May 09, 2006 - 08:33 PM
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Madlax vol. 1
 Jason Carter  rates it:    

We've all got our peculiar little predilections, don't we? Some people go mad over magical girls, others for giant robots. I myself have a taste for the "girls with guns" schtick. This is really Noir's fault - prior to watching that show, I would never have seen anything in that sort of set up worth spending my time on. But after my exposure to what may be the genre's high point I've taken it upon myself to keep my eyes out for anything that looks like it might be reasonably dramatic and not too exploitative. In a way, I'm really setting myself up for failure, since Noir seems to be more or less the only girl-duo show that has the kind of thing I want to see. But once in a while hope is rewarded - and this time around I got lucky when it was announced that Bee Train, the same studio that did Noir, was making another show about armed and dangerous women with cloudy pasts. Surely it couldn't go wrong. Well, probably. After two hours, it seems a bit early to speculate.

As I said, Madlax is about a female assasin (named "Madlax", actually) and a strange little rich girl named Margaret Burton. Exactly how they relate to each other is hard to determine, because they both have hazy personal histories, and neither of them seem to know each other. In fact, they live on opposite sides of the planet, Madlax in the pseudo-South-East-Asian hellhole of Gazth-Sonika, which has had an ongoing civil war for many years, and Margaret in Nafrece, which is plainly an anime version of France, right down to having a Eiffel Tower look-alike in the skyline of its capital and a general air of high culture. The show, at least for the first disc, takes to following them individually as they stumble into the events that will inevitably drive them to meet.

Madlax is new to Gazth-Sonika; in fact, she seems to be carrying out her first mission there when we encounter her. Her handler, a man whose face is never shown and whom she addresses over the phone as "Three Speed," has told her that she's been given a contract to recover information possessed by some members of the country's primary insurgent faction - data that's stored on a missing computer disk. Whatever is on there is important enough to merit the direct attention of the rather thuggish Gazth-Sonikan army, which doesn't work very well for the rebels trying to sneak the information out. Pete, a young man who seems far too nice to be a revolutionary, happens to get stuck with the disk on the orders of his superior when their truck is stopped at a check point and their ruse fails to convince the military personnel to let them through. Madlax comes on the scene soon after and surmises that she needs to find Pete and get him and the disk - or just the information if he won't play along - out of the country. She also seems to have bizarre visions from time to time, and takes a remarkably light-hearted attitude towards her bloody business.

Madlax

Margaret, whom we see in the next episode, is an entirely different sort of person in a totally different sort of world. Margaret, an orphan, lives in her family mansion with her maid Elinor, whose duties seem to include such non-standard housekeeping tasks as threatening Margaret with something called "wake-up method number three" if she doesn't get going in time for school. Margaret's life seems to revolve around her days at an elite school, but even there she acts as maladroit as she does at home. She falls asleep a lot, is easily distracted, wanders into class late, seems to have no real friends, stares out the window, and sometimes appears to hallucinate weather that isn't taking place. Caring for Margaret seems to be more than a single full-time job; fortunately for Elinor, she has the help of Vanessa, a striking thirty-something corporate executive who used to be Margaret's next door neighbor and who has recently moved back to town. Vanessa manages to worm her way into the life of the Burton househould rather swiftly, and some scenes suggest that she and Elinor are keeping something about Margaret's past under wraps. Vanessa's employers also seem somewhat questionable: a trip to her offices one day by Margaret leaves the girl deeply disturbed after she encounters another executive who seems to be intent on undermining Vanessa's efforts to acquire a certain piece of valuable art for her employers; Margaret almost seems to recognize him, and certainly doesn't like him. How all this ties together yet isn't clear, but there is plenty hinted at.

One of Noir's biggest failings was its slow pacing. Whether or not Madlax can overcome this isn't clear as of yet. By the end of the first disc serious conflicts have been set up within the lives of Madlax and Margaret, but there is no clear indication yet of how they are going to meet and interact with each other. Other mysteries crop up on a regular basis. At least once per episode, a pair of creepy children appear and issue cryptic utterances, and there is some sort of vast criminal conspiracy that is involved with goings on around Margaret - but there isn't anything concrete yet to demand that you move on to the next episode. All of this can seem frustrating, since it's not hard to feel that you understand nothing of what has just transpired beyond the very obvious. But Madlax makes up for this to some extent with the introduction of a series of supporting characters who actually serve to effect the plot throughout the show, which is a welcome relief from Noir's endless slate of expendable Soldats thugs. The visual art doesn't strike me as especially gorgeous, though I find the contrasting city settings very well realized; the primary character designs don't look that bad either. The real locus of the show's aesthetics seems to be the music. This was done by the superlative Yuki Kajiura, and I can't be happier about that. It remains to be seen whether or not Madlax will have a soundtrack on par with Noir (which Kajiura also worked on) but it is plainly a cut above the normal run of forgettable little tunes you hear in most shows. Finally, humor is added with the extras, which involve a series of scripted comdey routines called "Conversations with SSS" (the acronym for Madlax's handler) that revolve around outlandish phone conversations dubbed over actual scenes from the show.

Madlax

Madlax is something I really want to like, but it hasn't quite grabbed me the way Noir did; then again, I was up and down on Noir for a most of the first dozen episodes. That may not be a bad thing, since Madlax is a different show, and may yet manage to stand on its own merits with time. But I can't quite find it in me to recommend a purchase for anyone who hasn't seen it first. Noir fans will probably enjoy this greatly, but for now, this show seems like too much of an acquired taste for me to advocate an outright purchase. Take a look through a rental service first; it's got style, and it may well have substance - but nowadays, there isn't any reason to risk your money until a show is a proven thing.


Added:  Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Related Link:  ADV Films
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