The Irregular at Magic High School: Enrollment Arc, Part 2

By Tsutomu Sato and Kana Ishida. Released in Japan as “Mahouka Koukou no Rettousei” by ASCII Mediaworks. Released in North America by Yen On. Translated by Andrew Prowse.

Multi-volume arcs in light novel series are nothing new, and quite popular. The usual thing to do is a two-volume arc, though they can balloon up to 5 (Baccano’s 1935 arc) or even 10 (SAO’s Alicization arc). It’s rare to see a series begin with a two-volume arc, and as you read the second volume of Mahouka (as the series is commonly abbreviated to), you guess why – this was originally one huge book that the publisher demanded be cut in half. The author admits this in the notes at the end. As such, it’s not something meant to be taken in on its own, and doesn’t try to be. It’s the second half of the first book, with a few more terrorist attacks and less school prejudice.

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There’s a lot of talk in these volumes, both in regards to how magic works in the world and in how the political landscape is affected by it. The narration is very much down on the side of those with magic, but at least tries to understand the viewpoint of one who does not have such magic skill, and has to look on in envy and frustration at those who do. In fact, I felt one of the biggest flaws of this book was towards the end, where it was revealed that the cute kendo girl who was working for the bad guys was doing so mostly due to simple mind control, rather than her own misguided beliefs. I suppose the author wants to keep her around rather than expel her, but still, you’d be surprised how often misguided beliefs are a good enough reason on their own and don’t need extra help.

I said this last time, and I will again: I have no idea how the anime handles Tatsuya’s thought process, which is constant throughout the book, but if it simply cuts it and goes with what he’s saying out loud, that’s a horrible mistake. There’s several times throughout this book where he’ll say something and then think to himself that he’s saying that just to go along with the flow, or put people off their guard, and that his feelings are almost the opposite. This even applies to the unfortunate incest subtext that’s still hanging around. It’s not all on Miyuki’s end, and we can see that she and Tatsuya both play it up to the hilt because they know if they exaggerate it that others will dismiss it – as Erika seems to here. Of course, this does not mean it isn’t there.

There’s also a lot of fighting towards the end, and it’s reasonably well done, though of course it does point out that Tatsuya is, shall we say, good at nearly everything. This is not going to change anytime soon, and he’s hardly the worst offender in light novels, but it can be frustrating to an audience that is seeking out a more flawed hero. It’s especially frustrating when combined with his stoic personality, though that can also be a blessing, as imagining Tatsuya as some shonen hothead but with the same abilities gives me a headache. In the end, this was a decent if flawed start to the series, and the next two volumes (this time seemingly intentionally written as an actual two-book series) look to show off an athletics festival between the various schools. Note this comes out in North America at the exact same time as A Certain Magical’s Index’s 2-book athletic festival series, which is an amusing coincidence. Fans of Index, SAO, or magic schools might find Mahouka worth getting.

A Certain Magical Index, Vol. 8

By Kazumi Kamachi and Kiyotaka Haimura. Released in Japan as “To Aru Majutsu no Index” by ASCII Mediaworks. Released in North America by Yen On. Translated by Andrew Prowse.

For the most part, the Index series has Kamijou Touma as the viewpoint character, with most of the books being from his perspective. The exceptions we’ve seen are the 5th book, which has a substantial chunk from Accelerator’s POV, and this novel, which has Shirai Kuroko taking center stage, though honestly the way the book is framed also seems to imply that she really shouldn’t be doing this. Not that she isn’t badass and awesome – she does a number of amazing things throughout the book – but the book puts her through even more damage than Touma, and suggests that this is sort of the thing that happens to protagonists. In addition, she and Touma have the same general outlook as to why they’re getting involved, at least when Misaka is involved – protect her worldview. And if Misaka is an optimistic girl who thinks people are basically swell except a few bad apples, then by god it will be so. Which is fine, except Touma is much better equipped to take on said world, which has a lot more to it than Misaka’s clone experiment.

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Introduced in this volume: Uiharu Kazari, Kongou Mitsuko (For once I refuse to acknowledge Yen’s official spelling), Musujime Awaki. Technically we’d seen Awaki twice before, but we didn’t know it was her. Continuity-wise… eurgh. This is the volume where it’s very clear that this is being written before A Certain Scientific Railgun has really gotten off the ground – it comes out a full year before the Railgun manga debuts. As such, Uiharu’s characterization seems very odd with her obsession with being ladylike. The “teasing Kuroko” thing is still around, though, and Kuroko still does not react well. This is right around the time Kongou is introduced in the Railgun manga, which is why it sounds like she’s meeting Kuroko for the first time, and talking about Cliques. That said, in the anime, where she’s introduced much earlier, this makes no sense. This is why spinoffs give me a headache. Oh, and Accelerator and Last Order are still in hospital, being watched by Aiho, who it’s revealed here is friends with Yoshikawa Kikyou.

