Mahouka: oh how I wish they’d actually succeeded with this one!

Mahouka Mahouka...where to begin?

Mahouka Mahouka…where to begin?

The First High School affiliated with the National Magic University. Entry into this school makes you one of the societal elites whose magical talents have been acknowledged. But at the same time, right from the start, you’re either a great student or a mediocre one. What becomes of the pair of siblings that enter this school on either sides of this division?

To be honest, I’m a little conflicted about what I should do with this post. Whilst I do not think that all the criticisms directed at the anime are valid — particularly not those that the majority of light novel readers kept going on about in the first arc — there were some serious problems with The Irregular at the Magic High School (Mahouka Koukou no Rettousei), aka Mahouka. Some of the problems stem from the light novel, whilst others are problematic because of the anime. However, I would also say that the anime also improved on several things that I dislike about the light novel (and to be frank, that I dislike about this type of media in general). So overall, what we got was something that I was happy to sit through once — I’ll even admit that there were episodes that I enjoyed watching for a second or even third time — but that really felt quite uninspiring at the end of it. And that’s a huge pity, because Mahouka actually has some themes that I find very interesting to think about.

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Some of the scenes were really great pieces of entertainment, such as this fight from the first episode…

Some of these points are interrelated, so let me start with the criticisms that I feel went a little too far, especially as the show was airing. As is usually expected when a book is adapted into a show, fans of the original work get excited about the scenes that they want to see, which multiplies their disappointment when those expectations are dashed. A fair number of scenes that did little more than character exposition for some of the supporting characters ended up on the cutting room floor, and the reaction was vehement and unrelenting. However, whilst I understand their anger, I had two broad issues with their persistent complaints. First, their focus on entire scenes meant that they were ignoring detail that the animators were using to supplement the ‘missing’ characterisation. Anime is an audio-visual medium, and characterisation can be conveyed through subtle things such as gestures, body posture and tone of voice, to name a few extra signals that people use and pay attention to when trying to communicate with each other. Personally, I found that such little details made up quite well for the missing scenes, and it was very annoying that disgruntled fans would take over the anime threads to complain about what was missing.

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…and Mayumi’s character DID come through quite well…no matter what L/N fans said…

The fact that Mahouka is adapted from a light novel series is partly to blame for this. One aspect of light novels that makes them a terrible type of ‘literature’ is that their authors typically want to tell us everything. As Guy Shalev observes here, “everything must be narrated, everything must be commented on,” to the extent that there is no room for interpretation of character motivations: the author decides everything for the readers. When I started skimming the light novels after the end of the first arc (episode 7), this is what I found most irritating about the way the novels were written. I’m someone who prefers to use my head to think about a series, rather than have someone tell me what I’m supposed to think about what I’m shown. So whilst some of the themes of Mahouka — particularly those centred around the position of magicians in the world of the story — are really appealing to me, I have to say that the light novel style really turns me off.

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I also really liked some of those hilarious character interactions…

This bleeds into the second issue I had with the light novel readers: those persistent complaints prevented discussion that might have helped more people understand what Mahouka was actually about. When the anime left room for interpretation by omitting particular pieces of information, particularly those revealed in monologues in the novels, readers exploded. The thing is, many of these ideas can actually be discussed even if not directed revealed, based on what we were shown. In fact, the restraint that the anime writers showed in removing some of the things that weren’t necessary point to an attempt to rely on ‘showing’ instead of ‘telling’. But it didn’t help that the fan translation of the novels wasn’t great — though admittedly, I found the anime one even worse. I understand that anime translators aren’t paid much and that the light novel style is difficult to read (and I’m speaking as someone who’s read most of the translation and some of the original), so perhaps the lack of research is understandable… But some of the gaps in understanding that emerged probably had a negative effect on how the story’s themes were perceived. This is one of those times I wished that anime subs were still predominantly made by fans for fans! This series needed a good translator and editor who, more importantly, actually liked the story and themes of Mahouka. In the absence of such a translator, LN readers could have used their understanding of the themes to help bring them to light, as I tried to do once or twice. By complaining about it and trying to force viewers to read the original work instead, the only thing those fans really achieved was to turn most of us off the light novels themselves.

p.s. I was also amused to see Tatsumi and Sawaki greet Mari with “good morning” in episode 3, even though it was clearly late evening, but unlike the others, this one’s understandable given this little aspect of Japanese culture and that fact that the translators only get a script…

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…and the occasional tongue-in-cheek silliness…

Other problems I had were more with the production side, particularly series composition. Whilst I understood that restrictions in terms of time meant that they had to cut some of the character development scenes (they left barely enough of them in to keep me watching), surely they could have found a way to keep or highlight some of the motivations of the characters, such as what Tatsuya is aiming to do and why (end of episode 4 was where they started screwing this up), and why the First High seniors wanted to win the 9SC etc. And whilst I am glad that they cut out most of the narration, which is really dry and isn’t really needed, no matter what some LN readers keep arguing (trust me, you don’t want to listen to the 4-hr audio drama they did for Reminiscence/vol 8—unless you absolutely love Hayami Saori’s voice, that is…), they could have slipped in a more concrete representation of the reason for Miyuki’s devotion to her brother somewhere… That one scene at the start of the first episode was not effective at all, because we don’t really have get the context of why she feels that she has done something to her brother that she will never be able to repay. What I personally interpreted Miyuki to be referring to is basically the fact that her very existence led to her brother being turned into a tool, and into a killer. But the only reason I can say this with even a bit of confidence is because I know about this theme in the novels: it’s a theme that’s touched upon with other magicians as well, including Ichijou Masaki. Unfortunately, the anime failed to link this aspect of the issue to the more obvious use of magicians as tools by the major enemy, which, being ‘the Great Asian Alliance’, did little more than raise questions about the ideological beliefs of the light novel author. I found that criticism frustrating too, because the issue is far more complicated that what most of the critics probably understand, and it only detracted from what I thought was a really interesting theme touching on equality and discrimination, and on how one might go about addressing that.

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But I really wish they had made just one theme clearer: the one about where magicians stand in society…

In sum, the Mahouka anime frustrated me for two main reasons: extremely poor series composition and incredibly irritating light novel fans. I was really surprised to find that no one is credited for series composition — perhaps that’s where the problems all started. But at the same time, I think I’d have enjoyed the show more if those complaining fans hadn’t been around. In any case, this isn’t a show that I’ll ever be watching again. I’m not even sure if I’d watch a sequel should they make one, though I’ll probably keep abreast of light novel spoilers for the time being…

About karice
MAG fan, freelance translator and political scientist-in-training. I also love musicals, travel and figure skating!

5 Responses to Mahouka: oh how I wish they’d actually succeeded with this one!

  1. pira97 says:

    It is a good anime, I watched through 20 eps but I couldn’t finish because of this:

    I will try to finish another time, LOL.

    Happy Halloween!

    Like

  2. may says:

    what the hack is that how many times she does have to say onii-sama

    Like

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