Mai-HiME
by Polly



WARNING: ENTIRE SERIES SPOILERS BELOW

Every once in a while you'll run into a show that ends up being a complete surprise to you. On the surface it looks like one thing, but giving it a chance reveals that it's almost the entire opposite of what you were expecting. This was my case with Mai-HiME.

At first glance, this one looked just like any old magical girl trash everyone's seen before. Transformations, lots of pretty shiny battle effects, and an entire cast of attractive girls who would likely all be fanserviced to death. Toss in a really cheese-o-rama love story and a rival for the main heroine to duke it out with over him and you've got yourself a good setup for a nice and generic show. I was happy to find that Mai-HiME managed to dodge nearly all of those bullets.

I'd only encountered bits and pieces of Mai-HiME from some random cute yuri-based fanart of the characters I'd seen around the interbutts. I don't remember exactly why I started watching this show, but I think incessant bugging from Rhete may have been one contributing factor (seriously, he'll whine for hours until you agree to do something), but it may have also been on a whim because Nao, one of the sorta background characters, closely resembles my own appearance and counts as my animu double. It's been a little too long for me to remember the exact reasons. Nao's cool though.

I do remember being pleasantly surprised, though. Surprised that while Mai-HiME may appear to be one of those gawdy and predictable magical girl shows on the surface and is quite girly to a degree, it's got quite a bit in common with shounen-esque fightan animus. Mai-HiME packs quite a lot of action and some pretty heavy drama mixed with a nice helping of comedy and yuri overtones. It may be a show that really does have a little bit of something for everyone and that's really what held me through until the end. That and Nao is fucking awesome.

Mai-HiME is a show that presents elements we've all seen before. A cast of girls all granted magical powers in order to combat monsters and ultimately one another. They draw their magical powers from elemental beings known as "Child" (I don't know if you pluralize this or how) which can manifest itself in the form of weapons and gigantic magical/mechanical'ish beasts. Like I said, nothing we haven't seen before, but Mai-HiME adds a morbid twist to the formula, which is if a HiME's Child is defeated in combat, the person dearest to her will disappear and she loses her powers. It's a plot device that makes the intense battles these girls will engage in all the more dangerous and meaningful while at the same time providing the right amount of drama when a victor is decided.

It all starts when Mai Tokiha and her brother are traveling via boat toward their new scholarly digs at Fuka Academy. Along the way a girl is spotted floating in the water and after a little girl-on-girl CPR Mai ends up being the hero of the day! What she doesn't realize is that Mikoto, the girl she rescued, has magical sword slinging skills and was injured by another bad-ass magic user named Natsuki prior to being rescued.

Mai's magical journey into HiME-hood begins shortly after she unwittingly protects Mikoto from Natsuki's assault and finally arrives at Fuka Academy.

Mai is, of course, the lead and she's got a great balance to her character. She's attractive without ever appearing too slutty, she has the right amount of spunk to not be annoyingly bratty, and the right amount of vulnerability to not be a perpetually sobbing, teary-eyed wreck. While she may appear perfect on the outside, it's when Mai's flaws begin to show themselves that she becomes an even more intriguing character. She tries her best to be a good person, but her problem is that due to events in her past that claimed the life of her mother and her brother's nagging heart condition, she's a person driven mostly by guilt. As strange as it sounds, when the later chapters of the story begin to take a toll on her psyche, watching her unravel is strangely entertaining because the progression is handled in a manner that feels very natural. Not-surprisingly, she's also the most hax HiME of the show, as her Child is proven to be literally unbeatable and she also seems to be able to change the person she holds most precious unlike the other HiME.

Normally I'd talk more about the other characters, but sadly, Mai is really the only character in the show that has a lot of development (in more ways than one nyuk, nyuk). Everyone else is rather static and there only because a one character show might be a tad boring. Sure, a lot of them are really fun, like Haruka and Nao, but none of these characters ever feel as important to the plot or even come close to Mai's relevance. Some do have backstories, such as Natsuki's investigations of shadowy group known as Section 1 to find the truth about her mother's death, and Mikoto's search for her older brother, but in the end most of them are hardly worth mentioning because they're either completely obvious or too rushed to really matter as you'll find out later in the review.

