This review will mostly pertain to Fairy Tail before the show took a hiatus and returned as Fairy Tail 2014, though there will be some comparisons. There will be spoilers, you have been warned.
This is going to be painful isn’t it? I honestly don’t know of too many shows that get shit on as often as Fairy Tail, and while it clearly has a fanbase, said fanbase is nowhere near as vocal in defending it as say SAO fanboys or “Narutards” (I’m not actually trying to insult anyone here, I’m just using the term to get a point across) or the like. I may be wrong of course but that’s generally the impression I’ve gotten from the internet when it comes to Fairy Tail. Now I’m betting some people can’t wait for me to tear the show a new asshole, it certainly wouldn’t be out of character for me. However, while I will acknowledge Fairy Tail’s faults in full, I’m mostly going to be defending it and my enjoyment of it. Yea, I’m going there. Anyway, let’s start by explaining in the broadest of strokes why Fairy Tail would have appealed to me even if I hadn’t seen it when I saw it. I love fantasy and within fantasy, magic is arguably my favorite thing about the genre. I also tend to be more accepting of shounen-battle series than a lot of anime critics because I’m both childish and I like action shows. Fairy Tail is a battle-shounen series with lots of magic involved, so naturally I had to give it a go, but more on that later. I also like dragons because again, fantasy lover and childish, and Fairy Tail has all kinds of dragons and dragon-related shit. So even if I had been paying more attention to the internet when I first watched Fairy Tail, I probably would have pushed forward gleefully anyways. But it’s my experience watching the show is what really sold me on the show so many people hate.
I started watching Fairy Tail after a fairly lengthy hiatus from anime, because I had a roommate who watched it. It was nice to get back into anime, so that no doubt colors my experience somewhat, although I never watched it with the roommate much. It was a nice break from college stress too, the first few episodes of Fairy Tail are patently stupid, silly and mildly funny in a slapstick way. More importantly the show delivered a variety of different magics, a band of goofy characters and beautifully mindless violence right off the bat. Violence is after all, an important part of the battle-shounen genre and Fairy Tail delivers violence with unfettered abandonment. Now it’s not always good violence nor important violence, but there is a lot of it. While friendship and willpower are still focal points of the show like all its shounen-battle comrades, Fairy Tail’s friendship is more chaotic and violent than is typical. I mean the very first time we got into the guild, Natsu beats some random guy down, which in turn kicks off a guild-wide brawl. Even better the show introduces many of it’s major characters as they join chaotic fight like Gray and Elfman, or those who ignore it like Cana. The scene is silly but it’s actually a clever way to introduce most of the characters all at once instead of dedicating whole episodes to recruiting members one at a time like many shounen shows are wont to do. Also it’s just fun, to see that this chaotic, brawling bar full of people is where the main characters call home. If nothing else, it’s a way more interesting base of operations than Ichigo’s house and high school or Konoha. So Fairy Tail got off to good start for me, not so much in it’s “objective” quality but more so in that is was something I could dig at the time. And of course things could only go up from there.
I like the way Fairy Tail handles magic. Rather than give a small group of casters access to all kinds of abilities, they have tons of mages who have to rely on severely limited types of magic. This appeals to me more because it encourages more tactical thinking in battles, as opposed to straight power fantasies where a single mage steamrolls whole armies with all kinds of attacks, not that these power fantasies can’t be fun, but I prefer the limited magic approach. In Fairy Tail’s case in particular there is a staggering variety of magic, yes plenty of them are kind of stupid like the Grimoire Heart chicken-man who shoots eggs, others are kind of silly but also kind of interesting like Warcry’s Tears magic that lets him power up as he cries more, and magic that is straight up awesome like Jellal’s Heavenly Body magic. Even more important, the magics that are similar are not the same. Gray and Leon learned magic from the same teacher and they are based on the same concept for example, but their ice magics do work differently. Dragonslayer and Godslayer magic is essentially the same in concept but Dragonslayer magic heavily favors more physical attacks while Godslayer magic has very few physical moves. And even the different variants of Dragonslayer magic work differently. The different Dragonslayers all have very different attack patterns, special abilities and even general emphasis. Wendy’s Sky Dragonslayer magic has support spells and is lighter on damage than say Natsu’s Fire Dragonslayer magic is all about dealing loads of damage and has nothing but offensive techniques. Just about the only thing all the Dragonslayers have in common is a breath attack. There are even different methods for becoming Dragonslayers, which the show distinguishes by their generation number. What I’m trying to say is that Fairy Tail has a wide variety of magic and has put enough care into it’s world that all the magics are pretty unique, which is good.
