Mahouka Koukou no Rettousei (The Irregular at Magic High School) Anime Review
When I took the time to look at the "Popular Shows" list on a (legal) streaming site recently, a question crossed my mind: "what makes something popular?" Although I already had a detailed understanding of what makes certain things popular, I saw a reason to delve deeper. About half of the shows on the list total of eight were never-ending shounen shows, (i.e. One Piece and Naruto) whose acclaim to popularity is due to the large accumulation of fans over the gargantuan period of time that these shows have been airing. The remaining, normal-length shows required a more complex answer, so I decided to dive into Mahouka Koukou no Rettousei, the last show on the list, in order to find an answer my concern.
Mahouka Koukou no Rettousei is a 26-episode anime series that is based on an ongoing light novel series started in 2011 by Tsutomu Satou. The anime was developed by Madhouse and released in 2014. Madhouse is probably the most notable anime studio in existence, due to their work on many popular titles such as: Death Note, Hunter × Hunter, Monster, Summer Wars, Black Lagoon, and a plethora of others. Alternatively, you can refer to Mahouka by its English title, The Irregular at Magic High School, which I highly suggest against doing because, not only does this title sound like it's referring to a poorly titled young adult novel, but it also has no defining noun by which it can be recognized.
For example, if you wanted to talk about this show, you couldn't start with the title's most notable noun by saying: "so I was watching Irregular..." because the chances are that nobody would know what in dodge you were talking about, so then you would have to fall back on saying the entirety of it like: "so I was watching The Irregular at Magic High School..." which is about as fun to pronounce as is it is fun to have 50 needles shoved into your arm, and also makes you sound juvenile when you say it. Therefore, I say it's best to stick with referring to the series as Mahouka, as it's not hard to say and is distinguishable among English speakers, even if the Japanese title directly translates to "The Poor Performing Student of a Magic High School."
The main gist of Mahouka follows Tatsuya Shiba as he continually surprises his magic high school associates with his masterful composure while using magic.
Tatsuya Shiba is the main protagonist of the series. He rarely expresses any emotion and is highly devoted to proper procedure and knowledge. The majority of the other characters in Mahouka have unrelenting approval for literally everything he does, because he seems to outperform everyone else in nearly all his actions. Despite this, he received lackluster scores on the practical assessment because it was not catered to his skills, thus grafting his school uniform with an inferior "weed" emblem on each of the shoulder regions. Little information is given regarding his background during the exposition, giving him a mysterious allure at times.
His sister, Miyuki, has a knack for ice-based magic and significantly outperformed Tatsuya on the practical assessment, giving her the "bloom" emblem. She embodies a very emotionally-driven persona but is in no way a fool, contrary to what someone constantly adhering to their emotions might have you believe. Her odd obsession with her brother edges into the unsettling at times, as she tends to behave like a giddy school girl whenever in his presence.
Erika Chiba is a sociable female that Tatsuya meets shortly after his initiation into First High School. Erika has little interest in nonsensical ideas or actions and frequently engages in petty bantering with the other characters. When this attitude of hers is directed back towards her, she reacts harshly and falls victim to hypocrisy. She relies heavily on sword skills, and has virtually no magical talent.
Leonhard "Leo" Saijo has capablity with blunt force magic and is a bit of a meathead at times. He also possesses a keen likability due to his silliness combined with his friendliness. Another classmate, Mizuki Shibata, appears very vulnerable and has an ability that allows her to sense spirits in the area.
Mayumi Saegusa has an uncanny whimsical quality to her that is apparent through most of her actions. Being that she is the student council president, many view her as frightening. There are many other supporting characters, but the screen time for each is split so thinly that it's hardly worth mentioning them.
As with most narratives, the central point of Mahouka is its main protagonist, Tatsuya Shiba. This is where many of the problems that the series has stems from. Since Tatsuya is a static character with no major flaws or doubts, there is no drive or extensive conflict surrounding him. After about halfway through the series, it becomes more than clear that Tatsuya is capable of solving any situation, no matter how dangerous, without so much as flinching. Due to this, there is no tension during many of the frightening scenes, as it is clear to both the characters in the story and the audience that fault is impossible for Tatsuya. His ego and character have been blown so out of proportion to the point that a subreddit was made specifically for the satirical worship of "our lord."
I don't think that there is anything wrong with the "overpowered character" archetype alone, but it makes far more sense when contained in a supporting character and not a protagonist. However, Princess Mononoke has proven that this archetype can work in a protagonist character as long as they aren't the main focus of the narrative, because they can make anything horrendously boring whenever they become the central point. This is because this archetype provides none of the long-term fulfillment that is so present in many of the iconic characters that prevail in most critically acclaimed productions. A character with flaws allows the audience to relate with them and their emotions. Goals are also extremely important in the appreciation of fictional personalities because it gives us a reason to like them and to feel a sense of purpose or accomplishment in their actions. Being that Tatsuya has neither of these things, the only thing we get out of him is a personality, and an uninteresting one at that.
