Yūki Yūna wa Yūsha de Aru
Episodes 1-3

by Theron Martin,

Because this is an anime-original project unconnected to any established franchise, is coming from a studio with a less than stellar track record (Studio Gokumi), and by several days is the last regularly-airing series to start for the Fall 2014 season, Yuki Yuna may well fly under the radar of anime fan consciousness. That's unfortunate, as through three episodes it has not only shown that is has a lot to offer but may also, in fact, be a special series. Certainly it is a ground-breaking one, because it does something that I don't believe has ever been done before in an anime series: it not only has an irrevocably physically disabled character as a core cast member, but also has her become a magical girl, too.

Yes, this is a magical girl series, and one whose magical girl aspect is heavily combat-oriented, a la Madoka Magica or Vividred Operation, although it absolutely does not look like that up front; in fact, the series makes a habit of being coy about what it really is and does. The story is set in an alternate version of the modern world where the presence of gods called Shinju is strong enough that the calendar is defined by it (it is year 300 of the Era of the Gods) and prayer to the Shinju is as much a regular part of class routine as bowing to the teacher is. At Sanshu Middle School, four girls – Yuna, elder sister Fu, younger sister Itsuki, and Yuna's paraplegic friend Mimori – form the Hero Club, with Fu as president. The Hero Club is similar to the Jersey Club in Lagrange, in that its members go around doing anything from helping out other clubs to entertaining kids, but what only Fu knows is that the club's name has a double meaning: they are a reserve team which can be supernaturally empowered by the Shinju should dangerous supernatural beings called Vertex ever try to cross a border space called Jukai in their area. And that does, indeed, happen, starting an expected cycle of one dozen that draws the girls, willingly or not, into battles against the mammoth Vertex. They do, of course, gain weapons, powers, and fairy helpers, and in episode 3 a fifth girl who has actually properly trained for this task joins them, too – only her efforts to assert control of the situation go down in flames in the face of the overwhelming chumminess of the other girls.

Yuki Yuna succeeds in part because it does a lot of the small things really well. Even though some of its core cast members are practically carbon-copies of leads from other magical girl series (Yuna is heavily reminiscent of Vividred Operation's Akane in both personality and character design, for instance, and Fu is distinctly reminiscent of Mami from Madoka Magica in some ways), the interactions between them are natural, fun, and pleasing, and Karin, the hyper-focused fifth girl who debuts in episode 3, looks to be a great addition to the mix. The attention to detail on Mimori is also remarkable, as one episode actually takes pains to show how she gets transported by a handicapped-equipped vehicle or how her wheelchair is folded up when she's sitting on a couch or in a student desk. You just don't see this in any other anime series. Had this remained a slice-of-life title, it probably would have been a solid but unremarkable one.

But it doesn't. Halfway through the first episode, in a spectacular artistic burst, the girls get flipped over into Jukai space and the other side of the series is revealed, one where they can use hidden aspects of their club's phone app (yes, the Shinju are apparently hip enough to channel their power through smart phones) to summon fairies and undergo magical girl transformations and fight off Vertex. These aren't sissy fights, either; massive swords, katanas, fisticuffs, and sniper rifles are all eventually involved in the tense battles. Music and fight choreography are on a level with a high-end action series production, and the visuals are certainly there, too. In fact, the series as a whole looks quite sharp, whether it's the pleasing character designs, the good attention to detail in the regular settings, the bizarrely-colored landscape of Jukai space, or the elaborately inventive designs of the Vertex.

The biggest treat, though, is what the series does with Mimori. In the regular world scenes she is quite integrally involved in the club's activities; she is their computer whiz, for instance, and their narrator when they do plays. In that realm she is never shown being treated much differently by the other girls despite her disability (Yuna tends to be protective, but that's it), but the series at first is sneaky about whether or not it is actually going to let her transform, too, as the opener for episode 2 only shows the other three girls in magical girl form. But deep into episode 2 it does finally happen, and without resorting to a gimmick like giving her back the use of her legs while in magical girl form. She becomes, in effect, anime's first paraplegic magical girl, and seeing how that works and the immediate impact she has on turning what was until that point a desperate fight is a very, very special moment, not just for this season but for anime history in general. It feels like a barrier has been broken here, and it is, beyond a doubt, one of the highlight scenes of the entire year for me.

Aside from my personal dislike for elaborate magical girl transformation scenes, Yuki Yuna is doing everything right so far: good artistry, good animation, likable characters, great interactions, great battles, and some ground-breaking features add up to a great start. This may be the hidden gem of the season.

Rating: A-

Yūki Yūna wa Yūsha de Aru is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.

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