I have a thing for power fantasies. But it's not just any run-of-the-mill overpowered stuff that I like, I am kind of particular about how it should do it's thing. The very first condition is, the character should be godlike right from the start, I don't want a weak underdog story, I don't want training arcs, I want to see the guy stomp everything right from the start. Number two, the opponents. They, and everyone else, must think that they are the ones with the overwhelming advantage, they have to be a little cocky about it as well. And last but not the least, our main character shouldn't be so humble, like there should be a condescending look in his eyes (or it should just be apparent from his attitude) but he shouldn't be a downright sadist either.
So, last year, after watching Overlord (2015), episodes of One Punch Man and SKT's dominance in the League of Legends 2015 World Championship, I wanted to further satisfy my urge to watch a good stomping. Hence, I embarked on a journey to find an anime which had all the aforementioned prerequisites. And there I stumbled upon 'The Chronicles of Onii-sama', otherwise known as Mahouka Koukou no Rettousei or The
So it all began when Onii-sama said, "Let there be light...novel."
Based on a light novel by Satou Tsutomu, Mahouka Kokou no Rettousai is setup in a world where magic has now become a technology, closely intertwined with science and taught systematically in schools all across the world. Though the more economic uses of this "skill" are yet to be discovered (like using magic to facilitate fusion), magicians now play a crucial role on the front lines of the military and the police (you'll get an infodump on how this world came about during the first few minutes of the show). And so to nurture the various "skillset" of the young budding magicians, various schools are setup across Japan, with a specific purpose to train magicians for combat. These schools have a screening test where they determine several aspects of a magic user's potential. Depending on their score the students are sorted into two groups - course 2 students who may have had a better score on the paper test but they lack the practical skills ; and course 1 students, the topdogs, who excel at both the academic aspects as well as the practical skills.
Our sibling pair, under the aliases of Shiba Tatsuya and Shiba Miyuki, enrols into one such school - The First High School. But Tatsuya (or Onii-sama) gets thrown into course 2 despite having the highest score on the paper test. And the point the anime often tries to make is that it is the system's fault that a godlike being (i.e., the one true Onii-sama) was judged as 'inferior' even though he far outclassed everyone else. Not to mention the discord and the discrimination that arises among the students because of this system. At least that's what it looks like at first. But as the show goes on further into its various arcs, one thing becomes very clear - this is Tatsuya's show. And while it may look like the show is trying to cater to some of the aforementioned issues, when it comes down to it, the show doesn't care at all. Whether it be the characters or the premise, if Onii-sama is involved, they aren't important. A good example of this is the issue of flying magic. The show makes it clear (with a lot of sci-fi info dump) that flying using magic would be a difficult feat. Not only that, Tatsuya himself gives an explanation on why it wouldn't work in theory. But a few moments later, the guy does it!
The point is, if your definition of a good show is concerned with the amount of respect the show has for its side characters and its premise, then this is a terrible show to watch. Not only that, even by your "usual standards" (whatever they are), this show is just average at best. Even after re-watching it three times, I still can't come up with a "plausible excuse" to convince you to watch this. So, why do I like Mahouka? Short answer is - it appeals to something I am very particular about i.e., my idea of a power fantasy. But there's more to it. So please bear with me.
The first thing that makes Mahouka so different from your usual shounen (not in a good way, or a bad way, just different) is that it does not follow the Hero's Journey Monomyth. There is no call to adventure, no great mentors for our main character to look up to, no challenges, no temptations, no rivalries, no arch-enemies, no training arcs or a subsequent transformation. In other words, our main character doesn't grow, he remains the same throughout the show. Instead, several aspects of his character and powers are revealed to us as the show goes on.
The second thing is the story. Most shows give the viewer a clue as to where the story might be heading, or at least they have a planned ending point, or have a point. Mahouka doesn't. In the first arc, it's talking about the school's education system, how it's flawed and gives rise to all the "apparent" discrimination, but it all goes out of the window once the second arc kicks in full gear. Same goes for the second and the third arc. What was the show trying to tell us by showing us an inter school competition or a terrorist attack?
If you don't try to read too much into the 'politics' and other different labels, the obvious answer would be - To show us how awesome Shiba Tatsuya is. And that isn't a wrong assumption. Because the more I think about it, the more I am inclined to believe that Mahouka is presented to us in a way similar to how a chronicle about an archetypal King is written. We're introduced to a world - how it came about, it's issues etc., given a lot of explanations about the setting and how magic works, many side characters make their way in, some play the bad guy, some play the good, but in the end, it's all about the King (in this case Shiba Tatsuya) - and how much of a great benevolent divine being he is. The spotlight is always going to end up on him. It is like reading a religious text about a God.
Speaking of God, there is this interesting but kind of far-fetched theory regarding the show which relates Shiba Tatsuya to the Indian God Shiva. But it fits pretty well. And it's not just the similarity in their name (or the fact that one of the enemies called him "Maheshvara"). Take Tatsuya's abilities for example. Physical prowess aside, his three innate magic abilities are - Decomposition, Regrowth and Elemental Sight. Decomposition relates to death (or complete destruction) as he can just 'decompose' anything that has form or design - whether it be human beings, magic sequences, or matter itself. And Shiva is a God of destruction (he is called 'The Destroyer'). Not only that, Tatsuya's ultimate form of Decomposition Magic - Material Burst (which converts matter into pure energy), requires a specialized CAD called "The Third Eye". That's one of the features of Shiva the God (both have unimaginable destructive power). And last but not the least, their weapon of choice. While Shiva literally wields a Trident as his weapon, Tatsuya's personal CAD (which looks like a gun) has "Trident" written on it (There's more to that theory but let's stop here).
