Wait wait, hear me out. Don’t flood my comments yet with CCS and Sailor Moon shouts. I did think about this a little and I’d like to share my musings with you first. You are of course welcome to fill my comments with CCS and Sailor Moon shouts afterwards.

I recently finished watching Magical Girl Raising Project and as is the general trend for me, I enjoyed it considerably more than the average viewer. To the point where I got curious about other people’s complaints with the show. So after completing my own review, I headed off the the great Google wilds in a quest for opinions. I found them! Man people out there sure have… opinions.

Image result for anime magical girl
I’m open to constructive criticism

There are a few very justified criticisms of the series that I won’t go into here but the most frequently recurring complaint I saw was that Raising Project was “just another dark magical girl show”. After reading a dozen or so variations of this, usually accompanied with suggestions for better “dark” magical girl shows, I realized that if I really thought about it, all magical girl shows are fairly grim in nature. It’s the light ones that should be considered an anomaly in fact.

Granted, my experience with the genre is limited. I also use a classification system that is far from universal so I might not be assessing what magical girl shows are correctly to begin with. To remove that obstacle, I simply looked up a few Top Ten Magical Girl series lists and compiled the results. Let’s take a good look at them together, shall we?

Here are the first results that came up for me 

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name these shows!

 

From MAL – that doesn’t seem to understand the meaning of “10”:

  1.       Sailor Moon
  2.       Card Captor Sakura
  3.       Puella Magi Madoka Magica
  4.       Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha
  5.       Cute High Earth Defense Club Love
  6.       Shugo Chara!
  7.       Princess Tutu
  8.       Searching for the Full Moon
  9.       Pretty Cure
  10.        Prétear
  11.        Kamichama Karin
  12.        Magical Doremi
  13.        Magical Princess Minky Momo
  14.        Day Break Illusion
  15.        Tokyo Mew Mew
Image result for anime magical girl kampfer
Kampfer is rather badly rated but it looks like so much fun…

 

From Honey’s Anime: 

  1.       Kampfer
  2.       Powerpuff Girls Z
  3.       Shugo Chara!
  4.       Magical Girl Raising Project
  5.       Tokyo Mew Mew
  6.       Day Break Illusion
  7.       Precure!
  8.       Yuki Yuna is a Hero
  9.       Puella Magi Madoka Magica
  10.       Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon Crystal

 

Image result for anime magical girl
the inescapable one

From Online fanatic:

  1.       Puella Magi Madoka Magica
  2.       Cardcaptor Sakura
  3.       Princess Tutu
  4.       Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha
  5.       Full Moon o Sagashite
  6.       Is This a Zombie?
  7.       Shugo Chara!
  8.       Fate/kaleid liner Prisma Illya 2wei!
  9.       Lady Jewelpet
  10.       Sugar Sugar Rune
such an underrated series

And finally from fan generated The Top Tens  

  1.       Puella Magi Madoka Magica
  2.       Sailor Moon
  3.       Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha
  4.       Princess Tutu
  5.       Revolutionary Girl Utena (Thank You!)
  6.       Cardcaptor Sakura
  7.       Fate/kaleid liner Prisma Illya
  8.       Is This a Zombie?
  9.       Kill la Kill
  10.      Kamichama Karin

It should be noted that I was not looking for “dark” magical girl or “deconstruction”. This is simply what came up as the most frequent and popular examples of the magical girl genre in general. If we take out Madoka, Raising Project, Yuki Yuna and Daybreak Illusion (I’m surprised this made it)  which are all openly billed as “Dark” as well as Kill la Kill, Utena, Is This a Zombie?, Tutu and Cute High Earth Defense Club Love which consider themselves deconstructions or parodies, we are left with a small handful of recurring  titles.

Essentially, the archetypical Magical Girl anime seems to be identified as Cardcaptor Sakura, Sailor Moon, Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha and Shugo Chara!, all of which make 3 of the lists. 

Image result for anime shugo chara
this also looks fun!

Unfortunately, I haven’t seen Shugo Chara! and can’t really comment about it. Since it’s billed as a children’s manga, I assume any more unpleasant elements are copiously sugar coated, but I am willing to bet there is still some nightmare fuel buried deep under the sparkles. Otherwise, let’s just call it the exception that proves the rule.

