Lyrical Nanoha – Franchise Retrospective, Part 2

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Mahou Shoujo Lyrical Nanoha is an interesting franchise filled with interesting shows, in a way that renders the relative quality of those shows as kind of an afterthought. Nanoha is not often worth watching for being a tightly constructed narrative, or for presenting thematic ideas that will cause one to reflect on their life; more often, it’s worth watching because of the many strange little details that just can’t be found anywhere else.

One thing the franchise became famous for is its surprising cross-genre appeal towards mecha fans, who find themselves attracted to the cool-looking and very mechanical-feeling weapons and their weirdly complicated naming schemes. While the first series introduced the idea of magical girls whose battles were ripped straight from Dragon Ball Z, and whose weapons would seem at home in the hands of a giant robot, Nanoha A’s opened the floodgates on different weapon types and crazy new forms of attack. Every mage has their own named, talking weapon, which has its own set of named attacks, its own unique fighting style, and speaks a different foreign language–and most of them can even morph into several different forms. Early into the series, Nanoha and Fate’s weapons, Raging Heart and Bardiche, are badly damaged, and literally *ask* to be fitted with dangerous upgrades as a matter of pride in the name of protecting their masters. To rephrase that: Nanoha A’s is a show in which sentient mecha weapons get pissed off after losing to better weapons, and ask to be upgraded in the name of hot-blooded passion. They find themselves fitted with a new cartridge-loading system, which never fails to look badass in action.

This is the kind of thing that you really only get with Nanoha, and it’s the kind of thing that attracts very specific types of niche fans. After all, mecha fans are basically defined by the fact that they’ll pretty much watch anything as long as it has mechs in it–if it’s actually good, then that counts as a bonus. Likewise, people looking for these kinds of character designs, or this kind of vibe, or this brand of drama, will find their incredibly specific niche filled with Nanoha; and a lot of the strengths of the series are in how it fills its weird niches so perfectly.

Seeing an anime character’s rival end up joining their team, making friends with all of their friends, and attending their school, is something I’ve seen a million times; but somehow, the idea that said rival had to spend six months waiting for a criminal trial in space while exchanging video diaries with her new friend, was such a fresh and novel take on the idea that it brought the entire show to life for me in a way that it might never have felt otherwise. Then, to continue riding that arc by actually acknowledging the character’s lack of parentage and having them get adopted by one of the other characters, brought the whole thing to life even more. Whereas most anime seem to consider parents nothing but an afterthought and present teen characters and their drama in a void, Nanoha A’s not only sorts out Fate’s home situation and acclimates her properly to normal life on earth, but it even ends with Nanoha and Fate actually letting their parents and friends in on what they’ve been doing all this time so that they can move forward in their magical studies with the proper blessing of their families. Again: I can’t really get this in a lot of other places.

What’s cool about all of the weird details in Nanoha is that they weren’t necessarily things that had to be there in order to tell the story. There didn’t need to be a Time-Space Administrative Bureau suggesting a vast universe of possibilities within the realm of the franchise. They didn’t need to present the Book of Darkness as some kind of strange device running programs that develop personality by way of their interactions with humans. The details about how fighters from different planets fight with different techniques, or how the commander was originally from England, or how Yuuno’s powers make him some kind of super-librarian, were all basically superfluous and could easily have been left out.

However, I think the fact alone that these details are so unnecessary is exactly what makes them so effective. Nanoha’s universe doesn’t feel very concrete or make a whole lot of sense, yet it manages to feel alive because its characters have so much background and so many random things to do. I don’t remember Zafila doing basically anything when it came to the main plot of the series, yet the scene at the end when Arf tells him that you can move around more easily in human society by taking the form of a small puppy, and then we see Vita walking with him in the post-credits, immediately made both him and Arf feel more like characters than they ever had felt prior to that. Similarly, the crux of Vita’s arc in the middle of the show when she’s slowly starting to fall in love with Hayate happens when she decides to buy a toy bunny at the store, and this moment of giving into her humanity is how we understand that she’s starting to develop emotions.

All of these details give the sense that, even if the logic holding this universe together isn’t all that apparent to us, it does in fact seem to exist. There is a reason behind every character’s actions and feelings, and there are reasons that they are capable of certain things and incapable of others. Do I know why Chrono’s magic manifests itself one way, while Yuuno’s manifests in another? Not really–but when Chrono uses his binding magic on the twin familiars who trained him, and they growl that they never taught him this kind of magic, I can understand the idea that magic is an intricately complicated system which probably makes sense to the characters.

Again, none of this is necessarily to say that Nanoha A’s is a good show because it has these elements. I would still say that it’s kind of boring, wastes a lot of time, and gets pretty ass-pull-y as it moves towards the climax. But again, I don’t think the relative quality of the series is nearly as interesting as the simple fact that it is what it is. It’s this weirdly unique magical girl sci-fi show that operates with so much sincerity that I can’t bring myself to accuse it of not making sense–I’d more readily be willing to say that it totally makes sense and just doesn’t explain itself well.

