I’ve warned people. I told them it’d be bad. I told them there’s a reason the messages in this show trouble me so. They thought I was just being overly sensitive. Well, episode 4 happened, so let’s talk about it.
Introducion: Weaponized Light Novels, Handle With Extreme Caution:
Plenty of media pieces convey opinions I don’t share. It’s not bad, it’s an opinion. An unexplored political opinion, a “normative message” (“this is how things should be”) is harmful. You can pick it up, but you should be aware of what its ramifications are, you should look clearly at what it’s actually saying.
Light Novels often contain an underlying subtext that is at best naïve and divorced from reality, and at worst poisonous. A lot of it can be chalked up to “wishful thinking” or “fantasies”, whether they are power fantasies where we get to do as we wish with our power, or ones where we’re smarter than everyone else and they despise us for it, or even where our moral superiority over others should give us more rights, affirming our deeply-felt belief that we are somehow better than those around us, who do not acknowledge us.
Many light novels and anime works, heck, many films, video games, etc. are appreciated not in spite of the subtext, but because of it. We all watch and play stuff for the fantasies they empower and engender within us; that’s fine. If anything, it’s the opposite of escapism, tackling things we cannot handle in life on our terms.
And then we have messages such as the ones in Mahouka Koukou no Rettousei, that seem benign, but are deeply insidious and had even caused much harm in the real world, and which make me shake my head mightily and cry out, “No. This is not fine.“
Mahouka Koukou no Rettousei begins with the usual stuff: Presenting a picture of a world where we are glorious, but others just fail to see it, and when they do they flock to us, without us needing to actually do anything about it ourselves.
But then the show takes it further, and argues that people who seek more equality, or dare to oppose the benevolent rule of Capitalism are defeatists who blame others, those who argue for “false equality”, and even terrorists, while trying to present its “Rule of the Inherited Might” as not just benevolent, but “fair”, while it is anything but.
Note: Some “social” or romantic light novels also bring up a plethora of similar issues, but here I’m talking mostly of shows usually to be found within the shounen(/””seinen””) action LNs sub-genre, think of Index, Sword Art Online, Mahouka. You can still enjoy them. I really enjoy SAO for instance, but these things still exist. And exceptions exist, but this is the rule, and definitely the case for Mahouka.
(In case you need additional reading or grounding, this page contains excerpts from the 2nd novel, from a fan translation. Excerpts 1-2 had been covered in episode 4, and the rest are likely to get covered in episodes 5-6. You can check here for 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, and light-spoilers.)
Part 1: Tatsuya and the Gilded Cage of Perfection:
Let’s begin with what is simple: Tatsuya is perfect. Tatsuya is all-capable. Tatsuya’s “weaknesses” are immaterial to the story in most respects. He can’t use magic that’s tested in the school’s measurements? No biggy, it’s not like the plot ever really demands for him to use it. He has limited magic, but the plot bends over backwards to only bring about situations where they are usable (honestly, almost any LN situation would fit), or uses them to showcase how smart he is in knowing how to apply his so-called “limited” arsenal in varying conditions.
When you have weaknesses that aren’t real weaknesses, they’re lip-service, so people won’t complain the character is too perfect. Is that all? No, there are two more things going on here. The first is merely literary, it’s confusing an “explanation” for a “reason” while it’s merely “excuse”. That something receives an in-world “explanation” does not make it a justified reason, if it’s not a natural outgrowth of the story. All too often it’s a meta-work excuse, it’s just a way for the author to get to the situation he wanted. It’s not always, since we want our characters and worlds to behave in certain ways, but quite often it’s not “earned” by hard work on the author.
And here is the other bit. Tatsuya is “bad with other people”. Tatsuya is bad at “emotions”. Not only does that not stop everyone from flocking to his side by seeing how amazing he is (which they keep saying, something that feels fake as hell), and his secret nobility, but it actually plays into the wish-fulfillment part of what people refer to when they speak of “Self-insert protagonists”. The subtext here is that you don’t have to speak your mind, you don’t have to be likeable, or personable, or have a good sense of humor; others will still do the hard work on your behalf, will still appreciate you for your inner qualities. The fact you’re oh-so-special will shine through to the outside world.
