[Discourse] The problem with the dark magical girl genre

SPOILERS: Major spoilers for Puella Magi Madoka Magica, Magical Girl Raising Project, Yuki Yuna is a Hero, Sailor Moon, and Puella Magi Madoka Magica: Rebellion

Magical Girl Raising Project finished airing a few months ago, drawing its Battle Royale-esque death game to a close with most of its young, frill-clad, magical girl cast dead. It’s the expected outcome of anything that comes with that formula, but it’s an incredibly grim way to describe a magical girl show—shows that are, traditionally, at their hearts all about girls banding together to support each other and saving the world with the power of love and friendship. Murder and despair are normally nowhere near the magical girl archetype, but that’s changing in some recent and disturbing developments.

The core cast of Yuki Yuna in their magical girl costumes; they are floral, pastel, and cute, and the characters are looking at something offscreen in shock and awe
Yuki Yuna is a Hero

The (usual) nature of mahou shoujo

The magical girl genre is an iconic staple of anime by now, widely known and loved in the Western world for the success of Sailor Moon, which many anime fans have adored since it captured their hearts as children, butchered DiC dub and all; and prolific in Japanese media dating back to Sally the Witch which first aired in the 1960s. A magical girl series is easy to recognise: there will typically be a team of girls, ranging anywhere from grade school age to teens, dressed in colourful, frilly outfits, aided by a cute otherworldly animal companion, and together they will fight magical threats to the safety of their ordinary world. There are often wands, florid attack names shouted with flair, and a feminine tint to all the battle gear—tiaras, makeup, flowers, and sometimes voluminous ball gowns will factor heavily into a magical girl’s armory. The magical girl is an explicitly feminine-coded superhero, using traditionally “girly” things in their battle of good against evil.

It’s not a flawless or unproblematic genre. The heavy feminine coding of everything, for example, has often been praised by Western fans and analysts since it lets girls know that they don’t have to adopt masculine traits to be powerful, which was an especially rare message when Sailor Moon and its core theme of girl power was first imported to the US in the ‘90s and early ‘00s. But the counterargument, brought up by Japanese feminists like Kumiko Saito, is that the emphasis on girlhood and femininity actually enforces traditional gender roles, and if every magical girl gets her power from “girly” things it says that being “girly” is the only way to gain that power, which excludes girls who don’t fit that exact mould. The heroines are always young, too, and often leave some aspect of their power behind as they age. Combine this with the trope that the more mature-coded female characters in these series–the ones with adult bodies, revealing outfits, and heavy makeup–are often the evil queens and villains, and this leaves older women out of the magical loop with no genre-specific magical warriors to see themselves in.

The point stands, though, that even if it has some inherent flaws, at its core the magical girl genre is a wholesome and good-spirited one. It exists to inspire and entertain young girls with the message that hope, truth and the power of friendship will triumph over any odds, and that girls can be the hero of their own stories without being relegated to sidekick or love interest. While girls may not have to fight literal monsters once they turn off the TV, it’s an important message to hold in your heart as you go into what can be a scary—and girl-hating—world.

Some people looked at this genre full of small girls full of hope, fighting for honesty and justice, and helping each other save the world, and said “That’s nice and all, but what if it was all a farce and they murdered each other with those magic powers instead?”

Magical Girl Raising Project

Rise of the “dark deconstruction” genre

It wasn’t the first time, either. Where Magical Girl Raising Project asks, “What if the girls who dreamed of becoming magical girls got the chance to be, but at the price of getting roped into a Hunger Games-style death match?”, Yuki Yuna is a Hero asked in 2014, “What if the heroines had to give up use of their body parts in exchange for magical power?”. Traditionally there isn’t a price for magical girl powers—they are granted to the girls because of destiny or pure heart, and the price the heroines pay is that they must defeat evil, same as any compassionate superhero. And they always will defeat evil, because that, I reiterate, is what this genre is about: telling young girls that they have the power within them to overcome great obstacles, if only they believe in themselves and each other. Both Magical Girl Raising Project and Yuki Yuna is a Hero largely ignore this broader, important thematic purpose and focus instead on turning the heroines against each other and the system that gave them their power against them, creating stories that are dark, violent, and all about the heroines’ despair when the genre ought to be the opposite.

Why is this a thing that keeps happening? Dark magical girl is almost becoming a genre in its own right, and I am not comfortable with it.

Puella Magi Madoka Magica is largely to blame for this trend. The 2011 anime famously presented itself as a regular, archetypal rendition of a cute and fun magical girl show, then had a character’s head bitten off in a shocking climactic moment in the third episode. From there the show spirals downwards and into darkness and despair, throwing its heroines into emotional turmoil and grave danger that challenges everything about what they believed a magical girl to be.

Madoka Magica has been highly praised as a dark masterpiece and been wildly popular with fans ever since it aired and dropped all these trope-subverting bombs on its audience. The way it twisted and deconstructed the icons of the magical girl genre—making the adorable animal companion evil, having the girls forced to fight each other instead of band together, having the monsters they fight be transformed “corrupted” ex-magical girls—is widely considered an ingenious take on the archetype.  Not everyone shares this view, of course, but you can’t ignore Madoka’s popularity. Neither could the producers of the show, who made a sequel movie, Rebellion, that somehow managed to double back and shred the last bite-sized remnants of the theme of hope and love in the original series. It’s fairly easy to see that Magical Girl Raising Project is following in Madoka Magica’s dark and gritty footsteps, as is Yuki Yuna, which also drops its dark plot twist after several episodes of normal, happy and cute magical girl adventures.

Now, I also think Madoka Magica is a clever show. It has some excellent use of foreshadowing and some solid characterisation, and the cinematography and use of mixed-media make it visually fascinating. However, it’s not the darkness that makes it clever, and I think a lot of people have made this incorrect distinction. When you peel it back from its neat screenwriting and aesthetically interesting presentation, the show is stomping on little girls’ dreams as a writing exercise. Even if it restores (albeit in the most bittersweet way possible) the message of love and hope at the end by having Madoka sacrifice herself to save her friends and all magical girls throughout history, Rebellion takes even more joy in tearing that apart by stripping away Madoka’s agency, undoing her noble efforts, and turning the girls against each other once again after spending the whole movie rebuilding the positive trope of them working together as a team. Rebellion sets itself up for a hopeful ending, then  promptly pulls another dramatic, dark bait-and-switch akin to biting Mami’s head off.  The movie’s abrupt tonal shift and cliffhanger finale seem to serve no purpose beyond shock value and paving the way for a sequel, leading me to wonder if they veered so sharply from a positive ending to the adventure simply because positive is what a normal magical girl story would do.

Homura in her “devil” form at the end of Rebellion, in a slinky black dress with wings coming out of her back. She says “She was sacred as a god, so I couldn’t help but pull her from heaven and undermine her”
Puella Magi Madoka Magica: Rebellion

The business of hope and despair

Subverting expectations by turning a traditionally happy and hopeful set of tropes on its head like Madoka Magica does is kind of interesting, I suppose, but in the same way that rewriting the end of Disney princess movies so the princesses are having a horrible time is “interesting”. Adding layers of darkness and fear is not revolutionary, either, since magical girl shows are perfectly capable of getting dark on their own. In fact the darkness is a crucial part of the story: the darkness is there to be defeated. Even the relatively tame first season of Sailor Moon is riddled with death scenes, and hits hard in its infamous finale where all the Sailor Guardians get killed and Usagi is left alone to face evil incarnate.

