Mahou Profile #008: Miracle Girl Limit-chan [Script]

Mahou Profile #008: Miracle Girl Limit-chan [Script]

[The following is the script of episode 8 of the Mahou Profile series, viewable on YouTube here. This post to be updated with an accurate video transcript and citations in the future.]

Hey there everyone and welcome to Mahou Profile! Today we’ll be covering the first character in our timeline who really pushes the… limit of what many fans consider a magical girl. For hers is a tale of mechanism over magic—more sci-fi than fantasy. 

Her name is Satomi “Limit” Nishiyama, and she is the star of the 1973 series Mirakuru Shoujo Rimitto-chan, or Miracle Girl Limit-chan. In our broad categorization of magical girls, Limit is a “Homegrown Heroine” type–someone who starts out as a normal human girl but gains extraordinary powers through outside means. However, Limit isn’t the typical Homegrown Heroine empowered by a magic item or some benevolent creature. No, the setup here is that Limit suffers a near-fatal injury in a plane crash—and wouldn’t you know it? Her mad scientist father turns her into a superpowered cyborg to save her life. Ugh, parents. Always assuming they know what’s best for you, am I right? [clip: “Parents Just Don’t Understand”]

Yeah, this is less of a magical girl origin story and more akin to something like The Six Million Dollar Man, The Bionic Woman, or even RoboCop. [clip: Six Million Dollar Man “We can rebuild him”] Notably, The Six Million Dollar Man began airing in 1973 (the same year as Limit-chan) and the bestselling novel that both it and The Bionic Woman were based on, Martin Caidin’s Cyborg, came out the year before in 1972. The 1970s in general saw a lot of science fiction films and TV shows interested in themes of humanity and robotics, including but not limited to the original Westworld, Silent Running, Battlestar Galactica, The Stepford Wives, The Black Hole, to some extent the original Star Wars, and Japanese hero series like Kamen Rider and Android Kikaider. Basically what I’m saying is that this was a pretty good time for cyborgs all around.

Other predecessors to Limit-chan include Astro Boy, who has a similar backstory with a grieving parent rebuilding their child as a robot; and 8-Man, a character regarded as Japan’s first cyborg superhero. Apart from him being just generally influential in Japanese sci-fi, 8-Man’s ability to transform into other people and his need to hide his cyborg identity are both key elements that ended up carrying over to Limit-chan.

So yes, Limit has some extraordinary abilities, but mostly because of all the science behind her cybernetically enhanced body. It’s wild, unrealistic science for sure, but within the fiction, it’s clearly just that: science, not magic.

So why include a seemingly non-magical girl like Limit in our history of magical girls, huh? What gives? Well, remember that in the introduction of this series, I laid down a definition for “magical girl” as a genre. It states that the main character must have magic powers… or at least superhuman abilities that appear magical. I added that caveat specifically because there are a few works like Limit-chan out there which are commonly considered “magical girl”—including by their own creators—but which do not, technically speaking, involve any magic.

The most commonly cited example of this aside from Limit-chan is Cutie Honey, a transforming android girl we’ll be talking more about shortly. However, we can also extend this principle to less obvious examples like, say, Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha. Nanoha is undeniably a magical girl series. It has a recognizable magical girl aesthetic, it has the tropes, and… come on ithas“magical girl”rightthereinthenamewHATDOYOU–what are you arguing about? All the “magic” in that series, though? I mean, mild spoilers for season 1 of Nanoha, but that’s all revealed to be just a very advanced form of science and technology. And what’s that old Arthur C. Clarke saying we always hear? “Any sufficiently advanced technology” and such…?

Yeah, my point being: technomagic is valid. What counts as “magic” in a magical girl story is more dependent on the way the story treats it, how characters react to it, and the aesthetics and trappings associated with it. It has less to do with any inherently magical principles at work.

If that’s confusing to you: think of it like how Batman and Iron Man are still considered superheroes despite them not having traditional superpowers. The abilities they do have—technology, wealth, a laser focus on the symptoms of crime rather than the systemic inequalities which create it—are used in such a way that they can still participate in superheroics and create the same sorts of stories that traditionally “powered” characters do.

Likewise, technology-based magical girls, or “technomages” as I like to call them, use their tech in such a way that onlookers usually can’t tell the difference between what they do and straight-up magic. In addition, their stories follow the other core principles laid out in my definition of “magical girl”—namely that their abilities are significant to the narrative and contrast with the mundane world in some way. So, stories with heavy sci-fi settings where the inhabitants are used to a high level of tech? Less likely to be candidates for the genre, although there are some exceptions. [Onscreen text and image: “Example: Nanoha StrikerS”]

Anyway, Miracle Girl Limit-chan in particular is also considered part of the magical girl genre for one other big reason: because it aired in NET’s traditional “majokko” (or “little witch girl”) time slot of Mondays at 7 PM. Despite having a non-witch-y protagonist, this show was clearly meant to be the long-awaited successor to the majokko metaseries after Chappy the Witch. In fact, it was designed to be more of a majokko series than it was originally going to be.

You see, Toei actually had two shows about magical transforming android girls in the works at the same time, both being pitched as potential candidates for the majokko time slot. Limit-chan was being worked on in conjunction with Hiromi Productions, a planning company consisting mainly of former employees from Tezuka Productions. Their idea was in competition with another concept being worked on with Go Nagai and his company Dynamic Productions. And that concept, of course… was Cutie Honey.

If you know anything about Cutie Honey, it sounds wild that that show would be let anywhere near an audience of young girls. However, as we’ll cover next episode, that show was originally planned to be more of a romance-oriented shoujo series, similar to the later Cutie Honey Flash series in the 1990’s. So planning it to air in the majokko time slot made a lot more sense at the time.

However, it was Miracle Girl Limit-chan that ultimately won the right to that coveted 7 PM slot. This was possibly due in part to the strong story concept offered up by manga artist Shinji Nagashima. Now, Nagashima was maybe an… odd choice for the project considering he was known for writing stories aimed at older men. I mean, it’s not that surprising considering every magical girl series we’ve covered up to now was conceived of and written by older men, but still. No, Nagashima was also an odd choice considering his stories were known for their dark and gritty tones.

And sure enough, Nagashima’s original series pitch outlined a darker, more angst-ridden show in line with popular shoujo manga and past majokko series like Mahou no Mako-chan. The protagonist, Satomi, would have sustained mortal injuries in a plane crash and, upon being revived as a cyborg, found out that she only had one year left to live. The nickname “Limit” refers to this one-year time limit. So if you were wondering why on Earth someone would be called “Limit” of all things? Well, that’s why.

Toei really liked Nagashima’s concept of a girl being saved from death by becoming a cyborg. I would guess this is the reason they picked it for the majokko slot over Cutie Honey. However, NET felt the one-year time limit and darker tone would be too harsh for their audience. After some further workshopping, the series ended up more in line with their usual light-hearted majokko formula, although the protagonist retained “Limit” as her nickname for no adequately explored reason.

In the final product, we have 11-year-old Limit living as a cyborg but keeping it secret for fear of being shunned by society. She goes to school, has friends, and tries to help people out with her abilities when she can. To give those abilities more of a “magical” flavour, Limit calls them her “Miracle Powers”. Her main abilities are Miracle Run (which is super speed), Miracle Jump (guess what that one is), and just plain Miracle Power (which is super strength). These powers activate when she turns the pendant dial on her chest and speaks the name of the power she wants to use.

Most interestingly, as I mentioned earlier, Limit also has a shapeshifting ability called “Change Face”. [clip of Limit saying this] This allows her to transform Akko-style into anyone she wants. And she can change back with the phrase, uh, “Change Back”. [clip of Limit saying this]

This seems like it would be one of the most useful abilities in Limit’s roster, and it’s certainly her most “magical girl”-like ability. Strangely though, she doesn’t use it all that often. The problems Limit runs into just don’t tend to call for it. Plus she’s a pretty strait-laced character, so she doesn’t have much motivation to use the ability for personal gain like, say, Akko did in Himitsu no Akko-chan. As a result, this just ends up feeling like kind of an afterthought power for her. Huh.

Limit can also do a few tricks with the help of some quote-unquote “magic” accessories from her father. These include a winged shoulder bag that allows her to fly; a ring that emits a hypnotic scent; boots that let her dance and skate like an expert; a booby-trapped coin purse; lip balm that can write secret messages; a compact with a hidden light that lets her see through walls; and her most-frequently used accessory, a flying beret that doubles as a radio. Well, sort of a radio, anyway. It’s more like an electronic carrier pigeon. To use it, Limit records a voice message and lets the beret fly away to her father’s lab. Her father then listens, records a response, and sends it flying back to her. Rinse and repeat. Slightly more efficient than snail mail. Slightly less efficient than oh, say, a regular-ass telephone.

The last part of Limit’s “arsenal” is a robot dog named Guu. The original pilot version of episode 1 implies that he’s a recreation of a dog that died in the plane crash with Limit (cool fact: the pilot confirms that her mom died in the crash too, sadface). However, in the TV series proper, Guu’s origins are never made clear. Regardless, Guu runs on solar power, collecting light from the sun through the antennae on his head. He has a superior sense of smell and he has flexible legs that can stretch out or change into propeller blades, allowing him to fly around like a helicopter. [clip: something involving Dogcopter]

Now, if I’ve been talking for longer than usual up front about the context, production, and worldbuilding for this series, as opposed to the characters and plot? That’s because… well, the characters and plot are a bit of a mixed bag to be honest. There are a lot of good creative choices made, but also a lot of mediocre ones and a few real stinkers.

It’s a shame, because I feel like this series should be much more interesting than it is. This is not an uninteresting premise. Clearly other works have taken the “secret cyborg superhero” trope and seen massive success with it. And there are many moments in Limit-chan where you can see the show’s true potential shining through. Usually these are quieter moments with Limit as she contemplates her existence and laments what she no longer has. That classic “How human am I? Am I even human at all?” angst works super well, especially in stories of this vintage where it was a fresh concept.

However, in execution, it’s clear that the cyborg angstfest Nagashima pitched didn’t mesh well with the majokko silliness Toei wanted. This is very similar to the issue Mahou no Mako-chan had where the story struggled between its kids’ comedy roots and melodramatic shoujo aspirations. This issue hits Limit even harder, though, because Limit’s personality seems especially unsuited to Toei’s usual formula. Sally, Akko, and Chappy all excelled with a light-hearted format because they were younger, more mischievous kids whose curiosity and exuberance got them into a lot of interesting situations. Even Mako had a certain cheekiness and carefree attitude that let her pull off some of the sillier episodes of her series.

By contrast, Limit has probably the lowest-key personality we’ve seen in a majokko protagonist. Like I said earlier, she’s not much of a rule breaker, she’s gentle and pleasant, she grapples with a lot of inner pain, and her favourite activities include playing the piano and staring poignantly at the sunset. And when her stronger emotions do rise to the surface, they’re often frustration, anger, and fear, not so much cheekiness or excitement (although there is some of that sometimes).

None of these are bad traits. Far from it: Limit is a solid character on paper. She just needs a different kind of story to highlight the things that are interesting about her. She’s a bad fit for a high-energy series of weekly shenanigans.

And the creators seem to have realized this early on too, because sometimes it feels like Limit is our protagonist in name only. Why’s that? Well, I want you all to meet someone. His name is Ryuta Ishibashi, better known to most as “Boss”. He’s the head bully/hooligan of this series in the same vein as Taisho from Akko-chan or Banchou from Mako-chan. And if I didn’t know any better, sometimes I could swear I was not watching a show called Miracle Girl Limit-chan, but rather some other show I’ve never heard of called The Boss Time Boss Show Starring Boss and Friends.

Boss takes focus from the very first scene of the series. Episode 1 begins with Limit and Guu noticing an argument between Boss and a younger boy named Tomou. Limit and Guu watch the argument (meaning we watch the argument) until Boss turns his hat sideways, which is how you know he means business. The boys ride away on their bikes, and Limit follows by activating Miracle Run, with Guu flying behind her.

The boys continue their confrontation upon reaching a fenced-off construction area, with Boss framing it as a “duel” of sorts. What they don’t realize is that there’s liquid cement and a mixer underneath them. Of course, Tomou falls in and Boss scrambles to save him. He throws Tomou a nearby rope, and Limit grabs the other end from outside the fence, unseen by the boys. She activates Miracle Power to help Boss pull, and Tomou is saved. Hooray!

Afterward we have a scene where Boss and Tomou hang out with Tomou’s older sister, Nobuko (or “Buko” for short). Buko is this series’ Yotchan or Moko type—the tomboyish best friend to the main character. Not much of note happens here. However, notice the consistent characters from the last scene to here are Boss and Tomou, not Limit.

We don’t see Limit again until the next day at school, when Boss regales the class with tales of his heroism. Limit eventually scolds him for downplaying the way he bullied and endangered Tomou in the first place. Boss threatens Limit, but due to the hidden soft spot all characters like him have, he can’t bring himself to actually hit her.

Cut to another scene with Boss, this time with him and his cronies walking together after school. One thing leads to another in their conversation and Boss gets stuck in a hole in a fence. Ha ha ha, it’s funny ‘cause he’s fat, get it? Get it?? Oh, and he also falls into an open manhole! Oh wowzers! What a wi~ld and waaaa~cky character! Aren’t you glad this is definitely the person you signed up to watch and not the more interesting and complex cyborg girl over there? ‘cause I sure am!

And speak of the devil, at about the halfway mark in the episode, we do get a scene at Limit’s place. Here we meet Tomi, who is Limit’s nanny/housekeeper. Like I said, because Limit’s mother is gone and her father spends so much time at his lab, there are no other adults to keep the house clean and look after Limit, so hiring a nanny makes sense. Interestingly, Tomi is Japanese, but she lived in Hawaii for many years, which is a neat creative choice. As such, she likes to pepper her speech with random English words and offer advice to Limit based on her time abroad. Another reason it would be cool to spend more time with Limit and friends, don’tcha think?

Anyway, later that evening, Guu gets tired and falls off the couch, which worries Limit. Tomi reassures her, though, that Guu can’t get sick—he just has a low battery right now. After all, he’s a machine and not an animal, right? So there’s no need to worry. And Limit says: [clip: “That’s right, he’s not an animal, is he…”] Limit wanders to her room. Cue sad cyborg on piano angsting in soft focus about not feeling human anymore.

We then get a flashback to the plane crash that nearly killed Limit. This bit is mildly graphic, with blood splatter scene transitions and a shot of human Limit gushing blood out of her neck in the wake of the crash. During her life-saving surgery, we also get an Astro Boy-esque cross-section of Limit’s robotic insides while her father operates on her. Wild. I love it.

Oh! I’m sorry, were you enjoying that interesting cyborg story just now? Well why don’t we interrupt that and hard cut to an amusement park with Boss and friends for some more wacky shenanigans? Okay. Cool. Right on. Yep. Just what I wanted…

[rushed delivery] So Limit and Boss get on a roller coaster together, the coaster gets stuck, Boss freaks out and he tries to climb down, the coaster cars start rolling backward, Limit saves Boss by Miracle Jumping down with him, and no else one sees her do this because onlookers were trying to avoid seeing two kids turn into smears on the tracks. Boss wets his pants after landing, too freaked out to realize what just happened. Hooraaay…?

We then finish out the episode the next day, with Boss again bragging to his classmates about his supposed act of bravery. Limit has no time for this malarkey, instead choosing to watch the ocean from her favourite treetop. Girl, you have got the right idea.

[sigh] Man, I wouldn’t harp on all the Boss stuff in episode 1 if it were just in that episode, but it quickly becomes a pattern for the whole show. A lot of the episodes I watched, especially the early ones, focused heavily on shenanigans with Boss, Tomou, and a handful of other side characters, with ironically limited time for Limit herself. Not to mention some of this stuff is just obnoxiously written and presented, with certain episodes hinging on problems of the day that are stupid even by Toei standards.

This made getting into the show very difficult at first. I was almost ready to write the whole thing off after episodes 2 and 3, which were both pretty dire. Episode 2 is about Boss suddenly getting very good at math while Limit struggles with a series of mysterious headaches. Eventually it’s revealed that Boss has a newfangled piece of high-falutin’ technology called (gasp!) a pocket calculator! [dramatic sting and zoom in on calculator] And for… reasons, this calculator emits electronic signals strong enough to mess with Limit’s cyberbrain. That’s right folks! Our heroine: super fast, super agile, super strong, and can only be defeated by her one weakness: calculators! [menacing picture of a vintage calculator, more dramatic music underneath]

Episode 3 hurt my brain even worse. In this one, Buko’s baby sister sees Limit using her Miracle Jump. You’d think this would be a non-problem because, well, baby. But Limit starts obsessing over this baby somehow spilling her secret to everyone. Why? Because… because who knows?! That baby might randomly learn how to say: “Hey everyone, Limit is a cyborg!” Or maybe she’ll learn hiragana or baby sign language and tell everyone what she saw that way. Or people could find out because… because… because they just might, okay?!  Man, I know Limit’s paranoid about her secret being found out, but this seemed like a stretch even considering that. All the “jokes” around it are just dragged out and draaaaaggged out and it was infuriating to sit through, even for me, who’s used to draggy Toei plots by now.

