By Hiro Mashima
The cover page for this chapter nicely illustrates just how much is going on in Fairy Tail right now. With the war between Magnolia and the Alvarez empire engaging on multiple fronts simultaneously, the cover page shows no less than eleven groups of people scattered around the country. Because everything is happening all at once, the series has to find ways to convey how events are temporally related to each other, and otherwise balance focus between multiple characters with varying degrees of importance. While most chapters in this arc have effectively focused on one character, conflict, or plot thread throughout, sometimes the sheer chaos of this war requires an installment that quickly develops multiple situations and plot points at once. But as most Toriko fans will tell you, rarely does this make for a coherent, much less a successfully entertaining chapter.
This week’s Fairy Tail doesn’t suffer from incoherence, since the basic beats are pretty straightforward. But it splits it’s focus five-ways, and that leads to a bunch of rushed ideas, unsatisfying fights, and unexplained developments. We get teases, like Happy resolving to save Natsu, and Mavis worrying about how to beat Zeref. Unfortunately, these moments are so short that they amount to little more than the character thinking, “I should do something.” They feel extraneous; content that feels like filler added to the anime rather than a necessary component of the story. These five pages could have been better spent developing the other, more crucial beats in the chapter, which unfortunately also suffer from rushed pacing.
If there is one, binding subject to this chapter, it’s the arrival of Crime Sorciere to aid the fights in Hargeon. Despite these characters being out of the story for so long, their return is marked by little fanfare. At least, nothing terribly impressive. In fact, both Merudy and Jellal’s re-entrances are done in the exact same way: two mooks are attacking a core protagonist when they’re off guard, and they intervene and one-shot them in a split-second. It’s really lazy and unimaginative, especially when the attacks aren’t even cool-looking. Merudy’s attack is presented in a fairly small panel as just a bunch of lines pushing the mooks back from a far-away, medium shot. Jellal’s attack isn’t even described. His pose is just him holding his arms out in an awkward position as his opponents are knocked back in opposite directions. This is provided a full page, but considering how little information gets conveyed, or little there is in terms of interesting staging, angles, or any real tension whatsoever, it doesn’t register as an important or notable scene. Mashima did cool things with his action and art last week, but here it feels like he’s just going through the motions. Rather than these scenes registering as cool character moments, they feel like obligatory story beats. As if they were the bare minimum required to get the characters where Mashima wants them.
The return of Ultear at the end of the chapter fares little better, coming off as a completely, almost insultingly unnecessary deus ex machina. First off, Ultear’s pivotal sacrifice back during the “Grand Magic Games” was already undermined by the end of that arc. Instead of giving up her life after using a mortally fatal forbidden magic, she just ended up becoming really old instead. It was such a cop out, especially since a heroic death would have served as a fitting, albeit bittersweet payoff to her character arc. Keeping her alive after that just reemphasized how few consequences exist for anything in Fairy Tail, and how things always seem to work out for the characters in ways that are convenient for them, with pretty much anyone remotely good receiving a happy ending whether or not they actually deserved one.
The various plot conveniences and lack of consequences in Fairy Tail have persistently derailed and detracted from it’s story, and this chapter provides yet another frustrating example. The fact that Ultear becomes a young woman again, without any satisfying explanation as to why or how, completely undoes the sole consequence of her sacrifice in “Grand Magic Games,” and retroactively makes it pointless. Ultear isn’t a poorly written character in of herself, and thematically, it makes sense to involve her in a fight with a time-manipulator. But by undoing her aging, the series cheapens her already weakened character arc even further, and it’s hard to invest in a character whose story has lost its dramatic weight and momentum.
Also, not playing around with the possibilities of Wendy and Sherria fighting with a time-based opponent is such a waste of potential. DiMaria’s power to stop time is a great hook for a fight. Even if they went for a more comedic route, like the fight with Guldo in Dragon Ball, there are a lot of creative possibilities that would make for a fun, memorable battle. In the span of a few pages, the series completely undermines this potential, and instead has Wendy and Sherria break free of DiMaria’s power because of Ultear’s intervention. It’s like if, in Dragon Ball, Vegeta immediately killed Guldo instead of letting Gohan and Krillin fight him first. That fight only lasted a single chapter, but it played with the concept of someone capable of stopping time in a very satisfying, memorable way. In fact, the notion that her powers are immediately undone makes DiMaria a less effective villain than Guldo. Guldo was a joke character, intentionally played for laughs, yet he had way more credibility as an antagonist than DiMaria does. He was smart about how he used his powers, and was almost successful in killing his opponents, only losing because Vegeta cheated and caught him off-guard. Wendy and Sherria have a good dynamic, and seeing them defeat an opponent as partners would be a fantastic development, especially against someone who forces them to adopt more creative and strategic uses of their abilities to outwit. Adding Ultear into the mix distracts from all that, and takes a lot of tension and intrigue out of the fight. Considering how consistently unimpressive DiMaria is as a villain, there isn’t much left to look forward to here, unless you’re really forgiving of Ultear’s return.
Which brings us to a bigger problem with the series right now: a persistent, problematic lack of tension. At this point, four of the Spriggan 12 lie defeated, and DiMairia probably won’t be too far behind. And these characters were once established to be the strongest mages in the entire world. So, it’s fair to say that things have been going pretty easy for the Fairy Tail gang. The Spriggan 12 just aren’t believable threats anymore, and that’s reflected in the attitude of the protagonists. Various minor guild members are more convinced that they can win, and Mavis and Marakov are really only worrying about Zeref at this point. There’s no desperation, and no doubt that the remaining members of the Spriggan 12 will be defeated. It feels like the series is just going through the motions, simply using these fights to tie up character arcs that supposedly need resolving. Or, in Ultear’s case, bringing back character arcs that were already resolved in order to run them into the ground again. If there isn’t going to be any dramatic weight to these fights, the series might as well speed things up and get to showdowns with Zeref and Acnologia faster, because as it stands they’re barely more than superfluous padding.
This was a rushed, overstuffed chapter, featuring many good ideas ruined by unsatisfying execution. There’s not a whole lot to look forward to with the DiMaria fight now that the focus has shifted to a character with a problematic history in the story, and features a villain who is less believable as a threat than even the least credible villains in Dragon Ball. The one bright spot in the chapter is a potential follow-up to the Kagura-Jellal grudge in a few weeks, which could be interesting considering the complicated dynamic the two have, compounded by their mutual friendship with Erza. That was only given a mere panel of build-up in this chapter, though, which is far from enough to redeem everything that simply does not work about it. The sooner the fight with DiMaria ends, the better.