The ever-changing tone of magical girl anime: the dark, the violent, and beyond

The upcoming return of Cardcaptor Sakura has got me thinking about my experience with the magical girl genre growing up. I watched a bit of Sailor Moon on TV when I was a kid, but the first magical girl series I ever really got super into was Cardcaptor Sakura. And I wasn’t watching that awful Cardcaptors dub on Fox, either, which I wrote about here. I watched the whole series in Japanese online in terrible quality on YouTube about ten years ago, and I absolutely adored it.

Funnily enough, though, Cardcaptor Sakura was the only magical girl anime played straight that I ever really got into. I’ve seen other magical girl shows that I enjoyed, but they were mostly darker takes on the genre, like Mai-Hime or the classic deconstruction Puella Magi Madoka MagicaMadoka Magica specifically brought the magical girl deconstruction to a more mainstream audience, and seems to have inspired a resurgence in dark magical girl concepts. Not long after it aired in 2011, we were given the similarly dark (but more optimistic) Yuki Yuna is a Hero, the magical girl battle royale Magical Girl Raising Project, and the lackluster Day Break Illusion. The dark magical girl concept wasn’t invented with Madoka Magica and its ilk, though – there were some earlier examples that I remember watching. Let us dive into the realm of weird magical girl shows I watched in the 2000s.

Weirdly enough, I’ve seen many series tagged as “magical girl” that I don’t think really count. For example, I’ve seen people refer to Revolutionary Girl Utena as being a deconstruction of the magical girl genre. Sure, it features girls doing magical things, but I don’t really consider it to fit. It’s more of a deconstruction of shoujo as a whole that has occasional nods to the realm of mahou shoujo.

princess tutu.jpg
No, if you’re looking for an Utena level take on magical girl, go to 2002’s Princess Tutu. It plays with you by presenting you with brightly colored visuals and simplistic character designs before the second season starts taking you down a twisted road of violence and mind screwiness. I remember watching it when I was very young, around when I had been watching Cardcaptor Sakura, and not being prepared at all for the plot to start including people losing their limbs. It’s a series I intend to revisit soon, since the show clearly was not intended for eleven year olds.

magical girl nanoha.jpg

Then you have shows like Mai-Hime and Magical Lyrical Girl Nanoha, which had all the core characteristics of a traditional magical girl show combined with elements of shounen and mecha series. Nanoha is well-known for its insane battle sequences, and as the series progressed it brought more and more Super Robot/mech elements to the show. I never finished Magical Lyrical Girl Nanoha, but like Princess Tutu, I very much wish to return to it in hopes of appreciating it a little more.

mai hime
Meanwhile, Mai-Hime starts off with normal magical girl and slice of life shenanigans with an added mech-twist. The girls in this series all have robotic animal sidekicks that they can summon called CHILD. As the anime progresses, it switches from standard fair to a violent magical girl battle royale (perhaps inspiring Magical Girl Raising Project?), but still somehow retains its themes of friendship despite the fact that all the girls end up pitted against each other.

Now, back to current times. Obviously the genre isn’t made up exclusively of doom and gloom shows – you still have your Pretty Cures, and of course the comeback of Cardcaptor Sakura like I mentioned in the beginning. That being said, the genre has continued to expand beyond just the traditional fluffy girly stuff. The Symphogear franchise, for example, has elements of what I saw in Mai-Hime and Nanoha in that it’s more action-heavy. It has its cuter elements, sure, but even looking at promotional art you can see a bit more of an edge to it.

Symphogear

Then you have the unique Flip Flappers, which I wouldn’t really classify as being darker, per se (though it did have an excellent horror episode with episode 5), but it does introduce a bit more depth than your average magical girl. Flip Flappers took the typical magical girl themes of friendship and pushed them further into the world of romance and sexuality.

flip flappers
Yuri elements are often vaguely present in magical girl shows. You have Tomoyo and her crush on Sakura in Cardcaptor SakuraMai-Hime and its spin-off Mai-Otome with its wealth of yuri subtext, and of course you have the lesbian schoolgirl queen Homura in Madoka Magica.
Unlike those series, though, Flip Flappers actually centers its narrative on coming of age and discovering your sexuality. The aforementioned horror episode is specifically a deconstruction of how your typical light-hearted, rosy yuri subtext traps its characters in a world that’s devoid of any real exploration or development regarding wlw relationships. It takes the subtext found in other magical girl shows and pushes it to the forefront, allowing a more honest look into what it’s like to be a girl who has a crush on another girl. Plus it has an absolutely gorgeous style that I’ve never seen in any other magical girl show.
Damn…sounds like I’m going to have to re-watch Flip Flappers, too.

Magical girl anime and manga is so very interesting to me, because so much of it thrives on subverting the very tropes and themes it was found upon. Still, even the most subversive series still have girls kicking ass and building each other up. I love it! I’m really, really looking forward to returning to my anime roots with Cardcaptor Sakura: Clear Card, and I’m curious to see if its highly anticipated return will swing the magical girl tides back to a more “classic” style. It’ll also be refreshing for me personally to return to the core elements of the magical girl genre.

I’m on a bit of a magical girl kick right now, so expect to hear more ramblings on the topic soon 🙂

[Header art by Ruri-dere on deviantart]

10 thoughts on “The ever-changing tone of magical girl anime: the dark, the violent, and beyond

  1. Cardcaptor Sakura is my all time favourite magical girl! Nanoha was a good watch and it had great potential, but I feel it was just not developed enough to draw a huge audience the same way Sakura does. I would definitely recommend finishing Nanoha though.

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    1. I have a tendency to start magical girl anime and then just give up halfway through and rewatch Cardcaptor Sakura instead, lol. I’ll have to actually get cracking on my Nanoha rewatch then!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Interesting article about the evolution of that genre. I do admit that I liked Pretear despite being a guy who’s not into that stuff. One dark fantasy series with magical girl tropes that I enjoyed that gets slept on is Shamanic Princess. That’s an underrated series there.

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    1. Oh, I had heard of that show but didn’t know exactly what it was. I’ll have to check it out, especially if it’s only six episodes. It sounds like exactly what I’d be into!
      Also thanks for reading 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Sure thing! It’s a good series and a short one, too. Just warning you, episodes 5 and 6 act as prequels, so you can watch those first and then episodes 1-4 if you’d like. I actually reviewed that one one of my blogs called Iridium Eye if you want to check it out.

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  3. I’m not a big fan of Shoujo in first place so I haven’t watched a lot of it, Card Captor is probably the one series I absolutely love. The other magical show I watched and kind of like was the zoophil(not too sure of the spelling😅) little sister of Sailor Moon, Tokyo Mew Mew but I only read the manga.

    Liked by 1 person

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