I’m closing off 2006 with a tribute to the anime genre that has been for many their first experience: magical girls (maho shoujo) who transform, use magical powers, and fight evil to save the world. And sometimes, they have an animal sidekick as well.
First off, a little bit of history. The magical girl is one of the oldest genres in anime. In the 60s, the dubbed version of Bewitched was extremely popular among Japanese girls. Animation studios were looking for something that would appeal to that demographic, so they tossed around the idea of an ordinary woman who lives in the real world, except she has magical powers that she uses to help others and do chores around the house... leading to the creation of Mahoutsuki Sally (Sally the Witch). This anime would end up one of the longest running shows in Japan, and be popular in Europe as well.
Until the dawn of Sailor Moon, magical girls were rather non-martial, using their powers to help, instead of fighting evil. In the West, maho shoujo refers to the heroic type of girl, while in Japan, the term is still mostly for the more peaceful and older style.
Ah... Sailor Moon. The anime series that combined sentai with magical girls to create... an entire team of magical girls, fighting evil together! It’s hard for us to imagine how revolutionary this was in the early 90s, when anime was falling into a depression in the glut of OVAs. Now, the format of Sailor Moon (manga from TOKYOPOP; anime out of production) is worn out and very retro. I won’t get into the details of the Moonie mythos, but in combining action with shoujo storytelling, this anime struck a chord with almost everyone who watched it (or read the manga, for that matter). This was a gateway anime for many US otaku, and otaku around the world.
The team concept of magical girls has never really left the genre since then. We can see teams in Tokyo Mew Mew, Hyper Police, Ojamajo Doremi, Pretear, Magic Knight Rayearth and Wedding Peach, to name a few. Of these titles, Magic Knight Rayearth (manga from TOKYOPOP, anime from AnimeWorks) and Pretear (manga from ADV Manga; anime from ADV Films) are the most derivative, with ordinary girls who are chosen to save the world (not necessarily their home world) by using mysterious power and with an entire support group of characters backing them up. Of these two shows, I’d recommend Pretear more; it takes the Sailor Moon concept and complex web of relationships and reissues it in a more mature format. No whiny main character here! Wedding Peach (manga from VIZ Media; anime from ADV Films) is also quite formulaic, but at least the girls wear wedding dresses instead of modified schoolgirl outfits.
Taking a twist on the magical girl team are Tokyo Mew Mew and Ojamajo Doremi. Tokyo Mew Mew (manga from TOKYOPOP, anime from 4Kids Entertainment) crosses the format with catgirls, where the girls get their powers from animal DNA, in particular, cat DNA. Saving the world from nameless aliens, the Mew Mews look cute while dealing with real life problems, such as boyfriends. Ojamajo Doremi (manga unlicensed; anime from 4Kids Entertainment) doesn’t have cat ears, but it strays closer to the original magic girl format with a team of girls studying to be witches. Of course, their education isn’t all books at all. The girls must fight enemies in the magic world, while helping people in the human world. Extremely popular among girls in Japan, Ojamajo Doremi is still relatively new in the US, but it looks to be pleasing the same audience on TV in America.
Other than helping others and fighting evil, magical girls are also just plain old magical for magic’s sake. Full Moon (manga from Viz Media; anime unlicensed) is the story of Mitsuki, a twelve year old girl who is a talented singer and wants to be a pop idol when she grows up. However, she has throat cancer, and they have to remove her vocal cords in order to save her life. One day, Mitsuki meets a pair of shinigami (death spirits; think cute grim reapers), who inform her that she has one year to live. Realizing that no record label would pick up a thirteen year old singer, Mitsuki makes a deal with one of the shinigami to turn her into a sixteen year old version of herself, with healthy vocal cords. Going by the stage name “Full Moon,” Mitsuki works to achieve fame before she dies, as well as reuniting with her childhood love.
On a lighter note, Sugar Sugar Rune (manga from Del Rey Manga; anime unlicensed) is the story of two witches, Vanilla and Chocolat, who are competing to be the next Queen of the Magical World. The competition is quite simple: the young witches must disguise themselves as humans and steal human hearts in the form of jewels. Enter their wacky adventures in the human world as the girls compete against each other while remaining best friends.
Finally, two series that involve magic girls going on quest to set right a wrong that they accidentally made. Cardcaptor Sakura (manga from TOKYOPOP, anime series and movies from Geneon) involves a ten year old girl named Sakura who opens one of her father’s books and accidentally releases the magical Clow cards. Since she could open the book, Sakura has innate magical ability, and thus it is her responsibility to track down the cards, which physically manifest as magical creatures, and return them to the book. Like all maho shoujo, Sakura has an active social life, with friends and boyfriend crushes.
Alice 19th (manga from VIZ Media) runs like a shoujo version of Labyrinth. Fifteen year old Alice has always been in the shadow of her older sister, to the point where most people refer to her as just “Mayura’s little sister.” Of course, Alice has a crush on an older boy in the archery club. One day, she saves a white rabbit from becoming road kill, while she is saved by her crush. The rabbit reveals its true form and informs Alice that it’s her destiny to become a Lotis Master, someone who uses words to enter the Inner Heart of other people. However, with great power comes great responsibility. Alice accidentally makes her sister disappear when she uses the nineteenth Lotis Word in an argument over the boy Alice has a crush on, who is now Mayura’s boyfriend. Hence Alice sets out to find Mayrua. Accompanied by her crush, who also has the potential to become a Lotis Master, and another Lotis Master who wants to marry her, Alice must discover the power of the other Lotis Words and of the dark side, the Maram Words.