A Certain Magical Index: the problem of competent mediocrity

A Certain Magical Index is a bit of a mystery to me. I decided to watch it after thoroughly enjoying A Certain Scientific Railgun and hoping for more of the same. At first glance, the two shows have the same textureless, tropey blandness which I found so wonderfully, tolerably, adequate in Scientific Railgun. They share a setting. About half the casts overlap between the shows. They repeat the same relentless themes about friendship and the ganbatte ethos. The same studio produced both with equivalent visuals and music. The fan service comedy is equally disgusting. Sounds like a sure hit, right?

But for some reason, I found Magical Index intensely unlikable. Though it is not the worst anime I have ever seen, I do not exaggerate when I say that it might be my least favorite. To clarify, I don’t exactly mean that I disliked or disfavored it. It isn’t a bad show. Rather, it just gets a big flat zero, a null value. I am trying to think of examples for comparison, but I can’t. And that is precisely my point: Magical Index falls into that category of forgettable “just OK” media that leaves no lasting impact, like a nameless Hallmark Channel movie droning on in the next room while you make dinner. Whereas genuinely bad shows often offer some love-to-hate nonsense to marvel over, Magical Index just is. Why are two shows, with the same source-material writer, the same setting, the same characters, the same themes, the same production company, the same production values, so different?

I think it all comes down to the lead protagonist Touma, who, like Magical Index itself, might be the single most unlikable character I have ever encountered in anime for his complete lack of distinguishing features (his power is, literally, to nullify!). Both Scientific Railgun and Magical Index have a large cast. But while Magical Index often forgets that its other characters even exist to focus on the bad fortune of its sole steady protagonist, Scientific Railgun’s core group of four allows a degree of character specialization. If Scientific Railgun wants to do a detective plot, it can lean on Kuroko and Judgement. If it wants to offer an everyday slice-of-life in Academy City, it can pull out Saten. If it wants even more compassion and friendliness than usual, it can ask Uiharu to provide a double dose. And, if it just wants to blow something up, it can have Misaka flip out a coin.

But in Magical Index, Touma just fills too many character roles. Despite the large cast, Touma almost always has the spotlight. With the brief exception of the Accelerator redemption arc, you cannot escape his overbearing presence in the show. He is an undistinguished level-0 student with relatable self-insert vibes but repeatedly comes into conflict with the most powerful beings in the world. He unlocks an ancient library of forbidden books, he defeats a human weapon that can control any physical force, he befriends a god-like ghost created by millions of espers’ subconscious thoughts, he helps banish the literal Angel Gabriel, and all this while a half dozen girls dote after him. It is too much for one character to take on.

Eventually, I stopped thinking of Touma as a person. Instead, he functions more as a nexus for the plot to revolve around with a ganbatte “justice” ethos to ensure every arc has a happy ending. Some way, somehow, no matter how ridiculous, Touma will inevitably stumble his way into the narrative. If a magician ends up in Academy City, they will encounter Touma. If a bit of science goes a little to far, Touma will stop it. In each arc, he will deliver a shouting, barely coherent lecture about the importance of friendship, land a solid punch with his god-fist, and win the day. By the final arc, it just became impossible for me to tolerate his presence any longer.

The show is weirdly self-aware about this, with Touma’s bad luck gag existing to explain the contrived narrative force that makes him the center of the universe. This all coalesces in episode 18, when a new mysterious villain shows up to kill Misaka (because he wants to protect her… villain logic prevails). Touma confronts the magician with another speech about friendship and lands a solid punch, then lets the villain rant about a new “Touma faction” forming that will combine elements of science and magic. At this point I stopped. Was the show satirizing itself to comment on the absurdity of Touma’s centrality? Or was this a real thing? Is a single, literal level-0 ditz that really cares about friendship enough to bring about the end of a thousand year old conflict by, you know, literally fighting angels and superweapons? Please no. Thankfully, season one ended before I could get an answer.

