Imouto Shrugged: Mahouka and the Ayn Rand Connection


[We certainly seem full of opinions lately, don’t we? Our editorials are solely the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the other The Glorio Blog team. Have a nice day!]

The 4th episode of The Irregular At Magic High School (or Mahouka for short) caused a burst of internet born drama. Interpretations of the political and ethical implications of Mahouka’s message were the cause. This episode inspired blogger Guy Shalev to write a piece on meritocracy. Another blogger, Froggykun, wrote a piece on the problem with fans writing themselves into a story. This post isn’t a direct response to either blog, but I do have some things to add as well as some questions for Mahouka of my own.

Resemblance to Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead

Mahouka bears an uncanny resemblance to Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. I want to illustrate it because I think the similarity is interesting. I am not convinced that Mahouka is a re-imagining of The Fountainhead. I don’t subscribe to objectivism, but I do find it to be a fascinating topic with interesting implications. The 4th and 5th episodes both contain lengthy conversations about political situations that parallel Mahouka with The Fountainhead in several ways, most of those being in the subtext of the story.

First what is The Fountainhead? If you know what it is go ahead and skip to the next paragraph. The Fountainhead is a novel by Ayn Rand which illustrates her philosophy of objectivism. In this story we have a protagonist named Howard Roark who is an unconventional architect. Throughout the story his portrayal paints him as having a special quality that makes him important. The way that he is true to himself despite adversity glorifies him and his position. The moral of the story is one of individualism triumphing over a collective. This message of individualism is one I don’t have a problem with at face value. The subtext of the story is one where this character’s actions as an individual are a moral right. His justification is the virtue of his power as a “prime mover” of society. One who is not tied down by a collective mindset.

As I see it Tatsuya Shiba shares one major quality with the protagonist of The Fountainhead. Society can’t seem to accurately measure his capacity for being well… awesome! How awesome you might ask? Literally a ninja awesome! Tatsuya’s magical ability essentially allows him to use lots of weak magic all at once. His ability to read magical activation sequences means he can combine them for a useful magic canceling effect. The entire magic system of this world seems built toward illustrating just how special he is. Even the minor side characters see Tatsuya as something special and someone they absolutely need on their side.

This brings us to our second connection between Tatsuya and Ayn Rand’s political philosophy. It is the way Tatsuya breaks everything down rationally. He rejects the emotional outbursts of his fellow students and calls them out for it. It isn’t hard to see a connection, but I also believe the parallel ends here. As I see it Tatsuya isn’t fighting for Ayn Rand’s objectivism. He has concern for society. He isn’t concerned for the sake of his own ideas which is an important part of what The Fountainhead is about. He simply isn’t an architect. He may wish to become one, but that isn’t who he is.

Tatsuya has concern about society’s need to catch up to him and his ability before he can reveal canceling magic to the world. There is a strong sense of responsibility coming from his character, not to society as a whole, but to his sister. The way he talks to her illustrates this. His motivation is not that of Ayn Rand’s “prime mover” of society. His motivation is taking care of his sister and everything else is extra. Tatsuya Shiba is something far more simple than an objectivist and the baggage that term carries with it. He is an older brother with little else to motivate his life. Maybe he is a robot or something to that effect. Could the reason he can do lots of weak processing be because his brain is a computer programmed to serve his imouto? I wouldn’t put it past this anime.

Nothing says introspection like staring at your own reflection in a cup of coffee.

Nothing says introspection like staring at your own reflection in a cup of coffee.

Equality in Mahouka

Toward the end of the episode Tatsuya explains his support of the people in charge of society. He gives a message of power by the merit of an individual. Perhaps the most interesting part of this message is a challenge aimed at equality. At first glance it sounds like he is trying to sell a system of government that denies equality as fair. This story even makes terrorists of the group that is using equality as a means to an end. I think it is important to stop and ask what the equality he is talking about refers to. Equality can mean many different things depending on the context of how it used. Equal rights, equal representation, equal wages, you get the idea. Lucky for us Tatsuya tells us exactly what he means by equality: equal wages between magical and non magical people. He isn’t questioning the other forms of equality, this is about money.

