SUPERVERSIVE: What makes “Magi” so special anyway?

Tuesday , 1, October 2019 1 Comment

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“Magi: The Labyrinth of Magic” and “Magi: The Kingdom of Magic”, its second season, are strange beasts. On MyAnime List it has over an eight out of ten, which is stellar, and its anime adaptation got over fifty episodes and even a prequel. It was put out by one of the bigger name studios, A-1 Pictures, and had high production values. It even got an excellent dub. Yet for some reason, it’s been all but forgotten.

Why? How did a well-received shonen battle/adventure anime with a decent-length anime adaptation get memory holed a few short years after its prequel aired?

I have no idea, but I’d like to do my part to change that. I am the only person that I know who thinks “Magi” is a legitimately great show. Not good – great.

But there is no question I am in the minority here. So why? What lead me to rate it so highly?

While “Magi” does everything quite well, ultimately my opinion of its greatness really comes down to two things.
See the source image1) Alibaba

Alibaba is legitimately one of my all-time favorite characters, really the first time I’ve ever seen a character type like his have such a huge role in a shonen adventure story. Shonen heroes tend to fall into certain categories – Cheerful do-gooder (Aladdin), “I want to be the very best” (by far the most common type, represented by Ash, Luffy, Deku, Naruto, and many others) heroes, and problem-solving heroes (Gon, who needs to find his father, and Edward and Alphonse Elric, who need to get their bodies back). They also, shall we say, tend to not be particularly intellectual (it is no coincidence that the exceptions, Deku and the Elric brothers, happen to be the main characters of two of the best shonen ever) .

Without exception their goals are very clear – Ash wants to be a Pokémon Master, Luffy wants to find One Piece and be King of the Pirates, Deku wants to be the number one hero, Gon wants to find his father, etc. It is also notable that to a man all of these characters are courageous, even fearless heroes.

Alibaba is nothing like that. When we meet him he is working as a constantly disrespected servant to a cruel master. He has a goal – capture a dungeon and become rich – but he’s too cowardly to work for it until he realizes that Aladdin has the power to help him out.

We see the seeds of a good person early on when he risks his life to save Morgiana, but that’s exactly what makes Alibaba so interesting: He is constantly vacillating between cowardice and bravery, and as a result plays exceptionally well in both a lead role and comic relief (contrast with Zenitsu from “Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba”, who is presented comedically much more consistently).

Later on Alibaba’s character grows increasingly complex, as we see him attempt to stand up for what he believes is best for his country at great risk to himself while at the same time getting at turns cowed by and carried by stronger personalities than his. He lets people manipulate him by appealing to his guilt, but this only works because Alibaba cares so deeply about his nation and people.

One would think it would ultimately be Aladdin’s faith in his friend that spurs him to action, but in a very interesting narrative choice that isn’t the case: It is his friend Cassim, who reveals his willingness to make a terrible choice in order to get the results he wants, that makes the true stakes real to him and finally spurs him into action.

It is Alibaba’s fascinating mixture of cowardice and bravery, of indecision and decisiveness, of weakness and strength, that makes him such a great character, one with a complexity rarely seen in a shonen anime. Alibaba is one of “Magi’s” biggest achievements.

Not that he’s the ONLY great character. It is unfortunate that the series ended as early as it did, as fan favorites, such as Sinbad, grow in complexity as the story continues, and supposed villains have unexpected depth. To say nothing of Mogammet, who is one of the best “villains”, if you can even call him that, in anime. “Magi” shows a depth to its characters that is very underappreciated.

Speaking of underappreciated, the second thing about “Magi” that particularly impresses me is…

2) Politics, both international and social

“Magi” is probably the best anime I have ever seen at handling both international and social politics with careful nuance and insight. “Brotherhood” was excellent at it as well but it was particularly outstanding in its philosophical complexity and tightly written plot, to say nothing of unforgettable characters. While “Magi” has some great characters its real bread and butter is in its handling of international, social, and domestic issues.

