A long rambling post in which I discuss things related to the Negima?! TV series…

A year or so ago, during TJ Han’s Animé Demotivational Poster Contest, someone suggested that the appropriate picture would be Negi’s entire class, and the caption “Negima?!: When a 30-girl harem just isn’t enough.” Yes, that’s right — the show has one guy, and thirty-one girls. Actually, the total is 33 girls, as his older sister and childhood friend occasionally appear. Obviously, the manga-ka (Ken Akamatsu, the guy who did Love Hina) set out to create a harem with every possible stereotype in it, and then some new ones. (Although, if they’re new, I guess they’re not stereotypes, but we’ll just overlook that little detail for now.) Naturally, the best way to ensure 31 girls are all in one place to become a harem is to place them in a school, and the best way to insert the guy is to make him the teacher! But hey, a hentai lolicon fantasy might not make it even on Japanese TV, so the teacher had to be younger than the students.

Enter Negi Springfield, genius 10-year old English teacher at a Japanese school. Somehow, this doesn’t seem to be an improvement, when you stop to think about it — reverse the sexes, and make it a 10 year old girl with a class full of 9th grade guys, and it’s almost hentai in concept. But it’s “shotacon” instead of “lolicon” so that’s ok. (Deshou? Deshou?) Unsurprisingly, each of the 31 girls is just a little weird — one’s a vampire, one’s a ninja, one’s a ghost, one’s an android, one’s a hacker/internet diva, one sits in class polishing her firearms, one has ki powers and is a fanatically loyal bodyguard to yet another….and these are the straightforward ones! You get the idea.

Of course, with such a ridiculous harem, one simply can’t give them an ordinary ten-year-old, Did I mention Negi is a master mage, too? He has graduated from the Mage Academy in England, which sent him on this silly English-teacher assignment. His ability is explained by the fact that he is the son of the legendary “Thousand Master,” so-called because he could cast 1000 spells. Unfortunately, Dad’s been missing since around the time Negi was born. (I thought the reason might have something to do with the vampire girl in his class, but after reading the manga, it’s hella more complicated than that.) And did I mention that he actually lives in the girls dormitory and with two of them? There, I just did. The first night, he crawls into Asuna’s bed to sleep with her.

The things these ten-year-olds can get away with in Japan…. I’m telling ya, I feel deprived for growing up American. Asuna is a major character in the series; one of the two main love interests for Negi, though there’s plenty more. As it happens she is crucial to the story, and indeed, the main long-term plotline could be said to revolve around her, not Negi. Even Negi’s story is wrapped up in, and a result of, hers.

With the original manga being pretty popular, the story-telling only needed to be competent for it to become well-known and picked up for animation. The fact that Akamatsu, also created Love Hina didn’t hurt either. It was far more than merely competent. The publishers wanted him to do another harem comedy, and he wanted something different, so he put one over on them; he started it as a harem comedy, but after a bit, started turning it more and more into a seinen manga. Though it still has humorous touches and continues to be echhi, the manga, by chapter 264 is fully into its epic storyline and serious fights (Biweekly; this means it’s been running over 10 years. Most of the girls were born in 1988 or thereabouts, per the early character descriptions). This makes it one of the few “fighting” shows/manga that have kept my interest. Side note: (Hmm. New heuristic: Not even epic fanservice can keep me interested in a show that’s just about fighting. I have to really like the characters and the backstory; the reason they fight.)

With its popularity, several anime series have been spawned. Unfortunately, both of the 26 episode TV series (Mahou Sense Negima! in 2005 and Negima?! in 2006-7) suffered from the fact that the overall storyline hadn’t reached the critical revalations, and to do justice to the major arcs, they’d need way more than 26 episodes. So they had to devise their own “end boss” and diverge from the story being told by Ken Akamatsu. Sadly, neither writing team was up to the task. Since the end of the second series, Shaft has worked with another studio, reigned in their absurdity, and followed the manga to the letter in a series of three OAV’s produced last year; now a new set is coming out. These start well into the story, as Negi finishes up the School Festival arc and battle with Chao.

