Background: Many television shows these days are designed to allow for the episodes to be aired in any order, thereby insuring a sizable audience that doesn't feel the need to jump in at a limited entry point (usually the start of the series). The problem with this approach is that it greatly limits the depth of the material that can be covered and otherwise hampers the writers in what can be done so we have what are typically referred to as "soap operas" as a result. These are shows that develop a loyal following, watching all the episodes and often becoming exceptionally loyal in the process as the fictional characters evolve beyond their initial personalities. Well, anime has a number of such shows too and the better ones usually focus on darker issues (at least for me they do), especially smaller niches like the so-called "gun girl" shows with obvious examples being the classic Noir or the short series of Gunslinger Girl. Well, in a follow up to Noir, a studio in Japan known as Bee Train released Madlax a few years back; the link going to my pal John Sinnott and his look at the seven individual volumes of the series. As domestic anime distributor ADV Films is known to do, they are now releasing the whole series in a single box set edition that strips away the extras but comes at a much more affordable cost on six discs in a thin pack edition that I'm reviewing today.
Series: Madlax: The Complete Collection is the 26 episode series of guns, girls, and guts that first came out domestically in 2005, then airing on the Cartoon Network starting last November; somehow missing the mark to join our Best of Anime 2005 or Best of Anime 2006 lists by the smallest of margins. The title of the show was a combination of two English words (mad and relaxed) that director/writer Kouichi Mashimo used to portray the duality of human nature he was going for with the themes of the show. Many elements from Noir were once again called upon to show a world of top secret organizations that don't let you quit, reminding me yet again of the La Femme Nikita saga where women were tentatively in power much of the time, but not always pulling the highest level of strings as it were.
Madlax is actually the name of the top operative in a dangerous European country where civil war has been making life a hell for a dozen years. She intuitively handles all sorts of weapons using what amount to exceptional tactical and strategic mental processes, so efficiently doing so that some wonder if she is human at all. Madlax takes only the toughest of assignments and as a mercenary for hire, she can take only the work she wants to rather than go against her principles, building up a body count in the first few episodes that rival any movie of a similar type that I've seen of late. Having seen a number of shows where the almost supernaturally gifted operative wins every encounter, I was concerned that the character's skills would become mundane in no time but thankfully the second episode introduced her ongoing foil and even the outcome of the first episode showed she couldn't cheat death each time, at least for those around her.
One of the things that made the show special was not the action packed adventures of Madlax herself but how well her story was woven into the almost boring life of a spoiled rich girl of the same age by the name of Margaret Burton. Initially shown as clumsy and shy, Margaret has a staff of assistants that tell her what to do and how to do it best that cater to her every whim; making her the complete opposite of Madlax in almost every way. The only thing they share in common is a complete lack of knowledge of their lives before twelve years ago at the start of the war. As in all the best shows on the market, there are few coincidences in anime but getting there is much of the fun as the two gals provide very different views of the world throughout much of the show. They do not know each other, run in different circles, and do not even meet until well into the series but their lives are shown to be tied in other ways.
Madlax manages to gain the interest of a particularly nasty group of war monger terrorists that have an interest in keeping the flames of war lit in the small country of Gazth-Sonika, the group calling itself Enfant, but the subtleties of series are such that the first choice you may have for connecting the dots is often the wrong one so the roller coaster ride is particularly adventurous before you know what is going on (it has some very appealing replay value even after you know what will happen though, allowing fans to see more detail as they watch more times). Margaret, unlike Madlax, wants to find out about her past so she hires a private eye to help her find a second copy of a precious book she carries with her. Written in a language that no one seems to have ever seen before, she finds a book detective to track down a second copy, as much to see the missing page as anything else. Needless to say, he must go to a dangerous area and is equipped with a body guard par excellence in the form of Madlax, the results of his expedition uncovering more danger than anyone expected. The can of worms now open, the intrigue of secret dealings, cover ups, and the true cause of the civil war are only the tip of the iceberg with mind control and lots of puppet masters pulling the strings of the masses with a huge payoff in store for whomever stays alive long enough to enjoy the fruits of their labor. Needless to say, Enfant's leader, a nutcase by the name of Friday Monday, has plans for both the female leads that eventually bring them together as his agents do his bidding (Limelda Jorg; a ranking female sniper and elite guard member that takes it personally when Madlax kills her country's leading military officer that she was in charge of protecting and Carrossea Doon, a man assigned to get the book Margaret possesses by any means necessary, taking a decidedly long term approach to doing so while figuring out his angles against the best interests of his employers).
