The tradition of schoolgirls fighting things — monsters, criminals, each other — is an old one in anime, going back through Sailor Moon and Card Captor Sakura. It’s such a common trope (especially since high school is the default setting for most shows) that it has spawned a whole set of adaptations, genre-twisters, parodies, and so on.
Someday I will get around to talking about Madoka Magika, a show that is in this genre and is probably at the top of my “favorite anime of all time” list. (It’s very difficult to write about because so much of its awesomeness is embodied in a few plot twists that are hard not to spoil. Short version, just go watch.) Today, though, I want to talk about a couple of other shows that have interesting takes on the basic concept.
(aka Magic Girl Lyrical Nanoha)
This show is part of a category I like to think of as “That shouldn’t be good!” — shows that look silly or cliché in their basic concept, but turn out to be excellent. (The most obvious example would be something like Saki, which is about girls playing in a mahjong tournament where everyone has mahjong-related superpowers.) On the surface, Nanoha presents itself like an absolutely standard magical girl show, but it pulls a pretty clever bait-and-switch about halfway through the first season.
For those who aren’t familiar with it, the magical girl premise looks like this. Takamachi Nanoha, an ordinary middle school girl, is taking a shortcut through a forest one day when she encounters a badly injured ferret that communicates with her telepathically. She helps it, only to be attacked by strange monsters, and the ferret teaches her to turn into a magical girl to defend herself. (Including the famous “transformation sequence”, a la Sailor Moon, where a character changes costume against a sparkly background. Handy because it can be repeated every episode, saving valuable animation costs!) In this case, the ferret is a wizard named Yuuno, who has come to earth to collect magical Jewel Seeds that have the potential to wreak havoc. Nanoha of course agrees to help him with this task, and (of course) turns out to have a great deal of magical potential herself.
The expected run of the series is that they retrieve the Jewel Seeds, one per episode, fighting some kind of cute monster each time, until they finally confront some sort of end boss and probably fall in love with each other. There is indeed one episode along these lines — the monster is someone’s pet cat turned gigantic — but the first hint that this isn’t your standard magical girl show is that they quickly skip forward through the rest, taking it as read that our heroine is able to get past these minor challenges. Instead, we’re quickly introduced to Nanoha’s evil counterpart, Fate, and the story takes a darker (though not TOO dark) turn.
It took me a while to realize what they’d done, but it becomes obvious by the end of the season — they’ve taken the plot structure of a shounen fighting show (that is, a boy’s action-adventure, like Bleach, Naruto, and so on) and clothed it in the trappings of a magical girl show. Your typical magical girl protagonist is ditzy and happy-go-lucky, not terribly interested in the nitty-gritty reality of her powers and more apt to moon over her love interest. She gets out of jams through sheer heart and the power of friendship. Nanoha, on the other hand, not only declines to fall in love with Yuuno but spends her time actually studying magic, and we see a steady progression in her power from the beginning to the end of the show. She gets out of jams by being awesome at what she does, rarely by being saved by a “power of love and friendship” deus ex machina.
There’s also quite a lot more worldbuilding than your typical show of this kind goes in for. Yuuno turns out to be a representative of a cross-plane Magical Administration Bureau, who have inter-reality starships and Star Trek-style uniforms. The initial trappings (he’s not really a ferret, he was just transformed into one) give way to impressive action scenes, especially in the second season. It’s not a dark show (see below for that) but it’s not completely toothless, either, so the action has some feeling of consequences too it.
In the end, the result is a show that has the surface look of a magical girl show, but is actually a solid action-adventure, with memorable characters, strong relationships, and a self-consistent world. It’s not perfect — the third season falters a little, especially in the first half, as they introduce a whole new set of characters — but the first and second seasons are excellent.
(This is a bit of a digression, but the show later features one of the very few canon lesbian relationships in anime. Anime has a very cagey attitude towards gay romance in general and lesbian relationships in particular, for reasons that I don’t entirely understand. (Problems with the censors?) Many shows are willing to go right up to the line, show same-sex characters engaging in all kinds of couple-y behavior, but still maintain a sort of plausible deniability. Nanoha isn’t entirely immune to this, but they lean out way farther than most — the characters live together, sleep in the same bed, and eventually adopt a child together, but they still aren’t allowed to refer to themselves as a couple or kiss on-screen.)
On the opposite side of the spectrum we have Gunslinger Girl. Here the plot goes a little farther afield. In Italy (which in this universe is apparently both technologically advanced and a hotbed of international terrorism) the Public Welfare Bureau converts terminally ill adolescent girls into cyborg assassins. Each is assigned a “big brother” who serves as her handler and mentor, and they use their superhuman abilities to go after rebels and terrorists.
In this case, we have the template for a standard-issue action-adventure show, but this show is not it. Though they have high-quality animation for the action sequences they do have, the show is less about “girls fighting terrorists” and more about “the home lives of cyborg assassins.” We see them trying to lead as normal a life as they can, in between their horrific past on the one hand and their violent work on the other. Violence is (very unusually) not particularly glorified, and we see the psychic damage caused to the characters from being used as killing machines.
In particular, the focus is on the relationships between the girls and their “big brothers”, with each pair handling the interaction a bit differently. The girls are programmed to love their handlers, and they idolize them as well, hanging on every scrap of affection. This is obviously a control mechanism for these dangerous cyborg killers, but in Gunslinger Girl we also see the effect this kind of adulation has on the “brothers”, who are all secret agents/police. Some of them embrace the relationship, which can get them in trouble because the girls are supposed to be expendable; some of them fight back against the tendency to reciprocate to the point of emotionally abusing their young charges. Some of them feel queasy about accepting an emotion that is, at its root, artificial. It’s a really interesting dynamic.
The show is also a good example of the difference between a “dark” setting and something more optimistic. It’s not that Gunslinger Girl is particularly brutal — it can be realistic about violence, but that doesn’t take up all that much of the show. Rather, it’s dark because there’s an air of tragedy that underlies the entire setting. It’s not made clear what happens to the girls in the end, but none of them seem to have lasted very long, and it’s hard to imagine them growing up into normal adulthood. So even the happy moments have undertones of sadness, because in the end it can’t last; there’s a bad end lurking out there somewhere. That’s “dark”, I think, rather than gore and ultra-violence.
I liked Gunslinger Girl a lot. It’s very quiet and slow for a show with its premise, and it’s definitely on the depressing side, but there’s some really beautiful little moments as it goes along. You have to know what you’re getting into, though, and it’s definitely not for everyone. (Also, a second season was made, years later by a different studio, and it was AWFUL. Do not watch it.)
It also has a neat opening theme!
Django Wexler is the author of fantasies The Thousand Names and The Forbidden Library. He graduated from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh with degrees in creative writing and computer science, and worked for the university in artificial intelligence research. Eventually he migrated to Microsoft in Seattle, where he now lives with two cats and a teetering mountain of books. When not watching anime, he wrangles computers, paints tiny soldiers, and plays games of all sorts.