Because I can think of nothing The Cart Driver needs more than a second opinion on Mahouka.
On a somewhat morbid whim, I decided to brave my way through the entirety of Mahouka over the course of around eight months. I’ve said some pretty scathing things about other wildly popular light novel wish fulfillment adaptations, but nothing reaches the heights of shit that Mahouka piles on. It manages a delicate balance between weirdly conservative moral peculiarity at its most spirited, and mind-numbing tedium the other 99% of the time. In the ultimate expression of irony, the better that it gets, the less watchable it is. It flies in the face of every quality-determining matrix I abide by.
Since Scamp already expressed his distaste for Mahouka as a whole, at length, with an opinion that more or less mirrors mine, I decided to do something kind of new by ranking the arcs in order of quality from best to worst. With the only consistency being the show’s eagerness to jack Tatsuya off at every opportunity, there’s enough variety between the arcs to make for an interesting study in the show’s degeneration—or at least enough that complaints of Tatsuya sucking don’t come up too much. With the two year anniversary almost upon us, I can think of no better time to compile examples of just how fascinatingly insipid this abomination can get. So enjoy Enrollment, the best of what Mahouka has to offer.
Enrollment is like the default hotdog at your local Wienerschnitzel—it’s not in the general vicinity of goodness, but it won’t dissolve your innards like every other item on the menu. In it, Tatsuya is lumped in with the caste of students who don’t fulfill the school’s arbitrary expectations of what makes a potentially good mage. This, and this alone, is the one area where Tatsuya’s near-divinity actually contributes to the narrative and pacing of the show, rather than stymieing it. Magic is shown to have enough variety in both manifestation and application that following strict standards to determine ability is damn near impossible, which makes a pretty neat argument against strict standardization.
To the show’s credit, it follows through on this to a (probably unintentional) degree, with most of the “weeds” shown to be more or less competent at magic, even if they don’t have the innate talent of their “bloom” (arbitrary ubermensch) counterparts. For the first part of Enrollment, the arbitrary (that really is the theme of this arc) divide between the two classes is shown to be incredibly useless in determining ability, and the constant shitting of the blooms onto the weeds is depicted as unjust. In capable hands, I could see Mahouka actually making a pretty interesting statement on class, society’s expectations, and the individual’s place in it. But then when the weeds are shown to be fed up with the current, illogical class divide, Mahouka makes a 180 degree turn and denounces their desire to abolish or change it. It’s here where the arc starts to get really weird.
Despite being subjected to the injustices of an inefficient system that doesn’t take a broader skillset into account, Tatsuya balks at the idea of changing it in any meaningful way. His reaction is a creepy objectivist speech about how the people agitating for change are actually deserving of their lot in life despite, well, actively advocating for change. It’s like somebody not only defending their president/prime minister/archduke taking massive bribes, but defending the dysfunction as a functioning system that the whiny, entitled disadvantaged just can’t possibly understand. It’s such a bizarre shift in opinion on the subject that it turns the entire arc into a disjointed clusterfuck. It ending on a speech by the student body president supporting the current system, which somehow defuses the weeds’ righteous anger, is borderline insulting. I honestly cannot imagine a human being watching that and thinking of it as anything but patronizing.
Tatsuya-ness: 5 Onii-samas making the impossible possible/10
While Tatsuya isn’t the Second Coming of Christ that he proves himself to be in Nine Schools Competition and almost literally so in Yokohama Disturbance, he’s still surprisingly capable for somebody who’s ostensibly magically deficient. Enrollment does try to make him seem like a sort of underdog though, which makes his ridiculous capability a little more sympathetic for a time.
I want to take the time to say that a character being preternaturally good at everything isn’t a total engagement killer, so long as they’re actually characterized in some way. Flaws and deficiencies help, but there’s a certain visceral joy in seeing hypercompetent individuals triumph over trying circumstances, i.e. Lelouche in Code Geass, everybody in Black Lagoon, and the namesake of Akagi. Akagi aside, these aren’t boring characters, despite knowing just what to do in any given situation.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, there’s something to be said about a show where somebody lands the perfect situation, but screws it up due to personal failings. Death Note is an excellent example of a show that balances the competence of its lead, and the odds that he’s up against. When Light is trying to slaughter his way to a utopia, he’s up against the police of multiple jurisdictions that he can’t just kill on a whim. When his obstacles are gone, it’s his own hubris that trips him up. It’s such a simple dichotomy that makes every situation he finds himself in a tense affair, regardless of his control over it. Light is as close to perfect as you can get, and it’s only when he revels in this fact, only when he’s so close to victory, that he damns himself.
Enrollment is Tatsuya at his most disadvantaged, but it’s a halfhearted gesture that only works so long as we don’t know how many delicious pies he has his fingers in. He’s disadvantaged in the way that Einstein would be disadvantaged in a group of renowned biologists, or Chopin would be disadvantaged in a keytar competition—he isn’t as good as those with innate talent for executing magic, but he has the basics and concepts down enough that he can improvise on the fly, shown again and again and again. And the explanation that comes up later for why he can’t do magic as well as his peers completely undoes any notion that he’s ever been at a true disadvantage.
No matter how much Mahouka says that Tatsuya isn’t gifted, it’s hard to believe when he has no problem fending off his magically-able peers, or when the arc ends with him solving the problem of magical flight in his spare time. To put it another way, when you have a chef who can make tripe mince into a perfect filet mignon, it doesn’t matter if he can’t boil an egg for shit. I’m not sure why Mahouka bothers to pretend that Tatsuya isn’t Magical Japanese Jesus for this arc when, just like the weed/bloom system, the subtext is quietly dropped once the next arc begins. The only reason why this isn’t Tatsuya at his most Tatsuya is that the show completely gives up on anything that isn’t jacking him off. Hell, it’s a mediocre level of Tatsuya-ness that can only aspire to be as shitty as what follows.
For all of my haranguing about how creepy and nonsensical it is, Enrollment is the best that Mahouka has to offer. No matter how much the show fights it, there is a coherent structure that it adheres to, and the weird message that it halfheartedly pushes actually has a modicum of substance. For how poorly it does so, it at least touches on concepts of classism and whether ending it would truly be a good thing, or just a means of demagogues seizing control. That’s more than can be said for the rest, which is devoid of both tension and substance. If the show ended here, it’d get a solidly mediocre 4/10. But of course it doesn’t.