I remember going to the theater to watch John Carter, the ill-fated adaptation of the novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs detailing the adventures of a guy from Earth who finds himself transported to Mars. As ridiculous as it sounds, it did inspire quite a few later works, with such derivative pieces having made various tropes from the Burroughs series so well known that going back and reading those books feels like reading a laundry list of clichés despite it being the opposite.
Anyway, to get back to what I was originally talking about, I decided to see the movie because it was the live-action debut of one of Pixar’s directors, with reports suggesting that there would be some tinges of the studio in this production. When the film started, I was unimpressed, but figured that I might as well stick with it since I’d paid for my ticket. By the middle of the film, I was mildly curious though for the most part of the opinion that the movie was forgettable. By the time the final scenes rolled along, I found myself finally getting invested in what was going on. “Sweet, a happy ending! Oh shit, so that’s why this is all an extended flashback! Oh shit, look out son! Oh shit, he’s not dead! Oh shit, he’s heading back to Barroom! This is getting awesome! I wanna see what happens ne-it’s over?”
I highly doubt that movie will ever get a sequel. And given how shaky much of the film was before the third act totally redeemed it in my eyes, I’m not sure a sequel would have been all that much of an improvement. That said, it inflicted upon me the pain of enjoying something only to realize that there is no more of it. This was not a new feeling. In fact, there was one notable example, a manga that I will discuss at length right now.
That manga was Beet the Vandel Buster. Written by Riku Sanjo and illustrated by Koji Inada, the same team that did Dragon Quest: Dai no Daibōken, Beet is a take on an RPG-style world where demons called Vandels reign as the apex predator, spreading fear and chaos for seemingly no good reason other than their own pleasure. It also resembles Japanese RPGs, or to be more precise, Dragon Quest, due to the art style, which is reminiscent of Akira Toriyama’s, as well as the ranking system of characters, with characters being marked with brands (or stars in the case of Vandels) signifying their “levels.” It stars Beet, a typical shonen protagonist with a dull head and a good heart (and a face that somehow looks more and more punchable the more often I see it) who, after an incident with one of the world’s most terrifying Vandels, is gifted with five Saiga (weapons produced from a person’s soul) by the team of Vandel Hunters he looks up to. Beet is blessed with more stamina than the usual person, being able to function at full capacity for three consecutive days at the cost of then needing to sleep for 24 hours. He is joined in his journey to end the current dark age by his childhood friend and future wife Poala. Together, the two find themselves embroiled in a conflict that will net them allies and an enemy far more mysterious than they could have possibly imagined.
Things That Sucked: So Cliché it Hurts
I was introduced to the series by a preview in the American version of Shonen Jump, and my sister wound up taking an interest in it. As a result, she wound up buying the volumes as they came out in English, and I, being too lazy to use my free time to better myself (some things never change), decided to pass the time by reading the series that she bought, including Beet.
As with the preview, I wasn’t impressed, finding the whole thing not only clichéd, but unimpressive in its execution. You had the standard shonen hero who is more exuberant than he is talented. You had him being gifted with great power as well as having been born into a lineage with the potential to change the world. You had the childhood friend of the opposite sex with a fiery temper and a tendency to smack the round-faced hero (seriously, something about his face just pisses me off). You had the villains doing terrible things seemingly for the lulz. Later chapters introduced a stoic rival with a heart of gold, a pretty boy magical genius with serious self-esteem issues, a tough girl with large knockers and a short skirt, and a mysterious figure clad in armor with strange connections to the mystery behind what happened on the fateful day Beet received the five Saiga from his idols. In short, the series wasn’t going to win any awards for originality. And that’s not even getting into the issue of its protagonist.
Things That Sucked: Beet
Let’s get this out of the way: Beet is not interesting. The mystery surrounding him helps drive the plot, and I am interested in the people he is connected to. But I don’t have much reason to care for him. He’s a pretty standard shonen hero. He’s young and round-faced (did I mention how much his face pisses me off? Seriously, this kid is my John Claverhouse). His character doesn’t really develop all that much aside from becoming more patient. In fact, much of his growth has less to do with becoming a better person (because he’s already a good person) than with developing traits that make him a better fighter. He simply doesn’t really stand out from the crowd of shonen heroes. Also, his face pisses me off for some reason (I want to jam my fingers into his eye sockets and crush his head with my bare hands).
Things That Sucked: Rushed Pacing
In addition, the characters seem to grow a bit too strong too fast. One moment, they’re having trouble with lower ranked Vandels. A few volumes later, they’re taking on the toughest of the species on their own turf. Granted, teamwork is very important in this series, as individual humans can’t hope to match the toughest Vandels, but still. At one point, the group takes on an army of lesser monsters in order to get at one of the highest-ranking Vandels alive. They cut through it (the army, not the Vandel) like butter! You would think that more back-up would be required for such a job. Nope, there’s only slightly more tension in what little we see of them taking out an entire army of monsters than what we got in the entirety of Avengers: Age of Ultron.
