Oddly enough, the Magical Girl genre owes its origin to American television. The makers of the first two works to claim the name, Mahoutsukai Sally and Himitsu no Akko-Chan, mention the show Bewitched as a source of inspiration.
The earliest examples were, as the name suggests, primarily aimed towards younger female audiences. While scenes of overt violence weren’t shied away from, the primary focus wasn’t placed on fighting but rather female empowerment, mysticism, and feel-good social elements. The action-heavy direction, complex conflict structure, and deep thematic exploration that has come to define more recent magical girl titles wouldn’t surface until much later with the release of titles like Mamono Hunter Yohiko.
The latter breed of story quickly outstripped the classics, taking cues from the sentai and shounen genres in order to acquire the attention of older viewers and those unfortunate enough to be born with a Y chromosome. As we close in towards the present day, Magical Girl shows get bolder in their assertion that female characters can bear both emotional strength and considerable combat prowess without sacrificing their femininity or being relegated to minor “support” roles. It can easily be said that the genre took a large part in expanding the importance of well developed female characters across the other genres of anime and even mediums foreign to Japan.
The unique brand of innocence and wonder provided by magical girl anime oftentimes delivers the journey through an idyllic lens that emphasizes the hopeful brilliance of youth. Gaining popularity, however, are works that take the very same concept in a more cynical direction, shattering childish dreams and expectations against the harsh realities of their worlds in order to push tragic narratives that represent the disillusionment that comes with adulthood.
Despite this mutation of themes and inspiration from more action-oriented genres, you'll find that nearly every magical girl anime will exemplify one or all of the aspects common to a coming-of-age story: companionship, perseverance, and growth.
If you’ll be so kind as to don your mystical raiments and prepare your most powerful spells, we’ll take a look at a few titles and muse about how they express these aspects.
In a magical girl’s most troubling hour, her saviour is neither her own power or the force of providence that granted it, but her friends. This is the aspect that has seen the least amount of change as the genre has evolved. Friendships in magical girl anime are generally more open-hearted affairs where even competitive relationships have a soft, sweet core. It is for this reason that magical girl titles are frequently perceived to tip towards the shoujo-ai genre, warranted or not.
Puchi Pri*Yucie (Petite Princess Yucie)
- Episodes: 26
- Aired: September 2002 - March 2003
With heavy inspiration taken from the premise of their popular game Princess Maker, Puchi Pri*Yucie is an account of the titular girl’s trials and the deep bonds she forged with those who shared them. Adopted by a knight as a baby, Yucie was brought up in a quiet countryside home her father chose as his place of retirement. Unfortunately for her, she’s afflicted by a strange curse of origins as nebulous as her birth that prevents her body from growing past the age of ten. Her only hope at a cure lies in proving herself worthy of The Eternal Tiara, a magical item capable of granting wishes and the legendary title of Platinum Princess.
Puchi Pri* Yucie is closer to the classical magical girl titles of yore, the lion’s share of its narrative weight is delivered by personal connections with the firm backing of childlike innocence tempered yet unconquered by experience.
Though the quest for the tiara and the wish it grants is a zero-sum game, idealism and a sense of respect between all five candidates shines true. Yucie’s cheerful, affectionate nature proves to be infectious, allowing her to win over the girls that would otherwise be her bitter rivals. Yucie’s circle of friends is one of those rare existences that can finish a round of Monopoly without broken hearts nor broken bones. Not an easy feat.
It is all too common for a magical girl’s wings to come with or as a result of shackles.
For more allegorical works, the wands, candy-colored lasers, and cool dresses serve as physical representations of a magical girl’s battle against their circumstances. Unlike the shounen and sentai genres where villains are taken by vices or critical tears in the human condition, magical girl villains are often esoteric representations of the same that encroach upon the real world. The difference is between fighting evil people and fighting evil as a concept. This nature results in most magical girls dealing with a great deal of emotional weight as they challenge the full brunt of facets about humanity that make you say “ick!”.
Mahou Shoujou Madoka Magica (Puella Magi Madoka Magica)
- Episodes: 12
- Aired: January 2011 - April 2011
Mahou Shoujou Madoka Magica is the brainchild of Gen Urobuchi, famous for his bittersweet and downright harsh takes on storytelling. He made the anime into the go-to example of the more cynical side of the genre. In his world, to be a magical girl is to take on the mantle of humanity’s hope and the duty of opposing witches, monsters that embody despair. If left unchecked, witches hold the potential to harm and even kill the average civilian. They are also the only source of grief seeds, objects used to cleanse a magical girl’s soul gem, the source of their power which they’ll lose permanently if allowed to darken completely. Not only do witches pose a mortal danger to any magical girl, but they are also a finite resource, creating a system that is both competitive and blatantly unfair to children enlisted to become magical girls.
While growth and companionship are themes that see heavy use, the manner in which each member of the main cast struggles in their own way against the day-to-day situation imposed upon them is intertwined with their battle against their own despair with their soul gems serving as a literal gauge to measure their mental well being and success.
In order to survive, the girls arguably need to be made of sterner stuff than those that star the titles above and below, they latch onto their ideals with a dogged sense of desperation to help them weather an unending torrent of negativity.
Puella Magi Madoka Magica Trailer
The conditions surrounding a young girl’s ascension commonly forces or at least facilitates a rapid period of change. What with the disruption of their ordinary lives and the addition of responsibilities that are almost certainly beyond any that a magical initiate has had to handle before.
Bishoujo Senshi Sailor Moon (Sailor Moon)
- Episodes: 46
- Aired: March 1992 - February 1993
It’s not likely that you’ll need a general rundown for this one. Bishoujo Senshi Sailor Moon is easily the most recognizable magical girl anime. It’s commonly regarded as the herald of the genre’s modern age. Beyond its initial running, the show enjoys a myriad of spinoffs, remasters, and merchandise campaigns as well as a firm place in pop-culture. At this point, it’d be easier to count the number of people alive in America and Japan that haven’t heard of the title.
For the sake of completion, we’ll remind you that the anime follows one Usagi Tsukino, an average, if otherwise dorky, middle schooler that has the destiny of defending the Earth against threats that would seek its ruination thrust onto her by the magical cat Luna who serves as her steward. As she gains experience and comrades in the form of other “Sailor Senshi” who draw their power in the name of other celestial bodies, as well as the mysterious Tuxedo Mask, Usagi buds into a fine leader more than capable of standing up to forces of evil.
Perhaps due to its long runtime, Bishoujo Senshi Sailor Moon exhibits the pillar of growth to a truly remarkable degree. When Usagi first hears of her fated duty, she’s just two winks short of a frightened mess uncertain of her own place in the world, let alone her chances of ever saving it. However, through her honest, hard-working nature and the support of her friends, she develops a mature side that doesn’t shirk away from any challenge.
Sailor Moon -Part 1- Official Trailer
Hopefully, this brief look into the magical girl genre has either piqued or reaffirmed your interest in a historical, transformative, and commonly underestimated corner of the industry. If anything, we at Honey’s Anime will be satisfied if we’ve convinced you to hold your local magical girl in the same high regard as the Hokage-Pirate-Sorcerer-Overlord
currently in office.
In any case, if you have your own insights to share about the core principles of magical girl anime, we’d love to hear your thoughts!