Lyrical Nanoha – Franchise Retrospective, Part 1

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What would happen if you took some random side-character from a relatively obscure series of pornographic video games, came up with an elaborate official fanfiction about her turning into a magical girl, and then expanded it into a detailed, multi-generational sci-fi narrative spanning over a decade of TV-shows, manga, video games, and books? You’d get the incredibly bizarre history of the Mahou Shoujo Lyrical Nanoha franchise–something which could only ever have been a product of otaku culture, and which has remained emblematic of what that culture is like for a bit over eleven years now.

The story of the Nanoha franchise began around the turn of the century, at a time when visual novels (usually erotic) were becoming a bigger part of otaku culture in Japan; with the works of studios such as Key, Type-Moon, and 07th Expansion gaining notoriety, and their anime adaptations later bringing attention to visual novels in the Western anime fandom as well. Alongside the cusp of this trend were the three Triangle Heart games, released between 1998 and 2000; each of which were similar but standalone games about love triangles involving people who were weirdly proficient at martial arts. While the series was popular enough to warrant three manga tie-ins, a three-episode OVA, and two “fan-box” releases, the series would probably have been completely forgotten by time if not for the little sister character from the third game, who would go on to dwarf the popularity of her older siblings.

Takamachi Nanoha was a minor character in Triangle Heart 3, and made a brief appearance in the first episode of the Sweet Songs Forever OVA in 2003; but her legend really began on the Lyrical Toy Box in 2001: a fan disc which included Nanoha being portrayed as Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha for the first time. Masaki Tsuzuki, the writer of the original Lyrical Nanoha short and scenario writer of the Triangle Heart games, would then go on to write every single installment of the Nanoha franchise from there on out, starting with the thirteen-episode TV series, Mahou Shoujo Lyrical Nanoha, in 2004.

In retrospect, I don’t think it’s difficult to conclude that the original Nanoha TV show was kind of terrible; however, I also don’t think it’s difficult to appreciate how the show managed to be successful as a time and place thing, or why it’s still remembered fondly by a lot of people today. After all, Nanoha was the original magical girl show aimed squarely at young adult, otaku audiences–seven years before its director, Akiyuki Shinbou, would go on to bring the “magical girl show for adults” concept to mainstream acclaim with Madoka Magica.

What the original series did so right was to strike at an empty niche just begging to be filled. It hadn’t been unknown in the past for young adult male anime fans to get into magical girl shows which were primarily aimed at young girls–but in 2004, the action-oriented magical girl franchise Futari wa Pretty Cure had just started its monolithic run, and begun to attract more otaku viewers to the genre in the process. Between the broad otaku market for shows about cute little girls, and the rising popularity of magical girl shows among that crowd, it was only a matter of time before magical girl shows aimed at otaku started gaining traction–in fact, the similarly adult-oriented magical girl series Uta-Kata aired in the very same season as Nanoha. Putting this show into the hands of one of anime’s masters of fanservice, fresh off the heels of directing the OVA adaptation of the original porn game, along with four of the weirdest, most intense hentai OVAs in history, meant that Nanoha would be hitting right for a fetish strike zone.

It should come as no shock to anyone who’s seen any iteration of Nanoha for me to claim that loli fanservice is in the blood of franchise. Nanoha’s transformation sequence gets her even more naked and much more sexualized than what’s typical of magical girl shows, and she even has nipples added on in the film version. I don’t think it’s impossible to watch and enjoy Nanoha without approving of this fanservice–(or even without noticing it)–but I do think it would be silly to deny the influence which loli fanservice has had on the show’s success in the otaku community.

Perhaps even more obviously, a huge aspect of the show’s initial popularity involved the character Fate Testarossa and her then-newcomer voice actress, Nana Mizuki. Innocent Starter, the show’s opening theme (performed by Mizuki) reached number nine on Japan’s Oricon Weekly Singles chart, and sat around the top of popular anime song lists for a while within the Japanese fandom. Fate’s design–a strange mix of badass and way too sexy for her age–was also popular; though–and everyone rolling their eyes at the reasons for this show’s popularity up until now may be shocked to hear this–what really sold her character, and the series as a whole, was her narrative arc.

