I like PMMM despite itself.
The music is great, the story is heartbreaking, the visuals are fantastic.
Plus, while PMMM is in no fucking way the first grimdark magical girl series (and holy shit do I find assertions that it is so fucking uninteresting), and while 90% of what it seeks to deconstruct or subvert makes me want to tear my hair out, it does do an interesting thing with Kyubey. Like the Portal games, which take the trope of the tutorial/guide character (the exposition fairy) who gives you hints and tells you how to progress during the game and asked “What if this character wasn’t really trying to help?”, PMMM took the mascot character in magical girl shows (a la Luna and Kero) and asked the same question. And that is genuinely an interesting exploration of one of the staples of the genre.
For the most part, though, I like, sometimes, (sometimes I hate) PMMM despite itself. And I hate what it has wrought.
The biggest problem with PMMM is that magical girl shows are, at their heart, power fantasies for girls. They are Girl Power at their finest. In fact, Sailor Moon was an major and oft-overlooked part in kicking off the Girl Power boom in the 90s.
And what’s infuriating about PMMM is that it tries to tear that down. It’s not like Watchmen, another series which seeks to deconstruct the possibly unhealthy nature of the power fantasies of its genre. Because Watchmen is about vigilantism and male power fantasies, and 1. white men (who make up the majority of comic book heroes) already have disproportionate power so their power fantasies are inherently more sinister and 2. comic books are often centered around revenge, vigilantism, corrupt systems that “can’t be broken”, and ignoring the law.
Meanwhile, magical girl series are at their center about hope and love. The heroes usually literally fight with hearts and rainbows and songs. They aren’t gritty “I wish I could kick everyone’s ass” power fantasies. They are “if you believe in yourself and are your friends you can help people and achieve your dreams” fantasies. And they are for girls, who are too often told they can’t be everything they want. Not men, who are too often told they can.
So PMMM has this message, and if some of the interviews I’ve heard from the creator are true, a completely intentional one, that girls dreams are futile and destructive and that it’s harmful and useless for girls to want things. That girls having power fantasies or seeking to save the world will ultimately destroy them, or (before Madoka’s ending) turn them into something evil and dark. That ambition is bad for girls. That girls should learn their place before they become dark witches that destroy everything, or (after Madoka’s ending) fade from existence. That girls having power fantasies is ultimately harmful, and they need to stop. That girls have been wrong this whole time to want things. That girls’ desires, no matter what they are, are always ultimately selfish and corrupt.
And I fucking hate that. That’s not subversive. That’s our whole fucking lives. That’s what we get everywhere else. Nothing a girl does can be right. We’re bad to have ambitions and to want things. Even the “nice” things we do are dismissed with ulterior motives as soon as someone decides they’re done with us.
And I fucking hate people calling it “so profound” and whatever, when it’s ultimately torture porn and the message isn’t even deep.
And more than that, I hate that it’s success has spawned a series of knockoffs, so that now moe torture porn grimdark magical girls has become the most common iteration of the genre. So we had the incredibly ableist (OMFG WORST SHOW EVER MADE) Yuki Yuuna is a Hero, and we’re getting the “Magical Girls have to CULL EACH OTHER in a grim CHILDREN-LED FIGHT TO THE DEATH” of Magical Girl Raising Project and like I’m so fucking done with these grown ass men making shows for other grown ass men shitting all over girls’ power fantasies and thinking that shitting all over girls’ power fantasies is something new and subversive and not a reassertion of the status quo.
Look, I genuinely enjoyed watching PMMM. It’s a well made show, with good characters (Rebellion and everything that’s come since is AWFUL though). But I hate its message, I hate huge swaths of its fanbase, I hate its creator, and I hate that its become the new standard for magical girls.