I guess the problem is that Mai-HiME suffers from the same problem that almost all Sunrise produced shows do: Character fucking overload. There's just way too many characters to deal with in the span of 26 episodes, so a lot of shortcuts are taken and characters are only reeled in when someone needs to be physically or mentally knocked around a bit so we can advance the story or if we need a good laugh.

What it lacks in development, Mai-HiME certainly makes up for in being a visual treat. I don't really know how else to explain it without sounding like some drooling idiot blabbering on about "lol purdy colors," but there's something about the visual presentation of this show that is simply gorgeous. Everything seems to just POP out of the screen at you and demand your eyes' attention. It has a lot to do with the way the show uses color. I'm no art major, so I don't really know how to adequately describe it. All the show's colors are just... bright and poppy. Even when weaving the darker parts of the storyline, everything still has a vibrancy to it employing brighter colors over typically muted tones. The backgrounds, the characters, and the special effects all come together and never feel separate from one another, but still manage to stand out individually. Not every show can pull off that kind of visual cohesion.

Animation work is very fluid overall. I've only seen a few instances of cut corners in the overall visual production, and you really have to be looking for flaws in order to catch them. Like Mai's boobs...kinda...change in size a bit from time to time...not that I was paying attention or anything... The more intense battles of the show are an absolute treat to behold. When characters are allowed to go all-out, things just look fantastic. The only real complaint one might find here is that some battle animations get re-used, but that's a fairly typical technique in this genre so it can be easily forgiven, especially when the effects are as pretty as the ones presented here.

The last detail of the visuals I'll touch on is the animators' attention to character facial expressions. Each character seems to have a much wider range of visible emotion than you'll find in typical Japanese Cartoons. From laughing, to anguished, to SUPER PISSED OFF, to sly or bashful, every character has a very unique set of emotions to express that helps set them apart from everyone else. It's something really interesting to pay attention to sometime if you find yourself watching/re-watching the show.

The great visuals are backed up by an excellent package of memorable background music, battle themes, and insert songs. All of the music is composed of typically symphonic pieces with some techno tomfoolery mixed in for spice. The insert songs are mostly straight-up J-Pop excursions. Of the insert songs, the most memorable is likely the strings and soft vocal performance of It's Only The Fairy Tale performed by Yuuko Miyamura. Even though it's so engrish you might die, just like every piece of music used in the show, it really works as well as it does because of the scene it's associated with and how it draws out the exact emotions of what's going on. It's a soundtrack that does exactly what a good soundtrack should do and it's really hard to find much fault with any of it.

From this point forward, I'm gonna do things a little different for this show in terms of how I review it. Normally some useless numerical-based score will appear at the end of a review indicating how much I liked it or disliked it. This show requires a slight modification of that system. Mai-HiME is a rollercoaster from start to finish in terms of both both the ups and downs that the plot will take you and the show's enjoyability as a whole. So, I'll break the show down into chunks of episodes to demonstrate its pacing and overall entertainment provided.


Episode 1: Quite Possibly The Best First Episode of Anything Ever
The first episode of a new show could very well be considered an advertisement to sell you on the remainder of the series. In most cases it must be immediately entertaining while offering enough intrigue and a firm promise that the things to come after it are worth your time. Mai-HiME's opener succeeds at this on so many levels that it's almost staggering. Not a lot of shows, Japanese Cartoon or otherwise, are able to pull this off. A lot of the time you'll spend the first two to four episodes waiting for a new show to finally hook you, whereas Mai-HiME's hook is almost instantaneous. Not because it has "everything," but because it chooses to work with only a few elements that make up the show and executes them almost flawlessly.

Firstly, Mai's over-protective nature when it comes to her brother is established while on the boat to the island where their new school is located. Next comes Mai's "just have to help everybody" attitude when she revives a drowning Mikoto without a second thought. This is quickly followed by her meeting with Tate and Shiho, and as the three begin to bounce off one another later that evening, you'll get an early feel for how these relationships are going to play out over the course of the series. These new meetings and relationships are handled in a very snappy manner, but it's not the least bit rushed and character exchanges are both natural and entertaining.

