Review for Soul Eater: Part 4
If there is one thing that I like to do, it's to prolong the anticipation, although only for something that I have been really looking forward to. I don't appreciate being rushed or pressured, but I don't mind a bit of procrastination, a little extra eagerness building up before I finally get around to partaking of something. Soul Eater is hardly the show that I would have categorised as one that would tingle my anime taste buds when it started, a shonen action show in much the same vein as those endless filler-fests that are the lowest common denominator of the medium, but that for some reason everyone else seems to love more than anything else. But Soul Eater turned out to be nothing like that. It's finite at just 51 episodes, it's fast paced, it's quirky, it's cool, and it's alluring. It quickly became one of my favourite releases of the year, and I have been anticipating its conclusion with an eagerness that's probably unseemly in a person of my age. I got the check discs pretty early, but as I review these things in release order, they went to the bottom of the pile, and then quickly worked their way back up. But prolonging the anticipation meant that for once I was glad that a selection of Naruto check discs turned up a few weeks later. Naruto Shippuden Part 4 is released on the same day, and reviewing that first meant that I could delay watching Soul Eater for a few more days. God, I'm petty!
Soul Eater is set in a world that was once terrorised to submission by the darkest of souls. Evil people's souls gradually turn from bright and shiny, into warped red Kishin Eggs, and it's the Kishin that go ahead and cause trouble. It was the shinigami that saved the world by reaping these Kishin, and by reaping the evildoers before their tainted souls can hatch. Chief among them was Death himself, but the ultimate personification of mortality can't handle all this by himself, which is why he's now the headmaster of the Death Weapon Meister Academy. Weapon Meisters are those people who have the skills and talent to reap souls. They do this by using human weapons, partners who literally transform into weapons to reap souls. To graduate and become a shinigami, a Meister and his weapon need to reap 99 evil souls, and one witch, after which the weapon will become a fully-fledged Death Scythe. Soul Eater introduces and follows three unconventional partnerships, Maka and Soul Eater, who aspire to ultimate coolness, Black * Star and Tsubaki, who are hampered by Black * Star's ego, and the son of the Grim Reaper himself, Death the Kid, for whom symmetry is the ultimate goal, and his twin weapons, Patty and Liz.
Manga Entertainment presents the concluding 12 episodes of Soul Eater across two discs, and you can read the episode synopses on the next page. If you want to avoid those spoilers, you can go straight to page 3 for the verdict, where there no doubt will be more spoilers anyway.
Soul Eater gets a 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer, but for this final volume of episodes, Madman Entertainment in Australia, who provide the PAL source that Manga use for their discs in the UK, have created a native PAL transfer. It's something that they are doing more and more of for anime down under, and it's about time too. Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood recently showed up in native PAL for volume 2, and so has Eden of the East. For Soul Eater it means a brilliant, smooth and clear transfer to DVD, taking full advantage of the higher resolution, free of interlacing, judder or ghosting, although subject to a 4% PAL speedup. Of course there is that slight regret that the consistency of having all four sets of episodes this way isn't possible, but the change to native PAL had to start somewhere, and the high quality NTSC-PAL conversions of the first three sets aren't to be sniffed at.
I feel that Soul Eater's transfer is of such clarity that it must be taken from an HD source. I have yet to see a television anime as sharp, detailed and well defined as this one (Indeed, Funimation have announced that they will release Soul Eater Blu-rays in the US next year). It's a good thing too, as with studio Bones behind the animation, the transfer really does the vibrant, fluid and energetic animation justice. Also, Shinji Aramaki of Bubblegum Crisis fame is behind the show's concept designs, and Soul Eater is a quirky, memorable visual explosion of an anime, stylish and possessing a punk sensibility, which puts me in mind of FLCL, although nowhere near as intense. It's still the kind of visual aesthetic that you have to strap yourself in for.
The sound comes in DD 5.1 English and DD 2.0 Japanese options, with translated English subtitles or a signs only track. The surround is quite nice given all the action, but the minute you hear the evil looking CG sun in the sky, evil-laughing his head off, you realise that you're in for something of an audio treat. Soul Eater is definitely a little left field in its sound design. The music comes from Taku Iwasaki, of R.O.D. and Witch Hunter Robin fame, and it definitely suits the show well. He also appears to have taken some inspiration from British pop music, as I'm sure I heard hints of Mis-teeq and The Chemical Brothers in some of the music. The English dub is more than acceptable, courtesy of Funimation, but I have taken a liking to the Japanese track more than usual this time, as I find that Maka's voice actress is particularly quirky, and suits the pugnacious heroine down to a T.