A la Rebellion, the person she loves has also been turned evil and she’s forced to fight him. That is grim. The key, though, is that Usagi’s determination and the guiding love of her friends overcomes that grimness, and through their combined power they defeat that evil, cure the brainwashed Tuxedo Mask, and return safely to Earth to continue living out their lives.

Hurting your magical heroines and putting them through grief is nothing particularly new or insightful; the only thing stories like Rebellion seem to bring to the table is a lack of catharsis by crushing its heroines under this pressure rather than having them overcome it. And sure, that might be subversive, but as a member of the audience–whether I was expecting a “traditional” magical girl story or not–it felt a little like a kick to the face.

Creating a magical girl world where despair always triumphs over hope undermines the entire point of magical girls—they are a power fantasy specifically for small girls, made explicitly to spread the message that hope will triumph over despair and that you should keep fighting for what you believe in. These dark shows effectively mock that important and optimistic message for the purpose of grown-up anime fans’ entertainment.

Chloe from Fate/Kalied Liner Prisma Ilya, a tan-skinned, white-haired girl holding two swords. Her magical girl costume leaves most of her chest, midriff and legs on show
Fate/Kaleid liner Prisma Ilya

Magical girl anime and adults

Sometimes a magical girl show, or any show for children, will get popular with an older audience, and that’s fine—I think it’s a sign that a children’s show is well-made if it can appeal to a wider demographic than just kids. Even if, say, a Precure show gets watched and enjoyed by a bunch of thirty-something-year-olds, that’s just a thing that happened, and was not the intention of the creators. The show was primarily made for young girls and the adults jumped on the back of the bandwagon. A show like Magical Girl Raising Project is made first and foremost with adults in mind–primarily adult anime fans, who know enough about the magical girl genre to understand the conventions being played with, and relish in their destruction– which creates an entirely different beast.

What’s most disturbing is that though the target demographic of these shows goes up in age, the characters of the shows don’t, which leaves us with a situation where young animated girls in frilly outfits are essentially being made to suffer onscreen for an adult (often male) audience. The phrase “torture porn” has been thrown around in relation to Madoka Magica and Magical Girl Raising Project, and while it’s not a phrase I like, there’s something inherently skeezy about the idea of anime studios setting out to draw young girls in terrible pain for an eager, waiting adult audience. Not to mention that more fan service and sexualisation can sneak in if the show is aimed at an older demographic, which gets into even more unsettling territory, again, given that these are still shows about little girls.

As I mentioned earlier, Sailor Moon has been incredibly popular in the Western world since it arrived in the 1990s—you could even say Millennials are The Sailor Moon Generation, given that I know so many people, whether they’re anime fans or not, who were moved by that series when they watched it as children. If it wasn’t Sailor Moon, there was also Cardcaptor Sakura and Tokyo Mew Mew, and a myriad of other, more obscure but equally sparkly and fun shows on offer for small girls addicted to the idea of magical princess superheroes. So many of these children—girls and boys—have grown up to write about how much these series influenced them, whether it was in their own creative work or just in that they made them see a brighter side of life and feel happier in their own skin. For example, many members of the LGBTQ+ community cite the romance between Sailor Neptune and Sailor Uranus as a pivotal moment in their youth, since it was one of the first times they’d seen themselves represented onscreen—and as magical universe-saving heroines too!

Magical girl shows are about inspiring and empowering girls, who then grow into inspired and empowered women who do the same for other people. To use Sailor Moon as a continued example, there’s even been a recent campaign to give out Sailor Moon brand condoms in an effort to encourage sexual health and safety in young women. This has been met with mixed reception, but I think it’s a brilliant symbol of how at its heart the genre has always been about girls looking out for each other. Sailor Moon’s meaning has evolved to grow with her fanbase–where once she encouraged the children who looked up to her to believe in themselves, now she’s metaphorically protecting them and empowering them against more adult threats.

The core cast of Go! Princess Precure, in frilly gowns, smiling brightly at the camera
Go! Princess PreCure

The future of the genre

This generation of young girls has the juggernaut that is the Precure franchise, which pumps out a new magical girl show every year—a quintessential one, with all the colours and frills and power of hope you could possibly ask for. The remake Sailor Moon Crystal has also arrived to spread its magic to modern viewers, but these two seem to be some of the few bastions of the magical girl tradition being currently aired. The darker iterations of the genre are creeping in and growing in number–becoming the norm rather than an occasional edgy outlier.

The current market of twenty-to-thirty-somethings are the Sailor Moon generation—they ought to know how important it is for kids to have magical girl shows that are fun, happy, inspirational, and express these important messages about optimism and friendship that stay with you for the rest of your days. Even to people who weren’t fans of magical girls as a child, the genre’s impact on popular culture around the world is undeniable. It makes sense that the current generation of creators are making magical girl stories with new twists on them since, whether they consider themselves magical girl fans or not, the archetypes are so embedded in the collective imagination that they naturally seep through.

My question is, why do creators leap to making these familiar archetypes violent and twisted as their way of making them appeal to an adult audience? It’s sad that grown-ups seem to feel the need  to undermine the very messages that we loved so much as children, by effectively mocking them and making these gory adult versions that take apart everything the original magical girls stood for.

As I said before, this isn’t even new territory that these supposedly innovative reimaginings are covering. Magical girl series already deal with plenty of “dark” themes and events: Go! Princess Precure quite effectively addresses a character’s PTSD and guilt after she was kidnapped and brainwashed, Princess Tutu has its heroes literally resisting their fate to become characters in a tragedy, and as I mentioned above the main cast of Sailor Moon has all died on at least one occasion. Darkness and despair are temporary obstacles, though, low moments to overcome with the power of hope, love and determination, not elements tied into the worldbuilding and the magical girls themselves.

Magical girls are light in the darkness, telling young girls that they too can shine if only they hope and believe. It might sound cheesy to a mature ear, but again, the message isn’t meant for a mature ear. It’s meant to uplift young girls and give them heroines to see themselves in when a lot of other media denies them that, and when the world at large is still a generally sexist place that looks down on them simply because they’re girls. Well, magical girl heroines are powerful because they’re girls! So girls, it may look bleak sometimes, but don’t give up!

That said, there’s no real reason we can’t have magical girl shows for both children and an older audience–I would simply question why every adult-aimed magical girl show defaults to being grim, violent, and taking great delight in making pre-teen anime girls suffer for otaku entertainment. There are plenty of ways to play with the conventions of the genre that don’t involve murder and despair–a show could have magical heroines who aren’t children, breaking the trope of mature women always being the villains as well as making the characters relatable to an older audience (which is exactly the idea that Western comic series Mahou Josei Chimaka plays with); or it could toy with or challenge the idea of femininity equaling power.  There are plenty of ways to be clever and subversive with the tried-and-true genre, if you want to be. A “deconstruction” need not always mean something that’s tragic, dark, and horrifying.

Sailor Mars and Sailor Mercury from Sailor Moon, angrily facing the camera. Mars says “Anime nurtures children’s dreams!”
Sailor Moon

The staying power of the Pretty Guardian

I liked Madoka Magica as a creation, but I hate this apparent precedent it’s set for the genre—a precedent which completely misses the point and heart of the genre in the first place, and has led to sadistic knock-offs like Yuki Yuna and now Magical Girl Raising Project which beat up their female characters for fun rather than trying to inspire anyone. It’s not clever, it’s schadenfreude.

