Seven Magic High Schools Worth Enrolling Inby Paul Jensen,
Over the past few years, the anime world has seen the “magical high school” premise go from an unusual twist on the action genre to a staple of the medium. At this point, it would be as strange to see a season go by without at least one new magical high school show as it would be to have a season without a mecha series or a harem comedy. This wave of popularity is easy enough to understand: these shows offer the explosive battles of a supernatural action series and the teenage drama of a high school romance in a single package, and that sort of thing is huge right now. Magical high school shows are typically based on light novels (well, a considerable percentage of them are, anyway) and that particular kind of young adult fiction has been blowing up all over the world for years – just look at The Hunger Games or Divergent here in the States. The trend is instantly recognizable.
Here's the rub: magical high school shows have absolutely exploded in popularity both with audiences and production committees for the last decade or longer, and now we have a veritable mountain of these things to dig through. For every series that gets the formula right or brings a new idea to the table, there's another show (maybe two – this is a really overcrowded genre!) that simply goes through the motions and hopes the audience won't be able to tell the difference. In the interest of helping people enjoy the good stuff and avoid the bad, this list collects some of the most entertaining and most significant entries in the genre, according to me, the guy who dug through a gigantic pile of magical high school shows to try and find the best ones. These titles take the idea of a school for magic in a variety of directions, but they all share the same basic trait of featuring a formal educational system for teenagers with supernatural powers. There's no “self-study” option here; stories of adolescent magic-users who attend an otherwise normal high school didn't make the cut.
Of course, this is all just my opinion – yours will doubtlessly differ, so lend a helping hand to your fellow travelers up Magic High School Show Mountain and name your personal best examples of the genre in the forums! The more the merrier!
7. Tokyo Ravens
Where many of the other shows on this list blend some Western ideas about magic into their worlds, Tokyo Ravens takes its style cues from a more Japanese vision of the supernatural. The main characters attend an elite prep school for onmyouji, magic-users who protect the general population from dangerous and malevolent spirits. The story features plenty of scheming and intrigue, most of which is wrapped around the notion that the hero and heroine are descendants of an infamous historical figure.
Tokyo Ravens is a little too generic to climb any higher up the list, but it offers decent production values and an entertaining mix of magical conspiracies and teenage drama. It's at its best in the middle of its 24-episode run, as the beginning is relatively unremarkable and the ending simply hints at a bigger picture to be found in the light novel source material. Still, if you're looking for an enjoyable series with a distinctive approach to supernatural battles, it's a solid choice.
6. Chivalry of a Failed Knight
Of all the shows on this list, Chivalry of a Failed Knight is perhaps the most worthy of being called a “standard-issue” magical high school series. The hero goes to a modern school for magic-users, where students learn to fight with weapons that are linked to their souls. He's considered the weakest student at the school and is expected to flunk out, but his fortunes begin to change after an encounter with a beautiful girl who happens to be at the top of the school's rankings.
That description will likely elicit a feeling of “been there, done that” from veteran fans of the genre, which helps explain why Chivalry of a Failed Knight gets off to a rough start. The series gets better over the course of its 12-episode run, however, and it ends on an unusually strong note for a light novel adaptation. This is one of those titles that doesn't rock the boat, but distinguishes itself with above-average storytelling and character development. If you're looking to see the magical high school premise carried out neatly and by the book, put this one on your list.
5. The irregular at magic high school
This is one of the first shows that come to mind whenever someone mentions the magical high school genre, and not just because it has all of the key words in its title. The irregular at magic high school is arguably the current standard-bearer for the genre, the popular metric by which other contenders are judged. It follows a pair of siblings who enter a prestigious magic school at different levels of an academic caste system. The more skilled students are considered to be a cut above their lower-ranked peers, but the protagonist just might be able to shake up the power structure.
The irregular at magic high school taps into a narrative that's popular both in this genre and in young adult fiction in general: the clever and competent hero throwing a wrench into the gears of a society that has underestimated his potential. That appealing premise combines with solid visuals, especially during the action scenes, to create a polished finished product. Opinions are divided over how well The irregular at magic high school's script handles its themes, but it's certainly noteworthy as an influential pillar of the genre. Watch it and learn what all of the less successful shows are trying to imitate.
