So the first cour of the Shaman King reboot stumbled pretty hard right out of the gate, and left me with a pretty bad first impression of what to expect out of this new version. Between the pacing being too fast for its own good and quality of the production itself being pretty lackluster, it was gonna really need to turn itself around to even feel like it was worth greenlighting in the first place. Luckily, I’m happy to report that the second cour is an improvement in nearly every respect, and while I can’t exactly peg this show as a “great” adaptation, it’s at least started to shift the needle from bad to solid, and feels more confident in everything it’s trying to do compared to the first cour.
Whereas the first 13 episodes did basically everything in their power to stuff in as much material as possible at the expense of nearly everything else, these 12 feel a lot more normally paced. The fights are more exciting now that they actually have some room to breathe, and the characters get some deeper exploration as this cour sees Yoh and the gang transitioning from their trek through the desert to fight the Patch Village for the next round of the tournament, to some more traditionally tournament-based team matches once they get there. It’s a good thing too, because while Shaman King‘s greater themes on the importance of empathy and the ultimate futility of violence were only briefly touched on in a lot of its earliest material, and mostly buried in the first cour‘s rapid pacing, the latter really starts to take center stage in this batch of episodes.
During an extended flashback where we get to see how Ryu actually became a Shaman and convinced Tokageroh to become his partner, he gives the line “We’re all the same, more or less. The slightest things can make us friends or enemies. The thing is, there are no friends or enemies in this world, it’s all just suffering created by our own self-centered sense of fairness”. While it initially comes off as a surprising bit of wisdom from a character who mostly exists for comic relief, it’s an idea that the series really hones in on, as these episodes explore some of the ways in which that rigid sense of fairness can cause harm, regardless of intention. A pretty interesting example early on in this stretch involves Horohoro getting lost in the mountains, and getting rescued by a park ranger who’s taken it upon herself to look after a bear named Apollo that’s been injured by poachers. While she had good intentions in trying to save Apollo, he became violent after being isolated from his own kind for carrying the scent of humans around him, and ends up cruelly killed by other poachers. The poachers themselves only hunted him for sport, not even bothering to use Apollo’s body for food, which doesn’t sit well with Horohoro who believes that the cycle of life should be honored. It’s a pretty sad story, and while there is something of “a very special episode” vibe to the whole thing, it still feels like a pretty nuanced take on our relationship to nature and the cycle of life, as well as how ultimately pointless it is to carelessly take a life.
The most interesting bits of introspection on violence in these episodes, however, come with the introduction of Yoh’s newest companions, Joco and Lyserg, who make for some pretty neat, if messy, additions to the cast. Lyserg takes over Ren’s role as the resident edgelord now that Ren’s softened up a bit, and his singular focus in getting revenge on Hao leads him to cross paths with – and eventually join – a group called the X-Laws. The X-Laws are also very singularly dedicated to defeating Hao, but are so obsessed with their idea of justice that they’re all too willing to mow down Hao’s followers as well as anyone else who dares to so much as challenge their point of view. Since Yoh has a hard stance against killing regardless of circumstances, he couldn’t condone the X-Laws’ methods even though he also can’t bring himself to forgive Hao for all the lives he’s taken on his quest to become the Shaman King. Even Hao himself sees their ruthlessness as basically just the same thing as what he’s been doing, but with a different coat of paint.
In contrast, despite Yoh and the gang’s refusal to take sides in this whole thing, they’re significantly less prone to excessive violence, and surprisingly, several of their fights in these episodes actually center around them doing everything they can to avoid killing their opponents. Joco’s first fight is probably the best example of this, which…also means it’s time to actually talk about Joco and Joco’s backstory. Joco’s a self-proclaimed comedian, who wants to become Shaman King to spread laughter throughout the world despite not being particularly funny himself. However, his dream stems from a history of gang violence, as he lost his parents in a robbery as a child, only to become a gang member himself, and killed people in a hopeless attempt to feed the anger that was still eating away at him. His life changed when he met an Amazonian shaman who took him on as an apprentice and steered him away from his self-destructive path of violence towards pacifism, and when his master got killed in the middle of Joco’s gang trying to bring him back into their fold, Joco vowed to never take another life again, and brought his reformed friends to help root him on in the Shaman fight. While this works as a pretty compelling character backstory, and gives us one of the strongest episodes of this batch, it’s…also kind of hard not to notice how steeped it feels in stereotypes of Black people (which definitely isn’t helped by the dub making the baffling decision to give the members of Joco’s gang even more stereotypical “blaccents”). There is a pretty good amount of pay-off to all of it (with more to come later on), and the framing makes it extremely clear that Hiroyuki Takei was at least well-intentioned in writing Joco’s story, but it’s still pretty hard not to groan at some of it, and while I have mixed feelings on the whole thing myself, I definitely couldn’t blame anyone for getting immediately turned off by it.
As for the show’s actual production, it’s also taken a bit of a step up from the first cour. While the animation itself still leaves a lot to be desired outside of a couple of good cuts, the overall direction feels a little stronger and more visually creative even if it still never fully escapes being a direct 1:1 of the manga with lesser results (especially with the Oversoul designs, which do look pretty cool, but still nowhere near the level of Takei’s original art). Yuki Hayashi‘s musical score has also gotten a stronger showing this time around, and even if it’s still not among his best soundtracks, there’s some pretty good stuff here, and the 2nd ED song Adieu by Yui Horie is at least pretty catchy if not super memorable.
What still remains roughly the same as the first cour in quality is unfortunately the English dub, which still feels pretty uneven. On the one hand, some of the core cast members like Abby Trott and Erica Mendez as Yoh and Hao respectively have eased a lot more into their roles, while A.J. Beckles delivers a fantastic performance as Joco which does a lot to help ease some of the awkwardness of his backstory. Erica Schroder also does a bang-up job as Lyserg, giving the character a lot more nuance this time around and delivering what’s probably the most improved performance of the returning actors from the 4Kids dub of the 01′ series. On the other hand, the whole fake Elvis accent thing that DC Douglass is doing for Ryu is starting to seriously get in the way of his acting (which gets especially notable during his big fight early on in this batch), and the performances of many of the side characters can range anywhere from solid to wooden. It’s frankly pretty weird to see a modern dub where the overall quality of the performances varies this much, and at this point it’s really hard not to chalk it up to anything other than the voice direction, since there are points where it hardly feels like the actors are being directed at all. I do still hope it’ll improve at some point, since there are some strong performances buried under all the inconsistency, but it kinda sucks to see that this is still probably the weakest link in this whole reboot.
That bit of disappointment aside, on the whole this batch of episodes has made me a lot more optimistic about this reboot. Now that the pacing has finally decided to slow down, there’s a lot more room to digest what’s made Shaman King such an interesting hallmark in Shonen Jump‘s legacy, and while it’s still got problems that are holding it down from being a totally ideal adaptation, the improvements are at least enough to make it a little easier to recommend this version to anyone not already familiar with the franchise. Time will tell if this reboot will actually be able to stand on equal footing with the 2001 anime, but it’s good to see that it’s at least starting to step out of its shadow.