If you ask the average nerd what a magical girl is, the default response might be to point to the ‘90s animated adaptation of Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon. Naoko Takeuchi’s series is a global sensation, but it’s just one example of a wide genre with a whole variety of stories and a variety of roles, styles, and inspirations for its heroines.
The Magical Girl umbrella is fascinating once you open it up: exploring the different types that have been popular in different eras makes for an intriguing look into the genre’s history and its impact.
The U.S. Inspiration
I’d like to quickly explore the origin of the magical girl, because this will help to see how two varieties of the magical girl were born. It might seem a surprise that the origins of a predominantly Japanese genre lie in live-action American TV, but we were a full generation past World War II, surviving U.S. Occupation (which, depending on where you live, continues to this day), and also seeing a newfound freedom with a generation of teens and girls living in a world where women’s suffrage has always been legal. (We got that in 1945.)
Bewitched, retitled Okusama wa Majo (My Wife Is A Witch) aired in Japan starting from September of 1966. At the same time, I Dream of Jeannie, retitled Kawaii Majo Jeannie (Cute Witch Jeannie) was also airing. With the marketing of Jeannie as another witch, we had two stories featuring male characters and magical women as love interests. Just the year before, Mary Poppins (not retitled this time) had hit Japanese theaters. While she wasn’t a love interest to a protagonist (sorry, Dick Van Dyke, but Bert was not the central character), she was a troublemaker breaking all the rules with her childlike whimsy, making Edwardian London a much more fantastical place.
If you’ve seen any amount of these media, you can probably get some ideas for what to expect from an early magical girl protagonist (or use it to argue that WandaVision is a magical girl program at your next covid-safe dinner party).
The Majokko, or Witchling
When talking about the original magical girls, the word majokko often comes up, meaning little witch or witchling. Despite the name, majokko is also used as an umbrella term for magical girls of the 60s and 70s, including Cutie Honey (who we’ll get to later), but generally the same tone and types of episodes exist throughout all the shows. The main character is either a witch-in-training from another land who comes to the human world, or is a perfectly normal human girl who is given a magic item that she can use pretty freely. Sally the Witch (1966) is the former, while Secret Akko-chan (adapted to animation in 1969) was the latter.
Most episodes feature common elementary school conflicts such as bullies, struggling with studies, or interpersonal relationships with friends and neighbors. While there is often a small cast of friends around the majokko, you can expect the occasional visits from characters from the magical world and a lot of one-off characters who the little witch befriends before never being seen again.
While terms like majokko and magical girl imply the existence of magic, the fantasy genre framework isn’t strict: androids like Miracle Girl Limit-chan (1973) and psychics like Mami the Psychic (1977) also get thrown into the mix. While this type of series is less commonly produced in Japan these days, you can find contemporary Western series fitting this mold in stories like Disney Channel’s Sofia the First (2012) or Italy’s magical girl retelling of Sissi: The Young Empress (2015).
The Magical Idol
The modern concept of the idol in Japan was born just around the same time as the magical girl, after the success of the French film Cherchez l’idole (1963). As such it’s no surprise that the idol concept got wrapped up in the magical girl world as well. Magical idols really took off in the 1980s when Studio Pierrot produced a series of year-long shows featuring normal elementary school girls who earned the right to magic for a year from an otherworldly being or beings. Rather than staying as elementary school witchlings, their powers granted them the ability to magically grow up—just old enough to work as an idol. They began with Creamy Mami, the Magic Angel (1983) and finished with Fancy Lala, the Magic Stage (1988).
The aged-up idol is not as common these days, as the last major series to feature a main character as an aged-up magical idol was Fullmoon wo Sagashite (2002) which was unique in that the protagonist was terminally ill and thus her magical idol transformation was a way to achieve an otherwise impossible dream. You can expect lots of cute costumes, secrets about the other world which grants her powers, and a complicated love triangle between an older boy and both the girl’s true form and idol form.