The mere fact that adult-aimed magical girl shows exist shows that there’s a staying power in the genre and what it represents–whether people think they’re silly or not, the ideals of hope, justice and friendship delivered by a heroine in a frilly skirt have imprinted on multiple generations of fans and creators, and adults everywhere are still thinking about the tropes and characters they were exposed to in childhood.

That the magical girl is such a recognisable staple of popular culture both in Japan and around the world–recognisable enough that series like Magical Girl Raising Project can exist–shows that something about the archetype speaks to people. I think that’s something incredible, and I think that’s something we don’t want to undermine. If they feel the need to do so, there are plenty of ways that adult or teenaged audiences can rework this influential genre that celebrate rather than stomp on the powerful heart of the magical girl.

The edgy and murderous magical girl show is becoming a cliche in its own right, and not a positive one either. And if magical girls themselves have taught me anything, it’s that sometimes what the world needs is positivity, so I hope this gritty phase that the industry is putting the genre through passes, and the magical girl–whether for children or grown-ups, who each need a dose of hope in their own way–makes an about-face back to her optimistic roots very soon.

 

Comments are open! Please read our comments policy before joining the conversation and contact us if you have any problems.

Not sure where to begin? Some questions to kick-start conversation:

  • What is your personal response to dark magical girl shows?
  • Which dark magical girl series do you think have particularly feminist-friendly elements?
  • What was your experience of watching Madoka Magica for the first time?
  • Which magical girl character or series has had most of an impact on you, and how?
  • How would you like to see the magical girl genre evolve to appeal to a more adult audience?
  • Are there any magical girl series you think don’t receive enough attention from English-speaking fans?

 

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  • rubi-kun

    Madoka is one of my favorite anime series ever, but I hate the ending of Rebellion. It exists only as a sequel hook, Urobochi said his original script had a more fittingly bittersweet ending of Homura and Madoka being reunited in heaven. He’s said the point of Madoka was to write himself out of nihilism, so in many ways it is a traditional magical girl story in its message, just a lot darker getting there. The movie messes that up.

    • AsteriskCGY

      I just read that summary, and yea that is such a cop out.

    • Destroyer Inazuma

      I liked Rebellion for its style, almost “detective-esque” atmosphere as Homura tries to put two and two together and the fact that SPOILERS the omnipotent aliens who thought they were invincible got a kick to the face.

      But the very end did anger me a little.

      What pissed me off even more though was that apparently there won’t be a sequel, that flashy “trailer” with the Eiffel Tower that floats on youtube is fan-made.

      I wish that if ever a sequel gets made, it gradually goes back to the more traditional mahou shoujo formula where hope and determination snatch a happy end from the jaws of despair.

  • Mezentine

    Madoka turned me off pretty early for reasons similar to what’s outlined in this piece, but from what I’ve read of it it was still…respectable? But nothing I saw of MGRP looked appealing at *all*.
    Its like Watchmen again. A gritty, dark (and thematically rich) take on candy colored material can be an interesting work that makes us question assumptions and re-examine cliches, but such work tends to work precisely *because* it stands in contrast to the rest of its genre. When the whole thing turns violent and edgy we forget that these are *children’s characters*

    I’ll speak a bit more strongly than the author and say that I absolutely find MGRP skeevy as hell, unless it is *completely* unlike what my impressions of it are, which it doesn’t sound like it is.

    How can the genre evolve to meet a more adult audience? Honestly the first place my mind goes is something like Steven Universe. The cast of Steven Universe absolutely inhabit a largely friendly space where empathy and interpersonal connection are the source of power, but its characters have a three dimensionality, and have clear relatable (or at least empathetic) histories that its attracted adult fans in droves

  • Silas Janzen Lohrenz

    I imagine that some of the impetus to create “dark” or “gritty” versions of these stories comes as a reaction to the experience of growing up and discovering that the cartoons we loved as children maybe didn’t quite tell us how bad things were out here in the wide world. There are challenges that we have faced that we never saw in our cartoons and perhaps we feel they were, at best, overly optimistic – at worst, lying. So some creators set out to show “sometimes bad things happen and there is nothing you can do about it” and some of them do get carried away by the hedonistic pleasure of destroying something beloved.
    I feel that Steven Universe is a show that is particularly skilled at balancing a level of optimistic nostalgia coming from the classic Mahou Shoujo stories with a generous amount of “real world problems”, proclaiming the old familiar values that although the world may be dark, “hope, truth and the power of friendship will triumph over any odds”.

  • Little Witch Academia is the best magical girls anime of recent years.

    • Destroyer Inazuma

      I also like it a lot!
      there’s also Mahou Shoujo-tai Arusu which is a weird example of an anime reminding me of a Western cartoon
      MSA is almost a witch anime rather than a magical girl one, though.

  • Peter

    I wouldn’t blame Madoka for the dark magical girl fad per se. The author’s issue with the girls powers coming from without wasn’t present in Madoka. In fact, I think what was so genius about its portray was that it was that the power of the girls was so tremendous that there were forces seeking to commodify it, which opened up a lot of room for the great commentary that came out of the series. The girls suffered because they were exploited and became disillusioned and hopeless.

    Yuki Yuna and MGRP especially were hamfisted reproductions which inflicted suffering without purpose. I think Yuki Yuna had some positive points but there isn’t much positive to say about MGRP. A similar scenario played out with the series following Neon Genesis Evangelion, which replicated its fatalistic tones but didn’t have any themes they were attempting to explore.

    That said, seeing the same process repeat itself but focusing on young women in what is supposed to be an optimistic genre has been disheartening.

    • qb

      I think a key point missed in this article is that MGRP doesn’t have much in common with the themes of the magical girl genre beyond surface level. Plus it was written 5 years ago, it’s really not a new fad by any means

  • Lord Justice

    I think you’re right on how Magical Girl shows following Madoka Magica have effectively turned into shows that are there to make the girls’ lives miserable and undermining the Magical Girl trope and isn’t that clever. It isn’t, and I think part of it is to do with people copying Madoka as a cargo cult without understanding what Madoka is actually doing.

    While I understand your argument about giving positive messages to children through artistic mediums, and Magical Girl shows are definitely part of that, it doesn’t mean that they all have to be. Madoka Magica is not a show for little girls. It’s not meant for them. Honestly, children shouldn’t be watching Madoka. This then feels like it falls into the Western perspective trap of animation – That animation is either for “all ages” or “children” and thus constrained by those demographics. Notice how the West has never done anything like Madoka Magica, and let’s not get into things like Fate/Zero or Kara no Kyoukai. Which isn’t to say that all adults things should be gory and depressing, or that for something to be adult that it needs to be like that, but you can’t have those elements either if you’re constrained by the above demographics. Those elements can serve a purpose if utilized correctly.

    So, Madoka specifically. I really don’t agree with the idea of it being horribly depressing and awful in totality. Is there horrible and depressing stuff in it? Absolutely. Is that the overall point? I don’t think so. The big problem with the series ending of Madoka is that it is emotionally manipulative on the audience. If you think about it, it fixes nothing except the problem of Walpurgisnacht and Kriemhild Gretchen, which, granted, saves the world but doesn’t address the central issue of the series itself. Magical Girls still exist, die like usual, and are fighting an eternal war. They’re still teens and pre-teens drafted into something they don’t really understand and still die horribly. Not only does Madoka the character not fix any of this, she actively encourages it with Sayaka dying for Kyousuke’s hand and his career. If you want a bad message for little girls, I think sacrificing your life for some guy who doesn’t really care about you is pretty awful.

