Manga Review – Soul Eater

Soul Eater Volume 1

Soul Eater
OHKUBO Atsushi
Shounen – Action, adventure, comedy, fantasy, drama
25 Volumes (complete)
Yen Press

Summary:

If a meister collects 99 human souls and 1 witch soul, their humanoid weapon will become a death scythe. It’s quite a task, and even more so when one meister wants to surpass her father, one is a flashy assassin, and another is an obsessive-compulsive! Will any of these teams reach their goal, or will they flunk out of their training?

Review:

Soul Eater is a much more comedic take on traditional shounen action-adventure manga.

Here’s what I knew about Soul Eater before I started reading it: it had a sequel called Not. Yeah, I knew nothing about this series. So I was pretty confused when volume one starts off with three chapters starring different groups. (Turns out they were one-shots before Ohkubo got the okay to do a serialization.) The first wasn’t so bad (starring Maka and Soul), but the next two confused me with the main characters’ eccentricities. Black Star is a ninja wanna-be without the stealth, and Death the Kid is rendered immobile by things being asymmetrical. It’s fine as a comedy, but the manga gets off to a slow start if you’re expecting a more traditional shounen adventure. The opening chapter certainly lacks the impact of many Shonen Jump series like Naruto or Blue Exorcist. Maka and Soul’s big moment is their ultimate attack…against a cat.

So we meet Maka the scythe meister and her weapon Soul, then Black Star and his weapon Tsubaki, and finally Death and his guns Liz and Patty. They all end up taking remedial classes, and the seven of them end up becoming friends. And they all go on high-ranking missions since the teachers just play second fiddle to the students. While Soul Eater is technically a school adventure manga, it isn’t until the series reaches double-digits that we get to meet more of the school’s students. Strangely enough, the manga acts like the new characters have been relatively important the whole time, giving them a quick introduction to readers. It’s a little disappointing since they end up playing quite a role in the story, usurping much of the teachers’ initial importance.

The double-digit mark is also where the comedy stops overtaking the action. Early battles tend to be on the slow side here thanks to Black Star charging straight through the front door or Death worrying about the toilet paper in his home. Enemies screw up their special attacks, and the most interesting part is learning the antagonists’ names, inspired by myths and fiction. Instead of chapters gearing up for the next dramatic protagonist level up, you wait for the next screw up. In many ways, the early volumes act as more of a parody of typical shounen manga, trading the traditional “I want to be strong!” male protagonist for a female one. The second half of the series has a much more serious tone and some real battles.

This is why I found myself more invested in the antagonists in this series, at least in the early volumes. The first Big Bad is a female Orochimaru from Naruto. But unlike Orochimaru, I was rooting for Medusa’s plot in order to give the heroes an awakening. Maka has a pretty good head on her shoulders, but Black Star and Death the Kid really needed a moment to realize their actions endanger the others. Medusa also plays well opposite Stein, and I liked not always knowing her true motivations.

I must praise Soul Eater for two things: sticking to its theme and not repeatedly introducing new Big Bads. Many shounen (and even some shoujo) stories become very repetitive:

  1. Enemy is introduced.
  2. Fights occur.
  3. Hero(es) become stronger.
  4. Enemy is defeated.
  5. New, even stronger enemies appear.
  6. Repeat Steps 2-5 until the end of the series.

Soul Eater, on the other hand, is about one big war. The protagonists often have the same enemy multiple times. From a logical standpoint, it makes sense that antagonists will retreat either when they’ve stalled enough or are on the brink of defeat. The manga then can spend time on battles, discussions, humor, or whatever instead of having to explain every new Boss’ motivations and abilities. The theme of “madness” runs through both enemy and ally camps, and this also helps tighten up the story. The manga feels more like it goes through different phases rather than different seasons or well-defined arcs. It flows; it connects. Despite the overuse of humor in the early volumes, I wish more manga would follow Soul Eater‘s example in these aspects.

