Here we go again!
In my naïveté, I wanted to believe that the magical girl genre’s Goth phase, begun in 2011 by Puella Magi Madoka Magica, had come to an end with Yuki Yuna Is a Hero, which I discussed here. Yuki Yuna replies to Madoka by giving it the finger, an audacious move that earned my admiration.
And, after all, the last few years after Yuki Yuna have seen titles like Wish Upon the Pleiades and Nurse Witch Komugi R, not all of which are good or likeable or decent, but which at least suggest that creators in the genre are looking back to a previous era when magical girls were about love and hope rather than about dying in a pool of blood after having been tricked by an amoral power. Perhaps, I told myself, the Day Break Illusions are behind us.
Enter Magical Girl Raising Project. Its first episode appeared only yesterday in the U.S., so it remains to be seen exactly what kind of show it will be, though viewers are already comparing it to Madoka. I suspect, from what I’ve seen so far, it will actually end up being more Day Break Illusion than Puella Magi Madoka Magica, by which I mean that it will have all of Madoka‘s black eyeliner, but none of the depth that makes Madoka tolerable.
The premise is this: there is a smartphone app called Magical Girl Raising Project, which anyone can play for free. Every once in a while, Fav, the game’s rabbity mascot character, chooses one of the players to become a real-life magical girl.
But, of course, there’s a catch: sometimes, Fav selects too many, and then he must force the excess girls to slaughter each other in a death match tournament. Presumably, he has some Kyubey-like reason for doing this.
Our protagonist is Koyuki, a middle school girl whom Fav recently selected to become Magical Girl Snow White. She has admired magical girls since she was a small child and leaps at the chance to help others with magic just like her imaginary heroines. Her male childhood friend Souta is also a mahou shoujo fan, and when they were younger, he used to complain that girls have all the fun because “boys can only be mages.”
Unaware of the dire fate awaiting her, Koyuki loves her new job as a secret superheroine. By the end of the episode, we’ve briefly met a few other magical girls; all of them have themes and abilities that are more-or-less standard: there’s a Western-themed gunslinger named Calamity Mary, a Gothic lolita named HardGore Alice, and a cute witch named Top Speed. Koyuki quickly comes under the wing of a knightly magical girl called La Pucelle.
I will give a spoiler warning for courtesy, but since this is the first episode, I think it will be no spoiler if I tell you that La Pucelle turns out to be Koyuki’s old pal Souta, who turns female when he transforms.
Also, at the tail end of the episode, Fav announces that he needs to eliminate half the magical girls in the region, which will of course lead into the bloody conflict set to fill the rest of the series. So, as the show presently stands, young Koyuki is poised to have all her childhood dreams crushed.
Let me get one thing out of the way: this show looks good, if not exactly eye-popping. The artwork’s excellent, and the magical girl designs are fetching if conventional. Snow White’s transformation sequence is nothing new or memorable, but is competently animated. The show has an all-star cast of voice actresses. Altogether, it’s off to a strong start.
But because it is obviously trying to be “deconstructive” and “subversive” and “edgy” and whatnot, I think it worth pointing out that, at least so far, nothing it’s doing hasn’t been done before. In fact, most of the tropes of allegedly deconstructive magical girl anime are already present, if not fleshed out, in the fifth arc of the Sailor Moon manga.
The magical girls’ familiar turning out to be a complete bastard was done in Madoka, of course, but was done before that in Phantom Thief Jeanne. More generally, the magical girl discovering that everything is a lie and that she’s been royally screwed over is the premise of Revolutionary Girl Utena and Princess Tutu, though the latter title, which is an answer to the former, adds a second twist on top of the first.
Characters being forced into an elimination tournament, deadly or otherwise, is a common premise in anime, probably in large part thanks to the influence of Battle Royale. There’s Fate/stay night, of course, and a magical girl elimination tournament is the premise of Rozen Maiden, though the girls in that series are usually too busy with their harem antics to get down to the business of killing one another.
The boy who can turn into a magical girl already appeared in the animated version of Sailor Moon: Sailor Stars, and magical girls who are really crossdressing boys have shown up in other places such as Is This a Zombie? and Cute High Earth Defense Club LOVE! They’re not actually crossdressers in that latter title, but their outfits are so nancy that they might as well be. Then there’s the webcomic Magical Girl Neil, but that’s relatively obscure.
And maybe Souta is just watching the wrong shows. There are magical girl titles in which there are magical boys, too. Shugo Chara! springs to mind.
Also, dude, seriously, why can’t you just let the girls have their own thing? Man up and be a mage instead.
Anyway, I’m at pains to point out the predecessors of Magical Girl Raising Project because, for a couple of reasons, so-called “deconstructions” irritate me. Mind you, it’s possible that this will be a great show; I thought I’d hate Madoka, but I love it, and I might also love MGRP (I hate acronyms, but darn me if I can come up with a reasonable way to shorten that title).
Deconstructions irritate me because they pretend to be more “realistic” than the things they deconstruct, when all they really are is meaner. In a deconstruction, the hero turns out to be a cowardly jerk, and the wise counselor turns out to be a manipulative turncoat. But there is no reason to consider this especially realistic: betrayal and cowardice happen in real life, but so do bravery and loyalty. Indeed, we wouldn’t recognize the former without the latter; if no one had a concept of loyalty, he could not identify betrayal or be hurt by it. We know vice only because we first know virtue, because vice is virtue’s absence.
Second, deconstructions irritate me because they often (though not always) disrespect what they deconstruct. Alan Moore poured contempt on the superhero genre when he wrote Watchmen, and though there is no denying Moore’s impressive storytelling skill, he could not have told that story at all if others hadn’t laid the foundations before him: if other men hadn’t created Superman, Batman, and the Question, and made them cultural icons, he couldn’t have reimagined them as an amoral nymphomaniac, an impotent weasel, and an unhygienic psychopath respectively. He openly expressed hatred for the very thing he was dependent on for his own work.
In other words, the deconstructionist simply breaks stuff after someone else has already done the difficult legwork. He’s like a Fraggle coming along to devour all the buildings of those little Doozers, the bastard.
For example, some years ago, on another site, I reviewed a volume of Amerimanga entitled Legends from Darkwood. Darkwood wants to deconstruct folklore and fairy tales, but doesn’t know them, and doesn’t respect them. Its supposedly edgy premise is that opportunistic hunters are using unicorns’ attraction to virgins as a means of baiting them. But there’s a problem: that is, in fact, already an established part of unicorn lore. Instead of picking apart unicorn legends, the creators of Darkwood merely display their ignorance of them.
Now, it may turn out that none of what I’ve just said will apply to Magical Girl Raising Project, which may, like Puella Magi Madoka Magica, put a hard twist on the established tropes of the magical girl genre while still respecting them. But that remains to be seen. In the meantime, I am skeptical. So far, with its innocent heroine expressing hopes and ideals that are obviously going to get smashed, it looks bitter and cynical and ugly—but so did Madoka in its early stages.