It feels odd to think of Soul Eater as a “classic” series – not because of any lack of quality, but just because even now it doesn't feel like it's old enough to be called that. While not as omnipresent as other 00's shonen hits, Soul Eater has never felt like it totally went away, despite the manga ending over 7 years ago and the anime adaptation being over a decade old now. There's still a fervent fanbase for the series clamoring for a Full Metal Alchemist: Brotherhood-style reboot of the anime to fully adapt the manga's back half, and while that particular project seems like a pipe dream, the new Perfect Edition release from Square Enix Manga seems like a sufficient salve for fans' wounds.
This new release features a number of perks over the older paperbacks. The first volume is a stylish hardcover with new cover art courtesy of Atsushi Ohkubo himself, and the larger page size and glossy paper are a great touch that could make double-dipping worth it on their own. But if you're more interested in reading or re-reading the series rather than just having a pretty bookshelf, the best feature of the Perfect Editions is the inclusion of the series' original color pages. The various cover pages, color spreads, and incidental promo art all really pop when they show up, and feature some of the best art from Ohkubo's early style, bringing the vibrant Halloween-inspired world of Soul Eater to life in much the same way the anime adaptation did. This is also a 1 ½ style release, featuring six chapters and roughly 300-odd pages, which ends up helping the flow of this first volume pretty well if you're new to the manga.
That does bring up the question of just how well Soul Eater holds up as a story all these years later. After all, while clearly aimed at collectors, this release could just as easily be someone's entry point into the franchise, and with over 15 years since Soul Eater's debut a lot has changed in the manga landscape — including the relatively static and traditional realm of battle shonen itself. Ohkubo even has a new hit with Fire Force that's been running for years and has its own immaculately produced anime adaptation airing right now, so is it worth checking out this new release of a relatively older property now?
I'd answer yes, mostly. While certainly not a departure from shonen action-comedies from the time or now, Soul Eater holds an inherent charm to its world and characters that's hard to find anywhere else, even in Ohkubo's other work. The key to that is its spooky, Spirit Halloween-esque design sensibilities that manage to both give the whole series a striking look and meld effortlessly the more serious designs of the main cast with cartoonish cutouts like Lord Death. The early chapters do feel like Ohkubo trying to nail down his own style, and those familiar with his later art will likely be surprised by the wide-set, limpid eyes of the cast in these pages, but even as he's finding his legs there's a sense of ambition with how he poses and frames his action scenes that just screams “cool” over any inconsistencies. Sequences like Maka hurling her whole body weight behind her Witch Hunt Slash, or the kids' zombified teacher suckerpunching them with his own tombstone feel as weighty and ludicrous and you could want, and in general the close-quarters combat carries just the right sense of tension for this kind of battle series.
That said, some of the comedy of Soul Eater hasn't aged as well as you might hope. The gimmick of the early chapters is that each of our three Meisters is a talented fighter, but features some kind of fatal flaw that keeps them from showing off their real skills most of the time. With Maka this manifests as constant bickering between her and Soul, and while it does add flavor to their dynamic, the repetitive slapstick violence gets old well before the halfway point of this volume. Black Star and Death The Kid fair even worse, as both are defined by loud, obnoxious personality traits that only serve to make them annoying and to inorganically extend fights they should be able to handle with ease. Black Star's loudmouth ninja gimmick was already old in 2008 when Naruto parodies were inescapable, and through these introductory chapters he never shows any aspect of his personality that might make sitting through his unending prattle feel worth it. Kid finds a way to be even worse, as his gimmick of demanding perfect symmetry manages to become unfunny after just its second punchline. There is certainly room for the series to develop these characters, but between introducing eight different leads, establishing its high concept world, and delivering multiple battles, there's no room for that to start in volume 1.
There's also way more fanservice than I remembered. Maybe my memories are influenced by the anime, which toned down a lot of the sexual humor in these early segments, or this stuff just didn't register too much reading it back in high school, but five out of the six chapters in this book feature at least one extended bit about one of the female cast being naked, groped, or both. It's not just that the joke of Kid squeezing his Weapons' boobs to complain about their differing chest sizes is as much an ancient zombie as the mummies they fight that chapter, but that it's routinely distracting from what should be serious, tense sequences. The most whiplash-inducing moment is when, in the middle of a presumably life-or-death battle, Maka mentions wanting to go home and take a bath, transitioning abruptly to a full-color page of Blair the witchy catgirl naked in Maka's tub before returning to the battle. Blair in general is just a cheesecake pitching machine, but every girl in the series gets at least one sequence like that, capping off with a gag of Soul flashing Maka's underwear against her will. Whatever your feelings on fanservice, its use here is questionable at best, and I wouldn't blame uninitiated readers for dropping out from it just being too much.
But for all its speedbumps, there's just something infectiously endearing about the idiosyncratic world and fights of Soul Eater that keeps you turning the page. Even when the humor doesn't work, or a particular character annoyed me, the fast pace and undeniable artistic energy kept the momentum going. And while Maka's treatment could be better, it's still a relative rarity to have a lady-led shonen action series like this, and especially one that (so far) doesn't sideline her. A series can't run for nearly a decade on just being a stock shonen battle vehicle, and for whatever warts it bears 15 years later, there's still nothing quite like Soul Eater out there.