Dad didn’t beat around the bush. He got straight to the point. Allow me to explain.
I’ll sell Puella Magi Madoka Magica to anyone who’ll listen. It’s an emotional romp through the tropes of the Magical Girl genre, where all is not as it seems. It’s a philosophical look at cultural views on altruism and even spiritual salvation. It asks questions of the genre: Why are young girls given magic powers? What is the mechanism behind it? What is the potential when a child engages in physically demanding battles? What would the world look like if Jesus was a magical girl?
I didn’t come here to talk theology (but pleeeease, please talk theology with me) but only because I want this to be relatively spoiler-free. Suffice to say, the Madokaseries offers a lot to those who are willing to give it a chance, not least of all a stunning set of futuristic architecture and bursts of glorious surrealist imagery (particularly in the third movie) a la the 1968 Beatles film, Yellow Submarine.
But what if you’ve never seen a Magical Girl anime? Or never read manga in the genre? What if you don’t know your Sailor Moon from your Tokyo Mew Mew, or your Cardcaptor Sakura from your Black★Rock Shooter?
The Magical Girl genre usually tells stories of a girl (or girls) with magical powers and a uniform (often frilly), who uses these powers to fight evil in the universe. These girls may be operating in secret, or lead a glamorous double life. Often idol singers, or just school students going through the motions, magical girls have to balance their private lives with the massive battles they’re duty-bound to fight.
If this sounds all sounds gendered and silly, it’s because it is. Much like the Boys’ Own publications or the Babysitters’ Club books, we have a genre created with an age and gender in mind. Originally a way of celebrating femininity and glamour mixed with magical wish fulfilment, the Magical Girl genre has evolved, but still moves between sub-groups within the Japanese notion of age-and-gender-genres.
The four (five, if you include “Children’s”) genres are as follows:
Shounen (boys): This is manga or anime aimed at boys or men, generally 10 and up. It is the most popular genre and usually contains action, a male lead and physically attractive (read: exaggerated) female characters.
Shoujo (little girls): Shoujo doesn’t need to be all frilly dresses and men in tuxedoes, but rather it usually has a focus on either romance or emotional development. It’s generally aimed at girls from 10 to 18.
Seinen (young men): Generally aimed at older men, Seinen manga and anime often deal with more serious themes. They can be light hearted, but they often have more graphic violence or sex.
Josei (ladies): Easily my favourite genre, Josei manga and anime often focus on more adult themes like depression, life-goals, the mechanisms of romance and the changing stages of life. It’s aimed at women 17 and up.
These groupings actually refer to the target audience. Because many stories are written with these distinctions in mind, they can be thought of as genres. It’s certainly not necessary for a title within these genres to be bogged down with sexism, despite the prevalence of problematic gender-based characterisation. The best way to tell which grouping a manga belongs to is to check which publication it was originally serialised in, as these magazines are usually genre-specific.
If we understand the framework these genres have offered over the years, we can see the evolution of the Magical Girl genre. For example, if we want to take a Magical Girl story and sexualise the characters, but don’t include any sex, then we have shifted to a Shounen story. If we add tragedy and dark themes then we can produce a Seinen tale. If we shift to the post-prime warrior, where she must build a new life after being the heroine and must navigate the intricacies of adult relationships, then we’re getting into Josei territory.
None of these are fixed things, and with certain tweaks, these stories cross genres. Many Magical Girl anime and manga series are straight-up Shounen because of the sexualised imagery and action-focused plot. Without diving into the cultural differences surrounding sexualised imagery, it’s fair to say that Japanese society is more accepting of sexualising younger girls (and boys – there’s Shota & Loli, which I encourage you to wiki, but NEVER Google).
Finally we return to Puella Magi Madoka Magica. There are action scenes typical of Magical Girl anime. They have transformation sequences, often resulting in brief flashes of stylised nudity. They have specific powers, which in some way reflect each girl’s nature. The girls must wrestle with how their powers might affect their personal relationships. There is a higher power bestowing these gifts (great power, great responsibility, blah, blah). However, it is in the way these elements are explored that we see why PMMM is a deconstruction of the genre.
The mechanism by which these powers are given out calls into question the nature of a “Magical Girl”. The way each girl is able to fight with strength beyond her physical abilities is explored. Each element and trope is discussed, offering dark undertones to separate it from the often fluffy fare usually associated with MG’s. Essentially using MG’s as a vehicle for wider discussions allows it to break down the elements that make up the genre and subvert the audience’s expectations.
When I first started watching, I was encouraged by two friends, but as soon as I hit social media, I was warned by people who had started watching it, or who had read about it. They said that it fetishized violence against young girls. They said that it was violent kiddie porn. They were wrong. Very wrong.
What I found was a thought-provoking, and often moving discussion that skipped between brilliant visuals, interesting philosophical exploration and (sometimes heavy-handed) Christian symbolism. Within the context of where the genre has come from, and what this show aims to examine, we can equip ourselves with the correct lens through which to examine Madoka’s story.