Hugh David argues that the treasure is in the detail
You would be forgiven for heaving a sigh at the thought of yet another long-running boys’ manga-inspired TV series making its way to the UK, on DVD last year, and now from the beginning again in glorious high definition. After all, a bunch of wizards from a guild known for causing collateral damage wherever they go in a European fantasy world hardly sounds original, and you just know every episode will feature fights featuring the same power-up animation sequences time and again alongside overacted comedy and silly music. Just another series…
…but you’d be wrong. Fairy Tail may look like that on the surface, but there is enough going on underneath to make it worthy of the time it’s going to take to watch the first 24 episodes (of 175 in Japan!). It’s even enough to make you go back to the manga from the very beginning (154 chapters and still going…)
Sure, you can tick off the traditional elements that do conform to expectations: young male lead who is hot-headed (in Natsu’s case literally – he’s a Fire wizard with dragon spells and salamander-like physical properties) and eats too much; the cute designed-to-be-a-plushie animal sidekick, here a talking cat with magical abilities of his own; the perky female lead whose outfit curiously manages to hint at a school uniform without being one; the blustering moody type at loggerheads with the hero; the tough older female who keeps everyone in line and kicks ass; and the rogue’s gallery that here covers both friend and foe. You can also tick off the usual events per episode: the mission/job/training exercise, encounter the bad guys, fight, get defeated, uncover more info, go back in and win, sometimes in the next episode to give the first a cliffhanger. It’s the same formula Marvel Comics pursued for decades.
Where Fairy Tail differs is in the details. The wizards of the Fairy Tail Guild are instantly recognisable individuals from the moment you set eyes on them thanks to Akira Toriyama-inspired character designs that ensure everyone is individualised sufficiently even without a name. Their abilities are varied as well; they make for good comedy and dramatic action (the Guild barroom brawls will bring a tear to the eye of a certain age of tabletop RPGer), as well as intrigue as we learn more about the internal structure of the Guild, individual advancement, and how they relate to the larger world’s political and economic structure. And yes, this is a boys’ show which, thanks to the manga, comes possessed of a clear sense of the world it is set in. Guilds get fined for damage, which is why it’s better to be part of one then wizard solo; they answer to a council which answers to the government of Fiore, the nation in which the Fairy Tail Guild is located. The jobs posted for wizarding vary in difficulty and payment and range from the mundane to the dangerous, making for an interesting glimpse into the lives of wizards in Fiore.
The biggest influence on this manga and show, however, is not tabletop RPGs or even the long-standing fantasy fiction genre itself. No, the stamp of numerous Japanese role-playing videogames is all over Fairy Tail, from the Atelier series to the Final Fantasy franchise, in particular Final Fantasy XII, which debuted in Japan five months before the first part of the manga hit newsstands. This is a very modern take on fantasy staples, built for a modern otaku audience; no wasting time in medieval European settings (a la Slayers or Rune Soldier), the setting is a blend of ideas from the 17th to the 19th century with trains, trousers, and even a magic-powered “car”.
As the series progresses and our heroes take on jobs, defeat villains, become a team and aim for advancement, we get a steady drip-feed of information filling in characters, history, and the how and why of magic in this world. For all the immense power wielded and damage done in the fights, the energy for the different types of magic come from individuals as well as their channelling what is around them, which means it is possible to run out and not be able to fight or defend. This makes for real suspense in encounters, and this early on in the series, the risk that someone we think is a regular may not make it to the end of a fight. (You could spoil it for yourself by checking online, but why on earth would you do that?) And they are genuinely interesting characters, slowly revealed to have foibles and motivations that build some real depth into the comedy cardboard cut-outs they start as.
If you’re looking for your next big-time investment in something a little lighter than some of the more critically-acclaimed fare, then you could do a lot worse than Fairy Tail. Positioning itself (in more ways than one) halfway between One Piece’s pure anarchistic fun and Fullmetal Alchemist’s heavyweight emotions, it’s bright, colourful, action-packed, and surprises with hidden depths and interesting moral lessons for the kids. A good show to unwind to after a hard day’s work.
Fairy Tail box two is out now on UK Blu-ray from Manga Entertainment.