Magical girls were already subversive. They were already something unique and powerful. They didn’t need to be brought down. And there would be good ways to explore and subvert the genre if you wanted to*. But just going for straight “everyone’s miserable and it wouldn’t work” isn’t actually a clever. Even without the inherent sexism, it has all the depth of those creepypastas that say “What if Rugrats WAS A DYSTOPIA” or whatever, like edgy for the sake of edgy isn’t actually deep.
*(While it’s refreshing to Western audiences that magical girls are deeply feminine, for instance, because we tend to associate being strong with being masculine or a tomboy, in Japan magical girls often serve as a reinforcement that no matter what you do you still have to adhere to gender roles. A great subversion of the genre would be one where some of the girls, and especially the main character, have more traditionally masculine powers/appearances and this is treated as just as valid a way for girls to be. Also interesting would be a magical girl series where older women become the magical girls – women struggling to hold jobs and pay rent, mothers, college kids, grandmas – because magical girls [like Disney princesses and much of media] tend to focus on pre- and newly- pubescent girl characters as the most powerful and tend to ignore older women)
Basically, enjoying magical girls has always involved some level of watching it for what you want and ignoring the less than pleasant intentions of the creator. Sailor Moon was heavily based on a series called Cutie Honey, which was made 100% to be fap material for adult male audiences, and originally the idea of this girl hero was something of a ~sexy~ joke. And then people like Naoko Takeuchi LOVED her and took empowerment from her, despite that clearly not being the intention, and created series like Sailor Moon. And I think that’s still a fine way to appreciate shows. I can watch PMMM and take power and interest from it despite its goals, like I did with the grossly fanservicey depiction of underage Magical Lyrical Nanoha when I was a kid. And I can do the same with what is likely to be the ultimately disappointing Magical Girl Raising Project.
But I’m not happy that I have to reinterpret and reclaim these shows to get meaning out of them. I’m not happy that a genre that was supposed to be about empowering girls has been largely stolen and dismissed as unrealistic and too idealistic. I’m not happy with an entire genre’s inability to see how positivity and idealism are subversive and groundbreaking.
And I’m not happy with PMMM for making that the status quo, or with all the fans who think things are better this way.
I have to agree actually. I loved how dark and terrible PMMM was but if everything magical girl anime was like that…
Nothing wrong with curling with CCS or Sailor Moon and letting the positive emotions and reinforcement of love and friendship remind you the world isn’t all darkness and evil.
Princess Tutu was maybe a great mix for me but I don’t know where it falls on that spectrum
It’s not even just that the series are gritty or dark, though I agree I would be seriously upset if that were every magical girl anime (which, outside of PreCure is increasingly becoming the case, and I’ve never seen a PreCure series), it’s why they are dark, and the way that they’re dark. It’s about where the darkness comes from.
In PMMM, Yuki Yuuna is a Hero, and now Magical Girl Raising Project, the dark elements are in-narrative punishments for the choice to be a magical girl in the first place.
In PMMM, if no girl had ever had the ambition to wish for something from an incubator, there would be no witches. Point blank. The problem they are solving is one girls created by wanting things, because girls’ desires are always corrupt or corruptible. The main characters are walking corpses because they are magical girls. They experience physical and psychological horrors because they made a wish. Literally, their own aspirations and ambitions are the source of their own hurt. It’s a “be careful what you wish for” story, an admonishment of their hubris.
Except wanting to be a magical girl isn’t hubris. At most it’s confidence, and usually it’s just wanting to be able to make a difference and be seen as strong, which is something that girls rarely get to do. That’s not something we should be punishing girls for.
Similarly, in Yuki Yuuna (ABLEIST PIECE OF TRASH THAT IT IS), every time the girls use their strongest powers, another part of their body stops working, something that wasn’t told to them when they eagerly agreed to be magical girls. (Eventually one of the characters decides that it’s so terrible living with disabilities that she tries to end the world, and no, I’m not kidding). They main conflict of the series isn’t the external villains they’re fighting, it’s the suffering they have to go through to be magical girls, suffering they wouldn’t have if they had just stayed home. Their own bodies are the price for having power.
