So Shaman King is a series with a pretty lengthy history. The manga began publication in Shonen Jump in 1998, and later received a 64-episode TV anime series in 2001 under the direction of Seiji Mizushima, who then went on to direct the 2003 anime of Fullmetal Alchemist. That anime was later brought over to U.S. airwaves and a few other English-speaking markets via an edited dub by the infamous 4Kids Entertainment, which is how I first came across it. While the 2001 anime enjoyed a pretty strong degree of success and ended up diverging from the manga with its own ending, the manga itself would later come to an abrupt end in 2004 when the author, Hiroyuki Takei, became unsatisfied with the direction the story had gone in, and ended the manga’s serialization on a pretty big cliffhanger. Years passed, and with the release of a new print edition, Takei would eventually come back to publish his intended ending for the manga in 2009, and a lot of fans, myself included, were hoping to see a new anime adaption that would properly cover the whole story.
Unfortunately that ended up taking a while, as Takei eventually decided to switch publishers to work under Kodansha, and in the process, took back the rights for Shaman King from Shonen Jump and Shueisha. Between that legal situation, and Takei having reportedly turned down a previous offer for a new Shaman King anime a few years ago because they were unable to guarantee the return of the original Japanese voice cast, it kinda seemed like a new anime adaption would remain a pipe dream. But lo and behold we got an announcement last summer that a new Shaman King anime was happening, and that it would not only cover the entire story, but also somehow feature a significant amount of the old voice cast. With all that history, it kinda goes without saying that there was a lot of excitement going into this adaptation, and a lot of high expectations to contend with, but unfortunately the end result leaves…a lot to be desired.
Alright so there’s no real point in beating around the bush on this: the pacing here is incredibly bad and this adaptation moves at a mile a minute in the worst possible ways. Since the 2001 anime and this more manga-faithful adaptation are about as different as the 2003 anime of Fullmetal Alchemist and Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, there’s not much point in directly comparing them and I’d prefer not to, but the reason I brought up the 2001 version’s episode-count is because compared to the 64 episodes that had to loosely cover roughly 17 of the manga’s 35 volume run, the 2021 anime is set to cover the whole thing with only 52 episodes. The math here doesn’t really work in the new anime’s favor, and these first 13 episodes alone cover everything from Yoh’s first meeting with his friend Manta, and Yoh’s spirit ally Amidamaru, to all of Yoh’s bouts in the prelims of the Shaman King tournament, and him getting subsequently dumped in the U.S. midwest to search for the next stage of the tourney – which is all a whopping 10 volumes worth of the manga’s story on it’s own. This results in a show that is constantly moving from one thing to the next with little, if any, time for the material it’s covering to be properly digested. While it never rushes things to the point of being outright incomprehensible, there’s very little time for the show to properly introduce characters or add any emotional weight to anything that’s happening, and I have a hard time imagining how even new viewers won’t feel like something’s missing.
It’s a shame too, because beneath its occasionally wacky exterior and weird sense of humor, Shaman King‘s got quite a bit of heart to it. That heart largely lies in the protagonist Yoh; compared to a lot of the hot-blooded heroes with big dreams who tend to grace the pages of Shonen Jump, Yoh is just a chill guy with a very relaxed approach to life, and his stated reason for wanting to become the titular Shaman King and messiah of humanity is so he can live a comfortable life where he can kick back and take things easy. While that supposed lack of ambition seems questionable given the stakes of what he’s involved in, the fact that he doesn’t really define himself by his goals the way many of his opponents do allows him to take things as they come, and to be pretty open-minded and empathetic towards perspectives that don’t always mesh with his own. That empathy is largely at the core of what makes Shaman King tick, as it’s a battle shonen that is often uninterested in actual straight-up battles, and while it’s got plenty of cool ghost powers to show off, it often attempts to resolve conflicts beyond the strict use of violence, or adhering to strict definitions of good and evil.
A lot of these ideas come later in the series and aren’t immediately apparent in a lot of Shaman King‘s early material, but we do see bits of it sprinkled throughout these episodes. The plot of episode 4, for instance, involves the spirit of a vengeful bandit named Tokageroh seeking revenge on Amidamaru for killing him, and while Yoh has the opportunity to just banish his soul to hell and call it a day, he instead tries to save Tokageroh’s soul and learns that Tokageroh’s tenacity comes from the fact that he was forced to eat the flesh of his own mother in order to survive the poverty of the warring states period in Japan. While that kind of revelation would be seen as an irredeemable act in a lot of other shonen, Yoh and Amidamaru sympathize with how much determination it must have taken survive like that, and Yoh’s own willingness to put himself at risk to save Tokageroh reawakens the humanity and ability to trust in others that he thought he’d lost. The story’s ability to play with good and evil is also reflected a lot in Yoh’s dynamic with his “rival” Tao Ren, who initially comes off as a self-absorbed edgelord who despises his family for the violent doctrine they forced on him, but having been defeated multiple times by Yoh’s calm and laid-back attitude, gradually begins to see something in him he lacks, and eventually seeks to distance himself from the hate he was taught by becoming Shaman King in order to put an end to violence, and atone for all the lives he’s taken in the past.
