Soul Eater’s vision of Death City, a fictional Nevada metropolis, is as much inspired by The Nightmare Before Christmas’ Halloween Town as the dark and whimsical depths of mangaka Atsushi Okubo’s imagination. It follows the students of the Death Weapon Meister Academy (DWMA), a school run by head honcho Lord Death to train up humans who can turn into weapons and their users. The founding of the school followed a climactic battle between Lord Death and Asura, the first generation Kishin, whose madness and hunger for human souls turned him into a skulking, demonic being. Sealed in his own flesh and bound by Lord Death’s power, the Kishin remained beneath the school until the serpent witch Medusa Gorgon and her motley crew unleashed him into the world. Of the most able of Medusa’s army is her own child, Crona, whom she raised with the cruel intent of becoming a Kishin.
Crona never cried so much as when they’re held by Maka, after a fight that leaves both of them exhausted and renewed. From the outside, it seems obvious that Crona only needed to come to terms with the troubles personified by the Demon Sword Ragnarok, and reach out to someone to ease the loneliness. But the thought of that most obvious of actions is the source of the groundswell of dread and hopelessness attached to the tangible mental health issues Crona suffers from.
Brought up by Medusa as a means of facilitating an extremist shift of the balance of light and dark and bringing forth a new world, Crona was pushed into conflict first with a baby dragon, a creature they couldn’t understand on a personal level, and moreover didn’t want to hurt. Refusing to fight, Crona was locked in a dark room to remain alone with their self-doubt made flesh in the black blood demon Ragnarok, who relentlessly beats, insults and denies his host any feeling of self-esteem. This childhood turbulence takes root as PTSD, breeding Crona’s social anxiety disorder.
The most obvious indicator of Crona’s anxiety is expressed in the catchphrase, “I don’t know how to interact with…”, followed by almost any challenge they encounter. But within the meagre words, causing more heartache and aggravation with each repetition, there are hidden layers of hurt that need some understanding or compassion to notice. The loss of sleep, constant self-deprecation, the hell that smoulders inside your head, real as life. Even little things like eating regularly are spoiled by Ragnarok, who threatens to steal Crona’s meals. The fear can creep up at any moment, without warning or even a clear reason, and if you can face sitting down to a meal, you certainly can’t enjoy it.
So the desert has formed in Crona’s soul in their short life, with no pleasure or catharsis to provide so much as an oasis of relief. In the battle to keep the Kishin chained that’s ultimately lost, there’s a small but poignant victory in Maka’s journey to bring Crona back from the barren island. Maka, cradling her soul ensconced in the madness, looks towards Crona’s, and you can understand that she holds it with her own. They each regress to childhood for this learning curve. Crona is rescued from the slim shadow of their self-love, and the self-questioning and blame that comes with loneliness. The ocean that first brought life floods back in as Maka falls into Crona’s arms, and cleansing the soul, Crona can freely cry for the first time.
The only thing you can do, for yourself or another, is understand the anguish and find a purpose for getting through it. Crona can lift their head with Maka beside them, and stand as part of the resistance against the darkness encroaching on the world. Crona’s new friends are in a position where they must recognise the enemy, now that they can’t be sheltered from it. They must realise that it isn’t as simple as pushing against it in denial; their own shadows of “madness” have always been there, in varying stages of wakefulness, waiting for the inevitable awakening of its source.
After all, Crona isn’t unique in suffering from mental illness in Soul Eater; for one, there’s Death the Kid’s obsessive compulsive disorder, which stirs up anything from nausea to suicidal feelings when he’s faced with anything asymmetrical or unbalanced. But the “madness”, as Medusa calls the DWMA out on, is applied by the faculty to anything or anyone that doesn’t comply with their status quo. To begin with, none of the students could comprehend that darkness as human, until Soul and Maka were implanted with the black blood themselves and suffered powerful fears and doubts, both in themselves and each other as partners. It was only then that Maka could understand the importance of getting on Crona’s wavelength, rather than sticking to the rules the Academy built on the fear of fear itself.
Through its message of accepting fear as another side of courage, Soul Eater expresses the power of finding people who can empathise with what scares you, but also inspire you to manage your own symptoms and achieve what you otherwise would have thought impossible. That in itself can give you the guts to look at your own fears from a new perspective. Liz and Patty, Kid’s twin pistol partners, respond to his OCD in a way that might seem cruel, but their jokes, tempered by gentle encouragement, persuade him to get his backside in gear and his mind on the task at hand. In the end, Ragnarok becomes a similar source of tough love. Crona’s weapon, partner, and ultimately an irrepressible part of their very being, it is the beast in the blood which gives them the greatest strength and motivation in facing down the Kishin.