The Real Legends of Magi: The Kingdom of Magicby Rebecca Silverman,
The Arabian Nights' Entertainment. 1001 Nights. Whatever you call it, the collection of Middle and Far Eastern folklore collected around the 13th century in Persia (now Iran) has had impressive reach in all corners of the world, whether as animated films, retellings of select stories, vaguely unsettling Halloween costumes, or simply reissues of the tales with new illustrators. It is also the inspiration for a variety of manga and manhwa, with one of the best known being Shinobu Ohtaka's Magi. The manga began in 2009 and as of this writing has 29 volumes out in Japan, 17 of which have been released in English so far. In 2012 it got its first season of anime with a second following in 2013, and now in 2016 a prequel series is airing (which was recently announced as a Netflix title), following one of the side characters, the charismatic Sinbad. While not as popular as some of the other shounen titles to get an English-language release, Magi did win a Shogakukan Manga Award in its demographic and has maintained its popularity through interesting characters, a world steeped in mythologies and history, and just plain old being fun to read and watch.
The world of the story is one that resembles ours in Ancient times: countries such as Leam clearly represent Rome and the Kou Empire is just as obviously China, and so on and so forth. One major difference here is that mysterious dungeons have sprung up all over the world, full of strange items and mystical forces. Anyone who can “capture” a dungeon will face that dungeon's djinn and be rewarded with a metal vessel, which contains the djinn and his (or her) powers. Dungeon Capturers can harness those powers through practice, so they have become the most powerful people in the world, with larger nations like the Kou Empire actively sending royals to capture dungeons to increase their power and international standing. The story follows a group of three young people, Aladdin, Alibaba, and Morgiana, who are all involved with dungeons in some way or another as they journey across the world in search of both their places in it and their own power. It very quickly takes a more political turn when we learn who each of them really is, and it becomes a tale of how you use your power and for whom you use it.
The first part of the story, covered by the first season of the anime, brings Aladdin, Alibaba, and Morgiana together in the city-state of Balbadd. Alibaba is determined to capture a dungeon in order to help bring down the corrupt government, which is pursuing shady alliances with the increasingly powerful Kou Empire. Alibaba's friend Cassim heads up the local rebellion, but Alibaba is leery of his methods, which eventually leads to them clashing. Meanwhile the three adventurers encounter Sinbad, the most famous dungeon capturer of them all, who commands an astonishing seven djinn. Together they makes tracks as far as righting the wrongs done in Balbadd, and Sinbad invites the three to visit him in his kingdom of Sindria.
This is where season two, subtitled “The Kingdom of Magic,” picks up. In Sindria the gang encounters not only Sinbad's entourage, including a mage from the Magic-based kingdom of Magnostadt and another Falalis, both of whom will have major impacts on Aladdin and Morgiana, but also several emissaries of the Kou Empire. All of these people help to open Alibaba's and Aladdin's eyes to what is happening in the world outside of Balbadd and the few Steppes communities they have visited, and after helping Kou prince Hakuryu to capture a dungeon and learning more about the group Al Thamen, who are behind most of the political upheaval, is really trying to do. Aladdin, who is just beginning to understand his role in the world as one of the vaunted Magi, decides to go to Magnostadt to train, while Morgiana wants to search for her people. Alibaba, still unable to fully master his djinn, heads to Leam to train in the colosseum there before they all eventually team up again to defeat the evils that surround them.
As you can tell by the names, Ohtaka directly pulled from her source material, and this continues with other characters: we meet Jafar, Scheherazade, Cassim, Miriam, Judar, and many others. Of course, unless you've read The Arabian Nights, these names might not mean anything to you. Most of them come from three of the best known stories in the source material, although ironically those are also the three that most scholars agree were probably added to the book later to pad things out, since full copies of the 13th century text are basically impossible to find.
Aladdin and His Magic Lamp is the first tale Ohtaka draws from, and there's a good chance you know a little something about it, since Disney made it story (more) famous in their 1992 film: Aladdin. In the original tale Aladdin is a street-smart thug living in China with his mother. He has a run-in with an “African Magician” and ends up with two djinn to command: one in a ring and one in the famous lamp. Aladdin, who really is a bit of a jerk, manages to use these to get the princess Buddir al Buddoor to fall in love with him. The story keeps going with Aladdin having to defeat a series of unfortunately evil Africans, but ends well with him marrying the princess, who inherits the throne after her father's death. So yes, not quite the Disney version and also not entirely Ohtaka's either. Her Aladdin (who was originally going to be a girl; hence the bandages around his chest) is a mysterious child who wears a turban that can be turned into a flying carpet on his head. Around his neck he wears a recorder which is the vessel to summon the djinn Yugo. Aladdin lived with Yugo in his Magic dungeon, although he's not sure how he got there. Aladdin learned from Yugo how to control the ruhk, the source of all life and Magic in the world, and while he's sheltered (and absurdly boob-obsessed), he owes a lot of his kind nature and outlook to his friend. At times he can summon Yugo from his flute, but mostly Yugo serves as both a parent figure and a moral compass for Aladdin on his journeys. Aladdin as a character serves to introduce two of the important aspects of Magi's world: the ruhk and the metal vessels. While Aladdin cannot control Yugo in the same way actual dungeon capturers can with their djinn, the fact that Yugo lives inside of it gives both readers and the other characters an idea of how the system works. Likewise Yugo and Aladdin's relationship shows how humans and djinn can relate to one another, something most other metal vessel users can't quite grasp or pull off. Meanwhile Aladdin can manipulate the ruhk, which explains the story's Magic system and also implies that he's special, since he can communicate with a Magical being and perform acts of Magic himself; most metal vessel users require a djinn to do the Magic for them. Essentially Aladdin is his own Magic lamp, which may give you some idea of where the title comes from.