Thankfully the show starts to find a better groove as it goes. Episode 4 introduces a rich girl bully character named Mitsuko. This is an archetype we’ve seen before in the genre, but it still works to vary up the types of conflict we see in the series. Plus Mitsuko herself has some pockets of complexity in her personality, leading her to have an on-again, off-again friendship with Limit and Buko over the course of the series. I started looking forward to episodes with Mitsuko in them. She’s a fun character!

Episode 4 also has Limit grapple with some complex feelings about her body as she realizes she’s not likely to age the way she is now. This causes her distress when she thinks about a boy in class that she likes named Jun, and how she probably won’t ever be able to grow up with him or tell him how she feels. This is decently compelling stuff! Shame the subject arises from nowhere and disappears again just as fast, though.

Despite the prevalence of Boss throughout the show, there thankfully are a few other good episodes that focus on Limit herself. In episode 6, Limit’s father, Dr. Nishiyama, misses Parents Day at school despite promising he would be there, and the whole conflict for that episode revolves around Limit’s frustrations with him constantly putting his work over her. The episode ends with them making up and Dr. Nishiyama revealing to Limit that the work he’s doing will soon allow her robot body to grow like a human body. Not sure how I feel about the writers trying to justify him breaking promises like that, but the episode still works otherwise.

Episode 9 is another good “I don’t like my body” episode, when Limit’s friends remark that she never seems to forget things or get sick like they do, almost like she’s a machine. Of course, this is exactly the kind of thing that sends Limit spiraling into existential angst. At home she cries and insists to herself that she IS human, damn it. Then for the rest of the episode she pretends to forget things and fakes a fever to stay home from school, trying to convince others (and herself) that she isn’t some flawless machine. 

Episode 19 is a super rare treat: a ski trip episode with no Boss in it whatsoever! The title of this episode is “Phantom Wolf” and it features a lot of cool animal and wilderness artwork. It just ends up being a filler “boy and his wolf” episode otherwise, but still. Badass.

Speaking of titles: something I noticed was that this series has a lot of unique animations for the episode title cards! Other Toei series have had custom title cards as well, but it felt like they were particularly frequent and noticeable in Limit-chan. Some have the text move or use special fonts or artwork that fit the episode. Some even have full-on cartoon title sequences, like this one where a rooster lays an egg. Not much else to say on that front—I just thought it was neat! [clip: Marge “I just think they’re neat!”]

Episode 22 isn’t entirely about Limit (mostly it’s about an old dude and some swans), but the first chunk of it shows the depths of Limit’s paranoia. It opens with her going for a routine medical test at school where an x-ray machine reveals her cybernetic heart. All of Limit’s teachers and friends point in shock and laugh at her as she runs away, and the scene rapidly distorts and blankets itself in darkness. …And of course, this all turns out to be a nightmare. Understandably, Limit is quite shaken.

To make matters worse, Mitsuko later quarrels with Limit and accuses her of being like a doll with no heart. Limit gets so caught up in thought after that that she doesn’t see an old woman trapped in traffic on her way home, causing Boss of all people to scold her. When Limit vents her fears and frustrations to her dad, he shows her a picture of her mother and her when they were younger to cheer her up. A nice thought, but it only serves to remind Limit of the life she no longer has, making her even more upset.

At this point Limit finds the old dude and the swan and that plot takes over (it has something to do with this swan being too injured to fly and being unable to be with its mother… I think; I watch these in raw Japanese, give me some slack). However, there’s a part near the end when the swan is taken to Dr. Nishiyama’s lab for surgery. The surgery scene strongly mirrors that of Limit’s own in the beginning of the series. Though the episode doesn’t state this outright, the swan recovering from surgery and learning to fly again seems to imply that, despite the changes to Limit’s body, Limit is still Limit—still truly and wonderfully human at her core.

Most of the other episodes are, as I said, standard Toei fare. Lots of dull filler. Some baffling shenanigans. Again, loads of Boss and Co. bumbling around and taking up screen time. This might not have been so bad on a weekly airing schedule, but it sure makes binge watching for a magical girl retrospective difficult.

Still, not all of the non-Limit-focused episodes are bad. The strongest are probably the ones focused on Buko. She gets two episodes of note: one where she gets angry at Limit over a broken promise and starts hanging out with Mitsuko instead, and another where she gets into ice skating and becomes jealous of Limit’s talent at it. These episodes helped make Buko one of the more interesting “best friend” characters we’ve seen in the genre so far. We get to see some compelling vulnerabilities on display for her, and the show really puts her relationship with Limit to the test in ways I feel we haven’t seen a lot thus far. I dig it, it’s good!

Sadly, the final episode isn’t much to write home about. It concludes the series more than, say, Sarutobi Ecchan did, but it’s still very underwhelming. It starts with Limit’s class finding out that their teacher, Ms. Otohime, is getting married and quitting her job soon. Most of the episode is spent trying to figure out who Otohime’s fiancé is and preparing to give her a goodbye present. And of course, a good chunk is spent on fluff with Boss and Tomou mistaking their dentist for the fiancé and getting some toothaches for their trouble. Heh heh heh, hilarious…

One of the more interesting bits happens near the beginning, when we see Limit fantasizing about being grown up and having someone propose to her. This is played for laughs but hey! It’s still nice to see that she’s confident enough in herself by this point that she can imagine this sort of thing freely.

The other notable development is at the end when Limit and her father find Ms. Otohime on a cliffside road. A fellow teacher named Mr. Sakata has fallen to the rocks below and is in danger of falling into the ocean. Due to some events from earlier, Limit’s father has a rope ladder with him, but it’s too short to reach the rocks. Deciding there’s no other safe option, Limit takes out her flying bag and uses it to rescue Mr. Sakata, revealing her secret to both teachers.

You’d think this kind of bombshell would have a major impact on the story. However, we skip over all the explanations and reactions and get straight to the part where Otohime and Sakata accept Limit as she is and thank her for her help. Weirdly, there is more excitement shown over Sakata being Otohime’s fiancé than there is over Limit’s cyborg-ness. Advanced cybernetics the likes of which the world has never seen? Huh, go fig’. The teacher’s beau is who now?! OH MY GOD STOP THE PRESSES! NOW THIS IS NEWS!!

The final scene is a montage of Limit doing Limit things. In voiceover, Ms. Otohime says that she and her husband will never forget her, and that she’s a fantastic cyborg girl. She promises to keep Limit’s secret and says that maybe someday, it’ll be her wishing Limit well when she becomes a bride herself. Limit blushes and turns away as Ms. Otohime says goodbye, then turns back to wave goodbye herself. Huh. That was… nice, I guess? A little rushed. More than a little anticlimactic. But the sentiment is fine at least.

The final episode of Miracle Girl Limit-chan aired on March 25, 1974. Unsurprisingly, given the show’s uneven quality and the existence of a more exciting magical android show elsewhere on the airwaves, the ratings weren’t the greatest. This must have been a disappointment for Toei considering the marketing push they gave this show. Based on the model of their past successes, Toei put out a lot of merchandise for Limit-chan, including dolls, a toy pendant, records, picture books, colouring books, games, bento boxes, and more. General advertising for the show was big too, up to and including Limit being featured on the cover of TV Guide magazine (a big deal considering anime only featured on these covers maybe once a year or so [Source: Anime: A History, pp 303).] Cutie Honey didn’t get nearly the same level of marketing and merch—and considering how well that show did in the ratings, that must have felt like an extra kick in the pants for Toei.

That said, Limit-chan wasn’t entirely unsuccessful. In fact, in the years following, it ended up being somewhat of a cult hit. According to the surprisingly thorough Wikipedia article (albeit not very well-sourced, so take this with a grain of salt), the series apparently reran several times on NET throughout 1978, plus a couple of times on another channel, TVK. According to the Japanese Wiki page, a new re-master of the series also ran in 2008 on the Toei Channel, broadcasting from March to June of that year. And based on Japanese blog postings I could find, there may have been some other undocumented re-airings in the 80s and 90s in various local markets. [Link – Aoba Tokio’s blog: http://6limit.blog35.fc2.com/blog-category-6.html]

Whether there was actual demand for Limit-chan or the channels were just using the show to fill airspace is unclear. However, the result was still that more people were able to see the series and become fans of it. Based on rough translations of Japanese fan sites and BBS comments, it seems that Limit-chan is remembered nostalgically among majokko fans as a striking show with an appealing main character and challenging themes (if maybe not the best animation or pacing). [Link: https://sakuhindb.com/janime/MIRACHRUGARLLIMMIT/]

Limit hasn’t appeared much in other media, but there were several manga adaptations of the series running alongside its initial airing. A couple ran in the 1st and 3rd-grade versions of Shogaku magazine and were drawn by Shigeto Ikehara, a student of Osamu Tezuka’s best known for his work on the Mega Man manga. Other short serializations in Shogaku publications were drawn by Mariko Okamura and Midori Shimura. Another lady named Izumi Sakyo (formerly Kaori Miki) ran a serialization in Weekly Shoujo Comic (which apparently was the only one to get a proper ending) and yet another ran in the magazine Terebi Land drawn by Ryuu Morio and Shinya Takahashi (the latter of whom did animation direction and character designs on Chappy the Witch). I couldn’t find much information about any of these runs aside from some scattered scans, but still, just the sheer number of them is impressive and indicative of Toei’s marketing push for the show.

Next, let’s go over a few more behind the scenes notes. First, I should explain something about the format of the series. At the top of every episode, Limit gives a short “greeting” to the audience where she explains she’s a cyborg. For the first few episodes, Limit also states that she doesn’t mind being a cyborg. However, as part of network self-regulation efforts, Toei re-evaluated this language as insensitive, thinking it might imply there was something wrong with Limit.

If that doesn’t make sense to you: think of it like someone saying “Oh, she doesn’t mind being in a wheelchair”. Such phrasing could imply that being in a wheelchair is inherently negative—something one normally would mind. While undoubtedly there are wheelchair users who do mind using them, there are also many who don’t just “not mind” but view their chair as a great source of freedom and joy in their lives [Link 1, Link 2]. Reducing the use of these kinds of assistive devices to some inconvenience or defect that one must tolerate—that one can only “not mind” as opposed to genuinely love—does a disservice to the experiences of many disabled people.

Similar thinking seems to have gone into changing the greetings in Limit-chan. Limit often dealt with insecurities about her body as a character, but it was a step too far to imply in these more authoritative out of character scenes that having a different kind of body was inherently bad. So, starting with episode 8, they changed the greeting to have Limit say that because she’s a cyborg, she has many secret powers. Not a huge change, but a surprisingly subtle and forward-thinking one. Older rebroadcasts of episodes 1-7 still used the old greeting, but newer instances such as the YouTube version of episode 1 use the revised greeting.

Next, let’s talk staff and casting. First off, scripts were still largely being handled by majokko veterans Masaki Tsuji and Shunichi Yukimuro. You’d think this would be good for keeping a baseline level of quality, but I really have to wonder if Yukimuro at least was off his game around this time. Some of the worst episodes of this series, including episodes 2 and 3, were written by him. Hnngh…

The series’ score and theme songs were written by another Toei veteran, Shunsuke Kikuchi. It’s interesting that of all Toei’s magical girl shows, this was the only one he ever worked on. I say that because Kikuchi scored a lot of Toei’s biggest ever properties, including Dragon Ball and Dragon Ball Z, Dr. Slump, Doraemon, Kamen Rider, and Getter Robo. So, of all the majokko series so far, this one may have the most quintessentially “Toei” soundtrack. [clips from the score]

Cast-wise, there is unfortunately not much to say about Limit’s voice actor, Youko Kuri. Her most prominent roles were all in very obscure series, with her other leading roles being the title characters in Vicke the Little Viking and The Adventures of Hutch the Honeybee. [voice clips if available] The cast also includes familiar majokko alumni like Sachiko Chijimatsu (as both Guu and Dr. Nishiyama’s assistant, Midori), Masako Nozawa (as Tomi and one of Boss’s minions), and Akira Kamiya (sharing the role of Jun with a couple of other actors throughout the series).

There were two other notable actors in the supporting cast, though. The first was Hidekatsu Shibata, who played Dr. Nishiyama. Shibata is a major veteran who has been working in the industry since 1957 and is best known as Baron Ashura in Mazinger Z, King Bradley in Fullmetal Alchemist, both the Narrator and the character of Igneel in Fairy Tail, and Monkey D. Dragon (the father of Luffy), in One Piece. [voice clips] Seems fitting that a guy with such an authoritative voice would play Limit’s distant scientist father (though Shibata does a good job with the more tender scenes as well).

The second actor of note is Rihoko Yoshida, who played Mitsuko. She started working in the early 70s and her career picked up steam very quickly from there, with major supporting roles in big shows like Heidi, Getter Robo, Captain Harlock, and The Rose of Versailles, plus the lead in the 1981 comedy series Miss Machiko. Her most notable roles, though, are the title characters in both Majokko Megu-chan and Majokko Tickle. Soooo yeah. Just a heads up: we’ll be talking more about Rihoko Yoshida in future episodes of Mahou Profile.

Lastly and most interestingly, Miracle Girl Limit-chan gained some international recognition in (where else?) Italy. In the 1981 Italian dub, Limit became “Cybernella” (pronounced “chee-behr-nell-ah” in Italian). [clips from the Italian OP: https://youtu.be/cZ6c9jO-ViA ; on-screen text: “Fun fact: if this song sounds familiar, that’s because it’s a blatant ripoff of “Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da” by The Beatles.”] Confusingly, the full series’ title was Cybernella – Limit Miracle Girl. As far as I can tell, Nella is never called “Limit” in the dub, so in addition to the weird syntax there, the “Limit” part just doesn’t make any sense for this version. Huh.

Also confusingly, while it’s pretty clear that Nella is still a cyborg in this version (I mean, it’s right there in the title), the dub avoids using the word “cyborg” and tries to make Nella a more explicitly magical character. According to majokko superfan Retrosofa, whom I consulted with for this video, there’s maybe, like, one episode where she’s called a “machina” and that’s it. Weird… Thankfully that and the whole “Cybernella” thing seem to be the only major changes. Most of the other characters’ names remain intact, they never pretend the story isn’t set in Japan, and the overall story remains the same.

But yes, it seems that nostalgic love is still alive and well for Cybernella in Italy. I was able to find several Italian fan pages dedicated to the show on Facebook and other sites, and there’s a decent amount of Cybernella fan art, writing, and cosplay out there too, plus a few fun covers of the opening on YouTube. [short clips from the covers] Unfortunately though, no other countries besides Italy picked up the series, which has kept its international reach smaller than other majokko titles.

All right then! I think that wraps us up on Miracle Girl Limit-chan. While an uneven mess in some respects, this show has some unquestionably strong and unique elements that captured the attention of many fans despite its shortcomings. Limit’s story helped change the face of this fledgling genre with new subject matter, new ways of thinking about magic, and a newer, more introspective brand of heroine. It’s a shame she didn’t get the show she deserved, but I’m glad she exists all the same. We love you, Limit-chan!

And… [take a breath] Okay. No fake outs this time. The next show in our chronology, as I alluded to earlier, started not long after Limit and ran parallel to her in NET’s Saturday afternoon block. Yes, it’s time. She was the original magical warrior. She was the first magical girl with a show aimed at a male audience. And she is the earliest magical girl that many anime fans are familiar with—for better and for worse. Next episode, we’re talking about Go Nagai’s legendary warrior of love: Cutie Honey. Brace yourselves, ‘cause this is gonna be a big one. Kawaru wa yo~

Mahou Profile #007: Chappy the Witch [Script]

Mahou Profile #007: Chappy the Witch [Script]

[The following is the script of episode 7 of the Mahou Profile series, viewable on YouTube here. This post to be updated with an accurate video transcript and citations in the future.]

Hey there everyone and welcome to Mahou Profile!

Okay, so: stop me if you’ve heard this one before.

Once upon a time, there was a little witch girl with fluffy brown hair and a cute red dress. The little witch girl lived in the Kingdom of Magic, but she was ever so bored. She longed for something new! One day, against the wishes of her pointy-haired father and round-haired mother, the little witch girl ran away to the World of Humans with her mischievous younger brother in tow. Upon arrival in this new world, the little witch girl conjured a house for herself using her signature magical phrase “something something Mahariku Maharita”. [clips: Sally’s magic phrase, Chappy’s magic phrase] Then the little witch girl befriended a tomboy-ish girl in green and a more feminine girl in blue, while her mischievous younger brother started a rivalry with the tomboy’s younger brothers. The little witch girl soon began attending school with her friends and enjoying her new life in the World of Humans. The girl’s family disapproved but nonetheless tried to support her the best that they could. Unsurprisingly, hijinks ensued.

