Anime Review: ‘Yuki Yuna Is a Hero’

This was originally posted in slightly different form on a different site in 2014.

Who deconstructs the deconstructionists?

Yuki Yuna Is a Hero. Directed by Kishi Seiji. Starring Haruka Terui, Juri Nagatsuma, and Suzuko Mimori. Studio Gokumi, 2014. Twelve episodes of 24 minutes (approx. 290 minutes). Unrated. Available online.

I am a confessed heroine addict, and thus I sometimes watch mahou shoujo, that peculiarly Japanese genre of fantasy translated as “magical girl.” I have just finished watching the recently completed twelve-part magical girl series Yuki Yuna Is a Hero, a mostly amusing but sometimes frustrating exercise in audience chain-yanking. Though it is a competent story in its own right, it can’t be fully appreciated without a general knowledge of what’s been happening in the magical girl genre of late, most especially 2011’s Puella Magi Madoka Magica, with which Yuki Yuna is in dialogue, so bear with me.  It is also impossible to give more than a cursory discussion of either Puella Magi Madoka Magica or Yuki Yuna Is a Hero without spoilers, so be warned: spoilers lie ahead.

Although the magical girl genre has a reputation for being cutesy and saccharine, it has a long history of envelope-pushing and has often evinced more emotional range than it is usually given credit for. The genre has also had more than one “deconstruction,” beginning with Revolutionary Girl Utena, which was created specifically to skewer Sailor Moon, though it also appears also to have shoujo anime generally, and perhaps especially Rose of Versailles, in its sights. Some magical girl titles that followed it, most notably Phantom Thief Jeanne and Princess Tutu, adopt its darker tone and use some of its techniques.

The year 2011, which happened to be the twentieth anniversary of Sailor Moon, saw the release of the hugely popular and “deconstructive” Puella Magi Madoka Magica, which is to mahou shoujo what Neon Genesis Evangelion is to mecha, changing all the rules and turning the genre’s tropes on their heads. The major difference is that, unlike Evangelion, Madoka isn’t overrated.

A masterpiece of misdirection, Madoka was billed as a traditionally sugary magical girl show—though not one intended for children.  Even Madoka‘s opening credits sequence is a montage of magical girl clichés, none of which has anything to do with the show itself.

Looks all cuddly, don’t it?

The standard premise of the typical magical girl show is a wish fulfillment fantasy not meant to be closely examined, but Madoka examines it closely anyway and proposes that this premise—in which some fantastic critter, whose claims and reliability cannot be verified, approaches an impressionable girl too young to make big decisions and offers to give her magical powers and lead her into life-threatening situations in exchange for granting her a wish—is kind of creepy. Although Madoka, I should stress, is not actually the first magical girl title to do this, it is at the moment the best-known and most influential.

Thus Madoka spends all of its twelve episodes dealing with what most magical girl shows deal with in one episode or less, the protagonist’s decision whether or not to become a magical girl. The familiar, a psychic cat-like creature with the ominous name of Incubator (Kyubey for short), insists that Madoka become a magical girl in order to fight the cannibalistic witches preying on humanity, whereas a mysterious magical girl named Homura insists forcefully that Madoka turn Kyubey’s offer down. One of Madoka’s friends takes the plunge—only afterwards learning the cost of her decision. As is hinted early on, Kyubey is not playing straight with the girls with whom he makes “contracts”: the witches the girls fight are actually dead magical girls created when the girls overuse their magic; Kyubey has made both the magical girls and the witches for his own purposes, because adolescent human girls spontaneously generate new energy out of nothing, which Kyubey’s kind can harvest to reverse cosmic entropy.

Yes, really. And mind you, Puella Magi Madoka Magica has more internal consistency and logic than your average magical girl show, which tells you something.

Madoka starts out looking cute, but with hints that things are not as they seem, and soon turns dark and violent. By its third episode, it appears to be spiraling irrecoverably into nihilism. It has spawned its own respectably large franchise, and, unsurprisingly, some magical girl anime appearing after Madoka are clearly influenced by it, most notably Day Break Illusion, which has Madoka‘s grim tone without its depth or tight writing. Early in Day Break Illusion, the protagonist in typical fashion becomes a magical girl in order to fight off a monster threatening her family—and in the process kills her cousin, who we then see lying face-up on the floor in a slowly expanding pool of blood. This is the new face of the magical girl.

Evolution of the magical girl, from left to right: Cardcaptor Sakura (1998) and Puella Magi Madoka Magica (2011).

