A fantasy epic (mostly) worthy of the shōnen crown.
Overview (Spoilers Below)
In a fictional version of England, five races inhabit the nation. In addition to humans, giants and fairies roam the land. The three of them, with help from a disappeared Goddess race, banished the fifth race of demons to an alternate dimension. One demon, named Melodias, has made a life for himself among the humans after switching sides. With his six friends, he has formed a fighting crew called the Seven Deadly Sins, who just purged the land of a demon incursion.
It turns out, this was just the beginning. Ten elite demon fighters, each cursed with a terrible power, descend upon the Earth, and it’s up to the Seven Deadly Sins and their allies to keep them from taking over the entire country. Through their travels, each sin must confront ghosts from their past in addition to the demons laid out before them, as they try to defend their friends.
Seven Deadly Sins is built on such a good core concept that I can’t believe that something like it didn’t take off sooner. Anime, especially shōnen, has always had a lot in common with a few other forms of entertainment (comic books, soap operas, wrestling, reality television) in that it’s made to never truly end, only perpetuate itself as long as possible. One need only look to the likes of Naruto or the Dragon Ball franchise to realize that these media empires were not built to last, but are extended artificially. I don’t mean this disparagingly, in fact, quite the opposite. When a medium has this kind of security, the kinds of risks it takes in its plotting become all the more interesting.
The brilliant move Seven Deadly Sins makes, in particular, is to combine this endless entertainment formula with another genre formula: fantasy. The marriage of a massive cast of complexly related characters and absolutely no rush to make any of their relationships pay off in the short term is truly brilliant. New characters can be infinitely introduced naturalistically, and they nearly always have some kind of relationship to another member of the cast that can be exploited at a later date. I’ll be the first to admit, this narrative trick blinded me to a lot of the show’s flaws for much of my viewing.
Confession time, I haven’t seen any of Seven Deadly Sins before this arc. It seems, before this twenty-four episode season (which seems to cover about three arcs in the manga), there was a first season of equal length and a second season that looked to be filler. This didn’t matter too much to me though; the show was easy enough to follow. The mixture of Arthurian legend and shōnen tropes made me feel more than welcome, and should for anyone who has seen any of Seven Deadly Sins forbearers or had a Holy Grail phase.
The show wears its influences on its sleeve. Melodias and Ban have a very Goku/Vegeta, Naruto/Sasuke relationship. There are power levels so everyone understands how strong people are supposed to be in a given moment, and the fights are narrated just like an old episode of Yu Yu Hakusho. Seven Deadly Sins brought back all of my favorite feelings from watching Toonami after school as a kid. On that level, I could not recommend the show any more highly.
This isn’t to say that the show doesn’t have its share of problems, however. While the show is familiar, that cuts both ways. I never felt as if I was watching something completely new. Manga author Nabaka Suzuki is a big Akira Toriyama fan, and it definitely shows. This goes double for the Arthurian legend stuff. While it was great shorthand to have Merlin and King Arthur as actual characters, for instance, it made me wonder if the show had any original ideas for me at all.
I do come down on the side that Seven Deadly Sins made a few serious improvements on its influences. Dragon Ball Z, for instance, built up a huge cast of characters who were made largely irrelevant when planet level threats came to Earth. Large swaths of that show were just the Z fighters dying at the hands of Frieza/Cell/Buu while they waited for Goku to come around and clean up the mess. Seven Deadly Sins really improves upon that issue by making antagonists of all levels to match their protagonists. While Melodias and Eschanor are working on the Ten Commandments themselves, there’s always a spare red demon around for Arthur or northern princess Elizabeth’s knights to contend with. No character ends up feeling useless, and even weaker ones never feel superfluous.
On the other hand, though, the show has not been discriminate about the traits picked up from the modern era of anime. The show’s unofficial mascot Hawk is truly annoying. Instead of being cute and endearing, Hawk’s bluster inspired little more than eye rolls. The show also has a fairly prominent obsession with loli sexuality. Ban, a human who drank from the fountain of youth, loves the sister of the fairy King, Elaine. All fairies in this universe happen to look very much like children. This results in Ban, one of the most emotionally affectionate characters, regularly sharing sexually charged scenes with a character who looked to be about ten. The show makes it very clear that she’s multiple hundreds of years old, but if anything, that just makes it worse. Similarly, Melodias is in love with Elizabeth a druid princess who it is hinted is part of the Goddess race. While they are both adults for the majority of the anime, in flashback, we find out that Melodias took care of Elizabeth from birth, even once declaring her his girl when she was an infant!
Seven Deadly Sins does similar things with male characters, Harlequin the fairy King looks like a child and one of Elizabeth’s knights was de-aged into the body of a ten-year-old during the second season, but it is nowhere near as sexual as it is when it’s female characters inhabiting the bodies of children. This uncomfortable sexuality actually permeates much of the show. Melodias’ key character trait is his random harassment of Elizabeth, to the point of it being in nearly every episode. This can truly get in the show’s way. At one point, late in the season, Melodias returns from the dead. He takes Elizabeth in his arms and they look out into their country at war. The whole thing is supposed to be moving and a key emotional point for the season, but we can see up Elizabeth’s skirt the entire time.
I know that anime is beholden to a lot of constraints that most other art isn’t, and that anime is far from the only medium that has such outlandish demands placed upon it, but this is a marquee series and one that I think is indicative of the state of the medium. This is the show that occupies the same space that DBZ, Naruto, Yu Yu Hakusho, Bleach, and One Piece once did. No doubt I was exposed to some strange things in these shows when I was a kid (Sexy Clone Jutsu, most of Bulma’s scenes in Dragonball), but it does feel like it’s much more of the show than when I started watching anime. If that’s something you’re able to ignore, that’s great, but it did distract me enough to have to provide the caveat.
All in all, Seven Deadly Sins is exactly what its target demographic is after. It has tournament arcs, hidden power, characters entering and exiting death like it was the DMV, and more energy blasts than you can shake a stick at. If that’s what you’re after, you won’t be disappointed. But, if you had enough of it growing up, or if anything I said about the sexual politics disturbs you, there’s no need to watch this particular iteration of the male-oriented soap opera called shōnen.