And now in Magical Girl Raising Project, a bunch of kids who grew up loving magical girls and wanting to be magical girls who play a magical girl app game in their spare time because of how much they love it are given their wish. They get to live out their power fantasy. But now in exchange the game is going to start killing off half of them (or make them kill each other) because there can’t be TOO MANY powerful women all at once. Again, if these characters hadn’t wanted to be powerful and strong and magical, there would be no conflict for them. The conflict comes directly from their choice, as a direct punishment for their choice, to be a magical girl.
Girls who choose the ultimate Girl Power Fantasy get punished for choosing that fantasy.
That’s different from just dark. Mahou Shoujo Lyrical Nanoha was male-gaze driven kind of terrible show. Nanoha was literally originally a little sister character in a series of erotic dating sims and OVAs called Triangle Heart. Despite not being a love interest character (BECAUSE SHE IS EIGHT AND RELATED TO THE PROTAGONIST) she developed a large fandom (BECAUSE MEN ARE DISGUSTING), so they created a magical girl spin-off series for her (because that’s what you did with popular female characters in early aughts) and gave it lots of fanservice, of the eight year old protagonist (BECAUSE MEN ARE DISGUSTING).
ANYWAY Nanoha was also often an incredibly dark franchise. And you know what? I have some small criticism of that because some of that was almost certainly included for literal torture porn reasons, but also the dark narrative elements of Nanoha bother me way less than they do in shows like Yuki Yuuna or PMMM.
Because the dark elements were external things that Nanoha had to fight against. Not something she created by becoming a magical girl. In the series there’s a character named Fate who is literally tortured on screen by her own mother. There’s a little girl and a sort of book of the damned that’s basically gonna destroy the world. And they fight with giant mecha gun wands. And honestly all those things are still fine by me as elements of a mahou shoujo show.
In Nanoha I don’t mind the dark or gritty story elements as much. Because in Nanoha they aren’t punishments.
(Reminder: Nanoha is NOT GOOD. It doesn’t hold up narratively and it is full of super gross fanservice)
And I fucking love Princess Tutu. The bad things happening are in no way a punishment for Ahiru. Drosselmeyer tries to make it that way, but he was being a jerk long before Ahiru chose to become Princess Tutu, and his continued jerkiness was not a punishment for her choice. Princess Tutu is ultimately all about it being totally acceptable to want to change the world, no matter who you are, even if you’re just a duck, even if people are telling you you can’t. And it validates that you can do that. It’s 100% serviceable as a power fantasy, even if the story does get unexpectedly dark.
Because my main complaint is about punishing girls for having power fantasies, not about dark or unsettling storytelling.
I mean, magical girls as a genre are ostensibly still founded upon a genre of children’s shows, so it’d be bad to not also keep the CCS and PreCure variations on the genre. I want little girls to have a safe and happy place to play. I like happy flowers and hearts and glitter. I generally prefer cheerful stories to ~edgy~ ones.
But honestly I’d be A-OK with an occasional grimdark horror magical girl series where things get graphic and unsettling. That can still be a power fantasy. Shounen series do it all the time. Hunter x Hunter gets incredibly dark. But Gon is always a good hopeful kid, and there’s nothing in the narrative that says he’s bad for wanting to be become the strongest hunter in the world, or that he created the darkness in the world by wanting to be powerful. Dark terrible shit happens, hope is still the heart of the series, boys aren’t punished for having power fantasies.
I don’t want grimdark to be the staple of Magical Girls anymore, but it’s not just that these shows are grimdark. I’d be okay with a mature gritty magical girl series that wasn’t about punishing girls for being powerful. But that’s what this new trend is, it’s in-narrative punishments for girls who have power fantasies. And that’s bullshit. Girls can want to be strong and special and important. They should want to. We spend too much time telling them they aren’t those things. You aren’t evil or sabotaging yourself for wanting to be confident and strong.