4. A Certain Magical Index
If The irregular at magic high school characterizes the genre's current form, then A Certain Magical Index is one of the key links in its evolution. It's a couple of years older than the previous three entries on this list, and you can see that in the way it blends its vision of an “Academy City” into a more traditional mix of science fiction and fantasy. The magical school elements take a backseat to the story of a student with a quirky defensive power and a girl with a memory full of forbidden magic books.
As is fitting for an earlier take on the magical high school formula, A Certain Magical Index benefits from an abundance of enthusiasm and a variety of interesting characters, but it has trouble making all of its individual pieces work together. Clever abilities and sudden plot twists make the show exciting even as it struggles to find time for all the things it wants to do. That mix of traits ultimately balances out to a positive, which explains why this series earned enough of a following to justify a sequel, a movie, and a spinoff. Speaking of which…
3. A Certain Scientific Railgun
I know I'm throwing a rock at a hornet's nest by picking a winner from amongst the Index/Railgun family, but such are the hazards of writing about anime. I'll also acknowledge that A Certain Scientific Railgun comes into the fight with an unfair advantage: where the original is saddled with the difficult job of building a fictional world and telling a story at the same time, the spinoff gets to piggyback on that world and focus on its own plot. The plot in question follows a high-ranked esper and her friends as they get into their own share of trouble in Academy City.
A Certain Scientific Railgun benefits from having a more focused narrative than its parent series, and it's further improved by a charismatic main character. After succeeding in a supporting role in Index, Mikoto provides a strong foundation for this series to build on. The show never quite goes beyond being a good genre piece, and a few of its characters will divide opinions between love and hate, but it's easily one of the more successful spinoffs in recent memory. It also represents a gradual transition from general-purpose action titles to more the more specialized magical high school shows that followed it.
2. Soul Eater
I wavered back and forth for a while over whether or not to include Soul Eater on this list. In terms of both style and structure, it deviates quite a bit from the other shows that are included here, and is as much a shonen action series as it is a magical high school show. It does, however, fit my criteria, so here it stays. The characters in Soul Eater attend a school that trains “weapon meisters” and their human-weapon hybrid partners to fight against corrupt souls. See? Magic school.
Soul Eater is on this list partially to help me make a point: the idea of a special school for adolescent magic-users is by no means exclusive to the last couple years of anime. The premise has been around for quite a while, and it's as much an element of the classic shonen action formula as it is a genre unto itself. It just so happens that Soul Eater embodies that gray area quite nicely, presenting a world of apprentice mages with a creative visual style. It's a fun series with a charmingly spunky attitude, and it offers a welcome break from the high-tech magic aesthetic that's in fashion at the moment.
1. The Familiar of Zero
Just in case the previous entry didn't already qualify me for “grumpy old dude” status, the number one spot goes to the oldest show on the list. The Familiar of Zero reverses the premise of humans summoning spiritual companions by having its unwitting hero get plucked out of our world and dropped into a fantasy world as a familiar for a magician in training. The short-tempered mage and her unlikely companion gradually go from the laughingstock of the magical academy to the saviors of the kingdom.
Beyond the questionable hipster appeal of being a magical high school series before it was cool, The Familiar of Zero and its sequels succeed largely on the strength of the lead duo of Saito and Louise. Their frequently hostile and occasionally romantic chemistry serves as the basis for both the show's comedic elements and its surprisingly effective moments of drama. They work well enough together that The Familiar of Zero's weakest scenes tend to happen when the focus shifts away from them and onto the rest of their world. The minor characters aren't without their own good points, though, and the story is able to do some interesting things with the idea of people and items from our world ending up in another. The best examples of a genre are the titles that age well, and it's a point in The Familiar of Zero's favor that it hasn't lost much of its entertainment value since it first came out back in 2006.
Magical high school shows might be here to stay, or they might go the way of “girls with guns” and “inanimate objects turned into people” and return to being a neat idea that pops back up once in a blue moon. Either way, they've already offered us plenty of entertainment during their rise to prominence. If we're lucky, 2016 will bring some strong new contenders for the top spot.
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