If there’s one anime genre where girls can shine as strong, capable protagonists, it’s the realm of magical girls. Here, even the youngest heroines can save the world with kindhearted determination and the power of friendship! More mature shows will work with struggles like overcoming grief, fighting against a prescribed fate, or maintaining hope in a hopeless situation.
Today, we’re taking a closer look at our Top 10 Female Leads in Magical Girl Anime, covering over 40 years of anime history and every flavor of subgenre from magical girl classic to surrealist deconstruction. Transform into your frilliest costume and join us!
10. Sakura Kinomoto from Cardcaptor Sakura
- Episodes: 70
- Air Dates: April 1998 – March 2000
The very first magical girl shows like Sally the Witch and Himitsu no Akko-chan starred adorable little ladies who used their magical powers to solve everyday situations. Cardcaptor Sakura brings that concept into the new millennium by giving its sweet protagonist a novel way to save the day.
Sakura must capture 53 wayward magical spirits using nothing but her wits and the few allies at her side. But as she progresses further, she creatively utilizes her growing arsenal of spirits to confront each new foe. The Fly lets her add wings to her wand or back, The Loop warps space so she can corner a fast enemy, The Little and The Big allow her to reenact Alice in Wonderland, etc. The possibilities are endless!
9. Honey Kisaragi from Cutey Honey
- Episodes: 25
- Air Dates: October 1973 – March 1974
Honey is the purest embodiment of ‘70s coolness. She’s a fashionable cyborg girl who fights evil by transforming into a sassy, redheaded heroine with devastating physical strength and a dazzling array of other superpowers. Her main opponent is Sister Jill, a dominatrix lesbian who has a crush on her and fights with a metal whip. ...Did we mention this show is from the ‘70s?
We love Honey because she’s confident, always has control of the situation, and wholeheartedly owns her sexuality. She paved the way for dangerously sexy modern women like Bayonetta and Erza Scarlet, as well as melee-fighting magical girls like the Precures. Plus, newer versions of Honey herself have even better storylines and kickass powers!
8. Hikaru, Umi, and Fuu from Magic Knight Rayearth
- Episodes: 20
- Air Dates: October 1994 – March 1995
Hey look, it’s CLAMP again! Before Cardcaptor Sakura, their most prominent magical girl work was the fantasy epic Magic Knight Rayearth. This anime follows Hikaru, Umi, and Fuu—three schoolgirls who get whisked away to the land of Cephiro and must save its guardian maiden from a horrible fate. But this mission isn’t as straightforward as they initially thought...
These three girls are total opposites, but they grow together as a team over the course of their journey and realistically struggle with the difficult choices they’re forced to make along the way. Hikaru’s bizarre romantic choices aside, this is a band of heroes who anyone can relate to.
7. Himeno Awayuki from Shin Shirayuki-hime Densetsu Prétear (Prétear: The New Legend of Snow White)
- Episodes: 13
- Air Dates: April 2001 – June 2001
Like the Magic Knights, Himeno is also a chosen one who’s on a treacherous journey to save the world. However, instead of other schoolgirls, she’s accompanied by an assortment of hunky boys! But it’s certainly not a cakewalk from there. She agonizes over her father’s remarriage, her responsibilities as the Prétear, and her growing feelings towards her handsome friends.
Himeno is an interesting mix between a demure princess and a hot-blooded warrior and plays well off her costars, particularly her favorite knight Hayate. It’s exciting to see a teenage character who goes through the wild emotions and revelations that all of us go through at that age but filtered through the lens of a struggle where the fate of the world is at stake.
6. Haruka Haruno from Go! Princess Precure
- Episodes: 50
- Air Dates: February 2015 – January 2016
Haruka is brazenly girly, even more so than other Precure protagonists. She loves sweets and flowers and pastel colors... but more than anything, she strives to be a princess when she grows up. Not the kind of princess who wears a pretty dress and gets doted upon by servants, but a magnanimous leader who embodies the ideals of strength, kindness, and beauty (while wearing a pretty dress, because that can’t hurt).
To achieve her dreams, she fights evil as Cure Flora and even manages to get three other Cures to join her. Haruka shows us that you don’t have to be a tomboy to be a strong female character—sure, she clocks baddies in the face, but she also turns a brainwashed villain to her side with a tender violin duet. Precure is definitely doing something right!
