UQ Holder and the Troubled History of Negima

by Christopher Farris,

This October saw the premiere of the anime adaptation of UQ Holder!, the most recent manga from Ken Akamatsu. You may notice a subtitle added to the new series: Magister Negi Magi 2. UQ Holder! is in fact a sequel, set in the future of the same world as Akamatsu's previous series, Mahou Sensei Negima!: Magister Negi Magi, and following up on several of the characters and their descendants. The original manga version of UQ Holder! started out seemingly only using the connections to the previous series a springboard for world-building and telling its own story, before comparatively recently diving deeper into the continuity of its forbearer. But while Negima!?'s manga did rather well for itself and Akamatsu riding that momentum into a new series made sense there, the title has stood on much shakier ground when it comes to anime, making UQ Holder!'s attempt at selling itself as an animated sequel much more dubious.

The first attempt at a Negima!? anime was a 2005 series by Xebec, appropriately titled “Mahou Sensei Negima!” It adapted the first few volumes of the adventures of the 10-year-old British boy wizard (no, not that one), but that range immediately makes the issues obvious to anyone familiar with the series. The big gimmick of Negima!? is actually neither its comically large harem of 31 schoolgirls nor its frequent magically-manifested fanservice; rather it's that the series appears at the start to be a comparatively standard harem romance-comedy and after the first two volumes morphs into an epic magical action adventure, complete with multi-chapter fight scenes, transformational power-ups, and even a massive late-game arc that takes most of the cast to a different world altogether (Are they still on Mars? Yes, quit asking.).

Xebec's anime, however, focused mostly on adapting material from those first two, non-action volumes, and the resulting show was…a comparatively standard harem romance-comedy. They made a vain attempt to tackle the Kyoto arc from volumes 4-6 which is where the manga's true shape really began to take place, but squeezed that into only two episodes and cut a lot of content. They also made the typical-of-the-time move of inventing an ending for the series rather than just stopping mid-manga-story. It results in an incredibly out-there finale that kicks off when one of the main characters jarringly dies, and finishes with a mess of misplaced time-travel foreshadowing to components that wouldn't appear in the manga until several volumes later. On top of all that, the series didn't look terribly great, actually needing to be heavily re-drawn for its home video release. It all resulted in a totally forgettable adaptation of a manga that was itself going strong.

The next Negima!? anime came out in 2006. Titled 'Negima!?', seemingly as in “This is supposed to be Negima!?” it was a studio SHAFT production that primarily served to introduce many viewers to the Chief Directorial talents of Akiyuki Simbo. Yes, that guy. As such, Negima!? took only the cast and base concept of the manga, running in a completely different direction with the story, tone, and even how the magic itself worked. It also quickly became incredibly weird, in a way that you'll be familiar with if you've seen any subsequent SHAFT/Simbo productions. The upgrade in animation studio at least let the series look significantly better than its predecessor, even featuring several well-done battle scenes. But the story told had nothing to do with the manga it was a supposed adaptation of, to the point that a manga adaptation of this anime was able to come out afterwards (which itself diverged from the source rather distinctly). Negima!? was an interesting, fine series on its own, but sadly not the accurate translation of the manga story fans had been hoping for.

After that series springboarded Simbo's style to subsequent success, SHAFT ended up working with Negima!?'s publisher Kodansha to release some Negima OAV. The first two were seasonal specials a bit more in-line with the manga but still hewing close to SHAFT's house-style weirdness, but then came two series of OVAs that would be packed with special editions of the manga volumes themselves. These episodes would seek to tell manga-accurate versions of the story, picking up right after the end of the manga's latest major story arc. This should have been something of a holy grail for fans wanting to see the series animated, but sadly even this effort was not without its caveats. The first three episodes (titled “Shiroki Tsubasa Ala Alba”) animated what was essentially filler in the manga, not being terribly exciting or far removed from the light harem hijinks of the very first anime. The next five (“Mou Hitotsu no Sekai”) worked better, providing anime versions of events from the series' massive ‘Magical World’ arc, albeit in condensed, Cliff's-Notes form to fit the miniscule episode count. Truncated as the whole experience was, these still represent the best attempt to provide an anime edition of Negima!?, though also the one least easily available to everyone.

The final Negima!? anime attempt was the appropriately-named “Mahou Sensei Negima!: Anime Final” a film with a story written by Ken Akamatsu himself, providing an official alternate ending to the manga (which itself was abruptly ending soon due to a complex, but temporary, legal situation). It provided a new, but canon-compliant story, and made for an effective and attractive send-off to the series. Even it wasn't without its problems, however, as the theatrical cut of the film was incomplete, forcing Akamatsu to put out a statement outlining the story's premise before it opened. Fortunately, it was corrected for the home video release, but like the aforementioned OVAs, this movie also lacks a proper western release.

As an aside, a live-action television version of Negima!? was also released in 2007. Like the 2006 SHAFT series, it diverged significantly from the source manga, changing and curtailing magical elements to more adequately fit within a meager TV series budget. It remains one of the oddest (and hardest to find) entries in the myriad Negima!? adaptation archives.

So after all that, where does that leave UQ Holder!? As established at the beginning, the manga was able to at least begin distinct from its prequel series, but the anime does not seem to be going that route. The ‘Magister Negi Magi 2’ title is present from the start, the key visuals prominently feature several returning Negima!? characters, and those characters have already been announced as part of the ‘main’ cast. It all seems an unusual choice for an anime sequel to a series that never received a ‘proper’ anime adaptation in the first place.

It is possible that new production company J.C. Staff is counting on audience familiarity with the genuinely successful original manga to drive interest in UQ Holder! as a follow-up. That series was a best seller both in Japan and in the west, and after that aforementioned abrupt original ending, it's likely there are still many fans hungry for a continuation of any sort. In that respect, maybe the increased presence of Negima!? elements in the UQ Holder! anime is J.C. Staff trying to accomplish what all those above attempts couldn't quite manage, and finally, on some level, deliver an anime adaptation of Negima!? that does the manga justice.

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