If my Djinn could grant wishes, I’d ask for a quality anime – Reviewing Magi: The Labyrinth of Magic

Today I take a journey through a mystical world of dungeons and djinns, where the world is guided by fate and raging against it attracts little black butterflies. Wait, what?

Title: Magi: The Labyrinth of Magic
Original airing: October 7th, 2012 to March 31st, 2013
Studio: A-1 Pictures
Episodes: 25
Duration: 24 minutes per episode
Genres: Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Magic, Shounen
Source: Manga series written and illustrated by Shinobu Ohtaka

Where I watched: Netflix (English sub)

Watch the trailer here

Brief Synopsis and First Impressions

Dispersed around the world, there are several bizarre labyrinths hiding incredible treasures within them. These mysterious places, known as “Dungeons,” are said to be the work of Magi, a class of rare magicians, who also help people build their empires by guiding them to a dungeon. Djinns, supernatural beings that rule over the labyrinths, grant successful conquerors access to their immense power and choose them as potential king candidates to rule the world.

Having spent life in isolation, Aladdin, a kind and young magician, is eager to explore the world upon finally leaving his home behind. He begins his journey only accompanied by his mentor Ugo—a djinn that Aladdin can summon with his flute. However, Aladdin soon becomes friends with the courageous Alibaba Saluja after causing the destruction of a local merchant’s supply cart. In order to pay for the damages, Alibaba suggests that they attempt to conquer the nearest dungeon, taking the first step in an epic adventure that will decide the fate of the world itself.

Credit: myanimelist.net

I can’t claim to have an extensive number of animes under my belt. This very review, after all, is part of my anime challenge to watch 30 anime this year (which exceeds my lifetime total). That said, I’ve not seen any other anime that feels quite like Magi. There are tons of other adventure anime that heavily feature magic, but this series seems to stand out among them. A lot of this has to do with the setting: an unspecified desert landscape that echoes the classical motifs of middle eastern fiction with magical elements that fit along those same themes. One part Disney’s Aladdin for its setting, one part Fairy Tail for its magical adventures, and one part Sword Art Online for its dungeon conquering elements. What’s not to like?

I do enjoy watching these sorts of anime, as they are typically entertaining and feature decent story and characters besides. The danger here, however, is the tendency for these types of shows to become cliche. There isn’t anything inherently wrong with cookie cutter anime. The pattern exists because it’s been shown to work for a wide audience and the familiar elements give viewers something to relate to past experiences. The problem comes about when a show breaks from an otherwise fresh direction by stuffing in so many cliched tropes that it feels like the same thing you watched before, just with a different skin. In this review I explore my thoughts on how Magi may or may not have created a unique viewing experience.


Story

amon_dungeon

Set in a world that resembles a fantasy middle eastern setting, Magi: The Labyrinth of Magic tells the story of a young boy named Aladdin and the friends he meets in his travels. Drawing influence from other popular tales that share this setting, it features all manner of thematic elements like flying carpets, hidden treasure, supernatural beings that rule dungeons, and magical instruments which can house their power. Split up into episodes, called “Nights” in reference to the One Thousand and One Nights stories that it’s based in, the anime is divided into several arcs (much in the same vein as other popular shounen works). Going further than retelling some of the classical Middle Eastern stories, Magi explores the abstract concept of fate from a supernatural point of view set against the backdrop of a world governed by more mundane forces like social structures, politics, and class struggles.

With a subtitle of “The Labyrinth of Magic,” Magi quickly lives up to the description by introducing the concept of dungeons. Depicted as large above ground structures, instead of the dank underground pits that come to mind, these mysterious structures appear seemingly at random in the middle of otherwise ordinary locations and are said to house vast treasures. This lures the rich and poor alike, including Aladdin and the friend he finds in Alibaba, to try and make their way past the dungeons’ many perils. These challenges try the resolve of their would-be conquerors, seemingly rewarding only those destined, or chosen by fate, to succeed. As dangerous as they are, those who reach the end can lay claim to the metal vessel of the djinn that rules over the dungeon. These items are coveted for a good reason, as they grant their wielder the ability to channel the djinn’s vast power.

genie-aladding-01
Kind of like this, but only kind of.

