If you’re a fan of the nineties stop motion movie The Nightmare Before Christmas, your vision of a land based entirely on the tropes, designs and conventions of Halloween is a dark, depressing town where every single resident is ironically joyful and pleasant towards one another. Soul Eater, on the other hand, takes this idea and turns it over on it’s head. Death City, for all of it’s creeps and ghouls, is a bright, happy place where even the Grim Reaper is more of a cuddly uncle than a terrifying specter of doom. The Reaper, or Lord Death, as he prefers to be called, is the headmaster of the Death Weapon Meister Academy, a school that teaches young people how to join their souls to protect the world from witches!
To do this, one student must become a living weapon, and their chosen partner must wield them against creepy, devious witches who hide in the shadows and… Do stuff, like transforming into all manners of creepy creatures! Once each team has devoured the souls of 99 corrupted humans and one witch, they will be advanced to the status of Death Scythe, the preferred weapons of Grim Reapers everywhere. But one witch has decided to take matters into her own hands… She plans to awaken an ancient, sleeping demon that will drive the entire world past the brink of insanity! Can Meister Maka, her weapon Soul, and their friends stop this plan before it’s too late, or will the world lose itself to the clutches of chaos?
The animation studio behind this heaping helping of Halloween was Studio Bones, the studio that gained fame from Fullmetal Alchemist and Wolf’s Rain. Like the majority of their projects, Soul Eater has solid, kinetic animation… About half the time. The animation is never quite as smooth or expensive as it is in the first season opening, but it is more or less solid for the most part. There are a few embarrassing moments, such as where characters look like their walk cycles were just copied and pasted onto the environment, but thankfully, they’re few and far between. What’s NOT few and far between are the still shots. There are several occurrences where a character is talking, but the camera is focused on the environment, other character’s faces, or just the eyes of the speaker, leaving the lip flaps off screen.
There are a lot of action and fighting scenes throughout this series, and the fact that most of the budget is saved for those scenes is a life saver in the long run. The editing and angles can be a bit too amateurish and generic for their own good at times, and there are way too many close-ups of characters’ faces, but it works over-all. The character designs are it’s best visual aspect by far, although the highly detailed backgrounds are also noteworthy. There was so much inspiration and creativity in the aesthetic of this series that even the Grim Reaper is like no other reaper you’ve ever seen before.
Aside from a couple of female background characters who are retroactively given names and identities in the later episodes, every single named character is given a unique and unforgettable look that goes beyond just their hairstyles and fashions. Some of them are grounded, some of them are insane, and you can tell instantly which witches are based on which animals. If you haven’t seen the anthropomorphic version of the legendary sword Excalibur… Think Puttin’ On the Ritz from AMV Hell 5… You would never guess what he looks like or acts like in this series, as he has one of the most insane gimmicks in a series full of insane gimmicks.
The music… I think existed? Well, that’s not fair. The music is decent in this series, but for the most part, it does it’s job in the background, rarely ever calling attention to itself… Which is good because trust me, a lot of it’s tracks are reused over and over again through the series. Besides, who cares about the score when you’ve got such amazing opening and closing songs? The first opening is called Soul Resonance by TM Revolution, and it’s the kind of high energy, intense tunes that grabs you the first time you hear it and demands you come back for more, and the animation in the video more than keeps up with it. The second opening is a bit more generic, but it’s serviceable enough. There are four closing themes, and while the first one (I Wanna Be) is probably the best, I still personally prefer the much more mellow second one, Style, as it offers the cool-down that I felt each episode needed. Your opinion on this may differ, which is fine… They’re all great closings, in their own ways.
