Magical Girls and the Trap of Genre Canon (Magical Girl Raising Project Analysis)
Additional spoilers for Puella Magi Madoka Magica, and vague spoilers for Selector Infected WIXOSS and Yuuki Yuuna is a Hero. This essay will be written under the assumption the reader has seen Madoka Magica.
To celebrate Halloween, I wanted to write about a show that’s not good. It’s not all that bad, but it’s certainly not good. Magical Girl Raising Project (MagiPro) has fallen into a pit of sublime mediocrity, and I hope to illuminate why. You might ask: how is this related to Halloween? Well, what could be scarier than a disappointing anime? On top of that, there are definitely some spooky elements to MagiPro. Top Speed is a witch and there’s like blood and stuff…Anyway, let’s roll with it. Halloween special go! Also, to save myself the trouble later, I am aware this show is based on a light novel series. This essay will only focus on the anime.
It’s a bit unfair and preemptive to spend a whole essay judging a show when it’s only 5 episodes in, but it’s not like future episodes can erase the sins of the past. The worst errors have already been committed and, if anything, the show looks like it’s going downhill. That makes it sound like MagiPro is awful, and I don’t think that’s true. It’s just not good. And it’s all Madoka Magica’s fault. No, it’s not Madoka’s fault in the sense that “we’ve seen this done before”, but in the sense that Madoka caused MagiPro to fall into a trap—the trap of genre canon.
Madoka hit television with explosive popularity and immediately secured itself a place in magical girl canon. That is, if you were to trace the history of the magical girl genre and all of its developments and styles, you would absolutely have to include Madoka as a pivotal example. And you’d have to acknowledge its clones. It’s no surprise that after Madoka we see shows like Selector Infected WIXOSS and Yuuki Yuuna is a Hero. These shows aren’t necessarily copying Madoka, but they are inspired by and in reference to Madoka. Genre canon is ultimately context—history that defines what this genre is and how it got to the present day, so to speak. The minds of viewers are affected by what they’ve seen in the past, and contemporary anime are subject to the minds of viewers. Thus, every anime is experienced and judged in reference to what viewers have experienced and judged in the past.
Although there were shows that twist the magical girl genre in different ways before Madoka like Mahou Shoujo Lyrical Nanoha and Princess Tutu—and they do have their own place in and effect on genre canon—neither imprinted themselves so boldly on the identity of the magical girl genre as Madoka did. By (among so much else) withholding the truth of Homura’s identity, casting the animal companion as the villain, and damning the magical girls themselves, Madoka subverted viewer expectations about the magical girl genre so thoroughly that it changed those expectations. Of course, this required careful execution in storytelling, animation, and even advertising in order to impact viewers as more than a gimmick. Madoka deserves its own series of essays, but for the sake of time, let’s just accept all of the above as basic fact and I’ll explain more as I move into discussing MagiPro.
Anyway, Madoka changes expectations about magical girl shows, and this is an absolute godsend for creators who are inspired to make similar anime later. It helps to look at a good example first, so let’s pop into another anime. Selector Infected WIXOSS colors its world with mostly grey tones, drops some tiny hints in its opening theme, and reveals friction between characters and their “powers” as early as Episode 1. WIXOSS assumes the viewer lives in the post-Madoka world. The viewer is expected to be suspicious of a magical card game that grants the player’s wishes—all the more so if it targets exclusively young girls. The setting is too dark and the premise too fantastical for a skeptical fan to sit back and relax. WIXOSS wants you to be on your toes, and it uses the context of Madoka’s grimness as a tool to create atmosphere.
WIXOSS tells you something isn’t right, but it doesn’t tell you what. You’re meant to be hooked in now, not surprised later. You constantly think: I do not trust this.
MagiPro screws this up horribly in the first second of the first episode. That is not an exaggeration—the very first second of the episode, without any opening or title or anything, is a shot of a hand in a pool of blood. So guess what? These magical girls are not going to live for very long, and there will not be any subtlety in their demise. Obnoxious organ music plays in the background like we’re in a house of horrors the local middle school put up for their Halloween party. Shadows block out anything worth looking at. A faceless, texture-less blob of a monster appears and then… cue the intro!
No doubt MagiPro is aware of its genre canon. However, this opening is clearly trying to cash in on that canon rather than utilize it. The over-the-top images of dead magical girls are just a lazy way of saying, “Yes, we’re one of those shows you like! The ones with the suffering. Look at us, we’re doing the thing. Please keep watching.” By making its “twist” the selling point, the show loses all tension. MagiPro knows the audience will be suspicious of a happy-go-lucky magical girl show, so it thinks it has to show its cards up front. After all, Madoka started its first episode with an intense battle scene, so MagiPro should follow suit! That is a total misread of the situation, and the beginning of MagiPro’s problems. In this show, Madoka is not viewed as a piece of canon that can be challenged or referenced, but as a crutch, as an example that can be followed like a roadmap to produce a “good” anime.
