By Tom Speelman
Ever since Sally the Witch premiered in 1966 on Japanese television, magical girls have been a staple of anime storytelling. Cute, friendly, loyal and decked up in the frilliest outfits imaginable, magical girls are beloved all over the world. But there’s more than just one kind of magical girl story.
Besides the typical, superhero-esque anime all about saving the day with your friends and winning the heart of that cute guy in your class, there’s plenty of magical girl stories that stretch beyond!
With the arrival of one of the most anticipated anime of this winter season, Magia Record: Puella Magi Madoka Magica Side Story, here’s a look back at five magical girl anime that showcase the depth and breadth of this remarkable subgenre.
Sasami Magical Girls Club (2006)
First airing in Japan all the way back in 2006, this first entry on the list is a magical girl staple. It also has the strangest origin, as technically, Sasami Magical Girls Club is an alternate universe spinoff of the Tenchi Muyo! franchise, although no familiarity is required.
While most magical girl shows devote their first episode to providing an origin for the heroine’s powers, this show gets the ball rolling right away. Grade schooler Sasami Iwakura was always able to use magic but swore to her parents that she’d never do so outside of the house.
This limit is tested when Sasami discovers that her introverted classmate, Misao, also has powers. The two wind up encountering a major revelation when Washu Kozuka, the new school nurse, reveals they are descendants of witches who fled to a separate world to avoid persecution.
Kozuka trains Sasami and Misao to become magical girls alongside the loudmouth Makoto, the stoic Tsukasa and the romantic Anri, a path that eventually leads them to the world of the witches and adventure beyond their wildest dreams.
While some of this show might seem dated, it’s still a very sweet, cute magical girl show that winds up being a lot more than the sum of its parts. With solid scripting by anime legend Mari Okada (Black Butler, Mobile Suit Gundam: Iron-Blooded Orphans), lively animation by AIC Spirits and director Yoshihiro Takamoto, Sasami Magical Girls Club is a bright ray of sunshine worth the watch.
Puella Magi Madoka Magica (2011)
In a lot of ways, we have Puella Magi Madoka Magica to thank for our current magical girl renaissance. At the first glance, the series appears to be a typical magical girl series, complete with fantastic transformation and cute character designs. But this show is not what it seems.
Middle school student Madoka Kaname lives a pretty charmed life but wakes up one night having had a mysterious dream of a black-haired girl fighting a mysterious monster. Her world is turned upside down when that same girl transfers into her class.
It only gets weirder when Madoka and one of her best friends, Sayaka, find this girl winding through a mall trying to kill a mysterious creature calling itself Kyubey. Why, and what Kyubey offers Madoka and Sayaka, sets off a saga that leads the girls down a path of [REDACTED]. You didn’t think we’d spoil it for you, did you?
Nearly a decade after its debut, Puella Magi Madoka Magica holds up remarkably well. Shaft’s fluid, smooth animation, combined with Gen Urobuchi’s grim and compelling scripts, the smart direction of Akiyuki Shinbo and Yukihiro Miyamoto, and the cute and distinctive character designs of Ume Aoki, unite in perfect harmony to create a show that’s at once a loving tribute to magical girls and a massive heel turn for the genre.
One of the series’ most distinctive elements is the mind-bending work of animation troupe Gekidan Inu Curry, who designed the Witches that our heroines fight, as well as many other elements (and are directing and writing the now-airing Magia Record).
Taking inspiration from Czech and Russian animators like Jan Švankmajer and Yuri Norstein, the duo combined cut-out techniques and collaging to create something unlike anything else in anime. It’s that little touch of sinister they add that helps make Puella Magi Madoka Magica a winning, compelling show all these years later.
Magical Girl Spec-Ops Asuka (2019)
I’ll admit I was looking forward to this show when it premiered last winter more than most, for personal reasons. Long before the anime was even announced, I’d been adapting the original manga by writer Makoto Fukami (PSYCHO-PASS) and artist Seigo Tokiya (with Naoya Tamura serving as the military advisor) for Seven Seas Entertainment.
Luckily, director Hideyo Yamamoto, Fukami, Tamura and co-screenwriters Norimitsu Kaihō, Ukyō Kodachi, Kotaro Shimoyama and animation studio Liden Films managed to preserve the heart of the original manga while making it work perfectly as a stand-alone anime.
Three years ago, Earth was invaded by monsters from another dimension named Disas, who looked like cuddly toys but were really anything but. In response, the fairies of that dimension teamed up with Earth’s governments, granting several chosen teenage girls the ability to become magical girls and take down the Disas.
By the time the Distonian War ended, only five of these eleven magical girls survived, and they scattered to the winds. Their leader, Asuka Otori, haunted both by the death of her parents and by PTSD, tried to live a normal life. Just when she seemed to have finally succeeded at her high school, the Disas came back.
Full of violence and torture, this series isn’t for the faint of heart. But if you can deal with limbs being chopped off and both sides torturing people to get what they want, Magical Girl Spec-Ops Asuka is like nothing else in the modern age of magical girl anime.
Magical Girl Raising Project (2016)
One of many anime based on light novels that have cropped up in recent years, Magical Girl Raising Project has a unique hook to it that recalls, of all things, Summer Wars.
Like the film, this series takes place in a world where, to its main character, a smartphone game is their life. Specifically, middle schooler Koyuki Himekawa, who’s always loved magical girls ever since she was little, is obsessed with the mobage Magical Girl Raising Project.
Thrilled by internet reports of real magical girls in her city, Koyuki’s world is rocked when the game’s mascot, Fav, tells her that she’s been chosen to be the 1-in-10,000 who becomes an actual magical girl. Given a costume, special hairdo, the ability to hear the voices of anyone in need, and the codename Snow White, Koyuki becomes a force for good alongside all the other magical girls, particularly her mentor, the knight La Pucele.
But just as things couldn’t be better, Fav announces a brutal twist: there are too many magical girls operating in the city, so their numbers need to be cut in half. Thus, whoever collects the least amount of magical candies from helping people per night will be eliminated from the game … and real life!
With lush animation by Lerche (Assassination Classroom,ASTRA LOST IN SPACE, RADIANT), clever, propulsive scripting by Takao Yoshioka and compelling direction by Hiroyuki Hashimoto, Magical Girl Raising Project seems simple at first glance but actually has a lot going on underneath, which definitely makes it worth your time.
Cardcaptor Sakura: Clear Card (2018)
A sequel to the beloved ‘90s anime Cardcaptor Sakura based on the beloved manga by CLAMP, this show sees the now junior high-aged Sakura Kinomoto happily content with her life. She’s confessed her love to Syaoran who, having returned from Hong Kong, happily reciprocates. Her friends and home life are great, and everything seems to be going her way.
But it all falls to pieces when Sakura has a strange dream about a mysterious cloaked figure who seemingly turns all the Clow Cards she’s collected completely blank and powerless.
With this new mystery afoot, Sakura, her best friend Tomoyo, her guardians Kero and Yue, Syaoran and the rest have to regroup to figure out why the cards have turned clear.
Scripted by CLAMP director Nanase Ohkawa, directed by original series director Morio Asaka and brought to loving life by Madhouse, Cardcaptor Sakura: Clear Card is the rare sequel series to a ‘90s classic that’s just as compelling and fun, even if you’ve never experienced the original.
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