CONTENT WARNING for discussion of sexism and sexual harassment; NSFW screenshots. SPOILERS for the first three chapters and episodes of the Soul Eater manga and anime.
Soul Eater was a breakout success for manga artist Ohkubo Atsushi. Beginning initially as a series of one-shot chapters set in the same universe, the manga (which ran in Monthly Shonen Gangan) eventually became successful enough to earn an anime adaptation. For the unfamiliar, Soul Eater follows several groups of students: those who can transform into weapons are partnered with “meisters,” who wield them to claim corrupted human souls in the service of Lord Death.
As one might guess from this setup, the series is intense. It deals with questions of life and death, insanity, morality, world destruction, and the struggles of being a teenager in the midst of all this violence. But within all the world-changing drama, there is nonetheless room for laughter; the initial three one-shot chapters that established the manga are framed as school-age comedies in a wacky, wonderfully stylized world.
These prologue chapters lean heavily into the ecchi tradition, sexually objectifying the female protagonists both in dialogue and visual representation. One of the notable differences between the manga and the anime adaptation of these three prologues is the reduction of sexualized framing, allowing viewers to consider the necessity of “fanservice” in the first place. What Soul Eater gains from surface-level sex appeal pales in comparison to the depth of concept evident from its first incarnation.
Maka and Soul
In the first one-shot, also titled “Soul Eater,” the readers follow meister Maka Albarn and her weapon partner, a scythe named Soul Evans (his nickname “Soul Eater” providing the title). They aim to claim the soul of a witch named Blair—only to discover that she’s not a witch at all but an extremely powerful magic cat.
Maka and Blair serve as opposites to each other at nearly every turn: Maka is a studious, determined, and sometimes insecure hunter; while Blair is lackadaisical, confident, and just out to have a good time. And physically, Maka is straight as a pin while Blair is extremely curvaceous. Even before Blair is introduced, Soul describes Maka as flat-chested, earning both her ire and the ire of her father, who challenges him to “make a move” in the manga, and “try a little something” in the anime.
While Maka is not drawn in a sexually suggestive way, her body is still subject to men’s evaluation. Her own father takes Soul’s lack of sexual interest as an implicit fault in Maka.
Blair’s first appearance, meanwhile, is fully nude, with the only concessions to modesty being that Ohkubo doesn’t actually draw her bare nipples. Typical TV censorship applies bubbles to cover her in the bath, but otherwise the anime doesn’t change much. Blair remains brazenly sexual, and the audience is invited to ogle her as Soul and Maka’s father do.
The emotional heart of the first prologue is Maka’s anger at her father, whose womanizing ways have caused him and her mother to begin divorce proceedings. When Soul seems to have betrayed Maka for Blair (and her body), Maka shouts him down in the middle of the street. Ultimately, Soul was only bluffing so that he could get close enough to Blair for Maka to deliver the finishing blow. Interestingly, despite a battle full of acrobatic stunts, this final attack is the only time Maka is subjected to visual sexualization: we see her underwear as she slices Blair in half.
The anime removes this panty shot but leaves the plot intact and creates an engaging complexity in Maka and Soul’s relationship. While Soul is aroused by Blair’s sexuality, he remains loyal to Maka, even though he continues to denigrate her supposedly unattractive body. Maka is grateful to be able to trust him and, despite loathing the way men sexualize women, does not directly demand Soul change his behavior.
When Soul objectifies Maka, it hurts her, but he ultimately proves that he’s mature enough to not base important decisions on a surface-level attraction. Soul’s loyalty to her is crucial for Maka’s growth over the story. She goes from furiously asking all men to “just die” to thanking Soul and believing that his gender, as a whole, has at least some worth.
These two become the central protagonists of Soul Eater—Maka arguably even more than Soul—which promotes Maka’s relatively “sexless” style of femininity as an admirable trait. Blair’s overt sexuality is left as a kind of gag; she wasn’t even human in the first place, so what’s the harm? She chooses to weaponize her sexuality, and may even have designed her human form specifically to that end.