Now enter Yuki Yuna Is a Hero, a show heavily influenced by both Puella Magi Madoka Magica and Neon Genesis Evangelion, and, I am convinced, meant to answer them, and its message is something along the lines of, “Screw all your darkness and blood and whatnot.” Yuki Yuna is deconstruction backwards, deconstruction of the deconstruction.

The Hero Club.
The Hero Club.

Yuki Yuna is a blend of the magical girl warrior genre with yet another genre largely inspired by the ever-popular Azumanga Daioh, the CGDCT (cute girls doing cute things). The typical CGDCT features an improbably female cast of middle school or high school students, usually members of some unusual after-school club, who look cute, act like airheads, and do nothing important. Yuki Yuna starts off resembling one of those shows: we are quickly introduced to a band of four girls (a fifth gets added later) who are members of the “Hero Club,” which puts on puppet shows for elementary school kids, picks up litter, and finds owners for stray kittens. It’s mildly amusing for half an episode until suddenly the sky splits open, the world is overrun with a psychedelic, pastel-colored forest, and the girls face a giant monster, called a Vertex, that looks like something Salvador Dali cooked up on a bad day. Fortunately, the members of Hero Club have an iPhone app that can turn them into magical girls … yes, really … so they transform and kick ass.

Attacked by monsters in an alternate dimension? There's an app for that.
Attacked by monsters in an alternate dimension? There’s an app for that.

The unorthodox use of smartphones pulled me out of the story.  Mind you, dungeon punkish technology is standard fare in magical girl anime, where the distinction between magic and science is blurred and usually unexplained, and this is not even the first show I’ve seen that includes magic cell phones. The first broadcast episode of the comedy series The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya is a send-up of the magical girl genre, and in it one of the characters announces, “I’m a space alien who uses magic.”  That’s about all you need to know about magical girl shows and internal logic. Still, I think an amulet or something would have been more appropriate than a phone, but whatever.

The world of Yuki Yuna looks a lot like contemporary Japan, but the story is actually set in the year 300 of the Era of the Gods. The world is a small place surrounded by a high wall, and in the center of the world is a god called the Shinju-sama, which protects humanity. The Vertices are out to destroy the Shinju-sama, and the girls of the Hero Club have been recruited by the theocratic government, called the Taisha, to protect it.

Never send a man to do a girl's job.
Never send a man to do a girl’s job.

Our protagonists are a more-or-less typical collection of hyperactive bubbleheads. We have the club president, Fu, a big eater who unrealistically became the sole guardian of her soft-spoken younger sister Itsuki after they were orphaned. Then there’s the brash tsundere tomboy Karin, who has special warrior training from the Taisha and thinks herself too good for the Hero Club. Then of course there’s the titular Yuki Yuna, a good-natured but thick-witted idealist who takes the Hero Club’s notions of heroism very, very seriously. The club has five tenets, humorously formulated to sound wishy-washy, which Yuna recites at the top of her lungs while punching out eldritch monstrosities, tenets such as, “Try not to give up,” and, “If you keep trying, you’re likely to succeed.”

At last there’s Toga Mimori, probably the most interesting character and certainly one who hogs more than her fair share of screen time. Toga is paraplegic on account of an “accident” that also gave her plot-convenient amnesia. For this American viewer, Toga is rather refreshing, at least at first, since she’s just about the only wheelchair-bound cartoon character I can name who doesn’t get turned into the Object Lesson of the Week; the other members of the Hero Club treat her respectfully, but without condescension. At first, when everything goes down, Toga hangs back, convinced she can’t fight. When necessity presses and she at last transforms, she does not, interestingly, received the use of her legs along with her magical girl powers; instead she gets a set of Doctor Octopus-like appendages that move her from place to place, and instead of fighting in close quarters like the other girls, she uses ranged weapons, mostly a sniper rifle. This at first seems merely a clever flourish, but eventually becomes plot-relevant.

The Hero Club members in their civvies.
The Hero Club members in their civvies.

Yuki Yuna, although probably accessible to the newcomer (this is not a genre known for its depth and complexity, after all), anticipates a genre-savvy and even jaded viewership, so it quickly sets about jerking that viewership around. This is the only story I can think of that hangs Chekhov’s Guns on the walls, deliberately refuses to fire them just to screw with the audience, and actually gets away with it.

