Spotlight: Soul Eaterby Jason Green, Dec 31st 2008
Even in anime, death is serious business. This is especially true when it comes to shinigami, the “gods of death” of Japanese folklore. From straight-up action series like Bleach to creepier fare like Death Note, these Japanese grim reapers are almost always shown as something powerful and intimidating, something to be feared.
Studio BONES, however, decided to do something different. To celebrate its tenth birthday, the famed animation production studio behind hits ranging from Eureka Seven to RahXephon to Wolf's Rain set its sights on adapting Soul Eater, a manga by fresh-faced talent Atsushi Ohkubo (brought to North American readers in the pages of Yen Press’ Yen Plus magazine). Forgoing serious-as-a-heart-attack drama for exaggerated, larger-than-life action and over-the-top wacky hijinks, Soul Eater explores the imposing concept of death gods in a tone that's less Death Note and more Gurren Lagann. As just announced, English-speaking audiences will get their chance to check out Soul Eater’s animated incarnation on DVD in the coming New Year, courtesy of FUNimation Entertainment.
The World of Soul Eater
From the giant, laughing sun that lights its days to the moon whose devilish, blood-dripping grin wanders its night skies, it's clear that Death City isn't your normal kind of town. Naturally, Shibusen, the massive school that calls Death City home, isn't your normal kind of school, either. Run by Shinigami, the god of death himself, Shibusen serves as a training ground for meisters, supernatural warriors-in-training who hunt evil human spirits. The meisters are aided in their hunt by unique partners called weapons, humans who are capable of transforming into various tools of battle—scythes, swords, guns—capable of killing evil souls before they transform into evil spirits called “kishin.” With enough practice, a meister and his or her weapon can make their souls resonate, turning them into a virtually unstoppable force for good.
The students of Shibusen are Shinigami's first line of defense against kishin, and are constantly honing their abilities as each weapon/meister team attempts to kill 99 evil human souls and the soul of one witch. Once that plateau is reached, the weapon is turned into an even more powerful “Death Scythe,” a weapon worthy of being wielded by a shinigami.
Soul Eater follows three such weapon/meister teams, featuring two plucky, dedicated rookie meisters and the infamous son of Shinigami himself.
- Maka and Soul Eater: Don't let her diminutive size fool you: Maka is a fierce warrior and a brilliant tactician, and one of the few beginners-level meisters able to see her opponent's soul wavelength. Part of her skills may be genetic: her estranged father is the greatest Death Scythe in Death City, Shinigami's personal weapon. Her weapon, Soul Eater, is a death scythe who literally eats the evil souls (or “kishin eggs”) that he and Maka defeat in battle. At first, he would seem to be her polar opposite—a too-cool-for-school hothead who dives into battle without a strategy—but Soul is absolutely dedicated to Maka's safety, and the pair's souls resonate at a much deeper level than the rest of the main cast. As the series opens, the twosome have just screwed up in their quest to capture the witch's soul that would complete their assignment, and have to start over again from square one.
- Black Star and Tsubaki: A near parody of cocky shonen heroes like Naruto, Black Star's braggadocio is his greatest obstacle. See, Black Star likes to think of himself as an assassin, but the spiky-haired hero's constant need to shout about how awesome he is always gives away his position. Lucky for him, then, that he's a skilled hand-to-hand combatant able to channel his soul wavelength and fry his opponents in a burst of energy, a rare skill. He's also helped by the versatility of his long-suffering weapon Tsubaki, who is able to transform herself into multiple hand weapons, such as a chained scythe, a giant shuriken (or throwing star), or a smoke bomb.
- Death the Kid and the Thompson Sisters: The son of shinigami himself, Death the Kid enrolls in Shibusen despite already having skills beyond those of the entire student body. He also has a fatal flaw: he's obsessed with symmetry, to the point where he lets the lack of it throw him into a nervous breakdown during battle. His partners are Patti and Liz Thompson, sisters who can turn into twin pistols that use kishin eggs as bullets for their clips. Much to the Kid's chagrin, the Thompson sisters are definitely not Thompson Twins, with differing personalities, hair lengths, fashion sense, heights, and bust sizes. Not that the Kid has room to talk: with three stripes of white hair on one side of his head, he's the least symmetrical of the bunch.
The world of Soul Eater is also punctuated by a surprising number of references Western audiences will find quite familiar. Early episodes find the teams battling Jack the Ripper, a witch named Blair (and her “smashing pumpkin” technique), the gangster Al Capone, and a possessed teacher who shares a name with former Pink Floyd frontman Syd Barrett, while one of their teaching staff is joined by creepy doctor in a stitched-up labcoat named Franken Stein.
The still-ongoing anime adaptation of Soul Eater (38 episodes have aired as of this publication) builds off a framework provided by series composer Akatsuki Yamatoya and director Takuya Igarashi. The two make for an interesting dichotomy, with Yamatoya having chiefly helmed shonen action epics like Blue Dragon and Buso Renkin, while Igarashi is best known for his work on virtually every iteration of the shojo-tastic Sailor Moon franchise.
Soul Eater is a return to the Studio BONES sandbox for Igarashi, who previously teamed with the studio on the shojo eye candy series Ouran High School Host Club. Given their wildly disparate tones and themes, viewers may be surprised to discover that Ouran and Soul Eater share virtually their entire animation staffs, including art director Norifumi Nakamura (also of Zombie Loan); episode directors Shin Matsuo, Shingo Kaneko, and Takefumi Anzai; animation directors Yoshiyuki Kodaira and Atsushi Hasebe; sound director Kazuhiro Wakabayashi; and a virtual army of key animators, inbetweeners, and other support staff that worked on both shows.
Much of Soul Eater’s unique look comes courtesy of conceptual designs from the legendary Shinji Aramaki, who worked on ‘80s classics like Bubblegum Crisis and Megazone 23. More recent anime converts probably know Aramaki as director for the two recent CGI Appleseed films, and as the designer of Wolf's Rain, another BONES series that aired repeatedly on Cartoon Network's Adult Swim block. The character design chores for the series were handled by Yoshiyuki Ito, whose Gurren Lagann-esque designs bare little resemblance to his work on BONES’ own Fullmetal Alchemist. Furthering the Gurren Lagann connection is the score from Taku Iwasaki, who provided music for that series as well as Getbackers, Black Cat, and the Read Or Die franchise, among countless others. Each episode is punctuated by the rock heavy theme music, courtesy of the pumping opener “resonance” by J-rockers T.M. Revolution and the Goldfinger-esque punk rock closer “I Wanna Be” by STANCE PUNKS.
The end of the first episode of Soul Eater promises to serve up what every action fan craves—“action, gags, and surprises.” Viewers will be able to judge if the creators kept that promise when the series reaches American shores in 2009, courtesy of FUNimation.
Image © Atsushi Ohkubo/Square Enix, TV Tokyo, Media Factory, BONES, Dentsu 2008
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