True magic results from courage of the heart
Boys and girls be ambitious
One step can change the world
10-year-old wizard prodigy Negi Springfield has just graduated from the magic academy in Wales. Now he just has to pass his final assignment for him to achieve his full magic license: Teaching a class of Japanese junior high school girls. Hi-jinks ensues!
While working on achieving his license, however, Negi hopes to one day locate his father: Nagi Springfield, the "Thousand Master" and famous hero of the magical world. He is said to be dead, but Negi knows otherwise as his father mysteriously appeared before him years ago, gave him his staff, and just as suddenly disappeared. Drama ensues.
And things seem to kick into high gears as Negi and his students are dragged into a plot by a revived magical terrorist group that the Thousand Master once fought against in a long-ago war that will ultimately decide the fate of both our world and the magic world, which the young mage teacher and his class must confront with every single means they have. Action, romance, comedy, tragedy and tear-jerking ensues.
As you might have guessed from that plot summary, Mahou Sensei Negima (or Negima! Magister Negi Magi in other countries) is more than your typical harem manga series. It also happens to be my number one favorite series amongst both anime and manga. A little back-story:
Negima was written by Ken Akamatsu, whom also wrote Love Hina. Love Hina, as many otaku know, is often considered the definitive harem manga series and is still popular to this day. In many ways, being the author of the defining series of a highly-criticized genre like harem own loomed over Akamatsu's head. For one thing, any work he does after it would immediately rejected by some for being written by "that Love Hina guy"; and his publishers wanted him to do another harem series when he wanted work on a shōnen fighting series. Rumor has it that Akamatsu faked out his publishers by cleverly disguising Negima originally as such, and then slowly shifted its focus more and more into action, and finally becoming the action/comedy/drama/harem series it is today.
The manga has received several animated adaptations, an absolutely atrocious live-action series that fans fondly bash, a few spin-off manga, and a movie that served as an alternate ending for the original series. This review, however, will only be covering the original manga.
A small warning: This review will contain general ending spoilers. While I don't go into any specific details, I will be vaguely mentioning how the ending plays out. This is unavoidable as it takes up the majority of my criticisms, I'm afraid. Just a heads-up.
Let's start things off with the technical stuff as usual; and, being my first manga review, that would just be the artwork.
It's a little hard discussing Negima's artwork as a whole. For the manga originally ran from 2003 to 2012. Naturally, the art style will evolve in the intervening nine years. When the manga started off, it was really simple and frankly? Pedestrian. The characters were really childish-looking, the faces were oddly drawn and all looked the same with the same dull expressions sometimes, the poses were all uninteresting, and just seemed really run-of-the-mill. However, Akamatsu's skills quickly grew and the characters began showing specific features that made them standout from one another, the faces made less round and cutesy-looking and sharper and developed, they were more expressive, and the poses they took were much more dynamic and visually pleasing.
After that point, the series has never had a less-than stellar looking chapter. It's almost as if a completely different artist worked on it. I will say, however, the backgrounds for Negima have always been amazing. They have always been extremely detailed and layered so carefully right down to the smallest window and crevice, which really makes the world pop out at you. Another thing I'd like to note is that, in spite of being extremely detailed, the backgrounds are extremely clean and there is no issue whatsoever distinguishing what something is from another. I note this because a lot of shōnen fighting series I have read over the years are often rather messy and that makes things really difficult to make out what is going on, especially during fight scenes as they often just cut out the surroundings around the characters. I applaud Negima for not doing that and actually taking advantage of its beautiful settings, as well as laying the panels neatly so one could easily follow along. Admittedly, the manga isn't really laid out avant-garde or anything like that, but sometimes just a simple layout is the best.
In many ways, Negima seemed like an experiment to see if a merger of two popular genres could work. And, in many ways, it made sense to mix harem romantic comedy with shōnen fighting action. Both often feature large casts, exaggerated character personalities, have lots of fanservice, and are sometimes really long. So did Akamatsu pull it off? Well
First things first, the beginning of the series was very typical and trite harem antics. It begins with fanservice, really lame "Ah! The main character is a pervert!" jokes, and just really boring slice-of-life events with a magical bent on them. However, things begin to pick up a little when one of Negi's students turns out to be an ancient vampire loli whom was sealed at the school by Negi's father after stalking him for a long period of time . Yeah, this series is a little weird. The first signs of the shift into a fighting series begin here and the manga slowly builds a far more interesting story for itself. The action continues to increase and the harem aspects begin to shrink until the complete shift into a fighting series around the 60th chapter, which unfortunately takes too long for some people to get fully invested in a series like this and the harem tropes don't fully disappear for the rest of the manga either. For example, the fanservice is highly prevalent throughout the whole series and it can distract from the story; maybe even keep bothering some enough to not read. Me personally, I've been so desensitized to it that I can still be extremely invested in it.
