The shounen demographic, and the manga or anime that come along with it, tend to fit into a pretty narrow set of parameters. You can usually be assured of hotheaded or simple main characters, over-the-top dramatic fights, special moves, rivalries, friendships, tragedy, maybe even some bad comedy if you’re lucky, but there’s still some wriggle room, just enough to establish one series’ own identity within the field. You might prioritize worldbuilding, you might focus on strategy, or character, or politics, or just muscle-men shouting at each other. There’s just enough variety to not be able to group all shounen under one single umbrella. But, just because that potential exists does not necessarily mean that it will utilized. Today, my good people, we have a little show called Magi, a 50 episode series adapted by A-1 Pictures from the Shounen Sunday manga of the same name. Let us begin.
As always, the review is provided in video format and transcribed directly below. I would like to note that my reviews are written first and foremost to be experienced as videos (that is, read aloud), so no guarantees that jokes, grammar, or anything else will transition entirely smoothly to text.
We open on a fantasy world, a young man named Alibaba scraping out a living as manual labor. Without his knowledge, one of Alibaba’s shipments is broken into by a little runt named Aladdin, or Arajin. (It’s pronounced Arajin, but spelled Aladdin so... I dunno.) Anyway, one thing leads to another, there are some hijinks and some slaves, and at the end of the day Alibaba and Aladdin team up to tackle the town’s dungeon.
Most fantasy settings have some kind of hook, and Magi basically has two. The first is the dungeons. Scattered across the land are huge towers called dungeons: treacherous, trap-laden fortresses that it is said only a future King can conquer. At the top, would-be dungeoneers are gifted with untold riches and a djinn, or genie, which grants them a significant degree of magical power. Aladdin in fact already has a genie of his own, for as-of-yet unclear reasons.
The second is the eponymous Magi, a being who can essentially use magic at will, with much greater power than anyone else in the world except for other Magi. In addition to that genie he has, Aladdin is also, to the surprise of his friend, a Magi, so in short order he and Alibaba conquer the dungeon with little fuss.
Afterwards, Aladdin, Alibaba and a slave they meet along the way named Morgiana, set out on a journey to… journey. They have no clear goal, simply to live and take what comes, though they will of course eventually find themselves embroiled in all manner of conflict.
As I mentioned in the intro, A-1 Pictures produced Magi’s two main seasons, and A-1 shows are kind of a crapshoot, tending to fall into one of two categories: either they look pretty good (Your Lie in April, for example), or they look pretty shit (Ace Attorney, for example). Magi is thankfully the former, one of those good looking A-1 series, dare I say even very good looking. Clean action, strong use of effects, very minimal CGI. Nearly every fight is fast, vibrant, and expressive.
These are not adjectives A-1 usually deserves, but here it really feels appropriate. There are rare occasions where the animation quality dips and gets pretty shoddy (episode 16, as an example), but these instances are few and far between (and really, almost every series stumbles at some point). On the whole, Magi is a show I was very happy to look at whenever a fight was happening, which was fairly frequently, being a shounen series.
Though, not an entirely typical shounen series. The first opening and ending depict what you might expect, the main character trio just having a good time going on fun adventures, which is funny enough never the show itself. Magi is shounen, but it’s shounen with a slight political bent. Although there are plenty of times where characters just fight, the story also dabbles in topics of slavery, economics, royal succession, military strategy, territorial conquest, societal revolution, etc. This stuff is often simplified, but it’s not always as easy as “Aladdin just has to beat up the bad guy and we’ll win”, because the immediate “bad guy” may not actually be a bad guy. In fact, even Aladdin’s allies may well try to spin events and place themselves in a better light, in order to appeal to him. After all, everyone wants Aladdin. He’s essentially a free agent Magi, and in a world where every other Magi is already attached to some group or government, that is a very hot commodity.
The show’s political tendencies are most apparent whenever Sinbad, the king of a group called the Seven Seas Alliance, is front and center. Sinbad is an embodiment of charisma, and charisma is easy to like (that’s kind of its whole point), so Sinbad often positions himself to make the best of any situation. He presents himself as a jovial, uncle-type figure to the kids that are our main characters, while on the side making political dealings and seducing the enemy to forward his agenda, which to be fair is a perfectly noble one.
Magi’s first season is not bad, a lot of of that political stuff I mentioned is heavily involved, Sinbad included, but the show really shines in its second. There’s no one word to describe what makes the second season better, but a close one would be “tighter”. It’s just a tighter, more focused experience. The first season is understandably a lot of character establishment, since everyone needs to be introduced and explained to the viewer, and while the second season is not without its own new characters, that base also allows it to move on from establishment to entrenchment, which is a step I usually prefer. I just tend to like when shows do stuff with pre-existing characters rather than building up new ones. It’s a preference thing; it’s one of the reasons Second Season is my favorite Monogatari series.
But getting back to Magi, the second season here also pushes the story away from the dungeons. Not to say that the dungeons dominated the first season, but there were a fair number of episodes in the dungeons, and I never found the dungeons very interesting. It felt like a video-gamey excuse to have characters do a lot of fighting and then someone powers up at the end, rather than doing much to actually organically push the story forward. So the big crux of the second season, rather than anything to do with dungeons, is war!