    Thus, I find there’s a grander message in Madoka Magica that the series ending ignores and which Rebellion does not. It’s the idea of rejecting magic to remain human. Consider, for example, Madoka’s mother. She is a sterling role model for little girls, as she is an independent hard working woman and mother, the breadwinner of her home and with ambition and aspirations. She’s considering becoming the CEO of the company she works for and I don’t doubt she can pull it off. Contrast her with Madoka, who is constantly doubting her ability and doesn’t know what she wants to be or what she wants to do. She finds the idea of Magical Girls alluring and attractive, but there’s a problem.

    Becoming a Magical Girl is easy. Merely make a wish and there you are, no effort required. It’s wish fulfillment, and that’s the point. Madoka gets what she wants at the end with essentially no effort, everything just happens automatically after she makes her wish. In short, Madoka fails where her mother succeeds. Secondly, and this is perhaps the more important part, making a wish, becoming a Magical Girl and succumbing to magic destroyed Madoka’s humanity. As the Law of Cycles, she’s stuck permanently as a 14-year old girl. With the other Magical Girls we can see this as well:

    Sayaka attempts to maintain her humanity, and is dead within weeks.

    Kyouko eventually abandons part of it, becoming animalistic and predatory, and survives for a few years until she finds a part of her humanity again and promptly dies.

    Homura, of course, has been a Magical Girl for a decade or more from her perspective, and is little more a machine driven by one overarching goal.

    Thus, we can understand the overarching theme of Madoka to be as such:

    A battle of humanity versus magic. To maintain your humanity, not take the easy way out, and grow up into an adult. To succumb to magic is to remain as a child and reject adulthood, especially given how most Magical Girls die in their teens. This seems especially relevant given the opening dialogue of the Concept Movie, which is a movie that serves as a trailer for the project that comes after Rebellion:

    “Madoka & Homura: Do you know what happiness is?
    Madoka: It’s bright May sunshine.
    Homura: It’s the warmth of family.
    Madoka: It’s fried eggs for breakfast.
    Madoka & Homura: But there’s nothing like that in Heaven.

    Madoka & Homura: Do you know what happiness is?
    Homura : It’s having your name called by someone.
    Madoka: It’s calling someone’s name.
    Homura: It’s when someone is thinking of you.
    Madoka & Homura: But God alone cannot have any of this.”

    Given this context, the series ending of Madoka becomes incredibly problematic, which is where Rebellion comes in. It’s important to realize here that Rebellion is not something final – It is the second act of a larger story. But the larger story of what?

    The genesis, fall, and redemption of Homura Akemi and her conflict with both magic and her love for Madoka. Within Rebellion, we see Homura succumb to both of these factors, becoming an “ultimate being of magic” (Like Madoka), and which is premised on her toxic love for Madoka. It’s very telling what this means when she says:

    “I am now an existence known as “evil”. A being who disrupts providence and acts as an agitator for this world.”

    This existence is magic. This existence is her love for Madoka. The things which consume Homura and destroy her.

    Given the overarching conflict of Madoka, then, the answer here is rejecting both of these issues. To reject magic and regain her humanity, and to reject her love for Madoka. In short, Homura needs to move past these issues and grow up.

    To me, this isn’t depressing or nihilistic. It is to celebrate life and progressing as a person. To address your failings and improve yourself.

    I’m aware that it looks like I’m kind of skipping to my conclusion without entirely backing it up, but to properly explain where I’m basing this would require going deeper into Rebellion and adding concepts from Nietzsche. So I’ll leave it here unless people really want that sort of long form comment.

  • Sim Le

    First and foremost let me say that I have great respect for this website and authors and I appreciate that you are taking a closer look at a subgenre that is near and dear to my heart. These Dark Magical Girl anime and Grim/Dark anime in general speak to my own perspective on life but I also understand why something like Magical Girl Raising Project is deeply problematic. I would like to respond to this statement:

    “The phrase “torture porn” has been thrown around in relation to Madoka Magica and Magical Girl Raising Project, and while it’s not a phrase I like, there’s something inherently skeezy about the idea of anime studios setting out to draw young girls in terrible pain for an eager, waiting adult audience”

    There is undoubtedly a significant demographic of people who do find sadistic pleasure in these type of shows. I have encountered many such frightening individuals on the internet. But as someone who loves these shows I also must say that for many people, these shows mean something much different.

    I understand that many people are inspired by hope and happy endings. One need only skim through the majority of anime to find that these types of uplifting stories predominate. This is especially true for the magical girl genre. The average protagonist is brave and fights through everything to save the day.

    But as someone who has struggled their entire life only to see many of their dreams crushed I can’t relate to the kind of hero that always triumphs in the end. This is the most powerful message of these Dark Magical Girl shows, that even if you believe in your dreams and fight for them, there are more powerful forces in life that don’t care about your feelings and will crush you like a bug.

    This is far more empathic than the happy magical girl shows which deny people’s very real feelings of despair. Sometimes life simply breaks your wings and you will never be the same person again. But in happier shows, these feelings are often vilified and even shamed. The people who fail are often simply blamed for their shortcomings. There is rarely any real understanding.

    That is the core of Dark Magical Girl anime (which are analogous in many ways to more general Grim/Dark anime such as Shinsekai Yori and Texhnolyze). They are meant to give voice to the multitudes who don’t realize their dreams: who die young or are crippled with physical or mental illness. Because even though these people might not succeed, they are still heros and they deserve to be remembered.

    That was one of the main points of Magical Girl Raising Project and to a lesser extent Madoka, that the real heros in life are not the powerful people who succeed but the forgotten dead who sacrificed everything. I understand how this type of scenario could be seen as just another contrived death game, but to me it’s simply a reflection of what happens when pure ideals come face to face with the brutal realities of life.

    Yes, many of the characters in Magical Girl Raising Project die horribly and that’s disturbing on many levels. But characters like Ruler, Tama, and Swim Swim would simply be treated as villains to be defeated in a normal magical girl show. Their perspectives would simply be castigated and not really explored in any sincere way. By seeing them die so tragically we are forced to acknowledge their humanity.

    There are sick people who do indeed treat these shows as “torture porn” like you’ve said. But from my perspective the meaning behind these shows is completely different.

    • Rory More

      Couldn’t have said it better myself.

    • Dyram

      While that may have been what the creators were originally going for work MGRP, I think they feel too in love with the gore and lost sight of their message. There was no need to show Sister Mary pissing herself when she committed suicide. It added nothing to the scene emotionally or thematically that furthered the supposed message of the show. It was voyeurism, pure and simple.

      Madoka, on the other hand, did a lot of things right, but I’m on my phone and typing like this is getting tedious, lol.

      • Dawnstorm

        There was no need to show Sister Mary pissing herself when she committed suicide.

        I’m not sure about “need”, but there is a point to it. It’s not realism; MGRP isn’t a realistic show. Look, for example, at the way the show uses light and shadow. It’s all very stylised, and scenes like that are there for shock value. So far, I agree. I also agree that there isn’t a deeper message. What you get is what you see.

        But while it may be voyeurism, it’s not quite that pure and simple. In terms of other media, I’d say it’s the approach of David Cronenberg, William Burroughs, J.G. Ballard (visitors of the Atrocity Exhibition staring at their Naked Lunch). It’s about unmasking the brutality and ugliness. Look at your avarage shounen shows, and what sort of wounds people usually survive. Look at how fighting shows usually tame violence so that it all comes down to suspense. That’s not what’s at issue here. It’s the metaphoric trainwreck you can’t look away from. If you go through MGRP, you’ll see that the scenes come and go quickly, but leave a rather heavy impact. It’s visceral and primitive, and that’s the point. The show doesn’t linger on scenes. There’s also very little in the way of “poetic justice”. For example, Cranberry, one of the strongest and most deranged, dies before she even fully realises what happens. Death in MGRP is impartial and ugly.