Nonetheless, this still embraces the idea that a woman is immediately judged by her body. She can choose to show it as Blair does and become the villainous eye-candy, or she can dress modestly to be a more virtuous receptacle of male lust. Even though Maka is constantly reminded that she lives in a world dominated by the male gaze, her status as a hero legitimizes a form of femininity that doesn’t inherently serve that gaze.
Black☆Star and Tsubaki
The second chapter is named for the meister Black☆Star and follows him and his partner Tsubaki Nakatsukasa on two failed assassination attempts. The central question is “can Black☆Star actually live up to his bravado?” or, possibly, “why does Tsubaki put up with this guy?”
He fails every mission, spies on her in the bath (twice), and brags constantly. Tsubaki, by contrast, is a prodigy who can transform into no fewer than five weapons. However, by the end, Black☆Star is revealed to have a heart of gold and, when properly focused, to be an incredible assassin. Mystery solved, but we are left with the peeping problem.
A classic bit shounen of fanservice, the first instance of Black☆Star being a Peeping Tom, was changed in the anime. In the manga, he pretends to be a TV host and declares to his “viewers” that “for your enjoyment, I… shall now peek in on her.”
Here we see stated in startlingly blunt terms that the point of Tsubaki’s impending sexualization is the amusement of the assumed male reader. Furthermore, Black☆Star, imitating the hypothetical guests on his TV show, says “You really are a big shot!” as if his blatant violation of Tsubaki’s privacy should be seen as a desirable trait.
The anime, mercifully, removes this. Black☆Star’s only motivation is to prove to Tsubaki that he can too successfully sneak up on a target. He does not appear to know that she’s in the bath. Furthermore, the anime uses more modest angles and never shows Tsubaki fully nude—from the front, she has a bath towel to protect her.
This accords Tsubaki a level of respect that she does not receive in the manga (and makes Black☆Star a better person), but it’s mostly a sugar coating. Tsubaki’s nudity is still a vehicle for male gratification, but the anime has the decency to be a little shamefaced about it.
It’s worth mentioning again that all these characters are essentially in high school. Tsubaki may be one of the oldest, but she’s still a teenager. A minute change in the anime reflects and respects this: Tsubaki’s outfit covers more of her chest, and she doesn’t wear a garterbelt.
While these changes to her clothing amount to barely five strokes of a pen, they go a long way from making Tsubaki look like she’s wearing lingerie to something that a martially-trained teenage girl would feasibly choose. This benefits her character development by indicating a consistent personality driven by forces aside from pleasing male viewers. No one seriously intending to win a fight wants their breasts falling out of their shirt in the middle of it, so granting Tsubaki more practical clothes authenticates her desire to become a powerful weapon.
At the end of this prologue, in both the manga and anime, Black☆Star again decides to peep on Tsubaki in the bath, and this time, there are other girls present. The attempts are deliberate in both versions, and the only change in the anime is the addition of towels. Throughout all of this, Tsubaki’s reaction is one of exasperation. She tells Black☆Star to do a better job hiding if he’s going to spy on her, not to stop spying.
It seems that Tsubaki has accepted this violation as a necessary evil in the development of her meister, sacrificing her own right to privacy. This acceptance rings false because she’s otherwise been completely willing to criticize her meister: when he misuses her weapon forms, when he lets his need for attention compromise their mission, and so on.
Rather than consistently developing this relationship, “Black☆Star” sacrifices the realism of Tsubaki’s character on the altar of fan service, and a costume change in the anime doesn’t wholly rescue it.
Death the Kid and the Thompson Sisters
The final prologue story, titled “Death the Kid,” follows the titular character—Lord Death’s son—and Liz and Patti Thompson, sisters who transform into matched pistols. The arc of this story is fairly straightforward and similar to Black☆Star’s. Can Death the Kid overcome his neuroses to achieve his objective?
The answer is yes, mostly. Liz and Patti must play the roles of comforter and cheerleader to help Kid overcome his mental roadblocks, but all three are fearsome fighters when the situation requires it.
