Title: Shaman King.
Writer(s): Hiroyuki Takei.
Artist(S): HIROYUKI TAKEI.
Publisher: Viz Media/Kodansha USA (Jump Comics/ComiXology).
Release Date: June 30, 1998 – August 30, 2004.
Volumes: 32 (35 in the complete edition).
Genre(s): Fantasy, Adventure, Supernatural.
My Overall Rating:
Growing up, among the many manga series that I followed, there was one that I religiously followed as each volume came out: Shaman King. Exploding in popularity in 2001, it follows a group of teenagers in their journey to becoming the Shaman King by winning the Shaman Fight. Every character had his own thing going, always going around with their trusted spiritual buddies, growing on a personal level as they learn new skills, and beating other shamans in spectacular battles, which isn’t too surprising and quite common in most shonen. Having almost no recollection of how the story went, I decided to revisit this childhood favourite and see how it lives up to my innocent love and blurry memory for it. To my surprise, the manga was also revisited by the mangaka to add in three extra volumes that offers fans a true ending, giving me more reasons to dive back into this beloved world once more.
What is Shaman King about? One day, young and unusually short Manta Oyamada takes a shortcut through a cemetery and encounters an odd kid with headphones calmly gazing at the sky surrounded by ghosts. Upon learning that this teenager goes by the name of Yoh Asakura, he also discovers that he is in fact a shaman who can tap into the spiritual world and connect the living with the dead. Although they first meet in school, Yoh doesn’t have a care in the world in his education but wishes to become the Shaman King and to pursue a life filled with laziness, his music, nature, and ghosts. Unfortunately for him, the only way to become the Shaman King is to win the Shaman Fight, a legendary tournament held every 500 years with countless qualified shamans around the world. It’s on this journey that he meets new friends, enemies, and a fiancée. But, on top of all that, it is on this journey that he grows and learns how to deal with a world committed to indulge violence.
At heart, mangaka Hiroyuki Takei draws inspiration from Native American mythology and culture to build the magic system behind his Shaman King series. Serving as the hook to his narrative, it allows him to mix and mash this idea with Japanese history and culture but, unfortunately, he often fails to properly maintain this world-building as he drowns his narrative with the introduction of the lore around the Shaman Fight as well as countless new characters who are there to stay in the long run as friends or enemies. Once he gets into the technicalities around how these shamans can use spirits to create weapons for battle, to the point of quantifying power, the story suffocates with the mangaka’s desire to establish rules that frame the evolution of the tournament. This brings him to sacrifice originality for intrigue and predictability. It is from that point forward that the story essentially becomes a series of battles where style dominates over substance and innumerable shortcuts are taken and sold as character development when in fact remain plot holes without true progress exposed to the reader.
The series also relies on a heavy use of comedy to alleviate tense sequences but at incredibly inappropriate moments om the scene. In fact, mangaka Hiroyuki Takei kills a lot of his key moments with unnecessary humour and steers his readers towards confusion rather than immersion. Where one would normally be anxious to flip the pages to see how things develop, now they simply find themselves flabbergasted by the direction, unsure where things are going. This inability to give oneself a vision for his series is also seen in how he explores his characters’ relationship with one another. The series in fact focuses a lot on friendship and has Yoh Asakura learn through trial and error (and more often through spontaneous wisdom) that even bad apples might have good seeds. Unfortunately, mangaka Hiroyuki Takei worked his way towards his grand finale on shaky foundations and ended up rushing to the finish line in a spectacular fashion, disappointing a lot of his fanbase along the way.
While it clearly shows that the franchise didn’t go in the desired direction, it remains true that the artwork worked in its favour. The character designs, environmental details, and the action sequences are all stellar, reminding us why this franchise grew quickly in popularity upon release. It’s best moments lie in the surprise reveal of new powers for each shaman but they aren’t recurrent enough for readers to remember their uniqueness in the end. There are times where the action sequences could’ve benefited from more panels to guide readers, notwithstanding how terrifyingly short some key battles were towards the end of this series but the franchise maintains excellent artwork from start to finish, giving readers at least one thing to enjoy in this manga.
Shaman King is a journey filled with self-discovery and introspection through young shamans and their determination to achieve their dreams.