal of capturing 99 evil souls (called Kishin eggs) and a single witch’s soul to transform the weapons into Death Scythes.
The entire setup sounds like your run-of-the-mill shounen anime – evil spirits, students and weapons trained to fight them, and clear goal to pursue. The first episode, however, affirms that Soul Eater is anything but average shounen fodder. While familiarizing viewers with the three main pairs of characters, the introduction showcases a highly stylized take on the monster hunting stories that serve as popular anime plots. These students goal in making themselves and their weapons stronger become the main focus for the early part of the series; presenting their various personalities in an entertaining (but thoroughly engaging) way as the series slowly builds.
The story doesn’t make it apparent, at first, how these students come to be Meisters at the academy or how some are able to transform themselves into actual weapons. Regardless, these ‘minor’ details do not keep the narrative from blazing onward. Despite the initial buildup in the first episode, the simplistic goal is all but forgotten as a group of evildoers set about to enact a sinister plan. The DWMA students quickly come across threats that are more powerful and dangerous than anything they have faced before, forcing them to work with one another to overcome these obstacles.
This grim sounding story is presented with a great deal of humor, which is typical of shounen anime. Regardless, Soul Eater edges above other series with the gimmicky nature of its characters. Most of them have an odd personality traits that play off one another in amusing ways. This results in comedic situations being inserted into most every episode, allowing for light-hearted moments to mix with darker themes. Further contrasting the setting, the show frequently emphasizes lessons about teamwork, friendship, and determination; using the formulaic elements of its genre in a way that delivers positive messages. Not to come across as too childish, however, the series injects a decent amount of genuinely creepy horror elements to utilize its grim setting and dark theme.
The lack of complexity in the plot makes it easy for viewers to follow along, with most of the story being centered around combating bad guys/girls and their henchmen, but this also has a downside. With very little in the way of intricate narrative, the show struggles to find intriguing moments to maintain viewer interest. This becomes most evident after the end of the first half, where an unimpressive story gets rehashed using a new set of villains; all while dangling hints of a conclusive arc that can be seen a mile away.
This rest of the story (after the first half) is exclusive to the anime; as the televised series had surpassed the manga’s progression by this point. While the rest of the anime bears resemblance to the manga’s story in certain aspects, attempting to conclude the anime with original narrative proved problematic. The final set of episodes feel as if they are sluggishly treading water compared to earlier ones. To top it off, the overly simplistic conclusion fits poorly with the rest of the series, feeling rushed and unimaginative. It’s a small misstep in an otherwise well crafted series, but feels all the more disappointing placed at the very end.
Most anyone who reviews this anime will repeat my claim that the characters are easily the strongest and most memorable part of it. Rather than ground its strange setting with relatable individuals, Soul Eater doubles down with some unconventional personalities. Nearly all the characters have a predominant quirk, with some bordering on the eccentric. Not only does this make them entertaining, but keeps viewers watching; if only to see how their oddities affect confronting their foes (and each other).
Strange as some of the characters are, the most rational and human of the group is ostensibly the lead protagonist.Scythe meister, Maka Albarn, makes up for her lack of eccentricity or innate strength by being one of the most determined members of the cast. As the daughter of Lord Death’s personal weapon, Spirit Albarn, her goal is create a more powerful weapon than her father, for whom she has little respect. Her independent nature and struggle to trust others stems from the separation of her family as a result of her father’s infidelity. This makes it challenging for her to cooperate effectively with others. It also adds to the difficulty of achieving her goal: the feat that lies at the heart of increasing a meister’s power – matching her soul wavelength with that of her weapon and the other meisters to achieve the state called Soul Resonance.
Maka’s partner and weapon, Soul Eater Evans, whom the show is named after, has the power to turn into a scythe. As a character he has a predilection toward looking and acting cool, which means being nonchalant, riding a motorcycle, and wearing trendy clothing. Despite his frequent disagreements with Maka, his strong loyalty and desire to protect her marks their pairing as one of the strongest friendships in the series. A hidden passion for music also becomes a defining trait, though he is reluctant to share it with others.