40. The Cards are Cut - Medusa Surrenders to the DWMA?
The first Kishin escaped, Arachne resurrected and wreaking havoc, and now it seems teaming up with the first Kishin, madness spreading through the world, and taking its toll on the students and faculty of the DWMA… Things weren't looking good, but then Medusa showed up and surrendered. You'd think that would be a step in the right direction, but even in a cell, in chains, awaiting judgement, Medusa is scheming and plotting. Maka has a whole lot of hate for her, given what Medusa has done to Crona, but Medusa's plan is insidious. She wants to meet with Death, she wants to make a deal, and she has just the sort of information that can buy her freedom and her safety. As Arachne and the first Kishin amplify the madness that is spreading around the world, it only sows more dissension and distrust in the DWMA when the students see Medusa calmly walking out of the school, free as a bird.
41. Twirl 'Round and 'Round - A New World in Which the Doc Dances?
Stein has vanished from the DWMA, and with madness spreading through the world, they can't spare the people to find him. It's far more important to deal with the problem at hand, and Joe Buttataki may have found a way into The Brew, the ultimate Eibon tool. They need another Eibon tool though to make it work, which would be an ideal mission for Kid, except that his mistrust of the DWMA's methods is growing since Medusa's release. It's also a problem for Crona, who has been imprisoned since betraying Stein and spying for Medusa. Crona wants to put things right, and face Medusa down if necessary to do so. But trusting Crona to rescue Stein doesn't come easy, which is why the Death Scythe Marie insists on helping him. As for Stein, he's taking a trip through his own personal madness. And waiting for him on the other side is Medusa.
42. Charge Baba Yaga's Castle! Things are Kind of Gloomy?
Madness is sweeping the world, time is running out, and the DWMA will have to act if it wants to defeat the plans of Arachne and the first Kishin. So why is Maka so depressed? She ought to be eager to get into the fray, but she's uncertain about the DWMA's priorities, or rather her own given recent events. She wants to find and help Crona, she want to rescue Doctor Stein, but her gloominess is bringing everyone down. It's up to Soul to remind Maka of who she really is. Besides, it seems that the DWMA really isn't to be trusted anymore, as the attack they have sent against Arachne is big, too big. Arachne sees it coming early enough to prepare a devastating defence.
43. The Last Magic Tool - Mission Impossible for Unarmed Kid?
Death the Kid has been given an incomprehensible mission when he ought to be on the front lines with everyone else, fighting Arachne. He's been ordered to find and retrieve the last Eibon tool, the key that will activate The Brew. It's in the Sarcophagus, a village where mysteriously everyone disappeared twenty years ago, and anyone who went in to investigate vanished as well. Since then it has been sealed away behind massive walls, a veritable ghost town. Liz is afraid of ghosts, and Patty won't leave Liz, which means Kid will have to go in without his guns. He finds the key, and he finds a couple of killer clown monsters that guard it. If he can retrieve it, he will have another decision to make, whether he can trust the DWMA with it at all…
44. Weakling Crona's Determination - For You, for Always Being by My Side?
Maka's made her mind up to go and rescue Crona, and stalwart Soul is by her side as always. Except running around aimlessly isn't helping. As a last ditch, she tries her soul resonance abilities in a small hope of finding Crona. Crona and Marie in the meantime have found Medusa's lair, and Stein, but facing mother dearest still makes Crona quake in fear. Besides, with Medusa inhabiting little Rachel's body, there is little that they can do to her. That doesn't mean that they won't try, but it does mean that Medusa doesn't have to hold back when it comes to killing Marie and Crona. And she has an ace in the hole, Stein.