I have however seen the other three and there’s an argument to be made that they are not all blindly optimistic and uniformly happy. 

Image result for anime lyrical nanoha
I know they’re silly, but I still have a soft spot for these designs

I saw Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha quite some time ago. I do remember that it featured a really young girl that had to physically fight with her opponents. Lyrical Nanoha is a  bit of a SciFi take on the genre which substitutes magic with super advanced magic like technology, and forces combat to be close range and visceral. When you add to that the serious treatment of social problems and real-world considerations, as well as the intense and very sad backstory which is eventually revealed for the main antagonist (Fate), it becomes difficult to remember that you are dealing with a character that is a 9-year-old girl. There’s no way around the fact that the events are traumatic for Nanoha, and although the violence might not be as graphic as certain other series, the narrative doesn’t shy away from the fact that there is nothing enviable about being a magical girl.

When reading up a bit for this post (I know, I did research… who even am I anymore?) I found out for the first time that the series was conceived as a Seinen which may explain the more mature and serious tone as well as some of the decidedly adult elements, such as exploitation, labor and wealth distribution, disproportionate power dynamics in pseudo utopian social structures and so on. The more I think back on it the more I realize this may in fact have simply been a little too early (2004) to be official called a dark magical girl show and had it come out some years later, it would have fallen into the category. 

Image result for anime lyrical nanoha
so what’s with magical girls and pink hair?

Very well then, let’s move on the Cardcaptor Sakura. A fantastic show that deserves the praise it receives and is having a bit of a revival with the new season. I’m a huge fan of clamp in general so I have always been biased for this show, but I actually only saw the anime as an adult and therefore don’t share the nostalgia factor many fans have.

Unlike Nanoha, Sakura was conceptualized as a Magical Girl romance series aimed at a fairly young audience. Even more so in anime form. This is probably the best example I can think of, of the traditional pure, happy, unimpeachable good magical girl premise. The tone stays fairly light, often comedic and the narrative shies steeply away from more mature themes. And yet, even here Sakura is faced with some very unpleasant realities.

For one, she lost her mother at a very young age and although she is blessed with one of the most wonderful anime dads of all time, the complicated circumstances of her parents relationship have left her isolated from most of her extended family and put a strain on her father that is difficult to ignore. 

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he really is the best, if it had been my laptop….

Sakura’s relationship with Yuki starts off adorable but takes on a distinctively melancholy bend when he becomes Yue. At this point Sakura looses someone she (and her brother) held very dear, someone that has always been kind and comforting to her, to see them replaced by a cold and distant stranger that threatens to separate her from the person she loves the most. It feels somehow supremely unfair and again, let’s remember that Sakura is 10 years old when she has to take on all this.

Increasingly, it becomes clear that Sakura is completely alone. Clow Reed’s presence is felt heavily throughout the story although he is rarely seen, but as a morally ambiguous character he can’t be counted on to provide any substantial support or guidance and then there’s Tomoyo.

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Tomoyo has some…interesting hobbies

Tomoyo is Sakura’s dear and ever faithful best friend. Sweet, understanding and beautiful, we all want a friend like Tomoyo. She serves that dual purpose of being *the normal* that can be an audience surrogate to throw exposition at as well as the damsel in distress to push the plot along when needed. She can fulfill both roles by being the kind and supportive little girl she is, and yet the show felt the need to include this particular bit of backstory for her:

Tomoyo’s mother, Sonomi, was somewhat obsessed with Nadeshiko (Sakura’s mother) when they were younger, and now seems to have shifted her attentions to Sakura herself. We are shown that Sonomi is an absentee mother who doesn’t seem to spend any time with her daughter and yet would go out of her way for Sakura. Attending her school activities and taking care of her during a vacation, like a mother would. More than a few times we see Sonomi lavishing attention on Sakura while completely ignoring her own daughter. In a heartbreaking revelation, Tomoyo even tells Sakura that her mom makes her grow her hair long and styles it like Nadeshiko’s in order to remember her. These are just little throw away moments and Tomoyo doesn’t seem deeply affected by them but it’s still a very troubling element to including in a kid’s show.

And this is as light as it gets. 

