Forget Realism, Let’s Have Some Magic

Over at Borderline Hikikomori, Crisu writes about attempting a lecture on mahou shoujo. To this, Damien Kellis of Moe Check! responds with a piece on shoujo versus shounen. Considering that I’ve spent over four hours over the past two weekends working on an unfinished, content-light Cardcaptor Sakura post, I’m thoughtful on which magical girl series I’ve seen and enjoyed (or didn’t enjoy), and why.

Girl + Magic = Mahou Shoujo

The “magical” genre seems to be overflowing with magical girls. It’d probably require giving up a significant portion of ones life just to watch them all, and even then, there are new ones coming out all the time. Aside from NausicaƤ of the Valley of the Wind and My Neighbor Totoro, magical girl series are part of what drew me into anime in the first place.


The honor of first magical girl series for me goes to Sailormoon, via DiC’s dub. I’ll set aside any talk of the horrible things done by DiC, but I won’t set aside the horrible Dragon Ball Z-ification done to Sailormoon by Toei.

Collage of Sailormoon screenshots.

Back then, I would mind-numbingly watch fairly anything on television, no matter how mediocre. I think my initial attraction to the Sailormoon series was the “unique” art style. Not only this, but–unlike the superheroes anyone born in the States has grown up around–the “Sailor Scouts” would “transform by magic” and “attack with magic”, and would otherwise be ordinary people.

Aside from the charm of magic, the meta-series of Sailormoon feels to play out a lot like a boy series with a focus on defeating monster after monster. It’s somehow different from Cardcaptor Sakura and Princess Tutu.

Another strike against the animated Sailormoon is that series stretches out too long, and the growth of characters isn’t strong enough, even over a span of 200 episodes. Secondary characters get an episode of their own from time to time, but they never really evolve.

Looking back on Sailormoon, I find it filled with transformation sequences that are way too long, accompanied by flashy backgrounds, ending in backgrounds of a repeated pattern in pastel color, and then I realize this is what I remember the most about the series.

If I wanted to introduce someone to the magical girl genre, Sailormoon would be the wrong place to start. It has a high enough level of fighting to potentially attract the shounen fan, but from the magical girl series I’m familiar with, defeating enemies often isn’t about the fight. True, Usagi and her friends transform and fight to save their families, friends, and fellow citizens, but this is presented with a focus on killing off one monster after another.

Saint Tail

Moving ahead a number of years in my life, I came to be introduced inadvertently to Saint Tail, one of the lesser known manga-to-anime magical girl series.

Collage of Saint Tail screenshots.

On the outside, Saint Tail has similar art styles as Sailormoon, right down to the decorative background after a “transformation” scene. As a series, it boasts a smaller cast than Sailormoon and Cardcaptor Sakura, and has less character development and growth of the latter (and probably the former as well). And yet, if we categorize Sailormoon as a magical girl series with a focus on killing off monsters and saving large groups of people, Saint Tail comes in at the opposite end as a magical girl series with a focus on righting those wronged, working on an individual scale.

It’s this focus on helping individual humans who were wronged by other humans that helped pull me into magical girl as a genre. There was more to the genre than just fighting monsters to save the world. We can leave that up to Goku (Dragon Ball Z). Let’s look at the man who had his painting stolen from him, or the track runner whose special running shoes were stolen. Let’s watch as a young future detective pursues Saint Tail, proclaiming that no one else may catch her. Let’s watch as a valuable crystal swan is stolen. Let’s watch as a young future police office chases after Saint Tail, proclaiming this will ensure her future as an officer. Let’s watch as a school newspaper photographer takes photos for a story that could indirectly ruin the lives of the people pictured.

One of the areas where Sailormoon never really hooked me in was the relationships. Usagi and Mamoru end up together only after their past lives are revealed. Because they were together in their past lives, they will be together now. Any other characters with relationships are typically one-episode events.

On the other side, we have the story of a young detective who focuses only on capturing a criminal who constantly steals constant jewels and paintings. We have a young magical thief who steals back things which have been stolen. We have a young detective who acknowledges this thief’s true intentions, and chases after the thief, his eyes on only her. We have a young magical thief, who’s being watched intently and being chased wholeheartedly by the young detective. Even if the repeated tasks of theft began to feel repetitive (they never did for me), the story of the detective chasing all his heart after the thief, requesting that she not let anyone catch her before he can, is a delightful love story able to keep the viewer attached to the series.