That following of other texts isn’t necessarily a problem—copying older works is a great way to learn, and originality is a bit of a myth. The problem is that MagiPro focuses on what Madoka represents in genre canon and not what Madoka did to get into that canon. This is what I mean by “the trap”. It’s easy to think of the list of shows (or movies or books or etc.) that define a certain genre, distinguish them by a single characteristic, and then assign their value to that characteristic. You can think: this is the first book, this is the book that changed the setting, this is the book that had a cynical protagonist, and so on. Thinking this way, you categorize complex narratives by their simplest features and drain them of their artistic quality. But, although genre canon is a powerful and inescapable influence on every narrative, it is only an influence. In the simplest terms, Madoka should not be viewed as the “dark magical girl show”, but as a good magical girl show with dark elements.
MagiPro is not a very good magical girl show of any kind, and this is mostly due to over-assumption. The most obvious similarities between Madoka and MagiPro are the real world consequences of being a magical girl, and we see this in WIXOSS and Yuuki Yuuna as well. But because MagiPro is so focused on what Madoka represents, it assumes that having real world consequences guarantees that the show has dramatic tension. The assumption that Madoka’s most important feature is its grimness can lead you to think that all of its successes are borne from that grimness. This, of course, is wrong. If one takes a closer look at Madoka, one can see how it develops its real world to earn its tension.
Madoka is able to create tension in reality because it respects reality. A lot of time is devoted to developing Madoka’s relationships with her family and friends in early episodes. Homura is portrayed as an outsider within the confines of the real world, and she suffers loneliness as a real girl. Sayaka loves a boy whom she visits in the real world, and whose injury and struggle has nothing to do with the magical world. Most of every episode takes place in the real world and without the use of any magical powers. The whole reason anyone becomes a magical girl is to grant a wish that affects the real world. So on and so forth. Actually, this isn’t even a Madoka thing or a magical girl thing. Most successful stories involving conflicts in alternate worlds take the time to develop reality, and devote the energy to respect reality.
MagiPro does not bother. In some rambling exposition, it is revealed that magical girls are supposed to use their powers in reality. They won’t show up in pictures and no one will remember them, “so [they] can act without worry.” Fav really isn’t joking around when he says this, as demonstrated by Ruler and her gang unearthing an entire pier on the night they steal Snow White’s candies. Likewise, La Pucelle smacks a giant communications tower with his/her magical sword and almost topples the thing. Neither of these ridiculous events is mentioned by anyone ever again, and no one comes away from the fight injured. How can the viewer be invested in a reality that looks right past this level of absurdity? There is no impact from the deaths of the magical girls because even reality feels like some insane dream.
I say “reality”, but the whole show takes place in the same world, so I really just mean “the lives of those without powers”. If you forgot that not everyone had powers, I don’t blame you. Across 5 episodes, I counted 3 scenes involving characters without powers, two of which involve nameless mother characters. This could be fine if the magical girl characters weren’t always powered-up and referring to each other by their codenames. We’re never allowed to think these are just normal people who were eventually granted magical powers. It’s as if they exist only as magical girls. The saddest part of this is that MagiPro seems to have a vague awareness that this is an issue. Right before a character dies, we’re shown their everyday life as a quick attempt to invest the viewer in the character. Unfortunately, it’s too little too late. Part of the blame lies with the huge cast of characters in the show (it’s like Mayoiga meets Madoka), but you don’t get bonus points for being overambitious.
You might argue that, for the magical girls, their true selves are their magical selves. That would be a fine point, but the tension of the series centers on the deaths of real, no longer magical people. Those real people behind the magical girls are forgotten until they’re conveniently brought up for shallow attempts at drama. This leaves the show feeling depressingly empty. We can see, character by character, how the human reality of their situation is entirely ignored.
Perhaps I’m jumping the gun since I’m only 5 episodes in, but why is Souta completely nonplussed about his becoming a girl when he powers up? In Episode 1, he says he thinks he’s 100% female when he becomes La Pucelle. By Episode 5, there’s an obvious (shoehorned) romance between him and Koyuki. Doesn’t he have any kind of identity issues as a result of this? La Pucelle is a reference to Joan of Arc of all people, so I’m sure that has implications on how this plot will progress, but is that the extent of his character? Did the writer decide: magical girls have to be girls, but we want romance so this one will be a boy? As I said, it feels empty. I can’t help but think: why bother?
I picked a potentially unfair example with La Pucelle, but this emptiness pervades the entire show. Ruler is a narcissistic asshole, but it’s her only defining trait. That trait only exists so that she can get her just desserts when her gang betrays her. Again, this shallowness results partly from the oversized cast. Ruler is just one of the 16. Likewise, Nemurin is just some moe blob that’s impossible to dislike. We get 5 minutes of cute conversation—just enough to let us know we should like her—then Nemurin dies and we’re supposed to be sad about this horrible death game.
