“Magic is believing in yourself, if you can do that, you can make anything happen.” – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Magic is one of those things that most of us take for granted in stories. Given our earliest bedtime stories contain tales of princesses kissing frogs and fairy godmothers who wave their wands and fix all problems it makes sense that we are trained to accept a certain amount of whimsy in our narratives. Those of us who veer into the fantasy and speculative genres further learn to suspend disbelief and embrace all manner of magical systems. We’ll happily nod along as Ed explains the fundamental rules of alchemy to a layman (Fullmetal Alchemist) and are more or less willing to believe that there are cute little beings from other worlds who can grant wishes turning ordinary girls into magical ones and ultimately creating witches and disasters (Madoka Magica).
However there’s a genuine difference between suspending disbelief and suspending basic reasoning and common sense. Most viewers expect at least internal consistency or a reasonable explanation for how things play out within a story (some don’t but that’s fine). For me, nothing can more quickly undermine a story than the characters coming across a seemingly insurmountable obstacle and then one of the characters simply making it go away with some as yet unseen power or ability and no real consequence for them breaking pre-established rules. Maybe I’m just nit-picky. Okay, I know I’m nit-picky but I really do like things to at least make contextual sense even if outside of the narrative they make little sense.
While there are plenty of anime that I could look at that have at times been guilty of undermining their own narratives through the less than strategic use of a magical deus ex machina I’m going to focus on three examples and then turn the discussion over to you, my readers, for your own examples and opinions on whether it matters that the fictional magic make sense in an anime. Heads up though: spoilers below.
Sailor Moon S: The Movie has a number of issues outside of its use of power within the sailor moon universe. Basically it is an extended Sailor Moon episode with a villain of the week showing up aiming to freeze the planet and the only real character development comes from Luna’s sudden desire to be human for a day to make a human’s wish come true. However, as a Sailor Moon story it works as it brings all the usual Sailor antics into play including all the other scouts and Tuxedo Mask getting side-lined for the finale so that Usagi can save the day.
So far, so ordinary. The scouts transform and make magical fire, lightning and a range of other attacks appear out of nothing all the time. Plus they manage to avoid freezing to death while wearing leotards in a snow storm. Surely that kind of lets them do what they like in terms of magic within the story.
Except, it was well established pretty early on in Sailor Moon after Usagi first took possession of the silver crystal that using it came at a pretty big cost. Something that powerful would more or less make any kind of villain pointless so they needed to limit it in someway. Even within Sailor Moon S: The Movie, the other characters caution Sailor Moon not to use the crystal or she’ll die. The world is getting frozen, the scouts are out for the count, and they are still pleading with Usagi not to do it.
And then she does. Crystal comes out, lots of flashing light, and problem solved. As an added bonus, she wishes for Luna’s wish to come true, and ta-da. Zero consequences faced or explanation as to why she can suddenly just use the crystal to do whatever the narrative needs.
Realistically, this didn’t just make the end of this particular movie seem weak, it actually made most of the events in the Sailor Moon universe seem a little trite. If Usagi can actually wield the crystal without consequence, and make it do more or less whatever she needs it to do, why do the scouts even need to exist? For that matter, why do any villains ever get to attack Earth? Surely Usagi could just create a barrier around the planet and then go and get a milkshake.
This is a case where even a pre-existing magical McGuffin was poorly written within a story and the results were definitely less than satisfying even to a moon maniac like myself. This movie remains one of my least favourite entries into the Sailor Moon franchise.
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The Irregular at Magic High School has a really interesting take on magic. Rather than characters using spells and chants, they’ve combined magic and science and casters generally use a CAD (casting assistance device) to pretty much instantly produce magic. Essentially the magician provides the magic while the CAD contains the sequence and ensures the correct magical effect is actually produced. However a CAD can only hold so many sequences and specialised CAD that produce very cool effects are even more limited in the number of sequences they can produce. Not to mention the devices are pretty costly and require fairly regular maintenance.
