In the tropical country of Gazth-Sonika, a civil war rages, and a young mercenary codenamed "Madlax" plies her trade with almost supernatural skill. Just about nobody can outgun her or outsmart her, and nobody seems to really know who she is, either...least of all herself.
Meanwhile, in the seemingly peaceful country of Nafrece, an aristocratic teenager named Margaret Burton lives a tranquil existence, but with a dark truth hanging over her head: twelve years ago, she disappeared along with her parents, only to return some months later, alone and having lost her memories. Though the two have never met, they are linked by their lack of memories before twelve years ago, as well as their connection with a mysterious holy book that Enfant, a shady organization, is searching for. The two slowly draw closer to the truth behind the civil war in Gazth-Sonika, that of Enfant's motives, and, ultimately, that of their own pasts.
I'm not very familiar with the output of Bee Train, which is, for better or worse, the brainchild of a single man, Kouichi Mashimo, but my general impression is that its star has fallen somewhat over the past decade. Aside from the positive commentary I've heard regarding the studio's adaptation of Hyouge Mono, I've seen a fair number of reviews that have described its output as ranging from seminal material that hasn't aged well in retrospect (e.g. .hack//Sign) to ill-conceived interpretations of manga that deserved far better (e.g. Tsubasa Reservoir Chronicle). Their 2004 series Madlax is something of an odd series, a spiritual successor to the "girls-with-guns" prototype set in place by Noir and a thriller at heart, one that makes for some good entertainment but never quite makes the leap to something great. I liked the cast and found the story buildup to be effective, and yet Madlax, via the fault of technical and thematic weaknesses, is ultimately merely an adequate rather than brilliant series.
In his original, partial review of this series, Carlos criticized Madlax for retreading the patterns established by Noir, to the effect of making a diluted and halfhearted-seeming series, and while I ultimately enjoyed it more than he did, I agree with several of his criticisms. For one thing, while I wouldn't call Madlax a technical failure, I might call it an exercise in mediocrity, even when I consider that at the time of writing this series is now over ten years old. The artists render the character design attractively, without making an exercise of making fanservice objects out of the characters, but the animation is only barely adequate throughout, with Madlax's movements being stiffer than they should be given her expertise in combat. I wasn't especially impressed by the art direction beyond the character design, either, for both Nafrece and Garzth-Sonika feel like caricatures of countries, France and (perhaps) Burma respectively, without the detail and effort being given to make either look like a real place with a distinctive culture and character. I was, like Carlos, somewhat let down by the musical score, considering that the composer, Yuki Kajiura, has been behind a large number of good anime soundtracks and composes for Kalafina, whose theme songs (such as Madoka's "Magia") I generally enjoy. I liked the theme songs for this series, but the soundtrack itself struck me as repetitive and a bit overdone, with one particular piece, consisting of choral gasps, clearly being intended to be spooky but instead being unintentionally funny.
There is, meanwhile, one other reason why I say I agree with many of Carlos' criticisms, and that is that the first few episodes of Madlax are simply not very interesting at all. The intention was clearly to introduce the two lead characters as a study in contrasts, but the execution of this is awkward, with Madlax's debut episode going a bit too far to make her seem badass and slick, and Margaret's episode actually being boring in its slowness and normalcy. I actually sniggered a bit at how hard the first episode was trying to make Madlax into some sort of neutral, amoral femme fatale figure, having her come into the middle of some inconsequential drama between opposing sides of the Gazth-Sonika conflict, take out a whole army while wearing an elegant formal dress (for no apparent reason), and even be propositioned by the dying soldier she'd been assigned to protect. It's clichéd and clunky in execution, and it didn't give me a strong first impression of the show.
Luckily, Madlax does pick up somewhat after that, in part because, it starts to pay better attention as to what it should focus on. While it's perhaps a shame that even the outward motivations behind the civil war aren't very well explored, subsequent episodes focusing on Madlax and her line of work benefit from centering more on her and the roots of her seemingly apathetic attitude towards all of this killing and shooting, and less on the drama surrounding one-shot characters. I liked Madlax herself, even though she falls a bit too neatly into the character of an overly-competent fighter running away from her past (an idea explored more effectively in Cowboy Bebop and played with to great effect with Gunslinger Girl). Rather than being emotionless, she goes about her work with a wan smile and a dry sense of humor, which did give me a few good chuckles and added some color to a show that seemed bound to become humorless at the start. Madlax also does a good job of contrasting Margaret's spaciness with the personalities of two secondary characters she is almost always seen with: Vanessa, a professional woman who was once Margaret's tutor, and Eleanor, a maid whose militant care more-or-less keeps Margaret's disorientation and odd habits in line. It was a smart move; Margaret would be a bit of a dry character on her own, but the interplay between her spaciness and the Type-A competence of the other two is effective, and sometimes gave me a decent chuckle as well.
Once Madlax does start to establish something of a consistent story, meanwhile, it does get more interesting, even if it remains ridden with plot holes. I might say that Madlax is more of a success in tension-building than writing, for it is very true that the story very gradually and effectively climaxes, and simultaneously true that there are many problems with the supernatural thriller that emerges. There is, for example, some effective foreshadowing of the fact that the secrets surrounding the identities of Margaret, Madlax, and other characters hinge on the occult, particularly via the presence of two strange children who are seen in cutaways of sorts; their initially vague and irritating commentary is much more satisfying later, when their role is established. On the other hand, my aforementioned frustration with the technical aspects of this show extends to the lack of its more subtly being able to hint that something is severely out of order with the characters, their identities, and the world they live in. I described Nefrece and Garzth-Sonika as feeling like caricatures earlier, and that also applies to the weaknesses in world-building this show manifests. Unlike, say, the ever-stark and blinding light of the city of Lux in Texhnolyze, we have a few obvious clues (the kids, and a red moon) set against an otherwise mundane backdrop, which doesn't do the job of creating unease very effectively. It also doesn't help that when the time comes, we find that the motivations of the leader of Enfant, the awkwardly-named "Friday Monday", don't amount to much besides cackling delusions of world domination. I'm still waiting for any villain besides Hamdo from Now and Then, Here and There to fit that profile and genuinely make me care.
That being said, there was a lot that I did like about Madlax. After a slow start, it did turn into an entertaining series with a solid cast, with even the limited animation not totally taking the fun of the gun battles away. Ultimately, while I doubt I'd ever want to watch this series again, the success in building tension and wrapping disparate elements together somewhat outweighed the weaknesses in the core story and atmosphere. But while those weaknesses didn't ruin the show, they kept it from getting remotely close to being great or transcendent, and while Madlax is enjoyable to watch, it is nonetheless stuck somewhere in the middle of "mediocre" and "good".
I liked the characters and found the show to be entertaining, which somewhat but not completely outweighed the mediocrity of the technical aspects and some important weaknesses in the story. Aficionados of Bee Train can add a star, I suppose, while those who enjoy making yuri pairings might want to, also. — Nicoletta Christina Browne
Recommended Audience: Carlos: The violence is too graphic for youngsters, so a safe bet would be teens and up.
Version(s) Viewed: Digital Source (Japanese with English subtitles)
Review Status: Full (26/26)
Madlax © 2004 Bee Train / Victor Entertainment
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