As much shit as people give the show, I think almost everything prior to Fairy Tail 2014 was either fine or outright awesome, barring one of the filler arcs which sucked big time. The heart of this comes from the action. Unlike some of it’s counterparts Fairy Tail had established the perfect battle length for every fight. Prior to 2014 every prominent fight lasted 1 to 1.5 episodes barring a few battles that would make or break the guild which might take more like 2 to 2.5 episodes. So we the viewers don’t bored by people breathing hard for minutes on end while the fight gets interrupted and the spectators dump exposition on the moves of the fighters. Not that Fairy Tail is completely free of this kind of exposition but it’s much less intrusive in Fairy Tail than many other long-running shounen shows. If were to accuse Fairy Tail of any major faults with it’s battles, it would be that they are pretty formulaic, at least once we get to opponents that actually matter. A lot of Fairy Tail battles go like this, the hero fights and either makes a good account of themselves but basically just forces a stalemate, gets thrashed for a while but still sort of holding their own or gets pretty soundly beaten before there’s some break in the action, until the heroes figure out a tactic that gets them past their current hurdle, and then they turn the tide and end up beating the enemy, sometimes they totally dominate in the last section of the fight and in others they win by the skin of their teeth, but they always win. Nakama power-ups are almost guaranteed in the last stage of any Fairy Tail fight. Given how consistently Fairy Tail sticks to this formula as early as the Phantom Lord Arc, I can see people criticizing the show for it, and in theory I would support that criticism. However, in my experience Fairy Tail fights are not stale despite sticking to formula, instead I’d say they are polished because they stick to formula. Despite almost every fight going down the same predictable path, the fights are still great, and as far as I’m concerned that is in large part to this formula. Because the fights come with a mostly pre-packaged routine the creative staff doesn’t have to try and make a new fight routine every battle, instead they can focus on all the other elements of the battle to maximize the effectiveness of the routine with each new battle. This has led to loads of fights that just flow really well, they don’t feel too long or too short, and that’s pretty impressive when you consider that most long running shounen shows are notorious for over-long fights. Which brings to the rest of battle details.
The fight routine I’ve been talking about is the skeleton of every fight, and while that figurative bone structure is something the creators are comfortable with and clearly understand, it alone does not make the fights appealing. As with any battle show, fight choreography, tension and dramatic payoffs, and sound are important. And while that first element is kind of hit and miss for Fairy Tail, the latter three are phenomenal, especially the music. You may be wondering how Fairy Tail can inject tension or drama into fights that follow a formula and often include nakama power-ups. Well there’s two basic steps to this. The first comes by way understanding that routines and tension/drama are not mutually exclusive in the slightest, part of mastering a routine is in understanding how and when to build tension and then create a payoff. Take for example the humble knock-knock joke. Every knock-knock joke goes the exact same way, it’s a routine, and you build tension by trying to get people interested in who’s knocking and then the payoff comes at the end when you reveal who is in fact knocking and delivering what you hope is a clever punchline. The knock-knock joke is neither complicated nor original and while many of them suck, let’s not forget that routines can totally suck, there’s plenty of clever ones out there and they will persist until the end of time, or at least until we no longer have doors you need to knock on. And what Fairy Tail has done is spent a lot of time making the battle equivalent of a good knock-knock joke, it may be a predictable setup but the punchline is going strong.