The English dub was of course a Funimation effort… They’ve been getting dangerously close to Disney levels of ubiquity at this point… And while I’ve heard some people call it average, I think it’s great. I can normally call out a star performer in any dub I review, but in Soul Eater’s case, there are just too many to pick from. Luci Christian rarely ever plays a villain… Elfen Lied being one of the few examples… But she plays the role of Medusa, school nurse/evil mastermind, and she clearly enjoyed every second of it. She sounds downright diabolical and as slithery as the snake she’s based on, even when she exploits her cutesier voices to mock or manipulate people. Troy Baker is unrecognizable as the pretentious nuisance Excalibur, and Vic Mignona excels in the role of an overly-enthusiastic dad who wants nothing more than the forgiveness of his estranged daughter.
Todd Haberkorn brings out both the strength and neurotic tendencies of Lord Death’s son Death the Kid in the ways that only he ever could, Chuck Huber handles Dr. Stein’s insanity brilliantly, and Maxey Whitehead fully embodies the androgynous Crona through all of his/her psychotic, awkward nuances. Brittany Karbowski starts off a little roughly as Blackstar, the hyperactive ninja who makes Naruto look stealthy, and it can be a little difficult to take her seriously in the early episodes, but she hits her groove hard and fast. Laura Bailey and relative newcomer Micah Solusod play the main partnership of Maka and Soul as likeably as they can, although for the majority of the series, their jobs aren’t really as demanding as everyone elses. Pretty much every Funimation actor that was around in the late 2000s is in this at some point, and everyone’s at least on point.
So after speaking so highly of the sound, acting and production values, you’re probably expecting me to remain positive for the rest of the review. you’re expecting me to keep rambling on about how awesome the series is, how well written it is, and how much I love it. Well, much like this series did to me, I’m afraid I’m going to have to disappoint you. The truth is, I don’t think I’ve ever encountered this large of a disparity between writing quality and popularity… Well, not in the anime medium, at any rate. I can think of at least one web cartoon that’s far more popular, despite being even worse.
To begin, let’s take a look at the main characters. One of the easiest ways to pinpoint bad writing is to notice that a character who you’re constantly being told is smarter than the rest of the cast shows no actual signs of enhanced intelligence to back up that claim. In Death Note, we were given no explanation of Light Yagami’s study habits or scholastic strengths, but at least we knew he was good at strategy and manipulating people. In No Game No Life, the two stars made it very clear which of them was skilled in which areas, and we saw their talents unfold during some of the game sequences. In Soul Eater, there is no evidence whatsoever to support Maka being the top student at the Academy. She never uses her intellect during battle, and the only test question we see her answer is the show’s line about sound minds and bodies. The only brainy thing she ever does is dump exposition on the viewer.
All of her accomplishments are due to her bond with Soul, rushing into situations courageously, and coming up with new attacks. We never see her outwit or outsmart anybody… She just resolves conflicts through the application of virtues such as bravery and friendship. But hey, that’s no big deal as long as the title character is interesting, right? Well, sorry, he’s not. Soul Eater, and yes that’s his alarmingly prophetic name, is a laid back cool guy who likes playing the piano… And that’s pretty much it. I learned more about him from a single paragraph on Wikipedia than I did from a 52 episode series that’s specifically named after him. You never learn about his family, his backstory, or why he wants to become a Death Scythe in the first place.
And that just brings up another problem I had with this series. We know what happens when a partnership achieves their goal of eating 99 corrupted… Or, “Keishan” souls, and one witch soul… The weapon becomes a Death Scythe. But what happens to the Meister? What do they get out of it? The only Meister in the series whom we know for sure was able to accomplish this was Maka’s mother, and she’s off on a trip for the entire show. We know that pursuing this goal benefits the weapons, but we know nothing about what the Meisters get out of it. And what’s really messed up about this is that in each of the three main partnerships in the cast… Maka and Soul, Blackstar and Tsubaki, Death the Kid and the Thompson sisters… The Meister side is always the more interesting side. It’s the Meister that’s driven to succeed, and it’s the weapon that’s there to support them and guide them to their dreams, and the Meister’s have much clearer motives than the weapons, so shouldn’t it be the Meisters who stand to accomplish something tangible?