Do boy series have anything analogous to this? Or are series where a boy likes a girl limited to the high school romance genre and harem genre?

By length, the main drawback to Saint Tail is the inclusion of anime-only stories. These episodes, while filler, are well done as a story, but because they are not based on manga chapters, they add at least a good third to the length of the series while not adding any value to the overall story. The longer a series, the more time investment required.

Cardcaptor Sakura

Sailormoon gets her power from the moon. Saint Tail trains as a magician by learning from her father’s trade. Sakura gets her magic by way of magical cards, cards which take the magics of the East and magics of the West and combine them into a harmony of powers.

Collage of Cardcaptor Sakura screenshots.

Cardcaptor Sakura is composed of a number of ingredients: an adorable lead; a best friend; a pretty-boy; a rival magical boy; an intricate weaving of character relationships; everything will be all right; and monsters who are not monsters, with no actual villain running the show. Add in the growth of characters, and a depth to secondary characters, and what at first looks to be Yet Another Magical Girl Show turns out to be something special.

Similair to Saint Tail, there is no villain out to conquer the world. The focus on everything will be all right says it all. No matter what the situation, everything will be all right. No opponent will cause true harm, and there is no effect to eliminate Sakura and those around her. True, a mirror image of Sakura leads her brother off a short cliff, but the intention is to send Sakura a message, not end his life. Electric storms may shatter lights, whirlpools may pull penguins under, cakes may become too sweet to enjoy, and everyone at the office may fall asleep, but in the end the most damaging thing done is when Sakura breaks her father’s laptop. The emotion isn’t over a lost life, but rather tears over all the hard work of her father’s that Sakura accidentally destroyed. And even then, everything will be all right.

With a length longer than Saint Tail, but vastly shorter than Sailormoon, Cardcaptor Sakura is another series that can be difficult to find the time to check out.

Ojamajo Doremi

As is the Toei thing to do, Ojamajo Doremi clocks in at over 200 episodes. Like Sailormoon, Ojamajo Doremi is broken into five separate series. Unlike Sailormoon, many episodes don’t feel like mindless filler.

Collage of Ojamajo Doremi screenshots.

After she accidentally transforms the witch Rika into a witch frog, Doremi is tasked with becoming a witch powerful enough to transform Rika back to her true form. Doremi, eager to use witch magic to cast a love spell on a boy she likes, is quick to accept a brooch that will grant her broom flight and a magical wand able to convert a limited supply of beads into whatever magic she chooses to conjure up. Add in Doremi’s friends Hazuki and Aiko as additional witches, and give Rika’s rival a young witch in the form of newly popular idol Onpu, and the initial cast of main characters is set.

There are villains along the way, but there is never a plot which requires sending out a monster each episode. Instead, the focus of the overall story is the training Doremi and her friends go through as witches. Everything else is watching the events surrounding their classmates, and the witches-in-training oft-failing attempts to solve their peers’ problems with magic.

Sporting a younger cast than Saint Tail and Cardcaptor Sakura, Ojamajo Doremi doesn’t rely on a love interest to move it along. Sure, pining for that cute soccer player is what sets in motion Doremi’s research on witches and love spells, but the series focuses on the friendships of Doremi and her friends, and their classmates. Remove all the witches and magic, and the series might very well be “a slice-of-life where things actually happen”. (Would things happening disqualify a series from being slice-of-life?)

Character development is basic, and growth is thin, but with episodes based on events surrounding the problems Doremi’s classmates encounter, rather than based on a monster out to harm people, Ojamajo Doremi creates an environment perfect for sitting back and relaxing. Don’t think too hard. There are no hidden predictions of things to come. There are no enemies masked as allies. With minor exception, there is no physical danger, and even that can be reversed with magic. Just sit back, relax, and enjoy.

Kiki’s Delivery Service

Continuing with witches, one finds Kiki’s Delivery Service. A movie rather than a series, Kiki’s Delivery Service is tasked with focusing only on what counts, and not adding in extra plot elements and storyline. This doesn’t keep the pace from being extra slow at times, but every scene is used to pull together the story of the young witch who, by tradition, must leave home at a young age and establish a new life for herself.

Collage of Kiki's Delivery Service screenshots.

