I don’t think there’s a subsection of anime more misunderstood than Magical Girl anime. It begs the question of whether it should even be considered a subsection, genre etc.
First of all, what is a Magical Girl anime?
Ah, I see where the problem is.
The question of what exactly *is* a Magical Girl anime is a complicated one. It’s a question which you can ask a hundred different people, and probably get a hundred different answers from. Do you look at it through the lens of a traditional genre means, wherein it must hit a particular number of story beats and character traits in order to be classified as one. This would be more align with classic Toei children’s shows such as Sailor Moon and Precure. Or do you define it in an aesthetic sense? Many shows have henshins and designs which are heavily drawn from the whimsical and traditional magic. Little Witch Academia is one that immediately springs to mind. A show based in fantasy, revolves around magic and features a predominantly female cast. Yet, a show which many people I find struggle to classify as a Magical Girl anime.
Personally I think genre arbiters are arbitrary. I think their primary use is to help understand what we engage with on a base level. Once they go into the territory of saying how we *define* shows is where things get messy really quickly.
Even then, what we collectively believe to be the base understanding of what a Magical Girl anime is seems to be a point of much contention. Recently there was an article published on Polygon titled:
Gun Gale Online challenges the tradition of ‘magical girl’ anime through gunplay
Within the article, it brings up a very brief history of Magical Girl shows. It’s a history presented in a “connect the dots” fashion, drawing a straight line between the airing of notable shows without considering wider artistic and societal contexts which may contribute to the shows mentioned. It’s not something that’s particularly *essential* per say, but I think it shows why the writer came to the conclusion that Gun Gale Online is something that’s “bucking the trend”.
Later on when discussing Gun Gale Online itself, it brings up many of the character relationships, stories and how they develop over time. There are many parallels drawn between it and other shows, but most particular Sailor Moon. As an example, the shift from the real world to virtual reality is presented as something similar to the henshins of Sailor Moon.
Now, much like many others I find the comparison of Gun Gale Online to Magical Girl anime to be flimsy at best. I definitely don’t believe it’s trying to be a Magical Girl anime, or that it was ever a frame of reference in the production of the show.
However I find the article interesting from the angle that it highlights that there is no communal acceptance of what a Magical Girl anime is. It was an article that was largely met with bemusement, wondering how anyone could perceive GGO to be a Magical Girl anime. Yet, the writer clearly saw something within it. As previously stated, many people define Magical Girl anime through the traditional story and characters. Young girls growing up, finding themselves and fighting against the odds. The writer seems to ascribe to this belief, and thus categorise GGO as such.
I think the main problem is that Magical Girl is viewed in such narrow lenses. Not of the shows themselves, but the type of anime that’s focused on in the West. Anime that’s discussed in the West is almost entirely made up of late night TV anime. They’re the shows that get the promotion, and the ones that get the simulcasts on services such as Crunchyroll.
It’s why I believe the term ‘Dark Magical Girl’ has risen to prominence. It’s a term used to describe Magical Girl anime with allegedly darker tones and stories, risen to prominence after the airing of Madoka Magica. Madoka is one of the most critically acclaimed anime of the 2010s, citing back to it is inevitable and completely justified. It’s often seen as the precursor to shows such as Magical Girl Raising Project and Mahou Shoujo Sites.
The comparisons though I don’t believe are justified at all. Madoka Magica fits in very well within the framework of Magical Girl anime, both aesthetically and the stories it tells. MGRP and Mahou Shoujo Site on the other hand I find more akin to the many schlock OVAs you’d find knocking around in the 80s. Works that are interested in being as exploitative as possible, both within its content and presentation. What framework it uses doesn’t really matter, they’re only really a springboard for the aforementioned exploitation.
And that’s fine. These works are allowed to exist, however I don’t believe their goals are to be Magical Girl and shouldn’t be considered as such. They come from fundamentally different backgrounds.
The problem comes from many people in the West thinking these are the *only* types of Magical Girl anime to exist anymore. That these works have taken away that was once something empowering and turned it into crass exploitation. This couldn’t be further from the truth, the problem here is that people only see the late-night TV works of anime.
That isn’t the only anime that exists. There’s plenty of daytime shows, primarily aimed for children also airing. They’re some of the biggest anime in Japan, but I couldn’t blame anyone who only engages within the Western community for not knowing so. The disparity between how much attention they get compared to how big they are is huge.
But to understand Magical Girl, for there to be a collective base understanding, it’s vital that these shows aren’t forgotten about. It’s where Magical Girl was birthed, raised and continues to thrive to this day. The currently airing Hugtto Precure is receiving a lot of acclaim for tackling topics rarely seen in Japanese media itself, let alone children’s anime.
The concerns that these late night shows have taken something away, that they’re the new trend, is something that I can’t help but see as demonstrably false. People have to widen their view to understand Magical Girl anime, because if anything the late night shows that are much scorned upon and talked about are the ones following rather than at the forefront.