CONTENT WARNING: Brief references to abuse (physical, emotional, and sexual). SPOILERS for Sailor Moon S, Heartcatch Precure, and Revolutionary Girl Utena.
In recent years, “dark” magical girl characters have become not just an archetype in shoujo but an entire subgenre of anime and manga. With gratuitous violence and an emphasis on suffering, the dark magical girl has been appropriated to provide a darker twist aimed at older male audiences.
But the dark magical girl archetype existed long before these stories and already had the power to resonate with audiences through redemptive, empowering character arcs in shows like Sailor Moon, Heartcatch Precure, and Revolutionary Girl Utena. Instead of focusing on suffering, the dark magical girl archetype can inspire young female audiences by showing that they have the power to overcome their personal pain.
For those not familiar with the dark magical girl archetype, the simplest definition of it is a magical girl with a troubled past and sometimes sullen or severe personality. Unlike a typical magical girl, a dark magical girl is friendless, has absent or abusive family members, and has experienced traumatic events. Her warm side is often hidden under a quiet, standoffish nature.
Depending on their circumstances, a dark magical girl may have either lost her powers or been corrupted to serve evil. Since she’s meant to represent redemption for the lost, the viewer usually sees dark magical girls enduring some suffering before overcoming it with newfound strength through the power of friendship and love.
A classic example is Hotaru Tomoe from Sailor Moon. In the original anime, manga, and recent anime remake, Hotaru is a lonely young girl with a villainous father, a tragic backstory, and a body possessed by the evil entity Mistress 9. Her purity as a human girl is also a sharp contrast to her Sailor Saturn identity, who has world-ending power that makes her a sacrifice and a brutal force.
After gaining strength from the friendship (and implied romantic love) of Sailor Moon’s daughter Chibiusa, Hotaru is able to break free from Mistress 9 and unlock her power as Sailor Saturn. While both are destructive forces, Saturn is a necessary one; still, while her power is what saves the day, it also nearly kills her. In the end, she’s able to save the world but cannot save herself.
Despite her tragic circumstances, Hotaru’s story isn’t without hope. With the power of Sailor Moon, Hotaru is reborn again and raised by the Outer Senshi. They give her a normal life filled with happiness while helping her control her dormant Senshi powers.
Once Sailor Saturn reemerges, Hotaru gives the Outer Senshi new transformation items and they rally together to face a new threat. As Hotaru and Sailor Saturn, she is also able to reestablish her friendship with Chibiusa by fighting alongside her while enjoying normal civilian life.
Within the original anime, Hotaru’s character arc is especially notable for the Sailor Moon S season. Unlike earlier seasons, Sailor Moon S has the most morally grey characters, changing things up from the “sympathetic bad guys that die” trend. With characters like Hotaru, Sailor Uranus, and Sailor Neptune, Sailor Moon showed that seemingly villainous characters can be given a second chance.
Although Sailor Moon has one of the most compelling dark magical girl characters, there have been other notable dark magical girl characters created during and after the popularity of Sailor Moon. One of these characters is Yuri Tsukikage—a.k.a. Cure Moonlight—from the anime series Heartcatch Precure. A series that’s part of an entire franchise of Sailor Moon-esque magical girls known as Precure, Heartcatch Precure tells the story of young girls who must restore an ancient tree called The Heart Tree and prevent a group called the Desertarians from making the world a desert.
Initially, the series presents Cure Moonlight as a mysterious magical girl who was defeated in a major battle with her evil counterpart, Dark Precure. Appearing in the dreams of the protagonists, Hanasaki Tsubomi and Erika Kurumi, it is Cure Moonlight’s apparent death that leads to the events that cause them to become Cure Blossom and Cure Marine.
Later on, the series reveals that Cure Moonlight survived the battle but now only exists as Yuri Tsukikage after losing the ability to transform. Not only did Yuri lose half of the Heartseed she uses to transform, she also lost the will to connect with others and fight after her fairy partner Cologne died saving her life.
