Magical Girl Spec-Ops Asuka
Episodes 1-2

by Rebecca Silverman,

How would you rate episode 1 of
Magical Girl Spec-Ops Asuka ?

How would you rate episode 2 of
Magical Girl Spec-Ops Asuka ?

Magical girls have undergone a lot of changes over the years. The genre has roots in the thirteenth century picture scroll Tales of Gisho and Gangyo, where Zenmyo transforms herself multiple times to protect the monks, eventually ending by transforming into a rock, and while it resurfaced over the centuries, it's the mid-twentieth where it really takes off again. Most of those magical girls are cuter and sweeter than what came after, with Creamy Mami, Pastel Yumi, and Hime-chan's Ribbon all focusing on daily hijinks rather than saving the world. Cutie Honey Flash and Sailor Moon paved the way for darker stories, and then Puella Magi Madoka Madoka broke the genre open for even grimmer stuff. And that brings us to Magical Girl Spec-Ops Asuka.

I bring up all of that history because it feeds into this show in interesting ways. Almost all of the earlier magical girls end their stories definitively; sure the manga of Nurse Angel Ririka SOS shows that she can still transform as a teenager if she needs to, but basically when the story ends, the magical girl just gets to go off and live her life (or sit there as a rock). That's not the case with Asuka and her compatriots – or should I say, her surviving compatriots. Instead they have to continue living after having fought a bloody, vicious war for humanity's survival, coping with the emotional consequences of their actions, and that's a direction that magical girl stories haven't considered before.

It's a good hook, and the first two episodes of the show work it well. The story opens with a flashback to the final showdown of the late war, with Asuka (Rapture), Kurumi (War Nurse), and three other magical girls making their famous last stand alongside the JSDF. Originally there were nine magical girls in the unit, but these five are the only survivors – called the Magical Five, they prove themselves humanity's last best hope, just like plenty of magical girls before them in anime. And then the war ends, the girls go their separate ways, and Asuka has to try to cope with the trauma of what she's experienced.

Asuka's reluctance to take up the mantle of Rapture again is the central focus of episode one. Since the monsters killed her parents back in middle school, her guardian is a member of the JSDF, and boy does he ever want Rapture back in the fold. Poor Asuka's not interested – the girl's just trying to live normally, but like many veterans with PTSD, that's become an uphill battle. From flashbacks in both episodes to Asuka's early magical girl days, we can see that she's much more subdued now, and she's reluctant to make friends with two girls in her new class. We can also see why when Sayaka, the quieter of her new buddies, is almost killed by a terrorist on a rampage; this is what ultimately motivates Asuka to transform again. Probably that's also why she was afraid to make friends in the first place, because if she has people she cares about, she'll be tempted to try to save them and the whole cycle will just start over again. Helpful to the world? Yes. Helpful to Asuka's mental health? Not so much.

With all of this dark subject matter, it makes sense that the series would try to use gratuitous violence, acrobatic fight choreography, and fanservice to keep eyes on the screen. It's an interesting blend of elements – a thoughtful psychological storyline paired with the true magic of how Kurumi's breasts stay in her War Nurse outfit, not to mention dudes getting chopped into numerous pieces. The attempt at shock value works intermittently – the giant evil teddy bear in episode two tossing a decapitated head up and down while chanting happily works better than some of the actual battles, and the revelation that Asuka's other friend's dad is a government torturer is more effective than the “bad magical girl” known as Queen loafing around in the nothing. That last part particularly feels overdone; the show's “innocence lost” theme is much better (and more subtly) shown when Asuka's white rose transforms into a red one in the opening theme.

The series is taking its time getting to the meat of things, but that's really working for me thus far. Asuka's emotional issues and the consequences of war on the soldiers is a big part of what sets this series apart from other dark magical girls, and while I don't think it's aiming to be a deep deconstruction of the genre, its pacing does give you time to think about Asuka's thoughts and feelings, which I appreciate. We'll get to see another of the Magical Five next week (you know she's American because she's blonde and wears a bikini top), and in the meantime, we can all wonder if War Nurse is somehow a reference to the WWII-era superheroine of the same name.

Rating: B+

Magical Girl Spec-Ops Asuka is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.

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