Shaman King Anime Review
US Release By
The Best Yu-gi-oh Ripoff in Known Existence
64 25-minute Episodes
2001-07-04 - 2002-09-25
One day, the nerdy Manta Oyamada (referred to in the dub as "Morty") is taking a shortcut home through the cemetery. While doing so, he sees his weird classmate Yoh Asakura hanging out with a bunch of ghosts. No one at school believes him, and Yoh disavows any knowledge of seeing Manta before, so Manta sneaks back the next night to get a picture (I thought you couldn't take pictures of ghosts?). But instead of ghosts, he sees some gang (in the dub they're called the "Dead-Enders," but in the manga they had no name). Their leader, Ryuu (Rio), who has a pompadour, smashes the tomb of Amidamaru, a samurai who was killed during the Muromachi Era (1300-1650 or something like that). Amidamaru was also called "The Fiend." The gang beats up Manta, so the next day Yoh acknowledges their meeting and they go back the next night. Just when it looks like they're both dead, Yoh uses his powers as a "shaman" to integrate with the ghost of Amidamaru (it's like being voluntarily possessed) and fights them off. He also cuts off Ryuu's pompadour with a wooden grave marker (talk about ridiculous stretching of sword material properties).
Shaman King just started on Fox, backed by a synergistic (is that even a word?) ad campaign to capitalize on its publication in Shounen Jump. I happen to subscribe to Shounen Jump, so a lot of this review is based off the manga and a few anime episodes. Shounen Jump anime, with the exceptions of Yuu Yuu Hakusho and Rurouni Kenshin, are almost always identical to the manga versions except with some repeated animation during fights to fill a half-hour. Look at Dragon Ball Z; hit for hit, word for word, you can track the anime and manga versions against each other (except the long segments in the anime of two people floating in midair with no arms or legs and some big black lines flashing).
When I first read Shaman King in Shounen Jump, it was a complete dark horse. I knew nothing about it, and I had no idea what to expect. Well, the first couple chapters I read convinced me that this was an original, unique manga (and by extension, anime). Then I read my third chapter, where Ren showed up. Guess what: we get to listen to more Yu-gi-oh talk about ghosts being your friends or whether they should be a tool.
Saying this is a travesty is too good. In fact, it would take more words than this entire review for me to lump enough adjectives up to explain how terrible that was to see. In an interview with Shounen Jump, manga author Hiroyuki Takei admits, in many more words, that Shaman King is a smash-your-head-against-the-wall piece of crap potboiler because he wants to be rich. I guess it worked, didn't it, you slimy bastard? He also says that when you're an unknown, you can make things good and original because no one will care one way or the other, but once you hit "the bigtime," you have to make things suck because people will buy what sucks. Apparently there's no market for a unique, honestly-written work in the entire world and The Lord of the Rings isn't a fixture in the minds of pop culture after almost being turned down for publishing.
But though I often use the word in casual speech, I don't like to say that things "suck" in reviews very often because it isn't a very informative thing to say. The story segments apply to both anime and manga, but the technical section will mainly be concerned with the anime. So let's go into storyline. Channeling ghosts into one's body and using their powers has to be one of the coolest powers ever conceived. Think of the possibilities! Integrate Bruce Lee and go beat up Jackie Chan! (There's a character who does almost that exact thing). Integrate Napoleon and take over the world! Integrate Yoshiyuki Tomino and make a mecha anime that isn't a ripoff of Eva! It seems like a very far cry from other "partnership" storylines, because when Yoh and Amidamaru integrate then Amidamaru just kind of controls everything, using a stick as a sword to fight with. But it was obviously planned this way from the beginning. Another big part of the plot is the "Shaman Fight," a fight to decide who becomes the Shaman King (he can talk to God!). Imagine--
Ren: Hand over God like a good boy!
Yoh: No! God is my friend! I won't hand him over like he's an object!
Ren: (laughs raucously) God is your friend?! Where did you get an idea like that?!