Huh. What a delightful and original story, wouldn’t you agree?

Yeah, last episode I said our next series would be a retread of sorts, and I wasn’t kidding. Today we’re discussing a series called Mahoutsukai Chappy, or Chappy the Witch. And it is almost impossible to talk about Chappy without mentioning a certain… other series.

I mean. To be fair? When looking at a genre, you’re going to find similar works. That’s part of what genres are for – to categorize works with certain common elements. However, some works are so successful within their genre that they inevitably inspire direct copycats. You know the type. They’re called many things: knockoffs, ripoffs, clones, bootlegs, off-brands, trend chasers, lazy pieces of creatively bankrupt shite.

This phenomenon rears up throughout the history of popular media. For every Sherlock Holmes, there is a Solar Pons. For every Star Wars, there is a Starchaser. For every Twilight, there is a Fallen. For every “Under Pressure”, there is an “Ice Ice Baby”. [clip of Vanilla Ice’s embarrassing “I totally didn’t steal this bassline” interview]

The magical girl genre is no stranger to imitators and cash grabs. Fans have pointed fingers at many so-called “Sailor Moon ripoffs” from the late 90s and early 2000s — the most commonly accused being 1995’s Wedding Peach. Heck, some fans still label the entire Pretty Cure franchise as one big Sailor Moon ripoff, though personally I disagree with that (I mean, come on, it’s clearly a Super Sentai ripoff). And of course, fans nowadays seem to love nothing better than arguing over what is or isn’t a ripoff of Puella Magi Madoka Magica. (*ahem* And that’s not an invitation to start any nastiness about that in the comments, all right? I will shut that sh*t down if I have to.)

Now, shameless lifting goes back to the very beginning of this genre. Mitsuteru Yokoyama lifted major elements from Bewitched when creating Sally the Witch, and the anime pulled in tons of lifted imagery from Disney and other western cartoons; Himitsu no Akko-chan borrowed pacing and visual elements from Sally for its anime adaptation; and then Mako-chan and Ecchan both conformed in many ways to the formula set by Sally and Akko-chan. Since all magical girl anime except Marvelous Melmo have been from the same studio so far, it’s not surprising that we see so many reused elements—elements Toei no doubt felt were helpful to their bottom line.

But ChappyChappy… This is a whole new level of lifting. Chappy goes beyond “uses the same elements as Popular Thing X” and jumps straight to “is a blatant reskin of Popular Thing X.” You can’t even argue it’s just “inspired by Thing X” or “following the same tropes as Thing X” like you can for Wedding Peach or the children of Madoka. This is… This is just the same show! It’s the same goddamn show. It’s Sally the Witch again but with different names and character designs plus a few minor tweaks to the setup. They even brought back some of the same voice actors to play the same roles they did in Sally. Tell me that Sachiko Chijimatsu is not just literally playing Cub again here. [relevant clips from Sally and Chappy] You can’t. You just can’t. He’s just Cub. She’s just Sally. This is all. Just. Sally.

[sigh] So, with all that said… would you be surprised if I told you Chappy the Witch is better than Sally the Witch?

Not in terms of importance, of course. Clearly Sally had the bigger impact there. However, I would argue that Chappy is overall better written, better paced, and, at least from a modern perspective, an overall better watch than Sally is. The only thing that isn’t necessarily better is the animation, which is still as basic and corner-cutting as ever, with a few surprisingly decent cuts here and there. Even that I don’t mind though, because the art style, with its chubby cheeks and soft, rounded features, is just so dang cute. (It’s cute! What else do you want me to say?)

Of course you could (and should) argue that a lot of what’s good about Chappy would not exist without Sally. I’m not saying “Chappy is awesome, Sally is awful” or anything like that. But still, I think it’s fair to argue that Toei, now with more experience and hindsight under their belt, was able to create a more polished version of their previous work. That’s not unreasonable, is it?

Also, some of the small things that are different about Chappy have a bigger impact than one might think. For example, most online resources will tell you that Chappy the Witch is the first magical girl series where the heroine uses a magic wand. I mean, they call it a baton, but come on, it’s a wand. You might think this is just an aesthetic change, and that the biggest impact it might have is on merchandising potential. This is true—though, weirdly, my research turned up just about every type of Chappy merchandise but a toy wand. However, I would argue the wand also has a palpable effect on the story and characters. 

Think about it. Why would a character need to use a wand? Well, traditionally, they’re used as focus instruments that help wielders channel their magic more effectively. In other words, they help cast stronger, more consistent spells.

Remember, though: Sally and family never needed a way to enhance their powers. They were all strong enough magic users that the idea of enhancement or focus via outside means never came up. Any lack of power or control on Sally’s part was more due to lack of experience than lack of ability. This is the reason her use of a wand in Sally the Witch 2 feels so out of place – because for her, it is.

So how do you give your new magical girl a reason to use a wand? Easy: you make her magic weaker.

In the first episode of Chappy the Witch, we see that Chappy, her parents, and her little brother Jun are all capable of using magic without wands. However, the effects of these spells are relatively minor. When it comes to more complex magic, such as when Chappy’s Dad casts a Cinderella spell on a mouse and pumpkin, the effects aren’t quite what they ought to be. The subjects don’t get as big as they should, they don’t fully change into what they’re supposed to, and when the whole caboodle falls out of the sky, none of the family members can stop the descent. They’re only saved from crashing by Chappy’s grandfather, who—you guessed it!—wields the magic baton.

Side note: Chappy first gets the baton by stealing it for her escape to the human world. When she tries to give it back later, Grandpa conveniently “forgets” to take it with him, effectively giving Chappy his blessing to use it.

Anyway, establishing not only that the baton is powerful but that Chappy and family aren’t very strong without it puts them in a much different position than their predecessors. Sally’s family, and especially her father, are unquestionably powerful and command a lot of respect. Sally’s Dad can be ridiculous at times, but he at least never seems unsure of himself. By contrast, Chappy’s Dad is a bundle of nerves. He screws up a lot, and he knows it. More than once in the first episode, he gets yelled at by another family member and literally shrinks in response. He also isn’t exactly at the top of any social hierarchies. His family is well off, but unlike Sally’s family, they are not royalty. So again, Chappy’s Dad has good reason to be wary of making mistakes and ticking off the wrong people.

With this change in personality for the Dad character, the Mom seems to gain a bit more agency to balance him out. Sally’s Mom helped out on occasion, but mostly sat by on the sidelines with her knitting and offered advice or concern as needed. Chappy’s Mom does that too, but she is also much quicker to berate her husband, argue her own positions, and take part in dealing with family problems. Compare that to Sally’s Mom, who took a stand against her husband maybe, like, once ever. Chappy’s Mom also gets a couple of episodes with some minor focus on her, which again is way more than Sally’s Mom ever got. So, yeah: both parents end up being slightly less one-note characters, creating a more interesting family dynamic overall.

And that’s not even getting into the other main change for this series: Chappy’s parents come with her to the human world rather than remaining in the Magic Kingdom. Sally’s parents were still involved in her life, so again, you’d think this wouldn’t have a huge impact, but it absolutely does. Practically speaking, having both parents around means they can help with problems more easily—or cause their own problems depending on the episode. More importantly, having all the family members interact all the time makes them feel very tight-knit as a group, which in turn makes their collective story that much more engaging to an audience.

To put this all another way: Sally the Witch was the story of a young girl going out into the world on her own and coming of age through her experiences there. Chappy has a similar story, but this time it’s not only about her. It’s also the story of a family moving to a new place together, facing challenges together, and growing together as a result. How many fantasy stories can you say are like that? Not many in my experience. 

There are a few other differences between Sally and Chappy worth mentioning. For one, the talking animal sidekick trope from Sarutobi Ecchan has carried over into this series. Chappy’s family has a… pet? Friend? Um, “associate” named Don-chan. He calls himself a panda, though honestly, he looks more like a raccoon or a tanuki. Weirdly, despite Chappy and family having to hide their magic all the time, Don-chan is just… allowed to be a walking, talking, car-driving panda and no one ever questions it. Huh. Maybe in this universe, animal sentience is just… a thing? I mean there’s not much other evidence to support that, but it’s possible, I guess… Whatever, the show doesn’t question it and I’ve got lots of other stuff to cover, so sure, let’s just go with it. …It is weird, though, right? I’m not wrong to say that? It’s a weird inconsistency, it raises a lot of questions about how this world works and why talking animals would be accepted but magic would be feared, and I just want to ask a few things about panda drivers’ licenses okay—[TV static]

In Sally the Witch, you could argue that Cub was the magical sidekick, so adding a second sidekick to the mix creates a new dynamic. Instead of Jun being like Cub and constantly making trouble for Chappy and the others, Jun and Don-chan usually end up making trouble for each other. They have a kind of Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck relationship: one is a laid-back sort who’s hard to get the better of, and one is an easily frustrated antagonizer who keeps trying and failing to one-up his opponent. To be honest, with so much of Jun’s energy directed at Don-chan, who has very little trouble dealing with him, it makes Jun far less annoying than Cub ever was, thank goodness.

Another difference between the two shows is in their style of hijinks and magical setpieces. Both shows utilize a lot of the same mundane locations we’ve seen throughout the early majokko series, but in my estimation, Chappy offers slightly more variety in what can happen and where. We see alternate dimensions, giant monsters, spooky scary demons, a Wacky Races-style road rally, a deserted island, the mountains, the Arctic, the Savannah, high speed chases where small children jump from car to car Mad Max-style, old time-y trains, hijacked planes, an illusory fairy tale world, and adventures under the deep blue sea. Speaking of which, though, I feel the need to say: one of the undersea episodes has this weirdly traumatizing part involving the words “dolphin torpedo”? [clip: dolphin with a torpedo on its tail gets near a submarine and blows it up kamikaze style] Jeebus cripes, that’s brutal! Never mind whoever was aboard the sub — that poor dolphin didn’t deserve that! [sigh] At least this episode resolves with the evil military scientists responsible getting just curbstomped by Chappy and a gang of angry dolphins. [clip: dolphin gang chases the scientists’ yacht, they jump ship, and then the dolphins bounce them around on their noses] Like I said, some creative stuff happens in this show.

Lastly, it feels like there is ever so slightly more of a narrative throughline in Chappy than in Sally. To be clear, both shows are very episodic, but with Chappy, at least in the early episodes, there is just a bit more logic and connective tissue behind various happenings.

For instance, after the family’s arrival in the human world, the show tackles an issue Sally the Witch never dwelled on much: people noticing the swanky new house that popped up literally overnight. One of the first big setpieces of the series involves a biker gang invading Chappy’s house, and the reason they do this is, well, they notice the weird new house in their territory. The police notice, the neighbours notice, passers-by notice – everyone notices and starts spreading gossip about it, and it’s only episode 1.

In the second episode, Chappy meets and befriends her gal pals, Michiko and Shizuko, as well as Michiko’s little brothers Ippei and Nihei. Chappy’s parents then struggle with whether Chappy should go to school with her new friends or be home schooled in magic. Despite having settled in, they’re still uncertain about interacting with the humans around them.

By the third episode, the neighbourhood’s curiosity shifts to outright hostility as people grow suspicious of the strange parents who literally never go outside or talk to anyone ever. This leads to Chappy helping her Dad convince people he works as an artist, which helps ingratiate the family more with the community. In subsequent episodes, you then see both Mom and Dad coming and going from the house more often, as well as picking up human pastimes such as reading the newspaper, gardening, and watching TV. And of course the kids and Don-chan are having a grand old time exploring and causing all sorts of episodic mischief exactly as you would expect. By episode 17, when Chappy’s aunt and uncle come to visit from the Magic Kingdom, their stodgy old wizarding ways stand in contrast to Chappy’s family, who have almost fully adapted to the human world by this point.

And it goes on like that – not huge continuity points, but just enough narrative logic to show how one thing leads to another over time. Some episodes even start exactly where the last episode left off. Though, to be fair, this isn’t always continuity so much as it is the show recycling certain setups and gags. So, say, if one episode ends with Jun and Don-chan fighting over the car, and the next episode begins the exact same way? That’s just because Jun and Don-chan fight over the car all the time.

Yeah, just because I think Chappy is better than Sally, that doesn’t mean it’s free of problems. Like I said earlier, the animation is very basic and often has blatant errors, such as the baton changing sizes between shots, or this ferris wheel car changing colours within the same shot. And this isn’t an error, but… [clip: episode 1, Chappy faces the camera way too close and it looks super weird] GAH! Jeebus cripes, what in the— don’t scare me like that! Jiminy willikers, god…

Plus, many of the more episodic stories are just boilerplate problem-of-the-week plots. These can be kind of boring to sit through, especially if you’ve already seen a lot of other majokko series. These episodes are only more bearable in Chappy than they are in Sally because Sally is 109 episodes and Chappy is only 39.

Most annoying of all: despite the show’s more interesting setup and flow, often it feels like the creative team is trying waaaaay too hard to grab kids’ attention. This means a lot of forced jokes, “wackiness” for its own sake, and catchphrases. Ohh the catchphrases. [supercut of various characters saying “Kimariiii~!”]

I can’t be too put out, though, because the overall show is still enjoyable despite its missteps. Sometimes it’s even a bit cool! Episode 9 is a standout example: demons arrive in the night and possess Shizuko, making her lure Chappy and her dad into an extradimensional trap where they fight for control of the magic baton. The way the possessed Shizuko is portrayed in this episode is genuinely creepy for a kids’ cartoon; there’s some neat imagery and animation used for the demons; and the duel between the demon lady, Chappy, and her Dad is imaginative and cool. And it made me realize we haven’t seen many straight up fights between magic users in this genre up until now. Not counting the petty sibling fights in Sally the Witch, the only other one I can think of is a short one-off fight between Sally and a witch named Barbara—which, incidentally, may count as the first ever instance of two magical girls fighting each other.

In Chappy, we again see magical squabbles between brother and sister; we have this fight with the demons; and there’s another one where Chappy fights to protect Mitsuko and family from her vindictive uncle’s magic. We also have at least one instance of not necessarily magical combat but slightly violent magical imagery, when Chappy does magic so hard she bleeds from her wand hand and passes out.

It’s interesting that magical combat and violence started as such insignificant parts of this genre. Yet over time, they grew bit by bit, show by show—with a few spikes here and there, such as the magical warrior show Cutie Honey—until the late 90’s and early 2000’s, when magical warriors came to dominate the entire genre. One could read this as a growing acceptance of women’s power in Japanese society, or maybe as a byproduct of the overall increase of violence in mass media worldwide. Either way, this type of magical combat will be something to keep an eye on going forward.

Sort of along the same lines, this show has a few “very special episodes” where things get surprisingly dark and real. Episode 15, for instance, has Chappy and friends helping a boy named Osamu search for his mom at a theme park. When they don’t find her, Osamu admits his mom isn’t even at the park and that he hates her anyway. Chappy smacks him in the face and he runs away… only for the kids to be told that Osamu’s mother recently died after a long battle with cancer. And that he “hates” her because she left him behind. Oh… Oh I see… Chappy later finds the boy inside an abandoned theme park train, murmuring for his mom in his sleep. With her magic, Chappy conjures a vision for him of the train soaring through fantastical worlds, powered by an engine full of stardust and dreams… until he at last finds his mother on a cloud and embraces her one last time. Oh god, my heart, I think something’s happening there, it’s… [sniffs, blows nose]

Also, quick note: “Osamu”? Those eyes? That nose? That dark-yet-whimsical story? Coincidence? I think not. Nice homage, Toei.

Now, the episode some people may have at least heard about (i.e.: the one mentioned in the show’s Wikipedia article) is episode 33. It’s notable for being an overtly environmentalist story about pollution and the responsible use of natural resources. I’m not sure why the article only mentions this episode, because it is one of four episodes written by mangaka Shukei Nagasaka that touch on similar progressive issues. His other episodes are episode 28 (about overdevelopment and the disappearance of public spaces), episode 30 (about protecting an endangered species), and episode 34 (about the importance of elections and local politics). All four of these episode feature some kind of greedy corporate type as the antagonist, giving them all a strong anti-corporate flair. Remember kids! If you see a rich person or corporation hurting your community, then get together with all your friends and seize the means of production for the good of the people! Chappy the Witch says!

To be fair, there were similar environmentalist and progressive stories in both Mahou no Mako-chan and Marvelous Melmo before this, so this kind of thing isn’t new to the genre. The early 70s were rife with this kind of thing, both in Japan and in other parts of the world. Nagasaka wasn’t even the only staff writer doing stories like this in Chappy: episode 16, written by Kouji Natsume, is about overhunting and the protection of mountain wildlife.

These episodes are notable, though, when taken together with the rest of the show. The best writing I found on Chappy the Witch is, weirdly enough, from the show’s Amazon page. User “Aoba Tokio” writes about how, after rewatching the show with adult eyes, they found themes which were “surprising and serious” but ultimately hopeful.

