I critique anime, games, movies, books, and more, getting to deeper levels of analysis and thought than many other critics on the web.
The Death of Shoujo - As We Know It
The term 'shoujo' is a label for any anime or manga aimed at a girl demographic. Within shoujo are sub-genres, like shoujo-ai (girl's love, or romance between girls), and magical girl. As I talked about in a previous article, the magical girl genre involves transforming schoolgirls of elementary to early high school age, with magical powers. So exactly what you'd expect from the name.
The first one was Sally the Witch, which aired on TV in Japan in 1966, and the most famous ones (in the U.S. at least) are Sailor Moon and Cardcaptor Sakura. These shows were all about saving the day, making friends, learning life lessons, and having cool powers. I say 'were' because, outside of reboots of older shows, nobody is making new magical girl shows anymore. You occasionally see the idea of magical girls pop up, but in darker, edgier anime, which are action and horror-oriented. They may have some tropes in common with the original magical girl genre, but only to deconstruct, parody, or subvert those tropes. This turns a genre once known for being saccharine, and appealing to young girls, into something action/horror-oriented, grimdark, and appealing to older male and female teenagers, and adults. Examples include Magical Girl Raising Project and Magical Site. So why did subversion, deconstruction, and a darker and edgier tone take over the magical girl genre? And is this a good thing or a bad thing?
Let's ask Kyubey.
The Influence of "Puella Magi Madoka Magica"
WARNING: Madoka Magica spoilers below!
Puella Magi Madoka Magica was an anime series, followed by the successful, critically acclaimed movie Rebellion, that fundamentally changed everyone's view of the magical girl genre, and shoujo anime, forever. Now, it was not the first shoujo anime to deal with sad themes or events. An early shoujo and historical fiction about Mary Antoinette, Rose of Versailles, had just as much tragedy in it as you would expect given the historical events it represents. Later shoujo works, like Princess Tutu and Revolutionary Girl Utena, also used tragedy, and questioned their own genre's tropes and clichés. Even Sailor Moon had some very tragic moments, and those characters really went through hell to earn their happy ending - every season, in fact.
So it's not correct to say that Puella Magi Madoka Magica did anything new in terms of introducing tragedy to the magical girl genre. What it did uniquely was that it made being a magical girl itself a hopeless, tragic condition. In Sailor Moon and Cardcapor Sakura and a dozen other shows, magical powers were more or less inherently good. Magic could be stolen or corrupted by evil, but good magic always triumphed over bad magic. Magic was tied to emotions, and pure emotions like altruism, friendship, and true love were better than evil emotions like greed, hatred, and possessive lust. So good magic always beat bad magic, good people always triumphed over evil people, and there were not inherent flaws in the use of magic. Magic was simply a tool, and its use reflected and magnified the emotional desires of its users. It is similar to the way paints can be used to make happy or dark pictures.
In Madoka, the magic system itself is the villain. A conflict is created, not between people who use magic for good vs. people who use it for evil, but between people who do not want to die from taking part in the magic system and the need to save the universe by maintaining such a system, even if it requires merciless cruelty, emotional manipulation, and concealing truths. This is how Madoka relates to the old idea of 'selling your soul'. In most magical girl shows, magic just happened. A girl holds the right Mineral MacGuffin, says the right magical words, and poof. Powers. And sometimes - a silky new costume.
But in Madoka, things get a little more complicated. The girls think that's the kind of story or world they're in, and expect magic to work like that. But it doesn't. They think the term 'soul gem' is just a name. But it turns out, those are literal houses for the girls' souls. Their bodies become invulnerable to damage, perhaps even replaceable, as long as their soul gems are not damaged. Also, their soul gems will become corrupted and darken in color as the girl becomes sadder and/or uses more magical energy. The only way to brighten a soul gem is to eat the 'grief seeds' which are left when a magical girl defeats a witch. Oh, and by the way, all magical girls become witches when their soul gem blackens completely.
This marvelous system, as cruel as it seems, is what allows humans to thrive and advance, and it also allows the universe to continue to exist. So, the story is a Cosmic Horror tale where girls take turns going mad from the revelation. But through time travel, Homura is able to help Madoka choose a path that rewrites reality to create a happy ending. It's not easy. And it's not fun for Homura, as we see her go mad herself in the sequel movie Rebellion. So this is not the first tragic shoujo or tragic magical girl series, but it is the first one where the magic system itself is suspicious and dark, and where the exposition fairy, or exposition furry character cannot be trusted. It's also a magical system strikingly similar to the 'equivalent exchange' law in alchemy in Fullmetal Alchemist. Both are attempts by writers to play down the fantastical, whimsical nature of magic in other stories by making hard magic systems that adhere to very specific rules, the way things like electricity do in the real world. This creates a story that feels more realistic, even if that can sometimes be depressing because it is not unlimited and cannot solve everything.
What Forced the Genre to Get Darker?
It's easy to blame Madoka, and simply say that show was the harbinger of a new era of magical girl shows.
But the theory of media I believe in is that media is not a conspiracy. It's not top-down. Changes in the kind of media produced and the kind of stories we tell almost always have to do with changes in what the buying public wants. And then storytellers simply create art and literature that reflects what the people want.
