The Winter 2019 Anime Preview Guide
Magical Girl Spec-Ops Asuka
How would you rate episode 1 of
Magical Girl Spec-Ops Asuka ?
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How was the first episode?
In hindsight, it seems inevitable that we'd get a series like Magical Girl Spec-Ops Asuka eventually. It's been nearly a decade since Madoka Magica opened the floodgates for dark magical girl shows, and in the years since then we've seen plenty of titles ponder just how much it would suck to be a middle school student who fights monsters. Asuka takes the next logical step in that line of thought by asking what might happen to someone who survives long enough to retire. As it turns out, being a former magical girl isn't much better than being an active one.
Asuka isn't the first anime character to face the lingering effects of a violent past, but it's rare to see a series put that theme so front and center. If you ignore the costumes and mascots, she's essentially a veteran dealing with PTSD: she sees potential threats everywhere, she feels a nagging sense of guilt when she hears about incidents her powers could have prevented, and she tries to keep her mind occupied to avoid dwelling on past events. The closest anime comparison I can think of is Sousuke from Full Metal Panic!, but none of Asuka's problems are played for laughs. There are moments of happiness here, mostly thanks to her new high school friends, but for the most part Asuka's character arc looks to be a dark and compelling one.
The show's production values appear to be its biggest drawback, with animation that struggles to maintain consistent quality during the downtime between action scenes. Thankfully, the visual direction makes pretty good use of the resources at its disposal, and the almost casual brutality of Asuka's fighting style says a lot about the person she's had to become in order to survive. This episode's final scenes suggest that she'll eventually have to take up arms once more, and it's likely we'll see more of her fellow magical girls as the story develops. I'm curious to see how that all plays out, as this setup should give the series ample opportunity to explore the different paths the girls have taken now that there's no longer an obvious enemy to fight.
While not everything in this episode is as nuanced or as artfully presented as it might have been, I really like the core premise. It's a welcome change of pace from other dark magical girl shows, and the themes it's working with feel relevant beyond the confines of the genre. I worry that it might struggle to stand out in a season that's packed with similarly grim and violent fare, but if Dororo and The Promised Neverland haven't already worn you out, you might want to make room in your queue for Asuka and company.
Magical Girl Spec-Ops Asuka's first several minutes are a bit of a fakeout. After establishing a world at war with evil mascot-shaped creatures known as Disas, we rush through the introduction of this universe's magical girls, who use conventional weapons like guns and knives to dispatch their foes. Spec-Ops Asuka speeds us towards the final battle with these creatures, and then… it's three years later. As it turns out, this is actually a story about the aftermath of war, and about our heroine Asuka's attempt to find happiness after despair.
As a result, the rest of this episode plays out as a mixture of recent dark magical girl shows and something like Full Metal Panic!, where “former military officer at a high school” offers a great deal of the conflict. Asuka's trauma is treated with genuine care by this story, with her understandable efforts to distract herself essentially dictating the pace of her new life. I found Asuka's awkwardness in transitioning to civilian life very convincing, and appreciated the various ways this episode made her trauma viscerally clear for the audience.
Spec-Ops Asuka also benefits from a generally strong visual production. The character designs and costumes are distinctive, and though there isn't a great deal of flashy animation, that actually felt appropriate - Asuka's moves are those of a soldier, not a moon warrior, and so she dispatches foes with minimal fuss at all times. The show also moved from scene to scene efficiently, with Asuka's daily life feeling just as propulsive as the more action-packed scenes. The only real point of aesthetic weakness I'd point out is the musical score, whose driving electronic tracks felt pretty generic to me.
Ultimately, my main issue when it comes to this show is something mostly preferential - its self-serious and often brutally grim tone. I'm a person who's naturally suspicious of shows that seem dark simply for the sake of underlining their own seriousness, and I find ultra violent turns in media often come off as more cynical or clumsy than genuinely shocking. I feel Asuka handles its subject matter with more grace than most, but its cavalier approach to violence generally and traumatizing Asuka specifically still felt pretty unpleasant to me. Even a show like Madoka only tips into horrifying violence a handful of times over its run; in contrast, Asuka opens with dismemberments, head-crushing, and minced parents all in its first episode, making me think this show's grimness lever is tipped far too high for me to ever truly warm up to it.