Where Kiki’s Delivery Service succeeds is in its not being a magical girl movie. She’s a girl with magic, yes, but the movie is a coming of age story about a young girl forced into a new environment. Her magic is simply a means by which to get by in life, and in time it becomes a catalyst for the troubles she has adjusting to the people and places constantly around her.

Kiki’s Delivery Service borders close enough to the magical girl genre to raise the question, “Is a story focused on a girl who has magic powers enough to be in the magical girl genre, or does the genre rely on using those powers to triumph against the odds?”

Ground Defense Force! Mao-chan

Transformation scene? Check. Magical stick? Check. Animal friend? Check. Although her powers actually come from alien technology, Mao, along with her friends Misora and Sylvia, fit nicely into the magical girl genre while providing an experience that combines “cute” and “funny” into one adorable package.

Collage of Ground Defense Force! Mao-chan screenshots.

By its nature, Ground Defense Force! Mao-chan is not a serious show, and there is no intention to develop characters past who they are. Mao and her friends are eight years old, too young for relationship, angst, and inner growth. The defense military officers they are often seen with, including their school teacher and their grandfathers, are all in positions in life where they’ve already gone through the difficulties of teenage years, and have grown into the people they were to become. Like Ojamajo Doremi, there’s no thinking involved. Just sit back and enjoy.

At its core, Ground Defense Force! Mao-chan follows the “monster of the day” format, as the girls must protect Japan from an unending invasion of one cute alien after another. Just the right mix of humor, determination, and sad situations are blended to ensure no two cute alien events are alike. Whether it’s defending Japan on land, by sea, or in the air, the Unified Defense Force is up to the task in high spirits.

From the first episode until the end, the things which keeps the girls going is their spirit of defense. They want to protect their homeland. They want to protect one another. They want to protect the people they care about. This duty of protection, instilled into each of the girls since birth, fills the girls with an endearing determination and devotion unlike the kind found in other magical girl series.

That, and everything they do is cute.

Princess Tutu

Princess Tutu is the series I constantly refer to as “the greatest fairy tale”, as “a wonderful, complex, unpredictable novel”.

Collage of Princess Tutu screenshots.

This is the series for which not enough praises may ever be sung. If someone asked me which series they should watch to check out the magical girl genre, this is the series I’d direct them to. The magical girl elements are all there, including transformation, magical power, girl fights to save the boy she likes. The enemies are not evil, but rather are scattered emotions in need of guidance back to their placid prince. There is rivalry for Princess Tutu as another princess appears to hinder her quest. There are obstructions as the prince has two protectors who will do whatever it takes to keep him from recovering his emotions.

The reason behind this being my recommendation as a magical girl series for interested outsiders is due to the build of its plot and the development of the characters, two things which constantly effect and affect one another. This drives the story along without a hitch, and everything fits together in the end.

Princess Tutu steps up the girl-ness of the genre by placing the main character as a ballerina (not to downplay the dancing talent of the male ballet dancers in the series). This is the strength and the weakness of the series. The strength lies in its presentation, and alternative form of “defeating the monster of the week”, putting all dancing and many non-dancing scenes to classical piano and ballet music. The weakness is in how the image of a ballerina princess belies everything that the series is. (Still, that image did draw me in, but I’m a faithful within the target market.)

Seven of Seven

I’d say Seven of Seven basically eschews everything that makes a magical girl show a magical girl show. Rather, it’s more akin to a middle school romance with a touch of angst and drama.

Oh, and the main character is split by a rainbow crystal into seven of herself, and the split jewel gives each of them superhuman strength and the ability to fly. And they wear superhero costumes.

Collage of Seven of Seven screenshots.

I find I often don’t have much to say on Seven of Seven. It’s a fairly plain series. It’s not mediocre, but it’s not top-of-the-line. The story is decent, and I find it’s an enjoyable series to marathon over two days. There are some emotionally powerful scenes, both midway and near the end of the series, and they hold their strength for me on every re-watch.

Suggestive of a magical girl series, there are power-granting stones, and there are transformations (kind of). However, there are no monsters to battle, no enemies to fight. Action does take place, but it appears in the form of keeping an airplane in the air, or saving a bridge from collapsing. Instead, the series focuses on the characters, and their goal: to attract Nana’s crush to her. The expectation is that this will bring the Nanas back together as one before time runs out, or else the seven Nanas will vanish.

