Management: I didn’t really intend this to be so brutal, but now that it’s finished and I’m looking over it… yeah. This one’s kinda merciless, and posting it makes me a little nervous. I don’t mean to directly attack anyone with this piece – it’s mainly about being aware of the subtext of media, and not letting things that appeal to our base needs trick us into bad attitudes. I wrote it both because I find the psychology of media interesting and because I think Mahouka is a perfect representation of some of media’s more questionable powers. If you like Mahouka, that’s totally cool, I’m not saying you’re wrong to enjoy it. If you’d rather have something more positive, please enjoy this delightful gif and check back next time.
There are a number of different ways to approach criticizing a text. You can criticize the beauty of the execution itself – how it obeys certain agreed-upon rules of aesthetic execution, and how it exists purely as an object to marvel at. You can try to put it in a given historical or social context, or explore the life of the creator to see what demons the text may be working to exorcise. You can isolate certain details, or try to fit the overarching structure into a certain aesthetic or psychological framework. You can talk about themes, both intended and unintended. You can work off your gut, your training, or some arbitrary ideal of perfect beauty.
Normally, I try to come to shows open to however they may strike me. If a show strikes me as entertaining, I’ll try to critique it as entertainment. If it strikes me as insightful, I’ll try to engage with its insight. All of this is deeply colored, of course, by my own priorities – I wouldn’t recommend myself as the premier source for critiques of action shows, for example. But Mahouka already seems like it will reward one specific, fairly compelling exploration, and so that’s what I’m probably going to focus on here.
Mahouka is a juvenile power fantasy. Based on everything I’ve heard about it, everything I’ve read about the events to come, everything I know of the prose, and everything I learned from the first episode, it all points one way. This is a show designed to make teenage boys feel powerful and secure. That’s a reasonable thing – feeling powerful is hard enough for adults to do, and when you’re an isolated teen with little control over your broader destiny, it’s a great feeling to have media to lean on, media that encourages you. People need this stuff, and the craft of giving people what they need is actually pretty interesting in its own right, even if the writer himself is only subconsciously addressing his own needs.
The protagonist of Mahouka exemplifies this need. He’s reserved, but extremely powerful – though he says little, people flock to him either because his competence is beyond question or just because. He exists in a world of Blooms and Weeds, who I might as well already start calling Bullies and Nerds – a world where an arbitrary social hierarchy prevents him from being valued for the talents he so clearly has. In this world, unlike the real world, power is articulated through a convoluted, arbitrary system of magic-tech – the equivalent of a videogame or fantasy novel ability system. Instead of your power being a manifestation of your social acumen, here it is reflective of how well you can memorize and act on a specific set of rules – a comforting thought for many of society’s outsiders.
The rest of Mahouka so far has fallen out in fairly predictable fashion. His sister is the first one who appreciates/loves/love-loves him – a staple of modern anime. His parents don’t understand him. He has a lecherous sensei and a few potential female suitors. He’s hated by the jocks.
That’s pretty much where we’re at right now – by defusing a schoolyard scuffle through his calculating mind and quick wit, he’s earned the ire of the blustering tough kids who’ve been given all of life’s gifts even though our hero clearly deserves them more. Let’s see what episode two has to say – and more pertinently, what it has to provide for its audience.
0:23 – This show is pretty much buried in “knowing looks” and “meaningful glances.” There’s this tone that seems to imply the key players are all working on a second level – that everyone’s polite because that’s what you do at school, but the important characters all communicate through these loaded statements. It’s pretty much the Hachiman theory of social interaction – everyone’s lying to each other all the time, and more importantly, there is a distinctive, specific second level of understanding what’s going on that only certain insightful people are privy to.
It’s a very simplistic view of how people interact. Assuming that there’s a “universal” second level of intent that people can actually communicate across basically assumes there’s only one, correct way of thinking or dissecting human relationships – the one the audience already assumes exists because they think that way. I’m told that in the light novels this is even more extreme – the protagonist actually describes how he understands what characters mean by the subtlest of gestural clues. This is pretty much impossible to consistently do, but again, it’s a comforting lie for people who want to believe they understand and are above social interactions. Mahouka tells you you’re right – these interactions are a sham, and if you only met the right people, you could all commiserate over having to put up with the Grand Lie of High School together
0:46 – They are reaaally big on the hierarchy in this school. The show itself seems to be trying to paint this in terms of class or discrimination, but the actual metaphor they’re making seems much more on the nose – this is the subtext of certain experiences of high school turned into the actual text
1:02 – He can get away with playing the system, but everyone knows he’s playing it, and respects him for it. The best of both worlds
1:18 – The opponent clings to his alleged social superiority because he has nothing else to cling to. This is a key part of the fantasy – the idea that those who are successful don’t necessarily deserve their success. That society grants its favors arbitrarily, and that if the world were only “fair,” the right people would be rewarded (i.e. our protagonist here and all the audience members rooting for him). It’s a naive philosophy that generally requires both a serious ignorance of the actual complexities of societal relations and a very misguided, presumptuous view of the self – but if you’re a teenager who feels the world doesn’t care about you, it’s comforting to think that’s the world’s fault. As young escapism, it’s fine – unfortunately, as the internet is ready to prove, many people will gladly turn personal anger and ignorance into a philosophy that refuses to recognize the problems anyone else faces. An inflated view of the self and an ignorance of and apathy towards the suffering of others is kind of the cornerstone of some fairly popular modern philosophies.