Aoba explains: “[Chappy] embraced the aspirations of a declining human world, a world with a sky dirty with pollution, plagued by tragedies and evil plots, and it didn’t stop there. The show aired in 1972, during Japan’s economic miracle. Despite pollution, road accidents, the Asama-Sanso incident [a major hostage crisis with several fatalities], and other terrible crimes, the world somehow prospered. […] Okinawa returned to Japan, and Prime Minister Tanaka’s Archipelago Remodeling Plan planted the seeds of a rose-coloured future.

“The protagonists were caught up in these societal changes whether they liked it or not. In the beginning, the show is about the human world seen through the eyes of a witch, but it is gradually coloured more and more deeply with the tone of the adult world as seen through the eyes of a child. Children and nature alike become the victims of selfish adults. Chappy’s father shows the irresponsibility of adults when he is indifferent to the local election [especially bad in that episode considering the clear awfulness of one of the main candidates].

“Nevertheless, in the show, struck by the children’s sincerity, the adults finally change for the better. Chappy uses her magic for the children’s happiness, the adults’ reformation, and to work toward the two groups reconciling.”

These themes of hope in the face of a harsh adult world come to a head in the final episode. Since the beginning, Chappy and family have been hiding their magic under threat of punishment from the Magic Kingdom. The Kingdom has strict laws against revealing magic to humans, mainly due to fears about starting a new wave of witch burnings. Time and again, a friend of the family (known simply as “Obaba”, or “Old Hag”) warns Chappy and Jun about witch burnings in semi-graphic detail. And in episode 39, the cat finally gets out of the bag… sort of. In the middle of a thunderstorm, Chappy wards off a lightning bolt with magic to save Ippei’s life, and Ippei witnesses her doing this.

Despite no one believing Ippei the next day, Chappy knows that even one human child knowing their secret will be enough to bring down the wrath of the Magic Kingdom. Wracked with guilt over the imminent punishment coming for her family, Chappy writes an apology letter and leaves home. She eventually finds herself on a beach at sunset. She calls out for her parents, unsure of what to do, but there is no answer. She is alone. Chappy stares out at the ocean. And starts walking toward it. She walks. And walks. Staring straight ahead. Then, as she hesitates at the water’s edge, the tide washing around her feet, she hears her parents call out for her. Her Mom and Dad stop her from walking forward and they embrace, saving Chappy from… well… [clip from Unraveled’s Castlevania episode: Brian announces he’s going to throw himself into the ocean, then does so] Geez, is that the darkest implication we’ve seen in one of these shows so far? I think it might be.

Chappy’s entire family ends up going back to the Magic Kingdom and pleading with the King to forgive them. This works, but only to a point. The King doesn’t charge anyone with a crime and allows the family to stay in the human world. However, he remains firm in his decision that precautions must be taken. He orders the family to find a new place to live, and then sends a shooting star to wipe the civilians’ memories of the family having ever existed.

Chappy and Jun are, of course, crushed at seeing all their friends forget who they are. However, there is still a spark of hope amidst the sadness. That night, Chappy gives her friends one last beautiful dream in which all of them play together in a magical field of flowers in the sky. [clips from the scene] The children enjoy their playtime, and then after, when their parents call them to leave, Chappy’s Mom assures her there will be more friends waiting for her in their new home. The family leaves along a glowing path through the stars, and Chappy turns to the viewer, telling them maybe it will be their town she goes to next.

This is a bittersweet ending for sure, and admittedly it’s not quite as poetic as I’m making it sound. The pacing and composition of all this is honestly pretty muddled and rushed, indicating the team was likely scrambling to end the series in one episode. Chappy the Witch fared better with audiences than Sarutobi Ecchan (I mean, at least it had an ending). However, Toei wasn’t exactly back to the glory days of Sally the Witch or Himitsu no Akko-chan either.

The 39th and final episode of Chappy the Witch aired on December 2, 1972, and afterward, for the first time ever, there was a lull in the production of magical girl anime. Up to this point, the regular time slot for Toei’s majokko series was Mondays at 7 PM on NET (later known as TV Asahi). The next series to run in this time slot was not a new majokko title, but an adaptation of Mitsuteru Yokoyama’s shounen manga Babel II. It would be almost a year before another new magical girl anime aired, and even then, the shows Toei returned with were… well let’s just say they were a little different than their predecessors.

Because of this, I believe Chappy the Witch signifies something far more important to the genre than just introducing the concept of a magic wand: it also marks the beginning of the end for Toei’s original majokko formula.

As with all these old shows, though, Chappy was really only finished in Japan. Our good friends in Italy picked up the series in 1982, dubbing it as La maga Chappy, and then they reran it again in 1988. Mexico also picked up the series and dubbed it as Hada Chappy, which they then exported to other Spanish-speaking countries including Peru, Chile, and Guatemala. Most interestingly, in the 1990s, the entire series was dubbed in French as Chappy la Magicienne, but this dub never made it to air. Wikipedia theorizes this may be due to other shows such as Mahou no Mako-chan not doing well on French television, though there is no source on this information, so this story is difficult to verify. Either way, it’s an interesting piece of trivia.

Okay, just a couple more things before we wrap up! Cast-wise, Chappy’s voice actor, Eiko Masuyama, is a HUGE name worth mentioning. She is a veteran voice talent whose credits go all the way back to the original Astro Boy, and as of this recording, she is still alive and kicking! In addition to Chappy, she voiced Midori in Attack No. 1, Princess Snow Kaguya in Sailor Moon S: The Movie, and most notably, she was the original Fujiko Mine in Lupin III and the original Honey in Cutie Honey. Fujiko Mine alone kept this woman in business for decades, dang girl, you get that paycheque! And of course we will be seeing a lot more of Honey very soon here on Mahou Profile… A lot lot more, ho boy.

Here’s some fun trivia by the way: Eiko Masuyama couldn’t record episode 9 of Chappy for whatever reason, so in that episode, Chappy is played by Michiko Nomura, who voiced Ecchan! And that’s not the only Ecchan and Chappy connection either: before this, Masuyama actually sang that nice relaxing opener for Ecchan! [clip of Ecchan OP]

Other cast members include Kouji Yada as Chappy’s Dad (he was Dr. Gero in Dragonball Z); Noriko Watanabe as Chappy’s Mom (we’ll see her as Sister Jill in Cutie Honey); Kousei Tomita as both Chappy’s Grandpa and Don-chan (he’s a veteran character actor best known for playing Shunsaku Ban in various Osamu Tezuka adaptations); and Masako Nozawa as Nihei (do I really need to remind you who she is?). [clip: Mahou Profile episode 2 “Turn Down for What”]

Lastly, there are two more notable appearances Chappy made outside of anime. One was a manga adaptation written and drawn by Hideo Azuma. Azuma would go on to create another title we’ll be looking at someday: Nanako SOS. And we’ll talk about this when we get to Nanako, but Azuma’s reputation is a little… uh… [onscreen text: “Father  of Lolicon”] Yeah can we please not get into that just yet, please? Thank you.

And the second appearance… well, I won’t give details on that just yet. What I will say is that there’s a certain video game out there that we may or may not do a special episode on someday… Wink~

And with that, we wrap up another chapter in the magical girl timeline. Chappy the Witch is a shameless ripoff in all the ways something can possibly be a ripoff and yet against all odds? It works. Chappy copied Sally’s homework and made a few changes to throw off the teacher, but somehow those changes ended up being the exact things she needed to carve out her own identity. Hers is a surprisingly enjoyable family story with a few darker themes here and there to enhance the experience, and I’m glad I watched it. It just goes to show that just because something is unoriginal doesn’t mean it isn’t good.

Now, remember what I said about the year-long hiatus after Chappy ended? Following this hiatus, Toei returned to the world of magical girls with a show they expected to take the world by storm: the story of an android with a techno-magical device that lets her transform into a variety of alternate identities. Yes, you guessed it! We’re finally going to talk about the legend, the legacy, and the majesty of… Miracle Girl Limit-chan! …What, you were expecting someone else? See you all then~

Mahou Profile #006: Sarutobi Ecchan [Script]

Mahou Profile #006: Sarutobi Ecchan [Script]

[The following is the script of episode 6 of the Mahou Profile series, viewable on YouTube here. This post to be updated with an accurate video transcript and citations in the future.]

Hey there everyone and welcome to Mahou Profile! Today, we begin with a tale… A tale of the swiftest, the nimblest, the most fantastical ninja of all time… Sasuke Sarutobi…

According to legends of old… (and by that, I mean a series of children’s novels published in the 1910s and 20s) …The boy Sasuke grew up in the mountains alongside a family of monkeys in the forest. During this time, the boy developed unparalleled speed and agility, able to climb and jump through the treetops with ease. Conveniently, the boy’s family name, “Sarutobi”, means “monkey jump”. Huh. How ‘bout that.

After a fateful encounter with a master of ninjutsu, Sasuke began training in the ways of the ninja. He excelled in his training, and some say even gained supernatural abilities from it. As he walked this new path, Sasuke developed a rivalry-turned-comradery with a fellow ninja, and together the two helped form a band of ninja known as the Sanada Juuyuushi, or the Sanada Ten Braves.

The stories of Sasuke Sarutobi and the Ten Braves are too numerous to go into here, but their adventures enthralled countless young children throughout the early 20th century. Hence, it was no surprise when Sasuke made the jump from page to screen, first in silent films, and then in talkies and animation. Most relevant to our interests: Toei Animation’s second feature film, released a year after Tale of the White Serpent, was called Shounen Sarutobi Sasuke — released in North America under the title Magic Boy. So, to those curious if there were ever magical boys way back when? Yes. Yes there were.

[Knack Productions] later created a TV version of the Sasuke Sarutobi story in 1979 called Manga Sarutobi Sasuke, which again featured the adventures of Sasuke in his youth. [Metal Gear Solid “spotted” sound effect] And as I edit this video, I have discovered that this series was dubbed in English as Ninja the Wonder Boy… and it had the funkiest English opener ever, which I feel compelled to share with you all right now. [clips from NtWB opening] However, in between Magic Boy and [Knack’s Sarutobi Sasuke] TV series, Toei would release one… other Sarutobi-related series. In 1971, the studio was looking to produce the next title in what had, at this point, become their “majokko” (or “little witch girl”) timeslot. And the show they ultimately went with for the slot was, of course, Sarutobi Ecchan.

So, given all of that lead-up: what in the heck is Sarutobi Ecchan?

Ecchan started life in 1964 with a manga called Okashi na Okashi na Okashi na Anoko, or That Very, Very, Very Strange Little Girl. The manga was created by Shotaro Ishinomori, a creator who produced an immense amount of work in his lifetime. The man passed away in 1998 and still holds the world record for the most comics ever published by a single author: 770 titles across 128,000 pages. Not to mention Ishinomori also had a hand in the creation of several live action and animated TV series. Out of all his works, the most notable are his long-running sci-fi manga Cyborg 009; the live action superhero series Kamen Rider; and the first of the live action Super Sentai series, better known to North American audiences as Power Rangers.

We’ll get more in-depth with Ishinomori a bit later. For now, let’s focus on the Sarutobi Ecchan anime, which debuted on October 4, 1971 — only one day after Marvelous Melmo. Melmo and Ecchan share a few other parallels as well: both feature very young magical girls, both were created by highly influential manga authors, both girls have absent parents, and both series are… strange, let’s say. To be fair, with a title like That Very, Very, Very Strange Little Girl, that’s to be expected (although, somehow Melmo ended up being the stranger of the two).

Once you get beyond superficial similarities, though, Ecchan proves quite different from not only Melmo, but all other magical girls we’ve seen up until now. Heck, she may be one of the most unique magical girls in the genre, period. 

You see, Etsuko Sarutobi, or “Ecchan” for short, is not a magical princess nor does she come from some far-off magical world, and yet she also is not a homegrown heroine imbued with special powers out of the blue. She’s a bit of a hybrid: a girl who grew up in our world but has innate supernatural abilities, and she knows it.

Also, while Ecchan may not be a princess, she does have an esteemed bloodline leading straight back to our old buddy Sasuke. In this universe, the Sarutobi family ended up passing down not only their famous ancestor’s magical abilities, but all his ninja skills and athletic prowess as well. Man, that’s one heck of a family tradition.

A list of Ecchan’s abilities makes her sound more like a superhero than a magical girl (though, for the record, those two categories are not mutually exclusive). Ecchan has several common hero abilities including super strength, super agility, super breath, and supersonic voice. [clip of Ecchan breaking windows with her voice] Stealth, climbing, martial arts, and escape techniques almost go without saying, and she also has a few witch-like powers such as the ability to talk to animals, and some minor conjuration and transfiguration abilities.

One of her most commonly-used powers, though, has got to be hypnotism, a.k.a.: Jedi mind tricks before they were cool. [short montage of times when Ecchan uses this power] There are… a few questionable lines Ecchan crosses when it comes to the hypnotism stuff. However, considering she’s a small child, she likely just hasn’t learned better yet. 

Anyway, while Ecchan’s powerset isn’t as far-reaching and varied as, say, Sally the Witch’s, Ecchan seems a lot more capable with her abilities than Sally and the other magical girls to date. She is untouchable in any physical challenge, and her hypnotism and pure creativity often allow her to get the upper hand on people without having to fight at all. She seems a little like a predecessor to modern “unassuming-yet-overpowered” anime heroes such as Saitama from One Punch Man, Mob from Mob Psycho 100, or Rimuru from That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime. All those lists you see of “Top 10 Badass Characters in Anime” or “Top 10 Most Overpowered Protagonists”? Yeah. Those lists are all missing Ecchan and are therefore all invalid. [clip: cute Ecchan laugh]

So that’s the hook for the series: Etsuko “Ecchan” Sarutobi is a tiny marshmallow of a girl who has all the skills of the best magical superninja who ever lived, and she is not afraid to use them to take you apart and throw you in the garbage. I love her. I love her very much.

The first episode sets up Ecchan’s character and supporting cast nicely. We start with a group of kids on their way to school, including a tall girl, Miko, and the son of a local barber, Taihei. They run into the local bully squad and are unable to defend themselves, especially not after the ringleader, Ouyama, sends a nasty dog after them. The situation seems sticky until an unseen person starts… barking? Sure enough, Ecchan arrives on the scene and, with her ability to talk to animals, she befriends the dog and convinces it to attack the bullies instead. The kids try to thank Ecchan, but, like a tiny pink Batman, she vanishes before they can.

It doesn’t take long for the kids to find her again. Their teacher, Ms. Shirayuki, soon introduces Ecchan as a new student to the class. Meanwhile, another teacher at the school who witnessed the dog incident complains to the principal that there’s something odd about the new girl. However, when Ecchan is brought in for questions, the principal is so charmed by her that he insists nothing must be wrong. [clip: cute Ecchan laugh]

At recess, the bullies come back for a rematch, but Ecchan ensures they all end up with egg on their face. [clip of magic chicken literally laying eggs on their faces] Somehow the bullies still don’t get the message, and so Ecchan ends up taking them all out one-by-one — in one case disassembling an entire boy piece by piece. (Oh don’t worry though, he’s fine. It’s all fine. See, look! He’s fine!) 

Taihei runs in to help finish off Ouyama, but once the dust clears, we see Ecchan juggling them both. Nice to see that, unlike Akko, Mako, or even later magical girls like Sailor Moon, a boy rushing in to help does not diminish Ecchan’s power at all. No Tuxedo Mask syndrome here: she can 100% handle it. [clip: cute Ecchan laugh]

The principal is once again too enamoured to punish Ecchan, and after that, Ecchan starts getting challenges from the school sports teams. This includes the baseball team, the volleyball team, and the kendo team. Of note: at least two of these scenes appear to be direct parodies. The baseball scene parodies one of the most famous baseball anime of all time, Star of the Giants [side-by-side comparison clips]; and the volleyball scene parodies a popular shoujo sports series called Attack No. 1 [side-by-side comparison clips]. I wasn’t sure if the kendo scene was a parody or not, but it is notable that this is where someone first identifies Ecchan as a descendent of Sasuke Sarutobi. Hmm. Wonder what gave it away. [clip of Ecchan jumping around like Yoda in Episode 2]

By the end of the school day, half the school is in the infirmary, the principal still won’t punish Ecchan because clearly she did nothing wrong, and Ecchan, satisfied, walks into the sunset on a telephone wire. All in a day’s work for Etsuko Sarutobi and her amazing talking dog, Buku!

Oh yeah, did I mention she has a talking dog named Buku?

You wouldn’t know it from the summary, but Buku is in the first episode. He just spends most of it hitchhiking, freaking squares, and trying to find Ecchan’s school. And he does this after seeing a woman stick out a bare leg to hitch a ride. [clip of Buku cartoonishly pulling up the skin of his leg, revealing the bone beneath]

I think this anime might be slightly silly, y’all.