The message here is you don’t have to try hard, you just have to be your glorious, and better than everyone else, self. That feeds into the sense of alienation many of us feel, and if anything locks us within it by telling us it’s ok not to change – it’s the dancing floor or football court that’s crooked, not us.
After setting up how Tatsuya is perfect, let’s look at how the world series is there to enable him being perfect, how the “interesting world-building” is not a cage, but a set of spotlights to awesome his awesomeness, and quite empty behind the scenes: The “Weeds” are supposedly weak in magic. The school system had been around for I believe 12 years. You’d think the system would either work, or be seen as not working at this stage. Tatsuya being an outlier is one thing, he’s an outlier on any level. But as the series unfolds, you see that all of his “Course 2” friends, which you see in the opening animation, break the mold, all of them outdo what course 2, course 1, or even adults can manage. This is standard shounen, anime or LN fare, so it shouldn’t surprise you much.
In other words, the school system is an excuse. An excuse for Tatsuya to be looked down upon. The school system is designed so Tatsuya could show how flawed it is. It is there to create an arbitrary and false measurement of Tatsuya. I saw someone put it the other day like this, “Tatsuya isn’t a Weed student, but a misidentified Bloom” and thought that was well-put, except he transcends even that distinction. The subtext here is, “Even if you’re not appreciated by your surrounding, it’s because they use a non-fitting and arbitrary measuring system. You may score low on tests, but you’re still special, and better than everyone else, if only they could see what is hidden within you.”
There’s also another sub-text here, “School is a sham, and so are adults.” Adults in anime, when they are not missing, are usually either a joke, or villains. The teacher who speaks of her miserable love-life, the police officers who think of glory, are corrupt and/or just fail to subdue the enemies. These are obviously so our heroes could step in, but at some point the message is damaging, in how it paints all adults as something to be ignored or outright defeated. The adults who foisted these arbitrary and ill-fitting systems onto us…
Part 2: Presenting Meritocracy:
Now, let’s talk about what really bothered me. Meritocracy. A system where the most fitting, most skilled, rule. Taken a notch down, to the way it’s colloquially used, it’s a system where the most skilled ones get the most opportunities, the best pay, etc. It’s something that many “conservative libertarians” espouse, and is often mixed with the way “Objectivism” is used these days, where each person should follow their desires to the best of their abilities, to fulfill themselves.
Some would argue such a system, which is also at the base of much of Capitalism, is “fair”. I am not going to argue about the morality of it too much, as indeed, as Tatsuya alludes to, if you want people to engage in positions that carry more risk, suffer from slanted supply versus demand, and/or require more effort to master, you need to compensate them better, right?
Well, the only problem is presenting this system as “fair”. Here’s a simple question, the person who wins at sports: who runs faster, who jumps farther, did they “earn” it through their hard work? Now, those at the top work reallyhard, to bring out their full potential, and also to be able to compete against others who worked really hard, there the difference is in inches. But what about someone who is way better than you? That’s mostly genetics: The luck of the draw. They didn’t “earn” their success, but had been gifted it.
Likewise for economic or educational success. There’s a strong statistical correlation between your parents’ education and financial status, to your own financial success. Those people preaching for “meritocracy” are often those who are born with the biggest starting advantage. They paint their success as owing to their hard work, while denigrating those who did not succeed for not putting in the effort, and blaming the “successful ones”. The “Course 1” students’ “superiority complex” towards Tatsuya? We know he’s better than them, so it’s actually an inferiority complex.
Part 3: My Beef with Meritocracy, Spelled Out:
Meritocracy on its own is not that problematic to me, though if you take it to its logical conclusion, you end up with “super-humans” and “sub-humans”, not in a physical or mental sci-fi situation, but socially. If I’m better than you, then I should be allowed to get away with anything, while you have no rights.
Meritocracy on its own isn’t problematic, and would be even less problematic if we had “communal children houses” as the Israeli Kibbutzes had, but that failed spectacularly for various psychological and social reasons. A “problem” with meritocracy is that rather than merely supporting those with skills to rise to the top, it replicates success. Have you read my piece? In case you don’t know, I actually have a degree in Sociology, and many of my professors specialized in studying inequality, or education. Your parents’ social standing, education, and income level, all transference to your own.
In other words, meritocracy presents the guise of allowing social mobility and proper reward based on your own “skills” (much of it being inborn), and just as important, your own effort, but is actually a system for replicating the current social order.
