Mahouka Koukou no Rettousei, known as “The Irregular at Magic High School” in English is a series of light novels written by Tsutomu Satō, and is the high profile (shounen action) adaptation of the season, poised to receive the most hype, and perhaps garner the same sort of attention as its peers in the last couple of years – Attack on Titan (Shingeki no Kyojin) in 2013, and Sword Art Online in 2012. The first 11 books cover the first year in highschool, of the two main characters, so we’ll discuss that. Book 12 is the first book of their second year.
I’ve actually had numerous friends suggest this series to me over the past year or two, especially as I’ve been a big fan of Sword Art Online. Well,with it airing this season (tomorrow, actually), I thought it’d be a good opportunity to sit down and read it (though I dunno why, I prefer coming to material new, why consume it twice?). I wasn’t as enthused as my friends had led me to believe I’d be, and the series shares and exemplifies the woes I write of in my piece about LNs’ writing style, but I actually think the adaptation might be better than the book-series, and more fun, so don’t rule it out.
I’m going to try and avoid spoiling or describing the series in-depth, that’s never been of much interest to me, and I doubt it’d be very useful to you, as you can simply read the books or watch the series. I’m going to discuss the themes of the series, arc by arc, and things which stood out to me. I will also discuss some thoughts on the upcoming adaptations, which are only guesses and predictions, naturally.
First, the writing is awkward. A lot of it is definitely at fault of the translation, but it’s the usual fan-translated LN quality you often get, so you know what you’re into (every several pages you’ll get a sentence you can’t even follow). Don’t hold it against the author, but be advised it is what it is. And yet, the writing isn’t that fluent either, with awkward characterization that mostly relies on you being told by the author, or his mouthpiece the main character (Shiba Tatsuya) what he, and everyone else is thinking.
The books often open with a primer on the culture, and the way science works. It is 2095, there’d been a third world war over diminished energy and food resources, and two-thirds of the population had perished due to starvation and 20 years of World War 3 (truly numerous wars). So it makes sense we get these info-dumps. The main protagonists often thinks things in a manner that is info-dumpy, or carries monologues. Sometimes we even get told, “They knew these things, but no one complained as he explained, for they could use another refresher.” Yeah, very smooth ;-)
Also, there’s quite a bit of “fan-service” in this series, talking about how girls look, lingering on their hips, thighs, lips, etc. In a show, you can show it to us while just showing a scene. Here an author has to actually pause and focus on it, which is a bit awkward, and often jarring.
More to the point, I’ve often seen people describe the magic system as “deep”, “Well done”, and “scientific”. In this world the approach to magic is to have systematized it into a scientific system. It’s a neat little system, and things make sense, but it’s not nearly as deep or varied as it seems to be. Most often, as is often the case in LNs, every book goes over the same thing at length the first time it’s explained. Here in particular, each time there’s some interaction with the magic system, it receives between a paragraph to a page or so of explanation of how it works. That is sort of neat, I guess, except it’s almost always the same explanation, and after 12 books in the series, I could probably sum up all that we know of the magic system, including just what you can do with magic in under 3 pages. Deep, it’s not. Internally consistent and making sense? Yes. It’s not a bad system, but it’s not terribly exciting. It does what it should, which is well enough.
Books 1-2 – Enrollment – This is the first arc. We’re introduced to numerous characters. We’re told that Shiba Tatsuya, the main character, has secrets he doesn’t want anyone to find out, and although he is a “2nd course student”, meaning his magical prowess is quite weak, he manages to defeat the 4th strongest student in the school in an instant in a duel. He also is a master martial-artist, book-smart, and has a harem (including his younger sister) of girls who like him. He’s your basic “all too perfect character”. The author keeps saying, including from the character’s own mouth, that he isn’t all-powerful, and is indeed quite weak at some things. But when it counts, he always places first, so it’s only lip-service, and to show us how “flawed” he is.
The above is the main plot, and what gets people excited. However, there are actually some good things to be found here. As is often the case, and to justify such a series, the kids quickly get embroiled in a national scheme to incite riots and mass-media against magicians, and so they take action. This is to expand the scope in terms of plot, but not what I found interesting. Themes begin to appear in this section.
The first theme is the split between course 1 and course 2 students, between the “elite” and the “replacements”. Should a course 1 student fail, a course 2 student will step in for them. They don’t touch upon it in the series itself, but it makes a lot of sense that it’d cause feelings of anger on the side of the course 1 students – they are constantly reminded they might fail, and that there are those who will replace them, who will take their spots. Not to mention there are experiments where people are split into two groups arbitrarily, and then given sacks that can earn them “points” – even though they might even know their bag is stacked compared to others’, they’d still consider themselves as superior.