The mystery and intrigue that the cover quotes John as saying in his review was only part of the appeal for me though as way some of the themes from Noir were reworked in different ways to provide a not so subtle anti-war message but a lot more as well. Looking past the metaphysical pondering that was the main way in which this show deviated from Noir, there was a tightly scripted story that took a lengthy time getting to where it was going but it did so in such a satisfying manner that I honestly can't imagine anyone interested in the genre finding fault with it. As with other genre picks, there were some hinted at lesbian overtures but nothing as overt as expected and the manner in which the series explored the mental aspects of the two leading ladies was handled in such a way as to give the set a lot of replay value. A quick look online will give you ample room to argue the relative merits of specific clues that pop up (some are very understated; visual or audio only or even contextual for those with a keen eye). I'm not going spoil the fun though as other review websites seem so careless about doing these days; suffice it to say that the box set was worth a rating of Highly Recommended even without the missing extras. If you liked Noir or Gunslinger Girl, the chances are you will love Madlax!
Picture: Madlax: The Complete Collection was presented in the original anamorphic widescreen color offering it was shot in for broadcast in Japan back in 2004 with an aspect ratio of 1.78:1. Director Kouichi Mashimo is a veteran of this type of show and used all the elements at hand to carefully create a strong title worthy of admiration in a time when so many of his peers are caving in artistically to the suits and penny pinchers in accounting. The colors were bold when needed, soft in the many flashback sequences, and suitably downplayed when the scenes called for it too; not something typically done in a full season series. The animation itself was not always the most fluid but it worked well with the vocal tracks (both of them) and the special effects were not overdone so as to diminish their impact. I saw a few compression artifacts on the fifth disc (or was it the sixth; where are those blasted notes I took!) but the lack of extras and most discs being limited to five episodes did not hurt in this sense, if you catch my drift.
Sound: The audio was offered up in the usual two choices; a 2.0 Dolby Digital Japanese track with English subtitles or a 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround English track directed by ADV Films guru Kyle Jones. The sound effects did appear to have a wider feel to them in the dub and the music was certainly enhanced for those of you that like lots of bass but the vocals were better mixed in the original language (as John pointed out, the music was so loud in the dub that some of the vocals were not as discernable as they should have been at times). In terms of the voice actors, I felt that the leads were actually better in the dub but several of the secondary characters (especially the important ones) were not nearly as well handled in English so your mileage may vary depending on what aspects you prefer. I really liked the key songs here though one of them got on my nerves (it sounded a lot like the lame song from the hack//sign series that I always hated despite my approval of the series itself) and while I wish there had been a slightly lower volume on the dub at times, it was otherwise an asset to the series.
Extras: One of the downsides to the box set costing so much less was the lack of corresponding extras that came with the series. There were no liner notes, only a few trailers, and that was it here so if you really like the show, by all means consider finding the extras elsewhere.
Final Thoughts: Madlax: The Complete Collection was not the same as Noir or Gunslinger Girl as some have suggested in the past but it managed to stand on its own two feet quite nicely just the same. The elements of intrigue, mystery, action, and human nature were all presented in such a manner that will allow fans to discuss them at great length and still provide significant replay value. There were adult themes to the show but most of them were skillfully handled and my overall approval of the way the story elements were treated is undeniably favorable. In that sense, ADV Films really hit the mark with Madlax; one of the better value pack releases of the year.
If you enjoy anime, take a look at some of the recommendations by DVD Talk's twisted cast of reviewers in their Best Of Anime 2003, Best Of Anime 2004, Best of Anime 2005, and Best of Anime 2006 articles or their regular column Anime Talk.