45. Anti-Magic Wavelength - Fierce Attack, the Anger Filled Genie Hunter?
Maka gets there, but is she in time to save Crona? The trouble is that anger has clouded her common sense, and she's going after Medusa with no thought or plan. It leaves her defences wide open, and Medusa takes an opportunity when Stein distracts Maka. It would be curtains for Maka if it weren't for Crona. But seeing Crona taken down by Medusa nudges Maka over the line, and she too drowns in the madness that has taken Stein.
46. Warrior or Slaughterer? Showdown: Mifune vs. Black*Star?
Even as Maka's personal feud with Medusa comes to a head, the DWMA's campaign against Arachne and the first Kishin continues. The madness relays are being picked off one by one, and the forces are closing on Arachne's lair in Baba Yaga's castle. Eager as always, it's Black * Star who gets there first, only to come face to face with his perennial nemesis, Mifune the Samurai. This will be no simple battle though, as at stake is Black * Star's very soul. It may all be pointless, as Arachne has ordered the use of a doomsday weapon against the DWMA. Meanwhile Death the Kid has returned to the Academy with the final Eibon tool that unlocks The Brew. He's reluctant to hand it over before he settles his doubts. He's totally floored when his dad gives him a straight answer. If that isn't enough, Excalibur shows up to deliver the explanation.
47. The Miraculous Coffee Table Flip - Fly. Our Death City Robot?
So here's the problem, Death's soul is bound to the city, and has been ever since the first Kishin was confined, and he can't leave. However, Death wants to be in the fray, fighting Arachne and Asura, the first Kishin. The Brew is the ultimate magical tool, that grants its users truest desire. So naturally when Death activates it, it turns Death City into a giant walking robot. Which is useful, as Arachne's castle has turned into a giant robotic spider that needs swatting. It's too absurd for words, but who cares, as long as the Kishin is recaptured…
48. Lord Death Wields a Death Scythe - Just One Step From Utter Darkness?
Asura is back in Death's domain, and he isn't going anywhere until he faces Death once and for all. And Death isn't feeling all that accommodating and forgiving. Maka and Soul arrive back in time to go after Arachne, while Black * Star and Mifune are searching the castle for Mifune's charge Angela. It all looks as if it's all over bar the mopping up. Except Death hasn't figured on Asura's determination. And worse, Asura has figured out what Death's fatal weakness is.
49. Asura Wakes - To the End of the World?
Asura has retreated to heal his wounds, and he sets up an impenetrable barrier before doing so. If the barrier closes, he'll be untouchable, and the madness will continue to spread. But just in time, Maka and Soul, Black * Star and Tsubaki, and Kid, Patty and Liz make it through to battle the monster. They'll be relying on Soul's ability to resonance link to provide them with the skills and strengths that they need. But Soul's talent is based on the madness that comes from the black blood. Will that even have an effect on the first Kishin, and what will overusing it do to Soul? In the middle of the battle, the worst happens.
50. Sink or Swim?! The Men who Transcend the Gods?
It will be up to Maka to rescue Soul, who is trapped inside his hallucination. The only chance she has is if Kid and Black * Star can buy her enough time. But Soul's subconscious has a trap set for her, and she walks straight in. But as Kid and Black * Star fight against desperate odds, they know that the only chance they have is if Maka and Soul can somehow get back in the fight.
51. The Word is Bravery!
Both discs get simple and effective presentation, static menus and jacket pictures.
The commentary this time is on Disc 1 and it accompanies episode 44. Colleen Clinkenbeard (Marie), Monica Rial (Tsubaki), and Maxey Whitehead (Crona), get together and have twenty minutes worth of giggles. "This is one of the most aimless commentaries in the entire world", notes Colleen Clinkenbeard during the session. I am forced to agree.
You'll find the Soul Eater Late Show on disc 2. These are normally those 90-second skits that you find tacked onto the end of an episode; here all twelve are collected into one 20-minute Play-All chunk, although you can select them individually. Each bit usually comprises fan service, comedy skit, preview and art gallery, and some of them are quite entertaining.
You get the second textless opening, and the fourth textless ending. Unlike the main feature, these and the Soul Eater Late Show are still presented in good old-fashioned NTSC-PAL.
