It’s been a long time coming, but here we are. The final four. The best of the veritable best.
And, much like Black Rock Shooter, I’m using this to accredit the entire franchise, as opposed to a single specific season. But the praise falls mostly on the span of the final half of Lyrical Nanoha through A’s, for the sticklers. But being such an expansive franchise, it’s hard not to just talk about everything.
Many people credit Madoka Magica as being the quintessential deconstruction of the Magical Girl genre. While it may be the revolutionary deconstruction, its forbearer is this series: Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha (Mahou Shoujo Lyrical Nanoha).
Sure, the themes don’t get AS dark (exactly…it’s hard to judge one tragedy against another), and its structure is not nearly as theatric as the Faustian elements that permeate Madoka. On the whole the Lyrical Nanoha series is still an upbeat one.
But I rather liken Nanoha to the works of Alfred Hitchcock. Hitchcock, if you can’t put a face to the name, is of course the father of suspense and thriller film. The Birds, Psycho, his resume is impressive indeed. But one thing he did that almost no horror/mystery/suspense directors do, is he played very strictly “by the rules”. He rarely pushed the boundaries, which is probably part of why he became such a sensation. He rarely went for “shock value”, instead relying on cleverness and storytelling to illicit your reactions to his works.
Nanoha is similar in the regard that it plays by many of the traditional rules of the magical girl genre, but it bends the way the material is presented. While it doesn’t twist the magical familiar into a Lovecraftian horror like Madoka would, it does present the life of a magical girl as a curse of sorts, and not a blessing.
For example, while there is combat like in, say, Pretty Cure, in Nanoha that combat often ends in hospitalizations for one or both parties. The evil witch in Nanoha, Precia Testarossa, doesn’t JUST want to be evil like Queen Beryl does, she beats her daughter and flogs her for failure, while we have to grimly sit and watch. And while Madoka often explores the “dark” aspects of love, the selfish preconceptions and such, Nanoha explores the evils good people will commit FOR pure love. Battling evil isn’t a sacred duty, it is a last resort, and in a sense, Lyrical Nanoha could be considered an anti-war series. I’ll get into that point deeper later.
Which is why, as a fan of both series, I wince whenever anyone proclaims Madoka Magica changed the magical girl genre forever.
Yes, but not as much as you think.
As always with the Top 10s, there will be spoilers. But! If you are new to the series but not sure how to get into it, read the next section, it’s for you, and basically spoiler free.
For the Noob
There are many ways to tackle the Nanoha series. I’d say there are four good “jumping on” routes, which I will lay out for you from the three series out now (the fourth series, ViVid, releases this year), Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha, -Nanoha A’s, and -Nanoha StrikerS.
Method 1: The first, and most obvious, is to start at the very beginning. Season 1, Episode 1. This has the advantage of slowly acclimating you to the universe, without an info dump save the one that establishes the existence of supernatural elements in the Nanoha-verse. The disadvantage is that Nanoha follows the “eight episode rule”: that it is only the final leg, once all of the pieces have been fully introduced to the board, that the series becomes engaging and tackles the themes that make it so powerful. You can then move onto A’s and StrikerS.
Method 2: The second method bypasses the early series and goes straight into StrikerS. StrikerS has original characters as the focus early on, thus it is an effective jumping on point, I think. The action sequences and kinks in the universe’s metaphysics and lore have been mostly hammered out as well, as there are several small inconsistencies season to season. This allows StrikerS a reasonable chance at standing on it’s own, and its first-act serialization is much stronger than the previous two installments in the first act. If you’re new, this may be an option, and if the premise is intriguing, you absolutely SHOULD go back and see the early seasons before you tackle the second half of StrikerS. It will give the events much more context. This method becomes even more practical now that ViVid is on the horizon. So if you’re okay with being out of sequence on a show and want to catch up quick, this is where I’d recommend you hop in.
Method 3: The third method is to speedrush the backstory to the “modern day”, similar to the above, but using the movies as your cliff notes. The first two Nanoha movies are summations of the first two anime seasons, so using these as reference (and enjoying their much more spectacular budget), you can be quickly introduced to all the major players and their motives in one afternoon. You could then go back and watch the original series and A’s properly for completeness, but only for that completeness, as you have most of the key data.
Method 4: But my preferred method, and the way I recommend to you, is to make a combination of the first and third, watching the first movie, and then moving to A’s proper to watch it episode to episode.
