As I write this review, my father is still in the Intensive Care Unit, recovering from a bad infection. (He’s doing much better today, his vital signs are good and fever down, and should be out of the ICU tomorrow.) I watched the final few episodes of this show when I was waiting to hear what his condition was a few days ago, and it gave me some interesting perspectives on this most emotionally primal of series. It is, after all, about what happens and who you are when your loved ones are taken from you.
Long ago, when I was in middle school and a naive young dreamer who wanted nothing more than to be a published fantasy writer, I read Orson Scott Card’s guidebook How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy. In it he talks about the importance of setting rules for magic, and he gave this example for a rule for casting spells:
When a wizard casts a spell, body parts wither and fall of the person he loves the most. The love can’t be faked…the greater the love, the greater the power–but also the greater the suffering of the wizard when he sees what has happened to the person he loves. This makes the most loving and compassionate people the ones with the most potential power–and yet they’re the ones least likely to use it.
This paragraph rang through my head all the time when I was watching the second half of this series; it is basically an embodiment of Card’s proposed rule, though, actually, it is less harsh in Mai-HiME; the only time the loved one suffers is if the “Child” of the HiME is defeated in battle. I remember thinking when I first read this rule that this was potent, potent stuff, and if some writer actually used it he could come up with a terribly moving story–or a terribly monstrous one. (Card even gives an example of the latter.) But what’s described here is pretty much the show’s emotional engine, and up until the final episode, it drives Mai to near-unbearable tragedy. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a protagonist who was so undeserving of the amount of suffering she bears; she is indeed the “most loving and compassionate” person in the series, and hence the most powerful, and must thus bear the biggest brunt.
It is very rare to see such a balanced female character like Mai in anime. She is strong and self-willed, but far from perfect, constantly confusing duty and obligation with love and confusing love with simple attraction (as in the case with Reito). Her moral sense is very strong and is, in the end, the only thing that she has left, and she has to hold on to it when everything else has been destroyed. She is simultaneously more mature and as immature as someone her age; this is in part because Mai is, functionally, a single mother, treating her younger brother and Mikoto basically like a son and daughter. This has forced her to be more responsible than many people her age, and a common curse for “responsible” and upright people (oldest children tend to be this way) is believing that she must pretend to be more “together” than she really is for the sake of the children; that this is what it means to love and be unselfish. I’ve seen women like this before, especially Asian ones, and the journey toward self-knowledge and figuring out her actual desires from her responsibilities is deeply compelling. She is in short a very good, but still flawed, person. In a way, the world is lucky that it was she who has to make the final choices and undergo the kind of grief that she does; only someone with that kind of ethical sense, inner strength, and sense of duty could even survive without collapsing completely–the way the first HiME who loses does.
Part of her search, too, is really the quest for family, to recreate the semblance of a nuclear family in her life: to become children again, with a mother and father and with Mikoto as an adopted little sister too. All have been taken away from her by the end. (This is made very clear in the fantasy sequences of episode 24.) This seems to be part of a growing, welcome trend toward recognizing that anime characters need not be loner only children whose parents are either dead, conveniently absent, or otherwise unavailable for the plot. (I think of the way they mention but don’t even bother animating Kouichi’s father in the most recent episode of Kimikiss Pure Rouge.) Clannad is of course the most prominent example this season of this trend, but one can also include Higurashi, Seto no Hanayome, and many others in the past few years. It may signal a slight maturity in anime writing over the years, and I hope it isn’t a fad.
There are many, many other characters, and it’s impressive how balanced the show is in juggling their own struggles–though, in my opinion, some character arcs work better than others. Natsuki’s arc is perhaps the most impressive out of all of them, as she goes through many changes throughout the series in learning about her origins. Miyu and Alyssa were all right, though they more or less drop out by the show’s second half except near the very end. I was unconvinced by the whole Shiho-Tate-Mai love triangle, though, because I’ve never particularly bought into the whole “onii-chan who really isn’t my onii-chan” fetish (hence my general lack of sympathy for Kei in ef) and the attempt of the show to blow it up into a grand romantic tragedy ultimately failed, in my opinion. Same with the stereotypical nun-who-breaks-her-vows-for-a-creepy-artist one, as well as the lesbian love drama in the student council, which occasionally played like a overwrought soap opera. Indeed, the show often seems rather melodramatic, with soaring declarations of love accompanied by always-excellent Yuki Kajiura music. I’ve seen people fault the show for it and while it doesn’t sink it, I can understand why one might feel that way.
Finally, there is the ending, one that many people find dissatisfying. I agree, though not vehemently. Warning, this section contains massive spoilers.
The question that this show poses to its heroine and to us is what we base our sense of identity upon. Do we live basically for the approval of others, deceiving ourselves as to what our actual desires and feelings are, and call that love? The definition of love given in this show is vague and thin, in my opinion, and while the emotional suppression that Mai has perfected in her own life clearly isn’t right, neither was her self-sacrificing on behalf of her brother and her friends entirely wrong either. Such things do have something to do with real love. What we do everyday with those we care about is the substance of our love, whether it be cooking a meal, holding them accountable, or trying to find the best treatment in a hospital. The emotions are essential and become so as everyone realizes who their real loves and priorities are–that is the process the second half’s “Festival” reveals–and without denying that, without saying that the words “I love you” are unimportant, I think I realize that Mai and her friends were really groping in the dark with half the truth. The journey that everyone takes in this show is toward a kind of emotional and psychological honesty that is actually rare in real life, and often only hard-won. We are who we are, and it’s important for self-abnegating and martyring people like Mai to know that; and we are who we love, too, and losing them is losing a part of ourselves. I think of something St Augustine wrote in his Confessions on losing a best friend to illness; it’s almost as if the HiMEs experience this is very literal terms:
My eyes searched everywhere for him, but he was not there to be seen. I hated all the places we had known together, because he was not in them and they could no longer whisper to me “Here he comes!” as they would have done had he been alive but absent for a while….I had loved him as though he would never die. I wondered that he should die and I remain alive, for I was his second self. How well the poet put it when he called his friend the half of his soul! I felt that our two souls had been as one, living in two bodies, and life to me was fearful because I did not want to live with only half a soul. (Book IV.4, 6)
He concludes with the bitter wisdom of experience: “how foolish it is to love someone human as more than human!” We all die, and one day, those whom we love today will be gone from this existence, which means a part of ourselves will be gone too. I hope, like Mai, that I can love those whom I love today even if it’s a flawed love (as it must be), and that I can still face the dragon at the world’s end even after they have departed.