Though “Magi” doesn’t truly hits its stride until the Balbadd arc, signs of its hidden depth appear early on in the character of Morgiana. Morg at the start of the series is a slave. Her chains are broken early in the story by Aladdin, but despite her incredible strength she doesn’t have it in herself mentally to leave her master; the slave mentality is too deeply entrenched in her psyche. Later on she is rescued by Alibaba and Aladdin, but when ordered to kill them in the dungeon she doesn’t hesitate. The wounds of slavery run too deep; she is a broken woman.

Her mentality only starts to change when a fellow slave sacrifices himself for her, and even then it isn’t an instant fix. It takes a now-rich Alibaba to free her from slavery himself to convince her to leave, and the mentality doesn’t disappear until she finds the courage to rescue other slaves on her own. A single act of kindness is not enough to break her bonds, and her transformation does not happen in a moment.

I have seen people complain before that Morgiana, with her strength, should have been able to free herself immediately, but I think this misses the point. Morgiana always had the physical power, but her shackles were mental and even spiritual. The chains she needed to break were far stronger than steel.

It takes several massive life events and months of separation from her former life for her to finally overcome her past trauma, trauma that she will never completely forget: As she says about the shackle marks on her feet, she wishes they would fade. But they don’t. This is a fantastic portrayal of mental and emotional trauma and how difficult it is to overcome.

One reason the Balbadd arc is my favorite is how deftly it handles the social and political situation in Balbadd. Alibaba grew up in the slums with his best friend Cassim, but unlike Cassim he was plucked off the streets one day and raised in the palace of the king. He had a mother who despite being a prostitute loved and doted on him and friends who cared about him.

Contrast this with Cassim, who also grew up in the slums but was abused by his father and had to be taken in by Alibaba’s mother. For years he never knew the sort of love Alibaba did and was never plucked off the streets to live in luxury.

Do you see what’s going on here? “Magi” is exploring the concept of privilege. 99 times out of 100 this is an opportunity for the Mary Sue to write glowing articles and for normal people to roll their eyes and groan, but “Magi” is different. Unlike the modern day victimhood mentality, the “victim” in this case is no white hat.

Cassim’s hatred of Alibaba is understandable but irrational, and his desire for vengeance blinds him to what is best for the country. Instead of taking advantage of Alibaba’s unique position by supporting him in his  quest to take down the corrupt monarchy, he manipulates Alibaba’s guilt at leaving him behind to use his band of thieves in unfocused and self-destructive ways. His goal is not true reform but to cause pain to the royal family and get his vengeance. Alibaba is “one of them”, a member of the royal family himself, and to Cassim the fact that he is willing to ally with him merely makes him a tool to use for his own purposes.

Yet Cassim has a point. Though the burning down of the royal palace is ultimately Cassim’s fault, Alibaba nevertheless runs away, too guilty to act to help Balbadd. Despite having the ability to change things he hides from his responsibilities, confirming to Cassim that Alibaba never truly cared about them. Of course, he can’t make the connection that the very reason he was able to manipulate Alibaba so easily is because Alibaba cared so much.

In a sense though, isn’t Cassim right? Alibaba could run: Cassim was stuck. The Fog Troop was too disorganized to effect real change but at least he made the effort. And now Alibaba needs to pay for his inability to empathize with Cassim’s situation.

This is as nuanced a portrayal of the concept of privilege you will ever find, one that acknowledges the complaints of both sides and refuses to give the victim greater status as a result. Cassim is in the wrong here, but he’s right about the difference between him and Alibaba; his salvation can only come when he finally accepts that a friendship between them can form either way.

It is unfortunate that “Magi” ended after two seasons, because the manga offers more nuance still. Alibaba uses his influence to turn Balbadd into a republic, but it is later revealed that the republic failed: the massive Kou Empire takes over almost immediately, and though it is still called a Republic it is a vassal state of the Empire presided over by Alibaba as its representative in order to keep its culture alive.

