The Enduring History of Magical Girlsby Stephanie Donaldson & Jacki Jing,
Video editing provided by Cartoon Cipher
A young girl faces off against a monster set to destroy her town. It seems like insurmountable odds but with the power of friendship, some special gadgets and a stylized transformation sequence the creature is defeated and all are safe and sound. Sounds familiar? It should, after all this is the quintessential makeup of a "magical girl" or mahō shōjo anime. If you haven't watched it, you've certainly heard of it, the magical girl genre has spanned nearly sixty years and has continually influenced and transformed the pop culture landscape. But besides the heartwarming stories, girl power action and let's be honest, cute aesthetics—what is it that keeps viewers so entranced with magical girls? Today we'll be answering that question by looking at the enduring brilliance of the magical girl genre over the years.
The groundwork for what would become the ‘magical girl’ genre was laid down in 1953 with the series Princess Knight by the ‘god of manga’ himself Osamu Tezuka. Prior to the series' popularity, the shōjo market was very niche, focusing on short gag strips or educational materials. Princess Knight, featuring its villain-fighting heroine Princess Sapphire, had plenty of drama and action to spare. It propelled shōjo manga as a genre into the mainstream. However, it would be another 13 years until magical girls, as we know them, appeared on the television screen. The first, not only magical girl anime, but shōjo anime was the 1966 Sally the Witch. The series was adapted from a manga of the same name that only began publishing in July of the same year. The series followed a young magical girl from another world who uses her abilities to not only help out in her day-to-day life but also protect those around her. While The Secrets of Akko-chan (Himitsu no Akko-chan) 1962 manga predated Sally the Witch, its anime adaptation aired three years later in 1969. In this show, Akko is given magical powers, magical items, and the ability to transform by the Queen of the Mirror Kingdom. These two series were the blueprints of magical girls—those that are born with powers and those that acquire (or are given) them (Sugawa, 2015).
The decades following were when the magical girl genre began to truly establish itself. We've been using the phrase ‘magical girl’ a lot so far, but ‘magical girl’ / ‘mahō shōjo'’ only really entered the public vernacular in the 1980s with Toei Doga's Lalabel The Magical Girl (Mahou Shoujo Lalabel). In the decade prior Toei had released a number of magical girl-themed shows under the moniker ‘majjoko’ or "magic witch." It's no surprise the former stuck. Additionally, more experimental magical girl series came to the forefront during this time. Most notably, the 1973 anime Cutey Honey, based on a shōnen manga of the same name. Featuring an ‘older’ protagonist, the series was more sexually provocative, included darker themes, and a lot more violence than previous magical girl series. Honey not only brought fanservice, but it also championed a more ass-kicking heroine.
Additionally, while the genre's original target audience had always been young girls, boys and men began to form a major fanbase of both ‘new’ and ‘typical’ magical girl shows. In fact, the 1982 anime Fairy Princess Minky Momo is noted as one of the first magical girl shows to have a fan club made up of adult men. This trend continues today with Toei's magical girl products seemingly marketed towards both young girls (aged between four and nine) and men (aged between 19 and 30). This shift in demographic was not just due to the provocative sexual images that were shown in some of these series, but also this new genre provided something unique to audiences that they had not experienced nor engaged with before.
As the producer of Fairy Princess Minky Momo reflected, "Regardless of what era people live in, they desire change, and that is what the magical girl is all about.”
In the following decade, that is the 90s-'00s, magical girl anime continued to evolve with genre mash-ups and targeting a more diverse audience. Of all the magical girl anime that aired during this time, it is no exaggeration to say that Sailor Moon captured public imagination the most (and continues to, to this day!). Sailor Moon's concept was set to be similar to that of popular tokusatsu (live-action superhero) shows of the time. For those who haven't seen it, the 1992 anime series follows 14-year-old Usagi Tsukino who is told she's the legendary warrior Sailor Moon, and together with the other Sailor Guardians, must protect Earth. Sailor Moon wasn't only a hit in Japan but it became an international sensation, described as having achieved global popularity unlike any girl-focused product except Barbie. Over the series' almost 30 years it has spawned films, stage musicals, theme park attractions, and even themed wedding dresses!
