I excitedly walked out of station, ready to see this so-called anime mecca for myself. Still a fresh-faced teenager, I couldn’t wait to see all the merchandise for my favorite anime now that I had come to Akihabara. Looking around, it didn’t take me long to realize that one of the most prevalent anime at the time was not only one I hadn’t seen, but I didn’t even know it was a popular show at all. I had arrived in the summer of 2007, right in the middle of the broadcast of Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha StrikerS. Between Nanoha and the recent success of The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, it was hard to notice much else in Akihabara at the time.This was when I first realized that Nanoha had been enjoying far more popularity in Japan than it had in the west.
When I first encountered Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha, I didn’t give it a second glance. It had a little buzz from fans online, but 2004-2005 were busy years for anime and magical girl shows (read: kiddy shows) were just not something on my radar at the time. Fast forward well over a decade and the franchise has a brand new movie coming out on July 22nd, 2017: Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha The Movie 3rd: Reflection.
Looking at the name and the art, it’s very understandable how someone could pass on this anime without realizing that it’s so much more than your typical magical girl show. First of all, kids were never the target audience for Nanoha. The anime actually traces its origins back to a minor character from an eroge (briefly expanded on in previous post), and we can see the evidence of this in the eroge-esque hairstyles. Also, considering that the episodes aired between midnight and 4:00am back in 2004 (before everyone had DVR’s), I don’t think they expected many children to watch the show.
Embracing the Genre
In typical magical girl fashion, Nanoha is an ordinary elementary school girl who stumbled into a magical world via a cute talking animal sidekick. She gets her powers from a magical gem and is tasked with collecting the “Jewel Seeds” by defeating various possessed magical monsters. For much of the first season (Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha), this chugs along much like any number of typical magical girl series up through about episode six. Then things start to get crazy. Without spoiling too much, episode seven introduces “High Dimensional Time-Space” and the Time-Space Administration Bureau which patrols it in their inter-dimensional spaceship. We are quickly introduced to new worlds and new characters and the rest of the series proceeds at a greatly accelerated pace. The first season races to a finish that is far from its humble magical girl beginnings.
The second season (Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha A’s) picks up shortly after where the first season leaves off and kicks everything up to an entirely new level. It has carefully choreographed battles, new enemies, and cartridge equipment power ups. Nanoha A’s is known for its non-stop fist-pumping action and unimaginable levels of friendship. It’s generally considered to be the best part of the franchise and watching it is a thoroughly enjoyable experience.
Lastly, the third season (Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha StrikerS) does something that you don’t see in any other magical girl anime. It takes our main cast of characters and follows them on their transition from “magical girls” to “magical women”. StrikerS is the length of the first two seasons combined, so we encounter plenty of new characters on which to build a new plot. As far as I’m aware, Nanoha is the only magical girl franchise to follow magical girls into womanhood. There have been a few spin-off continuations after StrikerS, but I’ve left them out of this post as they don’t have much impact on the core three seasons of the franchise.
Extending the Genre
Nanoha herself is another thing that makes this series stand out. She embraces her newfound powers and loves the idea of using them to help people. She is unwavering in her determination and will not relent until she has befriended the ever-living shit out of you. Another thing worth noting is that the franchise is known for its (very mild) yuri undertones. There are a few scenes in the series that stand out for fans who want to draw this connection, but much of it exists within the fandom and not so explicitly in the series itself.
While Nanoha is solidly in the magical girl genre, it is not a magical fantasy. Instead, the series introduces a number of sci-fi elements to explain and build upon its magical setting. As mentioned above, season one introduces inter-dimensional spaceships and spends much of the last half of the season away from Earth. In season two, they upgrade their magical devices to use magical energy cartridge power-ups. Lastly, near the end of the first season, we find out these magical devices are actually remnants of a highly advanced inter-dimensional civilization that once existed. There may be technology to explain the powers these devices hold, it appears to be beyond the understanding of the humans in the story. As Arthur C. Clarke famously said: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”.
As I was writing this post, I asked a friend for some input on why Nanoha is one of his favorite franchises and got the below response (spoilers). This captures a lot of my feelings about the emotional aspect of the show and how it can be just as important as the action.
Nanoha is a series built on happy ends. Not universally and with exceptions, but these stories revolve around characters in unfortunate and tragic circumstances who struggle to overcome their situation. Against the odds, fate is broken, doom is averted, people are able to live happily – or start to. The central struggle of the story is to save somebody and when that succeeds, that’s exactly what I found very enjoyable, it turns out.
The stories are almost always built on the dynamics of unfortunate children or people finding happiness, a very noble theme if you ask me. This shows through most characters being orphans, parent-less, cast out or otherwise stricken (Fate, Hayate, Caro, Erio, Teana, Subaru). And you have these pitiable characters as much on the side of protagonists as on the side of antagonists. Thanks to that, when the outcome ends up well not just for the first group but for the other as well, it’s a very satisfactory ending.
If you don’t give much thought to this heart-warming emotional element, I think you are missing a crucial part of these stories. It’s not about the fights and huge explosions and beams; that’s just extra. You only truly understand Nanoha season one when the most satisfying moment for you is the end of episode 13, the scene where little girls hug and exchange ribbons.
It Was the Rocket that Launched Nana Mizuki’s Career
Nana Mizuki is easily one of the most well-known voice actors in the industry. She was fairly active as a voice actor before her role in Nanoha, but I think it’s fair to say that the series put her on the fast track to stardom. Not only did she voice the super popular character Fate Testarossa, she also sings all of the opening music and theme songs for the franchise. The opening for the first season, Innocent Starter, saw significant success ranking as high as nine on the Oricon charts, but the opening for the second season was what really sealed her fate. The second opening, Eternal Blaze, ranked as high as number two on the Oricon charts. Thus establishing her as not only a talented voice actor, but a talented singer as well.
It Likely Laid the Groundwork for Madoka Magica
After the success of Nanoha, we didn’t see another smash hit magical girl show until Mahou Shoujo Madoka Magica in 2011. It’s no coincidence that Simbo Aiyuki was the director for both Nanoha (season one) and for Madoka. In interviews, Simbo has cited his experience with Nanoha as one of the reasons he was interested in creating a new original magical girl show with Shaft when the opportunity came up. Unlike Nanoha, Madoka is known for being a “deconstruction” of the magical girl genre. It takes the normal tropes and patterns that we have come to expect and tears them to shreds.
So Where Should You Start?
The obvious way would be to watch this in release order, but I don’t think that’s absolutely necessary. The first season actually does start out as a pretty standard magical girl show, so the first five or six episodes can be a drag to get through for skeptical viewers. I’m sure some Nanoha fans will disagree, but I recommend substituting season one with the first movie and then watching the rest in release order. However, I can’t recommend substituting the second season with the second movie as the original Nanoha A’s TV series is quite well-balanced overall.
If you find the franchise a bit intimidating, I urge you to at least check out the first movie. The time commitment is reasonable and if you enjoyed the first movie, you’ll enjoy the rest of the franchise.
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