Both anime versions of the TV series are available via fine retailers, but good luck finding a copy of the third, live action series, even online via bittorrent. The OAV’s are pirate only for now.

I hadn’t intended to blog about the Negima?! series at all; there are animé series I think much higher of, but two things happend. One, I had one of those middle of the night epiphinies after re-watching episodes 4 and 5 a few months ago. Two, I recently went back and read the manga, and realized, “hey, this is seriously good stuff!” Since I’ve talked a bit about the manga before, for the rest of this article, I’m mostly going to discuss the 2nd series.

It had been bugging me for some time, and I couldn’t put my finger on what was annoying me. It felt like it ought to be really good, but something grated Theme music? Narration? Art? Story? What is it? I had no idea, until in the middle of the night I wake up *blink* and go, “AH! That’s it. How simple!”

Shaft blew it. Negima!?’s style gets in the way of its substance. And now, having read the manga, I realize that even more than that, Shaft’s writing team and absurdist style was all wrong for this show. They tried to play up the comedy, and it clashed with the underlying story.

Ken Akamastu was telling a dramatic story with comedic touches, but Shaft re-told it with a style lifted from Excel Saga and PaniPonyDash in order to be a pure comedy. The two mix like oil and water — Negi’s backstory is really damn tragic. His father disappeared just before he was born. This much is in the opening minutes of the animé; the rest is spoilers from the manga so it’s behind the tag: His mother disappeared soon after. He was raised by his older sister in a village that often seemed to resent his father for bringing some unspecified dangers upon them — and then when he was only 4, it got extremely specific; the village was wiped out and everyone turned to stone by unknown attackers. Only Negi, his older sister, and a little girl who was visiting in another town survived. And it was the only time that Negi ever met his father, who showed up briefly, gave Negi his staff, and departed.

I’ve got some thoughts about all that, but they’re manga oriented so I’m putting them in a different post. Back to the animé: Simply put, the parts I liked were all Akamatsu’s writing that survived Shaft’s butchery; the parts I hated were Shaft being Shaft.

In the first episode, the series opens as if it’s going to be dramatic. There are three chaotically mixed sequences, one set 15 years ago involving Negi’s father battling a grown woman who is a mage and vampire (Evangeline, as it happens). A second is set in current day, showing Negi graduating and flying to Japan, and the third is also in the present, involving a young vampire girl that is anticipating Negi’s arrival as she hunts for food at the school. (Evangeline again– it’s complicated). The music is nicely dramatic, the flashback scenes are done in sepia tones, and the fast scene cuts make it feel like a lively action show is in the making. Unfortunately, this set a pace and tone that they couldn’t keep up.

The serious first episode opening music? Gone with the wind of the third episode, sucker. We get an upbeat j-pop opener that matches the harem aspect of the show. It’s got some spoken dialogue over the first half, and it changes sometimes, with minor changes to the visuals too. The pace of the early show is frenetic, as if they didn’t have enough episodes to shoehorn the story into. Most series spend 1-3 episodes just setting up the basic situation; Negi enters battle against Evangeline by the end of the first episode. Actually, that works well; one of the few smart things Shaft did was to skip/compress a lot of early stories and character introductions by jumping straight into the “Evangeline arc.”

I didn’t quite get Asuna at first; she varies from romantic interest to comic relief through the early battles and slower, more introspective moments across those episodes. Later, other girls share time as romantic interests; I fully expected him to end up kissing every girl in the class eventually. Except maybe the robot, vampire and ghost, and I didn’t rule them out entirely.

Spoiler: I was guessing before reading the manga — I’m not sure he’ll ever make a kiss/pactio/partnership with Evangiline, but by the current chapter, he’s got something like 10-12, including just recently, the robot–who by virtue of the pactio, is thereby proven to have a soul.)