In 2012, Nanoha A’s was adapted into a two and a half-hour film, which came as a bit of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the film is far and away the best-looking installment of the franchise to date, and is comprised largely of impressive-looking action sequences. On the other hand, in spite of cutting out a lot of the redundant and boring scenes from the show, the film ends up running through its plot points at such breakneck speed that they lose impact completely. What really sucks about this is that the film actually restructures a lot of the major plot points to make more sense and to flow into one-another better–and I’d even say that most of the dialog is improved in comparison to the TV show. A bunch of scenes were added in to flesh out Reinforce as a character throughout the story, Hayate is presented with a bit more personality, and we also get to see a lot more of Nanoha and Fate spending time together. None of this does much to help the film function as a stand-alone work, though, and I definitely wouldn’t recommend it as anyone’s first exposure to Nanoha A’s–but as a fanservice vehicle or supplementary material, it might be worth checking out for fans of the show.

Considering how the movies are supposedly an in-universe fictionalized retelling of the events of each series, with all of their changes being effectively non-canon, it actually seems like the franchise itself is canonically playing around with the idea that it doesn’t always provide a full perspective of what’s happening. At the very least, I can’t shake the feeling that the Nanoha universe is more fleshed-out and well-realized inside of Masaki Tsuzuki’s head; and where this quickly becomes increasingly apparent is when the franchise suddenly and massively opens up as it moves into its third series, Nanoha Strikers.

By the time Nanoha Strikers began its 26-episode run in April 2007, Nanoha reached the point of starting to look like a proper multimedia franchise. In addition to another series of drama CDs released after Nanoha A’s an assortment of manga chapters were published alongside each series, often filling in little slice-of-life details between episodes, or later showcasing some of what happened during the six-year time skip at the end of A’s. Fan books and other promotional materials started appearing, along with little 4-panel comics tied into each of the different seasons, and the expanded universe of Nanoha’s story quickly began to take root.

If Nanoha A’s was all about establishing this firm emotional groundwork within a very small, tightly-knit story for the rest of the franchise to take off from, then Nanoha Strikers is all about taking the ideas of the Nanoha universe and seeing how far it can go with them. Right off the bat, it seems to cast off the conceit that this is supposed to be a magical girl series at all, with a much stronger focus on fantasy action. Set ten years after the events of Nanoha A’s, even the saccharine friendships of the characters have exceeded what would be normal for a magical girl show, as the main cast reaches adulthood and doesn’t change in the slightest.

By now, the at-home slice-of-life elements have pretty much been done away with, as the story takes place on some kind of alien world with a ridiculous amount of planets visible in the sky, and almost every character now has some kind of important job at the Time-Space Administration Bureau. In the past four years, Hayate has been trying to organize her own action unit, with Nanoha and Fate as her leading officers, and Nanoha herself seems to have taken on a minor celebrity status among the mage community. The series opens with the three of them training new recruits to join their team, and if you try to think too hard about the logic behind any of these world-building elements then your brain will probably start to hurt, so it might be better to roll with the punches like Subaru.

Speaking of Subaru, it’s actually kind of impressive how much stronger of a start Strikers gets off to compared to the previous series. Not that it’s saying much, but Subaru and Teana start off with more personality than most of the cast has ever had up until this point, and between them and Hayate, we’ve actually got a lot of properly defined goals for the characters to pursue. The early episodes launch straight into some fairly well-done action scenes, and it’s pretty clear that Seven Arcs have gotten even more ambitious with their production efforts (though most of the soundtrack still sounds like corny freeware-produced visual novel BGM).

If I’m being honest, though, the real intrigue of these early episodes has less to do with their quality, and more to do with the facts of what goes on in them: Nanoha, Fate, and sometimes Hayate regularly sleeping together as adults–the magical spirit of the book of darkness being reincarnated as a tiny adorable fairy girl named Reinforce Zwei–the guardians of the book of darkness remaining unaged, even as the rest of the cast grows older–Fate regularly taking custody of powerful orphaned kids the way Linda did for her–the fact that the magical girls fighting in the first two seasons are now adults with much grander ambitions, who are also training a new generation of magical girls; all of this, once again, is the kind of stuff that I can only get from Nanoha Strikers. It’s such a uniquely bizarre and satisfying concept to see Nanoha and Fate all grown up, seemingly properly together, still kicking ass and driving the plot forward, that it made me want to watch the entire Nanoha franchise just to get to see these characters grow up. It really is a lot like watching the magical girl version of Dragon Ball Z.

