Mai-Otome
by Polly



WARNING: SPOILERS BELOW

Jesus Christ, after that Kiddy Grade debacle can I PLEASE have something decent to watch?

Mai-Otome/My Otome is a sequel'ish spin-off of Sunrise's popular 2003 magical girl-fest and owner of the not-so-coveted "Worst Ending in Japanese Cartoon History" award, Mai-HiME. It's not exactly a sequel in the truest sense, though. You have to think of it more as a sequel in the way that Final Fantasy games are sequels. Though it takes place in an entirely different world and timeframe, there's a healthy dose of both vague and obvious referencing as well as little threads that may lead some to believe they're connected in more ways than they truly are. Mai-Otome steps that formula up a notch by bringing back nearly all the major players from the first show and putting them into a new and seemingly unrelated storyline. In some cases these characters are almost unrecognizable beyond the familiar face, as they've had their personalities and roles completely flipped, creating new (and in some cases, far more interesting) cast members. Other shows have tried this as well with highly-mixed results, but most of Otome's returning cast and re-imaginings feel a lot more natural and at home in this show, rather than being simply thrown in to draw a crowd that liked HiME. Not saying that's not how they marketed the show, but within the context of the show itself, they make sense and feel right.

Mai-Otome's strength is that it doesn't rely on returning characters to try and sell you on the concepts of the show and carry the story. They're rarely ever the focal point and aren't blessed with quite as much screen time as you'd expect. Instead, Otome puts together a new ensemble of leads, lets them fit in flawlessly with the old cast, and then turns the newbies loose to push the show along to its conclusion. It's doubtful that this rearranging of cast members and introduction of new ones was handled haphazardly and never planned from the start. In fact, Otome's lead, Arika, makes a very brief "blink and you'll miss it" cameo in the last five seconds of Mai-HiME's final episode, so the seeds were planted all along.



Pretty sneaky, Sunrise!

As you should already expect, Mai-Otome is another magical girl show and just like HiME I'd consider it a cut above the usual shoujo crap that's been released over the years in the genre. Like HiME, it's about girls blessed with awesome powers that are gonna beat the snot out of big scary monsters and, more than likely, each other. This time around the girls' magical abilities are more related to an old and highly-coveted technology rather than being supernatural, but the effects are basically the same. Just like HiME all of the magical girls attend the same school, but this time their existence is both known and revered by the public at large (for the most part). Each Otome sacrifices her life as a woman, training to ultimately become the life-long protector of a designated Royal-type-person, and should the Otome fall in battle she, along with her master, both forfeit their lives. That seems like a bit of a sketchy way to to be handling all the important people that run the world, doesn't it? Aside from death, an Otome's only weakness is...SEMEN. That's right, in order to keep her super-awesome flashy powers, an Otome must not engage in any sexual activity with a male, because his seed will forever render the nanomachines that make her awesome, completely useless. This just in: All Otome confirmed as girl[REDACTED]s and I LOVE THIS SHOW ALREADY! All kidding aside, the similarities are undeniable, but Otome easily stands on its own, even with lingering influence of its predecessor and the genre as a whole.

Mai-Otome stands on its own because of the strength of its story and characters, believe it or not. The royal cluster-fuck that was the second half of Mai-HiME is damn-near absent this time around. There's still some DERP, but it's easily overlooked this time, because the entire weight of the story never comes crashing down. Even if they're a little inconsistent at times, the characters and story remain fairly strong all the way through.

Leading that charge is Mai-Otome's main protagonist Arika Yumemiya and her amazingly emotive pigtails. I gotta admit, she's just fuckin' cute as a button and bubbly as all hell. Never annoyingly so, but it's hard to ever really get tired of her. She finds her way into Garderobe Academy through a series of miraculous coincidences (and some outright contrivances) all for the sake of becoming an Otome and learning the truth about her missing mother. As the series progresses, not much really changes about her. She remains headstrong and determined in the face of all adversity only displaying brief bouts of emotional weakness, which mostly occur because the writers needed some sappy-dappy romance threads. Yes, Arika falls in love out of nowhere nearly halfway through the series and it's so unbelievably forced that it almost breaks her character. I'd be okay with her falling in love if it felt like a natural progression for her, but she's such a childish and naive person most of the time, that love would seem to be something really far from her mind. Thankfully she does snap out of it after a bit and its on to business as usual.