On the topic of dungeons and djinn, there exist a small number of individuals who have the ability to summon these dungeons and lead their chosen conquerors through them. These enigmatic beings, known as Magi, derive their power from the souls of all living things. This power, referred to as Magoi by those that can wield it, is the force that governs fate. This concept of fate permeates most of the storylines and is clearly meant to be the focus of the series. While the source of this power, called the Rukh , is somewhat explored and defined with respect to its usage, much of it comes off as ad hoc as the series progresses. The method of explaining the nature of this mysterious force works as a slow reveal to the viewer. As a result, it can frequently feel like deus ex machina.

Aside from the magical aspects, the world that Magi takes place in is similar to our pre-modern world. In addition to the desert environment the series starts in there are a variety of settings, like the Asian steppe and island paradises, that provide color and broaden the series’ scope. While its depiction of desert cities and eastern cultures might have more than slight hints of orientalism, they nonetheless paint the setting effectively. The people in this series come from all walks of life, and deal with old world institutions like monarchies, despotism, and slavery. Self determination thus becomes an oft explored theme, where individuals and whole cities alike must struggle with the idea of losing or gaining their freedom. These humanitarian issues are part of what makes Magi an interesting series beneath all the fluff. Despite this, the anime eventually suffers the same fate as many shounen series in that even seemingly well thought out plots can rapidly break down into fight scenes.

masrur_vs_entai_500
Tomorrow’s election is going to be a circus if we can’t beat this elephant guy!

Conflict in this series takes on many forms. As a shounen series, there are predictably several fights that show off the strength or skills of the various characters. A lot of the higher level conflict, however, comes as a result of the political situations that the various countries find themselves in. While Aladdin’s powerful djinn, Ugo, can often seem like a ‘magical’ solution to any given problem, there are many delicate situations that are exacerbated by his involvement —  ranging from breaking a tenuous peace to causing too much collateral damage to nearby innocents during a fight. It’s a natural and realistic way to limit the effectiveness of a character that otherwise comes off as overwhelmingly strong.

Crafting a decent story through the midpoint, the final arc of the series features some of the more blatant stereotypes of shounen anime. This includes but is not limited to:

  • an absurdly perfect character
  • excessive fanservice
  • character assassination of an otherwise strong female
  • a contrived plot that gives the series an excuse to do lots more one-on-one battles full of shouting out special attack names.

The speed at which events develop at this phase is also out of rhythm with the rest of the series, but this was likely to get the story to a certain point before the series ended. The conclusion, while not technically a cliffhanger, does not actually conclude at all. In what is clearly a setup for the sequel series: “Kingdom of Magic,” the imminent threat is handled while the greater danger (and perhaps the main plot) is reserved for another season.


Characters

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Magi is inspired by the literary classic One Thousand and One Nightsa collection of Middle Eastern and South Asian folk tales. Using this well known literary classic as a backdrop for a new story, viewers may recognize some of the characters. Alibaba, Morgiana, Aladdin, and Sinbad appear in both the classic story and the anime series. As a nod to the folk tales, Magi incorporated some of the well known traits from the original namesakes’ into the characters used in this series. For example, in the original folk tale, Aladdin (summon your Disney knowledge if you must) possesses a genie (djinn) housed in a lamp. The Aladdin from this series also has a djinn but he is housed in a magical flute instead. Oh, and the djinn appears headless.

Aladdin is a very powerful magician and important person besides, not that he knows that. Wide eyed and innocent, viewers learn about the world of Magi alongside him. Meant to be lovable, his young appearance and lack of understanding about the world are played for both comedy and endearment. Though the humor associated with him most often plays off his insufferable tendency to be a pervert, he is still charming most of the time. Typical for a character like this, he is ever optimistic and loyal to his friends. This helps maintain his likability and avoid many of the pitfalls that similarly powerful characters suffer as they become jaded or otherwise influenced. Several attempts are made to use Aladdin against his allies, both before and after he befriends them, but he refuses each time. While this can be attributed somewhat to naivety, more often than not it is a case of his strong sense of right and wrong at work.

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Of course, if they tried to sway him with big juicy melons…

Principle among Aladdin’s friends is Alibaba Saluja – the somewhat opportunistic but generally warmhearted traveler he meets in the opening of the series. Older and more experienced, Alibaba carries much more emotional weight behind everything he does. Because he has suffered though things such as poverty, heartache, and betrayal, he is often tempted to take a more self serving path when faced with a problem. Because of his nuanced characterization, Alibaba offers a more complex point of view than most and becomes compelling to watch. As if in admission of this, the series gives him the lion’s share of screen time, even rivaling Aladdin’s status as the main character.