If there was one character Soul could call his best friend, aside from Maka, it would Black Star. Different from his fellow meister in almost every way, Black Star is loudmouthed and arrogant. Frequently vowing that his power will one day surpass god, he pursues strength with relentless fervor. His frank, idiotic behavior supplies most of the comic relief for the series. It also proves to be the biggest obstacle to his success. Similar to the eponymous character of Naruto, Black Star’s erratic behavior, self-confidence, wild hair, and ninja techniques are common staples in fantasy media. His weapon partner, Tsubaki, makes a fitting match in several ways. Able to transform into several ninja weapons, Tsubaki’s sweet patience and proper demeanor helps tone down Black Star’s over-exuberance.
Compared to the other two meisters, Death the Kid is a more composed and innately skilled character. He owes this advantage to being the ‘son’ of Lord Death, and thus holds the status of a Grim Reaper himself. While he is not required to collect souls or attend the DWMA, he chooses to do so in order to create weapons that suit his tastes. His no nonsense approach to missions, and life in general, is checked by his obsessive-compulsive fascination with symmetry. Kid finds himself unable to function when he encounters anything out of balance; compelled to either correct the problem or go mad. To this end, he is one of the few meisters to use multiple weapons. His weapons of choice come in the form of Liz and Patty Thompson. These sisters, surprisingly not twins, have the ability to change into twin pistols. In addition to providing him literal fire support, they help cheer him up or keep him sane during his asymmetry induced fits. Despite Kid’s strange way of holding the guns, he is able to utilize them with great proficiency. So much so, he is the first to display the Soul Resonance technique to augment their power.
Acting as much more than token personalities to drive whatever comedy or drama fueled story they take part in, each of these characters becomes involved in a major arc that challenges them. Maka’s aforementioned difficulty in working with others forces her to work past deep seeded self doubt to become an effective part of the team. Black Star’s quest to be the strongest is stymied by a string of failures, leaving him searching for a path forward even if it damns him. Kid’s supposed privilege makes him that much more keen to the dark secrets regarding his father and the DWMA. Even as he works to carry out Death’s wishes, he begins to question his father’s motives.
While I praise A-1 Pictures a lot in my reviews, Bones produces some really incredible work themselves. Along with this series, I’ve reviewed four of their titles this year and enjoyed many of their other shows/movies prior to this. With a talent for capturing action, this studio was a good fit for the unique narrative and offbeat art style of Soul Eater. The art and animation for the series most closely resembles Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, providing an early hint of the great battle animation they are capable of. While not as detailed as their later series Noragami, this series makes an excellent example of a well animated fantasy anime that avoids the repetitive tactics of something like Bleach or Naruto.
Starting with the incredibly stylistic atmosphere, the setting is depicted as a Burton-esque environment (think A Nightmare Before Christmas). It features plenty of elements associated with creepy campfire stories with a dash of fun mixed in; like the maniacal grin on the moon’s face or Blair’s pumpkin house in the first episode. The bright pop of the color choices further serves to lighten the tone of the series. This art direction is maintained even through the story’s darker moments and keeps distracting changes to a minimum. Skull emblems adorn the buildings and accessories of several characters to remind viewers of the macabre theme while still having fun with its depiction. This is best represented in Lord Death’s jovial characterization itself.
The character designs, like their quirky personalities, visually elevates Soul Eater to another level. Every character, aside from nameless foot soldiers, is given a unique design and traits that sets them apart. Added elements such as the arrow motif used Medusa’s villainous attacks or the characteristic stitches covering Dr. Stein’s clothing and laboratory are small touches designed to add personality to these characters. My only issue is the weird way the noses were drawn on most of the characters. They are shaped with a prominently raised tip that would make them look like pigs if the nostrils were drawn. It’s a minor point that doesn’t distract from the overall viewing experience, but is a little strange the first time it’s seen.
