Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Zatch Bell! vol. 1-25

I heard of Makoto Raiku after discovering his newest series, 'Animal Land', which is one of my new favorites. Needless to say, I wanted to check out his past series, 'Zatch Bell!'. I saw some of the 'Zatch Bell!' anime years ago on tv, and kind of dismissed it. After reading the manga, I admit, I underestimated this series a bit, but I still have some problems with it.

Kiyo Takamine is a not so ordinary boy, alienated by his genius with no friends to speak of. One day out of the blue, a wild looking, blonde haired little boy crashed through his window with a magical, red book in tow and changed Kiyo's life forever. Sent to Kiyo by his father, the blonde-haired little boy named Zatch Bell has promised to do everything in his power to help Kiyo make some friends and put him back on the right path in life. Little did Kiyo know, that Zatch would drag him into a grueling tournament that happens every one thousand years amongst the mamado in order to crown the next Mamodo King. Together, Zatch and Kiyo encounter friend and foe alike on their path to make Zatch a "kind king".

This series felt pretty generic to me until around volume 10. The first 9 volumes had their moments, but before volume 10, it felt like a glorified Pokemon. The only thing that kept it above the level of Pokemon was that most of the mamodo could talk and had personalities. Then the personalities of a select few started to get fleshed out, and I started to enjoy things more. On top of that, around volume 11, hints were being dropped that the situation was more than just some tournament to be Mamodo King. Around volume 12, the first, focused story arc started to take place. Before that, it was kind of just random battles and comedic chapters. Even though a traditional manga arc was what I was waiting for, this didn't really add a whole lot to my enjoyment. It was kind of just the same thing, except a sub tournament. A distraction from the main Mamodo King battle. Then around volume 20, the story started to come into it's own, but by that time, I was suffering from "fight fatigue". There was just too much repetitive fighting. Thankfully, Zatch and Kiyo teaming up with their group of friends to take down bad guys kind of made me forget about the tired concept of the Mamodo King tournament that had been prevalent for most of the series. Unfortunately, the later volumes were quite serious in tone, so that great comedy that I loved so much didn't show it's face as often. So the series kind of traded in it's comedy for a more compelling story, and because of that, my enjoyment largely stayed the same throughout.

I feel like there are a lot of moments that are supposed to be emotional, that just didn't have that kind of impact on me. This is hugely annoying for me, because emotional impact is at the very top of my criteria for good manga. Getting an emotional reaction out of me is a sure way to make it on to my favorite manga list. 'Zatch Bell!' didn't do a lot for me in that category though. And it's a shame because there were so many scenes that I could tell were suppose to be emotional, but just didn't hit their mark. Tears run like rivers in this manga. And I thought that maybe that was the problem. Over use of crying and what not may have desensitized me. But then I remembered that there were attempted emotional scenes right from the very beginning. There was one moment that got a slight twinge of an emotional reaction from me. A certain mamodo got his book burned protecting his human partner and got sent back to the mamodo world. That scene was pretty well done. And another time when a certain book owner seemingly died, but this moment was kind of ruined because it was so short lived and featured the only instance of ill-timed humor. But with all the crying and friendship speeches in this manga, I would expect to be moved a whole lot more, and I just wasn't.

For me, this series' greatest strength was it's comedy and fantastic comedic timing. Even in a seemingly serious situation, a well placed face fault can lighten things up without breaking the tension. It feels weird saying this is one of the funniest mangas that I have ever read, because comedy is hardly the main focus compared to the action, but it really had me laughing a lot. The thing is, most of the comedy is just juvenile slap-stick and funny faces. It's extremely effective though, and to be honest, I don't remember the last manga that made me literally laugh out loud as much as 'Zatch Bell!' did. The comedy was probably this manga's saving grace for me.