There are a lot of people out there who say Soul Eater would have been great if it wasn’t for the ending, which strayed from the plot of the manga. Well, I’ve never read the manga, and I don’t intend to until after this review is done, because no adaptation should ever require the viewer to have knowledge of the original material in order to work. In my opinion, the worst thing about this show isn’t the ending, it’s the beginning. As many viewers have pointed out, the plot that this anime starts with is not the same as the plot it picks up towards the end. Now, that’s not necessarily a bad thing… Plot evolution can be handled well, just like it was in Toradora. But the plot has to actually evolve. The first plot must in some way become the second plot, otherwise it will feel like a waste of time. Which is exactly what it feels like here.
Only in soul Eater, it’s not just a waste of time. It’s far worse than that. Throughout the first several episodes of the series, we’re given boatloads of exposition about how the Death Scythe system works, what it’s rules are, and why it’s important. That exposition is handled about as well as it was in The Last Airbender. Another obvious sign of bad writing is when one character explains something to another character for the sake of the audience, but since both characters already know everything, the explanation is opened with the phrase “As you know…” And it gets worse than that, as the rules for having the souls you’ve collected revoked(Ripped from your stomach?) sound arbitrary and downright draconian. And to make matters worse, the change in plot leave tons of questions unanswered, the worst of which I’ve already gone into.
And the exposition gets even worse as the series continues. In the second half, there’s an arc where the DWMA sends it’s students and teachers to a snowy location called the Lost Island. no, not that Lost Island. Not only is this expedition not foreshadowed or brought up in any way before we’re dropped right into it, but the pre-op portion of it’s first episode consists of Lord Death telling us… Yes, telling us, talking directly to the audience, as though the fourth wall never existed… about why they’re going there and what they’re expecting to find. That should not happen. It should be set up in the dialogue, and it should occur seamlessly. Hell, even showing Maka and Soul in their dorm preparing for and discussing the mission would have felt less jarring, and it probably would have taken up just as much time. The world-building is so bad that I have no idea where Death City is located, and how it’s bizarre logic exists in a world whose locations so clearly mirror our own.
And as for all the people saying the ending was the worst part of the series? I honestly thought the final quarter was the best one. Yeah, okay, the final battle was really weak, anti-climactic and full of deus ex machina BS, but it was the only stretch of episodes that felt like one smooth, connected story that didn’t veer off into filler episodes or unnecessarily complicated plot annexes… Well, for the most part. This part of the story does waste a disproportionate amount of time on a “Let’s collect magical artifacts and expose the DWMA’s dark secret” sub-plot, which is paid off in the stupidest way imaginable. I halfway want to just spoil it, because if I were to describe what that sub-plot and all the characters it introduced was leading to, you’d probably think I was exaggerating. Spoiler alert: The school turns into a giant mech and tries to swat a giant robot spider. See? Unless you’ve seen it, you don’t believe me! And all this time, we’re constantly told that the awakened demon is causing outbreaks of insanity around the world, but we never actually see this happening!
The reason I love that section of the story above the others is because it advances the two plot elements that feel the strongest. The first one is the friendship between the seven main characters. The writers of this anime understood humans and emotions far more than they understood basic storytelling, and the relationship between the primary weapons and meisters are proof of that. When they’re hanging out together, it feels like a comfortable party that you’ve been invited to. When they’re fighting as a unit, their strengths and weaknesses complement each other perfectly. When they’re fighting among themselves, it feels tense, like there’s genuinely something at stake if they should go too far and disband. Every interaction, from the bond between the Thompson sisters to Blackstar’s complex of inferiority to Death the Kid and Maka, is executed well. Even Maka’s issues with her cheating father are dealt with maturely.
