A cool thing about the internet is that it has allowed everyone to become a content creator. While access to mass media and print publication was once closed off to all but society’s most privileged, we now live in an age where anyone with an Internet connection has access to an audience of literally millions. This seems like a weird way to open a review for a show that was broadcast on four different Japanese TV channels, licensed by Sentai Filmworks for a North American Blu-Ray release, based on an ongoing series of light novels with 8 volumes in print as of this writing as well as a manga adaptation in Monthly Comic Gene magazine, so let me tie them together: Mahou Sensou reads like somebody’s DeviantArt fanfiction.
I’m not saying that free digital publication is a bad thing—it’s given us some of the greatest contemporary works of art and literature—but I AM saying that unskilled, unrefined content creators are published right alongside the hidden geniuses, and Mahou Sensou has a lot more of the former than the latter. If you’ve ever been on DeviantArt (and if you’re on an anime website, it’s a pretty good bet that you have), you know exactly what I mean. The show’s very title is a microcosm of itself, and represents about as much effort as is present in the rest of the show. “Mahou Sensou” probably sounds like it’s something pretty cool, if you don’t know any Japanese, but it’s the blandest, most basic title imaginable. There’s wars! And they’re fought with magic! MAGIC WARS. That is so cool, if you are twelve. It sounds less like fantasy-action series and more like a specialty Lego playset, except the Legos encourage imagination and creativity and can be enjoyed by all ages.
Mahou Sensou opens with a foreboding, post-apocalyptic urban landscape and some dramatic conflict between two siblings. It then immediately cuts to a more mundane setting with a similar inter-family conflict featuring our hero, ordinary high school boy™ Takeshi Nanase. I could say that the parallel of these scenes and characters is deliberate, but I get the feeling I’d be giving the author far too much credit. In any case, it is summer break, but Takeshi is off to school anyway to escape the immense pressure of his home life, which seems to consist of his brother and mother staring at him silently while all the lights are turned off. At school Takeshi runs into his doting childhood friend™ and pretend girlfriend Kurumi Isoshimi (the circumstances of their relationship are explained later, and are as convoluted as you’d expect them to be, so I won’t get into the details—if I examined every plot hole this review would never end). Shortly after Takeshi meets a mysterious otherworldly girl who falls from the sky™, Mui Aiba, and she drags him into her ongoing conflict with four equally mysterious and otherworldly assailants. Also Takeshi’s cool friend™ Kazumi Ida shows up, I guess because we need an even four protagonists? The provided reason is he’s there for remedial classes, but again, there’s nobody around but Main Character, Girlfriend, and the mysterious otherworldly folks. We’re not even halfway into the first episode and this already feels less like a television-ready product and more like a clumsy first draft. Not even a first draft. More like a bullet-point list of story notes.
Well, anyway, the long story short is that MC, Girlfriend, and Cool Guy all get dragged into magical combat (perhaps you would even say…a war?? A magic war, perhaps????), and by the rules of this universe, being exposed to magic makes you a magician. There’s several different rigidly-defined, mutually exclusive classes of magic, each of which is carefully explained in detail both by the Mysterious Assailants and other characters through unnecessary expositive dialogue over this episode and the next, and whichever one you get to use is apparently random. One of the assailants shoots magic bees and, shortly thereafter, nonlethally explodes. The explanation given (again, through expositive dialogue) is thus:
1. A long time ago there was a big MAGIC WAR. To spare the non-magicians from getting caught in the MAGIC CROSSFIRE, a group of MAGICIANS using MAGIC split the world in two.
2. There are two worlds, the “living world” and the “ruined world”, and the ruined world is where the MAGIC WARS continue to this day.
3. The Ghost Trailers—the bad guys—want to keep doing MAGIC WARS in the real world (I think? It’s been three months and I watched 32 shows. Go easy on me.), but the good guys—Wizard Brace—want to protect non-magicians.
4. Wizard Brace cast a spell called “the gift”, by which if you use MAGIC to do MAGIC WARS in the living world, you nonlethally explode and you can’t do MAGIC any more.
The point of exposition is to answer questions, but all this does is raise them. If you can’t do MAGIC WARS in the living world, and you become a magician by being exposed to MAGIC, where do magicians even come from? Is a propensity for magic genetic? Clearly not, since (spoiler alert) Takeshi’s mother is a highly skilled magician, and Takeshi has no skill until after Mui converts him. And furthermore, how was he converted in the first place? Mui shoots MAGIC from her MAGIC GUN at least twice, and the mysterious assailants, while also wielding more mundane, non-magical weapons such as Great Big Anime Swords, also use magic attacks with absolutely no ill effects up until MAGIC BEES gets penalized for it. And if Wizard Brace wants to keep non-magicians away from the MAGIC WARS, what was Mui doing in the living world in the first place? It would be one thing if she was pursuing the Ghost Trailers to stop them from doing their EVIL MAGIC, but they were chasing her. We’re barely two episodes in and the show is already a clusterfuck.