Fanservice is milder than the manga, but it’s present. (So what’s with the girl that loses her skirt every OP?)  While the early episodes can switch from dramatic to serious and right back, in an instant, the later ones tend to be more comical. The beginning of the final battle with Evangeline? Dramatic, serious, Negi screws up by the idealistic, ten-year-old numbers, and is about to be vampire food… until Evangeline gets a flying tennis shoe to the back of the head from Asuna. The background music switches from the serious, classical score to light, comedic tones. The other shoe follows a moment later (“Not the face!“), and we’re back to silliness — a canoe to the face, tossed at least thirty feet in the air. (I didn’t realize it at this point, thinking it was part of the absurdity, but Asuna is special). The battle keeps swinging back and forth from drama to comedy, and often contains both at the same moment. It just didn’t work for me, especially when they start in with the multi-screens sliding in and out. I have always hated that.

One thing Shaft invented to increase the comedy was multiple forms for the girls. In the manga, the girls get a major powerup by activating their cards, produced from the kiss/pactio with Negi. In the series, Shaft decided that was too straightforward and made 3 forms for each girl, one being a comedic dud in which the girl is useless. It’s completely random which he’ll get and Shaft manipulates this Deus for comedy in the middle of serious “oh crap!” moments. More than anything, that annoyed me. Who would depend on such a tricky, unreliable system? The partner is supposed to take the front line and protect the mage, but 2/3 of the time, she becomes a form unable to do so effectively? Oh, hell no. Gimme a .45 ACP and I’ll take my chances.

In a later episode, Negi, Asuna, and another of the girls are trapped in a hedge maze by a mysterious enemy, and Asuna tries to lead them out. Negi is afraid they’re going to be trapped in it forever and die there. So how do they show the trek to the exit? As a videogame, complete with equipment and stats. Uh-huh, that’s tense, all right. (Note: actually Akamatsu does similar things on occasion.)

Never mind the utter logic failure of the 64-yen question: Since we’ve seen Negi fly on his staff and both girls know he’s a mage, why doesn’t he just fly them out of the maze? Even if he doesn’t have the lift capacity, what’s keeping him from flying up 20 feet and looking over the top of the maze, i.e.: cheating? Even that begs the question of just where they thought they were going–they’d been magically transported there, and thought they might be in Wales. But since the terrain kept changing, who knew where they were, or if it was all an illusion and they were still in the same room? Or where they’d end up if they did get out of the maze? Apparently the series authors believe, “if you’ll swallow a ten-year old teacher of 8th grade, you’ll swallow anything, no matter how stupid.” And as the series continues, it gets more and more comedy-oriented and bizarre. From the get-go, Asuna’s hair mirrors her thoughts, shades of PaniPoniDash.  If she mumbles, “just 15 more minutes!” (sleep), her hair forms the number 15.  Sometimes the bells in her hair react to what’s going on around her. It was cute at first, but it was overused badly.

The biggest issues I had were the two “animals” that followed Negi around spying on him. Magic is supposed to be kept secret (on pain of being turned into an ermine), but a pair of what can only be described as poorly drawn miniature animal-form golems followed Negi everywhere and talked to his students constantly. One even claimed to be the father of one of the girls. There’s also a segment early on, where Negi’s ermine companion is shown playing cards with several girls — at least two of whom shouldn’t know about him being able to talk. Um, magic is secret, right? Right?

In short, I think this series should have been played for drama, with the occasional comedic moment, or comedy, with the occasional dramatic moment, but instead, it could not make up it’s mind what it is, comedy, drama, parody, or farce. Shaft tried to imitate the master, and blew it. Between that and the lack of logic, I could never decide what was serious and what wasn’t. In turn, that made it awfully difficult to decide whether to laugh or tense up.  In fact, after about ten episodes, I got tired of everyone being unable to tell that the Black Rose Baron (an animé-only character) was obviously female, and found it too hard to continue watching. Steven watched it through and said that it lost its way and started wandering after the midpoint; that’s about where I gave up on it.

