ANIME & MANGA - Review
15:00 - 18th April 2014, by David West

Magi: The Labyrinth Of Magic - Season 1; Part 1

This adventure anime from director Koji Masunari and writer Hiroyuki Yoshino is adapted from the manga by Shinobu Ohtaka. Both manga and anime are very loosely inspired by the Arabian folktales of One Thousand And One Nights, but they merrily mash together characters from different stories into one sprawling tale. The series is built around three main protagonists, Alibaba, Aladdin and Morgiana, although they are all updated and reshaped through the prism of Ohtaka's manga. Alibaba is an idealist who wants to bring justice, prosperity and equality to his homeland of Balbadd. Aladdin is a strange boy who commands a gigantic Djinn called Ugo that lives inside a flute (no magic lamps for this Aladdin). Aladdin seems to have the powers of a Magi - blessed with great magical powers - but has no idea what to do with his abilities until he meets Alibaba. Morgiana is a slave and a member of a warrior-tribe called the Fanalis, forced to serve a cruel owner called Jamil who captured her as a child.

The story is a loosely connected series of subplots that jump around geographically and tonally. It begins with Aladdin and Alibaba meeting in the city of Qishan, becoming friends, and deciding to try to conquer the Dungeon of Amon, one of many dungeons that have magically appeared throughout the world and that are said to hold great treasure. This dungeon-exploring storyline takes up the first three episodes of this series and thereafter the heroes never set foot inside another dungeon, which rather betrays the promise of the series' title. Wherefore art thou, Labyrinth Of Magic? Gone so soon?

Then Alibaba and Morgiana have a break while Aladdin takes a solo spot to hang out with the Koga Clan, a group of kindly nomads - like the Mongols with less murder and pillage - who are under threat from the growth of the Kou Empire. It's like Imperial China but... actually, no, just like China. Aladdin befriends the Koga Clan's matriarch Shaman Baba, whose head keeps changing size from scene to scene, and sort of helps the Koga as they try to find a peaceful solution to their predicament. Mostly though, he is a bystander, and the focus is on the Koga Clan members, Princess Hakuei of the Kou and the evil General Ryosai.

After that wraps up, Morgiana takes centre stage for a story about slave traders, then it's time for Alibaba to return to the spotlight with an extended plotline about the corrupt King Ahbmad of Balbadd, the noble Sinbad, and a group of rebels called The Fog Troupe, led by Alibaba's childhood friend Cassim. If that sounds disjointed, it is. Each of the separate subplots works well enough on its own - although the one with the Koga is easily the weakest and the most peripheral - but they don't add to up to a coherent whole as a narrative.

Alibaba is beset by self doubt, which provides plenty of internal conflict for him as he goes about trying to save the residents of Balbadd. Dramatically, he is the hero of the story, but he often has to rely on other, more powerful characters to help him out of danger. Aladdin is not quite a sidekick, as he has a fairly important role in the show, but in the first volume, he remains an unsolved riddle as the script only teases out a few hints about his past and his strange connection with Ugo the Djinn. Morgiana is sympathetic as the enslaved warrior-girl, and the series tackles some dark subject matter regarding the plight of slaves. A scene of Morgiana being whipped as a child is not exactly 12 Years A Slave, but is still unpleasant nonetheless.

The tone switches from light to dark faster than a strobe light. In the early episodes, Aladdin is always grabbing boobs and stuffing his face, but the battles are violent and distinctly bloody. In one scene, Morgiana kicks her enemy so hard she tears a gory hole right through them. The villains are an evil bunch of psychopaths, from the cruel Lord Jamil, to the slave traders who exploit the vulnerable, to King Ahbmad, who is happy to watch his own men be torn apart if it provides a moment's entertainment.

The design work can be hit and miss. Aladdin has an open, expressive face, while with his blonde hair and golden eyes, Alibaba bears a resemblance to Edward Elric. (Magi was produced by Aniplex, the same production studio responsible for Fullmetal Alchemist.) In an odd design choice, Alibaba and Cassim both wear a shoe on one foot and a boot on the other, as if they had to leave the house in a big hurry. Morgiana wears a very plain, simple outfit, as do the Koga Clan characters. The wardrobe choices of the Kou Princesses receive more attention and detail, and in narrative terms, it does make sense that a slave girl would have drab clothes and Princesses fancy garments. Yet it would make the Koga more visually distinctive if they didn't all have the exact same clothes. The monstrous Kou warriors have strong and unique characteristics, making them appear grotesque and repellent. The animation is generally good, with sparing reliance on still frames. Morgiana's fight scenes are usually the most exciting as she whirls across the screen like a mini-tornado of fists and feet. There is excellent use of lighting in episode 12 to show the split between Alibaba and Cassim as they argue about how to save the city.

Magi: The Labyrinth Of Magic is ambitious in scope, covering everything from magical dungeons to trade deals, slavery and political corruption, but the different segments of the story feel fractured rather than interconnected. Fortunately, there is enough mystery and drama to carry the characters over the rough patches. Hopefully Part 2 will deliver more a consistent tone and plot.

A shaky start to a series which has an interesting and ambitious concept - there's still plenty of untapped potential for Magi.
SCORE: 3/5
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