Producer: Seven Arcs
Director: Akiyuki Shinbo
Writer: Masaki Tsuzuki
Starring: Christina Vee, Jennifer Alyx, Marianne Miller, Lauren Landa
Distributor: Geneon Entertainment
Genre: Magical Girl
First released in 2004, Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha has become a well-known name among magical girl aficionados. Like most shows of this genre, the series follows a young girl who is bestowed with otherworldly powers.
Nanoha Takamachi is a normal, third-grade student who finds a wounded ferret while walking home with her friends. Little does she know, this ferret is actually Yuuno Scrya, an archaeologist from another world who is hunting down the lost Jewel Seeds. Injured and unable to defend himself, Yuuno bestows the Raising Heart upon Nanoha, allowing her to transform into a magical girl and recapture the Jewel Seeds on his behalf.
Nanoha soon finds herself in a competition with Fate Testarossa, a rival magical girl who is seeking the Jewel Seeds for her own purposes. As the two continue to clash, Nanoha finds herself more than a little intrigued by this mysterious foe as the two girls become embroiled in a universal conflict much larger than they could ever imagine.
Spiritual Content: As suggested by the title, this series does contain magic, though it is entirely of the fictional, fantastical kind. Most of the characters use a tool of some sort to cast magic (Nanoha has the Raising Heart while Fate has Bardiche, for example), but there are instances where no notable tool is used (such as when Yuno puts up barriers). In the instances where tools are used, the magic appears to be a mixture of technology and mystic power, specifically because the tools change form depending on what is being asked of them, and they perform spells as if executing a program. Nevertheless, magic is presented in the series as being an innate power that is stronger in some than in others, so its exact nature is a bit of a mystery.
Language/Crude Humor: 1 “d*mn” (based on the English dub)
Alcohol/Drug Use: None
Sexual Content: Some viewers may take issue with Nanoha’s transformation sequences, as the characters are all prepubescent elementary school girls. When Nanoha transforms, she is completely naked, though the detail is Barbie doll-level. Arf’s outfit shows off her ample cleavage. There appear to be two very brief panty shots of Nanoha in the first episode and in the ninth episode. In Episode 11, Fate is briefly shown naked (again, Barbie doll-level) and another girl is shown naked, but as she is curled into a ball, nothing inappropriate can be seen.
Violence: Nanoha engages in combat in pretty much every episode. Most of the violence consists of characters being hit by magical blasts, although there are some scenes where physical violence is used. The explosions are bigger and the hits are harder than your typical magical girl fare. At times, characters come away from fights looking quite beaten up. There are also scenes of child abuse, such as when Fate is being whipped repeatedly by her mother as punishment for not bringing all of the Jewel Seeds. While not gratuitous, several scenes throughout the series feature blood. The beginning of episode 1 shows Yuno and the Jewel Seed beast that she is fighting both bleeding. Precia is shown coughing up blood several times, Arf is wounded and clearly shown bleeding in one episode, and Chrono is shown with blood running down his face. Aside from these telltale patches of red, though, there is no gore to speak of.
Positive Content: Nanoha’s very character is a walking ball of positive content. From the beginning, she is shown to be a helpful person–from the moment she decides to help Yuno “because she wants to,” all the way to the point that she keeps fighting for Fate’s sake. Nanoha puts her very life on the line just for a chance to talk to her rival, Fate, to get to know her, and to help her. In addition, Nanoha shows a strong sense of empathy, as she is able to use her past hurts and loneliness to drive her determination to help Fate.
One thing that sets Nanoha apart from its magical girl counterparts is how lean it is. While many magical girl series of the decade surrounding Nanoha (Sailor Moon, Cardcaptor Sakura, Pretty Cure) feature large episode counts with plenty of stand alone episodes, Nanoha instead focuses on a well-contained, straight-to-the-point plot. Not that the series is lacking in magical girl tropes–the transformation sequence, animal companion, oblivious “muggle” friends, and parents who seem too detached from their daughter’s life are all there–but in this regard, the series focuses less on cute girl antics and more on building its characters and the story. The fight scenes are also considerably more intense; for the most part, Nanoha doesn’t simply whip out her special attack, win the fight, and go home, especially once Fate is introduced. The two girls are evenly matched, and their fights are intense, perhaps lending weight to the claims that this show is aimed towards a male audience for more reasons than just adorable bishojo faces.
While Nanoha does utilize a form of the “monster of the week” trope, this isn’t the sole focus of the series. In other words, unlike most magical girl anime where the weekly monster is a stand alone encounter meant to inflate the episode count or, perhaps, add some small, easily-missable nugget to the overall plotline, Nanoha uses this gimmick mainly as a catalyst to further the drama between the titular character and Fate. While the first few episodes certainly and simply focus on Nanoha collecting the Jewel Seeds, they still provide some background on the character and her world, while also giving her a chance to adapt to her newfound powers. By the fourth episode, we are introduced to the main rival of the series.