While this helps focus the narrative a lot more on the human aspects (that I claimed were so enjoyable to watch), Alibaba’s flawed nature contributes greatly to the problems that the series explores. For every moment of heroism or brilliance, he makes several prior missteps and repeats his mistakes. Showing how he overcomes his issues is the series’ method of choice to develop his character. When issues continually arise due to his poor decisions, however, the viewer is left to wonder if he has learned anything. Perhaps his greatest flaw is how little confidence he has in any path he does take. While his friends continually encourage him, Alibaba backpedals until he’s pushed forward. His constant hesitation causes the story to drag, as viewers are subjected to his stages of whining and self doubt before anything can be accomplished.

The remaining character who receives any meaningful development is the former slave Morgiana. Her journey from forced servitude under her master Jamil to an equal standing among her eventual friends is inspiring. The viewer can find many reasons to cheer her on, not the least of which are her distinct fighting style and visually impressive battle scenes. While I dislike simplifying her type as ‘strong female character’ (almost as much as I dislike the ‘damsel in distress’ trope), she does indeed prove herself to be capable and dependable in her own right. This makes it all the more irritating to see how she is handled in the second half. For no other reason than to perhaps further a romantic subplot, or provide some fanservice, her stoic yet compassionate personality is compromised as she suddenly becomes conscious of how men view her. Additionally she comes to an odd decision to wear leg irons again. This is supposedly done to provide her with a magical implement (which works best with something personally significant), but feels like a huge step backwards in her journey to free herself from the bonds of slavery.

morgiana_compare
It’s hard to maintain a scary face when senpai finally notices you.

I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention the other major character of this series, but only because the anime refused to let me believe he was anything less than a blessing to the rest of humanity. Sinbad makes his first appearance shortly before the Balbadd arc, and is consistently portrayed as extraordinary thereafter. His less than graceful habits seem to accent his masculinity, rather than take away from his merit. Even with the complaints that his companions sometimes have about him, the series beats the viewer over the head with how incredible he is at every opportunity. While a knowledgeable character like him is needed to guide the characters toward the final arc, his virtues are so exaggerated that he becomes irritating to watch. With almost no development, and a gift for never doing anything wrong, it becomes difficult for the viewer to find any investment in him.

sinbad1
The first thing you notice are the earrings, right?

The villains in this series are unfortunately mostly one note. The most laughably awful ones appear at the very end of the series, but thankfully they’re gone and forgotten before too long. The one notable exception is the rival magi, Judar. While his motivations are unclear for the greater part of the series, he is a compelling character that I would have liked to understand more about. In one particular scene where it seems like they might be shoehorning him into a tragic villain trope, he laughs it off and rejects any offers of pity. It’s just another fun example of how different a lot of these characters are.


Animation

magi

The look and feel of the animation in Magi is thoroughly crisp, colorful, and fluid. This is to be expected from A-1 Pictures at this point though, as they made a huge statement with Sword Art Online just one season prior. Airing alongside other impressive looking shows like Psycho Pass and Girls und Panzer, Magi still manages to distinguish itself with great visuals all around.

Though it can be tempting to depict desert scenes as desolate and monochromatic, Magi shows a lot of creativity in all the landscapes it depicts while staying true to the theme. City streets and buildings look as they are expected to, with mostly dull colors and styles, but the backgrounds never seem drab or inconsequential. This holds true even in areas that lack detail such large desert expanses or the vast grasslands of the plains. Bright skies and small features that dot the landscape make them look natural and beautifully accent the scenes they occupy.

What is even better are the character designs. Though the three main characters are designed simply enough, given their humble beginnings, their styles say something about who they are. The rest of the character designs similarly tell a story before we ever see the character doing anything. The rich and powerful appear decidedly so. Bad guys have a sinister look about them. And Sinbad… well, I’ll leave that one alone for now. It takes away from some of the ambiguity of a character’s motivations when their appearance is so telling, but an anime with as much story to cover as Magi can’t afford to spend too much time on subtlety. That said, every character is made to feel visually distinct from their first introduction. Though there is more than a little cliche at work in some of the designs, most of them avoid being caricatures. The ones that don’t tend to be inconsequential anyway, so the viewer doesn’t suffer them long. There is a great deal of fanservice though, with the number of females you can take seriously being countable on one hand.

