Lyrical Nanoha – Franchise Retrospective, Part 3

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Nanoha Strikers was a successful and popular series–but it was also a divisive one, especially among existing Nanoha fans. Those who liked Nanoha more for its magical girl elements were let down by the focus on sci-fi action, and a lot of people weren’t happy with the aged-up characters presented in StrikerS. This posed a quandary for the series going forward, as some fans were hoping for more content in the vein of Nanoha A’s, while others would rather have seen the story continue from where StrikerS left off. Whether or not this conflict is what caused the dearth of Nanoha TV anime over the next eight years is beyond my ability to research–but whatever the case may have been, Nanoha’s multimedia elements quickly became the central focus of the franchise in the wake of Nanoha Strikers.

On one front, we had the StrikerS drama CDs picking up with side stories after where the show left off, alongside the continued onslaught of supplementary manga tie-ins. Then, in 2009, two separate sequels to Nanoha Strikers began running at the same time–Nanoha Vivid, which is still running to this day, and Nanoha Force, which was put on indefinite hiatus in 2013.

On a whole different front, we also had a series of PSP games that started releasing in 2010, which take place in an alternate-timeline version of the Nanoha A’s continuity, and have their own original characters and tie-in manga as well. In 2010 and 2012, we got the movie adaptations of the first and second shows, which made a number of changes from the originals, and which both had their own manga tie-ins that also had *their* own changes from the original. Don’t quote me on this, because researching it got really confusing, but I believe that there are, in total, FIVE different versions of the original Nanoha story written by Masaki Tsuzuki–the TV show and drama CDs, the film, the novelization, the manga version of the film, and then another manga version called ORIGINAL CHRONICLE Mahou Shoujo Lyrical Nanoha the 1st, which combines elements from all of them.

In 2012, an entirely different Nanoha chronology opened up with the manga series and mobile game Nanoha Innocent, which apparently is an alternate-universe story about the girls… playing card games; and this honestly doesn’t even surprise me.

Seriously, there are so many goddamn Nanoha manga tie-ins that I couldn’t reliably track all of them down. Some of them haven’t even been translated; and once you start looking into them, they start getting really weird. One thing I found was an official twelve-page one-shot called Magical Girl Fatal Fate, which takes place a month after the original show and is about Fate watching too much magical girl anime and having dreams about saving Nanoha. It’s super bizarre.

There also is more Nanoha fan material out there than I think any one person could ever consume. The sheer wealth of doujinshi (both safe and unsafe for work) is beyond what I can reasonably comprehend, and there’s even a few fan-made games. Also noteworthy is the huge number of toys and other products made for each of the anime series, including some of the earliest releases in the Nendoroid and Figma lines.

During this span of time is also when the influence of the Nanoha franchise really began to show itself on the anime and manga landscape. The existence of stuff like Nanatsuiro Drops and the Moetan anime adaptation could probably be attributed to Nanoha’s success–but the most noteworthy series to be clearly influenced by Nanoha was the Fate/Kaleid Liner Prisma Illya manga, which began running in late 2007.

Just like Nanoha, Prisma Illya takes a relatively minor loli character from the extremely popular Fate/Stay Night series of erotic visual novels and recasts her as a magical girl in a parody series which gradually develops more of a serious plot as it goes along. Prisma Illya has a much stronger focus on comedy and fanservice than Nanoha does, but unmistakably comes from a similar place of intent. In 2013, it got its own anime adaptation, which is currently on its third season and enjoying a fair deal of success. The Prisma Illya connection is particularly noteworthy because there was actually a two-chapter crossover manga between Nanoha and the Fate series in 2010. It wouldn’t be surprising either if the germ of the idea for 2011’s Mahou Shoujo Madoka Magica was a result of Akiyuki Shinbo’s involvement with the original Nanoha TV series.

The manga series Mahou Shoujo Lyrical Nanoha Vivid was adapted into a twelve-episode TV anime in the spring of 2015, and I attempted to watch it while it was airing before I’d gotten around to finishing Nanoha Strikers. At the start of episode three, there was a moment in which I realized that this show had way too damn many characters whom I didn’t recognize, so I decided to watch all of Nanoha from the beginning–which lead to the creation of this video series. Having now caught up with everything, I can say with some confidence that had I not finished Nanoha Strikers just a day before starting the Vivid manga, I would still have no idea who any of these characters are–and indeed, it took a while before I could even tell some of them apart without seeing their hair colors.

