- Mai-Otome Zwei
- Mai-Otome Sifr
Altogether it's close to 30 hours of anime and it's probably the most enjoyable 'franchise' I've ever experienced. The people over at Sunrise studios did something a little bit beyond the norm when they produced these works. In fact, I've never seen anything like it before and I think that it's only possible to judge if it's genius or madness based on the outcome. This easily could have blown up in their faces and I could see it happening very easily if other companies tried the same.
Let me explain. Mai-Hime was the first anime in the series and it basically deconstructed the whole magical girl trope. This definitely wasn't a show geared toward little girls wanting to watch a sailor moon clone with cutesy transformation sequences. It was a classic case of what happens when you slam fantasy and reality together and see what happens. Now that I think of it, it reminds me a lot of Sailor Nothing, a webfic that I really enjoyed. (I've only just realized that I never actually made an entry about Sailor Nothing like I thought I had. I probably monologued one in my head, assuming I'd get around to actually writing it down at some point and completely forgot. It was good enough that it deserves some sort of commentary so I'll post something about it right after I finish this.) To put it shortly, being a teenager given 'magical' powers and told to go out there and fight evil isn't the happy, cheery love-fest most of us imagine it would be. It doesn't take very long to come up with the hundreds if not thousands of problems.
(Warning: Spoilers ahead)
In Mai-Hime, this idea is explored but kicked up to 11 when you discover that not only are these girls expected to go out there and fight monsters, but that they're linked to and powered by the person they care about and love most. It's through that bond that they can summon their Child (an avatar which fights for/with them). If the Child is destroyed in battle, then their loved one also perishes along with it. That might not have been so bad if they all banded together and supported one another. In fact, that's exactly what a large group of them had vowed to do, forming a group of Hime-Rangers only to find out later that night that the monsters they had faced so far were actually just a test and prelude. The _real_ purpose of them having these powers is they're supposed to fight one another until only one remains, meaning of course that the loved ones of all the others would die in the process. It was a pretty serious case of mood whiplash and the situation deteriorates rapidly from there on in. Characters end up dropping like flies for a while though the mass resurrection at the end takes the sting out of it.
My impression from everything I've read online is that Mai-Hime was very well received when it came out. It was popular and a followup anime, Mai-Otome, had already been planned before the first one started production. What was unusual about the whole thing is that the studio decided to use almost all of the same characters as far as looks and seiyus but changed everything else. All the characters keep at least one part of their name (first or last) but many get personality tweaks and are put into the new show which takes place either on another world or far into the future or perhaps even in another space-time continuum. The entire magical girl concept is rewritten so that now it's based on technology with nanomachines providing super-human abilities and battle armor, but only to female virgins with a gemstone.
At first, it's a pretty eerie feeling as you try to match the characters in the new show to who they were in the old one. It's also a tremendous risk to take a product that had been so positively received and instead of simply making a sequel or spinoff, to give everything a twist. Imagine if the followup to Star Trek TNG was a Star Wars show where the entire cast was transferred over but with mixed up roles. Wesley Crusher is now the commander of a star destroyer while Jean Luc Picard and Will Riker are X-wing pilots. You can argue that at least it's a hook to get people to watch the new show but it's also like dousing yourself with gasoline in a match factory. It wouldn't take very much for the fanbase of the show to go BOOM.
All in all, I liked Mai-Otome too, though not as much as the previous incarnation. I think that mostly had a lot to do with the protagonist the second time around. The character design of Arika was a lot younger and more immature compared with Mai. That made it seem like it took longer for the real story arc and dramatic elements to kick off and that's what's really gripping about both series. You can't help comparing the two shows side by side especially considering the fact that they have the same characters (sort of) and while both are quality works, Mai-Hime just shines more. About the only thing I love more about Mai-Otome is the climactic final battle and the chance for some of the minor characters from Hime to shine (Note: Haruka). I'm an absolute sucker for final battle sequences where everyone and their uncle (aunt?) gathers together, powers up, and there's a huge, sprawling battle montage. I just love that to death. I think it might be a throwback to my youth where all the cartoons I watched tended to be of that sort (Gi-JOE, Transformers, Thundercats, etc). The Otomes all getting together to stop the cyclone of doom was just fantastic.
Mai-Otome was followed up by 2 sets of OVAs, a sequel which takes place around a year after the main story ends and a prequel which takes place around 15-20 years before it begins. Sadly, the sequel was a ridiculous piece of tripe which was actually painful to watch at times. A giant robo-maid shooting red laserbeams from her eyes. The mind still boggles. The prequel, on the otherhand, was a real work of art, managing to tell a better and more expansive story in 3 episodes than the sequel did in 4. It doesn't quite stand alone, but you won't be missing all that much if you just decide to watch the prequel (Sifr). Most of what you'll be missing are mechanics and that's not really a big deal. Girl + gemstone + master = asskicker. You can pretty much sort that out just from watching.
The last piece of the Mai-Otome franchise was released around a year ago and from what I've been able to find online, there are no plans to continue it or revisit Mai-Hime. It's always sad when I come to an end of a series, especially one like this which spanned so much depth but left a lot of unanswered questions. The number of theories out there about the two series and the potential connection between them is staggering. Maybe it's just another facet of my personality as a completionist, but I hate these sort of dangling plot issues. They drive me crazy and I wish the studios would just come out with a handy-dandy answerall. Of course, it's a certainty that if any such thing was produced it would be written in Japanese which means that unless I got really lucky and someone decided to fansub it, I'd be shit out of luck anyway. I've known that dissatisfaction recently as I've found that there are plenty of people out there willing to fansub anime, but for some reason they feel no such impetus to provide the same effort for drama cd's. There are really times that I wish I was born Japanese or that the Chinese were a little more involved in this sort of entertainment industry. Knowing conversational Chinese isn't doing jack didily squat for me.
Anyway, I recommend both Mai-Hime and Mai-Otome to anyone for whom my recommendation matters. They were both really impressive shows and I'm sad that there's no more to be had. Maybe I'll get lucky and the studio that made them will need a cash infusion and return to milk the old reliable cash cow in the year to come.