Idle Observations about Japanese Pop Fiction
Earlier this summer I watched an anime called Magical Girl Raising Project (魔法少女育成計画), mostly because I'm fond of the studio, Lerche, that produced it. Magical Girl Raising Project is an adaptation of a novel series by Endou Asari, an author I had previously never heard of and who as far as I can find has not published anything else. (The author is, in fact, so obscure as to not even have a Wikipedia page in either English or Japanese). The "magical girl" anime sub-genre after which Endou's work is named tends to be aimed at elementary- or junior-high-aged girls and focuses on characters of the same demographic gaining magical powers and fighting your standard supervillain-type figures. It's not a genre I'm especially familiar with beyond the various tropes and cliches that are often parodied (in anime such as Mahou Shoujo Ore or Carnival Phantasm) or deconstructed (in anime such as Puella Magi Madoka Magica or Fate/Kaleid Liner Prisma Illya), but it's a popular enough genre that it would be hard to spend a significant amount of time around Japanese popular culture without running into it on occasion. The sheer popularity of older magical girl anime such as Sailor Moon is hard to miss, and Urobuchi Gen's brilliant deconstruction of the genre in Madoka (which also happens to be a modern retelling of Faust) has given magical girl anime a good deal of exposure beyond its typical market.
I went into Magical Girl Raising Project expecting a deconstructive work in the vein of Madoka--partially due to a set of superficial similarities to the detective fiction/death game/dystopian horror hybrid that is Danganronpa--but I was surprised to find that for all its darkness and gore, Endou's work is, at its core, a traditional magical girl anime. The anime's opening monologue--which is also repeated in the final episode--features the protagonist reflecting on how she loves magical girl stories, but how as she got older her friends grew out of them and she had fewer and fewer people to talk with about the genre of entertainment she enjoyed. This monologue is quickly forgotten as the show goes on, but it contains the entire conceit of the show: this is a magical girl anime for an older audience, and the show delivers on that promise perfectly.
...Unfortunately, that comes at the expense of some really intriguing potential.
I Don't Want to Call This a Danganronpa Rip-Off, But...
The premise of Magical Girl Raising Project is that there is a popular magical-girl-themed phone game, and some of its players are selected to become real-life magical girls in order to help people. The protagonist is, of course, selected, and she then spends her time helping cats out of trees and walking elderly people across the street, all while earning a sort of vague virtual currency in the process. A little while later, we learn that sixteen people have been selected to become magical girls, but the administrator of the system informs the magical girls that his superiors have decided there are too many magical girls in the area, and that their number needs to be halved. Whichever one has the least virtual currency at the end of each week will lose the ability to be a magical girl, until only eight are remaining. At the end of the first week, one of the characters loses, and it is revealed (unsurprisingly) that losing the granted powers results in death. In typical death game fashion, this rapidly spirals into characters murdering each other, either directly or by manipulating the rules of the game.
Anyone who has played the Danganronpa games is likely to notice a few eerie similarities. The number of participants in the death game--sixteen--is the same. The fact that one of the sixteen participants controls the administrator and in fact created the game is the same. Even the designs of the administrators of the two death games are almost identical, with their bodies split down the middle by a line that divides them into a black half and a white half, with one red eye and one black eye. The administrator, who is referred to as Fav, has much more in common with Danganronpa's Monokuma than with Madoka's antagonist, Kyubey. The similarities between Magical Girl Raising Project and Danganronpa are so pronounced that they almost have to be intentional, but after finishing the anime I honestly don't know what that parallel is meant to convey. An intentionally-used allusion to another work can be quite effective, but Magical Girl Raising Project's is not.