The chapter does not open with these abilities, however. It opens by introducing Kid’s obsession with symmetry in all things, including the cup size of his weapons.
In both manga and anime, this is presented in essentially the same way. While anime Liz successfully punches Kid as retribution, a crucial element goes unchanged: Liz’s vocal retort. In both media, rather than berating Kid for touching Patti and her inappropriately, she is upset that her breasts are smaller than Patti’s. While the anime does allow Kid’s actions to be “punished,” the underlying assumption that big boobs are better boobs and that a male has the right to judge goes unchallenged.
The other major moment of objectification is when Liz and Patti are caught by the enemy, bondage-style, with their clothes coming off as Kid enters the room. The manga version of this scene is borderline pornographic: the girls lose their pants and are moments away from losing their underwear as well. Liz’s top is ripped, and Patti’s is about to come off (and neither, of course, seem to be wearing a bra). In the anime, they remain much more clothed, but the structure of the scene is unchanged.
In both, it’s really only a momentary distraction for Kid. He is embarrassed and tries to leave, but the team quickly gets itself in order to take down the cursed pharaoh. Mission complete, they begin the journey home largely unchanged: Kid again laments that the Thompsons have different cup sizes.
The bondage scene therefore serves no function aside from viewer enjoyment. It would have been easier and simpler to have Liz and Patti wrapped in full-body bindings like they were becoming mummies themselves, but the story took a detour instead to focus on how sexy the teenage cast is.
Unequal Framing and Uneven Stories
Of the three prologue chapters, it’s revealing that the girls who are actively molested in some way are the ones who can literally turn into objects. Tsubaki, Liz, and Patti all have their privacy and/or bodily autonomy compromised by their male meisters, boys who they clearly respect and trust throughout the rest of the story.
In this way, the fanservice elements of “Black☆Star” and “Death the Kid” do the narrative a disservice by eroding the believability of the trust the protagonists have in each other. It seems unlikely that a girl who cannot trust a boy to keep his hands off her when she’s human would enjoy being wielded as his weapon.
Maka’s milder sexualization may be because she takes the lead in her dynamic with Soul—he’s the one who becomes an object and must trust her to use him. Here, Ohkubo inadvertently hits on a truth about sexual objectification and harassment: it’s about power. Reducing a woman or girl to her sexual appeal reduces her humanity and makes her feel powerless, and men often sexualize women who they view as subordinate (or in an attempt to make them subordinate).
Of course, this is not to say that women can’t vicitimize men, or men can’t victimize other men, and so on. However, Soul Eater never objectifies its male characters—even when Soul becomes a literal object. Soul respects Maka enough to only sexualize her a little bit; the story respects all the male characters enough to not sexualize them at all.
While the anime reduces the most egregious visual sexualization, it still strictly adheres to the manga storylines. Such a close adaptation reinforces the underlying premise that women and girls can be judged on how sexually appealing a man finds their bodies, with their abilities and personalities a distant second.
Serious and studious Maka is dismissed for not being seductive enough, while patient and competent Tsubaki suffers repeated invasions of privacy, and the hot-headed but loyal Thompson sisters get berated constantly for physical traits outside of their control. All of them go on to have thoughtful, well-crafted character development in the longer series, but they just can’t seem to escape these indignities, no matter how the anime softens them.
What’s worse is that they have to place their full trust in the very boys who cause their suffering. The strength of a meister and weapon pair is based on how well they can synchronize their souls. It would make sense for the boys to learn how upsetting (and constant) sexual objectification is, but they never do.
Perhaps the author does not understand how painful harassment can be for women, or he simply ignores it in favor of a moment of audience titillation. Regardless of the reason, in a story like Soul Eater where every main character is a veritable powerhouse, this so-called “service” to its fans only cheapens the relationships between weapon and meister.
Such little character inconsistencies may seem as inconsequential as dust. But—like dust—they build up over time and tarnish an otherwise truly excellent story, lush with creative visual design, vibrant characters, and a gripping plotline.