Introduction: What Popular Discourse on Magical Girl Anime Lacks
Magical girl or mahou shoujo has been popularly regarded as a staple of anime. These narratives of young girls in contemporary Japan bestowed with supernatural powers are something familiar to anime fans, even internationally through the global success of magical girl anime like Sailor Moon in the 90s and 2000s (Sugawa, 2015; Donaldson & Jing, 2021). With that status, it’s not surprising that many popular articles and video essays have attempted to explore magical girl anime; its history, characteristics, and categorizations (for example: Sugawa, 2015; Crunchyroll, 2020; Donaldson & Jing, 2021; Kishikawa, 2022).
As I observe, this popular discourse approaches magical girl anime mainly by exploring similarities and variations in the story or thematic contents. A common thread in the historical narrative is the evolution from the 60s-70s series where the girls use magic to deal with everyday life problems, to the 80s series where magic allows the girls to have a glimpse of adult life and responsibilities, to the series in the 90s and afterwards that feature superheroines fighting the forces of evil as popularized by Sailor Moon (Sugawa, 2015; Crunchyroll, 2020; Donaldson & Jing, 2021; Kishikawa, 2022). There’s also a distinction Akiko Sugawa (2015) made between Sally-type witches who come from magical realms to the ordinary human world, and Akko-type ordinary girls who are granted magical abilities, based on the two magical girl prototypes from the 60s. This historical narrative also notes the trend of series with “darker” themes often intended for older male otaku fan consumers in the 2010s, said to be influenced by the popularity of Puella Magi Madoka Magica (Sugawa, 2015; SecretIdentityStudio, 2019; Crunchyroll, 2020; Donaldson & Jing, 2021; Kishikawa, 2022; Obvious Puppet, 2022).
While this discourse of magical girl anime based on the story or thematic contents have its uses, I think it also has limitations for understanding magical girl anime. What I feel lacking from the popular discourse is a detailed and in-depth discussion on variations in their media mix models. In the simplest terms, media mix refers to the serialization of entertainment franchises across multiple media and commodity objects that also act as media themselves (Steinberg, 2012: viii). When it comes to the anime media mix, we can observe that anime franchises comprise of multiple systematically-connected media that provide fans with an environment of media experiences beyond just what can be seen on the screen, making the franchise a part of everyday life (ibid.: xi).
Here, I’d like to draw attention to the need to recognize these media environments in magical girl anime franchises. I believe that identifying variations of media experiences among magical girl anime can provide alternatives for mapping the lineages of this genre to what just story/thematic content comparisons can produce. My criticism towards the emphasis on story content over media business models in the popular discourse on magical girl anime is not a unique one, as Kumiko Saito (2014: 144) has also made a similar criticism. Unlike Saito’s article, though, the aim of this article does not include making as much critique of ideology (especially gender ideology). I wish to only introduce what media mix analysis could offer for popular discourse on magical girl anime, without making much judgment on the media mix models discussed. Consider this as an entry point so more detailed analyses and discussions can be built upon.
This article also does not aim to be exhaustive in covering every possible magical girl anime media mix model, but will merely highlight some notable ones that I can observe. Furthermore, the explanation will not present magical girl works in a linear historical manner. They would, instead, be grouped as deemed necessary according to the relevant model of the media mix. Last, the mapping of these models is not meant to be a benchmark in determining what belongs to the genre or doesn’t.
With those limitations to keep in mind, let’s get started.
Toy Company Sponsorship
Becoming Characters with Minky Momo and Creamy Mami Media Mix
We will begin with an important development that happened in the anime industry in the 70s and 80s. In this period, toy companies began to become important sponsors for anime production, particularly for anime series promoting their toys without the need for manga as source material (Hikawa, 2013: 17; Galbraith, 2014a: 47). This is a shift from the previously established pattern where a manga got adapted into anime, followed by other companies getting the license to make derivative products with images of the anime characters (such as stickers, socks, tin toys, etc.), as exemplified in the case of Osamu Tezuka’s Tetsuwan Atom/Astro Boy in the 1960s (Steinberg, 2012: 1-132; Hikawa, 2013: 17).
The importance the toy companies came to assume can be observed with giant robot anime, whose robots came to possess features such as transformation or combination capabilities that could be accurately replicated by the gimmicks of the toy robots that gave them their play value (Hikawa, 2013: 18). But a similar development in that period can also be seen with magical girl anime. While the shows regarded as the earliest magical girl anime in the 60s, Mahoutsukai Sally and Himitsu no Akko-chan, are both examples of the “manga adapted into anime” pattern, the most prominent magical girl anime of the 80s were original series sponsored by toy companies.
As recounted by the founder of Ashi Production, Toshihiko Sato (Galbraith, 2014a: 47-48) and the founder of Studio Pierrot, Yūji Nunokawa (Galbraith, 2014b: 55-56), the studios were sponsored by toy companies interested in producing toy magic wands for girls to make anime series where the main characters use a magic wand to transform. Ashi Pro developed this idea into Minky Momo which debuted in 1982, featuring a heroine who uses the magic wand to transform into an adult working woman. On the other hand, Studio Pierrot came up with Creamy Mami in 1983, where the girl transform into an idol singer, and became the start of a series of similar anime that came to be known as Pierrot’s Mahou Shoujo Series (ぴえろ魔法少女シリーズ).
Creamy Mami toy commercial
While these 80s series were perhaps not necessarily the first magical girl series with toys being an important component of their media mix, it can be argued that they refined that particular media mix model and had a lasting impact on magical girl anime conventions, for example in emphasizing the transformation scenes that showcase the magical item that enables the transformation in detail (Saito, 2014: 154; Hartzheim, 2016: 1074). It’s also notable that these series were produced not by Toei Animation which dominated the previous decades with their Majokko Series (Saito, 2014: 152; Sugawa, 2015), demonstrating that other studios can play a role in producing popular magical girl franchises too.
The toys of these series clearly belong to the type of goods that Marc Steinberg (2012: 103) identifies as goods that allow someone to be characters rather than replicas of the characters. In Japanese, these goods are identified with the word narikiri (なりきり), which means “to completely become/turn into”. With them, children can play “becoming” the characters they see on TV or in comics, or in the words of Bryan Hikari Hartzheim (2016: 1076), they are product portals that provide interactive media experience, connecting viewers with the characters and positioning them in the characters’ world.
To be continued on page 2