As I mentioned before, at times the fights felt like glorified Pokemon battles, and at others, they were surprisingly creative and strategic. Though for a manga with tons of fights, very few of them stood out as epic clashes. The fighting, while being this story's main aspect, was oddly enough not my favorite part of the series. And maybe that's why it wasn't my favorite part. It was saturated with fights, putting quantity over quality. Sometimes the fights were kind of tedious to read through, and I just wanted to get back to the strong, comedic side of the story. The outcome of fights are determined by spirit and determination just as often as they are by strategy. Which is fine. I'm used to that in shonen fighting manga. But with the mamodo's powers limited only by the author's imagination, there was wasted potential. Some of the mamodo abilities are fun and unique, but what we end up seeing most often is a shield spell, an upgraded shield spell, a projectile and an upgraded projectile. The main character duo pretty much always uses a combination of these, along with some occasional strategy. It kind of gets monotonous after a while. I'd have to say my favorite fights are when there are team battles. That added variable almost always increases the use of creative strategy, which is fun to watch, even if the abilities are the generic shield and projectile spells. The only other time the fights were especially exciting was when a mamodo learned a new spell, and even then, it was more because learning a new spell goes hand in hand with character growth, rather than the spell looking cool.

It's interesting when Kiyo and Zatch run into a new mamodo and book owner. You never know if they are going to be good guys or bad guys, and even when they are good guys, that doesn't mean there won't be a fight. I think one of my favorite aspects of this series is how Kiyo and Zatch make new friends and allies. Though I think that is partly because whenever they meet a new mamodo, I sigh at the prospect of yet another fight, and when they end up being friendly, I am relieved. But I am also a sucker for the strong friendship themes in shonen manga. That theme present sets of a chain reaction of loyalty and determination. I never get tired of that stuff and I think that is why I still read manga meant for kids when I am in my mid 20's.

Something I found particularly interesting about this series was the dynamic relationships between the mamodos and their book owners. The relationships between book owner and mamodo are diverse and complex. Some human book owners only use and take advantage of their mamodo for the sake of power, and some mamodo even take advantage of their human partner. But on the other side of things, some of the pairs have great relationships. Most of them are just friends(which is saying something within the context of the story, mamodo not regarded as people and all), treating each other as equals, but one pair had a father/son relationship and another pair even had a romantic relationship.

I'm still not sure how I feel about Kiyo as a character. He's not a bad character, but as a main character, he's not that great either. At first, he is kind of a jerk who is secluded because of his genius. After meeting Zatch, who helps him gain friends, Kiyo changes drastically into a more typical, friendly, shonen main character. This Kiyo is likeable, but I think it would have been better writing to have him change gradually and more naturally throughout the course of the series. The nice thing about this story is that Zatch and Kiyo are so joined at the hip, it's almost like they are one character. Without Zatch, Kiyo is unremarkable, but together, they are fun and interesting to watch and follow. The same thing goes for most of the other human/mamodo partnerships, and part of me thinks this was done on purpose.

I told myself after my last review when I failed to properly describe the art that I would just stop trying to do so altogether, but it'd be a shame for me to not at least mention all the wonderful character designs in this manga. The humans don't so much fit the bill aside from the select few, but the mamodo designs are incredibly imaginative for the most part. And there are so, so many of them. On top of that, they are as diverse as they are many. They range from gargantuan dragon-esque creatures to cute, little monkey-rabbits. Some look like normal children with funny outfits, and then others resemble miniature, fighting robots. I believe I've mentioned in past reviews that I am a sucker for kooky character designs, and 'Zatch Bell!' didn't fail to satisfy that need in me. 

Maybe I'm just a little too old for what is almost purely a fighting manga. I personally think Makoto Raiku's latest work, 'Animal Land', is a large step above 'Zatch Bell!'. That's not to say I didn't enjoy reading it. There were ample laughs, imaginative character designs, and all the shonen, feel-good tropes my heart could desire. I just grew weary of the non-stop, repetitive battles. Since Viz only printed up to volume 25 for whatever reason, there is eight more volumes of story left, and to be honest, I'm not too broken up about not being able to finish. I can kind of guess how things are going to play out anyway, and I doubt anything groundbreaking will occur in the last 8 volumes if it didn't in the first 25. But, you know what? I'm glad I read this manga if only for how funny it was. Sure, it has lots of faults, but there was a lot of entertainment to be had.

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