Magical Girls

Three years ago, I was interviewed by Lesley Smith for an article about “magical girls” in SFX Total Anime magazine. As per usual, I wrote far too much in my responses and only a tiny fraction turned up in the article. Also as per usual, I did so secure in the knowledge that if I put that kind of time into helping someone, I would be able to re-use the material at a later date, and hence now reprint it here.

Lesley Smith: Why do you think the magical girl genre is so popular (a) in Japan (b) in the UK/US?

Jonathan Clements: (a) “Magical girls” began on 1960s Japanese TV for two reasons: as a female variant on the transforming superhero that was already dominated in “boy’s” TV by Superman, and as entertainment specifically for girls that allowed them to play with the idea of being an adult, or at least a more grown-up version of themselves, even if only for a little while. The perennial appeal of magical girl shows is that there is always another generation of little girls who want to experiment with being grown-ups, or fantasise about having special powers and/or a secret noble destiny.

(b) It’s not. In fact, one well-known US company had an internal memo stressing to its staff that the way to maintain healthy company bank balances was to avoid “anything with the word Princess in the title”. A well-known Japanese company actually begged me to give a bad review to one of its flagship titles, otherwise they feared that upper management would force them to release it in the UK. Upper management forced them to release it in the UK anyway, and it bombed. Magical girls are often sold in the wrong market outside Japan – they belong on TV, for an audience of little girls. It’s very difficul to sell them, for example, on DVD, because the target audience for children’s entertainment doesn’t have direct control over the purchasing of titles. In the children’s DVD market, you don’t “sell” to kids so much as you sell to their parents and relatives.

What, for you, makes a good  magical girl series (the transformation sequences, the fluffy sidekicks, good versus evil etc etc)?

JC: It’s the playing with adulthood. Fairy tales appeal to children because they take real-world problems and approach them in a “fantastic” way — puberty, grief, parental separation, remarriage, siblings. The best magical girl shows are a modern variant on such fairy tales. Sailor Moon, for example, as I see you regard it as an example of the genre, is all about the ugly duckling asserting herself, and realising her potential, and there is this wonderful sense of the person she can become, and indeed of the daughter she can have, all safely tucked away in the future.

As many magical girl anime series have a set episode format (particularly when it comes to monster of the week), do you think they can ever become boring or too predictable or is that part of the fun?

JC: There’s two answers to that question. The first is that any children’s show is liable to outstay its welcome. Children’s entertainment is on a 24-month product cycle. Girls watch show X when they’re 8, but they are expected to lose interest by the time they are 10. Fairy tales are something that people grow out of in their teens, even if they rediscover them for different reasons as adults and parents later in life.

The second is that modern “retro” anime often tries to have its cake and eat it. It will sell an old-fashioned, nostalgic idea of reliving one’s childhood, but then will attempt to excuse formulaic pap as part of the charm. This is particularly present with supposed “magical girl” shows that are actually aimed at boys who like watching the nude transformation sequences, and short video serials that substitute cheesiness for the original’s heart.

Do you think that a series can only be classed as magical girl if there is a transformation sequence, a wand etc or do series that only contain a couple of these can also be classed as magical girl?

JC: Well, I’d say magic + girl was a good rule of thumb…

For example, would you class a series like Jigoku Shoujo or Vampire Princess Miyu as part of the genre even though they are supernatural in tone (both containing sidekicks, transformation sequences, magical phrases etc)?

JC: Ah, I see. No. Those shows you mention use some of the elements of a magical girl show, but for an older, more sophisticated audience. Both are borderline cases, though — I can see why you’d want to include them. They certainly deal with the same “fairy tale” issues.

Do you have any particular favourite characters and series?

JC: Well, I must confess that many years ago I did actually burst into tears while interpreting the final episode of Sailor Moon season one, live, out of Japanese for an English audience. It had real passion and heart.

Western audiences have really latched onto series like Sailor Moon and Cardcaptor Sakura, are there any you regard as exemplary examples of the genre that English speaking audiences might not have come across?

JC: Marvellous Melmo. That’s the Tezuka series where a girl can take either red or blue pills, one which makes her older and one which makes her younger. Frankly, one of the most influential, and yet also most neglected “magical girl” shows is Limit the Miracle Girl, which was the first to introduce the concept of a love interest with a “time limit”, later put to extensive use in anime for boys in the 1980s and beyond.

