Anime Review: ‘Sasami: Magical Girls Club’

Sasami: Magical Girls Club. Directed by Takamoto Nobuhiro. Starring Mana Ogawa, Himeko Shimura, and Momoko Hatano. AIC Spirits Work Collaboration: BeSTACK. English language version by FUNimation. 26 episodes (approx. 640 minutes). Rated TV-PG.

What a weird little anime.

Where to start? The highly successful Tenchi Muyo! franchise is one of the best-known of the so-called “harem comedies” that came out of the 1990s; in fact, some consider it the original harem comedy (though it is not strictly speaking the earliest), or at least the codifier of the genre’s conventions. The franchise includes manga, light novels, OVA series, television shows, audio dramas, and probably other stuff, most of which are independent of one another. Because its history is convoluted and there isn’t really a central “canon,” trying to get a handle on Tenchi Muyo! is decidedly confusing.

I am not deeply knowledgeable of the Tenchi Muyo! franchise, but near as I can tell, it began with an OVA series that appeared in 1992 (OVA means straight to video, which doesn’t have the stigma in Japan that it has in the U.S.). Additional OVAs followed on its heels, with a fourth slated to appear later in 2016. I’m pretty sure I’ve watched the first OVA in the FUNimation dub: it’s awesomesauce for six episodes, featuring lightsaber duels, space battles, humongous mecha, miniature black holes, pocket universes, and explosions.

But after that, it settles down into harem mode, and then it pretty much sucks.

The story revolves around young Tenchi, a high school student who has no personality but is pretty good with a sword. Through a decidedly nonsensical set of circumstances that vary from version to version, he ends up settling out in the country near his grandfather’s Shinto shrine, and he has a collection of superpowered space babeliens living in his house and trying to get in his pants.

The most important of the space girls are the boisterous space pirate Ryoko, who can float through walls and generate energy weapons out of her hands, and the prim and proper space princess Ayeka, who can generate electrical cylinder thingies. Also present is Ayeka’s little sister Sasami, she of the red eyes, blue-green hair, and ginormous pigtails, who’s half tree and psychically connected to a spaceship or something. Sasami is mostly on hand to be a sort of cute mascot character, and to act as a foil for the older girls in their fight over Tenchi.

These characters indulge in various hijinks and occasionally battle evil overlords or fight with cosmic powers beyond our ken. My own experience with the franchise indicates that it can be pretty good when there’s actually a plot going, but when it focuses in on the girls’ attempts to bed the forgettable protagonist, it quickly tanks. The OVA starts off well but soon loses steam—and also becomes really raunchy. Similarly, the comparatively tame television series, released in the U.S. under the title Tenchi Universe, is astonishingly boring for most of its run, though it gets interesting in later episodes when the space princesses find out that they’re wanted criminals and draw the whole Tenchi Muyo! gang into a desperate battle to remove the pretender to the throne of a galactic empire. That part I like, but it takes a long time to get there.

I conclude that Tenchi Muyo! is much better as a kitchen sink space opera than as a harem comedy. The romantic entanglements and sexual hijinks are dull, but the action scenes can be fun, and some of the surreal environments and spaceship designs are creative. There are some decent sci-fi concepts lurking somewhere under the surface, too, especially Jurai’s biotechnology with its spaceships grown from trees.

Anyway, even though Ryoko was voted “Tenchi Muyo! chick most likely to deliver full-frontal nudity to developmentally arrested fanboys” by her graduating class, Sasami is one of the most popular characters in the franchise, if not the most popular, because she brings the cute. The scholarly editor and translator Carl Gustav Horn even coined the term “Sasami effect,” which refers to the cutesiest member of an anime cast getting the biggest fanbase.

Because of her popularity, Sasami, naturally enough, gets to be the focal point of some Tenchi Muyo! spinoffs—specifically, magical girl spinoffs.

