With the recent premiere of Sailor Moon Crystal, it is time we take a look at the Magical Girl trope present in manga and anime. For many women, their only encounter with manga or anime is within this particular genre. It’s no small wonder; the main audience for stories with Magical Girl elements is women, especially young women and girls.
First, some definitions. Robin Brenner, librarian/author/editor/lecturer, has studied many common elements to manga and anime, especially in their relationship to teenage users. Magical Girl stories fall within a broader genre of manga and anime called shojo. In Brenner’s terms, shojo is “aimed at girls and teenage girls, usually from around age 10 to 18. It can encompass a wide range of content, depending on the series, but shojo manga is often defined by a concentration on emotions and relationships. As the titles are aimed for the older end of the range, there is also plentiful eye candy — pretty guys in more revealing outfits, sometimes referred to as fan service” (Brenner, online course, 2014). Stories that incorporate Magical Girl fantasies are a cornerstone of the shojo genre. According to Brenner, these stories have a few common elements: an ordinary girl plagued by common problems, the discovery of being more than an average teenager, a magical transformation, and superpowers (Brenner, 2007).
At a glance, the Magical Girl story is similar to the American superhero story we are all familiar with from the past seven decades. A young person, tasked with the challenge of saving the world, takes on great responsibility. Only, in this case, the hero is a young girl in a pretty costume with cute sidekicks.
Even with little knowledge of manga and anime, most people can name at least one Magical Girl story: Sailor Moon. Digging a little further, most people can name another popular Magical Girl story, Cardcaptor Sakura. Using these two manga and anime series, we’ll dig deeper into what the Magical Girl genre is and why it is so crucial to Japanese media and American audiences.
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Sailor Moon was created by Naoko Takeuchi, who wanted to make an all-female version of the popular Power Rangers franchise. A group of women who fought with incredible powers to keep the world safe from great evil – while wearing adorably short sailor suits. (There’s a reason why the Barenaked Ladies say that Sailor Moon has the boom anime babes that make them think the wrong thing.) Sailor Moon wasn’t born fully-formed; Takeuchi spent some time developing Sailor V, the role-model and friend of Sailor Moon (and my personal favorite Sailor Scout). While there’s a lot going on with the history of Sailor Moon and its journey to American audiences (this article provides the best comprehensive look of the early years of the franchise), the story itself is chock-full of interesting elements.
Usagi Tsukino is your average middle school student – lazy, poor student, clumsy, and loud. On second thought, she’s probably a little less than average :-/. Takeuchi gets her point across with Usagi: the girl isn’t special upon first glance. She’s just trying to get by everyday (and sneak in some video games on the side). When Usagi saves a stray cat from a group of hooligans, a series of events are accelerated that reveal her true lineage and purpose in life. Usagi Tsukino, middle school klutz, is a Sailor Scout. Her mission? To right wrongs and triumph over evil (and that means you!). Throughout the series, Usagi meets other Sailor Scouts, including Sailor V, and grows as a heroine and a leader.
Each Sailor Scout has a different ability, personality, and dream. Ami, Sailor Mercury, is a genius student who is quiet and determined. The Sailor Scout from Mar, Rei, is a priestess with a fiery temper. Makoto, the tomboy protector of Jupiter, dreams of becoming a baker and a wife. And Mino, the experience Sailor V, joins the group as Sailor Venus. This core group of young women offer an example of how female characters should be written in comic format: diverse, loving, and with the ability to get along with each other (although, early dubs and translations of the anime series portrays more animosity between the ladies than what existed in the original series – kinda like people thought that an American audience wouldn’t believe a group of young women could get along to save the world or something). The Inner Senshi – Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter – battle evil forces with a rotating cast of allies from the present and future. The Outer Senshi – Uranus, Neptune, Saturn, and Pluto – offer even greater diversity in heroines, and the Sailor Starlights incorporate more gender-bending into the series.
The story wouldn’t be complete without the main man, Tuxedo Mask. Yes, that’s what he’s called. He wears a tuxedo and a mask. AND HE ROCKS IT. Tuxedo Mask is the dreamboat every girl wanted to date. Handsome, older college man who fearlessly came to the aid of Usagi and her friends…what wasn’t to love about him? Wait, don’t tell me. Let me live my manga fantasy for a little longer. In the anime, Tuxedo Mask spent the early episodes briefly interfering in Sailor Moon’s battle, telling her to stop dicking around, grow a pair, and fling her magic tiara at the bad guy. I learned all my motivational speaking tactics from him.
If you think I’m rambling on about Sailor Moon, I have a good reason to do so. Sailor Moon changed the lives of many young American viewers. Just take a look at some of these entries to the “What does Sailor Moon mean to me?” contest from Anime News Network. Sailor Moon wasn’t just a show – it was a revolution. It opened our eyes to powerful girls with flaws who were still capable of saving the world. Where else in popular media would you see a team like Sailor Moon? Sailor Moon and its massive popularity revitalized the Magical Girl genre for American audiences.