The second way this works is sound. Battle noises and music are crucial, and the creative staff understands that. The magic attacks and physical blows in Fairy Tail sound like they have a lot weight and impact to them, the visuals tend to reflect this too but more on that later. If anything the battle noises are played up to a cartoonish level, which fits the show but more on that later too, in a way that kind reminds of how explosive and powerful the sound effects were in One Punch Man (please note I’m not saying Fairy Tail and One Punch Man are alike in terms of quality, just that their battles feature one similar element). Then we get to the music. Fairy Tail, in my opinion obviously, has the best collection of music in anime. I’m not saying it has the best anime theme music, what I’m trying to get at is that it has great theme music but in contrast to most shows, which have about 30 OST tracks at most, Fairy Tail has a more like 150-200 OST tracks at least. Even if none of those tracks are in anyone’s top 10 list, or something like that, that’s still a staggering number of good OSTs. And I’m not exaggerating when I say almost all of them are good, if not great. As someone who collects a lot of anime OSTs I was fucking floored by the sheer volume of high quality music for the show, and still am today as I’ve yet to find another show to pull this feat off, though that’s understandable since many shows never get that many sound tracks period. Still it’s worth celebrating good music, especially good battle music and Fairy Tail certainly has good music, battle or otherwise. However there’s something more important here than the music itself, and that’s effect music has on the viewer. Good music can bring any kind of scene to life, to make it jump off the page or the screen and burn itself into our memory. And… and you guys can see where I’m going with this right? Fairy Tail’s battles feel so alive, thanks to good flow and good music. Perhaps more importantly they do a great job of firing me the hell up. In one of my older posts I mentioned in passing that despite how obnoxious the nakama power-up is and how much people shit on it, there’s nothing inherently wrong with it. You just have get us the audience invested enough in the characters and battle to get us to ride the same emotional wave the characters do before pulling out that nakama power-up. And in my experience, few battle shounens have so perfected the art of getting the audience to ride that figurative wave quite like Fairy Tail. There are of course other shows where having the main characters hulk out for their nakamas can be fun but it’s not as consistently tolerable or enjoyable as it is in Fairy Tail. And the music goes a long way to getting us to ride that wave and thus heighten the experience, however it’s not the part that’s more unique to Fairy Tail.
One thing I find more interesting about Fairy Tail when compared to it’s other shounen counter parts is it’s relationship with rage. Now plenty of battle shounen shows have characters who frequently get enraged by their opponents which might cause them to makes mistakes and hurt allies in their blind fury a la Naruto Nine-Tails Fox cloak or steamroll their opponents in a wave of unmitigated aggression a la Vasto Lorde Ichigo. But the thing with rage is that it’s generally very limited. In Naruto, Bleach and D Gray Man for example, there’s generally one or two people who will rage, while the rest remain more level-headed. The only exception off the top of my head besides Fairy tail is HunterxHunter but even in HunterxHunter rarely does more than one person enter a state of rage during any given battle even if all the main characters get enraged at various points in the story. The interesting thing about HunterxHunter’s rage moments is that they vary from protagonist to protagonist. Leorio for example gets angry for his friends on a moment to moment basis and lashes out, while Kurapika by contrast is almost constantly consumed with the rage that fuels his need for vengeance on the Phantom Troupe. Which brings me to Fairy Tail. In Fairy Tail it’s never the case that just one or two people rages, the entire guild rages with them. And this works because Fairy Tail cribs a bit from HunterxHunter’s style and everyone rages in a different way. Gray for example generally remains more level headed while still clearly being angry, whereas Natsu gets almost bestial in his anger and rampages over his opponents. But the point here is that everyone gets angry. The reason this matters is because it adds to the tension and the atmosphere of any battle, it’s interesting to see a whole bunch of people, who all have different kinds of goofy personalities, suddenly all act in serious unity without a single spoken word. Watching a chaotic band of mostly harmless goofballs change into an organized band of dangerous wizards so quickly drastically alters the atmosphere of an episode and can build tension by virtue of how jarring and swift that change is. More to the point it helps fire up the audience. It’s one thing to support a lone raging hero, but when all the heroes are raging at the same time it’s hard not to roped into the aggression projected by the characters, it’s a sort of imposed mob mentality if you will and goddamn does it work for me. Tension builds as we the audience wait in anticipation for the moment when whatever is holding back the fighters disappears and the entire guild explodes in beautiful, violent action. And it works narratively because the guild functions like one big, chaotic, violent family, everyone is always unfettered in their actions and interactions, and while they fight all the time like many siblings do, they also stand up for each other when an outside force threatens a guild member with violence like family should (at least that’s the message shounen shows try and spread anyway). Ok so in summary, Fairy Tail has made it’s violence fun and interesting, and occasionally something it’s easy to get invested in thanks to the rage and atmosphere. What else does it do that I like?
