Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
Magical Girl Special Ops Asuka
When Asuka was in middle school, an alien invasion led to the formation of an alliance with magical fairies, who granted girls combat powers. After being incorporated into the military, five magical girls formed a squad who were instrumental to defeating the evil aliens. Now three years later, Asuka Otori is trying to forget the trauma of battle and just live her life. Sadly, there's no rest for the weary as a new threat rears its head to threaten the world...
What do you think has been lacking from dark magical girl reboots? If you said “big ass guns and crippling PTSD,” then Magical Girl Special Ops Asuka might be the series for you! While the concept of the dark magical girl story is hardly new – those who remember the final moments of the last Nurse Angel Ririka SOS episode can confirm this – the basic premise of those dark reworkings have stagnated a bit since Puella Magi Madoka Magica brought the concept back into public consciousness. Largely they've been about magical girls having to fight each other or the fact that those who grant a magical girl her powers may not be doing so out of any sort of benevolent intent. Makoto Fukami's take on the genre doesn't shy away from some of those rehashed themes, but it also cultivates a different base view that combines the tropes of both the darker forms of the genre with some of the classics: what if magical girls had to protect the world alongside the military?
The base premise of Magical Girl Special Ops Asuka is that three years ago, aliens attempted an invasion of Earth. In an effort to save the planet, fairies granted powers to certain girls, and those girls transformed into militarized magical girls. While each girl has a special power – healer, sniper, etc. – they work best combined, and no government has any intention of just sending the original nine girls out into battle by themselves. By the time we enter the story, there are only five magical girls left: two from Japan, one from China, one from Russia, and one from the US. These girls ultimately are able to put an end to the invasion, and go down in history as “The Legendary Magical Five.” Now, three years later, the girls have split up. Asuka, whose “call sign” was “Magical Girl Rapture Asuka,” has tried to distance herself from military and magical life. She's clearly suffering from PTSD and is doing her absolute best not to be pulled back into the grim world of war. (By contrast, her American counterpart, Mia Cyrus, is working with the USAF as an official member.) Asuka's having some trouble both fitting in and allowing herself to become close to anyone, but with her entry into high school, it looks as if she may actually be able to truly succeed.
Naturally, that's when the aliens return. Despite the fact that Asuka is the adopted guardian of her former Japanese Army commander following the deaths of her parents, she's still highly resistant to a military return. What's interesting is how she'd rather use her powers – if she has to, she'll transform in order to protect specific people rather than the world at large. This may be the most unusual aspect of the series as a magical girl story: magical girls generally operate on the “I'll save everyone!” premise, no matter how they feel about the person in question; in fact, it isn't uncommon for them to save enemies as well. Asuka, however, is done with that. She's paid her price in blood, and now all she intends to do is save the people she needs to – those she cares about. It's a direct refutation of the basic magical girl creed, and it takes the step of showing how the previous fights affected Asuka on an emotional level; she's used to bloodshed and death, to the point where she can only be moved to fight if it's for someone she's attached to.
Whether or not Asuka will be able to overcome that should be worth keeping an eye on going forward. Her interactions with her new school friends and her fellow magical girl Kurumi imply that she might be able to effect some changes, but that's by no means certain. The fact that this time the aliens are allied with other, more sinister magical girls may also be significant for Asuka personally; we're told that there are now more than two hundred magical girls worldwide, but not why so many have been created. This is where the series stands to get bogged down by the work of previous entries into the dark magical girl genre; how Fukami handles it will be important.
Artist Seigo Tokiya, whose work saw brief English publication during JManga's days, does a nice job with the action scenes, getting feeling of sharp movement that helps keep the tension of the story up. It's too bad that it's unnecessarily sexualized, particularly where Asuka is concerned; the issue is not so much that she is drawn in a sexual way, but more that this creates a fair amount of artistic inconsistencies – her height and breast size changes frequently, and skirt lengths are anyone's guess. There's a fair amount of gore as well, but that feels very much in keeping with the direction the story is taking. For the most part, panels are easy to read, although there are a few places where things get too crowded.
The dark magical girl story may not be new, but Magical Girl Special Ops Asuka shows that it's still a genre with potential. Alternately relying on and eschewing genre tropes, Asuka's struggle with her violent past and magical girl identity stands to be both exciting and psychologically interesting. Things are really just getting set up, but it will be worth keeping track of this series for at least another couple of volumes to see what directions it decides to take.
Overall : B-
Story : B
Art : B-
+ Interesting take on the dark magical girl story, looks to explore some of the psychological consequences of war, dynamic art
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