The story of Mahou Shoujo Lyrical Nanoha begins when the titular character saves a cute ferret mascot from being attacked by a monster, and is eventually given magical girl powers to help it in collecting twenty-one scattered magical artifacts called “jewel seeds.” The first three episodes read like repurposed Card Captor Sakura scripts, produced by staff who were less talented in every possible regard. Not even a hint of intrigue manages to pop up until episode four with the appearance of Fate Testarossa–a rival magical girl who kicks Nanoha’s ass and takes the jewel seed, and remains adamant about refusing to share her intentions with Nanoha.

After several episodes of Nanoha trying to communicate with Fate ending in repeated skirmishes, things suddenly get weird. In episode seven, their fight is interrupted when Nanoha gets forcibly transported onto a spaceship by Chrono Harlaown of the Time-Space Administration Bureau… whatever that is. We also learn that Fate has been collecting the jewel seeds in service of her psychotic evil scientist mother, who chains her up and whips the living shit out of her for not working fast enough.

As it turns out, Fate’s mother is an intergalactic criminal from a planet which was ruined after she got fucked over by bureaucracy while operating a power plant or something, and her daughter was killed. She cloned said daughter, thus creating Fate, but is tormented by the knowledge that Fate isn’t her real daughter, and tortures Fate into searching for jewel seeds that so she can harness their power to revive the original. Meanwhile, Nanoha’s ferret friend is actually a person who can transform into a ferret and is also an alien dude, and the Time-Space Administration Bureau has all these other colorful characters who seem like they’re the actual cast of another, completely different show, and are trying to stop Fate’s mom from causing like a wormhole or something.

The part that matters is that Nanoha overpowers Fate with her friendship-powered laser beams and helps her to realize how fucked up her situation is, and to make a heel-face-turn to help the good guys in defeating her mother. In the end, the good guys win (though not without some heartache), and Fate and Nanoha get to proclaim their friendship with some very thick homosexual subtext before Fate has to be taken to space jail to attend her space trial or something. The end.

While the sheer madness of watching this magical girl show turn into one about space-time police and abusive familial relationships is sort of novel–and while Fate’s arc is… well, it’s an arc–I don’t think there’s a lot of merit to the story of the original series. Its writing is ungodly repetitive, its episodes are paced like the longest, hardest shit you’ve ever taken, and, with the exception of a couple of strange, very Shinbo-like scenes, the entire thing kinda looks like garbage.

In 2010, the original TV series was adapted into a feature film, which helped massively to alleviate some of the show’s biggest faults. The opening arc was truncated significantly, and the animation was brought up to standard quality across the board (albeit nowhere near matching the level of any high-tier anime film productions). Most notable is the big battle between Nanoha and Fate, which was retooled into an impressive sort of magical girl aerial dogfight, capped off by the most massively gigantic laser beam attack this side of Dragon Ball Z.

However, even this touched-up film version is hard to recommend to anyone but fans predisposed to enjoying it. At over two hours long, it manages to still be way longer, way more repetitive, and way slower than it needs to be, and in no way holds up well to rewatching. Besides the big fight scene, the only really noteworthy part of the film is the finale, when Fate and Nanoha finally, essentially, confess their love to one-another.

As the conclusion to the preceding film, this bit might seem pretty weak; after all, Nanoha and Fate have barely any personality to speak of at this point, and their relationship seems like nothing more than the enemies-become-friends narrative typical to the kind of kids’ shows that Nanoha was built around. However, it’s when you come back to this scene after witnessing what eventually becomes of this couple in later installments–how they actually become one of the most long-standing and functional gay couples in anime history–that it takes on some meaning as the sweet start of a beautiful friendship.

It didn’t take long after the original series’ conclusion for tie-in merchandise to start popping up left and right: besides the opening and ending singles and the soundtracks, a set of three drama CDs were released in the following year, along with a novelization of the series by the show’s writer. Exactly one year after the debut of the original series, its direct sequel, Mahou Shoujo Lyrical Nanoha A’s began its TV run; and that’s where things start to get interesting.