Do you think magical girls are a genre unique to Japan?

JC: Certainly not. They were inspired by two American TV shows broadcast in Japan in the 1960s — Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie.

What is the oddest example of a magical girl you’ve come across (can be in a manga, video game, anime, tv advert)?

JC: I’m afraid the hentai world is littered with little girls who “grow up” in a very different way. In such cases, the tropes of magical girl dramas are put to very insidious uses, as an apologia for pedophile pornography. So as far as odd goes, I’d have to say that takes the cake.

At the end of it all, [the victim] turns back into a little girl again. In true magical girl shows this is about a return to normality and safety after playing at adulthood for a while. In Lolicon, it’s about guilt-free rape, because the aggressor sees that *his* act has no real-world consequences. So it’s not just about subverting magical girl conventions by bringing a sexual djinni out of a bottle, it’s about denying the effects by stuffing the djinni back into the bottle after you’ve finished.

One more quick question: do you think any shows in particular, like Superman or Bewitched directly inspired the “magical girls” genre?

JC: Superman is a mundane individual that transforms into a hero to save the day / fight crime. For boys, that was transformed into live-action superhero shows like Moonlight Mask, but also combined with Pinocchio to make Astro Boy. For girls, the transformation was internalised in Princess Knight, but also rendered magical in Little Witch Sally.

I think one of the prime influences on the magical-girl genre was the opening credits of Bewitched, which featured an animated sequence of the heroine riding around on a broomstick. This seems to have been a factor influencing the creation of 1967’s Comet-san (which you will find in the Dorama Encyclopedia — an alien girl with special powers poses as a housekeeper on Earth), which also mixed live-action and animation, and 1966’s Little Witch Sally, which infantilised it to some degree, making her a little girl with magic powers, and not a woman. Both shows, incidentally, based on manga by Mitsuteru Yokoyama. It’s only a short hop, then, to 1971’s Marvellous Melmo, in which the magic, such as it is, is simply *being* older — a transformation into an older version of oneself. (All dates are those of broadcast, not of original manga).

The influence of I Dream of Jeannie is less immediately obvious. Bewitched did patronise its leading lady somewhat, but Jeannie took it even further, turning her into a jealous tinkerbell figure. I Dream of Jeannie traces a line out of magical *girls* and into the genre of the “magical girlfriend”, which is slightly different, but has a great and powerful influence on modern anime for boys, such as Video Girl Ai and Chobits. See, for example, Minami’s Sweetheart in the Dorama Encyclopedia — the picture in there is straight off the Japanese DVD box, and is itself a direct copy of the PR shots for Jeannie feature Larry Hagman holding her in the palm of his hand.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Schoolgirl Milky Crisis: Adventures in the Anime and Manga Trade.

13 thoughts on “Magical Girls

  1. Had western audiences really latched on to Sailor Moon and Card Captor Sakura? I only watched the former as I found it a fun show where it wouldn’t matter if I missed an episode here and there, imagine my shock when I sat down to watch an episode after a short hiatus to learn Tuxedo had Defected. I think by the time card captor’s was airing here, we just about every other card-battle, monster battle show. The effect was similar to the sentai shows that were shown by Haim Saban in the mid-90’s, usually aired one after another, rangers, borgs, troopers & rider respectively…. Kids like myself, being subjected to 90 minutes of guys in suits and poor american acting.

    I suppose on the back of this, if either of these shows had been aired in their original form, with only a translation dub, would they have had less chance of reaching a target audience?

  2. Oh god, I’d forgotten I actually wrote down the phrase “anything with the word Princess in the title” in a document that went to my boss, which appeared to then be ignored until the US office published the memo you mentioned actually used it without attribution. I said it out loud one day in one of my post-convention caffeine-fuelled future license discussions in the office, and it just seemed to stick, with good reason too.

    Blast from the past there JC.

  3. @Chris: No , I don’t really think they have, either. That was an assumption made by the questioner! I didn’t bother to argue with it because I’d already said my piece in my answer 1(b).

