Magical girl is one of the more popular genres of anime. Aimed primarily at a young, female audience, almost every show is about teenage girls saving the world. With the popularity of male-led superheroes in the west, like the Avengers or Justice League, what the world needs more of is groups of young women who could easily beat those groups in a fight.
While you may have seen Sailor Moon, or the significantly less light-and-fluffy Puella Mahou Madoka Magica, this list is designed to show that there’s more to this genre than immediately meets the eye, and provide you with a mix of fun and entertaining good-versus-evil stories where the good girls always save the world, and shows that tread the darker side of superheroine adventures, and suggest where to look next if you like what you’ve been watching.
This show was dubbed into English and had most of the plot changed or removed entirely to create the show Cardcaptors. What I’m writing about here though, is the original, Cardcaptor Sakura. Based on a series of manga from the 90s, it is rumoured to be about to make a comeback with Cardcaptor Clear Card in the near future.
The series follows a girl called Sakura who accidentally unleashes magical cards on Tokyo. She then spends the series recapturing these cards and making them her own. Each card controls an element or idea, like flying or fire, and once Sakura has captured it, she can use it as she wishes, usually to help her capture later, harder cards. There is no transformation scene, as Sakura is not technically a magical girl, she is simply a girl who uses magical cards, so her costumes are designed by her friend, and have a lot of variety to them.
The art is graceful, the music is fun, and the characters are likable.
Futari wa Pretty Cure
Pretty Cure is massive, and a few of the shows have been translated into English and renamed (like Glitter Force, which is actually called Smile PreCure! in Japan), while Cure Magical and Cure Miracle from the recent series Mahou Tsukai PreCure have been selected among Tokyo 2020’s Olympic ambassadors.
It could easily be said, then, that Pretty Cure has a proud heritage. The original series that started it all, Futari wa Pretty Cure, is an excellent beginning to a whole dynasty of PreCure shows which will keep you entertained for months, and is also my personal favourite, for the animation on the ending theme and one of the villains, Pisard, alone. Futari wa Pretty Cure follows the adventures of a duo of magical girls, Cure Black and Cure White, as they face off against some of anime’s most entertaining bad guys.
Magical Girl Raising Project
This show, based on a series of light novels, originally aired in winter 2016, making it one of the newest shows on this list. While everyone was talking about Yuri On Ice!!, MagiPro snuck in through the back door.
In MagiPro, there is a very popular MMO, where, rumour has it, one in one hundred-thousand players gets to become a magical girl in real life. The show demonstrates its brutal nature from the opening scene of the first episode, where magical girl Cranberry is seen covered in blood and surrounded by corpses.
The city has more magical girls than it can support. Cute mascot character Fav cheerfully informs the lucky players chosen to be magical girls. This means that every week the number of virtual sweets they have been awarded for good deeds will be tallied up, and whoever is in last place will be deleted until there are few enough that the city can support them. By deleted, of course, he means killed in the real world. What follows is a twelve-week long contest, as the characters strive to not be eliminated, or to protect those they care about. There are various rule-changes designed to increase the amount of backstabbing and in-fighting, until eventually one magical girl stands victorious.
If you enjoyed Puella Mahou Madoka Magica for its darker nature, you will enjoy MagiPro.
Yuki Yuna is a Hero
Based on a series of light novels, Yuka Yuna is one of the darker shows, but it achieves this darkness with a lot of build-up. I’m not spoiling anything past the first episode of a show here, so I won’t tell you what that dark plot point is, but it is a significant one.
Yuki Yuna is a Hero follows the girls of their school’s Hero Club, a group established purely to find suitable magical girl candidates. They are one of many Hero Clubs across the country, and only their leader knows their true purpose. This club spends most of their time performing acts of kindness and helpfulness around their town; things like re-housing kittens, entertaining small children and cleaning up a beach, and once they have been tapped, these acts do not stop, but instead become an activity they perform alongside repeatedly saving the city. They are nice to everyone.
When they must save the world from monsters known as ‘vertexes,’ time freezes for everyone else, and they find themselves in weird, crazy alternate worlds. There are 12 vertexes, each corresponding to a different zodiac sign that the girls must defeat. The team themselves have a flower theme, and this theme is echoed by various characters who know what is going on, as they talk about what the girls need to do.
This show is also unique in that one of the characters starts out the series as a person with disabilities in a wheelchair and her costume supports this, but does not remove her disability after she transforms, thus being no obstacle to saving the world.
Uta Kata is an unusual magical girl show from 2004. Instead of saving the world, our heroine, Ichika completes more everyday tasks.
It all began when she was helping to clean her classroom and left something behind. There was a mirror in the room, that a girl from another world, Manatsu, stepped through to join her as she returned to get her lost item. Manatsu was a schoolgirl from a world where magic was common and didn’t want to do her summer homework, basically writing about what she did over the summer, so she outsourced this to Ichika. To enable Ichika to convincingly write about her adventures, she gave the girl a charm that unlocked the powers of various djinn, then stood back to watch what happened next. Since Ichika’s world isn’t in danger from otherworldly forces or other magical girls, she spends her time helping people with more mundane problems.
The show never actually tells you what grade Manaku got for this assignment, which is the main drawback of this short feel-good show.
Cute High Earth Defence Club Love!
Not all magical girls are girls, though. This is seen throughout Cute High Earth Defence Club!, as the most popular and common tropes of the magical girl genre (yes, including the frilly outfits) are applied to boys. The boys of Cute High Earth Defence Club Love! have been selected due to a misunderstanding. They formed a school club, the Defence Club, with the main objective of having a “do nothing in particular” club, and an alien being completely misunderstood and thought the boys actually wanted to defend their school and city. The show is intended to be a comedy series, though, and a send-up of everything we have come to expect from a magical girl show, the only difference being that every personality trait of the characters, and every cute frilly costume, is applied to a boy instead of a girl.
Sailor Moon Crystal
The queen of all magical girl shows, and the one that properly introduced the genre to the west and started many an anime fandom, Sailor Moon, is being remade for the modern era. This series retells the story of the iconic Moon Princess and her team, with an updated animation style and the addition of modern technology like phones and laptops. Crystal is also far closer to the manga it was based on than the original.
Gone is all the filler they put in as they waited for the manga to catch up back in the 90s, as the entire story has already been told in manga form. Since they’re not letting 4Kids dub it this time around, the relationship between Sailor Neptune and Sailor Uranus is as it should be; they are a couple and not “cousins” once more. What follows is a sharper, if lower-budget, retelling of the story of Sailor Moon, reimagined for those too young to have seen it the first-time round. This is an ideal place for newcomers to this genre of anime to begin.
Sailor Moon Crystal has so far produced three seasons, with a fourth rumoured to begin later this year