On the downside, I felt the last few volumes were kind of boring. It was too much talk and not enough action. Even the final battle felt like a let down. It’s not terrible, but the ending takes quite a while to build up to despite readers being quite familiar with the situation, enemies, etc. The ending leaves room for a possible continuation. It’s also full of fanservice. Huh? Plus one character I waited the entire manga for never appeared… I don’t think anyone is going to rate the ending as one of the best ever, and it was a little disappointing for the series to decline. At least Ohkubo didn’t drag it on forever, but the story could have easily gone on for several more volumes and dive into some more Maka, Soul, and some other character arcs.

Now, a question for all you literature majors: who is the protagonist here? Who is the hero? Are there more than one of each? Seriously, I’m not being funny. Soul is the titular character, but he and Maka really don’t feel like the heroes or protagonists a lot of the time. This manga should have been Meister Academy or something. Most titular characters are super-special compared to their compatriots and also go through the most character development (Sailor Moon, Naruto). But Black Star and Death the Kid really are the ones who have to grow; they start off pretty unreliable despite their physical strength. Stein has to go through much internal struggles, and I think Medusa is the most interesting character in the manga. I mean, Soul and Maka are nice, but Soul Eater doesn’t feel like it’s their story. They aren’t even around for large chunks of the manga.

On a side note, Maka reminds me of Shizuku from My Little Monster. Not only do they look alike (twin tails), but they are both good students who are sometimes frustrated by others not taking school seriously.

I really like the world in Soul Eater. How many series do you know has a face on the sun and moon? The academy is a gothic castle with almost Escher-like hallways, and Arachne’s headquarters appropriately looks like a spider. These settings look good both in focus shots and as backgrounds, filling in the panels without distracting from the action. It doesn’t look like some computer-generated images stuck behind manga drawings. Speaking of action, the battles are incredibly smooth. Lots of manga tend to have the sound effects hide (or make) the action, but the text never blocks the characters’ attacks. You can actually tell who is doing what and where they are fighting. Character designs range from the pretty basic (Maka) to those who take inspiration from their real-world inspirations (Franken Stein) to ones with the most atrocious hairstyles (Ox). When struck by madness, their faces warp to reflect their insanity. The art then often takes on a different form as well, looking like Love Roma crossed with some of the crazed Vocaloid art (specifically, like the “Matryoshka” PV). One character loses  his grip on reality and remembers a storybook, the illustrations being stick figures. The contrast between him and the pictures is amazing. This is one series where I really can feel the author’s passion and dedication.

Translation:

Honorifics are used. It’s a bit of a surprise since the story is revealed to be set in the U.S. Translation notes are included at the end of each volume. The headmaster is referred to as Shinigami(-sama), which is often translated as “Grim Reaper”. Since “Shinigami” is used more as a name rather than a title or race/species, I can see why this was kept. It’s one of those cases you could go either way. “Kishin” is also kept, but this was adapted to “Afreet” in Funimation’s subtitles for the anime. Stein is called both “doctor” and “professor”.

I was very impressed with Yen Press’ version when I started reading it. I noticed lines were often adapted exactly how I would have handled them. So I may be biased. Then I hit volume seven. I was like, “Why am I not enjoying it so much anymore?” I checked the back, and, sure enough, the translation/adaptation was handled by a different person.

The first thing I noticed about the switch was the uptick in swear words. These were minimal in the opening volumes, but abound in 7+. A lot of these seemed unnecessary, just serving to make the manga seem edgier. I didn’t feel like they were necessary in a lot of cases, and in some cases, they make the text harsher. For example, a group huddles around a lantern. The girl says, in English, “Shit… I shoulda charged you guys for this.” The Japanese line does use “che”, which is often translated as “shit”. However, it’s less harsh than English swear words, almost like a tongue-click. In my opinion, “tsk”, “dang”, or even “damn” keeps her half-sighing, somewhat joking connotation better.