The most noteworthy fact about Nanoha A’s is that it’s actually pretty good. Depending on who you ask, it could even be called very good. And it’s not as though it takes a radically different direction from the original series, or that it doesn’t work as a sequel–it actually works so well as a sequel that it almost justifies the existence of the original show while laying a solid foundation for the franchise as a whole to take off from. But what’s funny about it, and what inspired me to make this video series in the first place, is that Nanoha A’s is not very good in the modern sense of the word. It’s not very grounded or believable or complex or deep or well-paced or written, or any of that stuff that today’s critics seem to look for in anime. What sells Nanoha A’s is just simply its effective, classic drama–and how that drama is delivered with boatloads of heart.

Narratively, Nanoha A’s is essentially a war story that doesn’t chose a side. It presents us with two opposed groups of fighters; each of whom has something to protect, and who are driven into a battle that they’d rather avoid. On one side, we have the entire cast of the first season (Nanoha and Fate now working part-time for the Time-Space Administration Bureau) trying to capture and contain the power of a mysterious cursed artifact known as the Book of Darkness. On the other side, we have the four guardians of the Book of Darkness trying to protect the book’s unwitting new master–a sickly girl named Yagami Hayate–by powering up the book to its full potential so that Hayate can gain power and cure her illness.

Unlike Fate’s mother from the first season, who’d just kind of gone off the deep end into the realm of destroying the universe, Hayate’s guardians have a little bit more nuance as characters, and their mission is more understandable. After living with the lonely Hayate for a while and coming to fall in love with her as family, it makes sense that they’re desperate to protect her; and with their wild gambit of using the book to save her being pretty much their only option, it seems sensible enough for them to go through with their plan–since the book, while dangerous, will not likely destroy the universe just by being activated. Seeing the backgrounds of these characters and how desperately they struggle to protect their master–even as they hurt her by leaving her alone, and realize that they’re doing something which she wouldn’t want them to do–it’s hard not to root for them just as much as, if not more so than, the main characters.

Meanwhile, alongside this great battle, we get to see the payoff and continuation of Fate’s arc from the original series. In the time since the ending of season one, Nanoha and Fate have been exchanging video mail along with Nanoha’s friends, and by the time Fate returns home, she and Nanoha’s bond has already deepened considerably. Moreover, Lindy Harlaown, the Time-Space Administration Bureau captain from the first season and Chrono’s mother, decides to adopt Fate as a daughter, and we see how Fate slowly acclimates herself to living with a happy family, and how she finally makes peace with the dream of a perfect family life that she’d always had when her mother was alive. It’s actually a touching arc, which does a lot more with the idea of an enemy becoming the main character’s ally than I’ve ever seen in another anime series.

But it’s not only the solid narrative ideas driving this series that make it good–and it certainly isn’t the execution either. Nanoha A’s still has some frustrating elements, such as no less than three battles that take up large sections of episode, only to be interrupted when a mystery man comes in and forces a win for the antagonists, rendering the entire battle pointless. It still requires you to buy into fight scenes in which characters just kind of float around in midair talking, and in which the rules of battle are ill-defined enough that anyone can basically do whatever the plot calls for them to. It’s still a show wherein the best people that the Time-Space Administration Bureau has fighting for it are a handful of ten year-old kids, who occasionally are positioned in vaguely compromising ways by invasive tentacles. It’s not as if the story suddenly makes sense, or that the characters are deep and interesting, or that the themes are any more adult than they were before–it’s still very much a corny, low-grade, late-night anime aimed at young adults; …yet, something about it is weirdly… moe?

To explain what I mean, I have to get to the heart of what moe describes as a term, which is difficult because the term itself is so ill-defined. Some people like to connect “moe” to the word “moeru,” which can both mean “budding” as well as “to burn,” especially in the sense of “burning with passion;” and I think that this kind of gets close to the right combination for understanding moe as a sensation. After all, moe isn’t so much an adjective as it is a verb–it’s a feeling which an audience projects towards a subject, and is defined more by the individual than by anything else. People use the word to describe an attraction to cute young anime characters, and sometimes describe it in terms of a database of different moe “types” that fans categorically respond to–but personally, I’ve always seen moe more as an emotional response to narrative–(whether deliberately constructed, or merely perceived)–than as a categorical response to a character’s construction. Specifically, I think that moe stems from a feeling of wanting to see something succeed which maybe isn’t quite there yet; like when you see someone trying their best, and hope that they’re going to achieve their goals.

