Spoilers for Puella Magi Madoka Magica, Revolutionary Girl Utena and Sailor Moon
It’s March 2011, and you’re settling in to watch the latest episode of Puella Magi Madoka Magica. The upbeat opening and bright visuals make you nostalgic but the show itself has a more adult feel to the action, with the gun toting Tomoe Mami and the pipe bomb wielding Akemi Homura. You’ve become desensitized to Magical Girl shows airing on late night adult time slots; after all, Mahou Shoujo Lyrical Nanoha had been airing season after season since 2004. As the episode ends and Mami gets caught in the Witch’s snare, you’re thinking “What sort of Sailor Moon style Deux ex Machina is going to save her?”. Nothing does.
This is the tipping point, the moment where studios see how lucrative it is to market magical girls to adults and start taking notes on how they can best do it. As the tone in the Madoka series shifted at the end of episode three, so did the tone of the mahou shoujo genre.
Same as it ever was
Dark moments aren’t exclusive to magical girl shows airing from 2000 and onward. I have vivid memories of a ‘90s me crying my eyes out when each Sailor Scout was killed off in the Sailor Moon season finale and gasping as sword after sword impaled Anthy in Revolutionary Girl Utena. There is no shortage of death and pain in mahou shoujo shows, so why is the death in Madoka Magica so strikingly different?
Madoka was aimed toward men. While shoujo (for a target demographic of young girls) magical girl shows use death or darkness to dramatically raise the stakes, offer cathartic moments of empathy or show the depths of love and friendship, seinen (for a target demographic of adult men) magical girl shows tend to have a voyeuristic quality designed more for shock value. The tonal difference between shoujo and seinen deaths is subtle, but it’s there: shoujo deaths tend to happen near the end of the journey and often come with the girls offering words or actions of encouragement; seinen deaths have no time stamp and tend to elicit a sense of hopelessness. Every Sailor Scout is resurrected after Sailor Moon saves the day; Miki Sayaka is always doomed to an ill-fated end no matter what sacrifice is made.
Seinen series with these genre elements aren’t a new phenomenon either. Cutie Honey aired back in the ‘70s and kicked off the series with the murder of Honey’s father and a bloody battle sequence. However, much of the violence was largely targeted at the villains and the violence toward Honey was voyueristic in the sense that it tore her clothes but not her body. It was capitilizing on sex, and though violence was used it was not the direct draw. Most seinen shows were marked as such because they were horny like Honey (Jungle de Ikou) or had “adult humor” (Puni Puni Poemy), and many were direct-to-video. So while seinen material wasn’t anything new, Madoka’s rampant success marked the start of the torture porn olympics.
Hello darkness, my old friend
Day Break Illusion, Yuki Yuna is a Hero, Magical Girl Raising Project, Magical Girl Site–the list of brutal and fatalistic magical girl shows released after or alongside Madoka’s success goes on and on. If they’re not bloody, they’re ero; if they’re not ero, they’re a parody, or some combination of any of the above. Like the Isekai genre, there has been a 180 flip in audience-based saturation going from largely shoujo shows to largely seinen shows. Nunokawa Yuji (involved in the production of Pastel Yumi, Magical Emi, and Fancy Lala) speculates in Patrick W. Galbraith’s The Moe Manifesto that the shift in audience could be due to Japan’s declining birth rate. As Saito Kumiko pointed out in her essay “Magic, “Shōjo”, and Metamorphosis,” many magical girl shows are essentially 25-minute toy commercials and with less children buying toys, it makes sense for the merchandise-focused anime industry to pivot from the child-focused shoujo genre to the adult-focused seinen genre. After all, adults overall tend to have a bit more disposable income than elementary school girls.
This wouldn’t be a bad thing if the shows didn’t treat teenage girls like cannon fodder, and if each show wasn’t getting worse in terms of brutality. The deaths and violence in Madoka Magica seem tame compared to the literal torture scenes in Magical Girl Spec-Ops Asuka. While Tomoe Mami’s decapitation happens largely off screen, the buckets of blood in Magical Girl Raising Project are spilled on full display. What’s worse is the types of assault have escalated beyond death and dismemberment, with Magical Girl Site having an onscreen sexual assault. The mahou shoujo genre has leaned into the same arms race that often appears in low-budget horror, with each series trying to outdo one another for shock value and push the boundaries of just what they can get away with. Death became mundane thanks to Madoka Magica and the subsequent copycats; creators needed to dip to new lows to shock and awe audiences.
With a new season of Yuki Yuna recently released and Madoka still touted as Shaft’s most accessible hit with the promise of ten more years of content after the final Rebellion movie, it doesn’t seem to be slowing down any time soon.
Here comes the sun
It’s not all doom and gloom, even with the audience flip. There are some shows that feel like they grew up with us. Titles like The Flying Witch or Wandering Witch aren’t parodies, gratuitously violent or too overtly sexual. They feel like the Mojokko (Little Witch) shows that started the magical girl genre in the first place. The mature themes in Flip Flappers mark it as prime grimdark material, but it truly feels like Grown-Up Princess Tutu: even though the formula is mixed up and pain is present (alongside some unfortunate fanservice), it’s still a magical girl show that takes not just itself but the genre’s worth seriously, without the buckets of blood.
And like with the shows of the ‘90s, not all pain is created equal. Despite the focus on suicide and the overtly bloody battles, Wonder Egg Priority is ultimately a series about coping with grief, loving yourself and the catharsis of knowing you are not alone; though like Madoka it suffers from a lackluster wrap-up and a sequel hook that might never see any payoff, given the title’s extensive production woes.
Blood and violence doesn’t automatically equate to gross and bad. Being helmed by and aimed toward men doesn’t doom a series to a voyeuristic fantasy of girls’ pain and sexuality. You can make a genre mature without removing the aspects that appealed to the original consumers of it and it’s a shame that these series get buried or lumped in with the others simply for being more adult.
Into the unknown
With Precure and the various Prism Paradise shows (Pripara, Kiratto Pri Chan, etc.) being some of the last holdouts of the shoujo audience mahou shoujo shows, I have to wonder if the genre can ever get back to its roots; moreover, does it even need to? If Sato Toshihiko is correct and the notable lack of shoujo aimed mahou shoujo is due to the declining birthrate, the only way to “save” this aspect of the genre would be to fill in that gap and buy the toys meant for children; but is there a way to bring it back to its hallmarks without sacrificing maturity?
Ikuhara Kunihiko manages to put out series after series showing us how mature and dark magical girl (and magical boy) series can exist without copious amounts of voyeuristic pain; the success of Little Witch Academia gave us a handful of aged up Majokko shows free of gratuitous suffering; and even with the death and existentialist dread, Granbelm ultimately has a hopeful message that that you create your own meaning to make life worth living.
I’m happy the genre I fell in love with when I was five has persevered and grown with me as I hit my 30s. While I’m sorely nostalgic and wishful for gentler shows, I recognize that one of the few constants in life is change. Maybe there is no going back for the genre, but maybe if it produces shows like Yurikuma Arashi and Flip Flappers it doesn’t need to.
Editor’s Note: This article was edited after publication to remove an unconfirmed rumor about Magical Girl Site season two