Some spoilers for plot developments and character backstories in Magical Girl Raising Project; no character deaths are spoiled in this post.
“What is this show trying to accomplish?” This question is one of my key guidelines for determining my thoughts on the themes or structures of a show. It’s something I’ve reflected on in passing in other writeups – my thoughts on The iDOLM@STER and its spinoff Cinderella Girls were focused on how each show goes in its own direction; and New Game clearly hit it out of the park for me in crafting a combined workplace comedy and heartfelt new hire-SoL. It’s understandable that not every show would be able to achieve what it sets out to do, and in some cases shows may not even have a larger thematic goal to strive for in the first place. But occasionally, there’s the conflicting show that sets a strong foundation towards what it’s trying to accomplish, but doesn’t quite fully commit to achieving that objective.
Enter Magical Girl Raising Project, a Fall 2016 light novel adaption with a basic premise of “mahou shoujo fantasy meets battle royale thriller”. Its large cast features an incredibly broad range of character designs and personalities, perfect for either a high-octane battle to the death or an ideological clash between members of its diverse cast. MGRP takes steps down both of these possible paths, but puzzlingly never commits to fully exploring either possible direction. It’s a decision that would allow either choice to feel natural in any future season, but leaves the series as a relative unknown in the present.
Much could be said about the premise of the series alone, considering the contradictions in combining mahou shoujo with the battle royale concept. The magical girl genre tends to be bright and positive with emphasis on teamwork and empathy (even Madoka Magica captures these themes at times), but battle royales (like The Hunger Games) are all about competition and trusting no one – themes such as “no one is safe” and “anyone can die at any time” as core parts of nearly every occurance of a battle royale I’ve seen in media. More problematic is having a death game between characters that look like young girls, and though MGRP actually avoids this in many cases (Calamity Mary, Top Speed, Ruler, and others are hardly young characters, both in appearance and in actual age), there are other characters involved (most notably Hardgore Alice) who appear quite young and innocent, which isn’t a great combo with the heavy violence the battle royale concept necessitates.
But that isn’t to say that the series isn’t successful in creating an entertaining action-thriller – each character has their own unique ability and nearly everyone gets their time to shine at some point or another. Battles ramp up in both frequency and intensity as the series progresses, and the overall plot is fairly solid with a satisfying conclusion at the close of the show’s run. On a per episode basis, duels are highly entertaining with the sheer variety of character abilities and fighting styles, and fights to the death often have satisfying and surprising conclusions. But again, death in this series is problematic – one later death in particular is drawn out and incredibly difficult to watch; and the imagery of younger girls dying is a clear minus for the show. While from a thematic perspective it may work well to have such a wide variety in character backgrounds, an older cast would solve these issues resulting from a premise based on characters dying and killing one another. The show’s action appeal also suffers from longer periods focused almost entirely on the drama, scheming, and emotional state of its characters. These things are not necessarily bad on their own and are an important thematic contribution (which I discuss later), but they hinder the mindless thriller fun of a battle royale, and inhibit MGRP‘s ability to be successful as an action series built on an over-the-top death game. Without addressing these issues, MGRP can’t take a full step forward as a entertaining and unique mahou shoujo built around action and fights.
But in my opinion, the more notable points to address lie within the aforementioned thematic foundation of the show. For having such a large cast, MGRP impresses by giving each character their own unique goals, traits, and ideologies – some examples include Snow White as the idyllic virtue of a magical girl or Calamity Mary as the chaos of an outlaw. These ideologies come into conflict at multiple points – Snow White and her partner La Pucelle (a reptilian knight magical girl) would prefer to collect “candies” (the currency required to stay a magical girl) through the standard method of performing heroic acts; but others conspire to steal the candies of others, or simply focus on attacking and killing others in the battle royale instead. But while there are points where these ideologies are presented front and center (most notably with Snow White as the most traditional magical girl in the show), they are rarely brought together as direct points of conflict. It’s understandable that MGRP would shy away from such a decision – choosing to pit one worldview against another could send the message that the losing worldview has no value in real life. This is at its most prominent with La Pucelle, who is a boy in everyday life – his presence stands as a positive point for the appeal of mahou shoujo across genders, but an expanded version of his ideologies and what he represents could lead to a broader exploration of gender identity and transgender characters. Those themes would be great as part of a mahou shoujo, but not in a series where those ideals (and thus likely anyone transgender, genderfluid, or similar) could be deemed worthless if he were to die in a fight symbolic of an ideological duel. MGRP ultimately chooses to stay away from any major ideological conflict, but by not modifying the plot setup of the battle royale to better allow for the coexistence of different ideologies, the potential thematic impact set up through its plot structure and diverse cast is lessened.
It’s worth noting that the show does give adequate weight to its dramatic moments, as mentioned previously in reference to the show’s action. Characters mourn and reflect on others who have died, and express a wide range of emotion over the many twists introduced during the series. These scenes are usually effective, but those moments can only go so far towards creating emotion for these characters – outside a few of the “main” cast, many characters don’t have their backstories shows or discussed until much later in the show, with some as late as episode 11. Without weighting these all towards the slower, less battle-heavy earlier episodes, we aren’t given a fuller understanding of these characters and we lose out on the chance to develop the more relevant cast further later on in the series. This further hurts the ability of the series to really hammer home the ideological conflicts between characters – with a better structure for character development in place, the show could have done a better job creating complex thematic duels without necessarily acting as a referendum on one ideology versus another.
Ultimately, Magical Girl Raising Project‘s failure to commit fully to either direction prevents it from feeling like a complete show. Without taking a full step towards the mindless fun in the action-thriller setup or the heavy themes and drama in the ideological clash setup, MGRP feels like something is missing even as it comes to a perfectly satisfying conclusion at the close of the show. Though I enjoyed my time with the show and would happily watch any followup to this season, I can only hope that a hypothetical future series balances those two elements better or chooses to move more definitively in one direction or the other.