That aside, I do not actually think the harem parts of the story are a bad thing either. While I freely believe the harem genre has rarely ever produced any well-respected works, I have always believed that harems often boasted some of the best character relationships at least for the good harem stories. Naturally, the main character must share a connection with several characters on some level and they typically are different from one another, which gives the reader different stories to read and the characters a better knit cast. Not only that, but the harem members themselves can form relationships with each other and give even more to look into. And I think Negima has one of the best casts I've seen.
Negima boasts a gigantic cast. It starts off with 34 plus characters, and most of them remain regulars throughout the series as more come into the picture. For shōnen fighting series, I always felt that the characters never really shared strong bonds; that you could easily just pluck out a character and put him/her in another fighting series and it'd make no difference whatsoever. However, with Negima and its harem parts, the cast feels so strong that it would seem almost wrong to remove a single character. While not all contribute toward the plot and some could seem superfluous, they all share such a powerful connection that a reader can definitely feel. In fact, during a story arc that had Negi's class be separated into two groups, many fans hoped and wanted throughout that arc the class to be brought together again as soon as possible. That is how tight the cast is.
Of course, that is also in part due to how endearing the characters are. Please note that this is not a hyperbole on my part: Every single character in this series is likable and enjoyable to follow. While naturally some are more appealing to different people, most people I've come across don't dislike any character indifferent at worst. Some I've actually known to initially dislike but then grow to like a character after a development with said character. It said that if you pick out two random characters and put them in a room together, you'd still get an interesting conversation out of them. The characters of Negima are the heart and soul of this series.
But let's actually discuss why that is. The characters of Negima were initially cardboard cutouts of the stereotypes you'd expect out of a harem/school setting. There's the oblivious main character, the easily-angered tsundere main girl, the stuck-up class president, the quiet shy girl, etc. However, they evolve out of their roles as the fighting series change started settling in. The new direction gave them new issues to deal with that had to have them change and develop. They're basically old, tired ideas that people are familiar with given new life and a different spin to keep them fresh.
Actually, that is a fairly accurate description of Negima as a whole. Like many people before me, I also skipped out on Negima since I thought it was another shallow harem series. However, after several recommendations from friends and visiting the TV Tropes page, I gave the series a try. In some ways, I was right; in others, I was completely wrong. For example, it can be interpreted that Negima eventually becomes the ultimate parody of both the harem and shōnen fighting genre. While it still treats its myth arc and overall story seriously, the characters often poke fun at the silly aspects of it all and themselves. It features all the elements you'd think would be in both genres, uses them seriously, and yet still mocks themselves for doing so. That is both amusing and gets the reader into the story and characters thanks to the lighthearted atmosphere. So the humor and satire is a big part of the appeal of the series. That isn't to say that Negima can't be serious, mind you. Thanks to those incredibly likable characters, the more poignant scenes with them hits home a lot harder thanks to that attachment to them.
But, hey. I've talked enough about the harem half of the series. Let's talk about the action for the shōnen fighting half! Like I said while discussing the art, the series' action is very clean and clear, unlike other fighting series I've seen. One can easily follow along and appreciate how hard a punch is when it lands. In many ways, the action is kind of like Dragon Ball it is fast-paced and features a lot of energy blasts and explosions later on. I didn't mention this earlier, but the world that Negima inhabits is full of different kinds of beings and people; such as demons, ninjas, vampires, kung-fu practitioners, robots, and so much more. As such, that allows the series to take part in different styles of fighting and gives a whole variety of cool fight scenes, so things never stay the same for long most of the time. However, what I really like about the action in Negima is how almost every single fight had a purpose to it. When you see two characters fight, there is always a reason for it in-story and it really helps getting one into the fight because you know the outcome would affect the rest of the story. There was rarely ever a fight that didn't matter for the story and could easily have been skipped. In fact, there were fights that shouldn't have been skipped and it really bugged me when they were skipped, but we will get to that later.
So with all that said and done, you're probably thinking I'm just gushing about my favorite series and that I'm going to give this a perfect 5 out of 5, right? That I don't think there's anything wrong about Negima and I'm just a biased fanboy? Well here come the negatives.