That “bag” is also one’s genes, education, the fiscal situation of their parents, or in other words a lot of it is up to what we are born with. Tatsuya, although the author keeps trying to pass him off as one who is not “With”, necessarily, certainly is. At one point one of the students joins the agitators, and Tatsuya blasts them, and later in a discussion with his sister, Miyuki, that they’re only jealous, and that things only come to those who work – and that all this jealousy comes from people who want to be “equal” though they aren’t. The justification given for most of these things isn’t “might makes right”, but actually is, also within the third-person omniscient-narrator in the prologues, that this is what’s good for humanity, and their country. It’s ok to have those with and those without, because that’s what capitalism dictates, basically. It’s not like you can truly disagree with it, but coupled with it being espoused by those who had been blessed with everything, and look down upon others, it’s sometimes hard to take.
The second theme is the main theme of the series, which is only somewhat brought up here, but is developed in-depth later, and also ties to the utilitarian and cold way people are treated: What it means to be a human tool? Magicians are rare, and are tools used by their country as military assets, in research, etc. The countries regulate magicians, and even used various means, including forced marriages, indoctrination and gene-modifications to shape magician lineages. So what it means to be human, and the line between a human and a tool is a big theme.
A lot of what happens in these two books is social – meeting with his peers, forging relationships, showing us the cast.
Books 3-4 – Nine Schools Competition – This is a magical school, so we better have Quidditch, err, some sports using magic! It’s a big tournament, where we have various competitions using magic, including fights. This is an excuse to show us how showy magic can be, and numerous fights that won’t end immediately, as in the duels Tatsuya takes part of in the first two books, which are mostly social. Here it’s all about showy stuff. Showy? We also get to see Tatsuya’s peerless skills as a magician artificer, who can control, tune, and create the magic casting assisting devices better than anyone else, and even creates new ones! Yup, if you need something done, just ask Tatsuya! ;-)
Aside from that, and the action sequences are going to be very cool when animated, we have a bunch of criminals who gamble on the games, so they are trying to make Tatsuya’s school lose. Here we see how much Tatsuya cares for his sister, and to what lengths he will go to eradicate all those who will harm her. Here we find out that this will truly go beyond the scope of highschool, as Tatsuya is a member of the covert forces, and he gets to destroy some artificial humans whose minds had been taken away and they’d been turned into killing machines remote controlled, or magic-boosters. Truly, the theme of humanity turning other humans, the “magicians” into literal tools, and their quest to redeem themselves, or find humanity within their nature as tools is expanded on here.
Book 5 – Summer Holiday – Short Stories – Most of this book hadn’t been translated to English. We’ve had student council elections and a beach-episode where someone confesses her feelings to Tatsuya, who rejects her. He’s a cold one, but we are told, when in combination with the previous book, that he literally can’t feel emotions other than brotherly love. Some would say this is an “explanation”, I’d have to say it’s an “excuse”. This is why he gets to be “Too cool for school”, and another way of feeding one of his so-called “weaknesses” into a strength making him cool. Hey, you don’t have to understand other people and show emotions, so long you can win any fight, kill any opponent, and create technology and magic no one else can ;-)
Books 6-7 – Yokohama Disturbance – One competition was too quickly done, so we have another competition! This time it’s not about physical and magical might, but a thesis-dissertation fight, where the various schools try to come up with advancements in magic! We only really get to see our school’s method and theory, but basically they want to solve a method in which magic could be used to power up thermonuclear plants, and so magicians will become “useful” to society, and prove their worth, and earn their place. Honestly, this is a bit wonky to me, even as this angle is followed up on in future books, because whether you’re a rifle or a power-plant, you’re still a tool, rather than a person. It does tie up into that weird capitalist idea where you constantly have to prove your worth and have no intrinsic worth.
If anything, I’d say that this whole notion proves Tatsuya’s and other magician’s (and the author’s!) misunderstanding or depth of indoctrination. They are so indoctrinated that all they think of to show their worth as “beyond tools” are only more ways of turning themselves into tools, even if “peaceful” ones that can aid in raising the standard of living, rather than ending lives.
Anyway, pretty quickly this book devolves into an invasion from “The Great East Asian Alliance.” Here it’s one big brawl, a chance for Tatsuya to be cool and military, to almost literally be God (I’m not kidding here), and for his colleagues at school to find out more of the truth behind him, of what he is capable of and who he’s tied to. Big battles and flashy mass battles.
