Wednesday, January 6, 2021

What the Hell is World Trigger?

This week sees the premiere of the second season of World Trigger's anime adaptation. When this was announced at the end of 2019, a lot of people heard the news and all asked one question: what the hell is World Trigger? Since I always seem to find myself drawn to the niche and unknown, I am here to answer that question.

Beginning serialization in Weekly Shonen Jump in 2013, World Trigger is a manga series by Daisuke Ashihara set in the fictional Mikado City - ground zero of a destructive invasion of the Neighbors, monsters from another dimension. To combat this new enemy, an equally mysterious organization known as Border appears using technology known as Triggers to defeat the Neighbors.

Osamu Mikumo is a trainee Border Agent when he meets a mysterious boy named Yuma Kuga who soon reveals himself to be a humanoid Neighbor with a powerful Trigger of his own. Together with Osamu’s naturally-gifted yet inexperienced friend Chika Amatori, they form a squad within Border and aim to rise to the top ranks to be selected for a mission into the Neighbor's dimension.

World Trigger isn’t a series I hear people talk about much. If it ever had a big fandom, the hype petered out before I even discovered it. There was a not great anime adaptation, the creator went on a two-year hiatus, and it was eventually moved to the monthly Jump SQ magazine. Only faithful fans can stick through something like that. Many are unaware the hiatus ever ended. Anime-only fans were probably put off by the adaptation’s lackluster quality. Overall, World Trigger had earned itself the kind of reputation that scares away potential fans.

What makes World Trigger different from other Shonen Jump series - and worth checking out - is how it takes several of the worst tropes in the magazine and does them right. Too many series that run in Jump feature an onslaught of new characters that eventually bloat the main cast. Too many feature characters who are supposed to be on the same side fighting each other for contrived reasons. I hate those tropes. World Trigger is full of those tropes. But I still love everything about it.

World Trigger has maybe 100 secondary characters and I’m often confused by who is who due to their long names and often similar appearances. In an interesting choice, the creator went with a realistic look for the series which takes place in a fictional yet realistic Japanese city.

This means virtually everyone in the series has a normal black or brown hairdo. The different squads at Border wear matching, customizable outfits - but most of them are just cool jackets. And keep in mind the manga is black and white.

The result is a rather bland aesthetic covering a large cast of similar-looking characters. Perhaps this is why the series flew under the radar for many. Its peak popularity was during my biggest anime convention years. I could easily have seen a cosplayer with black hair in a blue jacket and just not been able to tell who or what they were supposed to be.

However, unlike similar series that give everyone weird, spiky hair in every color of the rainbow, if you stick with World Trigger you'll start to see how the characters are all fleshed out into believable, realistic characters. And I mean all of them.

Maybe it’s because Border, a government agency, actually feels like a government agency. The Soul Society had a hundred members in a convoluted pyramid of leadership, but everyone was just a samurai working under other samurai. In World Trigger you actually get to know Border’s key administration - including their marketing, R&D, and foreign affairs departments. Sure, they never get in any flashy sword fights, but at least they feel like real people. And that helps Border feel like an actual organization.

And sure, Border Agents spend way more time fighting each other than Neighbors. Like I said before, that's a big shonen trope I hate. I liked Bleach because I liked seeing Soul Reapers fight Hollows, not each other. Fire Force and Jujutsu Kaisen are two newer series I got really into that suddenly turned into a never-ending Soul Society arc way too soon.

The first time we heard about opposing factions within Border, I got nervous. The first time two squads went head to head - I was ready to give up on World Trigger. I kept going, hoping we'd get back to Neighbor battles.

For some reason, manga fans love seeing good guys on the same side fighting each other to death. World Trigger is full of exactly that. But other than two brief arcs early in the series you never see Agents fighting each other the way Soul Reapers or Fire Force Soldiers fight each other. The battles between Border Agents are different.

And they're easily the best part of the entire series.
We get a taste of this when Yuma and Chika start off at C-Rank, where trainee Agents duel each other in virtual environments and wager points. Get 4000 points and you’re in B-Rank which makes you an official Agent and allows you to form a squad. This is where the fun begins.

