An Anime Newbie Joins Fairy Tail: The Bad

Fairy Tail’s and other animes’ common graces, like ambition and friends, can easily become idols.
E. Stephen Burnett | Oct 6, 2016 | 8 comments | Series:

After the anime people got to me last year, I was drawn into the fandom of Fairy Tail.

I explored the story and world, then the story’s good, true, and beautiful elements. Now to contrast these with Fairy Tail’s negative elements. Finally, I will offer a Gospel response.

The bad, false, and ugly of Fairy Tail

Now to discuss the flip side of the story’s many positive attributes—that is, the times good things can be twisted for evil ends, and fall apart when pressed to their logical conclusions.

Idol of ‘getting stronger’

fairytail_oracionseisLet’s start with what I’ve found is a shonen anime trope, which is perhaps best served with the slogan “I have to get stronger.” In Fairy Tail, this gets said and shown a lot, because only if you train, learn new skills from mature leaders, and level up can you defeat the enemies and keep your people safe. At times I have actually struggled with this idea. Once I even had to pause enjoying another anime series because I felt so burdened by this “moral law.”

Can we all really simply “get stronger” and achieve these goals if we do more, try harder, train more fiercely, or find a better master? Not everyone is even capable of these things. We have time and strength limits as well as other responsibilities (such as family care). If we try something we cannot do, even after we fail and pick ourselves up, we will fail again, and fail all our lives. Some of us are stopped by injustice from our own families or other social institutions. Some of us were have mental or physical disabilities. And regardless of all that, what happens when we reach “the top”? No more training, no more skills to learn—what then?

Idol of nakama

In Fairy Tail the best thing you can do is determine your nakama, your close friends/family, and stick by them closer than a brother. Even villains can get points for this.

Alas, this good idea is so easily turned into an idol. Can flawed and weak individuals always find their inner goodness and strength simply by getting closer to other people? Not at all. In fact, closeness to other people can awaken even more nasty behavior in people. Fairy Tail itself explores this truth through the early arc of a rebellious guild member, Laxus: people from your nakama can turn on you and require loving discipline. Despite this, Fairy Tail arguably exalts a find-your-people ethic that, if pressed to its logical conclusion, will result in kinism or tribalism. It simply doesn’t work to say you can find your nakama and then everything will be okay. Deep down, people are flawed and selfish. If they stay that way, finding a special group of friends only makes them into worse individuals, not better!

Idols of quick ‘conversions’ and split personalities

Some of Fairy Tail’s villains are said to be “unforgivable,” but are kinda forgiven anyway. They are appealing characters (they are favorites of mine!), but their contradictory natures makes no sense in reality. Their potential idols fall apart.

Master Makarov refuses to forgive Gajeel, but invites him to join Fairy Tail. Who then pays for Gajeel's abuses and sins?

Master Makarov refuses to forgive Gajeel, but invites him to join Fairy Tail. Who then pays for Gajeel’s abuses and sins?

For instance, later in the series we see what happened when Master Makarov approaches the former villain Gajeel, after his original guild’s failed attack on Fairy Tail. Gajeel seems despondent, but we really don’t know for sure. Makarov treats him with compassion and invites Gajeel to join Fairy Tail until Gajeel can find himself and get on the right path. Gajeel rightly protests, saying that he had attacked Makarow’s nakama. Makarov flares with anger and says: “That I will not forgive.” And yet arguably this is exactly what happens as Gajeel joins the guild and earns his new nakama’s respect. Left unspoken are the consequences for his actions, or the way people whom he abused can become his friends. Can any villain, no matter how much he’s tried to kill the good guys, simply decide to be good? It doesn’t make sense in a fantasy world, and it makes even less sense (and is dangerous) in reality.

Juvia’s “conversion” to good Fairy Tail mage seems to make a little more sense, because she wasn’t that obviously bad as a Phantom Lord member. But then Juvia is a result of the story wanting to have her both ways: both as a truly loyal potential girlfriend and a scarily hilarious stalker. She behaves in impossible ways that remove all consequences from her stalker habit, because in the next scene she is sincere, heartfelt, and often very useful on Fairy Tail members’ quests. In reality we would find her as bizarre and impossible as if we saw an actual human with an animated character’s proportions, including scary big eyes.

