Anime Underground How "Magical Girls" Became Such A Big Thing In Anime  

Hannah Collins
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What do you get when you mix sparkly eyes, frilly skirts, endless curls, punchy catchphrases, unbeatable optimism, and magical powers together? Why, a whole lot of sweet, cute, and gutsy girls! These are the key ingredients that define Magical Girl anime today. But where did this sugary world of bright heroines come from?

Most Western fans credit '90s classics like Sailor Moon and Cardcaptor Sakura as the earliest examples of their exposure to this genre, but Magical Girl TV shows have a history in Japanese comics and animation that stretches all the way back the early '60s. Once upon a time, the neon-colored, plucky girls parading around today as "magical warriors" were once gender-bending knights, kick-*ss female superheroes, and "cute witches" from other dimensions. 

Also known as "Mahou Shoujo" or "Majokko" in Japanese, this unapologetically girly genre has come a long way, and its unwavering popularity has meant it's still developing in new and unexpected directions as time goes on. Some universities even have college courses on Magical Girl anime, as the genre has evolved and heavily influenced animation on various levels. Read on to discover how Mahou Shoujo anime started and how it has developed through the decades. 

Princess Knight Was Technically The First Magical Girl


Princess Knight Was Technicall... is listed (or ranked) 1 on the list How "Magical Girls" Became Such A Big Thing In Anime
Photo:  Mushi Productions

The starting point for the Magical Girl genre is the manga Princess Knight, created by Osamu "God of Manga" Tezuka (most famously known for works like Astro Boy). Beginning life as a manga series in 1953, Princess Knight was adapted into anime in 1967 and is also a notable early example of Shoujo. While historians agree that Princess Knight is not really a Magical Girl, it's generally accepted as the earliest prototype for one of the genre's key archetypes - the "Magical Girl Warrior," made more famous decades later by the hugely popular Sailor Moon franchise.

Princess Knight was also pretty revolutionary in terms of gender-bending, which is another common trope of both Shoujo and Magical Girl stories. Due to archaic gender rules, its heroine, Princess Sapphire, is forced to live her life as a Prince in order to ensure she inherits the throne from her father. Her boyish physicality laid the foundation for the fusion of the Magical Girl and Sentai archetypes to come.

Himitsu No Akko-chan Was Technically The First Magical Girl


Himitsu No Akko-chan Was Techn... is listed (or ranked) 2 on the list How "Magical Girls" Became Such A Big Thing In Anime
Photo:  Toei Animation

Although Sally The Witch is often credited as the first Magical Girl, the title technically belongs to Himitsi no Akko-chan ("The Secret Of Akkochan"), the manga of which predates Sally as it was published in 1962. It was produced as an anime that aired in 1969

While Sally embodies the Cute Witch archetype specifically, Akko-chan pioneered two fundamental characteristics of the Mahou Shoujo genre. The first is that heroine Kagami Atsuko is an ordinary human who is gifted, rather than born, with her powers as a reward for doing a good deed. The second is the all-important transformation ability that effectively creates a "secret identity" split between girl and magic. Kagami does this by way of a magical compact that endows her with shapeshifting powers. 

The First Magical Girl On TV Was A Witch Named "Sally" From Another Dimension


The First Magical Girl On TV W... is listed (or ranked) 3 on the list How "Magical Girls" Became Such A Big Thing In Anime
Photo:  Toei Animation

Created by the legendary Mitsuteru Yokoyama (creator of Gigantor, AKA Tetsujin 28-go, the grandfather of the Mecha genre) Sally the Witch was the first Magical Girl anime when it aired in Japan in 1966, three years earlier than Himitsu no Akko-chan

Sally is a princess, who is also a witch, of the magical kingdom of Astoria (a fictional place, not to be confused with the real one). She accidentally teleports to Earth, makes human friends, and decides to use her powers for good. The anime introduced the "Cute Witch" archetype and the concept of a "princess" from another dimension who ends up on Earth to the Magical Girl genre. 

Bewitched Was The Inspiration Behind Sally The Witch


Bewitched Was The Inspiration ... is listed (or ranked) 4 on the list How "Magical Girls" Became Such A Big Thing In Anime
Photo:  Sony Pictures Television

Believe or not, part of the inspiration for this quintessentially Japanese pop cultural phenomenon came from the US - specifically, the ABC sitcom Bewitched, which aired in 1964. The show was a frothy, comedic take on the supernatural, following the not-so-average housewife, Samantha Stephens, a witch married to a non-magical man.

The series inspired the creation of Sally the Witch, the very first Magical Girl anime to fly onto Japanese TV screens in 1966. Tribute has even been paid to the impact of Bewitched by way of the Magical Girl comedy series, Oku-sama wa Maho Shojo: Bewitched Agnes, which aired in 2005.