Image result for anime sailor moon
still the quintessential sailor themed high school alien girl superhero show

Possibly the best-known example of the genre is Sailor Moon. Her name is synonymous with Magical Girls and despite being a venerable 26 years old (whoa) she is still recognized as the reigning queen of Magical girls.

I’m sure you all know that certain episodes get disturbing. From the start we are dealing with a girl that essentially witnessed the genocide of her people and the destruction of her entire world. She bears both the guilt and responsibility of having survived the worst cataclysm possible.

Thankfully, she gets the support of her friends, but we see that the scouts have to sacrifice themselves on several occasions to save the situation and once again, the burden of that responsibility falls entirely of Serena’s shoulders. And let’s face it, girlfriend ain’t equipped for that type of realness. She gets overwhelmed by managing to eat breakfast every day. 

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there was no syrup left…

It’s ok though, she can always turn to, she can always turn to her one true love for the encouragement she needs. Well except for the fact that he is emotionally withholding, distant and for a number of episodes, brainwashed into servitude by the main villain of the series. There are countless examples of the girls suffering both physically and emotionally throughout the run of the series. The tackling of homosexuality in later seasons even brought about real-world controversy and sparked some very serious debates about gay rights, acceptance and identity.

No matter what you may think of the show itself, it’s difficult to discount its legacy as mere fluff.  The way I see it, stretching those dramatic action scenes to include blood would be a simple aesthetic change rather than a complete upending of the genre! 

Image result for anime sailor moon sad
now picture her with pink hair

I’m not being glib on purpose. I do understand that there is a drastic difference in tone and presentation in these series that goes a long way in distinguishing one from the other. However, the notion that mature themes and gruesome situations are somehow absent from most Magical Girl series is just not true and including them doesn’t immediately box a show into a very specific and limited sub-genre that has only one thing to offer. These dark elements are in some shape or form present in pretty much all magical girl shows. Just another dark magical girl show can mean a lot of things.Image result for anime magical girl

 

38 thoughts

  1. You made some good points about how even the Magical Girl genre has dark moments. Don’t get me wrong. I do like things such as Shamanic Princess even though it’s closer to dark fantasy than magical girl fare, but I believe the lighter stuff exists. Most of the “light” magical girl stuff is pre-Sailor Moon though like Creamy Mami or Sally the Witch to name a few. However, since many of those titles never got licensed in most Western countries, they remain unknown and Sailor Moon getting way more mainstream attention pushed the magical girl genre into the realms of superheroines when that anime incorporated sentai elements (think Power Rangers/Super Sentai, Karen Rider, Metal Hero, etc.) which really set the bar for more action and darker storylines.

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    1. I’ve heard of Sally the Witch but I’ve never watched it. I did just now read the Story synopsis on wikipaedia and it sounds really kind of rough. It ends on an elementary school catching on fire?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Gotcha. That was one of the first magical girls that was from the creator of Tetsujin no. 28/Gigantor. An alternate version shows up in Giant Robo of all things. I didn’t know about the school catching on fire since I’ve heard, yet not have seen the original series. Dang!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Interesting read! Actually, reading this made me realize that I need to watch some more magical girl anime. There are so many shows on those lists that I haven’t seen. In fact, I think I’ve only seen Sailor Moon and Revolutionary Girl Utena, both of which I absolutely love. I’m thinking Cardcaptor Sakura would be a good choice since that seems to be a classic. Though, based on my liking Sailor Moon and Revolutionary Girl Utena (the later especially), do you have any recommendations?

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    1. I love Utena and it’s pretty incomparable in my opinion but based on it you may actually enjoy Pinguindrum. It was recommended to me as a sort of spiritual successor to Utena and I can see why. Card Captor Sakura is a very sweet and very well made show but it is for a younger audience. There isn’t anything wrong with that but you won’t get any of those deeper philosophical musings you got in Utena. I’m currently watching Alice and Zoroku as recommended in my comments. I’m liking it quite a bit.

