The Magic Girls of Manga

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One of the more popular genres of manga is what I refer to as the “magic girl” subgenre of shojo, or “girl’s manga”. This genre always features a young girl, aged somewhere between fourteen and sixteen, who suddenly learns that she is the “chosen one” with magical powers who has to save the world, be it our world or another. She’s always cute, spunky, brave and often impulsive, though she may not be aware of all of these qualities.
While she sometimes discovers that magic and mythological creatures are real and exist in this era (such as in “Crescent Moon” or “Ceres: Celestial Legend”), she more often finds herself drawn into the past or in a fantasy world that is almost identical to a past era of this one (examples of these are, respectively “Inu Yasha” and “Fushigi Yugi,” possibly the best known examples of this subgenre). Always, always, this girl is the only one who can fulfil a certain role and she quickly acquires at least one - but usually several - cute guys who, no matter how much they might bicker with her, are wrapped around her finger by the end of the first volume.
What, then, is it about this relatively formulaic genre that seems to be so endlessly popular?

The most obvious appeal to these books is wish fulfilment. The main target audience for these books are adolescent and teenaged girls. In this genre of manga, you have an adolescent girl being thrust head first into a fairy tale—both the, dark, original versions and the Disney version where the darker endings and storylines are swept away, just like the pure, innocent girl is swept away by the handsome prince into life of (we assume) luxury and happily ever after. A second aspect is what could be called the “Buffy Syndrome.” In Joss Whedon’s “Buffy: The Vampire Slayer” there is a famous episode in which Buff sleeps with her boyfriend, Angel. Unfortunately, Angel is a vampire with a soul, but loses his soul when he experiences a moment of perfect happiness with Buffy. Buffy goes to bed with her boyfriend and wakes up with a bloodsucking monster who sets out to kill everyone she cares about. This episode resulted in Joss Whedon receiving hundreds of letters from teenaged girls claiming that the exact same thing had happened to them. Did they wake up one morning next to a vampire? No. But they did give a boy what he wanted, only to have him become a complete jerk once he had it. In many ways, “magic girl” manga operates on the same level, only instead of making reality even more brutal, it makes it magical.

As teenagers, we start to become aware of the future in terms reality, as opposed to the abstract games we play with our friends and siblings as young children. Marriage, college, work, moving out of our parents house… even if we aren’t consciously aware of it, these things become a threat to our safety zone. And, even as we rush to what we think of as being freedom from our parents and childhoods, we’re also aware that we’re rapidly approaching a new “world” that nothing can truly prepare us for. Now, take the same teenager who’s just starting to have reality crash down on her and replace graduation, apartment hunting, job hunting, marriage, college and other “adult” things with a fairy tale world, cute guys, prophecies foretelling her coming, adventure…you get the point. By transporting her to another world, control of her life is also taken from the girl, much like teenagers feel their parents control their lives, but a quest is given to her, that, upon fulfillment, can return her to reality, returning control to her.

In my first Lowdown article, I referred to the incredible energy that can be found in manga, and much of it can be found in this genre. Most of the writers and artists of this genre of manga are female and many of them, such as the extremely prolific Yu Watase, began their careers young. When dealing with fantasy, the girl who’s lucky to have one boy who likes her can suddenly have boys falling at her feet and the girl who can barely pass her classes and never says the right thing can be smart and clever in her new world. Wishful thinking? Massive makeover? Well, yes, it is fantasy after all. Specifically, fantasy for teenaged girls.

A quick example of a couple of books of this genre:

Inu Yasha: Quite possibly one of my favorite comics, manga or American. This is the story of Kagome, a young girl who travels back to the Warring States era of Japan and learns that she is the reincarnation of a priestess, Kikyo, who died fifty years earlier. There, she encounters Inu Yasha, a half demon who had loved Kikyo but had been killed by her due to the deceits of a demon, Naraku, who desired Kikyo. The two set out on a quest to gather the shards of the Shikon Jewel, which increases the power of any demon to possess it. Along the way, Kikyo is resurrected as a physical shell with the power, memories and hatred of her original life, but not her soul, Naraku returns and Kagome and Inu Yasha gather others whose lives have been destroyed by Naraku. There are many things about this book that contribute to its widespread popularity, but addressing all of them would take up far too much space, so I’ll only address one. The first is that Kagome is quite frankly one of the smartest heroines I’ve encountered in a manga, and more often than not, it’s her brains, not Inu Yasha’s strength, that wins the day, even though it’s often her telling Inu Yasha how to win. She is also able to look at Inu Yasha’s relationship with her, and his relationship with Kikyo, with more maturity than most adults.

Red River: This is the story of Yuri, a young girl with her first crush who is yanked into ancient Turkey by an evil queen and sorceress and finds herself a concubine (so far in name only) to the queen’s stepson, Prince Kail. A more brutal and frank example of this genre, Yuri is offered few fantasy protections of the realities of the 12th century BC. People, including children, are tortured and killed, and injuries are sustained that don’t magically heal overnight. As opposed to the typical shojo boy, who will come on relatively strong and try to sneak a peek, Kail is blatantly sexual and only withholds himself because Yuri insists she loves someone else, though he never hesitates to take advantage of any opportunity that is offered. The irony of this is that Yuri’s usefulness to the queen is determined by her virginity…were she to accept Kail, her life would be safe and her journey home would be made that much easier.

A few others to watch for are: “Fushigi Yugi,” “Ceres: Celestial Legend,” “The Queen’s Knight,” “From Far Away,” “Crescent Moon,” and “Alice 19th.”

- Megan B. Moore

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