[The following is a transcript of episode 1 of the Mahou Profile series, viewable on YouTube here.]
Welcome one and all to the first official episode of Mahou Profile: A History of Magical Girls! My name is ErynCerise, and before we do anything else today: let’s break down the term “mahou shoujo”.
Roughly speaking, “mahou” means “magic” or “sorcery”, and “shoujo” means “young girl”. “Magic”. “Girl”. Magical girl. Pretty simple.
Here’s where it gets interesting though. We can break “mahou” down further by looking at the kanji that form the word. The first kanji, read as “ma”, carries a meaning of “demon”, “evil spirit”, or “evil influence”.1 The second kanji, read as “hou”, means “law”, “act”, “method”, or “principle”.2 So the roots of the word “mahou” are literally something along the lines of “demon’s methods” or “demon’s laws”.
Of course, the full word “mahou” has little to no negative connotation in modern usage. Its use in the titles of countless books, movies, and TV series for children makes that pretty clear. However, it’s worth keeping in mind that that association with demons is always there, lurking down in the root of the word.
It’s especially interesting considering that possibly one of the first magical girls in the history of Japanese animation is literally a demon.
Hakujaden, a.k.a. Tale of the White Serpent was the first full-colour Japanese animated feature film.3 And it has not one, but two magical girls! The main one is the white serpent of the title, Bai-Niang. At the start of the tale, Bai-Niang is the pet of a young boy and the two are very close. However, they’re soon forced apart by adults who cannot accept a boy being friends with a serpent. (Such judgment!) They bid their goodbyes, and many years pass. Eventually, a great storm appears, and in it, Bai-Niang transforms into a young woman, revealing that she is not simply a serpent, but a spirit with a wide range of supernatural abilities, including teleportation, vanishing, matter creation, telekinesis, pyrokinesis, and flying in a fittingly snake-y kind of way. [clip: Vihart, “Snake snake snake”4] After her transformation, Bai-Niang goes looking for the boy she met all those years ago, but along the way, she’s deterred by a demon hating monk who wishes to destroy her. Oo, exciting!
The second girl is Bai-Niang’s fish-demon-turned-ladyservant Xiaoqing, who can, uh… well… look cute as a button? …Okay, Xiaoqing can’t actually do much magic herself, or if she can, she doesn’t show it. But she does fly away with Bai-Niang once, she changes back and forth between fish and human a couple times, and she helps a giant catfish cause a storm to save her mistress, which ends up almost getting everyone killed instead, but y’know, these things happen. It’s okay. It’s fine, you tried.
Anyway, despite its pedigree, Tale of the White Serpent is not generally considered a magical girl anime. Now why is that? Well, one reason might be because this movie predates what many consider “anime anime”, if that makes sense. Japanese animation goes back at least as far as the early 1900’s, the earliest of which is arguably… and I stress the “arguably” here, because there’s a lot of contention about what counts as the earliest and if it matters whether it was publicly exhibited or not, and the lack of clear records is kind of a problem too, soooo…5 [On-screen text: “SIDE NOTE: ‘Namakura Gatana’ is another work commonly cited as the earliest surviving Japanese animation, since it is known to have premiered for an audience on June 30, 1917.”6] Er, anyway, arguably the earliest surviving example is a short filmstrip from 1907 called “Katsudou Shashin”, or “Moving Pictures”.7 [full short: “Katsudou Shashin”8] There it is. You just saw it. You just saw the oldest anime. [repeat full short: “Katsudou Shashin”] Look, now you’ve seen it twice. Neato!
Anyway, animation in Japan continued being developed throughout the early part of the 20th century, a lot of it produced as propaganda during World War II.9 However, this stuff is often considered to be pre-modern Japanese animation, not quite the same “anime” as most would recognize it today. Many scholars consider the first work of modern anime—or at least the work associated with the first modern explosion of anime—to be 1963’s Tetsuwan Atomu, a.k.a. Astro Boy, the first widely popular Japanese animated TV series.10 Created by the legendary “god of manga” Osamu Tezuka, Astro Boy laid the groundwork for the aesthetic of most major anime to follow, with its big eyes, simplified character designs, and limited animation techniques.