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The first of these was Magical Girl Pretty Sammy. This title, like Tenchi Muyo! as a whole, has a bewilderingly complicated history. Pretty Sammy, Sasami’s magical girl alter ego, made her first appearance in an audio drama that depicted the Tenchi Muyo! characters getting sucked into several alternate universes wherein they parody various genres, including the magical girl genre. Pretty Sammy later showed up in a music video. The audio drama was also adapted into several episodes of Tenchi Universe, in which Pretty Sammy makes a brief appearance.

Sasami as Magical Girl Pretty Sammy
Sasami as Magical Girl Pretty Sammy.

Sailor Moon was huge is the mid-90s, so it is no surprise that a three-part OVA series of Magical Girl Pretty Sammy came out from 1995 to 1997. This was followed by a 24-episode television series, released in the U.S. under the title of Magical Project S. Although Pretty Sammy is more-or-less a parody of Sailor Moon, it is considered by some to be a classic of the magical girl genre in its own right. Sadly, even though FUNimation has recently released several Tenchi Muyo! titles to iTunes and other media, Pretty Sammy and Magical Project S are not among them. They’re pretty much impossible to find except in bootlegs.

Anyway, Pretty Sammy takes place in an alternate universe in which Sasami is not a space princess, but an ordinary fifth-grader who gets magic powers from the magic world of Juraihelm in order to do battle with the villainous Pixy Misa, who is actually the alter ego of her best friend Misao.

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Left to right: Misao, Makoto, and Sasami from Sasami: Magical Girls Club.

Now fast-forward to 2006, which saw the arrival of Sasami: Magical Girls Club, yet another Tenchi Muyo! magical girl spinoff featuring Sasami as its protagonist. The series ran for two seasons and a total of twenty-six episodes. I admit, when I bought this on DVD, I thought I was getting a Pretty Sammy sequel, but I was mistaken: this is an entirely separate show. As with Pretty Sammy, it casts familiar characters in new roles, though the art style has been updated to the point that Sasami herself is all but unrecognizable. As a nod to its predecessor, it sees the return of Misao; she plays a different part, but is still Sasami’s bestie.

Recently, FUNimation released this title on two separate sets of discs as part of its “S.A.V.E.” series; that is, anime released to DVD at an unusually low price. And if the present title is any indicator of the general quality of S.A.V.E., you get what you pay for.

The quality of the physical disc and case are adequate, but nothing special. The DVD contains no extras—exactly what you might expect given the price. It offers the original Japanese soundtrack with optional subtitles and an English dub.

For some reason, however, the discs are finicky about players. They won’t play on Corel WinDVD, though they will play on Windows Media Player. I don’t know what other players they might have trouble with. If you intend to pop this into a DVD drive hooked straight to your TV, be aware that it might not work, and you might end up hooking up the computer and trying various programs to get the thing to go.

As for the series itself, I find it disappointing. Magical girls have amused, enthralled, disgusted, and even horrified me, but this is the only magical girl title I can recall that flat-out bored me. Of course, as previously mentioned, I find the Tenchi Muyo! franchise boring generally, so that might be part of the problem. Probably the nicest thing I can say about it is that I like the opening credits sequence with the catchy theme song “Sweet Magic”:

The story, such as it is, centers on young Sasami (naturally), a fifth grader who loves cooking and has an innate magical power: she can levitate objects, though her parents have strictly forbidden her to use this ability. But there are other girls at her school who are also manifesting supernatural powers, so the school nurse Washu brings the girls together under the guise of an after-school cooking club to teach them to control their magic.

Washu is another harem girl from Tenchi Muyo!, and she’s also one of the franchise’s more well-rounded characters. In the original, she’s a mad scientist with a checkered past who indulges in a lot of deliberately childish antics, but occasionally lets a more mature sensibility show through. She is usually more aware of what’s going on than the other characters. In the Magical Girls Club version, Washu is more even-tempered and level-headed; all that remains of the original is the character design.