The remaining characters are futile in their attempt to enliven the world of Mahouka. There's so many of them that barely any of them get long enough screen time to leave a deep impression on the viewer. None of them commit actions anywhere near to the level of Tatsuya. I'm left wondering what the point of all these characters were if they weren't actually going to do anything more than be another tally on the massive chalkboard that keeps track of how many devout followers that Tatsuya has.
The pacing is another important endeavor. The whole show is split into three arcs that are distinguished because every episode's title is the name of the arc followed by which installment within the arc that it is (for example: Episode 19- Yokohama Disturbance Part I). The second arc in particular has about 4 or 5 episodes of filler before anything actually happens. This makes me wonder why this series was given 26 episodes, as at least half of it was devoted to Tatsuya talking with the other characters and generally accomplishing nothing. None of these scenes have any weight to them since barely any effort is put into meaningful character chemistry and the emotions that are expressed never have any effect on the main plot of Mahouka.
When something important is actually happening, it usually follows that Tatsuya does something amazing and then another character pauses to fill us in on the exact technical details regarding what just happened. This is done in an overtly lazy way because nothing that is being said during these sequences has proper visual aid given to it and it just comes off feeling contrived because this isn't how real people talk. I never got around to understanding what the devil any of the technical jargon meant. I'm not sure if this is due to things being explained badly or me finding the whole prospect of all this technical detail to be tedious and not essential to the overall narrative. It probably has a little to do with both. I imagine that many have a fondness for the high-tech chattering, but I still believe there are many better ways of providing the audience with complex details of a fictional world.
Miyuki's infatuation with Tatsuya is a topic of controversy. There isn't a realistic reason for the near-incestuous relationship that occurs between the two to exist other than to appeal to the "little sister" fetish that's more prevalent in Japan than in the west. Miyuki could have easily been changed to be not related to Tatsuya, and the effects that this would have caused would be so minimal that the entire product would remain nearly the same. There is no narrative-based reason for sibling characters to have a romantic relationship because this doesn't coincide with audience-relatable relationships and any themes derived from this element can be provided through other means.
Miyuki-chan gives a valid demonstration on how you should treat your onii-sama
As for themes, there doesn't seem to be any in Mahouka (the blooms vs. weeds subplot becomes non-existent by the second arc, which could have passed for a theme if elaborated upon more). The only thought that this series provokes in my mind is how insulting it is to stories that legitimately try to teach the viewer something. There isn't a main conflict and none of the characters actually change at all by the end, with the mild exception of Miyuki. Nobody seems to care about the ruthless acts of murder that Tatsuya commits, and the audience is never led towards questioning his actions, as if being the "good guy" automatically makes him righteous in every way even though he is just as guilty as his enemies as far as morality goes. What was the point of this series? It doesn't seem like much more than ten straight hours of self-empowerment absurdity.
There is nothing wrong with self-empowerment fantasy in concept, but things start to become controversial whenever the fantasy elements are construed as if they are realistic and there are no shown negative side effects to being the greatest being in all of existence.
The only parts of this show that were actually enjoyable for me were the first few episodes, because being vague or incoherent is okay during exposition. Unfortunately, Mahouka goes absolutely nowhere with its potential that it builds up during the first few episodes, using its intriguing setting and ideas to do little more than screw around.
Mahouka concludes with a "read the light novel" ending, establishing the entire series as not much more than an advertisement for the source material. Nothing meaningful is discussed and nothing climactic happens during the last few episodes, as the final events are just the antagonists being mercilessly slaughtered by the good-affiliated characters. Even with all its appeal of being action-packed, the series has little action, which makes me question who is supposed to enjoy it.
This scene was actually cool because it wasn't expected at this point.
Animation & Sound
Since it's animated by Madhouse, there's no inquiry regarding the animation quality. Everything is all very well done excluding a few CGI scenes depicting choreographed movement that felt awkwardly out of place. The style is very distinct, with the uniforms of the characters being an iconic emblem of the series. The action scenes, though few and far between, look amazing and would certainly be a pleasure for our lord to view.
The soundtrack is also of exemplary quality. It'd be very difficult for anyone to confuse any of the tracks from this series with the music from anything else, since their timbre is unique and broadcasts the setting strongly. The voice actors all perform commendably at their parts and evoke emotion when necessary. The voice actor for Tatsuya in particular showcases the calmness and restraint that he has to an adept level, even though Tatsuya is a very thematically dull character.
Mahouka Koukou no Rettousei is a disaster. Nothing of meaning can be brought from the experience and the characters feel entirely unaware of the ridiculousness that surrounds them. The show is nothing more than silly empowerment fantasy with no weight to it. It can be enjoyable at times but the story alone is nowhere near enthralling. Even then, it loses out on presentation value since it wholeheartedly fails to remain engaging most of the time because the bulk of its length is spent with characters spouting ultimately unimportant dialogue. I highly recommend against watching this feature as it is one of the most drawn-out and lifeless expressions that I've come across. I wouldn't be surprised if the manga ending to this series revealed that all of the characters are actually robots.
The majority of titles that are popular are seen as so not because their writing is good, but because they meet a superficial adherence that draws in droves of viewers. In the case of Mahouka, this is the fantasy of being that guy that everyone emphatically loves and constantly has young ladies at his doorstep.