My issue with the Danganronpa parallels extends throughout the whole show. There are several aspects of Magical Girl Raising Project that seem like they could have some deeper significance, but none of them are explored in any meaningful way. Take, for example, the diverse backgrounds of the anime's characters. One particularly interesting component of the death game is that anyone can become a magical girl regardless of age or gender, and when they transform into their magical girl outfits (in typical magical girl transformation montage fashion), their physical appearances change as well, such that they look like a 14-ish-year-old girl regardless of who they may actually be. The anime uses this flexibility quite a bit in order to introduce a cast with a surprising degree of variety for an anime of this genre--you have an alcoholic older woman going through a divorce, a young wife about to have a child, and so on. Frustratingly, this variety is not utilized much at all. We get hints here and there at how each character's background influences his or her behavior, but it's often only a brief vignette before a character is killed off.
The most irritating example of this is Magicaloid 44. She's initially portrayed as a manipulative antagonist figure, but about halfway through the show we're given tantalizing hint of the reasons behind her behavior--we learn that she's a homeless teenage girl, and that she ran away from a toxic home environment--but then she's promptly, ignominiously killed off right as she starts to grow into a meaningful and interesting character. The only character who gets a significant level of attention is the protagonist, Snow White, but she's also the only character who perfectly fits the magical girl stereotype, which means she's easily the least intriguing member of the cast. Magical Girl Raising Project has plenty of interesting characters, but their backgrounds end up being largely irrelevant. Few of the characters receive any sort of resolution to their story arcs, which is normal for death game stories but is unsettling here because because what we do see of their characters is interesting enough to leave the viewer wanting more. Had Magical Girl Raising Project left its non-central characters flat--like the early Danganronpa games do--then the wasted potential wouldn't be nearly as bothersome. On the other hand, Danganronpa V3 does an excellent job of ensuring most of its characters have meaningful character arcs and providing necessary resolution for the more-developed characters who die early, though it is a long game and Magical Girl Raising Project would struggle to accomplish the same thing in its twelve episodes even if it tried. Magical Girl Raising Project has the beginnings of strong character stories, but not the endings, which leaves an unsatisfying taste in the viewer's mouth with each death.
The anime has the same problem with its thematic ideas. The shapeshifting magical girls concept seems to be a stand-in for avatars and usernames in online games and chat fora, especially considering the characters use their phones to catalyze the transformation and they actually do have an online chat forum they use to communicate. I kept expecting this parallel to be referenced--or at least used in some pointed or thematically-interesting way--but it never was. As with the diverse backgrounds of the show's characters, symbolic ideas such as this are largely underutilized. There's no social commentary, and little in the way of genre deconstruction. There's a lot of potential for that, and there are plenty of interesting ideas, but it all adds up to a whole lot of nothing.
But Does it Matter?
As a intellectually or artistically interesting deconstruction of the magical girl genre, Magical Girl Raising Project fails on all counts. The catch, though, is that the anime was never trying to be that. As the anime tells us at the beginning and reminds us at the end, Magical Girl Raising Project is nothing more than a magical girl story that can appeal to an older audience. On that count, at least, it's completely successful--while the plot may not be especially cohesive, it is quick and engaging, and it also hits the typical magical girl notes, complete with a relatively happy ending where the antagonist is defeated and the heroine continues to help people long afterwards. It is strictly meant to entertain, and it has a clear concept of the demographic it is appealing to and what it wants to accomplish. Magical Girl Raising Project sets a low goal for itself, but it certainly does hit that goal, which results in the odd impression that the anime is simultaneously completely successful and highly disappointing. It could have been a lot more, but it didn't want to be, and so it wasn't.
In some respects the anime's limited aspirations help to set it apart from Puella Magi Madoka Magica. Urobuchi's deconstruction of the magical girl genre is a tough act to follow, but Magical Girl Raising Project isn't really competing. Perhaps it's unfair to criticize Magical Girl Raising Project for weaknesses that fall outside of the anime's goal--and it was fun to watch--but the hints of potential make it tough to accept the anime's insistence that it's just meant to entertain.
A Japanese Lit major and aspiring game designer with a passion for storytelling and music composition