        Basically, a lot of the characters lead a rather ugly life, then they escape into a game, and the game gets them, too. There’s a sense of nihilism here, but it’s methodological, I think, rather than ideological. As I said, in my first post, I think it’s the catharsis of horror. If the show were truly voyeuristic, in the fetishistic sense, I’d expect the death scenes to linger; more emphasis and more time spent on the actual dying. If it was all about the misery and fear, I’d expect the show to pull its punches more. I think the show likes its characters and that the no-mercy approach is a sign of respect.

        At the same time, it does use misery and fear and serious real-world trouble for cheap thrills, and if you’re not receptive to the cathartic effect it won’t be anything to you but exploitative. When you’ve gone through the show you might feel dirty, you might feel aroused – or you might feel a sense of emotional relief. Any of those reactions make for a very different show, and people usually can’t choose how they react.

    • athenia45

      “That was one of the main points of Magical Girl Raising Project and to a lesser extent Madoka, that the real heros in life are not the powerful people who succeed but the forgotten dead who sacrificed everything.”

      I think this is an interesting interpretation, but I also feel that this might be hard to do in a genre that’s based on female puberty. Like, in Madoka, this a very clear point that becoming a mahou shojo is about becoming an “unnatural body” and this becomes a point of despair.

    • Destroyer Inazuma

      “That was one of the main points of Magical Girl Raising Project and to a
      lesser extent Madoka, that the real heros in life are not the powerful
      people who succeed but the forgotten dead who sacrificed everything.”
      Exactly. The fact that no one saw you save the world doesn’t make it less commendable. Darker shows allow us to fortunately stay witnesses to how one might be willing to go to push against darkness and remind us to cherish people more and realize there’s a lot of fighting going on behind the scenes. How many counter terror geniuses will NEVER be publicly acknowledged to keep them and families safe?

      On a side note that part of your comment also reminded me of Black Rock Shooter, a petty solid mahou shoujo show about the fighter within us, the one who might be cynical or think it has no meaning but will still fight. BRS doesn’t discard the existence of despair and stays realistic in spite of an idealistic heroine, who eventually matures.

      Have a good day!

  • Blusocket

    I definitely agree with this analysis, and I really appreciate Alex pointing out some of the flaws of the genre (its emphasis on femininity, the lack of positive portrayals of adult women) while emphasizing its value as a genre and a source of potential strength for young girls. I’m not a huge fan of dark magical girl series–although other commenters have raised what I believe are really valuable points about teaching kids it’s okay to fail and affirming the experiences of adults who do feel hopeless or despairing, there are definitely better ways to make that point than with poorly written stories attempting to be edgy or adult to cash in on a trend without much substance or investment in the genre they’re working within.

    That said, given what another commenter pointed out about these shows’ relative infrequency, plus the success of Little Witch Academia and the upcoming Cardcaptor Sakura reboot (with the original anime director! I’m SO excited!) I think the future of positive, uplifting magical girl shows is looking pretty bright.

  • Dawnstorm

    Madoka, to me, was mostly about the naivety the magical girl genre usually celebrates. It’s often a fools-rush-in scenario: those girls either make premature decisions or their hand forced again and again. Because the genre is usually about good-natured adventures, it tends to work out well in the end. Madoka is a counterpoint to that – showing how things can go wrong if you rush in prematurely. Sayaka and Kyouko are the fools who rush in and pay for their naivety, while Mami is the one who has her hand forced. For much of the show Madoka is simply witness: a point-of-view and entry point for the viewer. But with the ending, the show reveals its hand: Madoka, the most timid and hesitant character, gets to make an informed decision. And that’s only possible, because Homura, from the position of one who has made all the mistakes, is there to provide that time. Madoka, the show, doesn’t reject the values – it just re-invigorates clichés.

    Rebellion is a sequel to a story that didn’t need a sequel, and predictably ends up rather pointless. I don’t accept it as a sequel, personally; I prefer to ignore it. There’s all that empty fascination with “darkness” that’s always been around, and always will be. I remember a lesser known and even more rarely remember dark magical girl show, Genei wo Kakeru Taiyu, where an early character was carrying around a book by Camus. The show itself was neither particularly good nor particularly bad; it’s just that image of a teenage girl carrying around a book by Camus (in a context that doesn’t seem much interested in the actual philosophy) that stuck with me.

    Yuki Yuna doesn’t feel like a show, to me, that revels in darkness for its own sake. Instead it feels like “hero porn”. Sacrifices and suffering are there, explicitly, to validate heroism. The danger they fight is faceless, and so is the organisation that uses them. There’s a sense that “being a hero” is a value in its own right. It’s an overblown binary: purity in a depraved world. Compare this to Madoka, where the titular girl would rather not be a hero if she didn’t have to, but steps forth when she feels she must. Yuki Yuna‘s is the sort of idealism that I’d expect from a military recruitment drive, now complete with a gambit: the horrors you experience will validate your heroism (while who you’re fighting or what you’re protecting isn’t all that important). I liked Yuki Yuna art, soundtrack and characterisation, but the story? Gah! I’m extremely uncomfortable with the story. It takes the fighting, the violence, out of the magical girl shows and idealises that.

    Magical Girl Raising Project, or Magical Girl Razing Project, as I like to call it, surprised me. I went into the first episode pretty much convinced I’d hate it and was prepared to drop it almost instantly. I didn’t. I even ended up enjoying the show for what it is. “Torture porn” it isn’t. Death is brutal, but usually swift in this show. I also don’t feel the show looked down on its characters; I’d say the characterisation is sympathetic, even if rote. It’s a show that uses serious issues (such as child molestation or bullying) for cheap thrills, but it does so in the way that slasher horror often does, and it had the same sort of cathartic release for me. I’m not going to recommend the show, but I can’t really feel too negative about it, because I feel it rejects hope for the sake of chatharsis. It’s easy for me to resurface from the show, knowing the real world isn’t quite that bleak.

    To put my comments in context: I never really got into Sailor Moon, though I liked some of the characters. I haven’t yet seen more than seven episodes of Nanoha, though what I’ve seen I liked well enough (and there are obvious parallels between this show’s and Madoka‘s “save-the-weasel” scenes – unsurprising, with both shows being directed by Shinbo).

    My favourite core magical girl show would be Card Captor Sakura, which isn’t all about fighting all the time.

    And finally I had lots of fun with Binan Koukou Chikyuu Bouei Bu, which is a very traditional magical girl show at heart – only it’s a self-aware comedy with boys. (It reminds me most of Shugo Chara.)

  • Rory More

    I get the article but it strikes me a little like the genre is under attack. When in fact it’s a small handful of shows and unless I’m wrong here, only Rebellion was praised by any reasonable demographic. The existence of these shows hasn’t removed the existence of other magical girl shows and more perspectives is great I think!

    Then again, I was never one raised on these shows and went through a massive part of my life with the simple belief that they were actually kind of harmful, saying that girls had to be a certain way or they couldn’t be powerful (judgemental little 8 year old, wasn’t I? XD had a social worker mum and I thought I knew everything…)

    Plenty of western shows have jumped on the violence and nudity bus since GoT showed such great success yet many of them are terrible and haven’t done much to the high fantasy community outside of it. If anything, people were willing to explore other fantasy shows and books because GoT got them hooked. I think these shows are like that. Madoka was the first “magical girl” (I guess you wouldn’t qualify it as one?) anime that I tried.

