I’ve just spent several days sick, and during that time I took the opportunity to tackle a manga/anime that has been on my radar for a long time, although it was far away from the top of my priority list. Partly because it’s a long-running martial arts shounen series, which means you need to be in the right mindset to properly enjoy it, or at least judge it fairly. Also because it has a pretty bad reputation in certain parts of the anime community, specially critics. But, on the other hand, I was a bit sceptical of that scepticism, since “shounen series” has practically become a dirty word for Western anime critics, to ridiculous degrees in my opinion (among other things because they insist in forget the word “shounen” refers to a target audience, not a genre).
The manga/anime in question is Hiro Mashima’s Fairy Tail.
This is the first opening of the 2014 relaunch. It just so happens to be my favorite
I gotta say I’m going to talk more from my experience with the manga than with the anime, since I’m further ahead. To be precise, in the manga I’m past mid-way through the Grand Magic Games arc, while in the anime I’ve seen mostly up until the Tower of Heaven arc, with some scenes from later arcs seen here and there. So this is not a review of the show (which would be pointless, given it’s still ongoing), but rather a long rant.
I had already started following the series a few months ago, but due to several factors, I hadn’t fully immersed myself in it. However, what I read got me that weird feeling you sometimes get when you see something you feel you’ve outgrown, but you know if you were the age of its target audience, you’d absolutely adore it. I don’t know about you, but that feeling sometimes is enough to keep me going, and that was exactly what happened to me with Fairy Tail.
As for the setting… I’ll let the opening narration to do the work:
In a land far, far away lies the kingdom of Fiore, a small, peaceful nation of 17 million, and a place filled with magic. Found in every home, bought and sold in every marketplace. For most magic is merely a tool, a mundane part of everyday life. For some, however, magic is an art, and they’ve devoted their lives to its practice. These are the wizards. Banded together into magical guilds, they ply their skills in search of fame and fortune. Many such guilds dot the landscape of Fiore. But there is a certain guild in a certain town that soars high above the rest, one from which countless legends have been born. A guild that will no doubt continue to create legends well into the future. Its name… is Fairy Tail.
The story starts off with the main character, a 17 year old girl named Lucy Heartfillia, looking for a way to join Fairy Tail, the guild of her dreams, and start her career as a wizard. After getting herself involved in an incident with some shady mages, Lucy meets Natsu, another 17 year old boy who so happens to be a member of Fairy Tail, and he invites her to join it. There, Lucy meets the rest of the guild members, and embarks in all kinds of missions that send them off to great adventures.
And… that’s pretty much it. Of course, the adventures get bigger and bigger as the show progresses, and eventually the stories involve threats that have, no only the entire world in jeopardy, but also parallel universes and even there’s time travel.
So far, despite myself a little bit, I’m really enjoying it. However, I can see why it can rub some people the wrong way. It’s a very simplistic series, and Mashima’s writing has some characteristics that seem tailored to piss off certain audiences: there are speeches about the Power of Friendship like they’re going out of style, he consciously refuses to kill off characters 95% of the time (yes, this includes bad guys that totally deserve it. It’s something he does on principle), he relies on Deus Ex Machina power-ups at the drop of a hat, the sense of humor is the basic over-the-top style of the genre and the male lead, Natsu, is yet again based in the “idiot Hero” archetype. And then there’s the fanservice, but we’ll get to that.
On the flip side, the strongest point of Fairy Tail in my opinion is that 100% earnest. There’s not a ounce of cynicism in the show, and it’s incredibly honest about what it wants to be. Plus, it’s a shounen series that fully embraces emotion, and it actively tries to make you cry just as much as it tries to thrill you. And the truth is, Mashima manages to pull off genuine tearjerkers on a regular basis. Considering his self-imposed “Thou Shalt Not Kill” rule, that’s quite an achievement. Even if said rules undermines most of it and prevents him to achieve these scenes’ full potential.
Plus, the characters are memorable for the most part. Obviously, being this a long running series with huge cast, it takes a while until we get to know all of them. And not all of them are particularly deep or complex. But they are fleshed out enough to make you care for all of them, and Mashima has a good hand for character interaction. This is important, since THE biggest theme in Fairy Tail is the meaning of family. The guild is one huge surrogate family for its members, and the bonds between them is one of the main elements of the show. And yes, the show is subtle about this as a bag of bricks thrown to the face from two feet away, but at the same time is so sincere it’s very easy to get hooked.
