Mai-HiME was a big hit for Sunrise back in 2005, becoming one of the most widely-watched series in the anime community and spawning a sequel series that got increasingly overblown and ridiculous. Typically for the studio, it was big-budget, with gorgeous animation, impressive action scenes and some great music – and a polarising ending.
The story took some time to develop into interesting places, and it takes a little patience to get through early episodes about big silly monsters and little underwear-stealing mutants – but the main story arc is well worth waiting for, and there’s something very skilful about a writing team that can switch gears so dramatically: it deeply impressed me that episode 15 could have me close to tears and then episode 16 could leave me hysterical with laughter. Mai-HiME really shouldn’t be as good as it is, but it works so spectacularly because it takes concepts that are extremely tired or cliché, and does them so well that you realise why these ideas got so overused in the first place. The plot is trite shounen anime fare: a group of girls have the power to manifest weapons and huge guardian spirits (most of them references to mythological figures), and fight monsters. So far, totally uninspiring. But when things become darker and more complex, the story leads to a show that towers far higher than you would expect such shoddy foundations to support. The pacing relies on a tried-and-tested shounen (and Hollywood) technique – have three million different stories going at the same time and no-one will ever get bored – but played expertly, these elements become something rather special. Even frivolous episodes do a good job establishing extremely interesting characters, and I loved the ending for being absolute, unadulterated cheese.
The designs are all very attractive, simple but cute, and the characters’ personalities are all typical anime stock, but never cliché. The best of them, and my favourite thing about about Mai-HiME, was Mikoto-chan. Probably the most adorable female anime character I’ve ever come across, she’s innocent, naïve, childish and very, very cute. An odd, catlike young girl, the fact that she has an enormous sword and can cut a ferry in half just makes her even more strangely fascinating. I was also fond of Akira, the girl-dressed-as-a-boy who looks very much like her male namesake in Hikaru no Go...and has a relationship with Mai-Chan's little brother Takumi – also adorable – very much like that of Hikaru and Akira's, but with that odd Shakespearean twist of cross-dressing. Although these are my favourites, the series is crammed full of great characters, all of whom I liked: Natsuki; Shizuru; Nagi; Mashiro…Yukino, the shy, vulnerable girl who is truly devoted to her chalk-and-cheese best friend, Haruka; along with Mai herself – the way she really does do the best thing in almost every situation, only for that to be turned around into a source of suffering is chilling genius. All these characters really mean something to me – I’ve made connections with every one. That’s something I envy.
Mai-HiME was the very first anime I decided to write down my impressions of back in February 2005, which eventually became this review series, and this version is collated from impressions from then and from August of that year. A favourite.