In this context the people calling for equality are calling for an equality that is impossible in practicality. Also they are aiding acts of terrorism justified by that belief. As much as I would like to take offense, the things Tatsuya is saying hold up under rational scrutiny. Furthermore they are consistent with the world that Mahouka has presented to us. The important distinction between types of equality is in the implication of what he is calling a lie. Calling equal rights a lie and then trying to justify it would be unfair. Does Tatsuya’s speech justify the persecution of minorities? Some might say it does, but I don’t think he cares about anything that isn’t concrete and rational.

So what does Tatsuya Shiba care about? He thinks like a machine. His one and only true concern is for his sister. When a sexy young counselor tries to seduce information out of him he calls her out on breaking the dress code. When insulted by discriminatory slurs he just moves on without giving a damn. When recruited to join the enforcement team to keep the peace at school and challenge discrimination he had no desire to sign up. When something happens that might endanger his sister or reflect poorly on her? He turns on ninja mode and starts kicking ass. She is his motivation in this story. Tatsuya Shiba is an emotionless robot about anything that doesn’t concern his sister. Even the girls at his school only interest him as potential friends for his sister. Something is going on with him beyond the obvious. I’m not sure what it is, but as I see it he is no champion of meritocracy. His only known passion is his sister. His ideology is a practical means to an end, his rationality a philosophy unto itself.

Because goals are important.

Because goals are important.

Real World Application

How does Tatsuya’s logic hold up when applied to our real world? I think that is the question anyone concerned about the moral of this story should be asking. I am reminded of arguments I’ve had with people over social justice issues on the internet. Those arguments are often obscured by unstated or ambiguous political beliefs. In episode 5 Tatsuya illustrated the lack of goals behind Mibu Sayaka’s call for equality. We know exactly what Tatsuya is talking about when he uses the word, but Mibu Sayaka? She has locked herself in an emotional struggle, tired of the discrimination she faces. Her only goal is to get rid of the awful feelings that come with having an institution of people look down on you, something anyone with human feelings would understand. The problem is that in the end what she is calling for relies on the student council to provide answers. She has none herself. Trying to change the world without a clear vision of what you want to see happen is poisonous logic at best. It’s a loose cannon of emotions at worst.

So is Mahouka portraying equality as Terrorism? I think it is again important to separate what the show is saying from what it isn’t. The terrorists in this story are not terrorists because they support equality. They are terrorists because they blow shit up. Equality is their vehicle, not their true goal. The majority of students who have rallied behind their cause are not portrayed as evil. They are instead portrayed as being emotionally manipulated to political ends. I think this all holds up well with what I know of human nature. It would be a mistake to assume that anyone calling for social justice is a terrorist. That said, I find it is healthy to question to the goals of anyone calling for social change. Nothing is beyond use in a political argument. If a word can be ambiguously used it can become a vehicle to mislead.

How does Tatsuya himself hold up in the real world? He glorifies rationality, but that isn’t the end of the story. He isn’t a hero and he doesn’t want to be. I suspect that his situation will force him into that role. Ayn Rand glorifies rationality as the perfection of humanity. Tatsuya glorifies rationality as cold and inhuman. Despite finding his situation interesting, I can say that I would never want to be him. Rationality is important and without rationality we are stupid, without emotion we are less than human. Compassion is of vital importance in binding the two together. Tatsuya’s portrayal has been a one sided glorification of rationality, but is that Mahouka’s entire message? In enters our imouto…

This terrorist supports equality among murder victims.

This terrorist supports equality among murder victims.

Imouto Shrugged

There is a character in Mahouka that does care about the society they live in, one that Tastuya has told us makes up for his lack of emotion. She is the true “prime mover” of this story as best as that analogy still holds up – she also happens to be a powerful magician who wants to bone her brother. When I started writing, this concept is where I started. It’s ironic, but Mikuki’s obnoxious affection for her brother is the first thing that made me think of Ayn Rand. It is the way their relationship betrays conventional wisdom that caused a connection. Think of like this: Miyuki is the architect and Tatsuya is the work of art she is holding up. Stop and think about the implications of that for moment. If you want to punch the nearest imouto because of that connection well… I understand that feeling, but please refrain. Your imoutos are precious and not guilty of this particular crime. God help us all if they are.