As an aside, there are now many examples of other kinds of magical girl stories where one of the characters is either aiming to be or already is an idol: Minako Aino in Sailor Moon (who is either aiming to be or is an idol depending on the iteration), Urara Kasugano in Yes! PreCure 5 (2007), Makoto/Cure Sword in Doki Doki PreCure (2013), and the characters of the French animated series LoliRock (2014). And this year, we have a whole new crossover between idols and magical girls as the Pretty Rhythm franchise started its latest series, Waccha! PriMagi (2021).
The Battle Heroine
Most fans of Japanese media are familiar with tokusatsu, but just in case you aren’t, this is a particular style of formulaic live-action film and television made with lots of special effects, primarily in the action genre. Classic tokusatsu includes monster films such as Godzilla, superhero titles such as Ultraman or Kamen Rider, and what is often most familiar to Western audiences, Super Sentai, which is repackaged and partially reshot under the name Power Rangers.
While women sometimes appear on these fully suited teams, there have also been many iterations of female-led tokusatsu series, especially in the 80s and 90s. Each tends to feature one heroine fighting against evil, and are magical girls in their own right. Some examples of popular series are Magical Chinese Girl Pai Pai! (1989) and La Belle Fille Masquée Poitrine (1990). (This is where I must point out that both of these series have superhero titles referencing their chests, and yet are for children.) The popularity of these shows seems to be pretty connected to the battle heroine boom in Japanese animation.
The tokusatsu–inspired heroines who fight evil on a weekly basis are the most recognizable form of the magical girl, and have been for the past 30 years. While Cutie Honey (1973) was similarly inspired by tokusatsu in the 70s, and was the first to have a fully nude transformation sequence, she was a lone heroine among the other majokko of her time. Pretty Soldier Sailor Moon (1992), a name recognized worldwide even by people who might not watch Japanese animation, hit the scene with a full team of magical heroines and set a new precedent for the battle heroine genre, directly influenced by Super Sentai in particular.
This is not to say that any further battle heroine series were copying this one series, but the fighting magical girl was simply what the public seemed to clamor for at the time. Another factor is certainly that almost all these magical girl shows are also aimed at children and are therefore designed to sell toys. The more characters and weapons you have, the more merchandise you can sell.
If you watch a battle heroine series, you can usually expect to find a team of girls with distinct themes and personalities who transform into heroes, fight monsters on an episodic basis, and defeat higher and higher levels of general minions before taking down the true source of evil in the season finale. Meanwhile, there are interpersonal conflicts in their daily lives, often somehow coinciding with their fight of the week. When non-magical girl series have spin-offs or parodies of magical girls are made, it is usually within the battle heroine genre specifically, such as Magical Project S (1996) or Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha (2004). Most Western magical girl series, whether in comic form or animated, also fall within this category—you can see this everywhere from webcomics such as Sleepless Domain (2015 – present) to Dreamworks ventures like She-Ra and the Princesses of Power (2018).
A sub-sub genre within the battle heroine is the magical phantom thief, who uses their magic for good but is perceived by others as being a criminal, causing a special variety of trouble involving police officers or detectives. There are only a few examples of this—Saint Tail (1995), Phantom Thief Jeanne (1999), and the comic Stellar Witch LIP☆S (2019). These magical girl anti-heroes put a mischievous spin on the formula while otherwise keeping it mostly intact.
Of course, magical girls have been evolving for decades, and as such the lines between these subcategories are often blurred. Ojamajo Doremi (1999-2003) is a series about a group of human elementary schoolers who become witch apprentices and transform into their magical witchling selves to solve everyday conflicts. Mermaid Melody: Pichi Pichi Pitch (2003) features mermaids who transform into magical idols, singing to defeat evil.
Magic Knight Rayearth (1994) is about a group of normal Tokyo middle schoolers who are whisked away to a magical world in order to save it with magic and giant robots. The tokusatsu series Girls x Heroine (2017 – present) features battle heroines that also crossover into other subgenres, including magical idols, witchlings, and phantom thieves.
There are so many ways to be a magical girl, whether it’s a child helping out her friends with a small spell, a tween using magic to grow up a little faster to hit the stage, a teenager fighting the forces of evil, or even an adult woman making the mundane just a little more fantastical. Only time will tell the new ways the boundaries of this archetype will be pushed forward.