In concert with the unique character designs are the abilities, magical and otherwise, that they wield. Magi offers a lot of potential for special effects and action sequences. Showing remarkable technical quality at times, the fight scenes appear well executed and dynamic. With so many different abilities to showcase in this series, it’s a real achievement that hardly any of them seem generic (aside from the basic magoi barriers/bolts). The result is a fresh and lively scene each time a battle takes place, which goes a long way in making up for some of the cliched and predictable action elements.


Sound

flute

OP1: V.I.P by SID (eps 1-12)
OP2: Matataku Hoshi no Shita de by Porno Graffitti (eps 13-24)

ED1: Yubi Bouenkyou by Nogizaka46 (eps 1-12)
ED2: The Bravery by supercell (eps 13-24)

The opening and ending pairs are all reasonably good, although not very indicative of the series, but don’t sound amazing. The first opening, however, really stands out as another unique element to this already novel anime. The melody and instrumentals create a vibe that most fits with the tone of the show, with enough buildup and excitement to contrast the upbeat tenor, and keeps the song from sounding as generic as the others.

Hiromi Kikuta (iDOLM@STER, Wake Up Girls!) was able to step away from her normal trend of cute and/or girly slice of life shows to offer some fantastic sound direction with Magi. The vast majority of background music features plenty of woodwinds and drums to provide a distinctly  middle eastern feel. Going further than just emulating the classical sounds attributed to that culture, Kikuta weaves the music in a way that seems to immerse the viewer in the very atmosphere of the scene. Various moods are also presented well, such as using fast drum beats to indicate danger or a playful flute to present whimsy.

Like a lot of anime on Netflix, this series was available as an English dub, which is how I watched the majority of it. Erica Mendez, who I first heard as Tsubaki in Your lie in April, gives quite a different performance as Aladdin. It’s a credit to her flexibility that I would have never placed them as the same actress. Joining her as Alibaba is Julie Ann Taylor, who interestingly played Tsubaki’s BFF Nao Kashiwagi. She is an extremely versatile and experienced actress as well; had I not looked it up, I would have believed that Alibaba was voiced by a man.


Overall Appeal

Usually the longer I tend to think about a show, the more complicated my overall impressions become. I’ll go through a strange back and forth, weighing the pros and cons and try to come up with an analytical reason why I liked or disliked it. For this series, I feel like I need to go with my gut to give the most accurate impression. This is because Magi looks great on paper (and looks great on screen as well). It solidly performs in many technical aspects and makes a decent mark in its genre, but like many other shounen adventure anime there were some nagging annoyances which ended up spoiling a lot of the appeal.

This doesn’t mean that there wasn’t anything special about Magi. The early parts of the series were especially fascinating, unraveling an expansive world that is permeated and influenced by the mysterious Rukh in a way that was very familiar to the Force in the original Star Wars stories. Coupled with its exotic (for anime anyway) themes, it was compelling and enjoyable to watch. The storyline also seemed different from your run of the mill shounen series, but after the characters began to become more comfortable with their abilities I had a hard time seeing it as anything more than typical fighting anime.

In a show like Naruto or DBZ, where fighting is a big part of the theme, this should be expected. Magi set itself up as more than that though. The Kou empire represented a cultural threat which no amount of one-on-one battles could resolve. The social class differences which caused so many problems in Balbadd were too complex to be laid to rest after two magi duke it out in the city streets.These are good challenges that were appropriate for the scope that Magi was reaching for, but were ultimately laid aside. Instead it boiled down to beating one evil wizard to resolve their immediate problems. This is great for a Naruto-esque anime where even the larger problems are commonly the result of one antagonist’s actions, but I wish Magi was something more. Unfortunately I don’t have my own big blue djinn to make things happen for me.

paimon2
But if I did, I would want this one. For sure.

This section makes it sound like I dislike shounen anime, but that’s not really the case. As I said, the action was very well done, showcasing a lot of variety and avoiding common problems like rampant power escalation and Mary Sue characters (Sinbad aside). I can even forgive the “Kamehameha!” shouting whenever people use their abilities as they establish that djinn powers need to be invoked somehow. If this style of fights is appealing to you, you’ll certainly find similar enjoyment from this series. I was simply hoping that the action would follow suit with the premise and provide something different. While there is the chance that the prequel series Adventures of Sinbad could provide some depth to the character and that the sequel Kingdom of Magic will provide a satisfying resolution to the anime’s story, I am reluctant to try either one soon.