Two episodes in particular exemplify this. Episode 4, “Shining Hearts,” is entirely a “slice of life” episode, in which Itsuki is afraid she’ll fail her singing test because she’s too nervous to sing in front of others, so her fellow Hero Club members give her loads of mostly useless but comedic advice to get her over her anxiety. By the end of the episode, Itsuki has not only been able to sing beautifully, but has made a life goal of becoming a singer. (Keep in mind that making a life goal is typically fatal in anime.) On top of that, Itsuki likes to read fortunes with Tarot cards, and she gets a death card repeatedly throughout the episode. Just to drive the point home, a stinger after the credits depicts her recording a song while, beside her, her backpack tips over and spills out her Tarot cards with the death card face-up on top. Then the Vertices attack and Fu runs out onto a balcony, crying, “It’s happening! It’s the worst-case scenario!”

The next episode, “Overcoming Adversity” consists of almost nothing but a beautifully animated and way over-the-top action sequence in which the girls fight all the remaining Vertices at once. By the end, they have won, but four of the girls have collapsed and appear dead, while the fifth weeps over them … and then the four get up and announce that they’re okay. I could see that coming, since it was already plain that this show meant to screw with our heads, but it was still laugh-out-loud funny. About half the series is dedicated to skirting the edge of grimdark in this fashion, and then once the audience is lulled into a false sense of security, it brings the hammer down. As had been faintly hinted, things are not as they seem: after the big battle, the girls develop health problems; Yuna loses her sense of taste, Toga loses hearing in her left ear, Fu goes blind in one eye, and Itsuki loses her voice.

Then comes the shocking revelation: the girls have not actually defeated all of the Vertices. The Vertices will keep coming, and as the girls fight them, they will continue to lose the various functions of their bodies, because the Taisha is offering them up piecemeal as human sacrifices to the Shinju-sama they are protecting. And they have not died in their battles because the Shinju-sama has made them immortal; they will simply keep fighting until they lose all ability to move and spend the rest of their existence enshrined by the Taisha, which worships magical girls as goddesses.

A religion that worships magical girls … I could get into that.

The story here presents a moral dilemma reminiscent of Ursula K. Le Guin’s “Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” That story is a thought experiment depicting a utopia dependent for its happiness on a little girl being kept miserable in a mop closet, so many people, upon learning the truth, leave the utopia behind in disgust. Of course, the story begs the question, “Why doesn’t somebody just rescue the girl from the mop closet?”

Yuki Yuna Is a Hero makes the moral question more difficult. Nobody could walk away from the world in which Yuna and her friends live, because as Toga discovers, there is no world outside it. Beyond the wall around their island is, literally, hell: there had been a war in heaven between gods who wanted to wipe out humanity and gods who wanted to save it. Those who wanted to save it banded together to become the Shinju-sama, which is the only thing protecting mankind from the wrecked universe outside, a seething ocean of fire and brimstone where hordes of monsters work tirelessly to construct new Vertices to send against the last vestige of the inhabitable world. The choice presented to the protagonists is either to acquiesce to being slowly dismantled by the Shinju-sama’s sacrificial system, or else to grant victory to the mad gods bent on mankind’s destruction.

Well, dammit.
Well, dammit.

Toga makes some decidedly chilling attempts at suicide, and when those don’t work, she tries it on a larger scale: she blows a hole in the protective wall to let swarms of Vertices in.

To fully appreciate what Yuki Yuna Is a Hero does in its climactic sequence, it’s necessary to discuss Puella Magi Madoka Magica again. I mentioned before that Madoka, through most of its run, appears to be spiraling into nihilism, but that’s only another of its twists. The girls’ magical powers in that show are related to the wishes that they make when they agree to become magical girls, and Homura, the mysterious girl trying to save Madoka from her fate, is a time-traveler. In another timeline, Madoka died fighting a powerful witch called Walpurgisnacht, and her dying wish was that Homura would travel back in time and stop her from becoming a magical girl. To save Madoka, Homura puts herself through hell, continuously living the same month over and over until she has become battle-hardened and stoical, each time failing. Her continuous time-looping creates so much energy around Madoka that if Madoka becomes a magical girl again, she will soon after turn into a witch powerful enough to rip apart the planet.

Homura, one last time, tries to fight Walpurgisnacht herself and fails. As she lies dying, Madoka appears and, as she has in every other timeline, makes a contract with Kyubey, but this time she wishes to become a god that transcends space and time and that prevents all magical girls, past and future, from becoming witches, allowing them to die naturally. Enough energy has gathered around Madoka to grant her wish, but this divine retconning strips her of her humanity, turns her into an impersonal force, and destroys all memory of her in the people she’s known.

In the new universe Madoka’s wish has created, only Homura remembers her. Homura is still a magical girl, still fighting, but now the magical girls, instead of fighting witches, fight wraiths, monsters that develop out of negative human emotions, and Kyubey is a more benevolent creature.  So the series does in fact live up to its promise: it is a traditional magical girl warrior show, but only at the end, and only after Madoka performs a selfless sacrifice that saves the world.