Now having actually read the manga and watched the true-to-manga episodes, in retrospect I think Shaft actually did a brilliant job in the first 3 episodes, but went to hell after that. Whenever they went all out on the comedy, they were funny. But they didn’t really understand the story or just decided that since they had only 26 episodes to tell it in, they’d roll whatever way they wanted to, and once the drama became sub-par, the comedy wasn’t enough to carry it past the failures in logic.

In a way, I can’t blame Shaft. They had a hard hill to climb; my estimate for a full re-telling of Akamatsu’s story through the end of the festival arc is over 50 episdes if they were faithful to the manga, and the first major storyline wouldn’t kick in until after episode 20 or so. Asking a network and sponsors to commit to a 50 episode series, in which the first 20+ will be episodic, is a bit much. I think it could be fixed; Shaft even looked like they were up to the job for the first few episodes, but in the end, they weren’t. (I think they could have done a better job with the time-loops in the School Festival arc than a certain other studio did recently….)

Final thought: After reading the manga I’m much more a fan of this story, and less a fan of either one of the TV series. Akamatsu’s a master, and he knows how to mix the comedy and the drama in proper proportions. Sadly, Shaft did not.

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3 Responses to Negima?!

  1. I think the main way that Shinbo lost his way was his determination that there should be no spear carriers. He wanted to make every single one of the girls into a real and recognizable character. He didn’t quite succeed in that (the three cheerleaders are effectively treated as a single character) but he did come pretty close.

    But I think it was a mistake to attempt it.

    As to Asuna: [spoiler]I believe it’s been revealed recently that Asuna is Negi’s aunt. She’s also half-fairy or something like that.[/spoiler]

    I think that the reason for the three-form pactio was because the pactio system itself as defined by Akamatsu was too powerful for the kind of adversity Shinbo was tossing at Negi. The new pactio system was intended to reduce the overall average power levels. Plus the fact that in Akamatsu’s system each partner can invoke her own card, whereas in Shinbo’s system Negi has to do it.

    Shinbo made no bones about what he was doing: this is an “alternative retelling” where he borrowed the setup and a lot of ideas from Akamatsu but deliberately set out to tell a different story about them. And there are some glorious moments in it (e.g. when Setsuna becomes a partner). But it did lose its way starting about ep 14, mostly because Shinbo started telling “See? She’s not a spear carrier!” stories before the final plot arc kicked in.

    At which point it became as tense as it was in the Evangeline arc. And there was one moment near the end which raises the hair on the back of my neck: [spoiler]When we’re looking at Negi, about to get creamed by possessed Eva, and suddenly we hear a lot of girls chanting a magic spell which freezes her in place.[/spoiler] Truly an awesome moment; one of the best in the series.

    The second series was a damned sight better in nearly every way than the first, but that’s not saying a lot.

  2. Ubu Roi says:

    I actually have a post that touches on your spoiler — it should have appeared this evening, but didn’t. I’ll have to release it shortly….

    Edit: I tend to agree that the “no spear carrier” bit was a mistake, (exception: Makie has more character in Shinbo’s series than in the manga, I think) but the biggest errors, at least in the early going were Shinchi (sp?) and the other stupid creature. Those two characters grated on me worse than anyone since Mitsuragi in Saber Marionette J. I hope they met a suitably horrible end somewhere, as they were two of the greatest problems with keeping magic a secret at the same time they were threatening to change Negi into an ermine if he let the secret out. In a good way.

    As I mentioned to Dr. Heinous earlier tonight that is one of my major hot-buttons; ignoring the fact that secrets are supposed to be secret.

  3. Yeah, I really hated Shichimi and Motsu myself, and fantasized about killing them slowly. So it was a pleasure in the chibi episode [spoiler]to see chibi-Yuuna driving her toy tank over Motsu.[/spoiler]

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