6 Essential Stories for Understanding the Modern Magical Girl Genre

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My article “The Influence of the Magical Girl Genre on Modern Western Animation” revealed how Japanese tales of girls magically transforming to kick butt with the help of pretty baubles are having a big impact on the cartoons on this side of the pond. But what’s the big deal about magical girls and how can you learn more about them? Well, these six essential shows are a solid introduction to the magical girl genre today. 

  1. Sailor Moon

    The magical girl genre existed long before Sailor Moon, but most of the stories were focused on girls using their magical powers to deal with day-to-day situations, rather than fight evil. Sailor Moon combined the magical girl genre with the sentai genre (a Japanese genre focusing on a team of multicolored superheroes, think Power Rangers).

    The 1992 story focused on crybaby 14-year-old Usagi Tsukino, who is bestowed with a special mission as the hero Sailor Moon. She must find her fellow soldiers, fight monsters and protect a mysterious princess. Viewers watch her grow from a trembling little girl to a brave and compassionate soldier who takes responsibility and takes on her destiny. The story was a big hit and as a result, most of the magical girl shows since then have been focused on girl warriors.

    Sailor Moon’s impact on anime and manga in general was also huge. Scholar Nishimura Mari credits Sailor Moon with helping to remove constraints against female characters in action manga and also asserts that the popularity of the lesbian characters in Sailor Moon encouraged writers to craft more stories examining lesbian love. Sailor Moon broke ground in a lot of ways and thanks to its wide variety of dynamic and powerful women, strong focus on complicated female relationships, colorful villains and occasionally striking visuals, it remains a beloved franchise even today.

    Most geeks have at least heard of Sailor Moon, but many are unaware of just how huge the franchise is. There are several different versions of the story. 

    First published in 1992, the manga has a much tighter story than the anime and is often more brutal and less goofy. There’s a lot of storylines that didn’t make it into the anime as well. The entire series has recently been reprinted by Viz media.

    The 1993-1996 anime may be a lot to get through at 200 episodes and is sometimes of uneven quality, but the show is a classic that did a great job developing the relationships between the Sailor Soldiers and giving the soldiers besides Usagi a chance to shine, something the manga was a little shaky on. Viz is currently rereleasing the entire series on Hulu and through DVD.

    The 49-episode live-action series, Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon, was released in 2003. Once you get past the low-budget special effects and often silly-looking fights, the series has some of the most phenomenal character work and intense, emotional storylines in the franchise. It’s well worth your time. Find out more information on this website.

    The musicals are a lot of fun, featuring great songs, interesting costumes and a lot of cool character stuff. There are a lot of them, with roughly 29 musicals from 1993 to 2005. Here is a pretty good guide for them all.

    If that’s still too much to deal with, you’re in luck, because the musicals restarted in 2013 and you can watch the new ones fresh, without needing to know about the previous ones. The first new musical was La Reconquista, the second was Petite Etrangere and the third, Un Nouveau Voyage, is coming later this month. These musicals have phenomenal casting, gorgeous costumes and the Petite Etrangere is honestly my favorite take on Sailor Moon’s second story arc. Find out more about them here, here and here.  

    Finally, we have Sailor Moon Crystal, an anime released in 2014 that follows the manga more closely. To be honest, this is my least favorite iteration of the series- it doesn’t bring much new to the table, it adds a bunch of plot-holes to the old story and the animation is often pretty bad. It does have some good moments, though, and you can check it out on Crunchyroll and Hulu. 

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  2. Cardcaptor Sakura

    After Sailor Moon, Cardcaptor Sakura is probably the most well-known magical girl show in the West. Created by the four woman team who call themselves CLAMP, the anime and manga focus on a Sakura Kinomoto, a fourth grader tasked who, after opening an enchanted book of cards, accidentally unleashes a variety of creatures with her latent magical powers. Now she must return them to their respective cards and discover her own magical destiny in the process.

    The manga is most a more condensed version of the anime, but some differing plot elements and very pretty art make it worth checking out. Dark Horse has recently released the whole thing. However, it should be warned that a teacher promising to marry a ten-year-old student when she grows up is depicted as totally okay in one chapter (this was left out of the anime).

    The 72 episode anime is far more in depth and contains much more character development and backstory. It was released recently by NIS America and can also be viewed on Crunchyroll. Find additional content warnings and a more in-depth overview of the series here

    Card Captor Sakura is a gentle sweet, story that excels in slow and careful relationship building- the love the characters have for each other is heartwarming. It should be noted that there are several LGB characters, who are treated with love and acceptance, due to CLAMP’s desire to make a story sexual minorities would feel included in. All of the characters mature tremendously in a slow-paced, natural way. CCS is one of the best examples of a well-done magical slice-of-life story and its delicate, beautiful artwork was influenced the magical girl shows that followed it.