In addition to distinctive appearances, the characters exhibit a great variety of fighting styles and abilities. This allows for dynamic and interesting battle scenes with well-paced animation and little reused footage. Battle choreography was likewise superb, showing plenty of physical action outside of the character’s super powers and gave a good sense of their fighting ability. Of the special effects that are featured, Soul Resonance is one of the coolest effects, appearing as an orb around the user that sometimes features shapes or traits associate with the character. Even as the action scales later on, these effects look consistently good up through the very end of the show.
Though the visuals seem to target a younger target audience, there are many scenes that contrast the youth-oriented themes of the series. For one, there is a good deal of violent content that rivals more ‘mature’ Bones titles like FMA. Blood is not an uncommon sight, and there is more than a fair share of impalement and other gruesome injuries. Adding to this, there are several fanservice elements. Although it is sparingly used among a few characters, these moments garner viewer attention and thus come off a little distracting. Thankfully the main cast avoids this to a great extent, with Maka being a rare example of a female protagonist that is never used for fanservice.
Openings are meant to set the tone of a series, and Soul Eater’s openings do an amazing job of this. Resonance especially stands out as being able to evoke the general feel for this anime, helped by the fact that it sticks around longer than most shows with an episode count as long as this. Starting with an almost ominous tone, an excitement building intro leads into an explosive chorus with the sort of energy TM Revolution is known for. It’s a very exciting and catchy song, outdoing PAPERMOON in its liveliness, though the latter song is more musically appropriate for the tone of the second half. The endings are mostly standard fare, though they all sound very different and will thus depend heavily on individual tastes when it comes to enjoyment. While my opinion may be in the minority, Bakusou Yumeuta is my faraway favorite as it seemed to best express the ‘fun’ aspect I associate with this series.
Though the openings and endings were so memorable, no single track from the OST stood out for me. The tracks fulfill the role of background music to an uncanny degree, but no scene seemed out of step with the music that accompanied it, with action and quiet moments alike receiving their appropriate tempo. What did stand out for me was some of the effects sound, especially in the case of attacks that utilize it. The weapon Ragnarok’s sonic screech sounded convincingly disturbing, and the motorized whir of another character’s chain based attacks was also very expertly done. If the image at the top of this section is any indication, the Soul’s piano plays a crucial role in helping the characters sync their souls, though the effect sounds more discordant to me than harmonious. Maybe I just don’t understand jazz that well?
If there was ever a series where I would leave a Funimation dub untouched, this certainly was not one of them. A wealth of their usual talent is used for these characters, including Laura Bailey (Lust in Fullmetal Alchemist) as Maka, Michah Solusod (Yukine in Noragami) as Soul, and Todd Haberkorn (Natsu in Fairy Tail) as Death the Kid. The show even sees some of Funimation’s more well known talent like Vic Mignogna, Luci Christian, and John Michael Tatum in supporting roles. All of the acting was incredibly well done, made easier by the fact that this was the sort of series where they could really enjoy their parts. I once again feel under-qualified to comment on the quality of the original Japanese, but with seiyuus like Mamoru Miyano and Maaya Sakamoto on board, there should be no reason to expect it to be poorly done.
Most fans will attest that the odd, but charming, characters are behind the success of Soul Eater. While the eclectic cast does enrich the viewing experience, the true investment for this series is found in the underlying message that unfolds as the story progresses. Soul Eater is about facing inner demons, surpassing fears, and appreciating how the idiosyncrasies of others may add value to a situation. Through recognition and acceptance, the characters learn they can overcome even the greatest of obstacles. Rather than a generic story about good conquering evil, Soul Eater explores these deeper themes meant to impact viewers.
Despite incorporating some generic components, Soul Eater subverts many of the standard shounen tropes. With shounen anime geared towards adolescent boys, it is common for such series to be centered around a heroic male. In this case, there is a reversal of roles with the main protagonist, Maka, being female and her side kick, Soul, being male. Another divergence from the norm is that equal screen time is shared among the main cast of characters. This allows viewers the opportunity to become emotionally invested with the entire group, rather than just one or two central figures.