  4. And yet 60% of Disney’s share price rides on the backs of Princesses. ~_^
    I remember an interview with Tenchi Muyo co-creator Misaki Kajishima where he said the idea for the OVA was from his impression of I Dream Of Jeannie, which was one of my favourite TV shows when I was growing up. (yes I am an old git).~_^()

  5. @Mohawk52, you are absolutely right re: Disney. Disney have got princesses sewn up and certainly have a better handle on the hard sell to American girls. As one would expect them to.

    @Chris. I should add, Lesley’s article was pushing the popularity of magical girls, so of course she was pushing me to acknowledge that they were popular — that was part of her assignment. But I was providing information, not spin, so that’s why my answers sometimes reject the premise of her questions.

  6. I have to ask about Card Captor Sakura, was it a write-off from the start, or did its attempts to try and make it appeal more to boys hold it back? I kind of lean towards the former, but its something that makes me wonder.

  7. It certainly never interested me, but it was never intended to. But the efforts of Nelvana to *make* it interest boys, relentlessly hammering the square peg into the round hole, hacking up the episode order and implying connections that weren’t there, was sure to damage it. As the Anime Enyclopedia syas: “the inertia of network ‘demands’ ruined much of what made the series initially so interesting… in a futile attempt to gain more male viewers.”

    A recent ANNcast on Anime News Network features Zac Bertschy laying into a guy from 4Kids about the treatment of One Piece. There is a lot of otaku catharsis in the chance to say to one of these people: “WHAT WERE YOU THINKING!?” Although as it so often turns out, they weren’t thinking at all, they didn’t even watch something all the way through before they bought it, a condition I have written about before here:

  8. I watched some anime (BotP, Laputa, random Giant Robot stuff) as a child without really considering where it came from. I first encountered the word anime (or Japanime as it were) in Amiga magazines where I also heard of Akira, but at the time was not allowed to watch it when it aired on TV.
    My modern re-introduction to anime was around 10 years ago when my mother was childminding so kids TV was on a lot. I was aware of Pokemon through toy aisles and has seen some of the series and not been impressed. Since Digimon toys seemed to come along later I thought of it as a cash in but when I caught some episodes I found it actually had an interesting story, which is important when stuck in a room with kids TV. I also caught some Sailor Moon, although due to timing it was mostly just the opening but I liked the character designs and downloaded some nice PC wallpaper.
    One show I saw advertised really caught my attention due to the gorgeous artwork – Cardcaptors – but I only managed once to catch one episode on TV. l was online by this point and starting looking things up online, and ended up making my first imports – the Lain box set (since it came up in Digimon Tamers discussions a few times and I’d bought a guidebook on the series) and (what turned out to be bootlegs) of all the Ghibli films and the complete Cardcaptor Sakura.
    From there I launched into more adult anime via fansubs of Chobits (due to the CLAMP connection). I don’t really watched any kids anime (other then Ghibli) or Magical Girl stuff (unless you include shows like Nanoha) these days, but Cardcaptor Sakura still has a special place in my heart (and I’ve since picked up the complete set of Geneon DVDs, although I’ve yet to actually watch all of them)

  9. (wow, that turned out long)
    Just remembered – like Evangelion* I actually watched the Cardcaptor Movie first, before seeing the series, as it was released on UK DVD (English dub-only) by Contender years before they released any of the series (which, like Digimon, never got beyond a few volumes).

    * the Eva movie DVDs were released while the series was still only available on VHS.

  10. But I also believe Disney is so successful with their princesses because they targeted girls, and then found there were boys interested in them too. To me it seemed anime was mostly just targeting the boys and ignoring the girls, and some could say it still is if any of the recent releases is anything to go by.

  11. Mohawk, that’s partially true but some of the shonen series have a large cast with female characters who are equally equally as important to any male characters. Though they can still be annoying and shallow. And it doesn’t even have to be a few female characters to make girls interest. In Death note, when L offered to dry Light from the downpour of rain they had both endured, I’m pretty sure that scene was only made with Bishonen and Yaoi enthusiasts in mind, it didn’t exist in the Manga 😉

  12. Sorry, while clearing up spam, I accidentally deleted the last comment on this thread, which was probably Shiroi Hane or Mohawk52 — nothing personal! You wouldn’t believe how much spam this blog gets… I guess it’s the title…

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