So, if Ecchan is the ninja elite in this story, then Buku is a retainer of sorts for her. Not that he’s totally subservient — he isn’t afraid of crossing Ecchan or going off and doing his own thing — but he does stick by her for the most part and makes sure she stays safe. After all, overpowered or not, Ecchan is still a little kid. While she can ninja magic her way through any physical danger, there are plenty of social and emotional situations that she isn’t prepared for yet. Hence the need for at least some kind of guardianship.

This guardian role that Buku fills is incredibly important to the magical girl genre, as it lays the foundation for pretty much every animal sidekick/cute mascot character in the genre to follow. The idea of an animal guardian isn’t new: we can trace the concept in anime back at least as far as Tale of the White Serpent, and Disney’s tradition of talking animal sidekicks goes back even further than that. Not to mention the idea is found in many global folklore traditions, most notably stories of witches and their familiars. But as far as the magical girl genre goes? The very first canon mascot character? Yeah. It’s Buku. [funny Buku clip goes here]

And I do hope you like Buku, because if you want to watch this show, you’ll be seeing a lot of him. As with other “overpowered protagonist” shows, Ecchan’s supporting cast often gets just as much, if not more focus than Ecchan herself. After all, supporting characters tend to struggle more than the overpowered hero does, and struggle tends to be more interesting over the course of a longer narrative. Even the title of the original manga—That Strange, Strange Little Girl—implies the perspective of an outside observer, as opposed to the story being entirely from Ecchan’s perspective. So we end up getting a lot of episodes focused on Buku, plus some that spotlight Miko, Miko’s parents, Taihei, Taihei’s little brother, Ms. Shirayuki, Ouyama, Ouyama’s cronies, Ouyama’s abusive alcoholic parents—er, wait, what? And that’s played for laughs, you say? …Yeesh. Compared to the way Marvelous Melmo dealt with that topic, that seems particularly tone-deaf too… Um, anyway, yeah, lots of supporting cast episodes.

Also, as with other Toei shows of the era, Sarutobi Ecchan has plenty of one-off characters and problems of the week to deal with. Most of these episodes are standard Toei fare, so I won’t get into them here. However, there is one story I want to go in-depth on. So there’s this episode where the gang meet a bratty little kid who won’t do anything his mother says. No matter how nice and understanding she is, he keeps acting out and acting out. This lasts until the very end when he starts playing with matches near a wooden shack. Sure enough, a big fire starts, but Ecchan and his mom show up to save the day before he can seriously hurt himself.

You would think this is leading to an ending where the kid learns his lesson, becomes grateful for his mom’s love and support, and stops being such a turd all the time. But nope! This lesson is for the parents out there. Because the reason for the boy’s bad behaviour? Is apparently that his mom hasn’t been spanking him, so he feels like he can get away with anything. This is highlighted most directly when the bratty kid talks to Taihei’s little brother, Kurihei, whose mother spanks him regularly. As a result, Kurihei doesn’t make nearly as much trouble as this kid, and has a better relationship with his mom to boot. That’s right, parents! Your kid started playing with matches and torched a small building, and you could have prevented it if only you had beaten the sh** of him more! What a great lesson!

Now, before anyone comments “Well, you can’t judge this from a western perspective” or “What your culture says is wrong isn’t wrong everywhere” or something like that: I did some research on this. ‘Cause I was curious. And you’re gonna sit and listen to it. 

The TL;DR version of my findings is that while the idea of quote-unquote “hitting a child with love” is widely accepted in Japan, other methods of encouraging good behaviour are much more popular.

Individual practices and beliefs vary widely, but most commonly, Japanese society in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries has tended to support the idea that children have enough innate goodness and emotional intelligence to understand why something is wrong if taught well enough. This is part of why so much Japanese children’s media, including these early magical girl shows, have so many strong moral lessons baked in to begin with. 

So the first lines of defense against misbehaviour for parents tend to be either discussions with a child about their behaviour, or simply letting a child make mistakes and learn the consequences naturally without interfering (a practice called “mimamoru” or “watching over”).

Spanking and the like tends to only enter the picture as a last resort, or if the parent becomes too stressed or fatigued to deal with their child some other way. This is because physical punishment tends to be seen as a way to enforce obedience for its own sake, as opposed to the actual goal of making a child understand their actions and act better of their own free will. It’s a quick fix, not a long-term solution. And that’s not even getting into the fact that many Japanese parents do believe that hitting a child at all is unacceptable.

So, it wouldn’t have been as surprising if the lesson for this episode were, “Okay, try everything else you can to set your kid straight, but if all else fails, don’t be afraid to smack ‘em a bit.” And it is kind of that, since the mom really doesn’t hit her son until he makes it clear that he still won’t listen even after being saved from the fire. However, this episode also seems to argue that the mom should have been spanking him regularly from the start to keep him on the straight and narrow. And from what I’ve been able to find, this just doesn’t fully jibe with the prevailing norms at that time. It’s still an uncommon and potentially concerning message, whether by Japanese standards or otherwise.

So… there. [blows raspberry]

If you think that was all a bit real for this show, that’s only because I haven’t told you about the drama yet. While Sarutobi Ecchan’s biggest strengths are its slapstick comedy and ninja antics, it also has more serious parts, much like other Toei shows before it. Most often, this will relate to Ecchan’s absent parents. Where are they? Dead? Missing? Literally outer space? Who knows. Either way, they’re out of the picture, and that makes things hard on Ecchan and Buku.

For example: episode 2 features Ecchan inviting herself to live with Miko’s family, which is very much played for laughs. However, after most of the joke-y parts are over, the show reminds viewers that Ecchan and Buku really are homeless. Ecchan may have magical abilities, but again, she’s not a witch like Sally — she can’t just conjure a house out of nothing. Without any kind of family or support group around, she and Buku don’t have anywhere else to go. Miko and her parents eventually let Ecchan stay, but before that, Ecchan realizes how much trouble she’s causing them and is prepared to leave on a bittersweet note. The scene of her and Buku about to go has a subtle sincerity to it that works. It’s just the right counterweight to the zaniness that is the rest of the show. [relevant clip]

Unfortunately, though, the tone isn’t always this well-balanced. As the episodes progress, serious scenes start getting more frequent and pronounced. The focus is still on comedy, but it seems like every character gets to have their moment in the drama spotlight, even Buku. A few emotional moments or scenes here and there would be fine, but the show’s goofy character designs, bright and flat art direction, and Looney-Toons-esque antics all undermine any extended attempts at seriousness. Even when it’s not being outright dramatic, the show has so many flat, boring conversations that any charm the show has just disappears for long periods of time.

By contrast, as buckwild as Mahou no Mako-chan could get at times, its serious and dramatic parts didn’t feel out of place at all. This was largely thanks to its elegant character designs just ready to emote at a moment’s notice. Compare that to the googly-eyed blobs, sticks, and squiggles that tend to make up an Ecchan character. While Mako-chan may have had a more severe case of tonal dissonance, that show and Ecchan share a similar problem: where Mako-chan felt more suited to drama and spent too much time on comedy, with Ecchan it’s the reverse. There’s just not quite enough depth in Ecchan’s world as presented to keep things interesting when you peel the comedy away.

It may be for that reason that the show wasn’t as popular as Toei’s previous magical girl titles. The audience ratings were so tepid that Toei cut the series short at only 26 episodes. This cancellation was so abrupt that the story never received a proper ending, with several already-scripted episodes never being produced. The final episode is just a random “hijinks with doppelgangers” story. It has a nice scene at the end with Ecchan taking her American double up the Tokyo Tower to see Mount Fuji, but other than that, it’s really nothing special. Downright boring, even, with all the misunderstandings and resolution dragged out over an interminable 20 minute runtime. With an ending like that, it’s no wonder there was so little interest in the failed anime afterward. And Ecchan ended up having no notable appearances in anime ever again…

If hearing that bums you out, though, then fear not! For Ecchan’s manga life was much richer than her anime life! To explain how, I’ve enlisted the help of a special guest: Felipe Ondera, an independent comic artist who’s produced several titles inspired by the works of Shotaro Ishinomori, including Mutant Nina, a story directly inspired by Ecchan. He has some extremely in-depth knowledge of Ishinomori’s career and has agreed to share with us what he knows about the Ecchan manga and Ishinomori’s related works. There’s lots to get into, so without further ado: take it away, Felipe!

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Shotaro Ishinomori is a manga artist of many faces. In the height of his artistic career, he was known as The King of Manga. His speed and technique for making comics was legendary, and he helped many other iconic creators like Fujio Akatsuka and Fujiko Fujio come up with characters that defined their careers; such as Nama-chan, and Obake no Q-taro. With his friends in the Tokiwa-So apartments, he later co-founded the Studio Zero animation studio with the intent of producing animated adaptations for his own works as well as those of his friends. 

Long before Ishinomori was ever heavily associated with cyborgs and superheroes, he was known as a groundbreaking shoujo manga artist. Like many of his contemporaries, Ishinomori submitted publications to shoujo magazines, as the competition to be published in shounen/boy’s magazines was quite high. However, Ishinomori believed that manga could tell stories that could be enjoyed by all readers regardless of age or gender, and didn’t limit his storytelling and artistic talents to sticking to one genre. 

Many of his earliest shoujo stories were mystery, suspense or drama. With Akatsuka and Hideko Mizuno, he created Angel in the Dark, a detective tale featuring a young girl as the protagonist. His first big solo hit was a short story called Ryuujin Numa, or The Dragon God Marsh, which mixed a typical shoujo plot of a young girl in love with mystery, suspense and supernatural elements. The success of Ryuujin Numa lead to Ishinomori being hailed as the “King of Manga”.

He also made stories with genres that would usually be considered unfit for a girl’s magazine at the time, particularly gag and science-fiction manga. [show covers for Kiki-chan, Iyan Poko, Little Red Riding Hood] Perhaps Ishinomori’s most significant contribution towards shoujo manga was introducing science-fiction stories to shoujo manga publications. His science-fiction themes included robot, mad science, metamorphosis, dimensional shifting, time travel, space travel, alien invaders, and ESP. [show covers for Ghost Girl, Yesterday Comes No More, But Neither Tomorrow…, The Girl with the Golden Eyes, Swan Lake, Mutant Sabu, Teacher with a Thousand Eyes]

The origins of Sarutobi Ecchan were still tied to Ishinomori’s tendency of mixing genres. Originally titled Okashina Okashina Okashina Ano Ko (or That Very, Very, Very, Strange Girl), the manga was first serialized in the weekly magazine Margaret in 1964. While the stories started off mostly gag-based, as the series continued, Ishinomori experimented again with all sorts of different genres. One week’s story could be pure comedy, while the next one could be tragedy, drama, a murder mystery, or a science fiction plot. Speaking of science fiction, many stories show glimpses that Ecchan’s powers might not be the result of ninjutsu training or magic, but rather psychic powers.  In some ways, ninja are espers in the Ecchan universe. Ecchan also lives in a house featuring many high-tech inventions like robots and automated machines, and her parents are revealed to not be dead, but rather they’re scientists off in space with a research laboratory on Mars.

The original Margaret run had 3 distinctive stages. The first stage involves Ecchan, a mysterious transfer student who befriends her classmates Miko and Momo. Ecchan can talk to animals, she’s stronger than bullies, and capable of all sorts of extraordinary feats. Miko and Momo are curious about her origins and follow Ecchan, where they discover she lives with her grandfather and older sister Emiko. It’s also revealed that she’s a descendent of the famous ninja folk hero Sarutobi Sasuke, one of Ishinomori’s childhood heroes. 

In the second stage, Ecchan leaves Miko, Momo, and most of the regular cast behind in order to travel the world with her new genie friend, Pooh-chan. It also marks the first in-person appearance of Ecchan’s parents, who’ve finally come back home from space. The stories are self-contained, usually with some sort of social commentary or anti-war message. Ecchan also befriends a new cast of classmates and school staff, and Pooh-chan also enrolls into school.

After her adventures with the genie and her new friends, the series moved into its third stage. The regular cast returns, and Ecchan is presented with a Christmas present, a talking bulldog named Buku. These stories are more similar in tone to the early years, with the exception of Buku now being a regular member of the supporting cast. Unlike the anime, there aren’t many Buku-centric chapters in the manga.

The Margaret run finally ended in 1966, but by 1968, it was followed by High School Ecchan in The Heibon Monthly, an entertainment magazine. Despite Ecchan now being in high school, she still has the exact same appearance as she did as a little girl. This new series featured characters Marippe and Rokube from Ishinomori’s romantic comedy manga, Kinnaru Yatsura, another Heibon Monthly publication. One chapter also features a guest appearance by Jun from Ishinomori’s avant garde manga series Fantasy World Jun. Ecchan had also guest starred in a chapter of Mutant Sabu (once available officially in English for a time) In 1969, Ecchan and Sabu appeared together at the end of Ishinomori and Kazumasa Hirai’s epic science fiction series, Genma Taisen and she was also appearing in a weekly women’s rights newspaper, Shinfujin Shimbun. In these newspaper strips, Ishinomori again had Ecchan comics delivering social commentary. 

By late 60s and early 70s, there was a talk of a Sarutobi Ecchan animated series by Studio Zero, around the same time Kinnaru Yatsura was also considered for an adaptation. Both projects were eventually canceled, although Ecchan managed to make a cameo in another Studio Zero production, Donkikko. In the 1970s, there were also plans by Kamen Rider-producer Tohru Hirayama, of developing a live action Ecchan series. But nothing further came of adapting Ecchan until 1971, after Toei had produced 3 hit shows featuring magical girls and started their Majokko line of heroines. 

However, as the previous Toei Majokko anime, Mahou no Mako-chan, featured an older heroine and overall different tone than the previous two series, many fans expected the next series to follow in its footsteps, but instead the very strange-looking Ecchan came, with its gag-based humor and somewhat unorthodox formula. As Eryn explained, the series failed to find an audience and was cancelled after 26 episodes.

That was not the end for Ecchan. In 1971, as tie-ins for the then-current anime series, Ishinomori drew new Ecchan series in several different shoujo and children’s magazines, including Shoujo Friend, Nakayoshi, and Tanoshii Youchien. These new Ecchan manga series didn’t follow the TV continuity, as the anime would only adapt stories from the Margaret run, but introduced elements from it, most notably Buku and Ecchan and Miko’s friend Taihei being there from the very beginning.  Also, the Nakayoshi run features the return of Ecchan’s older sister, Emiko. These new Ecchan installments were mostly made of independent short stories. In the Shoujo Friend run, Ecchan again crosses over with her fellow Ishinomori characters Jun, Rokube, Marippe and Sabu.  

In 1985, Ishinomori brought Ecchan back once more in a brand-new full color newspaper series for Yomiuri Shimbun called Esper Ecchan. Ecchan travels back in time from the future to 1980s Japan with of a group of Esper children to fight a bratty psychic boy who uses his powers for misdeeds. The only returning characters are Ecchan and Buku. In 1997, one year before Ishinomori’s passing, Ecchan and her friends also appear in Takasaki Dreaming, a manga written by Ishinomori and drawn by Daisuke Inoue. This manga crossed over many of Ishinomori’s most beloved characters for a time-travelling adventure through the history of Takasaki City. 

In interviews with Ishinomori later in his life, he often quoted Ecchan as one of his favorite works. Ecchan is also a favorite of many Ishinomori fans, and the main character of Katsuhiro Otomo’s award-winning manga Domu was named after her. She most recently became a recurring character in the revamp of Ishinomori and Kazumasa Hirai’s science fiction series, Genma Taisen Rebirth. Statues and tributes to Ecchan can also be seen all over the town of Ishinomaki. A section dedicated to Ecchan is located at the Ishinomori Mangattan Museum, and she also appears in Little Red Riding Hood is Missing!, a short animated film shown exclusively at the Mangattan Museum’s movie theater.

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Whew! Thank you so much for all that, Felipe! You can check out his comics and art over at felipestudio.weebly.com and follow him on social media at the handles listed here.

There’s not much more I can add to that other than… man, Ecchan deserved better. Seeing the rich history of comedy, genre-hopping, political awareness, and psychic adventures she had in Ishinomori’s manga makes the anime seem that much blander by comparison.

While the anime has some great gags, a nice theme song, and a solid voice cast (especially Ecchan herself, voiced by Michiko Nomura), almost everything else that’s enjoyable about it, the manga had and then some. Sadly, it seems the one-two punch of Toei’s bland adaptation and the change in tone from previous majokko series cut off Sarutobi Ecchan’s legs before it could really start running. …Get it? Cutting off legs? ‘cause Sasuke Sarutobi cut off his leg to escape a trap, and that’s how he died. Do you get it? Do you get my very layered and incredibly smart joke? dO yOu GET iT?

[cough] Moving on. The only anime audiences who ever gave Ecchan a second chance were, as usual, our good friends in Europe. The series aired in Italy in 1984 as “Hela Supergirl”, and was rerun several times there. In Poland it aired as, uh, hang on, gimme a second, uhh… “Hela Superdziewczyna”. To any Polish viewers out there: feel free to make fun of my pronunciation in the comments. Anyway, it was mainly based on the Italian version, with Ecchan also being called “Hela”. Though, interestingly: in both versions, her real name is still “Etsuko” – “Hela” is just a nickname. Huh, go figure.