    • Destroyer Inazuma

      First one I watched years after I followed Sailor Moon, WInx and W.I.T.C.H (French-Italian young girls magical girl cartoons).
      At least it prompted me to re read the Sailor Moon manga and find the first arcs surprisingly good.

  • Adam Barrowman

    I have a very different interpretation of Madoka Magica’s themes, I’ll try to be brief and avoid spoilers.

    The classical thesis of magical girls shows, that with love, femininity, and the power of friendship girls can always trump adversity, suffers from the glaring problem that isn’t true. Not to say that such an inspirational theme isn’t important in our patriarchal society, but at the end of the day, it’s misleading. Adversity is sometimes insurmountable, friendship and love are doubled-edged swords, and society is keen to take advantage of girls desire to be feminine. While kids can easily accept the optimistic messages of magical girl shows, adults often find them frustratingly naive.

    Madoka Magica explores the weaknesses of the classical magical girl story’s morals, but also ends up highlighting their strengths. Homura’s repeated failed attempts to save Madoka, illustrate both the dangers of failing to acknowledge ones limits, and the virtue of dedication. Kyoko initially criticizes Sayaka’s childish sense of justice, but ultimately rediscovers the value of friendship. Mami shows the difficulty of fighting for justice, but still manages to inspire Sayaka to follow in her footsteps.
    Sayaka fails to live up to her own ideals, but Madoka shows the value of her loving sacrifice even if the intentions behind it weren’t entirely noble. Kyubey takes advantage of girls by tricking them with a feminine ideal, but in the end is defeated because he underestimates the show’s girls. Madoka is criticized for refusing to simply follow Sayaka and Homura’s commands, but saves the day by making her own choices. By establishing a more nuanced versions of the classical magical girl themes, Madoka Magica tries to show their lasting value to otherwise disillusioned adults. These multifaceted themes are what makes Madoka an adult anime, not the violence and suffering.

    Since the show sold spectacularly, it inevitably inspired countless imitators who failed to understand what made the anime good and instead imitated it on a superficial level.

    As for Rebellion, I find it hard to understand how people can interpret its ending as a surprise given how clearly Homura’s intentions are established by the scene in the flower field. I’d certainly agree that unlike the original series Rebellion doesn’t ringingly endorse typical magical girl themes, if anything it questions the main series own conclusions.
    Rebellion criticizes its fandom for wanting to avoid the costs of Madoka’s sacrifice, and explores the repercussions of shipping which interprets friendships as romantic. It’s a thematically unusual work in which the power of love is a force of tragedy, the dangers of queer self-hatred are explored without excusing guilt or homophobia, and the selfishness inherent to self-sacrifice is brought into question. All this moral ambiguity is one of its strengths, even if it makes the work inappropriate for children, more than a little problematic, and out of place within the magical girl genre.

    • Destroyer Inazuma

      “Since the show sold spectacularly, it inevitably inspired countless
      imitators who failed to understand what made the anime good and instead
      imitated it on a superficial level.”
      Yep, it’s mostly about money. If somebody made a successful anime adaptation of Tolstoi’s “War and Peace” and cashed in, I bet half a dozen anime studios would’ve followed with similar projects, regardless of nobility of themes or educational value.

      That said, I agree with every point and believe your analysis to be one of the best I ever had the chance to read.

      Have a good day

  • mcpw

    Nothing is changing for the younger audiences, who move on unaware the dark magical girl niche exists in the timeslots way past their bedime, the fact you know about these “darker” shows has to do with the fact you are a western adult.

    What worries me is western young girls. Since sites like Crunchyroll and Netflix don’t differentiate between an actual children’s cartoon to something like Raising Project and often recommend such dark adult shows with the kid friendly stuff.

  • Dawnstorm

    If a genre is all about hope, then it’s no surprise that there are going to be offshoots that look into dispair. Some might embrace dispair (MGRP does to an extent), while others just use it as an entry point. Now what about gender?

    There’s a question of target audience. If it’s shoujo, you have adventure shows. You can get pretty dark, but at the end of the day your target audience is supposed identify with the protagonist (or one of her friends, maybe). Girls can have adventures, while also pursuing typically feminine modes of expression.

    When you shift the genre into seinen, you have a different dynamic. There’s a sense of drama: girls are more protect-worthy than boys – the younger the more protect-worthy. You then have a genre that, despite casting the girls in active roles, uses their gender to heighten the drama of it all. Shows like YuYuYu, Madoka, or MGRP feel more tragic, because their girls and girls are not supposed to fight. It’s a strange inversion, even though the dramatic roles remain the same. I love Madoka dearly, but there’s that moment where Kyubey tells our protagonists why they choose teenage girls: maximum emotional anxiety. Now the teenage part I’m fine with; it’s a rather vulnerable time, but the gender divide? Really?

    Seinen magical girl shows treat gender differently from shoujo magical girl shows; both, IMO, preserve the status quo the closer they get to escapism. Personally, I actually have fewer problems with MGRP than I have with YuYuYu; the former is up-front about appealing to our base instincts – you can take it or leave it. But the latter uses gender and age to heighten the emotional appeal of a glorification of violence: faceless enemies, no sense of what they’re fighting for, etc. all in the favour of “heroism” as goal in itself. The suffering in the show is all in the service of heroism as an abstract good, and its spiced with gender (female) and age (young) to make it all the more tragic. It doesn’t treat gender and age any differently than Madoka or MGRP, but it puts it to questionable use – it’s very close to military propaganda. They’re war veterans, their country treats them badly, but it’s still worth it because they get to be heroes. To be honest, that turned my stomache in a way MGRP never did.

    • Destroyer Inazuma

      Yup, every time I watch/read anything that glorifies heroism for the sake of heroism I feel a tad sad and hope that people will be rational and sceptical enough to not buy in flat out and realize a simple truth: fighting violently against baddies, going on literal battlefields isn’t the only way to be a hero and should not be the only way.
      A quote from my parents that shaped a lot of my life: “Magicians are people who build bridges”
      To which my gynaecologist grandma would probably reply: “Medics are amazing wizards”

  • Commonsense

    This is interesting, let me voice a reply.
    —————————
    “But the counterargument, brought up by Japanese feminists like Kumiko Saito, is that the emphasis on girlhood and femininity actually enforces traditional gender roles, and if every magical girl gets her power from “girly” things it says that being “girly” is the only way to gain that power, which excludes girls who don’t fit that exact mould.”
    1. First off it doesn’t reinforce traditional gender roles. There are no gender roles for being a magical girl.
    2. I don’t know what anime Kumiko Saito is referencing, but almost every magical girl anime gets their powers from some sort of magical item or superpower, not “being girly”.
    3. There is no exclusivity by having a character with a dress. This point is rather silly to make given how ridiculous anime outfits are in general.
    ——————–
    “The heroines are always young, too, and often leave some aspect of their power behind as they age. Combine this with the trope that the more mature-coded female characters in these series–the ones with adult bodies, revealing outfits, and heavy makeup–are often the evil queens and villains, and this leaves older women out of the magical loop with no genre-specific magical warriors to see themselves in.”
    1. This is actually a very common trend in every genre aimed towards younger audiences, especially shonen. This has to do with intended audiences and is not inherently wrong for a character to not resonate with someone outside of that audience.
    ———————
    ” I reiterate, is what this genre is about: telling young girls that they have the power within them to overcome great obstacles, if only they believe in themselves and each other. ”
    1. Well it’s not about telling young girls, it’s about providing a story in which young girls do that. You’re mistaking the genre as having a goal to teach young girls a lesson, when it’s not about that.

