Magical Girls and Their Historical Origins
Magical girls, or "mahou shoujo", are a subgenre of anime featuring girls who use magic. The target audience for these shows is, obviously, young girls. The girls usually have pure hearts, kind souls, and powers that come from that purity and sweetness. Sometimes, like in Sailor Moon, they lead a team of fellow magical girls, other times, they work alone or in pairs. They usually continue going to school even after they receive their powers, fighting to save the world in secret by night and being a diligent student by day. These shows often appeal to girls who get bullied and wish they had magical powers in order to defend themselves or get back at the bullies.
Features of a Magical Girl Show
Obviously, not every show with a girl character who can use magic is a "magical girl" show. Usually, (but there are plenty of subversions) Magical Girl shows have:
- The main character is pure and kind-hearted.
- There is a cute mascot who is usually a talking animal.
- Most characters are girls and women. A boy may be a love interest or friend, but he probably won't end up having his own magical powers.
- There will be magical costume changes. And they will be shiny.
- The girl usually calls her attacks out loud.
- The villains are usually pretty obviously evil.
- There is almost always an improbable bending of physics, such as floating, time travel, leaping, traveling into dreams, the magic attacks themselves, etc. Magical Girl shows: where the powers are made up and the physics doesn't matter.
- Life lessons are learned at the end of each episode or story arc, usually about themes relevant to young girls' lives. The Power of Friendship is often taken up to eleven.
Some examples of the genre include, but are not limited to:
- Sailor Moon
- Cardcaptor Sakura
- Cutey Honey
- Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha
- Magic Knight Rayearth
- Mermaid Melody Pichi Pichi Pitch
- Pretty Cure
- Tokyo Mew Mew
- Wedding Peach
History: Himiko, the First Empress of Japan and her Retinue of Girl Shamans
What if I told you, the first "magical girls" were the retinue of the first recorded Empress of Japan, Himiko? It's true. Himiko was an elderly woman, who united a sizable kingdom in ancient Japan through political competence and charisma. She was the first head of Japan as recognized by Chinese historians, because she sent lavish gifts to the emperor of China. Himiko was reported to have maintained a large entourage of little girls around the age of 13, and they all practiced shamanism, very similar to those rituals practiced by Shinto shrine maidens today. Himiko herself was a shaman, and was said to get people to follow her by "bewitching" them. The effect of this was so powerful that when she died, the country would not accept her brother as a ruler, but instead, a female heir was chosen to rule. This points to the fact that the earliest recorded Japanese culture was matriarchal and valued women for some kind of mysterious spiritual power they were believed to possess. This, I believe, is the true origin of modern anime stories about "magical girls".
The First Magical Girl Anime
"Sally the Witch" is credited as the first Magical Girl series, and possibly also the first "shoujo" or girls' series. The show is about a good-girl witch from a Magic Kingdom who wants to visit Earth to make friends. It shows heavy influence from Osamu Tezuka of Astroboy fame in the art style, and from Bewitched in terms of the plot.
Puella Magi Madoka Magica: Subverting the Tradition
At first, the show Puella Magi Madoka Magica goes to great lengths to pretend it's going to be a normal, kid-friendly, garden variety Magical Girl show. However, this is a dark deconstruction of the genre. It explores the lesson adults often learn the hard way, that nothing is truly free. In this world, being a magical girl means choosing one free wish in exchange for a life of servitude. It gets even worse when they discover that they are even all destined to turn into the very things they've been fighting. A complex show about love, despair, and deals with the devil, PMMM tells you not to take anything for granted or be deceived by appearances.
Magical girls in anime have been around a long time, probably owing to both American culture's phenomenon of the witch and Japanese culture's long history of the belief in female shamans possessing supernatural powers. Today, a magical girl show is likely to try to be edgy and different by subverting the status quo of girls in older shows being pure and noble. But I think that as long as audiences want to see sweet, tender-hearted girls succeed, they'll still get to see that in various forms.