High school is a time of learning, of growth, of coming to understand the beginnings of life beyond the educational realm. Additionally, it is the place where all guys are perverts, all girls possess the power to slap somebody to the moon and all teachers are oblivious, if not in on the shenanigans themselves. At least, that’s what literally hundreds of anime has taught me.
Tenbi Academy: A place where students from across Japan gather to train their bodies and master Element and Maken. Now, as for what Element and Maken are, your guess is as good as the explanation given. Element appears to be a natural force, perhaps relating to the traditional explanation of elements, or simply vague life force energy. Maken are slightly easier to understand, being weapons that a wielder is capable of summoning whenever they so desire. Still, the fact that Maken range from swords to reality altering pencils and are shown to both be specially manufactured by a teacher and pre-existing enough for a database to be present, definitely muddies the waters. Case in point, protagonist Takeru is unable to be matched with a Maken during his physical, only to have Gen (the aforementioned Maken building teacher) craft him one that perfectly matches his abilities. This is all well and good, except that the physical was unable to provide any reading on Takeru at all, leading one to wonder how Gen was even able to find a starting point to conceive the Maken. That being said, it really doesn’t matter too much, considering Takeru never actually uses his Maken until the post-season OVA. Also, Maken really don’t mean much to the series in general…because of nudity.
That’s the true name of the game here folks: Perversion. Not too surprising, given the summary of the series, or even the front cover, however it does confuse the message of Maken-Ki! greatly. Throughout Season One, the plot perpetually reminds us of Maken and Element, hinting at a great trouble brewing in the background, only to immediately shift away from that to show Takeru being pummeled for his lewd behaviour. Most of the entire first season is literally just him being beaten up for situations he somehow accidentally causes, with little room for development of character or story. The first episode literally shows how four of the major players will act throughout the entire season, bar one glaring example. Due to a typical perverted accident, a girl known as Himegami comes to despise Takeru and, combined with recognising a mysterious symbol that briefly appears on his chest, wishes him dead. Not typical anime hyperbole dead mind you, she actually tries to kill him. After failing, she decides to learn more about him and moves into his dorm room…and never mentions this motivation ever again. She simply fills the role of the bratty girl and joins the main cast. It comes across as utterly pointless and presents an example of the issues that plague the first season.
In attempting to litter plot through the various moments of perversion, the first season of Maken-Ki! shoots itself in the foot. With sporadic reminders that a more serious world looms beyond the surface, every moment of comedy and lewdness becomes a waste of time. With Element and Maken apparently so important to maintaining an ancient balance, the lack of classes focusing on said aspects is ridiculous. Duels between students were initially made to seem a core aspect of the series, but instead they occur a literal handful of times and are all for inane reasons. The Security Commitee, to which the main cast belong, are rarely given a chance to do their job, their time dominated by Takeru’s clothes removing tumbles and convoluted harem antics. Of course, the latter is what would draw people to this series and thus the reason the second season is far and away the stronger of the series.
When Season Two rolls around, Maken-Ki! makes one important deviation: The removal of plot. In eliminating the vague story ruminating in the background, the series is free to lean into its ecchi nature and ramp every situation up to eleven. Every episode becomes a disconnected foray into one cliche after another, providing a much needed sense of variation. From an episode about temporary amnesia, to one about cat girl transformations, to another involving a teacher and their failed attempts at love, Season Two runs the gamut and carries a sense of fun that Season One lacked. In largely ignoring Element and Maken, the second season also somehow manages to present them in a more cohesive manner than the first. Sure you may feel like you’re a little behind the ball jumping straight past Season One, but the secret is you really aren’t. Honestly, the opening sequence of Season Two provides a better summary of the basic plot than the entirety of Season One ever did. The second season also manages to pack in far more emotional resonance than its predecessor, which is saying something given its nature.
