Review: Kyo Kara Maou! (2004)

Directed by:
Cast: , ,

Distributed in Australia by:

I can be shallow and I’ll admit it freely. I like my dramas, the serious, thoughtful works exemplified by Kon or Abe or Ooshi. I also like my action, titles like Fullmetal Alchemist or Gungrave or Yukikaze. But occasionally I like a little brainless entertainment – entertainment that at least doesn’t involve a lot of explosions or bloody deaths or deep-seated angst – which is a large part of the reason why I started watching Kyou Kara Maou!. Inoffensive and quirky, KKM doesn’t demand much in the way of thinking. It’s fluffy, light-hearted, silly and fun, has No Plot, and the male characters in it are handsome and many – it’s the anime equivalent of a himbo, basically.

Of course, to get technical for a moment, this isn’t supposed to be an insult. On the contrary, it’s part of its attraction. KKM is after all a standard magical girl adventure anime. You know the type; normal human girl gets transported to another world, where she is in fact some fulfilment of a prophecy/a princess/someone with undreamed-of magical powers, is surrounded by heroes, needs rescuing with some regularity and eventually has to fight to find her own inner strengths. These genre stories aren’t meant to be deep thinking, at least not intellectually speaking. What they are meant to be is emotionally engaging, and Kyou Kara Maou manages to achieve this through an unexpected twist, a twist that seems to make all the difference – the magical girl in this case is, in actual fact, a boy.

In the same way that Hayao Miyazaki tends to put young girls in the sorts of roles usually reserved for boys in order to shake up the standard gender based narrative conventions, KKM puts a boy in the role of the girl in a standard shoujo narrative, and changes nothing else. All the other normal stereotypes and devices typical of this kind of story still apply – Yuri Shibuya is still transported to another world, still finds himself surrounded by handsome, heroic types, still finds that he has powers he doesn’t know how to control as he struggles to become a stronger person, but the difference in gender refreshes the basic premise to an unexpected degree.

It also, of course, makes for not a little hilarity. Yuuri is gormless, charming and idealistic, which gets him into more than his fair share of trouble (and also incidentally describes the heroines of pretty much most magical girl series), and being positioned as he is, he is far from your typical macho, boy’s story character. Naturally in that case, there is a level of shounen-ai (yaoi) subtext present in the story also; since the story conventions remain the same, the emotional involvement similarly remains, but it’s treated with the same light-hearted sense of play that infuses the rest of the series.

At least, up until the end of season one, which is around about where KKM does something else you might not expect, not because it leaves any of the boy-in-a-girl’s-world conventions it’s already established, but because somewhere along the line, it stops being a show on random, fantasy-genre crack and develops a plot. It’s a bit of a surprise, as if the writers suddenly decided, after thirty something episodes, to introduce an actual story. And not only does the quality of plot improve, thereby intensifying the emotional elements so much a feature of girl’s stories, but the animation quality also gets a lot better too. For a while there, in fact, it’s possible to wonder if you aren’t accidentally watching the wrong show.

But if you’ve gotten that far, you’ve already come to really like the numerous charming and kooky characters and you’ve already been having loads of fun for thirty-something episodes. By the time you start to realise there is actually something serious under there somewhere, it’s patently too late to wonder where it came from. Luckily though it’s not all bad. Kyou Kara Maou is still the fun, wacky, standard magical girl boy story that you started off watching, just with a twist – it actually isn’t all that brainless after all.

7.5 Pink Frilly Nighties out of 10.
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