Sailor Moon isn’t the only popular Magical Girls manga or anime series out there. Cardcaptor Sakura hit American audiences in the early 2000s with a manga series, followed by an anime around the same time. Cardcaptor Sakura was written by CLAMP, a super group of female creators who still publish amazing stories today. It features an elementary student named Sakura who accidently released a series of magical cards into the world. In order to prevent the chaos they bring, Sakura (with the help of Cero and her best friend Tomoyo) dresses up in intricate costumes and seals the magical beings back into their card format. Only after cards are sealed can she harness their power and become the master of the cards.
While there aren’t any magical transformations outside of releasing the cards, Cardcaptor Sakura embodies the Magical Girl genre wholeheartedly. A normal girl, supernatural coincidences, and a need to protect the world are present in the series. Like Sailor Moon, Cardcaptor Sakura explores the budding romance and sexuality of young girls. Though Sakura is in fourth grade, she idolizes her older brother’s best friend, a high school student named Yukito. At the same time, her male rival Syaoran crushes on Yukito pretty hard. Tomoyo dreams of being with Sakura one day, but, for the most part, keeps her feelings to herself. As with many other manga and anime series, the same-sex romances are not treated as anomaly.
What makes these stories so popular with the young female audience? It could be what we blatantly see on the surface: the Magical Girl story is an escape from the mundane. To transport out of boring school, daily commutes, and worries about the future to a world where you are the hero…isn’t that everyone’s dream? Coat that with the specific point that the young girl is the hero, and you’ve got something special. As Brenner (2007) points out, the heroines of Magical Girl stories are no longer regulated to the background of the story. They are front and center, demanding the attention and imagination of readers both male and female.
And they are doing it while wearing pink.
One of the greatest tragedies of modern female-centered media is that the heroine often sheds her own feminine characteristics in favor of masculine traits. Think about Katniss – her demeanor is typically more masculine in general. It’s as if we are telling our audience that kick-ass female characters can only exist once they forsake femininity. Magical Girls prove that’s not the case. Their power is distinctly female-driven, from the way they look to the way they act. These characters show that kick-ass female characters who wear pink skirts and dream of romance can exist. Their weapons often heal rather than kill, subtly emphasizing the difference between Magical Girl heroines and traditional masculine heroes. Even more important is how natural the characters feel while reading them. Sailor Jupiter, a tall tomboy, is a natural fighter who wants to become a housewife with her own bakery one day. It’s a great testament to Takeuchi’s writing that readers don’t even question Jupiter – she is who she is. This seeming contradiction in Jupiter is the embodiment of third wave feminism: pleasure equals power.
Magical Girl fantasies teach us that we can be female and fight back without sacrificing any part of what makes us a woman.
One of the trademarks of Magical Girl stories is friendship and romance. Stories like Sailor Moon emphasize the importance of friendship to saving the world. Sailor Moon cannot defeat enemies on her own; it is only with the help of the Core and Outer Senshi can she gain enough power to take down the universe’s biggest bad guys. And don’t forget the emotional and social support the women give to each other. Crime fighting isn’t easy, and having a best friend (who may or may not also be a Magical Girl) who shoulders some of the responsibility is a lifesaver to these heroines. Seeing women in media who are genuinely supportive and loving towards each other is huge. The romance featured in Magical Girl stories are to die for. The longing Sakura has for the (much) older Yukito reminds us all of old crushes. The destiny Sailor Moon and Tuxedo Mask shares underlies the entire series. Magical Girls are the object of desire in their own series, the beautiful protectors that capture the hearts of the men in their lives.
To top off everything, these Magical Girl stories give audiences what they crave: intricate plots with the right dash of fluff. A certain amount of reality has to be put aside when reading these stories. Once you accept that these young women are magically transforming into superheroines and fighting against world altering evil, you can embrace the high-stakes plots in the different series. While Sailor Moon and Cardcaptor Sakura don’t necessarily deal in darker themes, other Magical Girl stories like Ark Angels and Ceres: Celestial Legend show the strength of female characters through Magical Girl elements.
There is, however, a double-edged sword when it comes to these Magical Girl stories. Heroines are often portrayed as physically perfect by patriarchal standards (Newsome, 2008). While the girls in Magical Girls stories retain their femininity and gain power, they are still the object of male gaze. (This is a great topic to debate. I’d personally love to hear your thoughts about the beauty and objectification of Magical Girls in the comments.) Further, the idea that a woman would have to be magical in order to be powerful suggests that a powerful female in her own right belongs in the fantasy realm as well (Newitz, 1995).
Regardless of personal opinion on the Magical Girls genre, it’s easy to see why audiences in Japan and America love it. Between the ass-kicking, pretty costumes, forbidden romances, and themes of friendship, these stories have clicked with generations of women, proving that there is strength in femininity.
Brenner, R. (2007). Understanding Manga and Anime. Westport, CN: Libraries Unlimited.
Newitz, A. (1995). Magical Girls and Atomic Bomb Sperm: Japanese Animation in America. Film Quarterly, 49(1).
Newsom, V. (2008). Young females as super heroes: Superheroines in the animated Sailor Moon. Femspec, (5.2).
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