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Rise of the Dark Magical Girls

by Paul Jensen,

If you showed this season's Magical Girl Raising Project to an anime fan from around ten years ago, they probably wouldn't know what to make of it. The series has the kinds of character designs that you'd expect to see in a traditional magical girl show, but it also boasts a constant stream of tragic character deaths and the occasional burst of graphic violence. How did we reach a point where the idea of a dark and bloody magical girl series seems like a perfectly normal thing to see? Isn't this genre supposed to be all about upbeat adventures and the power of friendship? To fully understand where the recent wave of dark magical girl shows came from, we'll need to take a look back into the history of the genre.

Putting the pieces together

The magical girl genre has been an anime staple for decades, with early examples going at least as far back as the late 1960s. With so much history to build on, it's only natural that individual shows have tried all kinds of tweaks and variations on the basic formula over the years. If you look in the right places, you can even see some early precursors to the dark magical girl format, though not all of them take the form you might expect.

When it comes to depicting death and violence in a magical girl story, many of the early adopters were comedies. Whether it's a direct genre parody like Magical Witch Punie-chan or more of a dark comedy like Is This a Zombie? or Bludgeoning Angel Dokuro-chan, there are a number of instances where shows have gone brutal and bloody in pursuit of laughs rather than drama. It makes sense in a way; unless you're already used to the idea, the image of a girl in a frilly costume beating someone to death with a club seems more suited to absurd humor than a serious story.

You can also see a more gradual evolution through the rise of action-heavy titles. Over time, we've gotten an increasing number of shows where a magical girl's life is more about fighting enemies than it is about solving problems or collecting supernatural trinkets. You can see the difference in older titles like Magic Knight Rayearth if you're looking for it, but it gets much more obvious once you get to more recent girls-with-powers fare like 2004's My-HiME. That early- to mid-2000s range also contains a rise in magical girl shows aimed at an older and more predominantly male audience, rather than the traditional demographic of young girls. Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha became something of a standard-bearer for this particular shift, along with the occasionally heated debates that accompanied it.

And then there was Madoka

By the time we get to the current decade, the important pieces are more or less in place. The magical girl genre has made some tentative forays into darker narrative themes, and there's a proven market for action-heavy titles aimed at older viewers. Enter Puella Magi Madoka Magica, the series that most people probably expected to see at some point in this article. If any one show deserves credit for opening the dark magical girl floodgates, this is it.

Madoka Magica has been covered pretty thoroughly from a critical standpoint, so for the purposes of this article I'll focus on what made the show different when it came out back in 2011. Along with condensing several genre trends into a focused package, Madoka Magica brought a relatively novel idea to the table: becoming a magical girl might just be the worst decision a character could possibly make. The fancy costumes are great and all, but you also have to fight for your life against supernatural monsters that won't think twice about biting your head off. Even the promise of having a wish granted hardly seems worth it, especially since there's a good chance that your wish won't play out as expected and may even blow up in your face. If you were to ask the heroines of other iconic shows if being a magical girl was worth the risks, they'd probably say yes. One of Madoka Magica's most influential ideas was having a cast of characters who would gladly go back to being normal people if they could.

The direct successors

Between critical praise and sales that were strong enough to justify three movies and multiple manga spinoffs, it was probably inevitable that Madoka would have some sway over the genre. The idea of the dark magical girl series is quickly becoming its own category, with multiple shows trying to make their mark. Day Break Illusion stands out as one of the earlier contenders. It features a Tarot-inspired cast of magical girls, along with the tragic twist of being unable to defeat demonic monsters without killing the innocent people they're possessing. One of the more successful tearjerkers to hit the scene is Yuki Yuna Is a Hero, which has drawn praise for its strong production values and effective character development.

It's interesting to note that in addition to fast-tracking the rise of dark magical girls, Madoka Magica has had an effect on a number of related genres. There are plenty of recent titles that draw inspiration from its narrative tone and visual style, even if they don't necessarily qualify as magical girl stories. A good example of this is Selector Infected Wixoss, which takes a similar premise of girls with tragic destinies and works it into the structure of a card battle series. The protagonist may have a sentient trading card instead of a magic wand, but the similarities aren't hard to spot.

What next?

And so we find ourselves back in the present day, with the high body count in Magical Girl Raising Project hopefully making a little more sense. The show's adoption of the classic “last person standing” formula actually offers some insight into the challenge that awaits any new dark magical girl series. The bar for quality in this field has been set rather high, and it's going to be increasingly difficult to make a lasting impression. It's going to take fresh ideas or unique twists on old concepts for a new series to make a name for itself, which is partly how we got here in the first place. Each new story builds on what's come before, and over time the genre grows and changes based on what audiences seem to like. That process brought us dark magical girls, and eventually it'll bring us the next big thing.

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