Fairy Tail is cartoonish and it’s well aware of that. This goes beyond overblown attacks and loads of pointless albeit fun violence. There are loads of character’s with incredibly dumb quirks or who have hilariously bad character designs, or people who are straight up dumb. Hell in the first episode when Natsu, the male lead, goes to save Lucy, the female lead, from a minor villain, and literally seconds after he makes his badass entrance, smashing through the deck of a ship to get to where everyone is, he immediately collapses and gets the crap kicked out of him because he has crippling motion sickness whenever he’s riding man-made forms of transportation. Even the old guild master of Fairy Tail basically tells the guild members, fuck what the government says you have to be yourselves without holding back, when what passes for the mage’s government gives them another warning telling them to stop destroying shit in episode two. Everything the characters do is so taken to such goofy extremes that their fun-loving idiocy feels both genuine and infectious. The art style likewise reflects this cartoonish tone, it’s full of bright, vibrant colors and goofy animations, complete with odd sound effects to complete the gags. Speaking of gags, Fairy Tail is full of silly, often slapstick humor. This is not to say the humor is particularly good, it’s mildly amusing at best and while this isn’t really the case for me personally, I can see it being annoying to some people. The light hearted comedy however, much like the other cartoonish bits of Fairy Tail, serve a narrative purpose, a contrast to all the darker parts of Fairy Tail.
I mentioned in my review of Nanatsu no Taizai that a lot of shounen shows have dark elements and struggle to make them meaningful. Granted in shows where willpower and friendship win the day it’s hard to make darkness and tragedy convincing or have any kind of staying power. As I said the review linked above, most shounen shows introduce characters with tragic, sob-story backstories and then have all that shit paved over entirely by good guy attitude and friendship. But it wasn’t until I started writing this up and putting more thought into it that I can articulate the difference between shounen shows which use darkness well and those which don’t. In shounen shows that do use darkness well, like Nanatsu no Taizai or HunterxHunter, the darker aspects of any character are an ongoing struggle. Unlike say Gaara from Naruto, who has this crazy, dark backstory but then after befriending Naruto never is in danger of reverting back, nor ever suffers from any residual trauma. And in Fairy Tail, the darkness is used with an acceptable level of competence. It’s certainly not on par with Nanatsu no Taizai or HunterxHunter, but it at least gets the ongoing struggle right. Gray has a strong hatred for and sometimes crippling fear of demons, because his whole town was wiped out by one and even the person who taught him magic died in the process of sealing the demon. This hatred and fear persist long after Deliora, the demon who inflicted the trauma, is dead for good, though admittedly it doesn’t come up often because demon shenanigans are rare in Fairy Tail. Lucy was always angry at her father for the way he treated her and for eventually causing her guild great harm by hiring Phantom Lord to take her home by force, and she never really got a chance to forgive him because by the time he had reformed himself and the time she was ready to reconcile with him in full, he had died while she was sealed on Tenroujima. Elfman and Mirajane both blame themselves for getting their little sister killed and their magic suffers for it, and it’s only when they finally find the strength to move forward and fight for others who are important that they at long last break through their limitations and gain/regain their magic power. Erza and Jellal have one of the more interest relationships as they both clearly love each other but have also caused one another a lot of pain over the course of their lifetimes, their potential romance comes with