Home > Cultural Explanation, Series Reviews > Mai-HiME – Almost Magical

Mai-HiME – Almost Magical

We’ve covered many different types of shows over the past six months at antiotaku: romances, comedies, action shows, and dramas; shows aimed at the male and female demographics; shows which are stunningly good and utterly awful. But we’ve yet to touch on one very specific genre of anime which is both popular and influential: the magical girl show.

Dating back to at least Sailor Moon, given new life with shows such as Card Captor Sakura and Shugo Chara, and subversively interpreted in Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha and Futari Wa Pretty Cure, magical girl shows still share some common themes, which don’t appear in all of them, but in enough to form a trend. An ordinary girl will be bequeathed with or discover she has magical powers, that such powers are needed to fight in some continual battle, that there are others with these powers who may help or hinder the protagonist, and—maybe a third to halfway through a show’s run—a specific plot that may have nothing to do with the original conflict will emerge as the central fight of the narrative.

Come to think of it, that’s a reasonably good description of male-oriented action shows like Bleach. Clearly there are some other factors in play.

From left to right, those are leads Natsuki, Mikoto, and Mai, along with Yukino and Midori

There are a couple more distinctives that distinguishes magical girl shows from ordinary action shows. First, the cast of heroes is nearly all female; either men can’t access the magical abilities, or there are extraordinarily few of them around for no particular reason. The cast of girls is often very young, in grade school or middle school level. There are elaborate transformation sequences when the girls activate their powers, changing from normal clothes into princess-like outfits. (This also serves as a way of cutting animation costs, by repeating transformation scenes to fill up air time.)

Such shows were originally aimed at grade school and middle school girls, and arguably taught things like self-respect and female empowerment and all the rest. American shows like, say, The Powerpuff Girls take some inspiration from them. But it became very clear that another Japanese demographic that really liked magical girls shows were 20-30 year old men. Perhaps for the same reasons that they liked slice-of-life shows populated entirely by high school age girls, the main otaku demographic ate up magical girl paraphernalia like popcorn. This eventually led to certain stripes of magical girls shows—like Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha—which were aimed primarily at the older male demographic.

Mai-HiME's transformation sequences are unique in that a) they are really summoning sequences, and b) the girl's clothes don't disappear

Which brings us to Mai-HiME. Mai-HiME (published as My-Hime in the US) is obviously a magical girl show, with magic powers usable only by females, transformation sequences, rampaging monsters which seem to exist only to provide an excuse for magic to get used, etc. But there are some strong points of disjunction, too. The show is set in a high school, not in elementary. The magical girls, called HiMEs, can summon companion creatures, called Children, but these are as monstrous as the creatures they are fighting. The threatening creatures themselves, called Orphans, seem to the audience to be under the control of the same mysterious boy who tells the girls about their powers. This same mysterious boy gives no indication of what the ultimate point of it all this is, save for the fact that the stakes are high.

And the stakes are very high; unlike in a normal magical girl show where deaths are incredibly uncommon and are almost never the direct fault of the protagonists, here people get offed as early as the eighth episode, and the body count just accelerates from there. A particular catch of this show’s magical powers is that they stem from the love of the girls toward the person they find most important. If a girl’s Child is defeated, the person she loves most dies.

What really sucks for the HiMEs is that they don't realize the true stakes until it happens for the first time

To sell a threat at that level, you have to care about the characters, and this is a particular strength of Mai-HiME. The show’s protagonist, Mai Tokiha, is likable and sympathetic. The first episode does its best to convince you that she is, first of all, normal, making the weirdness that explodes around her as she discovers her abilities the shock that it should be. Her two main co-stars, raised-by-wolves Mikoto Minagi and the literal ice queen Natsuki Kuga, both also come into their own fairly early, although Mikoto’s antics might outstay their welcome after a while.

Yet these are hardly the only girls with powers, nor are the gifted ones the only ones with serious screen time. It is a stunning achievement of the writing team that they manage to cram so much character development into a comparatively small number of episodes, giving over a dozen secondary cast members chances to shine. Motivations are consistent and believable, and the emotional baggage and burdens of the cast feel real. You don’t just see that one member of the cast acts with a worshipful attitude toward another, or that one girl abandons her monster hunting duties entirely and uses her abilities to prey on lecherous men in town, but also why they do it.

Nao is one HiME who comes across as sinister and borderline sadistic early on, but she isn't the real enemy

(On a side note, there is a spin off series called Mai-Otome, which re-imagines the urban fantasy of Mai-HiME as a science fiction fantasy world, where all the magic is sufficiently advanced technology and the girls get their powers from nano-machines. I didn’t manage to get past the first three episodes, for in addition to radically upping the level of fan service, the show also forgets all the lessons about presenting sympathetic characters that the original show pioneered. I’m told eventually the plot gets interesting, but one sign of Mai-HiME’s craftsmanship is that the characters alone are sufficient enough to keep the audience interested until the first plot twists hit.)

The show is also clever enough to create not one but two upheavals. Earlier on, a sinister conspiracy is revealed trying to co-opt the HiMEs entirely, having created an artificial one to compete in the contest to which all HiMEs are enrolled. By enslaving Orphans for their own purposes, and using straight-forward military force to invade the school, they try to eliminate all their rivals. They are defeated, of course, but not before forcing the HiMEs to unite.

