Dark Magical Girls
Battling Fluffy Teddy Bears?
If ever a title deserved the dubious honour of being celebrated for its concept but questioned about its execution, Magical Girl Spec-Ops Asuka is definitely one of the top contenders. Dark magical girl stories aren’t new. Even before Madoka they existed and after Madoka they flourished giving us a range of hit and miss stories of deranged magical girls fighting each other for various contrived purposes. Fortunately, Spec-Ops takes a different approach and in theory it has a fairly solid idea.
The series begins with the end of a magical war and then our surviving magical girls go their own ways. We are following Asuka, who has chosen to return to a ‘normal’ life though she’s carrying around a lot of emotional baggage from her time as a magical girl. For once we see the toll on young girls of being thrust into such difficult and dark situations. Asuka’s family were tortured and killed, her friends died, and she fought in a war when she was a very young girl. Obviously things aren’t all sunshine and roses for her and she’s very much suffering from PTSD and struggling to make the adjustment back to civilian life.
You know, if the series had focused on that point and actually looked at her ongoing struggle and transition this would have been a much better story. Instead, after establishing this premise the anime immediately feels the need to disrupt Asuka’s life again by having the enemy return and attack Japan. The enemy? Creatures called Disas who take the form of walking plush toys and yet are incredibly nasty and hard to take down.
Visually this actually kind of works. The enemy are goofy looking but incredibly deadly and the juxtaposition really adds to the tragic feeling this series seems to be going for. The problem is, Spec-Ops can’t really handle Asuka’s emotional journey, plus delving into the emotional status of the other magical girls, look into the impact of tragedy on Asuka’s human friends, and deal with the reignited war as well as the various politics between worlds in the 12 episodes it has and it doesn’t actually balance these elements particularly well.
Don’t get me wrong. Some things and some scenes Magical Girl Spec-Ops Asuka gets spot on. There are definitely character moments where you really feel the writer just got inside the head of the character and conveyed them perfectly and there are action sequences that very nicely put together. Then there’s the transitions between these moments and the moments that fall completely flat, and the end result is a mixed viewing experience to say the least.
As to the violence and torture in this series, it will entirely depend on your tastes whether you find it engaging or disturbing. I liked that it made the stakes seem very real and that it seemed quite likely that characters could die (even if the anime wimped out on actually causing permanent harm – even emotionally – to one of Asuka’s school friends). It made the villain seem like a threat that absolutely had to be fought.
I don’t know, Sailor Moon villains are cool and all but there’s never any sense of real menace or danger with them because their plots and actions are so sanitised. Still, there’s definitely some graphic moments here and the torture of quite young girls, as well as some other weirdness that is just a little bit creepy (yes, I am looking at Kurumi’s interrogation techniques here).
This series is definitely not for the faint of heart. Now, where I preferred this over some other dark shows, is that the violence and torture mostly seemed to serve the purpose of establishing why the characters were the way they were or providing that real sense of danger and urgency. Sure, the same effect could be achieved by moving some of those more disturbing visuals off screen, but honestly it works here.
The only time it really seemed to push the envelope was in Kurumi’s treatment of the captured magical girls. That was all kinds of concerning and it would have been nice to see this aspect of Kurumi being explored but the series ran out of time leaving it as just a weird point to an unbalanced character.
The music for this series is actually really solid and one of the outright positives however visually this series is at best average. There are some cool moments but then there’s a lot where it seems kind of lazy particularly with background characters. Still, the magical girl costumes in this series are awesome and the only unfortunate thing is that this series isn’t popular enough to see these costumes become staples in cosplay.
With an unfinished narrative and I would speculate little hope of a season two, Magical Girl Spec-Ops Asuka doesn’t quite have enough going on to recommend it. If the story had finished then it would be an interesting diversion for those after something a little grittier but without an ending it is just an incomplete tale with characters who have not yet been fully realised. I did have fun enough while watching it weekly but there’s other anime out there and some of them even have endings.
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- Series Review: Magical Girl Spec-Ops Asuka
- Episode 1: What Happens When a Magical Girl With PTSD is Drawn Back Into War?
- Episode 2: Not Brushing Aside Trauma Makes For A Better Narrative
- Episode 3: And The Award For Creepiest Visuals of the Week Goes To…
- Episode 4: This Is Not How One Puts Together A Solid Plan
- Episode 5: Magical Trauma and Political Intrigue a Plenty
- Episode 6: Everybody Loses in a Magical War
- Episode 7: It’s Raining Magical Girls and Deals With Other Worlds
- Episode 8 and 9: The Dark Side of the Magical Girl Myth
- Episode 10: The Battle of the Magical Girls Begins
- Episode 11: Bring the Pain; It Won’t Stop These Magical Girls
- Episode 12: Magical Torture, Pain and the Unending War
Images from: Magical Girl Spec-Ops Asuka. Dir. H Yamamoto. LIDENFILMS. 2019.