4:10 – Lil sis seems to get the short end of the characterization stick. But yeah, I’ve talked about why little sisters as love interests are so popular before
4:22 – I wish my friends spent all their time with me talking about how great I am. Our protagonist being really good at programming and planning for fights, but not good at the “born with it” in-the-moment execution, works in all sorts of ways. First, it’s basically a battle-focused version of someone who plans everything they say but isn’t good at being charming off the cuff – i.e. the kind of person this fantasy appeals to in the first place. Second, it also plays up how important these arbitrary magical systems are in this world, and this show is aimed at an audience that tends to like and value such systems, be they in fantasy novels or videogames. And finally, it also plays up how he wins in a “fair” way – unlike the people were unfairly blessed with talents, he supposedly “works” for everything he accomplishes
5:02 – And of course, this show itself revels in those arbitrary fantastical systems. They’re comforting – they make sense. Real life conflict is a lot messier
Incidentally, I don’t really think this show is intentionally, cynically playing to the base desires of its audience. I think it was written by one of the members of its audience, and plays to all this stuff because he actually feels that way. A lot of stuff is intended to be cynical, but I think this is earnest
That doesn’t make it better, of course – I’m doing this particular writeup because I think it’s really important to always consider what your media actually says. But it is honest
7:25 – Why would he say this? If he’s actually a calculating person, does spelling it out like this further his goals?
Nope – it’s for the audience’s benefit. He’s playing to the crowd. We’re here to really know he’s smart and awesome, even if the ways he displays it don’t necessarily make sense in-story
7:56 – Only an anime character would make this joke. This seasonal blockbuster has a bit more trouble escaping its roots than SAO, and much more trouble than Titan – that might ultimately limit its crossover appeal
8:23 – This might actually seem preferrable to votes, considering that in this show’s philosophy it’s likely that voting would be considered one more unfair system dictated by arbitrary social popularity. Like Hachiman, this show only knows enough about the alleged rules of society to want to withdraw, not to actually engage with them
9:13 – Little sister intensifies
10:18 – Getting pretty tired of this. Again, anime as hell – a little sister who looks to her big brother for any and all decisions would not fly outside of our weird little bubble
13:28 – It’s like gym class all over again. A public space, watching others succeed or fail, knowing there are people waiting behind you as you struggle. Nasty stuff
14:01 – I welcome a turn to internal monologues. He can’t communicate by knowing looks forever
14:40 – Oh man, ignored. That’s what stings the worst, and that’s a big part of why people retreat into these attitudes – better to ignore the world before it has a chance to ignore you
15:35 – Getting back to what I was covering in the beginning – that second level of high school interactions that everybody apparently knows about but doesn’t talk about. In truth, allegedly “successful” people don’t spend all their time plotting the continued subjugation of the outsiders – but it’s an oddly comforting thought
17:20 – This might as well be the entire show’s message right here. It’s not that “discriminating against the weak is wrong” – it’s that society arbitrarily chooses the weak people, and its methods of discrimination are wrong
17:29 – Holy crap, stick a fedora on this guy. Way to unintentionally parody the kind of socially ignorant internet person who’d actually love your real messages, Mahouka
Although the truth of this is actually even more rich – he’s the guy we’re supposed to disagree with here, but we’re not supposed to disagree with his methods. We’re supposed to think he’s just incorrectly applying a “rational” view of person-assessment, but that “rational” views of person-assessment are still a meaningful and potentially valuable thing. My god, this show
18:03 – Time to get serious
19:03 – What a limp character. Her entire personality is “loves her brother” and “occasionally loves her brother so much she sticks up for her brother in spite of her usual total deference to her brother.” This show doesn’t try very hard to be anything more than the fantasies it’s offering
19:16 – Like with their opponent’s rant, here he’s praising her for “saying what we’re all thinking,” which as I keep saying implies a very specific version of reality. None of these characters have different worldviews – they all fit into the view of society the writer adheres to, and the show itself is rallying against a simplistic view of oppression and unfairness that simply doesn’t apply to the real world
19:27 – All the characters in this show could probably finish each other’s sentences. It’s all just one head, and good writing requires being able to adopt multiple perspectives. Not ‘what you believe,’ ‘what you believe except in a tsundere,’ and ‘what you don’t believe articulated as a strawmen’ – good writing requires understanding that the multiplicity of human experience and perspective is real, valid, and valuable, and that two people fundamentally disagreeing on how the world works doesn’t mean one of them is wrong. Generally this is something you come to learn as you grow up, talk to more people, and move outside of your own perspective and headspace – that this show is so clearly written from a place of only believing in one perspective kind of speaks to some of the fundamental issues we face in modern society
20:57 – Poor choice of words, since that’s clearly his opponent’s specialty – being charming in person is hard, but planning a perfect attack can be done as long as you possess the worthy kind of skills
Welp, I think that about covers it! I won’t be doing continuing episodics for this show – I’m pretty confident it’ll continue to be about the same sort of things, and while discussing that stuff once is pretty interesting, it probably wouldn’t be interesting to read me repeating myself as the show slowly elaborates the worldview I’m already talking about. Shows like Mahouka exist for a reason – life is tough and full of random unfairness, and media’s power to take us away from that, to connect with us and empower us, is laudable and valuable. But media can’t replace an engagement with the real world, and though values like these can make us feel more powerful in bad situations, they can also be very hurtful if we don’t come to look past them. I don’t really have a problem with Mahouka – it’s light entertainment designed to make young people feel understood. I do have a problem with us not questioning the things we consume, and with us distancing ourselves from the true multiplicity of existence. Enjoy the show, but don’t let this author’s scared, narrow worldview convince you the world really is as unfair as all that.
Incidentally, Guy’s post on light novel writing goes into some of the more mechanical issues that result in what I was talking about regarding character interactions and voice here.