Sailor Moon, magical girls – illustration of blond woman in a school girl outfit, waiving a magical wand in the night sky.
Image: PictureLux / The Hollywood Archive

 / Alamy Stock Photo.


The Enduring Allure of Anime's 'Magical Girls'

Characters like Sailor Moon teach us that femininity is a superpower – but only if you're conventionally hot.

This article originally appeared on VICE France.

I’ve been fascinated by magical girls ever since I was a kid. Born in the 60s, this sub-genre of manga and anime depicts young heroines with magical powers ready to save the world in a whirlwind of puffy skirts and multicoloured sequins. Every afternoon, I’d park myself in front of the TV, grab a snack, and be transported to their world of perfectly choreographed battles, beautiful romance and incredible fashion.


Sailor Moon, Cardcaptor Sakura, Shugo Chara – these characters presented me with something new, a delightful mix of feminist girl power and backward clichés, wrapped in a comfortable blanket of cuteness overload. Although they were so influential in my childhood, I was under the impression that magical girls were a thing of the past – that they’d had their moment of glory in the 80s and 90s, and disappeared by the early 2000s.

Yet 30 years after the success of the most iconic magical girl of all, Sailor Moon, I can't help but notice how their popularity hasn’t really aged. You only have to visit the manga section of any bookshop or Japanese shop to realise just how long-lasting the allure of these super chicks is. Whether it's a collector's re-issue of Sailor Moon or a completely newer title like Tokyo Mew Mew (2000-2003), magical girls clearly continue to sell.

“It's not just a generational phenomenon, magical girls have clearly become an essential part of pop culture,” says Aurélie Petit, a PhD student at the Concordia University Montreal specialising in Japanese animation. The trope has taken on very different forms over the years – from the dark storylines of Marvelous Melmo (1971) to the ultra-sexy warriors of Cutie Honey (1973-1974) via the cutesy witches of Magical Doremi (1999-2004) and the subversive approach of Puella Magi Madoka Magica (2011). But all stories use the same ultra-recognisable codes: A charismatic heroine; frilly, over-the-top outfits; magical cosmetic accessories; never-ending (and sexualised) transformation sequences; adorable pets. 


Petit says the first iteration of the genre came with Himitsu-no Akko-chan by Fujio Akatsuka. Published between 1962 and 1965, the manga already established some of these tropes – the young protagonist had a pocket mirror and used it to transform into anything she wished. In the 70s, following the international success of the American sitcom Bewitched, the genre really took off.

Overtime, the genre gradually developed its own canon. Mahoutsukai Chappy (1972) was the first to introduce a magic wand; Cutie Honey (1992) the first sexy transformation; Majokko Club (1987) the first magical girl group. All these codes were then crystallised in the 1990s in Sailor Moon (1995-2000) by Naoko Takeuchi – the story of a group of teenage girls under the protection of a planet in the solar system, who fight evil in the name of love and justice. 

“In the magical girl universe, you can't do better than Sailor Moon,” says Mehdi Benrabah, editorial director of the French publishing house Pika, who admitted to having been madly in love with Sailor Jupiter in his youth. “I can understand why people find these stories a bit old-fashioned, but they’ve become so iconic and had such an impact on popular culture you can't really pass them over.”

Sailor Moon presents often contrasting themes. The characters are feminist icons who use their femininity as a weapon. But in their stories, they’re also regularly saved by their Prince Charming. In the same vein, corny romance is delicately mixed with modern visions of love, including lesbian and gay story lines. We have badass heroines who are also extremely sexualised and tons of female characters whose personalities are often reduced to a single trait.


Despite its flaws, the series has now reached cult status, with the manga alone selling over 35 million copies worldwide. Its success also inspired European and American studios, which then released cult titles like The Powerpuff Girls (1998) and Totally Spies! (2001), clearly borrowing from the genre.

“I think this genre is very interesting because it’s grounded in super relatable problems, like going to school or growing up,” says Ambrielle Army, senior director of production at the video game publisher Singularity 6. Although it’s super relatable, the trope isn’t necessarily superficial. “A lot of people can see part of their own experience in these stories, even when they take a darker, scarier turn,” Army continues. “There really is a surprising level of depth, duality and complexity in these characters.”

Petit believes the genre’s success ultimately boils down to their familiar and endlessly adaptable formula, which also appeals to male audiences. Nevertheless, “Magical girls are not revolutionary figures," Petit continues. “Of course, one of their main assets is that they sell. Whether it's in accessories, clothing, or stuffed animals, they are extremely effective at marketing products.”

Starting in the 80s, many manga and anime series began securing their funding through partnerships with major toy brands. Some may remember the gruesome death of the protagonist of Magical Princess Minky Momo (1982-1983), killed off by a toy delivery lorry after the series's sponsor withdrew its funding due to poor merchandise sales. The character was later brought back and reincarnated in a baby, but the grim sequence was considered a pioneer in the genre, allowing later productions to deal with darker themes.


Even today, this commercial aspect is still very present in the universe. Action figures, posters, toys, cosmetics, fashion brands collaborations – collecting merchandise items is a huge part of most series' fandoms. 

Over the course of the past decade, the magical girl genre has been dominated by old icons, while newer series are struggling to make an impact. But this all seems to be about to change, with emerging stories injecting new life into the genre.

Star Guardian – illustration of four women wearing short skits and girly outfits inside, posing on top of furniture in a space-inspired setting.

Characters from the Star Guardian skins in League of Legends. Image: Courtesy of Riot Games.

Riot Games, for instance, has been attempting to break into the entertainment industry with spin-offs from its League of Legends universe. In 2021, they co-produced the Netflix series Arcane, which features sisters Vi and Jinx as they try to reconnect while finding themselves on opposite sides of a brewing social conflict. The series, which only partially borrows from the magical girl canon, was a resounding success. 

In 2019, the company also launched Star Guardian, a parallel story inside League of Legends following the adventures of a group of high school students in their battles against cosmic enemies. The project only started as a series of skins – purchasable tokens allowing users to modify the characters’ appearance, whose development used to be overseen by Army when she used to work at Riot Games.

At first, the Star Guardian skins were just a passion project for some of Army’s team members who’d grown up with magical girl stories. “Once we put the skins out, we had so much appreciation for them, it was super validating,” Army says. “So from there we tried to evolve them and push the stories in more modern and darker ways.”

The Star Guardian skins have now become so popular they’re among the best-selling of their entire range, as Army confirmed. In the long run, it’s possible the company might work on a whole anime based on these characters, which fans have already been asking for. 

“There’s a very fan service aspect to the genre and, at the same time, a great deal of creative freedom,” Benrabah concludes. Today, the vast majority of new magical girl series focus on subverting the genre’s codes, “as a way of continuing to reinvent the genre over and over again without ever tiring the public – be it the youngest readers or the nostalgics.”