The world that we live in today is not the same world it was in the 1990s. In the 2000s, we saw September 11, the rise of international terrorism, the end of the economic prosperity of previous decades, a housing crisis, and more fears over global environmental crises. Evangelion, Revolutionary Girl Utena, Puella Magi Madoka Magica, Death Note, and Kill La Kill are just a few examples of how the encroaching global darkness on what had been a previously sunny world, at least in the richer countries, changed anime. Oh sure, dark or edgy anime existed prior to this. But it was more niche and less mainstream. Mainstream anime was brighter in tone. Anime we remember now as good from the past, like Akira, are retroactive hits, which flopped at the time. People's perceptions changed, and then what they considered good about the past also changed.
When times get harder, people start to become more cynical and critical. In good times, you see people liking black and white morality, power fantasies about defeating some inhuman evil entity and earning some kind of love interest's favor. People want cuteness, fantasy worlds where bad things don't happen, and when they do, the heroes are there to save the day, making everything right at the end. In the 2000s, as we saw as I mentioned, the three horsemen of economic despair, environmental woes, and war in the Middle East appear on the scene, we saw a darker turn for all mass media storytelling. This included literature, music, comic books, movies, and anime. Bleak was in, and saccharine was out unless you wanted to parody it. South Park and Family Guy in Western Animation did just that, taking shots at the cheerfulness of pop culture past. Superheroes went from being morally infallible good guys to being morally flawed, questionable human beings who made mistakes, as Batman became in the popular film The Dark Knight. This trend is still continuing, for example, The Last Jedi is a critical, cynical look at the moral binary of the old Star Wars trilogy, and Avengers: Infinity Wars features a bleak ending and humanized villain.
When Mami was decapitated in the third episode of Puella Magi Madoka Magica, it sent a clear message: this will happen to magical girl shows too, even though they of all genres are known most for idealism. So does the change break the genre?
Is the Magical Girl Genre Broken Forever?
Well, I mentioned before that all fiction got darker around the time after various events. This included:
- The Columbine shooting
- The 24-hour news cycle, and later the internet, making us more aware of global problems,
- 9/11, and the ensuing 'war on terror' that the West is still fighting,
- Becoming aware of global climate change, and the problems it may cause, a
- Economic downturns; we still fear losing our jobs to automation and outsourcing, and the costs of healthcare, housing, and so on are still high.
- In Japan, the worries are over a low birth rate, and an increase in social hermits who don't work and live only to consume anime and video games.
So it makes perfect sense that, as reality becomes a bit more cloudy, so do the kind of stories people want to hear, and what they want to create.
But it's sad to think that nobody is producing a new light-hearted magical girl show. That all we're going to see of the genre is deconstruction, darker-toned versions, and parodies. There have been nostalgia reboots of the old shows, if they were popular enough, but any new show with magical girls has this air of bleakness and inescapable, inevitable pain that old magical girl shows did not have.
Maybe as the world changed, the way we see magic in fiction also changed. Maybe we used to see magic similarly to how we see electricity. Electricity was once seen as a marvel for what it made possible. Now, all we see are the darker sides of producing and using it; pollution, child labor, exploitation, light pollution, nuclear accidents, and so on. So now, fiction focuses mainly on the darker sides of using magic.
But what I worry about is that nobody seems interested in making anything new and smart for little girls. They don't seem to be an important demographic in anime anymore. Sailor Moon Crystal was not trying to appeal to little girls, it was trying to appeal to women my age (25-35) who were already fans of Sailor Moon as a franchise. Similarly, in Western Animation, My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic quickly became popular with adults, and their fandom of the show quickly overshadowed the idea that the show was for little girls.
Is nothing made for little girls anymore? Or have we decided to stop sheltering the 'innocence' of little girls, acknowledging that even they are not stupid, and can enjoy things with more mature and morally complex plots? I don't know for sure.
I'll just have to cling to my ancient Hello Kitty DVDs, and the hope that someday I'll see a new magical girl show that isn't just another f*cking psychological horror in lipstick. But I am not holding my breath.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2018 Rachael Lefler
Rachael Lefler (author) from Illinois on October 31, 2019:
Ironically, Steven Universe is kind of the answer to many of these concerns, although it's a western show... I wonder when we'll see the next great original shoujo?
Oof on October 31, 2019:
Oof... Really wish I would have stopped reading before the last 3 paragraphs. Was very well written and had a very good point up until then.
Pixie Nobara on May 18, 2019:
What about Pretty Cure?
Edymnion on May 14, 2019:
While the trend is going that way, I would disagree that no new lighthearted and "pure" ones are being made. In the West, you need look no further than Steven Universe. First half of season 1 is hard to get through, but once you do, whoo boy! Sure, it has dark tones to it, but the underlying message never falters. Love, friendship, and respect win the day. And when force is required? There's an entire episode of the main character basically having to overcome the PTSD of the bad things he had to do.
Steven Universe is basically a love letter to the genre, and its an amazing ride.
Nanully on March 14, 2019:
Totally agree!!! Also Yuri relationships apparently every new "dark" mahou shojo has two female lovers now just because. The main female heroine can't fall for a boy anymore who loves, respects, and supports her because that wouldn't rake in the otaku numbers.
Willdiealone on September 01, 2018:
You have just blew my mind