Did you know Halloween is my birthday? I’m 24.
So much like many in the early anime community Soul Eater is one of my favorite first anime. It boasts an amazingly creative Halloween styled world, has a cast of well fleshed out and unforgettable characters, got one of the most absolutely banging soundtracks in anime and most importantly Soul Eater is Shonen to a tee! However, many fans of the series remain disappointed that the Soul Eater anime hasn’t been remade a full decade after its 2008 debut. This is because the original Soul Eater anime, iconic as it is, only covers about a third of the actual manga. The entire second half of the anime (everything after the Battle for Brew) is a hodgepodge of mostly anime original content that only uses the manga plot beats and characters.
This isn’t to say the anime isn’t good in its own right. While a lot of people were turned off by the overly corny ending that isn’t to say the rest of the anime didn’t have its own fine points. I mean… LOOK AT THIS.
THEY PUT AN ENTIRE CITY ON LEGS AND HAD A GIANT KAIJU BATTLE WITH A FORTRESS. DO NOT TELL ME THAT ISN’T COOL. YOU’RE LYING.
That said, it is really a shame that Soul Eater’s full text isn’t out there in the public anime community conscious. Soul Eater’s true thematic depth doesn’t start to shine until just after the Battle for Brew. Soul Eater’s themes, besides being Shonen AF, revolve around identity, alienation, and authority. Rereading the manga for this October I found it to be rather shockingly thoughtful in its political ideas like Order which harkens back to the ideas I’ve experienced in other works. Ideas which I have found in other works like that of Osamu Dazai, NisiOisiN and Fuminori Nakamura. All prominent Japanese writers which also have a strong tendency to psychological horror.
So for this spooky Halloween special let’s talk about something truly frightening and dive into the horror of Soul Eater’s themes as we ask ourselves Soul Eater’s most important question. The question asked to Death the Kid and Black Star in Book of Eibon arc by actual Cthulhu.
What is the 8th Cardinal Sin?
Building Some Connections
Before having this conversation I want to first make an interesting connection to what might as well be an origin source for the edge in anime. I dropped several names on your head a moment ago and for those not familiar with the authors the similarities in their work may go over your head. In this example I feeling pointing out their existing influences will help set the stage a bit for the conversation at hand.
NisiOisiN is not a man who particularly needs introduction within the anime sphere thanks to his many hits like Monogatari and Medaka Box. Fuminori Nakamura however is not of the anime sphere. He is actually an up and comer in the Japanese literature sphere since 2002. The book of his that I read most recently was called Evil and the Mask, a rather gripping psychological thriller about a boy raised to become a “cancer” on the world that ends up murdering his father. It feels very distinctly close in story and feeling to No Longer Human by Osamu Dazai.
What I want to say about all of these authors, being familiar with their work, is that they all rather heavily wear their influences on their sleeves given them similar overall tones. While digging for influences for these authors to find out why they all have rather similar existentialist themes and criticizing authority I was able to make some interesting links. The three recurring names I kept coming back to where Osamu Dazai, Franz Kafka, and most prominently Dostoevsky.
Now for what it’s worth, Osamu Dazai being a major influencer on Japanese authors is not a surprise. No Longer Human is one of Japanese literatures most important texts right alongside things like Natsume Soseki’s Kokoro, Kenji Miyazawa’s Night on the Galactic Railroad and Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s Rashomon. No Longer Human is one of the those enduring classics that routinely charts top-selling books list. A similar thing can be said of Franz Kafka and the rather liberal way critics use the term named in his honor “Kafkaesque“. Both of these authors are wide-spread. What shocked me was connections I was able to make to all these authors and Dostoevsky. Osamu Dazai, NisiOisiN, Fuminori Nakamura and Atsushi Ohkubo are all readers of him. Even Kafka when discussed critically has his work compared to him. And, while this is just second-hand knowledge on my part, I’ve seen Evangelion fans compare it Anno’s work to Dostoevsky as well.
From the translators notes of Soul Eater volume 11
So, why bring all this up? The only reason Dostoevsky matters in this Soul Eater post is because of one random throw away reference in Soul Eater’s Clown Arc. Am I just doing this to flex I found these connections?
Yes, completely. I drive myself insane finding tangible proof that these connections exist and I want some appreciation goddamnit.
