We know all the titles: Sailor Moon, Card Captor, Shugo Chara, Kamichama Karin, and so on (there are a lot of magical girl anime out there). We also know the parodies: Cute High Earth Defence and Is This A Zombie. We know the darker magical girl shows that are starting to emerge: Madoka Magica and every following magical girl show. So why are magical girls so popular when essentially every one of these stories (whether it is trying to be cute, fun, funny, or deadly serious) is kind of identical at its core?
To really get into this genre of anime I’m going to break the post up into a few parts (so a few features until this one is done).
- Firstly, what is the basic narrative structure of a magical girl story?
- Secondly, who are the basic characters and what is with character transformations?
- Thirdly, what about the magic itself?
- Fourthly, what about the exceptions?
- Finally, why isn’t there an equivalent magical boys genre (and Cute High Earth Defence does not count)?
I’m just going to look at narrative today and then I’ll group the others into two posts each given characters and magic are intrinsically related and the exceptions and magical boys will go together reasonably well.
Keep in mind, everything here after is my own opinion and I am a crazy Sailor Moon fan so I doubt I’m going to be as critical of this genre as I would need to be to actually pull it apart.
1 – The Basic Narrative
I don’t know how many magical girl shows you have watched but with few exceptions they start the same way. My main examples are coming from Sailor Moon and Card Captor Sakura but I’m trying to keep the information generic.
Usually there is some kind of hook. A look back at some ancient catastrophe or a puzzling dream that is suggesting some disaster in the future. While this is usually great for grabbing your audience’s attention and gives a frame for the narrative as a whole, it serves a greater purpose. Most of the first episode of these shows will feature very little actual magic and usually it isn’t until the end of the first episode that our magical girl will actually do anything magical so this is kind of the only chance to show off something supernatural and cool in the first half of the episode. It also gives a more serious tone to what might otherwise seem like a fairly frivolous show.
After hooking our attention we then meet our protagonist usually waking up and frequently late for school because they are inevitably still a student and somewhat of a flake – okay that is less true in the last fifteen years than it was in the 90’s but clichés exist for a reason. Regardless, we meet our very ordinary school girl doing very ordinary things. Usually there is a dressing sequence (putting on a school uniform, adjusting their hair, putting on their knee pads – nope that one was just Sakura because she fell victim to the roller blading craze poor dear). We’ll discuss the inevitable dressing sequences in more detail when we look at the characters.
Then we go to school. This is where the shows start branching out but there are a few commonalities.
The basics of the first episode include introducing the ‘normal’ friends who may or may not ever be involved in the magical side of the story. We learn what our protagonists are good at and what their insecurities are (in a highly manufactured fashion – Serena tossing her exam paper over her shoulder and hitting Darien highlighting both her lack of school ability and social skills in one quick scene).We learn that deep down inside this girl is a good person despite all of their faults and absolute ordinariness. These are all very important things to know if the story is going to hold together.
Because then things change.
If we didn’t spend all of this time establishing a base line for our character would we know or care about how magic changed their life and the strain it put on their ordinary existence? And how could we know about their incredible development as a character unless we had a starting point?
The catalyst for change can be more or less anything (as proven in the parody Cute High Earth Defence when it is a pink wombat from space that gives the boys their magic powers). Cards, eggs, rings, brooches, wands, and more or less anything else you can imagine (that would make for good product placement and something pretty you can sell people – oh that’s just me being cynical, never mind). Sometimes they tie it up with destiny (you were reborn or chosen) but other times it is convenience of circumstance. You’re here, you can activate this, go. Almost always this coincides with a villain attacking for reasons that will later be endlessly explained – don’t worry. It might also be worth noting the number of talking animal and mascot characters that are involved in this catalyst for change.
Normally our protagonists then go through a few different emotions (usually in very rapid succession). Denial, incredulity, acceptance. Must admit, our modern magical girls have learned from their predecessors. They are less likely to take the talking cat at face value because they know that the whole magical girl thing isn’t all its cracked up to be. Plus, those outfits are pretty embarrassing.
There’s usually a fight sequence of some sort and then we can get onto the next episode. It’s interesting how most magical girl shows fall into a bit of a rhythm at first. Normal day, monster appears, fight it, defeat it, back to normal day. During this time, we see our characters grown and develop and learn about their powers, new characters and rules are introduced and all of the logic behind the show is firmly established and they better not break their own rules later. What also happens in most of these shows is the lore is being established. Who are the good guys and why do they fight? Who are the villains and why are they attacking? And the whole sequence may seem repetitive but it is gradually ramping up to a point where it can get away from character and world building and into the story itself without having to stop for explainers (the final pivotal reveals are of course held off for later – like how the Moon Kingdom was actually destroyed got its own episode right before the final battle sequence).
At some point, even the frilliest of magical girl shows will start to take a turn for the darker side. Maybe that villain is unkillable, maybe someone got hurt, maybe the protagonist loses their confidence or their resolve, or maybe things just got a lot more dangerous, but for shows that generally begin all cuteness and light they inevitably turn dark.
This gives the audience another chance to rally behind our heroes as they prepare for a final battle where the stakes have been made very real. The result of the final battle may be a foregone conclusion but you still sit on a knife’s edge hoping your favourite characters make it through unscathed (though by season 3 of Sailor Moon the scouts death’s have ceased to have a whole lot of impact).
And there we have a magical girl narrative. With that basic structure you could even argue that Soul Eater (with it’s heavy focus on Maka) is actually more akin to a magical girl story than an action or supernatural story. Though, Maka at least fights with more than pretty coloured lights and sparkles but we’ll save that for our discussion on characters and magic.
So, what did I miss? What are your thoughts on magical girls in anime?