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Magical girls, or Maho Shoujo have been a normal staple of anime since 1958, when Osamu Tezuka gave us Princess Knight, the story about a young princess with two hearts who presented herself as a boy to her kingdom, but on occasion, would dress as a girl in order to spend time with her love interest, all while trying to defend her male heart from those who wanted to take it out of her chest since if she lost it, she’d become just a girly princess.
We’re aware that that doesn’t sound at all like the current magical girls, who use their powers to kick ass for love and justice, and can still be girly if they choose to while kicking ass. But that is because the Magic Girl has evolved since her origins, from Princess Knight to the Revolutionary Girl Utena (who is only a magical girl by a stretch of the definition), from Mahou Tsukai Chappy to the many, many girls that have held the mantle of Precure. They all have similar characteristics: They’re girls about 99% of the time –we will talk briefly about the exceptions-, most have a transformation trinket and a magical pet companion, and most importantly, they all put friendship and family far, far above romantic love.
But lets see how the genre evolved from the young princess who had to pretend she was a prince without magic to protect her loved ones, to the young warriors who fight with magic for their loved ones.
The Knight and the Princesses
Although Princess Knight was released in 1953, the manga that most people agree is closer to what magical girls is Himitsu no Akko-chan, serialized in 1962, getting into an interesting rivalry with Mahoutsukai Sally, serialized in 1966 just because Sally had the luck to be the first one animated. Interestingly, both symbolize the two main variations of a magical girl origin: Akko-chan is an earth girl who, because of her good heart and her respect for every object around her, gets granted powers by the Queen of the Mirror World. Sally, on the other hand, is the witch princess of the Magic Kingdom who comes to our world by chance, and once she starts making friends she doesn’t want to come back to her own world.
These three series pretty much set the first rules of the genre in stone: The main character is a girl whose main trait is kindness towards others, her magic powers come from a special trinket –Sapphire in Princess Knight had her boy heart next to her girl heart, Akko had a special mirror, and Sally is the exception, but from time to time, she used a wand or her broom- and finally, they all get a magic companion; Sapphire had Tink the angel, Sally had Dab Dab the Cat (as well as her siblings Cab and Poron), and finally, Akko had the mirror itself, who tended to be heavy-handed with his lessons. The last rule is that they couldn’t show their powers to any mortal, or they would lose them. This also shows the main inspiration that many of the earlier mahou shoujo had: the American Show Bewtiched, as that was one of the rules Samantha had to obey while married.
These series are the root of the genre, and for a while, every magical princess followed the same recipe. As time passed they became a bit older, a little flirtier –this is more noticeable in Megu-chan, which was the first Mahou Shojo targeted to both boys and girls- but the root plot remained the same: either it was a girl bestowed with powers as a reward for her good heart, or a princess sent to earth to be tested by her kingdom.
The Hero and the Idols
As the magical girl evolved little by little, the main focus was always the friendship that the main character had with others. There were romantic subplots, but usually the object of the girl’s affection was unattainable for various reasons until the end of the series, which was usually a promise of a future wedding –one of the very few exceptions is Hana no Ko Lun Lun, where she is to be married to a different person, and she has to choose between her beloved and the crown. Those years were also pretty much dominated by Toei Animation, and it’s not a surprise that the first real change to the formula came from them.
Cutey Honey, based on a manga by Go Nagai, could be considered the first shounen mahou shoujo, as it was serialized in the Akita Shoten magazine. However, despite being a shounen, and having a story where she fought against actual villains who were actively trying to hurt people –as opposed to just messing up her love life- Cutey Honey filled many of the tropes of mahou shoujo, and was one of the first to show an actual transformation sequence in every episode, as they were required for her powers. Despite the great success of Cutey Honey, it would be some time before Toei tried the Warrior Mahou Shoujo again.
At the same time, Ashi production created Mahou no Princess Minky Momo in 1982 a sort of mixture between both the learning princess from the past, with the more obvious transformations as she was the first whose power was specifically to transform into an older version of herself. Studio Pierrot also threw their hat into the mix, and many of their mahou shoujo’s older selves were singers; a trope so popular that even now we have similar stories, such as Full Moon O Sagashite, by Arina Tanemura. It also influenced what many consider an American version of the mahou shojo; Jem, from Jem and the Holograms.
Fighting Evil by Moonlight
The next great change for the Mahou Shoujo came in 1992 with Naoko Takeuchi’s Sailor Moon. By now, the Mahou Shoujo anime had become more or less cookie-cutter. Some had romantic interests, some had a rival princess, but in general, they all followed the same steps all the way up to bittersweet endings that usually involved the loss of magic –and thus, according to some critics of the genre, the final acceptance of the end of childhood for the viewers. Sailor Moon came to change the game by trying another approach to the Warrior Mahou Shoujo that Nagai had created, but this time aiming it squarely at girls.
