While the world might seem a bastion of normality, solid people going through the motions of their mundane lives, just beneath that surface there are dark and dangerous magics. No, it's not a description of Harry Potter but of the rather cool Shaman King. A show that starts really well and....hm, read the review.
We join the story watching a young Japanese boy leave cram school and decide to take a small shortcut home. It's a bit spooky, being through the graveyard, but safe enough. Although he is surprised to find another young teen already there, enjoying the starlit night with his friends. The guy seems a little bit unusual, but the fact that all his friends are ghostly spirits is what really makes the event memorable. And while the youths friends don't believe a word of it, even when the weird laid back kid joins their class, he's determined to understand what is going on.
However his plans are ruthlessly thwarted when the youth not only rescues him, befriends him but also seems perfectly willing to simply tell him all about it. It seems that the youth is a modern day shaman from a magical family. Able to communicate with, and even bond with, spirits he possesses immense magical powers. So perhaps it's a good thing he's so relaxed about everything. Mind you, this becomes the gateway into a strange and secret world, full of powerful magic in the hands of people who aren't nearly so casual. In fact they've got their eyes firmly fixed on the `big prize', a prize so desirable that even a laid back shaman might start getting serious.
The idea of primitive and dangerous magic still being alive and well in our modern age is a pretty good one. The real world gives a lot of depth and a sense of environment for the novelty and flashiness of magic to operate. This show certainly knows how to play on this, and the interaction between the two worlds is very well done. This is enhanced because there are various other magical practices which we get to see in action. The magic is fairly original, interesting and it looks damn cool when the action starts.
The characters are fairly interesting as well. The strangest element here being the `lead' character we meet, Manta. He's almost like a super-deformed character, incredibly short and seemingly less `real' than the rest of the cast. While he has the power to see ghosts apart from that he's powerless, effectively he plays as the `observer' through whom we see the action. He's not so much a character as something to bring out dialogue to explore the scene and set the story. It's a rather odd, and somewhat unattractive, approach.
Part of the reason he is needed is because the other characters are plenty cool but not very talkative. The main shaman is very calm and casual, friendly but not a huge one for conversation. His intense fiance, who is going to train him to victory or death (and seems unconcerned about which is the outcome), is even less chatty. Meanwhile the opposition are, well, intense and hostile which rather cuts down on the possibilities for character interaction. In truth the most sociable character in the cast is the spirit of a dead samurai, who becomes the main spirit of the shaman. He's wonderful, deadly serious when fighting but just a big boy the rest of the time.
So, sounds good doesn't it? In general it is, while the set up feels a little bit artificial at times (especially the `gang' component) there's enough depth and character there to keep you going. And finding out all about this magic, it's uses, and the prize they all fight over means there's lots to look forward to. The bad part was hidden in the `fight' word. It seems almost certain there's going to be many magically gifted individuals, a tournament, and a mysterious prize at the end. In other words, once all is said and done, it's another magical warrior show. Not a bad thing in itself, but it does mean that the start of the show is the good part, before we start getting into the filler. Perhaps it will avoid this trap, I don't know, I'll tell you when I see some more.
The animation is, in truth, not all that great. There's quite a lot of simplification in the character and environment, flat coloring and odd appearances. This is before you even consider Manta's weird and cartoon-like appearance. At times it suddenly get serious and shows a real flair for design, when it is doing something symbolic, a major character moment and especially a spell/action sequence, but in general it is not massively impressive. This gives the show a very varied appearance, main characters look much better than incidentals, spell sequences look much cooler than everything else. Still, it's more than sufficient to support the story and action needs. The voices are good, able to give depth to the characters and intensity to the scenes. The music is pretty decent as well, as are ambient sounds.
None of my regular sources have a review of this title so far, but I think it will find an eager audience on the American anime scene.