Nanoha Vivid is sort of an accumulation of all the things which have happened in the series up to this point. If you didn’t pay attention during Strikers, then good luck trying to identify most of the supporting cast, which consists primarily of the minor villains who were reformed in the resolution of the previous series. There’s even one relevant character who’d previously only showed up during one of the Striker’s drama CDs, and I had to read her article on the Nanoha wiki just to figure out who the hell she was. A lot of the–admittedly thin–central plot of Vivid is about fleshing out the series lore, particularly in regards to the ancient Belkan kingdoms, which have been a consistent background detail throughout previous installments.

For those in need of catching up, Takamachi Vivio was revealed in Nanoha Strikers to be the descendent of an ancient Belkan king, and contained within her the key to piloting the giant ancient battleship, which the Strikers villain Jail Scaglietti was trying to use to.. do something. When her power was unleashed, Vivio’s body took on an adult form, and, during her childhood wielded a level of power which was beyond her ability to control. During one of the drama CDs, another character was introduced with a similar background as the descendent of the ancient Belkan civilization; but by the time Vivid takes place, she’s gone into a decades-long hibernation.

Nanoha Vivid starts up four years after the end of Strikers, with Vivio having grown up to the age that Nanoha and Fate were back in A’s, and having just gotten her own intelligent device which allows her to transform into her adult body at will, in the name of magical fighting and training. At the same time, another girl around her age appears named Einhart, who is also a transforming ancestor of an ancient Belkan king, but one who possesses a lot of that ancient king’s depressing memories–and is going around beating people up to try and prove that her bloodline was the strongest in the world.

If you’ve been keeping up with the series until this point, then you probably already expect that Vivid and Einhart will become best friends with some heavy gay overtones–but what’s kind of surprising and refreshing about Vivid is the way in which it happens. The idea that the good girls in the Nanoha universe are always trying and failing to communicate with their adversaries, and therefore have to speak with their fists, is so ingrained into the meta of the franchise, that it almost seemed tongue-in-cheek at times. However, in Vivid, when Nove shares her first encounter with Einhart and asks about her motivations, Einhart offers them up immediately, and ends up getting assimilated into the group of friends by way of Nove and Subaru essentially kidnapping her at the start of the second episode.

From this point forward, it becomes increasingly apparent that Nanoha Vivid is NOT in any way a drama like its predecessors were. In fact, the best genre comparison I could make is that it’s really like a Shounen Jump sports anime–except where the sport is magical battles, and all of the main characters are adorable little girls. Within a few chapters of Einhart joining Vivio’s group of friends, the series moves into a lengthy training arc resembling the one at the start of Nanoha Strikers, only without any stakes or drama; and, in its place, an extra helping of fanservice.

Nanoha Vivid really kicks the fanservice up to 11; especially in the manga, which frequently allows the older characters to have nipples (whereas the younger ones just kind of don’t, in spite of being equally naked much of the time). Long sections of chapters are set in baths or in bathing suits, and characters’ clothes tend to get more torn and tattered during battle, revealing a lot more of their bodies. On that note, if fanservice happens to be one of your favorite aspects of the Nanoha series, then the Vivid manga comes highly recommended, as the artwork is definitely one of its strong points.

Vivid goes so strongly in the direction of lighthearted fun and so far from any heavy drama that it can also be considered the series’ biggest weakness. Even though I can’t say that Nanoha ever did a great job of forming a coherent story across its run, a lot of its most memorable scenes were the ones in which characters earnestly fought their hearts out in A’s and StrikerS. There’s a reason that Vita falling on her face in the desert while trying to fight for Hayate, and Nanoha sitting down with Teana as she bursts into tears in episode nine of Strikers, were among the most compelling moments in the franchise; and it’s hard to get memorable scenes like that without any stakes or drama.