Book 8 – Reminiscence – This book mostly covers what happened three years ago, and covers the unique family situation of Tatsuya and his sister, along with why Tatsuya is more or less ostracized by the rest of his family, how Miyuki used to view him and when she began adoring him. This is background. It’s interesting, but that’s what it is. We also see some history behind their family and their aunt, who is the Head of their house, which is important to understand the following books.
Books 9-11 The Visitor – These books sort of remind me of the third book in Harry Potter, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. While the first two books were sort of fluffy, in that book we’ve had a better-structured, more intriguing story that actually felt good. The Prisoner of Azkaban is my favourite Harry Potter book, while we’re at it. These three books feel as if they are an attempt to tell a more organized “spy story”, with more time spent viewing the proceedings from the point of view of characters other than Tatsuya.
After Tatsuya had finished tussling with local agitators (books 1-2), a local crime syndicate (books 3-4), and the nearby empire (books 7-8), here he gets to face off against the USNA – USA, Mexico, and Canada. The country with the strongest magician fighting force in the world, officially (USA! USA!). The ace of the USNA squares off against Tatsuya, who is Japan’s ace, and she reminds him of himself, as she too is used by others, but unlike him she has a heart that can feel, and he wishes her out of the army. After all, Tatsuya wishes all magicians could avoid being part of the army.
A major theme here is Tatsuya’s insistence on the way in which USNA does things is wrong – the mightiest person is their military leader, even if it’s a highschool age girl with a fragile heart. “Strongest” not necessarily being “The most fitting,” though to me these things run somewhat counter to the messages in the first two books, but I guess Tatsuya is capable of learning things.
A major theme here is the responsibility of power, on loyalty.
Even though these books are somewhat more organized, and somewhat “better written” in terms of plot-structure and actually having a plot, they are less interesting to read, and important characters are left out of the story for lengthy sections at times. The real issue is that while there’s an actual plot, it still relies overmuch on description of how everything is going, and the characters telling us in their thoughts what every other side’s true motives are, rather than us seeing it in action, or learning through conversations between various characters, which too often feel like info-dumps for the sake of the readers.
Summarized Feelings & Adaptation:
The series has a lot of very awkward words. Not just the sentence structure, a lot of which is at fault of shoddy translation/editing, but a lot of unnecessary verbiage, lengthy internal monologues, big info-dumps inside a character’s mind, or to other characters.
Shiba Tatsuya is designed to be the coolest and best at whatever he does, aside from being good with other people, who still flock to his power and how dependable he is. In other words, he fits the old mold of such shounen protagonists, and YA power fantasy series (see also Drizzt Do’Urden in the west, as one of endless examples). Most of this stuff also fits Sword Art Online, so why did I like that series considerably more? Well… emotions. The main cast rarely gets emotional, and rarely gets invested. There’s very little to elicit true emotions of sadness or joy from us, the readers.
This isn’t a bad series, but it’s mostly workmanlike and unexciting, as a book series. It’d probably get about 2.5/5 stars from me on Goodreads. It’s a fun light read, but it’s not very good, and it doesn’t stick with you for long. It’s the definition of popcorn. It does raise some interesting ideas and themes, but they are let down by the characters not really changing, not really being developed (we constantly get told rather than shown how they act).
Now, I think this show might still be a great, when adapted.
Just like the Lord of the Rings films, a lot of what is hampering this series will hopefully get cut down in the anime. Constant explanations of how magic works? Nah, it’s cool, and that’s what matters. There are quite a few fights in the series, and books 3-4 are all about cool competitions using magic, and books 5-6 have one large-scale battle taking place over a hundred pages, and that sort of stuff can look awesome and draw people in when animated, while cutting down on lengthy and adjective and adverb-ridden sentences (:P), while the fan-service is also slightly less awkward when it’s not literally stopping the action for you to see it.
Most importantly, the part about emotions. The emotional outbursts in the series mostly occur from minor characters, and aren’t fully-developed. Good acting, and less time spent on other characters can convince us. A lot of this series will depend not just on acting by the main cast, but by the supporting characters’ actors. And even then, this is a show by Madhouse, and the preview shows us very sharp animation. A popcorn show with a good story is bonus, but having cool characters, cool action, and having it be well-animated are usually “enough”, and this show looks like it’ll deliver on that.
The preview episode had shown us moments from book 7 and 8. I wonder if they’d already animated that far, or if it’s only been animated for the sake of the preview. The show is slated to be 26 episodes. Do they plan to have 26 episodes for the first 8 books, with the 8th book perhaps interspersed amongst the others? It’s possible. First 2 books up to episode 5 or so, books 3-4 will take us to episode 11-13, with book 5’s two salient stories going to 13-15, with books 6-7 having 8 episodes for endless fights.