    —————-
    “Why is this a thing that keeps happening? Dark magical girl is almost becoming a genre in its own right, and I am not comfortable with it.”
    1. Well then you are probably inexperienced in the anime genre. To make something “dark” is one of the oldest trends within anime. You can be uncomfortable with this, but it happens because there is money to be made in inverting the usual formula of a genre.
    ————————-
    “the show is stomping on little girls’ dreams as a writing exercise.”
    1. Well then the show is probably not intended for the little girls who normally watch that genre. This is the same issue when you compare shows with similar genres but vastly different themes and presentation. The intended audience is simply not the same.
    You put it well later:
    “These dark shows effectively mock that important and optimistic message for the purpose of grown-up anime fans’ entertainment.”
    ————————
    “there’s something inherently skeezy about the idea of anime studios setting out to draw young girls in terrible pain for an eager, waiting adult audience.”

    Well, it’s not actually for adults. Again, I think you misunderstand who the intended audience is here. Teenagers are primarily the ones who enjoy and consume entertainment of a high violence threshold. I know it’s kind of silly to point this out given that the demographic is still just watching violence for the sake of violence, but I just didn’t like the tone of “those pervy adults!” because usually adults are not the intended audience of “torture porn” anime to begin with.
    ——————————–
    “My question is, why do creators leap to making these familiar archetypes violent and twisted as their way of making them appeal to an adult audience? It’s sad that grown-ups seem to feel the need to undermine the very messages that we loved so much as children, by effectively mocking them and making these gory adult versions that take apart everything the original magical girls stood for.”

    Well the answer is simple: because optimism-smashing sells well with the teenage audience.

    —————————————————-

    “That said, there’s no real reason we can’t have magical girl shows for both children and an older audience”

    Not every show needs to be for every audience. That results in very poor quality products all around.

    • Caitlin

      Did you read the article linked? It’s long, but it’s an excellent read, and Saito clearly knows what she’s talking about. It traces the history of magical girls from the earliest shows in the 60s all the way through the most current trends, including Madoka Magica, and discusses how the tropes and trends reflect, reinforce, and occasionally subvert gender norms and expectations in their native culture.
      The items the magical girls get their power from are magical, yes, but they are also girly – these two things are not mutually exclusive. The early series Himitsu no Akko-chan had her getting her powers from a compact mirror; Sailor Moon uses jewelry. Their outfits are distinctly feminine, featuring a lot of frills and bows and almost always have skirts – even the most masculine of magical girls have girly-girl outfits. And as much as I would love these things to not be associated with a particular gender, they are absolutely associated with girlhood in this modern world.

      • mcpw

        Wow, I’m going to have to disagree with that view of Akko-chan. Yes, she gets her power from a compact mirror, but at the same time, of all the girls that can shapeshift, Akko has one of the most gender norm breaking use of that power.

        She gets her Nurse, Princess transformations. But she also transform into a cowboy in one of the early episodes of the 1968 show, despite that being a boy’s role at the time, and has no issue copycatting males.

        Or an even better example, check the 1988 remake’s ending sequence and see how she alternate her cosplay of western pop culture between female and male characters. (Such as Indiana Jones and Luke Skywalker)

        Not a perfect show, and I have only watched a small sample of it, but when compared to western media and even shows with a similar transforming heroine (cutie honey, Minky Momo) it really comes of as one that doesn’t stick to gender roles too much.

  • Sim Le

    It’s actually been widely speculated in the fanbase that Magical Girl Raising Project is in fact heavily inspired by Tokusatsu Shows specifically Kamen Rider Ryuki, with which Magical Girl Raising Project has many uncanny similarities.

    I think a lot of fans of the subgenre would agree that Kamen Rider Ryuki has clearly had a big influence on the most recent wave of Dark Magical Girl shows.

  • Kacey Levitt

    “Even if, say, a Precure show gets watched and enjoyed by a bunch of thirty-something-year-olds, that’s just a thing that happened, and was not the intention of the creators. The show was primarily made for young girls and the adults jumped on the back of the bandwagon.”

    That statement made me remember something similar that happened with “Cutie Honey”, another magical girl series that was popular way back in the 70s. While the original intended audience was for men (given the skimpy outfits and sexual themes), there were and still are plenty of women who loved the manga and anime as well. It might have been a bit of an unusual reaction during the time, but it proved over the years that there are certain things capable of “clicking” with a minority audience that’ll garner for an unexpected but positive reaction from a different audience’s perspective.

  • Amateur Slacker

    I disagree with most of what you said.

    I believe that the fundamental message of Yuuki Yuuna is actually “f*** you Madoka, we have power of friendship” which is as optimistic as it can get. It is saying that even in the cruel Madoka-esque world, where everything is terrible, power of friendship can still triumph. You can see that what ultimately saved Tougo, who was destroying everything in desperation, was Yuuna’s love. In other words, we must support each other to live through this harsh world together.

    As for Magical Girl Raising Project, I understand that its “main attraction” is the gory deaths of its characters, but it has two other ideas in there. The first message is that “the world is cruel, deal with it”. Each character has ideals of her own, and has to work hard towards them. The second message is that there are terrible people out there, but they are not evil just for the sake of evil. They have their own backgrounds and their own reasons, and we should try to understand them. I think this show’s overall worldview is much more nuanced and accurate than the “this world is beautiful” usually found in this genre.

    Another point I’d like to dispute is that you claim that magical girl shows force women into certain sexual stereotypes. I don’t know about non-dark magical girl shows, but this claim clearly doesn’t apply to the dark ones. Madoka Magica had Sayaka clearly playing the role of the sacrificial white knight, traditionally fulfilled by males. Yuuki Yuuna had Yuuna herself, who throws around punches that would fit just fine in shounen shows. But the clearest case is Magical Girl Raising Project, which had a ridiculously diverse cast. It acknowledges the sexual discrimination in Ruler’s backstory. It had Ripple and Top Speed act basically as delinquent bros to each other. It had Magicaloid 44 be a gender-neutral robot. It had Winterprison be a very masculine lesbian. It even had a male who became a rather feminine magical girl. You also can’t complain about the characters’ ages, since their ages are all over the place. If anything, Magical Girl Raising Project is a huge step towards breaking gender stereotypes, so we should celebrate dark magical girls for allowing older demographics to see these stereotypes being broken.

    TL;DR: There’s no rule saying that magical girls must be about empowering young girls, so don’t be surprised when a magical girl show tries to do something else for a different demographic.

    (I don’t have much to say about Madoka Magica and Rebellion, though. I don’t understand that show very well.)

  • Peter Kovalsky

    Curious about people’s thoughts on Mai HiME in this context. Does it belong in this category? Does the ending rehabilitate it or does it feel like a copout?

  • Libraryesque

    I very much side with Homura, on the understanding that the way “Homura’s world” works is one based on the Incubators being served justice. Magical Girls can continue to exist, and their wishes don’t become curses, because the negative energy is being forcibly imposed upon the Incubators directly (which have functionally immortal bodies).

    Homura makes the decision to have the world work this way because she doesn’t believe that Madoka should be the one to pay the price for the suffering caused by the Incubators’ past and future actions. She is acting because she does care, and even though this denies Madoka the monumental choice she made, there is a worthwhile question being asked here as to whether it’s fair to have ever asked Madoka to make it.