With that said there are typical shounen moments, mostly with respect to humor and other auxiliary content. The name calling and backbiting retorts between the boys and girls will likely elicit a few groans from viewers. Added to this is the not so subtle cleavage shots, meant to appeal to adolescent hormone-fueled boys, that will induce eye rolls from older fans. These elements are typical anime fodder though, that don’t really add or take away from the series as a whole.
Though I expanded on this earlier, the sheer level of pristine animation is something that viewers automatically notice when beginning this series. The characters motions are fluid, capturing every detail of the battle scenes frame by frame. Added to this is the remarkable perspective views during the fight scenes that give viewers a more complete view of the action. This, coupled with the crisp, detailed art style makes watching Soul Eater a truly captivating experience.
With as much credit as Soul Eater rightfully deserves, I would be remiss if I failed to mention some glaringly obvious flaws. Perhaps the biggest issue fans and reviewers focus on is how the anime series split from the original source material. In line with other successful manga, the anime adaptation began production (and ended) before some major plot developments in the manga took place. This required the series director, Takuya Igarashi, and his staff to take creative liberties to develop an original conclusion to the series. While this isn’t exactly an excuse for the lackluster ending, it does explain why the anime follows the manga closely till roughly halfway through book twelve, then veers off in a completely different direction. If Bones were ever to decide to expand the series (from this point), and pick up where the manga ends, there will need to be a full reboot of the series (just like FMA: Brotherhood).
According to manga reviewers, aside from the deviation in ending, the anime also takes some other creative (and questionable) liberties. For example, the character of Blair, a magical cat with an alluring human form, is well fleshed out in the manga. but ends up being reduced to mostly ‘eye candy’ in the anime. Because Blair is introduced in the beginning, and only pops up occasionally throughout the series, the decision to alter her character doesn’t really influence or distract from the anime experience. The main characters, on the other hand, can’t rely on obscurity. Some of their arcs are unfortunately stunted as well, either for lack of time or direction, whereas they are more properly developed in the manga.
Perhaps due in part to adaptation issues, there is an overall feeling of inconsistency when watching Soul Eater. The way events are arranged and play out causes sudden tonal shifts, leading to a disorienting viewing experience. The first few episodes offer a handful of action mixed with entertaining, witty humor. This gives the impression that the audience should prepare for a light hearted shounen series. Though the twisted animation style hints at an underlying darker theme, the second half shifts into a more morose, macabre narrative. This dramatic change causes the series to lose some of its initial appeal. While the comedic aspect does resurface from time to time throughout the latter episodes, after this darker shift, it feels out of place.
One of the most polarizing aspects of the series can be summed up within a single character. The legendary weapon, Excalibur, is an outstanding example of how zany the characters in this series can be, but comes off as unbearably annoying to nearly every character he interacts with. Som viewers may similarly grow tired of his incessant prattling, insolent attitude, and repetitive interjections, while others appreciate the silliness he brings to any scene he inhabits.
Despite the bland ending and other minor issues, Soul Eater can be uniquely rewarding to watch. It encourages viewers to let go of any preconceived notions of what an adventure series is supposed to be like and pushes its strange elements as far as they will go. The themes of self-reflection, overcoming obstacles, and realizing the value of others will resonate with viewers, all while providing an entertaining viewing experience through its characters and artistic excellence.
Summary and Recommendations
Soul Eater presents a story about finding courage and learning to value others set in a wacky, macabre world. The series starts like any other typical shounen anime, but sets itself apart with its overflowing unique sense of style.
Death weapons and weapon meisters alike work together to protect the world from evil. Under the guidance of Death himself, they train their skills as part of the Death Weapon Meister Academy with the goal of capturing enough evil souls to turn their weapons into Death Scythes. One witch’s sinister plot makes their mission more pressing than ever as three students band together to foil her designs.
The characters of this series are some of the most the most peculiar around. When not boasting loudly about how stealthy they are or losing their minds over the thought of a picture frame being askew, they deal with issues that challenge their understanding of themselves and their meaning to one another.