It is that conclusion at which Yuki Yuna takes aim. It treats with horror the idea of the girls sacrificing themselves to save the world. In the end, the girls fight until their bodies are wrecked, but then Yuna defeats the final and most powerful Vertex by herself. When it is over, all the girls but Yuna are strewn with flower petals, representing that they have received back what they sacrificed to the Shinju-sama. Afterwards, their health gradually returns, but Yuna is in a coma, the idea apparently being that the Shinju-sama gave back what the other girls gave up in exchange for all of Yuna, a total self-sacrifice akin to Madoka’s.

That would seem a satisfactory if melancholy ending, but it’s not quite over. A couple of the girls, whispering over Yuna’s hospital bed, say, “You can’t just sacrifice yourself. I don’t like that way of thinking.” Then, after some more tearjerking, Yuna finally wakes up and gets better: and this is not another gift from the Shinju-sama, either, but something Yuna accomplished by her own will. Everything at the end is light and happy again, with no sacrifice necessary, simply and only because Yuki Yuna says so. Madoka is a paean to self-sacrificial love, but Yuki Yuna is a paean to willpower. If Puella Magi Madoka Magica is the Neon Genesis Evangelion of magical girl anime, then Yuki Yuna Is a Hero is the Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann.

Well, that might be going too far. But still.

Who the hell do you think Yuki Yuna is?!
Who the hell do you think Yuki Yuna is?!

I watched this show on the service Crunchyroll, which has a comment box, and I found it interesting to read the comments following Yuki Yuna‘s final episode. The comments are divided between those who think the ending flopped and those who think it satisfactory, though even the commenters claiming it is satisfactory do not sound convinced. Much as I enjoyed the series overall, I am resolutely in the former camp:  the show pulls a happy ending only by breaking its established rules. The Shinju-sama’s ability to give the girls back their bodily functions, and Yuna’s ability to take hers back solely by strength of will, beg the question of why they needed to make such a sacrifice in the first place: if the sacrificial character of the Heroes’ labor is superfluous, it would make more sense for the Shinju-sama simply to give them the power of whooping on monsters all day long with no consequence.

The problem here is that Yuki Yuna Is a Hero wants to have its cake and eat it too; it advocates heroism, repeatedly pronouncing the tenets of the Hero Club as if they were the Buddha’s Five Precepts, but it denounces self-sacrifice. Puella Magi Madoka Magica flagrantly thumbs its nose at the law of physics that says energy cannot be created or destroyed, but it understands the deeper truth that this law of physics embodies, that nothing comes from nothing, that an effect cannot be greater than its cause, that everything in the real world has costs and benefits: Madoka is able to save the world by self-sacrifice, and her self-sacrifice is only possible because of what Homura has already done for her. Outlandish as the story is, this reflects reality—a hero can change the world, but he cannot bring benefits into being with no cost, because nothing comes from nothing. Out of what can a hero possibly make a better world, except his sacrifices? This principle is so fundamental that story structure demands it: we expect the conclusion of a story to arise out of what has gone before, and when it does not, we balk at it. Thus the ending of Yuki Yuna falls flat because its underlying message is wrong. In the end, Yuki Yuna is not so much a Hero as she is a deus ex machina, and of a particularly blatant variety. The show intends to praise heroism, but instead inadvertently makes light of it because it shies from what heroism demands. In the decisive final moment, Yuki Yuna the character comes through, but Yuki Yuna Is a Hero fails. Nonetheless, it is an entertaining ride.

Regarding content and age-appropriateness, I’ve discussed two shows, so I’ll go over both of them here. Both Puella Magi Madoka Magica and Yuki Yuna Is a Hero have a veneer of being children’s shows, but neither is for children.

Madoka includes frequent and sometimes bloody violence, foul language, and occasional nudity, including a rather graphic scene in its bait-and-switch opening credits.

Yuki Yuna is milder. The violence is over-the-top, but cartoonish and bloodless. There are, however, some chilling scenes of attempted suicide. Foul language is rare. There is no nudity, but there are occasional cheesecake shots and off-color humor. The most outré moment is Toga’s transformation sequence, which has a bondage theme. Although I was at first impressed with Toga’s depiction, she ends up becoming the object of a sort of wheelchair fetishism, which is a serious misstep on the part of the show’s creators, not only because it’s disgusting, but because it runs contrary to the character’s development and Yuki Yuna‘s overall tone.

Both shows contain some homosexual innuendo, which has been par for the course in the genre since Sailor Moon.