I’ve been covering Mahouka Koukou no Yuutousei (or The Honor Student at Magic High School) episodically this season and while I will probably have a few things to say about it in my review, mostly it has been an enjoyable enough experience. However, while watching it, one thing has become fairly clear to me, and that is that despite all the write-ups that described this story as a retelling from Miyuki’s point of view, I really should have paid attention to the added on information that MAL gave which is, “and the other female characters“.
That’s actually fairly important because while we are spending more time with Miyuki than we did in the original anime (Mahouka Koukou no Rettousei) we’re actually spending far more time with the supporting cast including Honoka, Shizuku and Eimi.
At first I thought this was a little bit strange but then I started thinking about other spin-off series that have taken much the same approach and lost the focus on a main character to instead flesh out a supporting cast and taking on a more slice-of-life (and usually cute girls doing cute things) approach and I realised there’s probably a solid marketing reason behind this kind of decision making.
Mahouka Koukou no Yuutousei isn’t the first to take an ensemble approach.
The obvious comparison for me came when I was watching Honoka, Shizuku and Eimi playing detective and getting in over their heads in Mahouka Koukou no Yuutousei to the cast of A Certain Scientific Railgun.
Airing in 2010 and being a spin-off to A Certain Magical Index, Railgun more or less ditched protagonist Kamijou from the original and Index is almost a no-show, as the focus shifts to Misaka Mikoto (the Railgun herself) and her friends including a number of characters that quite regularly get in over their heads because they aren’t protagonists but do hang around with them and somehow get involved in extreme situations involving terrorists, conspiracies, and end of the world scenarios.
The formulaic approach to building a cast of bubbly female girls with powers works and in Railgun many would argue (including me) that it far surpassed the enjoyment of the original series. Giving us the world we loved, some of the key events from the original plot, but also providing us with fresh situations and scenarios ranging from the deadly serious to the absolutely frivolous. More than that, Railgun got the balance of cute girls being cute with the more serious action sequences just right.
While Mahouka Koukou no Yuutousei hasn’t had quite the magic of Railgun, its cast is surprisingly enjoyable. While Shizuku and Honoka were present in Irregular, they were definitely not in the inner circle as they are Miyuki’s friends and not necessarily Tatsuya’s. By shifting the focus away from Tatsuya, we essentially shed a lot of the characters from the series that were in his class, cutting down the large cast, and giving the girls around Miyuki much more screen time.
And honestly, they are pretty fun characters.
Where they haven’t quite managed to hold their own is that they’ve not been given a huge amount to do. Even when playing ‘detective’ Mahouka Koukou no Yuutousei didn’t really give them any new material to uncover or their own plots to explore and so we constantly end up back at events we’ve already seen and know these characters don’t necessarily play a pivotal role in. Railgun managed to find new challenges in amongst the ones we’d seen to provide the characters with a bit more scope.
Still, seeing Eimi saving Honoka and Shizuku from club recruitment by riding her horse into a crowd or watching the girls rally together in defence of Tatsuya, or even just their preparations for events as we see them behind the scenes confronting their own insecurities, has been pretty fun. With a bit more effort on the plot side this mix of characters could have definitely surpassed the original series.
Equally, because of the characters we’ve shed from the original, now that we’re at the Nine Schools Competition, Mahouka Koukou no Yuutousei has been able to build up one of the rival schools and the characters the girls are competing against. They are no longer just the faceless opponent to be overcome or represented entirely by the one male character Tatsuya will end up facing off against, but now they’ve become real people with their hopes and dreams of competing and winning the competition.
It would have been awesome if the story had slowed down a bit more and given us time to really get to know these characters and watch them prepare for the competition and interact with the cast we know a bit more, but we continue to race through the events, I guess in an effort to wrap this arc up by the end of the season. Again, in principle, the new characters could be great, but the execution hasn’t really allowed them to spread their wings and win over the audience.
But, if we want to think about why Mahouka Koukou no Yuutousei took this approach at all, I guess we just need to compare the promotional images of the two series and think about which audiences the two shows are targeting. Also telling that the ‘action’ tag has been removed from Mahouka Koukou no Yuutousei. Just look at the girls’ school uniforms. While there are one or two females who do hand-to-hand combat in the series, most of the girls are more stand back and use ranged magical attack types so the focus of the spin-off was never going to be action.
It’s an almost identical trend to the changes from A Certain Magical Index to A Certain Scientific Railgun in terms of the promotional image, though Railgun didn’t lose its action tag because the girls in Railgun are just as likely to get involved in a fight as the boys.
There’s some definite positives to this approach to spin-offs. It does allow characters who were more in the background a chance to come into their own and shine, and when done well this can enhance the world-building of the original series as well as help craft a solid individual identity for the spin-off show. Equally, you can expand the audience beyond the original series by appealing to a slightly different demographic.
The key consideration is whether you’ve done it well and whether the spin-off does stand on its own as a solid piece of entertainment.
I’m still not completely convinced that Mahouka Koukou no Yuutousei has managed it, though the approach it took wasn’t wrong. Hopefully by the end of the series it will have found its groove because there’s certainly enough potential in the cast.
Images from: Mahouka Koukou no Yuutousei. Dir. Hideki Tachibana. Connect. 2021
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