Throughout the run of Season One, Takeru was a protagonist plagued by bad luck. Every fall, every sentence, he would wind up offending or embarrassing a girl and proceed to be obliterated. However, it was difficult to feel bad for the guy because every free moment of his was devoted to being an absolute sleazeball. It’s sort of like the boy who cried wolf…only about panties. The same is also true of the female cast, despising Takeru for his lustful ways, despite all of them feeling the same way about him. True, they didn’t try to peep on him in the bath, but specifically organising a club trip to a hot spring and then calling him a perv for seeing their swimsuits skirts a little close to entrapment. It also doesn’t help matters that their assaults on Takeru were usually born out of jealousy towards another girl, such as when Haruko used her Maken on him because Inaho (his self-proclaimed fiancee) crawled into his bed. That being said, the perfect example of this Season One mentality actually occurs in Season Two. Despite the inherent weirdness of the premise, Takeru being handcuffed to the school nurse (at the behest of her mother, who desperately wants a grandchild) provides the first real glimpse of depth to his character. He spends the whole episode fighting his baser urges, not wishing to take advantage of Aki’s surprisingly innocent and meek nature. In the calmness of the island, the two come to understand each other a little better and develop a seemingly legitimate attraction to each other’s personalities. The mood is immediately destroyed however, when Haruko and Himegami find the two, refilling the episode with the jealousy and rage we’ve unfortunately come to expect by this point. Takeru’s actual character is removed and replaced by the classic bumbling harem protagonist, as Haruko once again assaults him with a legendary weapon designed to fight evil. Now whilst I understand that this is supposed to serve as a comedic button on the episode, it honestly just annoyed me. Though it was obvious that the status quo would be restored by the end of the episode, the crash back was just so damn harsh. Unless it was supposed to be a commentary on the difference between high school girls uncertain about their own emotions and a woman who is introspective enough to understand even her weaknesses. If so, good job.
Speaking of the utter divergence of the two seasons, my slight amount of research into the issue revealed an absolute explanation: Adaptation. Apparently, Season One covers a mere ten chapters of the source manga, before bounding ahead to somewhere near Chapter Twenty-Six. Not only does this explain the sudden plot developments towards the end of the season, it also reveals why there is little development at all on both a character and plot level throughout the full run. Maken is poorly explained until halfway through the series because, in reality, that moment occurred very early on in the story. It also certainly didn’t help that the anime removed and replaced a tremendous amount of dialogue for no discernible reason. Season One’s episode focused on the maid cafe, for example, removes any mention that the cast give their earnings to Azuki, or that she works due to needing to help provide for her family. Instead, the group simple earns the money and pays for the field trip (their reason for working at all). Though the idea is similar, all emotional impact is stripped and the entire episode becomes remarkably unremarkable. Hell, I wouldn’t have even known that Azuki worked for that reason, had I not looked it up out of sheer curiosity. The series just never mentions it. That same chapter even presented a warmness between Azuki and Kai (the ridiculously buff student who has a crush on her) that is never there in the anime. It really makes me wonder just how much of the source material was wasted in the flimsy Season One adaptation and how much better the series got when it entirely ignored the manga in Season Two.
Maken-Ki! is not an inherently bad series, it just fails to live up to the plethora of other harem series out there…at least for a while. The seriousness that arises from insisting upon a grander plot makes every lewd moment in Season One shift from inappropriately humourous, to near offensively creepy. I mean, there is an evil society whose name literally translates to God Hunter, stop trying to see you childhood friend undress. Also, childhood friend, stop beating the main character unconscious for every little thing he does. Yes, pummel him when he makes a lewd comment and tries to grope you, but don’t try to kill him when another girl purposefully kisses him. Also, Japan, invest in locks, it seems like they could solve 90% of the problems in this series. Still, I would honestly recommend the second season if you are into the particular brand of humour this genre presents. By removing plot, the entire fourth wall and ignoring Takeru for a fair chunk of time, the series becomes a much stronger offering in both humour and emotion. Also, it totally has a Space Dandy reference and at least one utterance of, “Help me Batman!” (Note: Batman does not help)