Miyuki’s compassion is a frightening thing. Just as Tatsuya doesn’t seem to care about anything but his sister, she makes it clear that he is high on her priority list as well. If the world finds itself brought to it’s knees before the power of what Tatsuya can do I suspect Miyuki will have a hand in it. If what he is capable of gets out I’ve no doubt it will be Miyuki in the seat of power. What does that say about this society? What does it say by glorifying incest? Does Mahouka even glorify incest or is it simply portraying a challenge to conventional wisdom, one that otaku fandom will undoubtedly love? What does it say about Tatsuya as the perfect caring brother? Will we see more philosophy that lines up with objectivism or will this story explore something different? It is a bit early to explore the full theme of Mahouka in any more depth, but I hope I have provided some interesting things to ponder. I for one am looking forward to more of this story. Not so much because the anime is even all that enjoyable, but because it has provided a lesson in critical thinking.

10 thoughts on “Imouto Shrugged: Mahouka and the Ayn Rand Connection

  1. The terrorists in this story are not terrorists because they support equality. They are terrorists because they blow shit up. Equality is their vehicle, not their true goal. The majority of students who have rallied behind their cause are not portrayed as evil. They are instead portrayed as being emotionally manipulated to political ends.

    I haven’t seen this series, so I’m curious: what goal and what political ends are you talking about? Have they been described in the show?

    With regard to equality and inequality, you and your readers may appreciate this video by Yaron Brook, President of the Ayn Rand Institute on inequality and justice: Is Inequality Fair? – Yaron Brook.

    I also have an essay I wrote on fairness and justice on my blog: On Fairness and Justice: Their Meanings, Scopes, and How They Are Not the Same

    • In the show there is a political group that seeks to usurp power from the current government. On the surface they support calling for equality. In practice they hate magic and are willing to resort to terrorism. Disgruntled students have sided with their movement because of a culture of discrimination among fellow students. Most of them are unaware that they are being manipulated. There is a small group of students at the school who belong to the terrorist group. They are responsible for rallying the rest.

      If you are interested in better understanding the setup of the story much of it is explained at the end of episode 4. If you skip to 19:16 in you can see the setup for yourself.

      I read your essay. Personally I find that the value of fairness is in how well it can be defined in a specific context and what the goal of the person using it is. If its use is ambiguous it has no value to me. My interest is in solutions. I think many people have mistaken fairness as a solution instead of a goal. I value the human compassion in equality as a goal and a philosophy. Using the term fairness ambiguously or as a solution instead of a goal is nonsense. I think we probably agree on that point.

  2. Great article here. Of all the posts I’ve read over the past few weeks concerning Mahouka as an anime (because I don’t know a thing about the light novels and also don’t care), this is the one that personally makes the most sense to me.
    (That said, I should come clean and say that I wasn’t paying a whole lot of attention while watching those last couple of episodes. At a certain point my eyes just sort of glazed over – most likely during one of the numerous tea/coffee-drinking scenes.)

    • Thanks, I’m glad you liked it!

      I can’t really blame you for glazing over a lot of this. This anime is basically a political thriller which I certainly wasn’t expecting and that is something I appreciate. Sadly most of the intrigue is carried out in as frank a manner as possible. I often find myself watching episodes in 5 to 10 minute segments to give myself time to process it all and also just because it starts to blend together if I don’t.

  3. LN readers were telling me that Tatsuya’s refusal to help Mibu was because he doesn’t care about ideals and politics. Ironically, I think that by stating his disinterest in politics he actually is taking a political stance. I agree that Tatsuya isn’t portrayed as someone you want to be, but sometimes he does feel like an asshole masquerading as a good guy.

    On a more general note, I’m also taking an unexpected interest in Mahouka. Watching the show and reading the blog commentary has been a crash course in sociology and philosophy for me. I actually didn’t even know what Objectivism is until very recently.

