Shaman King is a lesser-known mainstay of the massive shonen anime boom, though fans of the medium will certainly recognize all the hallmarks. More than two decades after its initial heyday, the series has a few fun elements but ultimately struggles to stand out amongst its groundbreaking peers.
The manga, written by Hiroyuki Takei, ran in the beloved Weekly Shonen Jump from 1998 to 2004, an impressive run that coincided with titans of the genre such as Naruto and One Piece. A previous anime adaptation suffered some significant setbacks which left the door open for a better shot at bringing the manga to life.
RELATED: 10 Best Anime From The 2010s
Shaman King is the story of a laid-back kid with a mystical gift, fighting spirited battles against colorful enemies as he and his quirky friends try to become the best there ever was. The main characters are Shamans capable of seeing, communicating with and manipulating the spirits of the dead to their own end. The main character is Yoh, a lazy but good-natured kid who bonds with a centuries dead samurai warrior named Amidamaru. Together they compete in the Shaman Fight, a tournament of might that will crown the Shaman King.
The trouble is that the plot is fairly standard issue. Change all the proper nouns around and one could also describe the plot of dozens of other anime with little difference. This is to be expected from a story that began life in 1998, but when premiering anew in 2021, alongside brilliant new standouts like My Hero Academia, Shaman King just feels a bit like old news. Time is the show's biggest enemy, but it does still have some things going for it.
The 2001 Shaman King anime suffered a number of indignities in its enjoyable, but tragic run. The series rapidly outpaced the production of its source material, running 64 episodes in just over a year. Subsequently, the show's second half has nothing to do with the manga, complete with a different ending. This means that fans have never seen a full half of the manga adapted to screen. Adding insult to injury, the series American localization was run by the much-maligned 4Kids Entertainment. Shockingly, their take on Shaman King was lighter on censorship than most, resulting mainly in some hilarious name changes and a very silly theme song.
The modern Shaman King resolves these issues outright, creating a much more faithful adaptation of the series so far. Longtime fans will likely be very happy with the current take on the series, both more accurate and better put together than its predecessor. The series has not reached the previously unanimated portion of the series yet, but has been set to adapt the whole manga run between now and late 2022. Fans of the manga will likely be the audience made happiest by this Netflix series.
The animation quality is decent, not mind-blowing by any metric, but serviceable. It falls back on plenty of old animation tricks such as repeating animations, cutting to black at the moment of an attack's impact or using speed lines in place of something moving fast. It's a bit nostalgic, fans of early 2000s anime will feel right at home. The action is enjoyable, characters have a variety of powers that clash off each other. It isn't as complex or thoughtful as the power systems of Hunter X Hunteror Jojo's Bizarre Adventure, but it is varied enough to keep interesting. The general heading of people who can commune with spirits opens the door to all manner of ability, from nature spirits that grant ice powers to command over a Chinese vampire to summoning an army of skeletons.
The best aspect of Shaman King is the character design. The cast is varied and fun, though most of them are fairly stock as shonen characters go. Characters vary wildly in size and dress in dynamic outfits, often looking like a mix between hip-hop fashion and mystic vestments. Yoh's charming disposition and carefree attitude are endearing and his bonding with the spirit Amidamaru is central to the narrative. A reoccurring element of the story focuses on the tragic life of the samurai who shared a friendship with a master blade-smith long after both their deaths, which is occasionally touching. Though their roles are overdone, the characters do stand out and earn admiration.
The show largely follows a monster (or medium) of the week format. Yoh and company face off against a shaman, train to beat the next one, and occasionally goof off at home. Larger threats loom over the horizon, but this early season is largely focused around the classic tournament arc. While some anime make the tournament the whole series, Shaman King splits its attention and spends a decent amount of time letting characters bond. It flows well, occasionally even managing to find unique solutions to conflicts and making most of its big fights feel satisfying.
Shaman King is a decent series that just isn't doing anything terribly special. Fans of the shonen genre will find a lot to like, and longtime fans of the franchise will likely be thrilled, but the average viewer will probably enjoy Shaman King while it lasts, even if they struggle to remember it a few days later.
Shaman King is available to stream on Netflix.