See, because the movies are compressions of the seasons, the first movie is much more effective at its job. There were only about 2-3 hours of “drama” in the first series to whittle down into a movie, which is rather easy. This makes the pace perfect, and makes it, in my eyes, the strongest of the Nanoha movies.
The Second movie is very different. The production team had realized at this point exactly what made Nanoha strong, so those dramatic elements that only started popping up in the final half of the original series are in A’s from the get-go. There are few, if any, filler episodes in A’s, so cutting the season down into a movie makes the final product weaker. You still get the key information, but certain elements, especially “feeling” the passage of time, are lost. And the subplots involving Nanoha’s Earth friends, a key symbolic gesture which showed how Nanoha was becoming separate from “our” world, is absent entirely, which makes the turn in StrikerS seem a little head-scratching if you use the movies exclusively like the third method.
So you’re all caught up now, yes? Good! Let’s get a refresher on the plot. Spoilers from here down (that’s what she said).
You’re Gonna Get Befriended
The story of the Nanoha franchise primarily follows our lead, whose name is, and I’m sure you’ll never have guessed this, Takamachi Nanoha, who begins as a nine year old, ordinary schoolgirl. She soon meets a talking ferret, Yuno, who has come to Earth to recover one of the “Lost Logia”, a generic term that interstellar mages use to refer to powerful artifacts of a long-extinct empire. This set is known as “The Jewel Seeds”, and sensing great power in Nanoha, Yuno recruits her help against the phantoms who have been transformed by the power of the Jewel Seeds.
So far, it is your typical magical girl scavenger hunt, but things are about to turn much more sophisticated.
Collecting nearly 1/3 of the Jewel Seeds through various comical and lighthearted antics, the sixth seed is also sought after by a dark magical girl, Fate Testarossa. Nanoha, in one of her first observations, is stuck on Fate’s “pretty eyes”, and is certain that she isn’t a bad person, even though they are on opposing sides right now.
Something as dangerous as a Lost Logia isn’t under the radar. In an interesting subversion, there IS an interstellar mageocratic police force monitoring the situation, the Time Space Administration Bureau. They find Nanoha, and determining her heart is in the right place (and satisfied with Yuno’s credentials), they recruit the pair to be their agents on Earth while they monitor from orbit.
And I’m going to cut off our summary here as it is technically still “current” and we don’t have all fucking day.
When Little Girls Ro-Battle
Nanoha has an interesting claim to its stylistic uniqueness. One of the animators once commented how Nanoha’s magical girl outfit looked like a gundam.
And thus was an entirely new school of magical girl combat born.
Battles in Nanoha are well above and beyond those in other franchises. They mesh the magical aspects expected, with a healthy dose of melee combat and weapon porn.
Indeed, half the transformation sequences are for the weapon gears themselves.
Add in the addition of different combat styles in A’s and the whole universe becomes, well…shonen-fighter-esque.
And yet, hearkening back to what I said in the Sakura Trick review, Nanoha remains well within its boxes. It never loses the optimism that everyone is a friend in waiting, that there are always alternative solutions, and that frilly costumes are just the greatest thing ever. If more magical girl series strive to be more like Nanoha and Madoka, this could very well be an appropriate gateway drug into the genre.
War, Huh, What Is It Good For?
So before we examine this, we have to address an issue not a lot of people, even those who think of themselves as “politically minded”, consider.
What IS war?
Many of us know what war is, but not a whole lot know what war IS.
There are, in the modern discourse, typically two sides and a “moderate” approach to war. The first side is the one that loves guns and force and believes force should be applied in any situation where it CAN be applied. The side that thinks that force is the best way to get what you want in all situations. On the other side are those who despise conflict in all its forms and mock anyone who calls for force as narrow minded and incapable of intellectually acquiring what they want rather than taking it like barbarians.
But most people, I would wager, fall into the middle path. “War is to be avoided, except on those who REALLY deserve it.” They just tend to quibble the semantics over who deserves it and who doesn’t, but their principle remains the same. Look at Barack Obama and George W. Bush if you need to see this in action.
But once settled into those stances, not a lot of people consider the -function- of war.
War is simply the application of violence where violence has become the best option among a handful of really shitty ones. Ideally, now. As Babylon 5 said, “Sometimes peace just means surrender”. It should always be a regrettable action, but a necessary one. A means that, through violence, you think perhaps the world on the opposite end of the conflict could still be better than what you’re dealing with now.