In the second half of the episode, things begin to ramp up, as the ship is infiltrated by a mysterious blue-haired girl (Natsuki) who seems out to kill Mikoto in the infirmary. Mikoto, however, is now fully-aware and an all-out brawl between the intruder and Mikoto breaks out. This is where the episode begins to truly shine, as both Mikoto and the intruder begin to slug it out with very little regard to the ship that they're slowly destroying. This battle is the first indication that you're not watching any kinda pansy "magical girl" show. The action is tense and nicely animated. It's hard not to enjoy Mikoto dragging her sword along the ground with sparks flying and swinging it like a madman, and Natsuki's gunplay and magical feats giving the viewer a first true glimpse of a Child are great hook for the show's magical aspects.

Mai, of course, gets caught in the middle of all of this wonderful magical tomfoolery. As opposed to other shows where a girl has magical powers and notices them the instant she needs to defend herself, Mai is literally scared shitless and wants nothing more than to get away. It's in her attempts to escape the madness that we see the seeds sewn that indicate Mai may not exactly be as mentally stable as she outwardly projects. She only gets a brief glimpse of her powers in the final few moments of her escape, and even then she wants nothing to do with it.

After the ship catastrophe, a mysterious boy enters the cast delivering a cryptic line about the coming HiME battles before comedically falling off a roof, giving us our last bit of mystery for the episode. Mai finally arrives on the lawn of her new school with a mysterious girl in her lap and she's got some 'splainin to do...

Mai-HiME gets off to a jolly-good start. Its excellent blend of action, comedy, and intrigue just can't seem to be matched that often by many opening episodes.

Rating So Far: FFFFFFUCK THAT ROCKED!



Episodes 2-10: High School Life, Orphan Hunting, and Cake
After an amazing start, Mai-HiME shifts gears so fast it might just give you whiplash. In these episodes, the series begins to settle into a comfortable groove that most Japanese Cartoons follow. The episodes that follow aren't necessarily bad, but given the amazing start the show has, it's just a bit jarring to slip into such normalcy.

In the first few episodes, we'll begin to meet new characters, discover a few new HiME, and watch as some relationships begin to mature and become more complicated. Mai struggles quite a bit with juggling her duties as a HiME to defeat Orphans, maintaining her part time jobs to pay for her brother's heart-related illness, taking care of Mikoto, and sorting out her feelings about why she's the way she is.

Some of the episodes here really aren't time well spent. A panty-snatching Orphan and a cake bake-off are certainly the worst offenders. The concepts and episodes themselves serve their purpose as funny and/or entertaining, and through these events our main characters grow a bit more, but at the same time I couldn't help but feel time was being wasted as well.

The real standout moment in this run of episodes occurs in Episode 8, when the real "rules of the game" are revealed after the first HiME falls and those with sinister intentions begin to reveal themselves.

There's a good bit of action in these episodes, and though its a little too "monster of the week" at times, the episodes remain entertaining due to the cast's ability to carry the show through the somewhat formulaic parts with their personalities, developing relationships, and stories.

More and more of the story begins to unravel in very small chunks, but not many answers are given. Those'll come soon, my HiME.

Rating So Far: A little too much wasted time.



Episodes 11-15: The Siege and The First Climax
Mai-HiME begins delving a bit deeper into its darker side here, more characters' intentions are revealed, and the action heats up considerably.

The first couple of episodes still revolve around the monster hunt formula that's been the driving force behind the show so far, but revelations are becoming more frequent, as the main antagonists for this run of episodes step forward and proclaim their bad-assery loud and clear.

Mai's emotional troubles also reach a peak here, when a romantic festival at the school leads to an awkward moment between herself and the two guys she's torn between. Probably some of the most girly moments in the series, but they're still handled very well and the brewing emotions don't come across as forced.

A military siege of Fuka Academy fleshes out the rest of the arc, as the HiME are now being pursued by the Searrs Foundation for the purpose of controlling the HiME Star. These episodes demonstrate some of the show's finest and flashiest moments, as the HiME scramble to keep themselves hidden and trying to devise a plan to rid their school of the military invasion. The ensuing action that caps off this arc is fantastic. It's definitely the best action the show has to offer, with everyone going all-out with their magical powers to protect the school and themselves.

The closing moments of episode 15 offer up some of the most touching moments the series has to offer. The way the arc wraps itself up is handled with a lot of class. It features great imagery and an exceptional closing theme while the credits roll as the final scene unfolds. So classy you might even think it's the end of the series.