What this does is that it makes the threat of the Vandels less credible than it was when just one relatively high-ranking Vandel was enough to get everyone into a panic. Hell, a Vandel who was at the time of the prologue of a lower rank than the ones the good guys take on later actually seemed more threatening within the story’s context (see how said threat in the prologue is treated compared to the so-called powerhouses that appear later). It feels like when the characters in a game level up too fast due to grinding and wind up breezing through the bosses. The tension is lessened somewhat when this occurs. Something needed to alleviate this issue if I was going to take the series even the slightest bit seriously.
Thankfully, something proceeded to happen. The writing got better, good enough that my opinion of the series began to shift.
Things That Rocked: It Gets Better
Once the story gets going around the middle of the Grineed arc, things take a turn for the better. The writing which seemed so average takes things up a notch, and suddenly, the characters and their situation take on a new life. I was until that point reading the series due of having nothing better to do because the alternative was doing something that required effort, and without realizing it, things became readable, no, more than readable. I’m talking a series with the potential to make it worth your while.
The arc with Grineed hits its stride once they begin to take on Grineed’s strongest subordinates. Not only is the writing solid enough to get you interested in the battles, but the story begins to set up details that hint at the scale the plot will be taking shortly afterward. The battle against Grineed itself is good stuff.
Grineed initially appears to be a standard schemer with a hair-trigger temper once things don’t go his way. However, it becomes clear that this is not the case. Now this is a spoiler-heavy section, so I suggest skipping to the conclusion for my thoughts on the series as a whole if you don’t want me to ruin anything for you. I mean it. Spoilers begin in the next paragraph.
Things That Rocked: Grineed
Rather than a standard sob-story that many shonen villains get nowadays, what many Vandels get instead is an exploration into what they are, and the individual malevolence of their personalities. In the case of Grineed, he is a berserker, and not proud of it. His body possesses strength that is peerless even among the other elites of his kind, and his temper is but a reflection of his true nature, that of a beast who rampages throughout the world without fear of death.
Grineed despises and denies his true self, instead fancying himself a schemer and aristocrat open to utilizing pragmatic and cost-effective methods while enjoying a fine wine from all the way within his kingdom of despair. He is a warrior who fancies himself a scholar, and the truth causes him much internal strife. It’s an interesting contradiction, and it manages to result in a more memorable character than many villains who are given “depth” by being provided with “sympathetic” backstories (as I went into with Maleficent in my previous post). Grineed is pure evil, but his characterization results in a far richer character than is found in more gray examples. When he does give in to his rage, it is a thing to behold, and the resulting battle is arguably the best in the series.
Things That Rocked: Did I Mention That It Gets Better?
Grineed was but the first example of what the series was capable of in its characterization of what could have easily been stereotypical RPG-style stock characters, and this was itself supported by plotting that went from uninspired clichés to mysteries capable of drawing you in. Questions are raised about the very conceits of the series itself: why is the world engulfed in such darkness. What are Vandels really? What is the true nature of their existence? What of the dark gods connected to their history and creation? What of Beet’s idols? Who is this king among the humans who is aware of Beet’s true potential? Who is the Winged Knight? What are the various Vandels planning among themselves?
One finds oneself swamped with questions and eager to learn the answers, and the series doesn’t disappoint: at the end of the last released volume, a battle between one of the most powerful Vandels of all and one of Beet’s friends is about to take place. Beet is lying in bed and yet to wake up. Everyone else is down for the count. The series stops on a cliffhanger, its artist having suffered some sort of ailment, and it has yet to resume since.
It is times like this that one is tempted to swear. Very loudly and profusely.
Like John Carter, BtVB started off unimpressively, and then proceeded to prove that first impressions do not count for everything. This is a series that will punish you for growing to like it. It will start off by making you wonder why you are even reading it. It will then proceed to reward you for your persistence by slowly but surely transforming into something with the potential to be more than the rather solid story it becomes. It will make you want to read more and more of it. And then it will mock you by ending on a cliffhanger, as if it seeks to destroy that part of your soul that craves catharsis through escapist fiction. It will harm you, hurt you. And you will find yourself taking this punishment with a desperate smile, because all you desire is closure.
You will walk away from the series thinking that it couldn’t possibly be as good as you would expect it to be if it ever continues. You will think of its earlier flaws (like the fact that the lead character has a face that you want to rip into bloody shreds with your teeth). You will move on to other stories, telling yourself that it is not something worth losing sleep over. And you will move on. You will come across other stories that bring you pleasure. But there will be times, those gaps in between those other moments, when you will think of things that could have been. You will think about past life decisions. You will think of love lost. You will think of things like John Carter and Beet the Vandel Buster. And some small part of you will die a little thinking of those things, if it hadn’t already when they ended as they did.