Haruka is another character who starts off very dislikable, but it's hard to stay annoyed at someone so suicidally brave. Telling off a tank Tienanmen Square-style isn't even the coolest thing she does

Having created that goodwill, the show proceeds to destroy it. Nagi, the mysterious boy who inducted all the HiMEs, finally reveals that all of them are in a battle royale, with the destruction of their Child—and thus of their special person—as the price of failure. While the girls initially refuse to participate, the natural conflicts established between the characters ensure that the truce can only hold for so long. In the midst of all this, Nagi’s master and other forces work against each other from behind the scenes to change the nature of the competition forever, for their own ends.

Even if the plot seems a bit convoluted at times, the drama and pathos it creates are immediately accessible. The effort spend at creating a relatable cast of characters—including one of the best female leads of all time—now pays off with dividends as those same characters are turned against each other, and the results of those fights do not filter down to them but to complete innocents (well, most of the time). The HiMEs themselves are manipulated, abused, brainwashed, or just plain go crazy on their own due to the combination of their power and their frustrated desires.

The closest thing the show has to a filler episode, where Mai and several others are forced to retake their home ec exam, still manages to advance two other plot lines, including one involving her brother Takumi. That, and it's actually a funny episode, which filler rarely is

I don’t want to make it sound like the characters are the only thing it has going for it. The action scenes, which are frequent, are always innovative and engaging, with each conflict slowly upping the ante. The down time also carries the story forward; even the character development episodes often tie back in to the main plot. The music, composed by the well-known Yuki Kajiura, ranks among her best scores.

It was always evident that Mai-HiME was more than just a tale about cheery magical girls defeating evil in their spare time. Normal magical girl shows don’t have the protagonist suffer from acute stress reaction after nearly being decapitated and blown up in the first episode, and a sense of menace remains even in the more comical situations. Once former friends start turning on each other as their conflicting interests become too much to balance, it’s obvious things are going to get very messy. By the closing episodes over half the cast is dead or emotionally catatonic, the high school’s normal students have all evacuated, and the audience is prepared for the cataclysmic final showdown. That’s when things start going wrong, in a way that I can’t really explain without revealing massive spoilers. (If you don’t want them, skip down to the last four paragraphs.)

There's a church on the school grounds, occupied by a priest and a nun. It's plainly obvious from how they go about their daily duties that the writers are clueless about Christianity

First, the writers transform the battle royale into a battle royale with cheese. This wasn’t completely unexpected; after all, they had killed off a good chunk of the cast and had to do something to avoid a downer ending, and there were some hints about how it could happen dropped early enough so it didn’t feel completely contrived. So this wasn’t a problem in itself. It helps that the heroes actually have to fight and sacrifice at several points to lead up to the moment when they can trigger the reset.

For that matter, it isn’t too much of a problem that the resurrection method, properly speaking, shouldn’t have restored some of the character who were brought back; this was an annoying oversight (probably deliberate) on the part of the writers, but it didn’t have to ruin the mood. As a whole, the show knows what needs to be revealed and what can be left unsaid, implied, or simply unexplained. So there’s enough leeway to make the end result plausible, or at least to excuse minor plot holes.

Ok, another problem is that the end villain goes through more form changes than a Final Fantasy boss. Or maybe that's just me

What did ruin the mood was that after the big bad is defeated, the characters revert to their pre-conflict state, with their previous rivalries, acts of aggression, moments of flat-out insanity, etc. completely forgotten or ignored. Suddenly, no one seems upset about the fact that everyone was out to kill each other just a few episodes prior. The bitter vindictive grudge-holder softens up. The murderously jealous characters go back to being cute, if clingy. No one seems to notice or care that the other big important conspiracy just got its leader restored. One woman hooks up with the man who manipulated, drugged, and date-raped her. And it all ends with the main character evading a resolution to her love triangle by dragging everyone out to karaoke. In about five minutes, Mai-HiME takes all the drama, angst, and tension which was driving the show, flushes it down the toilet, and goes on to Happy Joy Fun Land.

I think a “rocks fall, everyone dies” ending would have been a disappointing and out-of-place way to cap off Mai-HiME—but at least that would have respected the integrity of the characters. Mai-HiME was a show that reached for greatness precisely because of the established depth of its cast and the rich drama their interaction produced. The (for lack of a better term) violation of them in the last montage of scenes, along with the complete mood shift that cheapened all the emotional travails that came before, was the most disappointing ending I’ve ever seen in anime. For something to be a true disappointment, after all, you have to expect great things.

There's no shortage of fan service, but it's pretty tame by current standards. Also, the writers just enjoy having fun at Natsuki's expense

The real kicker is that I still rather like the show. I started watching anime in the late nineties, but only haphazardly; it was around 2005 that I started following the medium in earnest. Mai-HiME was one of the first shows I discovered for myself, and it still remains at least a sentimental favorite of mine. As late as 2009, I still considered it one of my top ten favorite series.

Mai-HiME gets its ending colossally wrong. But it gets so many other things very right, enough that most shows either before or since can’t measure up to it. It served a similar role in my anime watching career as I think Tenchi Muyo did in my co-blogger’s; I first started tracking voice actors due to the incredible job Mai Nakahara gives in voicing the similarly named lead, and to a certain extent I’m always looking for the same degree of narrative focus, character development, and general craft that I first saw here. Rarely do I find it.

Did I do a full review without giving any details about the love triangle Mai falls into? Well, I guess I did

There’s far too much to Mai-HiME’s plot for me to cover here. I haven’t managed to name even a third of the cast in the course of this review and I’d need another two or three reviews this size to properly go through the story and the motivations of all of them. The only real way to figure it all out is to watch it for yourself.

Mai-HiME, as I noted above, has been licensed in the US (as My-Hime), and is available via Netflix or other rental sites. And while I hope I’ve made it clear how frustrating the ending is, I also hope it’s clear that everything up to those last five minutes or so is really worth your time.

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