chaostangent

God mode

A review of the Mahouka anime series

I get the feeling that Mahouka Koukou no Rettousei (The Irregular at Magic Highschool) really shouldn’t have been set in highschool. It’s right there in the title sure, but the characters don’t really do a lot of typical highschool activities, making it seem like a compromise for an audience that perhaps wouldn’t as readily accept “The Irregular at Magic University”.

The “magic” part of the title though is different from all the other magical highschool based anime (throw a dart at a list of modern anime and there’s a high probability you’ll hit a similar series) by being technological rather than, well, magical. Modern day wizards tote around electronic devices looking like anything from mobile phones to guns in order to summon pre-programmed spells. The explanations for this magic are laid on thick, with talk of psions and eidos and phenomena when really all I want is for mages to beat the tar out of one another with their own brand of magic. It’s an uncomplicated desire and in some ways Mahouka gets that part right. In a whole heap of others, it gets things quite wrong.

The nexus of Mahouka’s issues is protagonist and “irregular” Tatsuya who is a gruff, dour chap looking a lot like a plank of wood and with about as much charisma. He is, of course, a wizard of prodigious power, gifted with immense magical prowess and able to program magic devices (“CADs” in the series’ parlance) with ease. In between school and his bodyguard duties he furthers the study of magic in a secret lab. How on earth does he find the time? But, with all this power crammed into his brain, there’s just no room for emotions. That’s the official reason for his dispassionate personality, but woe, look how he’s suffering. Or is insufferable, I forget which.

The rest of the cast is better fleshed out though starting with Miyuki, Tatsuya’s younger sister who has a squick inducing complex about him, flushing red whenever he so much as brushes past her. Other characters from the voluminous list include a student council president, someone with magical eyes, someone who can use spirits, that mousy little one… Honestly I forget their names which underscores the point that even though the cast is vast and diverse, it’s not diverse enough to remember who’s crushing on whom or the complex web of siblings and dislike between them all. Some are more recognisable than others but the series hamstrings itself by putting an emotionless dullard and an incest fangirl front and center, reducing the amount of time spent on anyone else. In this case, quantity exceeds the capacity for meaningful, individual development.

Instead, a great deal of screentime is spent explaining in meticulous detail how the many spells and sequences that Tatsuya has just used operate. It’s setting up for the later arcs of the story, but ends up just establishing the myriad ways that Tatsuya is unequivocally not to be fucked with and is thrown out in the final three episode long battle that turns the city of Yokohama into a warzone. The obvious effort that’s gone into crafting an in-world system for this magic is appreciated, however what a lot of events boil down to is “a wizard did it”. Which if the action is gripping enough and the story strong enough I have no problem accepting on faith.

The problem being that neither of those things are exhibited in these twenty six episodes. There are certainly exciting sections with good tension building, but like its cast, the story tries to cram too much into one space with the result that important bits leak out like an overfull paddling pool.

like the Grim Reaper, just less interesting and while wearing sunglasses. At night

Of the three arcs of the story: Enrollment, Nine Schools Competition and Yokohama Disturbance, the latter two try their hand at spies, intrigue and clandestine machinations. Intriguing, certainly, but without any kind of grander context - we’re fed some hand wavey Chinese mainland triad discord hokum - it just becomes undeveloped characters playing cloak and dagger. And even worse: high school children doing the same. Even next to the wizard dual-wielding pistols it seems utterly absurd by comparison. This goes back to the question of why set it in highschool: with foreign interests trying to scry then disrupt secondary education proceedings, where exactly are the university students in all this? The postgraduate researchers? The career wizards? This world has had technological magic for almost a century and yet we’re only shown a small, conspicuously self-contained slice of that.

None of this is helped by Tatsuya of course who is so utterly unstoppable that other characters, with their limited powers, become more interesting than him by juxtaposition. That is until a challenger appears, clad in red and with a blood soaked cruel streak to him, could he be Tatsuya’s nemesis? They’re even faced off in the opening, there has to be a clash between them right?

Nope.

Their battle during the Nine Schools Competition arc - essentially an overblown sports day for fledgling wizards - is hyped but over as quickly as Tatsuya can snap his fingers. Anticlimactic doesn’t even begin to summarise that tussle. If not him, then surely a man built like a brick shithouse and a whole platoon of anti-wizard soldiers will provide Tatsuya with some challenge then?