a lot of baggage that neither of them ever seems quite ready to put behind them and forge a new chapter in their lives even as their attraction for each other deepens. The island where Erza and Jellal were enslaved as children is crucial to many characters in the story, more than just those two. Most of Oracion Seis is from that island and their powers are closely linked to their desires to escape the hell it was, while characters like Milliana and Kagura struggle to reconcile Jellal’s apparent reformation to a good guy with the fact he killed their sibling/friend, an act which had an effect on Erza as well. Some of the darker parts of the character’s backstories are resolved over the course of the show, but for most the struggle remains a work in progress, something that can be mined for setting and character details with Erza’s backstory serving as the prime example, which for my money is a pretty good use of darkness for a show that preaches friendship triumphs and which people ridicule all the time for being a show where no one ever dies. This brings me to the final positive thing I have to say about Fairy Tail, Fairy Tail women.
Some people are probably surprised that I like Fairy Tail women. I mean I’ve got that one post about trying to use fewer pandering body, this one and this other one about strong female characters and let’s face it, Fairy Tail women are all about pandering. The majority of the women are very well endowed, with a few lolis thrown in for guys who are into that, and almost everyone ends up in revealing outfits at some point, assuming they don’t end up in revealing outfits all the time. Cana for example is always wearing a bikini top, except for that time when she wears nothing but her bra and panties. There are multiple pool/hot spring/beach episodes, hell Mirajane was introduced in a swimsuit photo for an in-universe model magazine. Now there’s also some man-service, Gray and Leon strip a lot, but you guys get the point, there’s a lot of pandering fanservice in Fairy Tail. And while I confess that I certainly do enjoy that and said enjoyment is a part of why I like Fairy Tail women, there is more to it than that. I think Fairy Tail women walk the line between being objectified women and strong women, because while all the pandering shit mentioned above is true, these women have a lot more to them than that. But let me get into the strong women bit in the next paragraph while I get distracted. I mentioned above that I liked Fairy Tail’s art style, with is bright and vibrant colors, and nowhere does Fairy Tail’s art excel more than the women. Yes there are big boobs and yes I do appreciate them, but there’s more to their visual design than just their busts. I don’t think it’s much of an exaggeration to call Erza one of the more iconic women in anime and while her large boobs may contribute I personally think her hair is the most definitive aspect of her look. Sure Erza has big boobs, but so do like 95% of anime girls, no what makes Erza stand out is her red hair, and the many styles it comes in. Back in that post about pandering body types I talked about how there were other aspects of character design that could be used to make a woman pretty, and A-1 seems to get that when it comes to Erza and her many, many hairstyles that complement her various outfits and overall look. I’ve seen plenty of redheads in anime and none of them have looked quite as good to me as Erza does, which is more the hair than the boobs because I’ve seen plenty of big boobs before. Likewise I think Cana looks more attractive for the contrast of bright colors in her outfits and her tan skin and dark brown hair, and I find her attitude and how that attitude matches her look more appealing than how revealing her clothes are. This is not to say I’m for every design. Many people like to joke that people only watch Fairy Tail for Lucy’s tits, and yes I know it’s a joke and I don’t take it seriously, but honestly hers is one of the more drab and boring designs. Anyway that’s enough on design, time to talk about strong women… again.