A number of the side characters from StrikerS have had their personalities changed so drastically to fit into the tone of Vivid that it’s like they’re not even the same characters. In particular, Lutecia Alipne makes such a dramatic change from the quiet and somber girl searching for her mother in Strikers, to the loud, energetic and easily excitable girl in Vivid, that she may as well have been someone else; not to say that this kind of change is unrealistic for a young character to undergo in the span of four years, but there’s a certain disconnect which comes with not knowing exactly how she’s changed so much in that span of time. Some of the combat cyborgs likewise seem to have only now been given personalities in the first place, since they really didn’t have much in Strikers to begin with. And, I guess, for some reason, Agito and Reinforce are now normal-sized little girls, which left me just as confused as the unexplained lolification of Arf in StrikerS.

As Vivid transitions from the training arc into a major tournament arc and introduces a shitload of new characters for its little girls to fight against, the recurring cast takes much more of a back seat, and Vivid starts to distance itself from its predecessors and become its own thing. At this point, I should clarify that none of the things which I’ve just described were necessarily bad. In spite of having fewer standout moments due to its lack of dramatic focus, I actually think that Vivid’s characters have some of the strongest and most memorable personalities in the series to date, as well as some of the most interesting and fleshed-out fighting styles (which actually start to make some degree of sense as it moves through the tournament arc).

Having said that, going back to my previous comparison to Shounen Jump sports anime, I can’t say that Nanoha Vivid stands anywhere close to the top of its genre. For a series that focuses almost entirely on fights, said fights tend to be given only the bare minimum of context, with character motivations almost always being that they just want to prove how strong they are, and/or get stronger. While the powers are more unique and interesting than they’ve been in the past, a lot of how they’re explained is still a whole lot of bullshit, and it’s extremely difficult to get a sense of how strong each character is supposed to be in comparison to one-another until we see who’s left standing at the end of a match. In comparison to any of the flagship shounen fighting manga, the powers in Nanoha aren’t exactly creative or varied, and a lot of the combat boils down to fist fights which aren’t drawn with the kind of choreography to make them memorable. If Vivid has any strong selling point as a fighting manga, it’s simply the fact that all of the characters are cute little girls; so, if you’ve always wanted to watch a bunch of lolis beat the living shit out of each other–and, let’s be honest, you kinda have–then this is certainly the series for you.

Like its predecessors, the most endearing quality of Nanoha Vivid is the earnest sincerity of its characters and the sheer weirdness of its ideas. All of these girls harbor a deep love and passion for the art of fighting, and lack any particular interest in doing anything besides training and sparring. As the tournament arc begins wrapping up, most of the opponents whom the girls have fought against are becoming their friends just because all of them like to talk about fighting so goddamn much. The fact that half of these girls can transform between differently-aged bodies and are heterochromatic reincarnations of ancient kings, is where the awesomely weird part comes in; and it’s still pretty exciting to see the magical girls of previous generations training and raising the magical girls of this one. At the current point in the manga, there’s been a bit more focus on fleshing out the Belkan backstories of the characters, but I suspect that they’ll all be back to fighting again before too long.

At this point, I should also mention that the manga translation effort has gotten fairly slow in the past couple of years and isn’t completely caught up to the Japanese releases; and that if there’s going to be an end to this series, then it has yet to be in sight. As opposed to the previous shows, which were all clearly written and structured to contain a certain number of episodes, Vivid seems to be structured to go on for as long as the author and the audience remain interested; which can be a good or bad thing depending on how much you’d love to see the series continue.

The twelve-episode anime version by studio A-1 Pictures is mostly a very direct and faithful adaptation of a big chunk of the manga, which comes with its own advantages and disadvantages. In exchange for inferior artwork overall, you get color, movement, music, and voices, which are all great. The pacing feels more natural in the TV show, but lacks a lot of the impact which the manga had, especially during big action and fanservice sequences. It also ends at an awkward point in the manga, meaning that if there’s never a second season, then it will be worthless as a standalone work.

A particular detail I enjoyed about the anime adaptation was the large, open backgrounds which did a good job of fitting all the characters in the frame and felt much more realistic than anything which the franchise had up until this point. I’ve actually seen some people criticizing the setting for not looking enough like previous shows, but personally I’ve always found the Nanoha setting to be ill-defined and poorly represented anyways, so this was a nice turn. For an A-1 Pictures show, I was surprised how much I enjoyed the anime, though I ultimately prefer and recommend the manga for its superior artwork and impact.