I’ve already given the plot synopsis three paragraphs and a numbered list, which is probably more than the author gave it, so I’ll sum up the rest quick. When the battle ends Mui takes Takeshi and friends—all of whom have been converted into magicians—to the “ruined world”. They are given the choice between being sent back to the living world with their memories of the past several hours wiped, or to move to the ruined world—leaving their lives, friends and families behind—and enroll in MAGIC SCHOOL to become soldiers in a MAGIC ARMY to fight MAGIC WARS. All three of them agree to this with literally less than a minute of deliberation. Okay, so we’ve established Takeshi is an angsty little whelp who doesn’t like his home life, but what about the other two? We even learn later on in the show that Kazumi is the sole caretaker of his younger sister. (She also becomes a magician, because Kazumi blows up their apartment, with magic. He doesn’t get Gifted for it though.) None of these kids think twice about leaving behind their real-world obligations to do MAGIC in MAGIC WORLD, and after the second episode they practically never look back.
I’ve spent more words on the story than it deserves, and I haven’t even gotten into the deepest plot holes or the most trodden clichés like Takeshi’s Big Magic Anime Sword or how the Magic School actually works or Takeshi’s family drama or, as previously mentioned, his fake relationship with Kurumi. And I’ll avoid going into much further detail, but it’s worth mentioning that Mahou Sensou literally ends on a cliffhanger. Things appear to be wrapping up in the penultimate episode, but the finale dumps a ton of unbidden plot twists on the audience out of nowhere and then ends abruptly without resolving any of them. Which is especially bold, considering how even these twists fail to make me interested in seeing the plot actually get resolved.
There’s so much more to talk about. Let’s talk about the animation. Let’s talk about how Madhouse is the living contradiction of simultaneously being perhaps the best and worst animation studio in Japan. Madhouse did Monster, Nana, Dennou Coil and Kaiba, but it also did Chaos;Head, Photo Kano and this. Madhouse shows are either a brilliant, innovative feast for the eyes or they are garbage, and nothing in between. You can see traces of brilliance, like a good animator walked into the wrong room: the ending sequence is interestingly directed and fluidly animated, with excellent use of colour and composition that isn’t to be found anywhere else in the show. The director of Mahou Sensou is about as well-read on film as its author is on story structure. Every shot of Mahou Sensou, besides the aforementioned ending sequence, is boring at best and obscure and difficult to look at at worst. The colours are flat, desaturated and depressing—it could be an attempt to create atmosphere if not for the fact that literally every shot is like this, even when the show forays unsuccessfully into light-hearted rom-com. The animation itself is…not good. Frame count is low, characters are frequently off model, and it often seems as if the animators are trying to restrict movement to conserve the budget.
So if not to the animation, where is the budget going? The voice cast’s salaries, most likely. The casting choices for Mahou Sensou are bizarre, to say the least. It’s a late-night anime with lots of cute, moe girls who adorn the covers of the original light novels, but most of these girls are brought to life by B-list seiyuus with limited résumés. They’re not bad, per se, but they’re not very good, either. Of course, you could say; Mahou Sensou is hardly an A-list show, so it’s not like they’ve got the budget for A-list voices…until you take a look at the cast of the male characters. Mamoru Miyano! Kenichi Suzumura! Toshiyuki Morikawa! Jun Fukuyama! Truly, the night was dark, for all the stars were in Mahou Sensou. When I heard Miyano’s voice uttering some of the first lines of the show I couldn’t believe it. He’s got some of the most recognizable pipes in the industry, but I had to double-check to make sure it was him. Takeshi is the blandest, flattest, most forgettable male lead in recent memory, in a show that is for all intents and purposes marketed towards straight men. His lines could have been delivered by a carefully-trained parrot and the show wouldn’t be any worse for it. Why shell out the cash for Miyano? It’s not like he really brings his skills to the show, by the way. Miyano in Mahou Sensou is not Tamaki Suou or Light Yagami or Rin Matsuoka. He’s…really not very good at all. I know he’s got more talent than he expends here, so he’s either giving exactly as much effort as Mahou Sensou deserves or the show’s voice director is sleeping on the job. The same goes for just about everyone else—Suzumura’s affected Osaka-ben is grating and Morikawa sounds completely uninterested in anything at any time. Jun Fukuyama actually delivers a totally competent and acceptable performance, but he’s not in the show much.
