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"Fairy Tail Part 1 (UK Edition)": Guilded Love

Fairy Tail is set in an alternate reality where magic is a very real commodity, sold, traded and used by wizards for various tasks. The wizards themselves are grouped into various guilds, and one of the most infamous is Fairy Tail, famed for having completed a great number of quests and slaying a great number of beasts. Teenage wizard Lucy aspires to join their ranks and gets her opportunity when she has a chance encounter with Natsu, one of Fairy Tail’s younger wizards. Quickly inducted, Lucy soon finds that her vision of this noble guild might not be completely accurate as she gets drawn into the madness of its membership.

ImageShonen manga and its related animated adaptations have consistently held a strong position since Japanese cartoons and comics gained mainstream popularity in the West. For some they’re a personal favourite, for others a guilty pleasure. Whilst I’ve personally read and watched my share, I have to admit that in general I tend to find the genre fairly boring and repetitive, and the loyalty shown by their fan bases for such titles as Naruto and Bleach eludes my understanding. I expected Fairy Tale to be more of the same, but I’m glad to say I was proven wrong on a few things.

At its core, Fairy Tail is the shonen stuff we’ve all seen before, with a fiery male lead, a female companion, a cute mascot, and a steadily maintained series of antagonists to be defeated. However, these elements are all blended in a way that is just more fun than most series manage to do with them.

The first episode is fairly standard introductory fare, with Lucy visiting a portside town in search of rare magical artifacts, and encountering first a sleazy playboy celebrity magician and then Natsu, a boy her age who travels with a flying blue cat named Happy. The celebrity is a con man, beaten by episode’s end to show how cool our protagonists are whilst also introducing their own social hilarities.

The initial episodes continue in this manner, combining exposition about the wizard world whilst Natsu, Lucy and Happy take quests to earn cash for food and rent. Something that made these stories fun for me is the absence of an overshadowing class system. It’s clear that our protagonists aren’t the strongest wizards out there yet, and we get a look at the wizard government (led by a council who consistently despair that Fairy Tail’s victories always seem to come at the cost of massive property damage), but it’s made clear that the characters are part of a wizard guild, not a wizard school. The drive to improve is a motivator for them, but they’re out in the world living their lives, not spending great expanses of time on a leash as is the case with a series like Naruto.

ImageLikewise, although the characters may vaguely follow certain archetypes, their characters seem to step beyond them. A big part of that comes from the voice actors. Tetsuya Kakihara’s Natsu and Aya Hirano’s Lucy are a treat; it’s long been a tradition to have shonen male leads be voiced by a female actress, but it’s one that’s always distracted me. Hearing a clearly male voice come from Natsu makes me buy into the character so much more easily, and Kakihara delivers a great performance, making the character’s often single-minded, fired-up reactions natural and endearing rather then forced and annoying. Likewise, Hirano is a perfect fit for Lucy, who nails the character’s frequent flabbergasted frustration without making her come off as bipolar.

A few other members of Fairy Tail are introduced, enough to give the guild some personality, but enough is left vague as to leave some hopefully interesting room for exploration later on.

Some of this possibility gets mined straight away with the first serious arc, involving a quest to stop a group of discredited assassin wizards using forbidden dark magic to launch a coup. As soon as this storyline appeared, my initial thought, based on past experience, was “Oh great, now we leave the fun to give over the rest of the set to a drawn-out arc which probably won’t even be finished here”.

To my amazement, this was completely avoided. The arc itself lasted only 3 to 4 episodes, and the points I expected to be agonisingly drawn out were not. I appreciate that adapting a still-being-published comic means that some shows will have to draw things out as much as possible, but there is no denying it kills all the tension as a battle or situation that would be tense or dramatic over an episode or two is dragged out to seven or more. This arc is kept going long enough to differentiate it from the lighter introductory ones, but short enough to not outstay its welcome.

ImageAnother key factor is the introduction of Erza, Fairy Tail’s strongest female member. The character is a stickler for order, and her hardnosed attempts to cure the guild of its rambunctious habits combined with her clear ability and sincere desire to defeat evil make her an enjoyable character. She’s clearly not a damsel in distress.

The set ends with the start of another arc. Desperate to rise in prominence in the guild, Natsu and Happy steal an S-Class assignment from the guild hall second floor that all but the top wizards are barred from. Convincing Lucy to join them for the promised reward of a new celestial key (Lucy’s magic relies on using rare keys to summon powerful spirits to fight for her), the group heads off to try and remove the taint on a supposedly cursed island.

Whilst the main characters are in attendance, the focus for this arc is really on Gray, Natsu’s rival, who initially chases them to take them back for breaking the rules but pitches in in hopes of ascending himself. The character has had a prominent role since the second episode, but this arc focuses on his backstory as the characters learn the island curse may be connected to someone trying to revive a threat from his past.

A large part of the show’s success lies in its humour. Although some of it is fairly standard, such as ample use of ‘character shouts at another for saying something stupid or annoying’, most of the time it manages to liven things up nicely. Happy is the best at this: in any other series he’d be a cute mascot serving as Natsu’s conscience. Instead Happy is just as bad as his friend, often stealing, forgetting vital information, and taking joy in pointing out when time-honoured puns and gags are used. Excessive fourth wall breaking is lazy but it’s fun to see things like pointing out the ‘character eats mushrooms, something bad happens’ gag or putting a spin of that old Japanese standby of ‘character ends all their sentences with a certain word’. Some jokes get old quickly, such as Gray’s habit of stripping down to his boxers without realising it, but in these episodes the show juggles its humour well.

Whilst a lot of the humour is helped by the fact that Natsu isn’t simply an ignorant blockhead who needs everything spoon fed to him, his character does suffer in other ways. Primarily, his fire magic seems to serve whatever role the plot requires. Some leeway is earned because it’s established that he was raised by a dragon and taught their powerful ancient magic, but at times he just seems too powerful for having such a basic specialty. It’s nice to not have to start at square one with a lead character in a show like this, but it’s hard to deny the real trick here might involve sleight of hand and the writer’s rear end.

The show’s animation is about standard for a recent animated Japanese show: nothing too ghastly, but fair use of the cheats, such as the good old pan.

The music stands out for using a few famous classical pieces such as Rossini’s ‘Morning Song’, which surprised me. The opening and ending songs are okay but nothing really memorable. When did shonen become so set on R&B easy listening to kick things off?

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