Petite Princess Yucie

A magical girl of yet another kind, Yucie is a 17 year old who stopped aging after her tenth birthday. In hopes of being granted a wish, so she can become her true age, Yucie enrolls in an academy for young princesses.

Collage of Petite Princess Yucie screenshots.

The magical elements of Petite Princess Yucie are a natural part of the worlds the series takes place in. Yucie and her fellow candidates aiming for the wish granted to the Platinum Princess are given a pendant which bestows upon them the phenomenal of magically transforming the clothes they are wearing to a different outfit. It’s actually more useful than it sounds, as part of Yucie’s training to as a princess candidate is to take on many jobs, so a varied wardrobe is a must. Elsewhere, demon princess Glenda is often seen conjuring spells of her own, and exiled demon Cube is known to try to get a good deal when buying magical goods, such as flying shoes.

While Petite Princess Yucie survives without a villain sending out a monster each week, there are monsters who exist as a natural part of the environment, and they must be confronted. The focus of the series, however, is on the five Platinum Princess candidates, and the trials they face together, the situations they experience together, and the bond they form with one another.

Like Princess Tutu, Petite Princess Yucie is able to be a magical girl series without falling hitting every magical girl stereotype. This may be due to these two series taking place outside of Japan, with the former in a fictional German town, and the latter in a medieval Europe-style fantasy world.

Boy Power: Gimme Mahou Shounen

All of the above deal with girls with magical powers of some manner. What about magical boys? From what I’ve seen, that end of the spectrum is rather thin, and sometimes you have to squint to see a series as being in that genre. Still, not every boy is either a teenage pretty boy or a musclebound powerhouse.


Early on, Michel looks to be a strong contender for a good magical boy series. However, the series places Michel almost as a secondary character, focusing on the exploits of a young pilot named Kim as she tries to stop the evil Black Hammer Gang, and rescue the fairies they’ve kidnapped.

Collage of Michel screenshots.

Unfortunately, that’s as far as it goes for story, and character development is just one-episode events that are soon forgotten. The series stands as a group of stories of people affected by the dying earth after the guardian fairies of the planet are kidnapped, and of how everything is right again after Kim saves a fairy who coincidentally is just the one to help the episode’s affected people.

As for Michel, he is often simply there. The series follows the format of the enemy transforming a kidnapped fairy into a monster, Michel calling a rescued fairy to give him their power, Michel locating the fairy monster’s weak point, and then Kim using a special arrow of light on the weak spot to restore the fairy monster to its true form. The series follows a the “monster of the week” format, as well as the “catch and use in battle” format, to create a series perfect for holding the attention of any young child, without putting in anything to capture the attention of an older viewer. The end of the final episode is powerful, but the series isn’t strong enough to be worth the trip to reach the end.

Mythical Detective Loki Ragnarok

The world of man is a place where Norse mythology is recorded in books on ancient times. The world of the gods exists, and from there comes a banished god, sealed in the form of a child. His name is Loki.

Collage of Mythical Detective Loki Ragnarok screenshots.

I’ve never read the manga from which the animated Mythical Detective Loki Ragnarok is based, but I’ve read that the scene where he obtains his staff each episode is something not in the manga. Alongside Loki’s summoned familiar, this file footage used each episode–alongside repeated footage for using certain attacks–gives the series a feel of “magical girl”, with a male lead magical character.

Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland

If Kiki’s Delivery Service can marginally border on the genre of magical girl, then perhaps so can Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland (except that Nemo is a boy).

Collage of Little Nemo screenshots.

The tale of Nemo takes him on a mystical night flight to the fantastic Slumberland. There, he becomes playmate to the princess and heir to the throne. The undoubtedly bad Nightmare King interferes, and playtime is over for Nemo, as he’s sent on a journey with a magical scepter of great power in hand.

The magic comes in the form of the dream world the story takes place within, from Nemo taking flight on his flying bed, to the wonders of Slumberland. It’s this childlike fantasy that draws me into a lot of magical girl shows, and it’s the same with Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland.

Lecture Topic: Girl + Magic = ?

In his topic, attempting a lecture on mahou shoujo, I think Crisu takes a wrong turn by comparing male and female superheros and rights for woman with the magical girl genre. (I will admit that one of the charms of Saint Tail for me is that she’s like the Batman of magical girls, relying on her own constructed magical illusions rather than an actual magical power to stop enemies.) To be fair, that is simply a tangent he goes on, but it still comes as an out-of-place inclusion to me.