Around the same time that the Nanoha Vivid manga began its run in 2009, another sequel titled Mahou Senki Lyrical Nanoha Force started running alongside it, taking place another two years in the future and starring Thoma–the first ever male protagonist in the franchise. Unfortunately, Nanoha Force is total garbage.

It’s fairly obvious that the idea behind running these simultaneous sequels was to have Vivid be the fun and lighthearted series, while Force is the dark and dramatic one; but Force ends up ramping up its violent edge factor to a comical degree. Its new characters look like they walked out of Advent Children, and everyone is now carrying around ludicrously gigantic weapons and stabbing each other in the guts with swords. The story centers around a family of nigh-indestructible criminals who fight for… money, I guess? And they all have a curse which gives them nearly unstoppable power, coupled with insatiable thirst for murder. The main character is infected with this curse as well, and the bad guys want him to join their team, while the Time-Space Administration Bureau want him to join there’s, as well as to put a stop to the family’s actions.

Worse than the fact that all of the new characters introduced are completely boring, and have all of the worst designs in the series to date, the manga manages to fuck up its existing characters as well by incorporating them haphazardly into the story. Section six is reformed again after six years, just… because, even though we know that half of the members have long moved on to do other things. The only one with any personal connection to the narrative is Subaru, whose family apparently took in Thoma for a few years–but even her emotional involvement with the story feels completely forced. Everyone else is just there for the sake of being there, and isn’t even given anything meaningful or interesting to do; and the fact that characters like Erio and Nanoha are even involved with no explanation given whatsoever is enough to break the story for me.

I wouldn’t necessarily be opposed to the idea of setting a darker, more violent story in the Nanoha universe–and you’ll remember that I even complained about the lack of meaningful deaths back in Nanoha StrikerS–but that’s exactly what makes Force that much more aggravating. In spite of its big, violent shock value moments with powerful characters like Signum and Hayate getting butchered at the introduction of new villains, no one even dies. The extent of their damages are no worse than what they might’ve sustained from a giant laser beam that barely tattered their clothes in previous seasons–but now there’s corny explosions of blood to go along with it. The entire thing reeks of trying too hard to look cool, without a gripping narrative or characters to back it up.

Thankfully, public opinion seems to more or less take my side with this one, and Nanoha Force proved even more divisive than StrikerS or Vivid. As of 2013, the series was put on indefinite hiatus, and many have assumed it to be cancelled.

The last major franchise installment I’d like to talk about is Nanoha Innocent, which centers around a team-based card-battling mobile phone game that I don’t know much about. A three-volume manga titled Nanoha Innocent was released to give some narrative background to the game’s story, followed by a sequel called Nanoha Innocents, but the current translation effort hasn’t quite finished the first series yet.

Nanoha Innocent is set in an alternate universe in which magic doesn’t exist. Fate’s sister and mother are still alive, and co-run a toy shop with Lindy Harlaown, while Hayate and her guardians are a family running a bookstore; but otherwise, characters appearing after Nanoha A’s haven’t made an appearance yet. In this story, the girls all get involved in a team-battling virtual reality game, which allows for similar kinds of magical girl battles to what we’re used to from the franchise, only in more of a sports game context. The family of the game’s creators, all of whom are inexplicably near-identical to members of the main cast, are also participants in the game, and help Nanoha’s team to train and become some of the best players.

If you’re a big fan of the original Nanoha and not really into anything past A’s, then Innocent is worth recommending for its fantastic, super-adorable artwork, and for getting to see all of these characters in a new, strange context. It also kicks the yuri shipping between Fate and Nanoha up to a whole new level. However, personally I found the game and its mechanics pretty boring, and I don’t feel enough investment in these characters to enjoy just watching them hang out. It’s the kind of series I could only wholeheartedly recommend to diehard fans of the original show.

That about wraps up the strange and fascinating world of Nanoha for now. A third upcoming film is currently in the works to be set in-between A’s and StrikerS, and I’m sure that we’ll continue to see new anime and manga pop up from the series well into the future, so I may continue my coverage of it when the time comes. I don’t have any time left in this video to offer much in the way of closing thoughts, so I hope you enjoyed taking this journey with me, and that you’ll leave your thoughts in the comments. Thanks again to Davoo for his brilliant editing job, and to my patreon supporters who make this kind of long-form work possible. I’ll see you in the next one!

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