Aside from that these connections serve dual purpose. When talking about authority and criticizing authority it’s far from easy to get a response not couched in agenda. People, mostly the alt-right, will outright twist our understanding of history and material conditions to serve their purpose. The reason I draw these lines from modern anime back down to Dostoevsky, Dazai, and Kafka is to highlight and give credence to what they went through. Because the recurring thing that’s been passed down to the current generation of writers is that the authorities in their life abused their power and they ended up on the receiving end of the abuse. Franz Kafka had some notorious daddy issues as well as growing up in the capital of Bohemia in the late 1880’s. Where he was faced with the misery that is capitalist working conditions. Osamu Dazai had an absentee politician father figure during a time where Japanese society was transitioning to liberal capitalism from feudalism. And Dostoevsky… well he didn’t exactly have it easier to say the least.
I list off these names to tether Soul Eater’s of Identity, Authority and Alienation to real genial roots. Keep these lives in mind as we continue. Also I don’t think anyone else has made these links and I just think some of you will be curious to explore these names.
One of the strengths Soul Eater’s characters is the unique way it balances its protagonists. Each of the three pairs of Meister’s and Weapons get roughly equal amount development time. This distinct balancing act let’s each pair explore different themes and ideas in equal measure. And the theme of Identity is most prevalent in the character of Soul Eater.
First things first what is an identity and how is it formed? Had to do some research (that is to say googling and Youtubing) on this one because I neither have a personal Identity nor see the point in why humans want them so much. From what I understand identity is what makes a thing the same over time. Again not something I’ve ever felt the need to ask because I’m #NoLongerHuman but I guess it’s a thing people struggle with. Case in point Soul or to use his full name Soul Eater Evans. A self-described “cool guy”, Soul Eater Evans’ identity crisis in the manga is one born from his relationship with his family. Originally born to family of musicians, his brother Wes Evans was a distinguished violinist who was popular for his skill.
Soul, being expected take up the family trade of music, was taught the piano from a young age and yet could never match up to his brother’s talent. While no one outside of his family had the ears to recognize the gap in skill between the two it was obvious to Soul. Eventually leading him to feel he was just growing up in his brother’s shadow and leading to something of a complex about it. When his weapon power eventually awaken it was the perfect excuse to run from the source of his inadequacies to the DWMA. Eventually changing his name to Soul Eater and dropping “Evans” name so he wouldn’t have to be reminded. His arc in the manga revolves around resisting the liberating power of madness to free him from his insecurities. Instead he has to slowly grow to accept himself for who he is over the course of the series.
In Soul we see one of the main ways personal identities are formed. Nurture and Rebellion. While under the authority that was his family he was coerced down a path that cause him pain. That’s not to say he hated playing the piano as he does enjoy music, but having to do it under the expectation that he had a family reputation to live up to cause him to feel alienated from music. Because expectations create pressure. This is where his obsession with being a cool guy manifests. The image of a cool and unfettered person is what he wanted to portray, or rather hide behind.
Perhaps this was planned as something of a criticism of the more toxic aspects of masculinity. Couldn’t say for sure, after all I haven’t interviewed Atsushi Ohkubo. Interestingly Soul’s tryhard efforts to maintain his “too cool” image aren’t portrayed as negative. His cynicism and relative loner status are useful for relating to other outsiders like Crona and calling out other people when they are clearly being too image conscious. But as the Red Ogre pointed out it was cynicism that got him down this path. By allowing him to reject other paths like the one his family wanted him to follow.
Speaking of…we’ll get to the hot mess that is Crona. But first authority. The power to give orders, make decisions and enforce obedience. And if you’ve paid any attention to me or Shonen Jump you know Shonen is all about power. In an age where the once seeming unchallengeable authority that was America (assuming you aren’t China, Russia, the Middle East or Vietnamese Farmers) has come under fire from all sides for its abuse of power, it’s interesting to see Soul Eater mimic this for commentary. Most blatantly in a small moment towards the end of the manga where the DWMA, a US based military force, invaded Baghdad under suspicions that they’re harboring a deadly weapon. The Kishin Asura. Obviously keeping with the irl parallels he wasn’t there but the it’s not really a 1 to 1 comparison.
Each of the three main pairs of Meister and weapons in Soul Eater has different themes and arcs that they must overcome. Maka and Soul have to learn what it means to build connections (i.e Friendship). Maka mostly to others like how she was the only one to be able to connect with Crona. Soul has to effectively connect with himself and accept himself the for person he builds himself up as. Black Star is perhaps the most straightforwardly Shonen character as he wants to be the greatest being in the world (i.e Effort). He comes into contact with a similar connectivity arc through Tsubaki. Where in order to win the favor of the Enchanted Sword Masamune he resolves to take on all the feelings of those who failed to reach the heights of power that he similarly sought. It’s not exactly a humbling moment or a curtailing of his ego per se but the final reaffirmation of his ambition. It’s quite fitting for BlackStar in particular. He’s a man of the people you see.
