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The Intertwined Histories of Magical Girls, Idols, and Science Fiction Anime

Magical Angel Creamy Mami

I recently learned (thanks to Japanese popular culture scholar Patrick Galbraith’s new book The Moe Manifesto) that Magical Angel Creamy Mami is not only an influential magical girl anime but the very first anime about an idol. In other words, idols and magical girls have been conceptually tied to each for decades now. You can see this not only in the the fact that you’ll get the occasional idol + magical girl still (Cure Lemonade and Cure Sword in the Precure franchise, for example), but the fact that the latest competitors to magical girl anime have been idol-themed shows, such as Aikatsu! and Pretty Rhythm, both of which feature magical girl-like transformation sequences. I think Creamy Mami is especially significant here because the majority of magical girls prior to it were more “witch girls,” characters who already have magical powers without the need for transformation and use them for mischief.

Of course, the common trait of magical girls and idols is that they both feature cute girls, and with idols especially they’ve always occupied a position where they are innocent yet sexual, and I don’t mean that necessarily in an “idols are creep magnets” way. Both men and women respond to idols for a variety of reasons, and a lot of it is tied to the image they present. They can be somewhat literal idols for girls and targets of affection and desire for men, and this can be seen in how idols are used in anime. While Creamy Mami built an unexpected older male audience, for example, Superdimensional Fortress Macross reveled in it by combining the idol with the extremely prominent aspects of science fiction and giant robots. The 1970s brought forth a lot of giant robot anime, and the 1980s saw the time when those who became fans of robots and SF began creating their own works, as seen with Kawamori Shouji and Macross and later Studio Gainax and their Daicon III and IV animations. Many of these creators said, “I like SF, and I like cute girls,” and created a defining combination of anime where mecha and other forms of fantastic technology are mixed with cute girls.

Daicon IV

It can also be argued that the girl in the Daicon animations is herself a magical girl, but the connection between magical girls and science fiction is especially evident in the 1990s and the advent of the fighting magical girl, most notably with Takeuchi Naoko’s Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon. While Sailor Moon does not feature giant robots, it’s undoubtedly influenced by the Super Sentai (i.e. Power Rangers) franchise with its own transformation sequences, color-coded costumes, and monster of the week fights. Super Sentai is not only traditionally marketed at boys (though this too changes as they eventually start trying to appeal to the “moms” market), but it’s also more broadly tied to tokusatsu, the costumed fighters and rubber monsters genre that more or less literally means “special effects.” What I find significant here is that when it comes to categorization of genres in Japanese, you often see “SF/tokusatsu,” tying things back, at least somewhat, to science fiction.

Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon

Moreover, the manga group CLAMP have been fans of titles like JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, Saint Seiya, and Galaxy Cyclone Braiger, and have produced titles such as Magic Knight Rayearth, which features magical girls in a swords-and-sorcery world who also gain the power to summon giant robots. “Rayearth” itself is the name of a giant robot, thus making the title itself reminiscent of the naming scheme of many mecha anime such as Mobile Suit Gundam or Super Electromagnetic Machine Voltes V. It’s as if these female creators have taken the works that were made “masculine” by Kawamori, Gainax, and others, and in a sense re-feminized them in a process that created something new and exciting.

If we’re talking influences though, Sailor Moon and CLAMP works such as Cardcaptor Sakura are huge in and of themselves, and their shadows can be seen in a number of anime from the 2000s on. Sailor Moon basically transformed magical girls to such an extent that many assume that fighting magical girls have always been the norm, and Precure has come up as a spiritual successor that has lasted even longer than Sailor Moon. The protagonist in Sunday without God practically is Cardcaptor Sakura protagonist Kinomoto Sakura, and Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha, which has as its primary audience older men, clearly takes a lot from Cardcaptor Sakura as well. In the case of Nanoha, it also incorporates an increasing level of science fiction from one series to the next, as the franchise goes from technology-based magic staffs that shoot lasers in battles reminiscent of Mobile Suit Gundam to spaceships and interdimensional travel. Once again, the magical girl as cute girl is tied to SF. As for idols, they not only haven’t been forgotten, either in real life or in anime (as seen with series such as Love Live! and the aforementioned Aikatsu!), but Kawamori makes his return in the form of AKB0048, a series that not only features idols as magical girls of sorts both piloting and fighting giant robots in a story that spans a galaxy, but is directly based on one of the biggest real-world idol acts in Japan today.


