Once upon a time in a mall near you there (probably) used to be a store called Suncoast. No matter which one you went to, it always had that same weird smoke smell and the anime section back in the corner. Though it’s now out of business, I remember my time there fondly, as it was the place to go if you wanted to buy anime. Being young, foolish, and without the internet, I often found myself going in and leaving with an anime VHS I bought based purely on the fact that I liked its cover. During this time in my life, and due to this “buying by the seat of my pants” attitude, I became invested in a strange little series called Magic Users Club, and to this day I still adore it. But, oh my god, it’s a mess.
While the series has both an OVA release in 1996-ish and a short season that ran on television starting in 1999, I only watched the OVA all the way through—Suncoast was great, but also terrible at having the entire episode run of a single anime. Magic Users Club focuses on the Kitanohashi High School Magic Users Club: a club which was comprised of only five members and constantly in danger of being shut down. The club is led by Takeo Takakura, who stumbled across a magical tome while running away from his bully, and has thus taken it upon himself to teach the members actual magic, as opposed to the fakey tricks that everyone else seems to think they’re doing. Sae Sawanoguchi is especially devoted to learning this magic—and basically the only member in the club who takes Takeo and magic in general seriously—however, she’s a total klutz and struggles with even the most basic of spells. Unfortunately, the club doesn’t exactly have the luxury of relaxing, as a strange alien ship called The Bell has appeared in the sky. Takeo seems convinced that it’s going to attack before long, so it’s up to the Magic Users Club to get rid of it before danger befalls the human race.
Since this series was released in the 90’s, it runs into the problem that many other series ran into in trying to grab attention: fanservice. Compared to some series, it’s not the worst thing, but if there’s a reason to tease an upskirt shot or look at someone’s boobs, Magic Users Club will take it. Takeo’s bully, president of the Manga Club Mizuha Miyama, was apparently generously endowed in her teenage years, and the series takes care to remind the viewer of that as every scene she’s in, her breasts are focused on first, accompanied by a comedic boing sound. Additionally, it seems like every time Sae makes a mistake, it leads to a situation where the audience gets an internal monologue from Takeo about how he shouldn’t be looking at Sae in a compromising position, but he’s sure going to anyway—complete with perverted nosebleed and everything. If this was the kind of series Magic Users Club was, I think it wouldn’t be so bad (tonally), but the OVA isn’t really a comedy. It does have a serious story to tell. No matter what’s going on, fanservice centered around perverted voyeurism is never something creators should rely on to gather an audience, and in this case it felt especially jarring.
In fact, the OVA does this janky contrasting a lot. One of the characters it affects the most is fellow member Ayanojyo Aburatsubo. The series doesn’t beat around the bush with him: Ayanojyo is gay and incredibly gay for Takeo. This, unfortunately, leads to Ayanojyo being stuck with a lot of questionable gay stereotypes such as being clingy, possessive, and sometimes on the verge of sexually assaulting Takeo. However, there are many other moments where it’s clear that Ayanojyo clearly cares for Takeo as a person, and that he is forming bonds with the other, female members of the Magic Users Club. There’s a particularly heartbreaking scene where Sae’s best friend Nanaka (another member of the club) is stuck with Ayanojyo to solve some magical mystery to save the others. Nanaka has a crush on Ayanojyo; however, she knows that there’s no chance for her since he’s not interested in women. While it remains vague, Ayanojyo takes their time together to gently let her down, while taking care to watch her pride as he does so. The scene also makes it clear that he recognizes the parallels from Nanaka’s situation to his own with Takeo, making his actions surprisingly touching.
What the series does get right, I think, is the friendships between the ladies of the club. Sae and Nanaka are best friends, but while Sae is completely into this magic thing, Nanaka doesn’t really care and often wishes that she could have just had a normal high school life. However, Nanaka continues to support Sae despite this; and while the two do argue and don’t always see eye to eye, they always manage to talk it out, making their friendship stronger. The final member of the club, Akane Aikawa, is a spoiled, aloof girl who doesn’t want to make friends with any of the club members. Yet, at the end of the day she becomes close with the other girls, while not losing who she is as a person. She’s still snobby, but realizes that having friends isn’t the worst thing in the world.
Magic Users Club has some of those annoying harem anime tropes, but it manages to still have some gems hidden inside it. The television series is said to delve further into the development of Sae’s magic and her psyche, and it does seem a bit more dedicated to a more serious tone compared to the OVA—at least it seems like there’s less fanservice, in any case. After this walk down memory lane, I’m excited to go see for myself! (That is, if anyone’s uploaded it….)