Perhaps it was the popularity of Pokemon that started the trend, but back in the late 90s you couldn’t read a shonen series without it being about a youthful protagonist wanting to be the king of something. Ninjas? Pirates? Chiefs? You name it. And if there was one manga series that took the premise to its extremeness it would be Shaman King: a series about a young boy fighting to become God.
Written and illustrated by Hiroyuki Takei, Shaman King wasn’t like the other shonen series when it premiered in Weekly Shonen Jump in 1998. It was a story about Yoh Asakura, a young shaman who could communicate and infuse with dead. With the help of his Guardian Ghost, the 600 year old samurai named Amidamaru, he competed against other shamans from different ages, sexes and cultures to become the Great Spirit and reshape the world as he see fit.
While the tournament story structure sounds familiar to anyone who has ever read a shonen series or two, the shamanism subject matter and the religious commentary that followed was untouched territory. In an interview with Deb Aoki, Takei explained that the atypical nature of the series is what motivated him to create it in the first place.
“It’s probably because I wanted to choose a topic that has never been done before by other creators,” Takei said. “I’m interested in the spiritual aspect of the story, so as an expression of my interest in this subject, choosing shamanism as the subject of this story seemed like a natural extension of that.”
And Takei did not hold back when it came to religious references in Shaman King. As explained by Jason Thompson, a Viz Media editor who worked on the English manga release, Takei was quick to invoke Jesus Christ and Buddha as potential candidates of the Shaman Tournament in volume two. The X-Laws, an organization of religious extremist instructed to eradicate “evil” by their leader Iron Maiden Jeanne, show off their Christian inspiration with their robotic Archangel spirits.
Religion wasn’t the sole inspiration of Shaman King. Takei’s artwork for the book often contained visual references found outside of Japan. Ponchi and Konchi, two animal spirits of a tanuki and fox, owe their design to John Kricfalusi’s cat and chihuahua duo Ren and Stimpy. That American pop-culture reference may have been easy to figure out, based on those spirits’ designs, but one that’s not as easy was series side-character Cado resembling Bollywood film star Rajnikanth.
The art style of Shaman King also has a graffiti-ish look to it; more apparent in the series’ edgier visuals.
Moving past artwork, Takei’s time as assistant to Nobuhiro Watsuki, the creator of Rurouni Kenshin, clearly had some influence in his storytelling. Kenshin’s pacifist lifestyle was given to Yoh, who prefers taking a nap over engaging in battle. Kenshi’s false reputation as a heartless killer was also passed down to Amidamaru, who was characterized as a “fiend” for the killings of his Lord’s men, when they were actually assigned to kill him and his childhood friend Mosuke.
While it may be hard to buy Shaman King theme of pacifism, considering the large amount of action scenes within, Takei did justify it by saying it’s a competition of who has the strongest spirit, than physical strength. He said in the March 2004 English volume of Shonen Jump that “the final message of Shaman King is that fighting is no good.”
When interviewed by Aoki, Thompson said Takei was afraid the English release of the Shaman King manga would be significantly altered. While Viz Media faithfully translated the manga, the same couldn’t be said for the English anime release handled by now-bankrupt children entertainment distributor 4kids. Japanese text and setting was removed to create a non-foreign impression. Characters names were often changed to easier-for-kids-to-pronounce English names. Japanese soundtrack was axed in favor of a new soundtrack produced by 4kids. And any extreme acts of violence was toned down for Saturday morning TV standards.
Despite the questionable localization and editing, the 4kids’ Shaman King dub is considered one of the company’s better dubs for generally staying true to the series roots. Certain scenes of blood were surprisingly kept it, along with the dark tones associated with specific characters. The Americanized opening is also a guilty pleasure.
There was an Uncut English DVD release previously distributed by Funimation but it was canceled before volume three ever went to shelf. Following the closure of 4kids Entertainment, no North American anime studio has attempted to buy back the anime license. Meaning there’s no legal way to watch or own the Shaman King anime in North America, unless you recorded the 4kids dub off the Fox Box years ago. Perhaps this will change one day, with the growing demand of streaming sites like Crunchyroll, Netflix, and Hulu.
Shaman King never achieved the mainstream popularity other series like Naruto and One Piece. The manga was canceled after 32 volumes with an ending that appeared unfinished. However, like an unresting spirit, the series found new ways of coming back from the dead. In Japan, a new manga called Shaman King Kang Zeng Bang was published. It was the original series with new cover art, chapters, and provided a more satisfying conclusion.
A sequel, Shaman King Flowers, ran from 2012 and 2014. Takei has also mentioned doing another Shaman King series, so fans may have more to look forward to in the future.
For the time being, anyone impatient for their next Shaman King fix should check out Takei’s other series, Ultimo, which he created with famed Marvel Comics writer Stan Lee.