Length: 26 episodes (approx 25 mins each)
MPAA Rating: M15+
My Rating: 4/5
(Personally this is a 5/5, but I realise not everybody’s going to appreciate this one)
In two nations seperated by space and history, two girls are inexplicably linked. Madlax is an ‘agent’, a freelance soldier and natural killer who nonetheless hates violence, working for a man she only knows as a voice on a telephone in Gazth-Sonika, a south-east Asian nation wracked by a bloody civil war. Margaret is a student in faraway Nafrece, sleepy and quiet, who seems to drift through life as if in a daze and whose only link to a past she can’t recall is a tattered picture book with mystical words in it. Yet events will be set in motion which will set these two girls spinning towards each other as the mystery of their shared past threatens to come to fulfillment with cataclysmic results…
Sometimes you get a show that defies easy categorization because it doesn’t fit well within conventional boundaries. This is Madlax. When somebody asks me what the show is about, I hesitate. Because, in a way, I’m really not sure. I know that it’s Koichi Mashimo’s second in his nominal Girls-with-Guns trilogy, and as such it features attractive young women with powerful firearms (no, this is not a fetish), plenty of gunplay, a convoluted history about two girls who can’t recall their past, lots of lush artwork, and, of course, a sumptuous soundtrack by Yuki Kajiura. Put it all together, and you have a curious mish-mash of action, adventure and fantasy, driven along by a narrative that enjoys playing with contradiction and foreshadowing, but which never really fits neatly into any box you could devise for it.
I picked up Madlax first because it was the spiritual (if not narrative) successor to Noir, second because I watched the trailer and it looked like it had lots of good action sequences. I should point out two things. First, that it was nothing like I thought it was going to be. Second, that despite being completely inexplicable in many ways, it was still a stonking good ride.
To begin with, the narrative is split evenly in two, episodes alternating two different story-arcs. The first arc follows Madlax as she engages in several missions in the war-zone in Gazth-Sonika, while the second follows Margaret as she re-engages with an old family friend who is now a successful business woman and starts to investigate tenuous ties to a distant war-torn country. One of the things I really liked about Madlax was the way in which the director goes on to slowly weave the two narratives together. It’s quite carefully and deliberately done, and from episode two you’re starting to think, okay, where are they going with this? Little hints start to link the narratives- such as the torn page of Margaret’s picture book, hanging on Madlax’s wall- and it’s actually a long time before the two arcs actually come together into one. Even that process is enjoyable, and little moments where characters- as yet unlinked- pass eachother on the street are very nicely orchestrated. While the show may take a while to really get going, however, I was pretty sold on it after the first thirty seconds, when Madlax parachutes out of a hijacked helicopter into the combat-riven jungle below. Cool chick.
Getting stuck into Madlax requires a little faith. The early episodes are somewhat disjointed and slow-paced, although (unlike Noir) are driven forward by a much more compelling underlying mystery from early on. While the hallmarks of the team that created Noir remain there (stylish gunplay, a dark and frequently sombre plot, gorgeous settings), so too there are differences. The strong underlying narrative is one. The need to suspend some belief and accept the fantastical premises of the story (not all of them fully accounted for) is a another.
A third difference, and one which in my opinion is Madlax’s strongest point, is the inclusion of a supporting cast of characters, and ones you can like at that. Vanessa Rene, Margaret’s former tutor, and Eleanor, Margaret’s faithful maid, are two of the most enjoyable and engaging, but there are others as well, and they are not simply peripheral to the plot, but actually drive the story forward. As the themes and story arcs grow more complicated and interwoven, their importance grows.
I won’t go much into the plot because, well, to sum it up in a paragraph will only leave you confused, and to flesh it out in detail will take a long, long time, and you needn’t bother watching the show after that. And that would be a shame. While the opening episodes can be accused of being sluggish to get going, the series leads steadily and inexorably to what is one of the strongest climax-sequences (spread over the final four or five episodes) of any show I’ve seen- and one that left me haunted for days afterwards. If you’re starting to find yourself enjoying the cast, then make sure you have a box of tissues handy. This is a series that delivers the goods towards the end. Be warned, however, that in true eastern philosophical fashion, the endpoint is still a journey in itself, so don’t expect a neat little bundle with a bow on top.