It’s as if magical girls, idols, and SF have been doing a song and dance for years and years, changing partners along the way but always being drawn to each other. They’re seemingly tied together by the fact that just a few tweaks to either appeal to a male or female audience more, while the fact that people will not necessarily stay within the genres or types of entertainment that they’re “supposed” to remain with. Cuteness is a versatile tool that at times reinforces societal and gender norms while other times becoming a tool to defy them, and this continues to influence anime to this day.

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Ogiue Maniax on The Veef Show’s AKB0048 Podcast

A new podcast is out where the Veef and myself discuss that most radical of idol-themed science fiction anime, AKB0048.

We cover personal opinions on the show, the influence of director Kawamori Shouji and writer Okada Mari, favorite characters, trends in current and old anime, and I make a remark about AKB0048‘s connection to neo-Marxist theory.

AKB0048 is available on Crunchyroll for free.

The Function of AKB48 Songs in AKB0048

The anime AKB0048 asks a simple question: “What if the J-pop AKB48 was in the future and its members fought with light sabers?” Essentially another marketing platform for an already extremely popular band, the anime uses a lot of existing AKB48’s songs, most of which are fluff pieces about falling in love or being young girls. The songs are part of their image and have factored into their popular and financial success, but within the context of AKB0048, I find that these same pop songs start to carry a different meaning.

AKB0048 takes place in a future where mankind has colonized space, and during which a movement to ban all entertainment and performance has grown increasingly strong. Successors to the “legendary AKB48,” the girls of AKB0048 fight in order to protect people’s rights to rock out, and in this setting the songs of AKB48 are near-ancient “relics” passed down through the generations. No longer acting as the supposedly genuine expression of young girls’ thought and feelings, the songs are “weaponized” within the context of a guerilla movement to restore entertainment in the universe. The songs act more like representative anthems of a better world, not so much in the actual lyrics, but in the way they promote the right to have lyrics so light and fluffy.

AKB48’s songs in AKB0048 act as symbols of change, revolution, and renewal. This is even more apparent when looking at the songs made for the anime. Compare the lyrics below:

First is “Heavy Rotation,” a popular preexisting AKB48 song used frequently in the anime:

I want you!
I need you!
I love you!
The blaring music
Playing in my head
Is on heavy rotation

The words “I love you” dance
Like popcorn
Just thinking
Of your face and voice
Makes me go crazy

I’m so lucky
To get to feel like this

(translation taken from Kiwi Musume)

Now compare it with “Dreams Will Be Reborn Again and Again,” the 1st ending theme for AKB0048:

The stars shining in the night sky
are billions of light-years away
Even if the deep despair
turns into endless darkness
The truth will be passed on
Who will be the one to accept
its message of light
that is entrusted to the flow of time?

People will be born
People will die
The flesh is mortal
What resurrects
from its ashes
is passion
that goes to the next generation

(translation taken from Words of Songs)

The lyrics writer for all of the AKB48 songs, as well as “Dreams Will Be Reborn Again and Again” is the famed AKB48 producer Akimoto Yasushi, so it’s not like AKB0048 is divorced from the creative forces which govern the actual band. Suffice it to say, however, the songs from the “future” seem cut from a different cloth than their predecessors, and this changes the meaning of “pop idol group,” at least for the anime.

It is difficult to regard the fictional group AKB0048 as simply girls who desire fan support within a specific section of the music industry. The girls begin to embody values beyond music, youth, and sexuality, such as social and political potential. Granted, this isn’t too surprising, seeing as the man directing AKB0048 is the creator of Macross. Kawamori Shouji has decades of experience in creating anime about pop idols changing the world, though I actually feel that the usage of pop music in AKB0048 surpasses Kawamori’s more established work because of the more thorough incorporation of the very idea of popular music into the anime’s narrative.

With the criticism and controversy surrounding AKB48 as a pop idol tour de force and all that it entails, the existence of AKB0048 is a curious thing. Is it in support of that system, does it go beyond, or does it sit somewhere in the middle? Is the “ideal” of AKB0048 different enough from the constructed space of AKB48 that it can be considered something more?

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