#1 Strong themes of prejudice and oppression
Where to even start…
Knights is a medieval fantasy manga set in a European-style kingdom where the church holds vast power. The populace is deeply afraid of demons and witches, so every day women throughout the kingdom are arrested, tortured, and burned for their heretical practices. Few dare doubt the church’s judgement, but those who do are building a resistance.
Mistletien, Mist for short, is a young knight who journeys across the land to save innocent women from the pyres. A quest that requires him to not just battle evil priests and their goons, but also convince the “witches” themselves of their own innocence. Many of them are devout faithful themselves and are convinced they truly must be witches if their priests say so. Others are too broken from torture or betrayal to accept help, or fearful that they will never be accepted by the world again.
It’s a grim storyline obviously inspired by the bogus witch hunts of long ago. The manga tells the story of the unfortunate accused, subjected to unfair trials, hated by the people, and betrayed by their own faith. Mist is joined on his adventures by Euphemia, a young woman who takes the title of Witch as a token of pride and resistance. She is beautiful, confident, and seductive, the kind of independent woman that has the clergy frothing at the mouth. She makes for a strong and empowering contrast to the humble village girls and proper noblemen’s daughters she and Mist have to save.
Mist himself is also an interesting hero, as he is a person of color in a land far from where he was born. People literally fear him and believe he is a demonic entity, which leads to some truly powerful and heartbreaking scenes. I quickly found myself rooting for Mist. He so dearly wants to be accepted, yet chooses to prioritize rescuing the “witches” and helping them find their place in the world first.
I am neither a person of color nor female, but witnessing the unfair treatment the characters face throughout Knights was aggravating, in a good sense. It got me angry, both at the villains committing the actual atrocities, as well as the ignorant people that enable them to do so. While Knights is never pointlessly edgy, it certainly doesn’t pull any punches in depicting disgusting acts of racism and misogyny. The duo of Mist and Euphemia are a perfect fit for this story and I certainly got a kick out of watching them bring these evil people to justice.
#2 Excellent character designs
Proper medieval fantasy is rare in manga and, if I am to be honest, Knights is a fairly simplistic take on it as well. The setting isn’t very elaborate beyond the elements that directly relate to Mist and his quest, but where the writing falls a bit short, the art makes up for a lot.
The character design is particularly noteworthy, as many scenes features large crowds of characters and much of the story sees Mist journeying from one villain to the next. Artist & writer Minoru Murao really went above and beyond, so even minor characters who feature in 2-3 panels still enjoy detailed designs with clear themes to them. There is an entire side-cast that does almost nothing throughout the manga, but still each member looks like they are ready to cross-over into Dynasty Warriors. It’s nuts.
Mist himself resonates this heroic aura and was a really cool-looking protagonist. I really enjoyed watching him evolve over the course of the story as he gains new weapons and armor, gradually turning him more and more into a proper knight. Euphemia’s design is kind-of hilarious by contrast; she is so outlandish and sexualized that people don’t take her seriously. They are so convinced that witches are hiding among them that, when an actual witch shows up wearing little more than a cape that clings to her boobs, they write her off as a nudist lunatic.
#3 Exciting fantasy action
While the story and character designs very much abide by Western fantasy, the action scenes themselves are shounen as hell. Battles are exciting and impactful, with characters that can take on hordes of generic footmen and tear the battlefield to shreds with powerful supermoves.
Knights is fast and action-packed, but it never goes too far into magical anime land without any build-up. Many of the relevant characters are superhuman in nature, but most are still just dudes with a weapon. Their special moves are often just normal combat moves with their impact dialed up to 11. A dude with a sword stabs very fast or a shield bash that shatters armor, it’s not too far out there. Even Euphemia, the self-proclaimed witch of the story, is more of an alchemist who is throwing around all sorts of weird concoctions.
It’s actually the priests who are more magical and monstrous, ironically. Blessings bestowed upon the most faithful of priests warp their bodies into horrible forms or bestow inhuman powers upon them. They make for very cool villains who frequently hold the upper hand, because even an untrained, elderly man can suddenly be granted the power to butcher entire villages or cause devastating natural disasters.