LAB Notes #5 – Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha

Nanoha Movie BoxTarget: Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha – Mahou Shoujo Ririkaru Nanoha
Studio: Seven Arcs
Genre: Science Fiction, Action, Comedy
Notable Themes: Magical Girl, School Life
Episodes: 13
Fanservice Level: Heavy*

Reasons to Watch:
Visually dynamic, high action magical combat
A quintessential ‘Magical Girl’ experience

Reasons to Not:
Heavily reliant on anime tropes and stereotypes
Low episode count makes the pacing a little manic

Similar to: Puella Magi Madoka Magica, Cardcaptor Sakura, a long list of other Magical Girl shows.

Review:
Magical girl (Mahou Shoujo) series are a long time staple of anime.  Most Americans in my generation got their first taste of anime either from Dragonball Z, or from Sailor Moon, probably the most iconic magical girl show to cross over to the States.  The genre ranges from the uber-commercialized product placement, like Pretty Cure, to some of the most interesting critiques of anime as an art form, like the much lauded Puella Magi Madoka Magica.  These shows have huge appeal in their target market, 6 to 11-year-old girls, but also tend to be popular in the 16 to 30-year-old male and otaku demographics.  The same cross-demographic appeal is what has made the My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic reboot so successful.

In contrast, Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha was written almost exclusively to appeal to the older male demographic.  It uses tropes and storytelling tools more commonly associated with the giant mecha genre and characters pulled from an H-Game.  At the same time it retains much of the subject matter typical of other magical girl shows.  The combination of high action mentality and magical girl sensibility produces a uniquely fun series that escapes the worst of both of its parent genres.  So we end up with a show that packs in some fantastic action sequences right alongside significant social dramas and resolves both with giant lasers.  What more could a fan ask for?

Takamachi Nanoha is an average 9-year-old girl who stumbles upon a wounded ferret.  That ferret turns out to be the shapeshifted form of Yuuno Scrya, a mage from another dimension.  Yuuno discovered some incredibly dangerous ancient magical artifacts and was transporting them home when the transport ship went down and scattered the ‘Jewel Seeds’ all over Japan.  Yuuno had been in the process of finding and sealing them when one activated and created a powerful monster.  That same monster attacks again, forcing Yuuno to conscript Nanoha so he can make use of her latent magical abilities.  Using the Intelligent Device Raising Heart (Raging Heart in the English dub), Nanoha transforms and becomes a magical girl and quickly seals away the monster.

Nanoha Movie LargeWhile inexperienced, Nanoha demonstrates a superior magical talent and natural affinity for spell combat.  She quickly pledges to help Yuuno recover the rest of the Jewel Seeds, if only to prevent the havoc they would cause in her world.  After sealing a few more Jewel Seeds, Nanoha is unexpectedly confronted by another magical girl, Fate Testarossa, who is seeking the Jewels for another, unexplained reason.  The two clash repeatedly for the artifacts, making up the bulk of the main storyline.  But in her heart, Nanoha believes that she and Fate should not be fighting at all.

Alongside the action plot, Nanoha has to reconcile her new responsibilities with her regular life.  Her friends and family both quickly notice that the mostly carefree girl they all knew is increasingly preoccupied with something.  When Nanoha refuses to talk about it or just shrugs it off, they grow increasingly concerned, even to the point where her friends, Alisa and Suzuka, confront her.  This B-plot is a great inversion of typical magical girl plots, both because those around her aren’t stupidly oblivious and because Nanoha never really resents her responsibilities or tries to avoid them.  The confrontation with her friends actually has some of the best written drama of the series, if only because the Fate/Nanoha relationship often comes off as forced or ill-scripted.

One thing that Lyrical Nanoha does really well is its magic system.  Although it isn’t explicitly stated in the series, magical powers are a naturally occurring phenomenon that can be scientifically analyzed and controlled.  To that end, all of the magic staves and wands that crop up in the show are actually powerful computers that focus and direct the abilities of their users.  This helps explain away the awkward period at the start of a show when the protagonist gets their powers, but should have no idea how to use them.  Nanoha is basically just a battery with motives, while Raising Heart does all the heavy lifting.  These small changes does a lot to contravene the old magical girl standbys, like attack callouts, transformation sequences and out-of-nowhere combat skills; which become command executables, boot-up sequences and pre-programed spells respectively.

Nanoha BoxThis is where I should address the asterisk on the Fanservice Rating.  While Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha does indulge in just about every aspect of fanservice that has ever been associated with magical girl shows (and a few that haven’t), it manages to do so in a way that is just far enough off the norm to be clever.  It also avoids the absolute worst magical girl traits, such as monster-of-the-week episode structure and episodic plots.  There are still some aspects that will bother people, like the transformation sequences, a staple of magical girl shows where the protagonist dons her magical uniform via a stylized sequence that removes her street clothes and leaves her floating naked while the uniform magically appears.  The transformation sequences here are all the more awkward for the subject being nine years old, but to the show’s credit, the full sequence is only done three times.  But for the most part, the show strives to use the fanservice either for comedic value or to enhance the action, rather than to lower production costs or elicit cheap thrills.

Another small but significant problem is the show’s pacing.  Because the main plot needed to be crammed into 13 episodes, much of the subtlety and nuance of Nanoha and Fate’s relationship comes off as forced, artificial or patently ridiculous.  This is particularly true for people who aren’t familiar with how Japanese culture treats the ‘rivals’ relationship.  The pacing of the whole show is also a bit quick, forcing all of the characters to come to grips with sudden changes to the status quo very quickly.  These little problems become exacerbated when viewing the entire series in one or two sittings.  The natural pacing of a weekly broadcast television program does a lot to create space in the plot and allows the viewer to internalize new information.  When you crush five or six episodes into a sitting, that time just doesn’t exist.  It should be noted that many of these problems are fixed in the second season, Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha As, where the combination of less necessary exposition and a reduced reliance on combat scenes gives the series a much more reasonable pace.

Including Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha here is an attempt to bridge the pretty large gap between the shows that are considered marketable State-side, and the stereotypes that anime gets saddled with by the under-informed.  That gap is probably too big to be spanned by a single show, or even by the body of work these reviews represent, but Nanoha does a solid job of presenting a watchable, engaging show that is fully steeped in the themes and traditions of anime.  That doesn’t mean that you’ll like it.  I can heartily recommend the series to anyone who has more than a little experience with anime, especially if that experience includes shows that haven’t aired here.  For a neophyte though, there are better programs to cut your teeth on.

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Posted on January 16, 2013, in LAB Notes and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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