As a character, Yuri Tsukikage’s development involves her learning to move past her grief and open her heart to others, leading to her rebirth as Cure Moonlight. Heartcatch‘s cinematography plays a major role in enhancing her character arc, using a flower motif that represent themes of change and growth. Many characters in Heartcatch have a heart flower that represents their inner motivation and unique desires, but for those who are Precure, their heart flowers have an even deeper meaning.
In Yuri’s case, her character development is symbolized by a flower that contains her name: a moon lily. Unlike the other Precure, her heart flower is the only one not associated with a flower that grows in daylight. As a flower that grows amid darkness, it serves as the perfect visual motif for Cure Moonlight. Since her heart flower wilted upon the death of Cologne, Yuri’s rebirth as Cure Moonlight is symbolized as a flower that has learned to bloom again.
With Yuri’s rebirth as Cure Moonlight, she demonstrates that darkness isn’t necessarily evil, but a trial to overcome. This is especially meaningful during the show’s Trial of the Super Silhouette, a test that the Precure must pass to gain their Super Silhouette forms. In Cure Moonlight’s test, she literally fights a version of herself that represents her inner darkness.
In the end, she realizes that the key to beating it is by resolving to work through the pain that’s still in her heart. Unlike Hotaru, she saves herself and turns her darkness into power.
Revolutionary Girl Utena, a show that examines many fairy tale and anime tropes through a critical lens, also has a dark magical girl overcoming her inner darkness. Released in 1997, the TV anime tells the story of a teenage school girl named Utena Tenjou as she assumes the role of a prince and becomes embroiled in a series of duels involving the Rose Bride, Anthy Himemiya. Utena is especially notable for tackling mature, dark themes like abuse and incest without using those elements for lurid appeal or titillation.
Anthy Himemiya isn’t as obvious a dark magical girl as the other two, but the traits are present. She transforms to become the Rose Bride, and her trauma as a victim of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse is tied to the “evil” skills—manipulation and deceit—she learned in order to survive. She is also a dark magical girl because she embodies and subverts the princess and witch archetypes as an emotionally repressed girl with supernatural powers.
Through the witch archetype, the viewer sees that Anthy’s emotionless behavior and her “evil” skills are the result of her true self being stifled by trauma. The witch represents someone who is not inherently evil, but has evil foisted on her by society. It forces the viewer to take a look at their expectations of gender and race and consider how they can harm others. By connecting the dark magical girl to real trauma, Anthy’s triumphant narrative shows that victims can empower themselves as survivors.
Ultimately, Anthy Himemiya redeems herself at the end of the series when Utena’s actions help her free herself from the duty of The Rose Bride. In the movie Adolescence of Utena, Anthy also redeems herself when Utena literally and metaphorically becomes the drive Anthy needs to free them from a false reality.
When juxtaposed with “regular” magical girls, dark magical girls like Hotaru Tomoe, Yuri Tsukikage, and Anthy Himemiya are especially empowering. Regular magical girls represent the ability to overcome evil and hardship with love and friendship, and dark magical girls are often drawn to their optimistic spirits. As a result, dark magical girls and regular magical girls help each other become stronger inside and out.
Given how dark magical girls can be a source of newfound hope, it is disconcerting to see them portrayed with over-the-top despair for shock value. Alex Henderson put it best in her dark magical girl essay when she wrote: “Magical girls are light in the darkness, telling young girls that they too can shine if only they hope and believe.” Even though dark magical girls battle trauma and despair, they learn to shine with love, friendship, and their own power.
At its core, the dark magical girl character archetype represents recovery, a reclamation of inner peace, and power despite personal strife. Dark magical girls like Hotaru, Anthy, and Yuri have shown me that you can be powerful in spite of trauma and bad experiences.
Although many of today’s dark magical girls cater to an older male audience with endless suffering, they can become so much more for a wider audience. By returning to their roots, dark magical girls can work together with regular magical girls and show that those dealing with darkness can recover their light.