Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, Aug 22nd 2009
DVD - Complete Collection
Margaret Burton is a privileged young lady living in the peaceful, suspiciously Franco nation of Nafrece. Madlax is a hard-bitten mercenary who ekes out a violent living in a jungle hellhole called Gazth-Sonika. When Madlax butts heads with shadowy crime syndicate Enfant and its masked figurehead Friday Monday and Margaret discovers an ancient book that destroys the wills of those who read it, the lives of these two seemingly unrelated girls are set on a collision course. Somewhere in the war-torn depths of Gazth-Sonika primeval forces call them to a reckoning with their pasts...and the future of mankind.
If Madlax's plot where a physical entity, you'd need time-lapse photography to see it move. Even by Bee Train's habitually pokey standards, it's a work of great patience (and patience-testing). Its two principals don't even meet until episode eighteen, and the supernatural puzzle that forms its core is assembled from fragments that are parsed out with miserly reluctance over the course of nearly twenty standalone episodes. The series is an excruciatingly slow narrative striptease; a long and leisurely mystery in which nebulous conspiracies, paranormal bonds and ancient, evil tongues coalesce into something ambitious, messy and absorbingly atmospheric.
Watching that striptease can be infuriating, particularly prior to Margaret and Mad>lax's first meeting. Prior to their encounter, the series consists entirely of glacial, repetitive tales (disposable male character gets involved with Enfant, uncovers a smidgeon of the truth and is subsequently disposed of; repeat) in which solitary pieces of the overall puzzle hang like unfortunate Pleistocene fauna in ice. What the episodes lack in inspiration and momentum, though, they make up for in sheer supernatural menace. The idea of words that induce psychosis is a chilling one, and the threat of madness and death hangs over every moment, no matter how mundane. Yuki Kajiura fills the soundtrack with sonic tapestries woven of unsettling chants and grunts, while Koichi Mashimo's endless pans and leaden pacing only heighten the anticipation that something ugly and unnatural lurks around each narrative bend.
For the majority of the show's running time, it's content to coast on atmosphere and hints of mystery. It only hits the accelerator at the last minute, with the long-delayed convergence of Margaret and Mad>lax's stories. But when it does hit it, it wastes no time opening the throttle all the way. More happens in the mere handful of post-meeting episodes than in the entirety of the rest of the series. The final six episodes in particular are a rush of plot revelations, shifting alliances and far-out action. Everything from Laetitia, to Margaret and Mad>lax, to Friday Monday's silly mask gets a proper explanation while the various factions in pursuit of the books reveal their hands and bonds are forged, tested and broken. Oh yeah, and Mad>lax takes on a platoon of tanks. Cool. But the real surprises (after all who didn't expect the series to pick up at the end?) come from supporting players Elenore (Margaret's maid) and Vanessa (Margaret's neighbor), who step forward to fill the series' conspicuous emotional vacuum (poker-faced amnesiacs aren't exactly lightning rods for empathy after all) and deliver a few well-placed emotional sucker-punches.
That said, the accelerated final act has its own set of issues. The series' conclusion comes across sloppy and overstuffed, relying heavily on ill-defined magicks to resolve the narrative threads it gathers together. Friday Monday's tedious discussions of Truth, Humanity and other pretentiously capitalized subjects not only interrupt the action, but are also basically gibberish. And his cackling, muddle-headed delusions of humanity-saving grandeur fester like a canker in every scene that has the misfortune to include him—the number of which increases exponentially as the series approaches conclusion. Ultimately though, the good outweighs the bad, the powerful the weak, and the exciting the preachy, stupid and annoying.
The importance of Bee Train's lush backgrounds and Yuki Kajiura's aggressive yet beautiful soundtrack cannot be overstated. Between the two of them they keep the entire first half (and them some) alive, and together they create a dreamlike atmosphere in which the mystical nonsense of the climax seems almost natural—rather than silly, which is what it is. The character art is plain in comparison, particularly where men are concerned. Even Mad>lax, main character though she is, has some inexplicably unattractive hair (to say nothing of her penchant for decades-out-of-style Daisy Dukes).
Mashimo isn't overly fond of wasting cash on unnecessary movement. Creeping pans over the neon nightmares of the inner city and the verdant clutter of jungle landscapes eat up an inordinate proportion of each episode, as do cryptic close-ups of inexpressive eyes and good old-fashioned stills. When things do move, though, they most often move gracefully—particularly during Mad>lax's fights, which are quite consciously staged as sensuous dances of death. Smartly deployed CG effects spice up some of the action scenes, while the corny poses Mad>lax sometimes strikes do rather the opposite.
Madlax's dub is not one of ADV's proudest moments. The performances are wildly uneven, ranging from good (Kira Vincent-Davis's Elenore) to plain amateurish (too many incidental characters to count). Delivery issues create unintentionally funny moments, and listless delivery, particularly on the part of Kelly Manison's Vanessa, saps much of the finale's emotional impact. The dialogue is clunky but faithful, as is the casting. The only major role to be conspicuously miscast is that of Friday Monday, whom Mike Kleinhenz somehow manages to make sound like an evil genius biker. Curiously, as laughable as he sounds, biker Friday is actually less risible than his strident Japanese counterpart.
This latest of ADV's re-releases of Madlax rearranges the episodes onto five discs, puts them on a PC-game-style spindle and zeroes out all of the extras. Which is a shame, because the original releases had some good—or at least funny—extras on them.
Perhaps it hasn't the focus and clean simplicity of its sister series Noir, to say nothing of its nimble avoidance of irritating anime clichés, but Madlax is no mere failed attempt at recapturing bygone magic: it's a logical progression of Koichi Mashimo and Bee Train's signature style, and a solid piece of (admittedly sluggish) entertainment in its own right.
Overall (dub) : C+
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B-
Animation : B
Art : B+
Music : A-
+ Slow-building supernatural mystery with a hard-hitting final act; gorgeous background art; eerie soundtrack.
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