[Synopsis]: A popular mobile game called ‘The Magical Girl Raising Project’ is rumored to have the ability to transform a select few of its players into real magical girls. These rumors turn out to be true as 16 girls are chosen and granted the ability to change into the likeness of their avatar and gain fantastic abilities. While girls such as Snow White (Touyama Nao) go about helping people, Fav (Mamiya Kurumi), the administrative voice of the game, announces that they will have to halve the number of Magical Girls by collecting a resource called Magical Candy. When it becomes clear that those who can’t gather enough each week will die, the game quickly devolves into a bloodbath where only the most crafty and ruthless of the magical girls will survive.
The premise of MahoIku revolves around the idea of a kind of ‘survival game’ where a large cast of characters are pitted against one another in an inescapable situation. Though the game at first dictates that the magical girls need only collect candy in order to ensure their survival, it quickly becomes a scenario of kill or be killed. Predictably then, the two things that drive the show are the characters themselves and the manner in which the story progresses – its dramatic events and developments.
What is by far the most unique and unconventional facet of the show is the unexpected diversity of its cast. In the world of MahoIku, the mobile game the characters play grants them the ability to transform into magical girls. This both means that their identity as a magical girl is tied to their in-game avatar but more importantly, that they have two sets of identities. While acting within their magical persona, their designs are as one might expect. Most of them exemplify the typical, young, adorable, and charming features of a stereotypical magical girl. In reality however, these characters vary a great deal in age, background, and even sex. Their only true similarity is that they each played the same mobile game.
While the protagonist of the show is a young school girl and the quintessential image of a magical girl, the other characters are housewives, office workers, college students, boys, etc. Within the context of a magical girl show, this diversity is actually pretty exciting and really added another layer to their interactions. The characters are friendly, controlling, abusive, manipulative, loving, and to see these qualities manifest both within their personas as magical girls as well as the actual lives they lead was pretty engaging. It allowed for the characters to have more adult-oriented interests and goals in the face of a genre that is typically defined by the adolescent and juvenile.
With my small bit of praise out of the way, the characters themselves are pretty bad. While some of them avoid being outright archetypes, practically every character is exceedingly one-dimensional and can usually be summarized within the span of their single goal or character trait. The way they were characterized, primarily through run of the mill flashbacks, was bland and uninteresting. MahoIku did a decent job of balancing the focus of its story given its extensive cast but there was no subtlety or tact to its presentation. When it was time to investigate one character or another, the show would roll a token flashback sequence to contextualize their personality and goals. The timing of everything was very standard and unimaginative which is of critical importance when the show relies so heavily on its shock value and the death of its cast members. The characters practically wave their death flags above their heads when their time arrives and given their simplistic characterization and the routine nature of their exploration, I found it impossible to care about any of their deaths.
There isn’t too much to say about the art and animation of MahoIku. The visuals were crisp and consistent but there wasn’t anything about the cinematography or presentation that stood out to me in any exceptional way. The various, colorful designs of the magical girls contrasted well against the characters’ far more average looking other selves which spoke well to the discrepancy between the reality and fantasy of their situation. The fight scenes initially left a lot to be desired for a show so bent on conflict and magical abilities however they became gradually better executed as the show unfolded.
The action sequences weren’t fantastic but they were able to embody the harshness and brutality that MahoIku attempted to instill into each facet of its presentation. In pursuit of this, the show became surprisingly gruesome at times but the scenes themselves were very understated in order to shock the viewer and conjure an air of realism. Sometimes this worked and other times it didn’t.
Like many other aspects of MahoIku, its first few episodes offer a pretty predicable beginning to the story. Koyuki Himekawa or rather, Snow White, has always dreamed of becoming a magical girl and so when the mobile game deems her fit to become one, its a dream come true. Each magical girl assumes the identity of their in-game character, gains a distinct magical ability, and can help people and perform good deeds in order to earn Magical Candy. There is a bit of interesting world-building built into this idea of magical girls. They use a mobile chat room in order to converse with each other and the girls leave only vague impressions on those they help and can’t be captured properly in photographs or video footage. The premise of the show arrives when Fav, the cutesy, administrative voice of the game, informs the 16 magical girls that their number must be halved. Whoever doesn’t collect enough Magical Candy by the end of each week week will die.
