Nanoha, Madoka, and Honest Mahou Shoujo

I watch a fair bit of anime and I read a good bit of manga as well; some might even say a great deal, but being in the fandom I am well aware of what is considered “a great deal” by people who are on the outside looking in, as opposed to the inside looking, well, further in. The anime I watch and the manga I read fall into a number of genres, but typically it is harem/fantasy (Ranma, Love Hina, Zero no Tsukaima, Rosario to Vampire), mecha/Real Robot/Super Robot anime (Macross Frontier, Gundam SEED, Mazinkaiser, Super Robot Wars OG: The Inspector), and mahou shoujo (Cardcaptor Sakura, Kamikaze Kaitou Jeanne, Sailormoon, Nanoha). There are other series, naturally; in recent seasons, I’ve watched Gosick and Tiger and Bunny, as well as Fate/Zero and a slew of others. I also avidly read Skip Beat! and a number of of other titles. Those do not feel like they fit neatly into any of the categories I outlined above.

Being a fairly active fan, I spend a considerable percentage of my free time in fan-related pursuits online and AFK. Forums, games, figures, dolls, jpop, vocaloid, etc.; the usual run of pursuits for someone with my interests. I encounter a lot of arguments about exploitative/otaku shows, moeblobs, and the general ruination of the anime/manga market since [insert arbitrarily chosen date here] when [insert hated series here]. This is nothing new; I’ve been reading things like this for years and the names and dates change accordingly. I usually do my best to ignore it, but naturally we all get caught up in chastising that elusive stranger on the Internet who is, for lack of a better term, wrong.

Let me say up front that there are plenty of shows I am not interested in, and even some I actively dislike. I don’t discount a genre whole-cloth anymore (I’ve eaten too much crow for that), but there are always going to be things I tend to avoid; there is only so much time (and money), after all. It is frequently the case that when I have known of and discounted a title for some time I run into someone (like @Gabihime) who crusades to convert me by forcing me to watch a few episodes or read a few chapters. Sometimes, I am unaffected. Other times, though…

Well, other times I become crazily obsessed with the title I formerly mocked/disregarded/ignored. This has happened to me enough times that I recognize that the tendency isn’t likely to go away anytime soon. I couldn’t care less about Code Geass for the longest time, for example; when I finally watched it, I was completely hooked. It is one of my favorites, a series I show to people as an example of what good TV anime can be like.

I say all this to illustrate that I am willing to give things a chance, and that even if I feel strongly negative about something, I can come away loving it. This was what happened with Mahou Shoujo Lyrical Nanoha. I had been hearing about it for years by the time I watched it, and I had heard all the bad there was: otaku-driven fanservice show, naked henshin sequences, tired tropes, unimaginative design, overpowered city-wrecking nine-year-olds, yuri service, blah blah blah. It wasn’t as though I hated Nanoha; I was just pretty uninterested. I like magical girls a lot, but it seemed a little dishonest to watch a show created for fanservice, almost like a parody of a real show. Not my thing, so I thought.

Part of my disinterest lay in the fact that much TV mahou shoujo is pretty lame. I love Sailormoon, but only about 40-50 of the 200 episodes are really fun to watch. The manga is far better. Kaitou Jeanne is a great manga, but the anime goes into one of those weird non-conclusions and truncates the story. Precure is just not to my taste.

Sakura, though; that’s the best. Excellent manga, excellent anime, excellent movies. Beautiful animation, wonderful world design, memorable characters. Sakura has it all. Frankly, there was no way, I thought, that Nanoha would ever come close to that; why bother? Ultimately, I suppose I thought it would be not unlike Pretty Sammy, which is both laughable and mostly forgettable. Nanoha seemed to be regarded as some sort of magical girl pastiche, with panty shots alongside earnest declarations of love and trust; Pretty Sammy meets Agent Aika or something. Creepy. No thanks. Certainly no Sakura.

Eventually I did watch the first two episodes of Nanoha, and I was surprised to see that I enjoyed it. So I watched more. Then I realized that I really did like it. Quite a lot, actually; enough to understand that everything I had heard about it was basically propaganda. Nanoha had become one of my favorite series, and it happened basically overnight.

So, why would I like Nanoha? Looking at my interests in retrospect, it’s no surprise; mecha, fighting, cute girls, magical girls, scifi, love and justice- it’s all there. It was tailor-made to appeal to me, so why had I not wanted to see it? The answer is a little troubling, and it ties in with the way otaku-centric things are perceived and discussed online. What it boiled down to for me is this: I thought Nanoha was a fake magical girl show, and as someone who loves magical girls, I couldn’t stand that.

Why would I think it was disingenuous? I have high emotional involvement with the series I watch, typically. When I watch Sailormoon, I don’t watch it with the intention of offering junior grade MST3K to whoever else happens to be in the room; rather, I instead get ready to believe in the power of our hearts to overcome darkness. From what I had read, Nanoha did not seem to offer me that option. But where had that come from, exactly? There is a lot of hate, both casual and caustic, directed at the franchise; much of it seems to have come up as a sort of split in what people consider to be the two faces of modern TV anime: moeblobs and “serious” shows. In such a binary world, Nanoha must be one or the other. The truth is, though, that neither category is of much use.