A popular kind of moe in recent years is referred to as “gap moe,” which I’ve seen defined as “alluring discordance,” referring to when the moe factor of a character is how parts of their persona don’t seem to fit together as you’d stereotypically expect. But if I can get philosophical about it, I think that moe may exist entirely in gaps: the gaps which a fan fills in when they see a character and interpret them more fully than what exists in the context of the work; the gap between the character as they are now, and the person that they are hoping to become; or possibly even the gap between the effort that a character puts into doing something great, and the actual quality of the result. Moe, to me, is all about how we look at gaps, and the charm of how we fill them; which, strangely, fits into the more perverse ideas about moe about as nicely as any phrasing I can manage.

So what does all of this navel-gazing about otaku terminology have to do with Nanoha? Mostly, that not only are the characters themselves moe, in how they all try to do their best with utmost sincerity, but also how the show itself is moe, with how it really puts its heart into telling this sincerely earnest story about love and tragedy, by way of incredibly stupid anime tropes.

Bear in mind for a moment that Mahou Shoujo Lyrical Nanoha was the first ever TV production by studio Seven Arcs, with Nanoha A’s being the second. The studio was formed by former members of Studio Pierrot (which itself is best known for less-than-stellar productions of shounen manga adaptations such as Naruto and Bleach) in the year 2000, and started out only producing porn OVAs (such as Night Shift Nurses) with the hopes of eventually creating a full TV series. Whereas the well-established Akiyuki Shinbo had directed the first season shortly before going off to become the chief director for ever SHAFT anime for the rest of eternity, A’s was the directorial debut of season 1 episode director Keizou Kusakawa, who would go on to direct almost everything else that Seven Arcs ever made before creating a separate animation division called Seven Arcs Pictures in 2012; and other than Triangle Heart and, later, Dog Days, writer Masaki Tsuzuki has exclusively been known for writing every single installment of the Nanoha franchise, from TV shows to novels to manga.

What I’m getting at here, is that Lyrical Nanoha was what this team had. They’d put their limited talent to the test on the original series, and it had paid off with success; and it’s easy to tell just by watching it that the team really went at Nanoha A’s with everything they could muster. The artwork, animation, storyboards, character designs, and even directing are all dramatically improved over those of the first season–even if the product is still kind of just a mediocre late-night anime. It’s easy to see moments wherein the writer and director struck with ambition, even if they couldn’t deliver with the best animation or technique possible; and it pays off in scenes which, even if they don’t really look all that cool, give you the impression of what the artists had in their head and how cool it was meant to feel. Every scene and every element of the production feels passionately and even confidently crafted, as if the staff decided that even if this was a corny late-night anime, they were going to try and bring as much potential out of the script as they possibly could with the tools at their disposal–and that, I think, is what shines through in the final product, and gives the entire show a kind of gap moe of its own.

I’ve got more to say about the subtle intrigue of Nanoha A’s, but this video is running out of time, so I’ll be continuing this story in part 2. Join me then to look not only at the charming triumph of Nanoha A’s, but also to jump into the wild and wacky world of it’s big sequels; and, while you’re waiting, also head over to the youtube channel of The Davoo–he’s the one who edited this video, and he’s a really cool guy doing really cool analytical videos that are currently criminally under-recognized. If you like my style, then you’ll probably like his as well, so please give him a shot; and, as always, if you enjoyed this video, then be sure to share it around. If you’d like to support my channel, then consider donating via patreon or paypal by following the links below. Thanks again for watching, and I’ll see you in the next one!

This video was edited by The Davoo, who runs a pretty great analysis channel that you should totally check out:

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One thought on “Lyrical Nanoha – Franchise Retrospective, Part 1

  1. i’m absolutely fascinated by the term “gap moe”! i think seeing something in development is always interesting. personally, i love following the works of amateur artists because i love watching them change over time. some of them improve tremendously, others more slowly, but they all develop in one way or another and you can see their personality and world views slowly shift as well. the fascination with development could also be related to concept art and “art of” books in general. here, the reader can see how a project is formed from the ground up. it gives the audience a peak of what was behind the curtain at different stages of the play — that is, the final product, be it a video game, animation, or film. it’s a shame that the word “moe” carries negative connotations in many circles, because i think the ideas you’ve drawn from it feel broad and universal. thanks for sharing your thoughts!

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