This is where one of the first issues of the show’s presentation arises. The girls’ reaction to learning they’ve been conscripted into a game where assuredly at least 8 of them will die is very lackluster. MahoIku lives for its attempted grittiness and the visual shock and dissonance that occurs when these adorable girls start brutally murdering each other. So to have such an understated emotional reaction to this development as well as others just felt wrong for the show. Despite knowing that many of them will die, the girls go about their lives as usual as if nothing happened and only later are they forced to confront the reality of their situation. Similarly so, many of the girls don’t seem to understand the gravity of their actions – that earning more candies than somebody else or stealing candies from another girl is effectively killing them. There is a weird, emotional disconnect between what transpires and how the characters react. While some of the girls are outright malicious, this tone doesn’t make sense for a lot of the characters.
One thing I will say is that the way in which some of their conflict plays out is at least interesting. Because not every magical girl possesses a combat-oriented ability or the disposition to take a life, there exists a clear hierarchy of power. But what defines their battles is how they help people, take advantage of each other’s kindness, join up with others, and back stab one another in order to remain alive. It provides the conflict with a relatively unique flavor – its unfair and cruel but the atmosphere feels oddly at home given some of the more eccentric and wicked characters. Some of the girls are surprisingly underhanded in how they attempt to take each other out and at the very least, this aspect of their struggle is at times interesting.
As the death toll mounts and the story progresses, the show gets a little better at developing an emotional response within its characters however the lackluster characterization of the cast leaves each of their demises feeling hollow and meaningless. In its attempt to shock the viewer and draw out the most gruesome aspects of their conflict, MahoIku cares more about the deaths of its characters than the characters themselves. This style of killing off cast members left and right means the gravity of the story simply evaporates by the end. With hardly any subtlety, one character after another is predictably killed off and the show fails to build into anything more than what it was before. The characters are uninteresting, the drama of their deaths falls flat, and the result is a long-winded, senseless process of waiting around until the character design you find most appealing is killed off.
While not particularly memorable, the soundtrack was decent and was certainly instrumental in MahoIku’s attempts at establishing a dark and merciless tone. It’s important for the show to be able to sell itself in this way because the cute aesthetic of the magical girls would feel awkward within the context of the show were their actions not justified within each layer of the show’s presentation. The soundtrack accomplishes this for the show but is pretty standard outside of this collaboration.
[Final Thoughts and Rating]:
If MahoIku got anything right, it was at least tonally cohesive. It established an unforgiving and surprisingly devious atmosphere for a small handful of its more twisted characters to flourish. But for what? MahoIku’s complete inability to attach greater significance to the deaths of its characters undermined the core point of the show. There can exist no shock value or meaningful gruesomeness when each character is as token and uninteresting as the last. So with its key appeal short-circuited, the story unfolds in a mess of inconsequential developments each attempting to do the one thing that MahoIku was utterly incompetent at doing.
I gave MahoIku a 3 because it was tedious, predictable, and with perhaps the sole exception of Swim Swim, it offered no memorable characters with which to provide the story any kind of importance. The few points that the show receives can be attributed to the surprising diversity of the cast and the underhanded nature of their conflict. However, with no other engaging elements to support these otherwise interesting aspects of the show, even their worth collapses under the weight of MahoIku’s failed attempts at drama and horrific means of storytelling.
If you’ve enjoyed the more twisted approaches to the magical girl genre that have arisen in the wake of Mahou Shoujo Madoka Magica’s success, then you’ll likely find MahoIku to your liking as well. Those looking for something initially lighthearted and innocent that in time becomes corrupted and gruesome will get what they came for. That being said, MahoIku doesn’t outperform any of the other shows in its own genre save for perhaps the brutality of its characters and you would probably be better off watching something in a similar vein. The action and drama of the show leave a lot to be desired so unless you are approaching it specifically because it is a magical girl show, you’d likely be better off watching just about anything else.