Nope.

There is even an entire scene of his sister, timid doe-eyed Miyuki, “releasing” Tatsuya’s powers in order for him to… Well, fly about in an evil looking super sentai suit and do more or less what he’s done for the majority of the series. Though billed as such, this is nowhere near Alucard’s powers being unsealed by Integra. Even his double life as “special lieutenant” with the JSDF equivalent is underused, with the most interesting event for story potential - when his real job is revealed to his classmates - coming at the end of the series, and not touched upon in the wrap-up montage.

It’s indicative of the series as a whole though: setting a lot of plates spinning and then just plum forgetting about them to focus on Señor BlandPants and Princess Freezealot. Chap who wanted revenge on Tatsuya for being effortlessly awesome? Forgotten. Old-style alchemical magic stone? MacGuffin. That’s right, even though magic is technological in nature, the “creation” of spells by Tatsuya remains noticeably wooly and “old” magicks such as spirits and mystical artefacts still hold power. Similarly it’s implied but never stated that one’s country of origin defines the type of magic available which would imply Shinto-esque land spirits for Japan and Ki style body magicks for China, but again this element is unexplored because there are androids! And mechs!

Thematically too, Mahouka is all over the place. Starting off strong with an enforced caste system in the titular school, any student who scores well in the entrance exams is placed in “Course 1” (“Blooms”), while everyone else is placed in “Course 2” (“Weeds). It’s a lovely bit of social commentary on both Japan’s school system as well as the stratification of society, especially when the Course 2 students are distinguished by their lack of emblem on their uniform, literally without an identity because of a single test. Tatsuya threatens to upend this system by virtue of being a lower class Course 2 student due to his low practical scores but being prodigiously talented with theoretical ones.

That’s the story at least only Tatsuya undercuts that by being utterly invincible in practice as well as in theory. His being in Course 2 feels a lot like another level of his cover for his “special lieutenant” job, especially so because it’s hard to take any minute display of emotion from him seriously. Is he actually angry for someone trying to harm Miyuki or is that just all an act to further his schemes?

As Tatsuya ascends through the ranks from school security guard, to engineer to the ultimate badass, the series’ theme seems to change from social prejudice to the unchecked power of magicians. By the end of the series Tatsuya is an angel of death (he is even referred to as Shiva the Destroyer by his enemies shortly before he obliterates them), raining destruction and magical annihilation from afar. His classmates are obviously shocked at his unflinching butchery of his enemies, but we never find out how Tatsuya himself feels about being used as a weapon of mass destruction (well, he technically turns mass into energy but same difference).

The question that is never answered though is why, after a century of publicly commoditised magic, would anyone want to attack a convention of magical children? And not just any convention, but one of the best and brightest magical children? It strikes me as trying to preach abstinence in the athletes' village before the Olympics: futile, misguided and bound to get messy.

With all that said though, I still watched every episode, and I looked forward to just about every one. For all it’s flaws, it still has a bold imagination and a wonderfully tangible world, and it knows how to keep magical scuffles dramatic, if not entirely sensible. Some of that was helped by the two opening themes, the first from ELiSA and the second by GARNIDELiA who has quickly matched angela for excellent high octane opening tracks, quickening the tempo before the main feature. Tatsuya though, like an overpowered MMO ability, needed to be nerfed or at least matched shortly into the second story arc. The Crimson Prince threatened the latter, just like Lu Gonghu, the Devouring Tiger, did in the third arc. Neither matched their buildup, meaning Tatsuya roamed through the story unhindered like the Grim Reaper, just less interesting and while wearing sunglasses. At night.

As the series ended, I’m still not sure exactly what the Magical High School was actually teaching Tatsuya and his classmates. We never get a glimpse of any of the lessons, and Tatsuya at least does very un-highschool like things like chasing down the terrorist group who just attacked the assembly hall. The rest of the cast almost makes up for this, being more interesting than him but are maligned in favour of some misguided character development and narrative choices. The core concept of Mahouka is sound, and the idea that intelligence and creativity is celebrated is definitely alluring, but I get the feeling that with a more judicious hand, the series could have sloughed off some of its weaker elements while gaining so much more in return.