The original Soul Eater was something of a stealth high-water mark for anime in its moment in time, one of those things where it was easy to overlook how good it actually was. It rummaged around in the grab bag of shonen anime clichés and came up with a few twists—some stylistic, some conceptual—that made it not only stand out but be worth revisiting. I was even more surprised to realize how well a live-action movie version of the material would work. Now comes Soul Eater Not!, a sort of B-side, in-dub remix of Soul Eater that ought to be more inventive and interesting than it really is.
The approach is a tactic I’ve seen used elsewhere in e.g., Tenchi Muyo! GXP, where a successful (or at least familiar) franchise is revisited with a new cast and storyline, and with the “classic” characters relegated to walk-ons, second bananas, or merely alluded to distantly. From what I’ve seen of this tactic in action so far, it’s not a wise one: it typically means the show relies too heavily on the mere presence of its legacy characters, doesn’t built on its own native strengths, and ends up reminding us more of former glories than it enthralls us with new ones. No prizes for guessing what I thought of this show.
Back to school
Not! uses the same basic premise as its parent property: people who can transform into living weapons are paired up with human wielders, who then go out to deal with all manner of supernatural upsets. The academy they train at, the DWMA, is a shonen fight school with décor and design by Tim Burton and Edward Gorey. Much of the original story was taken up with the power-ups and compulsive-competition plotting that is standard-issue shonen material, but it worked despite all that (and sometimes even because of it).
With Not!, the focus is now on a trio of new students: Tsugumi, who hasn't quite mastered the art of fully transforming herself into the halberd-like weapon she can be; Meimei, a wide-eyed and perennially clueless type who can't remember what she was doing five minutes ago; and Anya, a princess — as in, a genuine blue-blooded member of royalty — with ambitions of learning more about the lives of commoners. (Commoners, yes; ordinary humans, no.)
Anya and Meimei are both Meisters, and so of course much of the plot concerns, however indirectly, which of them gets to wield Tsugumi — with all of the quasi-sexual implications hinted at therein. A dismaying number of the jokes about Meimei don't merely involve her being an airhead, but also involve her bust size, or how little clothing she has on for a given moment, etc. For a show based on a shonen property, it leans rather uneasily towards seinen territory; it's enough to make you wonder what the target audience really is.
The single biggest defect of Not! lies underneath all that, though. It's the watery, underdeveloped plot, where a secret investigation is being conducted within the walls of the DWMA to unmask a witch fomenting plans to mentally enslave the students and turn them into an army at her command. There's not much more to either the deeper plotline or the antagonist than that; she, and the plotting she inhabits, are essentially drop targets for the protagonists to be flung at by the flippers of the rest of the story.
The supporting cast
The second big defect of Not! is something intended to be a selling point for the story, but which instead becomes a hindrance. Woven through all of the goings-on are cameos by all of the major characters from the original Soul Eater—Maka, Soul, Dr. Stein, Death the Kid, Nancy and Patty, and so on. They don’t really drive the story; they serve either as comic relief, momentary foils, or Basil Exposition. Their putative function is to give fans of the original series something to connect with, but this strategy fails: all it does is remind us of how genuinely interesting the original cast could be. Maka was a remarkably well-developed character, and it was worthwhile to watch her dealing with both a dissolute father and a partner (Soul) struggling with his own dark places. Watching Tsugumi settling in at the DWMA and trying to choose between either Meimei or Anya as a wielder just isn’t in the same league.
With a show like this, most of the pleasures wind up being in the margins. I did giggle at a running gag about a serious-faced girl in Tsugumi's dorm who deals in tarot cards … albeit one where half the deck is made up of cards found in no other tarot deck. One great visual gag — a prank by Dr. Stein — works either as an homage to Toy Story or The Thing, depending on how perverse your imagination is. (The dub references The Thing.) And there’s a scene involving Tsugumi, Meimei, and Anya playing baseball that has a genuinely hilarious, unexpected climax.
But for the most part it's all thin gruel compared to what the original show cooked up. That right there is the key problem: there's never a moment when I felt like Not! was anything but something condemned to live in its parent's shadow. It shouldn't have, and it's a shame, but here we are.