Mash Burnedead is the worst of all possible things: a person without magic in a kingdom where people without magic are killed. In fact, someone tried to kill him as an infant; it’s just that “leaving a baby on a roof” isn’t really a sure-fire way to get rid of one these days. In Mash’s case, a man with limited magical skills picked him up and raised him in the woods at the edge of town to be absurdly physically strong – because hey, if you can’t use magic, you should at least be able to beat a guy to a pulp. Welcome, friends, to the world of Mashle: Magic and Muscles.
Every so often a strange subgenre of manga and light novels appears, and this book is certainly part of one: stories where muscles overpower magic in one way or another. While I can’t speak to the other story in the subgenre available in English (DORANEKO‘s Muscles Are Better Than Magic! from Seven Seas; an argument could also be made for Madoka Kotani‘s Buck Naked in Another World, which is much darker than this book), Mashle is at least half Harry Potter parody, taking the idea of a spell-slinging chosen one at magic school and turning it on its head. Mash himself has maybe two aspirations, and neither of them are saving the world, although the school’s headmaster, not realizing that Mash has no magic, seems to have some ambitions on that front for him. For Mash, however, all he wants out of life is for the cops to leave his father alone and to eat cream puffs. Since one of those things is contingent upon him becoming the top student at magic school, he’ll muddle through, especially since he can make his own pastry in the dorm kitchen.
What all of this means is that he has to put his somewhat limited brainpower and lacking logic to the test as he figures out ways around casting actual spells. Since this is a guy who can never remember if a door is push or pull and so just rips it off (and then maybe tries to put it back horizontally), that makes for an interesting challenge. It’s important to note that Mash is never implied to be or portrayed as less than anyone else; he may not have a firm grasp of logic, but his heart’s always in the right place and he’s surprisingly good at getting around what’s viewed as his handicap. That these means are often absurd is a given, but that’s largely what makes the book so much fun – and that Mash has a perpetual non-expression on his face simply adds to the humor.
In fact, this is one of the funniest books I’ve read recently. Mash continually throws people for a loop, sometimes because he’s super good at fake flying on a broom (his poor roommate can’t quite believe his eyes when he sees Mash chuck his broom and then dash to the end of the flying course faster than most eyes can see), and sometimes because he’s just really friggin’ weird. It is often at its best when being a direct Harry Potter parody with overtones of One-Punch Man, such as during the oh-so-familiar magical sport of chasing a flying ball while riding a broom, which tests Mash’s kindness (he can’t turn down his senior) as well as his fake flying abilities. Apparently sufficient leg muscles can allow you to hover in the air. Who knew?
The two caveats here are that the other characters have almost nothing memorable about them and that the art is really fairly unattractive, with overtones of Mob Psycho 100. Not that Mash is particularly well-developed, because he isn’t (and doesn’t really need to be), but other characters end up being forgettable as anything but “the girl” or “the straight man.” The sports-nut senior who ropes Mash into playing for his dorm’s team is a bit more interesting, mostly because he’s a recognizable parody of the enthusiastic sempai from almost any sports manga, with the added bonus that he continually mangles phrases to the point where almost nothing that comes out of his mouth makes any sense. That’s actually a fun piece of the story’s writing in general; at one point someone yells out, “What the physics?!” and other similar exclamations are made throughout.
Mashle: Magic and Muscles is a lot of goofy fun. It plays with basic magic school story tropes, directly lampoons Harry Potter, and features a nice mix of comedic elements, from absurd commentary to sight gags to self-aware bizarreness. It doesn’t look pretty, but it also doesn’t need to, making this a good addition to the library of humor manga.