Image source: TVアニメ「魔法少女育成計画」 on Twitter
For decades, there has been something of a set formula for magical girls. Usually there has been a seemingly not so bright, not so strong, not so attentive girl who is granted magical powers by some cute character, by a secret backstory, or a combination of the two. This heroine goes from episode to episode saving the town, the country, or the world. Defeats are temporary and endings are happy. More recent series, however, have challenged these notions and critiqued the very nature of what it means to be a magical girl.
While there have been other critiques of the magical girl genre, and even within earlier series there has been critique of the tropes (like Pretty Soldier Sailor Moon, Magic Knights Rayearth, and Revolutionary Girl Utena), three recent magical girl series have really stood out. First amongst these series is the one most likely on any anime fan’s radar: Puella Magi Madoka Magica. However, two other series that follow in its footsteps are Yuki Yuna Is A Hero and Magical Girl Raising Project.
In past anime where defeats have been temporary and endings happy, rarely have they had much bloodshed or death (particularly in examples like Magical Angel Creamy Mami, Saint Tail, or Wedding Peach). Even Sailor Moon usually only has temporary death for the main characters—though that isn’t true for some of the side characters or recurring characters, of course. Traditionally, these series also have very clear boundaries between good and evil. While not all characters start evil or end evil, the evil characters are almost always villains for the length of the duration in the series. Heroes that become evil will always be turned back by the main character over either an episode or an arc.
You can say then that the characters of past magical girls have been, to some degree, fairly black and white. There is no doubting the righteousness of the girls’ causes, and there is no question that they have a noble purpose in what they do. There may be shades of gray with individual characters or episodic situations, but primarily, the story has very little moral ambiguity. It’s quite easy to root for the heroes (well, almost always, heroines) and not have to explore questions about their ethical fitness to be the good guys. It’s feel good entertainment where things always work out the way you feel they should.
Image source: 魔法少女まどか☆マギカ on Twitter
[The following overviews contain spoilers for Puella Magi Madoka Magica, Magical Girl Raising Project and Yuki Yuna Is A Hero.]
The recent examples of magical girl series could not be further from this “feel good,” “good guys win” formula. In the case of Puella Magi Madoka Magica and Magical Girl Raising Project, the magical girls are not precisely who they seem to be at first. In the case of Madoka, the villains of the series, the “witches” are themselves former magical girls. In fact, it is soon revealed that all the magical girls, in dealing with the consequences of their wishes and their duties, will eventually become witches.
The emotions of the magical girls are harvested by the “cute little mascot character” that offered them the contract to become magical girls in the first place. To Kyubey, the character in question, the girls are simply fuel for its fight against entropy. Kyubey lacks any sense of human ethics or morality—and doesn’t care about the pain it causes. There is no righteous cause, the magical girls aren’t good, the witches aren’t evil—and whether Kyubey is “evil” or not is an open-ended philosophical question.
Magical Girl Raising Project isn’t any clearer. Almost from the start we realize that not all magical girls are good. In fact, while our protagonist fits the formula for magical girls pretty well (indeed, this seems to be why she is chosen by the “cute character” Fav), most of the magical girls seem to be wholly unsuited to being magical girls. While protagonist Snow White is indeed able to make alliances with other “good” magical girls (Hardgore Alice, La Pucelle, Sister Nana, and Weiss Winterprison), these alliances are essentially ones in opposition to alliances by those wholly unsuitable to be magical girls due to past history, mental issues, or ethical character (most notably Ruler, Calamity Mary, and their minions). The most innocent and kind magical girl character, Tama, is on the wrong side, serving Ruler and later her successor, Swim Swim. The violence and death that eventually follows these “unsuitable” magical girls severely strains the idea that magical girls always win the day and fight for righteous causes.
While the magical girls are initially led to believe their positions exist to help people and do “good deeds” (however they define that for themselves), in truth the purpose is actually to eliminate all but the “most deserving” magical girl to be used for other further purposes by the “Magical World” Fav represents. There’s no explanation of why the “Magical World” needs to “raise” magical girls, and there is an implication that whatever the “Magical World’s” true motivations, Fav has gone far beyond his authority in allowing the magical girls to kill each other off.
Even if Fav has exceeded his authority and has met a well deserved grisly end by our “true” magical girls, Snow White and Ripple, it seems that the “Magical World” continues to make and use magical girls and isn’t particularly upset by the consequences of doing so. It may have lost control of Snow White and Ripple, but neither were created to actually make a difference for the human world (even if Snow White, especially, has chosen to do so). No glorious back story, no trustworthy cute character, and if there is any righteous cause it doesn’t appear until Snow White and Ripple create it for themselves.
Image source: 結城友奈は勇者である on Twitter
Yet another series to look and consider is Yuki Yuna Is A Hero. With recent revelations, we definitely have ourselves one hero who is not the formulaic protagonist. It just isn’t the title character, Yuna. Yuna herself pretty much fits the formula we would expect over the last thirty years of magical girl anime. While earnest, she isn’t particularly diligent, intelligent, or even competent in the beginning. Instead, she goes through a very stereotypical transformation as she becomes passionate about helping and protecting her friends. There are really two elements of the Yuki Yuna Is A Hero franchise that serve to critique the magical girl genre: the God-Tree-Emperor entity Shinju-sama, who has given the girls their powers (for a price), and the character of Washio Sumi/Togo Minori.