By contrast, Tale of the White Serpent was released to Japanese theatres in 1958, about five years before Astro Boy. It’s pretty clear that the visual style shares little in common with the simple, doe-eyed designs of Tezuka. In fact, it’s surprisingly detailed and fluid for the time, with the entire film having a kind of languid, dream-like quality, befitting the folktale origins of the story. A lot of effort went into this one, and it shows. The production studio, Toei Doga, later known as Toei Animation, used state-of-the-art cel animation equipment and techniques similar to those in use at Disney at the time to create the film’s lush, layered look. Indeed, it’s said that the president of Toei, Hiroshi Okawa, seen here narrating the film’s trailer, wanted Toei to become the “Disney of the East” as it were.11 [clip of Okawa speaking in a loud monotone] …Yeah, can’t imagine why this fountain of personality couldn’t get more people on board with that. Toei’s low wages for animators probably didn’t help either.12
Still, nerdy animation history aside, I think there’s a bigger reason why White Serpent doesn’t count as the first magical girl anime, at least for our purposes. And that’s because… it is kind of questionable whether this is Bai-Niang’s story or not. Despite her being the title character and also clearly the most driven character, going through the most harrowing story events and personal sacrifices to achieve her goal, she gets I think barely more screen time than the various goofy animal characters, whose point in the story is… something? Yeeeeah it’s kinda telling that the film’s title in North America was Panda and the Magic Serpent. The dang panda got top billing. The panda! Come on!
Still, yeah, Bai-Niang really doesn’t carry enough of the film on her own to be called its undisputed protagonist. So by the criteria I set out in the introduction of this series, we can’t really consider this a full-blown magical girl story. Still totally worth picking up as a piece of anime history, though. The Panda and the Magic Serpent version is available on region 1 DVD for about $15 on Amazon as of this recording.13 Its influence is immense, and we’ll be talking about that influence in more detail in future episodes.
Another influential magical girl prototype it kills me not to include in the main series is Princess Sapphire, the protagonist of another Osamu Tezuka series, Ribon no Kishi, a.k.a. Princess Knight. In this story, an angel named Tink (or Choppy in the English dubbed version) bestows a newborn baby girl with two hearts—a girl’s heart and a boy’s heart. This baby just happens to be the daughter of a King and Queen in a kingdom where women are forbidden from inheriting the throne. To prevent the kingdom from being taken over by an evil duke, the King and Queen announce their new baby, Sapphire, is a prince and then raise her for the next 12 years as a boy, with only a handful of attendants knowing Sapphire’s true gender and sex. Tink eventually finds Sapphire again and tries to convince her to let him take back the boy’s heart he gave her, but she refuses. Tink just kind of goes with this despite his protests, and from there the series follows the two of them as they work to thwart the evil Duke’s attempts to expose Sapphire as a girl. Also the Devil and his daughter show up occasionally. Because sure, why not.
Debuting as a manga written and drawn by Tezuka in 1953 and getting adapted into anime in 1967, Princess Knight is often held up as one of the grandmamas of all girls’ manga and anime, and for good reason.14 Its focus on the gender-bending antics and fighting spirit of Princess Sapphire would be a huge influence on loads of other anime and manga aimed at girls and women in the decades that followed, especially ones that also played heavily with gender such as The Rose of Versailles and Revolutionary Girl Utena. Sapphire even has several hallmarks that we tend to associate with modern magical girls — she has a secret identity to hide, a tiny magic sidekick, a fabulous floofy costume, a cool weapon, and, of course, she’s royalty. The ultimate fantasy prince/princess, am I right?
There’s just one problem you may have noticed, and that’s… that Sapphire doesn’t have magic powers. Kind of hard to be a magical girl if you don’t have magic. I mean, she does have that literal extra heart, but that’s effectively just a hella cool mutation, magic origins or not. Aside from that, Sapphire is just a regular human being with awesome fighting skills. The only magic in the series is performed by other characters, and the only major female characters that do so are the daughter of the devil, Hecate, and her mother the Grand Witch Hel, both of whom have those demonic connections we touched on earlier. Of note, though: in the anime, these two and the Devil Mephisto eventually end up being sympathetic characters who, while not always on the side of good, still care about family and ultimately achieve some great good because of it. Compare that to the completely human Duke Duralamin who, while he has his sympathetic moments, is pretty much evil to the end. Hmm. Food for thought.
Anyway, the point of that whole tangent is that as influential a character as Sapphire is, I unfortunately cannot count Princess Knight under our magical girl banner. Again though, well worth experiencing at least a bit of the series if you can. By a current understanding of gender, admittedly it can get a bit uncomfortable, because despite defying some gender expectations of the time, it’s still very gender essentialist in other ways. However, if you look at it as a product of its time with the understanding that it does get some things wrong, I think it can still be appreciated for what it was trying to do, and it’s still a fun romp for people of all ages.
Both volumes of the manga15 and its sequel The Twin Knights16 are available from Vertical in both paperback and Kindle versions, and the original dub of the anime is available from Nozomi Entertainment, the first two episodes of which are free to watch on their YouTube channel.17 Sadly the original Japanese version of the anime isn’t officially available for western audiences yet, though hopefully that will come with time.
In any case, the first true magical girl anime—featuring a girl with magic powers who is absolutely the main character of her own story—wouldn’t come until several years after the Princess Knight manga. And we’ll cover that next time when we talk about the one, the only, the first of her animated kind: Sally the Witch.