Mai-Hime is an 26 episode long anime made by Sunrise, broadcoasted in Autumn and Winter 2004.
Long things short : it’s right now my favorite work among Sunrise’s, for what I’ve seen so far of their works. Mai-Hime is clearly Sunrise-tasty : if you’ve watched some of their 2000s era works, like Gundam Seed or Code Geass, you’ll definitively recognize the aesthetic and story-telling. But whereas I couldn’t really make myself to love the two aforementioned works, although I respected them, Mai-Hime made the deal to take my in its story and make me feel for its characters – while on the same time, there is some big cons I can’t remain silent on, which’ll focuse on the Sunrise way to create characters, a way, way too long first season (where it’s clear the focus was on the second one), and one of the shittiest ending I’ve ever seen in my life (if this article was noted, the ending alone is worth one star down.). Everything spoiler tasty will be averted, so read at peace.
You know the thing : I love original animation, and can’t bring myself to watch adaptations except if they have a strong character. Because original animation is what animation really is : where you’ve got creative minds who try collectively to make something which holds its essence in the animation culture alone. And it can be specifically interesting when the animation itself is somewhat an homage to japanese popular culture at one said time.
The person in charge of the scenario was Yoshino Hiroyuki (吉野 弘幸), while the director in charge was Obara Masakazu (小原 正和). Both of them had the nice point to be for the first time in charge, which allowed Mai-Hime to be somewhat fresh in its genre, while still in the continuation of Sunrise’s style and benefiting of the talents within the company.
To judge Mai-Hime in 2017 is tougher than in 2004, considering that what made the product somewhat interesting in its time has become somewhat classical today.
While I’m not fond of Sunrise, I must admit I’m outstanded by how they’re able to somewhat « grasp » the essence of a time within the japanese popular culture ; while this is the fact of its dedicated staff or a well made think-production system, the fact remains : whenever there’s trends within the industries, Sunrise is very good at « feeling » it and making something awesome by mixing all of this up in some strange house-made Milkshake. Mai-Hime is something like that ; just like Code Geass two years later, it mixes everything you feel the industry was about in the mid-2000s.
Mai-Hime in that respect is what happens when Fate Stay Night (the Visual Novel, out in january 2004, being already a sort of phenomenon), the ascent of yuri in wide-public oriented works and the waking trends of « girl-oriented genre made into man-oriented genre », with a lot of stories revolving around romance, girls and magic, usually genres made for girls, but more and more oriented toward men or to larger public, when all these elements merge together into one piece of work (considering the later trend, in a sense, but I’m just wondering, the whole Slice of Life genre which shined in the late 2000s until today could be also one of the branching trees of this movement.).
Mai-Hime in this regard could be said to be man-oriented shôjô senshi anime, especially looking at its very heavy fan service content toward the beginning, but I’ve got the feeling it was thought for a larger public and both genders. Especially, the action scenes aren’t too numerous, and the whole thing is really about love and romance, while starring girls and avoiding to idealize the feminine society. In its regard, I’d say that Magical Nanoha, broadcasted the same year, is way more « man otaku » oriented than Mai-Hime : in Magical Nanoha, you’re watching a very cute little girl fighting extra-terrestrial machines with her deshumanized weapon, trying to save another little girl she somewhat falls for, with a very unrealistic familial setting, the whole usings codes from the Magical Girl genre. It has been said, but Magical Nanoha is about to feel « sympathy » and not « empathy » : you’re feeling sympathy to Nanoha’s struggles, loneliness about being isolated from here friends, and angst for Fate. You’re not feeling empathy : you can’t feel you’re « like » her. On the other hand, traditional Magical Girl anime like Sakura were working on empathy : as a young girl, you understand Sakura’s everyday life, you empathy to her struggle and her childish love for Yukito, then true love for Shaolin. To be honest, I’ve got the feeling My-Hime is somewhat in-between : there is many characters not credible enough for you to empathy with, but some characters, like Mai, are well written enough so that her relationship with her brother and friends sounds real to the watcher.
The story itself is very well written, and shows a typical trait of the 2000s 26 episode running animes : the fact that you start with a very light-minded story, with lot of slice of life, comedy and fan service, then suddenly in the second season, everything darkens and become tremendously heavy. Suffle comes to mind as an exemple, within the harem subgenre. It means that to plainly appreciate the story, one has to go until the 15th or 16th episode, before « serious business » starts.
In the mind of the screen writers, it was a way to get the watcher attracted to the characters, before they start to suffer. It makes sense, but you can be reluctant when you’re watching the anime fifteen years later and not at the diffusion’s time.
The first mid is not bad so to speak. It’s just utterly classical : it’s about girls fighting monsters to protect their school, and that pretty much sums it. It’s also a way to introduce all the characters one by one, because it is made known to you that there is 12 « HiME », or girl warriors, and you don’t know all of them right at the start ; by introducing them one by one, you learn to know her, and you don’t mix them by the time of the second mid when the actual story starts.
I’ve got the patience to go through, especially because I was really curious of how the twist was going to be introduced. This anime really, really, really reminded me of Code Geass – I’m pretty sure some of the staff who worked on this worked later on Code Geass, while some of them also worked on Gundam Seed two years before. The animation and the story telling is too Sunrise characteristic for that not to be the case. The story telling is pretty much alike ; you’ll be thrilled by how the screen writers are talented to make you feel bad when you’ll be foreseeing some awckward situations bound to happen in one or two episodes, and it has a similar way to play with your guts and show little mercy to its characters.
