Starry Eyes and Rose-Tinted Glasses: Putting the Magic back into Magical Girl

by eternal on October 26, 2009


There are many adults in this world who enjoy fiction aimed at children. That isn’t news to anyone, and it shouldn’t need justifying. Be it for the magic and excitement or the hotblooded black-and-white combat, stories that are primarily aimed at teens – or younger – are often enjoyed by many demographics.

Sometimes, though, I wonder what it is about these shows that makes them appealing. Is it simply because they’re different, or because they’re less challenging? The thing is, age can be a misleading factor when looking at target audience. Some stories appear to be aimed at a younger audience when they can really be enjoyed universally, and I’m not just talking about otaku-targeted mahou shoujo. Age does have an impact somewhere along the line, but now that I’ve had the pleasure of watching shows from Ghost in the Shell and Mushishi to Cardcaptor Sakura and Hayate no Gotoku, I’ve come to understand the simple pleasures that can be found in stories free of moral ambiguity and psychological intrigue.

I wrote about the topic of age and innocence a little while ago, although the point I was trying to make then is a bit different from what I’m talking about today. In a nutshell, watching CCS made me realize two things: one, that the age of the viewer impacts their perception of the characters, and two, that real innocence can be a huge draw in a story.

While innocence is and always will be a vague term, the realization of its power as an element has only sunk in further over the last few months. Innocence is a funny topic – and a bit awkward if you’re into the whole visual novel scene – but there’s no doubt in my mind that true innocence is felt before it’s seen. I suppose this could also apply to real life, but it definitely applies to fiction. Every viewer will have a different opinion of certain characters and events, but when Sakura Kinomoto skates to school with a smile on her face and Shaoran blushes as he begins to understand the feeling of love, there’s a definite form of innocence in the air. It’s something that the viewer picks up on without having to analyze the characters.

Similarly, that sort of innocence, or purity, works its way into a lot of shows, most notably the ones that are aimed at a younger audience. The younger you are, the more likely you are to enjoy stories with a clear line between good and evil, and characters that have overly idealistic beliefs are hardly ever disconcerting. It’s common in a lot of genres, though shounen is the first to come to mind. My memory of Naruto and the like is foggy, but I remember looking up to Sasuke as an anti-hero, and his careless actions based on his tragic past weren’t jarring in the least. It’s that same kind of self-righteous idealism that many JRPGs are rife with.

Getting back to the main point, the black-and-white nature of stories targeted at younger audiences have their own charm to them, and the flat, immature characters can be a blessing when looked at from the right perspective. This holds true when you leave the realm of shounen and, as the post title hints at, enter the realm of magical girl.

Kobato (1)[source]

This isn’t really a Kobato post, and it definitely isn’t an impressions post, but I’d be lying if I said that starry-eyed Kobato isn’t the character that inspired this. If you’ve seen any of the show, there’s one thing you’d know: it’s simple.

Although, simple might be putting it lightly. A girl from a mysterious world whose mission is to heal broken hearts in order to meet her parents? Sounds delusional to me. Looking at it objectively, it’s hard to imagine any adult enjoying the show for anything more than emotional therapy. Admittedly, it does do a good job of emotional therapy, but there’s no doubt in my mind that the appeal stretches beyond that.

I think this is where the genre boundaries become useless. From here, shows like Kobato stop being shoujo or magical girl and start being simply heart-warming tales about…stuff. That’s the key: it doesn’t really matter what they’re about. All of the enjoyment is in seeing how they approach the most mundane of tasks. In this sense, it’s just like the iyashikei subgenre: most Aria fans would agree that Akari’s mindset and lifestyle are what make the show what it is. Yes, it’s true that Kobato makes me feel all warm and fuzzy, and it’s a great stress reliever, but I wouldn’t dismiss it that easily. It’s not quite that simple, not as straightforward as jotting down a couple hundred words stating that simplicity in anime is fun and relaxing.

Because when it comes down to it, no one can define “fun” and “relaxing,” just as no one can define “innocence.” But regardless of what you want to call it, it’s a fact that these shows work. They’re about more than just helping you unwind after a hard day’s work, they’re more than just a tool to help you relive your childhood. Those factors are important, yes, but much like in the VN scene, all ahoge make not moé.

There’s more to an appealing moe character than a generic character design, and there’s much more to a successful iyashikei-esque feel-good slice-of-life than an optimistic heroine. The appeal reaches somewhere deeper than that, to something intangible, something universal. It touches the child within all of us, the basic instinct we have to be just like Kobato, to see beauty in the most ordinary things.

Magical girls can cast spells and summon familiars, but it takes real magic for a feeling like that to be brought from 2D to 3D.


{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Micchi October 27, 2009 at 12:34 am

Bravo. I really liked this article and it sums up my views on a lot of similar shows. That’s why I believe that people shouldn’t just watch one or two episodes and then dismiss the characters as shallow and the plot as boring or nonexistent, and try to enjoy it ‘as is’. We sometimes think too much and are critical of what we watch. Maybe we should rewind back to when we first got into watching anime, when we were ‘innocent’, and view them as is.

Along the lines of VNs/eroge, the purity and innocence is there too. If the story is written well, you do see those little things that make you smile, just like Shaoran understanding his feelings towards Sakura. It’s still there through the progression of the relationship as they learn new things together. Of course, if the story includes more than 1 scene, then it becomes awkward, but I digress…


Hyro October 27, 2009 at 10:03 am

I think this post hits the mark exactly. I enjoy a good simple show to break up the psychological intrigue and heavy emotions of other things I’m watching. It’s important for a simple show to work on many different levels. It adds the amount of dynamics it needs to be enjoyable. Kobato really captures this. You did a good job of describing what I couldn’t put into words, but could feel when watching these kinds of shows.


2DT October 28, 2009 at 8:21 am

The Kobato post you linked to was thought-provoking, if a bit distasteful toward the end. There’s a certain degree to which people just can’t accept innocence, and the really interesting part, to me, is that the response is often to imagine things like this. For example, I remember someone once posited a pet theory that the entirety of Aria was the dying coma-dream of a girl (the real Akari Mizunashi) about to be taken off life support. Why? Why would anyone ever try to superimpose something like that on such a simple, life-affirming story?

I don’t know. But I enjoyed your thoughts, and I agree with them. Cheers.


ETERNAL November 1, 2009 at 10:03 pm

Shin isn’t usually meant to be taken seriously, but I found the post to be thought-provoking in its own, out of context way :P

As for the topic of innocence, I guess the degree to which people can’t accept it varies from person to person. It’s hard for me to understand a mindset of a person who hates shows like these, but at any rate, I’m glad you agree.


Shance October 28, 2009 at 11:53 am

Now, this is definitely some good read. Good thing I put this site on Google Reader.

Now, as for the topic at hand, there’s a lot to consider before having to mix innocence and magic to concoct the perfect Magical Girl. Shows tend to pick basic instance of innocence, and have it expand both the concept and the character by the use of magic. This is the kind of Magical Girl we see more often: Powerful, young, nice, and innocent, which is typical for the show’s audience regardless of the watcher’s age. Though the idea of magic is taken aback due to the reason that it only motivates character development and not become a fundamental element of the show, it always strives to help the Magical Girl get her point across. And this even throws age out of the window, mind you.


ETERNAL November 1, 2009 at 10:00 pm

In other words, magic is the device and innocence is the theme? Sounds reasonable to me.


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