The show’s soundtrack is where it truly shines, in that it is thoroughly average instead of being subpar or outright bad. The opening theme by FictionJunction veteran Yuuka Nanri is a generic chamber-pop number—her vocal work is certainly impressive, but the song lacks anything to keep it from being just another fantasy anime theme. On the other hand, the ending theme is quite good. Nano is one of a wave of utaites-turned-major label artists that have emerged in the past several years and, like many of their fellows, brings a breath of fresh air to the previously stale and stagnant anisong industry. “Born to be”, Nano’s contribution to Mahou Sensou, is catchy and powerful, with a meaty bassline and just enough pop in its pop-punk to avoid giving the impression that it’s taking itself too seriously. The song features lyrics in both English and Japanese, and as an American expat Nano’s pronunciation is flawless (not that I’d fault them if it wasn’t, because English is fucking hard). The lyrics, while technically grammatically correct, are corny as hell, but it’s not like anyone goes into anime music expecting Sufjan Stevens, so it’s totally forgivable.
In addition, Nano’s vocals are featured on a few tracks by series composer Masato Kouda. Kouda is already an accomplished composer, known for his work on Devil May Cry and Monster Hunter, but Mahou Sensou was my first exposure to his work. It’s not bad; one or two really good tracks, a few really bad ones, but mostly in-betweeners. Worth mentioning is “NEW WORLD” (which might not have actually been in the anime proper—it’s labelled on the tracklist as “soundtrack version”, but it’s worth listening to regardless). It moves seamlessly between uplifting orchestral instrumentals, to Nano rapping in English over an electronic beat with piano accompaniment, to a bouncy disco string section. It’s less than two minutes long, but it’s a great track—too good to be stuck in Mahou Sensou, probably.
All that having been said (and if you did read all of it: thanks!), I’m about to say something that might blow your mind. It’s true that Mahou Sensou is objectively and subjectively of poor quality; amateurishly written, amateurishly animated, amateurishly executed in every way. And I would not say that it’s “so bad it’s good”, or that I really gained any enjoyment out of watching it at all or that my life was enriched by having experienced it in any way.
But I would like to see more bad anime like Mahou Sensou.
Let me clarify: in a perfect world, I would not like to see anything of Mahou Sensou’s quality at all. I don’t want to see more bad anime, but when you watch as many silly Japanese cartoons as I do, you get exposed to a lot of shit just by the fact of Sturgeon’s law. But I would rather watch Mahou Sensou a dozen times than sit through Wizard Barristers one more time. I would rather watch Mahou Sensou a hundred times than sit through even one episode of ImoCho.
Mahou Sensou is bad, but it didn’t make me angry. I did a lot of rolling my eyes and laughing out loud in disbelief at how utterly cliché and ridiculous everything was, and I often wondered how the show could have such little self-awareness, but never—not once—did I feel genuine malice towards anyone involved. Mahou Sensou did not offend me, and although I’m certainly none the richer for having experienced it, I don’t feel much poorer either. For as long as there are nerds, there’s going to be anime, and as long as there’s anime, a lot of it will be shit—but I want more of the shitty anime to start taking a page out of Mahou Sensou’s book. It’s bad, but it’s somehow cute, in that I get the feeling that it’s written by someone who is very young, or at least inexperienced. Whoever wrote Mahou Sensou has very little knowledge of literary structure, conflict, storytelling, or even how the real world or real people work. No one in Mahou Sensou is a real person, they are a walking list of tropes, recycled and regurgitated from a thousand anime characters before them. Things happen in Mahou Sensou not to progress the story or the characters, but because they are cool, or they are well-trodden anime clichés. It’s bad, but for some reason I want to pin it up on the fridge.
I’m not saying it’s totally innocent. There are a handful of weird moments of objectification scattered here and there—for some unexplained reason, the first time Kurumi uses magic, her breasts expand (this never happens again), and I can recall at least one very clichéd “the hero walks in on the heroine in some manner of undress” scene. But these scenes are relatively quick and painless, and feel more like the author felt obligated to throw them in because that’s just something that HAPPENS in anime, rather than because they feel any actual antagonism towards women. It’s true that the female characters are undeveloped and two-dimensional, but so is literally everyone else. The last chunk of the show is a very tired “damsel in distress” arc, but Kurumi has at least a little agency while being held hostage—much unlike Sword Art Online’s revolting, misogynistic mess of a second half. Everything about Mahou Sensou feels like it was written by a child, and while that means it’s of very poor quality, it also means theres nothing cruel or mean-spirited about it, overtly or otherwise. I almost feel bad talking trash about it, because it definitely doesn’t WANT to make me feel bad feelings, and I’m pretty sure it’s doing the best that it can.
So would I recommend Mahou Sensou? No. Absolutely not. There is nothing you stand to gain from the experience of watching it. It might not be malevolently bad, but it’s still bad, and everything about it is poor. However, I would make the following to anime producers: instead of maladjusted adult men with a deeply-rooted hatred of women, might I suggest turning to thirteen-year-olds to write more anime scenarios? Fresh, new talent could not possibly hurt the industry.