The Shaman fight is yet another lame tournament between stereotype-themed competitors from different countries. So even though I have to give Takei credit for inventing the coolest power I've ever seen in an anime, that doesn't make up for the fact that he's an unscrupled moron who couldn't come up with a story if the Shaman King asked God to have the Devil dangle his toes over a white-hot inferno.
Yet another part of this anime/manga that was a huge loss was the characterization. They're all shallow, stereotyped characters, but like Yuu Yuu Hakusho there were a few spins put on it. Manta is mostly just a big fat nerd, and Amidamaru is a bumbling invincible warrior. Yoh, instead of being gung-ho and go-get-'em, is actually a slacker. He just likes to sit around and blast his headphones, and not do anything. To that end, his parents set him up in an arranged marriage with Anna (who apparently appeared in some of Takei's earlier manga that he didn't feel the need to make suck). Anna is the cruel and heartless shrew. The characterization would never carry the show/manga, but it was definitely not the part that needed fixing. The only defective characters are Ren and his sister, two Chinese (?) shamans who "Treat ghosts like a tool!" because, as they say, "Is a carpenter 'friends' with his saw?!" Those two were basically the huge loss, along with the only stimulus to become JAYR (Just Another Yugioh Ripoff).
In the manga, a lot of the art was done in a "graffiti" style, which is like a hip-hop hood type thing. I hate, despise, and loathe hip-hop and hood culture (if you can call it that); on the other hand, I love distinctive art styles in anime (for example, one of The Soul Taker's only good points was its baroque/Gothic style artwork, and there's Big O's Batman-influenced designs), so I liked the manga's art. In the anime, on the other hand, this was toned down a lot. Manta never really applied to this style, but some characters like Yoh and even Amidamaru did. It's very small details, like the way Yoh stands or bends his arms (both too straight and angular) that rob the anime of the manga's style. They also shoved in WAY too many computer graphics to do the most banal of tasks, like panning around the back of Manta's head. And finally, either they gave Ryuu a stupid beard or the Fox people painted it on so they could make people think he was Spanish (In the manga, Ryuu pops up often as a running joke, looking for his "happy place" and usually getting beat down by the chapter's villain).
The music all had its bleeding heart ripped out and replaced with a rotten hamburger of crappy keyboard ditties. The original Japanese opening was mediocre, but it was much better than the wailing chorus of "To be Shaman King! Shaman King! Shaman King!" Finally, there's the dub, which was a 1275 Mongol invasion of Japan no matter how you look at it (In other words, it was getting its ass kicked anyway when a typhoon came along and sunk every backup soldier it had). The writing is filled with cliches and puns, and only becomes worse once Ren shows his Alfalfa-resembling mug on screen. The voices are all terrible. Manta sounds... well, I'm not sure what he sounds like, but it isn't a nerd. Maybe one of those nerds in a romantic comedy, actually, except after a delightful meal of broken glass and bent metal rods. Yoh sounds like a grown man. And for SOME reason, both Ren and his sister Jun have obviously fake British accents. I also have a theory on why Yoh and Amidamaru kept their names while Manta and Ryuu did not. Yoh sounds like "Yo, dude, whassup?!" when spoken aloud, which is most likely the market they were trying to tap (His name means "leaf," which I learned from Shounen Jump's handy "Kanji of the Month" column. (The H was added to the end just for aesthetic reasons in English.) And Amidamaru is so preposterously long that no name in English could be substituted without sounding equally as unfamiliar to a child, and not as fitting to a samurai.
