Monday Anime: Madlax

Following the runaway critical and commercial success of Noir in 2001, studio Bee Train wouldn’t return to their Girls With Guns trilogy until 2004, when they released the spiritual successor, Madlax. In between those two, they developed and released the monster hit .hack//Sign, which spawned five OVA’s and a second series, .hack//Legend of the Twilight.

Despite the studio riding high of that success, Madlax still faced enormous obstacles. With the success of Noir, any follow up was going to be compared, and likely found lacking, no matter how good it was. Since Noir, the market had also been glutted with attempts to cash in on its success, making it harder for Madlax to really stand out.

The biggest issue it faced, however, was entering the market only a couple of months after the finale of the definitive Girls With Guns anime, Gunslinger Girl. While Bee Train may have popularized the genre with Noir, powerhouse studio Madhouse and manga creator Yu Aida had revolutionized it. Madlax had to stand up to not just its own predecessor, but the monster hit that was Gunslinger Girl, and everything that Gunslinger Girl had said about the Girls With Guns genre.

The biggest obstacle in its path, however, ended up being Madlax itself. Where Noir was a fast paced, tightly woven story of intrigue, Madlax was a metaphysical slow burn. While it was no less a tightly written narrative by the end, the slow burn part is what ended up hurting it the most. Critics didn’t take well to it, and audiences felt it wasn’t going anywhere substantive, tuning out after several episodes.

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Madlax chugged along all the same, telling its own story, and has slowly become a cult favorite in the years since it was released. Even many critics of it have reversed course, and given it praise, and the series fared far better on dvd than it did while airing.

Truth is, Madlax is a series you kind of have to view in a marathon. One episode a week doesn’t really suit it, so much of the critical and commercial dislike was earned, while the love it has received as a complete series is also well deserved, making Madlax something of a weird little animal. Very few shows deserve both negative and positive reception, after all.

So, for those who aren’t familiar, a brief summery of the second of Bee Train’s Girls With Guns trilogy, Madlax.

Set in an alternate Earth, a twelve year long civil war rages in the country of Gazth-Sonika, where a mysterious mercenary code named Madlax hires her skills out to both sides. Known as the killer with a kind smile, Madlax is feared by both sides of the war for her seemingly supernatural skill with firearms, and apparent invincibility. Considering she has a 98% mission success rate, that fear is earned.

Elsewhere, in the nation of Nafrece, a young woman named Margaret Burton sleep walks through life. Suffering from amnesia every since her parents were killed during the first days of the Gazath-Sonika civil war, she is cared for by her family maid, Elenore, and can recall nothing before being found and returned home, save the word Madlax.

Then, there is the seemingly omnipotent war orphan, Laetitia, who sits among the ruins of a city, looking out on a lush valley of green. She can see the lives of both Madlax and Margaret, and is kept company by a boy named Poupee, who never speaks. She seems to know the true connection between Margaret and Madlax, as well as being aware of the secret society, Enfant, that seeks to manipulate them both for its own nefarious ends.

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When a Burton family friend, Vanessa Renee, discovers that the company she works for is a front for Enfant, and is supplying weapons to both sides in the war, she sets off a chain reaction of events that steadily bring Margaret and Madlax ever closer, and the hidden truth of their shared history to light.

Where Noir was hyper realistic, Madlax is heavily stylized, frequently employing imagery and music to convey the story over dialogue. The fight scenes especially were done in an over the top manner intended to suggest the true origins of Madlax herself, and are often seen as being similar to Hollywood action films, in that they are not even remotely realistic.

This was intentional, however, but the reason for it wouldn’t become clear until the last couple of episodes of the series, which had a plot twist that changed the nature of everything the viewer had seen up to the point. As I said earlier, Madlax is a series that is best watched as a marathon. At 26 episodes, much of the hidden nuance of the early episodes was out of mind by the time the big reveal takes place when watched over a week to week basis.

Madlax also traded out the realism of Noir for mysticism and supernatural tones, which set it apart from its predecessor, but was also sometimes off putting to viewers, who were expecting another outing of Noir. These elements at first appeared tacked on just to make it different, but ultimately play a pivotal role in both the story of Madlax and Margaret, as well as the over arching plot of the series as a whole. In hindsight, knowing how the whole story fits together, Madlax has frequently been praised for the clever way it incorporates mysticism into the world setting it created.

If it seems as if I’m trying to defend the show, that’s because I am.

Okay, so, yes, the over all plot of Madlax is a hair shy of being bug shit crazy. The leader of Enfant is named Friday Monday, for crying out loud, and his goals and motivations only barely make any kind of sense. I won’t ever argue that, because it’s a totally fair thing to say.

Yet, for the few things Madlax does wrong as a series, it does a whole lot more things right. Top of that list was the much larger cast it had than what we saw in Noir. Enough time was spent with every single one of those extra characters to make them feel like they were just as important to the story as Margaret and Madlax, too, which is pretty damn impressive.

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Carrossea Doon, for example, is an agent of Enfant, and the right hand of Friday Monday (snicker), until he meets Margaret Burton, and for reasons that don’t become clear until much later, betrays his boss and starts protecting Margaret. When the reasons are given, they are earth shattering for Margaret, and are the first big clues to the true nature of Madlax herself. It changes the entire narrative and nature of the story.

Vanessa Renee, who accidentally kick starts everything that happens, is searching for the truth behind the death of her parents, but is more concerned with protecting Margaret, and later, Madlax, who she develops a strong bond with. Vanessa’s entire character arc ends up being about putting the people of the here and now ahead of your own personal desires, which ends up being a major part of the tail end of Margaret’s character arc.

