Since the first airing of a mahou shoujo (magical girl) anime, Mahoutsukai Sally in 1966, the genre has had its up and downs with its most recent success being the Puella Magi Madoka Magica series. Originally intended for young female audiences, the mahou shoujo genre has evolved over the years to cater to both genders, and in some cases even have a larger male than female following. Some mahou shoujo have achieved unimaginable popularity around the world whereas others have fallen into obscurity, so what are the elements of a mahou shoujo series that makes it so appealing, particularly the fighting-focused ones?
There are several elements that are present in many mahou shoujo series that involve fighting: attractive appearances, a source of magic, an animal sidekick, transformations, character growth, and an adherence to ideals. These elements alone, however, do not constitute all of the parts needed to create a successful mahou shoujo series. Tokyo Mew Mew, for example, had many of these elements but many people probably haven’t even heard of it. To determine what really makes a good mahou shoujo series, lets examine three titles: Sailor Moon, Cardcaptor Sakura, and Mahou Shoujo Lyrical Nanoha.
Usagi Tsukino, better known as Sailor Moon, is the most identifiable mahou shoujo in the world. At the height of her popularity in the mid-90’s you could find Sailor Moon merchandise in all major economies. She was so popular that people who didn’t know what anime was would refer to it as “Sailor Moon”. As with many people, I was swept up in the Sailor Moon craze, but what was it that made Sailor Moon so successful? Sailor Moon’s success is commonly attributed to the integration of the sentai and mahou shoujo genres. I remember local newspapers publishing their reactions to Sailor Moon and discussing how Usagi’s role as the main heroine fighting against evil helped to empower young girls while showing they could maintain their feminine side and keep a close group of friends. Newspapers also discussed how the Sailor Moon appealed to boys because of all of the action packed into the series and similarities to sentai series such as Power Rangers. Of course, the internet pointed out that people liked the series because of its sex appeal. Nothing in Sailor Moon was particularly unique, but the combination of different genres helped to create something new that appealed to a wider audience and introduced them to the good parts of mahou shoujo.
A few years after Sailor Moon, a bright-eyed young girl named Sakura Kinomoto from Cardcaptor Sakura (CCS) was making waves across Japan and the internet. In the late-90’s and early 00’s it wasn’t uncommon for an anime fan to stumble upon a pink-coloured CCS website or entire webrings dedicated to Sakura. Unlike Sailor Moon, however, CCS didn’t integrate the sentai genre, had less action, and didn’t use sex appeal. What made CCS stand out were the highly developed characters and deep story. Unlike the average mahou shoujo series that focused on battling monsters, CCS was almost more romance/drama than mahou shoujo. If you don’t believe me, just think of all of the romantic match-ups, both confirmed and implied: Sakura <-> Shaoran, Sakura -> Yukito, Meilin -> Shaoran, Tomoyo -> Sakura, Sakura’s friend <-> their teacher, and more. The amount of love arrows drawn between each of the characters is on the same level as a Japanese drama. What makes CCS so different is that it integrated that seamlessly into Sakura’s card capturing activities and developed her growth as a girl in parallel with her growth as a magician.
One of the more recent mahou shoujo successes is Mahou Shoujo Lyrical Nanoha. Nanoha Takamachi was orginally a very minor character in the Triangle Heart series, but her spin-off franchise has grown exponentially larger than Triangle Heart. While Sailor Moon and CCS had a mainly female audience, Nanoha seems to have a much larger male audience so where does Nanoha differ? It’s no secret that Nanoha was heavily influenced by mecha series such as Super Robot Wars and Gundam. Some of the characters in Nanoha are actually like little girl versions of some mecha, having similar designs and attacks. Mahou Shoujo Lyrical Nanoha can be thought of as a combination of sci-fi mecha with mahou shoujo, taking the best of both worlds.
After examining Sailor Moon, Cardcaptor Sakura, and Mahou Shoujo Lyrical Nanoha, what is it about them that makes them stand out from other mahou shoujo anime? In my view, it seems that a good portrayal of the main elements that make up the mahou shoujo genre seamlessly integrated with elements from another genre to create something most people haven’t seen before will make a series relatively popular. Think of a series like Puella Magi Madoka Magica, how many of you had seen a mahou shoujo x horror/suspense series before 2011? Of course, this doesn’t mean that series that follow the mahou shoujo only route are doomed to obscurity. Pretty Cure is an example of a series that sticks to the conventional definition of a mahou shoujo series and is still very popular, though mainly with the genre’s traditional audience of young girls. PreCure is proof that sticking to the basics can still produce a popular series.
So what do you guys think about mixing mahou shoujo with other genres? Would you have enjoyed Sailor Moon, Cardcaptor Sakura, or Mahou Shoujo Lyrical Nanoha if they excluded sentai, drama, and mecha elements? Personally I enjoy seeing different genres combined to create something new and exciting, but I can see why some people would like to stick with the traditional mahou shoujo.