Arika is a great lead, but strangely her spotlight gets stolen quite a bit by her reluctant partner-in-crime and returning useless character from Mai-HiME, Mashiro Blan de Windbloom. You may remember Mashiro as being the useless wheelchair-bound loli from the first show who did fuck-all nothing for 25 episodes and then perpetuated the farce that was My-HiME's ending. This time around, she's honestly my favorite character. She starts the show as a spoiled, obnoxious, loud, and bratty Princess who quickly becomes Queen and knows all of jack shit about running a kingdom. It's no secret that she's fairly despised among her people and her legitimacy as royalty is called into question by those even in her own castle. When the shit finally hits the fan around halfway through the series and her kingdom is up-ended by a vast conspiracy (lead by none other than Mai-HiME's little blue-haired shit-head, Nagi), Mashiro is forced on a journey of self-discovery where she witnesses the darkest side of humanity as well as the truth about the world beyond the castle's walls. By the end of the show, she's grown and learned so much from her experiences that you really end up rooting for her to become the respectable Queen that she desires to be. Finally, her chemistry with Arika throughout the show's run is totally spot-on. Be it the comedic little spats or whether they're sharing an emotionally-deep moment, these two are top-notch picks for leads and couldn't have been written any better.

Beyond our mains, Otome's large cast of characters is generally better managed than they were in HiME because the writers seemed to understand they were on a strict timeline of 26 episodes this time. Main characters such as Nina Wang, Erstin Ho, and Tomoe Margurite are given the right amount of time to blossom into integral parts of the story, while old characters like Natsuki and Nao settle into their new roles and fill them out fittingly. It was actually nice to see Nao being a bit more of a part of the story since she was the strongest side character of the first show, but the pink-stripe gang thing? I don't get it at all! Someone give this girl her own spin-off, please! A few new and old characters still get lost in the shuffle now and then, but overall there's not a whole lot to complain about. There's a whole hell of a lot more focus this time around and the show's much better because of it.

Mai-Otome's story advances in much the same way that HiME's did. They both ride a very similar path toward their conclusions with a few very key difference: Otome's story ends up making a hell of a lot more sense and has a much more satisfying and fitting conclusion.

Mai-HiME's largest flaw is that its story and the mysterious elements working in the background started with such great potential but the pay-off was just fuckstupid. There were a lot of little faux-intricacies embedded within its storyline that you thought would eventually bear fruit, but by the final episode all of those elements had been so aimlessly thrown together that the entire show collapsed under its own weight into confusing, bullshitty nonsense. Otome operates in much the same manner but on a larger scale, revealing tiny close-up snapshots of a larger picture that actually makes sense when everything finally comes together.

This time, many countries are on the verge of war over the technology that grants otome their power and why the source of that power should only be held by one nation. You get a lot of very satisfying political cat-and-mouse games with various factions working together and against one another with a healthy dose of deception and betrayal. It's not something you think would fit all that well into a magical girl show, but aside from the obvious main storylines of Arika and company, I found this aspect of the show to be highly satisfying because the interplay between nations and outside factions is believable. There's also a healthy dose of HiME's magical and supernatural wankery as well, concerning the origins of the Otome and what they actually are. This aspect of the series is also handled much better and makes so much more sense because it's given a satisfying enough explanation. Not that you'll completely buy into it, but for moments like that we just turn off our brains because we're watching cartoons!

Mai-Otome's story isn't without faults, however. There are still quite a few contrived moments that'll have you facepalming through your DVD player, and at times the pacing can get a bit jarring due to series' reliance on a phenomenon which I've dubbed "'Splosion Warping."

