It seems like it’s hard to find a truly great anime these days. So few hit the same pitch of either character depth or fine tuned over the top fun that iterations like Madoka Magica, Fullmetal Alchemist, and Kill la Kill have achieved. As a result, we’re left with a lot of not so stellar anime that is nothing but a collection of ham-fisted tropes and quite a few that fall into a middle ground labelled “serviceable.” Magi: The Labyrinth of Magic and Magi: The Kingdom of Magic could be said to fall into the upper end of that middle tier. Imbued with the power of a truly unique premise and setting, and driven ahead by crisp and fluid animation in the more hectic moments, Magi’s characters manage to be just good enough to support this high production package.
Certainly one of the more interesting aspects of Magi is its use of Middle Eastern story concepts. Both seasons follow Aladdin, in this iteration a blue haired boy that is one of the Magi (magicians of exceptional creative power, or something); Alibaba, a king’s bastard skilled in swordplay, and Morgiana, a former slave from a race of intensely strong warriors. There are other significant supporting characters, but none more so than Sinbad, a man with enough power and charisma to form his own peaceful country dedicated to world unification. He’s also the most emphatic presence in the show, and it’s a welcome addition. You can simply tell that he’s a figure of intense sway, not least because of his massive attacks presented the few times he needs to engage in battle. These figures and others take part in interactions that offer up some of the usual anime musings about friendship, fate, and etc. This is fine, and doesn’t feel as forced as in some other productions, but the biggest surprise is that the politics present in the later halfs of both seasons is the most enjoyable aspects. Nations continually vie for power and influence, and characters you thought were completely benevolent take on a different hue when placed in this context of strategic warfare, keeping things surprisingly fresh.
While the warfare provides intrigue and the middle eastern influence provides eye-catching visuals and concepts, it’s the formulation of magic in the universe of Magi that proves to be a bit of a double-edged sword. The irony of it all is that anything related to “Magis” within the show is its weakest link. In the first season alone, characters ask repeatedly what a Magi actually is even if they were present the last time someone asked about them. And after all of these explanations, you’re still left not exceptionally confident that you know what a Magi really is. The explanation of the world’s magical energy, the “Rukh,” also falls a bit short, essentially taking on the character of a Star Wars Force-like substance that permeates and binds everything, but this explanation is made needlessly complicated in Magi. However, the one magical area that the anime does not fail to deliver on is in relation to its take on djinns. Essentially, in this world genies do not only inhabit magic lamps, but also weapons carried by those strong enough to plunder harrowing magical dungeons and claim these mystical beings. As a result, the wielder of said weapon can draw on the djinn’s strength to gain a new weapon, elemental powers, and a makeover in the form of deific looking armour. This concept is unique, and results in some of the shows most visually pleasing action sequences and character designs. Character’s that have their djinn “equipped” look reminiscent of mythological gods and goddesses, with scale like armour falling away to reveal bare skin wrapped in flowing strands of cloth. I’m talking about some truly crazy and cool character designs here, with characters like Hakuryu and Kougyoku being real stand outs. It’s the most videogamey and “anime” aspect of the show, and it’s also the best.
In short, Magi is a strange anime. With an okay cast of characters and plot, but a fantastic premise and setting, there’s somehow enough to keep you satiated all the way through and even keep you looking for more. It feels like a show just on the verge of understanding that sometimes the superficiality of anime is the most engaging part, but isn’t quite there, and thus gets bogged down in musings about fate and defying destiny and whatnot. So in this case: come for the beautiful fights between high-flying people wearing genie armour, stay for the beautiful fights between high-flying people wearing genie armour.