According to the backstory, there were formerly witches living on Earth, but they removed themselves to another dimension to escape persecution. Some interbreeding with humans, however, produced the magical girls, who are part human and part witch. A lot of girls and a few boys around the world have thus shown signs of awakening magical abilities. Washu, although she has no magic of her own, is one of several agents who have come to Earth from the witch world to teach the girls to suppress their powers, but when that doesn’t work out, she instead trains them to use their magic appropriately in the hopes that the magical girls might one day act as emissaries between the world of witches and the world of humans.

Each of the girls we meet in the show’s first few episodes has a different innate magical ability. Sasami can control gravity. The perpetually insecure milk addict Makoto can change her size. The emotionless and zombie-like Tsukasa can manipulate wind. The annoying princess Anri has the peculiar ability to make words float over people’s heads. And the terminally shy Misao can produce strange worms made out of black tar.

Although the premise is not unpromising, the first season of the show has no plot. If you, like me, expect the girls to find creative ways to work together and use their motley set of abilities to solve problems on a weekly basis, you’ll be disappointed. For the most part, they don’t much use the powers they’re initially introduced with, but instead do generic magical girl things like fly on brooms and shoot colored lights of uncertain purpose. In the first season, the girls run around and indulge in various trivial antics. They meet other magical girls, stand around and talk, and visit the witch world, which looks like a paradise. It’s like watching young girls on vacation.

The whole thing is very saccharine, which is to be expected of magical girls of the “cute witch” variety. Lots of glassy eyes and squeaky voices and talking in third-person. I daresay the animators overdid the blank moe stares: I was thinking that somebody should take these girls to a doctor and get them checked out for their chronically low blood sugar.

Dinking around, magical girl style
Dinking around, magical girl style.

The second season tries to make up for lost time by loading up on plot. The Chief Sorceress of the witch world is indulging in some political intrigue under the influence of a mysterious being called the Great Cauldron. She has plans to reform the witch world and even make moves on the human world, and she intends to manipulate the magical girls to further her ends. An opposing faction, consisting primarily of Washu, her sidekick Daimon, and Sasami’s dad, wants to keep the girls free of the Chief Sorceress’s manipulations. At the same time, a mysterious boy named Amitav is drawing closer to Sasami, who evinces a new, more mysterious power called light magic, which the witches covet.

Meanwhile, Misao grows jealous because her unrequited crush, a boy named Monta, is showing interest in Sasami. Misao’s jealousy distances her from the other magical girls and opens her to the Chief Sorceress’s manipulations.

Lurking behind it all is the big bad, the Great Cauldron himself. I’ll have to give a spoiler warning for the rest of this review before I go into detail, but it goes like this:

After their self-exile from the human world, the witches decided it was best to do away with all their negative emotions, so they found some poor schmuck named Keura, sent all their negative emotions into him, and crucified him on a thorn bush for a few thousand years. On top of that, Sasami’s perfunctory boyfriend Amitav is actually Keura’s astral projection, who will apparently disappear if Keura wakes up.

Now the Chief Sorceress in her lust for power has broken Keura’s seal, and his pent-up emotions are starting to leak out. There’s even a possibility he might break free entirely, and since he’s gone completely crazy and also has a lot of power for some reason, he stands a good chance of destroying both the human and witch worlds.

The protagonists evince only mild disgust at what the witches did to Keura. Indeed, the casual depiction of people doing horrible things to themselves or others with minimal reaction from most of the cast is characteristic of the second season: we also learn that the oligarchic rulers of the witches, the “Executives,” have artificially prolonged their lives by transforming themselves into trees.

The implications of this get no exploration whatsoever. After the reveal of the Executives, I perked up momentarily when it appeared that the magical girls had lit the trees on fire to end the Executives’ monstrous half-human existence, but that turns out to be a cheat.