This is strikingly realistic, and very brave as well: republics are not magic bullets, and swift and sudden transformations with little time to transition are nearly always doomed to failure, Alibaba attempted an interim government, but is there any surprise that a destabilized Balbadd with a transitioning government would come under the control of the Kou Empire so quickly? Yet who would dare to admit that? “Magi” here shows its honesty when dealing with politics.

Of course, I haven’t even mentioned the Magnostadt, or Kingdom of Magic, arc. Talk about nuanced! This whole arc actually doesn’t even contain Alibaba at all, yet it’s so good it’s hard to fault it. Once again we see a class of victims and oppressors with neither side presented as traditionally correct. The underclass, those without magic, are being shamelessly exploited and kept in squalor, but this is no different than what they used to do with the wizards; indeed, there is a real difference – the wizards are far more capable of keeping control of the country.

Even more fascinatingly, when Aladdin and his friends spot the disparity they struggle to see a way out. Freeing the non-powered humans would remove the protection around the country, leaving them easy pickings for the powerful empires surrounding them. And many of the lower classes have themselves accepted the blame for their fates. One character saves a little girl, but as the leader, Mogammett, points out, this is virtue signaling. No change comes as a result to the masses overall. If anything it is cruel – she’s acknowledged as the pet of a sorcerer while the rest of her loved ones stay stuck in squalor. But what’s the answer? What’s the way out?

There is no easy answer, and while Aladdin is eventually able to convince Mogammett of the need to change like the situation with Balbadd the solution doesn’t present itself overnight. And it is remembered that not all acts of kindness are for appearance’s sake.

(The subtitles aren’t in English, but I think the meanings of the scene transcends language.)

There is also some subtle maneuvering going on in the background with Sinbad – how he keeps arriving to save the day but every time he slowly increases his power and influence. Though the Kou and Ren empires are repeatedly presented as antagonists, Sinbad himself slowly forms his own empire, subtly setting himself up as a threat later on. “Magi” as a story preaches cooperation between nations but is ultimately very anti-globalist.

None of the empires are evil. All of them have good reason to believe that gaining more control will make the world a better place, and many of their princes and princesses seem to sincerely believe that they’re helping to create peace. But “creating peace” comes at the expense of tiny countries like Magnostadt and Balbadd, countries that would rather be left to their own devices. Magnostadt is not a perfect place, but how much death is worth an outside power fixing it?

That “Magi” explores these questions with such intelligence and care is precisely why I admire it so much; its only peer in this regard is the masterpiece “Legend of the Galactic Heroes”, and at the very least “Magi” one-ups it in its much more atypical and interesting setting.

Conclusion

“Magi” is by no means a perfect show. Aladdin is the lead but probably the least interesting character in the cast, much of the humor has creepy sexual overtones (especially involving Aladdin’s, er, lack of boundaries when it comes to female genitalia), and the animation is somewhat hit or miss (though it tends to hit big in its important scenes, especially involving Morgiana). Not every arc hits it out of the park – the first two arcs in particular are, I think, why most people write the show off as generic (though the first arc at least is still entertaining in a more typically shonen way).

Still, the soundtrack is absolutely killer. Every OP and ED is excellent, with my personal favorites being “Yobi Bouenkyou” and “The Bravery” (which has an excellent English cover). And what it does well, it does better than almost everything else – the character of Alibaba is one of the best in all of anime and the way it explores its social and political issues is second only to “Legend of the Galactic Heroes”. In fact, it’s probably better when it comes to social issues.

Ultimately, I’d compare it to “Log Horizon” in one sense. “Log Horizon” is not a perfect show, and has a fair number of issues, but what it does well it does really, REALLY well, and that’s enough to put it in the top tier of anime. So with “Magi” – it definitely isn’t perfect, but when it hits, it hits it out of the park. I can’t recommend it enough.

One Comment
  • Albert says:

    The Manga has come to a conclusion, and is worth reading.

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