I originally wrote this review a few chapters before the final one came out, because I had a fairly certain idea of how the series was going to end. The final twenty chapters suffered from a large drop in quality from its usual high standards. A lot of subplots were unresolved, the characters were acting erratically and illogically, nothing of substance was happening, some random events occurred that ultimately didn't really matter, and everything just seemed so rushed
But then final chapter dropped. Oh. My. God. This final chapter.
Before I get to explaining it, I would like to feature my original part of the review where I criticized the series. In many ways, the final chapter did nothing. In others, it totally fixed a lot of my issues. In order for me to give this series review an objective view point as possible (and not seem like some gushing fanboy), I present my original criticism section:
For all my praise of the characters and how wonderfully interesting they are, they ultimately never received any final development. By that, I mean that they never receive any proper resolution toward their character arcs. For as fascinating and fun and lively they are, they never get to really grow beyond that. Actually, no. That's wrong. They do change and develop, but if they don't get the right end for their growth, then it really feels like they are trapped in an endless loop of not really getting anything accomplished and it might as well have been them not growing at all. It also really doesn't help that the cast really feels unbalanced thanks to the story. While I do think that it's perfectly natural to have some characters be more important than others, that excuse doesn't really work for Negima. As wonderful a cast I think the series has, it works against itself because the reader will ultimately get attached to some while feeling indifferent toward others and they'd want to see their favorite characters in the spotlight more.
One could write that off as just fanboy whining as the story should focus on the main characters, but that is a legitimate problem when the story itself presents a whole class of characters that each have a unique personality and seemed like they'd also be really important; and then the story basically forgets about them for about half the series as it focuses on half the class of characters. It is really annoying to get invested in some characters and then see them left behind for a good chunk of the story, especially when I was praising the series earlier for how tightly nit the cast was and it's always a pleasure to see their relationships with one another grow and show how deep they are.
Actually, that's probably the biggest issue that Negima has: It didn't resolve anything. And when I mean it didn't resolve anything, I mean it didn't resolve anything. The search for Negi's dad? Never resolved! The final romantic partner decision? Never resolved! The relationships between certain characters that were deeply ingrained into the characters themselves? Never resolved!
Okay, I'm being a little pessimistic on that. The story does feature the elements of a resolution for many of its subplots, but leaves the ending up in the air for the readers to guess what ultimately happened. As an art piece, that would be fine since ambiguous endings is a common idea of life never really having an end and how it's full of mysteries. Hell, I even gave high rating for series like Ouran High School Host Club that is big on character but small in story. But that doesn't work for Negima since its story has always been just as importantly presented as the characters in the story, and resolution is very different from an ambiguous ending. An ambiguous ending is meant to give one speculation as to what the story was ultimately about, but this is a non-resolution where that has never been a part of the series and that a reader just wants to know what happens. And for the subplots that do get some sort of resolutions, they feel so anti-climatic and downplayed that it feels like the subplot had no point whatsoever, which is exactly what happened for a few of the final fights near the end. It just feels like a big letdown for such a huge shōnen fighting story that Negima had as its big drive after the characters.
It's especially disappointing for those so invested in the story and characters for so long and to only get a really half-assed finale that felt not only rushed, but incomplete and kind of insulting for those who read the entire series. It's very, very, very frustrating. It also really didn't help that the last twenty chapters or so dipped in storytelling quality as it seemed that the series didn't know what to do with itself anymore and did some random nonsense that made it come off as a mess one would think the series would be for mixing harem and action. For the majority of the manga, its purpose and identity was very clear, but those last few chapters really seemed aimless. I hear that the drop in quality was due to Ken Akamatsu developing health issues in the last two years of publishing and I can understand that perfectly, but that still doesn't mean the series' end is any better because of it.
With all that said, does that retroactively ruin a manga for a reader? For some, yes. It can completely destroy a reader's expectations and desire for a proper ending. For others, no. It can never ruin a series that featured such amazing highs that it achieved before the end. I'm part of that latter group. For all my despair for the ending, I feel just as strongly for the parts before it. The vast majority of Negima has featured some of the best character writing I have ever seen for anything, and even stories that to this day I still love reading over and over again.