The actual theme of Crisu’s post appears to be that adults shouldn’t lose their childhood dreams. In the views of Kim and Jason, this loss of childhood wonder is referred to as Adultitis. And this is where I’m uncertain where Crisu’s post is trying to venture: is he planning a lecture looking toward the magical girl genre to advance female-lead series (which can included non-magical girl genre, such as Azumanga Daioh, Janggeum’s Dream, Super GALS!, A Little Snow Fairy Sugar, and Strawberry Marshmallow), or is this an attempt to push Adultitis to the side, to deter fellow anime watchers from focusing on harem and highschool romance and huge robot series in lieu of giving the magical girl a chance to see whether or not it would be enjoyed?

Considering that Crisu wishes to give a lecture on the magical girl genre to an anime club (which will hopefully will not forbid using the English words “magical girl” and instead require the Japanese words “mahou shoujo” be spoken), I must first express my condolences. I do wonder if he’ll make his slides available before the presentation, so reads of his postings can view what he’s put into it, and recommend ways to improve it. Hopefully it won’t be one of those disdainful boring PowerPoint concoctions of nothing by slides of bullet points. In fact, if he put it out there with a liberal Creative Commons, then others could freely build upon it and use it, and pass it around. Maybe it could become the quintessential core PowerPoint presentation from which hopeful magical girl genre lecturers will modify to suit their own anime group lectures.

From what Crisu writes about the presentation, it appears to be informational, not evangelical, which is good. However, I’m at a loss as to what Batman, Wonder Woman, and losing ones childhood dreams has to do with the history and general properties of the magical girl genre. Hopefully Crisu will clarify this a bit in a following post.

I’ve already left a comment there requesting more information:

This sounds to potentially be interesting, but I’m unable to discern where you want to go with this lecture. Will it be about a rise in female-lead series, or about a return to the childlike wonder found in the magical girl genre, or a documentary on the magical girl genre? Do you want to include as many series as you can to support claims of common themes, or as few as needed to supplement the overall content of the lecture?

Is this presentation something you plan on investing a good amount of time into putting together and polishing, something you want to be done right the first time, or is it a hit-and-run attack lecture? Will your listeners be everyone in the anime club, or only those interested in the magical girl genre? How many people are in this club, and how many of them already watch magical girl shows? Will the lecture interest them, and will they know this ahead of time? How many club members have tried out the genre and didn’t care for it? Will this lecture be worth their time on any level? How many members have never tried watching a magical girl series, and why? What do you hope they’ll gain from this lecture? What do you hope they’ll take away from it?

To reiterate: what do you expect to accomplish with this lecture? Is it to be informative like a documentary, or is it to convince people to give a new genre a chance?

If there are any bites, will you be able to answer recommendations on a series for anyone? Will you be able to determine whether someone will be better suited to “Princess Tutu” or “Shugo Chara”? Would you present a bias for shows that either have many episodes (over 60) or fewer episodes (less than 30) in recommendations to someone trying out a magical girl series for the first time? Is this something you plan to be available to answer questions on and assist people with, or is it a one-shot lecture, no more questions after the time limit buzzer sounds?

Considering this is something you are going to plan out (you did find it worth a blog post, and are looking to gather information on why readers watch the genre and where they have trouble conveying it to friends), do you feel the lecture will be something worth posting online, either in PowerPoint form or written out as an essay? Would you consider posting it online before presenting it, giving readers a chance to look over it for any place it can be improved?

While it doesn’t answer your questions, this topic put my thoughts toward the magical girl series I’ve watched over the years. (And may I never spend five hours on one post again!)

2 Responses to “Forget Realism, Let’s Have Some Magic”

  1. Crisu Says:

    :O ..!

    This so totally rocks. This may be the start of a wonderful relationship.

    Great examples! Lots of detail!

    Go, Magic!

  2. Chris Says:

    I felt almost as if I was giving a lecture myself when writing this =P I figured if nothing else, it’d get a strong tl;dr from anyone who happens upon it!

    Actually, it was a gain for me write, and something I had wanted to write for a while: a quick rundown of my views on a number of series related by genre. I think the “quick” part was lost somewhere along the way, however… So, thanks for the inspiration!