R2 DVD Reviews
Thursday, 12 June 2008 16:00
Mention Bee Train, and most anime fans will think of Noir and .hack//SIGN - two very popular shows that also took a fair amount of criticism for being triumphs of style over substance. Mention that Madlax comes from the same people, and some fans begin to worry about having seen it all before - and if I'm to be brutally honest, up to a point they will have. But while Madlax is, as expected, dripping with style, it also has a slightly different approach to its storytelling that could help provide the substance - and just for once, proper use is made of the opportunity...
Meet Margaret Burton, a young schoolgirl who seems to have real problems staying awake, and who looks a lot like Kirika (Noir), only with pigtails. Kawaii, but also a little kowai in her own way. Margaret's been having strange dreams of late - dreams of war, red shoes, and that it's going to rain this afternoon... Meanwhile, an auction has been held for a valuable artifact that seems to have some significance - although at this stage we're not told what. One of the people bidding for the artefact, Vanessa Rene, used to be Margaret's next door neighbour and is about to renew their acquaintance.
Elsewhere, killer-for-hire Madlax is in Gazth-Sonika, a country torn apart by civil war and home to the mysterious criminal organisation known as Enfant. She doesn't know it yet, but through Enfant she has a connection to Margaret than is far stranger than anyone could imagine - and that fate, or destiny, is about to bring them together...
One of the main selling points of Madlax: a Yuki Kajiura soundtrack, which is well up to her usual high standards. As for the story - there are two distinct storylines at the beginning of the series, each very different in tone & focussing on a different lead character. On the one hand you've got Madlax and the Gazth-Sonika civil war - as good an excuse as you'll ever get for action scenes and such. On the other, you've got Margaret and her normal high-school life - although there are the first rumblings of there being problems to deal with here, too, this is a much slower arc and perhaps not as easy to watch initially as the Madlax stories.
It's fairly clear from the start that these two stories are going to merge at some point (and if you couldn't figure that out yourself the series publicity makes it crystal clear), but it takes a while before you've got enough to go on to help you in figuring out what the connection between the two girls is. In true Bee Train style, the style of the series definitely outweighs the substance. That said, I like the style, and although a lot of 'suspension of disbelief' is required (shooting down a helicopter without even looking at the target!?), it's more than enjoyable enough. And there's that Yuki Kajiura soundtrack, which really adds to the show's appeal.
The key to the mystery is Margaret's red book - known by Enfant as the forbidden book, Secondari, and lost to them 12 years ago. That's conveniently around the time Margaret disappeared for several months (a time she has no memory of), and right from the point where they become aware that the book still exists, Enfant become very interested in finding it again. It obviously means a lot to them, and the Elies language it's written seems to have a power of its own that's explored at several points in the story, so you begin to wonder just what they're planning to do with it if they can retrieve it.
Enter the two villains of the piece: firstly, we have Carrossea Doon, an executive of the Bookwald company (a cover for Enfant). He has connections with just about everyone involved in the Gazth-Sonika conflict and the way he seems to be playing the various sides against each other for his own ends make him a character to watch. He's "controlled", in theory, by Enfant's leader - the ludicrously-named Friday Monday, who is pulling the strings of both sides of the Gazth-Sonika civil war and has big plans for Secondari. In between Margaret / Madlax and Carrossea / Friday Monday are Nakhl and Quanzitta, a mysterious pair who understand more about the Elies language than anyone else, and are charged with making sure it isn't misued, and it's the interaction and conflict between these three sides that make up most of the latter half of the series.
As it gets closer to its finale and to finally explaining whats been going on, Madlax also begins to get ever more surreal, as the boundary between reality and the "other side" thats accessed through the Elies books becomes ever more blurred. Despite that, a very good job is done of explaining the hows and whys of whats been going on, particularly as it relates to Margaret, Madlax, and their connections to each other and to the other side. After seeing so many series over the years just peter out at the end with loose ends left dangling, reaching the end of Madlax and knowing exactly whats happened and what it has represented earns it a whole stack of brownie points, before I even consider the rest of the disc.
And there barely a dud moment in the series (apart from a first episode that really isn't representative of what's to come). It isnt afraid of killing characters off, no matter what role theyve played or how popular they may be. It takes care to explain itself. It has characters - even minor ones - that you can come to care about. Put all that together, and you really do have a winner on your hands.
I remember watching Madlaxs first episode, a long time ago now, and being far from convinced that I was going to enjoy the whole experience. As I worked through the series, though, I grew ever more hooked by the story and its characters yes, there are some over-the-top and unbelievable moments that will have you rolling your eyes, but the journey is hugely enjoyable and in the end it all makes sense, it all hangs together to provide a story that is complete within itself, and the central characters get what they were looking for from day one: the knowledge of who they really are. Who could ask for more? Highly recommended.
For full episode summaries and screenshots, check out our reviews of the individual releases:
» Volume 1: Connections
» Volume 2: The Red Book
» Volume 3: In-Between
» Volume 4: Elda Taluta
» Volume 5: Convergence
» Volume 6: Sacrifice
» Volume 7: Reality