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

Updated September 15, 2017 8.8k views16 items

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. 

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  • "Magical Girls" Are Not To Be Confused With "Magical Girlfriends"

    Photo: Funimation

    These two archetypes are often confused, and while there can be overlaps, they're ostensibly two entirely separate things. Whilst both are heroines who can either be humans who possess magical powers or supernatural beings like witches or goddesses, there are key differences.

    A Magical Girl fits more into the mold of superhero. She is a protagonist who uses her powers to fight crime or inspire good, and though she usually has a romantic sub-plot, she acts independently. On the other hand, a Magical Girlfriend exists predominantly as male wish fulfillment and has less of the same agency. Ah! My Goddess! is one of the most well-known examples of the girlfriend genre. 

  • Cutey Honey Developed The Magical Girl Warrior, Despite Being A Shounen Show

    From the mind of the strange yet genius creator, Go Nagai, came Cutey Honey, airing in 1973. Most fans will be more familiar with the revival anime series, New Cutey Honey and Cutey Honey Flash that aired during the '90s.

    Though its technically a Shounen show, Cutey Honey's shapeshifting android heroine qualifies as a Magical Girl Warrior prototype. Proof of Cutey Honey's influence on shaping the modern Magical Girl Warrior can be seen in the definitive example of the archetype, Sailor Moon, with the "Monster Of The Week" format and the "In The Name Of The Moon" speeches.   

  • Majokko Meg-Chan Developed A Lot Of The Genre's Staples, Including Its Name

    Sally and Akko-chan kickstarted the genre, but Majokko Meg-chan (AKA Megu, the Little Witch) developed it much further when it aired in 1974. In fact, Meg-chan introduced and popularized the genre's very name.

    Megu-chan had an incredible amount of genre "firsts" that would become future staples. It was the first Magical Girl show to be aimed at boys as well as girls; the first to feature a heroine who wasn't super-girly; the first to feature a "Dark Magical Girl" rival; the first to have seriously evil villain; and the first to treat its viewers to fan service (i.e. panty shots) in a show of its kind.  

  • Toei Animation Had The Monopoly On Magical Girl Shows Until The '80s

    With Himitsu no Akko-chanSally the Witch, and every other Mahou Shoujo show carrying its logo from the get-go, Toei Animation appeared to exclusively own the Magical Girl genre as a franchise. However, this is all changed in 1982 with the release of Magical Princess Minky Momo by Production Reed (then known as Ashi Production).

    While Westerners usually aren't familiar with the title, the anime was hugely popular in Japan at the time. With Ashi Production's success, the floodgates for non-Toei Magical Girls ripped opened. Studio Pierrot released a whole roster of shows throughout the '80s, including Magical Angel Creamy MamiPersia, the Magic Fairy, Magical Star Magical Emi, and Magical Idol Pastel Yumi.