To push back on my own cynicism a little, Touma isn’t that bad (remember, this isn’t a negative review, it’s a null review). Given his role as a shounen protagonist, he has to have a prominent role or there would be nothing left to… show. And as far as annoying shounen heroes go, he could certainly have been worse. His assertiveness was at least a decent change of pace from the typical passive anime MC. For example, the “Imagine Breaker” power on his right hand is actually a pretty creative way to explain away his plot armor. It makes him unusually durable, but not literally invincible: he can still be shot or stabbed or in enveloped in fire. Often, he simply misses a block due to poor reaction time and contrary to the memes about his overpowered punch, Touma even loses several times against enemies that simply outclass him in hand-to-hand fighting. Though the frog-faced doctor can pull a hard medical reset at the end of every arc, Touma does take a few genuinely awful beatings.

However, “Imagine Breaker” becomes frustrating when it simply nullifies other interesting powers. He can absorb Misaka’s electricity and even block the Railgun (isn’t the coin effectively a bullet though?). He can shatter the intimidating earth golem Ellis with a single touch. And most egregiously, he only receives a few scrapes and bruises during his fight with Accelerator, a human weapon that can control the vectors of any physical force. Touma is not overpowered. But, his power results in a severe narrative imbalance because it repeatedly takes precedence over the more interesting powers belonging to the rest of the cast. For example, Index gets a few quick token scenes using her 103,000 grimoires in the final arc, but ultimately needs to be saved by Touma. In the same scene, Kazakiri cedes the killing blow to Touma, despite her apparently having the power to rival a god. We get a little action with Kanzaki fighting the Angel Gabriel or Magnus fighting Aureolus, but ultimately the point-of-view camera always returns to Touma and his fist.

Magical Index is a world full of interesting powers and concepts that Touma haphazardly eliminates in a weird act of narrative self-sabotage. Ah, a new spell! A new monster! What will the dagger do? How will the protagonists overcome this challenge? Oh, Touma touched it. It’s gone. I guess we won’t learn more. Isn’t that a little boring? If you find the maudlin, moralizing battle monologues as awful as I do, there isn’t much left to redeem the show. In what is supposed to be the climax of a fight, Touma will often spout some catchphrase along the lines of ‘I’ll break your illusion’ (I can’t be bothered to look up the actual quote, so endure the paraphrase). But isn’t illusion the whole point of a sci-fi / fantasy / superhero flick? If the show methodically strips away the escapist elements arc after arc, what’s left to enjoy? Instead of watching, say, a scientific esper and magical alchemist leverage their powers in a battle of wits, Touma nullifies them both.

The lack of character balance also appears in Touma’s self-righteous personality. He reminds me of Holden from The Expanse for his singular focus on justice. However, in The Expanse Holden has a large cast of cynics and pragmatists like Naomi, Amos, Fred Johnson, and Miller to balance out his excessive moralizing. But in Magical Index, Touma’s never meets a moral foil, even in the villains. He just rambles on and on and on (oh my god shut up!) about friendship or some ganbatte ethos nonsense until the bad guys let out a stupid little anime “gasp” when they realize the error in the their ways. Then Touma punches them. Applause.

The most frustrating thing about Touma’s self-righteousness is that it lacks a clear motivation. When Touma had the gall to lecture Kanzaki about true friendship despite having no knowledge of her suffering or the depth of her relationship with Index, I shouted at my computer screen to just murder that impetuous little upstart for his presumption. Kanzaki is clearly a better person than me for having the patience to let him go. But before Touma can deliver his critical-hit speech, Kanzaki makes a very pertinent point: “I do not understand what is driving you to fight so hard … I don’t believe you have any reason to be fighting this much for her.” Seriously!

Why is he doing any of this? Why is he even here? His defining trait is righteous indignation and he has a ceaseless compulsion to help people (whether they want help or not, see the lightning-induced self-flaggation when he forced himself into Misaka’s business on the bridge during the Sisters arc). But why him? Why should he specifically cook in a thousand degrees of zealous fire or endure one hundred cuts from a magical Christian-Buddhist-Shinto syncretic katana? At least the narrative in The Expanse charts a clear path for Holden’s centrality. Though he is probably a little deluded, Holden believes, with some reasonable evidence, that the entire survival of humanity depends on his actions. But in his confrontation with Kanzaki, Touma has known Index for less than a week. They are not friends. Has he committed ego-death to achieve true, unadulterated altruism? Given his role as a nulled self-insert, maybe so, but it’s still stupid.

