This year, 2018, marks the 65th anniversary of Ribbon no Kishi, the manga that me and many others consider the foundation for the magical girl character trope. So it’s a perfect time to answer that burning question…
Just what is a magical girl?
I say it’s a burning question because it seems everyone has their own interpretation of what criteria must be met for a character to be defined as a magical girl and for a series to be considered a magical girl series. It doesn’t help that the industry itself has treated the subject in various ways across these decades, leading to different eras where the standard for a magical girl differed a lot from each other.
And I can in no way answer the question in a way that will be satisfying to everyone, nor can I act as authority on the matter. All I can do is simply offer my own view on what constitutes a magical girl and a magical girl series, from the perspective of someone who’ve spent most of their life a devoted fan of the subject. So let’s go right ahead and define both terms right now, shall we?
A magical girl is a girl who is magical. A magical girl series is a series mainly focusing on one or several magical girls as protagonists.
…okay, so maybe that’s a bit too direct and yet too vague. Let’s start by talking about the first half of the term. Magical. While it’s easy to say that a magical girl must have a fantastical supernatural ability of some sorts, be it for transformation, combat or other reasons, a lot of the time such a restricted definition can cause a bit of a problem. If magic must be inherently fantastical and supernatural, in the traditional sense, we must omit a lot of science-fiction focused magical girl series using advance technology or alien powers.
Is Symphogear not a magical girl series because their “magic” is based in faux science? Of course not, their abilities are portrayed the same way a typical magical girl battle anime would after all. So we need to be a bit more flexible with how to define magic. Rather than require mandatory witchcraft, let’s look to author Arthur C. Clarke‘s three laws of science-fiction. Specifically the third, most commonly known law.
“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
-Arthur C. Clarke, Hazards of Prophecy: The Failure of Imagination (1962)
The concept isn’t that hard to understand. At an advanced enough level, technology attains the same things we once imagined magic would attain. This logic can be applied to magical girls quite well to distance them from the need to wield more traditional witchcraft when exploring a different setting. So magic is a fantastical power, supernatural or highly advanced but technological, that allows the magical girl to perform that which those without said magic can’t.
Now that we’ve pinned down the “magical” half of the magical girl, let’s look at that second half… The girl.
Does the girl have to be only a girl?
This is where we go back to that foundation block mentioned at the start. 65 years ago Tezuka Osamu, the godfather of manga, released the first chapter of his shoujo manga Ribbon no Kishi, known in the west as Princess Knight. The book would lay the foundation for shoujo manga moving forward and slowly start the creation of the magical girl trope as a result. While Princess Knight might not be a traditional magical girl series in the way we think of it today, it has a few obvious parallels to a lot of more modern stories, namely in its main character Sapphire.
Sapphire is the heir to the throne of Silverland. Though named the kingdom’s princess, they but must present as a prince in order to be eligible for the throne. This is part of the main theme of their character, as Sapphire carries “both a boy and a girl’s hearts”, both of which they need. As such there’s clear hints of genderfluidity involved, which would become a recurring theme in both shoujo manga and magical girl series moving forward.
While Sapphire is not magical in the sense that they possess typical magical abilities, they have a friend, Tink, who does. Tink is very much the prototype for the mascot character we now find in almost every traditional magical girl series. He’s always by Sapphire’s side and was the one who bestowed Sapphire their boy heart in the first place. Much like when a mascot character like Luna in Sailor Moon gives its main character her way of transforming, it’s Sapphire’s boy heart that allows them to embody their boy-mode, so to say. Sapphire can become a prince, a phantom knight and more thanks to the heart bestowed upon them by Tink.
They also receive various magical items to help them grow stronger and be able to defeat their enemies, much like how traditional magical girls always need to upgrade their arsenal of magical items. Even if it’s just to sell toys. So all in all, Sapphire somewhat fulfills most of what is expected of a traditional magical girl in modern context. But they’re not just a girl, they’re a girl and a boy. And they’re not the only character described as such in magical girl canon either.
In the magical girl action comedy Gonna Be The Twin-Tail!!! the main character is first introduced as a high school boy who really likes twin-tail haircuts. However, he’s given the ability to transform into a super hero, Tail Red, who is a girl. And I don’t mean that in a cisnormative physical sense, I mean that the character literally states that when she’s Tail Red, she is a girl and should be referred to as such. While I make it sound more progressive than the series deserve, because it’s anything but, it is an important detail that again harkens back to genderfluidity and characters like Sapphire.
Outside of genderfluid characters, the concept of “both a girl and a boy” are often used to denote characters like Sailor Uranus from Sailor Moon or Cure Chocolat from Kirakira PreCure A La Mode. Both characters are girls who identify as such, but are mistaken for boys and often framed as a more traditional male character in their stories. Both characters also represent a flavor of dansou culture, a subject I’ve spoken about before.
So with all this in mind we can consider a magical girl a character that to some degree identifies as a girl, but isn’t necessarily limited to said gender identity or a feminine presentation, and have a magical ability which can be supernatural or highly advanced technological in nature. Cool, we’ve nailed down both parts of the word. So then, what does a magical girl actually do?