Other than that, there was also apparently talk of another Ecchan anime adaptation in the early 2000’s when the company Ishimori Entertainment was looking to license out a bunch of Ishinomori’s works to international markets. The only anime to come out of this initiative were 2006’s 009-1 and 2007’s The Skull Man. Nothing else took off, sadly.

It’s good to know that Ecchan is recognized within the canon of Ishinomori’s works at least, even if her time in the anime spotlight was short-lived. In the end, it seems the only thing that could defeat our godlike heroine… was poor ratings.

And after a defeat like that, it’s unsurprising that Toei decided to play things safe. Very safe. Like. “Remake-their-first-magical-girl-show-even-though-it-had-only-been-a-few-years” safe. How well did that pay off for them? Well, you can find out next time on Mahou Profile, as we look at a show that retreads old ground in some ways while forging ahead in others: Mahoutsukai Chappy, a.k.a. Chappy the Witch. See you all then~

Mahou Profile #005: Marvelous Melmo [Script]

Mahou Profile #005: Marvelous Melmo [Script]

[The following is the script of episode 5 of the Mahou Profile series, viewable on YouTube here. This post to be updated with an accurate video transcript and citations in the future.]

Hey there everyone and welcome to Mahou Profile! Today I want to lead off with a quick apology. Last episode I said that I was going to cover two shows next, but after watching and researching both shows, I ended up having so much to say that I felt it necessary to split them back into two episodes. So, sorry to anyone who was hoping to hear about Sarutobi Ecchan today! That’s in the pipeline for next episode.

With that out of the way, we can dive straight into our featured show for today: Fushigi na Merumo, a.k.a. Marvelous Melmo. This series comes to us from Tezuka Productions and debuted in October 1971. It began as a manga series by Osamu Tezuka called Mamaa-chan, which was also the heroine’s name. However, according to the official Tezuka site, when work started on the anime, “the name ‘Mamaa’ was already registered and therefore not open for use, and so the series was renamed ‘Marvelous Melmo’ starting with the October issue in 1971.” The heroine’s new name, “Melmo”, highlights her transformation abilities, deriving from the Japanese pronunciation of the word “metamorphose”. “Me-ta-mo-ru-hoo-ze” — “Me-ru-mo”. 

While it’s fallen into obscurity nowadays, Marvelous Melmo was pretty significant to the histories of both the magical girl genre and anime as a whole. It was the first magical girl series produced by a studio other than Toei; it featured the first magical girl whose power focused on transforming into an older version of herself; it was an early example of anime mixing narrative and educational material, ala Moyashimon or Cells at Work; and… [sigh] it was one of the earliest anime to make frequent use of panty shots, or “panchira”. And when you realize that the titular Melmo is only nine years old? You start to get an idea of where this show might run into some trouble. 

Before we get into that, let’s go over the basics. Melmo Watari is an elementary school student with two younger brothers: Totoo and Touch. At the very start of the series— literally minute 1, episode 1 —the siblings’ mother, Hiromi, is hit by a car and killed. In the afterlife, she begs to go back to Earth, worried about how her young children will survive without her. The powers that be in their spiffy star suits grant her one wish for her family, and she wishes to give her daughter Melmo the ability to grow up and take care of her younger brothers when needed. The gods grant her a bottle of magic candies crafted from the yolk of a phoenix egg—and for those familiar with Osamu Tezuka’s other works, yes, it is that Phoenix from the manga of the same name. Connections!

Back on Earth, Melmo and her brothers have been placed with a grouchy, abusive aunt who hates children. Melmo despairs, but then her mother appears to her as a spirit for a tearful reunion. She gives Melmo the bottle of candies, explaining that a blue candy will make her ten years older, and a red one will make her ten years younger. Melmo tests out the power of the blue candies and treats the audience to the first of the show’s many, many uncomfortable panty shots (seriously, was the butt wiggle necessary?). Taking two red candies transforms her into a baby, though she still retains her nine-year-old mind. She almost eats another red candy but wisely decides not to test her luck.

So Melmo becomes her older self and confronts the abusive aunt, claiming that she’s Hiromi and that she’s come back for her children. The aunt tries to sic some goons on her, but with some quick thinking, Melmo uses blue candies to turn the goons into old men and frighten them away.

All seems well after that, but soon Touch gets a hold of the candy bottle. He eats some blue candies and turns himself into, well, a literal man-baby. In a panic, Melmo accidentally feeds him too many red candies and this ends up turning him into a zygote. …WELP. Guess that answers the question of whether you can go too far back or not. 

Melmo comes up with an ingenious solution to this problem, though, by dissolving a blue candy in water. She puts the zygote in the water so it can absorb the candy’s magic, and we watch Touch grow from an egg back into a baby… Very… Very… Slowly…

…Did I mention that Marvelous Melmo was a sex education show, by the way?

Yes, at least once per episode, the story will diverge into a short educational segments depicted through either painted still images or lovingly rendered growth sequences like this one. Most of the segments attempt to teach something about reproductive biology and the life cycle, including bits about puberty, gender, falling in love, parenting, and how if a human being could return to a single-celled form, they could tap into the foundational structure of the universe, swirling through the stuff of stars and all the blueprints of mere existence, to be reborn in a new and glorious form as from the very soup primordial. You know. Standard stuff.

(Also that last bit is exactly how Melmo is able to use the candies to turn into animals. Like I said, very science, much rigor, wow.)

So Melmo finally grows Touch back to normal baby size, and this time it’s Totoo’s turn to steal the candies. He runs outside with them and… look I wish I could explain this whole caper because it’s very good, but we have a lot to get through today, so I’ll just say it involves a murderous driver who tries to run Melmo over, and Melmo rightly uses her powers to invoke the fear of God in him, traumatizing the man into swearing off all cars forever. MAGICAL GIRLS MOTHERFU—

The episode ends back at home with adult Melmo giving Totoo a bath. Totoo is still unsure about all this, and sure enough he soon susses out that she isn’t his mom. Melmo drops the act and explains her secret to him, making him promise to keep it so their abusive aunt doesn’t get them or their house again. Totoo promises, and so episode 1 ends with the stage set for… well, something.

From here the series is less episodic than the Toei magical girl series up to this point have been, with several major status quo changes and callbacks to previous episodes happening throughout the series. 

We get the introduction of a mentor figure/guardian for Melmo in episode 4, a doctor named Waregarasu. In the same episode, the doctor gives Melmo the idea for taking bits of two candies at once to transform into animals, a power which she uses throughout the series after. 

The death of Melmo’s mother is continually returned to for episode plots, such as an episode where the boss of the man who ran her over appears to want to make amends for what happened. This episode also features the return of Melmo’s awful aunt, who features in this and one more key episode before the end of the series. 

Several characters whom one would only expect to see in a single episode make minor re-appearances throughout, reinforcing that they don’t just disappear from Melmo’s life after their one featured episode. The gods in their star suits also reappear a few times throughout the series to watch over Melmo’s progress, sometimes punishing her if they feel she hasn’t been using the candies responsibly enough. 

This leads into a major plot thread towards the end of the series where the candies stop magically refilling at the end of each day, because this miracle that the gods have created will not last indefinitely. This ties in with the series’ themes of growth and change. The candies cannot last forever, because nothing does. The magic of childhood must someday give way to adulthood — which is difficult but often wondrous in its own way. 

In any case, status quo shake-ups aside, the episodes still tend to follow one-and-done structures that allow viewers to tune into just about any episode and not be too lost. There will pretty much always be a new problem of the day for Melmo to tackle. The candies will be involved in either worsening or fixing the situation some way, and the story will eventually tie in to whatever the dubious sex ed lesson for the day is. …Oh yeah, and Melmo will probably get naked at some point. Child form, adult form, doesn’t matter — they’ll find a way. It’s… yeah… Jeebus criminy, Japan, don’t do this to me… [defeated groan]

Now, you may be thinking “Well hey, it’s a sex ed show — of course there’s going to be nudity. What’s the problem?” The problem is the framing. There is plenty of nudity in the educational segments, and that’s all very frank and fine and dandy. And to be fair, there are also narrative segments where the nudity is tasteful and on-theme, like when Melmo bathes Totoo in a parental way, or when she tries to breastfeed baby Touch. 

But then you get stuff like Melmo’s transformations. First off: yes, Marvelous Melmo technically had the first nude transformation scenes, predating the infamous nude transformations of Cutie Honey by a couple of years. What makes these transformations more uncomfortable than Honey’s, though, is that Melmo is still mentally nine years old when she transforms. And the transformations really tend to highlight the sexuality of her adult form, both visually and musically — no really, the transformation theme ends with a literal “sexy” saxophone riff. Also, if a male character is in the room with her at the time, even if they know Melmo is a child, they will try to (ahem) “sneak a peek“, as it were. Gross. 

The weird thing is? You would think the show would know better. One of the very first educational segments shown is about the differences between children and adults, and it very clearly points out that the major difference there isn’t just physical bodies but also the amount of experience and wisdom each has. Hey. HEY TEZUKA PRODUCTIONS. If you understand that what makes a child a child is largely mental, not physical, then why do you think it’s okay to sexualize a child just because she has an adult body? Huh? HUH?! Say something you perverted fu—! 

[“Technical Difficulties”]

Okay I’m calm, I’m calm… But seriously: for a show that presents very literal life lessons in every episode, Marvelous Melmo ends up teaching the audience… a lot more than it perhaps intends to. Having watched the entire series and taken in all this valuable learning, I would like to demonstrate this by sharing ten of the best nuggets of wisdom this show has to offer. 

Lesson 1: If you want to change someone’s age without asking first, that’s totally fine! Be they a dog, an elephant, a goose, or a person: as long as whatever they were doing inconvenienced or hurt you in some way, then irreversibly changing them into an egg or a baby or a decrepit husk without their consent is A-OK and absolutely not a form of horrific cosmic torture. I mean, they brought it on themselves by being kind of a jerk, after all.

Lesson 2: It’s extremely easy to throw small projectiles and land them exactly where you want them! If you can’t land a tiny candy in someone’s open mouth on the first try every time, then clearly you’re just not trying hard enough. 

Lesson 3: Always go along with shady strangers, no questions asked. Doesn’t matter if the last strange people who came up to you said they were taking you to a world conference, only to then spirit you away to a fascist dictatorship… or told you they had a sweet luxury apartment they wanted you to watch for them, only for it to have actually been a front for their mass pickpocketing spree, which you then became the scapegoat for… or they came dressed to you like a literal Dracula and promised to bring your dead mother back to life, only for your resurrected mom to actually be a wax doll implanted with the soul of a snake, and then the Snake Soul Mom actually began to care about you to the point of immolating herself to save you from freezing to death in a snowstorm!

[clips showing The Tragedy of Snake Mom]

Nah, it’s probably okay to just keep saying yes to strangers like that. Benefit of the doubt and all!

Lesson 4: Picking your nose hairs is gross and no one wants to see that. Stop it. …STOP IT.

Lesson 5: If you accidentally turn your brother into a frog with magic candies, there is absolutely no easy way to reverse this process. Frogs can’t eat candy or drink water, so clearly not even dissolved candy water will work for them. Never mind that frog skin is water-permeable and they just get the water they need by absorbing it. Nope, absolutely no way that the candy water could work that way. You’ll just have to leave your brother stuck as a frog for nine entire episodes, causing him to have an existential crisis about whether he’ll ever get to grow up and go to school and lead a normal life… before realizing oh wait, frogs can breathe, right? So just evaporate the candy water into steam and have him breathe it in. Easy peasy! …Okay yeah, that was less of a real lesson and more an excuse to talk about this subplot because seriously, Totoo gets stuck as a frog for almost a third of the series. Status quo changes indeed.

Lesson 6: Sometimes the solution to a problem is to get in a prop plane, impregnate a giant devil flower, and then set the devil flower on fire to destroy both it and its offspring for good. …Anime is great.

Lesson 7: The best way to get away with any crime scot-free is, of course, to become a baby. Because, well? 

[clip of police officer saying “I can’t arrest a baby.”] 

[clip: Roll Safe meme]

Lesson 8: Sometimes if someone gets bullied when they’re young, that doesn’t make them more sympathetic to other victims of bullying. Their problem is less with the bullying and more the fact that they were bullied and not someone else. I’m not even making a joke here. This episode where Melmo turns a bullied puppy into a grown dog who in turn bullies others? Is really, really well done. It’s a shame that it takes the puppy’s mom sacrificing her life for him to see that what he’s doing is wrong, but still. Man this show has a lot of dead moms… Anyway, this episode feels very prescient of a lot of the toxicity you see today in internet culture, politics, media–everywhere, really. A lot of people who experience mistreatment — or even just perceive that they’ve been mistreated — do not learn empathy for those who have suffered, and instead turn that around into a conviction that as long as suffering is inflicted on the “correct” people, it’s all fine, even enjoyable to perpetuate. But go off about magical girl shows not having any strong real-world messages or themes.

Lesson 9: Gender! It’s… Okay, I can’t even really make a good joke here, so I’ll just be serious. Being a sex education anime from 1971, this series presents an… outdated understanding of gender, let’s say. It’s specifically outdated in regards to number of genders and ideas of biological determinism for those genders. I can’t blame the series for not foreseeing decades of advancement in scientific and social understandings of gender and sex, but yeah. Worth bracing yourself for that when you head into this one. 

And Lesson 10: If you’re hitting on a nine-year-old girl and you’re old enough to drive a motorbike or a car? That is… apparently absolutely fine! In fact, it’s probably not just you who’s hitting on her — she’s clearly just such a fox! And at that point you and the other suitors will be well within your rights to demand that this small child choose one of you to go out with. And she will. And it’ll be treated as sweet and romantic. Because she’ll grow up to marry you and have your child eventually. And that’s just FINE. NO PorbLEm wiTH ThaT at aLL. nONE WHATSOEVER. …AAGGHGHHHH.

…Anyway.

There is so much more I could get into with the plot of Melmo, but I’ll leave it there for time’s sake. Needless to say, like Mahou no Mako-chan before it, this one’s… a bit of a weird one.

It’s almost for the weirdness alone that I hope this one makes it back to English-speaking audiences someday. And yes, this did once see an official English release — in recent memory, even! It used to be legally streaming on Viki, and even now you can still get to the show’s episode pages if you Google them. Unfortunately though, it appears the episodes themselves are no longer available. At first I thought maybe they were just region-locked, but people in several other major regions have confirmed that they don’t work for them either. The episodes are out there in some of the seedier corners of the internet if you’re that desperate, but for those who prefer to watch their anime legally, that option sadly does not seem to exist anymore. 

However, even if you do get to see the show, you probably won’t have seen the original version. Like I said, Melmo first aired in 1971, but a “Renewal” version also aired in 1998 with cleaned-up animation and an all new voice cast. This was the version used in Viki’s streams, and while the Japanese DVDs feature the dub tracks for both versions, it seems like they exclusively use the cleaner animation of the Renewal version. 

Compare the original and Renewal versions of the opening theme. The original theme song was performed by Chikako Idehara and Young Fresh. It uses mainly brass and string instruments, has more childlike vocals, and the image quality is noticeably washed out. By contrast, the Renewal version was performed by an adult vocalist, Yuuki Mashima. It uses more synthesized instrumentals, has a cleaner, more vibrant look, and features a small tag on the logo saying “Renewal” in katakana. [clips from both versions]

For those of you who speak Italian, you can find a few Italian-dubbed episodes floating around online. Unlike with the Italian dub of Mahou no Mako-chan, this version of Melmo, entitled I Bon Bon Magici di Lilly, or “Lilly’s Magic Bon Bons”, was not that heavily censored, which is odd considering how much stuff in Melmo is potentially censor-able. As far as I can tell, it’s pretty much intact. Just goes to show how far the “educational” banner goes towards justifying content that might not otherwise make it to air. 

That the show aired with so little issue in Italy is interesting considering how it’s said to have been received in its home country. A popular anecdote holds that many parents in Japan hated the show and complained to the network after their kids started asking a lot of uncomfortable questions. I couldn’t find much hard evidence for these claims in English, so I can’t say for sure how much truth there is to that, but a 2004 review from the Japanese magazine CD Journal claims that PTA groups called the show “disgusting” (“Iyarashii!”). This quote appears on the Amazon listing for the Japanese DVD release and is the most official confirmation of these anecdotes I could find. 

What can be said for sure is the show didn’t last long — only 26 episodes, airing from October 3, 1971 – March 26, 1972. It was the first series produced by the newly formed Tezuka Productions, then a spin-off company from Osamu Tezuka’s original studio, Mushi Production. Melmo would be Tezuka Productions’ only full-length series until Mushi Production filed for bankruptcy in 1973. The defunct MushiPro then transferred all their animation departments over to TezukaPro, making TezukaPro the main animation company for Tezuka-related works going forward. 