Also, this is probably the most gender-balanced main cast in a martial arts shounen series ever! The proportion is practically 50%, which is something extremely rare in the genre. Especially considering that, even though Natsu is be the main “hero”, the main “character” title would actually be Lucy’s (both inside of the limitations of this being an ensemble cast). The core of the main cast starts off with 4 characters, 2 males and 2 females: Natsu and Gray, and Lucy and Erza, respectively. And later on the balance is tipped towards the females with the inclusion of Wendy. That’s a trend that extends to the rest of the Fairy Tail guild. But more important than that is that the females are powerhouses on their own right, and their importance in the plot is unquestionably on par with their male counterparts. No character shows this better than Erza, the de-facto leader of the core cast, and a character that has become one of the most respected female characters in recent anime history. It doesn’t surprise me this show has such a big female fanbase despite being targeted to teenage boys.
Although, of course, this brings me to the aforementioned fanservice. Because, yes, Fairy Tail is packed with it. The vast majority of the female cast rock bodies that are Victoria Secret multiplied by Playboy during the 90s, elevated to anime, and Mashima has no qualms in showing them in skimpy outfits. However, although the show definitely favours the male gaze (it’s still a shounen after all), the female gaze is far from unattended. Most male characters rank between “bishounen” pretty boys and absolute hunks. Heck! The running gag of Gray, one of the core four, is that he unconsciously strips down to his underwear at the drop of a hat, sporting a rock solid 6-pack. Whether that softens the blow or not, depends on you.
I’ll say this though: it’s not as bad as I thought it would be. Despite the skimpy outfits, Mashima doesn’t draw contrived poses or angles to make them more suggestive that often (although they still happen, mind you). At least what I’ve read so far. Of course, your mileage may vary on this one… and I’ve heard things get worse pretty soon from where I’ve left it, to the point even Mashima had to apologize and admit he got it out of hand. Oh, well…
Now talking more about the anime itself, it’s handled by A-1 Pictures (the show had a hiatus between 2012 and 2014, after which it came back with a new animation team). However, this being an ongoing long running series, it has pronounced ups and downs in the animation quality. Unsurprisingly, since in this shows they need to basically save their budgets for the stand out moments, and that means many episodes feel rushed and unpolished. The main combat scenes, on the other hands, are pretty good. Not to the point of other, more focused series, like the Fate/stay night series. But enough to make them nice to look at.
However, there is one thing that deserves praise, and that’s its pacing. For the uninitiated, ongoing long running series have the conundrum of having to make sure they never catch up with their source material, since then they wouldn’t have any material left to adapt. One of the most infamous ways to deal with this is to stretch the story as much as possible and slow down the pace to a crawl. Normally by adding padding and filler whenever possible. And this genre is infamous for this practice since the days of Dragon Ball Z. However, Fairy Tail avoids this for the most part! Most fights last for one episode tops, and those which don’t, more often than not are against the arc Big Bad. Definitely a positive thing.
Another thing that deserves praise is the soundtrack. Composed by Yasuharu Takanishi, it takes some clear Celtic influences mixed with modern rock rhythms and creates one hell of a score! Special mention to the original Fairy Tail Main Theme, which is one of the most iconic anime themes in recent memory. Here’s my favourite rendition, the Tenrou Island version. Don’t miss it:
Overall, I think this is not a bad show at all. Despite its flaws, I find it quite charming in its own way, and I consider it a good representative of the genre. It’s definitely not for everyone, but I’d say if you like some good action with characters that you’d enjoy spending a long time with, this is definitely worth checking out.
PS: On a different note, having such a balanced gender ratio has one inevitable consequence: Shipping. Shipping EVERYWHERE. Seriously, this series has enough ships to build an entire goddamn fleet and take over the world! so if you are into that, you’re bound to find one that you like (I’d lie if I didn’t say I have a soft spot for the “NaLu” and “JeRza” ships myself…)