Thursday, 17 October 2013

マギ / Magi / Magi: The Labyrinth of Magic (season 1)

So there’s this animation set in a culture different from that of the creators. It’s about a young but very energetic and likeable young boy who’s been trapped alone for a seemingly very long time but has mysterious powers that mark him as a chosen one. He is joined by a girl born with powers of her own but little training and a boy who despite being quite goofy has great promise and learns to be a gifted swordsman. After a while they are joined by a prince from a warlike country with dangerous ambitions to take over the world who at first looks like he is going to be an antagonist, but soon turns out to be a strong ally – who has a large burn mark disfiguring the area of his face around his left eye.

If you think this sounds a lot like Avatar: The Last Airbender, just wait until you get to the scene in the second series where the heroes watch a play based on their lives with hideously inappropriate casting. It definitely feels as though the managaka here may have seen what is presumably a relatively obscure Western animation and taken some key ideas. But it could all be a coincidence. And despite these similarities, they are really on the superficial side, and Magi is a very different kettle of fish. Also going for the epic fantasy, yes, but in a way that is at once more likeable and more ambitious, and I have to say it’s the first action shounen in a very long time that has actually excited me, made me want to find out what happens next and root for its cast. Magi, which I only discovered while in Japan recently, has rapidly developed into one of my very favourite series, and is certainly amongst the cutest things airing at the moment.

It must be noted that though Magi seemed popular in Japan, it was visible more or less only in Ikebukurou, which is of course where the female anime fans hang out and proliferate lots of BL doujinshi. The manga is ostensibly for boys, but it is written by a woman and has a cast with designs that are the prettiest in anything I’ve seen since Dog Days and a cast of eligible bachelors who become very close to one another. And though the main character is a lil’ perv who likes to go for the boobies and his best friend clearly has a crush on the girl he rescued and became his lifelong guardian, and their mentor figure is a total womaniser, let’s be honest – it’s always to one another that they express the strong feelings of compassion, desperation and indeed, outright love. Though why so many people want Judar in their ships, I don’t know. He’s nuts.

I mentioned that there was an exotic setting here, and much as Avatar looks East, Magi looks West, though not to familiar ole Europe. For its inspiration, Magi looks to Arabia, and the 1001 Nights. Thus, the main character is Aladdin, his constant companion is Ali Baba and their protector is King of the Seven Seas, Sinbad the Sailor. Only glimpsed in this season is Scheherezade, which just about exhausts the household names from the famous stories.

Of course, these are only starting points of inspiration, not the basis of the story. In the world of Magi, a fantasy world that has similarities with Arabia, Mongolia, Western China and the surrounding lands, there is a force similar to Final Fantasy VII’s ‘lifestream’ called ‘Rukh’, represented by glowing butterflies. Though many warriors can make use of this force, there are certain ‘beloved of the Rukh’ who can use it indefinitely, called Magi (though pronounced ‘Maggie’, not like the word in English, though that’s what is meant). There have historically only ever been three, but now there comes a fourth, Aladdin. The Magi, in a nod to Christianity, are responsible for seeking out new kings and aiding them to claim the throne, and also for the appearances of ‘dungeons’, areas ruled over by powerful djinn that if defeated grant great wealth and powers. 

Aladdin, with a mysterious past, has emerged from a dungeon with a little golden recorder that can summon a djinn (albeit with his head stuck in the instrument) and a magic carpet that doubles as a turban. Meeting Ali Baba, a streetrat son of a prostitute elevated to royalty in a country in turmoil, the two of them fight injustice and slavery and soon become embroiled in a conflict between Sinbad’s country Sindria and the ‘Organisation’ bent on using the corrupted Rukh of despair to change the course of history to their favour. This will lead the young heroes to face death, despair, corruption, slavery, their own inadequacies and the responsibilities of leadership.

The best thing about Magi is how appealing its central characters are. It balances comedy and drama extremely well, and even dips into SD designs a lot, which is something becoming ever rarer in anime. The characters, good and bad, have their backstories that though often cheesy tend to be compelling and well though-out. And I adore little Aladdin, who is one of those little kids everybody underestimates until they realise he has awesome powers, but who just wants to help everybody and see them all happy. The main thrust of the series is Ali Baba and the troubles his country has on the brink of civil war as a result of a corrupt and inept ruler being manipulated, but Aladdin is the keystone to it all. Sinbad, though at first making me dubious, also turns out to be very entertaining, especially with the assassin-advisor Ja’far at his side (no, not Disney’s Jafar, though possibly an inspiration for a name) as his constant foil. Like so many successful shounen series, it makes the wise decision of having characters seem powerful then introducing a whole slew that make them realise how weak they are, and though there’s a certain amount of suggestion that nothing so far has been even vaguely threatening to Sinbad, how hard the main characters work to improve themselves is very entertaining.

Magi is lovely to look at, tells a good – if basic and unoriginal – story of good against evil and has characters that really appeal to me. For that reason, I loved it and season two is a must-watch. Oh! And I must mention the great music – two great openings by SID and Porno Graffiti and an interesting Supercell ending that sounded like they were trying something new.

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