TezukaPro pulled in a lot of talent for Melmo, many of whom were just starting long and fruitful careers in the anime industry. One example was Yoshinobu Nishizaki, who would rise to fame in 1974 as the producer of the classic sci-fi series Space Battleship Yamato (and then later rise to infamy with the likes of Odin: Space Sailer Starlight [clip: “Odiiiiiiiiin!”]). Nishizaki was Osamu Tezuka’s general manager during Melmo’s production and was mainly responsible for selling the show to a network. The rights eventually went to Asahi Broadcasting, and, as Nishizaki recounts in a 1981 interview, he felt a sense of responsibility for the show even though all he did was sell it. When the audience ratings turned out to be even worse than he imagined they might be, he felt deeply ashamed of himself and from then on vowed that he would eventually “create an anime work that [he] would not regret.” [clip: “Odiiiiiiiiin!”]

Slightly more involved in the production was Yoshiyuki Tomino, who directed episodes 5, 16, and 22. Tomino wasn’t exactly a new talent at the time, having started with Tezuka doing scripts and storyboards for the original Astro Boy in 1963. But he was still a couple of years away from his debut as a main series director on Triton of the Sea, and about eight years away from creating the work that would define his career, Mobile Suit Gundam. This was also prior to him earning the nickname “Minagoroshi no Tomino” or “Kill ‘em All Tomino”, referring to the sheer number of character deaths that tend to crop up in his stories. Thankfully there are no deaths in the episodes Tomino directed for Melmo, although episode 22 does go into the dark subject matter of alcoholism and familial abuse. The ending of this episode is perhaps overly hopeful on that front, but it’s still one of the standout stories of the entire series. 

You may have noticed I’ve barely said anything about the big Tez’ himself, as it were. And that is because, honestly? It’s intimidating to even try talking about him. There is already a wealth of resources out there about Osamu Tezuka that can tell you so, so much more about the man, his work, and his influence on industry than I ever could, and they can do it more thoughtfully, critically, and eloquently to boot. If I dove headlong into Tezuka here, even just for an overview, we could be here for an entire series unto itself. 

So apologies if you wanted to hear about Tezuka in more depth, but for now I’ll just focus on what his manga for Melmo was like. The manga is fairly similar to the anime, with many stories being adapted directly to the anime. A key difference between the manga and anime, though, is that the candies not only change Melmo’s age, but also grant her clothing for various occupations she tries out in her adult form. For example, when Melmo tries to become a stewardess to board a flight to Africa, in the anime we follow her going to great lengths to sneak into the airport, find a closet to transform in, change into clothing she brought from home, and take a stewardess flight exam in order to board the flight she wants to get on. In the manga, she just magically transforms into a stewardess and gets on the plane with no issues, similar to how the Disguise Pen works in early episodes of Sailor Moon

In general, the manga version of Melmo rarely has to worry about her clothes not changing with her, which is… nice, I guess? On the one hand, the strict “realism” of the candies’ rules in the anime is more interesting to watch, since the writers often get very creative trying to work within their bounds. …However the manga does have a lot fewer of those discomforting panty shots, so… yeah. Remember kids: there’s a reason we don’t worry about the mechanics of The Hulk’s pants, and I would prefer not to worry about Melmo’s clothes on that front either.

The manga didn’t last long. It was reprinted in 2018 as a single hardcover collectors’ edition called the Marvelous Melmo Treasure Book, which contains materials recently discovered by Osamu Tezuka’s daughter, Rumiko Tezuka, This includes several chapter layouts, sketches, and colour illustrations that never saw the light of day until this year. Unfortunately this book is Japanese only and I was not able to look at a copy for this episode. 

There does appear to have been a second Melmo manga serialized in 2010, simply titled Melmo-chan. However, I can’t find much information about this manga other than it was written and drawn by artist Keiko Fukuyama, and it ran in Monthly Comic Ryuu. …And it apparently had the CUTEST MELMO EVER AAHHHH LOOK AT THAT PWECIOUS PLEASE PROTECT THIS DARLING ANGEL AHHHHH~ Um, but yes, if anyone knows more about this one or owns copies, let me know! I’d be really curious to read it someday!

Anyway, outside of the main anime and manga, Melmo never resurfaced much outside of some star system appearances in other Tezuka works. She had cameo appearances in Black Jack, Unico, and Rainbow Parakeet, and prior to the anime airing, her adult form played a role in the 1970 manga Apollo’s Song, there appearing under the name “Hiromi Watari”. Apollo’s Song is considered to be another part of Osamu Tezuka’s “Sex Education Trilogy”, alongside Marvelous Melmo and Yakepacchi’s Maria. So yes, Melmo was not an outlier on this topic for Tezuka, to say the least.

Melmo’s animated appearances after her solo series were, weirdly enough, both in advertisements. The first was in an extended music video made to promote an electronic album. No, not Interstella 5555, although that would have been a wild crossover. No, this was an 18-minute OVA called Ravex in Tezuka Land, which promoted an album by the Japanese band Ravex, and also celebrated Osamu Tezuka’s 80th birthday. The short features Ravex meeting up with various Tezuka characters, including Astro Boy, Black Jack, Kimba, Unico, Princess Sapphire (eyyy girl, welcome back to Mahou Profile!) and of course, Melmo. Together they use the power of music to defeat the evil Soggies or whatever, and everyone celebrates at the end with a big dance party. Yeah, there’s not much of substance here, but it is nice to see Melmo animated in a modern digital format, and with a cool futuristic outfit to boot. Also cool to see her in so many scenes with Sapphire, highlighting their shared magical girl heritage. Please look at these two very good and wholesome girls. Just… look at them. 

And finally, as far as I can tell, Melmo’s most recent animated appearance was in an actual commercial. In 2013, Japanese dietary supplement company Wakasa Seikatsu very briefly had a licensed product called “Melumo Love”, which claimed to rejuvenate women’s beauty like Melmo’s candies rejuvenate her age. And they produced this animated commercial to promote it.

[clips from the commercial]

That’s… well, it’s a little weird, but honestly, what about Melmo isn’t weird? I get the concept and it’s cute for what it is, so there you go. 

So yes, that wraps us up on Marvelous Melmo! This entire series is a treasure trove of bizarre logic, baffling science, creative situations, and honest moments of human connection. Also I didn’t get to say before, but compared to the Toei series we’ve seen so far, the animation is really a step up too, with lots of uncommon angles and uses of camera movement, as well as an interesting fluidity to the character motion. It has some very troubling aspects, as I think I’ve made very, very clear. However, if you go in knowing it’s a product of its time and brace for some of the discomfort that comes with that, it’s a very engaging watch. There’s a reason Osamu Tezuka and his production team are as venerated as they are. For all the criticisms you can make of the man and his work, he knew how to tell a strong visual story.

And next time we’ll be hopping from one humongously influential creator to another, as we get to the long-promised episode on Shotaro Ishinomori’s beloved magical ninja girl, Sarutobi Ecchan. Look forward to it and I hope to see you all again soon~! 

Mahou Profile #004: Mahou no Mako-chan [Script]

Mahou Profile #004: Mahou no Mako-chan [Script]

[The following is the script of episode 4 of the Mahou Profile series, viewable on YouTube here. This post to be updated with an accurate video transcript and citations in the future.]

[image 1: Sebastian about to sing, some happy cartoon fish with instruments in the background] 

Sebastian: Mako-chan, listen to me! The human world, it’s a mess. Life under the sea is better than anything they got up there!

[about to launch into “Under the Sea” when the music cuts]

[image 2: Unimpressed mermaid Mako with arms folded] 

Mako: What about monkeys?

[image 3: Confused Sebastian] 

Sebastian: …Uh, excuse me?

[image 2] 

Mako: Monkeys. Fuzzy, brown, climb everywhere. Have we got them?

[image 3] 

Sebastian: Uhh… we have… sea monkeys? 

[image 2] 

Mako: So no then is what you’re saying? 

[image 3] 

Sebastian: Well, no. But really, I don’t see how that makes the human world–

[image 4: Mako swimming away from Sebastian towards the surface] 

Mako: Sorry, can’t hear you tiny singing crab! I’m going to go to turn into a human and play with monkeys forever now! [faster] And possibly pine over some guy but only when we have the budget for plot! Byyyyyyye~

[image 5: “Getting too old for this shit” Sebastian, fish leaving and dropping instruments in the background] 

Sebastian: [sigh] …All right then everyone, you heard her, pack everything up, no musical number. We’ll just have to save our undersea whimsy for a girl who appreciates us. Ugh. Teenagers… 

Hey there guys and welcome to Mahou Profile: A History of Magical Girls! And… I need to confess something. It’s very important that you understand something about me. You guys… I LOVE MERMAIDS SO MUCH!! Oh my god I love mermaids, you don’t even know. They’re so pretty and cool and interesting and sometimes weirdly violent and creepy and just a fascinating concept all around. If there were more anime about mermaids, then right now you know you guys would be watching Mermaid Profile: A History of Mermaids & S***. Seriously, you guys. Mermaids. Mermaids are great. 

The problem with being a mermaid fan, though? Is that so much mermaid stuff sucks! If you want to read or watch something about mermaids, then chances are high that what you’ll find is either A) bad, B) not actually about mermaids, or C) both. And by “not actually about mermaids”, I mean stories where either the protagonist is human and the mermaid is just a supporting character at best, or there is a mer-protagonist but they spend most of the story in human form. 

That last bit is unfortunately the case with today’s show: Mahou no Mako-chan, a.k.a. Magical Mako, a.k.a. Mako the Mermaid. No, not these Mako Mermaids [image from the aforementioned show] — this Mako Mermaid. [image of Mako in human form] Doesn’t look like a mermaid, you say? Yup, exactly my point. 

Still, I went into Mahou no Mako-chan hopeful. Okay, even if Mako doesn’t spend much time as a mermaid, it should be interesting to see how they integrate the mermaid concept into the show regardless. I mean hey, a mermaid magical girl is still a pretty fresh idea for a show. There’s really only one other one of those: Mermaid Melody Pichi Pichi Pitch, which we’ll cover way later on down the line. Still, I have to wonder: why does hardly anyone talk about this show? I mean really, how bad could it be?

Well, after watching a bunch of the series with an open mind and putting all my serious analytical acumen into it, I came away with a lot of thoughts, but I think all of them can be summed up in one solid conclusion…

[deep breath]

IT IS A CRIME THAT THIS SHOW WAS NOT BROUGHT TO MY ATTENTION SOONER AND ALL ANIME FANS SHOULD GO TO JAIL FOR LETTING THIS ONE SLIP THROUGH THE CRACKS. 

Oh I don’t say that to imply the show is great by the way, let’s be clear here. There’s a lot of good in it, but overall it’s a mess. Just an absolutely baffling mess of a show. But it’s such an interesting mess that I seriously cannot believe it isn’t more well-known. 

To get into what I mean by that, I first need to explain the plot and characters. At the very beginning, Mahou no Mako-chan is a fairly straightforward reimagining of The Little Mermaid. A young mermaid named Mako yearns to see the surface world but is forbidden from doing so by her father, the Dragon King of the Seven Seas. One day she sneaks away from the royal palace and gets her first taste of the world above the water. She almost dismisses what she sees as not worth the hype, but then on the deck of an cruise ship she spots the one thing a horny teenage girl can’t resist: [reverb/auto tune/other vocal effects and a sing-song voice] ~an attractive member of her preferred gender~

After Mako is done ogling Mr. First Eligible Bachelor I’ve Ever Seen in My Life, her father drags her back underwater and scolds her for visiting the surface. She’s sad for a while, then has a heartfelt talk with her mom, who encourages her to go back up there if that’s what she truly desires. It’s a good thing Mako goes back up, too, as a sudden tsunami appears and crashes over the ship. Dudeman McHotface saves a young girl and her grandfather but gets pulled under himself before he can get to a lifeboat. Mako of course rushes to his rescue and pulls him up to a nearby beach, getting in nice and close with him while she can. She pines on the beach for a while, but after remembering her mother’s encouragement, she is determined to change her fate.

Insert the standard “go to meet the sea witch and get legs” part here. The unique elements here are 1) the sea witch is actually Mako’s grandmother, and 2) Mako almost throws herself into a giant acid plant to prove that she’s serious about this whole legs thing. Oh man, 15-year-olds are nothing if not dramatic, am I right? 

So Grandma Sea Witch tells Mako that the only way for a mermaid to become human is to drink a mermaid’s tear. Conveniently, Mako cries out one perfect tear and is able to take it with her to the surface. She ingests the tear and, like the original story, the pain of splitting a tail into two legs is like literally being sliced open. Mako passes out after the transformation is complete, and is eventually found by an old man named Mr. Urashima and his two grandsons…

That was all episode 1. And this is where any similarities to The Little Mermaid start to come undone. 

From here, Mako is nursed back to health by Mr. Urashima; gets put on TV in an effort to find her parents; gets kidnapped by criminals posing as her parents for ransom money; tries to call the authorities for help; gets strangled for doing so; has an unrelated seizure and dies; gets better; has a heart-to-heart with her dad; receives a magic pendant called the Tear of the Mermaid; tries to go back to Mr. Urashima; gets kidnapped again while yelling “Help! Help! These aren’t my parents!” and Mr. Urashima is like “Eh, whatever, it’s not my problem.”; struggles against the criminals; uses her magic pendant to summon psychedelic flying laser discs which cause the criminals to crash their car off a cliff and die horribly; and then she goes back to Mr. Urashima one more time and he’s like “Eeeehhh… all right sure, I guess you can stay. We have a literal bear living with us, you can’t be that much harder to look after than that.” 

And after that, Mako enrolls in a local school called Karatachi Academy and just… kinda hangs out and gets up to semi-magical hijinks with her new schoolmates while occasionally trying to find and reconnect with Manguy McDudecrush. And I say “semi-magical” because her magic pendant only works in direct sunlight or moonlight, and wouldn’t you know it, it gets mighty cloudy in Mako’s neck of the woods a whole heck of a lot. This results in her magic not even functioning half the time and leaving her completely helpless. And even when her magic is working, it’s often framed less as her actively using it and more as her father saving her butt with his powers. And all of that is when Mako even remembers to use her pendant in the first place. What’s that? You expected the magical girl in a magical girl show to be magical? Ahahahahaha! AhaHAHAHAHAHA! That’s a good one! You slay me! Ahahahahahahaha!

[singsong voice] ~Annnnd that’s the story of the shoooooww~

…Yeah. Little Mermaid this ain’t.

To be fair, it doesn’t help that I had to watch the show almost entirely in raw Japanese, since it seems only the first episode has ever been fansubbed in English. No official English releases of any kind either, just airings in other countries like Italy, France, Mexico, and Poland — par for the course with these old magical girl shows so far. I have just enough Japanese listening comprehension to follow the basic thrust of a narrative, but the details can get spotty, so who knows? Maybe there’s something in the dialogue I missed that makes everything about what I just recapped make total sense! But y’know, I dunno, I just get this feeling that even with a full understanding of the dialogue? This show would still be a little, uh… what’s the word I’m looking for… bugnuts?

I mean, here are a few more choice episode plots that come up after this. 

Episode 4. Mako and the Urashima twins run away with their pet bear for some delightful Boxcar Children-esque antics and everything is very whimsical and picaresque and OH NO! A hobo with a gun! That took a turn! …Also the cute cartoon bear totally mauls this dude. Um. Wow. Good job, bear…? Oh geez you really got him good, huh. Look at all that blood. 

Episode 6. Mako’s crush, Akira, is caring for the little girl he saved from the tsunami, who now has severe PTSD and gets flashbacks every time the wind blows at her window. Mako fixes her by bringing her through a magic kaleidoscope and taking her whale riding. Hooray!

Episode 8. Santa Claus is a literal wizard who has become disillusioned with humanity and now wanders the Earth as a mysterious vagrant. It’s up to Mako to get Santa to see the good in people again and save Christmas boy howdy. 

Episode 13. Mako goes on a “date” with her dad. It’s as awkward as it sounds and involves him fighting with her over a bikini. …Okay. 

Episode 19. Mako meets a girl who adores the Urashimas’ pet monkey, Kiiko. Yeah, the Urashimas have a lot of exotic pets; they run some kind of preserve or wildlife veterinary service I think. Kiiko in particular hangs out with Mako a lot so get used to them. Anyway, this girl falls in with a bad crowd and dies in a motorcycle crash. Oh the humanity!

Episode 26. The Prince of Germany spots Mako from a helicopter and says “Oooh, ein gutes Mädchen!” and arranges to take her on a date. Mako’s dad and Grandma Sea Witch spy on them and imagine all the ways Mako could possibly mess this up and cause an international incident. The prince is the one who ends up causing an international incident, somehow drawing out an entire naval battle fleet through sheer irresponsibility, and yet Mako is still the one who ends up getting spanked by her father in a sailor suit on the deck of a military carrier. What. 

Episode 37. Mako learns the joys of ~make-up~! Except lol no j/k, apparently lipstick is deadly poisonous to former mermaids. Yes really. 

