The magical girl subgenre of fantasy isn’t exactly exclusive to anime, but it is the medium where it was created and continues to find most of its popularity. You hear “magical girls” and most people will instantly think back to the likes of Sailor Moon, but in actuality the genre has been around since the the ’50s and only expanded from there. So how did we end up in a situation where a genre once intended for young girls has now become the domain of adults? When did we go from Sailor Moon to Madoka Magica?
The early entries in the magical girl genre were certainly the kind of shows one would expect. They were anime about young girls who used their (magical) powers to fight evil or have fun adventures. The anime sought to appeal to young girls by casting them as the protagonists of these stories, which also dealt with themes and subjects more appealing to a young, female audience. While boys could potentially enjoy these shows as well, it’s unlikely any of these anime held mass appeal among adolescents and adults in the same way we see today.
This began to slowly shift, but I’ll be the first to admit that I haven’t seen every anime in this sub-genre. There are literally shows in here that were created before even my parents were born and many of the older ones I did try to watch were difficult to find and oftentimes lacked quality subtitles. For a (slightly obsessive) look into each and every show out there and how these changed the mahou shoujo meta, I recommend checking out the Mahou Profile series by YouTuber ErynCerise. I love all my readers, but I am not watching 199 episodes of Himitsu no Akko-chan for y’all.
Based on all the shows I did see, these are the conclusions I was able to draw and which I believe were the cause behind the steady shift of the genre towards a mixed audience.
Magical girls became sexy
This goes without saying. Everything created in this world, no matter how pure and well-intended, will invariably fall prey to the hungering perverts that dwell among us. Seeing the potential in a genre about costumed girls fighting evil and sensing the changing times within society, elite pervert Go Nagai seized the initiative and gave us Cutie Honey in 1973.
It was a manga/anime about a flirtatious, young beauty called Honey whose father is one day murdered. In his final message, he reveals that Honey is actually an android with advanced combat capabilities and the ability to transform into different personas. With these powers, she takes on the evil Panther Claw syndicate who was responsible for the murder.
Honey was iconic for the changing times within Japan and the rest of the world. She was heroic and powerful, but also sexy and daring, especially in her choice of outfits and in her relationship with her allies. While the rest of the anime scene took a while to catch up with Nagai, we started to see magical girls designs shift even further in the ’80s and ’90s, best illustrated in 1991’s Otaku no Video, where the protagonists decide to conquer the anime scene by creating a sexy magical girl character. These folks understood where the future was headed, I tell you.
As animation improved and new artstyles became popular, the lines between appealing character design for different demographics started to blur further, much to the pleasure of the perverts and the new generation of elite perverts who make doujinshi.
Magical girls became accessible
Growing up in the ’90s, everybody damn well knew every boy was watching girly shows on the side. Whether it was Cardcaptor Sakura and Sailor Moon or western cartoons like Totaly Spies and later Winx Club, boys were eagerly watching them alongside their little sisters, even if they wouldn’t admit so to their friends.
The episodic nature of many anime from this era made it easy to get into any show with even just rudimentary understanding of its plot, which is incidentally also what made it easy for licensing companies to cut these shows up like a fishmonger with anger management issues. And those who dabbled in a little bit of Cardcaptor Sakura, Mew Mew Power, or Ojamajo Doremi would then discover that, somewhere along the lines, these shows had gotten legitimately interesting.
The storylines for these shows dealt with genocidal aliens, battles with magical monsters, or a group of girls whisked away to become warriors in a fantasy realm. Boys proved more than willing to put up with some romantic themes and other girly nonsense to watch these kind of stories, which proved not to be too different from male-oriented shows of the time. In many ways, they might even have been better.
This trend continued into the new millennium, which is where a third reason soon entered the picture.
Magical girls became kick-ass
The mid-2000s is where I feel magical girl shows began to more deliberately target a male audience and that necessitated an upgrade in the action scenes. I mean, I love me some Cardcaptor Sakura, but have you seen the girls in Lyrical Nanoha fight? They are going to laser each into the afterlife and they’re taking entire cities down with them.
Magical attacks got more explosive and colorful, outfits got cooler, and magical girls also learned to master the arts of melee combat. While I have yet to see it myself, I encourage any detractor of magical girl anime to look up gifs of the fight scenes in Precure. That series is blowing many a typical shounen anime out of the water. While shows of that caliber weren’t overly common, we were beginning to see a greater variety in what a mahou shoujo anime could be. Even those who missed out on the explosive growth of the genre in the ’90s were paying attention now.
After entering the 2010s, action scenes continued to improve with newcomers like Madoka Magica and Kill la Kill. At the same time, older series like Precure continued to grow in popularity and the Nanoha franchise launched its Vivid saga as well as a new line of movies, both of which upped the visual fidelity and have a greater focus on combat.
Magical girls became dark
One can summarize the reception of Madoka Magica among western reviewers in one word: “deconstruction”. Everybody was talking about this amazing, “dark” take on magical girl anime and how this changed the genre forever. They were both kind of right and kind of wrong.
Many a mahou shoujo anime had featured darker storylines before, most notably Dai Mahou Touge, better known as Magical Witch Punie-chan. Punie’s plot was initially similar to Majokko Megu-chan, starring a princess of a magical kingdom who goes to Earth as part of her education. The twist is that Punie’s world is actually a fascist dictatorship and Punie herself is an aggressive psychopath who maintains a facade of sweetness. An act she’ll gladly drop at any time to violently deal with anything or anybody who annoys her. Even way before that, one could reasonably argue that the story of Revolutionary Girl Utena was similarly playing around with the idea of how far a magical girl anime could go and what it’s core elements are even supposed to be.
Madoka Magica wasn’t the first “dark” magical girl show or the first to deconstruct the genre, but it certainly popularized doing it. It opened the floodgates to a new wave of seinen mahou shoujo series, which dared to explore new grounds and emotions.
Magical girls remained pure
So much has changed since those early days in which the genre was founded, but despite all of the above, there are core parts of the mahou shoujo identity that remain strong to this very day.
Magical girl series that appeal to young girls and a handful of shoujo-aficionados aren’t extinct by a long shot; they are still making these as if the genre had never really changed and it’s still great stuff. This includes new series like Jewelpet, but also familiar faces like Sailor Moon Crystal and Cardcaptor Sakura‘s Clear Card arc.
While these shows are in the minority today, the “modern” interpretation of the genre still has those qualities that drew in young girls to begin with. This is what surprised me in the Precure series. I always thought those were just pure shoujo anime until somebody sat me down with some of his favorite fight scenes throughout that series. Granted, the overly-grimdark entries like Mahou Shoujo Site and Magical Girls Raising Project are exceptions here, but these tend to receive mixed-to-poor receptions anyway.
And that makes sense, doesn’t it? There’s no reason why shoujo series should have bad fight scenes, or unexciting stories, or plain, unsexy characters. Taken to certain extremes it will lose a lot of that female audience, but in moderation it can work very well for both genders. My sister grew up watching Winx Club and then later really enjoyed Madoka Magica. A small sample size, but I am not about to go around asking little girls to watch anime with me.
If you did grow up watching or reading the magical girl series of old, how did you experience the recent evolutions of the genre? Do you still enjoy them as much as back in the day or have they lost your interest?