There are a few items which came up consistently as marks against Nanoha: overblown combat, too-indulgent henshin sequences, and lackluster world design being the most common. To these I added insincerity, a mistake I will describe in greater detail shortly. Let’s examine these one by one to see what I was thinking about them.

First, overblown magical girl combat: this is an easy one to pick on the show about, but it ultimately demonstrates a lack of knowledge about other magical girl series. The idea that Nanoha is somehow overpowered might be plausible for someone who has never seen Usagi at work, but one should consider carefully what magical girls can do historically. Each of the sailor senshi has dominion over an elemental power, and their abilities only grow with time. Some are more obviously overpowered than others (Saturn most famously) but every one of them is an Accelerator-level danger to any military who would get in their way. Usagi is capable of crazy feats of destruction and renewal; that the series does not focus on them as combat in the same manner as a shounen series might does nothing to erode the characters’ potency. Hinamori Amu from Shugo Chara would be another example of someone whose world does not really revolve around combat; nevertheless she can wield power easily able to knock a helicopter out of the sky, and she’s in primary school. Kinomoto Sakura can do all manner of terrifying things, from wielding a blade like Athos to replacing the darkness of the world with light. She can fly, fight, and shield herself from incredible harm, and she does so never losing her earnest personality.

Next up is the issue of loli fanservice. I was under the impression, really, that there was more of this than there actually is in Nanoha. I suspect this is due to years and years of watching anime, but the fanservice is pretty tame as such things go. Nanoha and Fate are briefly naked in their transformation sequences, and one sees the occasional low-angle shot of Nanoha to catch a glimpse of her panties. It’s nothing extraordinary, and certainly something you had better get used to if you want to watch other contemporary anime (Toaru Majutsu no Index / Toaru Kagaku no Railgun comes to mind). So for the age group, there is certainly nothing excessive. Saki is way worse (or better? XD) when it comes to yuri-service for example, as are a number of other shows. Nanoha is hardly remarkable in this sense.

World design, then. I did not expect to find it so amusing, myself. The initial setup seems a little limited, but even Nanoha’s initial encounter with Raising Heart’s decidedly technological bent is promising, and the eventual appearance of the Midchildans makes the take on technological magic very fun. The personalities of the intelligent weapons Bardiche and Raising Heart are an important part of the show, carried to great effect in A’s. Is it utterly and completely new? Perhaps not, but what is? What matters is that it is engaging and interesting, and not thoroughly predictable in its unfolding.

The next point is perhaps the most subjective: insincerity. I believe that this means different things to different people. Personally, I need to believe along with the characters. I found that I could do that with Nanoha, just as I can with Usagi and Sakura. Nanoha’s desire to talk to Fate is real, and that means that her affection for Fate (particularly as portrayed in the movie) is meaningful rather than just being yuri fanservice. It is believable. Frankly, making the Nanoha/Fate pairing convincing to me was the most impressive part of the series; I would not have anticipated that it would have been so well-done.

So that’s a defense of Nanoha, at least from a few common criticisms. The viewing of the series satisfied me that it was worth watching and rewatching. But what about other series? Has it had an impact? Yes, it has. I think that Nanoha helped to create the world in which Puella Magi Madoka Magica could be produced. It functions as a sort of bridge between magical combat with older characters, like Fate / stay night and Index, and that with younger, more innocent characters like Amu-chan. More importantly, it forms a stylistic bridge between the two, giving the younger characters a chance to shine in combat and appeal to an older audience while retaining the same mahou shoujo morality. Madoka Magica also pushes a yuri pairing at the center of its narrative, and it is to be taken seriously. Characters have real risk and tragedy in their lives; this would never have happened unless Nanoha had been there to recontextualize the types of tragedy present in series like Sailormoon into a more generally palatable form.

Let me elaborate a bit on that point. Usagi watches her friends die one by one protecting her. She fights the final battle herself, and wins, knowing that she will die in the attempt, and further knowing that no one in the world is even aware of her struggle. That is just the first plot arc. Later, she has to face down Galaxia tossing her loved ones into nonexistence while she looks on, helpless. Magical girls are meant to stare down the darkest things in their world and themselves, and win. Nanoha made that into combat of a more shounen type, something that more people perhaps could get behind. It is that point from which Madoka jumps off, showing a dark world and difficult choices ahead for the characters. It should be noted, though, that Madoka makes the same sort of decision that Usagi does, and that she is able ultimately to save the world.

That’s what mahou shoujo do: they save the world despite the odds. In that sense, Nanoha and Madoka are not so different. I love believing in the power of magical girls. I love honest mahou shoujo. I just wish that we did not have to be quite so derisive and divisive about which ones we let into the club.

Tags: , , , ,

Leave a Reply