And it is this theme that comes up again and again in the Nanoha franchise. Adversaries, such as the Knights and Precia, use violence to acquire what they want as a knee-jerk reaction. And, in that same vein, Hayate represents the opposite spin. Someone who doesn’t want conflict no matter the reason. She heals herself when she takes matters into her own hands and does apply violence against the dark elements of the Book of Darkness.
But Nanoha isn’t “violence is never the answer, but oh you have forced my hand so I guess I must, poor blameless me”. Sometimes violence IS her answer. When she fights Fate for the third time, she resigns herself that Fate won’t negotiate until Nanoha kicks the shit out of her, which she goes into with gusto. Twice now she has taken the “but we can be friends” approach to Fate, and rather than have that friendship triumph over all, it’s gotten Nanoha’s ass kicked twice already. Violence has become the only answer to Fate acquiring more Jewel Seeds, and Nanoha doesn’t back down from this responsibility. It is arguably the most important moment in the Nanoha franchise, where Nanoha herself goes from being the sugary sweet magical girl to a much more hardened, badass character. It’s arguably the moment where this franchise became special.
And this even ends the series in StrikerS, where Nanoha blasts Vivio. In a typical sugary series, the power of love would have saved Vivio when her mind becomes normal. But it doesn’t. The power of love proved not to be enough, so instead of doubling down on love, Nanoha goes all in with a Starlight Breaker. On her daughter. That’s some pretty riveting stuff.
It is certainly a much more sophisticated interpretation of the magical girl universe, and it does deserve credit for taking the genre into a more ambitious direction.
Magical Love Gentleman 3: With Loli Bondage
Man I’m just throwing titles at categories today.
Nanoha has appeared on the blog exactly once: In the Yuri Goggles post. So now that we’re in the series proper let’s address the relationship between Nanoha and Fate more directly.
A brief rephrase about this pairing: There are no canonical couples in the Nanoha-verse. Not exactly. Even characters we see who are definitely married never even hold hands. So holding couples to the series standard, unless you actually introduce a character as “Mr. and Mrs. Plot Device”, you have no way of identifying who is supposed to be sleeping with who based on the usual cues that shipping deniers usually point to. Indeed, even the cues we use in American TV, where straight couples are allowed to make out but gay couples must suffice on a hug. In all, Nanoha is a sexless universe.
…At present, there are EU materials that explore romantic ideas, which may or may not make the translation into Vivid. And we explained how well that was received back in the Yuri Goggles post.
Setting that aside, then, we must examine any potential relationship based on how characters talk and interact with each other.
Like Nanoha, Fate, and Vivio being referred to collectively as “the Takamachi family”. Vivio being referred to as “Nanoha and Fate’s child”. And don’t try to rules lawyer the “guardian/godparent” stuff because, until very recently, if my girlfriend and I were going to adopt we’d have to use similar tricks.
And all of the hugging, emotional interconnectivity we witness between Nanoha and Fate, and the simple fact that in StrikerS the pair sleep in the same bed together, something no one else does. Not even the Gen 2 couple Tia and Subaru, go that far (those married couples tend to get a pass because most of them only exist as flashbacks).
In short, much like a certain Bunnycat we will be discussing in the near future, if you claim Nanoha and Fate aren’t a couple, you are correct in so far as no one can disprove you 100%, but to use the truth in such a way would accomplish the same thing as a lie, due to how dishonest it is.
I adore the relationship we get to witness in this series because of how natural it feels. The combination of the naturally optimistic, protective Nanoha and the tragic, lonely Fate is such a natural blend that you almost wish the series DID tackle full on romance like some of its counterpart series in the Magical Girl genre did.
Fate Testarossa has become the poster child for the Dark Magical Girl, and it’s easy to see why. She easily wins my favorite character of the franchise.
There’s just something so outrageously appealing about someone who was created to be despised. Prior to the series, even her MEMORIES of being treated kindly are a lie, they only exist in the mind of Alicia Testarossa. And as we would later learn, even her name is a mark of shame, “Project Fate”, so looked down on by her mother that she wasn’t even given a name.
This is probably one of the things that elevates Nanoha’s characterization above many other stories. Fate isn’t exactly a bad person, she just doesn’t understand the concept of kindness very well. She regards Nanoha with suspicion and curt, adversarial comments. It’s possible that prior to this, no one in her life has tried to legitimately care for her. We know of her tutor, and of Alph/Arf, but those are familiars. They’re basically just really smart pets, and though you treasure your dog, does that really give you comfort when you’re drinking yourself to sleep on Valentine’s Day? Not really. And that seems to be how mageocratic culture views the Familiars.
