(I found myself in the mood to write reviews of my favorite anime in the style of Roger Ebert’s “Great Movies” articles, and having just rewatched the Nanoha movie, this happened.)
Nanoha The Movie 1st is sold on one fantastic battle scene and one fantastic dialog scene that wouldn’t be possible without the rest of the movie, even though they overshadow it in such a way that they alone deserve rewatching again and again.
Nanoha’s problems as a film mostly come from the problems it had as a TV series and the problems of its production.
In the latter case, Nanoha suffers the general weakness of being produced by Seven Arcs, a mediocre studio that, when given the kind of budget to make this film, succeeded only in not fucking it up, without doing much to elevate it to the level that it could’ve reached. There are no ugly images in the film, yet the fights aren’t cool—effort was put into enhancing formerly ugly, uncool fights into uncool fights that look just fine. This can be attributed to the studio’s never having worked on a movie before, nor anything above mediocre, low-budget, late-night TV shows.
The problems that the TV series had were generally being awful and poorly planned. Nanoha season 1 begins as a generic mahou shoujo item-collecting story, then evolves into a story about a tragic girl seeking redemption through friendship. The resulting emotional plot about Nanoha and Fate’s friendship is the money of the show, but the presentation is awful. The story is stupid, not well thought-out, and entirely forgettable.
Nanoha The Movie 1st doesn’t change any of this. It removes a lot of the useless meandering of the series, streamlining the story into a more cohesive whole, but it doesn’t change the fact that the story is stupid to begin with. What we get is just a better-looking, less lame retelling.
I can look past this. The stupidity of the plot isn’t important. It only becomes a problem when it stands in the way of scene progression and the better parts of the movie. Towards the end, when Precia explains her past and motives, she repeats herself incessantly. I can summarize twenty minutes of dialog as follows:
Precia was a scientist that didn’t spend much time with her daughter. Her daughter died in an accident, so Precia cloned her. However, the clone wasn’t the same as the original, so Precia treated her like shit and longed for her real daughter to be reborn.
—These few plot points are repeated again and again, as if the movie isn’t sure we understand why the characters act the way they do, so it must more throughly restate exactly what it just said.
At this point, the movie wouldn’t be worth watching without its best scenes. Between the lame fights and sometimes annoying dialog, I wouldn’t want to go through the whole thing again. However, if I have to watch the whole movie while introducing it to a new viewer, I can watch all of it for the payoff of the two best scenes.
First is the final battle between Nanoha and Fate, which Nanoha prefaces by calling it their “first and last real fight.” The setup of this fight is great because of Nanoha’s total confidence in her victory and the friendship she will share with Fate thereafter. We learn that the Bureau intends to use the fight to their advantage no matter which of the girls wins, but Nanoha doesn’t know this. Nanoha’s victory would be imminent with or without their help because she hasn’t a doubt in her mind about how much ass she’s going to kick. She and Raising Heart have an “ace in the hole” that will ensure victory.
The fight is set up to resemble an aerial dogfight, with the girls’ flight patterns moving in deliberate jet paths, and cuts of their pink and yellow trails left like exhaust. There are even scenes of the girls firing at one-another wherein their bullets appear to curve through the air. Like the rest of the film, the battle is full of anime conceits and the general lack of measurable attack effectiveness that makes so many anime battles fail, but there’s enough intensity to the animation and emotions of the characters that the battle remains entertaining.
At the end of the fight, Nanoha cashes in on her confidence. Fate, tired out, launches everything she has at Nanoha, thinking that Nanoha must be just as tired. Nanoha is barely hurt, and retaliates with her newly devised ultimate attack (a riff on the Spirit Bomb technique from Dragon Ball Z), which completely obliterates Fate, showing that Nanoha was on an entirely different level all along.
The other brilliant scene is the ending, when Nanoha and Fate finally get to meet properly, knowing it’ll be more than six months before they get to see one-another again. It’s a big, gay, emotional dialog exchange—an “I love you, man,” moment taken to its farthest extremes, until it’s actually a thinly veiled lesbian confession. (Supposedly, several people who worked on the show consider it canon that this scene was exactly that, and that Nanoha and Fate are, without question, a couple.)
The scene is sold by its sheer honesty and straightforward lack of embarrassment. Fate’s life will never be the same—Nanoha has changed her entire world and become its most important inhabitant. Nanoha has found a best friend for life. They spill their guts and embrace one-another, trade hair ties as mementos, and tearfully depart. It’s the gushiest, most fulfilling friendship moment in anime.
Ultimately, though, Nanoha The Movie 1st is worth watching because Nanoha A’s comes after it and cashes in on the characters, the themes, and, more than anything, the development of Nanoha and Fate’s relationship. Nanoha A’s wouldn’t be as utterly amazing as it is without the origin story of Nanoha and Fate’s relationship, and retroactively, Nanoha and Fate’s story means even more when we know where it’ll take them, both in A’s and in Strikers. The existence of those future stories is what lifts Nanoha The Movie 1st from a decent movie with great scenes to a worthwhile movie with a fantastic ending.
While it would be understandable for someone that doesn’t like the movie to end their involvement with the series there, it would be seriously remiss for anyone that enjoys the movie not to cash in on that enjoyment with the superb sequels. Thankfully, Nanoha A’s will be receiving its own film adaption in the near future.