Hey, maybe they're actually going to ... oh, never mind.
Hey, maybe they’re really going to … oh, never mind.

See, if the girls had actually committed mass murder like this, it would at least have indicated that the writers were willing to take a few risks, and that they gave a damn. But no, the fire is symbolic: the girls aren’t actually burning the Executives, but teaching them to experience the full range of human emotions, which the Executives, and the rest of the witches, had tried to escape by using Keura. That’s the ultimate message of the show, that it’s important to experience the full range of emotions.

This is not atypical for a magical girl series. The genre tends to be feelings-focused. But I admit I can’t make much of this message: most of us will experience the full range of emotions anyway since excising them magically isn’t a real-life option. Perhaps the show means that we shouldn’t suppress or control our emotions, but if so, that’s frankly stupid. Just try not suppressing your anger the next time you’re mad at your boss, and then see how long your job lasts. Most any ethicist worth minding will tell us that the ability to control the emotions, and to use them appropriately, is a virtue. Venting them incontinently is a vice.

Arguably, Magical Girls Club is indulging in some self-deconstruction here: the first season depicts the witch world as a paradise, but the second season reveals that the paradise survives only because its citizens are willing to inflict horrific suffering on themselves or others. It can therefore be interpreted as a sort of kiddy cartoon version of “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” On the other hand, none of the characters in the show actually spend much time reflecting on these things, or even reacting normally to them. The concept isn’t a bad one, but Magical Girls Club flubs the execution. The sense of horror and the sense of utopia being an illusion don’t really come across. The show gets stuck in an insipid message about feelings instead.

Contributing to the overall sense of a lack of impetus is the minimal animation. The series uses a lot of obvious CGI for the environments and the magic while the hand-drawn characters mostly just stand there. Even in action scenes, the characters usually just stand opposite one another and talk. This has the result of making the witches working for the Chief Sorceress look like incompetent schmucks: they’re trying to accost a handful of eleven-year-olds, but they can’t, and the reason they can’t does not appear to be because the eleven-year-olds are quick or clever or magic-powered, but because the witches are too stiff to walk ten feet, grab a little girl, and keep ahold of her.

Yet these same witches are supposedly getting ready to conquer the planet. Right. This is the least-threatening invading army I’ve seen since that pony girl tried to take over a magic horse kingdom with a half dozen zombie teenagers in Equestria Girls.

You will not be surprised if I tell you that, in the grand finale, Keura breaks loose and runs amok. In keeping with the lack of good animation, however, he doesn’t accomplish much aside from turning the sky a weird color, one of the most disappointing big bad attacks in the history of anime.

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Is that all you got?

It’s disappointing especially because I was rooting for the bad guy here: the witches had really hosed this guy, so I wanted to seem them hoist on their own petard. One of them is, sort of, though exactly what happens to her is not entirely clear.

The show ends with an action sequence that isn’t terrible, though most of the characters visibly go off-model when it happens. Instead of the expected happy and triumphal conclusion, Magical Girls Club ends with an ambiguous tearjerker that might have been more effective if it had followed on the heels of better material. As is, I found it to be merely an additional disappointment.

It’s especially disappointing because this is now standard fare for the genre, apparently. Magical girls aren’t allowed to defeat the boss and save the day and grow up and leave it at that. Now they have to get their memories erased or lose their humanity or go into a coma or something.

And the almost-kiss that gets magically censored out is kind of hilarious.
And the almost-kiss that gets magically censored out is kind of hilarious.

Yep, being meguca is suffering.

Anyway, I think this show is intended for children, which makes it even more of an oddball curiosity, since it derives from a franchise that is decidedly not child-friendly. I don’t know how a child might like it, but I as an adult was bored with it. Although mostly tame, it every once in a while unleashes some bawdy humor that might make a parent cringe. For that reason, I would recommend parents watch it first before giving it to kids.

And if you take that plunge, let me warn you that watching meguca can also be suffering.