Up there with Aladdin in terms of well-known tales is Alibaba and the Forty Thieves. Two of the main characters come from this one: Alibaba and Morgiana. Despite the title, Morgiana's the real star of that story, a slave belonging to Alibaba who tricks the vicious thieves he stole from and eventually kills their leader by performing a sexy sword dance, at the end of which she runs him through. (She does perform the dance in the anime and manga, but it isn't anywhere near as badass, much to my disappointment.) For her loyalty she is given both her freedom and Alibaba's son in marriage, and Alibaba gets to keep all of the wealth he stole from the thieves in their Magic cave, which he discovered by spying on them and learning the secret password. The moral of the story is arguably that not only is it totally fine to steal from thieves, but that loyal service will be rewarded, with the possibly unintentional message that those who bide their time and use their brains will be successful in their endeavors, because Morgiana is one of the cleverest women in the book and uses that to seize her opportunity.
In Magi, Morgiana is also a slave, but one from a mysterious race of superstrong people known as the Fanalis who originate on the “Dark Continent.” (In the bad old days, this was used to describe Africa as a whole.) Fanalians are highly prized as slaves because of their strength, and Morgiana was captured young and brought to Balbadd, a fictional Middle Eastern city-state, where she was abused by her owners. Angry and craving her freedom, she is befriended by Aladdin and Alibaba, the latter of whom later frees her in a nod to the original story. Morgiana slowly comes to trust the two boys, and the three become a close-knit team who work together in a variety of adventures, the first of which is saving Balbadd…of which Alibaba is the lost prince.
Called Alibaba Salujah in Magi, Ohtaka's take on the character is an illegitimate prince of Balbadd who has been raised in the city's slums with his friend Cassim. (Cassim is the name of the original Alibaba's jealous older brother.) He's much more heroic than his literary counterpart, determined to capture a dungeon so that he'll be able to deal with the increasingly corrupt government. There's something charmingly naïve about Ohtaka's Alibaba; he's utterly devoted to his friends and honestly wants to do the best that he can for people, which makes him ripe for tragedy in the character of Cassim. Alibaba's introductory storyline gives us the flipside of Aladdin's – he must learn to master his metal vessel, a sword containing the djinn Amon, and later to combat the black ruhk, a corrupted version of the world's life force used by the shadowy group Al Thamen. Much like Cassim in the original falls prey to greed, Magi's Cassim allows himself to fall under the sway of a dark ruhk user named Judar, who convinces him that using black ruhk will enable the people to rise up against their oppressors. This Alibaba doesn't need Morgiana to fight his battles for him – although he welcomes her fighting alongside him – but the outcome is the same in terms of Cassim's life, and in both Magi and
Sinbad, the sort of mentor figure to the three heroes, comes from the third most famous (and contested in terms of veracity and age) tale in the original book, The Seven Voyages of Sinbad the Sailor. Unlike in Magi, the original Sinbad is a merchant from Baghdad who has a spate of luck that is a combination of remarkably awful and amazingly awesome. He sets out on seven voyages, gets shipwrecked each time, and through his wits and charm somehow manages to get home wealthier than when he left. None of this takes away his basic humanity, however, and each time he returns home he donates part of his wealth to the city's poorest, and his story is framed by a jealous porter named Hindbad learning that Sinbad made his wealth the honest(ish) way and what a swell guy Sinbad really is. Clearly Ohtaka took those seven voyages and made them into Dungeon quests, because her Sinbad has seven metal vessels. He also founds his own kingdom, Sindria, and it is accounted one of the best places to live because of its ruler. In some ways Sinbad is the closest to his base character, but there's a sort of unsettling quality that Ohtaka gives him that makes you wonder whether he's really as good as Alibaba and Aladdin are assuming. He's certainly got a knack for attracting powerful followers, including Ja'far, Yamraiha, and Masrur.
As a series, Magi can feel intimidating if you've not yet gotten into it, although it has a much lower bar to entry than comparable long-running shounen action tales. If you're already a fan of folklore and The Arabian Nights (or Disney's Aladdin or Dreamworks' 2003 Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas), this is a really fun interpretation of it, even if I'm not thrilled with its use of Scheherazade). But even if you don't know the literary source material and are just looking for a shounen series to get into that has less of a time commitment and fewer characters than Bleach, Naruto, or One Piece, Magi is worth checking out. With its close-knit team of heroes whose trust in each other is nigh on inviolable, beautiful backgrounds, action, adventure, and some fanservice (both male and female), this is an enjoyable story and one worth discovering.
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