Well, going back to Princess Knight, Sapphire mainly fought off various bad guys on their adventures so from the outset the obvious answer would seem to be that a magical girl do heroic deeds. And surely the first thing people think of when they hear the term magical girl is someone who fights against evil and stands for love and justice, whatever that might mean. But again I think that’s too narrow and restrictive.
Magical girls doesn’t have to be action heroines. I don’t mean that they can also be villains though they certainly can, but rather that there doesn’t have to be a battle of good vs evil at all. In fact, a lot of magical girls don’t do any fighting at all. It’s easy to draw the parallel lines from Princess Knight to Cutie Honey to Sailor Moon to whatever modern series of choice you have and say that magical girls have always been about fighting but there’s a lot missing from that.
While the west often looks to Sailor Moon as to what started the real “magical girl boom” and all that followed, the term magical girl existed and flourished before that. While the earliest use of the term itself came some time after the 1960s anime, Mahoutsukai Sally or Sally the Witch, itself an anime adaptation of the American supernatural comedy Bewitched, the term truly became a big thing in the 1980s thanks to studios like Ashi Productions and Studio Pierrot.
In 1982 Ashi Productions released Mahou no Princess Minky Momo, is what I would describe as the first successful “modern” magical girl anime. In the series we meet Momo, an alien princess who can transform into an adult woman with magic. Her goal is to help humans rediscover their lost dreams to restore hope to the world and dodging trucks carrying toys, we’ll talk about the latter some other day. It had most things we normally associate with magical girls today. Transformation sequences, aged up forms, a plot about hopes and dreams, a ton of toys to sell and of course mascots.
But it did not have much action. Momo wasn’t a fighter but tended to solve non-violent issues with her magic for the most part. This would be a common trait for a lot of magical girl anime of the 80s, including series like Mahou no Star Magical Emi and Mahou no Idol Pastel Yumi, both of which were Studio Pierrot series. Studio Pierrot’s first magical girl success was of an entirely different genre however. So let’s talk about Mahou no Tenshi Creamy Mami.
Creamy Mami began airing in 1983 and featured a little 10-year-old girl named Yuu who is given the ability to transform into a teenage idol going by the name Mami. Having to keep her identity secret, Yuu ends up living a double life as an elementary student and a pop star idol. So it’s less about solving people’s troubles and saving the world than it is about Yuu’s own personal conflicts. It’s a fun series and it was popular enough to even cross over with the aforementioned Minky Momo.
So if we take this into consideration then it’s clear that magical girls don’t have to always be fighting off bad guys or the like. Series like Creamy Mami still have modern successors in series such as PriPara which basically lifts the 1983 series concept and adds more wacky magic to the mix. Magical girls can be fighters, idols, circus performers or anything as long as they still have that magical element to them in the end.
So now that we know what a magical girl is and does, surely it will be easy to define what a magical girl series is? Right?
Well, not exactly. While it would be easy to just point to any series that has a character fitting the criteria listed and say it’s a magical girl series, that undermines how a series is defined. Look at the latest Digimon anime, Digimon Universe: Appli Monsters. That series has a character who is a pop idol. Does that make it an idol anime? Of course not, because that’s not the central theme of the series.
So a magical girl series needs to focus on its magical girl(s) first and foremost. The magical girl’s identity as a magical girl must be a key component to the show, it’s narrative and the like. So let’s look at a show like last year’s Re:CREATORS. Re:CREATORS has several female characters, almost all of which have magical powers, one of which is literally a stand-in for traditional kid friendly magical girl characters. All these characters are key components to the narrative and the series theme. So is Re:CREATORS a magical girl anime?
I’m gonna have to say that it’s not. While Re:CREATORS might first seem like an obvious fit for the criteria, the series focus does not exactly land on the magical girls being magical girls. First off, Re:CREATORS is narrated by its male protagonist, who despite claiming to not be the main character of the story is very much a main character of the story at minimum. The focus is not on the girls, or boys, magical powers but rather their status as fictional beings being created by human beings. It’s a story about fiction coming to life, it’s meta-fiction using a fantastical action motif.
Does it have magical girls in it? Yes. More so than just the in-series stated magical girl? Absolutely. But it’s not “a magical girl series” in the end, just a series with some magical girls in it.
And I think that’s an important distinction to make. Because magical girl is not a genre that we can easily point to with set narrative concepts and structures, it’s a character trope. A series can only be defined by its character trope if that’s the very core and center of the series. Magical girl is, to me, a very broad and vague term that encompasses a lot of characters, but defining what a magical girl series is comes down to a stricter rule.
Or, in short… A magical girl is a girl who is magical. A magical girl series is a series mainly focusing on one or several magical girls as protagonists.
But of course, that’s just my interpretation and I know some people prefer a stricter, or even vaguer, variations for their personal view on magical girls. Some need that transformation sequence to be there, some need combat scenes and some refuse to let witches count because they consider majokko/mahoutsukai less a sub-type of the magical girl than a separate thing. And hey, that’s fine. I said at the start that this is a much debated subject for a reason.
But at least now you know just what a magical girl is to me, and maybe it helped you figure out what a magical girl is to you.