The real issue I had with the second translator is that he’s just too wordy for my tastes. I often read manga without my glasses. In most cases, I don’t have a problem since I’m nearsighted (can’t see far away). However, I had a heck of a time with the later volumes of Soul Eater. The speech bubbles are only so big, so the font often had to be decreased in size in order to fit everything in. Take this speech bubble in volume 12:
“I know this must be hard for you, but I need each of you to follow my orders. If you don’t you could wind up getting caught in one of Arachne’s sensor threads and possibly even lose your life.”
The speech bubble is about an inch and a quarter (32 mm) tall. That’s a whopping 39 words, so the font ends up being rather small. Depending on the font size (and the original text), there had to be a way to trim this line down:
“This may be hard for you, but I need all of you to follow my orders. If not, you may be caught by a sensor thread and die.” (28 words)
“It may be hard, but I need you to follow instructions. If you don’t, Arachne’s sensor threads may detect you, and then you could die.” (25 words)
“You may not like following my directions, but you need to. Otherwise, you could be detected by Arachne’s sensor threads and die.” (23 words)
I’m not saying any of these are perfect, but you get the idea. Ten, fifteen words could have been trimmed from this sentence without losing its meaning. There are several instances of this throughout the later volumes. Wordiness itself is a matter of opinion, but it becomes more of an issue when the font has to keep being reduced in order to fit the text inside a standard speech bubble.

Final Comments:

I’m kind of torn on Soul Eater. I really love the overall plot, but the execution wasn’t always strong. I think in the hands of a co-author or another editor, this manga could have risen to the level of being one of my favorites. As it is, I’m inclined to vote this as a series to borrow rather than own. The volumes are thick and impressive, but I don’t know if that’s enough to tip the scales, especially when you can get some Shonen Jump 3-in-1 omnibuses for slightly more than a single volume of Soul Eater ($14.99 vs $13.00 MSRP).

Soul Eater has a sequel/spin-off Soul Eater Not!, also available from Yen Press. Both the Soul Eater and Soul Eater Not! anime series are available from Funimation.

Yes Press also published Ohkubo’s B. Ichi manga.

Reader Rating


5/5 (1)

10 Comments

  1. The Fullmetal Narcissist

    I’ve seen the anime, but I haven’t read the manga, which I keep hearing is superior… But after reading your review, it sounds like both stories contain a lot of the same problems.

    I touched on the ‘main character’ issue in my own series review, but I looked at it a bit differently. If the weapon of the team is the one who’s going to be rewarded with becoming a Death Scythe, then why is the Meister always the more driven party? Why are they the ambitious ones, who look towards their goals, while their weapons largely just play support roles? We never meet Maka’s mom in the anime, so at least in that medium, it’s never explained what Meisters have to gain from the arrangement.

    Also, Maka? If you pay attention, she never shows the audience any signs of her allegedly exemplary intelligence.

    In any case, great review.

    Reply
    1. krystallina

      I went through this whole series waiting for Maka’s mom. She never shows up there either…

      But that’s a good point you make about the Meisters. The weapons get a promotion, the Meisters get a pat on the back or something?

      Reply
      1. The Fullmetal Narcissist

        And yet it’s the meisters that are more driven to succeed.

        Reply
  2. Kapodaco

    Noticed a few typos and grammar errors, but an all-around informative and surprisingly frank review. Very well done.

    Reply
    1. krystallina

      Thank you very much.

      Reply
  3. The Otaku Judge

    I can understand Death’s concerns. There’s nothing worse than using the crapper only to discover that you are out of toilet paper.

    Reply
    1. krystallina

      B-b-b-but is it folded nicely?! How can anyone shoot their guns in a life-or-death battle when the toilet paper may not be folded correctly?! It’s a huge problem!

      Reply
  4. dreager1

    The second translation was really bad imo. The excessive swearing was terrible, but I never realized that it just came out of nowhere. That’s interesting to hear and now I definitely wish that the original translation team had stuck around. I actually dropped the series near the end because the fanservice just got too be too much and the constant language started to grate at me as well. I thought that the anime was handled really well though.

    Reply
    1. krystallina

      Yeah, I have no idea why the second translator felt like they had to have so much swearing. Forgot who did the opening volumes, but they need to be in charge of more work.
      I just sampled a little bit of the anime, but it did seem well-done. “The Academy” definitely flows nicer than DWMA.

      Reply
  5. Pingback: I’ve Got 99 Souls but a Witch ain’t One – A Soul Eater Review – Weekend Otaku

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