All the women in Fairy Tail, well the important ones anyway, are powerful, even if that doesn’t always show. For instance when Lucy is captured by Juvia during the Phantom Lord arc and loses her keys she appears powerless to Gajeel, who beats the crap out of her. Yet in the Fairy Tail Civil War arc, she defeats one of Laxus’ top lieutenants and Gajeel is floored by the idea that Lucy is actually strong. More importantly Lucy’s victory over said lieutenant marks a crucial turning point in the arc’s overall conflict. Which is a roundabout way of saying that Lucy has agency. Agency, in a nutshell, is a character’s ability to take action and exert influence over the story. So characters like Sakura from Naruto, who just stands back forever and no longer influences the story by the time she gets powerful, have no agency. And Fairy Tail women have agency. In any given conflict the women play a major role. Erza in particular decides many of the more important conflicts in the show, hell she saves the entire guild twice, once during the Phantom Lord arc and again during the Tenroujima arc. Main characters like Lucy and Juvia also contribute to important battles in whatever arcs they appear in. Even more dedicated support characters like Levy, one of the weakest mages in Fairy Tail, can play important roles in a conflict. Levy for example was the one who got Gajeel and Natsu out of Freed barrier so they could defeat Laxus during the Civil War arc, and gave Gajeel the iron he needed to defeat the enemies attacking the pair at Tenroujima. Point is, Fairy Tail’s women all have agency and while some of them have annoying traits (Juvia) or moments of vulnerability (Erza and Lucy), they are important to the story. Therefore I posit that Fairy Tail women are indeed strong women, even if they aren’t the best examples of that term. Which is the other reason I find the Fairy Tail women pretty attractive, I have a raging boner for strong women, and they qualify as such. Give me good character designs with strong women and I’m hooked. Anyway now that I’ve already gushed over the positives for longer than any other post, time to look at the negatives, Fairy Tail 2014.
Almost everything I praised Fairy Tail for flies out the fucking window in Fairy Tail 2014. With the exception of the music, and the women having agency, Fairy Tail 2014 is a baffling step backwards. It’s art style has changed and looks flatter and less alive, likewise the colors are so muted that the whole thing looks desaturated. Basically the visuals got a massive down grade. Sound effects are worse as well, Igneel and Acnologia in particular were far less impressive in 2014 than they were in the original Fairy Tail. The silly humor is still around but it doesn’t make me laugh as often, though I admit it doesn’t annoy me much. But the worst sin is the fights. Many of the fights continue the same routine, but they somehow botch almost all of them. I mean when Erza fights Kyouka, Kyouka is somehow able to block Erza’s Fairy Armor, which she used to destroy a city-sized island in the Edolas arc, with her bare hands. Yet Erza defeats Kyouka with attacks like a kick to the stomach. It’s fucking pathetic. The only fights that impressed me at all since 2014 rolled around is the Erza-Kagura-Minerva three way battle, Natsu vs Jackal (that one had better sound effects and flow) and the battle where Wendy gets to use Dragon Force. Some of the more memorable fights left in shambles were Gray vs Rufus, where Gray gets beat down for 10 minutes before turning around and one-shoting Rufus, Laxus vs Tempesta round 2, which dragged on too long and had no flow at all, and Gajeel vs whatever the shark demon was called, which also has a terrible flow. It’s almost like Fairy Tail is being handled by a totally different team of animators and directors, and none of them have any fucking clue what made Fairy Tail decent. Which, given how A-1 does hires lots of contractors to get all their shows done, would honestly not surprise me overly much.
In conclusion, Fairy Tail is pretty decent, and certainly a good pick if you’re looking for a battle shounen show to watch. Fairy Tail 2014 on the other hand has mostly been a disaster, even if you discount the unforgivably bad Celestial Spirit Rebellion filler arc the show has undergone a massive downgrade in virtually every regard. It’s a damn shame but its the nature of long running shounen to fall apart eventually, and for what it’s worth I think Fairy Tail had a pretty good run. I hope you all enjoyed this and I will see you in the next one.