Genre. “A kind of story.” Something that separates one group of narratives from another. Genres are tricky, malleable, slippery things. Outside the focus of this blog, there are terms like lit fic, slipstream, neo noir, dungeonpunk, and dozens and dozens of others, broader or narrower, over the entire range of fiction and analysis of that fiction. Sometimes a marketing tool, sometimes a fandom in-group identifier, sometimes an after-the-fact grouping to tie together similarities in disparate stories.
When I first became interested in anime as a medium I ran into the term “sekai-kei”, or “world story”. A style of anime in which the relationships between two people are tied directly to global or even universal-scale problems, and often directly equated. Nowadays, the term is widely decried as a nonsensical westernism (if you google it, the first two results are TVTropes, not exactly a reputable source, a clone site of the same, and an article decrying it as “horseshit”, in that order.) It’s yet another example of how hard defining genre in anime can be, especially from what is fundamentally an outsider’s point of view here in the Anglosphere.
Another genre that is often mixed up in heated debate is that of the Magical Girl, specifically because it is among the hardest to define concretely. Stories commonly accepted as being part of the Magical Girl genre; say foundational text Himitsu no Akko-chan, and something like Sailor Moon, are quite distinct from each other. Thematic ties are the main binder here, as are certain aesthetic choices. The trials that young girls face as they grow up are, broadly, the key element. There is also a degree of demographic assignment here. Most Magical Girl stories have historically been for young women.
But defining the genre even in the very loose terms I just did is controversial. (Sometimes extremely so.) Less because of what it includes and more because of what it excludes. Puella Magi Madoka Magica hangs like a grim specter over the genre’s modern form, the oft-decried “dark Magical Girl” style is frequently accused of missing “the point” of the entire thing. (As if whole genres ever have single “points”.) But fair enough; some of Madoka‘s least imitators are widely considered to be….well, not very good. And as someone who is on record as thinking Magical Girl Spec. Ops. Asuka is the worst TV anime made in recent memory, I can at least understand the viewpoint.
Things become even more complex the farther from the latter-day “magical warrior” model we venture, as we’ll get to. The broader a view we take, the clearer it becomes that there is a space of overlap between “proper” / “pure” / whatever term you care to use Magical Girls and….something else, something slightly different. Something that has, to my knowledge, so far existed without a name. But if we gave it a name, what would be a good choice?
The panel above is from a fan translation of The Demon Girl Next Door. It’s not really an example of the genre as I’ll shortly attempt to define it, but the name is catchy and it’s indicative. They’re girls, they battle. “Just Battle Girl things” indeed.
Like all art, what I’ll be terming “battle girl anime” here comes from a fairly long tradition. In this case, I would say that it unites–not necessarily intentionally–two diffuse strains of anime that were originally only loosely related. With the important caveats that I am not a historian of the medium, and that I will only attempt to comment at length on anime I’ve actually seen at least some of, I think I can draw a line from the early 2000s, where I believe this genre’s origins lie, to the present day.
One half of the Battle Girl genre’s parentage is fairly clear. 2004 saw the premiere of Futari wa Precure, a Magical Girl series that synthesized thematic elements taken from more traditional stories in the genre with visual and aesthetic choices drawn from tokusatsu, including Toei’s own Super Sentai series. Precure has had a massively successful long run in its home country. New Precure series are still produced today, even into this very anime season, where they are often held up as the only “traditional” Magical Girl anime still airing. Precure has also been quite influential in a way that is frankly self-evident, almost any Japanese Magical Girl parody of the past 15 years goes to Pretty Cure before it touches on anything else. That alone speaks volumes. Precure is not the only series on this side of the battle girl genre’s heritage, but it’s by far the most important, and the most obvious.
On the other side, we have a tradition that is both more obscure and in the eyes of many, less respectable, that of the Battle Vixen genre. The slightly different name gives the key distinction away; while modern Battle Girl anime are certainly capable of having leery cameras or the like, a vast majority of Battle Vixen anime were ecchi series. Fanservice–“cheesecake” as it was often called back then–was a core part of the appeal. The anime Battle Vixens (or Ikki Tousen in its home country) that gives its name to the genre, aired just a year before Pretty Cure. It too has been fairly successful domestically, for an ecchi, at least, and got a fair amount of sequels. The most recent, the Western Wolves OVA, airing just two years ago in 2019.
