Magic User's Club
by Justin Sevakis,
You gotta love Junichi Sato. Looking at his creative output over the years, one imagines a guy surrounded by an aura of pink happiness. His female protagonists are usually perky, maybe a bit clumsy, and are absolutely trying their hardest. Despite much of his output being decidedly shoujo in tone, there's something decidedly Shonen Jump about his magical girl exploits. Maybe it's the perky main character who is usually bad at everything but tries really really hard at something. Yeah, that's it.
I was reminded of this recently, when I finally got off my duff and bought Princess Tutu. Though Tutu is quite a bit darker and more surreal than most of Sato's other work, it made me think about some of his other shonen-anime-turned-girly, and how good so much of it is.
MAGIC USER'S CLUB OAV (Maho Tsukai Tai!)
In a (scientifically accurate!) silent opening, we see that the world is a very different place. Aliens have invaded Earth in a gigantic cylindrical spaceship (the "bell"), and humanity is helpless to stop them. Just when all seems lost, we get the happiest opening sequence ever, and then schoolgirl Sae Sawanoguchi explains that the aliens are just "there" now, and nobody seems to mind. It's business as usual for the high school kids of Japan.
But Sae's classmate Takeo doesn't agree. The aliens are a threat, and their school magic club is just the group to do something about it! (Actually, this is all just posturing as he tries to impress her.) The rest of the club is made up of Aburatsubo (the token gay guy who's constantly hitting on Takeo) and Sae's tough-as-nails friend Nanaka, who makes it no secret that she's there to look out for her bubble-headed friend. The group is occasionally also joined by Akane, who spends more time riding in cars with boys.
And so, this rag-tag team of high school kids who ride brooms, wear capes and pointy hats and wield magic wands that look like ridiculous duck puppets set off on an ill-conceived trek to rid the world of the alien menace (and for the most part, really really suck at it). Soon they find themselves dodging laser attacks, each other's bruised egos and art supplies thrown by the evil manga club next door. Sae in particular has no confidence and often retreats into her room, defeated, to give her precious stuffed bear Jeff-kun a squeeze. Little does she know that Jeff-kun will be more help to her than she could possibly imagine.
It's very seldom I write about comedies in Buried Treasure. This is mainly because comedy in general tends to age poorly, and be very specific to it audience. (For example, try to get some currently in high school to appreciate Animal House.) Also, most anime that aims for humor tends to really reduce itself in the process, aiming low as it develops its characters and its story and usually ends up being very pedestrian in terms of outright storytelling.
So then, how rare it is that a comedy anime that is, on the surface, indistinguishable from more rote anime comedies, gets all of these things so right? We come out of watching Magic User's Club! not thinking about individual jokes or sight-gags, or even a memory it being funny. We come out of it thinking about the characters. Of Sae, who tries so hard despite being a screw-up; of her sardonic friend Nanaka coming to her rescue, of Takeo trying to impress her, of Aburatsubo cozying up to Takeo, of Akane off in her own world. Jokes are easily forgotten. People that make us laugh... that's what we will always remember.
Being a fairly lushly produced OAV right at the tail end of the OAV boom, Magic User's Club! features some gorgeous animation. The opening space battle scenes come courtesy of none other than Ichiro Itano (who got to direct the sequence separately from the rest of the anime) and the show itself features mechanical designs by none other than Gonzo's Mahiro Maeda. The characters and the animation direction come courtesy of frequent Junichi Sato collaborator Ikuko Ito, and are enormously cute.
I was a big fan of the original Japanese version, featuring Hiroko Konishi as the hilariously clumsy Sae and Masaya Onosaka as the dorky Takeo. About as good is the (very faithful) dub by Michael Sinterniklaas, one of his first for Media Blasters. I found Jamie McGonnigal occasionally over-the-top as Takeo, but Misty Daniels is perfect as Sae, and Lisa Ortiz steals the show as the tough-as-nails Nanaka. It's a mark of a quality dub to feel like you got almost exactly the same experience from watching the dub as you did the subtitled version, and that's about what I feel from this production.
While this six-part OAV is absolutely delightful, unfortunately the television sequel (released by Media Blasters as volume four onward) just can't keep the momentum going. Without Sae's insecurities acting as the series' main topic of concern, the show quickly descends into meaningless spinning of its wheels. It's unfortunate, but sometimes more is not better.
Like so many other anime comedies, Magic User's Club! has plenty of pratfalls, jiggling boobs, and even someone to do the "evil anime chick" laugh. It's also got mecha, aliens, yaoi gags, cute girls, amazing animation... and intelligence. It's pure-hearted and accessible, and yet smart enough that even the most jaded fan would have a hard time disliking it. Pretty rare combination, that.
|A||Abundant. Available anywhere that carries anime.|
|C||Common. In print, and always available online.|
|R1||US release out of print, still in stock most places.|
|R2||US release out of print, not easy to find.|
|R3||Import only, but it has English on it.|
|R4||Import only. Fansubs commonly available.|
|R5||Import only, and out of print. Fansubs might be out there.|
|R6||Import long out of print. No fansubs are known to exist.|
|R7||Very rare. Limited import release or aired on TV with no video release. No fansubs known to exist.|
|R8||Never been on the market. Almost impossible to obtain.|
|Adapted from Soviet-Awards.com.|
How To Get It:
Strangely, in this post-anime bubble world of cheap reissues thinpaks and boxed sets, the options for getting Magic User's Club! are more or less the same as when they came out on DVD back in 2000: three volumes with two eps each, sold separately. They're still in print, and can be had for about $17 each online. There's also a complete boxed set containing the TV series as well. Unfortunately, the standards for DVD production were still a little low at that point, and the discs don't look too great. Further, on-screen text and graphics are overlaid in English. I'm wishing for a remaster, but as Media Blasters seldom remasters their older DVDs I realize I'm unlikely to get it.
Update: I was recently informed that this series is actually out of print, though many online stores still have it in stock. Go, go buy it now while you can!
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