Being that its predecessor was chock-full of girly romantic elements, Mai-Otome inevitably had to have them too. It's another love triangle, but this time it's two girls vying for the affections of one dude. Unfortunately, the chemistry and believability just isn't there for any of the parties involved and the whole thing ends up being kinda fucking creepy since this is a grown man trying to fart around with fifteen year-olds. As I've already mentioned, lovesick Arika doesn't work even when she's trying her damnedest to pour her heart into it. Nina's romantic feelings for the dude are about as creepy as Shiho's were for Tate in the first series, because both parties involved consider one another family (even though they aren't). The object of Arika and Nina's affections is much like Tate as well in that he's just another one of those all-too-common indecisive dicks and I can't see how anyone would love the guy. Be smitten with, perhaps, because we are dealing with teenagers here and he really is a genuinely caring individual. But the over-the-top LOVE stuff feels so incredibly fake. All this romantic stuff felt like it was put in there because the writers felt it had to be in order to fit in with Mai-HiME. I have to admit though, that by the conclusion of the show, this storyline's ending was fairly acceptable and couldn't have been handled in any other way.

On this so-called "'Splosion Warping": It's a phenomenon characterized by the occurence of a large explosion followed by characters somehow ending up miles apart from one another and in some very convenient situations and places. It happens a lot, and some of the places characters end up in aren't explained very well and this can lead to some PLOT HAX storytelling. It's in no way a show-breaking experience, it just happens way too much for it to not be noticeable as happening for dubious reasons. It's clear that they needed to quickly write themselves out of some potentially sketchy situations and this was probably the fastest and easiest way to go about it. All in all, the writers using 'Splosion Warping was probably the best way to try and juggle all the stories and get some characters where they needed to be, rather than trying to write themselves out of a twenty-five episode cluster-fuck at the very end.

Moving onto the show's overall production values, even from screenshots it's quite obvious that there's been a lot of scaling back. Mai-Otome lacks nearly all of the great animation work of its predecessor and at times the whole show ends up looking only a smidge above-average. There's far more "animation wonk" than the original show as well as some really inconsistent artwork, and unlike HiME you won't have to look hard to find it. The intensely eye-pleasing magical fights the first show was known for have also been disappointingly scaled back. Every fight in Otome now mostly consists of characters flying into one another and exploding or colored magical lines streaking through the sky to indicate action. This is probably only more of a disappointment to me because I enjoyed everything else in this show so much more than HiME that I really wanted the fights to be as equally pleasaing. The emotions behind the battles are still able to carry the action however, so it's not a complete loss.

What does stand out though, are the costume designs. Normal everyday characters and especially the Royalty have very distinct outfits and designs with a great amount of work put into them. Otomes' battle robes and Valkyrie battle suits featured later in the show obviously look fuckin' fantastic. You really expect nothing less from Sunrise, because it's something they can almost always do right. They're never really given their full potential to shine in action or anything, but damn if each and every one of them isn't pretty to gawp at.

Mai-Otome's overall OST isn't really all that remarkable. It mostly serves to accentuate whatever's happening on the screen at the time, but nothing really pops out at you. Even the insert songs are completely forgettable, which is odd, because HiME had a couple that were fantastic. Both OP's and the show's lone ED are your typically forgettable J-pop garbage that you may just want to skip altogether.

Mai-Otome is a vast improvement over Mai-HiME. even if it lacks a lot of the visual zazz that made HiME so pleasing to the senses. Another large plus for Otome is that you really don't need to know a hell of a lot about its predecessor to be entertained. It works fairly well as a stand-alone package and about the only thing you'll be missing out on are some references here and there and none of the returning cast will be familiar to you. You can't really go wrong with either show, but in my honest opinion, Mai-Otome is the clear winner simply because a lot more thought went into explaining things and resolving its various conflicts. Mai-Otome isn't exactly brilliance, but it's still a highly-satisfying and enjoyable show that has a bit more appeal than your standard magical girl fare.

In summation: Hooray, they didn't fuck it up!






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