If I may go on a tangent on my experience of reading this series, it had actually changed my views on good and evil. There is a story arc that details Negi's struggle to figure out what is the moral thing to do once he finds out that the antagonist of the arc is trying to prevent a cataclysmic event that would result in a lot of suffering. Naturally, this is nothing new as the theme of morality has always been a big part of storytelling. Hell, Trigun is my favorite anime because of how it handles it. However, and I can't believe I'm actually saying that something Negima has done is better than Trigun, Negima's message hits home a long stronger because of how (and I'm sounding like a broken record here) likable the antagonist of that arc was. Often times, when presented with a moral dilemma, the hero tries to figure out what he should do while the villain does villainous acts that make the reader feel so disconnected from the issue and think it is obvious what the hero should do on a logical level instead of a moral level. Not the case for Negima. The so-called villain of the arc was charismatic, charming, was good to both her partners and opponents, and her goal didn't even seem that bad. That makes the moral decision all the harder as the reader is also left wondering why she should be stopped while also rooting for Negi to succeed since you've also developed a liking for him. You don't want to see either side fail, and that just fascinated me on how hard the message hit me. Hey, if a story is able to change a guy's outlook on life, it has to be doing something right, right?
Okay, back to the part of the review that actually involves the final chapter. I won't say that it fixed the ending. Absolutely not. The ending for this series was virtually nonsensical with a few good moments spliced in here and there. But this final chapter helped a lot. It resolved many of the character arcs, as well as a few of the biggest subplots. It basically served as an epilogue for the series, showing what happened to Negi and his students/allies after the story finished. Of course, it didn't cover everything. It still didn't resolve some subplots and the resolutions were given all off-panel but it did present final developments for the most important parts of the series: The characters.
Like I said earlier, Negima feels like an experiment to fuse two genres. Did it succeed? On a work level barely. The majority of the series featured great writing, but the final twenty chapters left much to be desired with how it went. It was rushed, some advancement was superfluous, some plot details were ignored in favor for others, and the story could have really benefited from more chapters. On a storytelling level, it achieved so much more than it was trying to. The blending of the character relationships of the harem genre with the story scale and action of a shōnen fighting series feels almost seamless. It started as a cliché-ridden harem series and slowly progressed toward the fighting series aspect in such a believable way that it's shocking how easily it transitioned from one genre to another. It took the best of both worlds of each genre and mixed them into something really special for me and many others.
In celebration of the conclusion of my favorite series, I proudly give Mahou Sensei Negima a:
4.5 out of 5
Great artwork later on with beautiful backgrounds
Characters are all likable and a blast to read about, and are virtually the heart and soul of the series
Stories that one can really get into on both a fun and deeper level
Awesome action scenes
An excellent mixture of both the harem and fighting genre as it takes old ideas and gives them new life
The cast is really unbalanced in terms of importance and handling
The overabundant fanservice can really turn off people
It takes a long time to hit its stride
The last twenty had a large and noticeable drop in writing quality, with the final chapter barely solving several issues
A really lackluster and rushed ending for a story with such a huge scale.
Recommendation: Check It Out
In many ways, I feel a little ashamed giving this such a high rating, especially since I gave other series lower ratings for the same issues I had (Durarara!!, anyone?). Originally, this had always been the score I planned for the series before its end, but the last few chapters began making me question it and I struggled for ages deciding whether to give a 4 or a 4.5. In the end and with the help of a really good final chapter, I will standby this final score as the series earned that extra half-point for giving a story that featured some of the best writing I've seen for the majority of its run rather than only for a small part of it. While by no means perfect, with a lot of flaws, and I probably gave it a lot more credit than it deserves; it manages to reach outstanding heights that I can never properly express. Basically, the good outweigh the bad for me in this series.
However, I will also freely admit the series is not for everyone and that's why my recommendation is only a Check It Out rather than a Must See. If you can get past the excessive fanservice and the sluggish beginning, I'd think you'd be in for a treat. Just don't expect much of an ending.
Update: I have recently learned that Kodansha, the publisher of Negima, is trying to form a new law that will allow them to claim ownership and copyright of any manga they publish, essentially taking creations from their mangaka. Ken Akamatsu chose to end his series in protest as this law would result in a negative future for the manga industry. While by no means making the ending any better, I feel greatly relieved that the decline in quality for the ending was not due to his writing ability, but rather a revolt against his publishers. Had this not come up, I'm sure a great ending would have been written for this series.
Mahou Sensei Negima was published by Kodansha and distributed in Weekly Shōnen Magazine. It was originally published for English distribution by Del Rey Manga before being published by Kodansha's U.S. division.