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.