Elenor, Margaret’s maid, is willing to go to the ends of the earth for Margaret. It isn’t blind devotion, or even loyalty, but love that drives her every step of the way. She doesn’t even really see herself as Margaret’s maid, no more than she does their relationship as employer and servant. To her, they are friends, and more than that, they are family. This, too, makes a significant contribution to the finale of both Margaret and Madlax’s character arcs.

Of all the secondary characters, however, Limelda Jorg, the best sniper in the Royal Army of Gazth-Sonika, is likely the one who contributes the most to Madlax’s character arc, and that’s all why trying to kill her. Well, at first, anyway. After Madlax assassinates a target Limelda was suppose to protect, Limelda begins hunting Madlax to settle the score. Eventually learning the role Enfant played in starting the civil war, she nearly has a psychotic break, and her hunt for Madlax becomes an obsession that slowly becomes something else. Towards the end, as Madlax prepares to face Friday Monday, knowing she will die, it is Limelda that she asks to remember her, to allow her to live on inside her. In the face of this, Limelda gives in, and admits to herself that she admires Madlax, and is even in love with her. In turn, knowing that she will be remembered by Limelda allows Madlax to face her possible death without fear.

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Really, just a whole lot of stuff happens in this show, and every bit of it ends up tying in to either the big reveal, or the finale, or both. Despite the seeming pointlessness of the first few episodes in terms of characters and plot, there is not a single wasted moment in the series as a whole. When you take into consideration that the motives of Friday Monday make only a passing kind of sense, and the plot itself is a bit out there, that’s actually pretty damn amazing.

Of course, the real highlight of the series is Madlax herself. The killer with a kind smile is a truly fitting title for Madlax, as she guns down almost everyone in her way, and hates every single moment of it, feeling sadness for her actions and the loss of life at her hands. Even when she’s hired to assassinate a high ranking member of the Gazth-Sonika government, she decides to spend an evening with him and it’s heavily suggested that she slept with him, before killing him the next day. Not for any kind of weird kink or kick, but because she didn’t want to kill a good man, and felt strongly he should have a happy memory fresh in his mind when he died. Because she loves people, loves life, and loves happiness.

To be honest, Madlax is cast as actively bi-sexual throughout the series. While it may seem almost like a cheap titillation move, there’s a reason for it that ties back into her character arc and origins, making her one of the more well thought out characters I’ve even seen in an anime.

It all makes Madlax a strange protagonist, to be certain. She calls Vanessa the one and only friend she has ever had, which tells of her disconnect from people, but she hates taking life, and is filled with regret for every person she kills. It’s implied heavily that she returns Limelda’s feelings, both of love and respect, but chooses to go face death instead of running away from it. She seemingly has nothing to live for, but she lives as fully as she can, and is a remarkably likeable and charismatic character, for a hired killer.

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On the flip side is Margaret, who has everything to live for, but is utterly and completely disconnected from everything and everyone, including Elenore. While she cares for her and relies on her, and even frequently expresses her affection towards her, there’s always that sense that Margaret is a half step away from not just her, but everyone around her.

Saying more would give away too much for those who haven’t seen it, but there’s a reason for Margaret’s behavior, just as this is one for Madlax’s.

The music was done by Yuki Kajiura, as it was for Noir, and is every bit as excellent. Possibly better, though that’s going to be up to personal taste at the end. Like with Noir, the music of Madlax is built around one central song that recurs often, the FictionJunction Yuuka performed “Nowhere”, which is a damn earworm if ever there was one. All the music in the series plays back to “Nowhere”, giving the same connected sensation that Noir had, but manages to be even more memorable. The soundtrack is definitely one worth owning, as every piece is stunningly beautiful.

Like Noir, the animation is somewhat dated, as Madlax is now twelve years old. Where the themes and atmosphere of Noir manage to keep the animation from looking too out of date, Madlax suffers more heavily. It just looks like an old anime. It’s still quite lovely, and the character designs are all excellent, but you can definitely see its age showing.

As I said, the character designs are still excellent. Madlax, especially, remains one of the more easily identifiable anime characters of all time, with her signature look and style, especially that sad smile that dominates her face so much of the time. Margaret and the rest of the supporting cast are easy to identify from one other, and retain, even now, looks that make them hard to miss.

The actions set pieces still look pretty good, more or less, and what was considered over the top action in 2004, is pretty tame by today’s standards. Probably more significantly, there are a ton of iconic scenes from the series that, once you’ve seen it, you’ll never forget. So, despite the animation being a bit dated, the show holds up in a number of other ways that are unexpected.

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Most of which is found in the heavily stylized moments of the show. You’ll known them when you see them, since they tend to be hard to miss. Madlax’s many ‘gunkata’ style poses and almost ballet like movements, fields of flowers symbolizing death, and more are heavily used to convey abstract ideas all through the series. Despite the aging of the animation, they are still quite beautiful for the most part.

It is also worth noting that Madlax received an English dub from ADV back in 2005, and features a large number of well known voice actors. However, ADV attempted to hew as closely to the original script as possible, and due to differences in Japanese and English, it frequently causes the dub to sound stilted. It’s still worth checking out for an incredibly reserved performance by Vig Mignogna, however.

Strangely, despite trying to stick to the original script, all references to Limelda and Madlax having romantic feelings for each other was left out of the dub. Of course, this was America in 2005, so I can’t say I’m surprised. It does tend to lessen the overall emotional impact of Madlax’s choices at the end, though, so I still have to recommend the subbed version to get the full weight of the characters actions and decisions.

In the end, Madlax is a worthy successor to Noir, while still different enough to retain its own identity, and not be a Noir knockoff. It’s an excellent watch, even with the few shortcomings it has, with Madlax herself reason enough to check it out, as she is one of the more interesting and complex characters in anime history.

Next week, the last of Bee Train’s Girls With Guns trilogy, El Cazador de la Brujah.

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