And the other element revolves around someone whom I consider to be the best character in the series, and it’s saving grace in a lot of respects: The snake witch, Medusa Gorgon. My god is she an amazing villain. Her motivation is basically evil for the sake of evil, but not in a lazy way… In a good way, like Maleficent from Sleeping Beauty or Johan from Monster. There is no act that’s too diabolical for her to stoop to it. She’s also smart, staying one step ahead of everyone as much as possible and saddling both Soul and Stein with the very issues that make them interesting and memorable. She’s such a great villain that she completely over-shadows the villain that succeeds her. The long term plot involving her evil schemes is by far the most fun to follow. These two plot elements are tied together perfectly by a character named Crona, but in the interest of not spoiling anything, I’ll say no more.
And it’s a good thing these two elements exists, because holy crap is there a lot of unnecessary pulp in this show. It’s constantly throwing new ideas and new characters at you, and it ultimately reaches the point where at least a dozen of them could have died for all I cared. It would be so easy to reduce this show to twenty six episodes without hurting it’s strongest elements or losing the charm and personality that’s won so many otaku hearts. Because let’s be honest, how many of these characters and plot points are important in the long run? How many of them are so necessary to the story that they couldn’t be either removed altogether, or written out with a few job reassignments?
As an experiment, let’s remove the plot point about becoming a death scythe, and just call the main characters witch hunters. Let’s get rid of pointless characters like Yumi, Joe, Hero, Arachne, Giriko, Eibon, Justin, Ox, Kilik, Kim, the younger Mizune sisters, and yes, even Excalibur. Characters who are only temporarily important, such as Sid, Mifune and Blair, can be kept long enough to perform the barest of plot essentials. Hell, as much as I loved Eruka Frog and Free, they could have just been eaten when Asura woke up. Entire episodes could be scrapped, with their relevance to the magical item hunt removed. Take these changes into account, tighten up a few loose ends with some quick rewrites, and this story could have been reduced to twenty six episodes with a much better sense of pace and direction. That’s not a good sign.
As Maka tells us at the beginning of every episode, a sound soul dwells within a sound mind and a sound body. Soul Eater has neither a sound mind OR a sound body, and thus, it’s not a sound series. Even so, I guess I am underselling the parts of this show that work. Soul Eater is a lot of fun. It’s very unique and creative, and even in it’s more pointless moments, it has a great sense of humor. The chibi sight gags that were easily the weakest part of BOTH FMA adaptations is used to much better effect here. I can drone on forever about just how terribly, terribly written it is, but the things it does right are strong enough that it’s still worth returning to for multiple viewings.
Soul Eater is available from Funimation. It’s been released in several different DVD sets, including 13 episode quarter sets, 26 episode half sets, and finally, a much more affordable complete set, and more recently, a premium Blu-Ray set, as though Funi hasn’t wrung enough money out of us just yet. I’ll be honest, I’d hate to be one of the people who spent 60 dollars apiece for each of the quarter sets, only to see the price drop so rapidly over the course of less than ten years. It’s also up for free on Netflix. The manga is available stateside from Yen Press. A spin-off manga called Soul Eater Not is also available stateside, and an anime adaptation was released in Japan last spring, and since then, it’s also been released stateside by Funimation, and… It’s interesting. It’s worth a test drive.
So, I was originally going to give it a 5/10, and in fact I DID give it a 5/10 on MAL, but it just felt like the wrong thing to do ever since… And since then, I’ve had the displeasure of watching Soul Eater Not, and my opinion on the older series has changed a bit as a result. See, Soul Eater fails at a lot of things, and I can’t justify ignoring them, but in the end, it only failed because it TRIED so many things. No, Not! isn’t as much of a mess, but it was also more safe and generic of a story… A tried and true high school girls story, with lesbian teasing, friendship messages and a villain tacked on at the end. Soul Eater didn’t try to be safe, and it wouldn’t be so damned influential if it hadn’t taken so many bold risks, and I have to give it credit for that. It may not have a sound mind or body, but if nothing else, it has a sound heart, which is enough justification for me to give Soul Eater a 6/10.