Okubo Atsushi's Soul Eater starts in a fairly juvenile manner, like any other shonen series would— focusing on cool fights, engaging teammates and boobs, boobs, boobs. To be honest, upon my reread, I was really disappointed in such cheap and unpleasant fanservice. But once you let the manga establish its setting and themes, boob fetish and all, it actually develops into a saga I would consider very mature for a shonen title. Other series would classify its big baddie as "darkness" or simply "evil" and fight to revive the "goodness" of the world. But Soul Eater chooses a different vice and this choice elevates its content, flipping the stereotypical shonen powerful struggle on its head and giving it an immensely unique and creative representation.
What I love about Soul Eater is its Madness.
Soul Eater's incessant Madness is powerful, fueled by its art style, and makes the tale of Maka, Death the Kid, and Black * Star stand out among a sea of similar shonen stories, by putting a darker spin on common tropes and effectively playing with the ideas of insanity and insecurity.
Spoilers for the Soul Eater manga ahead.
Madness makes itself known early in Soul Eater's story with Crona and the introduction of black blood. This ailment increases a soul's susceptibility to Madness and becomes both a help and a hindrance to Maka and Soul as the series progresses. Madness levels you up big time, but it messes with your soul resonance; lucky for them, our two favorite DWMA students are always able to reign it in just at the last moment. You lose control of yourself, lash out, and have the potential to destory everything. Madness also, unsurprisingly, makes you look insane. Maka and Crona's encounter is our first look into the eerie and powerful design that Okubo utilizes with Madness. Our familiar characters become nearly unrecognizable when influenced by Madness, their faces skew and they cackle and scream like demons. Okubo's aesthetic flourishes here give these scenes less of a shonen and more of a seinen (older adult) vibe. These moments are actually scary, and its these scenes that make Soul Eater stand out visually in the oversaturated shonen genre.
Throughout the series, Madness is always knocking on the back door, as a new enemy, as an insecurity or thought that becomes an obsession or, quite literally, a small demon in a well-fitted suit. In the final battle with Kishin on the moon, we come to realize that Madness is inside everyone, and just needs the correct motivation to reveal itself. Grotesquely, we watch Madness pour out of our heroes bodies as they slowly fall into insanity, only saved by Soul's Soul Meditation technique.
This is a gritty spectacle that I love, but most importantly it illustrates that Madness is inside everyone. We all have the potential— the insecurity, the flawed mindset, the ego or hubris— to go insane. And that's a haunting note to sneak in right at the end of the series. We are filled with possibilities to be anything, good or bad, even if you're a shonen hero.
All right, let's take a step back. So if we are comparing this to the good versus evil narrative, then what is our "good?" What is humanity's saving grace from the vices of Madness? Soul Eater makes another intriguing choice in its theming by going with an option that is also not typical in this dynamic, Order.
I personally loved this full circle choice. Death the Kid, a shinigami and the literal brother of Kishin, obsesses over Order (I know a good foil when I see one). It is used in the early story as his hilarious character quirk— everything must be symmetrical and clean; without order, Kid can get nothing done. Having this fun and seemingly harmless trait turn into the driving force behind DWMA's mission was very satisfying and unexpected.
Kid triumphantly states, "I will awaken as a true shinigami and restore Order," which has a couple cool implications. Firstly, I love the idea of Death being the ultimate way to keep order; the natural cycle of death and life is a balance in the world no one should tamper with. Shinigami being used as a heroic role of Orderly Good when Death is usually framed as the ultimate demise is a really refreshing twist.
Secondly, Kid vows to become a true shinigami and restore Order even with Madness inside him. Not once does he denounce it or declare it a mortal flaw. Kid even ends up using a form of Madness to defeat Kishin. Instead of ripping out his fear and anxiety like his father did, Kid decides to overcome it, making him a true shinigami. This resolution is one of the main lessons of Soul Eater as a whole: Madness is inside us, but if we can control it and use it as a way to motivate and empower — just like Soul and Maka have since their first encounter with Crona— then it can be used for good. Kishin's Madness is fueled by Fear, but Kid's is fueled by Order, something more positive and fulfilling. That is how he is able to manipulate it and grasp victory through Madness all while keeping his sense of self in tact.
I think that's pretty cool.
There's a lot of good stuff in Soul Eater— music as an expression of self, living with the pressure of seemingly crushing expectations, the power of the human soul— but I find the descension into Madness and fight against and with it the most interesting and refreshing aspect of the manga. I have not seen it before in this medium and, in a genre so cliched and stereotyped, Okubo Atsushi and his team managed to break the mold with this clever and impactful concept to make Soul Eater feel one of a kind.