Three or four B-Rank Agents form squads and compete in large battles against two or three other squads. While C-Rank Wars are one-on-one and done at the Agent’s leisure, B-Rank Wars are presented as a seasonal ball-sport with spectators and color commentary.
The B-Rank Wars arc makes up the bulk of the series and some of its best content. Each match floats the focus around to other squads, allowing for extra exploration and development of other Border Agents. Virtual battles means lighter stakes which also allow characters to go all-out against their rivals and then go out for lunch together the next day. Just as the Rank Wars are a competitive method of inspiring Agents to achieve a greater position at Border, they are also a form of teambuilding and training for Border as a whole. Because when the Neighbors attack, every Agent is on the same side.

The Rank Wars are also just a damn good game. B-Rank Agents all have access to the same Triggers so there are countless strategies for offense and defense.
The lowest ranked squad gets to pick the map and weather. Forget about any of the plot and characterization for one second - Rank Wars are just a lot of fun to watch.
Only one World Trigger video game was ever made and it was never released outside Japan, but its story and gameplay focused primarily on battling Neighbors. Sure, that's the premise of the series. But it goes without saying the demand is higher for a Rank Wars game.

For the longest time, I didn’t understand why I liked World Trigger. I quit reading Black Clover when it introduced like ten characters in one chapter, gave them all backstories, and then showed off their special attacks in a big dumb battle. World Trigger does that all the time - but I couldn’t put it down. I spent almost a year wondering why I kept rereading and rewatching a series filled with everything I hate.

And then it hit me like a four-eyed brick.

In order for a Border Agent to use a Trigger, they must use an energy source called Trion which is generated by an invisible organ next to the heart. Despite doing well on the physical and written exams, Osamu’s application to Border is initially declined because he has incredibly low Trion levels. If he were to join Border it would be very difficult for him to succeed. For anyone else, this would be the end of their story at Border.

World Trigger’s main character isn’t a big buffoon like Luffy, he’s not immensely capable and without weakness like Senku or Goku. He doesn’t have immense, innate talent like Ichigo or Naruto. In fact Osamu has no natural ability whatsoever and has no business being in Border at all. He has no business being a shonen manga protagonist.

The closest comparisons I can think of are Midoriya from My Hero Academia and Asta from Black Clover. Midoriya wants to be a great superhero, but doesn't have any superpowers. Asta wants to be the king of wizards, but can't use magic. They are both characters who, like Osamu, want something more than anyone yet have no natural means to attain it. The only difference is that both of them are just handed godlike superpowers without even having to try.

A lack of natural ability doesn’t stop Osamu from trying. He works hard, trains for hours, stays up all night studying and developing strategies, and never gives up. And eventually he became a perfectly fine Border Agent all thanks to his determination. And All Might didn’t hand him a magic book that gave him extra Trion. He became a competent fighter and a good leader the old fashioned way.

In a flashy action series where spectacular battles take place between teenagers armed with all kinds of cool weapons and abilities, Osamu (our main character) isn’t even in the Top 25 coolest characters. Due to his weaknesses he rarely gets directly involved in the fights. And I am totally fine with that!

I see a lot of myself in Osamu. I can relate to someone who wants nothing in the world but to be good at something when it feels like you never will be. He’s the kind of manga protagonist we need more of. I think the creator has a lot of balls for letting the series continue on this way. I could easily see him being pressured to shift focus toward Yuma, but instead he stuck with Osamu and gave us one of manga’s greatest character arcs.

World Trigger is, without a doubt, one of the most underrated manga series I've ever read. I find it so bizarre that I know almost no one who has ever heard of it. It's only been a year and a half since I first discovered it, yet I find myself thinking about it all the time. Ask my wife - I wish every show had a Rank War and get excited whenever we see something close.

If you're interested in checking out World Trigger, the series is available in Viz Media's Shonen Jump app with new chapters released monthly. If you'd like to own a physical release, click here to start with the first volume. The anime series is available on Crunchyroll in Japanese and English. Note that the English dub skips a brief filler arc. Season 2 begins Saturday, January 9th. Trigger On!