Personally, I hope they will cover all 11 books comprising the first year in high school in the first season. First two books taking up 3-4 episodes, about 5 or so episodes for books 3-4, with book 5 taking us up to episode 11 or so. Honestly, with how much time the big fight in books 6-7 takes, but that it is also mostly repeating the same thing over and over again, I think giving it more than 4-5 episodes would be a mistake. Going with this setup, the first 8 books should take roughly 16-18 episodes (accounting for book 8 as well), and the final 8 or so episodes will be given to the one story that’s books 9-11. It also fits with how many anime do it, where early on we have quite a few stories, and the story making up the last half (more like two quarters) of a 2-cour show being slower, more methodical, and somewhat more “serious”. This also fits the themes of loyalty these books conjure.
I’m looking up to the series, as something that’ll be “fun”. If it’d manage to make me emotional, it’d be a big upside. There are some nice themes here, and cutting a lot of unnecessary verbiage may help them shine clearer.
- Light-Novels are Poorly Written and Adapting Them Shows That. (geekorner.wordpress.com)
“This isn’t a bad series, but it’s mostly workmanlike and unexciting, as a book series. It’d probably get about 2.5/5 stars from me on Goodreads. It’s a fun light read, but it’s not very good, and it doesn’t stick with you for long. It’s the definition of popcorn. It does raise some interesting ideas and themes, but they are let down by the characters not really changing, not really being developed (we constantly get told rather than shown how they act).”
While there are some minor details I don’t agree with you, I still think you did a very good job giving a balanced review of this series.
This is the closest I feel I’ve been to writing a real “review” in a long, long while. While I still tried to shy away from “what happens”, also because it contains spoilers, but also because it’s boring for me to write (and you can just see it on Wikipedia), and rather tried to focus on writing style and/or themes. But with 11 books to go over, this sort of “overview” still felt a tad weird to write.
When it comes to narrative pieces, seeing a “review” tell me “What happened” is the least interesting option, I could watch it. It might even ruin the experience of watching it, and if I did watch it, why do I need a recap?
So I write what I’d be interested in, which is things that stood out, or thoughts that I’ve had as a result of consuming the media.
But I do read video game and tabletop RPG reviews, and there I expect them to go over everything, so I could see how the game plays, but it doesn’t detract from the experience of actually playing it. And so I tried to do the same thing here. The “summary” part at the end of the review, and even moreso the final score, aren’t really relevant. That just gives you what the reviewer thought – their value judgment.
A well-written review of such a product gives you enough information that you could tell whether you’re likely to like it or not, regardless of what the author thought. And that was what I aimed to do so here: Give enough information so others could form their own opinions, while not hiding my own take.
I enjoyed the light novels a lot, but this is pretty spot on. Hopefully the anime turns out “good”.
[…] some of my thoughts on LN-writing in general and why it is problematic when adapted to anime, and here for my overview of the first 11 books of Mahouka Koukou no Rettousei, including thematic breakdown, […]
[…] how that is relevant when one adapts the light novels to anime. Mahouka Koukou no Rettousei, which I wrote a post about the first 11 novels of, is the perfect example of endless internal monologues which replace characterization and action, a […]
The anime is actually very, very good. I suggest you should watch it.
Here are my notes on episodes 1-9. I suggest not reading them if you’re a fan of the show, as I hardly think of it as being “good”. I do think it improved on some things in the novels, didn’t deliver on others, and exposed better some of the underlying issues with the novels.
I agree that some pieces are executed well, others not. somethings like you mentioned “endless monologue” or info dumps i do appreciate being removed, only if the info is properly revealed in sequences that they are shown. however, there is also some extra trimming done in the anime that i do miss from the books. like in the NSC, when Tatsuya is assisting Mayumi for several rounds and shows more of his technical brilliance, yet all but gets completely cut out
I absolutely love mahouka koukou because I love convoluted garbage where the world is almost more important than the characters, because while I’m invested in the characters I’m really in love with not HOW the world and plot are built–you’re right about the long monologues and things–but in the fact that the world IS heavily built at all. It sparks a technical desire to know everything, because it is possible to know everything, unlike harry potter where it’s just the same world except there’s wizards and wizard things (biting books? c’mon), which I think leans it more towards sci-fi than fantasy, which may also be a reason you prefer SAO over it, if you have those kinds of leanings. I don’t know, I want to know more than just the characters and mahouka gives that to me in a way not a lot of manga/anime do. I also loved the anime but you said your review of it wasn’t pleasant if your a fan so I’m not going to read it…