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  3. This is why I loved Sailor Moon as a child. Serena turns her enemies into Moon dust which for a girls aimed children show (which is what the American dub was), that was pretty different back then. Not to mention killing off the scouts, potential rape, and a whole bunch of other fairly adult themes that found their way into the sparkly moon story.
    On that note, Shugo Chara deals with family separation, child abuse and neglect (covered with boppy songs and other magical trappings), but the Ikuto – Ami storyline gets quite dark at times and is by far the most interesting part of the series.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. That’s what I mean – the difference is really a bit of illustrated blood, some silly jokes thrown in and the soundtrack. Otherwise the mature themes do exist pretty universally.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Realling interesting idea, there’s this article [https://www.nippon.com/en/in-depth/a03904/] without brackets, going through a short short history of them. Seems like originally, they weren’t so dark starting out.

    Even my recent favorite Alice to Zouroku (which is amazing please watch it) is still really drenched in the dark genre as you see multiple people (mostly women) manifesting magic that stems for societal, social, or personal problems. Some really messed up stuff when you think about it.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Ooh, I wish I could see Alice & Zouroku for the first time again. One of last years best. It’s a magical girl show? (Thinks back. Oh, absoluetly! Somehow I wouldn’t have thought of it in that in that way. Reminded me of… that’s a spoiler, so I’ll just say Alice in Wonderland.)

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Why is Alice in Wonderland soo present in anime. I realize it’s a classic that has influenced stories the world over (and one of my favorites) but I come across it in anime endlessly.

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        2. There’s even an Alice in Wonderland anime (with bunny side-kick, who’s the nephew of the white rabbit – because Japan needs mascots). I think there’s at least one Alice-themed reverse harem otoge (found the one I was thinking of: Heart no Kuni no Alice – and it’s probably not the only one). Not to mention all the flavour shows, and shows that just use the name for weirdness (such as Gakuen Alice – also very recommendable). Yup, it’s everywhere. (Not just anime: 5 Alice-themed resteraunts in Tokyo.)

          I can sort of see how anime would go for Alice, though. Maybe it’s the stylings that just resonate with mascot culture, cosplay culture, western exoticism, and surreal sight humour. It’s just very compatible.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. I’ve been thinking of looking into it. Pandora hearts is also essentially a collection of Alice references – even some through the looking glass ones.

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  5. Kamichuu!!, Cat God, Our Fox Shrine God, Magical Girl Pretty Sammy. Those are light and never turn dark. Good post though. Its a common problem, being too serious. Sailor Moon is Hitler-evil by the end. She kills 7.698 billion people and leaves only 2 million brainwashed android people slavishly devoted in Crystal Tokyo, which fits most definitions of utterly evil. This is why Sailor Moon should be on the banned-list and treated the same as Mein Kampf and Mao’s Red Book and anything written by Obama’s mentor.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Flying witch has quite a few less pleasant implications though, although I admit I would probably never have considered it a Magical Girl show. I don’t remember Kiki that well but Ghibli usually blends in some more serious themes in their movies. Even Totoro had a substantial if surreal exploration of how children cope with the inevitable mortality of their parents.

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      1. Sailor Moon is especially bad. Libraries are perfectly happy to ban shows with girls discovering an interest in boys, but keep the ones with Genocide in them, and never seem to mind loaning out Game of Thrones, which has both X rated content and seriously disturbing themes to teenagers because the American Library Association says we aren’t allowed to censor patron materials even when they literally violate federal laws which then get us arrested and jailed forever because that’s distributing porn to a minor. Just as an example. Censorship of materials should be done carefully, and should completely ignore the ALA, which seems to be hunting for victims and martyrs to their really badly thought out ideals.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I’m not American so I’m not really well versed on the censorship laws in the US but it does seem to be skewed towards being way more tolerant of violence than sexual themes which seems odd.

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          1. The censorship laws are specific to protecting children, however there are semi-loopholes. Cable TV gets around that law, which is why they get away with sex and violence at much more explicit levels on HBO and Showtime, because they are both subscription services rather than broadcasters. However, if a child sees them, anyone who shows that child porn is a sex criminal, and this includes passing Game of Thrones across a library desk as a loan. That becomes the librarian’s felony, accidental or not. And yes, the American public is way more comfortable with violence on broadcast TV and in PG-13 and R rated movies than boobs. Show a nipple for more than a second and its X rated. However, we allow implication of unmarried couples sleeping together and our shows and audiences take that on stride. In Japan, if the characters KISS, the show is over, and they can only rarely show that, which is due to very strict anti-porn laws in the Japanese constitution passed to them after WW2 during occupation. However, in Japan, full nudity was perfectly legal on broadcast TV, though they’ve changed the rules slightly to “mist” or convenient objects blocking parts when the one shown is underage (itself a weird topic in Japan) OR it is shown before 10 PM on a weeknight. After, anything goes. Or was so before common access to digital recording. Japan is sort of a special case where nudity and censorship are sort of backwards on some aspects. America is more violent and less nudity than the EU, which is more nudes and less violence. No idea what they allow in Russia etc. Nothing allowed in China.

