Summer 2020 was a pretty dry season for anime due to coronavirus slowing production down drastically in the spring, but the season was not without its breakouts and returning masterpieces. Re:Zero returned in triumph, while The Misfit of Demon King Academy was a laugh riot, and Rent-A-Girlfriend was the perfect train crash in slow motion. And I guess Fire Force was there.
[Minor spoilers for The God of High School below]
However, the biggest new title was clearly The God of High School, the second collaboration between Crunchyroll and Webtoon in adapting some of their most popular manhwa. After Tower of God underwhelmed with a lot of hype, The God of High School burst onto the scene with a lot of fanfare and three straight episodes of some of the best fights that can be found in small screen anime. However, it was not going to stay as king of the season for very long.
The God of High School centers on the titular martial arts tournament set on finding the most powerful high school student alive (and also some grown men who somehow got past the screening process). Its protagonist, Jin Mori, is your typical spiky-haired shonen boy who only wants to fight and win. It’s standard, sure, but it’s a winning formula. Behind the scenes, however, a shadowy organization and politician pulls the strings on the tournament, with a dark ulterior motive in mind.
The series quickly set itself apart with some stellar production values, frenetic action and fight scenes, and some endearing characters. My first thought about the series was that it seemed a little light on substance, but they had ten more episodes to develop the world and the characters. And then…they didn’t. In one episode they managed to drop a large portion of their audience, and that only spelled more trouble for them, as the story quickly fell apart from poor pacing, planning, and writing.
I try to abide by the three episode rule in anime. Many series have slow starts, and it isn’t fair to judge them when many shows have overcome those shaky first steps and prove to be much better than their grand openings. The God of High School was a supreme argument for that, with three episodes blowing away my expectations. The characters had strong designs and memorable personalities, albeit surface level. It was refreshing to see this series embrace hand-to-hand fight choreography, and the fluidity of motion in which Mappa rendered the battle royale fight that kicked off the tournament was astonishing. At this point, I had been caught up in the hype and my excitement for the next episode was at record highs. And then the next episode was the wedding episode.
Episode 4 is about a man who works for a secretive cult at odds with the tournament organizers, and proposes to Mira, one of our main trio and a practitioner of Moon Light Sword, a sword-based martial art passed down by her father. The wealthy man claims to have the influence to make Moon Light Sword a worldwide phenomenon, which convinces Mira to drop out of the tournament and agree to marry him, despite the lunacy of the request and being a minor. Now, I don’t pretend to have a great understanding of how martial arts become popular, but I think winning the world’s foremost martial arts tournament with your fighting style is a better strategy than marrying a weird older billionaire who says he’s super duper sure that he can make Moon Light Sword popular.
The wedding episode is just bad. I’ve read very little of the manhwa that God of High School is based upon, but this was the first episode where I noticed that this show was biting off more of its source material than it could chew. That this was one episode when it could have easily been three, exploring Mira’s motivation for wanting to preserve her father’s legacy at any costs, and how marrying this man would help. It would also have helped to build up our other protagonists, Jin and Daewi, and their relationship with Mira to make her decisions make more sense. As it is, she does a complete heel turn from trying to win the God of High School to marrying Creepball McMoneybags, and then once Jin and Daewi beat up some of Creepball’s bodyguards, she changes her mind again. It reeks of an episode that should have been spread out more to give the characters time to breathe and come to their decisions naturally.
And the wedding episode was not just a low point in the show, but an omen of The God of High School’s downfall. Soon after, the series begins introducing more and more wild and supernatural elements with no proper explanation. I have a faint idea of what a charyeok is and how they work, but that’s because after they start throwing the word around like it means something, I looked it up. Despite this inability to tell the audience what is going on, nearly every character still in the tournament begins to use them. This is the point where I really lost any enjoyment in the show, because at this level of arbitrary powers, you may as well just do a Dragon Ball style beam clash.
That cult I mentioned earlier? Yeah, they become the main villains. I’m aware that the show was working on making the tournament organizers to be menacing and manipulating our heroes from just out of reach, but scarred Korean politicians are out of style, give me a cult trying to bring their god onto earth. And the tournament organizers aren’t good guys now, but they sometimes help Jin and his friends, so they’re really just there in the corner being chaotic neutral when they were initially the big threat.
I thought that shonen anime had come a long way since the days where the hero could pull literally any power they wanted out of nowhere to save the day, but we have not. That is how everybody wins every single fight in the latter half of the God of High School, by deus ex machina. Everybody unlocks a charyeok at the exact moment they’d be otherwise defeated, and it just feels anticlimactic. There’s a reason why this story was meant to be told in a longer format, because if you remove the time element, it’s just a jumbled mess of “and then he used a laser, but the other guy had a force field that blocks laser, but he had a laser that destroyed force fields!” Sure, it’s pretty, but I could watch a fireworks show and get the same level of entertainment.
To be clear, I am actually a little bitter about The God of High School peaking so early and crashing this hard. For that reason, I’ll pass on watching any future seasons, and hoping that Noblesse can buck the trend of these Webtoon anime skipping dozens of chapters. The lesson in disappointment from The God of High School is that when planning to adapt 100 chapters of anything, don’t delude yourself into thinking that you can do it in 13 episodes.