5. Hibiki Tachibana from Senki Zesshou Symphogear
- Episodes: 13
- Air Dates: January 2012 – March 2012
Hibiki was never supposed to be a Symphogear user. She got caught in the wrong place at the wrong time and ended up inheriting her powers from a dying Symphogear idol who saved her from an explosion. Now she has to step up as a replacement to fight evil alongside that girl’s grieving partner. Sorry you didn’t get the hunky boys or spirit allies, Hibiki!
Despite barely knowing how to use her powers and having the deck severely stacked against her when it comes to forming a good relationship with her team, Hibiki steels her resolve and proves herself on the field of battle. Over time, she develops her own fighting style and becomes a powerful Symphogear user in her own right.
4. Usagi/Serena Tsukino from Bishoujo Senshi Sailor Moon
- Episodes: 46
- Air Dates: March 1992 – February 1993
Ditsy and lovestruck on the outside, but tenacious and kind on the inside—that’s Usagi for you! Pretty much every other Sailor Senshi is more qualified to be the leader than she is, but this odango-headed teenager is the most famous magical girl in the world for a reason. She’s cute, relatable, dear to our childhood hearts, and she’s the one named Sailor Moon!
Usagi doesn’t have quite the fighting skills or depth of character as some others on this list, but there’s something to be said for a heroine whose very image inspired so many other series and opened the floodgates for shoujo anime to be released in the Western world. Sailor Moon combined the sweetness of early magical anime with the go-getter action of Cutey Honey and the team structure of Super Sentai shows to create the anime equivalent of addictive snack food, ensuring that the world would know and love it until the end of time.
3. Ahiru/Duck from Princess Tutu
- Episodes: 38
- Air Dates: August 2002 – May 2003
Ahiru is a duck. She is blessed with the ability to transform into a human ballerina girl who can protect her beloved prince Mytho as the superpowered Princess Tutu, but at the end of the day, she’s just a humble duck who can’t change the world. Or at least, that’s what the almighty storyteller Drosselmeyer decided for her. But Ahiru isn’t about to let her prescribed tragic fate determine her future!
We put Ahiru so high on the list because her obstinate refusal to be a background character in her own story is so outrageously meta that it skyrocketed Princess Tutu from a moderately successful anime to one of the most important deconstructions of the genre in the history of the medium. Ahiru’s love for Mytho transcends all boundaries, even if they’re the boundaries of logic itself!
2. Nanoha Takamachi from Mahou Shoujo Lyrical Nanoha (Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha)
- Episodes: 13
- Air Dates: October 2004 – December 2004
Rising from her sketchy beginnings as a background character in an old H-game, Nanoha has become one of the most iconic magical girls in anime history, second only to Sailor Moon and possibly also our #1 pick. Uniquely, she’s allowed to age into adulthood over the course of her many series and enters a romantic relationship with her female partner, Fate.
This anime features mecha-style weapons and serious storylines with tragic deaths littered throughout, but traditional magical girl sincerity still shines through—Nanoha’s greatest ability is her mastery of the power of friendship. She even adopts a child with her main evil rival from the first series! Now that’s some potent nakama energy.
1. Madoka Kaname from Mahou Shoujo Madoka★Magica (Puella Magi Madoka Magica)
- Episodes: 12
- Air Dates: January 2011 – April 2011
Madoka’s world is not kind to magical girls. It chews up young girls and spits them out, forcing them to kill each other for limited resources and ultimately driving each and every one of them into unavoidable despair. Her friends try in vain to beat the system, but fall to the same fate as all the others. It’s up to Madoka to stop hiding behind others and find a solution to this horrific cycle.
This anime has been called “Neon Genesis Evangelion for magical girls” because of its bitter deconstruction of the largely saccharine genre it belongs to, and it’s an apt comparison. But Madoka only shines so brightly because she had help from Nanoha, Honey, Ahiru, and even Usagi. This nuanced, brilliantly written character is our favorite female lead in the entire genre, and it’s because of her predecessors that her final actions in this show touched our hearts so deeply.
We hope you enjoyed that brief walk through the history of the magical girl genre, as seen through retrospectives on its best heroines. Who are your favorite magical girls? Did we leave out any of your top picks? Let us know in the comments, and thanks so much for reading!