The last anime release of 2010 is the perfect note to end the year on. Soul Eater has been the unexpected delight of the year, a shonen action show that has defied the low expectations of its genre, to provide a belt of quirky and stylish entertainment. The animation has been sublime, the music has been catchy, and the action magnificent. It's cast of idiosyncratic characters have been far enough removed from the usual anime clichés for Soul Eater to be one of those shows that make you feel as if you are rediscovering the medium anew. It feels like FLCL crossed with Naruto, and the first three volumes were an utter blast. This final fourth volume doesn't let the quality sag in the slightest, indeed, the pace, intensity and imagination gets pushed up another notch, and I was glued to the screen for its PAL sped-up runtime. Of course there is the usual conniptions that arise around manga versus anime, and there are those who find Soul Eater's anime ending to be inferior to the manga. I don't care. I haven't seen the manga, and I found the ending to be pitched just right, doing justice to the characters and the story that has been building for the last 51 episodes.
It does look at first as if Soul Eater is losing steam though, as the early episodes on this disc, with Stein's disappearance, Medusa's capture and then release, Death the Kid's mistrust of the DWMA, and Maka's depression over Crona and the whole situation, takes the show in a rather dark and gloomy direction. Which is understandable given that the story is coming to a conclusion, stakes are being raised, and the situation is serious. But with the added weightiness of the story, it feels as if that tongue-in-cheek irreverence that so typifies this series has begun to drain away. There are still odd flashes of absurdity in the first few episodes in this collection, but they are like little fireflies in the darkest depths of night, as opposed to the scintillating brilliance that I have come to expect. There are diversions to Black * Star's cocksure attack on Arachne's castle, and Death the Kid's retrieval of the last Eibon tool that do divert from the oppressive feeling, but when the focus is on Medusa, Stein, Crona and Maka, it's all action and character drama. It is great stuff though, gripping, edge of the seat entertainment. There is also a lot of visceral satisfaction to be had to see Crona finally standing up to Medusa, and Maka working out all of her issues with the manipulative witch. I did feel a dilution of the unique Soul Eater flavour though.
But it comes back full strength for the final arc, the confrontation with the Kishin and Arachnophobia and the resolution of the series. It helps of course that Death takes centre stage at this point, and he is as unlikely a grim reaper as you can imagine (He tones down the soul collector attitude for the sake of his students' sanity). During the battle with the Kishin, you do see the original dark entity unleashed, but the sense of humour and laid-back attitude is never far behind. The battle with Arachnophobia ends in an absurd a way as possible, with Death City transformed into a giant robot, which does battle with a robotic castle. What make it priceless are the reactions of the characters, especially Death the Kid, who can hardly take what is happening seriously. It's a hilarious pastiche of certain elements of the anime industry, and one of the highlights of the conclusion. Of course in small doses such humour is spot-on, but imagine a constant bombardment of that sort of comedy and imagery. I don't have to imagine. I've seen Gurren Lagann and that made my brain hurt.
You can't end on such an absurd note, so things get serious indeed when the battle becomes more personal, Death versus the First Kishin. But once again, humour and wit is never far away, as for the conclusion, the obnoxious sword Excalibur has arrived to commentate on proceedings. And for the conclusion of the show, it all comes down to the central characters, Death the Kid, Liz and Patty, Black * Star and Tsubaki, and of course Maka and Soul. Three tense and entertaining episodes where the balance tips from one side to another, where reversals and unexpected plot revelations occur, and where we get an ending that I personally found to be very satisfying, and perfectly suited to the characters.
If I do have an issue, it's that there wasn't enough room for an epilogue, and while the story resolution was great, there ought to have been some greater character resolution. I tell a lie, there is an epilogue. It's in a teeny tiny box, squeezed to one side of the screen while the end credits play. You do get an idea of what happens to the characters afterwards, but you have to squint a bit. The perfect solution of course would be to make another Soul Eater series. Anyone…? Anyone at all?
Soul Eater is great fun, and in many ways it is the perfect anime. It is thoroughly mainstream in terms of story, and of its target audience. But its production values, the animation, the music, the acting, would normally be invested in a far more prestigious and probably elitist genre. Then the quirkiness of its style, the breathtaking imagination and scope, and the sheer originality of it marks it as the cutting edge of anime, almost an experimental work of the sort that no one sees except awards ceremony judges. Except this is mainstream entertainment aimed at a general audience. Which is why you would really be treating yourself if you invest in this and the preceding volumes.