Between Maka, Soul, BlackStar and Tsubaki their development arcs are rather simple yet impactful. With Soul’s arc perhaps having more depth and impact depending on what you look for in fiction. There exists an outlier here however. Death the Kid’s arc within the book of Eibon is significantly more murky and complex. This is for two reasons. The first is that it’s because his arc is external rather than internal. Which makes him ironically the most static character in the manga. The reason is because his arc is externally focused we have to look to several different factors. His Father, the DWMA itself, the Witches, and Kid’s ultimate “role” in the world of Soul Eater.
Death the Kid’s ultimate duty is to become the next Shinigami or protector of the world after his father. What’s most important to recognize about Lord Death is that, despite him being a bubbly ball of chill and jokes, he has made his mistakes. As the absolute and literal God of the universe his the authority that provides “Order” to the world. Death protects humanity. He takes the responsibility upon himself to both embody and enforce that Order with the Shinigami List. The Meisters and weapons are sent around the world to dispatch any threats which would threaten humanity or his order. However, the only people who may be killed are those on his list. In other words he has an absolute monopoly on violence much like a government with a military and police force does. People on his list are “evil” and a threat to be disposed of.
It’s worth noting that in the Soul Eater manga the lines are more grey than the anime. In Black Star’s introduction episode Death tells him that the mafia is going after the Witch Angela and they number 99 strong. So if he kills all the mafia (who are on the Shinigami List) and kills Angela he can make a Death Weapon on the spot. In the manga this is flipped slightly in that Black Star targets Mifune himself as he has a “strong soul” comparable to 99 human souls. Moreover the evil souls in Soul Eater’s anime are colorized red with visible signs of corruption as to signal “yes they were bad”. Which is also not the case in the manga as the only souls that look noticeably different from human souls when out-of-body are Witch souls. These differences are slight but the manga does more effectively convey the ambiguity of killing other humans in the name of “Order” than the anime by not including more visual elements.
The important question to ask is not “What gives Death the right to decide who lives and dies?” as the character aptly named Free asks. Because we know what gives him the right. Might. Capability. He has the power build to structured organization to rapidly respond to the dangers all around the globe. The correct question to ask would be, “Has he used his power justly to positively add to the world?” In other words has Lord Death’s authority benefited the people under it? The answer to which is murky for many reasons. For Dr. Stein, someone prone to the insanity due to his own nature, Order is a necessary factor. Without some order to call upon and keep him sane he would have spiraled out, killed someone, and ended up on the Shinigami List. In his own words, “I was scared… of the persona I was turning into… although as long as I was having fun, I didn’t really care. So that’s why I needed it. Not an annoying system put up by a king to serve his own self-interest but a system set up by a God without arrogance.”
His words and actions tell us that yes, Lord Death’s order has created a more fair world than Medusa’s anarchy would. Thanks to Lord Death even someone has fundamentally depraved as Stein function and even contribute to society instead of detract from it. This is the Order which Death the Kid has dedicated his life to enforce when he becomes the next “Lord Death”. It’s about balance. Without balance in the system it would be an oppressive totalitarian reign that he protects. But over the course of Soul Eater several revelations start to shake Death the Kid’s faith in the unfalable Order his father had created. The first was the revelation of who created Eibon Spring. The Demon Tools which Death the Kid labels as evil is revealed to have been a co creation between Eibon and Death. If his father was complicit in creating Demon Tools does that mean Lord Death has an agenda that possibly links back to Eibon or even the Kishin?
Lord Death maybe the ruler and a kind person but that doesn’t mean he is infallible and this is what launches the perfectionist Kid into an arc of doubt. As Harvar the pragmatist points towards the end of the manga, the Symbol of order cannot be blurry. You cannot have one rule set and then break that as you see fit because it subjectively seems, cruel. That would give people leeway to cross the boundary whenever they please. It’s the fact that the order does not change and can be called upon at any moment that ensures stability. Death the Kid understands before Harvar ever brings it up, which is why Lord Death being linked the creation of the Eternal Spring and Eibon causes issues. It’s proof that his father’s Order is still capable of creating “evil”.
Which brings us to the most lowkey important character of all of Soul Eater. Angela the Witch. In Soul Eater the witch race lives in isolation from the rest of the world as they are hunted and persecuted. While they are capable of reason and understanding they are subject to the “Sway of Magic”. The instinct to destroy specifically because they are born with great power. This leaves them in a precarious position under Lord Death’s “order”. The witches can lead non destructive lives like the witch Meister Kim, Blair (who’s technically a cat but shut up), and the witches Spirit always drank with at the club as they can listen to reason. They are not wild animals. However due to the “Sway of Magic” they just so happen to tend more towards being problematic as they want to exercise their power. They want to use it and be destructive more often than not. Which makes them at threat to humanity and under Death’s order threats to humanity are to be killed on the spot. Meisters can kill witches whenever they see fit, in fact it’s encouraged as witch souls are specifically required to forge Lord Death weapons.