Rating So Far: This is the high energy I loved to begin with.



Episodes 16-25: Shattering Little Girls Emotionally Is Fun!
All things seem fine and dandy in a world where the Orphans no longer exist, until Nagi appears to the collected HiME to ruin their night of celebration and declares that the rules of the game have changed. Even though the Orphans are gone, the HiME's battle is far from over, with the new twist being that they must now defeat each other in magical Mortal Kombat to determine the winner of a carnival that will grant the winner unimaginable power. It's a sinister twist I never saw coming the first time I saw the show and it's so effective at turning the entire story and everyones' situations on their ear.

For a while everything remains fairly on track as the HiME establish a bit of a trusting truce to not mollywhop the shit out of each other. Not everyone's happy about it, but at least they try. The ugly head of deceit soon rears itself and throws a wrench into the works and rivalries among the girls reach a boiling point and HiME begin to drop like flies.

With the lives of their loved ones at stake, when HiME begin to fall the show's emotional impact begins to set in. Mai is definitely the center of the emotional weight, and the producers seemed to take great delight in picking apart her life piece by piece. She herself never loses, however the people important in her life end up as casualties in the game anyway as a consequence of other HiME losing. As her life slowly disintegrates to nothing, she's forced to look at herself for the first time and finds she's completely lost. Mai's emotional journey...excuse me, butchering, is one of the reasons the show works so well. It's a believable progression of character.

Other characters will also be suffering throughout the course of the carnival, and unfortunately this is where the show begins to start showing cracks in its overall development, or lack thereof.

Natsuki probably ends up bearing the brunt of the cut-corners development because she has so much face time. For all the time Natsuki spends investigating Section 1, it all ends up meaning a crock of shit. When she learns the truth about her mother's death, it's like, "Well? Is that it?" There's nothing to it at all. The sudden relationship between her and Shizuru also ends up making no sense whatsoever, as it wasn't even built up in the show's first half. Natsuki's entire story is so tacked on, it almost feels like she doesn't belong in this show at all. It does fuel a lot of Shizuru hatred though. Ohhhhh so much Shizuru hatred...

Nao is another character who ends up getting the short end of the development stick in this final run of episodes. She's also given quite a bit of time on screen, and though she's not as integral to the story as other characters, she's around enough of the time to matter and more exciting than most of the other HiME. We never really learn why Nao is fighting and who she's fighting for until she loses, and even then we're only shown a brief twenty second clip to summarize her whole character. Fucking sloppy.

While all this is going on, of course the bigger plot is unfolding around the HiME in what appears to be a sort of civilized war between two factions for control of the HiME Star while using the HiME themselves as pawns. It's the recently awakened Obsidian Prince vs the headmaster of the school Mashiro and her maid Fumi. As the series progresses deeper and deeper into this stuff it begins feeling more and more like it was just pulled out of the writers' collective ass to give some kind of meaning to all these girls being ripped apart.

By the time we reach the beginning of the final showdown at the end of episode 25, the weight of the nonsensical HiME Star plot has already begun to collapse in on itself. Not enough is explained to make us really understand why the Obsidian Prince and Mashiro want the power of the Star so bad. Suspension of disbelief isn't a very good excuse here either, because there's a difference between that and simply not making sense. The writers/directors either didn't understand the difference or simply didn't plan out this part of the story enough for it to make sense. My bet is on the second one.

So with the mess they've created, they now have one final episode to try and fix the cracks in the dam before it breaks loose...

Rating So Far: It's still good, but the dam can't hold much longer.



Episode 26: Deus Ex Machina
Just like one could write essays on why the first episode of Mai-HiME is perhaps the best first episode of anything ever, one could also write in-depth about why the last episode is the worst piece of shit ending animated for any fucking series ever. I mean it, this shit stinks to high hell and I intend to spoil every last second of it in telling you exactly why.

First, allow me to draw a stupid analogy using one of the more rage-worthy moments of the finale.



Now, to make my point let's exaggerate a little. Let's pretend that our lovely Nao up there is completely covered in patches all over. Each one of these patches represents a piece of the plot and slowly they all begin to fall and flutter away just like our example above. What does this leave us with? Just another pretty face. This is what the final episode of Mai-HiME reduces the entire show to.

