A short, kinda bad recommendation of Fairy Tail was one of my first recommendations. I had watched enough of it to get a sense that yeah, I kinda dig it. But I hadn’t really worked out how to write good recommendations back then.
I’ve since fixed both those problems, having watched more of the anime and had plenty of practice of doing recommendations.
So, here’s a better look at Fairy Tail.
In anime and manga, the Big Three are absolute juggernauts that loom large over the rest of the medium. Those three are Bleach, Naruto, and One Piece. In fact, One Piece isn’t just the best-selling manga of all time, it’s the best-selling comic book of all time, period.
According to Wikipedia, One Piece has sold about 516.5 million tankōbon volumes (i.e. X number of individual chapters collected into a graphic novel-esque single book) and has put out 3.1 billion (with a b) individual chapters via being serialised in Shōnen Jump.
To compare, Superman, which has been in print in some form or other since 1938, and of course, Pop Culture’s most famous superhero, has put out 600 million copies — and that’s including single issues and compiled graphic novels (essentially the Western equivalent of tankōbon).
To further hammer this home. Harry Potter is the best-selling prose book series of all time at 500 million — it’s not quite the same, given the differences in cost, printing, and distribution, but it’s still pretty dang impressive.
Sidebar: please buy 500 million and 1 Realmgard books…
Incidentally, according to Guinness World Records, the Bible is the best-selling single book — though, personally, I think you can quibble based on the definition of “book” and “selling”, and even “Bible”, for that matter. That aside, Guinness has the Bible at 5 billion copies.
All things considered, One Piece‘s 3.1 billion is pretty impressive. Again, not quite an exact comparison. But, still, wow.
I don’t think Fairy Tail was ever quite that huge. Wikipedia has it’s sold 72 million copies total. Although that is significantly less than any of the Big Three (Bleach and Naruto both at least doubled its sales), I imagine most authors would kill to sell 72 million copies. Wikipedia says it was at least in the top 20 best-selling manga in Japan for most of its run.
Still, I’m pretty sure most writers — prose or comics — would kill to write something as successful as Fairy Tail writer Hiro Mashima has.
For what it’s worth, Fairy Tail isn’t necessarily better than One Piece or Naruto, but it does feel like its easier to commit to, since it has so many fewer episodes. One Piece has about three times as many episodes and is still going — I feel like there’s an obvious positive feedback loop for One Piece here: it’s been consistently popular for twenty years, so it shows no signs of slowing down, which keeps it consistently popular, which keeps it going…
All in all, Fairy Tail does kinda suffer from “This Meeting Could Have Been an Email” Syndrome, in that the story arcs probably last longer than they really should, but it does have a sense of time management than something like One Piece or Naruto. Largely, I think, because it was a notably smaller number of episodes to tell its stories and therefore must be more economical.
But, hey, that’s been an issue as far back as at least Dragon Ball Z. Even before the Internet really took up and memes were really a thing, the running joke back when I was a kid was still some variation “Goku takes nineteen episodes to finish powering up.”
Fairy Tail has 328 episodes (not including movies and OVAs). Naruto has about 720 episodes (split across two distinct but directly-connected series; not counting the sequel) and One Piece has more than a thousand and, as of late 2022, is still going.
For reference, 328 episodes into The Simpsons was most of the way through Season 15 and the spring of 2004. Admittedly, the comparison kinda falls apart given the differences in production and airing schedules, but it’s an interesting comparison to make and a point of reference I think most of my readers are going to be able to make sense of.
As tends to be the case in this sort of anime, every story arc culminates in every main character facing off against a basically equal-but-opposite bad guy in a multi-episode showdown. So, basically, every climactic showdown can be multiplied by main character, multiplied by several episodes per character.
Everything feels longer than it should, but I go get that’s pretty much a necessary evil for serialised storytelling. Got to get people to come back next, right?
But, hey, Fairy Tail‘s a Fantasy anime that isn’t about somebody who’s been swallowed into a video game. Which is, admittedly, not a terrible concept, but seems to be the only concept people are writing in Fantasy animes these days.
Fairy Tail isn’t really much of a fairy tale (incidentally, I’m still not entirely clear on what a “fairy tail” is supposed to be), though episodes (at least early on) are introduced with a storybook-esque opening narration and animation sequence and a narrator voice-over does pop up explain or recap things for the benefit of the audience.
Overall, Fairy Tail is set in a fairly typical Fantasy world, and one which seems to contrive ways to justify the ongoing existence of numerous adventuring guilds. Though the level of technology is a little all over the place — there are cars, trains, and giant robots — it’s somewhat justified by the fact that everything is constructed from or powered by magic. It’s not that the world has cars and magic, it’s that the cars are magic.