The movie made it even better, as Precia’s last thoughts are of Alicia, and how she had always wished for a sister. Only realizing too late that she had hated Fate…for no reason whatsoever.
Even C-3PO would look at that and say “Damn, that girl’s practically made to suffer, glad I didn’t get that deal.”
The series constantly reinforces this, in some small, subtle ways. Nanoha’s conflicts tend to be how she can save her adversaries and make them happy. But Fate’s conflicts, while having those shades because this IS a magical girl series and all, are darker than that. With Signum, in her dream world (against the Defense System), and in StrikerS with Scaglietti’s lair, it is pointed out to her she would die if she failed. This is a trial unique to Fate, and I think it’s intended subtext to her character that she constantly puts herself in situations where she will die for her cause if her happy world doesn’t come through. Nanoha laughs this trait off as Fate being stubborn, but I’ve always seen it as an extension of the “girl with the sad eyes”. No matter how loved, no matter how accomplished, Fate will always put her well being on the bottom rung. Perhaps more appropriately: She views a life without happiness as a life not worth living.
I DO think it’s incredibly sad, which is why it’s so incredibly sweet.
It’s similar to that thing about Ryuko I mentioned back in KILL la KILL: How Ryuko shaped herself to suit those around her. Fate is similar, but the aspects have been swapped. For Ryuko, it was her surroundings shaping her personality and values. She is a hero when she’s loyal to Mako, she is evil when she is loyal to Ragyo.
“Wait didn’t you despise that about Ryuko, Doll?” I did. But what makes Fate different is that the PERSON who is Fate Testarossa never changes.
I firmly believe that at any point in the series, Fate could become a bad guy again. All it would take is losing her family. Especially if it was losing Nanoha. Fate pushes herself beyond her limits, is utterly ruthless in pursuing her objectives, and will resort to extreme tactics to win regardless of being a good guy or a bad guy. She has simply transferred those feelings of loyalty and affection from Precia, a villain, to Nanoha, a hero. She firmly loves her mother, in her own strange way, even after everything that happens. Fate’s transformation from villain to hero was not due to any kind of paradigm shift, but merely a revelation that she could indeed care about more people than her mother.
Now I’m not saying she’s an anti-hero or anything like that, but I fall back on that old saying: Uncompromising heroes become uncompromising villains. This dark side of Fate is always there, always present, but it is so masterfully crafted that we don’t really think twice about it when she changes sides.
I’d argue that’s part of what gives the final showdown with Precia its punch. From our angle, we say “Yay! Fate realized her mother never loved her, but Nanoha does!”, which is why we would assume she joins Nanoha.
If this was any other series.
But she does it so save her mother, because she loves her unconditionally, and that’s a jolt in the character development that’s difficult to see coming. And even when Fate accepts that she will never be loved like Alicia, when she accepts she will always be second best in her mother’s heart, and still reaches out, and gets her hand slapped away…that is one of the harshest moments in anime history.
This backdrop frames Fate for the rest of the series. As I said, she was created to be despised. And every time she gets a smile from Nanoha, every time she hugs a friend, every time Signum and her silently display their respect for the other, it is this elation that Fate conquers her destiny with each of these tiny acts.
Strikers 3, You’re Out
Put me in the camp that didn’t really like StrikerS all that much.
Don’t misunderstand. It had excellent action, reasonably good pacing, and some very easily relatable characters with a dramatic backstory and introduced a hefty dose of mage politics into the Nanoha-verse. The raid on the Cradle was probably one of the more epic moments in franchise history. It broadened the scope of the universe while keeping many of the core elements intact, an impressive feat.
….But none of this really changes the fact that the series is not what is advertised.
StrikerS is almost a spin off show. Almost. And that almost is the problem.
It’s like trying to watch a season of The Justice League where they play second fiddle as background support to the Teen Titans. I’d be a little irritated. That doesn’t mean I don’t like the Teen Titans, actually I find them great. But I came here to see Batman and Superman and Wonder Woman team up and kick ass, not these kids. If I wanted that, I’d watch the show labeled “Teen Titans” and not “Justice League”.
