With the majority of anime being sorted into either “action” or “slice-of-life” boxes, it’s almost expected for fans to prefer one over the other. However, the clash of steel and tender heart-throbs need not be enemies, for they can share a profound resonance – an idea at the core of Soul Eater NOT.
Rather than being a continuation of Maka Albarn’s quest to transform her partner into the ultimate witch-hunting weapon, our return to the distinctive Death City turns back the clock a bit and heralds the start of a new, more personal journey that is enjoyable to franchise veterans and newcomers alike.
Tsugumi Harudori was an ordinary fourteen year old girl in love with love until her body started changing in ways not covered by the normal remit of puberty, prompting enrolment at a special school some may find familiar – after all, I doubt many girls have to worry about their limbs transforming into blades!
Unlike the more well-known students of Atsushi Ohkubo’s main series, our protagonist’s enrolment at the DWMA isn’t as part of the action-orientated EAT (Especially Advanced Talent) class, but rather, she learns from a curriculum dedicated to controlling her powers for day-to-day living known as NOT (Normally Overcome Target). There, she quickly becomes friends with the upper class Anya Hepburn and the incredibly forgetful Meme Tatane; two meisters who land the girl in love with love in an entirely different triangle to the one she was expecting!
The relationship between weapons and the meisters who wield them has always been an important backbone of the Soul Eater franchise, but is brought to the centre stage as of this spin-off, with partnerships often treated as outright romantic unions. Tsugumi’s struggle with choosing Anya or Meme as her meister consistently feels like a genuine love triangle – with Anya’s adorable jealous pouts being icing on the cake. My favourite example of this mingling of relationships, however, is the budding partnership of Jacqueline O’Lantern Dupre and Kim Diehl.
Introduced as recurring characters in the original series, the unconventional pair are elevated to the supporting cast of Soul Eater NOT, which delves into the origins of their partnership. The two couldn’t be more mismatched; Jacqueline is a strait-laced, rule-abiding girl who finds herself drawn to Kim, a troublemaking tomboy referred to as “The Witch of the Girls’ Dorm”. Jacqueline’s attempts to get closer to Kim and form a partnership are treated exactly the same as romantic approaches, with strategies like cooking Kim’s favourite food – which of course, has hilarious results. Unlike other anime that simply tease their audiences with subtle winks and nods, Soul Eater NOT doesn’t hide from Jacqueline’s desire for closeness being more than professional (I mean, she does dream about kissing her) and handles it in a way that is, honestly, a delightful breath of fresh air. No one questions it or runs off screaming “girls can’t love girls!” – the others don’t hesitate to jump in and help without treating Jacqueline’s feelings any differently to other orientations.
It’s not difficult to see how Jacqueline fell for Kim though; after all, she quickly outshone the main cast to become my favourite character! Perhaps the quintessential application of the “tsundere” archetype, we are introduced to her as a feared bully, but through watching the actions of those closest to her and sharing a secret with Kim and Jacqueline, it became clear that there was more to the antisocial extortionist. Before I knew it, I was charmed by both her rough thorns and the sweet flower hidden amongst them.
Soul Eater NOT isn’t all about the budding relationships though and staying true to the franchise, there is a magical threat lurking in the shadows. This side of the story is slowly drip-fed away from our principle cast in the earlier episodes, before the floodgates are blown open, leading to a shocking mid-season twist.
Unfortunately, the later episodes fail to even match that dramatic high point, with the choreography of the final fight possibly being the worst I’ve ever seen in anime. The series effortlessly made the human element of Tsugumi’s shared partnership with Anya and Meme feel natural, but the same can’t be said of the practical side. I don’t think I need to explain how a villain standing still as two people figure out how to share a halberd isn’t exactly an energetic climax.
Potential viewers accustomed to Soul Eater‘s unique, quirky visual style may be in for a surprise with the more pedestrian, cutesy styling of NOT – an aesthetic shift with both pros and cons for the returning cast. Losing her kinetic, cartoony designs and expressions robs Patty of her identifiable charm, but the extra care and attention given to Kim and Jacqueline’s more detailed designs help breathe new life into the characters. Some characters sit somewhere in the middle though, like Maka, who is largely unchanged aside from a cuter face.
In regards to the special features, Soul Eater NOT has the usual extras you would expect from a title Funimation released state-side: textless songs, audio commentaries of two episodes and trailers intended for other markets (the curse of shared masters). The lack of a Blu-ray release was lamented when Manga Entertainment first announced the license, but having both Japanese and U.S. on-disc trailers advertise high definition releases does feel like adding insult to injury at times! Another extra is the “Soul Eater Whoops!” blooper reel compilation that failed to get even a mild chuckle out of me. Is there actually anything funny about an actor tripping over their tongue or saying obviously staged “random” lines? Bloopers work in live-action properties because there are other people there to witness and react to screw ups, but when we know that western voice-over work is usually done in isolation, that illusion is shattered.
In a way, Soul Eater NOT is a lot like a visit to the series’ Deathbucks Café; you may be served by a cute waitress and see a couple of familiar faces during your stay, but you’ll need an acquired taste to stomach the bitter coffee. While still set in the city Tim Burton no doubt aspires to vacation in, the love affair with madness being replaced with togetherness may alienate some existing fans, but “different” doesn’t always have to mean “awful”, nor does it have to mean “amazing”. If you can tolerate moe or are new to the franchise, Soul Eater NOT is a fun and sweet series, even if it won’t make the same waves as the main show.