I’ve noticed that among anime fans there is sometimes confusion or difficulty when it comes to defining genres. This is understandable, given that genres are not simple concrete lists of traits. They can be subjective or fluid; they really like to overlap or turn in on themselves. (Renato Rivera Rusca, Assistant Professor at Meiji University, has whole panel about this. But just a heads up this panel is not spoiler free.)
That being said, it is possible to define a genre, and to discuss what attributes remain shared between works over time and over mediums. One genre that I think gets oversimplified the most, is mahou shoujo or magical girl. It’s constantly being boiled down, by fans, into just a transformation. A transformation is such a vague idea to define a genre with. I’ve heard and partaken in conversations that are about “Well, this has a transformation in it so is that a magical girl? Well what about this?” And trying to peg down the genre with this single trait is impossible. Most of the examples that get brought into those kinds of discussions are just gags or references that are a one time thing, or they don’t contribute anything to the story and they’re just there to pay homage to the magical girl genre; they are not trying to be actively a part of it.
So I want to share with you my own definition of the magical girl genre.
This is a slide from one of my magical girl panels I never break it down in my panels because I don’t have time. So I want to run down each part and talk about what is it that makes a magical girl story a magical girl story.
So first we have key themes and aspects. These are the pieces that are necessary for a story to have in order to be considered a magical girl story. It needs to have most, if not all, of these themes. So the first one is, yes, a transformation.
Transformation is an important part of magical girl stories. But what I mean by transformation is not stock footage sequences. What I mean is the protagonist has to change from one entity into another. A magical girl thinks of herself as something else after she transforms. So for example: Usagi, after she transforms, thinks of herself as Sailor Moon. Sailor Moon is a different entity than Usagi. (Please note that this is not the same as two consciences sharing a body. In other words, possession doesn’t count.)
Next, there has to be a transformation artifact. A magical girl needs something that is physical that she uses to summon her transformation. For many magical girls this item is a compact or some other type of accessory, but its not always. For example in Shugo Chara the characters transform using these heart-eggs that have tiny people inside of them. (They’re suppose to be their hopes and dreams manifested into a physical form.)
The transformation artifact is so important that there’s almost always an episode dedicated to what happens when a protagonist loses their magical transformation artifact and what kind of consequences are they going to suffer. Usually the consequence is that the character loses their magical powers or they lose the ability to transform back in into their civilian form, but there’s also shows like Madoka Magica where the consequence is a little bit different.
(Moving right along, away from spoiler territory.)
Dual identities, a concept connecting back to the idea of transforming into a separate entity and turning into something that is different from yourself. We know that magical girls think of their civilian forms and their magical identities as separate, not only because they usually go by separate names but also because there is going to probably be some point in the story where the magical girl points out how her two personas are different. She compares and contrasts them and wonders which one is the real her. I think that this is the most important aspect of the magical girl genre. I think the theme of dual identities is very core to the genre and it’s very difficult to tell a magical girl story without it.
Running in the same vein, we have secret identities. So our protagonist has multiple identities and the chances are she has to keep one of them a secret. She might not have to do this for very long. She might just have the secret go out immediately, but at some point she had to struggle with others discovering her powers or discovering her alter ego. Some magical girls might have to hide it throughout the entirety of the series, it just depends.
Next is a familiar/mascot character. These usually take the form of cute little creatures (but not always). The familiar is the companion to the magical girl and it’s related to her powers in some way. It’s there to accompany her during her life as a magical girl. So the familiar is an important compliment to the idea of a regular girl turning into a magical girl.
And finally, a growing up story that is catalyzed by magical powers. I think this is the other most core aspect of magical girl stories. Magical girls stories are about adolescence. They’re about finding yourself, building relationships and growing as a person. These types of changes in a magical girls life are because of her powers and the opportunities she gains because of those powers. The things she might gain could be friendships, responsibility or just self-discovery. This is what makes magical girl stories compelling. It’s not just a fantasy tale. It’s a story about growing up and what that means.
So as I have noted in the slide some of these might overlap, like a familiar might double as a transformation artifact. Or maybe one of these might just be totally omitted, maybe the protagonist never has to hide their powers. But so long as a story has most of these key aspects then it is a magical girl story.
So now I’m going to go over some of the common tropes found within the genre that are not necessary for the story to be a magical girl story but they’re also incredibly popular within the genre.
The first is a female protagonist. You’re probably thinking to yourself “But isn’t a magical girl supposed to be a girl?” and I don’t think that’s true. I also don’t believe that magical boy should be it’s own sub-genre. The only apparent difference is the gender of the characters. The only reason to use the separate term magical boy is because of the limitations of our own language when it comes to describing gender. I don’t think inventing new terminology is necessary. It’s understood that a magical boy is just a magical girl that is a boy and if someone describes a male magical girl just by calling them a magical girl that’s fine too.
Magical boys are a very rare occurrence, but there are a few examples. The most popular is the parody series Cute Earth Defense Club Love. Magical boys are also the focus of the manga Mahou Shounen Majorian and the drama CD Mahou Chunen Ojou Majou 5, both of which I really wish had anime adaptations.
Another very common theme is having a love interest or romantic sub plot. Magical girls almost always start out the story with some crush on some guy. Being a magical girl does not mean that you need a man, but a whole lot of them want one.
Next we have the rival. A rival usually represents the opposite of our protagonist, both in personality and appearance, and they usually play the role of dark to our hero’s light. Very often the two will end up joining forces and becoming friends.
The monster of the week formula was popularized within the genre by Sailor Moon, which was inspired by super sentai shows. Every episode a new monster appears and has to be defeated. It’s pretty simple.
The collection goal is very commonly paired with the monster of the week formula. The idea is that a magical girl is supposed to use her powers to collect something. In Card Captor Sakura it’s the Clow Cards, in Princess Tutu it’s the heart shards, the list goes on and on.
Power ups are when, at some point, a magical girl will level up her strength. She’ll get a new outfit or a new weapon, something that marks that she’s stronger than when she started out.
And last, but not least, awesome outfits. Some think that the poofy frilly dress is the trademark of magical girls but it’s not necessary for a magical girl to have an elaborate outfit. However, it is incredibly common. Magical girl outfits are often based off of elements of young girl culture or kawaii culture. They might be based off of sailor suits or lolita fashion. Those are two very popular options. Sometimes a magical girls outfit will reflect the theme of her story, for instance the magical girl Princess Tutu, being ballet themed, wears the costume of a ballerina.
So that is my guide for defining the magical girl genre. I hope you found it helpful.