War’s always fun, in a manner of speaking. People manipulating people, schemes begetting schemes, violence spawning violence, it’s a great time. It allows for much more of that ambiguous gray morality that I love so much (pretty much every warring faction in the second season has both “good” guys and “bad” guys), and the fights are cooler by literally being bigger. The scale of some of the battles near the end of season two is as big as the nature of the show could reasonably withstand, calling upon more or less every established character to in some way take part.
But a major irony with my praising the moral ambiguity of some stuff in Magi’s second season is that it’s more or less completely nonexistent in the first. My general rule of thumb for good villains is that they either have to be in some way sympathetic, or their flavor of pure evil has to be purely entertaining, be it through charisma, intellect, power, or something of that nature. Magi missed the memo, because all the villains in the first season suck. Pretty much all of them are just generic haughty/arrogant assholes with nothing else to ‘em. Dicks for the sake of being dicks. Even one guy with potential to be a sympathetic villain, thanks to his backstory and connection to some of the main cast, nonetheless by the end becomes basically a simplistic jackass. In other words, morality in the first season is too stark. You’re either good or you’re evil, with no in-between, as indicated by the oh-so-subtle aura of gold butterflies and black butterflies.
And I don’t know if this is a problem with the source or the adaptation, but sometimes Magi moves too fast (which potentially plays into the simplicity of the villains). On one hand, a brisk pace helps to keep things moving, get over any hangups quickly and without incident, but on the other, larger hand, it makes characters or events feel shallow.
At one point, Aladdin ends up briefly living with a tribe called the Kouga, and soon after he arrives he says something to the effect of “they taught me what it’s like to be a family”, but my thought process at that point had to interject and say “dude, you met them like ten minutes ago”. It barely gives you enough time to appreciate a development or circumstance before it moves on to the next one. Similarly, sometimes things are just pulled out of thin air, to suit the needs of the plot. Any specific scenes I could cite here would be spoilers, but every so often... it just feels too easy. Things get wrapped up too simply, without enough explanation. There’s a scene at the very end of the first season involving Sinbad that is probably one of the strongest examples of this, and such asspulls, while not show-breaking, do feel sloppy.
Now I’ve never been the biggest fan of shounen humor, especially the fanservicey boob-grab-type material, and unfortunately there is a fair bit of that type of comedy here. Sometimes the comedy even overtakes a moment that probably would’ve worked better had it been played straight. Episode 21, won’t say exactly what happens, but essentially a character has a breakdown, and it’s treated like a punchline, but I think it would’ve worked so much better and been so much more gratifying if it was presented as more of a serious character moment, rather than just playing it for laughs.
And then sadly, like most, Magi is a classic incomplete adaptation. Hardly the worst I’ve seen, but the usual warning that the story is not over definitely applies here, and I don’t think we’re ever gonna get a third season. 50 episodes is already a surprisingly high number.
Speaking of incomplete adaptations, I haven’t mentioned it at all yet, but I also watched the 13 episode Sinbad prequel-series, which follows a teenage Sinbad before he is the hero we know in the present. Unlike the main series, this prequel is produced by Lay-duce, which haven’t done much of note, arguably including this prequel. The character outlines tended to be darker and more distinctive than their A-1 counterparts, but otherwise there wasn’t much visually to note, and the fight animation was inarguably worse. In terms of the content, I like Sinbad, so I liked seeing him grow up and the circumstances of his youth, but it brought back the constant dungeon-trekking, which I already said I wasn’t a fan of, and it’s not a very good show as far as being a prequel.
Sinbad in Magi has these Eight Generals, but only three or so are ever actual characters, so you’d think the prequel would focus on those guys. But no, it doesn’t. It does on one of them, but the rest of the characters are basically extras in Magi proper, which strikes me as very odd, because then they have to do all the character groundwork from square one, rather than cashing in on any fanbase that already existed from the original show. To make matters slightly worse, this prequel doesn’t even finish telling the story of Sinbad. It just stops, with a tease much more blatant than anything thrown out by the end of the parent series.
I wanted to like Magi, but it made me work for it. It was perfectly functional, but for quite a while, up until a good chunk through the second season, I had to question what I was getting out of it. The characters were fine, the plot was fine, the music I struggle to remember (which is surprising given that it was composed by Shiro Sagisu), the action was... actually pretty good, but on the whole, “fine” fits just fine. If you like shounen, I think you’ll like it, but it’s not something akin to a Hunter x Hunter or Fullmetal Alchemist that transcends its demographic.
So, after taking everything into account (as well as my own subjective enjoyment), on a scale from F to S, I award Magi with a B. Make no mistake, were it not for season two, that would almost assuredly be a C, but I cannot dismiss the strengths it finds once the story gets rolling.
The first two seasons of Magi, being the Labyrinth of Magic and the Kingdom of Magic respectively, are currently available for legal streaming from Crunchyroll, Hulu, and Netflix. In addition, Netflix exclusively hosts the Sinbad prequel, not that I would highly recommend it.
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