Other characters convert because they were really not that bad in the first place. Jellal is the best example. He goes from an archvillain in one arc, to a fully repentant antihero/hero in future arcs. How come? Because it turns out he was simply under mind control in the first arc (and later even the person doing the controlling also converts). In this case, we could logically conclude that anyone making evil decisions is only doing so because some other unseen evil is behind them, rather than supposing that they choose evil of their own will.

Idols of exploitation and fanservice

Which leads to the final arguably ugly aspect of Fairy Tail: the blatant exploitation, often sexual exploitation, of its own characters for the sake of fanservice.

In some ways this fanservice is equal opportunity: Gray can’t help habitually stripping to his undershorts, and other men are seen without shirts (and occasionally less). But most of the time it’s our heroines who bare skin for battles, swimsuit competitions, or comical situations of partial or full nudity (although when this happens, it’s almost always implied).

Lucy in particular is dressed in short skirts and shorts, tight tank tops or less, and other characters joke at her expense. She may even be sexually harassed by enemies or allies, and the story rarely takes this harassment seriously. But apart from Lacy’s treatment by others (including animators) at her expense, she and other women also flaunt themselves at random moments. Their hawtness is shown as “empowerment,” even as audiences in-story leer at them, like wolves howling at showgirls in Warner Brothers shorts.

The story itself lampshades its own exploitation tropes. But the story also wants to have it both ways. It offers a silent promise: “this is just how these kinds of shows are, so just roll with it. You’ll have fun and laugh, all a natural part of a good life. And on the way, hey, why not indulge in a few lusts?” How then we can sincerely empathize with its victims, who are stripped and humiliated? How could people who leer be such sexual perverts, but also the good guys who love these women like sisters in their nakama? The story ends up self-deconstructing. If we were laughing a few episodes ago at a favorite character who ended up scantily clad in public, why are we shocked now, and why should we hate the villains who humiliate this poor person by stripping her in front of others?

Many of Fairy Tail’s good qualities, and all of its flaws, make no sense apart from the gospel. This is why I will conclude this review next time by offering a gospel response to Fairy Tail.

E. Stephen Burnett is coauthor (with Ted Turnau and Jared Moore) of The Pop Culture Parent: Helping Kids Engage Their World for Christ, which will release in spring 2020 from New Growth Press. He also explores biblical truth and fantastic stories as editor in chief of Lorehaven Magazine and writer at Speculative Faith. He has also written for Christianity Today and Christ and Pop Culture. He and his wife, Lacy, live in the Austin area and serve as members of Southern Hills Baptist Church.

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Fairy Tail does offer quite a bit of opportunity to get on my “sexism is bad” soapbox. Juvia’s stalker-creeping is supposed to be funny rather than 100% NOPE because the cultural view (in Japan as well as the US) is that women are not a threat to men and/or “real” men aren’t threatened by women even if they are stalker-creepy. I’m also really super tired of the BS “will they, won’t they” junk. That horse is dead, quit beating it. I’d rather ship Juvia and Lyon ’cause he’s actually into her.
There are entire dissertations on the role of fanservice (male gaze, objectification, etc) in media, but there’s no easy answer because so much of it is contextual. Owning your sexuality can and does feel empowering, but that doesn’t mean entitled jerks won’t try to exploit it. But the overriding consideration seems to be that cheesecake poses sell more posters and figurines (and body pillows), because capitalism.

Audie Thacker

I think you pointed out the big problem I had with Gajeel and Levy. At least as far as I can remember, or up to the last I really watched much of the series, I can’t recall Gajeel giving any kind of apology to her or her teammates for his seemingly very vicious attack on them during the Phantom Lord conflict. True, many of his later actions showed a change of mind, but some kind of acknowledgement seemed necessary, too.