Touma’s indignation is most moronic in the first arc. Magnus reveals that Index will die if she does not receive a memory wipe. Magnus himself cares deeply about Index and has no incentive to lie; he wants to save her as much or more than Touma. But Touma just ignores Magnus (the only expert on magic he even knows!) and refuses the wipe, causing Index to rapidly deteriorate and obviously suffer. Only by sheer luck did she survive: the church lied to Magnus and the memory wipe was not necessary. Regardless, Touma’s actions were wildly reckless and could have killed Index. Given the limited information available to him, he was essentially gambling her life on a hunch. It was like if a student who had failed Biology 101 says “Let’s wait and see, the condition might change” when a patient is convulsing on a blood-soaked floor and the doctors in the room recommend immediate amputation. Ah but no, it was a ruse! Boy, did those doctors look stupid when it turned out that the blood was a light ketchup (the pain was real though). The timeline in the show is a little more complex, but given that Index’s life was at stake, Touma was still horribly irresponsible.

Magical Index is at its best when Touma takes a back seat. Magnus and Kanazaki’s relationship with Index was genuinely tragic until Touma showed up to lecture them about friendship. In the only pleasant surprise of the series, Magical Index even did a better job than Scientific Railgun at presenting Misaka as a girl trapped with far more power than she could ask for being exploited by people who only want that power. Knowing that 20,000 of your clones have only been created for them to be murdered must be psychologically devastating. For similar reasons, Accelerator’s short redemption arc made me sympathetic to a character that had previously been depicted as nothing but a sadistic bully. While it’s hard to call him a “good guy,” his history of being raised in what was basically a weapons program provides ample explanation for his cruelty, with the added bonus that Touma never got a second chance to evangelize him about a little thing called “friendship.”

Magical Index’s other great flaw relative to Scientific Railgun is the narrative structure. Though Scientific Railgun has distinct arcs and filler episodes, they flow into each other nicely. Concepts from old arcs reappear to provide some narrative continuity and old characters show up again to offer some closure to their stories. Even the side-characters from filler episodes, like Misaka’s rival Kongou, have nice payoffs in the main plot. Magical Index manages a little of this: for example, the Accelerator redemption arc offers a nice postscript on the clone arc and Magnus and Kanzaki reappear as protagonists in two later arcs.

However, most arcs just kind of end. Magical Index has an ongoing pattern. First, it establishes an interesting concept: Index shares a body with a memory-parasitic library, Himegami has the power to attract and kill vampires, an angel intervenes in human affairs. Then it either just completely forgets about the plot point or Touma obliterates it with his nullification fist. Himegami shows up a handful of times after her arc, but her own introduction narrative has no further relevance (what happened to the vampires?). Touma’s family in the beach arc offer no resolution (or even development) for his amnesia problem, and most annoyingly, the monumental, near-world ending crisis involving the Angel Gabriel has zero impact on the world after the arc’s conclusion. Even the titular character Index gets shoved into a comic relief routine after the first arc, with her massive asset of having memorized over 100,000 magical tomes forgotten.

Touma’s amnesia especially exemplifies the narrative problems with Magical Index. At the end of the first arc, Touma loses all his memories in a genuinely excellent twist on his attempt to preserve Index’s memories of him. Except… his sacrifice has no significance. He does not tell any of his friends or family about his amnesia to “protect” them, with the boring result that no one provides an interesting reaction to the problem. Worse, his relationships don’t even change after the memory loss. He doesn’t treat Index or Komoe-sensei or Misaka differently and never needs to reexamine his connection to them. He just continues on with his life as before, with the caveat that he wants to be the best version of himself because he forgot his past self, whatever that means. The amnesia seems to serve two purposes, neither of which justify the narrative failure. One, it allows the audience to “meet” the characters from Touma’s past for the first time without the writer needing to do the actual work of writing relationship backstories. And two, it turns Touma into a blank slate for easy self-insertion. His mind is empty, so slide right on in there audience!

[As an aside, Touma’s non-disclosure of his amnesia seems like bad friendship to me. Though it would pain me to ask for help, I can trust my friends to help bear my burdens in a crisis when called, as I would for them. That reciprocal relationship is why they are “friends” and not mere acquaintances. Meanwhile, Touma wants to save everyone, regardless of their consent, out of a quixotic sense of chivalry. I call that madness, not friendship.]