And then there’s episodes 46 and 47, a two-parter about a strange swamp boy who tries to mess with Mako and friends and get them killed in a military test zone. [short Apocalypse Now montage] Eventually it’s revealed that Swamp Boy is a kappa whose society is in ruins after humans destroyed it and drove them away. Swamp Boy didn’t want to hurt humans but the other kappas encouraged him to do it for the sake of their revenge. Mako meets with the kappa elders and appeals to them with the power of love or something, and Swamp Boy ends up taking a missile blast to the stomach to save some of the kids. Somehow he stays alive just long enough to get everyone to safety too. He dies, Mako cries, the kappas psychically cry with her, and of course Mako’s tears bring him immediately back to life. Then the kappas make peace and leave in the night. The end??

God I think I love this show. 

So. How did we get to this point? This is still a Toei show, same as the last two we’ve looked at. It started on November 2, 1970 — right after Himitsu no Akko-chan finished. Key members of the Akko-chan creative team continued on with Mako-chan, including screenwriters Masaki Tsuji and Shun’ichi Yukimuro. Yet the tone and the … absolute wackness of the story is off the charts. So what changed?

Well, the biggest new thing is probably that this was Toei’s first original magical girl show. There is no manga, novel, or other source material for Mako-chan other than The Little Mermaid (kind of). The original creator of the story is credited as Shinobu Urakawa, but this is actually a pseudonym for Kenji Yokoyama, a producer at Toei who is also credited with planning for the series. From what I can find, the only other work he ever authored was also under the Shinobu Urakawa name, and it was another Toei series called Magne Robo Gakeen, a.k.a. Magnos the Robot. So yeah. One big difference between Mako-chan and its predecessors is that it was a company production from top to bottom. It had no pre-existing story framework to follow except, well, other Toei shows. 

If you watch an episode of Mako-chan and you have some familiarity with Sally or Akko-chan, it’s pretty clear that the series pulls a lot of elements from those shows. For example, both Sally and Akko-chan gave their heroines a gaggle of friends of varying archetypes to play off of, including a down-to-earth best friend type, some mischievous kids to stir up trouble, and in Akko’s case, a big guy who acts tough but is actually a total softie at heart. The tough guy, Banchou, is even voiced by the same voice actor who played Taisho in Akko-chan, Hiroshi Ohtake. [clips of Taisho and Banchou voices for comparison] And here’s some bonus voice actor trivia while we’re at it: Banchou’s little henchman, Senkichi, was the debut role of Akira Kamiya, who you may know better as Kenshiro from Fist of the North Star. [clips: mild-mannered Senkichi vs. Kenshiro “Aaaatatatatatata!” and “You are already dead.”] Anyway, tangent aside, the point is that this large, varied supporting cast allows the writers to bounce around between characters and keep things from getting stale, and the main supporting archetypes used in the previous shows proved themselves to be useful, so why not use them again? Okay. Makes sense so far. 

Then you have that all-important Problem of the Week structure. Having a steady string of one-off characters and situations helps to keep “stuff happening” in the series at all times, allowing the writers to spread out the major plot points over a longer period of time. Notably, though, since Mako is a teenager, the one-off characters she meets tend to be older than the ones in previous series. This increase in average age allows for a wider range of problems with more mature tones for Mako to deal with. The addition of a major love interest, a rival for his affections, and a few notable instances of focus on Mako’s body and undergarments represent the genre’s first serious attempts at romantic and sexual elements as well. In theory, this lets the Toei magical girl format transition into adolescence alongside its new heroine. In theory, these choices all make decent sense. In theory…

To explain why this approach didn’t work out quite as expected, I’m actually going to veer off and talk about manga for a bit. Sounds off-topic considering this show didn’t originate as a manga, but trust me, this will come back around. 

So let’s talk about manga, specifically shoujo. “Shoujo manga” refers to manga originally published in magazines and similar outlets aimed at elementary and young teen girls. And the content of shoujo manga has often been defined within the manga industry by the deceptively simple term “what girls like”. This means that “shoujo” as a style of entertainment is, in theory, entirely defined by whatever girls want to read about most at any particular point in time. [Onscreen: Relevant text from Jennifer Prough’s “Straight from the Heart”.] 

Now that definition raises a lot of valid questions: “How are ‘girls’ as a demographic defined exactly?”, “Aren’t there a lot of quote-unquote ‘boys’ manga that girls also like?” and “Doesn’t the entertainment industry have a hand in shaping ‘what girls like’ to start with? Isn’t this, like, a chicken and egg situation kinda?” Even acknowledging those issues, though, this definition does still fit to a certain extent. Manga publishers in Japan pay a huge amount of attention to reader feedback and actively seek it out however possible. This feedback helps publishers determine which titles get more merchandise, which get pushed for anime or live action adaptations, and which represent big enough new trends to influence the kinds of stories that get picked up. In other words: the industry has a codified system in place for determining exactly “what girls like”, and that system has traditionally steered the course of what shoujo is

And said system includes not just readers but creators too. In the mid-1960s, magazines started holding contests for new manga by unpublished creators. Top winners received prize money and a chance to get published. In addition to being a practical way to meet the growing demand for weekly manga, this practice of pulling new talent from the ranks of magazine readers resulted in said talent eventually being made up almost entirely of said readers. Which in the case of shoujo manga meant that more and more female readers/creators kept getting hired until the early 1970s, when virtually all shoujo manga creators were female. Huh. Women creating comics for girls. What a novel concept. 

The new creators of this period, including the so-called “Showa 24 Group” or “Magnificent 49ers” whom we will likely talk about more in future episodes, made their mark on the genre in a lot of ways. The most striking developments were their innovations in character drawing — bigger, more elegant eyes, wispier lines, more willowy body shapes, and luxurious European-inspired hair and clothing designs. True, many of these elements existed in some form or another going back decades prior. Rachel Thorn, an associate professor at Kyoto Seika University, posted an excellent thread about how, for example, big eyes in manga were a thing way before the likes of Tezuka supposedly “innovated” that style. Even so, what female creators in the late 60s and early 70s were doing was still significant and represented a big shift in the perception of what shoujo was and how it looked. The exaggerated elegance of characters combined with experimental panel layouts and plots with heightened emotional and dramatic stakes resulted in a style that girls — and a lot of other demographics for that matter — became ravenous for. 

Mahou no Mako-chan aired from November 1970 to September 1971, which was right in the thick of these changes in shoujo. Given the time frame and pop cultural context, the influence of then-recent shoujo titles is clear as day. The character drawing style, the dark and dramatic plots, the introduction of romance and sexual elements, the European source material, the use of experimental art — it’s all there. …Or at least it’s all trying to be there. Unfortunately it’s hampered a lot by the show simultaneously trying to retain the child audiences who previously watched Sally and Akko-chan, with silly problem of the week antics and a focus on morals for viewers to learn from. 

And therein lies the issue I feel. Mahou no Mako-chan strikes me as a project without a clear foundation being pulled in a bunch of different directions at once — between old and new, childish and mature, silly and hyper-dramatic, Wizard Santa Claus and Apocalypse Now. We’ve seen tonal shifts before in shows like Sally and Akko-chan, but it worked for those shows because they still had strong identities at their core: they were bright, funny kids shows that occasionally delved into melodrama and darker subjects where necessary. Mako-chan’s identity on the other hand feels like it’s constantly shifting, never one thing or another for very long at a time. It’s like… the middle illustration on an Animorphs book cover, but stretched out over 48 episodes. Yeah. That’s how I’d describe this series to people.

There is still a kind of appeal in that awkwardness, though. Like I said, while Mako-chan is a mess in a lot of ways, it’s still kind of bold and unmistakable in a way the other two magical girl series haven’t been yet. It takes a lot of risks, and while they don’t pay off to a cohesive whole, those risks still resulted in a lot more moments in Mako-chan I desperately want to tell people about, be it from sheer bafflement, genuine enjoyment, or both. 

And as much as I’ve ragged on the show’s silliness and bizarre plot points so far, there is also a lot of genuinely good stuff in Mako-chan. The art and animation would be one example. The experimental animation I mentioned shows up throughout the series and can be really striking, giving dramatic moments a psychedelic edge that heightens the tension. [short selection of representative clips] The regular character animation can be spotty — in its worst moments it’s horribly off-model and struggles to move beyond still frames — but depending on the animators, the show really can bring out the best in its cute and simple character designs. The character designer, Toshiyasu Okada, also handled the animation of the opening sequence and episodes 1 and 4, and all of these exemplify how the show looks when at its best. As well, this was the first magical girl show worked on by legendary animation director Shingo Araki, who debuted in the original Tomorrow’s Joe anime earlier the same year and who would go on to do animation direction and character design for shows such as Devilman, Cutie Honey, Lunlun the Flower Child, Rose of Versailles, Saint Seiya, and of course his most important and seminal work, Yu-Gi-Oh

The voice cast is all game and lively as well. Not many of them would go on to big careers after this aside from Akira Kamiya, but Mako at least was an early role for veteran voice actress Kazuko Sugiyama, who is probably best known as Jun the Swan from Gatchaman, Ten-chan from Urusei Yatsura, and Celebi from Pokemon. Most relevant to this series, she also played Mitsuki’s grandmother in Full Moon wo Sagashite, Moko in the 80s Himitsu no Akko-chan, and the main villain Desparaia in Yes! Precure 5. [Dark Knight “live long enough to see yourself become the villain” clip, maybe with Mako and Desparaia photoshopped in] Also, by the way, it’s a shame that [Michiko Hirai], who plays the rival character, Tomiko [and was the voice of Sally the Witch], isn’t in more stuff of note. She does a really fabulous mean girl voice, which helps make for a great start to this rival archetype in the magical girl genre.

One more person who did go on to a storied career after this series was Mitsuko Horie, who sang both the opening and ending theme songs. She’s an accomplished voice actor in her own right, most notably voicing Magical Girl Lalabel, Akko in the 80s Akko-chan anime, and Sailor Galaxia in Sailor Moon Stars. But she’s even more famous for singing a metric butt-ton of anime songs, and the Mako-chan themes were some of her earliest, recorded when she was only thirteen years old. [short song clips] The composition for these songs was by Takeo Watanabe, who also composed the show’s score. All the music in Mako-chan is pretty nice, featuring a lot of sad violins and other classical cues. Watanabe must have liked it too, because some of the music from this show would end up being reused in future shows like Majokko Megu-chan, Genshi Shounen Ryu, and Candy Candy, all of which Watanabe also worked on. 

Anyway, it’s not just the technical aspects of Mako-chan that find a way to shine. Content-wise, while the dramatic scenarios in the show don’t always land, there are several episodes where they fare a lot better. Episode 11 for example tackles racism and profiling against black people in a surprisingly frank and understanding way. The end of this episode leaves the black character, Jim, still distrustful of law enforcement despite Mako’s efforts to help him. He ends up leaving Japan on a ship to escape unfair targeting, with the implied lesson being that there’s no easy fix for systemic racial biases. The episode doesn’t always handle its subject matter with 100% sensitivity, but still, it’s impressively nuanced for this time period in Japan. Interesting fact, though: in the Italian version of this episode, the ending was heavily recut and rewritten to have Jim say he’s going to stay and explain himself to the police, taking away that nuance from the original ending. This and a few other heavily censored episodes, such as episode 13, the date with Mako’s dad, resulted in a lot of controversy around the series in Italy. 

Another strong story is episode 32, which legitimately made me cry. It features a heroic St. Bernard named Lulu who fights to protect her blind owner from an abusive father. It ends with Lulu saving both her owner and the father from a blazing house fire, softening the father’s heart. However, Lulu gets severely burned in the process and can barely breathe by the time they escape, getting to lick her owner’s face one last time before dying in her arms. Admittedly this edges a bit into tragedy porn territory, like a lot of other melodramatic 70s and 80s shoujo anime, but damned if it isn’t still effective. Godspeed you, good pupper.

Even the main series plot starts to build to something halfway compelling towards the end of the series. By episode 41, we find out two years have passed since Mako originally saved Akira from the shipwreck. In that time, he’s become more to her than just a pretty face she pulled out of the ocean. He’s not always around due to various temp jobs taking him in and out of town, but he and Mako have seen each other enough to have built a genuine connection by this point. Akira even seems to be on the verge of figuring out Mako’s true identity. During another near-drowning incident in this episode, Mako parts the sea like Moses and freezes time to save Akira again, and as he swims toward shore he sees her at first as a mermaid and then as human. Neeeeeat.

In the next episode, Akira confronts Mako directly about her being the mermaid who saved him. The two finally get together in a beautiful little scene in a cruise ship ballroom, and Mako even gets a blessing from her father on the new relationship afterward. All seems well… until the sea suddenly erupts in lava and fire. While all this has been going on, the gods have become angry with Mako’s father for not bringing her back to the ocean in all this time. Her father knew that he would be punished if he blessed her relationship with a human but he did it anyway, falling into darkness as the sea without its king turns to chaos. Mako realizes what’s going on and calls out to the gods, telling them that she’s prepared to become a mermaid again if it will save her father and everyone else. She jumps off the ship fully ready to sacrifice her love and her humanity… and is brought back up by the gods, who have saved both Mako and her father after being touched by her sacrifice. Her father takes on his dragon form and quells the raging seas once more in a totally badass ending. This is, straight-up, a striking and memorable episode deserving of praise. This is one of the episodes worked on most heavily by Shingo Araki, and even this early in his career, his skill really shows. Some of these shots of waves rising and crashing over the cruise ship and volcanoes erupting are really impressive, and the compositions throughout help sell both the tender moments and apocalyptic drama.

The series finale, episode 48, is a mix of some of the awkwardness that characterizes the series as a whole and the more compelling artistic and emotional stuff. It starts at a speedway where Akira is working as a racer. He and Mako have been a couple for a little while now and… she’s not happy. The fact that Akira left to become a racer so soon after they got together isn’t sitting well with her and they fight about it, leaving Mako in tears. This leads up to a scene where Akira gets severely injured and left on the brink of death, and Mako risks losing him forever after having just fought with him. And this horrible tragic injury of course happens because… of a drunk gorilla from a nearby zoo that Banchou gave beer to. Not because of a tragic crash on the speedway? No? You don’t want to use the obvious dangerous and ironic thing you clearly set up? You really want to go with the drunk gorilla angle? O-okay, sure. 

Anyway, Mako goes to her father and pleads with him to save Akira, but he refuses, claiming he doesn’t want to intervene in matters of human life and death. To prove her love for Akira, Mako dives deep into the sea, so deep she’ll surely die. The deeper she goes, the more it rips her apart, yet she stays strong and… her spirit is able to contact Akira’s, probably because they’re now both on the brink of death. Their souls float together through an ethereal space filled with light and bubbles, and Akira asks: [clip from the show –  Akira: “Who are you? A mermaid? A human?” Mako: “I’m Mako: a human born from bubbles and who will return to bubbles for the sake of loving you.”] Mako’s father starts going to rescue her, but is stopped by Grandma Sea Witch, who tells him he should save them both if he’s going to save her. He yells that he won’t save a human but he will save his daughter. Grandma Sea Witch flat-out tells him that she’s not his daughter anymore. Through this act of love and sacrifice, Mako has become truly human, no longer a daughter of the ocean. If he is going to save one human, he would be a hypocrite not to save both of them. Her father relents and does exactly that, bringing Mako back up out of the sea and onto the beach where she first washed up in episode 1. After recovering in the hospital with Akira (and discovering that they can talk to each other telepathically now I guess???) Akira decides to settle on one career finally: a sailor like his father. Mako gives him her magic pendant, saying that it is very important to her, but that she no longer needs it. She tells him to return it to the ocean, which he does. Now the pendant is gone. Her life in the sea is truly gone, and she no longer needs to rely on her father to live her life. The end.

So yeah! That was Mahou no Mako-chan. As I’ve said throughout, it’s far from a perfect series, and oftentimes a downright ridiculous one, but it’s stuff like this ending that shows there is some heart buried in the depths of its confused production. In a way, the awkwardness of Mako-chan as a show kind of makes it the perfect awkward teen narrative: a young girl goes from the relative safety of her family’s world out into the big, scary outside, discovering both harsh truths and deep love along the way. Sometimes she falls back on the help of her parents and regresses to childlike impulses, but in the end, through her own sacrifices and strength of spirit, she becomes independent in the new life she has built for herself and her loved ones. She is now ready to more fully build her own identity heading into adulthood, as the magical girl genre itself will start doing after this. 

And I do mean the magical girl genre is heading into literal adulthood. And… then it goes back to babyhood? Fetus-hood even?? Also hey! Let’s throw in some ninja shenanigans while we’re at it, shall we? Because next time on Mahou Profile, we’ll be discussing two shows: the first non-Toei magical girl series, Marvelous Melmo, and the dubiously magical ninja comedy, Sarutobi Ecchan. This should be an interesting double-header, and I hope you’ll look forward to it. See you all then~!