Sailor Moon's success can be laid at the feet of its characters. Magical girl characters have always been presented as ‘ideals’ for viewers to look up to and aspire to emulate. After all, if given the chance, who wouldn't want to wear cute clothes and have superpowers? But there had been a divide between the magical girls and audience, with magical girls appearing almost too perfect and unlike real life. But Sailor Moon introduced a refreshing cast of heroines who appeared as both ‘flawed’ ‘normal’ people and strong, capable heroes. They showed to audiences that you can be awkward, clumsy, hot-headed, and still achieve your goals. This step out of a ‘perfect mold’ of magical girls allowed for audiences to connect to the series more meaningfully as they could see themselves within both the clumsy Usagi and the perfect hero Sailor Moon. The bonds between the Sailor Guardians are endearing, as the series portrays them as ‘regular’ teenagers who enjoy going shopping, have crushes, and heartache. It's is timeless because the characters, their friendship, and everyday struggles are relatable across generations and audiences can't get enough of it!
Following Sailor Moon, other iconic and influential series such as Cardcaptor Sakura, (1998), Magic Knight Rayearth (1994) and Revolutionary Girl Utena (1997) completely enamored audiences. By the 2000s magical girls had become a phenomena, but the genre was only just starting to show its capabilities. On the one hand, some series continued to build on the traditional magical girl stylizing and themes while also adding their own unique touch. Most notably, 2004's Pretty Cure continued the trend of dynamic action scenes and battle-magical girls, with the first two seasons directed by Dragon Ball Z's Daisuke Nishio. Precure was an instant success and today there's over 800 episodes, and the 18th season (Tropical-Rouge! Pretty Cure) premiered at the end of February.
On the other hand, some series began to look past the positive veneer of magical girls and reassess it from a far more realistic perspective. Dark themes and shocking scenes are nothing new in magical girl anime; you don't have to look any further than Magical Princess Minky Momo's titular character being hit and killed by a truck because funding was pulled from the series by a toy company. But as a sub-genre, dark magical girl is something completely new. The crux of a dark magical girl series is that powers come at a cost. They're more a curse than a gift and are maintained through literal blood, sweat and tears. As much as other series had touched on these themes, it was the 2011 series Puella Magi Madoka Magica that truly solidified it. The series' first three episodes appear as a typical magical girl show before the story slowly spirals into its ‘hidden’ dark and violent tale, all the while maintaining its cute aesthetics.
While we talked about Sailor Moon bringing the ‘magical girl’ onto a more relatable level, Madoka Magica was one of the first times that the fragility of the human behind the magical girl was so exposed. Over the years dark magical girl anime have become increasingly popular and daring as they mix with other genres such as Magical Girl Raising Project's battle royale plot and Magical Girl Spec-Ops Asuka and its military theme. But, with so many shows, especially many trying to emulate the popularity of Madoka, the genre has become oversaturated and many shows rely on ‘shock value’ gimmicks to try and retain its audience.
While it's clear that the magical girl has and will continue to evolve over the years, the question remains—what is its appeal? While the target audience of these shows is often young girls, as we've seen throughout the genre's history, anyone can and does engage with them. Yet with such a diverse audience, one could sum up the reason for its popularity with one word—'escapism’. Just like all kinds of media, the genre provides audiences an escape from the everyday and welcomes them into a world encapsulated by a mix of vivid colors and cute aesthetics, coupled with dynamic, magical action and some hilarious drama. The world of magical girls is one that audiences can also escape to in ‘safety’, more often than not good does triumphant over evil and perma-death is non-existent. Walking in the steps of Sailor Moon, characters now more than ever continue to resonate with audiences as they become deeply invested in their narrative arcs. Overall, the magical girl genre provides audiences with an exhilarating ride that is also quite simply a positive experience. With each episode, one can simply sit back, relax, and watch a magical girl kick some ass.
The magical girl genre is unmissable. Over the last 60 years it has continued to invent itself producing truly iconic characters, theme songs, tag lines and poses. And while it's impossible to predict what new themes or subgenres it may create, at its core magical girls are sure to stay the same. Stories about friendship, inner strength and protecting the weak are timeless and the ‘magical girl’ will always be a symbol for audiences to adore. So we'll just have to wait and see what magic the genre comes up with next!
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