Not in all my years of TV and Japanese Cartoon watching have I ever seen a single episode of any show so hell-bent on practically demolishing everything that came before it. I mean it. In a mere 24 minutes, this episode manages to completely decimate and shit on anything and everything the past 600 minutes may have spent building up as important. It is quite simply the shittiest ending to anything ever created.

First off, the episode utilizes an instantaneous Deus Ex Machina at the beginning of the episode to correct the rather HUGE problem of DEAD CHARACTERS and eliminates any chance of a possibly somber ending. Oh, I get it, NOW Mashiro has a fucking purpose. Her magical nipple-less boobs of resurrection save the day for everyone!

Now, I have no issues whatsoever with happy endings, and I can even let bringing everyone back to life slide by if it's done tastefully. The issue is that this mass revival is only the beginning of where the show loses any and all impact the story may have had on the viewer and the characters involved in the storyline.

After the magical resurrection is when the real bullshit kicks in. Throughout the course of the show a lot of characters did some very bad things and everyone ended up hurt or lost their loved ones because of these actions.


"Stand back, Mai! I'm here to ruin the plot!"
Our first example will be Yukariko, the nun. She can easily be blamed for setting off the biggest chain of events in the show that led to many HiME losing in the carnival. Though she was being manipulated the entire time by the man she was basically just forced to love and did relatively little harm to anyone directly, a lot of shit is still her fault. After the resurrection, nobody seems to give a shit at all that she's the reason everything went to hell in a handbasket, and even worse is that she remains dedicated to the man who manipulated her, stripped her of her faith, and damn near ruined everything. It's just all swept under the rug like it was never a big deal anyway. But in the end, everyone came back to life, so I guess the end justifies the means, right?

Another infuriating example is Shizuru's obsessive infatuation with Natsuki turning into heavily-implied rape during a time when Natsuki was unconscious and unable to defend herself. Natsuki eventually finds out of course, and is absolutely mortified. In the land of Mai-HiME, however, rape is an act that's quite easily forgiven. Disgustingly so. In the moment that both Shizuru and Natsuki are resurrected, Natsuki immediately forgives a crocodile-teared Shizuru and all is a-okay. They go even further by making Shizuru apologize once again (only this time to Nao for killing her Child) while flashing a big "HAHA I GOT AWAY WITH IT" smile.


The Proper "I'm Sorry For Raping You" Gesture!


What's worse is that the ending also implies that the two end up in a relationship. I can't think of many more fucked up things I've seen in the ending for a Japanese Cartoon, and I've seen a lot...

The immediate absolution goes even further than the examples I've pointed out, but those are likely the most infuriating.

In the end everybody gets away scot-free with the horrible things they did. Nobody learns fucking ANYTHING and they still get everything they want. This manages to fly directly in the face of Mai's belief that you can't have a world where you get everything you want as she rejects the Obsidian Prince's offer to join him in such a world. It's right there in the fucking episode! She says it herself! But even she too gets everything she wants in the end: The friends she loves, two boys fawning over her endlessly, and her brother's health.

Congrautlations, Sunrise! You just rendered your main character, who was actually a really damn good lead with real growth and likeability, completely fucking pointless. Just as pointless as all of the made up on the fly plot-filler bullshit like Section 1, the Searrs Foundation, the Obsidian Prince, the HiME Star, and whatever fucking relationship we're supposed to think Nagi and Mashiro have. It's all simply too fucking convoluted and stupid to make any god damn sense at all.

Rating At The End of Episode 26: Only another Nao-inspired Flash movie can get the point across.



"THAT WAS THE ENDING?"
I really hate beating up on this show as much as I have in the later portion of this review, because it's still really fucking good despite... well... being really fucking bad in the end. I've enjoyed every second of it right up until the final episode both times I've watched it. If some things would have been cut or explained more and the ending hadn't gutted the entire series like a fucking fish, I daresay it may have had what it takes to be remembered as one of the greats of this generation of anime. In the end, I don't even know what the show's trying to say and I feel empty and sad that the last 24 minutes were able to decimate my entire opinion of the show so much that I don't even know how I feel about it.












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