There are plenty of anime which are adaptations of stories from outside of Japan. For example Osamu Tezuka, creator of Astro Boy (No. 1) made a version of Metropolis, inspired by Fritz Lang’s movie; and one of Oscar-winning Hayao Miyazaki’s earliest projects was a children’s version of Sherlock Holmes featuring cartoon dogs named Sherlock Hound. This week we look at a series inspired by the 1,001 Arabian Nights – although if you look at the characters it is hard to tell they are Arabian.
Magi began as a manga in 2009 by Shinobu Ohtaka. So far two series, both 25 episodes long, have been made adapting it, known as The Labyrinth of Magic and The Kingdom of Magic respectively. There is also an Original Video Anime (OVA) that began earlier this year and is still being made. The series features many characters whose names will be familiar if you have either read the Arabian Nights, or if you have seen the Disney version of Aladdin. Aladdin is one of the lead characters, and the series also features Alibaba, Jafar, Sinbad and so on. However, Magi’s version of Aladdin is very different.
Here Aladdin is a small boy who is a “Magi”, a powerful user of magic, able to control the essence in people’s bodies known as “Rukh”, which take the form of bright white butterflies that are invisible to most people. After living a mostly secluded life, he travels around the world with nothing on him except the clothes he stands up in, a magic flying turban, and a metal flute which contains his friend Ugo, who is a magical spirit known as a “Djinn”.
Aladdin then meets and becomes friends with Alibaba, a young man who plans to capture one of the world’s many “Dungeons”, magic lairs protected by Djinn. They enter and successfully capture such a dungeon, with Alibaba also controlling its fiery Djinn Amom, who possesses Alibaba’s dagger and thus allows Alibaba to turn it into a blazing sword. During their journey the duo also become friends with a girl called Morgiana, a slave they free who has great strength and wants to find out more about her mysterious native tribe.
The story follows the trio, sometimes together, sometimes on their own separate journeys, as they learn more about the world and about themselves. Along their journey they meet Sinbad, the wise and powerful king of the island nation of Sindria who acts as a friendly guide for the group. They also learn of an evil organisation called Al Thamen, who seems to want to bring despair and chaos across the world, and have a stronghold in the Far-Eastern nation of the Kou Empire.
Anyone familiar with the Disney film Aladdin will notice some big differences. For example, Jafar is a good guy, working for Sinbad. This series is also a lot more action-packed, and has a lot more blood in it than the Disney movie. The plot is good. The longer stories are pretty dramatic, especially when the sinister Al Thamen gets involved in the plot and Aladdin learns more about his purpose in life. In fact, just about all the characters are entertaining, from the leads to the side-characters.
There are some issues with Magi however. Firstly in the UK it is released by the company Kaze, which amongst UK anime distributors has a pretty bad reputation. Out of the five major companies selling anime in the UK, you have Manga Entertainment and MVM who are the old guard, with Manga releasing the big popular titles and MVM sometimes releasing stuff a bit more cultish. Then there is Studio Canal, the company who release Studio Ghibli’s films and thus they have the most anime producers to their name. Then there is All the Anime, the new kid on the block which has already established trust amongst customers with the quality of their releases.
Kaze however are not known for their quality, which is shame given its history. It is probably the biggest anime company in France, which was the first country outside Japan to embrace anime. However, since the company’s founder left it all seems to have gone downhill. People have complained about the quality of their DVD and Blu-Ray releases, as well as their anime streaming service Animax. They haven’t really been able to restore their reputation with most anime fans.
The other issue with Magi, which was a problem expressed by those who have seen the Disney Aladdin movie as well, is that despite this series being set in Arabia, almost everyone appearing in it is white. This has led to complaints that the series is politically correct or even racist. Now, while you could argue that the reason for this “whitewashing” is because Japan is such a monoculture and that they are not really aware of the impact that such depictions have on overseas readers, you do also get the feeling that surely they should represented the region more.
Plus there is the issue of the countries in this world setting. There are Arabic-like places, Roman-like places, magical empires (think Hogwarts but a bit more fascist), and so on. But the Kou Empire, who can be considered at times to be the major antagonist in the series, appears to be Chinese-like. Given the trouble between Japan and China in the past and the present, I do worry that there might be issues here.
It’s troublesome for me because I find Magi rather entertaining. I’d say it’s a bit like watching a rather blue comedian. You laugh at the rude jokes, but want to show your disapproval at the same time. I feel slightly guilty watching Magi, but that makes it a guilty pleasure that I really do enjoy.
The first series, Magi: The Labyrinth of Magic, is split over two collections on DVD and Blu-Ray from Kaze. Both series are viewable on Animax. The OVA, Adventure of Sinbad, has yet to be released.