But again, that's basically just personal preference. All in all, if you're in the mood for a dark magical girl show, Spec-Ops Asuka already looks like it'll stand head and shoulders over most of the genre. This is a strong premiere all around.
While there has been a proliferation of dark magical girl shows, it sometimes feels like an empty exercise to the exclusion of the original genre standbys like Sailor Moon or Precure, and there hasn't really been a series that explicitly looks at the damage done to these heroines; you can't really solve all your problems just by taking out the Big Bad. So it's an interesting angle for Magical Girl Spec-Ops Asuka to take on the genre. The show's narrative (and its source manga available from Seven Seas) emphasizes that magical girls are child soldiers, conscripted by otherworldly forces to fight in a brutal war. Once that war is over, they're left with the psychological consequences.
The end of the war also doesn't spell the end of the fight, although Asuka definitely wishes it did. Three years ago, when Asuka first became a magical girl along with eight other young teens, there was an actual war with soldiers and battlefields and evil supernatural opponents. Now there are the more everyday horrors of terrorism and domestic violence to fight. That's something Asuka has been trying to avoid, largely for her own mental health. Although she was clearly a successful magical girl on the battlefield (especially as one of only five survivors of the unit), transforming didn't do her any favors. Not only did the Disas (evil plush toys) dismember her parents, she also suffers from PTSD as she tries to go about her daily life. She's afraid to get close to other girls her age, her first instinct is always to attack any perceived threat, and it's clear that just existing is still a struggle. When her guardian, a solider who now seems pretty high ranking, approaches her to ask her to come back to the JGSDF, she's almost physically repulsed by his presence and extremely distrustful. When he actually suggests that she'd rejoin, she rears back in her seat.
Obviously she has to go back to fighting as a magical girl, or this wouldn't be much of a story. The greater point of interest will be how she copes with that choice. She does transform when one of her new school friends is attacked by a terrorist, but more interesting will be how Asuka reacts after the fact. The brutality of her fight speaks to her training and how she could have been traumatized in the first place, as well as how deeply ingrained her training runs. That she's apparently the only magical girl to actually retire has its own implications as well.
Artistically this isn't a perfect adaptation (there's a stiffness to the bodies that doesn't quite work), but if boobs and blood aren't a turn-off for you, this could be an interesting take on the dark magical girl story. The character development that ensues is likely to be the show's make-or-break factor, but as of right now, it's worth checking out.
Man, Fridays this season are looking loaded. Boogiepop and Others provides mystery, Domestic Girlfriend provides spice, and now this one arrives on the scene for an entirely different type of magical girl story. Even though I haven't read the source manga, this one still stood out as one of my most-anticipated titles of the season, and I'm pleased to say that it blew away my expectations in every aspect except its artistry. The decidedly mediocre technical merits are the only thing keeping me from giving its first episode a maximum rating.
But let's get into the good stuff first. The premise is a take on the darker side of the magical girl scene, but unlike a lot of its contemporaries, it's not purely grim for its own sake. It's instead taking a different angle by portraying Asuka as a former soldier who's dealing with the pitfalls of trying to reintegrate into normal life after surviving an extraordinarily dangerous career. The loss of comrades and parents to the dangers she faced have had a traumatic impact on her to the point of inducing PTSD-like flashbacks, and her comment about keeping mentally active via reading so she can't dwell on things is telling. Throwing a middle school girl into the horrors of the battlefield should be traumatizing, but rarely does a story deal with the aftermath of such a premise.
The interactions that Asuka has with the two girls trying to befriend her are promising, but the real draw is of course the graphic violence of the series. Limbs get destroyed or severed, Asuka imagines a child getting bloodily crushed, and later she literally dices up an opponent threatening her friend with an automatic rifle. All of this is executed pretty well (even if the animation struggles to keep up at times) and set to a musical score that mixes dramatic orchestration and driving hard rock. On that note, the opening theme is also a highlight.
The other things that distinguish the series are the fanservicey proportions of the magical girls, Asuka's disconcerting eye design, and the perversely deliberate use of tonal dissonance between the cute and bloody parts of the series. The overall effect is slightly campy, but the series makes it work, and Asuka's comments about how the battlefield has shifted from inhuman foes to international crime and terrorism feels like a defining genre moment.
Of all of the new debuts this season, none have left me more excited than this one.
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