  3. Princess Tutu

    Princess Tutu is a 26-episode original anime that was released in 2005. A duck falls in love with a prince who escaped from the storybook he was in and destroyed his heart in order to save the world from a demonic raven. As a result, the prince can no longer feel emotion. The duck is granted human form by a mysterious man and also given the ability to transform into Princess Tutu, a magical ballerina who can collect scattered pieces of the prince’s heart and restore his emotions to him (and also save him from the constant scrapes he seems to get in). But there’s a lot more to this story…

    Princess Tutu is an incredibly smart show. It draws heavily from Swan Lake and other classical ballet, but also intensely examines fairy tales and the nature of storytelling itself.  If you like stories that subvert and mess around with fairy tale tropes and if you like seeing stuff get meta, this is the show for you. It features features an array of complex and conflicted characters trapped in a twisted narrative, struggling against the fairy tale archetypes they have been forced into. Each of them undergo a journey and change immensely. 

    The show is simultaneously dark, bright, intense, funny, bittersweet and optimistic. It demonstrates intelligent magical girl shows can be, putting its own twist on the classics and asking questions like: is tragedy really better and more compelling than happiness? Is self-sacrifice really something to aspire to? And should a “swan princess” be content with her role?

    The way the characters communicate through dance is also a really unique element- if you love ballet, you’ll love this show. If you love tightly woven, complex stories, you’ll love this show. It’s definitely my favorite take on Swan Lake.

    The show is available as a complete DVD set from AEsir holdings and is also on Hulu.

  4. Magic Knight Rayearth

    Magic Knight Rayearth is another story by CLAMP and the anime and manga focus on the stories of three girls who get transported to a mystical land and are tasked with saving it.

    Rayearth is notable because it is the first manga that combines the magical girl genre with the mecha genre. The three girls transform to gain elemental magical abilities and have a cute mascot, but they also end up piloting giant robots to save the world. Rayearth also draws a lot from fantasy RPGS and one of the girls is even quick to note that their journey across this enchanted land is laid out like a traditional RPG “quest”.

    What comes out from this genre mishmash is an innovative story full of dark twists and turns. There are even some pretty intense questions about the importance of free will and whether self-sacrifice is a wholly positive thing. The manga is the original story and is available in two omnibuses from Dark Horse. The anime expands on parts of the story, but it also changes some things. It’s available on Hulu and DVD.

  5. Puella Magi Madoka Magica

    Madoka Magica is a 12-episode original anime that presents a world where a magical being named Kyubi has the ability to grant a girl any one wish, if she agrees to become a magical warrior who fights witches in return.  Madoka, a girl who never felts she was anything special, is enamored with the idea of becoming one of these warriors, but the world of magical girls is full of complication and conflict.

    Knowing about Madoka Magica is essential to understanding the modern magical girl genre because due to its popularity, most mg stories coming out today imitate this show. All the magical girl shows I have listed so far were mainly aimed at young girls, but Madoka was marketed to adult men. In addition, Madoka is much gorier than the traditional magical girl show and contains many more horror elements.  It’s easy to see why it captured so many- it’s an evocative, twisty story with distinctive characters and many dramatic moments. There’s a lot of striking animation, especially in the “worlds” the witches inhabit, which are represented by a really cool paper-cutout collage effect.

    Madoka’s impact on the genre may not really be a positive, though. Partially due to the influence of this anime, the magical girl genre has been taken over by bloody, grim shows aimed to satisfy young men. It’s debatable whether Madoka itself qualifies as “torture-porn”, but its less-sleek imitators verge on this territory, focusing on cutesy teenage girls suffering gratuitously. Madoka itself wasn’t overtly fan service-heavy, but for its imitators tend to objectify girls in disturbing ways (like say, a girl being suggestively tied up during her transformation sequence).

    So, for better or worse, you need to see Madoka to understand magic girls today. It’s available at Funimation.

  6. Precure

    It’s not well-known in the west, but Precure is actually the biggest powerhouse magical girl franchise currently going in Japan right now. By the same studio as Sailor Moon, a new Precure anime has been coming out every year since 2003, meaning there are over 12 different Precure anime now. They all focus on a team of magical girls fighting monsters and saving the day with the power of friendship

    However, with the exception of a couple sequel season, every iteration of Precure has nothing to do with the iterations that preceded it. So for instance, Smile Precure is set in a different universe than Suite Precure and also focuses on different characters. You can watch either of them without any previous knowledge of other series. A guide to all the different series is available here.

    Precure is notable for being one of the few magical girl anime still aimed at young girls in the post Madoka era. It’s very specifically for children, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth a watch. Precure really has some great fight scenes, with a heavier emphasis on physical combat than a lot of magical girl shows. Those girls can really brawl. It’s also got some good animation and plenty of loveable characters.

    A complete guide to the various series is available here. Fresh Precure is my favorite series of the ones I’ve watched. Despite some goofiness and sometimes-lacking animation, it contains really solid character and relationship development, a great redemption arc for one of the villains and a foray into an Orwellian dystopia. Heartcatch Precure is the fan favorite series since it has a really unique animation style, great fight scenes and gets a little darker than the others at points (it has permanent deaths). The first series is available on Hulu.