Compare this to Mami in Madoka. Mami takes an active role in the plot by saving Madoka and Sayaka from a witch, and then teaching them about Homura and about being a magical girl. She becomes someone Madoka looks up to. She stands up against Homura. Mami is important and a player in the struggle of magical girlhood, and then she dies as a result of that struggle. The viewer has to bear witness to that death and wonder how—if a character like Mami can die so easily—anyone can survive this struggle?
This leads us to the worst offense of MagiPro: even the struggle is empty. The set-up is similar to Madoka’s, such that magical girls have to solve problems (or kill witches) to get items that keep them from losing their magical girlhood (equivalent to death). Madoka keeps it simple—seeds cleanse soul gems and if your gem fills with despair then you become a witch. Easy. MagiPro introduces a complicated mechanic where some actions give more candies than other actions, as well as the trading/theft system. None of this is ever properly explained and no leaderboards or anything are ever made clear to the viewer. Really, the viewer has no idea who’s at risk of dying unless the show points it out. We’re completely uninvolved in the death game.
Under Madoka’s system, the viewer can tell at a glance how clouded a character’s soul gem is, and seeds are earned by one method and one method only. Simplicity is best when it comes to death games. Complexity means the consequences of characters’ actions are less clear and less immediate to the viewer. The less we understand, or the more time we take to understand, what will happen as a result of an action, the less tension we experience. Complexity also allows for more loopholes. Snow White can save just about anyone whenever she chooses. At least, I think she can? It’s not like anyone has any idea how many candies anyone has saved up. What’s the difference in candies between last place and second-to-last? Why do the candies Nemurin gets in dreams not count in “reality”? That info would sure help build tension, and would make the game seem less like a stupid gimmick. This is like watching a sports anime that never shows what the score is.
But the burden of a compelling conflict doesn’t rest entirely with the game itself. There is a game master, after all. Kyuubey has become the poster child for suffering, so what about his knock-off, Fav?
I think you know where this is going.
Let’s look at Kyuubey first. He’s always hanging around Madoka, usually literally hanging off her or clinging to her. He invades the thoughts of the magical girls with his telepathy, so they can’t even escape him to plot against him. He constantly goads and pressures the girls to make contracts with him, playing against all of their weaknesses and using their desperation against them. Kyuubey is a vulture perched on Madoka’s shoulder just waiting for the moment one of the girls slips up and makes a contract. He is an unsettling, calculating monster who will not leave Madoka alone until he gets what he wants.
Predictably, Fav is none of that. The girls and boy of MagiPro don’t even get to decide if they become magical girls or not. Fav just throws the responsibility onto them, removing any semblance sacrifice. Tough luck, girls, you have to die and be in a poorly-developed show. Fav is as much of a nonfactor in the death game as the girls are in their becoming magical girls. He rarely shows up and when he does, he just holds up his hands and says there’s nothing he can do (metaphorically speaking). Rules are rules, and Fav’s just a mascot. He applies no pressure to the magical girls, he takes no agency in the plot, and thus he adds no tension or intrigue to the show as a whole. He is empty.
I could go on about inconsistent writing, uninspired animation, and more, but honestly that stuff is all passable. None of it is offensive. Some of the character designs are actually quite interesting, even if best-design Nemurin is killed off early. To be fair, I also could have gone into much greater detail on why Madoka is good. However, the point is that MagiPro repeatedly falls short, and I think it would’ve turned out a lot better if it focused on being a magical girl show first and a death game show second. By getting too caught up in what had been done in the past, MagiPro forgot to think about what it could do in the present.
But are all magical girl shows doomed to fall short of Madoka? Not at all. Magical girl shows don’t even need to submit to Madoka’s effect on canon. In academic discussions of the New Hollywood of the 1970’s, some films are described as deconstructing the myths of film, while others reaffirm those myths. As a simplified example, films that deconstruct the myth of Western movies portray the cowboy life in a less glamorous light and make the heroes less like Clint Eastwood superhumans. Other films reaffirm the myth by doubling down on those tropes. And while this perspective is more suited to an analytical essay than a personal opinion essay, we can apply this concept to magical girl shows. Shows like Madoka deconstruct the myth by showing magical girlhood isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Other shows can reaffirm the myth, and can even do so in reference to Madoka. The timing of Sailor Moon Crystal is perhaps evidence that the magical girl genre is being rebuilt.
There’s no reason viewer expectations can’t be subverted or changed yet again. The “myth” of magical girlhood isn’t spoiled forever just because of Madoka. As I said, there were dark magical girl shows before Madoka and traditional ones after. Believing the innocence of the genre is lost means falling prey to the trap of genre canon. Creators do not need to accept Madoka as the “right path”. The evolution of artistic genres is not a straight series of stepping stones where the genre can only advance by jumping from where the last major work left off. The trap of genre canon leaves you focused on the next stone, such that you forget you can step any which way you please. All creators need to do is remember they’re creating stories, not rungs on a genre ladder.