Whenever I’ve discussed Kuroko before, I’ve said I’ll save my beef with her till this review, and here we are. So let’s face it: Kuroko is a “Comedy Lesbian”, something much beloved among Japanese anime and manga authors. Kuroko is a bit more single-focused than many others, but exhibits the same symptoms – a constant desire to get into Misaka’s pants, even if that means sexually assaulting her without her consent. This is OK to the reader because it’s clearly meant as “comedy” scenes, not to be taken seriously, and Misaka always fends her off. It drives me nuts. It particularly drives me nuts as whenever she’s not in that mode, Kuroko is quite a nice character, devoted to keeping the peace as part of the student task force “Judgment”. At least I won’t get as much of it in the novels, where Kuroko is a minor character by dint of simply not being all that involved with Touma.

The storyline itself ties together many of the loose ends from Books 3 and 5, as Awaki helpfully notes, being very much in the “school of villains who love to hear themselves talk’. She is very clearly set up to be a dark counterpart to Kuroko, right down to similar hairstyles and similar powers – they’re both even Level 4! But Awaki’s villainy is based around selfishness and fear, and Kuroko’s heroism, comedy lesbian antics aside, around selflessness and pride. There is much discussion of the powers that Academy City is developing, and how students who are found to have that kind of power really feel about them. There is also a LOT of technobabble, and Kamachi’s flaws as an author sometimes become apparent in that he will get more excited about his worldbuilding than he will about what’s actually going on. That said, the fights in this are top notch, and Accelerator vs. Awaki at the end has a great quotable line.

So another good book for Index fans, and quite short too – I think it’s the shortest in the series to date. Next time won’t be that, though, as we get Index’s first two-book arc, devoted to the Citywide School Athletic Festival.

Otherworld Barbara, Vol. 1

By Moto Hagio. Released in Japan as “Barbara Ikai” by Shogakukan, serialized in the magazine flowers. Released in North America by Fantagraphics. Translated by Matt Thorn.

For many readers, no review is necessary – just seeing the words “Moto Hagio” on the cover will make this a must-buy. But for those of you who have not yet been captivated by one of Japan’s premier artists, let me assure you that this first omnibus volume of Otherworld Barbara is absolutely worth the extra expense of a hefty hardcover. At times melancholy, amusing, heartbreaking and terrifying, it’s a trip through the senses, as with Hagio’s other work that’s recently come out over here (A Drunken Dream). This has the added benefit of being a complete story, and so you can see how she sets up various plot points and then allows them to sit percolating until they can be used again to devastating effect.

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I was faked out at first, I admit. We’re introduced to an odd fantasy hybrid of a world, where a little girl who has difficulty flying like her friends do has happy fun adventures, but right away we see that Aoba is odd – eating the book gives it away if nothing else. It’s an odd hybrid of Peter Pan-style fantasy and reality, as there are several quasi-connections with the Tokyo we know. Then all of a sudden we’re away from that, and following the story of Dr. Watarai, a man whose job it is to enter other people’s dreams, and the troubled relationship he has with his teenage son Kiriya, who is a teenage boy in so many ways. I had assumed that the manga would now shift back and forth between the two “worlds”, but no, we don’t go back to the fantasy world till the second half of the book, where it becomes far more relevant – and creepy.

The fantasy stuff is excellent, but the book really shines when getting involved in the interpersonal relationships Dr. Watarai has with everyone from his bitter, slightly hysterical ex-wife to a somewhat overenthusiastic young protege. His fractured relationship with his son feels very real, especially as there are no good, easy fixes. Kiriya is also dealing with difficult times, as aside from his father he’s being courted – well, stalked to a degree – by a classmate, and also dreaming of Dr. Watarai’s latest patient, a woman who’s been in a coma for years ever since a devastating accident involving her parents. Where the two worlds collide is that this woman is named Aoba, and is clearly the same person as the young girl in the fantasy world.

There’s a lot more going on here, including age regression that almost turns into personality overlay, deadly psychic tornados, terrifying killer dolls, and a seeming suicide that makes you go back to the title page for the chapter and say “Really? You really went there?”. It’s definitely not a book for kids. But there’s so much going on here – in plot, which the reader figures out at the same time as the characters do, and in mood, which is always my go-to reason to read Hagio’s manga. things promise to get a lot more complex for the second and final book, as we also find out about a connection to Mars, and a sinister conspiracy led by a not-so-noble priest. If you enjoyed manga that rewards endless rereads with both its art and style, you can’t go wrong with Otherworld Barbara.