On the other hand, there’s a similar problem I’ve felt with Code Geass : too much characters and too much substories are interwined, making it sometime difficult for you to sympathize with the dramas of the characters. You’ll get sometime more confused than really affected. It’s something I resent in many of Sunrise’s anime : you’ve got the feelings that many characters have been thought first on the paper, and then the script was written regardless of the actual presence of all the characters within the story’s coherence as a whole. Even in 26 episodes, to make a story with some sort of equity with 13 characters and 13-sub characters, plus some more, remains something very tedious – but I’ve got to admit I didn’t felt that the secondary characters where too much neglected.
Coming to the characters. The characters are all stereotypicals – and that gets for every of Sunrise work I’ve seen so far. I see no problem in stereotypes – but those are often classical anime-like stereotypes, without much distance. You can pretty much associate one already known anime character to every one you see – damn, the young Nagi is Kaworu from Evangelion the whole damn way, up to Ishida as its seiyuu ! In the end, the sole characters you’re really going to empathize with is likely the main character, Mai, because she is very well written, and her relatings – especially because they’re the only to be really credible, except Mrs. « I’m the puppet-character searching a sense in my life through the protagonist » Mikoto.
It is a personal case, but I’ve got the feeling some characters where really here much because it was a necessity to have a wide pool of characters, rather than for the scenario’s economy – just remind me of Danganronpa, but without the time and the dedication a Visual Novel can give you. Thus I could sometime hardly empathize to some, because the whole principle of « stereotype-based wide cast » is always a « find the ones you’re feeling close to » thing, while you despise or hate those you can’t identify to. It’s really a character-making system I never felt right, because I don’t think it’s really good to make characters you cannot identify to in neither way because they’re too archetypical.
Aside from this personal note, the story does a fantastic job to speak about love to the audience. And that is, because love is really the center of the whole story, and you’ll feel it up to your gusts by some of the heartrending situations Yoshino just brought about. You know, we’re all human beings ; there will always be a pool of themes you can use, which if well told will always make us tear apart ; those are birth, death, family, dreams and love. Mai-Hime is really about love and death, and so it appeals one way or another. The whole second part of the anime is pure excellence in term of strict scenarization and how the whole thing unfolds.
One big bad point : the ending. It just crushes the whole message of the anime, which gets about how love is an irremplacable thing within one’s hearth. I really hated the ending, because it destroys a whole bunch of the story’s meaning. You’ve got to be coherent with your story. I don’t blame Yoshino for this though – it surely wasn’t his decision alone, and happy endings are somewhat a plague to the whole japanese industry of entertainment. Like Urobochi-sensei once said : this feeling that too much of stories today are made to make people believe things will go on safe and well forever, which is obviously blissfuly false.
Musically, Mai-Hime had in its hand the way to be a legend : Kajiura Yuki. This name alone shall make you dream. To be honest, it is one of the main reasons I watched this anime in the first place. I must sadly admit she is really not at her best in this anime : I can’t say why, but the soundtrack is not so inspiring put aside some masterpieces, and many musics are somewhat random. There is, though, here and there, pretty Kajiura-tastic musics and wonderful moments worked up by the musics – but you’ve got to admit that when Kajiura’s behind the scene, much more was awaited. The cause may lies in that she wasn’t treated with as much respect for its musical and artistic sense than she was by Mashimo’s side. Some musics remain beautiful though, but the soundtrack as a whole can feel somewhat lame, especially when you remember you’re hearing Kajiura’s work. That said, I can garantee you that a music like Mezame will definitively make you cry on some occasions – when it plays in episode 20, I really felt just as if I understood what was feeling Mai at this very moment.
Then finally, this has nothing to do with Kajiura, but sadly the OP and ED are somewhat uninteresting, and by the second season totally out-of-place : the anime should have had a second OP and ED in the second part of the story.
The aesthetic is the biggest minus point, but it is a strictly personal matter : I just cannot appreciate Sunrise’s aesthetic, especially in the 2000s. I somewhat dislike 2000s style of animes in general, but Sunrise got really the thing bad to me. If it weren’t for the scenario, characters and Kajiura, the art alone would have stopped me by the first or second episode. The character design isn’t especially attracting, neither.
Mai-Hime is by far my favorite Sunrise anime to this day. It was by its time very fresh ; though the concept of fighting girl for a wide audience with heavy twist plots at the middle is something which we got used to, Mai-Hime still make an excellent job at those things, being somewhat of a precursor, and a loving homage to previous animation as a whole by Yoshino-shi – it’ll be surely wise to remember that he was an anime critic at Animage before working on this ! The way some twisted situations are brought about will definitively make you think of Code Geass – but where I just couldn’t feel empathy neither sympathy for Code Geass’ cast, I sometime really felt sad in Mai-Hime, and that pulls the thing to a different level on my personal judgment.
Just like Code Geass, you’ll be watching Mai-Hime for one thing, and discover it is actually the sums of dozens.
You watch Code Geass because you like, say : Mechas ; Yagami Light-type characters ; geopolitics and manipulative stories ; stories about friendship, and so on.
Well, just like you’ll watch Mai-Hime because you like something within this range : magical girls ; yuri ; slice of life ; blurring boundaries between romance and friendship. If you like some or the majority of the points, you’ll definitively find something in Mai-Hime ; maybe not love it, but surely like it.