I really like that Fairy Tail does give a sense of what being a member of an adventuring guild would actually be like. It’s not quite “Everyday Life in a Fantasy World” thing, but the fact that all of the major characters are members of a guild is central enough to the storytelling that what being a member of a guild is like and how the guilds actually work isn’t just window-dressing to the worldbuilding.
Technically, every character is a wizard. That’s less in the D&D sense, or even the generic Fantasy literature sense, and more in a wider sense of “uses magic.” To paraphrase the explanation on the Wikipedia article from the translation of the manga, the nuance of the original Japanese is meant to convey something like “magic martial artist.”
And that’s borne out by the fact that none of the characters really resemble D&D wizards. There are a lot of characters in Fairy Tail and basically all of them have a differentiated skillset: Natsu has fire powers and punches people, Lucy summons the spirits of the zodiac, Gray has ice powers, and Erza has transforming magic armour.
Turning to the characters in more, detail, they’re probably nothing you haven’t seen before but they’re all interesting enough and avoid enough of the worst excesses of the typical shōnen archetypes to be worth getting invested in.
Male lead Natsu is fundamentally a typical Shōnen Action Hero. He’s kinda dumb and likes to fight, but loyal to his friends. For comparison, he’s not quite as relentlessly dumb as Goku and significantly less shrill and annoying than Naruto – for one thing, he doesn’t use his catchphrase as frequently as a real person uses commas.
But, seriously, Naruto said “Believe it” so many times the words lost all meaning. Honestly, who talks like that? And how could they possible live with themselves?
Female lead Lucy might be a sufficiently Fanservice-oriented character to offend certain viewers (overall, the Fanservice is there; more on than later). On the other hand, she’s prominent enough and capable that she’s never completely hapless or defenceless.
Natsu is usually the one who ends up saving the day and/or beating up the bad guy, but that’s less because of any major gender dynamics issues or shortcomings on the part of Lucy’s character and more just because Natsu’s powers are better-suited to epic final showdowns.
Gray is basically Fairy Tail‘s Piccolo: more self-serious than Natsu but not quite as strong, though he does get his moments to shine or to be the focus of a story arc. And to get a sense of the sort of show Fairy Tail is, he seems to have a compulsive need to strip down to his underwear for… reasons.
Erza is explicitly established to be the strongest member of the guild, though she usually ends up outclassed by Natsu’s sheer pluckiness (and status as the main character). She probably does get the most chances out of everyone not named Natsu to be impressive and badass, but Fairy Tail is Natsu’s world and everyone is just living in it.
All of the main characters get at least one plot arc that examines their (usually obligatorily tragic) backstories and/or gives them a moment in the spotlight.
There are various other less important members of the guild who contribute to the plot to greater or lesser degrees and a few of the more impressive and moving moments of the story come from the entire guild teaming up to take down a particularly dangerous opponent or an enemy who has made things particularly personal for the guild.
On the other hand, I don’t really remember many of the bad guys, except that one guy who was basically Evil Natsu. Except clearly I don’t remember him, because the picture of him in the wiki article I just linked looks nothing like he does in my memory…
I think I mean this less negatively than it sounds. Admittedly, the episodes I’ve watched so far are blurring together, but most of the bad guys haven’t been recurring characters. They’ve showed up for one arc, got beat (by Natsu) and the plot has moved on, but they’ve been perfectly serviceable as one-off characters.
Now, Fairy Tail has taken some flack on the Internet for a not negligible amount of Fanservice. It’s definitely there, but for what it’s worth, it’s never been enough to really bother me.
For the most part, it takes the form of Mashima enjoying drawing shapely females. Perhaps not ideal, but we’ve talked about this before. Admittedly, more than a few of Lucy and Erza’s outfits don’t really seem to have much justification beyond “a man drew them.”
I don’t remember that much real lewdness in Fairy Tail, beyond the fairly common anime-y quick gags like “Old guy makes a pass at Lucy, Lucy gets indignant.” Again, not necessarily great, but if it’s not the sort of thing that bothers you in other animes, it’s not going to bother you here.
Honestly, I’m pretty sure even something like the Marvel movies have more and more objectionable Fanservice and lewd humour than Fairy Tail does, and even something like Naruto has more intense violence.
I mean, it is a shōnen anime, so there’s a clear ceiling in the sort of things you’re going to be seeing.
Even Mashima’s new series Edens Zero has significantly more in terms of violence, lewdness, and general mature content than Fairy Tail ever did. So much so that I was actually a little caught off-guard given that the Internet pitched Edens Zero to me as “Fairy Tail in Space.”
Fundamentally, I think my approach to Fairy Tail is the same as it was for One Piece: there’s plenty of enjoyable moments and individual plot arcs, and also hundreds of episodes to get into if you’re so inclined, but you shouldn’t feel compelled to have to sit through all of them.
Watch as much or as little as you want and you’ll probably still end up being entertained.
However, I’m still not entirely clear on what a fairy tail actually is…
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