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Mai Otome (1-26 complete) April 8, 2006

Posted by ayasawada in Anime.
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Back when Mai HiME finished, I hoped they wouldn’t do a sequel. HiME was the best magical-girl anime for a long-while; a gripping, well-paced anime tour-de-force with humour, intrigue and gorgeous character designs. It was totally unique and I didn’t see how they could possibly better it. Yet, within a few weeks Otome was announced, and had plenty to live-up to.

So does it? Sunrise did the wise thing and didn’t directly copy the same formula. What they did was ‘reimagine’ the HiME universe, with the same characters filling new roles alongside new characters in a fantasy-land of female knights (Otome – ‘maid’ in Japanese), magical technology and exotic kingdoms. Whilst this provided a fresh approach to the franchise, it did lose the contemporary high-school tension that gave HiME it’s edge. Nevertheless, Otome is a pretty decent entry to the magical-girl genre.

The story follows Arika Yumemiya, a young drifter on the search for her mother. She arrives in the Wind Bloom kingdom, home of the Otome academy of Garderobe, where her mother supposedly trained to be an otome. There she meets the ambitious Nina Wong and Mashiro, the spoilt heir to the Wind Bloom throne. Arika is soon a student at Garderobe, following in her mothers footsteps, making new friends and generally annoying everyone with her happy, smiling attitude. But there’s dark war conspiracies afoot (what else?).

If that sounds contrived, it is. I know HiME was equally contrived in some of it’s premises but the episode-to-episode plots really do leap about in no logical fashion. Once Arika joins the academy its straight into moe filler territory, with the occasional dramatic episode to move things along. Only in the last five episodes do things finally start moving and then it’s way too fast! Otome also lacks the ‘darker turn’ that made HiME so gripping. When main characters start to die you know you’ve got a good series on your hands. Otome tries it (belatedly), but only one person kicks the bucket and to be honest I couldn’t give two-hoots. There’s a lot of pleasure for HiME fans, with the many in-jokes and reappearances of familiar characters in similar, yet dissimilar, roles and situations. But that burdens Otome with way too many characters, the new one’s struggling to develop in a screen cluttered with old favourites. On the plus-side Mai didn’t turn up until the last few eps (thereby avoiding a ‘Kira Yamato’ and stealing the focus of series).

Otome does have a lot going for it. The animation and soundtrack are just as good as HiME and the character designs are pretty good (though Arika is a bit bland). There’s a lot more mecha in this series and the designs are fantastic. The ‘materialize’ power-up’s of the otome are also incredibly cool, especially when accompanied by the signature track on the OST. The series is also ambitious in dealing with themes of war and a person’s decision to fight, although quite a few people have pointed out the many Gundam rip-off’s – themes, action sequences and even the poses!

Overall, Mai Otome is an entertaining watch, but I’m surprised that some people prefered it to Mai HiME. For me the original is best, because it’s, well, more original. I also think the high-school location anchors things a lot better than pure fantasy, although there are hints that the Otome universe isn’t so different from the one HiME left behind. I’ll admit I thought Arika was a crap heroine, with Nina providing much more interest from her many, many troubles. All this leaves me in two-minds whether I’d like to see a third Mai series. Now that they’ve started it wouldn’t make much of a difference if they carried on and I’d be interested to see if they could link it in and tie it all up in some way. But perhaps I expect too much. This is ‘just’ magical-girl anime after all – right?

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