It can be pretty heavy material, but the fact that this adaption has to move as quickly as possible means that it also breezes through a lot of this before the audience has the chance to absorb any of it, making a lot of these ideas far less interesting or thoughtful than was originally intended, which is a problem that arguably calls into question the point of this new adaptation in the first place.
While the pacing is more or less this show’s biggest problem, even aside from that, the actual production by director Joji Furuta and Studio Bridge looks pretty bland. The fact that this is a year-round production means there probably wasn’t much chance this was ever going to look amazing to begin with, and that probably would have been even more true if this had actually gotten the amount of episodes it needed. But even with that in mind, there’s a lot of corner-cutting here pretty early on, and the fights themselves aren’t very animated. It doesn’t look outright terrible, and never really melts down anywhere, but it’s a pretty far cry from capturing the highlights of Takei’s art. The actual direction of the show itself also has very few flourishes, generally just opting to be a direct 1:1 of Takei’s manga panels with any changes existing purely for the ability to move through the story faster. The only real plus side here is that they got Megumi Hayashibara back to do the opening and ending songs respectively, and while Soul Salvation isn’t as much of a bop of an opening song as the 2001 anime’s Oversoul, it’s still pretty catchy. Yuki Hayashi‘s new soundtrack for the series is also pretty solid, even if not quite at the level of his work in My Hero Academia or Pokémon Journeys.
Even the English dub by VSI Los Angeles isn’t without its own share of problems. Like the Japanese track, there was a clear effort made to retain as much of the cast from the 4Kids dub of the 2001 series as possible. As someone who is both fond of that dub, and thinks that a lot of the actors from the New York area who did work at 4Kids got too much of a bad rap for decisions out of their control, I was pretty excited for that prospect and it was cool getting to see actors like Jay Snydar (Dan Green) and Lisa Ortiz be able to reprise characters like Silva and Tao Jun without having to do any questionable accent work. At the same time though, because Shaman King is a story that features a lot of characters of various nationalities and cultures, as well as attempts to portray them authentically (with varying results), I’d also be lying if I said I didn’t wish that was reflected better in the dub‘s casting choices. Especially considering how many possibilities remote recording has opened up over the last year. While some of that can be pretty easily chalked up to prioritizing role reprisals, even some of the new cast additions aren’t immune to this, and it is at least a little weird seeing Laura Stahl casted as Ren for instance, despite there being several Chinese-American voice actors from the LA area who are also anime regulars, even if her actual performance is probably one of the dub‘s highlights.
To be clear, none of this is on the actors themselves, and ultimately comes down to whoever was in charge of casting. But it isn’t helped by the unfortunate fact that even divorced from all that, the dub is pretty poorly directed, and sounds weirdly stiff for a modern dub. Even veteran actor Tara Sands – who is probably the most active of reprising actors for the reboot, and was one of the highlights of the 4Kids dub as Yoh’s strong-willed fiancee Anna – sounds unusually awkward here compared to a lot of her recent performances in other shows. A few of the performances manage to work out in spite of the weird direction they were given: Micheal Sinternklass returns as Horohoro or Erica Mendez does a rare villain performance as Hao, and Oliver Wyman does a particularly good job reprising his role as Manta, re-capturing the high-strung energy of his original performance despite having not done a lot of voice-over work in recent years compared to some of the other cast members. Sadly the good performances that are here are kind of drowned out by how stiff the rest of the cast is directed to sound, and as a whole, the dub is pretty rough around the edges. Weirdly, I’d honestly argue the 4Kids dub for the 2001 series was actually better directed, and that thought kinda made my experience sitting through these episodes even harder.
It honestly sucks having to come down this hard on this reboot. Shaman King was one of my first big introductions to the world of anime and manga proper, and while the manga hasn’t aged perfectly I do think its story was more than strong enough to deserve a second shake. Unfortunately this new anime moves way too quickly to do that story any real justice, and while I was hoping it would at least serve as a way to introduce new fans to the series, I’d sooner point them in the direction of the manga, or the 2001 version of the anime (which conveniently enough is being re-released by Discotek later this year, 4Kids dub included). Ultimately the rush to cover as much as possible as quickly as possible, leaves this new version of Shaman King feeling lame and indistinguishable from any other battle shonen, and as a long-time fan, that’s probably the biggest disappointment of all.