This is Asta.
Spiky-haired orphan, clueless and a screw-up, plucky Shonen action hero. He also has a stoic prodigy rival -slash- childhood friend.
He wants to be the Wizard King. But trouble is… He can’t use any magic. None at all. He’s the only known person in the world who cannot use magic.
So, of course, when the day comes for kids age 15 in his region to receive their magical Grimoires—tomes to expand upon their natural magic—and he’s left high and dry, and his dreams are crushed.
I thought I had seen it all from Shonen anime. And, actually, it looks like I have…
Here’s how it stacks up to the rest
Black Clover subscribes to just about every core Shonen trope you can think of. I’ll lay out an abbreviated list, as well as some prominent examples from other anime for reference.
- Main character with no magic or limited talent for magic
- Deku, My Hero Academia
- Akko, Little Witch Academia
- One of the main character’s biggest powers is his ability to inspire others (through effort and never giving up)
- Naruto, Naruto
- Akko, Little Witch Academia
- Stoic genius as rival / childhood friend
- Sasuke, Naruto
- Diana, Little Witch Academia
- Dream to become Wizard King
- Naruto and Hokage, Naruto
- Luffy and King of the Pirates, One Piece
- Introductory Exam Arc
- Hunter Exam, Hunter x Hunter
- Chuunin Exam, Naruto
- The Magic Knights organization
- State Alchemists, Fullmetal Alchemist
- Wizards Guild, Fairy Tail
- Induction into rag tag bunch of misfits crew
- Fairy Tail Guild, Fairy Tail
- Yorzuya / Odd Jobs Gin, Gintama
Hop on board. The plot train’s already left the station
What is the issue with this? Weekly Shonen Jump series are notorious for being formulaic. And I’ll be the first to remark on how Yoshihiro Togashi’s Yu Yu Hakusho and Hunter x Hunter parallel each other with a few nearly identical story arcs—all Shonen standards, too—and I’ll then proceed to be the first to proclaim my love and praise for both series.
This is a tried and true formula. It’s successful and makes for an enjoyable watch.
Black Clover is very direct about this, though. Very in-your-face. I’ll ask you all to recall how Naruto would never shut up about his “BELIEVE IT”s and “I’M GONNA BE HOKAGE”s and “SASUKE IS MY RIVAL”s. Black Clover’s Asta somehow manages to shout even more loudly how he’s going to be Wizard King and how his prodigy-of-a-childhood-friend Yuno is his rival and how he’s going to marry Sister Lily, etc, etc. A big mouth on a spiky-haired brat. But Naruto’s boldness is coming from a background of being rejected from society and explicitly being motivated to prove himself and gain respect. Asta, not quite.
Black Clover also jumps the gun when it comes to pacing. Shonen anime rely on an RPG-style progression for storytelling. And while Black Clover successfully introduces us to a cast of characters whose magical powers and personal growth arcs are still in active development, it fails to mesh this with the surrounding story. The growth of the character dynamics and the world are just as important as the growth that come with ‘leveling up.’
Monkey D. Luffy doesn’t start out his journey already on the Grand Line and fighting against Shichibukai and Admirals. But Asta finds himself personally acquainted with the Wizard King early on, as well as all of the top Magic Knights in the kingdom. Rushing into this setting greatly diminishes the impact of introducing characters of this magnitude. Whether it be a prince-and-the-pauper social barrier or the necessity of a training arc, setting up obstacles that separate our protagonist from the end game is what makes for an engaging narrative.
Black Clover not only throws our hero Asta into the midst of the upper caste of elites early on. It also throws us face-first into each story arc with premature haste. Asta and Yuno pretty immediately pass the exam and are inducted into the Magic Knights, and the two are sent on their first mission in the Dungeon Exploration arc before we even get the introductions to Asta’s new squadmates out of the way. It only jumps around more from there, as the conflict of the Royal Capital Arc is introduced still during the wrap-up of the previous arc—while Asta&Yuno&Co are at an awards reception, and the city below is attacked—yet again by a completely new enemy with new alliances and no previous context.
Fast forward, and we see this problem just as clearly illustrated in the Seabed Temple arc. Practically the whole of the Black Bull squad comes along, and they breeze through one-on-one fights in mere panels before the real baddies are wheeled in. One Piece would approach a story arc similarly, but it would also spend time beforehand exploring the new setting, expanding on the relevant conflicts, and only then branching off into one-on-one fights with the ranking members of the local bad guy organization.
Not to mention that the Black Clover crew is larger than manageable at this relatively early point in the series’ run.
The ‘A’ Team. Err—I mean, just another team
Most of the Shonen devices I reviewed earlier applied to main character Asta. The supporting cast, however, is just as rich with core Shonen character archetypes, but not without the same lack of follow-through in the presentation. Even teammates who have been featured prominently thus far (as far as I’ve watched and read, at least) do nothing to transcend their introductory few-word labels and parallels in other anime.
- Fight-obsessed maniac prodigy
- Bakugou, My Hero Academia
- Okita Sogo, Gintama
- Overly-protective younger sister complex guy
- Koyomi Araragi, -monogatari series
- Komui Lee, Grayman
- Alcoholic adult woman who’s usually mostly-undressed
- Cana Alberona, Fairy Tail
- Food-obsessed teammate
- Choji Akimichi, Naruto
- Jasminka Antonenko, Little Witch Academia
Well, it’s not THAT bad
Black Clover does succeed in some regards, too.
The construct of the Wizard King is interesting and is open to be expanded upon since Wizard King Julius Novachrono is introduced so early. It’s a merit-based role designating who leads the Magic Knights and acts as a sort of champion for the kingdom. The Wizard King works in parallel with and is only superseded in authority by the regular civil king.
Julius Novachrono, too, is himself a compelling character. A relatively young Wizard King, he both takes a visible role in the story, actively engaging with the Magic Knights and paying special attention to Asta and Yuno, and an invisible role, constantly disappearing on secret agendas, sometimes shown in brief that he is confronting and fighting the bigger enemies behind the scenes and letting on that he knows leagues more about these domestic and international conflicts than is shown on screen. He’s more mysterious—and suspicious—than a Third Hokage character and more three-dimensional than a Captain-Commander Yamamoto character.
There are other advantages to making the higher-up characters like the Wizard King more accessible. Stoic rival character Yuno retains his friendship with and respect for Asta and mutually acknowledges him as his rival in the race to become Wizard King. This allows for a real team dynamic to form, and also opens up Yuno’s Magic Knight squad, the prestigious Golden Dawn, to both the characters and viewers.
It’s refreshing to see the consistency between Asta’s physical prowess which compensates for having no magic and regular on-screen training and a mentality of actual work ethic and effort. And the show strikes a good balance with its introduction of devil powers in the context of Western religious imagery, referencing Asta’s five-leaf clover Grimoire as being the “home of the Devil.” This theme has yet to take any prominent role, however.
In the end, Black Clover is not worth the hype. (There is hype, right?)
I’ve been a fan, however. Character designs and general style are solid, and the world lends itself to fun team- and mission- based plots.
But I’m mostly just going back to it to get my One Piece and Fairy Tail fix without rereading either of those or continuing back on at a point when the crews are overly powerful and the plots too dramatic or serious.