When the character of Takamachi Nanoha first appeared, few could have predicted the strange arc she has taken over the past two decades. Originally a typically cute little sister character from the visual novel Triangle Hearts, the most unusual thing about her was that her siblings were secret ninjas. Since then, she’s turned into a world-busting techno-mage in her own Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha franchise, grown into an adult with an adopted daughter, and become a lasting symbol of otaku-oriented magical girl appeal. But because she’s also clearly a lolicon icon, her legacy is a mixed one.
It’s clear that, on some level, Nanoha’s appeal transcends the age of her character at any given moment. Between her cheerful personally, her ability to make friends out of former enemies, and her massive laser weaponry, she’s basically a cross between Cardcaptor Sakura, Son Goku, and a Gundam. Even as she ages up, eventually into her twenties, this basic core of who she is stands the test of time. She well deserves love and admiration in that respect.
However, to deny her intentional appeal to a lolicon audience is to feign ignorance. You don’t have to be a lolicon to like Nanoha, but you can’t refute that the element is part of her design and presentation.
Years ago, I watched Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha and Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha A’s—the first two TV series, when Nanoha was still young. My memories are a bit hazy, but despite moments that made me uncomfortable, I felt I could come away with an overall enjoyable experience. Nanoha as a character shines through, as do so many others. She’s cool, she’s strong, and her magical staff Raising Heart will shoot someone into the stratosphere.
But when the remakes came out years later, I didn’t even want to touch them. It wasn’t the new character designs, which gave Nanoha and the rest the most massive eyes possible. That’s just a stylistic choice I could accept. Instead, where it soured me was in the transformation scenes. Magical girl transformations are a hallmark of the genre, and an opportunity to encapsulate the appeal of a show. The Nanoha movies used that opportunity to linger on their nude bodies for an uncomfortable amount of time, seeming at times more like a gravure video than an opportunity to see Nanoha power up. To be fair, it’s not entirely absent in the older works, but they really doubled down on it for the films for the worse.
Takamachi Nanoha has a strange legacy as a result of everything with which she’s associated. Say you’re a fan of Nanoha, and the reactions are bound to be mixed. Her character is timeless in some ways, but her image is inevitably tied to her young self and all it entails.
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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.
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 GuardianSailor 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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Cardcaptor Sakura is a magical girl series released in 1996 (manga) and 1998 (anime) which remains very popular among otaku. Following the life of a young girl who discovers magic powers and must use those new-found abilities to collect magical cards which have been dispersed throughout her city, Cardcaptor Sakura’s main draw is the natural charm its characters possess, particularly the heroine Kinomoto Sakura. Sakura exudes a sense of authenticity in her character that makes older male fans feel for her, and sometimes even develop sexual feelings for her.
While it’s never clear as to whether or not Cardcaptor Sakura was intended to be received by the fans in this manner (even though Sakura creators CLAMP were fans themselves before becoming professionals), there exists little of that ambiguity with a similar show, Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha. Essentially following the same basic premise as Cardcaptor Sakura, Nanoha features a young girl who receives magical powers and has to go collect items, but the key difference between the two series is that while Cardcaptor Sakura was targeted towards primarily young girls, Nanoha was aimed squarely at those older male otaku who were very fond of Kinomoto Sakura and the world in which she lived. The late-night time slot, the merchandising (posters in the otaku-oriented Megami Magazine, Nanoha-themed hug pillows), all of it points to a show made for otaku. Why then, do the people who make and promote Nanoha go through all the trouble of giving the series this magical girl facade and having it designed to look on the surface as if it were designed for the enjoyment of young girls when it clearly is not? The answer is, because that’s what the fans want.
Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha
“Textual poaching” is a term which refers to the act of engaging a work of media, be it text, television, radio, etc., and taking from it not so much what the author intended, but what is pleasurable or enjoyable to the reader/viewer instead of the work as a whole. Coined by Michael de Certeau in 1984, the term was utilized by Henry Jenkins in his study of Star Trek fans, particularly in the way that fans approached their own creative endeavors pertaining to their chosen fandom. The classic example of this is the notion that Kirk and Spock are romantically interested in one another, based on their close friendship and lines which are interpreted as “hints” towards their “true” relationship.
More recently, Jenkins has talked about how the one-sided conversation between creator and consumer has broken down, and how easy it is now for people to talk to a creator, albeit in the indirect form of shouting into the internet. While Jenkins does not focus particularly on Japanese animation, this is essentially the environment modern anime finds itself in, and in this setting you will find that a number of shows, like Nanoha, are designed to be poached.