To offer one more example of the narrative forgetting itself, the show frequently asks the audience to believe that there is a serious conflict between science and magic. However, this conflict only seems to exist in the broad sense that an arc will receive either a science or magic paint job. The Index and Deep Blood arcs are magic. The Sisters and Accelerator arcs are science. The Angel’s Fall arc is magic (or religion? I don’t even know what to class an angel). The two sides scarcely even meet, let alone fight, until the final arc. And even then, the conflict only manifests through a few vague lines from the magician Cromwell about some sort of esper experiments that resulted in her friend’s death. The science ghost Kazakiri manages a few attacks on the magical golem Ellis then Touma shows up, punches the spell circles and the golem, and poof, the conflict is gone again. Magic! The show throws out a few teases with mysterious fellow floating upside down in a tube who wants to create an artificial heaven but never develops the idea. This is obviously a nudge to get the audience to read the light novel source material, but no thanks, I don’t want to spend any more time with Touma.

The narrative often gets bogged down in a morass of inane, meaningless jargon haphazardly thrown into the “magic” or “science” categories. This starts early, when Index describes her outfit as a “pope-level” “walking church” that is a perfect replica of the Shroud of Turin (does the writer know the Shroud of Turin is a death shroud, not a dress..?). It just gets crazier from there. In no particular order, some of the nonsense I wrote down: Salvare000. Necessarius. Innocentius. Deep Blood. Power of God. Ars Magna. John’s Pen. Imaginary Number Sector – Five Elements Institution. Fortis931. St. George’s Sanctuary. Annihilatus. Angel’s Fall. Lance of Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli. Stigma. Kabbalah. An Involuntary Movement Dispersion Field (granted this one was understandable enough from Railgun, which has much less jargon). Most of those terms only have relevance for a single arc, but the show throws so much of it at the audience that it becomes difficult to pick out the genuinely important words. At one point in the Angel arc, a character asks “Have you forgotten the name of this grand spell?” I immediately replied to my unhearing computer screen “Yes, yes I have.” Who cares!

I could go on with criticism of the show, but I’ve already written too much and don’t want this to turn into a rant. I’ll leave with one final complaint: the music.

Music is not something I typically consider when reviewing anime. I am perfectly fine with mediocre music. However, the music in Magical Index actually damages the experience for one simple reason: it is just too loud! For example, the corny metal organ music that plays whenever Magnus shows up fits his character well but absolutely overpowers his dialogue. Similarly, the cute little techno-diddy used in comic relief scenes is fine on its own until it becomes distractingly loud, as if the show wants to prompt the audience to laugh at the funny song because the actual jokes fall flat (the “fukou da” gag becomes very annoying very quickly). Touma and the soundtrack often seem to compete for volume during his obnoxiously long lectures on friendship, perhaps to disguise the empty and repetitive nature of his speeches. Of course, because those battle-interlude monologues are always too long, the action-hype music begins to wear thin and fails to maintain the high energy of the scene.

On a level of basic enjoyment, did Magical Index succeed? I don’t know, maybe? It never exactly bored me and I kept watching. Oddly enough, I even powered through the episodes in a few weeks, far faster than I had with Scientific Railgun. But it was also just such a mess: I was captivated more by a hopeless effort to predict how the show would nullify itself next than by any interest in it’s science or magic concepts. I would occasionally take notes while watching, which in re-reading them, shows my bafflement. I asked a “what” question 23 times, a “why” question 39 times,  a “how” question 7 times, and a “who” question 4 times (along with a bunch of question marks and expletives…). Character motivations rarely made sense, plot threads drifted in and out of focus until they disappeared, and the excess of useless terminology made the whole thing more confusing than necessary(ius?).

Magical Index was fine as an inoffensive, unambitious shounen flick to pass the time when I was bored. But it never produced that warm glow “comfort food” feeling like Scientific Railgun had. Magical Index was more akin to junk food, like the oddly flavored dried french fries my coworkers sometimes gift me (look up “Jagabee” to see what I am talking about). I would open a bag, think to myself “I don’t even like this flavor” but keep eating anyway. Next month, when I inevitably received another flavor, I would dutifully eat it too with the same question: Why am I eating this? I don’t know, it’s sitting there right in front of me, might as well. Eat the jagabee or throw it out. Watch Magical Index or don’t. Oh, it’s Touma flavored? Well maybe not… though I suppose one chip can’t hurt.

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