Is that fair? Witches can live passive lives but because Lord Death has singled them out they are forced into hiding and any path of rehabilitation is cut off as there does not exist a system setup for them to be integrated into society. Are the Salem Witch trials starting to ring any bells? The Witches in Soul Eater are alienated and oppressed minority. The material conditions in Soul Eater maybe different in that there are tangible threats like madness, potential kishins, and the Witch “Sway of Magic” but this still stands. So what then of Angela? As she grows she will eventually become a threat to society as the her magic influences her mind. Despite being a witch she is just an innocent child. Whether she turns out alright or not after being taken under the wing of the DWMA is something that only time could tell. However if they had rejected her, if they had not taken the steps to accommodate her with the help of Kim’s healing magic and forged a new pact with Maba and the witches in the final fight verses Asura Angela would have definitely posed a future problem.
This then is the arc Death the Kid has to go under and examine throughout the entire manga. From the being obsessed with his ideal of perfection, to questioning his father’s morality and actions, to having his ideals corrupted by the a Great Old One in the book of Eibon, to forging a new pact with the Witches. Death the Kid must struggle with how he wants to shape the world. What he comes to understand is that “Order” must evolve and them with it. His victory does not lie in sticking to old flawed methods which have proven themselves marginally effective, but making efforts to create a world that can adapt to new situations as they come.
If you remain unconvinced of the importance DWMA adopting Angela just think of it like this. In 2018 would it really look good for Soul Eater to leave the witches, an oppressed minority race of women that are “dangerous to society”, an unresolved issue?
Yeah, I didn’t think so.
Question time. In our exploration of Identity and Authority via Soul Eater what have we learned about people as individuals?
The answer is that if the authority that shapes their identity is self-serving like an Soul’s image driven family or exclusively like Lord Death’s “Order” it will create an identity based around alienation. And a person alienated from society is a person destined to rebel against it. This brings us to the gender ambiguous mess of a human that is Crona Medusa.
Medusa’s plan for Crona was in fact to instill madness through alienation. She raised a child who was entirely dependant on her and murder for validation. From the minute of Crona’s birth she made efforts to strip Crona of both identity and away from any support systems that could help them gain footing. She’d locked Crona away in closet for days at a time in darkness. Starved them of food. And allowed Crona to be the subject of Ragnarok’s bullying. Even when she died and Crona was adopted under the DMWA the alienation from any support was taking place. Medusa forced Crona to act as a spy. Which caused a conflict of interest between the DWMA who wished to reform Crona and Medusa who wanted to sabotage the DWMA and Stein. Crona, being caught in the middle, chose to listen to Medusa because they were raised to be completely dependant. Most interestingly Medusa dressed Crona in a plain black dress and never gave Crona a gender.
There is some confusion about this within the community. With manga readers thinking that Crona was a biologically Female in the manga and Male in the anime. People abstracted this because English does not have neutral gender pronouns that where well-known and used at the time. (Yes this is confirmed. I am not dying on a hill that was conquered years ago.) Scanlators and Funimation did not wish to call Crona “they” as at the time it was seen at demeaning. So make no mistake, Crona’s biological sex and gender are unknown. Nor should they be known as it would actively harm Medusa’s plan. To give Crona a sex would be to inadvertently to give Crona gender. To give Crona gender would be to them some semblance of order to cling to and so Medusa had to alienate Crona from that as well before moving to Crona’s final test. In which she removes herself, the only order that still tethered Crona’s actions to some semblance of reason.
@JayAaerow Kid is 13~15.Crona's gender is unknown.
— 大久保篤 (@Atsushi_Ohkubo) January 5, 2015
When that was cut off the closest thing to a being of pure madness was created.
This, everything up until now, showcases the 8th sin the Great Old One spoke of at the depths of Eibon’s Book. Any “Justice” taken too far is its own evil. There are times when even justice can drive people to madness. Whether it’s Dostoevsky being sent to hard labor in Siberia. Soul being forced into a life of inferiority because of his parents musical reputation. The DWMA alienating witches from society cutting off their path to integration and recovery. Or Lord Death being complicit in creating both the Demon Tools and the Great Old ones like Asura.
Abuse of the power you have been given over others is evil.
This evil, this 8th sin I have named “Malfeasance”.
Have a happy Halloween everyone!
— 大久保篤 (@Atsushi_Ohkubo) October 20, 2018