At the zoo, chimpanzees are not fed by simply placing the food in front of them. Instead, what the zookeepers do is hide the food in the chimpanzees’ cage so that the chimps may find it themselves, and in doing so are creating a facsimile of the wild setting where chimps would forage for food. Even though the zoo is obviously not the jungle, this artificial foraging is what the chimpanzees prefer to simply having the food given to them. In essence, this is the situation surrounding the otaku and the otaku-conscious creator. The otaku, the fan, gains enjoyment from being able to draw from these works a secondary interpretation of events and characters within, and so the creator responds by making a story which on the surface seems very similar to an “innocent” series, but in actuality is constructed from the ground up as a work meant to simulate the foraging otaku engage in to find aspects of a work they can extrapolate as fans. Another example of this is Prince of Tennis and other similar series which, while running in Shounen Jump, are designed in part to attract the female readers who, similar to the Kirk/Spock fans, saw the “close friendship” theme common in shounen manga as “CLOSE FRIENDSHIP.”
Prince of Tennis
The joy derived from not approaching a work as intended makes sense when you realize that many fans are familiar with the notion of liking things to an extent others may not. Fans, after all, are not the majority. As such, they are experienced with liking things which are not intended for them, to the point that the act of pursuing series not intended for them may become the focus of their activity as fans. Creators understand this desire, and so have responded in kind by making series which are designed to be used in that manner, like a small man-made pond where pre-caught fish are thrown in to make things easier. The relationship between creator and fan/otaku is thus predicated on this willful suspension of disbelief. The otaku are willing to pretend that this series made for otaku is not made for otaku. The creator, in turn, continues to intentionally hide bits of “sustenance” in the fans’ cage, a cage which the fans have willfully constructed themselves and can leave at any time should they choose to do so.
I take issue with people who declare Mahou Shoujo Lyrical Nanoha (or one of its sequels) to be the best Magical Girl series ever. The magical girl genre is understandably focused primarily on relationships, the pursuit of love, and other similar themes. Nanoha, meanwhile, is noted for its magical girls engaging in earth-shattering battles with devastating laser barrages and bone-shattering impacts. The general impression I get from people who make the claim is that Nanoha is great because it’s a magical girl show without all the fluff and romance.
In other words, it’s the best magical girl show for being nothing like a magical girl show.
I don’t think this is a case of breaking genre conventions, though the thought occurred to me. It’s different from a show like Evangelion which turned the mecha genre on its ear because Evangelion did not go against what defines the mecha genre in the first place. The characters may have been emotional wrecks, but the common theme of humanity and its relationship with war and suffering is a long-running concept since even before First Gundam, and it’s present in Evangelion with a twist. Princess Tutu, as an example closer to the topic of Nanoha at hand, approaches the issue of meta-stories and the very nature of “story” itself, but it maintains itself as a magical girl series with, again, its emphasis on relationships.
I like the Nanoha series, but the appeal of it is more like a Sunrise mecha show than it is a magical girl series, and I think to judge it from that perspective is a little unusual. It would be like saying that a plate of spaghetti you just ate is the best yakisoba ever, despite tasting nothing like how a yakisoba should. The key word in mahou shoujo is shoujo, and personally I think the fact that Nanoha is basically only a magical girl show on the surface automatically disqualifies it.
PS: If you’re wondering what I consider to be the best magical girl series, Cardcaptor Sakura, of course.
I’ve been thinking about those works which cross the line between various genres of anime, particularly those which bridge the gap between “male-oriented” and “female-oriented” labels. Series like Saint Seiya and Cardcaptor Sakura manage to capture an audience beyond their main targets, while others such as Gundam Wing and Mahou Shoujo Lyrical Nanoha not only bridge the gap, they cross over and begin to set fire to the ropes.
I know I have some issues with Nanoha, and while I think it’s a fine series overall, it never completely shakes that feeling that yes, this is totally intended for guys like me who love Cardcaptor Sakura (though not in that way personally), and it is kind of creepy for doing so. I know Gundam Wing is often considered far more of a black sheep than G Gundam among male fans of the Gundam franchise, for the way it perhaps overly de-emphasizes aspects often associated with Gundam, never mind that the original series garnered more than a few female fans of Red Comet Char Aznable and his zany (dead) friend, Garma Zabi. It’s just interesting to see this negative reaction in both myself and others pertaining to certain series and our expectations of what a show should entail.
I wonder if it’d be possible for genres to swap almost completely.