There’s been a lot of thought put into the system and it establishes why certain characters focus on particular kinds of magic and why casting speed is of great importance to the magicians. It also allows for new magical developments and through engineering and reprograming, tweaks to be made to existing magical effects.
All of that would be fine except that Tatsuya, the central character and the irregular, kind of does whatever he needs to do however he needs to do it. While it is established that he does things his own way early on in the series, his casting of a spell through snapping his fingers in season one and his solution to the final conflict in the Visitor Arc more or less make you wonder why anyone else bothers doing anything when he is around.
His favourite trick is largely just undoing other people’s activation sequences neutralising their magic. But there’s really yet to be any kind of magic or challenge that Tatsuya hasn’t been able to eventually see through or just make better with seemingly little effort. While it is nice to see a relatively self-assured protagonist who gets on with things without all the screaming and yelling, it is difficult to really feel a sense of tension in the story as we know Tatsuya is going to magically make everything all better again anyway.
And there is the narrative drama. Sure his friends might get caught up in situations or injured when he isn’t around. And there’s a whole bunch of political shenanigans going on around him that he has little control over and unless he wants to be a mass murderer all the power in the world won’t fix. But ultimately, once his power is unleashed and he’s decided to do something, it is more or less a given that he is going to succeed. It will be interesting to see how the story deals with that and gets around him as the story progresses but having such a rule breaking main character has certainly created a few problems in terms of upping the stakes in a meaningful way.
Finally, I am going to use an example that is actually a problem from the premise. Cardcaptor Sakura: Clear Card has always kind of bothered me. Not because of the story itself, because once it gets going it is the usual Cardcaptor kind of thing. Some kind of magical phenomenon occurs, Sakura goes to capture it using cards with powers she’s already captured. She combines them in interesting ways at times, but she’s been doing that since the beginning. Though getting Syaoran wings was a very cool use of her power and he looked utterly adorable.
My issue with Clear Card is that it feels like it undermines everything that came before it. We started off with Sakura collecting Clow cards that she let escape from the box. It was a straight forward issue of being her responsibility to catch them all given she was the one who unleashed them. The next drama involved turning the cards into Sakura cards and making them her own. That all makes perfectly logical sense.
Then to kick of Clear Card, Sakura has a dream and all the cards turn clear. It kind of feels like a fairly poor excuse to make Sakura, once again, go through the process of finding and catching each of these abilities. Once was logical. The second time was a reasonable build on the basic premise and had the added emotional high of seeing Sakura come into her own power. Clear card feels trite. Like next the cards will all turn black and she’ll have to face the darkness to reclaim them. Then they will all glow like rainbows. And so on and so forth to keep the franchise stretching literally forever.
Magic is a wondrous thing and Cardcaptor actually has a pretty good handle on its internal logic within each arc of its story. However, at some point it feels like the writers need to realise the idea has played out and that they need to move on.
Whether it is pulling magical powers out of nowhere without consequence, characters who already exist outside of established rules making tension and buy-in a challenge, or over-stretching a magical concept for the sake of perpetuating a franchise, none of these are complete deal breaks for a narrative. However, they do all show weaknesses of using magic within stories and some of the pit-falls that a story can fall into if the writers aren’t half-awake.
The magic of a good story happens when all of the ingredients work together. Magic isn’t an instant fix or an easy set up for a conflict. It is something that needs to be integrated into the world of the story and as such needs rules and limits in order for it to make sense and to provide satisfaction.
At least, that’s how I feel. But now I’m turning over to my readers and asking for your examples of magic that has undermined an anime or alternatively, situations where magic has been used really well to really make a story sing.
Images used in article from:
- The Irregular at Magic High School: Visitor Arc. Dir. R Yoshida. Aniplex et al. 2020.
- Cardcaptor Sakura: Clear Card. Dir M Asaka. Madhouse. 2018
- Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon Crystal. Dir. M Sakai. Toei Animation. 2014