One of my favorite elements of Strikers is how it lends a lot of weight to the ten years of activity which we never got to see from its main characters. Nanoha, Fate, and Hayate haven’t just been sitting around for ten years–they’ve made all kinds of new friends and enemies, and seemingly had repeated run-ins with opponents who might’ve given them just as much trouble as the ones they faced in their childhood. There’s something almost surreal about the way that everyone refers to them as “childhood friends,” when to us we only ever saw them at the time when they’d just met. The universe of the story has a tangible sense of existing ten years in the future of the previous shows. In episode nine, we even get an excellent scene which recontextualizes Nanoha’s previous adventures as the dramatic struggles of a mage pushing herself way too hard and suffering the consequences for it, which affects the way that she trains her students today.

After about ten straight episodes of team building between the main characters, Nanoha Strikers introduces a metric fuckton of antagonists during one major battle–as well as some political adversaries for Hayate on the side–and the plot begins moving forward in earnest. Also, Nanoha and Fate kind of end up with a daughter; did I not mention that was going to happen?

Vivio’s subplot is by far my favorite thing that happens in the Nanoha franchise, and what finally justified the entire thing to me in the long run. Something about watching Nanoha and Fate trying to play parental roles to this child that they ended up with out of nowhere finally brought their characters to life for me, and indeed the knowledge that this was going to happen was a big part of why I wanted to watch all of Nanoha to begin with. Call it a novelty thing or whatever you want, but I reserve my right to be excited at what is probably the only lesbian couple to grow up and adopt a child together in anime history.

None of this is to gloss over the many reasons that Nanoha Strikers is far from a masterpiece. At heart, it’s still a dumbass action show with plenty of poorly thought-out or downright silly worldbuilding elements. My favorites are whenever the show tries to justify it’s weird plot contrivances: like when it’s explained that Subaru and Ginga were partially taken in because they just happened to actually look like they were the daughters of the adoptive mother who found them; or when nobody dies in the middle of a huge, dramatic battle scene because the villain supposedly loves people in general; or when the villain turns on a bunch of magical monitors during the final battle for some reason, making it easy for everyone to communicate. I still don’t understand how Fate raised both Erio and Caro in basically the same way, yet never at the same time, in spite of them being the same age and eventually working together; and there’s also, like, a combat nun, from the church of who knows what–it can get really goddamn cheesy. It feels like Masaki Tsuzuki just writes the outcome that he wants for his characters, and worries about the logic afterwards, usually by brushing said logic under the rug and going along his merry way.

Like the shows that came before, Nanoha Strikers is still pretty drawn-out and has some boring episodes, though overall I found myself a lot more invested in the characters and their goals, which left me more willing to stick with them through the slower moments than I’d been in the previous seasons. The big action scenes were even more confusing and full of ass-pulls than ever before, although the special powers were at their most diverse and exciting. Any time the show started setting up some kind of big tactical scenario, I found my brain just kind of hazing over until it got to the part where people actually started fighting–but at least the consequences of each major battle were a bit more meaningful than those in A’s. This isn’t ordinarily something I get hung up over in anime, but I was a bit let down by the lack of deaths in some of the major battles, especially considering how many characters there were on both sides of the conflict; but then I also understand the motivation to keep as many characters around as possible for use in future installments. Around episode twenty, the plot became convoluted enough that I wasn’t entirely sure what the hell was going on, but by the end of the next episode everyone was fighting again, so it didn’t matter all that much.

Production-wise, I think Strikers may have been too ambitious for its own good. The moment-to-moment quality of the art and animation is lower than it was in A’s, but only because it’s trying to do so much more than A’s was, with every episode containing way more individual cuts, a much larger number of characters, and no shortage of lengthy action scenes. In the end, I think Strikers is a lot more visually exciting and entertaining than the previous shows, but also reveals a lot more strain on its budget and talent than Nanoha A’s did.

As corny, cheap, and silly as Nanoha Strikers was, I ultimately couldn’t help myself but to enjoy it. Something about the earnest sincerity of all of these characters and their struggles had me backing them up every step of the way through the hilariously goofy story–and when the insane six-episode climactic battle happened, I was more or less on board for the entire thing. Strikers was easily my favorite of the first three shows, if only because it had so much more stuff going on and was so much more exciting to watch.

For a lot of fans, Strikers has been more or less the end of the Nanoha series for the past eight years now. While the first two seasons were adapted into films in 2010 and 2012, there wouldn’t be a proper new anime installment in the franchise until 2015. However, that’s not to say that the series went quiet–it simply shifted its medium of focus. In part three of this Nanoha Retrospective, we’ll be taking a look at the manga sequels and spinoffs which started running in the wake of Nanoha Strikers, as well as exploring some of the anime and manga which were directly influenced by the Nanoha series.

Be sure to join me then, and if you have any thoughts about Nanoha A’s or Strikers, then be sure to leave them in the comments below. This video was once again edited by The Davoo, whose channel is a lot like mine but with a broader focus, and is very much deserving of your attention! If you enjoyed this video and want to help us to create more like it, then please support my channel via patreon or paypal by following the links below. Thanks again for watching, and I’ll see you in the next one!

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