On the other hand, Shaman King is a good choice for your kids, because you might be able to watch it without grinding your teeth down to the nerves. Yoh usually only goes into "Ghosts are my friend!" mode when someone who wants to take Amidamaru is around, and he never acts like the overly-perfect, wimpy whiny loser that Yugi is. Also, if you like shounen anime then you can admire the powers. Make no mistake in the manga at least, the fights show that Takei knows absolutely nothing about sword fighting, spear fighting, or martial arts and instead substitutes the simplest of moves with overblown effects. But at least they're more fast-paced and interesting than Yugioh's card battles or Beyblade's tops ramming into each other. I pray someone will license One Piece or Naruto for TV, since those two (especially Naruto) are the reason I keep reading Shounen Jump. You could probably make a pretty good incidental run-in with Shaman King if you wanted, since it's both on TV and in Shounen Jump. Go for the manga if you're not shopping for your kids; it's not bastardized or edited at all, it includes all the blood, swearing, and probably the use of the word "God" (it'll be interesting to see how Fox gets around that one). It also includes the original names, and if you get it with Shounen Jump then here you've got these other great manga titles too. (If you're a fan of Akira Toriyama, the magazine includes both Dragon Ball Z and his little-known Sandland; Yuu Yuu Hakusho's superior manga version is in here; and then Naruto and One Piece. If you like Shaman King, there's also Yugioh in the magazine.)
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Notes and Trivia
Based on a comic series by Hiroyuki Takei, available in English from VIZ.
If you actually like Shaman King, there's a ton of other Yugioh ripoffs, though this is undoubtedly the best (better than Yugioh itself, not that that's saying much). Author Hiroyuki Takei also wrote some other manga, Butsu Zone and Anna's own one-shot, Itako no Anna. None of them are translated. If you're not overly attached to the merchandising or the "Ghosts are my friend!" line, a lot of the other Shounen Jump titles might interest you. For more ghosts, check out Yuu Yuu Hakusho, and for similar fights, look into One Piece. Lastly, if you like samurai, Rurouni Kenshin is undoubtedly your best choice (the TV series, not OAV). All those titles, along with Naruto, share one thing in common that Shaman King does not: All the authors took the time to think of actual battle strategies. As a martial arts nerd (I used to be into Tae Kwon Do since I'm part Korean, but I gave it up), I'll go off a little here. Amidamaru's super sword attack is just two swords being slashed outwards with a bunch of giant words on the page. Bason's metal-cutting vorpal dance is just a downward slash with giant words on the page. And Lee Bailong's array of attacks are very basic martial arts moves that I learned in my first two weeks of class, but with giant words on the page. Also, Lee Bailong's version of Bruce Lee's jeet kune do combines boxing, Muay Thai, and karate. But if you look into it, you'll find combining these three is a ridiculous concept because you'll find, as you work up, that each has the same moves as the last. Muay Thai, or Thai Boxing, is just boxing with kicks and knee strikes legal. And karate has a lot of kicks and strikes to add to the limited repertoire of Muay Thai, but all the ones in Muay Thai are included in karate. So you don't need boxing or muay Thai, because you can just learn karate. Pointless, huh? Not to mention Chinese don't even traditionally practice karate, which is Japanese, or Muay Thai, which is a simple combat sport invented by who else but the Thai. But Takei must have known that real kung-fu has a lot of complicated moves that you can't simulate a knowledge of. I certainly couldn't, though he apparently changed his mind later, because they started saying it was based off kung-fu like Bruce Lee's Jeet Kune Do. As a final note, Anna wasn't as cute as Miyu Menazure in Gatekeepers 21. If she was, this would have scored another .5 like that did.
US DVD Review
Funimation only put out the first two DVDs before aborting their uncut, bilingual release of the series. Those two discs feature three uncut episodes each, and include the original Japanese dialogue and soundtrack plus English subtitles. They don't list any other special features, and it's not even clear if they include the English dubbed audio (presumably yes).
This applies to the anime, which was edited to network standards.
Violence: 1 - They use horrible camera angles in the anime to weasel out of the violence.
Nudity: 1 - Unless you're a Puritan who will throw a fit over Anna's bare legs, there's worse.
Sex/Mature Themes: 0 - Anna and Yoh are engaged, but their wedding night is a ways off.
Language: 0 - Nothing worth mentioning.
Funimation had planned on a full bilingual, uncut North American DVD release, but only the first two volumes (3 episodes each) made it out in 2004 before they cut it off. The entire show was aired on Fox, however.