And I can’t tell if the turn in StrikerS is made worse or better by how the show didn’t stick to its guns, shifting gears mid-season to focus on the old crew. It’s welcome, but, you couldn’t have made the show more like this at the beginning? We go almost a full season with our “main heroes” in a sort of Obi-Wan role to Team Six, barely interacting except to dole out advice or as the obstacle authority figure. I understand you want us to connect with the new people, and that’s great, but the Knights did that in A’s without shipping Nanoha and Fate to Abu Dhabi. They fit into the cast seamlessly here (even if we’re a little pissed Hayate is ranked higher than either Nanoha or Fate), so what gives?
If anything the mixed bag nature of StrikerS is probably what’s been behind the overall absence of Nanoha material, other than the repackaged movies. Time taken to see if time heals all wounds, and to analyze more what went wrong and what went right. Suddenly the juggernaut of the Third Movie and Vivid both appearing after this six year hiatus can’t be coincidence.
Again, not that I hate StrikerS, it just took a really long time to warm up and didn’t feel like a proper Nanoha series until the very end. And that end makes it hard to just write it off as a spin-off series, which would be easier to accept.
Perhaps adding to this is the next section.
Nanoha has probably the best example of having threatening antagonists who are still good people deep down.
In this it really needs to be the model for any story that wants intimidating villains yet also wants them to simply be misunderstood.
So, why did the villains in Nanoha succeed when the villains in, say, Akuma no Riddle were laughter inducing? Why did the confrontations feel ridiculous in Brynhildr but dramatic in Nanoha?
It’s an excellent question, and I think it boils down to a combination of the stakes involved, and the character motivations.
First, and most important, we understand where the adversaries are coming from. The Cloud Knights are bad guys, absolutely. Their first introduction is an attack on Nanoha, and they kick her ass (well, Vita does). They do an ostensibly bad thing, steal magic from the protagonists.
In part this elevates them. We avoid the trap of having the bad guys just SHOW UP and try to kill our heroes. When the second episodes begins with your protagonists staring down the bad guys and they say “We’re here to kill you, hero!”, there is no tension. The genius of the Knights was that they NEEDED Fate and Nanoha alive. And when they’re done, they just want to be left alone. Our heroes are pursuing them, but only out of a sense of duty, not because their interests will clash. Fate re-encountered Nanoha this way, but let’s also admit the series was still a bit stale at that phase.
Fate’s villainy didn’t get interesting until we found out she was just the fall guy. Suddenly there was this whole new dimension to examine about her motivations.
Similarly, when we find out why the Knights are doing what they do, it’s for a good reason. They’re, essentially, using black magic to achieve a good end. It’s much like that dramatic conclusion that makes many people place “Watchmen” as the greatest comic ever, when the villain shouts “I’ve done it! I’ve achieved world peace!”
And all of this doesn’t change the fact that they must be stopped. It does wrap up a little neatly, but again, Nanoha is an optimistic franchise, so these things are to be expected from a feel-good story.
But that only comes in so far as the circumstances AROUND the villains change. In terms of the dynamic, when those changing circumstances are shown to give the bad guys the opposite of what they’ve been fighting for, it is totally believable that they would side with our hero.
Compounding that, it is always more compelling to see your hero try desperately to save a bad guy than to save generic civilian bystander #27.
And above all, victory is NOT achieved by the power of friendship. The power of friendship is a thing to HELP us kick the shit out of the REAL villain. The conflict doesn’t suddenly STOP when Fate or Hayate switch sides, it’s merely the consolidation of our cast onto the same side in the greater conflict. So often, when a bad guy is turned good, that just ends their conflict, all is well, we are friends now, so enjoy the fruits of friendship. The Lyrical Nanoha model makes that an important step, but it is not the resolution to the overall threat that the villains represent.
That is, of course, until StrikerS, where the villain model is a much more stereotypical threat, which is part of why the series feels different.
Make New Friends…
In short, if you haven’t watched Mahou Shoujo Lyrical Nanoha, you really must do so. It’s a genre-spanning work that is so much more sophisticated than it might seem at first glance.
If you never watched a magical girl series in your life, this is the one to try. Even more so than Madoka, I’d argue, because while Madoka may tangentially be a magical girl series, Lyrical Nanoha DEFINITELY is, but a worthwhile endeavor even among the syrupy goodness.
This was Rank 4, a semi-finalist. Vivid is on the horizon, and depending if it seems to be going a route similar to StrikerS in its adaptation, Vivid might actually appear as a regular installment this coming season. We’ll have to wait and see.
But what is even BETTER than Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha?
That answer takes us to the future, and a brave new world that awaits us…