That’s… unfair, but that’s life. I agree. The biggest problem is that it purports to be fair, and is a system to sew false hope, as it actually plays out in our world. “The Dignity of the Common Man” is a related concept, where often those who champion libertarian concepts the hardest are blue collar workers, who wish to hold the thought that if they earn it, they’d be able to advance. The system is rigged against them from the day they are born, though.
Part 4: Mahouka’s Poisonous Meritocratic Messages:
That bit about “someone far better” in athletics wasn’t accidental. Tatsuya is that far ahead of everyone else. The whole notion of meritocracy here feels incredibly fake: Miyuki keeps saying how Tatsuya worked harder than everyone else, but we remember what I said above: Everything he is had been gifted to him, by adults. Magical powers? Genetic makeup, just like athletic ability. Tatsuya’s “special nature”? Again, something he’d been given, rather than earned.
All of Tatsuya’s friends, which we’ll see just how great they are? Sure, they worked for it, but again, there’s a mixture of inheriting powers through their bloodlines, and just how arbitrary and system-“breaking” the whole world is. First year high school students who outshine adults who are at the top of their respective fields. These adults didn’t work hard? The world has systems, but it only has systems so the special characters could break them. The systems are an excuse to limit the characters, and show just how great they are when they manage to break them… systems designed for that very purpose.
Characters? Why not us? Living in this world, with the rigid social order, with the arbitrary school grading. Meritocracy works as a concept, but only because we’re supposedly better than everyone else. We keep the dream alive, because if we don’t get graded well on the “meritocratic ladder”? It only means the ladder or measurement tools are somehow faulty, but watch out world, for when we unleash our true nature! Either we get accepted as amazing, or the system is broken.
Look some more on the sub-text of Miyuki and Tatsuya’s talk. Those who dare speak of equality? They blame others for their lack of talent. Those who wish for equality are against our nation! They’re terrorists. If you oppose capitalism, you’re obviously a terrorist. I wish I were making this up, but it’s not even sub-text.
Also, note how they speak of magicians “earning” the right to earn more – they’ve been born as magicians. They were handed the talents that will allow them to earn more. This is almost literally the concept of inheriting wealth, and that the children of wealthy and educated parents will be wealthy and educated, and be given entry to management positions, which then we’ll say they “earned”.
When we succeed, it’s because we worked hard for it. When we fail, it’s because the system wasn’t tailored to our needs. When others succeed, it’s due to their luck or situations, but when they fail it’s because they’re failures who didn’t try hard enough. When our friends fail? It’s because they underestimate themselves. It’s because they bought into the system, the one designed by our foolish oppressors! Mibu Sayaka resents being treated as weak, because she’s strong, she got 2nd place in a national tournament. Her failure isn’t within the system, but in even letting herself think of herself using this false system’s measurements.
Tiro Finale!: Mahouka Tries to Have it All, Ends Up With Ugly Nonsense:
But the show can’t even keep its message clear here. That’s good enough for a tertiary character like Mibu Sayaka, but for Tatsuya? His sister demands he’ll be recognized, because even more than skill, we need everyone else, and especially those who looked down on us, to recognize our superiority, or we’ll crush them, as Hattori Hanzo had been crushed.
LNs, anime, and other works in general are full of problematic messages. Mahouka takes it all the way. The system is flawed, and is only there to limit us, and for us to break it. We’re greater than anyone else, and eventually they’d see it. Everyone will flock to us for our greatness, so we do not need to be nice, or have any personality. Adults aren’t to be taken seriously, except when they are to be crushed. And of course, rampant capitalism under the guise of equality is fine, anyone arguing the system as is isn’t “equal” is at best a fool that doesn’t see reality, or a slave of the system, and at worst a national enemy.
Some of these messages are contradictory. Partially it’s due to an author, who as many people, can’t tell his characters, and probably he himself hold contradictory opinions, or just poorly thought-out segments. Another reason is the bias, where we apply one set of metrics to ourselves and our friends, and another to everyone else.
Those messages aren’t something most fans have to “get over” to enjoy the material, but the very reason they like it so much. At least some of them, while they take in the last bit, the most poisonous, without even noticing. Capitalism has a lot going for it, and much of the argument adds up, so it’s easy to take in the pure poison mixed in as well.