Crucial to the success of Madlax as a show is the soundtrack, and although Yuki Kajiura’s score got less acclaim this time round than for Noir, in my opinion it’s the more beautiful of the two. While Noir featured a couple of fantastic set pieces that consistently provided the heart for the action (Canta per Me being my absolute favourite), the Madlax soundtrack is a more consistently melodic and haunting one, with piano and violins fused with atmospheric chorals and electronica, but in a more sombre and reflective fashion. Many of the characters- Margaret, Madlax, Eleanor, Limelda, Vanessa, and FridayMonday- have their own themes which are based on their characters, and these themes reappear (and in the case of Margaret and Madlax interweave) in different pieces, to powerful effect. While sombre tracks like The Day, Too Far and Lost Command add feeling to the destruction of Gazth-Sonika’s battlefields and Nowhere is a jazzy and upbeat but otherworldly action theme, it’s the achingly poignant tracks like To Find Your Flower and Saints which can bring a nostalgic tear to the eye even in the absence of the visuals- the last all the more heartbreaking for the scene it accompanies.
Being both a Bee Train production and a labour of love for Mashimo, you would expect to find good visuals and strong animation, and you find both in copious measure. The wartorn countryside of Gazth-Sonika is as lush and picturesque as it is tragic, while the streets of the nameless Nafrecian capital echo with Parisien charm (replete with its own Eiffel Tower that makes brief appearances). The fight-scenes are fast-paced and fun, although unlike the taut sequences found in Noir, the Bee Train team have indulged a more fantastical choreography and provided Madlax with near superhuman powers as she plummets from a high tree-branch, eyes closed while she blasts away at enemy soldiers, arcs gracefully across a battlefield of firing assault-rifles, or drops into graceful jungle combat in a racy cocktail dress.
It’s stuff like this I love anime for- fully aware that it’s for stuff like this that others hate it…
As with any show, it’s the extent to which the viewer engages with the characters that makes the experience worthwhile or not, and in my case, it was thoroughly so- if occasionally a little traumatic. Madlax is instantly likeable as the attractive and oddly sweet yet ruthlessly efficient mercenary for hire- moreso than the aloof and critical Mirielle of Noir fame, though the latter has to her a certain style that Madlax doesn’t. Margaret’s somnambulent timidity gets a little old after a bit, but the intrigue behind her character and her guileless nature make her very sympathetic. Vanessa Rene, in many ways the true heroine of the story for her courage, is a strong and compassionate character, and the affection that develops between she and Madlax is believable and touching (if not a little ambiguous at times). Eleanor’s selfless devotion to her ward is perhaps the most heartwarming part of the series, initially quirky and the provision of some humour, but later on developing into one of the purest loves that the genre has produced. And coming out of left-field is Carrosea Doone, the shady right-hand-man of villainous Friday-Monday, who turns out to be something altogether other than he first appears.
I got to know these characters, and found Madlax an enjoyable ride with a culmination that left me quite touched.
Madlax is not for everybody. If you like your shows neatly concluded with all questions answered, if you aren’t ready to suspend a little belief, or if you’re just looking for a straight-down-the-line action yarn, you’d best look somewhere else. For me, all up, Madlax was absolutely one of my favourite viewing experiences of all time, and the last four or five episodes had me quite emotionally snared. For anybody who thinks this might be their cup of tea, and who’s willing to go the distance even when it doesn’t make a whole load of sense, I highly recommend it.
It should be noted that there’s a real depth to the Madlax narrative which in true anime fashion is not fully explained through the series, and if you visit certain fansites (and even Wikipedia) when you’re done watching the show, you’ll probably gain a whole lot more insight into some of the things that were going on as well.
For a very different opinion of this series (it’s only fair that I pitch this, cos I realise my taste is a little unique), please check out this review over at THEM Anime Reviews- if for no other reason than it’s flipping hilarious. And for the record, I thought the bit when she shot down the helicopter was neat…
In true Bee Train fashion, the blood and gore is pretty limited for a show that centres around copious amounts of killing, so don’t be expecting severed body-parts and founts of spurting blood. Do, however, expect violence and killings in almost every episode, including war sequences. The language is pretty mild, and there’s no real sexuality either, though Madlax is the subject of some occasional very mild and incidental fan-service, and there is a little relational ambiguity here and there. All up, the show’s tone is not as dark as Noir’s, but it’s certainly not light and fluffy, so be expecting some sombre scenes, and subject material that’s suitably metered for a series set in a war-zone.