#1 Cute girls, big lasers
If you are used to mahou shoujo being about cuddly characters defeating villains with cutesy spells and the power of love, then the Nanoha franchise is an interesting alternative. Magic in this world exists for the simple purpose of blasting shit into oblivion. A very useful power to have indeed, as a lot of shit needs blasting around these parts.
It’s a show that has an ensemble cute girls (and some guys as well!) that go into combat with magic-infused swords, polearms, bows, and sometimes even bare fists. It’s the mahou shoujo alternative to Dragon Ball Z. People fly around in the sky, smash opponents through scenery and buildings, while blasting each other with laser beams that wipe out entire cities in the process. It’s destructive and highly cathartic to watch. Something which also helps set the series apart from its various competitors in the magical girl genre.
#2 The timeframe
Despite launching a franchise I rank among my favorites, I don’t actually think Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha the TV show is exceptionally good. It’s something I enjoyed watching and, by the end, I at least liked the characters enough to want to see more. What then makes them interesting is that you get to watch these characters grow for years to come.
The series spans an unusually large frame of time for an anime series. Our original adventure introduces us to Nanoha, a girl from Earth who becomes embroiled in an intergalactic conflict after discovering that she has magical talents. She joins a military organization known as the Time-Space Administration Bureau and—across the sequels that follow—we get to see her pursue a career, move to a different world entirely, and become a mother. Among many other achievements.
The cast of young mages we were first introduced to in 2004 have all grown up. Nanoha herself startes her adventure at the age of 9, but is now in her mid-twenties as of the most recent stories. The very point of ViVid is that these heroes of previous seasons are now all supporting their kids and students, who live in the world that the original cast helped create and protect. Individually the stories are not super impressive. Added together, they form an amazing saga.
#3 Different seasons bring different flavors
Just like how the characters change over time, so too does the writer who created them. Masaki Tsuzuki is an interesting author and one who is not exactly attached to consistency. The result is that all of the Nanoha media has its own themes and feel to it.
The first two seasons are familiar magical girl content. They focus on a young Nanoha setting out on a magical quest alongside her friends. These stories are centered around rivalries. The first season pits Nanoha against fellow magical girl Fate, while the second season has the two of them battle against The Wolkenritter. Then the third season, StrikerS, does more with its scifi setting. It takes the story away from Earth and adds political and ethical questions into the mix. ViVid, then, is a lighthearted story about the next generation of characters taking up martial arts as a sports activity to partake in a tournament.
Sure, sometimes you get something like Nanoha Force that ends up on permanent hiatus because it fucking suck. Overall, however, the diversity makes this series unique and allows its characters to shine in a variety of different storylines.
#4 The movies
Following the success of the first three seasons, the franchise went through a bit of a break. We wouldn’t see a fourth season until 2015—8 years later. While a lot of side-stuff was in the works in the shape of manga, novels, and drama CDs, it left people waiting for the next big thing. Then, in 2010, we got the remake movies.
I mentioned before that I am not that fond of the first season and can see a lot of its flaws. The first and second movie take their respective seasons and upgrade them in many ways. The pacing is much improved and the quality of the animation is many times higher than it used to be. It also tackles the stories in different ways, bringing in some alterations while staying faithful to the overall storyline and characters. Both movies are pretty damn good. I’d recommend the first one over the first season especially if you are looking to catch up on the franchise.
The movies have since continued and are now adapting an alternate storyline. One that follows the events of the PSP-based fighting games. I actually played these games and, at the time, had to make some best guesses as to what the story was about. This made it pretty cool that we now have new movies coming out that finally bring this part of the series to an English audience.
#5 Emotional character arcs
The ways of Masaki Tsuzuki are strange and incomprehensible. Sometimes he writes excellent characters with memorable storylines and emotional growth, sometimes he figures 15 is an acceptable number of villains for a season. While the flaws in his writing are often obvious, I also admire just how great some of his best stories turn out to be.
Fate Testarossa and the situation with her mother, the desperate quest of the Wolkenritter, watching Vivio grow up. Almost every season has highlights like these that add an emotional punch to the story. One that shines particularly when those emotions translate directly into high-stakes fight scenes. I still sometimes watch the hospital rooftop scene from A’s or Nanoha’s battle to rescue Vivio, just because the emotional weight of those scenes gives me goosebumps every time.
Even when it doesn’t involve combat, the Nanoha series can be a real tearjerker from time to time. Fate’s struggles stand out in particular, especially in the movies where they added a bunch of extra scenes.