Although non-fighting Mahou Shoujo still exist to this day, Sailor Moon created new rules that became staples of the genre: The lone magical girl is now very rare –Corrector Yui, and Card Captor Sakura are the most known of the time- and were replaced by color-coded teams that would help the main girl to fight against her enemies –or simply undo the messes caused by magic, as in the non-fighting example Ojamajo Doremi- , the unattainable love interest would be a fighter on his own –although incredibly useless compared to the girls-, however, the last battle with evil will always be one on one.
Thanks to an international success, Sailor Moon became the codifier that many viewers have of the genre. Most modern western stories that follow the Mahou Shoujo, fall under the Sailor Moon formula, like W.I.T.C.H and Winx Club. But in Japan, they still kept a steady evolution, from Magic Knight Rayearth –where the girls are not on Earth but in a fantasy realm, when usually it’s the other way around, the magic helpers arriving on Earth; Utena, which is closer to Princess Knight than to any other title of the genre; Kamikaze Kaitou Jeanne, which tackled serious themes such as depression, death, and religion; as well as more shows aimed to a male audience, such as Mahou Shoujo Lyrical Nanoha.
Deconstructions and Franchises
With the growing popularity of the genre, there were authors willing to start playing with the formula. One of them was Junichi Sato, who had directed Sailor Moon and Sailor Moon R, then moved to Ojamajo Doremi, and finally Pretear and Princess Tutu. The last two were a very interesting mixture of traditional fairy tales –Snow White for the former, Swan Lake for the later- and the Mahou Shoujo trope, highlighting the tragedy side of both stories. More recently, director Akiyuki Shinbo and writer Gen Urobuchi teamed up with Studio Shaft for Puella Magi Madoka Magica, a haunting deconstruction of every rule of the genre, that delves into the consequences of using young girls to fight a never-ending battle. While Madoka was one of the first –and darkest-, other manga also followed suit, changing the Mahou Shoujo from a symbol of hope to a figure to be dreaded.
Despite the competition, and the darker themes of other Mahou Shoujo, Toei remains the biggest name in Mahou Shoujo anime, not only because of their past, but also for the creation of the Pretty Cure franchise, or Precure for short. With this, they solved the main problems they had with Mahou Shoujo of the past: No matter how engaging the story was, they had to end sooner or later or the audience would grow bored. But Precure had an interesting take: Every year, the series reboots with new main girls, magical trinkets, magical pets, enemies, and even new motifs for their powers, making them perfectly independent; but at the same time, a perfectly recognizable brand for the company. The action of said series is variable, as the original Precure were pretty hands on with their enemies, and Heart Catch Pretty Cure had fight scenes straight from a shounen anime; other hand, Yes! PreCure 5, and Maho Girls PreCure! went back to the less physical fight scenes and returned to the colorful power beams.
As a final part of the evolution so far, we also have the parodies; usually with a male main character having to suffer through all the hoops a magical girl has to jump through. Of these, one of the most popular, and probably the most obvious on their parody, is Cute High Earth Defense Club Love!, created by Kurari Umatani. Now, in Cute High Earth Defense Club, the boys remain boys even as they fight for love and justice with frilly suits, but there are other parodies, such as Magical Change, where the guys do change into girls, and even others, like Mahou Shoujo Ore, where the girl changes into a muscular man.
The evolution of the Magical Girl is far from over. Even as you read, there are new ways in which authors all over the world are giving their own spins to the old tale. In Japan, besides the shows and manga we discussed, there are also horror stories with Mahou Shoujo as the titular characters or monsters, like the very dark Mahou Shoujo of the End, as well as the many spinoffs that Madoka Magica has spawned. Not only that, but we’re also getting old classics back in the forms of Sailor Moon Crystal –an anime version far closer to the manga than to the original anime of the 90’s – and a new Card Captor Sakura manga. With a new Precure series every year, we also see subtle changes to the formula every year. Some take, some don’t, but the end result is that we can have mahou shoujo to our heart’s content. It is also one of the reasons why mahou shoujo usually get compared to American superheroes, but for girls. The influence is so great, that even some American franchises have taken notice of their tropes, such as the Equestria Girls side of My Little Pony, as well as some of the designs and stories of Monster High and Ever After High.
Of course, the success of the genre is tied to the viewers. If people didn’t like the girls, there wouldn’t be more and more stories coming out every year where we see young girls show that they’re fierce warriors and gentle protectors. So we’d like to know, who are your favorite magical girls? what do you think of the different eras? and, what’s your take on this particular genre of stories?