22 Years On, Shaman King Is STILL a Shonen Standout

In June 2020, a new anime adaption was announced for the Shonen Jump manga series Shaman King, one that will adapt all 35 volumes of its source material. It's rare for a manga to ever get a second chance with its anime adaption aside from the extremely popular likes of Fullmetal Alchemist and Fruit Basket. What about Hiroyuki Takei's shonen battle manga is so strong that it worth giving it a second chance at an anime?

The story centers around Yoh Asakura, an odd young boy who hangs around a tucked-away little graveyard. He meets a high strung young man named Manta, and the two soon get along. Yoh is actually a shaman, which means he's able to communicate with spirits. Off the bat, Yoh is quite different from the typical shonen protagonist archetype. He's quiet and calm, preferring to go with the flow rather than to force his way with other people. He's not hot-blooded or obsessed with becoming the very strongest, all Yoh likes to do is chill out and listen to his favorite music.

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A scene that does an excellent job of showing what kind of person Yoh is comes in Chapter #27. Yoh and his friends have been made aware of the Shaman Fight, the cataclysmic event that determines the Shaman King every 500 years. On a beautiful night, Yoh's taking in the stars with his spirit companion, Amidamaru, a samurai who died over 600 years ago. Amidamaru confesses to Yoh that he worries for his safety because, as a spirit, he can never become stronger than his current state so up to Yoh to grow as they face the tougher challenges that lie ahead. But Yoh isn't worried, instead he figures that worrying about the future is futile, and "grasping at the present is more important." The fact that this 14-year-old boy was able to comfort a 600-year-old samurai not only speaks to Yoh's gentle aura but also Amidamaru's humanity.

Takei's art is overflowing with personality and style. He gives his characters large expressive eyes and thick outlines so they always stand out across the page. He's excellent at creating fun and unique character designs. Yoh can always be identified by his trademark headphones and laid back posture, and his fiance, the itako Anna, has her stern glare and bead necklace. One of the best designs has to be the bandit spirit Tokagero; gangly and repugnant, his long face and hunched over stance brings out the best in this villain-turned-ally.

Then there's Takei's gorgeous background work. Takei would punctuate dramatic scenes with starry night skies that would give any scene an underlying feeling of mystery and wonder. Considering how time-consuming it would be to fill in a page completely black within a weekly mangaka's schedule, his backgrounds are highly worthy of praise. It's obvious Takei has a great understanding of what makes a great character design and background art, but how does he make his world and characters stand out as well?

Like pirates in One Piece and ninjas in Naruto, Shaman King uses the backdrop of shamans, but Takei takes it one step further. Shamans have existed across a multitude of different cultures and periods and Takei borrows from all it to craft some unique characters from all walks of life. Early on, Yoh faces off against the Chinese Taoist, Tao Jun, and her corpse doll, Lee Pyron. Unlike traditional shamans who communicate with spirits to borrow their power, as a Taoist, Jun can resurrect corpses will follow any order she gives them. If such a corpse happens to be a kung fu master like Lee Pyron, trying to defeat him is a deadly obstacle. But Jun isn't the only shaman outlier. Typical shamans can only communicate with spirits still of this world, but Yoh's fiancee, Anna, is an itako, which means she's not only able to communicate with spirits who have already passed on, but she can summon them from anywhere across the world. You'd think the ability to craft interesting and unique characters would be enough, but Takei is also adept at making unique and standout fight scenes.

Every fight feels fresh and different because of how strong Takei is at crafting different powersets. When Yoh and Amidamaru face Silva, the Native American shaman who's also an official for the Shaman Fight, you can feel the tension in the air. If they can't damage Silva, their journey ends here. Later when the pair face Faust VIII, a descendant of the famous German alchemist, they're at a disadvantage from before the fight even begins. Faust is revealed to be a necromancer, able to reanimate corpses as zombies, this becomes a problem when their field of battle is a cemetery. The aspects of Shaman King done well are worthy of praise, but the series isn't without its flaws.

The biggest issue readers may have reading Shaman King for the first time is, unfortunately, with one of its most prominent characters, Manta. Manta is a normal teen who befriends Yoh early on and is essentially an audience surrogate. While there's nothing inherently wrong with having one, it's how Takei uses Manta that makes him so insufferable. The fights in Shaman King are kinetic and fast, but they often get broken up by Manta's constantly annoying reactions to what's happening. Although Manta does have his occasional stand-out moments, such as when he fights Ryu just to get a sword for Yoh, those come much later in the series.

The second issue is an all too common shonen problem: underutilized female characters. Although Anna's deadpan and confrontational personality is fun, she doesn't have a major role in the story beyond supporting Yoh. The same goes for the few other female characters there are like Jun and Tamao, who are only used infrequently at best.

That being said, Shaman King excels at personality and style in ways few shonen mangas can hardly grasp. It's a shame it never got the same recognition its contemporaries did back in the day. However, with a new anime adaption over the horizon, things look hopeful in this quest to be Shaman King.

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