It is this relation that further cemented my belief that Mahouka isn't like your usual everyday anime with a story and all. It's a chronicle that worships Shiba Tatsuya. Now this is just me hopelessly trying to defend this show but you wouldn't judge a Chronicle the same way you would judge a Novel, would you?
Moving on. Reason no. 3 why Mahouka is so different from your usual Shounen - it's main character, Shiba Tatsuya. Tatsuya is in no way shape or form (maybe that's an exaggeration), a relatable character. And that fits with how a Chronicle depicts a King. A commoner isn't supposed to be able to 'relate' to a King. The point is to tell you how great the King is, doesn't matter how humble or down to Earth he is. You are supposed to be left in awe of his character, his perfection and his greatness.
Shiba Tatsuya is near perfect, but according to the show, he isn't flawless either. He has flaws, which, in theory, should make him 'weak', but he makes up for it in ridiculous ways which end up turning the whole thing upside down. For example, he can't use 'normal' Magic like other magicians because he "doesn't have the sufficient processing skills to master a general CAD" (CADs are devices magicians use to 'execute' or 'invoke' magic). He makes up for it by carrying around pre-programmed magic sequences in the form of cartridges for his specialised CAD "Trident". It would be okay if that's all there was it to. But it turns out, he can execute magic sequences from memory! Granted they can't be complex spells, but the ones he can use - Decomposition, Regrowth and Elemental Sight (his three innate magic), pretty much make him invincible and more or less a God. And that takes the show away. An invincible character means no tensions, no risks, no dangers and no chance for the opponents. On top of that, the guy is emotionless (except when it comes to his sister).
So, go in expecting not to see any of the cliché "I must become stronger", "I will have my revenge" or "I will save the world" routine. It's a one sided stomping, through and through, devoid of any real emotions or tension.
While we are on the topic of characters, let us address the 'troublesome' relationship between our protagonist Shiba Tatsuya and his sister Shiba Miyuki. Right from the beginning, Miyuki's actions strongly indicate that she has some 'feelings' for her Onii-sama. Tatsuya on the other hand, doesn't display the same kind of emotions. Later on, we are given the information that the only emotion Tatsuya is capable of experiencing is his brotherly love for his sister. And this being the only emotion, it is quite intense. But the reasons for why Miyuki feels that way, or why Tatsuya became this way were never explored in detail (I had to read the Reminiscence volume to find out).
What I want to point to is that this can get a little uncomfortable at times. And it does come up often, but thankfully not in the same degree to cause discomfort. So, watch out for that.
Last but not the least, the world-building and the lengthy explanations associated with it.
There are quite a number of shows out there which like to take their world seriously and give the viewer extensive amounts of information on how things work in that world. That includes the general know-hows like the phenomenon that exist in that world (magic, chakra, nen etc.), certain events that had a serious impact (the second impact, world wars, etc), the people of the world and any special powers present (chi, magic, espers), the standing of the world governments or clans and such. And since most of the shows are aimed at the general public, they don't delve into over complicated exposition. And even if they do, they try their best not to overcomplicate things with ornate academic vocabulary. A good example of that is the HunterxHunter (2011) series.
But Mahouka, doesn't give a damn. The show actively resorts to lengthy explanations about magic full of scientific terminology. And unless you have a hobby or an interest in physics, most of the explanations are going to sound like pretentious gibberish (it is sci-fi though). But if you are able to understand, you will see a very organised world setup in a creative way (supported by Madhouse's animation). How the show transfers the idea of magic from a fantasy to a scientific phenomenon (via the concepts of information/phenomenon writing and psions etc). How it introduces several types of magic, magic sequences, CADs, and how they all function. It's all given a lot of thought, and very creatively put together. And that's what is impressive about this. They could have just resorted to the "because it's magic" excuse, but they didn't. They put a lot effort into it, and I applaud them for that because I thoroughly enjoyed it.
But all this comes at a hefty price. A good chunk of the runtime is exhausted in characters talking about magic or giving explanations on magic. This also effects the pacing of the show. I think this is the reason they couldn't cover the Reminiscence volume which had our main character's past (a very important aspect to the story).
As for the other production aspects, everything is in order thanks to Madhouse. They have done a splendid job at visually depicting magic and keeping it in sync with the explanations given. It's not over the top extraordinary (compared to their other "extraordinary" works), but it fits with the overall tone of the show. The particles, 3d, character designs, cinematography, action scenes - all are handled really well. It complements the futuristic world setting. And all of this is backed up by an amazing electro soundtrack. "Election","Code Break", "Battle 4 & 5" with the first opening "Rising Hope" would be my picks.
Anyways, to sum things up, the absence of a driving force, presence of a perfect character, and complicated exposition (not to mention the suggestive 'incest') put Mahouka Koukou no Rettousei in the "anime not meant for everyone" category. It's a good show, but it also has quite a bit of flaws in it, flaws that can take away a considerable amount of enjoyment if you aren't comfortable with them. So, keep in mind those points before you go in. Personally, I enjoyed the heck out of this series. So much so, that I went ahead and picked up the light novel to get the answers to all the questions I had. Also, there's a movie sequel coming up, and that has me pumped.
That's it for the review. Thank you for reading.