    This seems absolutely justified to me. Madoka’s choice to save the Magical Girls of past, present and future necessarily ties her in with the patriarchal functioning of the Incubator system, even if she tries to mould it into something constructive and valuable, and Rebellion demonstrates that the Patriarchy is prepared to even subvert Madoka’s changes to their own ends by capturing and controlling her for the sake of profit. Homura’s decision, then, is a declaration of war against that in defense of the one she loves. And I’ll happily live by that.

  • GreyLurker

    Fate/Kalieid liner is one of my favorite series in part because it has it’s feet set in both sides of the issue. As part of the Fate universe it’s naturaly stuck with a lot of dark elements but the Magical Girl elements directly oppose that. For a lot of things Illya can achieve the impossible because she believes in the ideals of a Magical Girl. She flies because Magical Girls fly. It’s just obvious to her even if other characters tell her it’s not possible.

    Confronted with morality choices like “You can save your friend or you can save the world. Which will you choose” She essentially says “Screw that, I’m a Magical Girl so obviously I’m gonna save both and get the happy ending” She will save everyone because that is what Magical Girls Do.

    and that faith lets her achieve the impossible.

    On the flip side. The first series of WiXROSS… I couldn’t finish it. It was a good series but horror of it just got to me. It’s not really a Magical girl series, more of a Fighting Card game series but it has that same twisted darkness to it that you are talking about here. The premise was simple. Girl gets into magical card game with living magical girl avatar card. If she wins enough matches against other girls she gets to have her greatest wish come true.
    First Twist: What they don’t tell you is that if you lose enough to be dropped from the contest, your greatest wish will NEVER come true. When the 2nd Twist hit, that just broke me from the series. I couldn’t see any hope for the characters in it and as engrossed in the story as I was I just couldn’t bring myself to keep going. Win or Lose their lives were destroyed.

  • Stephanie Gertsch

    I adore Madoka Magika, but I agree that it’s the characters that make the show interesting, not the mere fact that it’s dark. Being dark and gritty is no more inherently worthwhile than being light and fluffy. It all depends on what the creator does with the story.

    Not that interesting in checking out other series in this genre, or the Madoka movie since it seems like they’re more in it for the shock value than drawing you into the struggles of the characters.

  • Inksquid43

    Late to the discussion as always, but I remember reading a random journal article about the magical girl genre that said something about how there needed to be more stories about magical girls who are past adolescence and into adulthood. Apparently the article mentioned a show about a housewife who is also a magical girl but…that show didn’t get very creative about its commentary about social conventions or something

  • Legoguy0410

    I for one, find the idea that the magical girl genre is some gem your not allowed to subvert to be ludicrous. You can’t tell artists what they can and can’t do.

    • Completely agreed. Fortunately, no-one in the post or comments was trying to tell artists that they can’t subvert the magical girl genre.

  • I agree with SFDebris that Madoka isn’t even that Dark, not going off the orignla show. The movie is what ruined everything.

    Yuki Yuna is a Hero is also a perfectly uplifting show.

    Magical Girl shows could get dark before Maodka, Sailor Moon and Nanoha both had their dark moments.

  • “Not to mention that more fan service and sexualisation can sneak in if the show is aimed at an older demographic, which gets into even more unsettling territory, again, given that these are still shows about little girls.”

    This is one thing I do fear for the future of anime, particularly when I have kids myself, I would want them to enjoy anime, but I’d have to be extra careful and even watch it myself before allowing my own child to, because it gets harder and harder to differentiate an anime for children and an anime disguised as an anime for children which is actually somewhat ecchi or having disturbing scenes (like rape) thrown in.

  • I don’t share the author’s conception of genre as a constraining force. She insists in several places that magical girl shows ought to be a certain way, an idea completely unintuitive to me. I’m also not sure why it matters whether e.g. Madoka Magica is a “real” magical girl show. If we establish that it isn’t, so what? To me, genre is just a pragmatic system of classification that doesn’t tell you much, if anything, about the artistic merits of individual works.

  • GreyLurker

    So it did have a happy ending….oh thank goodness. The series was good it just felt like there was no way out for these poor girls. I’ll have to get back to it

  • John Clark

    I just want to make one point about Madoka, and that is the purpose of Momdoka. Momdoka, the powerful businesswoman struggling to break the glass ceiling. Puella Magi Madoka Magica is an allegory for the struggles of these women, I believe.

  • John Clark

    Hell yeah, I didn’t watch Rebellion until I had finished watching the series three times, so I already had a solidified interpretation of Madoka as an allegory. When they finally undermined Kyuubey, that was such a fantastic moment. Even he was speechless at the end.

  • John Clark

    Also, Cardcaptor Sakura is the greatest magical girl show of all time.

  • It’s also important to know who the audience for a magical girl series is. Precure and Sailor Moon were for little girls. Every other series was for an adult male audience. This will color the content and perspective significantly.

  • Loiosh

    Homura did not transform into something she hated. It’s important to recall the discussion she had with Madoka near the beginning of the film in the field of flowers. Homura is checking with Madoka to see if she would be happy with her fate. She asks if Madoka would be okay with losing all of her friends and family and Madoka tells her that is not a fate should would enjoy. That she would never be happy in that situation. Homura takes this as an indication that Madoka’s destiny was not wanted.

    We should not excuse Homura for what she did. After all, Madoka’s sacrifice at the end of the series is sacrifice of selfless love. Homura’s choice at the end of Rebellion is sacrifice of selfish love. After her discussion with Madoka, she decides that the best fate for Madoka is to save her from her own destiny, even if that make Homura her enemy. Even worse, Homura erases Madoka’s close relationship with her friends (by making her a transfer student). Homura is selfish.

    I find it a fitting choice for who Homura is. She does love Madoka, but she loves Madoka for Homura’s sake. Madoka is the /only/ person Homura cares for; therefore, she feels that only she can make the right choices for Madoka. One other thing to keep in mind, Homura looped over 100 times (according to the creators). That is, she’s lived an extra 100 months over all of those she knew. She’s no longer able to connect with those her age. It gives her a very different perspective on things.

    • Lakewood’s Sixth

      Homura is selfish? You really negated your argument with last paragraph. That’s the EXACT reason why Homura is NOT selfish. She loved her for fucks sake. She was the most humane character out of everyone and yes, it’s beautiful how she turned into a witch/Homucifer aka Madoka’s enemy. For her own good.

      That leaves us with either two things:

      1. Homura’s ultimate redemption. Where she can finally let Madoka go and fulfill her desire – Madoka’s happiness. I wish they would go down this route but I doubt they’ll even finish the show.

      2. End up being the worst character in the show, killing everything they created for 12 episodes and one film.

  • Fajar Muhamad Natawihardja

    magical girl anime created have a purpose to encourage all teens girl who has no courage to befriend with anyone or have bad on they study or anything what to make them feels down. but some reason “mahou shoujo” now created to tell the viewer ” mahou shoujo it’s not that weak!” or “mahou shoujo can more stronger, thiller or dark for good purppose story than other anime who the protagonist all male” .
    2011 is like “revolution” of drawing moe character. so, the story must change to from other mindset of viewer, that what i think XD
    i like your article about magical girl it’s not suppose to be a thriller full of bloodlust, really it’s make me relief. but some people out there like magical girl with more “real” batlle so i not blame there. I, just you now why magical girl? they’re suppose to be friendly and cute? but, why? :’)
    but i really respect all viewer or editor to make magical girl different from other one, really thanks a lot for your article