The animation represents some of the best things about its studio’s talents, featuring fluid action and fantastic character designs essential for a good shounen series. While featuring some stereotypical elements, it provides one of the most distinct and entertaining art styles found in all of anime.
The anime has a pair of well known openings that add to its iconic feel, and an OST that very subtly enhances the show throughout. Some impressive voice talent brings the characters to life with well scripted repartee and comedic moments.
Challenges to complete the series after running out of manga material lead to a tonal shift that fails to echo the entertaining feel of the series up to that point, and a poorly executed ending may further strain enjoyment. Viewers that have made it to the ending, however, will recall plenty of other ways in which the series excels.
Watch if you:
Want a unique anime experience
Appreciate creative art styles
Enjoy quirky characters
Don’t watch if you:
Are thrown off by tonal shifts
Prefer relateable characters
Can’t accept underwhelming endings
While far from perfect, the series has a plenty of enjoyment potential with the technical merit to back it up. My rating is 4 out of 5 Makas.
As I stated in my review, Soul Eater was adapted into an anime series roughly four years prior to the manga’s completion. Dissatisfaction with the mediocre improvised ending to the anime lead to a backlash from fans, but it may surprise you to learn that most anime begins this way; with production taking place well before the manga is completed. As the Soul Eater series has proven, this can lead to incoherent endings that will leave fans of the original source material disappointed.
There are, of course exceptions with some anime adaptations meeting, and in rare cases exceeding, the original source material. Talented script writers may expand source material created or rearrange the narrative to create a better flow. If anything, an anime series will follow a well-written manga series, expertly recreating the original characters, arcs, and even art style. One of the best examples of this is the first anime I reviewed on this blog: Your lie in April. With the manga completed before the series aired, it faithfully adapts the story and art, chapter by chapter, but adds a whole new facet of enjoyment with the incredible animation and music. Another anime that sees more favor than its source manga is Usagi Drop, which completed airing before the manga run ended, but omits the poorly received directional shift the manga eventually took.
Fans let down by a series adaptation are left to lament how a mangaka would allow their work to be ‘butchered,’ but the answer usually comes down to money. Aside from a share of the profits, the original work receives increased notoriety when the anime series is released. The main priority of a mangaka is, naturally, to increase sales of their original work. When a written series emerges that has the potential to be successful, production companies are quick to leap at the chance to begin creating anime based on the material. How long the manga takes to write and illustrate doesn’t quite factor into the equation.
The solution to producing a quality adaptation may seem obvious – wait until the manga is nearing completion before making it into a televised series. This might allow for a smoother, more complete story translation. But from the production point of view, the time to act is when a manga is gaining initial popularity. By waiting for the manga to wrap up, which may take years, anime producers run the risk of less fans intrigued to watch the adaption of a popular manga. In the end, anime tends more often than not to see “the book was better” reactions commonly given to novel adaptations in film, but this is a very limited way of looking at things. If my anime reviews this year have done anything, I hope they have shown the value of looking at a series as a standalone work.
As this is my final review for my 2016 challenge, I want to take a moment to especially thank everyone who has been reading this year. It has been an exhaustive but enjoyable experience for me. Be on the lookout for a post coming soon that details what this challenge has meant for me and the blog.
Manga Review – Soul Eater by Krystallina
As much as I talked about the manga in this review, I’m glad Krystallina wrote such a great piece on it. She explains a lot of the things that it does better but points out some of the issues with it as well.
Soul Eater and Gender in Anime by saturdaymorningcartoons
A great look at the positive directions that Soul Eater takes with gender portrayals. I found this one quite interesting to read as it talks about a very prevalent problem in anime and manga. Contains slight spoilers.
Striking the Right Note – Soul Eater by Cain S, Latrani
No matter how many times you’ve heard it, you haven’t heard Resonance enough. Cain looks at how the song and other aesthetics define the series.
For more from me, you can find my other reviews on my Reviews Page or click on the tags below to see posts on similar shows. As always, thank you for reading.