Magical girls have long been illustrious in empowering the feminine, and framing fragility as the groundwork for true strength. Sailor Moon may never have become fearless, but she did learn to face the terrors of her world – including death itself – with the resolve to defend her friends and the world she belongs to. But something shifted in the genre’s sparkly heart for the onset of a new beast; the dark magical girl. Instead of warding off fear and conquering evil with love and compassion, a wave of anime like Puella Magi Madoka Magica saw their protagonists consumed by their fear, left helpless by the deep anguish of being a girl on the precipice of puberty. These girls must bear not only the weight of adolescence, but the horror of the darker world they discover while trying to find their place within it.
In a recent discourse for Anime Feminist, Alex Henderson explored the rise of such shows as Magical Girl Raising Project, their dive into destruction for a higher calling sending its deceptive optimism spiralling into despair. Opposing the reception of “stomping on little girls’ dreams” as an intelligent deconstruction of the magical girl, this approach alone is an ideological step down from their parables of love and hope. But avoiding the stream of thought that darkness and horror forfeit intellectual stimuli and the possibility for an uplifting moral, anime following in Madoka Magica’s footsteps, including its own Rebellion sequel film, have misunderstood the significance of the series’ dark heart. Madoka takes the terror of growing up, the scramble to discover your worth before you set out alone, and puts those fears on fast-forward. When Madoka is still finding her footing as a magical girl, she loses her mentor, Mami, who’s killed by a witch before her very eyes. Through primal grief, the show drives home our cluelessness towards what independence entails at that age. Growing up means being held accountable for your own actions, sometimes left with nobody to defend you but yourself. And while Sailor Moon gently presents those ideas to a young audience, for adult viewers, magical girls aren’t about learning that this is the case.
The mature audience for Madoka and her generation of magical girls is still terrified of the realities of being an adult. We know the names of the pains that threaten to make us collapse. Trying our best and meeting with failure, losing loved ones, dreams being unattainable until you’re willing to push yourself beyond fear. It’s important to reflect on the stark suffering of growing up, so we can understand where we came from, and remember what was overcome to make it to adulthood. Commenting on Henderson’s piece, Sim Le makes the point that dark magical girls are “meant to give voice to the multitudes who don’t realize their dreams: who die young or are crippled with physical or mental illness”. It presents these cruelties and truths with the hopeful message that we should take responsibility for our dreams by facing the world as it is and, even knowing its darkness, fight for our place.