            Liked by 1 person

  6. I love this! I have a lot of feelings about magical girl shows, especially “”””dark”””” ones. It’s interesting that people get so hung up on criticizing shows like Magical Girl Raising Project for being Madoka copies or whatever, but it’s not like the whole “cutesy characters get WRECKED” concept is something new or even something that’s specific to the magical girl genre. There are tons of anime/manga that are based on that art style dissonance, like Narutaru & School-Live! & Made in Abyss. They gotta leave the magical girl series alone!!

    Liked by 2 people

  7. I’m far from a magical girl expert, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen something blindly optimistic or uniformly happy. Magical girls often solve emotional problems (that often manifest as monsters), and so despair is sort of written into the genre at its heart. The closest I probably get is Card Captor Sakura, Precure (don’t remember which of the multiude of series I’ve seen), DoReMi (until the ending, which is both fitting and a mood breaker) and so on. I’ve not seen much of Tokyou Mew Mew, but that seemed to go the silly route, so that might be a contender (although the mascots are all endanered species, so…).

    Shows targeted at boys tend to be lighter but tend to have ecchi elements (things like Nurse Witch Komugi or, yes, Kämpfer, which is as much fun as it looks – but it’s also pretty forgettable).

    And absolutely watch Shugo Chara; one of my favourite magical girl protagonists in that show (and it has magical boys, too).

    Then there’s stuff like Mahou Shoujo Nante where a girl adopts a derelict mascot (because the world’s a happy place and nobody needs magical girls) – and she uses her magical girl powers for… absolutely nothing but amusement. Seinen, I think, but who knows. In a sense, this concept shows how despair is usually written into genre – but normally as something to be overcome regularly.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I trust your judgement – Shougo Chara it is.
      I’m not sure about the targeted at boys part. Both Madoka and MagiPro are Seinen if I remeber correctly (or would that be considered targeted at “men”)…

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      1. You remember correctly. What I meant is that there’s a subgenre that’s basically “ecchi comedy”. Some of them even have guy protagonist who still transforms into a magical girl (Kämpfer, Ore ga Twintail ni Narimasu). Others have more idealised protagonists (where being kluthy seems to be part of it (Komugi).

        Also, I’ve only watched the first season of Shugo Chara. I think there are three? I’m in the middle of watching Shakugan no Shana, now, but I might come back to Shugo Chara after this. (Seeing the picture made me surprisingly nostalgic about it.)

        Liked by 1 person

  8. The first 2 seasons of the original Precure was pretty dark tbh.

    Now that I look back, I never really watched a “light” magical girl shows as Sugar Sugar Rune, which was the closest to being light, actually had a pretty dark undertone at the 2nd half…

    But yeah great post.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you.
      I think there’s something inherently grim about a lot of these shows. The fact that they are presented in a happy tone doesn’t really change that.

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  9. I believe what people are saying when they call something “Just another dark magical girl show,” is that its major focus is on the dark elements, as opposed to something like Precure, which has its focus on the lighter elements.

    Mature themes (or at least mature themes as presented in the “dark magical girl shows”) are actually absent from most magical girl series. The majority of magical girl series do not contain such themes (e.g. Precure, Aikatsu, Wedding Peach etc.), it’s simply the ones which do that get popular in western anime circles, seeing as the people watching anime in the west are mostly teens and adults.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Very interesting post, I must admit my Magical Girl anime experience is extremely limited, in fact it’s one show, Madoka Magica. I’ve thought about expanding my selection and some of the shows you mentioned here do seem interesting, but like a lot of Shonen anime some of them seem downright impenetrable to get into. (Either too many different shows with similar names or too many episodes). I’m open to suggestions though! But Magical Girl Raising Project is already on the list!

    Liked by 1 person

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