Being one of those who grew up on anime, one of my biggest and most secret fantasies was to become a magical girl. That’s right; minute long transformations with colourful lights, a cool signature outfit, speeches of love and justice and a cute animal sidekick as a guide.
While that’s how many of us would think of it, it’s a pretty generic view of what constitutes as a magical girl anime. There’s a lot more to the genre than cute young girls with powers, saving their loved ones, or even in most cases, the world, as different anime bring different and new elements that have made the magical girl genre so renowned today. So get your transformation items ready as we go through the most influential magical girl anime from its inception until today.
The first few magical girls
Due to the influence of the American TV series Bewitched, the first magical girl anime can seem pretty generic as it was similar to its American counterpart. Even so, a new genre was born with Sally the Witch (1966) being the first magical girl anime to grace the screens – in black and white. Like the American version, Sally used her powers to help her friends while trying to keep her identity as a witch a secret, which sparked the popularity of having girls being magical.
So while Sally started the genre, it was the anime Himitsu no Akko-chan (1969) that created the basis of what we know of magical girls today; where the protagonist is an average girl who is gifted with magical powers. In Akko-chan’s case, she was given a magical mirror that allowed her to transform into anyone or even anything she wanted. Until today, Himitsu no Akko-chan remains popular with two remakes and even a live-action movie out!
Another noteworthy anime is Majokko Megu-chan (1974) that looks generic enough, but it was the first anime to have a magical girl deal with dark themes that challenged the usually bubbly and fun magical girl protagonist. This anime had the protagonist Megu-chan deal with not only losing to bad guys, but themes of suicide as well.
But Majokko Megu-chan also brought in a particular trope that many of us who watch anime are familiar with. Due to the bad guys constantly wanting her to take her clothes off, the age of fanservice had arrived in the magical girl genre, and boys have now become a part of the audience to a genre that was once always catered to girls. But we girls don’t mind sharing, do we? After all, we want boys to see how kickass girls can be! But can fanservice really make the magical girl genre better?
The game changers
A lot of debate has been put into whether or not Cutie Honey (1973) should be in this list. After all, Cutie Honey was initially meant to be targeted towards girls where merchandise would include a “transforming doll”, but due to its usually male audience time-slot, it was made into a fanservice action anime to attract boys instead. The creator of Cutie Honey, Go Nagai himself is well known for his shonen oriented works, including being the creator of the Super Robot genre (Mazinger Z and Getter Robo) and the ecchi genre (Harenchi Gakuen) as well. So considering how the anime turned out, it isn’t surprising.
The anime follows main protagonist, Honey Kisaragi, who not only has the ability to transform into the heroine Cutie Honey, but into various other females as well. In factthe creator of Cutie Honey, was influenced by classical shows such as Bannai Tarao (where a detective could take on seven different faces) and Warrior of Love Rainbowman (one of the first few Superhero series in Japan), which explains Cutie Honey’s ability to transform as well as fight. Due to this heavy male influence, Cutie Honey was a pretty badass fighter which was rarely seen in most magical girl anime at the time. But with a male target audience, her transformations were flashy and had a lot of nudity. This is especially so in the 2004 OVA incarnation of the anime, Re: Cutie Honey.
While the nudity is questionable, Honey had a tendency of calling out her transformations and making a “love and justice” speech after it. Sounds familiar? That’s right. While not formally listed in the magical girl genre, Cutie Honey created a pattern for the Magical Warrior theme going on that many of us are familiar with. In fact Toei did eventually make a shojo version of Cutie Honey in 1997, called Cutie Honey Flash and that was also partially inspired by the popularity of one particular magical girl anime in the 90s. Yes, yes we’re getting there.
So while Cutie Honey may have made fighting magical girls appealing, it wasn’t targeted at girls and pandered to a man’s demand of fanservice. This is why when Sailor Moon (1992) stepped into the magical girl scene, it became a colossal hit and became the introduction of anime to many young girls growing up at the time (this writer included). Naoko Takeuchi, the creator of Sailor Moon, was adamant in making a magical warrior girls in outer space that catered to actual girls and their fantasies. This is why Sailor Moon’s accessories and staffs were made with girls in mind and the fanservice in Sailor Moon is limited, but it still succeeded in attracting a strong male fanbase anyways (it’s okay boys, we like to share).
Sailor Moon embodies a lot of what makes a magical girl so fascinating; from the transformations to the signature posing, the girls being soldiers (in spite of their short skirts!) and having them protect the world using magical attacks with magical wands and chants that young girls would use at the playgrounds too (come on, I can’t be the only one who did that!). And most importantly, having a group of different personality girls supporting each other through thick and thin.
Its popularity was so big, it influenced the creations of more magical girls that have a similar style. This can be seen in anime such as Pretty Cure (2004), Mermaid Melody Pichi Pichi Pitch (2003) and arguably Magic Knight Rayearth (1994), who in their own way made the magical girl genre endearing through strong female characters who may seem girly and emotional, but are driven by good morals and values. And until today, Sailor Moon related products are still in high demand, especially with the current anime remake, Sailor Moon Crystal.
Challenging the genre
With the popularity of magical girls becoming evident in the 90s, anime that challenged the genre were bound to make an appearance. Many may not see it this way, but Cardcaptor Sakura (1998) by CLAMP, the next most popular magical girl anime outside of Japan, did just that. For one thing, Sakura did not have any flashy transformations, but was instead given different outfits by her best friend, Tomoyo, who would also record Sakura’s battles. Tomoyo’s obsession could be seen as similar to what fans tend to do to magical girls. What’s more (spoiler alert for those who never watched this!), Sakura never really had a nemesis as all the challenges she faced was meant for her own growth to become stronger in her own way.
As the genre began to slow down in recent years with only the usual familiar magical girl shows and two or more titles to keep fans abated, Puella Magi Madoka Magica (2011) took the genre and pretty much deconstructed everything we knew and loved about the genre. Magical girls saving the world? Check. Cool transformations and powers? Check. Emotionally tortured by the true horror of what being a magical girl entails? Yikes. Many call it the Neon Genesis Evangelion to the magical girl genre, as it challenged viewers to truly consider what it takes to be a saviour. And magical girls are not an exception to the burdens of great powers means great responsibilities. And thanks to Madoka Magica, magical girls were in the spotlight once more.
Yes, throughout the years, magical girls have greatly evolved since its inception in the 1960s, and there are so many out there that I would have missed out a few good titles that were a landmark to the genre. If so, do share with me what you think! Which magical girl anime do you think made a significant impact on the genre? Or more importantly, to you?
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