Although the franchise lacks Precure‘s broad appeal for fairly obvious reasons, it is certainly something that left an impression on the otaku of the aughts, whether positive or negative.
This two-prong approach is a simplification; we are neglecting the fair amount of Magical Girl anime made for adults before this, including the seminal Cutie Honey. We’re neglecting the related “mecha musume” term, which refers to something more specific and not necessarily narrative (and also refers to a kind of model kit), and several other things. Nonetheless, the close chronological proximity of the two anime I mentioned above, and the general climate that surrounds them, makes me think that these are, if not “the catalysts”, at least some of the catalysts. The New ’10s saw several events that allowed these styles to mix together; it’s here where we bring up Puella Magi Madoka Magica again. While it was hardly the first magical girl series for adults (or indeed the first one to be “dark”), what it was was massively popular, carving out a new audience for people who wanted stories that featured girls in colorful costumes kicking ass but weren’t necessarily predisposed to seek out stories with the themes most Magical Girl anime traffic in. (Or even, indeed, necessarily Madoka‘s own themes.) Combined with anime’s resurgence in the Anglosphere in the age of streaming, and you have an audience that is eager for stories “like this”. Even if what “like this” is was not quite a definite thing yet.
That brings us to the third piece of the puzzle; Symphogear.
The timeline hyper-compresses here, and I suspect that if one were to look at the actual movement of staff and so on, one would find many people influencing each other, rather than a simple case of cause and effect. Still, I would fairly confidently point to Symphogear as the first “true and proper” modern Battle Girl anime. Its protagonists function like Precure-style Magical Girls, but its writing gestures to themes that are somewhat broader than the Magical Girl genre’s usual concerns, flattening out the more specific bent of its parent genre to examine more general oppressive systems. And in the case of Symphogear specifically; propose that only full-hearted love and honest communication can save us. Something still very much rooted in the Magical Girl style. (This is a very inconsequential sidenote, but I’d argue this puts Symphogear among the “closest” to a traditional Magical Girl series, out of those we’re discussing here.)
I cannot definitively prove that Symphogear‘s success inspired imitators–and indeed, there were other shows at the time working in broadly similar territory, such as the 2012 Black Rock Shooter anime–but the genre explodes from here. Not for nothing did the aforementioned Assault Lily Bouquet pick up the pre-air hype train nickname “SHAFTogear”. Anime fans can already recognize this genre, even if they don’t quite have a name for it yet.
So we can somewhat confidently identify where Battle Girl anime come from, but what are they? What separates a Battle Girl anime from a Magical Girl anime? What separates one from a show that simply has a female lead in an action-focused role? Knowing what we do about their lineage, we can make a few specific qualifying points. Things that separate a Battle Girl anime from its closest cousins.
- A Battle Girl anime must have an entirely female, or at least femme-presenting, core cast, consisting of at least two, roughly equally-important, characters.¹
- A Battle Girl anime must be primarily an action series, whose lead characters must possess some kind of special powers, exceptional weaponry, or both.
- A Battle Girl series cannot be an ecchi series. It may have such elements, but they cannot be the core appeal.
- Finally, as a more conditional fourth point: A Battle Girl series often features a theme related to breaking out of, subverting, repairing, or escaping an oppressive system.
Caveats abound, of course, and like any genre classification, much of this will come down to personal interpretation. (There is no objectivity in the arts, after all.) But I believe these four points are what separate Battle Girls from their closest relatives.
With all this in mind, it is perhaps best to define the Battle Girl genre as more of a super-genre–a broad storytelling space that more specific genres can exist within, or overlap with. It would be hard indeed to disqualify Precure itself, for example. And while the third point disqualifies some of the genre’s own ancestors, there are at least a few borderline cases. (I am thinking here of the uniquely frustrating VividRed Operation, mostly.) There is also room for a conversation about whether vehicles count as “special powers or exceptional weaponry”. If they do, we could possibly rope in series like The Magnificent Kotobuki and Warlords of Sigrdrifa as well.
There is also plenty of overlap with other genres; Symphogear itself has some DNA from idol anime, and fellow Satelight Inc. production AKB0048 merges the two even more closely. I would also argue that say, Kill la Kill is either just barely or just barely not a Battle Girl series. It would have to come down to how much weight one wishes to place on both the ecchi elements and the male characters.