Unlike many 12-episode anime, Nanoha’s story doesn’t feel rushed… for the most part. There are a few episodes of “just Nanoha,” where the plot is fairly lighthearted. Then there are a few episodes that introduce Fate as Nanoha’s rival, working to deepen that conflict while spurring Nanoha’s character development and exploring Fate’s backstory. After providing a better understanding of both characters, the larger narrative is introduced, expanding the anime’s universe and giving greater significance to the Jewel Seeds.
Perhaps, the one thing that does feel rushed is the discovery of the final six Jewel Seeds. While Yuno and Nanoha are shown to have been busy in the interim between episodes 8 and 9, this instance doesn’t feel as rushed as it does summary. However, in episode 9, Fate pulls a Hail Mary and attempts to retrieve all six remaining Seeds at once–and they all just happen to have congregated in the same area under the sea. Granted, this leads to a bigger conflict, but it still feels rushed given the rest of the plot’s gradual build-up. It also comes right on the heels of Nanoha joining the Time Space Administration Bureau, causing her disobedience of their orders to have less impact than it could have had we seen her build deeper relationships with these characters.
The show accels in both art and music. While the art style certainly shows its age (pretty much every character has a weird tuft of hair–a popular inclusion of the early 2000’s), the animation isn’t outdated or washed out in comparison to more modern shows (hair tufts aside). The music also aids in setting the tone, especially during the opening monologues. Rather than having an upbeat tune playing underneath Nanoha’s recap of the story, we instead get a low, almost mournful song, which certainly helps the viewer enter the series with a more serious mindset. This is good because, while the series does have some lighthearted moments (such as Nanoha forgetting how to transform early on, or Chrono trying to tame Amy’s wild hair), it does go for a serious tone more often than not. This can be seen when the show tackles topics such as child abuse, accompanied by the denial that abuse victims sometime exhibit when their abusers are targeted. The show doesn’t try to justify this behavior–it is painted as evil and abhorrent–but it takes a more serious and realistic approach, which is quite heavy for a genre that is generally known for its lighthearted fun intended for young girls.
Perhaps the most difficult thing to accept about Nanoha is the maturity granted to the characters. Nanoha is presented as a third-grader, which means she is, at most, 8-9 years old. Several of the other characters are said to be about the same age, including Nanoha’s best friends and classmates, Arisa and Suzuka, as well as her companions, Yuno and Chrono. The amount of reflecting some of these characters give to first-time meetings and current events feels far too mature and advanced for characters of this age. Nanoha is also shown to be quite introspective, wrestling with her own feelings as a mage, particularly in regards to Fate and the fact that the two are enemies. While the general “I don’t want to fight you” mentality is understandable for Nanoha’s age, the depth and maturity of her thought process feels far beyond what one would expect. Add that to the fact that both Nanoha and Chrono are supposedly some of the strongest mages in existence at only 8-9 years old, and that Yuno is a fully-fledged archaeologist in his home world, and it starts to feel like there are too many gifted youngsters in this show.
On top of all of this, we have Nanoha’s conversation with her mother prior to her departure to join the Bureau. Nanoha’s mother simply smiles, accepts what Nanoha has to do, and gives her blessing. This is, perhaps, the one area that totally breaks suspension of disbelief, because what parent is going to happily let their grade school child go off on their own? It would be a bit more believable if Nanoha had transformed in front of her mother (and had Yuno do the same) so that she could explain all of the details. In short, there are scenes that simply challenge the viewer’s ability to suspend their disbelief, despite the already fantastical nature of the show.
While this won’t be an issue for everyone who watches the show, I must at least briefly address the dub, since that is the version I chose to review. Simply put, the dub is an extremely mixed bag. On the one hand, the main cast (Nanoha, Fate, Yuno, and Arf) are all well-voiced, with their actors presenting excellent performances. On the other hand, the supporting cast comes across weak, stiff, and awkward at times.
Overall, these negatives are ultimately nitpicks in the face of an otherwise solid series. If you consider yourself a fan of the magical girl genre and haven’t seen Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha, then you should definitely remedy that, barring any personal reservations about the content concerns. The combination of the show’s art, music, and story make for a truly genre-defining experience.
The Bottom Line
Nanoha is a household name among magical girl fans, and for good reason. With plenty of action, a deep plot, and great artwork, the show is a must-see for anyone claiming to be a fan of the magical girl genre.