Nanoha is in several ways an archetypal series now. It’s become the prime example of a strange subgenre of anime – shows about an extremely cute little girl given amazing powers that take her on magical adventures…but made for an audience of lonely young men. These little girls are sexualised, given combat powers that tend to centre on large explosions, energy beams and exaggerated weapons. They are usually diffident and submissive despite their powers, and blush a lot in an ideal of innocence. They tend to have to suffer as the plot becomes darker in a way that inspires protective instincts, and win through on the strength of their good hearts and belief in what is right. And many, many figurines and posters are made for collectors who like to surround themselves with moé.
Of course, magical girl anime are far older than Nanoha’s 2004, and much of this was prefigured: Cardcaptor Sakura had much of the same appeal to male audiences, Princess Tutu was experimentally dark and multilayered and the likes of Sailor Moon and Cutie Honey had both sizable male fanbases and darker moments. Even mahou shoujo anime I see as very much aimed towards young girls like Ojamajo Doremi are widely watched by male anime otaku and have merchandise that caters for them. But the combination of all the elements, not to mention the casual nudity of transformation sequences featuring under-10s and the portrayal of the main character as hapless and in need of protection despite her strength have proven extremely influential: in the wake of Nanoha have come numerous lesser imitations (ie Saint October), comedic parodies (ie Moetan) and one rather clever knowing refiguring of the concept (Madoka).
I started watching Nanoha many years ago, stopped for a while, then was pleased I did because the rest was screened by my university anime club. I thought I’d leave impressions until after I was finished with A’s and StrikerS, the sequel series, but now after rewatching some and in the wake of Madoka, I want to do each on its own.
The story is one so familiar now it seems almost a joke. Nanoha, who first appeared in Triangle Hearts as one of the characters’ little sister, is given magical powers in order to help a little cutesy rodent collect 21 MacGuffins, here ‘jewel seeds’. The series’ tension is derived from a girl her age and with similar powers but with a much darker past and outlook, Fate Testarossa, also vying for the shards, collecting them for her abusive mother.
The setup is simple and most of the plot is given over to Nanoha fighting with Fate and then wondering why, slowly trying to win her over with her kind and gentle heart. Of course, though, both girls have powerful factions behind them, and they both must come to a head by the end.
Nanoha has very little special about it. It’s not sophisticated or visually very impressive. What it is, though, is cute. Very cute. Cute characters, cute situations, cute set-up, cute sidekicks – even cute boys to go with the cute girls. And strange as it is, there’s no denying cute kids struggling to fight to save everything they know is…well, moé.