So, if the genre is so broad, and is nebulous at the edges, why impose it at all? Well, in part, I do genuinely think that all of these anime existing within the same roughly ten year span cannot be entirely coincidental. But more importantly I think it’s genuinely really important to spotlight anime that have all- or mostly-female casts². There is still a widely-held assumption in Anglophone anime fan spaces that women only watch certain kinds of anime. Certainly they don’t care for action anime with lots of punching and shouting.
The truth of the matter is that women love fantasy and sci-fi action as much as anyone else. It is no coincidence that both Precure specifically and the Battle Girl genre in general have a sizable following among female otaku. The genre is also not a marker of quality of course; none is. I’d call myself an easy mark for it, but upon reviewing what series I considered to be or not be Battle Girl anime, I certainly came up with some that I do not like. And quite a few more that I’m more mixed on.
With all of the above in mind, I came up with a list of anime from the last ten or so years I’d consider to belong to the genre. It is not exhaustive, and this is not really a “recommended viewing” list, either, but I feel that simply lining the names up in a column speaks for itself.
- Assault Lily Bouquet
- Black Rock Shooter (2012)
- Flip Flappers
- Katana Maidens: Toji no Miko
- Princess Principal
- RELEASE THE SPYCE
- Revue Starlight
- The Girl in Twilight
- Wonder Egg Priority
I think this is sizable evidence that this is, indeed, “a thing” on at least some level. And this grouping leaves out some series I am personally on the fence on some of which I’ve already discussed, such as the aforementioned Kill la Kill, as well as things like Day Break Illusion and any number of other “dark Magical Girl anime” that could conceivably be counted in the genre but which, if so, form a distinct enough subgroup that they are a topic worthy of more specific discussion. I’ve also left out some anime that I’m reasonably sure likely qualify but that I have not seen myself, such as Yuuki Yuuna is A Hero and Battle Girl High School (no relation). There is also The Rolling Girls, a series that is definitely speaking some of the same language as these anime, but whose rejection of traditional heroism and odd structure prevent me from feeling comfortable listing it here.
And even within this group, there’s a noticeable sub-category consisting of Flip Flappers, Wonder Egg Priority, and arguably Revue Starlight. These three have a more surreal presentation and somewhat different themes than their compatriots. I am not sure I’d be comfortable calling this its own “lineage”, exactly, due to its small size, but it may be the budding seeds of one.
All these caveats to say; I am under no illusion that I have “solved” any kind of “problem” here. Artistic frameworks–very much including genre–are imposed, they do not naturally exist. This is as true for the Battle Girl genre as anything else. What I do think I’ve done, though, is hopefully given a new lens through which we can analyze and think about these stories. I think art should be understood based on what it is trying to do. And I do think, at least to some extent, that framing shows like Symphogear, or Wonder Egg Priority, or Granbelm or any number of others as “Magical Girl Anime” harms understanding them more than it helps. Not because the Magical Girl genre is some exclusive sacred club (or indeed something to be shunned or avoided), but because the aims of the works are different. Different things exist for different people. That is not just something to tolerate; it’s worth celebrating.
I acknowledge that this framework I’ve devised is an incomplete one; my own relative neophytism is surely depriving me of at least some knowledge that would further flesh it out. (I have not even mentioned Mai-HiME, because I’ve never seen it, but I am near-positive that it factors in here somehow.) But that, in of itself, is a beautiful thing. If I have done something even akin to laying a single brick in what will one day become a building, it’s been worth the time, the words, and the thought.
As for the future of this genre-space, who can say? Wonder Egg Priority remains excellent, but time alone will tell if these anime continue to be made or if they will end up as a hallmark of the still, in the grand scheme of things, only-just-over 2010s.
Personally? I know what I’m hoping for.
1: There is some flexibility here. Male characters are still allowed in the periphery; as antagonists or as supporting characters like love interests or mentors, but they cannot be the main focus, and they should not have strong relationships with other male characters. The clause that there must be at least two characters is to distinguish these series from a not-closely-related group that star a lone, often wandering heroine.
2: It’s inarguably even more important to spotlight those that have many female staff, but that is another conversation, and is outside the scope of this article.
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