    • Tatsuya reminds me of a character like Doctor House. Your supposed to like him because hes right and maybe even because he is an ass to the people who are wrong, but not because he is likable person with admirable goals. I wasn’t joking when I said his sister seems to be his only motivation. She really does seem to be the only thing he cares about.(despite the lack of sexual interest) I agree that a stance of disinterest is a stance, but I think it’s important to realize that it is a stance of disinterest and not a stance for or against something else. Sort of like an atheist who says they don’t care about religion caught in a debate between protestants and catholics. It’s obviously a stance, but not necessarily the stance people think it is. In the case of this story Tastuya takes a stance against terrorism and a stance toward supporting his sister who is on the student council. He is obviously helping the student council which means enforcing their politics, but it also seems clear enough to me that he doesn’t really care about their political issues. I wonder what he would do if Miyuki were one of the terrorists…

      Objectivism is a fascinating topic I think. It can also be one of the hardest things to talk about on the internet. It is something that is both popular to hate and popular to love depending on who you ask. It can be hard to get an accurate representation of her ideas from either side. I recommend reading Ayn Rand’s writing for yourself if you have any desire to dissect her ideas. Opinions on her politics and philosophies tend to range on the extreme side of things either painting her as a lunatic or praising her as a god. I think my own stance is rare in that I think she was brilliant, but I also disagree with many of her ideas. That said, I haven’t actually read any of her stuff since I was maybe 13. Her writing is… dry? For lack of a better word and I have a hard time sitting through very much of it at one time.(Kind of like the presentation of Mahouka!)

      I’m glad to see Mahouka dragging out some conversation on politics and philosophy. I just wish that conversation were a bit more mature. I tend to avoid politics myself. Not because I’ve taken a stance of disinterest, but because the political debates I’ve experienced often turn into the emotion fueled debacle that Mayumi was worried about before addressing the student body. Telling someone they are wrong when they aren’t being reasonable on their own terms is like throwing fuel on an open fire. The only reason to do that is to illustrate how they are wrong for everyone else watching. That or a political conversation will often be a group of people that already agree on their political stance sitting around patting each other on the back without actually saying anything of merit. I’m not sure which of those disgusts me more.

    • He’s just…”very complex”. He’s not really masquerading as anything; he’s quite aware that he’s a monster and the story shows that people weren’t wrong to judge him so. Tatsuya has absolutely no reason to care about the world–and if it weren’t for Miyuki, he’d probably be in full villain territory. Miyuki is his sole reason for being a benevolent force. So on one hand, while he himself isn’t a heroic figure; the simple fact that Miyuki is present in the story, somehow manages to turn him into the defender of the school, the crusher of terrorists, and the savior of lives. He becomes a force of good because of his sister’s presence and without her the story would be vastly different.

      Here’s an explanation for how Tatsuya sees the rest of mankind:

      Tatsuya actually sees everyone equally. He doesn’t care about status, he doesn’t care about origin, all he cares about is whether something is “useful”, “safe”, or “a threat”. Tatsuya looks upon the highest members of society and sees only who they are. He looks upon the lowest members of society and sees only who they are. The reason Tatsuya seems to not really care about the issue is because not only is he aware of the true state of things, he personally doesn’t discriminate between upper or lower classes and thinks everyone has something to offer to the world, and that we shouldn’t let people’s judgement of us determine our own self-worth. And he DOESN’T have a very high opinion of himself and actually considers himself as kind of an ridiculous existence.

      Also, Tatsuya has no deep attachments to the world. He can feel something about something, but it will never be able to overwhelm him or inspire his passion. The only deep connection Tatsuya has to the world around him is his sister Miyuki who is trying her best to get him to be more involved with the world, form new bonds, as well as make sure he’s put in what she feels is his proper place as “the greatest”.

  4. I still remain indifferent on the actual Mahouka show itself, although I’ve really been loving the Iwasaki Taku techno soundtrack and the opening song, Rising Hope, by LiSA. I’d confidently say the OP could be a top hit in Japan.

    How do you personally find the music used, lifesongsoa?

    • I haven’t noticed the music inside the actual show that much so I can’t comment on it. I’ve loved the few fight scenes we have seen which probably means the music was a perfect fit, It just didn’t stick out to me I guess. I absolutely love the OP though. I like most stuff I’ve heard LiSA do and this is no exception. I’ll have to keep the music in mind going forward.

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