Post Reply CATALOG SPOTLIGHT: Zatch Bell!
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Posted 4/29/15
by Eclipsed_Oblivion

In the midst of the sleek, flashy anime of today, sometimes it is refreshing to rewind back to a different time, yet not so far back that the differences compared to modern anime are jarring. To not be overwhelmed by visuals, yet still be captured by an unforgettable series, nothing is more perfect for this than 2003's Zatch Bell!. Airing in the West when anime was still a growing TV genre, Zatch Bell! is full of nostalgia for returning fans, but its unique approach to its visuals and storytelling, as well as its strong emotional core, live up to modern standards for new fans too.

A tournament-style battle anime, Zatch Bell! follows Kiyo Takamine, a prodigal middle schooler whose genius has all but destroyed both his friendships and interest in life. When his father gives him a strange, upbeat boy named Zatch Bell for his birthday, Kiyo discovers that Zatch is actually a Mamodo, a race of supernatural beings at war with each other for the title of Mamodo King. Though at first unreceptive, Kiyo grows to trust Zatch and eventually decides to help him with his journey to win the war. This deepening friendship throughout the series and how it rekindles Kiyo’s livelihood is just part of what makes the long-running Zatch Bell! so charming.

From the first seconds of the series, it is visually obvious that Zatch Bell! is an older anime. Its art isn't always refined, which may be nostalgic for those who watched its original run, but the animation is stable and quality enough to still be acceptable for newer fans. Moreover, its roughness is an element of the exaggerated art style, so it never feels out of place. The English dub is also nostalgic for returning fans, with memorably over-the-top acting that, again, is fitting in light of its art style and slightly cartoony nature. In fact, this cartoony nature is arguably what makes Zatch Bell! so nostalgic for those who grew up with it: it is child-friendly on the surface, but its emotional tale of growing up and learning to truly live with the help of friends is a journey many of us have taken since having last watched the series, and this is something that can continue to captivate new fans as well.

Apart from its nostalgia factor, Zatch Bell!’s distinctive approach to both its visuals and storytelling allows it to stand out even today. The Mamodo characters’ eyes are massive even by anime standards, uncharacteristic enough for an anime that the show almost has a Western cartoon aesthetic. Such a broadly appealing style works well in combination with the series’s simple, silly humor, which stems from Zatch’s childlike innocence and his resulting ignorance of social norms. This kind of humor is seen more commonly in gag or slice-of-life anime, but Zatch Bell! twists the battle genre in more ways than just this one; while it does have flashy, explosive battles, the crux of these battles lies more clearly in strategy. Kiyo uses his superior intellect to make the most efficient use of Zatch’s magic, becoming more of a tactician than a fighter, and the series balances this with action-packed sequences so that the battles never become boring.

“Boring” is a word that could never describe Zatch Bell!, as it engages its audience by showing off its strong range of emotions. The series basks in being silly most of the time, but it also reaches the complete other end of the spectrum and is absolutely heartbreaking when required. This is supported by the slew of diverse characters whose morality is not clear-cut, as it allows us to see many aspects of dynamic characters and thus be more apt to feel something for them. Having more realistic characters also makes the series’s idea of friendship more meaningful, as every character believably struggles in their own ways while still managing to support each other through their strife, and this is portrayed convincingly enough to make this something we can believe in rather than just see as an ideal. In this way, Zatch Bell! solidifies its mastery over our heartstrings.

Zatch Bell! does not have to do anything to have such mastery over returning fans, being an anime so nostalgic for those who grew up with it, but its distinctive appearance and approach, along with its emotional core, make for a captivating show even for new fans. More than anything, Zatch Bell! is full of heart, so if you’re only looking for a short break from current simulcasts, be wary; you may just get sucked in to marathoning the whole series.
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