Summary and Recommendations

Magi provides a unique take on adventure anime, from both a thematic and content standpoint. It engages the viewer with a familiar theme while providing all new stories set against a vast magical world. Offering plenty of plot with decent pacing, there is usually something to look forward to in every episode.

The three main characters are lovable on their own but are most enjoyable during their interactions with each other. Aladdin and Alibaba’s friendship is heartwarming, providing the basis for most of the character development among the pair. Morgiana is a strong and capable character herself and never requires a stronger man to save her. In fact, she’s much more of an asset than a liability.

The animation is beautiful, offering a lot more than one might expect from an anime that starts in the desert. The character designs are fantastic, though some of them can be seen as blatant fanservice. In addition to the characters the magical effects and abilities are well animated, making battles look epic.

The initial plot and much of the story deal with many complex issues, though a lot of the action and subsequent direction feel cliched and overdone. The anime continues to be different in many regards, but the well known shounen tropes eventually take over and create a somewhat bland experience. If aimed at a slightly more mature audience, this might not have been the case.

Watch if you:
Want a unique adventure series
Are interested by the Arabian theme
Like fun action anime

Don’t watch if you:
Want a mature plot
Are annoyed by pervy humor/situations
Find whiny characters annoying


My Rating

With many good technical merits to speak for it, this series does have some problems which take away from my enjoyment. I give it 3.5 out of 5 Aladdins.

magi_rating


Final Thoughts

I will probably keep this section short this time around as I’ve said most everything that I wanted to about this series. I scored it reasonably well because it performed in some key areas, but that last point I withheld was for my personal enjoyment. I’m not so egotistical as to put my opinion over someone else’s. Plenty of other people look at this anime and think it’s a lot of fun to watch. I just get tripped up when I go in expecting one thing but end up with something different.

The series didn’t seem to have a good sense of direction. Was it an exploration of the human condition in pre medieval Asia? Was it a shounen fight anime? Did you want to make Alibaba grow from an unsure and insecure character into a hero or are his flaws just a plot device so you can play the same drama over and over again for tension? I understand the appeal of having a bunch of distinct characters with arcane powers fighting it out for the fate of the world, but how much of that is a marketing ploy and how much of it is the actual theme of the anime?

Perhaps I’m simply being too harsh on a show that never tried to be as high brow as I was hoping. What I think is important, however, is focusing an anime toward one thing rather than making cheap grabs at low hanging fruit. It makes for much better storytelling and makes the series memorable.

The next series I review does the exact opposite. An over the top and seemingly unfocused story slowly but surely coalesces into a fantastic narrative. I ended my run of supernatural stories before Halloween, but weekend otakus can’t be picky about timing.


More Reviews

Haven’t had enough yet? Take a look at these Magi posts from other great bloggers:

Magi Series Review by Karandi at 100 word anime

Magi Episode Reviews by Marth at Marth’s Anime Blog

18 Success Lessons from Sinbad by Ma. Venus Gamboa at JAPANime Talks

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7 thoughts on “If my Djinn could grant wishes, I’d ask for a quality anime – Reviewing Magi: The Labyrinth of Magic

Add yours

  1. Nice review. I know I made the point in my review, but I really agree that this anime lacks maturity. I think as a teenager this would have been a great watch but watching it now I just kind of felt a little underwhelmed by it and kept wanting the plot to be a bit more… plot like.
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on it. I still haven’t got around to the Kingdom of Magic for a review but I kind of started watching Sinbad and will be posting my first impressions next week.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This is a very thorough review and an interesting one especially when you mentioned how it somehow lacked a sense of direction in general. I haven’t really thought about that, but come to think of it…..there were indeed several thing the anime attempted to do at once. Hmm. Nice review! (and thanks for the recommendation!)

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you for the kind comment. Always nice to see that my hard work is enjoyed.

    I wouldn’t exactly call it childlike as it does deal with some mature themes. It’s more like a bit juvenile in the way it handles the plot and characters. But yes, there are some points of interest if you can look past that. Magi’s problem isn’t that it’s boring. It’s simply unfocused and unpolished.

    Like

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