Let us consider Sumi first. Unlike, for example, Sailor Moon, Snow White, Card Captor Sakura, Creamy Mami, Fancy Lala, or even Yuna, she is a completely different personality type. She’s earnest, yes, but even as a sixth grader, she is intelligent, competent, driven, reliable, disciplined, and overtly religiously nationalistic. It’s very important to consider that last part of Sumi’s character, “religiously nationalistic.” This is perhaps the most important part of her character and how it connects to Shinju-sama and Sumi’s initial acceptance of her role, despite what it ends up costing her.
Under Shinju-sama, Shikoku, Japan is a theocratic state. Protecting Shikoku and protecting Shinju-sama are seen as the same cause (and indeed, at least perceived to be a righteous cause by Sumi and by the wider society) and it is a cause that Sumi believes in fervently. With the other characters, especially Yuna, this isn’t true. It’s not that Yuna doesn’t believe in Shinju-sama (she does) and it isn’t that she doesn’t believe in protecting Shikoku and Japan (she does). However, where Yuna sees protection of friends and family (viewing Shinju-sama and the Shinju imperialist dynasty as Obvious Facts of Existence), Sumi fights for protection of her state and her god (which are really just two aspects of the same concept anyway). Of course Sumi cares about her friends and family, but she is a “Warrior For The Imperial Way” in a way that Yuna just isn’t—something wholly unconventional in the magical girl genre.
Image source: 結城友奈は勇者である on Twitter
And what about that god, Shinju-sama? Is the cause righteous? Is good and evil at all clearly defined in Yuki Yuna is A Hero? Well this depends largely on where you look at the cause. We are not sure what kind of entity Shinju-sama is. Indeed, it is absolutely conceivable that Shinju-sama is morally corrupt and the invaders, known as the Vertex or Vertices, are morally superior. Perhaps they have come to track down Shinju for something horrible Shinju has done in the past. Perhaps neither the forces of the Vertex or Shinju are good or bad, just two sides of a conflict of which humanity has found itself squarely in the middle.
Yet, if we consider the cause of Yuna, then yes, it’s righteous. It’s well established in both seasons of the franchise that when the Vertices attack in the Tree World, any damage done by them (or by the carelessness of the girls) causes destruction to Shikoku. Left to proceed towards Shinju-sama, the Vertices will burn a path through Shikoku, and anything and anyone in the that path will be destroyed. As a practical matter, it’s not important why the Vertices are attacking Shikoku. It doesn’t matter if Shinju-sama is “good,” “bad” or “neutral.” What does matter is that Yuna and the other Heroes must protect their homes, their families, and their friends from an “enemy” that shows no concern for “innocents.” Certainly by Yuna’s reckoning, the cause is righteous, and I tend to agree with Yuna.
That said, what about Sumi’s cause? Is it righteous? If Shinju-sama is a benefactor and isn’t omnipotent and therefore truly requires, for some reason, teenage girls to serve as the defense of the humanity Shinju-sama has protected or served, then maybe it is indeed righteous. However, if Shinju-sama is indeed a powerful being or an actual god and has chosen to subject the girls to sacrifices, injuries, and death without any true necessity, then it doesn’t seem much to matter that Sumi believes in the religious righteousness of being in service to Shinju-sama by doing as commanded and fighting the Vertices. Most notably, it seems likely that a harsh critic of considering Sumi’s cause to be righteous would be Maruyama Masao, a Japanese political scholar who served in the Japanese army in Hiroshima, survived the nuclear blast, and became a leading critic of the prewar State Shinto ideology, calling it a “system of irresponsibility.” What is so notable about Sumi is how her faith and selfless religiously influenced devotion to duty are tested, and we have yet to see precisely how she may (or may not) come to reconcile the philosophical challenges to her view of her contributions.
Image source: TVアニメ「魔法少女育成計画」 on Twitter
Of these three series, how and to whom would I recommend them? It seems to me that if a viewer has enjoyed most of the magical girls series over the last three decades or so (Pretty Soldier Sailor Moon, Magica Knights Rayearth, Card Captor Sakura, and the even less morally ambiguous Magical Angel Creamy Mami or Wedding Peach), then they will probably enjoy Yuki Yuna Is A Hero because it is quite easy to understand the righteous nature of the practical cause. It’s a simply matter to root for Yuna and the other Heroes as they protect that which is important to them without being heavily invested in the question of Shinju-sama’s worthiness or the deep philosophical questions around the imperialist theocracy Shinju represents.
However, if a viewer had found many of the magical girl series produced in the past to be formulaic, uncomplicated, even childish or boring, then they might be much better served by seeing how those very aspects of the genre are critiqued by the moral and ethical ambiguities of Puella Magi Madoka Magica and Magical Girl Raising Project.
Puella Magi Madoka Magica can be viewed with English subtitles on Crunchyroll, and with English dialogue on Amazon Anime Strike.
The original Yuki Yuna Is A Hero can be watched on Crunchyroll and the Sumi Washio Chapter can be seen on Anime Strike.
Magical Girl Raising Project can be seen on Crunchyroll.